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Important laws in the U.S. you should know

The laws in every country are different. The U.S. has many laws at the federal, state, and local levels. Find a list of important laws you should know to avoid breaking the law and stay safe.


Civil rights  

Everyone has the right to equal treatment and opportunity. This includes while at work, school, or going to the doctor. Federal law prohibits discrimination. You can not treat someone unfairly because of:

  • Age
  • Disability 
  • National origin 
  • Race and color 
  • Religion or faith
  • Gender identity and sexual orientation 

Learn more about civil rights and what to do if your rights are violated.

Serious crimes

Serious crimes in the U.S. that are punishable by law include:

  • Homicide or taking the life of another person
  • Threats, physical assault, and kidnapping
  • Theft, stealing, or destruction of someone’s property 
  • Viewing, producing, or distributing child pornography
  • Rape and sexual assault involving sex without consent
    • In most states, children under 18 years of age cannot legally consent to have sex. 

Know what to do when you are stopped or arrested by police

Immigration

  • You must have a valid travel document to enter and exit the United States. You can be arrested and deported for entering the U.S. without permission.
  • It is illegal to overstay your visa. Failing to leave when your visa expires is a violation of immigration law. 
  • Immigrants 18 years or older must carry valid identification and immigration documents on them at all times. If an immigration officer asks for your papers, you should show them if you have them.
  • You cannot lie on an immigration application. You must always tell the truth to an immigration officer.

Learn more about immigrant rights.

Driving 

  • You must have a valid driver’s license to drive in the U.S. Some states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for learner’s permits and driver’s licenses.
  • You are required to register your car in the state you live in. 
  • You need to sign up for basic insurance to cover costs in case of an accident. Keep proof of insurance and registration in your car at all times.
  • You must update your driver’s license when you move to a new state. 
  • Everyone must wear a seatbelt whether driving or riding as a passenger. Infants and children must be in car seats.
  • It is illegal to leave children unattended in a car in some states. 
  • You must follow all traffic rules. It is illegal to speed and run red lights and stop signs. 
  • You must stop if you get in a car accident. Check to see if anyone is injured. Call 911 if they need medical help. 
  • It is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
  • It is against the law to text or use phones while driving in many states. 

Learn more about driving laws and find translated driver’s manuals for your state.

Drugs and alcohol 

  • It is illegal for people under the age of 21 to buy alcohol and cigarettes. Some states allow people under 21 to drink alcohol with their parent’s permission in a private home. 
  • In most states, it is against the law to drink alcohol in public. There are restrictions on where you can smoke too.
  • It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol. In many states, having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 % means you are intoxicated. 
  • It is illegal to produce, sell, and use certain controlled substances. Illegal drugs include methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in most states.
    • Marijuana for recreational use is legal in 19 states. Medical marijuana is legal in 38 states.

Work 

  • It is against the law to work in the U.S. without authorization. Everyone must prove they are eligible to work.
  • You must pay federal and state taxes if you earn more than a certain amount. Taxes are due every April 15th.

Learn more about workers’ rights and how to pay taxes in the USA.

Child and parent

  • Parents are responsible for taking care of their children until they turn 18 years old. Parents must provide children with enough food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, supervision, and protection. 
  • Parents cannot abuse or neglect their children. Parents cannot physically, mentally, or sexually harm or threaten to harm their children.  
  • Children are required to attend school for a certain number of years. In most states, children who are 5-16 years old have to attend school. 

Learn more about child and parenting laws and education laws and student rights.

Marriage and sex 

  • It is a crime to force someone to marry against their will. Family members cannot physically or emotionally abuse, threaten, or deceive someone to get married if they do not want to. 
  • You can marry at 18 without a parent’s permission in the majority of the USA. Many states allow children 16-17 years old to get married with their parent’s consent.
  • Same-sex marriage is legal. 
  • You can file for divorce without your spouse’s approval. 
  • Polygamy is illegal. You cannot be married to more than one person at the same time.
  • Domestic violence is a crime. You cannot physically, emotionally, sexually, and financially harm your partner. Marital rape, or forcing a spouse to have sex without consent, is illegal.  

Learn more about family laws.  

Housing 

  • You have to pay your rent or mortgage on time. 
  • You have to follow the rules and regulations in your lease.
  • You must not disturb your neighbors. It is illegal to threaten, harass, or scare your neighbors. 
  • Trespassing is against the law. You cannot go onto someone’s property without permission.

Learn more about your housing rights.

Animal and hunting

  • States require a license to hunt wild animals, such as ducks, deer, elks, and moose. Many states also require a license to fish in fresh and saltwater. 
  • It is illegal to slaughter an animal outside your private home or an approved slaughterhouse. 
  • Animal cruelty and neglect are against the law. It is illegal to torture, overwork, and kill animals. It is illegal to refuse to provide proper food, shelter, and medical care or abandon animals. 

Medical

  • You cannot access someone’s health records without their permission.
  • It is illegal to share prescribed medication. Taking prescription drugs without medical advice can have serious health risks. 

Learn about your rights at the doctor’s and at a women’s health appointment.

Other laws 

  • All citizens and immigrant men ages 18-25 must register with the selective service in case of a military draft. Citizens have to register before turning 18. Immigrants, including refugees, asylum seekers, and green card holders, must register within one month of arriving in the U.S.
  • Littering is illegal. Throwing trash on roadways, parks, and bodies of water has penalties, including fines. 
  • States prohibit disorderly conduct in public, including fighting, being drunk, and indecent exposure. Loitering, or standing or waiting somewhere without any clear reason, is also illegal. 
  • Jaywalking is illegal in many cities. This is crossing a street without walking on a designated crosswalk. 
  • Gambling is illegal in many states. Each state has restrictions on different types of gambling.
  • Giving and receiving bribes is illegal. Bribery involves exchanging something of value, such as money or gifts, to persuade someone to take certain actions. 
  • Downloading and sharing music, movies, games, books, or other creative work without permission is a violation of copyright laws. 
  • Most cities require permits to hold special events in public spaces, such as parks.  
Some laws, such as jaywalking, are not often enforced. It is important to note that black and brown people in the USA can be more likely to get in trouble for minor offenses. It is safer to just follow the law and avoid any trouble.

What happens when someone breaks the law? 

People who break the law may face penalties depending on the type of crime, such as: 

  • Have to pay a fine 
  • Perform community service 
  • Be put into jail or prison 
  • Lose certain rights or privileges 

Resources 

Find laws 

  • USA.gov offers general information about laws and legal issues 
  • Find Law and Nolo explain specific laws that are easy to understand. 

Report violations 

  • You can report local or state law violations to your local police. Learn how to contact the police
  • You can report federal law violations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) online or over the phone.
  • Find more information about reporting crime, including hate crime, human trafficking, sexual assault, or misconduct by police and judges. 

Get legal help 

Getting legal advice can help you understand your rights and options. Find free or low-cost legal help near you. 

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If you are trying to get a green card, citizenship, bring a relative to the USA, or have other immigration cases… remember, you are not alone in your process. There are lawyers and organizations ready to help you for free or at a low cost. Learn how to find legal help.

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The information on this page comes from USA.gov, the ACLU, FindLaw, and other trusted sources. We aim to offer easy to understand information that is updated regularly. This information is not legal advice.

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