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How to Get a State ID or Driver’s License

You’re an international student. You’ve just arrived in the US ready to begin a challenging and competitive degree program. It’s time to just sit back in the student lounge, hook up to the powerful campus wifi, and focus on your studies, right? Well, almost. About two weeks after you arrive, arrange to get yourself a picture ID, either an official state ID or driver’s license. Being able to identify yourself without multiple government-issued documents will be extremely convenient when you look for housing, open a bank account, or sign up for a cell phone. Carrying a state ID or driver’s license is also a much safer alternative than carrying your passport with you everywhere you go. Losing your passport is a huge liability and a costly replacement—someone can actually steal your identity using your passport. State-issued IDs are cheap, easy to replace, and offer greater access to services than your student ID.
Be Patient

Wait at least ten calendar days after you arrive in the United States before applying. During these ten days, governmental databases will be updated with your arrival information. If you apply before the ten day period is over, you risk coming up as unregistered in government databases which could delay the process further. While you wait, connect with your designated school official (your DSO) about local driving regulations.

Get Activated

Your DSO is also the person who must activate your status Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is the database that manages all students on an F-1 visa. This updated status is what enables you to register for classes or check in for any programs. Once your DSO confirms you are active in SEVIS, you’re almost ready to get started, but…

Wait Two More Days!

Yes, you have to be extremely patient during this process but it’s important that you wait an additional two business days (Monday through Friday, excluding holidays) after your DSO confirms you’ve been entered into SEVIS. This is to make sure all of the databases that hold your information can be properly updated with your status. Again, failing to wait these additional two days can result in delays of up to TWENTY days—it’s not worth it.

Time to Apply

Now it’s time to apply for that ID! If it’s a driver’s license, that typically means a written test, a driving test, and submission of various documents. Most states do not require a Social Security Number (SSN) to obtain a state ID or license, but some states will request an SSN or require that you apply for one. In California, you may be eligible for AB 60, a provision allowing those without an SSN to obtain a driver license. In general, you’ll need to present the following documents:

  • Valid passport with visa

  • Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record from Department of Homeland Security)

  • Form I-20

  • Form I-797 (Notice of Action from US Customs and Immigrations Services)

  • Either an SSN card or a notice of application status for an SSN

Connect with your local department of motor vehicles for its particular requirements—you may need more or less than the above documents. But if you’re patient and careful, you can expect your ID very soon, your first big step towards independence in the US. Congratulations; now keep that passport in a safe place!