Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to get a driver's license in the United States

So you want the freedom that comes with wheels! The allure of the open road! Endless cruising in a red Ferarri convertible with the wind slicking back your hair, if you have any!

Not so fast, Sparky. You need a driver's license first. (Not to mention a car.) Here's how to get licensed.

Rules for obtaining a driver's license vary from state to state. For a great roundup of information, visit  But in every state you'll need to do a few things before you get your license: get insured, learn how to drive, pass a written (knowledge) test, pass a road test, and pay a license fee.

Get insured

If you're just getting a driver's license as a form of ID, you don't need to buy insurance. Otherwise, it's time to get legal. Nearly every state in the Union has a compulsory driver insurance law on the books, requiring drivers to carry at least basic collision insurance in case they get into an accident. Because new drivers are much more likely to get in a fender-bender, you'll probably pay higher costs for this insurance than a more mature driver would. Yeah, I know, but at least the price you have to pay decreases over time. Take a look at for specific information about car insurance in your state. Also, since insurance rates vary, shop around to find a good combination of reasonable rates and good coverage.

Getting insured is your responsibility as an adult -- not your parents'. Don't go beg them for coverage! Jeez, dude, show some self-respect. If you can't afford car insurance, well, best get used to riding the bus, biking places, and catching the Heel-Toe Express for the foreseeable future.  Driving while uninsured is a really, REALLY stupid idea.

Once you get insured, you must carry proof of insurance in your car at all times. Most insurance companies will send you a small card with basic information about your policy, which you can use as proof that you're insured. Don't keep it in your glove box. If yours is anything like mine, it's stuffed full of random crud, and if a police officer pulls you over, she won't be impressed by you pawing through the glove box for 15 minutes trying to find your proof of insurance card. I put mine in a protective sleeve and clip it to one of the sun visors above the windshield, along with the vehicle registration, so it's easy to find.

Learn to drive

Again, state requirements to pass this milestone vary. Some states offer a drivers' education class in public high school, others require you to pay for and attend a state-approved driving school, and still others will allow you to learn to drive from any licensed driver. Almost every state requires you to get a certain number of hours of driving practice -- some of which have to be at night -- before they will issue you a license. Go to and look up the specific information for your state.

If you're under 21, you will usually need to get a temporary learner's permit to practice driving legally on public roads before you get a full license. Check with for all the details.

Pass a knowledge test

The knowledge test (sometimes called a "written test") checks to see if you understand driving laws. Every state has its own driver handbook explaining the rules of the road. You need to read it and review it thoroughly. (All of it, Frank. Don't ever intend to drink and drive? Well, good, but you still have to learn about things like the legal blood alcohol intoxication limit in your state. They WILL test you on all of this stuff, even if you don't think it applies to you.)

Older knowledge tests are pen-and-paper, but almost nobody uses them any more. Far more common are computerized tests. You can't take them online, though -- you have to go to your state's motor vehicles department or another authorized testing center to take a knowledge test. Here, again, is your friend. It provides links to local information on taking practice tests, and where and when you can take a knowledge test for full credit. You have to get a certain percentage of questions right (in most cases it's 80% or above) to pass the test, so if you're not sure about an answer and the test gives you an option to skip over it, do so.

Pass the road test

This can be the hardest part of getting your license, even if you're a good driver. Something about being in a car along with someone who has the awesome power to give or withhold your license can make you nervous enough to run red lights and mangle a parallel parking job. (Trust me; this is coming from someone who failed her road test thrice.) Here my only advice is to focus, concentrate, buckle up, and keep any music and your cell phone turned off -- distraction usually equals failure.

Pay the license fee

Yeah, it bites, but licenses are yet another thing you have to pay for. will help you know ahead of time how much your license will cost, the payment methods your local motor vehicles department accepts, and any other paperwork they'll need from you so you can bring it along when you come in. Unless you plan on operating heavy machinery or riding a motorcycle, a basic license should be all you need (names and class categories for a basic license vary a lot, so find out what your state info says).

The Motor Voter Act allows you to register to vote at the same time you get your driver's license. If you're eligible to vote and you haven't already done so, this is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

Be prepared to have your picture taken for the license. Most states require you to show your full face, looking straight into the camera. You may be asked to remove glasses, veils, or any other accessory that obscures your full face. Oh, and be prepared to hate this picture with a white-hot passion -- photos taken for driver's licenses and passports are notoriously ugly.

Some states will issue you a full driver's license right then and there. Others may issue you a temporary license, with your permanent one arriving in the mail a few weeks later. Either way, you're now street legal!

Looking to pick up a red Ferrari convertible? Sorry, you're on your own.

No comments:

Post a Comment