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Getting a Driver's License in the U.S.

Information to Help You Get in the Fast Lane

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Teenage girl (14-16) sitting in car with driving instructor
Andersen Ross/Photodisc/Getty Images

About Drivers Licenses

A driver's license is a government-issued piece of identification required to operate a motor vehicle. Many places will ask for a driver's license for identification purposes including banks, or it can be used to show legal age when buying alcohol or tobacco.

Unlike some countries, a U.S. driver's license is not a nationally issued piece of identification. Each state issues its own license, and requirements and procedures vary depending on your state. You can check your state's requirements by referring to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Requirements

In most states, you will need a Social Security Number in order to apply for a driver's license. Bring all required identification with you, which may include your passport, foreign driver's license, birth certificate or permanent resident card, and proof of your legal immigration status. The DMV will also want to confirm that you are an in-state resident, so bring proof of residence such as a utility bill or lease in your name showing your current address.

There are some general requirements in order to obtain a driver's license, including a written test, vision test and driving test. Each state will have its own requirements and procedures. Some states will acknowledge previous driving experience, so research the requirements for your state before you go so you can plan to bring any required paperwork from your home country. Many states will consider you a new driver, though, so be prepared for that.

Preparation

Prepare for your written test by picking up a copy of your state's driver's guide at the DMV office. You can usually get these at no charge, and many states post their guidebooks on their DMV websites. The guidebook will teach you about traffic safety and the rules of the road. The written exam will be based on the contents of this handbook, so make sure you're well prepared.

If you've never driven before, you'll need to learn new driving skills to pass the road test. You can either take lessons from a very patient friend or family member (just make sure they have the right auto insurance to cover you in case of an accident), or you can take formal lessons from a driving school in your area. Even if you've been driving for a while, it might be a good idea to take a refresher course to familiarize yourself with the new traffic laws.

Testing

You can usually walk into a DMV office without an appointment and take your written test that day. Watch the time, though, since most offices suspend testing for the day about an hour before closing. If your schedule's flexible, try to avoid the busy times at the DMV. These are typically lunch time, Saturdays, late afternoons and the first day after a holiday.

Bring your required documentation with you and be prepared to pay a fee to cover the cost of taking the test. Once your application is complete, you'll be directed to an area to take your exam. When you finish the exam, you will be told immediately whether or not you have passed. If you didn't pass, you'll need to successfully pass the exam before you can take the road test. There may be a restriction on how soon you can attempt the exam and/or how many times you can take the test. If you pass the exam, you will schedule an appointment for a road test. You may be asked to take a vision test at the same time as your written exam, or during your driving test appointment.

For the driving test, you will need to provide a vehicle in good working condition as well as proof of liability insurance. During the test, only you and the examiner (and a service animal, if necessary) are allowed in the car. The examiner will test your ability to drive legally and safely, and will not try to trick you in any way.

At the end of the test, the examiner will tell you if you passed or failed. If you passed, you will be giving information about receiving your official driver's license. If you fail, there will likely be restrictions on when you can take the test again.

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