After arriving in the U.S.A. as an (F1 visa students, J1 visa students, M1 visa students) or foreign worker (H1B work visa, O1 work visa, L1 work visa, P1 work visa), you usually would want to get a U.S. driver’s license because the public transportation in the U.S.A. is not as convenient. In other words, an international student or foreign worker living in the U.S.A. most likely would need a car to get around and a U.S. driver’s license is usually needed when you buy a car. In most states and situations, a U.S. driver’s license will be required when you buy a car or get car insurance.
Please note, you should still get a U.S. driver’s license even if you do have an international driver’s license. The international driver’s license should only be for short-term uses.
Table of Contents
The article below will be discussing the three main steps you generally need to complete to drive a car in the U.S.A.
Step 1: Getting a U.S. Driver’s License
First, you need to check and follow the instructions of the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) website of your State. U.S.A. driver license requirements can vary among states and you will also need to find a local DMV office that you like to take your driving license exams. This article will be using California’s DMV as an example to apply for a driver’s license.
Apply For State’s Driver’s License or Real ID
Follow the instructions on your State’s DMV to apply for the driver’s license. As of now, you can choose to apply for a Real ID if you also want to use your driver’s license in federal facilities such as to board domestic flights within the U.S.A.
Generally, you would create an online account with your State’s DMV and then fill in an application (Form DL-44). You would then schedule an appointment at a local DMV office.
The driver’s license application is available in 10 languages in California: English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese.
- Passport and student visa
- I-20/DS-2019 document
- I-94 arrival and departure form
- Two proof of residency documents (such as utility bills sent to your U.S. address, lease…etc.)
- Application Fee
At The DMV Office
After scheduling your DMV appointment online, you need to attend your appointment at the local DMV office. The major steps that you would need to complete for your U.S. driver’s license are:
(1) Pass vision exam
(2) Get photo taken
(4) Driving test
When you are at the DMV office, you will need to first give all the required documents to the DMV staff first and then you will get tested on your vision. After you pass your vision exam, you will have your thumbprint and photo taken for your driver’s license. You will then need to take the written driver’s license exam and then schedule a road test. The driver’s license application fee allows you 3 attempts at taking the written driver’s license exam and you can retake your road test with an extra fee after 2 weeks if you fail in California.
Driver License Tests
California’s written driver’s license exam has around 46 questions. You can read sample questions here.
For the road test you would need to have a functioning car that has valid car registration and car insurance. For most international students or foreign workers, you will need to borrow a car or rent a car to take the road test.
For more information on how to get a California driver’s license, you can read this Handbook.
Step 2: Buy Car & Car Insurance
Buying A Car in the U.S.A.
International students usually buy used cars off other international students who may be leaving the U.S.A. or from local car dealerships. The U.S. school’s student Facebook groups are a good starting point to search for used cars. Craigslist is another way to find used cars but the risk is higher because the seller can be anyone. International students (F1 visa students, J1 visa students, M1 visa students) or foreign worker (H1B work visa, O1 work visa, L1 work visa, P1 work visa) can also shop around at local car dealerships to negotiate a better price for the car.
Buying Car Insurance in the U.S.A.
Step 3: Car Registration
After getting a U.S. driver’s license, most international students or foreign workers would choose to buy a car and would need to register the car with the state. Car registrations usually will require you to complete a smog check for your car and submit paperwork that show you own the car. Most states in the U.S.A. require you to have proof of car insurance to register a car. The fees for car registration in California can be estimated here.
The car registration application process may not always require you to go the DMV, for example you can do it at a AAA office. Your VIN and odometer will be checked when registering your car. After your car registration is completed, you will get plates from your state to put on your car. Please remember to check if the state you were living in before requires you to return your old plates.
Getting A New Driver’s License After Moving To Different State
Every state has its own driver’s license requirements, so if you move permanently from one state to another state in the U.S.A., you would need to get the new state’s driver’s license. This does not apply to situations where you are just traveling temporary across states or doing your summer internship in another state.
In most situations, international students (F1 visa students, J1 visa students, M1 visa students) or foreign worker (H1B work visa, O1 work visa, L1 work visa, P1 work visa) who already have a U.S.A. driver’s license in one state, only need to take the new state’s written driver’s license exam and do not need to retake the road test.
After moving to another state in the U.S.A., you should first get your car registration with the new state and then quickly apply for a new driver’s license. Car registration in California should be done within 20 days of you moving: you would need to complete the smog check for your car and prepare the paperwork that shows you own the car to register it.
You may not need to go to the DMV for the car registration, for example you can have AAA do it for you. Your VIN and odometer will be checked when registering your car. After your car registration is completed, you will get California plates to put on your car. Please also check if your old state requires you to return the old plates on your car.
After you complete the car registration and get a new driver’s license from the new state, you should buy new car insurance.
Contact U.S. School’s International Student Department If There Are Issues With Applying For A U.S.A. Driver’s License
When you encounter issues while applying for a U.S. driver’s license, make sure to contact your U.S. school’s international student department for help. If you have problems with your visa as an international student (F1 visa students, J1 visa students, M1 visa students) or foreign worker (H1B work visa, O1 work visa, L1 work visa, P1 work visa) that your U.S. school or U.S. employer cannot solve, please contact us to schedule a consultation.