One of things that almost every immigrant will want to do is obtain a drivers license. State rules vary somewhat but almost every adult in the USA will carry some identification (ID), and 99 times out of 100 the standard ID is the drivers license. Car use and ownership is also very normal here and public transport is generally not good (with a few cities being exceptions) so you may as well start thinking about how to get your drivers license. I have recently taken my car and motorcycle tests for my drivers license in California!


Most states now require proof of residence and your Social Security Number (SSN) in order to apply for the license. Some people are legally entitled to be here but not entitled to a SSN (for instance H4 visa holders – the spouse or child of an H1 holder). So you will need to get your SSN first (and by the way, some car dealerships request your SSN to buy/register a car – even without your requesting a loan).

Getting your drivers license

The drivers licenses are issued by the department of motor vehicles (DMV) in each state – there is not a “federal” version. The DMV main site is here – and that will direct you to the site for each state. Each state could have slightly different rules, so I will just address the most typical ones here. There are some states that recognize some (very few) foreign licenses, but this is rare – the vast majority of foreigners will have to pass their drivers tests regardless of what experience they already have from “home”. Each state also has a set time period of when you are supposed to obtain your state drivers license. You can drive on your foreign license for a short time as a visitor, but once you are resident you need to obtain the state license within their time (California sets that time at 10 days).  


A trip to the DMV is somewhat daunting. You can typically make an appointment, but most people seem to just turn up and stand in line. In order to obtain your license you will need to do the following:

  1. Fill in some paperwork
  2. Show proof legal residency and SSN
  3. Have a photo taken
  4. Take a written test (sometimes administered on computer systems)
  5. Take a Practical (driving) test

Written test

You need to study prior to taking the the written test. Manuals are available at DMV offices, State DMV websites and also here I would suggest reading the manual for at least an hour or two bfore the test. The written test is multiple choice and you are allowed to make several errors and still pass. It is pretty simple, but if you fail you are allowed to retake the test again that day or come back and retake it another day.

Behind the wheel test

Once you have taken and passed the written test you can schedule your “behind the weel” driving test. In order to take the test your care must be roadworthy, with an up to date registration and with proof of insurance. The test will start with an examiner asking you to point out or operate various controls in the car (turn signals, lights, horn, safety brake etc). Then once that is done the examiner will have you drive on the roads around the DMV. The examiner will ask you to make several right and left turns, reverse the car and so on. At all times they will be observing you to make sure you maneuver safely (using mirrors, signals and over shoulder checks). Each minor mistake is noted and you must not make too many minor mistakes as they will fail you if you accumulate over a set number of minor mistakes (15 in California). However you can also fail the test with a critical mistake – a more serious mistake such as failing to keep to the speed limits, not stopping at a stop sign and so on. If you commit any critical mistake will fail your test and need to retake it on another day. The whole road test lasts around 15 minutes. I think it is even less in some states! It is MUCH easier than the tests administered in the UK.

By the way, you only need a very basic level of English to obtain your drivers license. The manuals are available in a multitude of languages and the examiners are very patient in dealing with people with poor English skills.


The motorcycle test is similar, but it is almost laughably simple. They will ask you to control the motorbike at low speed around a large “lollipop” shape painted on the ground. You have to keep your wheels within some white lines and also navigate around a few bollards. Then there is a very short road section – mine lasted literally 5 to 10 SECONDS. If you manage all that you are given to ride any size motorcycle you like. To be perfectly honest – that is CRAZY compared to the level of skill needed to ride some of these motorcycles, but it is a freedom of choice thing….