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How to get your driver license and drive as an expat in New York and America 2023

So you want to to get a drivers license in 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.

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.

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.

Does this apply to International expats?

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)

  1. Get together all the documents you require;
  2. Fill in (another) crazy form, the MV-44;
  3. 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); UPDATE – I got my learner's permit myself, here's everything you need to know about it and the test!
  4. 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);
  5. Have your permit sent to you within 2 weeks which is normally valid for 5 years (or to the extent of your visa).
  6. Sit through the 5-hour mandatory “pre-licensing course” (normally $50 but check Groupon for cheaper offers)
  7. Apply for a testing date
  8. Sit the driving test (which is normally only around 10 minutes)
  9. DRIVE AWAY!

Here's a handy thing to know, you are legally allowed to drive without someone else in the car supervising if you hold a valid license in another country (in New York state, but not New York City, see update below):

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.

Then you can schedule and take your test to get your real license.


IMPORTANT UPDATE 17TH SEPTEMBER: With the note above, it would appear that 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.

After speaking to the DMV and NYPD, it is also now clear that this is not the case in New York City and Long Island. You must always drive with a fully licensed driver who is over 21 if you only have your Learner Permit.

Direct from the NYPD:

DMV is for the state but New York City have some special rules.  With the permit, in Long Island and NYC, you must have a supervising person with a valid license with you AND that person has to be over 21

There is further confusion about whether this rule is ever really allowed and I would urge you not to drive alone on your Learner Permit to save confusion and hassle moving forward.


Things you need to know

One really important thing to know is that the DMV MAY 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 have mentioned that this didn't happen for them, but it's worth being aware of the possibility.

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 jeopardize your time in the US to save yourself one day of pain.

From Angela T on Facebook:

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.

From Karl S on Facebook:

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!

GOOD LUCK!

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Josh Pugh

A business founding, digital marketing focused, charity driving, community builder from South Australia, living in New York City. After moving in 2017, Josh realized that there was an opportunity to curate and help the community of expats who moved to the United States – and launched America Josh.View Author posts

17 thoughts on “How to get your driver license and drive as an expat in New York and America 2023”

  1. Hey Josh, thanks for writing this article, I have a UK license and am a NYC resident. I also have my NY learners permit.

    Any idea if I can go to a road test on my own or do I need a supervisor? It seems so looking at https://nysdmv.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/93/~/requirements-for-the-supervising-driver-and-the-vehicle-used-for-a-road-test

    “Note: If you have a New York State learner permit and a valid driver license from another country, you do not need a supervising driver. Read the FAQ about foreign drivers and learner permits.”

    But on here it says I can not drive at a DMV road test area https://nysdmv.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/406/related/1/session/L2F2LzEvdGltZS8xNjE1Mzg4MDEyL2dlbi8xNjE1Mzg4MDEyL3NpZC9mVUUwSVl5bnh3YWc5Y2kyQ0VoeVYySUh5VEVjayU3RXFHaE04TGYybHFVNnNScGtlTlVSR0RfVXVjMVJYb2ZxZUFSZU81TGNmYXdLOXZUcHhFbjM3TWxLaVh0RUZKRmFXdTIwRmhXeVVCWGJRWGduTVM2QW4zVW9kQSUyMSUyMQ%3D%3D

    “Yes. 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.”

    1. You don’t need a supervisor, but note that they WILL take your UK license away from you if you go alone (probably fine as you can report it lost/stolen in the UK if you want both).

      One other important thing to note is that if you’re doing this in a rental either take a NY state plated car or make sure the rental agency puts the registration documents in the car (most don’t have them in by standard). I wasn’t allowed to take my test because the rental I used didn’t have the physical registration documents in it….

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  4. If you are a NYC resident without a NY state drivers licence (or any US licence), can you legally drive in a different US state on your foreign licence? So any state other than your state of residency?

    Great article by the way. Super helpful!

    1. Thanks, Marty!

      That’s a very good question. As I understand, subject to the laws of the state you are in, in general (e.g. In New York) you can validly drive on another country’s license even if you are a resident of another state.

      I am now a lawyer, and therefore I do not know this for sure, but it’s certainly how it reads to me. Check the DMV of the state you are going to, and maybe even call just to make sure!

      1. I can answer this – I have driven may years in other states on my UK license and on the odd ocaision I have been stopped, they do require you to obtain a US drivers license for the state you live in. In Kentucky, I was fined $50, in Virginia he basically said I was driving without a license and had to call the local magistrate to figure out what to do with me – in the end he sent me on my way and gave me 30 days to obtain my NYS license. Basically, if you’ve lived in the US for more than 30 days, get your license.

    2. Went thru process to get a ny license. (Was told to) I have my German license and my car just arrived. I don’t know anyone here 21 with a valid ny license. (Mom only one left here) I just came back for my sick parent and actually not planning to stay in ny past 3 months but i need to do a road test to complete the ny license process. ( I don’t want any issues) Can I drive to the road test site on my foreign license even if I hold a ny permit? I have no one to come with me.

  5. Article somewhat out of date now.

    Prep your MV44 Paperwork, take the theory test at the DMV and submit paperwork to get your Learners Permit, take the mandatory 5 hour classroom session (normally $50, but you can find them on Groupon for $25), and then once you have that certificate, apply for a test date for which you turn up and pass the ridiculously short 10 minute driving test.

    At no stage will you be asked for your foreign license, they aren’t interested, you’re just making a new application for a drivers permit based on your local residence.

    1. Thanks, Robert! I have added the 5-hour test, but I do still see on the DMV website that they will ask you to surrender your license? So I’ve changed the language to “might”.

      Thanks so much for the feedback!

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