A few weeks ago I trudged into the DMV with sweaty palms and my confidence on the line in order to attain the holy grail: a learner permit. I sat down at a computer terminal with all the other 16 year olds and their parents and I started pecking away at the answers until….

I got my learner permit.

I mean it’s in the heading, you knew how it turned out but woo! After driving for 15 years in Australia, I’m finally allowed to legally drive in New York (with a few conditions to make you feel like a 16 year old again).

So here are all the juicy details, tips, tricks, and guides for you to get your very own learner permit!

Why you need a learner permit as an expat

There is a lot of information flying around about whether expats can drive on their foreign licenses or whether they have to get a local license so I’m here to clear it up:

You need to get a license in most states of the U.S. if you have become a “resident”. Yes, that means you. “Residency” kicks in quicker than you might think so be sure to read what it means.

The long and short of it is that if you’ve moved to the U.S. (whether you’re here on a non-immigrant visa or an immigrant visa) you do need to sit through the test (unless you live in Jersey, then you can just exchange your license for a Jersey one) and go through the process like you’re starting without anything.

How to get a learner permit in New York

So here’s where my own experience jumps in:

  1. First things first, you need to study becuase even if you’ve been driving for years, the rule for the country and state you’re in are likely very different from what you’ve been used to
    1. In New York here’s the hot tip that you need to know: The questions in the actual test are identical (as in, word for word including grammatical errors) to the practice questions on the DMV site
    2. To study for the NY DMV Learner Permit test, go to this page on the DMV website and go through all of the chapters. Twice. There are an endless number of online tests you could be doing to practice but you should just do this one. Read Part 1, then do each of the quizzes from each chapter.
    3. Some of the questions are worded in really weird ways and in most cases, the obvious answer is the correct one. Some of the questions are there to trick you, but most are really quite straight forward.
    4. Pro tip: If a school bus stops on the opposite side of a divided highway with its lights flashing, you have to stop. Even though it seems a long way away to be stopping, it’s the right answer.
  2. Now once you’re ready, it’s time to book your appointment at the DMV
    1. You’ll learn one thing: The online booking process for the DMV is a freaking disaster.
    2. So the pro tip is not to book an appointment and just arrive as early as you possibly can at a DMV location (that does learner permits, it’s worth checking that here). You don’t actually need an appointment, it’s just generally recommended, but I’ve heard from most that it’s just easier to arrive really early.
  3. Decide which license you want
    1. There are three options of license and two that are available for foreigners (Enhanced licenses are not available to non-citizens): Real ID or Standard.
    2. Real ID can be used to board domestic flights, and to enter a federal building or military base.
    3. Just get the Real ID, it just requires an extra form of ID (see the guide below) and it means you don’t have to worry in the future (it’s also the same price).
  4. Prepare all your documents
    1. There’s a really handy guide online which lets you run through the process of what you want and it will tell you the exact list of documents you need to bring.
    2. No ifs, no buts, bring everything that’s listed (including the real social security card if you have one)
  5. Wander on in and sit the test
    1. Bring as little as possible to the appointment because you have to keep everything on the ground (and not on the desk).
    2. Announce why you’re there when you get to the DMV and they will direct you to a desk. There you will be asked a few questions and assigned a computer.
    3. You will then sit at the computer and it will confirm that you can read and your identity.
    4. You will then have 20 questions. The rules are that you have to get 70% correct and get at least 2 of 4 road sign questions correct.
    5. Again, these questions are IDENTICAL to the practice tests above so just take your time, and tap the correct answers on the screen, then confirm it.
    6. Once you pass, you will see a message on the screen and then be told to line up in another line.
    7. In this line you will probably take a photo (you have to for Real ID) and then pay your money.
  6. Take your paper license home
    1. You will leave with a printed temporary license, woo!
    2. You can now

Where you can drive with a learner permit

Pretty much everywhere except the driving test area. But more about that in the next installment!

Can you drive alone with a learner permit?

This is a hotly contested question and honestly from all my research, I think the safe answer is NO.


I know. I know. I’ve written a whole thing about it here.

Long and short of it, 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

What do you need to do after getting a learner permit to get a driver license?

Now that you’ve got your paper license, you can go to the second step! You need to sit through the 5-hour driver training course, and yes, it’s not a fun 5 hours. You do need this certificate in addition to your learner’s permit in order to sit the driving test though.

After that, it’s time for the big test, so here are my tips on how to pass the driver test easily!