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Driving in the U.S.

Do I Need a U.S. Driver License to Drive in the U.S.?

  • You may drive legally in New York if you have a valid foreign driver license from your country and either a certified translation of your license or a current International Driving Permit (issued for one year only) in your possession while you drive.
  • International Driving Permit: an International Driving Permit is not a driver license. The permit only verifies that you hold a valid driver license in your home country. Your foreign driver license, not the International Driving Permit, allows you to drive in New York. Contact the authorities in your home country to get an International Driving Permit.
  • You do not need to apply for a New York driver license if your foreign driver license is valid and you have no intention to reside permanently in New York State.

Note: Even though New York will recognize your foreign driver license (as long as you remain a resident of your country), you will additionally need to have an International Driving Permit to rent a car in most cases. This document is quite useful since it verifies, in several languages, that you have a valid foreign driver license.

Obtaining a New York State Driver License/Permit/State ID

In order to apply for a New York State driver license, learner permit or state ID, individuals with an immigration designation of D/S (duration of status) need to have an immigration document (i.e. I-20 or DS-2019) that is valid at least six months into the future. In addition, the document must have been issued for a period of one year or more.

  • It is advisable to obtain a New York State license even if your foreign license is still valid. This will help to avoid problems if you are stopped for a traffic violation or at some other time when you need to present a driver license.
  • In addition, if you do not have a US driver license, many car insurance companies will not insure your vehicle, or will insure you through a high risk pool at much higher rates.

If You are a New Driver: New York State Learner Permit

  • If you do not currently hold a valid driver license, you should apply for the New York State learner permit. If you are a new driver, this will allow you to practice your driving skills before passing a road test.

 How to get a New York State Learner Permit:

  • Apply for a learner permit
  • Pass the vision test
  • Pass the written test

For more information please refer to the DMV website.

*Note that you can also request a test in a foreign language if it is available; the DMV has written tests translated into 22 languages. Exception: You are not required to take the written test if you have form MV-285 (Driver Education Student Certificate of Completion)

Steps for Obtaining a New York State Driver License:

  • Take a driver education course or a DMV-approved pre-licensing course.
  • Make an appointment for a road test. 
  • Pass your road test and receive your New York State driver license.
  • Make sure you don't show up to the road test alone.

For more information, please refer to the DMV website.

If You Have a Driver License From any Nation Except Canada:

  • Follow the steps for new drivers
  • Surrender your foreign driver license to the DMV road test examiner

If you have a valid driver license from Canada or Puerto Rico:

  • you don't need to take a driving course
  • you don't need to take a road test
  • your licenses are transferable

Requirements and Identification Documents to Obtain a New York State Driver License/Permit/State ID:

In order to obtain a driver license, a learner permit or a non-driver photo ID card you need to present documents that show proof of name and date of birth. Your proof must total six points. Visit the proof requirements page on the DMV website for details on documentation and points.

A Note about Social Security Numbers

Recent changes in the issuance of social security numbers (SSN) state that you can apply for an SSN once you have obtained an offer of employment on campus. If you do not currently have an offer of employment, you are not eligible to apply for a SSN.

For the purpose of obtaining a driver license, learner permit or state ID, you must provide a letter from the US Social Security Administration stating that you are not eligible. Follow the steps outlined below.

  1. Go to the Social Security Administration office located in the Federal Building in downtown Syracuse (100 South Clinton Street; 4th floor). Explain that you would like to apply for a driver license/ learner permit/state ID and state your visa type.
  2. Explain that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has asked for your SSN, which you do not have. Request a letter which explains to the DMV that SSN's are not issued for the purpose of obtaining a driver license. The Social Security office will give you a letter which you may take to the DMV.
  3.  Bring the letter to the DMV within 30 days of issuance along with other necessary documents (see above) and apply for a driver license/learner permit/state ID.
  4. Unfortunately, you are caught between two separate administrations. Each has its own operating rules.

Additional Regulations for Students Applying for OPT or Academic Training:

  • Based on the current DMV policy, the local office will issue a DL/permit/state ID with a notice indicating that your temporary visitor status will end on the same date as the expiration of your I-20/DS-2019.
  • If you are planning to undertake Optional Practical Training after your graduation, you will need to present a new I-20 reflecting the OPT approval to the DMV officer.
  • If you present a new I-20 with an approved OPT before the completion of your studies, DMV will issue you a driver license/permit/state ID indicating that your temporary visitor status will expire at the same time when you complete your OPT.
  • If you come in during your OPT, DMV will need to see your EAD card before issuing any documents. The visitor status expiration date placed on your driver license will then reflect the end date on your EAD card.

Students in J-1 status undertaking academic training will need to present an updated DS-2019 indicating a period of approved academic training.

Obtaining a Non-Driver Photo Identification Card

  • Many residents rely on a New York State Photo Driver License or Non-Driver Photo Identification Card as secure identification for check cashing or credit purchases. It cannot be "borrowed" to buy alcoholic beverages by people under the legal purchase age. It is almost impossible to forge or alter. A New York State photo document may provide increased identification security for you, plus law enforcement and driver safety advantages for everyone.
  • If you do not drive, you may qualify for a Non-Driver Photo Identification Card from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV Non-Driver ID Card has the same personal identification information, photo, signature and special safeguards against alterations as a photo driver license. You cannot hold a New York State driver license or learner permit while also holding a non-driver ID card.

Learn more about non-driver photo ID cards here.