Ideal if you’re wondering how to register a vehicle or get a driving license in The States

Travelling in the United States can present some pretty abrasive juxtapositions, but one stands out more than any other. The freewheelin’, anything goes spirit of the open road, where the world (or at least, the country) is your oyster, is only filled with endless possibilities if you can actually afford a car there.

Because to those on foot or public transport, elements of the American travel dream are more of a nightmare; impenetrable, prohibitively expensive and always unpredictable. Yep, if you’re going to do things right out here, whether you’re taking a road trip or you’re moving to the country, then you’re going to need some wheels. For expats abroad, here are 6 essential tips for driving in the USA.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMITS

Firstly, you’re going to want to do this thing legally and above board. Though the roads may seem vast and unpopulated by other drivers, ‘taking the wheel’ for a while, without the proper documentation and licences, is heavily punishable.

The US Government’s official website advises that along with a valid driving license, many states also demand that short term visitors also have an International Driving Permit (IDP), cautioning that ‘’if you want to rent a car, you may need both your license and an IDP’’. 

They go on to say that ‘’The United States does not issue IDPs to foreign visitors. To get an IDP, contact the motor vehicle department of the country that issued your driver’s license’’.

Specifically to residents of the UK, the two countries have an agreement meaning a full, valid UK driver’s licence permits you to rent a car in the States, though your licence has to be at least a year old.

If you’re planning to spend a significant amount of time in the US, or you’re hoping to buy a car in the country, then it’s best to be familiar with driving licence law more thoroughly…

GETTING A US DRIVING LICENSE 

Some nationalities have bilateral agreements that permit a driver’s licence exchange. These include Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, South Korea & Taiwan. Sadly, this doesn’t apply to Brits. 

According to expats.com, “Obtaining a U.S. driver’s licence is done by filling out an application, taking a theoretical written exam, a behind-the-wheel driving test, and paying all the associated fees. Visit the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in your resident state to apply for your driver’s licence. Though each state is different, most require a Social Security Number, a passport, proof of residence in that state (such as a bill or mail addressed to you), and your visa or green card to prove legal presence in the U.S.”

Should you become a US resident, be warned that you can’t just swap your UK licence for a US version. Instead, you will legally require a US driver’s license, which is specifically issued by the state you’re now living in. You will also have to take a local driving test. 

Fortunately, there is usually a grace period after you settle in the States, during which time you need to get your US license to continue to drive legally in the country. The actual time varies hugely from state to state; in most, it’s six months, but in California, it’s only ten days from the moment you move into your new home. Check scrupulously with the specific state law via your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

BUYING A CAR IN THE STATES 

If you’re looking to buy a car in the States as a foreigner, there are a lot of considerations which will affect your purchase. A fair amount of foresight is required here, as you should factor in your projected length of stay before deciding on what type of vehicle to buy. 

It’s a good idea to find an expat-specific financing company, as they will be au fait with the complex rules and legislation concerning expats borrowing money in the US. A couple of the most used services of this kind in the country are Expatride and International Auto Source, though once again, state specific options are available, too.

Once you have purchased your car, you’ll need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register it.

REGISTRATION 

As we mentioned, drivers are required to register their car with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and registration fees vary hugely from each state to state. 

Some states will require you to pay annually or biennially (every other year), and the method of how they calculate the fees vary as well. Some base it on car value (the price of your vehicle when you purchased it), weight, age, your address as the owner, and some other factors. There are also states, namely Alaska and Wyoming, that charge flat rate fees. This means the fee won’t vary, regardless of how old your car is or its value. The charged fee is the same for all registrants.

REGISTRATION & LICENSE  RENEWALS 

If you’re sticking around long enough to envisage renewing your registration and licence, then rejoice; when it comes to renewing your license and registration, the process is pretty straightforward. 

These are the documents that you should bring to ease up the registration process:

  • Vehicle title (certificate of title for a vehicle)
  • The renewal notice that you received from the DMV
  • Your vehicle’s license plate number
  • Proof of your financial responsibility. These can include real-estate or government bond, a car insurance statement which serves as vehicle owner aid if you had an accident prior to the registration, cash deposit, etc. In simple terms, this type of document guarantees that you can cover expenses after a car accident
  • Your address and changes to your name, if applicable
  • The identification number of your vehicle
  • Sales tax clearance
  • Smog certification or other safety and emission certificates

DON’T FORGET INSURANCE 

Amongst all the bureaucracy, paperwork and state-specific legislation, something may have slipped your mind…

If you’re driving in New Hampshire, you can forget about it. It’s the only state where you’re not required to have insurance to drive a car. Otherwise, it’s imperative that you have insurance; falling foul of US driving law can land you in some seriously hot water.  

Whether renting or driving your own car, you will have to meet your specific state’s minimum car insurance requirements. The type of policy you’ll require depends on your unique situation as an international visitor or new resident of the country. 

Now we’ve got all the formalities out the way, let’s get excited about your American adventure! Here’s some fantastic tips on planning a road trip through Florida to help you get inspired.