Each state decides how and when its residents may obtain a driver’s license. This includes whether or not to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. While most states will only grant driving privileges to those with lawful immigration status, some will allow individuals who can’t provide proof of legal presence in the United States to get a driver’s license. The following guide explains when someone traveling to the United States will need to get a state-issued driver’s license and what that process entails. It also covers what limitations undocument immigrants may face when trying to get a driver’s license.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Do Immigrants Need Driver’s Licenses To Drive?
Yes. Everyone, including foreign nationals, needs a valid driver’s license to drive in the United States. The details may vary depending on what kind of driver’s license you need and how long you will be in the country. If you plan to live in the U.S. long term or permanently, you most likely need to get a driver’s license issued by your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Having a valid U.S. driver’s license allows you to drive anywhere in the country. However, every state has different eligibility laws and residency requirements for getting a license.
In some states, you may be able to drive with a license from your home country. You may be able to automatically receive a license from the state without taking a driving test if the state driving authorities recognize your country. This is known as foreign license reciprocity.
In other states, you may need a license from your home country and an international driving permit (IDP). An IDP is a form of identification that translates your identification card into 10 languages. It allows you to drive legally in other countries. You will need to get an IDP by contacting the motor vehicle department in your home country before traveling to the U.S.
What Are the Basic Requirements for Getting a State Driver’s License?
The legal requirements for getting a state driver’s license differ by state. However, some requirements for driver's license applicants tend to be similar across the U.S.
You will likely have to pass a knowledge and skills test to prove your driving competency. The knowledge test will usually be a short multiple-choice quiz. In the skills test, you’ll likely have to drive with an instructor and demonstrate your competency with certain driving skills, such as changing lanes.
You will also likely have to provide four kinds of documentation:
Proof of residency in the state
Proof of your identity, such as an ID card or a passport
Proof of lawful U.S. immigration status as a legal permanent resident or particular visa holder
Proof of car insurance
Can an Immigrant Get a Driver’s License?
Typically, as long as you have an eligible status under immigration law, you can get a state-issued driver’s license. If you are an undocumented immigrant or don’t have legal status, this is more complicated.
In most states, driver’s license applicants must provide proof of their lawful residency status. For example, they might provide a naturalization certificate or green card. However, the District of Columbia and the following 16 states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses:
You will still need to provide identification documents (such as a foreign birth certificate, foreign passport, or consular card) and evidence of your current residency in the state to get licensed in these states.
How Can an Undocumented Immigrant Get a Driver’s License?
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have chosen to allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license to increase public safety. They want to ensure that drivers meet the knowledge and skill requirements and have car insurance.
For example, undocumented California residents can now get a California driver’s license because of AB 60, or the Safe and Responsible Drivers Act. This law was passed in 2013 to reduce traffic accidents. These licenses are also known as AB 60 licenses.
The exact process for an undocumented immigrant to get a driver’s license depends on the state. However, the general process is outlined below.
What’s the Process for Getting a Driver’s License as an Undocumented Immigrant?
Again, this process may vary by state. We’ll use California as an example here to explain the process for getting a driver’s license as an undocumented immigrant.
In California, applicants do not need a valid Social Security Number (SSN). However, they do need to:
Prove their identity, such as through a passport, consular card, or electoral card
Prove they are a resident of California by providing documents such as:
A rental or lease agreement with their name
Mortgage or utility bills
School, medical, insurance, bank, or employment records
Swear that they are ineligible for an SSN and unable to submit proof that the federal government lawfully recognizes their presence in the United States
Pass the same skill and knowledge driving tests as any other license applicant
To get a license, first make an appointment or appear at a driver’s license processing center. Then, apply, pay the fees, and pass the written exam and driving skills test. Most states provide study materials for the tests on their state Department of Motor Vehicles website.
Will the Driver’s License Be REAL ID Compliant?
No, your driver’s license will not be REAL ID compliant. The federal government has stated that a REAL ID will be required starting May 7, 2025, for anyone boarding domestic flights or accessing certain federal facilities.
A REAL ID is a form of identification that you must have legal immigration status to get. If you receive a driver’s license as an undocumented immigrant, it will likely have the words “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY” printed on it.
However, other immigrants with lawful status can receive REAL ID driver’s licenses. You do not have to be a green card holder or U.S. citizen to receive one. For example, you can have temporary protected status (TPS) and obtain a REAL ID.
Can an Undocumented Immigrant Use Their Driver’s License as Photo Identification?
The primary purpose of your driver’s license is to prove you can legally operate a motor vehicle. However, a state-issued driver’s license does not change your immigration status. It does not prove you have legal status or residency. It is still possible for you to face deportation or removal proceedings by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
You should not use your driver’s license for federal purposes. For example, you can’t use it to vote in federal elections. Also, it is not a work permit, so you can’t use it to legally work in the United States. You may be able to show your license as a valid form of photo ID to a state law enforcement officer if you are stopped while driving. However, you could be flagged if you need to show your license to a federal law enforcement officer or state law enforcement officer from another state.
Because your license will likely bear the message “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY” or another similar phrase, the official may infer your undocumented status and refer you to immigration enforcement authorities. This extends to federal officials such as Border Patrol or TSA. If you are flying on a commercial flight, you should not use your driver’s license as a form of identification.