How to obtain a drivers license in the us as a foreign national

1. Is my German driver’s license valid in the US? It depends. In general, for temporary visits to the U.S. of up to 6 months, a German traveler should obtain an International Driver’s license (Internationaler Führerschein). A German national who drives in the US should carry his/her International Führerschein along with his/her German driver’s license.

Likewise, travelers should become familiar with the law of each US state in which they intend to drive.  Unfortunately, each of the 50 US states has its own set of statutes and regulations governing the operation of motor vehicles.  Therefore, travelers should contact the relevant US state’s Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) for additional details.  Below, we have included a list of DMV web sites for several states. Please note that some of the information in these FAQ relates to Florida law only; other states’ laws may differ.

In addition, when renting a car, travelers should determine the relevant car rental company’s requirements.

2. Will I need a driver’s license if I do not intend to drive?
The driver’s license serves as the main identity document in the U.S. For example, the driver’s license is frequently used to open a bank account, to get a safe deposit box, to apply for a credit card, to make a payment with a personal check or with a credit card, to purchase alcohol, or to enter a federal building. No matter where one goes, sooner or later one will be asked for ID. A passport may serve the same purpose in some instances; however, most retail establishments in the U.S. are more accustomed to working with drivers’ licenses.

In the U.S., people usually rely upon a driver license as proof of identity. However, a state ID card can serve as an ideal alternative. It’s just as valid as a driver license for identity purposes, and there are no pesky required tests.

For additional information on ID card issuance procedures in Florida, see www.dmv.org/fl-florida/id-cards.php.

3. Why is the application process for foreign nationals so complex? 
Following 9/11, Congress enacted The REAL ID Act of 2005 and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented stricter requirements governing the issuance of drivers’ licenses.

The REAL ID act mandates that each U.S state obtain proof of identity and legal immigration status before issuing an applicant a driver’s license or state ID card.  Furthermore, each state must digitize the verified ID documents and keep them on file for seven to ten years, along with digital photos of the document holders.  Also, each state must store each applicant’s personal information in a database which must be shared with motor vehicle departments across the U.S..

From its inception, the REAL ID Act has sparked opposition primarily because of cost concerns and individual rights issues. The deadline by which states originally had to comply with the Act’s requirements was May 11, 2008.  However, many states have either applied for extensions of the original compliance deadline or received unsolicited extensions.  Moreover, 30 states have chosen not to participate in the program. Even so, by January 1, 2010, Florida had implemented the strict ID requirements.
Generally, the future of the law remains uncertain; bills have been introduced into Congress to amend or repeal it.  Thus, rather than standardize identity documentation across the U.S., the REAL ID Act may have resulted in more differences among the driver license requirements and procedures in the various states.

4. How do I obtain information on the requirement of the state I am planning to visit?
Foreign nationals should contact the relevant state authorities to obtain further information. Below are links to Department of Motor vehicles (DMV) of a few states:
Florida: http://www.dmvflorida.org/       http://www.flhsmv.gov/html/dlnew.html
New York: https://dmv.ny.gov/office/license-express
Texas: https://www.txdmv.gov/
Georgia: http://www.dds.ga.gov/
California: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/

5. What do I have to do to acquire a driver’s license in the U.S.? 

Even though each state’s requirements may differ, it is generally easier for German citizens to acquire a driver’s license in the U.S. than for American citizens to do so in Germany.  For example, Florida’s DMV generally requires a first-time applicant to pass a short written and driving test, both of which can usually be completed within a few hours for under $50.  In addition, some states require applicants to complete a traffic law substance abuse education class.  Also, in most states, each non U.S. citizen applicant must show proof of his/her legal immigration status.

6. Who is required to have a Florida Driver’s License?
Generally, Florida requires anyone driving a motor vehicle on public streets and highways to have a valid Florida driver’s license.  A driver who moves to and establishes residency in Florida must obtain a Florida driver’s license within 30 days of becoming a resident, even if the driver previously held a valid license in another state.  Otherwise, a new resident who is stopped by the authorities and found driving without a valid Florida license may be subject to fines.

7. When am I considered a resident of Florida? 
With regard to the license requirement, the Florida DMV will treat a driver as a Florida resident if the driver:

1.    Enrolls his/her children in public school;
2.    Accepts employment;
3.    Resides in Florida for more than six consecutive months;
4.    Registers to vote; or
5.    Files for a homestead exemption.

However, even though a driver may be deemed a Florida resident for DMV purposes, that treatment will not affect the driver’s U.S. immigration status.

8. Who Does Not Need a Florida Driver’s License?
There are few situations when one can drive in Florida without a Florida driver’s license provided that the driver has a valid license from another state or country.  For example, a non-resident college student or a foreign national serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and stationed in Florida may drive in Florida legally provided that such a driver holds a valid foreign driver license.  In any event, each German national who becomes a resident of Florida must obtain a Florida driver’s license within 30 days of establishing residency.

9. What are the test requirements in Florida for Germans? 

Persons holding a German license are required to take the vision, hearing and written exam (concerning road signs and rules).  The DMV may waive the driving test unless the applicant’s driving ability is questionable.

10. Can I apply by Mail?
In Florida, certain applicants are eligible for renewal by mail.  However, all first time applicants and all non U.S. citizen license holders must apply for driver’s licenses (and renewals) in person at a local driver license office, and must present proof of legal immigration status.

11. What type of documents do I need to submit as a Non Immigrant?
Non Immigrants who apply for a Florida driver’s license (or ID card) must provide a Proof of Social Security Number and two Proofs of Residential address.
Also, a Non Immigrant visa holder in  B-1/2; H-1B; L-1; E-1/E-2 status must provide one original (or certified copy) of the following United States Department of Homeland Security identification documents:

  • Employment authorization card (Form I688B or I-766); or
  • Proof of nonimmigrant classification (Form I-94, not expired, with required supporting attachments).

There are additional documentation requirements for other non-immigrant visa categories. For a complete list, go to www.gathergoget.com/checklist/indea.php.

12. Can I bring copies of the documents? 

No, all required and supporting documents MUST be original or certified.  Documents must be valid for more than 30 days from the date of issuance.

13. I don’t have a Social Security Number.
An applicant who does not have a social security number will need to present (in Florida) at least one proof of ID, such as an identification card from the District of Columbia, U.S. Territories, or one of the 50 U.S. states (for a complete list go to:  http://www.gathergoget.com/).  Thus, a German citizen who has never resided in the U.S. is unlikely to have any of the documents listed, and will need to obtain a Social Security Number first.

14. How do I obtain a Social Security Number? 
Information on how to obtain a Social Security Number can be found at www.ssa.gov . Each  Principal Visa holder should visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) and fill out Form SS-5 (Application for Social Security Number) and provide the SSA a certified copy of his/her visa and I-94 card along with a certified copy of his/her German passport.  On occasion, a spouse of E-1/E-2, L-1 or H-1B visa holder may have problems obtaining a Social Security Number unless the spouse  has an EAC (Employment Authorization Card) of his/her own.  Under certain circumstances, the Florida DMV will accept a letter from the SSA stating that the SSA has yet to issue the applicant a Social Security Number.

15. What will be done with my information provided? 

In Florida, all records are transmitted to the DMV database in Tallahassee, where the information will be examined and compared to FDLE, FBI and U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) databases. Within 30 days after the DMV has verified an applicant’s identity and legal status, it will issue a driver license or identification card, and mail the license or card to the address on the driver record.

16. How long will the license be issued for? 
The Florida DMV will issue the license for the period of time specified on the US BCIS document, up to a maximum of one year.  So, even if an applicant is admitted to the US under an E-1/E-2 or other nonimmigrant visa for a period of 2 years, the driver’s license will be issued for one year only.

© Ellen von Geyso, P.A. 2010