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Getting a drivers license in California

Updated on August 29, 2012

Need a California driver's license

So you moved new to the state and of course you need to get around. In California, you do have some public transport options like the Buses and the Amtrak, but if you want to be really independent and have the freedom of stepping out when you want and where you want to, you need to get yourself a car and a license before you drive it.

The following is applicable, if you are over 18 years old and are applying for a new driver’s license (which does not apply to commercial vehicles and two wheelers like bikes)

If you have an existing US state license, then you just need to take a written test, clear it and they will send you a new California license in your mailbox. But if you hold a drivers license from another country or have never applied for one before, you need to also take the driving test wherein, a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) official will go for a short ride along with you and assess you on a number of moves, manoeuvres and driving ethics.

So how does get one get started with this process?

Good to know informations

The official website for the California Department of Motor Vehicles is -

It has complete information on how to apply, finding a DMV office in your location, booking appointments as well as Sample Tests

Get yourself familiar with the handbook

Well, firstly, you get yourself a copy of the California Drivers License Handbook ( it is available online as a PDF copy on the CA DMV website or you even get a hard copy at the DMV office) and read the little book very well, a number of times, till you are well versed with the States driving and road rules. There will be Do’s and Don't’s for almost everything, right from speed limits, to parking, to overtaking, when to stop and go, when to not stop and go, varying speed limits at different zones, how to park in a sloping street, which way the wheels need to positioned (yes, that too!) etc etc. Also keep testing yourself with the mock tests on their website and see how you are fairing.

Step 1- the written test

Next you need to block an appointment on the CA DMV website and fix a date and time to go take the written test. You are given three attempts to clear it and it costs approximately $30. If you don’t clear in first three attempts, you need to refill the form and fees and prepare better this time round! Once you arrive at the DMV office, you need to fill out an application form, get your picture taken as well as get finger printed. They also verify your legal presence in the country and your Social Security Number. Hence, have your social security card and passport handy when you arrive for the appointment. One also has to undergo a vision test or provide necessary documents from your ophthalmologist if you wear spectacles.

Once you clear the written test – which is a paper and pencil test, the official gives you a paper driving license with an expiration date before which you need to set an appointment for your behind the wheel driving test.

The duration for this varies from three months to up to a year. If you have a current international license, you probably will get anywhere from three to six months to come in for the behind the wheel driving test. If you are applying for the first time and never held any drivers license before, you could get up to a year of practice time with a Learners Permit only. This implies you need to be accompanied by license holder at all times while driving around and may not drive alone.

Step 2- practice

For those who come from countries that drive on left hand side, you need to familiarize yourself with driving on the right hand side in US. This might take some time and mental orientation and practice. Taking driving lessons is not a bad idea, especially if you are used to driving on the opposite side of the road prior to arriving in the US! Depending on your confidence and earlier driving experience, taking around 8-10 hours of driving lessons should be good enough.

Remember, you have three attempts to clear your behind the wheel driving test as well or you start the whole process all over again.

Step 3- Behind the wheel driving test

Once you are ready for the final test, take your car along with a licensed driver (remember, you cannot drive in alone for the test, that would be a violation!) provide necessary documentation of insurance and financial responsibility and then you are asked to bring your car to a place and await your turn for the assessor to come and test you. Ideally, one should sit in the car with their paperwork until the assessor comes up to you. He will do a physical check of the cars exteriors for general car condition and ask you to turn on indicators, wipers etc. He will also ask you about where the hand brake is, where the indicator buttons are etc. Yes, they will check on how well you know your car too! So in your preparation, make sure you do these checks too.


Next he/she will come and sit next to you in the passenger seat and you need to move only when he asks you to proceed. Never forget to wear your seat belt in California. If you move your car before wearing your seat belt, you have made a BIG mistake and your test ends then and there. Sorry, you’re first attempt is done with! Also, you are not allowed to have any friend or relative accompany you in the back set during the test. It is just you and your DMV official assessor.

Before proceeding, the assessor will give you instructions as to how the test will be conducted- he will let you know that he will direct you as to wear to drive and give you directions well in advance, so you’re not making sudden changes or moves while driving. Always remember, they are not meant to make you nervous or to fail you, they want to just ensure that you know the rules and most importantly are a safe driver!


Calmly follow speed limits, instructions and obey all rules to the hilt. Like when you need to change lanes, LOOK DELIBERATELY over your shoulder, make it prominent, that you understand it is a mandate. Similarly at intersections, slow down and look deliberately in all four directions to check for pedestrians and other traffic. When pedestrians are waiting to cross, slow down and wave them across- these are brownie points to gain during the test.

The assessor has a sheet for every action and manoeuvre you make and will mark you for each one. You are allowed up to a maximum of 15 mistakes. Anything less than that and you made it.

He will also let you know in advance if the test will involve driving in the freeway or not. Some locations include freeway driving in their test path and some don’t.

Towards the end of the test, you will finally be assessed on your parking skills too. Make sure your wheels are not standing on the while marked lines.

Go! or rather gone and done with..

Once the test is over, park and shut the engine and wait for further instructions. The DMV official by then would have completed his check list and made notes and will tell you at the very moment if you have passed or not. He will also highlight areas of improvement and where you made mistakes, if any. He will hand over the test paper to you and ask you to go back into the office and proceed accordingly.

If you made it, you submit the test paper, collect your paper license, which is usually valid for 4-6 weeks, before which you shall receive the official driver’s license via mail.

What is described above is exactly what I went through when I arrived from abroad, had a driver’s license from my home country and had to apply for one in the state of California. It is not a tough task, but you need to prepare for it and it is not to be taken lightly. The written test is a multiple choice answer test, but can be tricky too. I was kind of surprised when the lady said that I need to fix an appointment for my behind the wheel driving test, I asked her like a school kid “I cleared the written test?” , she gave me a bored ‘yes’ reply. I heaved a sigh of relief and ran out into the sunshine.

But more was the relief when I cleared the behind the wheel test. While I was going in for it, my husband looked at me and said, it looks as if you’re being asked to go to war...relax, it is no big deal if you don’t clear the first time round, not most people do! Wow, that is all I needed to hear. Then my assessor asked me when did I arrive to the US, I replied – 3 months ago, and he says, wow, that is recent. Gulp. Anyhow, I drove all fine, rather slow in the office district and lost a point there, lost another when I stopped and turned on a green signal and lost maybe one more when I parked halfway through the parking slot.:) 3/15 was enough and I made it in the first attempt. Not bad for someone who has never driven seriously before and whatever little did so, on the left side of the road!!

You can do it, just prepare and be overcautious during the tests!



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    • Riverfish24 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      The Amtrak is well connected from downtown sac but yes, u would still be better off with a license :)

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 

      6 years ago

      Great information. I'm getting my CA driver's license soon. Just never got one because I grew up in a big city where public transportation was quite convenient. Now living in downtown Sacramento, I still don't need to drive that much, but I think I should just get my license anyway. :)

    • Riverfish24 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks carol7777!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      I thought I would take a look at this even though I probably won't be doing it. You really did a complete and good job and for someone interested this will be very helpful. Thanks for sharing all this information. Voted UP.


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