Getting a driver’s license in the U.S. can be a good idea for international students who want to use their own car to explore the area, pick up groceries or go out with friends. But just because you already drive in your home country doesn’t mean you meet driver’s license requirements in the U.S.
Since not all states accept foreign driver’s licenses, international students may have to take and pass both a written and in-person driving test at their local Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV.
Though details may vary by state, here are the main steps in the process:
— Wait 10 days after you arrive in the U.S.
— Talk to your designated school official.
— Locate your local DMV and check requirements.
— Gather required documents.
[Steer clear of four common mistakes international students make.]
Follow These Steps to Get Your U.S. Driver’s License
1. Wait 10 Days After You Arrive in the U.S.
International students cannot immediately apply for a driver’s license once they arrive in the U.S.
“The process to obtain a driver’s license differs slightly for a first-time international student versus a continuing international student,” says Amanda Schaller, director of international and graduate enrollment at Lindenwood University in Missouri. New international students must wait at least 10 days before applying for a U.S. driver’s license, to ensure that their information can update in all the government systems. Students who apply too early can have their application delayed or denied.
Ravi Ammigan, associate provost at the Center for Global Programs and Services at the University of Delaware says his office recommends that new international students beginning an F-1 or J-1 program should wait until their F-1 or J-1 record is activated in the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVIS, before applying for a driver’s license so the DMV can verify their immigration status. (F-1 and J-1 visas allow international students to study at a college or university in the U.S.)
2. Talk to Your Designated School Official
Designated school officials, or DSOs, act as liaisons between international students, the college or university and the U.S. government. DSOs provide important immigration forms, help guide students and maintain records in SEVIS. After waiting for your information to update, make sure to reach out to your DSO for guidance and to answer any questions you may have.
“Your DSO is always a good place to start. They’d be knowledgeable about where the nearest DMV is and be able to refer you to any additional information you need to begin the process of getting a driver’s license,” says Kristen Zernick, assistant director for intercultural programs at the University of South Florida.
Students should talk to their DSO about driving laws in their state and to confirm that their record is marked “active” in SEVIS.
3. Locate Your Local DMV and Check Requirements
International students should research their state’s requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, since these may vary. For example, some states require that students have at least six months left on their I-20 form, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” to be eligible for a driver’s license.
“Information on eligibility, application process and office details are typically available on the state DMV website,” says Ammigan. Schools may also include this information on their own websites, or cover information about obtaining a driver’s license during orientation. And staff at your university’s international student office should also be able to answer any questions.
You will likely need to visit your local DMV office in person, so locate the nearest office and check transportation options. Ammigan says some schools, like the University of Delaware, provide transportation to the DMV office, so ask whether that service is offered at your school.
4. Gather Required Documents
Before heading to the DMV, gather all the original documents (rather than copies) requested by your DMV and make sure all information is correct.
The documents you will need may include a signed Form I-20, a valid passport, your most recent student visa and proof of residence. Some states also require a Social Security card or Social Security denial letter (also known as Form SSA-L676) if you have not yet applied or been granted a Social Security card.
“A student should always verify with their DSO that their I-20 is in the proper status and has a current signature on it prior to going to the DMV to apply for a driver’s license,” says Schaller.
A student’s DSO can help assist in verifying that the student has all documents necessary to apply to “ensure a student does not make a wasted trip,” she says.
Once a student successfully applies, a DMV representative will explain the next steps required for getting a driver’s license, which may include both a driving and written test. Depending on the state, a student may receive their license immediately or after a few weeks via mail.
For more information about obtaining a Social Security number or U.S. driver’s license, visit the Department of Homeland Security’s Study in the States website.