Tip for New Immigrants in California, USA: Obtaining a Driver License or State ID

There are services that are only made available to California residents and it is imperative to apply for a state identification card or a state driver license. Either can be obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles. While there are commuter buses in many of the cities in California, it will be easier for one to move around driving in a private car.

When one is unable to obtain a driver license at the time being, I recommend that person to still apply for a California State Identification Card. While the Permanent Resident card (green card) identifies one as a legal resident in the United States, the California ID further identifies the carrier as a resident of California. There will be instances wherein the state ID will be helpful in confirming residence in California such as applying for health insurance coverage.

Do note however that when one is able to obtain a driver license, there is no need to file a separate application for a California State ID as the driver license in itself is a California ID.

Obtain an Appointment Online 

Appointments for the Department of Motor Vehicles can be obtained online. The DMV prioritizes appointments over walk-ins so it helps to know that when you do have an appointment, you can expect that processing will be faster during your visit to the DMV office. Also, when booking DMV appointments online, one will be able to notice that some DMV offices in nearby cities actually have earlier appointment dates one can lock in. In San Joaquin County where I now live, the cities of Lodi, Manteca, and Tracy generally have earlier dates available for appointment compared to Stockton. It is alright to take appointments in any California city outside of your home city. 

Review for the Exam

Before you process your application for a driver license, I encourage you to read and review the California Driver Handbook. A paper copy of this handbook can be obtained at DMV offices and online at the DMV website. The handbook is also written in several different languages. There are also several practice exams available online that you can use.

Process Your Application 

When you visit the DMV office on your appointment date or as a walk-in applicant, make sure that you have the following ready:
  1. A valid photo ID or legal presence documents (I suggest bring your permanent resident card)
  2. Social Security Number
When you arrive at the DMV office, you will notice people queuing up. There is a separate queue for those with appointments and a separate queue for walk-ins. The first thing you will do is fill out the Driver License of Identification Card Application Form (DL 44). This form can only be obtained at the DMV. As each form has a unique barcode, only original copies are accepted. You will have to fill out your Social Security Number on the DL 44. Otherwise, your application will not be processed.

After you are done filling out the DL 44 form, you will return to the counter where you obtained the form and in turn, they will give you a priority number. When your priority number is called, head to the counter indicated on the computer monitors and hand in your completed DL 44 form and your legal presence document. There will be a simple vision test and you pay up the application fee. 

Application fee for a Class C license is currently at $33. For a complete schedule of fees, one must check the DMV application fees page. Your picture will be taken right after.

Note: When only applying for a California Identification Card, this is the only step necessary.

Take the Exam 

Right after processing your application form, submitting your documentary requirements, paying the application fees, passing the vision exam, and having your photo taken, the next step would be to take the exam. One can choose between a paper-and-pencil test or the computer-aided test. Of course, results from the computer-aided exam come out faster than the paper-and-pencil exam. For every application fee paid, one is entitled to 3 chances to pass the initial exam within a 1-year period.

When you pass the exam, you will then be given a temporary license. This document will allow you to operate certain types of motor vehicles as long as you are accompanied by a licensed adult. Also, by the time you pass your exam, you may already arrange for your behind-the-wheels test at a later date. Otherwise, the behind-the-wheels test appointment can also be done online.

Driving Practice

While I understand that many immigrants who come to America already have experience in driving motor vehicles in their countries of origin, I must warn you that their will be stark differences between the driving culture in America and elsewhere in the world. And most specially between America and third world nations. Therefore, it is important for new immigrants to familiarize themselves with the driving culture in their new home country or home state. Ask a family member or a friend to help you assimilate the traffic culture of California and brush up on your driving skills. An alternative when you can afford it is to enroll in a professional driving school.

Schedule Your Behind-The-Wheels Test

When you are already confident enough of your driving skills, it is time to get to the next step which is the behind-the-wheels test. The behind-the-wheels test is a practical driving exam where a DMV examiner sits on the passenger side of the car while you are driving on the road. The DMV examiner shall assess your basic driving skills and traffic awareness such as lane use, lane change, backing up, stops, speed, traffic check, and vehicle control.

Before heading out to your behind-the-wheels appointment, make sure that the insurance papers of the car you are using is in order and that you bring the papers with you upon approaching the designated counter.

The fee for the behind-the-wheels driving test is covered on the amount you paid upon submitting your application for a driver license. In the instance that you fail the behind-the-wheels test on your first attempt, you are entitled to 2 more attempts but with an additional charge of $7 for each retest.

Upon passing your behind-the-wheels exam, you will then have to wait for your driver license to arrive in the mail within 2 weeks.

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About Thaddeau II Engaling

Brothers Janus and Thadz document their travels around the United States and occasionally around the world.


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