Anyone operating a motor vehicle in the U.S. is required to have a valid driver’s license. Driver’s licenses are given by the state in which you reside through an agency, usually called the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), in your state. Each state has slightly varying policies and procedures for obtaining a driver’s license. You should consult your local agency before applying to make sure you understand the documentation, education and testing requirements necessary. It’s no fun showing up to the DMV only to find you’ve missed a crucial step that prevents you from moving forward with getting you license.

Getting your driver’s license involves multiple steps taken over the course of a few months. The first step is to determine your eligibility and gather proper documentation. First, you must meet your state’s legal driving age, which is between 14 and 17 years old depending on the state you live in. New drivers over the age of 18 are often subject to less requirements when obtaining a driver’s license. This may mean less driver’s education is required or less time required holding a permit.

To be eligible, you must also supply documentation including your social security number, proof of identity and permanent address. In most states, you will also need proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency. There are 10 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, Washington — as well as the District of Columbia who have processes in place for illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license. Immigrants are still required to show identification documentation and proof of residency before getting a license.

Once your documents are in order you can take a written test to get your learner’s permit. Once you have the permit, you will be required to hold the permit for a minimum amount of months and practice driving for a specified amount of hours before getting your license. You are only allowed to drive with a licensed driver riding in the front passenger’s seat during this time.

Once you’ve fulfilled the practice requirements, you can take your behind-the-wheel driving test to get your license. If you do not pass the written or behind-the-wheel test on your first try, you will be asked to wait a certain amount of time before retaking the test. Once you do pass, you’re ready to get on the road!

Driver's License Eligibility Requirements in the U.S.

Driver’s licenses are required to operate a vehicle anywhere in the U.S. They are issued by your state of residence and valid across state lines if you are a visitor. Getting a driver’s license is a fairly lengthy process and takes a good amount of planning, studying and testing before you are legally allowed to drive.

Driver’s licenses are administered at the state level. You must be a resident of the state to apply. In most states, the agency that administers driver’s licenses is referred to as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Other names include Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), Motor Vehicle Agency (MVA), Department of Public Safety (DPS), Secretary of State (SOS) office or Department of Revenue (DOR). Each state has specific laws for obtaining a driver’s license. Generally, you will go through the following steps before receiving your license:

  • Determine eligibility
  • Gather documentation
  • Pay the driver’s license fee to your DMV or other agency
  • Pass a written test
  • Practice with a permit
  • Pass a behind-the-wheel driving test

Eligibility

Most states use similar eligibility requirements for obtaining a driver’s license. To be eligible to receive a license, you must meet the requirements outlined below.

Documentation

Driver’s licenses are only available to U.S. citizens or legal residents (see exceptions in Licenses for illegal immigrants section) of legal driving age in their state of residence. To begin the driver’s license application process, you must provide the following documentation:

  • Social security number — depending on what state you live in, you may be asked to show your actual social security card
  • Proof of identity — must be a government-issued document such as a state ID card, birth certificate, marriage certificate, adoption papers, etc.
  • Proof of citizenship or legal residency
  • Proof of permanent address

If you are under 18:

  • Signature, driver’s license number and social security number of parent or legal guardian
  • Some states require proof of enrollment in school

Licenses for illegal immigrants

Ten states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, Washington — and the District of Columbia allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. These individuals must present identifying documentation from their home country as well as proof of an established state address when applying. Immigrants are subject to the same testing standards as other residents. States hold that granting these licenses reduces the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road leading to safer driving conditions for all.

Age

The legal driving age varies from 14 years and 3 months to 17 years old. The majority of states allow driving at age 16. Exceptions to this rule are Idaho, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin, all of which have legal driving ages under 16, and New Jersey with a driving age of 17.

Though every state allows individuals under 18 to drive, drivers under 18 years of age are subject to additional requirements and regulations when obtaining a driver’s license. As an underage driver, you will need parental consent to obtain a learner’s permit. You will also likely be required to complete a driver’s education course before getting your permit and behind-the-wheel training once you have one.

Additionally, to combat the high rate of injuries and accidents among teen drivers, most states have a graduated driver’s license program. The graduated program puts restrictions on newly licensed drivers under 18. Restrictions usually include a driving curfew, passenger limit and age restrictions for passengers. This restricted license, often called a “provisional” license, stays in place anywhere from 6 months after turning 16 to 18 years old, with the exception of Maine with an unrestricted licensing age of 21.

Tests and Practice

Once you’ve met basic eligibility requirements, receiving your driver’s license requires multiple in-person interactions with your local DMV. All states require drivers to pass a written and behind-the-wheel driving test before obtaining a license. You will be charged a fee, usually before getting your permit, to cover the licensing costs. Most states have fees between $15 and $50, the majority being around $30.

Written Test

Once you have your documentation in order, the next step in receiving a driver’s license is to visit your local DMV and take the written test. It is a good idea to make an appointment and many DMV locations require it. In some states and for drivers of certain ages, you may be required to complete a driver’s education course before you can take the permit test. You should bring proof of completion with you along with your other documentation. When you arrive you will be asked to fill out some forms, provide the documentation noted above, take a vision test and have your photo taken.

Once the paperwork is processed you will take the written test. You must pass this test to obtain your learner’s permit and move forward to the next step in receiving a driver’s license. To pass the test, you need to study your state’s driver’s handbook. Most DMV websites publish the handbook online and even offer practice tests to help you prepare. Individuals who read through the manual in its entirety do not often have trouble passing the test. If you do not pass the first time, you can take the test again, but will need to hold off during a pre-determined waiting period before doing so.

Practicing with a Permit

Passing the written driving exam and receiving your permit allows you to begin practicing driving on the road with a licensed adult in the front passenger’s seat of the car. You are not allowed to drive alone with only a learner’s permit. While you have your permit, you will be required to practice for a minimum number of hours behind the wheel. In most states, you will be required to have a permit for a few months before you are eligible to receive your driver’s license.

Some states require a certain number of practice hours with a certified instructor through a behind-the-wheel driver’s education course. There will be a fee for this type of training and you will pay the school or teacher directly. If your state has this requirement, you will need to show proof of completion before taking your behind-the-wheel test.

Driving Test

Most DMV locations require an appointment to take your behind-the-wheel driving test to obtain your driver’s license. Since the wait times can be long, you may want to schedule the appointment a few weeks before you plan to be ready for the test.

You will take the test in your own vehicle. You will be asked to show proof of insurance for the vehicle before the test. During the test, the administrator will guide you through a number of driving scenarios to test your ability. You should be prepared for street and freeway driving and various parking situations. Most tests do not last longer than 30 minutes and you will be given results right away. If you do not pass, you can take the test again after a waiting period. If you do pass, you will be issued a temporary license to use until your permanent card comes in the mail.