How to get your driver’s license

In the US, you need a valid driver’s license to hit the road, but the process isn’t as daunting as you may think.

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If you want to drive, you need a current driver’s license, no matter what. Driver’s licenses are issued by individual states, so the steps to securing one can vary slightly. But once you know what to expect, the process is pretty straightforward.

Get your driver’s license in 6 steps

The process varies between states and license classes, but expect to go through these steps:

  1. Figure out which license you need. You can read through the license categories below, but generally, your license will fall into Class A, B, C, D, DJ, E, M or MJ. The average adult gets a Class D license. If you’re younger than 18, you’ll need to apply for a learner’s permit at your local DMV when you hit age 14 to 16, and typically hold it for six to 12 months before upgrading to a full license.
  2. Provide documents. To apply for a license, you’ll need to visit your local DMV. The first things they’ll ask for are proof of your identity and residency.
  3. Pass a written test. Drivers of all ages have to take a written test. It’s a multiple-choice test, but the number and type of questions vary depending on where you live and the type of license you’re applying for. In New York, for example, the learner’s permit test has 20 questions and you must get 14 correct to pass. In Florida, the class D written test is made up of 50 questions.
  4. Pass a driving test. All learner drivers need to schedule and pass a driving test — also known as a road test — before their permit expires. Most states require new drivers older than 18 to take a road test, too. The test assesses your ability to safely operate your car and obey traffic laws. You may be asked to park, pass another car and perform a three-point turn, among other moves.
  5. Pass additional DMV tests. Driving aside, your local DMV will test your vision and hearing to confirm that you won’t be a risk on the road. Some states, such as California, also need you to complete a driver’s education course before applying for a learner’s permit. In some states, like Florida, your hearing, written and driving tests may be waived if you have a valid driver’s license from another US state or territory.
  6. Pay fees. The fees depend on your age, license, location and the tests you’ve taken.

What info do I need to get my driver’s license?

You’ll need to provide proof or your identity and residency. The documents vary between states, but you may be asked for the following:

Proof of identity

  • State ID
  • Voter registration card
  • Passport
  • Social security card
  • Birth certificate

Proof of residency — most states require two forms

  • Utility bill with your home address
  • Bank statement with your home address
  • A school transcript or letter, if you’re younger than 18

Can I transfer my license from another state?

Good news: You can trade in a license from another US state, territory or district for a license in your new state. Generally, you have to do this within 30 days of becoming a resident. In most states, you’ll have to go to a DMV office to submit documents, pass the necessary tests (i.e. vision, hearing and written) and surrender your out-of-state license. The testing is done at the discretion of the DMV and may be waived.

Note that if your permanent residence is still in your home state if, say, you went off to college in another state, you can keep your old license.

Do I need car insurance to get my license?

No. However, the car you bring to your driving test must meet state safety standards, which means it has to be insured. Remember, car insurance typically follows the car, so you’ll still be insured for your test. Once you pass the test, you’ll need to purchase a policy unless these scenarios apply to you:

  • You’re not driving. If you just want to keep your license current, say, to use as a form of ID, there’s no need to buy car insurance.
  • You plan to drive someone else’s car. If you don’t own a car, you don’t need to take out a policy. However, the owner of the car you’re driving, whether it’s your parents, employer or spouse, will need to add you to their policy.
  • You plan to drive rental cars from time to time. Say you live in New York City and you have no desire to own a car and only want to rent one for long weekends. When you do, the rental company’s insurance will kick in to cover you.

What about nonowner car insurance?

If you don’t own a car but drive one often, you might want to look into a nonowner car insurance policy. This covers liability and any damages or injuries you cause while driving someone else’s ride.

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What happens if I fail my driving test?

Again, it varies between states, but you’ll generally be given another chance. No matter where you live, you won’t be refunded for the fees paid.

For example, in California, learner drivers can take the driving test up to three times. They have to pay $7 for each retake, and wait two weeks before the next test. If they fail a third time, they have to apply for a new learner’s permit. Drivers older than 18 also have three chances to pass, but they don’t need to wait between retakes. They can schedule a new test immediately.

What about my written test?

As for the written test, that comes down to your state, too. In Ohio, you’ll have to wait seven days before trying again, while California will let you take the test three times in a day. In Tennessee, the waiting period depends on your score, and can go up to 30 days.

How much does it cost to get my driver’s license?

Fees typically total less than $100, but — you guessed it, your cost is governed by your state, too. Commercial licenses are the most expensive types of licenses.

Fees may include:

  • Written test
  • Road test
  • Vision and hearing test
  • Learner’s permit
  • Provisional driver’s license
  • Driver’s license
  • Retake or cancellation

What other costs should I be aware of after I get my license?

Once you have your license, you’ll probably need to purchase car insurance if you’re going to be driving regularly.

It’s legally mandated in all states except New Hampshire and Virginia, and almost all states require you to carry liability protection. If you’re financing or leasing your car, you may have to buy collision and comprehensive coverage as part of your finance agreement.

The cost of car insurance varies depending on your provider, driver profile, level of coverage and location. It’s usually cheaper in states like Maine, and notoriously expensive in New Jersey, Minnesota and Georgia.

What restrictions will I need to declare when I apply?

If you have special conditions attached to your driving, you’ll need to apply for a restricted driver’s license. These conditions will be listed on your license, and you’ll face suspension if you’re caught breaking them.

The restrictions could include:

  • Eyesight. If your vision is impaired, you may be legally required to wear glasses or contacts to drive, or drive in daylight only.
  • Hearing. If you’re deaf or experiencing hearing loss, you may need to use hearing aids and assistive mirrors.
  • Special equipment. If you have a prosthetic or a medical condition that affects your driving, you might need to install a spinner knob, left foot gas pedal or dual driving controls.
  • Commercial learner’s permit. Typically, learners aren’t allowed to drive with cargo in the tank or any other passengers besides their trainer or test examiner.

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What are the different kinds of licenses?

The names and rules may be different in your state, but most licenses fall into these categories:

ClassMinimum ageWhat you can drive
A – Commercial21Tractor-trailers, truck and trailer combinations, tanker vehicles, livestock carriers and flatbeds
B – Commercial18Standard trucks, tourist, city or school buses, box trucks (e.g. furniture delivery and couriers)
C – Commercial18Passenger vans, small HAZMAT vehicles, small truck and trailer combinations
D – Operator17 if you’ve completed a Driver Education Course, 18 if notAll noncommercial cars
DJ – Junior Operator16 or 17All noncommercial cars, with restrictions
E – For Hire: Taxi, Livery, Limo18The same as Class D, plus for-hire vehicles carrying 14 passengers or less
M – Motorcycle18Motorcycles
MJ – Junior Motorcycle16 or 17 with driver educationMotorcycles, with restrictions
Learner’s permit14 to 16The same as Class D, but you must have a licensed driver aged 21 or older supervising and sitting in the front seat
International driver’s permit (IDP)18This allows you to legally drive in 174 countries with a valid US driver’s license

What is a Real ID driver’s license?

Starting October 1, 2020, you’ll need more than a standard state ID or driver’s license to get on a plane in the US. A Real ID driver’s license meets the new identification standards and will allow you to travel by air domestically — and it’s available in every state.

Is a Real ID the same as an enhanced driver’s license?

No. An enhanced driver’s license will also qualify you for domestic air travel, but it has an added bonus — you’ll also be able to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by land or sea with it. The downside is you have to be a resident of Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont or Washington to get one.

How do I get a Real ID or an enhanced driver’s license?

The process is much the same as it is to get a standard driver’s license. What changes is the specific documentation you have to provide, and you may require a special appointment. Check with your state DMV for a list of approved documents.

Bottom line

While they’re pretty straightforward, the steps to getting a driver’s license depend on how old you are, where you live and the type of license you’re applying for. Some states have stricter rules and lengthier processes than others, so if you’re ever in doubt, your local DMV is your best resource.

Once you have your license, start comparing car insurance providers to get covered on the road.

Frequently asked questions about driver’s licenses

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