Updated: Nov 25, 2022
In Germany, everyone over the age of 16 has an identity card and, if necessary, a passport. The german driver's license serves – who would have thought it – as a driver's license. In the U.S., all this is summarized in one document: the American "Driver's License".
The driver's license, a government-issued identification document, not only entitles the American to drive a vehicle, but also serves several additional purposes.
Among other things, it can prove whether you are an organ donor, whether you can legally buy tobacco or alcohol or go to clubs. It is also required for flights within the USA, for visits to authorities, when taking out insurance or when applying for a loan.
Each state has its own driver's license, which differs slightly in appearance and requirements. After moving, the state gives you a grace period of usually 30-90 days in which you can drive with your foreign driver's license.
US driver's license application
The application and exams take place at the local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). It is best to call ahead of time to find out which office issues driver’s licenses, whether you need an appointment and if any other documents (than those listed below) are required.
Legal residence (e.g. valid green card, foreign passport with visa & I-94 form or valid work permit document EAD)
Legal Residency in the state (e.g. copy of the rental agreement, utility bill, insurance contract or bank account)
Identity (e.g., original or certified copy of birth certificate, valid foreign passport)
When all documents are approved, you submit a “Driver's License Application” (here an example for Florida) that can be downloaded and filled out prior to the appointment.
Photographs and fingerprints will be taken along with paying the fee (usually around $35-$55). After passing the vision exam, you take the theoretical test digitally and have the results displayed immediately.
Then it is on to the practical driving test. In contrast to Germany, this is not too difficult. If you can drive reasonably well, you do not need to worry here.
After successfully passing the test, a temporary driving permit is issued, and the actual, official driver's license will be sent by mail within the next 4 weeks.
The DMV can only issue the driver’s license for the duration of your legal residence. So, if you have a two-year I-94 or EAD, your driver's license will also only be valid up to the expiration date.
In order to renew your license, you return with all your documents to the DMV, including proof of the new length of residency. However, only the vision test is required for renewal.
Tip #1: Understand a foreign culture.
Local authorities are often unaware of differences in international mentalities or regulations. Don't be surprised if someone shows impatience or rudeness. I have experienced situations in which my questions, language barriers or misunderstandings have led to problems. It helps if you have a local to accompany you!
Tip #2: Know alternatives.
If you don't have or don't want to have a driver's license, you can apply for an identification card (ID card) from your responsible DMV, which then fulfills the identification function. All you have to do is fill out an application form, get fingerprinted and photographed, and pay the fee.
If you do not have the documents mentioned above, or other problems arise, you may still get the driver's license. It is important to do research and to know the individual situation.
Since this is a legal matter, it can be reassuring to ask an expert for help.