A driver’s license is an important document and is required to drive a car in the United States. It can be used as identification and also increases opportunities for employment.
Each state has its own rules and requirements for issuing a driver’s license to newcomers. Some states’ driver’s license departments offer interpretation services and written tests available in various languages, though these services in some states may be limited or may be unavailable in your language. Even if translation services are available in your state, if your English skills are limited, enrolling in English classes before applying for a driver’s license is important because you will need to understand road signs and to interact with other drivers.
The first step in applying will be to get information from the government agency that issues driver’s licenses in your state. Each state has a name for the department that issues driver’s licenses. In some states it is called the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), in others the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In Massachusetts, it’s called the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV). In Texas, it’s called the Department of Public Safety. Some states use other names for this department. Hawaii is the only state where the counties, not the state, issue drivers’ licenses.
The department in your state that issues driver’s licenses will have a website with instructions on how to apply for your license. If you have difficulty reading English, find someone to help you explain the steps listed on your state’s website. Some resettlement agencies may also be able to assist you in getting your driver's license. If you are connected with a resettlement agency, ask if this support is available.
While the steps and requirements vary by state, most newcomers in the United States should prepare to take most of the following actions to obtain a driver’s license (the process could be simplified if your state accepts your driver’s license from another country):
- Apply for a learner’s permit or restricted license
- Enroll in driver training classes or practice with a licensed driver
- Take tests (knowledge exam, on-the-road skills test, vision test)
- Submit an application, show identification documents, and pay fees
Example: Applying For a Driver’s License in Virginia
Let’s use the example of applying for a driver’s license in Virginia. In Virginia, if you are age 18 or older and you have never held a driver’s license issued by any U.S. state, U.S. territory, Canada, France, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan, you must apply for a learner’s permit before you can get your driver’s license. A learner's permit lets you practice driving a vehicle when a licensed driver is seated beside you. The licensed driver must be at least 21 years old, or 18 years of age or older if they are your legal guardian or sibling.
As of 2023, to apply for a learner's permit in Virginia, you must complete two steps:
Visit a Virginia DMV customer service center and submit the following:
- A completed application for a Virginia Driver’s License (you can do this online or on paper).
- A $3 learner's permit fee plus the driver’s license fee
- One proof of identity
- One proof of legal presence in the U.S.
- Two proofs of Virginia residency
- Proof of your Social Security Number (SSN), if you have been issued one. If you know your SSN, DMV can verify it electronically.
For information on documents that are acceptable as proof, visit this link on the website:
NOTE: Some states now do not require proof of legal presence in the U.S. to get a driver’s license. Visit this link to learn more:
Take a vision test (If you wear glasses or contact lenses, bring them), then pass a two-part written knowledge exam at the DMV. Visit this link on the Virginia DMV website for information on how to prepare for the knowledge exam before you go to the DMV customer service center, and to view a list of the languages in which the exam is available:
After you successfully complete these steps, the DMV will mail the permit to the address you used in your application. If you are moving, notify the DMV right away, as the U.S. Postal Service will not forward learner's permits.
NOTE: In Virginia, if you are temporarily authorized to be in the U.S., you will receive a limited duration learner's permit, which is only valid for the amount of time that you are legally permitted to stay in the U.S. The expiration of the learner's permit will be the same as the expiration date shown on the document used to prove legal presence. You will not be eligible to receive a limited duration learner's permit if your authorized stay in the U.S. is less than 30 days from the date of your application.
After You Receive Your Learner’s Permit
After you receive your learner’s permit, you have two options to continue the process to get your driver’s license.
You can pay for and successfully complete a state-approved driver education program, get a certificate of completion, then go the DMV and apply for your license.
You can apply for your driver’s license without taking a driver education program by holding a learner’s permit for 60 days, then passing a road skills test at the DMV. You must arrange to bring a car for the road skills test and present a completed In-Car Maneuvers Observation Record document signed by a licensed driver who accompanied you during the 60 days you held the permit. In Virginia, interpreters are available for the road skills test in certain languages at certain DMV locations. Information on how to prepare for the road skills test can be found at this link on the Virginia DMV website:
Applying For a Virginia Driver’s License
If you needed to fulfill the learner’s permit requirements and did this successfully, you can apply for your license by again visiting a Virginia DMV customer service center. You will submit:
- The completed Virginia Driver's License application
- All required documents
- Driver education program completion certificate
Upon completing this process, a Virginia driver’s license valid for eight years will be mailed to you. If you are temporarily authorized to be in the U.S., you will receive a “limited duration driver's license,” which will be valid for the amount of time that you are legally permitted to stay in the U.S.
NOTE: If you are 18 or older and have a valid license from another U.S. state, you only need to complete an application for a Virginia Driver’s License, submit the proper documents, pay the fee, and take a vision test. You don't have to complete any driver training requirements.
Remember, each state has its own website, rules, fees, and requirements. We used Virginia as an example to help you understand the general application process in your state.