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Most Americans get around by car, and you need a driver’s license to drive and operate a motor vehicle. You need one in every state. You’ll go through your state’s motor vehicle office for a new driver’s license or a driver’s license renewal.

You used to have to go to the government building to apply for your license, but more services are currently being offered online. The process is a little different depending on if you’re getting your first license or bringing one from out of the country.

New Driver’s License

Learner’s Permit

A learner’s permit is a temporary license that allows you to legally drive while you’re supervised by an experienced driver with you. If you’re under age 18, you’ll need to obtain a learner’s permit before getting your driver’s license. Your learner’s permit doesn’t require any driving experience, but you will need to apply for a permit with your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

1) Schedule an Appointment

You may need to schedule an appointment in person, or some states let you apply online. You’ll get an application you can fill out online or at the motor vehicle department.

2) Take Practice Tests

To qualify to take the tests, you may need to take a Driver’s Ed class. Take practice written tests to prepare you for what’s on the written test. The DMV can give you study material to help you.

3) Prepare Documents

You’ll fill out the application online or in person to bring with you the day of your test. You’ll need to present documents that verify your identity and address, and you’ll need signed consent from a parent or guardian.

4) Take the Test

On the day of the test, you’ll pay the permit fee and take the test. The purpose of the test is to show you understand the rules of the road and for you to learn how to be safe and responsible as a driver. You’ll take a written test and a vision test.

4 out of 10 people fail the permit test the first time they take it, so don’t worry if you do! There may be a waiting period to take it again, so check what the requirements are with your local motor vehicle department.

Once you get your learner’s permit, you have to wait 6 months before applying for a restricted driver’s license. But this is good news, you are on your way! Now that you’ve had your permit for six months, you can take the next steps to get your license!

Driver’s License

1) Take Driver’s Education

Your next step to get your license is to take a driver’s education course. Each state has slightly different requirements, so visit your DMV website to see what’s required, such as additional drugs and alcohol awareness course. Each state has slightly varying rules about how much time you need to spend in the car with an adult, so be sure to get enough hours to qualify for the driving test. If you’re a teenager, you may be able to get a driver’s education course through your school, reducing your out of pocket costs. Your Driver’s Ed teacher should teach you what’s going to be on the driving test, so listen closely and pay attention.

2) Schedule Your Test

Next, you’ll need to complete your driver’s license application and schedule your driver’s license test. The driver’s license test will consist of you driving your car with an examiner grading your ability to follow traffic rules. These may be available online depending on your state.

3) Bring Your Documents on the Day of the Test

Get to the DMV on the day of your appointment and take the driving test! Bring your documents to verify your age and address, and bring your application or be prepared to fill it out there. If you’re under 18, your parent or guardian will need to be there to sign with you.

4) Take the Driving Test

You’ll take the driving test with the examiner. You won’t have to wait long to see if you’ve passed, as they usually already know by the time the test is finished.

If you fail the test, you may have to wait a waiting period before taking the test again. Find out any additional requirements from your state. You may have to pay an additional fee to take the test again.

5) Wait for Your License

If you pass, you’ll get your picture taken and have a chance to correct any mistakes in the information on file. Then they’ll give you a temporary paper license while you wait for your real license to come in the mail! Once it comes back, make sure there aren’t any mistakes because there’s a limited window to make corrections for free.

As a Foreigner

The process for getting a driver’s license looks a little different if you’re bringing a foreign driving permit. You will be able to use your foreign driving permit for 30 to 90 days as long as it is written in English. If it’s not, apply for an International Driving Permit from your country.

If you plan on establishing residency, check your state’s website to see what’s required. While there are many similarities between all the state requirements, they are not all the same. Some countries have agreements with the US that allow their native license to be exchanged for an American one. If you come from one of these countries, you won’t need to go through any extra process.

Most ex-pats will need to go through the full application process for a US License. In this case, you’d go through the same steps as a first time US driver without needing a learner’s permit. The steps are as follows:

1) Prepare Documents

You’d need to gather documents to bring to the DMV that verify your name, date of birth, and have your picture, such as a passport. You’ll bring your Social Security number or proof that you can’t get one, proof of lawful US presence such as a visa, citizenship certificate or resident card, proof of residence such as a bank statement or utility bill, and international driver’s license. You can fill out the application form online if your state offers it, or you can fill it out in person.

2) Pay Your Fees

The fees associated with the driver’s tests are usually $30-90, depending on our state.

3) Take Your Written Test

You’ll take both a written and driving test. The written test consists of 20-50 multiple choice questions on your state’s traffic laws and regulations. You should be able to download or review material online for review, and then you can take your written test.

4) Take Your Vision Test

You may be able to have your vision tested at the DMV, but you can have a medical professional test your vision as well. If you need glasses or contacts to drive, you may have a restriction placed on your license. If you have low vision, you may have additional restrictions such as only being able to drive during the day.

5) Take the Driving Test

After you pass the written and vision tests, you can schedule the driving test. You will take your driving test at the DMV with an examiner who will grade your ability to follow traffic laws. They may also ask you to demonstrate skills, such as parallel parking and reverse skills.

6) Wait for Your License

When you pass the test, you will be issued a temporary license while you wait for yours to come in the mail. Double-check the information they have on file to make sure it is correct, as there is a small window of time where you can make corrections on your license for free.

If you fail the written or driving portion, check your state’s rules for retaking the tests. There will probably be a waiting period and an additional fee.


Most states require license renewals every four years, and every state will have different renewal procedures. Check your state’s website to see what you need to do. Luckily, you probably won’t have to retake the driving test and many states offer the driver’s license renewal online if you’re currently living at the same address.