Because California does not recognize an International Driving Permit (IDP) as a valid driver license, Canadians will need to write the California driver’s exam and take the behind-the-wheel exam too (refer to DMV’s article on International Driving Permits). Don’t worry, the exams are ok 🙂
[ IDP recognition may be different between US states – check with your state’s DMV at http://www.dmvusa.com ].
Once you’re settled into California, aim to obtain your California driver’s license within 3 months of your entry.
There are 2 major parts to getting your California driver’s license:
- take and pass the written driver’s exam
- take and pass the behind-the-wheel driver’s exam within 12 months of passing the written exam
What to prepare for the written driver’s exam?
- Head to your nearest California DMV and pick up the “California Driver Handbook”. These are free and easily available at the front counter. No appointment is needed to pick one up. An online version of the handbook is also available on the California DMV website at http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/pubs.htm.
- The written exam has 36 multiple-choice questions; each with three answer choices and only one correct answer. Passing mark is 30+ correct answers. I believe the exam must be completed within 45 minutes?
- To experienced drivers, your first inkling may be to skip or lightly scan the driver handbook, but I strongly recommend giving it at least one read-over from cover to cover 🙂 Did you know that motorcycles may share traffic lanes with another vehicle in California? A majority of the written exam also requires knowing specific traffic values – e.g. What is the speed limit at an uncontrolled railroad crossing? What is the minimum illegal blood alcohol concentration percentage for a person 21 years of age or older?
- The California DMV kindly provides sample driver license written tests online – http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/interactive/tdrive/exam.htm too!
Ready to take the written exam?
- Schedule an appointment to write your driver’s written exam at your nearest DMV location:
- Go to California Department of Motor Vehicles – https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/home/dmv.htm
- Click on ONLINE SERVICES >> Appointments, then “Office visit appointment”
- At the Appointment System screen, choose your DMV location and select “Apply for, replace, or renew a California Driver’s License”. Complete your contact details and select a date/time that is convenient for you.
On your driver’s written exam day:
- Bring your DMV appointment confirmation print out page, Canadian driver’s license and passport. If you are eligible for a US Social Security Number (SSN), bring it to your written exam appointment too. These articles are required by the DMV to issue a temporary driver’s license, assuming a passing grade on your written exam.
- Suggest allocating 2 hours for your DMV written exam appointment.
- The DMV main entrance has two lines – “Appointments” and “No Appointments”. You will need to line up at the “Appointments” line to receive a ticket/number, and wait to be called to the DMV driver’s exam window to receive the exam.
- If you wear glasses/contacts, there is a short vision exam to test your peripheral vision and far sightedness with your glasses or contact lens on.
- Before starting your exam, make sure all of your belongings (including mobile devices) are placed on the floor, otherwise an automatic fail can be issued.
- Next … GOOD LUCK on your exam!
- When you’ve completed the exam, line-up at the written exam submission window to hand-in your test.
- Within 30 minutes, your exam will be hand-marked and returned to you.
- If you’ve passed, congratulations! The DMV agent will review your personal documentation, including your SSN card. For spouses/dependents who entered the US as a dependent of a US work-eligible individual, explain to the DMV agent that you are ineligible to work in the US and cannot receive a SSN (refer to California DMV articles “How do I know if I’m Eligible for an SSN?” and “Social Security Number (SSN) Requirement”. Next, your photo will be taken; same photo that will be printed on your future permanent driver’s license. A paper “Application for DL Original – Class C” will be issued. Make sure all of the information is correct! If not, get it corrected immediately during your visit. A later correction will be more timely and potentially impede receiving your permanent driver’s license as well.
- If a retake is needed, you can do so on the same visit or reschedule for another date/time.
Keep the DMV issued “Application for DL Original – Class C” paper containing your photograph in your wallet along with your Canadian driver’s license. Start practicing for the behind-the-wheel exam, and schedule to take it before your driver’s license application expires (12 months after passing your written exam). The expiration date is detailed on your “Application for DL Original – Class C” paper as ‘If this application is not completed by MM-DD-YYYY, it will be cancelled.”.
Happy practicing! Safe driving!
P.S. The California DMV has useful tidbits on their “Driver License and Identification (ID) Card Information” page that are worth browsing before writing your driver’s exam.