How to Drive in the United States
In order to drive in the United States (depending on how long you plan to stay in the country), you must have some sort of valid government-issued driver's license or permit to legally operate a vehicle.
Short-Term Visitors vs. Non-Citizen Residents
The type of driver license or permit you obtain while traveling in America can depend largely on how long you plan to be here.
If your visit to the U.S. will involve driving, and you're only going to stay in the country a short while, it makes sense for you to apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP).
An IDP is an official document allowing a person to legally operate a motor vehicle while abroad—in this case, while you're in America. The IDP does NOT replace your original, valid driver's license from your home country; rather, it translates the language on your current license into that of the country you're visiting (in the U.S., this would be English) and generally includes basic driver license features such as:
- Your full name.
- Your photograph.
- Relevant driver information.
Keep in mind that:
- The United States doesn't issue International Driving Permits to foreign visitors.
- You must obtain your IDP from your home country. Contact your motor vehicle agency for the correct application process.
- Your IDP does not replace your driver's license.
- When driving, you must have your driver's license AND IDP on hand.
- Generally, your IDP does not act as an official form of identification.
- For identification purposes, be safe by carrying your driver's license and passport.
Understand that many car rental agencies require an International Driving Permit (probably along with your country's driver's license) before they'll allow you to rent a car. Always call ahead and ask for required documentation specific to your situation.
Non-U.S. Citizen Residents
Because non-U.S. citizen residents usually spend more time in the country than do short-term visitors, it's likely you'll need a U.S. government-issued driver license.
Each state sets its own residency eligibility requirements and application processes for obtaining a driver license (see Apply for a U.S. Driver's License below), so you'll need to work with your specific state's motor vehicle agency.
Learn the Rules of the Road
Not only will understanding the rules of the road help you legally operate a motor vehicle (as well as pass your driver exams, if you apply for a driver license), but also it will keep you, your passengers, and other drivers safe during your U.S. travel.
Each state provides a driver handbook clearly outlining everything from the state's road rules to legal ramifications of breaking those rules.
Most states provide these handbooks online; check our DMV Driver Handbook section for a link to the handbook of the state you'll be visiting. You can also contact a local driver license agency to ask about ordering the handbook or picking up a copy in person.
Some safety laws are nationwide (for example, it's illegal to drive drunk anywhere in America); others are state specific (for example, some states still differ on the use of cell phones while driving).
Whether you obtain an International Driving Permit or apply for a full driver license, you need to understand these laws. Visit our section on Safety Laws and choose the state(s) where you'll be driving for an outline of some of the most important laws, as well as information on where you can find further details.
Taking a few driver exam practice tests is a great way to test your knowledge on road rules and safety laws. Some states provide these tests within their driver handbooks or on their motor vehicle agency websites; you can find online practice tests designed for your specific state.
Apply for a U.S. Driver's License
If you've determined you need a U.S. government-issued driver license, understand that each state has its own application process—including processes for non-U.S. citizens.
Note that even as a non-citizen, you'll most likely follow the same application process as would a citizen; however, you might have to provide certain additional legal documents, such as a:
- Social Security card.
- Birth date/legal presence (BD/LP) document.
- Employment authorization card.
- Temporary resident identification card.
These are just a few possibilities, and depend entirely on your state's requirements as well as your specific circumstances.
Renewing Your Driver License
Depending on how long you'll be in the country and your state's driver license renewal policies for non-citizens, you might need to renew your driver's license at some point.
Again, each state has its own renewal process, and your state's process can vary depending on your non-citizen status. Refer to your state's driver handbook as well as our section on Renewing Your License for more details.
Legalize Your Vehicle
For some non-citizens (especially short-term visitors), legalizing a vehicle won't be an issue; if your visit is short, you might just rent a car (at which point, the car rental agency will guide you regarding your requirements).
However, for those of you who'll be here long enough to purchase or lease a vehicle, you must follow your state's rules regarding titling, registering, and insuring your vehicle.
Please refer to the following pages for details on how to complete these processes based on your state:
- Apple Takes a Bite Out of the Self-Driving Game
- Digital License Plates: Internet-Connected Tags Open Up a World of Opportunities for DMVs, Police, Advertisers
- No Steering Wheel, No Pedals, No Driver? No Problem—Robo-Cars Finally Get the Green Light in California
- Uber Self-Driving Experiment Crashes to a (Temporary) Halt