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How to get a New York driver’s license as a foreigner

In the past, when I used to think about driving in the States, I imagined the well-known scene from any romantic comedy. A teenage boy picks up a girl he was taking to prom by his dad’s car. I thought everyone could drive in America. Why can’t I? I took my first driving classes in Poland at the age of 18… Then some more when I was 21… And then I failed the exam twice and got really discouraged. Almost ten years from my first class, I got my driver’s license in New York and I can help you get your own!

Get a driver's license in New York
Get a driver’s license in New York

The thing is, you may not really require a driver’s license in New York. The subway system is a godsend, most places are easily walkable, and biking in Manhattan is my favorite thing to do. But what if you suddenly wake up with the feeling that you need to go hiking in upstate New York? Or, what if you move out of the city? Trust me, eventually, you are going to need your license.

Why get a driver’s license in New York?

Now, why did I decide to get mine in New York and not in Poland, where I’m from? My reasons were simple:

  • I was living in New York at that time, and I decided not to wait any longer. I wanted to start driving as soon as I could.
  • The total cost of the course and exam is exactly the same in these two countries, which makes it much cheaper in America if you also work in America.
  • It is easier. You can take the exam in any car of your choice. Even if you choose automatic gear, the license allows you to drive manual gear as well.* The exam takes up to 10 minutes and it’s really simple, as long as the examiner is sure you drive safely.
  • You get to drive in the US and Canada.

* I wouldn’t recommend doing this without training first. But it is possible.

These photos come from my road trip across Eastern Canada – you can read the story here!

Now, let me tell you the few easy steps and my tips on how to get the driver’s license in New York!

What is a driver’s permit?

In order to start learning how to drive, you are going to require a driver’s permit. This document looks very similar to the actual license and lets you start taking classes at a driving school, as well as practice driving. The New York permit lets you drive only accompanied by a person over the age of 21, who has a license of his/her own. You are not allowed to cross bridges, tunnels or drive in a park, in some specifically designated areas, and in the road test areas.

Step 1: Apply for a driver’s permit

How to get it? First, you need to sign up for a theoretical exam and study for it on your own. You can find the book to learn from on the website of the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you want to boost your chances of passing it with flying colors, you can typically buy a set of 50 most common examination questions from your driving school. I recommend studying both, back to back, for best results and confidence!

Pay the fee

You will need approx. $70-100. The cost is on a sliding scale – the older you are, the cheaper it is. That covers both the theoretical and the upcoming practical exam and issuing the permit and license. You are going to pay the fee before taking your theoretical exam.

Present necessary documents

You are also going to need to confirm your identity and the fact that you inhabit the state of New York. You can be a temporary visitor – that was my case. Your license does not lose it’s validity after your visa expires.

You will have to fill out an application form and present it along with your social security number, proof of identity (passport), and at least two proofs of residence in the state (for me it was a paystub and a bank statement).

Right after you do it, you can take the theoretical exam. It’s a computer-based test which takes approx. 10 minutes. My score was 100%!

Step 2: Learn how to drive!

Now you can go to a driving school and sign up for the obligatory 6-hour theory class. This is often done in less than 6 hours, however, for your safety, I recommend that you study it on your own.

Then, you can select a package of driving lessons – from 1 to as many classes you need. However, this is not required, if you have a family member or a friend who will drive with you. You can also rent a car for your exam from the driving school. The school’s representative will then take you to the exam, wait for you to finish it and then drive you back to the school. I selected 6 hours of driving (45 mins each), and car rental for the exam. Dri

Step 3: Driving exam

The practical exam consists of driving around the city, parallel parking, and a K-turn. That’s all! If you practice the maneuvers, you will certainly nail this part of the test. It is important that you are mindful when driving and show the examiner that you know the rules and drive safely but dynamically.

You can lose up to 30% of total points and still pass. If your score is high enough, the examiner will immediately print a temporary license for you, which allows you to drive for 90 days, until you get your actual driver’s license.

Will I pass and get my driver’s license…?

All I’m gonna say is – if I could do it, so can you! It has been a year and, of course, I’m still learning how to drive. Only experiencing a large mileage in front of the wheel will truly let you get fully acquainted with all sorts of road conditions. Good luck!

Do you have a driver’s license? How old were you when you got it?

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  • Josefine

    That’s so fun how you took your drivers license in New York! I got mine in Denmark when I was 18 but I constantly have to renew my international license for traveling. It’s cheap but takes such a long time (like 1.5 hours waiting in line) every time – and it only lasts a year. This would’ve been a fun alternative 🙂

    • Woman Restated

      Oh yes! It works in the US and Canada. I’m pretty sure though that everywhere else in the world you would need an international one as well. :/

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