Getting a driver’s license in the U.S.

The header of the Illinois driver's license.

The header of the Illinois driver’s license.

The older people get, the more difficult it is for them to learn new things. And yes, you might say 34 is not that old yet but hey, I hadn’t planned on learning anything as profound as a country’s traffic rules in this lifetime again. Besides, old dog, new tricks, you know how it goes.

I’ve been driving over 20 years, since I was 12. The last time I had to learn for a driving test was in 1997 when I was 18. When I exchanged my Estonian license for a UK one, I only had to pay £50 and fill in a form, and my new license was sent to me by mail. No tests.

Now, however, I had to do it all again. And even though I had planned on doing vision and written only, when I today went to the DMV I learned I had to do a road test—that’s actual driving—as well. On the other hand, the thing I feared the most was the written test.

Americans get their driver’s license when they’re 16 or 18, depending on the state, so this post isn’t at all interesting for them. But for people who are moving or have recently moved to the U.S. this might be useful. Just bear in mind that I’m not sure how this process works in other states, but I think it should be fairly similar to Illinois.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve had your foreign driver’s license, or how long you’ve driven. When you move to Illinois and apply for a license, you’ll be treated as a new driver without a license. Which can be good, too, because if you move from another state, your out-of-state license will be confiscated. But if you have a UK license for example, they will let you keep it. And that will make renting a car in Europe much, much easier.

When you move to Illinois, you can drive for 90 days with your foreign license. After that, you have to get a local license. And since my 90 days were almost running out, I finally had to pull my feet out of my ass and go to the DMV (learn more here).

Of course, one doesn’t just simply go to the DMV to apply for a license. First, one has to study. My technique was reading the Rules of the Road about three times, going over all the traffic signs many, many times (because they’re different from Europe, and they do test you thoroughly to see that you recognize the shapes and colors), and then doing all possible free tests on the internet: some of these, and then ALL of these, including the marathon test which I took twice—to be on the safe side.

There is one thing I have to say about the traffic rules and these tests. In many countries, especially in Europe, U.S. driver’s licenses are not valid or are at least frowned upon. That is insanely stupid—from what I remember, the tests in Estonia were much, much simpler, and there was so much less to learn and remember. The authorities in Europe probably have no idea how profound the traffic rules are here, and thus have a misconception as if people were just handed their driver’s licenses in the U.S. without doing anything. That is incredibly wrong, and people who have studied for driving tests in the U.S. probably know more about driving than any European.

Coming back to the issue at hand now, after I had excelled the practice tests on the internet, I went to the local DMV and started my application.

First, when you’re here on a visa, you have to remember to print out your I-94 form and take it with you. In addition, you need your passport and your visa, your social security card, and two proofs of address. In case you do not have a passprt, get it quickly from a passport office by looking up on google “Passport Office Near Me.” For the latter, you can use the stub on your social security card and, for example, the title of your car (or a bank statement or something similar and official).

After the clerk has filled in your data and done a vision test, you’ll be sent to the cashier to pay the appropriate fee ($30 in IL), and then you get to take your written test. The written tests consist of 20 multiple choice questions (aced it!) which are similar to the practice tests online, but not the same; and 15 traffic signs which you have to know (I made one mistake). You have to get 80% to pass, and tell you the truth, it’s not that difficult to get it right. Many of the questions you can answer using common sense—although this is not absolute, sometimes the ‘safest’ possible answer isn’t the correct one, for example. Most of the questions are based on the actual rules and you really have to know them to get it right.

So when you’re done with the written test and passed, you’ll be sent to do the road test. You have to have a car (obviously), the car has to be insured (this is checked at least three times) and it has to be safe to drive. Your examiner—mine was a nice lady called Sherri (or Sherry)—will sit in the passenger’s seat and tell you where to drive. We drove around for about 10 minutes, one-way streets, all-way stops, left turns, right turns, parking the car (imaginarily downhill to see whether I know where to point the wheels), that sort of stuff. Then back in the DMV parking lot I had to drive through a passage marked with cones, reverse, then park into a ‘garage’, reverse and turn right and that was it. Done.

Back at the testing station I was told that not even Jesus Christ gets 0 points in a road test—something I accomplished. My photo was taken, I gave my signature and in about two-three minutes I had my brand new Illinois driver’s license.

One of the things I learned about driving is that there is a way that people who are fined with a driving ticket can get it dissolved without paying for it. Many times people are fined for various reasons and sometimes even for false reasons, and this is not fair as the person must then appear in a court to prove their innocence. I have found this guide to dismissing your traffic ticket, and I encourage you all to read it to find ways you can get out of paying for an illegally charged ticket.

One other thing I have to say though—I have never in my life met so nice, so helpful officials. I mean, we’ve all seen on TV, especially on The Simpsons, that the officials at the DMV are utter assholes. Why are they portrayed like that is beyond me—they’re nothing like that and considering the experience I had today, such portrayal is even offensive. I’m going to say this again: all the officials at the Chicago North DMV are amazingly nice and helpful and it was an absolute joy to get my license there.

Oh, and another good thing about having a local ID is the ease of buying booze. My UK license was always confusing for cashiers at stores; this one now has a bar code in the back they just have to scan to confirm I’m over 21.

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