How to Get a California Driver’s License

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • Check eligibility.
  • Complete Form N-400.
  • Obtain two recent photographs.
  • Send the application package with the correct fee.

Relocating to a new state like California necessitates completing some administrative work, including obtaining a California driver’s license. This state-issued credential is mandatory for legal driving and must adhere to the REAL ID Act’s federal requirements. We’ll guide you through the process and what the REAL ID compliance entails.

How to Get a Driver’s License After Moving to California

Licensed drivers from other states moving to California need to obtain a REAL ID Compliant California driver’s license for legal driving. Begin by establishing California residency, proven with two residency documents. If your out-of-state license is valid, you can bypass the driving test; otherwise, you must complete all prerequisites before taking the test to get your license.

How Soon Do You Have to Get a CA License After Moving?

If you’ve recently made California your home, you have 10 days to apply for a California driver’s license. Establishing residency might involve actions like voter registration, paying in-state tuition, or applying for homeowner’s property tax exemption. If you’re transferring an out-of-state license, the driving test may be waived, but this doesn’t apply to licenses from other countries.

Update on AB 60 Driver’s License for Non-Citizens

Starting in 2015, California residents who are unable to provide proof of legal presence in the United States will have a way to obtain a California driver’s license. This initiative is part of Assembly Bill 60 (AB 60), which extends eligibility for a California driver’s license to any California resident who can meet all the other requirements for obtaining a license but does not have proof of U.S. legal presence. It is crucial to keep an eye on the official California DMV page for the latest updates on the AB 60 licensing process and to understand what documents will be needed to apply for an AB 60 license.

Requirements for a CA Driver’s License

The requirements for obtaining a driver’s license in California vary depending on the type of license you are applying for (e.g., Class C standard license, Class M motorcycle license, Commercial Class A or B, etc.). However, there are some general requirements that apply to most applicants seeking a standard Class C license:

  1. Age Requirement: Applicants must be at least 16 years old to apply for a provisional license, and 18 for a full license.
  2. Residency: You must establish residency in California to apply for a driver’s license.
  3. Social Security Number (SSN): Provide your SSN. If you are not eligible for an SSN, you may still apply for a license under AB 60.
  4. Completion of a Driver Education Program: If under 17 1/2, completion of a driver education program is required.
  5. Passing a Written Knowledge Test: You must pass a written exam that covers traffic laws and road signage.
  6. Vision Exam: You must meet certain vision requirements, which are assessed at the DMV.
  7. Passing a Driving Test: You need to pass a road test that evaluates your driving skills.
  8. Fingerprints and Photo: You will have your photo taken and provide fingerprints at the DMV.
  9. Documentation for REAL ID: If applying for a REAL ID, you must provide additional documentation, such as proof of identity (e.g., U.S. passport or birth certificate), proof of Social Security number, and two proofs of California residency.

For non-citizens, additional documentation may be required to establish legal presence or identity. For those applying under AB 60, there are specific documents that will need to be provided, which the DMV outlines.

Steps to Apply for a California’s Driver’s License

To apply for a new driver’s license in California, you must be free of any suspensions, cancellations, or other legal issues that invalidate your driving privileges. Here’s a streamlined guide to obtaining your Class C license:

  1. Schedule an Appointment: Contact your local DMV to arrange a time for your written and vision tests. It’s advisable to book your appointment before 4:30 p.m.
  2. Application Form: Obtain the Driver’s License or Identification Card Application (Form DL 44) from the DMV or request it via mail by calling (800) 777-0133, as it’s not available online.
  3. Social Security Number (SSN) Proof: Present your SSN, typically through a Social Security card or a Military ID card. Note: Non-citizens legally in the U.S. without an SSN are exempt from this requirement.
  4. Full Name Verification: Provide documentation for your full name, such as a marriage certificate, divorce papers, or legal name change documents.
  5. Date of Birth and Legal Presence: Show one state-approved document proving your birth date and legal presence, like a U.S. birth certificate or passport.
  6. Thumbprint and Photo: Have your thumbprint and photograph taken at the DMV.
  7. Vision Exam: Pass a vision test.
  8. Application Fee: Pay the required fee of $33.
  9. Written Permit Test: Successfully complete the written test, which includes 36 questions on traffic laws and road signs. You have up to three attempts to pass. Practice tests are available for preparation.

After passing the written test, you’ll receive a learner’s permit, allowing you to practice driving under the supervision of a licensed driver over 18 with the same class of license. There’s no mandatory period for holding the learner’s permit; you can schedule your driving test as soon as you feel ready, even the day after receiving your permit.

Understanding the California Driver’s Permit

The California Driver’s Permit, often referred to as a learner’s permit, is a provisional driving license that allows new drivers to practice driving before qualifying for a full driver’s license. Here are the key points about the California Driver’s Permit:

  • Eligibility: Applicants must be at least 15½ years old to apply for a learner’s permit but cannot obtain the permit until they turn 16.
  • Education: Applicants under 17½ years old must complete driver education and be enrolled in driver training or have completed driver training to be eligible for a permit.
  • Written Test: Applicants must pass a written knowledge test on traffic laws and signs.
  • Parent/Guardian Approval: For applicants under 18, a parent or guardian’s signature is required on the application, which also means they accept financial responsibility.
  • Driving Practice: The permit holder must drive with a parent, guardian, spouse, or adult aged 25 years or older who has a valid California driver’s license.
  • Restrictions: There are several restrictions for permit holders, such as no driving alone and no driving at night.

After fulfilling the required practice hours and holding the permit for a minimum duration, typically six months, the permit holder can take the driving test to obtain a full driver’s license.

Steps to Schedule the Driving Test

To get your driver’s license, book an appointment at the DMV, as all driving tests are at their offices. Bring a vehicle with its registration and insurance for the test. You have three chances to pass, with a $6 fee for additional attempts after the first. Once you pass, you’ll get a 90-day temporary license; if the permanent one doesn’t arrive within 60 days, call the DMV.

For Class A & B Noncommercial Licenses

Fill out the DL 44C form and submit a DL 51 Medical Examination Report. The application fee is $34. Post-clearance, your license will be mailed, but follow up with the DMV if it doesn’t arrive within 60 days.

Upgrading Class A or B Permit

Make an appointment at a CDL office and bring your vehicle for testing. You need to pass the necessary pre-trip, safety inspections, and driving tests to receive your license.

Non-Citizens

No SSN is required if you can’t work in the U.S. Provide BD/LP documents for identity and legal status verification. If your BD/LP document is expiring, renew it to receive your photo license. Depending on the validity of your BD/LP documents, you’ll receive either a Limited Term or a full license after verification.

Finalizing Your License

After passing all tests and verifications, you’ll receive a temporary license, followed by a permanent one in the mail. Non-citizens may receive a Limited Term license depending on their documentation’s expiration date.

California REAL IDs: What You Need to Know

In light of the REAL ID Act of 2005, California residents may need to update their driver’s licenses and ID cards to be REAL ID Compliant. These new standards were set to improve the security of state-issued identification documents.

If your current California license or ID isn’t REAL ID Compliant or there’s been a name change, you’ll need to apply for a new one in your legal name.

Starting May 3, 2023, a REAL ID will be required for domestic flights, entering military bases, and visiting most federal facilities. Alternatively, a U.S. passport or military ID can be used for federal purposes. For local activities like driving or voting, your standard California license or ID is still valid.

When renewing or applying for a California driver’s license or ID card, it will be REAL ID Compliant. The application process involves providing a federally-approved identity document, two proofs of California residency, and social security number evidence if applicable. For detailed steps on obtaining a California REAL ID, refer to the California Driver’s Handbook.

Updating Your Name for REAL ID

If you’ve changed your name due to marriage, divorce, adoption, or domestic partnership, you’ll need to provide corresponding documentation for a REAL ID compliant driver’s license or ID card. Ensure this documentation reflects your full legal name, especially if it differs from the name on your birth certificate or passport. Acceptable documents include adoption papers, legal name change records, marriage certificates, domestic partnership registrations, and divorce decrees showing your name before and after the change.

Types of California Driver’s Licenses

California offers various types of driver’s licenses to meet the needs of its diverse population of drivers. Understanding the differences can help you determine which type of license is right for you.

Class C – Standard Driver’s License

This is the standard driver’s license that allows you to operate most passenger vehicles, including cars, small trucks, and vans. It is the most common license for California drivers.

Class M – Motorcycle License

For those interested in riding a motorcycle, motorized scooter, or similar vehicle, you’ll need a Class M license. There are two types of motorcycle licenses: M1 and M2, with specific vehicle restrictions.

Class A & B – Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL)

If you plan to drive heavy trucks, trailers, or buses, a CDL may be required. Class A licenses are for those operating vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of more than 26,000 pounds, where the towed vehicle is heavier than 10,000 pounds. Class B is for single vehicles with a GVWR of more than 26,000 pounds or a bus (including a farm labor vehicle) that seats more than 24 passengers, including the driver.

Noncommercial Class A & B

These licenses are for driving vehicles used for personal use that do not require a CDL but are above the limits for a Class C license. Examples include some recreational vehicles (RVs) or trailers.

Provisional License

Drivers under 18 will receive a provisional license. This comes with certain restrictions, such as curfews and passenger limitations, to encourage safe driving habits.

Real ID

While not a separate class of license, the Real ID is a federally compliant driver’s license that will be required for domestic flights and entering certain federal facilities starting May 3, 2023.

AB 60 License

Under Assembly Bill 60 (AB 60), California residents who cannot provide proof of legal presence in the United States can still obtain a driver’s license.

For more detailed information on each type of license and how to apply, check the California DMV’s official website.

Read More

Final Thoughts

If you’re settling into California, getting a state driver’s license is key to driving legally. New licenses must be REAL ID compliant, requiring additional documents like your social security number and a federally-approved ID. This extra step ensures your license is valid for federal purposes.

Sources

Additional Resources

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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