New Drivers

Getting your driver's license in the USA

Having your driver’s license in the United States is almost completely necessary, unless you live in a city with an efficient public transportation system. Here are some rules and regulations for getting your license in the United States...

The process and age for getting your license varies according to state laws, and within the individual states, requirements also vary depending upon your age. No matter your age or nationality, you will always need at least one official form of documentation. Below you can find the typical requirements for each type of driver. Check these general requirements and your state’s specific requirements before you head to the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles) to get your license.

New drivers under 18 years old:

Before you get your driver’s license, you typically are given your “Learner’s Permit”, with which you are allowed to practice driving with an adult of 21 years or older present. In some states you can apply for your learner’s permit as early as 14 years old, while in others you must wait until you are 16 to apply. Whatever age you begin the application process at, you will definitely need these documents, regardless of the state you are in:

  • certified US birth certificate (in some states you may need to provide more than one form of identification, but typically this will do)
  • social security card or proof of social security number
  • proof of school enrollment or graduation

These are the most commonly required documents, but some states will require less and others will require more. In addition to the documentation, you must bring a cash payment for the exam you are taking (written, visual, practical, etc).

The steps prior to obtaining a license also vary in each state. While some teens will only have to pass a practical exam, some may also have to pass a written exam. On top of that, you will be required to do a certain amount of practice, commonly known as “Driver’s Ed”. Driver’s Education is offered by private companies as well as in some public high schools. Regardless of where you take it, most states require you to do around 30 hours of behind the wheel driving practice or an approved driving education course.

In most states, you cannot obtain an unrestricted license until you’ve held a learner’s license for at least six months. With the unrestricted license you are allowed to drive on your own, and after a certain age (typically eighteen years) you no longer have a curfew.

New drivers 18 and older:

In a majority of the states, the law does not require new drivers over the age of 18 to take driver’s ed, but it is highly recommended. But, as always, there are a certain list of documents that you must bring with you in order to apply for a license. Just like for teen drivers, these documents vary according to state, but in general, you will need to supply:

  • proof of identity (some states only require one form of identity while others require two, and sometimes they will specify which type)
  • social security card or proof of social security number
  • proof of address or of state residency

At some RMV you will have to fill out a form or an application before hand (pick it up from the RMV or print it from the internet) or fill one out when you get there. You may also have to pass a written exam and/or pay a fee for the written exam, but this is specific to certain states. While the fees do vary by state, you will have to pay at least one fee, and the fees are usually less the older you are.

International drivers:

If you are not from the United States, but you have a valid driver’s license from your country, you can apply for an International Driving Permit. The IDP translates all of your driving privileges into ten different languages and is valid for a year. It allows you to drive freely when you are on vacation or travelling temporarily, but cannot not be used instead of a permanent US driver’s license if you end up obtaining residency in the United States.

When traveling and driving in the United States, it is not required that you get an IDP but it is highly recommended. Either way, you must have your valid driver’s license on you as well. To obtain the IDP, you must apply for it in your home country.

Further reading

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