When you move to the United States there is an overwhelming list of things you need to take care of. From visas to social security, housing to bank accounts, you'd be forgiven for trying to take the easy way out of another chore, but getting a driver's license is not one of those things you can skip.
In the past 6 months, I have read more posts on Facebook groups and had more inquiries directly about driving than anything else. Largely due to the international crisis that is COVID and everyone's new-found spare time and need for self-transport, it seems that we're all scrambling for the same goal.
We want to drive on the open road with the wind in our hair and through our masks!
What worries me though is the number of posts I read from people who say things like:
“I've been driving on my Australian license in the United States, it's fine”
“I drive using my license from home and never had any issues”
They don't have a license in the state that they live in and many are driving with licenses from their home countries overseas.
Why does driving with a foreign license worry me?
Because it's against the law if you are living in your new state!
It's really as simple as that.
If you've moved to a state in the United States, and you've been there for 30 days (in some states it's different but let's use that as the standard rule of thumb) then you need to get a license in that state. This counts whether you're from interstate or overseas, the rule is the same.
I will admit, the whole concept of residency is a little confusing and that's why I've written about residency a fair bit on this site. The various types of residency (e.g. Tax purposes, visa purposes, immigration purposes) have different definitions and it seems like a moving target to try and understand what you should and should not be doing. But this one is relatively simple.
30 days in a state? Check.
Are you “living there”? This basically just means do you have an address there that isn't a hotel room. Check.
If you passed these two, then you need that license!
Ok, so I'm telling you that you need a license, but you're pretty sure that I'm just being over-cautious. You might fall into one of these traps:
“I've rented cars before without any issue”
This is absolutely true and as a foreign citizen, you are allowed to rent a car with your foreign license (if it's in English). This is great because as a former tourist in the United States, it meant I could drive up Highway One with the rooftop down on our convertible (albeit in the rain) without a care in the world. Legally!
They are, however, not lawyers or judges, and when push comes to shove they're going throw you under the metaphorically rented mini-van.
Of course, they'll rent the car to you, that's their business!
In the contracts you sign, you basically say: “I agree to drive legally” and it's no longer their job to check anything further. They're not going to ask for a tally of the days you've lived abroad in that state, and they honestly don't want to know, they just want to rent you a car!
Therefore, renting a car doesn't mean that you don't need a local license.
“I've been pulled over by police and everything was fine”
I'm glad to hear that you had a good interaction with the police, that's wonderful, but again, police aren't the ones who argue cases in courts, and in many situations, they can be wrong about the letter of the law.
A police officer will ask for your license and registration, and if the license is within a valid date they might not pursue anything further.
However, they might also ask some follow-up questions which could get you in hot water right there on the spot. If they know how the law works, and know the residency requirements, you could be fined or worse for driving without a license.
All-in-all though, the point is that one good story of your own (or even 10 from other people) doesn't make it legal.
But Josh, why does it really matter if I drive without a local license?
Ok putting aside the legal and moral arguments that you should just do it because it makes your life easier, here's the big one:
You're not insured.
You're driving illegally because you're driving effectively unlicensed.
Insurance policies are filled to the brim with ways for the insurance company to not pay. It's in their interests to write policies that only allow for a very strict schedule of actually paying out, and driving legally accounts for a big proportion of that.
Think about it, if you have insurance, and swerve all over the road, driving intoxicated, and have an accident, you would assume that you are no longer covered; right?
This is no different. You're driving without a license as required by law.
Most importantly what this means is that if you get into an accident, even a minor one, your insurance company is going to step aside and let you face the music in court. Let's pretend that you rear-ended someone, even lightly, and they complain of neck soreness. They will go to their insurance company when they go to the doctor, who will then turn to your insurance company to get their money back, and then your insurance company will turn to you (who has violated their policy of driving legally). If that person has a lifetime of neck-pain then say hello to years of legal costs, medical fees, and more.
It will bankrupt you and ruin your entire life.
How do you get a local state driver's license?
I've written about getting a New York license, which is one of the most difficult because you have to sit the written and practical tests, but it's still not that hard, so do it! In some states, you simply walk in with your foreign license and you can exchange it with a local license. It's easy!
Just search for “New resident license DMV [YOUR-STATE-NAME]” on a search engine and you'll head to the Department of Motor Vehicles page in your state, and you'll be well on your way.
So why should you get a local driver's license as an expat?
Because if you don't, it might ruin your life.
Don't be an idiot.