Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting a US driving license

The first thing that I should point out is that in the US there is no single national driving license, like in the UK.  In the US, driving licenses are issued by individual states.  This means that there are different costs, rules, tests, according to where you live.  (The driving laws also vary too from state to state.)

I live in Florida.  If you go for a license in California or Illinois, there will be many similarities with my experience, but also some differences.

Driving generally in the US

Getting by without a car is generally much more difficult in the US, compared to the UK, as there is generally far less public transport (trains, buses, etc.), unless you are in a certain big cities.

Automatic cars are the norm in the US, vehicles with manual gear-changing are less uncommon.

Petrol/gas is cheap compared to Europe, around half the price, although people still complain about the price.

There is much more a driving culture.  People travel relatively long distances, compared to Britain.  Most people are assumed to be drivers and have a license.

Can I drive in the US on a British license?

Yes, you can for a time.  I left it almost a year before I went for my Florida license.  If you go much longer than that, you run the risk of getting into trouble. 
There are some big disadvantages with driving on a foreign license.  For one thing, the insurance is much higher.  Also, a US driving license is commonly used as a form of ID in all sorts of situations.

How much does a license cost?

Mine cost me $48, plus an additional $20 because I failed it the first time(!)  This is cheaper than in the UK, where the total cost was not far off £100 the last time that I looked.

Taking the test(s)

The Florida test was split into two parts: a written test and a road test.

I did the written test on a computer at the test center.  There were two lots of twenty multiple choice questions, mainly understanding road signs and general road safety.  I passed easily, having downloaded and studied the handbook beforehand and taken numerous free mock tests that I found online.  

Most elements of driving and things like road signs are similar to the UK, but the terminology can sometimes be different, so it is worth doing some study of the handbook, even if you feel confident about driving.  “Give Way” is ”Yield”, for instance, and the “hand brake” is more often known as the “parking brake”, or “emergency brake”.  There are many minor differences to be aware of, some of which you can easily guess, but they might throw you in a test situation.

Despite its name, the Florida road test does not take place on the public highway, rather it is conducted on a mocked up road system in the grounds of the driving test center, which you drive around, following the examiner's instructions.  There are no other road users to interact with.

 The test is generally much easier than the British equivalent and has a higher pass rate.  Despite this, I still managed to fail it – having lived without a car in a British city for many years, my driving skills were very rusty.  I retook it a few weeks later and passed it, although there was a surcharge of 20 dollars, as I mentioned earlier.

Things assessed on the road test included parking, reversing, stop quickly (emergency stop), turn about (three point turn), stop signs.

When do I get my license?

Thanks to modern technology, the computer was able to make a license card for me while I waited.  It took about ten minutes.  I don’t know if this instant service is available everywhere.


  1. I do love your blog, it has been really helpful.
    I find it funny too that americans complain about gas prices, but I did work out why it is so much cheaper. It contains less octane, their regular unleaded has a minimum octane rating of 85, here in the uk I think its 95. its why they get so low gas mileage

  2. ha - that is funny about the road test. In Oregon it's on city streets but when you pass the test, it's issued onsite as it is in most if not all states.

  3. I have just moved out to California on a K1 Visa and want to take the test asap. Do I need to wait for my SSN before I can do this or can I take it straight away?