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Living in the US

Getting a US Driving License

Driving is the most popular and often the easiest option for getting around in the US. However, you will only be allowed to do so for a limited time with your foreign driving permit. In this guide, you will find all you need to know about getting a US driving license.

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Before we begin, it is important to note that, like with many other things in the US, different states have different rules for driving and transportation. And while most of the regulations and procedures are usually similar, they are not universal. Therefore, for state-specific information, you will need to visit the website or get in touch with the relevant state agency responsible for transportation.

Using Your Foreign Driver’s Permit

Visitors to the United States can typically continue using their foreign license for a while as long as it is written in English. However, if this is not the case, you will apply for an International Driving Permit from your country of origin. The permit serves as a translation of your original license so it is important to have them both on you whenever you’re driving.

And while tourists and visitors can benefit from this arrangement for one year, if you establish residency in the US, depending on the state you are living in you only have 30 to 90 days to get your US driving license. In most cases, this means that you will have to apply for a new driver’s license as if you were getting it for the first time. However, some countries have reciprocity agreements with the US that allows their citizens to simply exchange their original license to the American one.

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How to Apply for a US Driving License

The majority of expats that wish to obtain a driving license in the US will have to go through the full application process. The details of the procedures, like the documents you need to present and fees you need to pay, will differ from state to state but the general steps are usually the same.

Step 1: Get Your Documents Ready

Before you go to the local branch of Department of Motor Vehicles, make sure you have all the right documents on you. Typically, at least some of the following documents are required for application:

  • A form of ID that has your name, picture, and your date of birth on it (passport)
  • Your Social Security Number or a proof that you cannot obtain one
  • Proof of lawful presence in the US (visa, permanent resident card, citizenship certification, etc.)
  • Proof of residence in that state (state ID, utility bill, bank statement, etc.)
  • Your international driver’s license
  • Passport photo (in some cases this will be taken during the application process)

You will then need to fill out an application form with your personal details.

The legal age for driving varies throughout the country, so make sure that you are eligible to apply for a license. However, if you are 21 or older, this will not be a problem.

Step 2: Pay Your Fees

The fees for a driver’s license, once again, depend on the state you are residing in. Some states charge a one-time fee that can be anything from 30 to 90 USD, while others might charge you a small sum (5 USD or so) every year. Depending on the state this step can also come in later, as in some places you are charged for application and in others, for issuing the document.

Step 3: Take Your Tests

In order to obtain your license, you will need to pass both a written and a practical test.

Written tests include 20 to 50 questions about the traffic rules and regulations of the state. The tests might be timed or not and you might have an option to take the test in your native language as well. You can study your state’s DMV handbook and practice taking the test online.

Once you passed the written test, you will have to schedule your practice exam. Apart from driving, expect to be asked to show your parking and reversing skills and the knowledge of vehicles and its controls. The exam can take from 30 to 40 minutes.

If you fail to pass the practice exam the first time, some states will require you to wait a few days or week before you can try again. There might be additional fees for extra tests that you take. Also, in some places, three failed attempts mean that you have to restart the application process all over again.

Step 4: Get Your Vision Tested

While the law does not require you to pass a thorough medical exam to get a driver’s license, you do need to get your vision tested before you are certified to drive. You can usually do it at your local DMV office or get a medical professional to issue you a vision test report.

If you need glasses or contacts in order to drive, a special restriction might be placed on your license. Drivers with very low vision might also get additional restriction that will only allow them to drive during daytime or if they are wearing special lenses.

This step might also come in earlier, before you take your practical exam.

Step 5: Get Your License

Once all the documents are submitted and the exams are passed, you will get issued a temporary license that will be valid 30 to 90 days, depending on the state. You will get your permanent license mailed to your address.

Driver’s license in the US can serve as a form of an ID that you can use to vote or prove your legal age or, in some cases, even board a domestic flight.

In most states, driver licenses are valid for eight years, but it varies. Some states require a renewal after four years, while others let you keep your license until you turn 65. You can check the license renewal regulations of your state online.

Reciprocity Agreements

Some US states have so called reciprocity agreements with other countries. This means that if your driving permit has been issued in one of these countries, you will be able to simply exchange it for a US driving license of that state (and typically vice versa) without having to take any tests. Those countries include:

Again, note that the eligibility for the exchange depends on the state you are in, as reciprocity agreements are state-specific. Also, keep in mind that you might still be required to pay the appropriate fees and get your vision checked to get your US license equivalent.

If your country is not on this list, it might still be worthwhile to enquire whether there have been any new agreements made.

Updated on: March 26, 2019
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