How to Drive, Insure, Buy, and Register a Car in the United States

8 minutes

If you’re not living in a big city in the U.S., chances are you’re going to need a car to get around. If you don’t know if you will need a car during your internship, be sure to check before you arrive. Ask your employer what the local public transportation is like, and whether they recommend purchasing a vehicle. That way, you will know ahead of time if you need to get a car and won’t be stranded when you get here.

If you do decide you will need to buy a car, you must first make sure you are eligible to drive in the United States.

Step One: Getting a Driver’s License

If you wish to drive a car in the United States, you must have a Driver’s License. If you have a license from your home country, this may be acceptable if the document is also written in English. However, if it is not, you have two possible options.

If you already have a license from your home country, the first option is to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you leave. An International Driving Permit translates information contained on your driver’s license into 10 languages so that officials in foreign countries are able to read your license. While an IDP will supplement a valid government-issued license, it is not a replacement for a license. You must have both an official license and an IDP if you wish to drive in the United States and carry both with you when driving. If a law enforcement official asks to see your license for any reason, you will need to show both the IDP and your foreign license. Please note that the U.S. does not issue IDP’s to foreign visitors, so if this is something you want to obtain, you will need to do so before arriving in the United States.

The second option is to apply for a United State’s Driver’s License once you arrive. This can be a complicated process. Luckily, the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has provided these tips to help you understand what you will need to do:

  • Contact InterExchange Career Training USA within 10 days of arriving in the U.S. to activate your SEVIS record.
  • Wait at least two business days after your SEVIS record has been activated AND at least 10 days after your actual arrival in the U.S. before applying. This will ensure enough time for your information to be processed through SEVIS and other U.S. Government databases so that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) can access it.
  • Know what you are applying for and if you are eligible. Visit the DMV website for the U.S. state in which you are living for more information.
  • Check your forms. Check to make sure all of your forms are correct when you apply for a license. Data integrity is very important because if there is an error on your paperwork, it will cause delays in your application process. Make sure that your Form I-94, Form DS-2019, and SEVIS record are each correct.
  • Bring all of your paperwork. When you go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), please remember all of your paperwork. For most states, this includes:
    • Form DS 2019
    • Form I-94
    • Passport (with visa)
    • Proof of legal presence or residence. What this document is varies from state to state. Check with your state’s DMV to see what they require.
    • Social Security Number (SSN) or a Social Security Administration (SSA) Form SSA-L676, “Refusal to Process SSN Application.” Please visit the SSA website for more information.
    • Any other documents or information indicated on the DMV website

This process can take one or two months, so make sure to find a different means of transportation while you try to get a license. For more information, download the DMV fact sheet.

Step Two: Getting Car Insurance

While you may give the dealer money to purchase a car, they will not let you drive it out of the lot without proof of car insurance. You cannot drive a car in the U.S. without insurance. If you are caught driving uninsured, you will be ticketed and fined. Car insurance is meant to protect you against the losses that could occur with a major accident or theft. You will need to research different companies and compare prices to make sure that you are getting the best rate for your insurance needs. has a great resource page that explains what different types of coverage exist and gives some money-saving tips. It also has links for sites where you can compare various insurance providers. For more information on how to select the best car insurance for you, check out the latest Consumer Reports’ statistics. (Please note: The Accident and Sickness insurance you have through InterExchange is not car insurance.)

Step Three: Buying a Car

Now that you have a license and insurance, you can purchase a car. Doing your research before buying a car is very important. You must be sure that a car fits your needs and budget before you purchase it. First you should decide if you want to buy a used or new car. Used cars are normally much cheaper than a new car, but they do present more challenges. You will need to be willing to risk more car trouble and repair costs for a used car. Typically, the best place to find a used car is in the classified ads of local newspapers from individuals selling old cars. You can also go to dealerships or search online to find used cars. Before you buy a used car, make sure to get all the information on the car’s history. This includes the number of previous owners, if the car was ever in an accident, any previous mechanical problems, and the maintenance history of the car. Sites like Carfax can help you find this information. Normally, anyone selling a used car will also allow you to take it to a mechanic for an inspection or “diagnostic check.” This will make sure that the car is in good condition.

If you choose to buy a new car, different dealers will have different prices. You will need to decide what options and special features you will want installed in you car, if any. Make sure to compare different prices and options, and get advice from experienced car owners. Do not always trust the salesperson at the dealership, since they are probably more interested in making a profit than figuring out what is best for you. Do your research before you go to the dealership so you will not be taken advantage of. Buying a new car can be a negotiation, so you need to be prepared with all the facts so you can get the best deal. Again, has another very helpful resource about buying a new car at the best price. Check out Consumer Reports to learn more about bargaining and negotiating with the dealer.

Step Four: Registering Your Car

So now you have a license, insurance and car; there is still one last step you need to take before you can legally drive your vehicle in the U.S.: registration. All states in the U.S. require that a car be registered. If you are caught driving an unregistered vehicle, you will be fined or ticketed. If you buy a used car, you must still register it, even if it was registered under a previous owner.

Registration is the documentation that proves you have paid the registration tax and fees on your motor vehicle. In most states, this consists of a metal license plate, a validation decal, and a registration certificate. Most states also have a deadline for when a car must be registered after it has been purchased. You should research and find out how much time your state allows. This can be as little as 10 or as many as 30 days after you buy your car, so make sure to check. You will also need to check with your state’s DMV to figure out what paperwork you will need to register your car.

Once you collect all the documents you need, you can go to your local DMV or tax collector’s office and submit the registration application. They will then issue you the metal license plates or paper temporary plates that prove your car is registered. If you are going to be in possession of this car for over a year, make sure you also know when you need to renew your registration. In most states you are required to renew your registration and insurance every 12 months.

After you have registered your car, you are all set to drive in the U.S!

Plan B: Renting a Car

For those of you who do not need a car everyday, a good option is to rent a car when you need one. If you decide you want to get away for the weekend or perhaps explore some of America’s scenic drives, then renting a car for just a few days is probably your best bet. Just like buying a car, you will want to do your research and compare prices at different rental agencies to make sure you get the best price on a rental. Many big cities also have car-sharing programs like ZipCar that will allow you to get a car for a few hours if you need one. The nice thing about renting or sharing a car is that most companies will provide car insurance to their customers, and you do not need to worry about registering the vehicle. As long as you have a valid license, then you should be eligible to rent or share a car.

We hope this has given you a better understanding of how to drive and get a car in the United States. For more information, check out some of these websites:

InterExchange Staff InterExchange Staff

InterExchange is proud to have an experienced team that is dedicated to international cultural exchange. We come from a variety of backgrounds, but nearly every member of our New York City-based staff has extensive experience traveling, working, or living abroad.

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