As an expat, the first thing you need to remember is that in many situations while you may be “technically” correct because of all the research you’ve done but there is a very good chance that the person you’re speaking to simply doesn’t care. It’s better to err on the side of caution and take every possible step you can to be in the right, simply because it will save you a lot of time and a big headache.
So how does this apply to getting a drivers license in America and New York State? Well, navigating all of the nuances of legislation is difficult and you’ll find on the online communities many different answers about what is legal and what is not.
Drivers Licenses in New York State
So who needs one and how do you get one?
Who needs a drivers license in New York State?
Most importantly, straight from the horse’s mouth:
If you move to New York State and become a resident, you must get a new York State driver license within 30 days.
You can drive in New York State with a valid driver license from another country. You don’t need to apply for a New York State driver license unless you become a New York State resident.
Which you will no doubt respond:
“BUT I’M NOT A RESIDENT, I”M JUST A VISITOR!”
Doesn’t matter, because “resident” is a defined term and is defined per Section 250 (5) of the NY State Vehicle and Traffic Law as:
To live in a house, a home, an apartment, a room or other similar place in NY State for 90 days is considered “presumptive evidence” that you are a resident of New York State. A police officer can use this as evidence to issue a traffic ticket if you drive in New York State without a NY State driver license or vehicle registration. A judge considers the law and the evidence of your intent and decides if you are a resident of New York State. If you pay taxes or your children attend school in another state, a judge considers these facts to decide if your intent is to make NY State a “fixed and permanent” residence.
With one small caveat:
According to this law, students from other states or from other nations who attend school in New York State are usually not considered residents of NY State.
So even on an E-3 or other visa, you are still presumptively considered a resident of the state if you’ve lived here for 90 days. Yes, there might be an argument in court that rebuts this but that is going to take you time, and potentially cost you a lot of money (as above).
How do I get a drivers license in New York State?
So now that you know that you need one to drive here, how do you do it?
To get a New York State driver license, you must pass a written test, complete a 5-hour pre-licensing course and pass a road test.
The process for most (assuming you’re going for a Class D car operator permit)
- Get together all the documents you require;
- Fill in (another) crazy form, the MV44EDL;
- Study the Driver’s Manual and do some driver practice tests online (from what I’ve heard, just do lots of practice tests to save yourself some time as you should already know the basics – but sometimes it’s good for a refresher);
- Apply for a Learner’s Permit (approximately $75) by sitting the test at the DMV (you have to get better than 14/20 – but can keep sitting for the single cost if you don’t – you also have to get at least 2/4 on the road signs bit, so be sure to get that one right);
- Have your permit sent to you within 2 weeks which is normally valid for 5 years (or to the extent of your visa).
Here’s a handy thing to know, a “loophole” if you will, you are now legally allowed to drive without someone else in the car supervising if you hold a valid license in another country (you have to carry both):
Your valid foreign driver license allows you to drive without a supervising driver. You can drive on any street, road, highway, bridge, or tunnel, except in a DMV road test area.
So from here, it’s somewhat up to you. You can go ahead to practice driving and:
Once you have a learner permit, you must have supervised driving practice and you must take a pre-licensing course or a driver education course before you take your road test.
With the “loophole” above, you could technically drive without getting a full license as long as you want. One thing to remember though is that this may exempt you from insurance. If you’re planning to be driving a lot and/or hiring vehicles I would strongly urge you to get a full license and do things properly, but it’s up to you.
Things you need to know
One really important thing to know is that the DMV will ask you to surrender your international license after your road test:
When you pass your road test, you must give your foreign driver license to the DMV road test examiner. The local DMV office will destroy your foreign driver license after 60 days. If you plan to return to your home country and will need your foreign driver license, ask the road test examiner how to make sure that your foreign driver license is not destroyed.
Many people online who have gone through the process have explained that they have said they lost their licenses which means they didn’t have to surrender them, but this is not technically the correct way to go about the process, as explained above.
You will also read a lot about people going to other states (or Canada) and exchanging their foreign license for a local one (where it does not require a test) and then going to New York and exchanging their new out-of-state license for a New York one. While this may work for many, you again want to be careful and be sure not to jepoardise your time in the US to save yourself one day of pain.
You can get a non-drivers license state ID from the DMV. Highly recommended so that you have officially recognized ID for opening bank account etc. Bring a dossier of personal documents to DMV, stand in queue for a couple of hours, pay a small fee and get card. (Josh: I’ve written how to do this on my Memberships & ID page)
I was never asked to surrender my foreign drivers license when I passed my practical test. I didn’t need to return to the DMV because the approval is automatically lodged by the examiner, and the full drivers license was sent to me (as my photo was on file from when I got my learner’s permit). Yay for DMV efficiency!
I used a driving instructor for a 1 hour training immediately before my practical test and to use his car for the test. I recommend getting a 1 hour training with an instructor, bc he explained that the examiner will test to a more conservative standard that than driving law, and people can fail for things that are otherwise legal.
Do the practice tests online, they pull the questions from there (can confirm 4 sign specific questions and need 50% to pass of those). Bring your own pen for the form when you arrive and make sure a printed copy of your I94 with your documents!
Drivers Licenses in other states
Stay tuned, there’s more to come and we’ll link to them here each time we write one!