An International Driving Permit is a kind of your driver’s license translation into 10 languages aimed to help travelers and local authorities in overcoming language barriers. Among other things, an International Driving Permit contains information from a national driver’s license translated into English, and thus it supplements and confirms national DLs. Note that an International Driving Permit is just a translation of a document. Therefore, it can’t replace the document itself and, moreover, it is invalid without a national driver’s license. Thus, to drive legally in some states, you will need both documents, which you can get in your home country. Don’t bother to go to a local driver’s license office for getting the translation. According to the official US government website, International Driving Permits in the United States can be obtained only by the residents.
Therefore, if you have a tourist visa, your valid national driver’s license and the permit, you can drive in the United States without any limitations, except for duration time. As far as I understand, in most cases, national driver’s licenses are valid in the United States for the period of visa validity. However, since the local rules may vary, it is better to double-check in your state driver’s license center. Anyway, even having your home country DL, you may want to obtain a US driver’s license for reducing your car insurance costs, since insurance companies are usually not very happy to insure aliens with DLs issued in other countries. The earlier you get a US driver’s license, the earlier you can establish your driving record, and eventually, you will be able to get an affordable car insurance.
While tourists who have their national DLs may not bother with getting a US driver’s license, those who have no license at all can’t escape taking a driver’s license test and going through other standard procedures for obtaining DL, if they want to drive in the United States. In fact, tourists can obtain a US driver’s license only in certain states, for example, in California or Florida, while in other states, like in Missouri, they are not allowed to apply for a local DL. You may be surprised, but starting from 2014, 8 of American states allow applying for a DL even for illegal immigrants and those with a temporary legal status (Colorado and Nevada are among them). Therefore, you need to visit a local driver’s license office or find information on a state DMV website and to clarify this question prior to taking any actions. Since I know several people who underwent the procedure and earned their US licenses when staying on the tourist visas in different states, I will describe the general process without going into details for each state. Anyway, state rules change from time to time, so you will need to check current rules for your particular state.
What Papers Do You Need to Provide in a Driver’s License Office?
Any person who wants to apply for a US driver’s license has to submit the following types of documents:
- identification documents with a photo
- documents verifying the date of birth
- documents verifying legal presence in the country
- documents verifying residency in a particular state
For tourists, the main documents verifying their identity, date of birth and legal status are a passport with a valid visa and printed I-94 form. The form can be printed from the official Department of Homeland Security website, where you need to enter your identification details for getting access to your I-94 form. Note that the form specifies the period of your legal stay in the United States and a US driver’s license can be issued only for this period. That is, when you obtain your US DL, it will be stamped "Temporary" and the expiration date will be the same as indicated in your I-94 form.
You also need a driver's license from your own country, if you have one. Note that the license can in no way help you in obtaining a US DL. It serves only as a document confirming your date of birth and name and identifying you through your photo. So, don’t even dream about skipping a driver’s license test in a DMV office just because you passed it in your home country. From my experience, it is not necessary to attach an International Driving Permit to a home country DL, but it won’t hurt to take it with you.
If you have no national license, then you may need another identification document, since in some states it is required to provide at least two documents with a photo and so on. Though a friend of mine managed to obtain a WA driver’s license without providing even his I-94 form (he submitted his passport with a visa, SSN obtained on J1 W&T visa and home country driver’s license). As requirements vary from state to state, check information on identification documents for tourists in your local driver's license center.
In addition, you need papers confirming your residency in a particular state and your mailing address. As a rule, local authorities require at least two documents verifying an applicant’s address in a state. Usually, a list of papers that can confirm your address is rather extensive, but to my mind, the simplest option is to bring just a couple of letters addressed to you from different institutions. For example, I brought a letter from my bank and a postcard with a pin code from Google Adsense. A friend of mine used an apartment lease contract and a bank statement with a local Miami address specified. I know people who used their friends’ address and even a mailbox with a physical address – there are plenty of options, but still it is better to check in a local driver services center.
As for SSN (Social Security Number), it is required only from US residents and those aliens who have a type of visa which implies obtaining SSN. Therefore, as a tourist on a B1/B2 visa, you won’t be asked for providing SSN in those states which allow tourists to obtain US driver’s licenses.
All told, you need to introduce the following documents to a local driver license processing center:
- Passport with a valid visa
- Printed I-94 form
- Driver's license from your country, if any
- Two documents confirming your mailing address and residency in a state
How to Get Prepared for a Drivers License Test?
Your next step is to get prepared for a knowledge test in a DMV office. Start with visiting your local DMV website and downloading the current Driver’s Manual. Study it carefully a number of times taking helpful notes and then have some practice that will help you better understand the way a DMV permit test is conducted. Choose a Driver-Start.com web-site or application to have better results, since both site and app include useful tools for learning and training. Using the Driver-Start.com platforms, you can familiarize yourself with real exam questions and target gaps in your knowledge, while practicing the knowledge test questions and answers until they become automatic. Learn how many mistakes you can make in the test according to your state rules and train until you are able to answer about 80% of the test questions correctly.
How to Undergo the Test in a Driver Licensing Office?
Prior to visiting a driver license office, find out which offices render the service of conducting a DMV permit test and their availability schedule. Some offices are available only by appointment, while others render the services on a walk-in basis. If you choose the second option, it’s better to arrive early in the morning, since there can be rather long lines of applicants and you will have to spend much more than an hour or two on passing the test.
When I got to a driver license processing center in order to pass the exam, there were quite a crowd of people. I went to an information desk, showed my documents, got a ticket with my personal number and waited for a half an hour or something like that until I was called by an officer. I provided my documents once again, and she did the paperwork Then, she checked my eyesight using special equipment (you have probably seen such devices in ophthalmology offices). I was photographed against a blue drop, fingerprinted and then given another ticket with a number of the computer site where I was supposed to undergo the test. All this was rather quick, and I think I waited in line longer than underwent all the procedures.
The DMV computer showed my name, asked a simple question to check I was ready to start and then showed test rules. For each question there are several answer options provided, and the questions are illustrated with some images. You just need to choose an answer, press OK and then press OK once again when the computer asks to confirm the answer. The computer shows if your answer is correct or incorrect and then moves to the next question. During the test your statistics is shown at the bottom of the screen: the number of the correct and incorrect answers and questions left. I used a "skip" button when I got to a difficult question and moved to the next question, while watching the statistics. You are allowed to use the button an unlimited number of times, and thus you may make several rounds of questions choosing easier ones until you score a necessary number of correct answers. So did I, and I scored the required number after two rounds.
After having passed the DMV permit test, I went to my officer and made an appointment for a road test. But if you have no driving experience at all, you need to have some behind-the-wheel practice prior to taking it.
How to Get Prepared for a Road Test and Pass It?
My girlfriend managed to pass her road test in Florida later on the same day when she had passed her knowledge test. In practice, it depends on the rules of a particular state, DMV offices schedule and your driving experience. If you have none or you have little of behind-the-wheel practice lately, you should get your learner’s permit and then start practicing on roads. As far as I know, they send learner’s permits via mail within several days after a driver’s license test is successfully passed, but there may be some local variations. Having the permit, you need to find a vehicle and a person who is older than 21, has a valid DL in your state and agrees to be your supervisor while you are practicing. You may rent a car or borrow it from your friends (if they don’t worry about you getting into an accident while driving their car).
While training, you need to practice both maneuvers like parking or U turns and regular driving on public roads like changing lanes or passing intersections. Place a great deal of focus on training the following maneuvers and tasks:
- parallel parking
- stopping completely at a stop sign
- stopping completely before making a right turn on red
- observing speed limits, especially in school zones
- traffic checking and yielding at intersections
- checking blind spots (both over your shoulder and via the vehicle mirrors)
- using parking brake
- learning hand signals
- moving off safely
- road positioning.
Don’t be limited by driving on parking spaces, back yards, side roads and deserted streets – this won’t be enough for passing your road test. Have adequate practice on busy roads and take enough time to get completely prepared. In fact, having a learner’s permit valid for several months, you may drive legally during all period of your stay in the United States even without a regular DL – if you don’t get into accidents or violate traffic rules and score penalty points.
When you are ready for a road test, go to a corresponding DMV office having your identification documents and learner’s permit with you. You also need to provide an insured car, which will be used for the testing. Sometimes, the exam includes only street driving, while in some states you need to show certain maneuvers on a DMV site and then to drive on public roads. The main thing required is to show safe and sure-handed driving – nobody expects sophisticated tricks from you, but you may easily fail ignoring such simple rules like observing a way while driving in reverse or incomplete stopping in front of a "stop" sign.
If you passed you road test, you are issued a US driver’s license for a period specified in your I-94 form. The license can be given to you right in a driver’s license office or sent by mail.