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
- 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.
- 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.
Big City Living
What to Expect: Depending on where you live, there will most likely be multiple options for transportation. Most major cities have a subway or metro system and an extensive bus system to get around the city quickly and easily. Many cities have shared bike systems with growing coverage areas.
These are typically the most common ways that city dwellers get to their office and around the city! It’s also a good idea to ask your co-workers or new local friends what they recommend in terms of getting around the city.
- Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma (Greater San Francisco area)
- Bethesda (Maryland)
- Evanston (Illinois)
- Orange County, Ventura County, Inland Empire, (Greater Los Angeles Area)
- Cambridge, Charlestown, Brookline, Somerville, Allston, Jamaica Plain (Boston)
- Westchester County and Long Island (New York) and New Jersey (New York metro area)
What to Expect: Public transportation is more limited in the suburbs, and most residents don’t live close enough to walk where they need to go; a car becomes a necessity. If you’re not sure how close the suburb is to a major city, check with your host employer to find out where most people at the company live and how they get to work. It may be possible to ride a bike or take a bus to a larger train station for your commute into the city.
- If you’re living in a suburb away from a major bus line, commuter train, or subway stop, you will most likely need a car.
- If you are living in a major city but working in a suburb, you will do what is called “reverse commuting” and can probably take a train or bus to your office outside the city.
- If your office is not close to a bus or train stop, you may need to drive or use a combination of bus/train and walking/biking.
- Before you confirm your housing, you may want to seek advice from your host employer and coworkers on the most convenient suburban neighborhoods for public transportation access.
- The Midwest
- Southern States
- Northern Florida
What to Expect: Some of the most beautiful places in the U.S. are in the countryside. Living in a rural area is a great way to immerse yourself in American culture and meet locals. People in the countryside are known to be the friendliest Americans. You will almost certainly need to have a car if your program is in a rural area. Even if there is public transportation, such as a bus line, it may not run often enough to get you where you need to go.
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
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
- Washington, DC
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
- Name, telephone number, and license ID number
- License plate number, model, and year of the car
- Registration number and expiration date
- Name of the insurance company and policy number
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:
- Foreign Visitors Driving
- Car Insurance
- The American Automobile Association: also known as AAA or Triple A, is a membership organization that provides services such as insurance and road-side assistance- for instance, if your car breaks down. A membership can also get your discounts at hotels and tourist attractions across the U.S.