Expat’s guide to securing your US driving license

As an expat living in the United States, one of the first things you may want to do is get a driving license. This can be a daunting task, especially if you are not familiar with the U.S. road system and driving laws. Here are some tips to help make the process smoother and easier.

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Research the requirements for getting a driving license in the state where you will be living.

Each state has its own rules and regulations for obtaining a license, so it is important to know what you need to do in order to apply. Your state DMV website should have all information you need. For example, is the from the DMV California.

If you already have a driving license from your home country, you can use that license to rent a car in the US. The insurance cost will be very high so make sure to read more about how to rent a car for expat, under tip number 8.

Study and pass the written knowledge test

In most states, you will need to pass a written test before you can take the driving test. This test covers the rules of the road and traffic laws and is designed to ensure that you have a basic understanding of how to drive safely.

One of the best ways to prepare for the test is to take practice quizzes online. Just search on Google or YouTube and you can find many resources. Many states offer sample practice quizzes on the DMV websites.

The questions on the actual test will be based on information from the Driver’s Manual, so make sure you read it thoroughly.

Leverage online services offered by the DMV

Many people don’t know this, but you can save yourself a lot of time and headaches by signing up for and booking an appointment at the DMV online in advance. This way, you can minimize your waiting time down to almost nothing. Also, by using the online system, you’ll be able to see what type of paperwork is required so that you can have it all ready in advance.

In California, they even allow you to take the knowledge test online.

The knowledge test can be taken in more than one language.

For example, in 2022, you will be able to take the California knowledge test in 35 languages. All study materials are also available in a wide variety of languages. This means that even if you or your family members are not fluent in English, there should still be no problem.

You are able to start driving on the road with someone who has a valid license after you pass the knowledge test. Or, if you already have a valid license from your home country, in California, you may drive as well. But it’s best that confirm this information with your local DMV ahead of time.

Practice driving with a local instructor before taking the behind-the-wheel test.

If you have been driving for years but are not familiar with the customs in your new location, I recommend taking a few practice lessons from a local instructor. They can show you what examiners will be looking for and how people typically drive around here.

I found this to be extremely helpful because driving habits vary greatly between continents.

You can search for local instructors online or ask your neighbors and colleagues for recommendations.

Find an easier-to-pass DMV location

Based on my findings, some DMVs are simply easier to pass the behind-the-wheel test than others. This is due in part to traffic conditions along the testing route as well as how difficult/lenient the test route itself it.

To increase your chances of success, do a quick Google search to find out the average pass rate at various DMV locations near you. Better yet, ask your driving instructor for their professional recommendation on which location would be best for you to sign up with.

Some of you may disagree with what I suggest above, thinking that if someone can’t pass the behind-the-wheel test at any DMV, then they shouldn’t be allowed to drive. And I agree with you on this point. However, I will take it one step further by saying that even after getting a license, this does not mean they will drive safety–particularly on the freeway. So practice, practice and practice some more.

I still keep this tip here because there have been instances where the examiners were not reasonable, or traffic/road conditions made it difficult, especially for those who are nervous.

Take your driving test during off-peak hours to avoid traffic.

Many applicants tend to be more nervous than usual during their behind-the-wheel test, which in turn may impact their driving skill/reaction negatively. To increase the likelihood of passing, it’s best to avoid rush hour traffic or school dismissal hours when the roads are generally more congested.

For example, 8 am on a Monday is probably more difficult to pass than 10 am on a Friday.

Get comfortable with the test routes by driving them multiple times before your test.

If you hire an instructor, they should be able to tell you the route that the examiners often use. You can do some online research on Google or Youtube.

By practicing the routes multiple times, you get a good sense of the road and the normal traffic conditions.

Using car rental to take the behind-the-wheel test

Check with your local DMV to see if you can use a car rental to take the behind-the-wheel test. In California, they allow it. However, you need to have the following:

  • A paper from the car rental company to confirm that you are allowed to take the car rental for the test. The paper should include your personal details.
  • Proof that you bought all the insurance required by the car rental company. Normally, this is everything from collision damage waiver (CDW) to third-party liability, etc…

If you use your friend’s car to take the test, make sure the car insurance has your name on it. The requirement is that when you take the test, you need to be covered by insurance.

You don’t need to be perfect during the test

You don’t have to be flawless on either the written or driving test- there are some leeway as far as mistakes go. The number of errors you’re allowed varies between tests, but for the knowledge test, that figure is readily accessible online. As for the behind-the-wheel road test, talk to your instructor or another reliable source.

So stay calm and drive as normal, as safely as possible. Even if you make few small mistakes during the test, it is fine; you can still pass. Of course, if you make critical errors, then it is an immediate failure. In California in 2022, you can pass the behind-the-wheel test as long as you don’t make more than 15 errors for the scoring maneuvers.

Some examples of critical driving errors are:

  • Intervention by examiner
  • Strikes object/curb
  • Disobey traffic signs or signal
  • etc…

Once you have successfully completed all of the tests, you will be able to get your driver’s license. Congratulations — now you’re ready to hit the open road! Just remember to always drive safely and follow all traffic laws. Good luck!

Hopefully, these tips have given you an idea of what is involved in getting your driver’s license as an expat in the United States.

Last but not least, I recently created a group on Facebook called Asian Expats in the US so that we can share/discuss more tips directly. Feel free to join.


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