International students might hit a few speed bumps before they can drive legally in the US.
Every state has its own rules about when you can use a foreign driver’s license and when you must apply for a US driver’s license.
Ask your university’s international student services office or the state office that distributes driver’s licenses (sometimes called the “Department of Motor Vehicles” or the “Bureau of Motor Vehicles”) for the specific rules in the state where you will be living.
To give you a better idea of what you might need to do before you get in the driver’s seat in the US, here is what a few universities across the country recommend to students from other countries.
Syracuse University in New York tells international students that they don’t need to apply for a US driver’s license unless they become New York residents. Students who come from other countries (or other US states) aren’t considered residents.
You can drive if you have a valid driver’s license from your country, along with either a certified translation of your license or an International Driving Permit. You must have them with you when you drive.
You might want to get a US driver’s license even if you are not required to. Car insurance companies might refuse to insure your vehicle or insure it at a higher cost if you don’t.
If you do get a US driver’s license, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles will destroy your foreign license. If you expect to return to your country and will need the license again, submit a written request to the department asking that it not be destroyed. You cannot drive in New York with both a US and a foreign license.
Getting an International Driving Permit is “a waste of time and money” according to the University of Southern California. That is because the state doesn’t recognize the permit as a driver’s license. California does recognize licenses from foreign countries.
If you don’t get a California driver’s license, you can instead get a California identification card. This won’t allow you to drive in the state, but it looks similar to a license and will be helpful when you are asked for an ID. You can get these at the same place where you apply for a US driver’s license—the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Rules differ in other states.
In Pennsylvania, you can use a foreign driver’s license with an International Driving Permit for up to a year, according to the University of Pennsylvania. Illinois State University says students can use an international license for 90 days. Some states also may require you to take a written test or a driving test on the road.
Before you drive you also must know the rules of the road. They vary slightly from state to state, and even city to city. Also check for parking restrictions. You might need a parking pass on your college or university campus or on some streets.
Some US cities and colleges have an excellent transportation system, and you can get by with only a bicycle or simply your own two feet. In other locations, a vehicle can be extremely useful. But before you take the wheel, make sure you know if you should get a US driver’s license and take the proper steps to drive legally in the US.