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The International Student Guide to Driver’s License in the US

The International Student Guide to Driver’s License in the US

Whether you’re new to the United States to study or to work, or just find yourself needing a car for the first time as a foreign national, the process of getting a US Driver’s License can seem overwhelming at first.

That’s why we’ve put together the Complete International Student Guide to Driver’s License in the US:

In this guide, you will learn: 

  1. How do you know if you need a driver’s license?    
  2. How to get a license?
  3. Knowing if you should take a driver’s license class         
  4. Where can you get a license?
  5. Do you need a driver’s license? 

The first thing you should think about when considering whether or not to get a US driver’s license is, do you really need one?

While the answer varies from state to state, normally if you are considered a resident of the state, you will need to obtain a state driver’s license if you want to drive legally. Additionally, some states require that foreign nationals hold both an International Driver’s Permit, as well as a valid license from their home country. If you don’t have both, then you may need to apply for a US driver’s license.

Detailed information about driving as a foreign national in the United States can be found on the US government’s website.

Even if you don’t drive every day, you can get in trouble if you are caught driving with the wrong kind of license. If you are a resident in a state and will need to use a car regularly, you should obtain a US driver’s license.

You need a US license, so how do you get one?

There are two options to obtaining a US driver’s license depending on which country you come from.

  1. Transfer: Some countries have an agreement that allow their license holders to transfer their foreign license to an American license, without taking a test. In order to find the valid list of countries with an agreement, and all documents you would need to provide, visit your state’s DMV or RMV website and search for “Transfer Foreign License”.
  2. Test. If you are from a country that does NOT allow license transfers, or are but don’t qualify for a transfer in your state, then you must take a test to obtain a license. There are usually two components; a written test and a driving test. Each state has its own manual, so check the website to see what you should know for your test. You may even be able to take practice tests online for the written portion.

Do I have to attend classes?

Some states require everyone to attend at least drug and alcohol classes that usually total about 8 hours, in order to obtain a driver’s license. You will find private schools that offer full courses in driving, however they are not required.

If you haven’t driven in a while, or are having trouble studying just from your state guide, a driving class is a useful tool to help you get hands on experience, and ask questions you still have, before your test.

Where do you get a US Driver’s License?

The answer depends on where you live. Each state has its own motor vehicle authority. Usually called the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), or the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You can find your state’s authority and information here.

Make sure you do your research first; not all offices hold regular 9-5 hours for all services. You will normally need to make an appointment ahead of time for any testing you must do, and sometimes road tests and written tests may not be held on the same day. Read your department’s information carefully; this varies by state, but availability may be different even from one town to the next.

Is there anything else you should know before you start the process?

  • Each state has its own driving laws. If you need to get a US driver’s license, then you must pass the test and learn the rules of the state in which you will be living.
  • Your license must be from your state of residency, but you can use it to drive anywhere in the country.
    Be cautious! Different driving rules apply in different states, from the standard speed limit, to cell phone usage, to turning right on a red light. It’s important to learn the rules of the road before you travel. It is your responsibility to drive safely and follow the law, no matter where in the country you are.
  • Get your driving hours in! Usually, trips to the RMV are long and tedious; don’t end up making the trip twice because you failed your driving test. Make sure you’re familiar with the car you will test drive with (you need to bring your own), and take yourself on some practice drives. It’s even better to bring a friend along who can watch for any minor mistakes that could cost you a passing score.

Good luck and see you on the road!