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August 31st 2023

How to apply for a driver's license in the U.S.

This article explains how long you can drive with your foreign license in the U.S. and discusses how to apply for a local license.

In the U.S., driving a car is an essential part of getting around – especially in rural areas or cities with limited public transportation. 

Whether you’re a part-time visitor or a longer-term foreign resident, you may be wondering: can you drive in the U.S. with your foreign license?

This article will dig into the nuances of this question, such as how long you can drive with a foreign license, under what conditions, and how you can ultimately apply for a U.S. license.

Can I drive in the U.S. with a foreign license?

The short answer: yes! 

All states allow foreign visitors to drive with foreign driver’s license for a certain period of time, but there are some conditions to be aware of that vary state by state. 

If your license is in a foreign language, for instance, you may also need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). An IDP is certified proof accepted in 150 countries around the world that translates your foreign license into English along with your name, photograph, and driving privileges.

Important: you need to apply for an IDP in your home country, since the U.S. does not issue IDPs for foreign visitors. The exact process of getting an IDP depends on the issuing country, but is typically done by the government agency that issues licenses in your home country.

How long can you drive with a foreign license in the U.S.?

It depends on the state. 

Different states allow foreign visitors to drive anywhere from 1 month (like Vermont and Florida) to 1 year (like Pennsylvania and Texas), and various durations in between.

Some states, such as California or New York, allow foreign visitors to drive with their foreign license for as long as it's valid.

Important:  As soon as you establish residency in a state, though, you will need to get a local driver's license within a specified period in order to keep driving. This validity period of your foreign license can range from 30 to 90 days, depending on the state.

This means that if you are in the U.S. as a permanent resident or holder of a non-immigrant visa (such as an F-1 international student or a professional on an H1-B, O-1 or other work visa), you should look into getting a local driver’s license as soon as you arrive.

How to apply for a U.S. driver’s license

Once you are ready to apply for a U.S. driver’s license, the process is relatively straightforward with the following steps.

Contact your nearest Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)

You should first contact your local DMV, the U.S. government office responsible for licensing, to understand their specific rules and requirements.

You will need to book an appointment for your driver’s license with your local branch of the DMV, which you can typically do online or over the phone.

Gather your documents

Make sure that you have all of your paperwork in order when going to your driver’s license appointment. Confirm the exact requirements with your state’s DMV ahead of time, but you will likely need the following documents:

Identification - A document that has your name, picture, and date of birth (i.e. passport) 

Social Security Number - or proof that you are not eligible for one. 

Form I-94 — Your Form 1-94 comes from the U.S. Customs Office and shows a record of your travel history. 

Foreign driver’s license Some states might have reciprocal agreements with certain countries, which allow drivers from those countries to transfer their foreign licenses without undergoing the full application process. Ask your DMV if this applies to your country.

Proof of Residence — Proof of residence varies from state to state, but some commonly accepted forms are:

  • Rental/lease agreements

  • Bank records and statement

  • Official mail addressed to you at your local address

  • School documentation

  • Insurance documentation

All signed versions of your Form I-20 (for students) — Your Form I-20 shows your eligibility for a driver’s license based on your status as a ‘nonimmigrant student.’ 

As an international student, your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record must also be active before you can apply for a driver’s license. This can take up to ten days after your arrival, so please be patient.

Take the written test 

To get your driver’s license in the U.S., you will need to pass two mandatory tests.

The first is a written test to test your ability to understand U.S. motor vehicle laws. This is typically ~20 questions and can be prepared for with past test questions online.

If you pass this test, you will be given a learner’s permit, which will allow you to practice driving for a set amount of time before scheduling your road test with the DMV. Make sure to look into your state’s restrictions on driving with a permit, such as driving other people or driving after certain times.

Take the road test:

The second and final test is a road test, in which you will drive with a DMV evaluator in the car. This will test a wide variety of driving skills such as changing lanes, backing up, parking, and more. 

Some states require a certain number of supervised driving hours or a short pre-licensing course before you schedule this test.

This typically takes 20 to 30 min and should be fairly straightforward with some preparation

Other considerations for international drivers

Congrats! You’ve gotten your U.S. driving license and are ready to hit the road.

Beyond navigating these nuances around drivers’ licenses, here are a few other logistics to keep in mind as an international driver in the U.S. 

Renting a car

Fortunately, most car rental companies allow you to rent a car with a valid foreign driver’s license within the validity period of that state. However, you’ll need to show your passport and, in many cases, an IDP. Rental car companies in most states require you to be 21 years old, and some may also require a credit card for a security deposit on your rental.

Car insurance

If you own or rent a car, you will need to get car insurance.In most states, a driver’s license is required to get your car insured. 

Some of the cheaper insurance companies will not insure you for the first 18 months, so expect to pay more expensive rates for the first year or so of your U.S. residency. After that, you can shop around for better rates and ultimately switch companies to save upwards of hundreds of dollars per year.

Auto loans

There are several considerations when trying to finance a car purchase as a newcomer to the U.S. For one, lenders and car dealers typically require borrowers to have a U.S. credit history when applying for an auto loan.

Fortunately, Nova Credit has partnered with Westlake Financial – a technology-based finance company that specializes in the acquisition and servicing of prime to subprime automotive retail installment contracts – to offer an easier, simpler way for newcomers from select countries to the U.S. to finance a car with their international credit history. 

You can learn more about this process here, and apply online today.

The takeaway

While foreign driver's licenses can be valid for several months, it's highly recommended to obtain a local driver's license if you are spending any more time than a short-term visit. Remember that every state has its own regulations, so make sure to get in touch with your local DMV and research the process of applying for, obtaining, and renewing your new license. 

Once you have your driver’s license, you’re well on your way to starting your life in the U.S. Nova Credit lets you use your foreign credit history from certain countries to apply for several essential products and services from our partners to help you fill in the rest of the essentials. 

This means that you can apply for great credit cards, phone plans, and more using your hard-earned credit history from back home—rather than needing to start from scratch. If you are approved for these products and manage them responsibly, you will start to quickly build a U.S. credit history.

Currently, Nova Credit serves individuals coming from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K.

Did you know?

You can use your foreign credit history to apply for a U.S. credit card

Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing foreign credit history could help you get credit in the United States.

More from Nova Credit:

How to check your USCIS case status

How to read the Visa Bulletin

How to build credit after moving to the US

How to get a social security card

How to get an apartment with no credit history

No credit check cell phone plans

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