Driving Licence

Recognition of foreign licenses and US licenses

The minimum age you can obtain a ‘regular’ driving licence varies from 14 in ‘rural’ states such as South Dakota to 17 in Minnesota and New Jersey. However, in the majority of states it’s 16. For commercial vehicles up to 7.5 tons laden weight, the age limit is 18 and for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) it’s 21.

Most states allow people to obtain a restricted (learner’s) permit at a younger age than a full driving licence (usually 14 to 16), subject to certain qualifications, e.g. written parental or guardian’s consent, enrolment on an approved driver education training course, and the driver must be accompanied at all times by a licensed adult driver. In some states, junior licences for those under 18 or 21, allow teenagers to drive to and from high school only and are subject to a curfew. Other restrictions have been introduced in recent years in an attempt to reduce the high accident rate among teenage drivers.

Department of Motor Vehicles

An application for a driving licence is usually made to a state office, e.g. the State Motor Vehicle Division or Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), although in some states licences are issued by county clerk’s offices or local driver licensing examination stations. Your local DMV is listed in the phone book; and most now have websites where you may be able to make appointments.

DMVs are normally open between 8am and 5pm Mondays to Fridays with one late evening opening. Applications must often be made in person, although renewals can usually be made by post or even over the internet. Licences are usually valid for four to six years, although in some states licences for those under 18 and over 70 are valid for a shorter period, e.g. one or two years. Licences usually expire on the holder’s birthday.

In most states, you must pass a ‘knowledge test’, which can be done before you reach licensing age. To prepare for the test, you can usually obtain a ‘driver’s handbook’ free or for a nominal sum (Florida has a good one, which is free). The test itself, a series of multiple-choice questions, is taken at a DMV office on a touch-screen computer and takes around half an hour. In some states, you must make an appointment to take the test. Once you’ve passed the written test, you can apply to take the road test – in some states a few days later, in others a few weeks.

Drivers over a certain age, e.g. 75, must usually take a driving and/or eye test every time they renew their licenses. (Elderly drivers are a controversial subject in the US, where drivers over 75 are twice as likely to have an accident as the average motorist.)

Obtaining a licence

To obtain a licence you must take proof of your identity and ‘true full name’, date of birth and your social security number (or evidence that you’ve applied for one) to your local DMV. The ‘true full name’ requirement is one of the new security enhancements, whereby any changes from the name listed on your birth certificate must be properly documented and the name you use for your license must agree with how your name appears on your social security card. If possible, you should always make an appointment with the local DMV (unless you like standing in long queues for hours on end). Most licences require a photograph (some must be in colour), but these are nearly always done at the license office as part of the procedure.

If your licence expires and is allowed to lapse for more than a year, a driving test may also be necessary. Licence renewals usually include an eye test and may include a simple written test, depending on your driving record. When taking up residence in a new state, you must obtain a new licence within a certain period. You must usually pass vision and written tests and surrender your old licence.

If you don’t want to surrender your old licence, you may need to take a driving test. Holders of out-of-state licences aren’t usually required to take a driving test. Holders of foreign licenses may be able to simply exchange their home country license for a state license, if their home country offers licensing reciprocity for Americans from that state. (Check with your home country embassy or consulate for details.)

About foreign driving licence

Tourists may drive in the US for up to a year with a foreign driving licence, provided the issuing country is party to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (see art. 1 and art. 25 para. 1) or to the Convention on the Regulation of Inter-American Automotive Traffic (Washington, 1943); most countries are contracting parties. If your licence wasn’t issued by a country which is a contracting party to either of these conventions or if you intend to work or study in the US, you must obtain a driving licence (usually within 30 to 90 days) in the state where you land or where you’re a resident. This may result in the confiscation of your foreign or existing licence (or your American licence may be stamped ‘valid in state only’). You may need an American licence in order to obtain car insurance.

If your foreign licence doesn’t contain a photograph or is written in a language other than English, it’s wise (but not mandatory) to obtain an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). Always carry your foreign licence as well as your IDP. Without an IDP it may be necessary to obtain a certified English translation of your foreign driving licence, usually obtainable from your country’s embassy in the US.

You must always carry your driving licence when driving in the US, where a licence is also the most common form of identification (in some states you can have your car impounded if you’re stopped by the police without your licence). If you don’t drive, you can obtain an official identification card (usually annotated ‘This is not a driver’s permit’) from DMVs in most states and from agents in most cities. This is useful to prove your date of birth or name and address, for example when cashing personal cheques or buying alcohol.

Most states operate a points system, whereby drivers are given penalty points for traffic offences. In some states, you can take a six-hour driving course organised by the AAA and community schools, which reduces your licence point count by two, or opt to attend a driver improvement class (traffic school) at your expense in lieu of a violation being placed on your record. When you accumulate a number of points within a 12-month period, e.g. 12 in New Jersey, your licence is automatically suspended, e.g. for 30 days.

When renewing your licence, you must take a written test if you accumulate more than a certain number of points, e.g. eight in Colorado. A driving licence can be suspended or revoked. Suspension involves the temporary withdrawal of your right to drive (most states emphasise that driving is a privilege and not a right). The state may reinstate that right after a designated period on payment of a fee. (However, thousands of Americans continue to drive after they’ve had their licences suspended.) If your licence is revoked, it’s usually permanent.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: