Moving to California: how to apply for your California driver licence

So you've landed in sunny California on your new adventure on a shiny resident visa, and you've read somewhere that your overseas driving licence can only be used for 10 days. 10 days? Did you read that right?

Yep, I'm afraid you did. If you're coming over from another US state you've got until your current licence expires, but if you're from overseas (like me) you need to have a California driver licence if you are considered a California resident. And according to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), this means you do any of the following:

- Vote in a California election
- Pay resident tuition
- File for a homeowner's property tax exemption, or
- Receive "any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents"

See: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl05

We moved over here on an L1/L2 visa, which is basically one that global companies use to transfer staff between international offices (L1 for the employee; L2 for me as a spouse). So given my husband has a job out here and gets paid by his employer to a US bank account, and that we as a family receive health insurance through his work, we deem ourselves as receiving privileges that would not be extended to nonresidents.

So off we set off on our merry (ha!) adventure to get ourselves a matching pair of California driving licences. We did some things right but quite a few things wrong, so I've jotted down the ideal process for anyone who'd like to skip over our mistakes. From the benefit of hindsight, I bring you:

How to get your California driver's licence in 13 steps (including some tips you won't see listed on the DMV website)

1. Arrive in California. Sounds obvious, but while you can initiate things before you get to the US it's much easier just to kick it all off when you're here.

2. Get your phone sorted with a US SIM. We did some research and opted for T-mobile because they do an easy 30-day deal for $40 that you can drop any time. Plus their SIM cards worked in both of our own handsets, and they have shops ("stores" if you're getting into the lingo) everywhere. The reason this part is important is because you need to note your mobile number on your DMV application and they send text reminders when you have your practical test coming up so generally it's helpful to have a number you can register at the start.

3. HOLD OFF on applying for a social security number yet. Sure, a social security number (SSN) is super important because companies need it before they can pay you (it's basically your tax registration number, like a national insurance number in the UK), BUT once you submit an application it can take around 2-3 weeks for your card (and therefore number) to come through to you in the post. And if you've already submitted an SSN application the DMV will make you wait until you know your SSN and can enter it on your form. We didn't know this at first so my husband had to wait over two weeks before he could start to apply for his driver's licence because he told them his SSN application was in progress. However, the DMV do NOT require you to have an SSN, so my advice would be to start things off with DMV first, then sort out your SSN the following day (or even that afternoon if you're super lucky. See step 7.) However, California has recently introduced what they call a REAL ID option, for which you do have to supply a social security number. The only real (ha ha) advantage I can see at the moment is that a REAL ID is sufficient photo ID for domestic flights whereas otherwise you have to carry a passport. Given I carry 2 passports most times I fly it's not a big deal to me, but of course your circumstances may be different. Also it's worth noting that you can always upgrade a regular licence to a REAL ID so I'd still be tempted to hold off on the SSN in favour of being two weeks closer to driving, but it's your call.

3b. Now will probably won't apply to many of you, but if you already have a social security number but you need to update your name on it, this is the exception: you MUST visit the social security office and update your details first. And make sure they process the change! I happened to have an SSN from my student exchange year which was in my maiden name, and so I duly went the social security office and handed them a form with my updated details on it. Because I was also going to apply for a work permit the employee told me I would just be issued a new card when my work permit came through (separate process but it links in with the social security office). However I then came a cropper when I was at the DMV and they tried to process my application and - FAIL - the system couldn't verify me against the social security database using the name and date of birth I had provided on my photo ID. I even showed them my marriage certificate but it was no use: their system pings the social security system so you need to ensure the social security system has been updated first.

4. Fill out the initial DMV application form online (https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/forms/dl/dl44) and write down / take a photo of the number at the end. They do NOT email or text this to you and you need it when you get to the DMV office so make sure you make a note of it.

5. Gather up the fee in dollars, take your hotel room pen, and assemble all of the necessary paperwork (see https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl05 again for what's required). Make sure your own name is clearly specified: our lease agreement was in my husband's name but showing that, along with my marriage certificate, wasn't good enough. And if you're in an apartment make sure the full apartment address is clearly noted: again, our first lease document just had the building name and didn't state our apartment number so it was unacceptable on those fronts too. Oh, and I suggest bringing the right money in cash: I think DMV accepts debit cards but not necessarily credit cards so cash is the safest option. I also recommend taking your own pen: each employee probably has a pen at their counter but you don't want to be that person who has to ask for a pen if not.

6. Make sure the lid is tightly closed on your water bottle and set off in the morning for your nearest DMV. As I headed towards the DMV for the second time, now with a lease agreement which noted my name and had the full address spelled out, I went to put my sunglasses away in my handbag only to find my water had spilled and was slowly seeping up all my precious paperwork. My heart sank! Much fanning ensued and thankfully it was all intact enough to be accepted. But best not to repeat my mistake!

7. Accept the kindly-proferred DMV handbook someone will be giving out at the door (or ask for it or not), follow the line, take your ticket, and sit and wait. And wait. The handbook (which contains everything you need to know in order to pass the theory test) is about 90 pages long from memory, but don't worry, you'll have time to read it all. Make sure you do read it ALL as you could be asked questions that you wouldn't think you'd need to know, such as what the acceptable alcohol level is for a minor, or what the maximum sentence would be if you fail to stop for a peace officer, for example.

8. Listen and watch for your ticket being called and be nice to the person who processes your application. Now I'm sure you're all nice people already but if you've been waiting for a couple of hours (yes, it can easily take 2 or 3 hours to be seen) and you're a bit nervous about remembering 90 pages of theory test information then you might be inclined to be a bit perfunctory with your allocated DMV employee. However, these people have the power to bypass the queue if they like so if you do end up having a problem with some of your paperwork if they like you they'll write a little note on your slip of paper saying you can come straight up to their desk the next day. NO more 2-hour waits! Given it took me three visits in total to process my paperwork I was REALLY grateful to good old Josh on desk 5 for letting me head straight on over to his personal desk queue on occasions two and three!

9. Take the theory test that same day. Now this is why I say to go in the morning. You can certainly rock up to the DMV in the afternoon and as long as you enter the offices before 5pm they'll give you a ticket to do all the application part that day as the staff don't leave until the last person has been seen (what a job?!), but if you get successfully processed before 4.30pm you can then go into the test area and sit the theory test (4.30pm was the cut-off in the downtown DMV; it may differ in different offices). If you end up missing the cut-off I believe you can go straight into the test area the next morning, but that's a bit of extra hassle so I'd recommend going in the morning so you can do it all on the same day. If you've read the book thoroughly you'll be fine - there is a generous allowance for incorrect answers - and if you do fail I think you can take it again quite soon afterwards.

10. As soon as you've passed your theory test, call or text your nearest and dearest with the happy news and then jump online and book your practical test. These appointments go quickly so typically you'll have to wait at least two or three weeks to get an appointment. Some DMVs have reputations for having higher or lower pass rates so you might want to research this first, but there is no fee to cancel and re-book so I'd advise booking a test appointment as soon as you are able to and you can always change it later. Also, if you use a driving school for the practical (like I did), they're usually very accommodating about trying to ensure they get an instructor for you for that time, so don't worry about trying to do it while you're on the phone to them to verify their availability at the same time like I did!

11. NOW you can go ahead and apply for your social security number (if you chose to do the DMV process first).

12. Sit your practical test, and a word of advice: be super cautious around pedestrian crossings. I's best to stay completely still if someone is crossing the road. I failed the first time for carrying on through a crossing when the pedestrian was three lanes away AND there was an island in the middle of the road, and the second time I failed for starting to roll forward after the pedestrians had crossed past my lane. Then again, my husband chalked up multiple minor "errors" for slowing down as he approached pedestrian crossings if there were no pedestrians in sight because, instead of showing caution, he apparently should have kept ploughing on! Mental!

13. Keep the faith. It took me three visits to the DMV for the paperwork, and three attempts to sit the practical test (at 3 different locations as I kept trying to find one with the fewest pedestrian areas, ha ha!). But I finally got there. You will too!


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