Can a foreigner get a US driver's license: rules for non-citizens

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The United States is undeniably a car-centric nation. Even though many major cities have subways, buses, and trams, Americans still rely primarily on cars to travel.

Everyone can apply for a driver's license when they reach the age of 16. People even see it as a right of passage or a symbolic step into adulthood. But what about a US driver's license for foreigners?

If you fall under that category, the path to obtaining a driver's license isn't simply about age. The process and criteria differ from one state to another. Some states set strict requirements, while others offer more lenient options for immigrants to obtain licenses.

Here’s what you need to know.

How long can an immigrant use a foreign license in the US?

Foreigners can typically use their driver's license for 3 to 6 months1 from entry date into the US. After this duration, the license won’t be valid, and you’ll need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to keep driving. 

Also worth noting here is information about regular IDs. So, can a non US citizen get a state ID? Yes, if you are lawfully present as a non-US citizen. 

You can apply for a state ID or driver's license in many states. All your documents must typically have the same name and date of birth or a strong association between documents.

What documents do I need to get a US driver's license as a non-citizen?

You’ll need evidence of US residency and legal authorization or proof you can be in the country. However, while many states share similarities in their process, differences exist regarding documentation requirements, as noted earlier. 

Therefore, you should visit your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website to ensure you've got all the necessary paperwork. 

You may need to provide the following to secure a license.

  • An identification with your name, photo, and date of birth (e.g., a passport).
  • Your Social Security Number or proof of ineligibility to have one.
  • Documents validating lawful US presence (e.g., a visa, green card, or citizenship certificate).
  • Evidence of residing in the state (like another state ID, a utility bill, or a bank statement).
  • Your international driver's license.
  • A passport-sized photograph.

International Driving Permit (IDP)

Can a foreigner drive in the US without a driver’s license? 

IDP is a globally acknowledged form of identification that grants holders the right to drive in foreign nations. Here's what you need to know.

  • IDP is not mandatory in every US state. You can contact the specific state2 for additional information.
  • Get your IDP before traveling. That means visiting the vehicle authority in the country where your original driver's license was issued. The US doesn’t provide IDPs to international guests. 
  • You may need your native license and the IDP to rent a car. So, review car rental service agreements and requirements ahead of time.

Remember, if your stay in the States will exceed six months, think ahead and consider how you’ll obtain a US driver's license.

Driver's license for undocumented immigrants

You might be able to get a non-citizen driver's license. 

That’s because while it isn’t the case with most US states, several grant driving privileges to undocumented immigrants3

Here’s a list of States that have the provisions.

  • Washington
  • Virginia
  • Vermont
  • Utah
  • Oregon
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • New Jersey
  • Nevada
  • Maryland
  • Illinois
  • Hawaii
  • District of Columbia
  • Delaware
  • Connecticut
  • Colorado
  • California

US driver’s license renewal for foreigners

Renewing a driver's license demands preparation; as noted, the required documentation varies by state. Ideally, start by referring to the specific state's website for details. Licenses are usually valid for a set number of years, with varying duration across States. 

In addition, you may need to pass a driving and written test to renew your license. Depending on the State and if you have a license from your home country, the DMV may not require that you take the tests. However, not all states accept foreign driver's licenses.

For example, in Massachusetts4 and Arizona, people from Germany and South Korea are not required to take the tests. However, in some States, some countries are exempt from one of the tests. For instance, Canadian citizens don’t have to take the road5 test in Arizona but are still required to pass the written exam.

You may need the following when seeking renewal or an extension at the DMV if you're on a Visa or Employment Card.

  • Your existing Driver’s License.
  • Visa or Work Employment Card documents, which may include: 
    • Documents confirming your Visa approval (official approval notice). If your license remains valid and you've gotten an I-797 Notice of Receipt from USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), you might qualify for a 120-day extension.
    • Work Employment Card or Employment Authorization Document (EAD) holders must display their valid cards. Ensure you have a fresh employment verification letter if you've changed employers.
    • Should your status be under consideration, your license won't be renewed or extended unless you produce an approval notice. Also, a simple notice of action may not be enough for license extensions or renewals. 
  • You must have the appropriate application form filled out, which could be:
    • Commercial License, Operator License, or Non-Driver Identification.

US driving license for International students

Consult your DSO (designated school official) or campus advisor if you're an international student. They can help you obtain a driver’s license specific to your state by providing the necessary application details and support. 

As for the necessary paperwork, consult your campus advisor about essential documentation before heading to the DMV. Advisors typically stay updated on licensing requirements for each state or territory.

While requirements vary across states, some typical documents you’ll need include:

Form I-94:
Issued by the US Customs Office and has your travel records. Your anticipated duration in the US will influence the DMV's decision about your license.
Form I-20:
This signed form establishes your non-immigrant student status, determining license eligibility.
Proof of residence:
Each state demands residents provide proof of their current address to assess eligibility. Common proofs include: 
  • Bank statements.
  • Official mails with your local address.
  • Rental or lease contracts.
  • Academic records.
  • Insurance papers.

Short-term visitors vs. Immigrants

There are two prime types of visas issued in the US. These are immigrant and non-immigrant.

  • Immigrant visa: Immigrant visas cater to foreigners aspiring to reside and work indefinitely in the US. Typically, a native relative or employer initiates the process by applying to the USCIS. However, specific individuals like select talent workers, investors, or special immigrants can self-petition. 
  • Non-Immigrant visa: Non-immigrant visas cater to foreigners who want short-term stays in the US for reasons like tourism, business ventures, medical treatments, or specific job roles. The visa type correlates with the travel intent. Typically, people can get a business (B-1) or tourist (B-2) visa directly from a US consulate or embassy. However, those aiming to work or study might need pre-approval and specific documentation before applying. 

A visa approval doesn't confirm US entry. It signifies clearance from a US officer overseas. You can find detailed visa classifications and other information on the USCIS website. 

Driving requirements in the US 

As a quick recap, the prerequisites for lawful driving in the US are as follows.

  • Drivers must be 18 years old minimum.
  • You must have a valid state-issued, foreign driver's or an International Driving Permit (IDP). Using an expired license is prohibited.
  • You must not have any medical conditions that make you unsuitable to drive.
  • Adherence to all state-specific driving rules and regulations is mandatory.

Can I rent cars with my foreign driver’s license?

You may need to rent a car, and if so, your foreign driver’s license may not be enough. Here are some considerations. 

  • License requirements: Agencies usually ask for a valid State driving license. However, most will accept your foreign license or an International Driving Permit. It all depends on the rental company's policies and the given state.
  • Rental agreements: Before taking the car, you'll get the rental agreement that outlines terms and conditions. Make sure you read it thoroughly to understand your rights and obligations.
  • Good driving record: Rental agencies often check your driving record. Any history of accidents or serious traffic violations might affect your ability to rent.
  • Insurance: Even though some rental companies offer packages, ensure adequate coverage. This can be through your insurance, a credit card, or the rental agency.
  • Deposit and payment: A deposit is typically required at the time of rental, which might be refundable upon returning the car undamaged. Payments can usually occur using major credit cards, debit cards, or cash in some cases.

What to do if your foreign driver’s license expires in the US?

You can take the following actions if your foreign driver’s license expires during your stay.

  • Renewal in your home country: The ideal and often more straightforward option is to renew the license in your home country. This might entail a trip back home or liaising with the driving authority in your country to understand overseas renewal processes, if any.
  • Apply for a US Driver's license: Alternatively, you can consider applying for a US driver's license. This process can be lengthy and involves providing necessary documentation, passing written and practical exams, and more.

It's paramount to remember that driving with an expired license is unlawful. Engaging in such can lead to substantial fines, legal consequences, and potential issues with your status in the US.

Sources: All third-party information obtained from the applicable website as of September 26, 2023