An International Driving Permit is a kind of your driver's license translated into ten languages to help travelers and local authorities overcome 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; moreover, it is invalid without a national driver's license. Thus, you will need both documents to drive legally in some states, which you can get in your home country. Don't bother to go to a local driver's license office to get 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 the duration of 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 to reduce 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 affordable car insurance.
While tourists with their national DLs may not bother with getting a US driver's license, those with 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, California or Florida, while in other states, like Missouri, they are not allowed to apply for a local DL. You may be surprised, but starting in 2014, 8 American states allow applying for a DL even for illegal immigrants and those with 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 to clarify this question prior to taking any action. Since I know several people who underwent the procedure and earned their US licenses when staying on 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 the 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 primary documents verifying their identity, date of birth, and legal status are a passport with a valid visa and a printed I-94 form. The form can be printed from the official Department of Homeland Security website, where you must enter your identification details to access 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. When you obtain your US DL, it will be stamped "Temporary," 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 cannot help you obtain 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, attaching an International Driving Permit to a home country DL is unnecessary, but it won't hurt to take it with you.
If you have no national license, 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. However, 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 a 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 used an apartment lease contract and a bank statement with a local Miami address specified. I know people who used their friends' addresses 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) is required only from US residents and aliens with a type of visa, which implies obtaining an SSN. Therefore, as a tourist on a B1/B2 visa, you won't be asked to provide 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's 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. First, Visit your local DMV website and download the current Driver's Manual. Study it carefully several times, take 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 website or application (Android or IOS) for better results since both site and app includes helpful learning and training tools. 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 can correctly answer about 80% of the test questions.
How to Undergo the Test in a Driver Licensing Office?
Before visiting a driver's 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 more than an hour or two on passing the test.
When I got to a driver's license processing center to pass the exam, there was quite a crowd of people. I went to an information desk, showed my documents, got a ticket with my personal number, and waited for half an hour or something like that until an officer called me. 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 the 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 I underwent all the procedures.
The DMV computer showed my name, asked a simple question to check my readiness to start, and then showed test rules. For each question, several answer options are provided, and the questions are illustrated with images. You need to choose an answer, press OK, 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. Your statistics are shown at the bottom of the screen during the test: the number of 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. 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 passing the DMV permit test, I went to my office 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 before taking it.
My girlfriend passed her road test in Florida later on the same day she passed her knowledge test. In practice, it depends on the rules of a particular state, the DMV office schedule, and your driving experience. If you have none or you have had little 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 learners' 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 older than 21 who 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 must practice 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, backyards, side roads, and deserted streets – this won't be enough to pass your road test. Have adequate practice on busy roads and take enough time to prepare completely. In fact, having a learner's permit valid for several months, you may drive legally during all periods 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 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 to ignore such simple rules like observing away while driving in reverse or incompletely stopping in front of a "stop" sign.
If you pass your 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.