What You Need to Get a Driver’s License

Grace Pilling
Grace Pilling
Insurance and Finance Editor

There are many reasons why you may want or need to get a driver’s license. Whether you’re a teenager who’s getting ready to hit the road for the first time, you’ve just moved to a new state, or you’re an immigrant who’s recently come to the U.S., you may find yourself asking, “What paperwork do I need to get a driver’s license?” While the exact requirements will vary by state, the general process will be the same. In light of that, we’ve laid out the process below. Keep reading to learn what you need to do to get on the road.

If you’re between the ages of 14 and 16, congratulations! You may be old enough to get your learner’s permit, depending on your state’s regulations. Once you reach the required age, you can start the licensing process by taking the following steps:

  • Complete application and fees: You’ll likely have to fill out an application and pay a fee upfront.
  • Provide the correct documentation: To get your permit you’ll need to bring your social security card,  identification (like your school I.D. card) and proof of residency (you may be able to use a school transcript or have a parent with proof of residency vouch for you, check your licensing department’s requirements).
  • Take a written test: The test is a written test meant to verify your knowledge of the rules of the road. There should be practice tests available online at your state’s department of motor vehicles website.
  • Take a vision test: This test proves that you can see well enough to drive. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, make sure to wear them on the day and tick that box on your paperwork.

Depending on your state, you may also need to:

  • Get parental consent: If you’re under 18, your state may require you to get parental consent before getting your learner’s permit.
  • Complete a driver’s education course: Some states require you to take a driver’s ed course before taking the test for your license.

If you have a current license from the state where you lived previously, getting one in your new state should be fairly easy. All you need to do is bring your social security card, current license, and proof of residency to the office that issues licenses in your new home state. From there, it should be just a matter of filling out a form, paying a fee, and having a new photo taken before you’re good to go.

It’s worth noting that most states have a deadline for how long your old license and car registration will stay valid after moving. In states like California, that time period can be as short as 10 days, but in other cases, you may have up to one year. You’ll want to verify the time period in your new state.

If you’re a recent immigrant to the United States, you can use an International Driving Permit (IDP) in addition to your non-U.S. driver’s license in order to drive when you first arrive. You must obtain both these documents in the country you’re emigrating from and present them together in order for them to be considered valid. These documents will remain valid for one year.

After that, you must get a state-issued license. Currently, 11 states –  California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington – plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, will issue licenses regardless of immigration status. In those areas, you need to pass a driving test, show proof of residence in the state, and carry auto insurance.

Other states may require you to have a social security number in order to receive a license. In either case, you’ll likely be treated as a new driver. With that in mind, in addition to bringing whatever documentation your state requires, be prepared to have to take a written and a visual test before you’ll be approved to hit the road.

If you need to replace a lost or stolen license, you’ll need to make a trip to your department of motor vehicles (DMV) or the local agency that issues licenses. You’ll have to bring proof of identity – such as a birth certificate or social security card – as well as proof of residency. However, after that, it’s just a matter of filling out a form and paying a fee. Depending on where you live, they may print you out a new license on the spot or issue you a temporary license while you wait for your new one to come in the mail.

If you fail your written test, don’t worry. Most states let you take a couple of tries before you’re required to start the process all over again. However, you may have to go through a waiting period before you can try again and you’ll likely have to pay the fee each time. It’s best to get a sense of your state’s requirements before you take the test so you know what to expect. Most states have practice tests available online to help you prepare. Driving-tests.org offers free, state-specific tests that can help get you ready for the real thing. 

If you fail your vision test, you will be given a form to be filled out by a medical professional. It’s likely you’ll need a prescription for glasses. Once the form is completed and your vision is corrected with glasses or contact lenses, you can return to the issuing center to retake your test.

Driving without a license is a crime across the United States, but the consequences vary by state.  If you have a valid license and have simply forgotten it, the crime is often a misdemeanor that can be pleaded down, but may involve a fine. If you drive without a valid license, however, that can be an arrestable offense.

You can practice for your written test by studying the driver’s manual provided by your issuing center and taking practice tests online. Driving-tests.org offers free, state-specific tests that can help get you ready for the real thing.

  • Learn to drive: If you’ve never driven before, you’ll need to learn how to drive with an experienced and fully-licensed driver in the passenger seat. You can do so with a paid instructor through a local driving school or by asking a family member or friend to assist you.  
  • Get car insurance: No matter whether you plan to buy car insurance online, over the phone, or with a dedicated agent, the secret to getting the best rate is to shop around and collect a few different quotes before you make your final decision. Just be aware that each state has its own requirements for car insurance.
  • Take the driver test: When you’re ready, you’ll go back and take your on-road driver’s test. Here, you’ll show an examiner what skills you’ve learned and he or she will evaluate your driving before deciding whether or not you’re ready to become a licensed driver.

About the Authors

Grace Pilling

Grace Pilling Insurance and Finance Editor

Grace Pilling is an Insurance and Finance Editor at Reviews.com, where she works closely with writers on topics from banking and credit cards, to home warranties and financial services, as well as all things insurance-related. Originally from Australia, Grace worked in non-profit educational technology before joining Reviews.com.