After you arrive in the U.S. on your nonimmigrant visa, you must apply for the driver's license. It is illegal to drive without a valid driver license. Every state in U.S. has different rules and regulations for motor vehicles.
Even though the basic rules are the same you must verify with the regulations of the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your state or area. DMV's official website has more information about the driving laws and drivers license requirements according to various states. This article focuses on the California State DMV procedure.

How to get a Driving license?

You must apply for a driver's license within 10 days of establishing residency. There are two steps involved for getting a driver license:

  • Written test.
  • Behind the wheel test (also known as a road test)

What is the procedure?

Step 1: Written Test

The written test is a test of traffic laws, road signs, and driving safety rules. You will get a book (driver's handbook) to study for this exam. Study it thoroughly. There are 36 questions on the test. You cannot get more than 6 answers wrong in the first attempt and not more than 3 if you are giving a retest. You have three chances to pass the test. You are allowed to take a retest in one visit. If you fail three times, you must wait 7 days before taking the written test again. No written tests are administered after 4.30 pm on regular business days. Visit a DMV office (make a prior appointment for a faster service).

  • Submit the completed application form (DL-44) that is not available online but available in the DMV office.
  • ┬áPay the fee.
  • Provide your social security number, proof of your date of birth, and proof of your legal presence in the US.
  • Show your original passport.
  • If your name is different on your birth certificate and/or legal presence document than the one you are currently using, you will also need to provide an additional acceptable document to establish your true full name, such as marriage certificate, dissolution of marriage, adoption or name change document that shows your current name.
  • Have your thumbprint and photo taken. This is the photo that will be on your driver's license card.
  • Pass a vision test
  • Take the written test..

After you pass the written test you will be given a temporary permit. If you have never had a license before you may use this permit to practice driving. During all the driving sessions, you must be accompanied by an adult who must be 18 years of age or older holding a valid state license. It is illegal for you to drive alone. You can also take classes from an instructor. Once you are comfortable with driving, take an appointment for a behind the wheel test (road test).

If you have moved to the U.S. from India, you will be required to take a driving test. If you already have a license from another state, the driving test can be waived.

Step 2: Driving Test

To take your driving test, you need to make a driving test appointment by calling a toll free number 1-800-777-0133 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, or take an appointment online.
You must provide the following at the time of the driving test:

Like the written test, you must pass the driving test in three chances. Make an appointment once you are fully prepared. For each additional driving test you must pay a $6 fee.

The test normally takes 10-15 min. It is a 100 points test, and minimum 70 is passing. This criterion is subject to change

  • If you fail the test all the 3 times you will have to go through the process again and give the written and road test all over again.
  • If you pass the test, double-check your address before you leave DMV and tell the DMV representative if you have moved or if your address is incorrect.

After you pass your driving test you will be issued an interim license valid for 90 days. Your permanent license will be mailed to you. If you have not received your permanent license after 60 days, call 1-800-777-0133 to check the status of your license. Hold onto your interim license in such a case.

Learners' Permit/Provisional Instructions Permit

Normally this permit is issued to teens under the age of 18. However if you are learning to drive for the first time, and/or do not have an Indian International Driving Permit you are eligible to get this permit. Once you have practiced driving on the permit and are ready to give the road test you may apply for an appointment. Please check with the DMV for the current rules on such permits.

Tips

  • Read the drivers handbook carefully for traffic rules for the written test.
  • Look at sample tests on the DMV website. Ask your friends for old question papers to get an idea of the test.
  • Once you pass the written test take an appointment for your road test. You can call the toll free number to take this appointment or visit https://eg.dmv.ca.gov/foa/welcome.do?localeName=en for an online appointment.
  • Take some driving classes from a good instructor.
  • The instructors charge on an hourly basis. Hence make the best of each class you take. Do not hesitate to ask questions about signal rules, sign boards, or anything else.
  • Ask your friends to suggest a good instructor. Do not rely on the recommendation of your HR person for the instructor. That is not enough.
  • Instructors will get their own car for the road test.
  • Getting a preferred appointment with DMV is difficult. You may go to any of the DMV offices, where ever you can get an appointment.
  • During your road test be confident. Follow the rules, look at signs and speed limits, listen to the instructions of the evaluator, and drive safely. If you do not understand an instruction ask the evaluator to repeat it. Do not be in a hurry. Be calm during your test.
  • If you pass the test, double-check your address before you leave DMV and tell the DMV representative if you have moved or if your address is incorrect.
  • If you have not received your license after 60 days, call 1-800-777-0133 to check on the status for you. Hold onto your interim license with you to provide information when requested. If you don't get the license for a very long time, contact the DMV office.
  • If your name is different on your birth date and/or legal presence document than the one you are currently using, you will also need to provide an additional acceptable document to establish your true full name, such as; a marriage certificate, dissolution of marriage, adoption or name change document that shows your current name.
  • Do not drive without your driving license or temporary driving permit.

For detailed and complete information, visit your state's DMV web site

Commonly asked questions

I have recently moved to California. Can I drive a car in California for few days?

Yes! According to the current DMV laws, person over 18 and having a valid driver license from his home state or country can drive a car here. But if you take a job in California or become a resident, you must get the California driver license, within 10 days.

Indian International Drivers Permit (IDP) works only in certain states. Please make sure that it works for the state you are driving in.

I have moved to California from another state in the U.S. How do I get a California license?

You will need to go through the procedure described above. You will not be required to take a road test.

What are the normal charges for Driving Instructor?

Normally their charges are $30-$65 per hour. Confirm the cost before making an appointment with an instructor. Many instructors prefer to accept cash or check.

I am a H4 visa holder, and want a driving license, but DMV asks for SSN. How can I get the driving license without a SSN?

The Government does not give the SSN to people on dependent visa. They do give an official denial letter, specifying the reason of denial. You can show this denial letter in order to get your driving license. It is accepted at the DMV. You must also present your unexpired foreign passport with the unexpired I-94. If you have an ITIN number that is also accepted at DMV. You must inquire about the acceptable documents in the absence of SSN with the DMV.

I have recently changed my residence address. When should I notify DMV?

The change of address must be reported to DMV within 10 days. There is no separate charge for changing your address. You will be required to fill out a form called DMV 14. You cannot request change of address as part of the driver license renewal by internet process. For California the mailing address is:

Department of Motor Vehicles
Change of Address
P.O. Box 942859
Sacramento, California 94259-0001.

Address of other states can be found out at their respective DMV Web Sites.