Driving in California

California Driver's License

If you will be driving in California or you plan to purchase a motor vehicle (a car, scooter or motorcycle), we recommend that you get a California driver's license. Many insurance companies will provide coverage or offer you better rates only if you have one, and having automobile insurance is a legal requirement. 

Tourists may drive rental cars in California for one year as long as they have a valid driver’s license from their home country.  See the Department of Motor Vehicles for complete details.

How to Apply for the California Driver License

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has the latest California Driver Handbook, forms, and instructions on how to apply for a California driver license. Check out the helpful section in the handbook on frequently asked questions and residency requirements.

If this if your first CA driver’s license, you are required to schedule an appointment. BIO recommends you make an appointment at the El Cerrito DMV.

Social Security Number (SSN) 
Generally, an F-1 student, F-2 dependent or J-1 student is NOT required to have a social security number to be eligible for a driver license; however, a J-1 scholar is required to have a social security number. J-2 dependents are generally only required to show a social security number if they have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

F-1 student, F-2 dependent or J-1 student SSN Problems
Occasionally , when some students apply the DMV may indicate that you must either have an SSN to apply for the Driver License OR that you must provide proof that you are not eligible for an SSN. See Who is Eligible to Apply for a Social Security Number to determine if you are eligible. If you are an F-1 or J-1 student who is eligible to apply for an SSN, follow these instructions to apply for an SSN.  If you are NOT currently eligible, you will need to apply for an SSN anyway and receive a rejection letter from the Social Security Administration.

Timing is Everything: Getting Your Driver's License 

Following these five simple tips makes the process go smoother and save time in the end:

  1. Wait 10 days after you enter the United States. You may want to apply for a driver's license right away, but be patient. The 10 day wait allows time for all the government databases to update with your arrival information. If you apply too early, your application will be delayed or denied.  If you are a continuing student or scholar, please remember to wait 10 days from your most recent entry to the U.S.
  2. Make sure your record in SEVIS is up-to-date and in Active status. SEVIS is the database that contains information for all F and J nonimmigrants in the United States. Berkeley International Office manages the F and J SEVIS records for students and scholars with an I-20 or DS-2019 issued by UC Berkeley.  Berkeley International Office must place your SEVIS record in Active status when you first report to the campus. For students, this is done by completing the Online Arrival Confirmation at the beginning of your semester and being officially registered with the University.  For J-1 scholars, this is done at a Scholar Information Meeting (SIM).   If your record is not Active when you apply for a Driver's License, the application may be delayed or denied. This step is only required when you first arrive in the U.S. on your new I-20 or DS-2019.  Wait 10 days from the time you complete the Online Arrival Confirmation or SIM before going to the DMV.  
  3. Check your immigration documents. Check all your immigration documents to make sure your information is correct and consistent. If you have different information on different forms, it will cause delays. Specifically, check that the information on your electronic I-94 arrival record matches the informaiton on your passport and the entry stamp there. Make sure that your I-94, passport, visa and I-20 or DS-2019 all show your name corectly and consistently.  If any of this information differs from one document to the next, please contact Berkeley International Office.
  4. Read. Practice. Review. The DMV has the latest California Driver Handbook, forms and instructions on how to apply for a Driver’s License. You will also find five sample exams. The practice exams will help you with the first step of receiving your driver’s license. Please note after you pass the written exam, you may need to take a driving test.
  5. Bring all your paperwork. When you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) remember to bring all your paperwork. For California, the paperwork may include these documents:
  •  Form I-20 or Form DS-2019
  •  The electronic I-94 record you received with the passport admission stamp.  Please access your electronic I-94 record and print it.
  •  Passport (with visa, if applicable).  Please ensure your passport is on the Approved Foreign Passport list with the DMV.
  • Two documents showing your proof of residency in California.
  • If you are an F-1 student on post-completion OPT, you must have your approved OPT EAD card

The California State Identity Card

If you are not planning to drive, the DMV also issues the California Identity Card with your photo and date of birth information on it. This is an easily recognizable form of identification used for cashing checks, proving your age, etc. Plan on making an appointment before going to the DMV. To do so, visit the DMV website.

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