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Getting a US Driving License
Before we begin telling you the basics about reciprocity agreements and the US driving license application process, please note that most matters of transportation, such as driving permits, car registrations et cetera, are regulated by the different states. This means that while there are certainly common or at least similar rules and procedures, there can, however, also be huge differences. This article is consequently only able to provide you with a first overview of the common practice.
For more detailed information, you will need to visit the website of or get in touch with the relevant state agency responsible for transportation. In many cases, this agency is the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In others, it is the local Department of Transportation (DOT), the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), or a (sub-)agency by yet another name. You can find links to the sites of the various agencies on the website of Government Made Easy.
Using Your Foreign Driver’s Permit
Visitors to the United States can typically continue using their foreign license for a certain amount of time, as long as it is written in English. If this is not the case for yours, you will need to get an International Driving License while you are still in your country of origin. The actual time frame that you are allowed to use such a foreign permit heavily depends on what part of the USA you plan to drive in, so make sure to inform yourself early on.
After this time, or if you are a resident, i.e. not travelling under a visitor visa (B) or the Visa Waiver Program, you will have to get a US driving license. Depending on where you are from and the country your driver’s permit was issued in, you can get a US license either by exchanging your national permit or going through the normal application process for a US driving license.
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. At the time of writing in early 2014, such mutual exchange agreements existed for the following countries:
- Canada (please note that regulations might vary for the different Canadian provinces)
- South Korea
If your country is not on this list, it might still be worth your while to enquire, e.g. at your local DMV, whether there have been any new agreements made.
Applying for a US Driving License
Once again, we would like to remind you that procedures in your corner of the USA may vary slightly from what we describe in this article. For details, please visit the website of or get directly in touch with the relevant agency in your state of residence.
Go to your local DMV office (or your local counterpart to the DMV) to apply for a US driving license. Typically, at least the following documents are required for application:
- Proof of Social Security Number
- Passport or other documents that serve as valid proof of identity
- Proof of residence in that state (some states require 2 different documents as proof)
- Proof of lawful presence in the US
- Passport photo (in some cases this will be taken during the application process)
You will then have to complete an application form for your US driving license, pay an application fee and pass a written, a practical, and a vision test. This is done in order to determine your driving skills and knowledge about the local road rules. By bringing your original, valid foreign or international permit or a valid license from another state, it’s possible that some of these tests might be waived. This is particular the case for the practical road test.
You can check for specific requirements on the website of the respective agency responsible for handing out driver’s licenses, links to which can be found on the website of Government Made Easy. On some of these sites, you can also find a so called “Driver’s Licensing Handbook” or just “Drivers Handbook” which includes valuable information on the state’s traffic rules. Take a close look at this handbook in order to be prepared for the written test.
Once you have your US driving license, you will be able to use it as a valid form of ID. Keep in mind, however, that the license needs to be renewed every few years. This renewal process typically includes a new vision test.
We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.