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International student guide to driver's licenses and car insurance

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Everything international students need to know to get a license and car insurance

Getting a U.S. driver’s license for international students involves some diligence when it comes to paperwork and knowing the rules of the road when taking the written and driving test. 

.S.License for international studentsThe following is an overview of the licensing process in the U.S. as well as some general information about car insurance and the rules of the road.

Will my foreign license work in U.S.?

In many cases, the answer may be yes; it really depends on the state you’re calling your new home.

In most cases, if you have a valid license from your country, along with an International Driving Permit (IDP) you should be able to drive legally in the U.S. An IDP translates the information on your driver’s license into 10 different languages. It is not a replacement for your license and you must carry both to be legal out on the road.

The U.S. does not issue IDP’s to foreign visitors so you must get your IDP in your home country before entering the United States.

"International students may not need to get a local driver's license," says Amey Telkikar with Deccan Law in Long Beach, California. “As an example, in California, if you are a visitor over 18 years of age, and have a valid driver's license from your home country, you may drive in the state without getting a California driver's license, as long as your home country license remains valid."

Azar Taufique of Richardson, Texas, arrived in the United States as a student from Pakistan back in 2008. He was able to use the license he was issued in Pakistan until he decided to apply for a U.S. license. “For one year, I kept driving on my own country's International Driving Permit because it was accepted as a license in the U.S. as a reciprocal agreement between U.S. and Pakistan,” he says.

If you decide to move to the U.S. permanently, a local driver’s license will probably become a requirement. “If you become a California resident, you must get a California driver's license within 10 days,” says Telkikar. Most other states have similar rules, so check with your state's DMV for details.

Also, bear in mind that if you want to own a car in the U.S., you will need car insurance, and most companies will require that you have a U.S. license before selling you a car insurance policy. An IDP allows you to drive but not insure a car.

The paperwork is essential when getting a U.S. license as foreign driver

Paperwork is a major component of the licensing process and getting it right is important.

Navigating the world of paperwork and red tape may end up being harder than the written and driving test that you will have to take later in the process. It is imperative that you keep track of all of your paperwork and it is highly recommended that you keep a neat and secure file folder so you always know where your documents are when you need them.

Let’s dive in to the paperwork portion of your driver’s license quest:

First, determine if you are eligible. According the U.S Immigration and Custom Enforcement policies any F, M or J nonimmigrant in lawful status may apply for a driver’s license or ID card.

Once you have established that you are eligible, follow these steps:

Contact your Designated School Official: The driver licensing process is managed at the state level and your school can help you with the details of your particular state. Your school should have a Designated School Official (DSO) who can help guide you through the process and familiarize you with requirements of your particular state.  

“My number one piece of advice is make sure you speak with your Designated School Official from the very beginning. They have the knowledge to ensure your application for a driver's license will go smoothly,” advises Telkikar.

Be aware of timeline factors: “Your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record must be in Active status before you can request a driver’s license,” says Telkikar. Wait at least two days after your SEVIS record has gone active and at least 10 days from the date of your entry into the U.S. to start the driver license process.

Many states will require that you have at least six months left on your I-20 form or form DS-2019 in order to be eligible for a driver’s license. Check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to see if this is a requirement.

Verify your data: The integrity of your paperwork is key. “The small but vital details, such as making sure you are applying at the right time and with the right documents, or making sure your name and biographical details are the same on every document, are extremely important when seeking a driver’s license,” says Telkikar.  

Verify that all of your information in your SEVIS record is accurate and matches the data on your supporting documentation that you will take to the DMV. If they do not match, you will be unable to get a drivers license.

The required paperwork will vary by state so contact your local DMV or talk to your DSO to determine your state’s requirements. In most states, the following will be required:

  • Valid passport with visa
  • Form I-94 which is an arrival/departure record
  • Form I-20 which is issued to F or M students or Form DS-2019 for a J exchange visitor
  • EAD card which is form I-766 employment authorization document
  • Form I-797 Notice of Action
  • Social Security card or a Social Security Association (SSA) form SSA-L676 which is a refusal to process SSN application
  • Proof of legal residence

“Generally, new international students do not qualify for a social security number so they have to sign an affidavit stating they are not eligible for the social security number,” says Ann Badmus, a partner at Scheef & Stone, L.L.P. in Dallas. Form SSA-L676 fills this gap.

The required paperwork will vary and this list is not exhaustive so check with your local DMV before heading down to their office. Failure to have all of the correct paperwork will result in a delay in the application process. 

The basics of getting a driver’s license

Once you have all of your documents in order, it’s time to head to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The driver’s license process is controlled at the state level so the exact procedures for getting your license will vary, but most states have some elements of the following:

Pass a vision exam: Your vision will be tested. Requirements vary but as an example, in New York, you must have visual acuity of at least 20/40 in either or both eyes, with or without corrective lenses.

Pass a written test: You will be required to pass a written test on the rules of the road. The length and difficulty of the test can vary by state, but in general expect 20-30 questions and a pass rate of roughly 80 percent.

Be sure to study, the tests are not as easy as you would hope. A CarInsurance.com driver’s license test survey found that 50 percent of drivers who took a sample test failed. Women averaged a score of 78 percent, compared with 71 percent for men. 

Your local DMV should have a study guide and take our practice driver’s license test to see how you do.

Driving test: It’s time to get behind the wheel and show off your skills. Again, the skills test will vary but be prepared to drive in town, on the highway and do some parallel parking. The tester will ask you questions regarding the law while you are driving so be prepared.

Scheduling your test can take awhile and the process can be frustrating.

“The hardest part for me was the number of trips I had to make to the DMV before getting a driver’s license,” says Taufique.

“As an international student, you don't have a car and you have to take rides and request someone to drive you to the DMV so that you can take the test in their car and if you don’t pass the first time (it took me three tries) you have to ask the same person again. This can be a little challenging.”

In most states, you will need to schedule your test in advance.

The process will vary by state, but many states have gone to a graduated license program so depending on your age you may have to get a learner’s permit and log a certain number of hours behind the wheel with a driving instructor.

Check this the Governors Highway Association licensing laws website see the various drivers license requirements by state.

It’s time for car insurance

Now that you have managed to secure a driver’s license, it’s time for car insurance. Here are just a few things you need to know about car insurance in the United States:

It’s Required: In the U.S., drivers in every state except New Hampshire are required to carry car insurance. The required coverage levels will vary by state as car insurance requirements are set at the state level. See the required minimum liability coverage levels by state here.

Brief explanation of insurance types: There are a variety of coverages when it comes to car insurance, some are required while others are optional. Having an understanding of the various insurance types is key when shopping for coverage.

Liability: This is a required coverage in every state and covers medical bills and the repair costs that you cause to another person or their property. This coverage will also pay for a legal defense if you are sued and pay any judgment or settlements up to policy limits.

Liability insurance also protects you if you are driving another person’s car with their permission.
Liability insurance breaks down into three components. Bodily injury (think medical bills) per person is the first number and is the maximum amount the policy will pay for each person’s injuries. The second number is the maximum amount that will be paid out per incident and the third number is the maximum amount for property damage (think the other person’s car) per accident.  
As an example, 100/300/50 breaks down to $100,000 bodily injury per person, $300,000 bodily injury per incident and $50,000 for property damage.

An important thing to remember, liability coverage does not cover your medical bills, or the cost to repair your vehicle.

Collision: When it comes to repairing your own vehicle after an accident, collision is the coverage you need. Collision pays to repair your vehicle regardless of who was at fault. You will need to choose a deductible (the amount you pay before insurance kicks in) with common deductible amounts ranging from $100 to $1,000. A higher deductible will lower your premium.

If you have loan or lease on your vehicle, the lender will require that you carry this coverage.

Comprehensive: This insurance will pay to repair damage to your vehicle that is not caused by an accident. It covers fire, falling objects, explosions, earthquake, windstorms, hail, flood, vandalism, riot, and even contact with animals. It will also cover windshield and other glass damage. You must choose a deductible, common amounts range from $100 to $1,000.

Again, if you have a loan or lease on the vehicle, your lender will require comprehensive coverage.

Medical Payments or Personal Injury Protection (PIP): This coverage will pay for your medical bills and any passengers in your vehicle at the time of the accident regardless of who is at fault. PIP is a required coverage in some states. This is a recommended coverage if you don’t have health insurance.

Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage: This will pay for damage to your vehicle and medical costs if you are hit by a driver that is uninsured or underinsured. Requirements for this coverage vary by state.

Required levels are usually never enough: The state minimum levels are just that, minimums. In most cases (and especially in a serious accident) the required coverage levels will not be enough. 

If you can afford it, upping your liability coverage levels is highly recommended. Most industry experts recommend bodily injury limits of 100/300/50.

Hospital bills can add up very quickly and the state minimum required coverage levels will be used up faster than you can imagine in even a semi-serious accident. If you are underinsured and are responsible for the accident, the person you hit can take you to court for damages not covered by your insurance policy.

Lawsuits can be extremely expensive to defend and a courtroom loss can leave you on the hook for some major expenses.

If you don’t own a car consider non-owner car insurance

If you don’t have a car but rent frequently or are borrowing friend’s cars on a regular basis, consider a non-owners insurance policy. These policies offer bodily injury liability, property damage liability, in some cases medical payments and uninsured/underinsured coverage is included as well. 

These policies do not include comprehensive, collision or rental reimbursement.

Expect your insurance bills to be high

As a student with a newly minted drivers license, the deck is stacked against you when it comes to low car insurance rates.

A 2014 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study looked at teen crash rates in New Jersey and found that the first months of licensure were by far the most dangerous. Crash rates for young drivers dropped 26 percent over the first six months of driving and by the end of the first year of licensure, crash rates were down 45 percent.

Young, inexperienced drivers are some of the most dangerous drivers out on the road and they pay a price for it. In most cases, insurance rates for new, young (under 25) are sky high and this is due to their inexperience behind the wheel.

Expect your rates to be fairly high for the first year or two and then start to decline as you close in on the age of 25. Rates for males will almost always be higher than for females, statistics show that males are more likely to get into an accident.

While rates will vary depending on a number of factors, this average car insurance rates by age chart will give you an idea of what you might be paying for car insurance.

Quick tips to lower your premium

Here are a few tips on how to save a bit of money on your car insurance:

  •  Shop around: This is the best way to lower your premium. Get quotes from at least five insurance companies and make sure you are comparing apples to apples in regards to coverage levels and deductible.
  • Keep your record clean: This is key for new drivers. A ticket or accident will dramatically increase your insurance costs.
  • Maintain your credit rating: Your credit score is actually a big factor when determining your rate in nearly all states so maintaining your credit rating will help lower your insurance costs.
  • Raise your deductible: If you can afford it, increase your deductible, this will lower your premium. Make sure you can afford to cover the deductible in the event you are in an accident.
  • Ask for a discount: If you are getting good grades, most insurers offer a good student discount, which can lower your premium by up to 15 percent. Most insurers expect at least a B average. Other discounts are available, such as bundling, passing a defensive driving course and even going paperless on your policy.

What to do if you are pulled over

Here are a few tips on what to do if you are pulled over while out cruising:

  • If a police officer is following you with their lights or siren on, pull over to the right hand side of the road and stop as soon as it is safe.
  • Turn the engine off, roll your window down and leave your hands on the wheel where the officer can see them as they approach your vehicle.
  • Always be polite and answer any questions and requests in a respectful manner. The officer will most likely ask to see your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. You should always have these three documents whenever you are driving.
  • If you have questions in regard to why you were pulled over, the officer should answer them and if you are issued a ticket make sure you understand why you were ticketed and what are the next steps. You usually can mail in a payment or go to court if you feel the ticket was unjustified.

What to do if you are in an accident

Accidents happen and knowing how to handle the situation is important. Here are a few tips on what to do if you are in a car accident:

  • Never admit fault. You may be tempted to apologize or say the accident was your fault, but accidents tend to happen quickly and you should let the insurance companies sort out who was responsible.
  • Call the police. They may not come out to a minor traffic accident, but may issue a case number over the phone.
  • Take lots of photos and notes. Use your phone to take photos of the accident and notes on exactly what happened. Take photos of the damage to your vehicle and the other person’s vehicle. Your insurance adjuster will want to see the photos and your notes.

If the police do not come out to the accident scene, be sure to collect the following information from the other driver as well as contact info for any witnesses:

  • Driver’s license number.
  • Insurance company name and policy number.
  • Basic contact info such as name, address and phone number.

Contact your insurance company as soon as you get home to report the accident.

Driving in the United States

Staying safe on the road is everyone’s goal and driving in the U.S. may be quite different from driving in your home country.

Learning the rules of the road in a new country can be a challenge. “For me, the hard thing to learn about American driving was to be extra cautious and careful about stop signs and speed limits,” says Taufique.

Here are just a few tips to help you navigate U.S. roads:

  • At intersections, American drivers defer to the vehicle that arrived at the intersection first. If two vehicles arrive at roughly the same time, the driver on the right has the right of way, unless they have a red STOP or yellow YIELD sign.
  • Don't honk your horn unless you need to get the attention of another driver or pedestrian. Honking tends to be less common in the U.S. then other countries.
  • In almost all states, seatbelts are required so buckle up or you may be getting a ticket.
  • Accidents and tickets will have a big impact on your insurance rates. Stay accident and ticket free if you want to keep you car insurance premium affordable.
  • Speed limits vary by state and the type of road you are driving. Speed limits are clearly posted on most roads and can range from 25 M.P.H. in residential areas up to 75 M.P.H. on major interstates.

These are just a few rules of the road, and laws vary by state so make sure you study the road laws in your particular state. 

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