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How to Get A Driver's License

For better or worse, US transportation is dominated by driving. While major cities like New York and San Francisco have excellent public transit, in most of the US, you’ll need to drive to get around. In many states, foreign driver’s licenses will be honored for a period of time, often 4-6 months, but after this period, you’ll need to go through the process of becoming a legally licensed driver in the US. 

In the US, driver’s licenses are issued by individual states rather than the federal government, so the laws and procedures for obtaining a license will vary. Your first step should always be to visit the website of the governing body that issues the licenses, often called the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

Many states require that you first obtain a learner’s permit before applying for a full license, but the amount of time you must hold it is often shorter if you are over the age of 18. If you are under 18, states are also likely to issue you an intermediary or provision license, which will come with some restrictions, like restricting driving at night or the number of passengers allowed in your car until you reach 18. 

The Process of Getting a Driver's License

While the process can differ from state to state, it generally includes the following steps: 

  • Collect the required documents.

    These often include: 

      • A passport or other government-issued ID that includes your name, date of birth, and photo
      • Your Social Security Number (or proof that you cannot obtain one) 
      • Proof of your ability to be in the US legally (visa, permanent resident card, etc.)
      • Proof of state residence (utility bill, bank statement, etc.)
      • An international driver’s license
  • Take the required tests.

    Almost all states will require you to take both a written and “behind-the-wheel” practical test before issuing you a license. 

You may also be required to take a driver’s education course to prepare you for the written test. Be sure to check your state’s requirements! 

The practical exam will test driving skills such as merging on and off a freeway, parallel parking, reversing in a straight line and respecting posted signage (speed limit, yielding to oncoming traffic, slow for children, etc.). If you fail your practical exam, some states will require you to wait a certain length of time before you can try again. 


  • Take a vision test.

    Most states require you to pass a simple vision exam before issuing you a license. They are often quite simple, asking you to cover one eye and then another while reading a line of letters on a chart. If you wear contacts or glasses, some states will print a special note on your license indicating that you are required to wear them while driving. 


  • Pay the fees.

    Once you have passed all your exams, the next step is usually to pay a fee, which ranges from around 30 to 100 USD. 


  • Get your license!

    You will receive a temporary paper license first, and the card will come in the mail in around 4-6 weeks. Be sure to keep your temporary license with you at all times while you drive! 


A Note on Reciprocity Agreements 

Some states have reciprocity agreements with certain countries, meaning that if you are from one of these countries and already hold a valid driver’s license, you can swap your existing license for one of your new states. Note, however, that this is usually a trade: you won’t be able to keep your home country’s license. These agreements are state-specific, so be sure to check before beginning the licensing process!