On the road during your Exchange Program: Driving in the U.S.

Whether your adventurous soul screams for doing road trips during your international experience, or your new home city in the U.S. does not have enough public transportation connections, you might need to jump on a car and drive along the United States while you stay for an Exchange Visitor program. If this is the case, it is very important that you know the regulations and law that apply in your situation and you might need to apply for a U.S. Driving License during your time abroad.

In the U.S. the specific regulations regarding the Driving Licenses and whether is permitted or not to drive with a foreign license depends on the State, and it’s controlled by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of each State. So, this means, there are 50 States and 50 different regulations concerning driving for foreigners. It is important that you read very well the law applicable in your State. In this official website you can select the State you live in and will re-direct you to the DMV of that State. There are huge differences in the timings and limitations of the law: while in New York State you can’t drive with your foreign license after 90 days from the starting of your program, in Connecticut, for example, you can drive up to one year with your International Driving Permit (IDP), and in California, however, the IDP is not recognized without having your own foreign license. WOW! That’s confusing. The solution: just focus in the regulations of your State and follow their instructions. There is also some resources to make you understand better the rules, like this website, dmv.org, that gathers the main information of all the different States. However, always consult the official DMV site of your State.

Although there are many differences between States to obtain a driving license, almost always there will be some steps that you have to follow and that we present in this article. To get a Driving License in U.S.:

  • Your Exchange Visitor program must be active in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). Your sponsor will do this activation once you confirm them that you arrived in the U.S.
  • You must wait at least 10 business days after arriving in the U.S. in order to apply for a driver’s license. This allows time for the information on your I-94 record to update in all the systems of the government agencies. You will need to bring the I-94 in most States.
  • In some States you need to present as well your Social Security Number (see here how to obtain it), so you will need to wait some more weeks in order to get your driving license, since the SSN takes about three weeks in being processed and sent to you.
  • You will need to go to the DMV offices to apply for the License, and submit the necessary documentation (listed below in this article, may vary depending on the State). The DMV might need to verify your non immigrant status and determine whether or not you are eligible to obtain a driving license. They will also inform you in case you don’t require a US license to drive in your State, and you can use your foreign license. So always ask first.
  • Determine which kind of Driving License you need. The most common (to simply drive a car that is not commercial is the type D).
  • Get a learner permit. Before even getting on a car you need to get a learner permit by going to the DMV, successfully completing the written test and paying the mandatory fees. The written test normally consist in 20 multiple choice questions. You have limited questions you can fail in order to consider you have passed the test. Be aware of the signals! The most important questions are all those that include signals of the road. You normally can’t have more than 2 incorrect signal questions. There are some free apps that can help you prepare for the test. The theory book is also free in PDF on the Internet (DMV website) or you can get a hard copy at the DMV offices. The fees vary a lot by State and depending on your situation (time of validity of the permit, type of permit, your age, the number of years you have been driving…). It can go from as low as $20 to as high as over $100.
  • Practice driving and pre-license course. In all States you are supposed to take some driving lessons, going with a person that has a valid US driving license. The amount of hours established may vary. Also, some States require you to get a pre-license course that you can do in driving schools and other educational institutions. In this course you will review main aspects about safety, emergency protocols, driving habits, etc.
  • Road test. The last step to obtain your driving license will be passing a driving test. During this, your driving skills will be examined, to ensure you correctly understand and follow the regulations and signals on the road, and that your conduction is safe for the other drivers in the streets. Take into account that, unlike in many other countries, in the U.S. you must bring your own car to do the road test, and since you don’t have yet a valid driving license, you must have another driver (with a valid license) bring you in the DMV facilities for the exam.

 

What documents should I bring to apply for my Driving License?

Once again, it is very important that you check all the information in the DMV site of your State before going to the offices. Regulations may have changed since the date of writing this article, and some new documents might be needed. Also, make sure to always bring the original documents, not a copy or a photo. In general most States will as Exchange Visitors for the next documents in order to get a driving license:

  • Your valid passport (with your visa stamp on it)
  • Signed DS-2019, which establishes your non-immigrant status and the reason why you are legally living in the U.S. It is good to bring also with you’re the acceptance letter of the sponsor and the host company in case you must demonstrate the exact activity you are involved in during your Exchange Visitor program.
  • The I-94 record, which states the last entry in the U.S.
  • Proof of residence. What is considered proof of residence varies from State to State, so the best is to consult it in the DMV site of your State. One of the best documents to bring is the offer letter of your host company (with the address of the company in the letter head) and the Lease of your apartment, making sure it states your full name as it appears in your passport and the address where you currently live.
  • In some States, Social Security Number (card that you receive, not only the number), or a Form SSA-L676, “Refusal to Process SSN Application”.

 

Chef Training US best advice when on the road: “is better to lose a minute in your life, than to lose your life in a minute”. So please, drive responsibly, respect the other drivers, and get safe to your destination. Happy road trip!

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