Driving in the U.S.


Driving in the U.S.

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. Ask your employer what the local public transportation is like, and whether they recommend purchasing a vehicle.

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

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 written in English. All U.S. states recognize foreign driver’s licenses. In most cases, if your international license is up-to-date, it will be valid for up to one year after the date you enter the U.S. Consult the DMV in the state where you wish to drive to confirm the length of validity. Your foreign license is valid if accompanied by your passport.

If your foreign license is not written in English, you have two possible options for driving in the U.S.

  1. 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.
  2. The second option is to apply for a United State’s Driver’s License once you arrive. You will need to contact the local Department of Motor Vehicles for the state where you will be training to find out whether you are eligible to apply for a U.S. driver’s license. If eligible, you should obtain a copy of that state’s driver’s manual from the DMV so you can learn the state’s driving rules and study for the written and driving test. Ask which documents you need to present to the DMV when applying for a license. The documents required vary by state, but an outline of the process is below:
    • 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.
    • 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:
      • DS-2019 Form
      • A printout of your electronic I-94 record
      • 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 NOTE: 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.

Renting a Car

For those of you who do not need a car every day, a good option is to rent a car when you need one. 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. As long as you have a valid license, then you should be eligible to rent or share a car.

Buying a Car

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.

ConsumerReports.org 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.

NOTE: The Accident and Sickness insurance you have through InterExchange is not car insurance.

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.

To find a used car, you can go to a dealership or search online. 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, and reputable dealerships will give you a copy of the Carfax report for free. Normally, anyone selling a used car will also allow you to take it to a mechanic for an inspection or “diagnostic check” to make sure the car is in good condition.

If you choose to buy a new car, you will need to decide what options and special features you want installed in your 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, ConsumerReports.org is a very helpful resource for buying a new car at the best price.

Registering Your Car

So now you have a license, insurance, and a 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. 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!

Driving Laws at State Departments of Motor Vehicles

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:

Driving Safety

Participants who intend to drive in the United States must familiarize themselves with local, state, and federal driving laws. It’s best to consult the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in the state in which you would like to drive for recommendations on driving laws and safety practices.

Use extra caution and:

  • Remember that cars drive on the right side of the road in the U.S.
  • Never drive after drinking alcohol and never get into the car with a driver who has been drinking.
  • Always wear a seat belt.
  • Stay on marked roads.
  • Be aware of special weather and road conditions (e.g., snow, fog, flooding).
  • Use extra care around school buses, trucks and large vehicles.
  • Follow parking rules.
  • Be aware of pedestrians.
  • Do not text or use your cellphone while driving.
  • Don’t speed.

In Case of a Car Accident

In the event of a car accident, follow safety guidelines issued by the state DMV. Check yourself and others involved in the accident for injuries. If someone requires medical attention, report the accident by calling 911 (the free direct number for emergency services with the local police), or have someone else call for you. If possible, do not move your car until the police arrive and have been able to assess the accident scene. While waiting for the police, exchange the following information with the driver of the other car:

  1. Name, telephone number, and license ID number
  2. License plate number, model, and year of the car
  3. Registration number and expiration date
  4. Name of the insurance company and policy number

If there are any witnesses, ask for their names, telephone numbers, and addresses in the event of insurance problems. If you have hit a parked car, you must leave your name, phone number, and license plate number on a piece of paper and put it under the windshield wiper so they may contact you. Also write down the car’s license number and model of the car.

Failure to leave your information or report the accident is considered a crime.

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