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Driver's license in the USA

Driving a car is an important part of the “American way of life.” All sorts of things can be done at the drive-in counter in the United States, from picking up prescription drugs to banking. But how can the all-important driver's license be obtained in the USA, and what other functions does it have? Find out more!

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Driver's license in the USA: how to request

The US driver's license is an essential document for anyone starting a new life in America, as it not only allows you to drive a car but also serves many other functions. Therefore, obtaining your driver's license should be one of the first things to tackle after moving to the USA.

During your first year in the USA, your driver's license from your home country is usually still valid. The USA has concluded agreements with several countries thanks to which non-American driver's licenses remain valid for a period of up to one year. However, the exact time limits and regulations vary from state to state.

If you wish to obtain a driver's license in the USA, you must do so in the state in which you are a permanent resident. The authority responsible for issuing the driver's license is the respective Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in each state.

If you are driving with an American driver's license outside your state of residence, all other states will recognize your document. However, if you relocate within the US to another state, you will need to obtain a new driver's license in the new state.


The federal system in the USA is particularly apparent when it comes to driver's licenses. Different regulations apply in every US state! These are determined by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your respective state.

US driver's license and its functions

The driver's license in the USA is not only the permission to drive a vehicle. It fulfills a number of other purposes, but above all, it also serves as an ID document. Those who neither have a driver's license nor wish to obtain one can apply to their local DMV for an ID card as a substitute, which then fulfills the ID card function.

However, there are also other reasons why it is highly advisable to apply for a driver's license as soon as you arrive in America. Having a driver's license in the USA is also an advantage when:

  • when dealing with authorities,
  • when concluding insurances, or
  • when applying for credit.
Woman with key and driver's license sitting in a car

When moving to the US, you need an American driver's license.

Exchanging a driver's license in the USA

If you have a driver's license from your home country, you must have it renewed in the United States. However, each state has its own guidelines and requirements for doing so.

Some US states have an agreement with other countries, and the exchange of a driver's license is relatively uncomplicated. Yet, some states require a theoretical test, while others require a practical driving test as well. Moreover, a vision test and the submission of other documents are often requested as well.

While particularly strict regulations apply in the state of New York or in Washington, D.C., the hurdles to obtaining a US driver's license are significantly lower in Florida, for example. Below, we have listed the different driver's license requirements for some of the most popular states among immigrants:

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Driver's license requirements in Florida

  • Theoretical test
  • Vision test
  • International driver's license (if applicable)

Driver's license requirements in California

  • Submitting of request within ten days after the change of residence
  • Theoretical test
  • Fee: $31
  • Vision test
  • Visa valid for at least 60 days
  • Social Security Number
  • Proof of residence in the US
  • Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection every two years for vehicles older than six years

Driver's license requirements in Washington, D.C.

  • Theoretical test
  • Fee: issuing $44 + test $10
  • Vision test
  • ID card
  • Social Security Number
  • No outstanding debt with the District of Columbia
  • Proof of residence in the US
  • Translation of the existing driver's license
  • Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection every two years

Driver's license requirements in New York

  • Submitting of request within 30 days after the change of residence
  • Theoretical test
  • A 5-hour driving class followed by a road test
  • Social Security Number
  • Car liability insurance mandatory
  • Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection every year

For detailed information, visit the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website of your state. You can find the authority responsible for you via the DMV online search.

Take a driver's license in the USA

If you want to take the driver's license in the USA, you will go through a multi-step process. Although all states have their own guidelines, the following steps are usually required to obtain a US driver's license:

  • Vision test
  • Proof of legal residency in the US
  • Theoretical test (multiple choice questions)
  • Test of knowledge about the American road signs (incl. sufficient knowledge of English to understand the road signs)
  • Practical driving test

Tip: When you get your U.S. driver's license, look for the note for organ donation. Often, an "X" is automatically added to the appropriate box. This makes you a possible organ donor. If you do not want this, you must expressly object in advance.

What is the minimum age for a US driver's license?

The minimum age for a "full license" or "unrestricted license" varies between 16 and 18 years, depending on the state. However, new drivers have the option of obtaining a restricted license or learner's permit beforehand. The minimum age for a learner's permit is 14 to 16 years, depending on the state.

Which driver's license categories are there in the USA?

Driver's license classes are named and defined differently from state to state. You can find out the exact regulations in your home state on the page of your responsible Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Do I have to turn in my old driver's license?

Whether you have to turn in your driver's license from your home country varies depending on the US state you are moving to. In some states, it is not legal to have two driver's licenses and the old one has to be given up as soon as you get your new American driver's license.

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