To start driving in America, you must learn how to drive safely and pass a test showing you know the US driving laws. Every state requires you to get a driver’s license if you plan on driving. If you move to a different state, you must exchange your old license for a new license in that state. Learn about car insurance and registration, driving tips, driving under the influence, and buying a car.
Getting a driver’s license
It is illegal to drive without a driving license. Each state in the US has different driving laws. You can learn these laws by reading a US driver’s manual in many languages. You will also need to read the actual driver’s manuals for your state.
Once you have read and understood the laws, you will need to take both a written test and a driving test to get your license. You will need to schedule this test ahead of time. You can go online or visit or call the Department of Motor Vehicles, known as the DMV, closest to your home. You have to pay a fee to take your test and get your license. Many states allow you to take the test in your native language.
Car insurance covers costs in the event of an accident or injury. The law requires basic insurance on all cars in case the driver injures someone or damages someone else’s property. You can also get insurance to cover the cost of damage to your own car, and for car theft.
You must have at least basic car insurance in order to drive legally. Even if you are driving a friend’s car, it is your responsibility to make sure that the car you are driving is insured. The insurance document should be kept in the car to show if you are stopped by the police.
Car registration is a tax paid every year to the state. It allows you to take the car on the road and pays for your license plates. It is not legal to drive a car that is not registered. The registration document should be kept in the car to show if you are stopped by the police.
Safety and driving tips
The USA has laws to protect you while you are driving. You must always follow these laws. These laws may be different than in your home country. You will need to learn the specific laws for your state. Here are some important safety rules that most states require:
- Car seats
Infants and children must ride in car seats appropriate to their size that are strapped securely in the car. The age children can stop using car seats varies by state. If you are unsure, contact your local DMV office. Never hold a child in your lap while driving or riding in a vehicle; it is both dangerous and illegal.
You must wear a seatbelt while driving a car or riding in a car in the USA. Everyone in the vehicle should wear a seatbelt, whether driving or riding as a passenger. The reason is that, in a crash, people without seatbelts could fly out of their seats, injuring themselves and others.
If you are riding or driving a motorcycle, you should wear a helmet. Almost every state in the USA requires motorcyclists to wear helmets.
You are not allowed to drink alcohol before or while driving. This is very important because you can lose your license if you drink and drive and be required to pay huge fines or even serve time in jail. You could also seriously injure or kill someone if you drink and drive.
- Cellphones and other distractions
It is illegal to talk on your phone while you are driving in some US states. Texting is banned in almost all states. Cellphones can distract you from the road. If you need to use your phone, you should pull over. A growing number of US cities are forbidding other distractions as well, such as eating, drinking coffee, or attending to pets.
- Children in vehicles
You are generally not allowed to leave your children in your car when you are not in the car. For example, if you go into a store, you must bring your children with you. If children are left alone, they could be injured trying to get out, release the brake or clutch, overheat or freeze, lock you out, or go missing.
- Driving when tired
Do not drive if you are tired. If you are in your car and realize you are too tired to drive, signal and pull over to a safe location where you are not obstructing traffic and you are not in danger. On freeways there are designated rest areas. Always lock your doors while you nap.
- Honking and other noise
Avoid using your horn unless there is a concern for safety. In some areas, it is illegal to use the horn unnecessarily or during certain hours. The use of loud radios is also discouraged or illegal in some areas.
- Locks and keys
Vehicle theft and theft from vehicles is a problem in some areas. It is important to lock your car doors, even while in your car, and take your keys when you leave. Remove valuables from view.
- Pets in vehicles
If the weather is very hot or very cold – typically above 70°F or below 40°F – it is a bad idea to leave pets in the car even with the windows open, because they could die. Pets have been known to lock a driver out of a car, so always keep a key on you.
If you get in an accident while you are driving, you must stop. Do not leave the scene of the accident without stopping. If your car is still working, try to pull off of the road. If anyone is hurt, you should call 911 immediately.
If no one is hurt, you should write down the name, phone number, address, driver’s license number, license plate number, and insurance information of the person you hit or who hit you. If there were people who witnessed (saw) the accident, you should also collect their names and phone numbers. If you have a camera, you can take pictures of any damage. You should also write down the location of the accident and take pictures of the location as well.
After the accident, you should report the accident to your insurance company immediately.
Driving under the influence (Drunk Driving)
Do not drink and drive. Do not use drugs or other substances and drive. Drunk driving or driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is a serious offense, in many states, this is known as DUI, Driving under the Influence. It is also known as DWI, Driving while intoxicated.
There are many medicines and drugs that can affect your ability to drive, mixing alcohol and drugs could have similar effects on you.
Depending on the laws of each state, the penalties can vary but some drivers with a DUI conviction could have their license revoked for a minimum of 180 days. Drivers convicted of DUI could face fines of up to $5,000, and other penalties like probation, imprisonment, and having the DUI conviction in your records for many decades.
Learn more by visiting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website.
Driving in bad weather
Depending on where you live in America, the weather may be very different from that of your home country. It may be your first time driving in extreme conditions.
- If the road is icy or snowy, you should avoid driving. If you must drive, go slowly and use snow tires or chains on your tires. They can help you stop better in ice or snow.
- Pack an emergency kit in your car that contains safety items, such as a first aid kit, extra warm clothing, water, chains, a snow shovel, and a flashlight.
Road rage is a term to describe the anger people feel when they drive. People may yell or honk or drive too close to you if they are angry about your driving. If you realize you made a mistake when you are driving, you can wave to show the person you are sorry. If someone has road rage and is angry at you, do not respond. Try to just keep driving as calmly as possible and get out of their way. Do not confront or challenge an angry driver, and do not drive when you are angry or upset. Driving takes a lot of concentration and patience.
Buying a car
Is it your first time buying a car in the USA? Buying a car is a serious commitment. We recommend that you have an American friend or mentor help you the first time you buy a car. You can sometimes get a loan from the bank or credit union to purchase a car. But if you get a loan, you will pay interest on it every month so the car will cost more than if you saved money to buy it with cash.
When you have paid for your car or paid off your loan completely, you will get the “title” to your car – the official document proving you own it.
How to buy a car
It is generally cheaper to buy a used car than a new car. You can buy a used car from the owner or from a car dealer. You can negotiate on the price. If you are buying a used car, it is a good idea to have a mechanic look at the car before you buy it to make sure that nothing is wrong with the car. You will also want to test drive the car. This means you will take it for a drive and check to make sure everything is working before you buy it.
When you buy a used car, you need to make sure that the car’s “title” (which shows proof that the person you are buying it from owns it) is clear. You should get the car title notarized (officially signed) and make sure you get a receipt, even if it is hand-written, from the owner of the car.
Requirements for buying and owning a car
- To buy a car, you will need a driver’s license.
- You will have to register the car with the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state to get license plates, which are required.
- You will also have to pay for monthly insurance to drive the car and gas and maintenance for the car.
These are all just suggestions to help you better understand driving in the USA. None of this information is intended as legal advice. Any questions about driving should be directed to state DMV offices or local police.