Driving in the United States
Driving a car in the United States can be a convenient way to get around, but there are some very important things to know first.
You must have a valid driver’s license to drive in the U.S. There are two kinds of licenses you can use.
- You can drive legally in the U.S. for one year using a driver's license from your home country and an International Driver's Permit (IDP).
- An Indiana driver’s license is recommended if you will be in the U.S. more than 6 months, or if you will purchase a car.
You must get your International Driver's License in your home country before you arrive in the United States. The United States does not issue IDPs to nonresidents.
Getting an Indiana Driver's License
Get your Learner's Permit First
If you do not have a driver's license in your home country, the first step to getting an Indiana driver's license is to obtain a learner's permit. A learner's permit allows you to practice driving under the supervision of a licensed driver so that you can learn the rules of the road well enough to pass the tests required to obtain your driver's license.
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) has more information about getting and using a learner's permit.
How to get a driver's license
Tips to Help with the License Process
- The BMV often is very busy. Plan to spend 2-3 hours there.
- The BMV has recommended the Nora Branch and the Virginia Avenue Branch as locations that are best equipped to handle the special needs of international student documents.
- Branch offices are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Some are also closed other days—check before you go.
- The busiest times at the BMV are Tuesdays, the 15th day of the month, and the 30th day of the month. If possible, avoid going on these days.
- You will need to provide the car used to take the road test. Be sure that the car is insured and that all of the lights function properly.
- If you are accompanied by a spouse who also needs to obtain a driver’s license, be sure to arrange for your spouse’s name to be listed on your bank account or utility agreement so that you can obtain an appropriate document to facilitate your spouse’s license application.
- Whenever you go to the BMV be sure to take note of the names of the individuals who assist you, as well as the date and time of your visit. You may need this information if there are any complications with your application.
- OIA has no control over the process you must go through to apply for a license, nor the length of time it takes. However, if you receive a letter indicating that you have been denied a license, please bring it to our office. If it appears the denial was an error, we will try to help you get it corrected.
Can I get a Driver’s License without a Social Security Number?
Yes! In the case that you not have an SSN, you will need to show a letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA) that documents your ineligibility for an SSN. You can obtain the letter from your local SSA office.
Buying a Car in the U.S.
New cars are a big investment, so do your research before making the purchase. This will help you determine what a fair price is for a car in today's marketplace.
To buy a new car, you will need to go to a car dealership.
Tips for Buying a New Car
- Before visiting a dealership determine how much money you can afford to spend. Stick to your budget and shop around, many dealerships carry identical models.
- Do not let dealers and salespeople impair your ability to make a rational decision. In Indiana, car dealerships are not allowed to sell cars on Sundays, so this is a good day to look at cars without being pressured to immediately make a purchase.
- After deciding on a particular model, consult the following resources to help you determine a fair price:
- "New Car Buyer's Guide," available at drug stores and bookstores. This guide contains the "list" price and "dealer cost" on base models. If you are looking at an upscale model, the publication also lists the dealer cost on factory-installed options (air conditioning, power steering, etc.).
- Kelley Blue Book, available in print or online. This allows you to calculate and add taxes to the "list" price, along with a reasonable dealer profit ($200 to $500). Visit the Kelley Blue Book »
- The Car Talk website, which offers advice on buying a car, car insurance, and car maintenance. Visit Car Talk »
Buying a Used Car
Buying a used car is generally more affordable than buying a new car. However, you have to be careful to make sure the car you buy is in good condition.
If you are in the market for a used car, you can buy either from a car dealership or a private seller.
Tips for Buying a Used Car
- Before visiting a dealership or talking to a private seller about purchasing a car, determine how much money you can afford to spend.
- You can find most dealers online.
- Private sellers place advertisements in the classified sections of newspapers and special interest papers such as the “Trader” or “Wheels and Deals.” Many sellers also advertise their cars on the classifieds website Craigslist. Visit Craigslist »
- Note the condition of the car and the asking price, and consult these resources to help you determine if that is a fair price:
- Always drive the car before buying. Check for oil leaks, chassis damage, brake wear, transmission problems, window damage, and door problems.
- Once you are satisfied with a car, take it to a mechanic for a diagnostic check. This will cost money but is worth the price.
Keeping it Legal
After purchasing a car you need to take certain steps to make sure your car is legally registered and insured.
Car owners in the U.S. are required by law to carry a minimum level of automobile liability insurance coverage, which will pay up to a certain amount if you are involved in an accident. Liability insurance covers the expenses of the other driver(s) if you cause the accident. Collision insurance covers your own costs if you have a one-car accident. Additional coverage options are available; in general, the greater the value of your car, the more comprehensive insurance coverage you should have.
Insurance coverage rates can vary significantly, so be sure to shop around for the best rate for you. You can receive quotes online from most insurance companies. If you hold a non-U.S. driver’s license, be sure to mention that if you call for a quote. The payments may be higher than they would be with a U.S. license.
Registration & Title
You will need a license plate for your car to prove that you have registered it with the state. It is against the law to not register your car.
If you have a permanent driver's license and buy your car from a car dealer, the car dealer will give you a temporary license plate. That plate is good for a maximum of 30 days. You must register the car to get a new plate before the 30-day period expires.
If you do not receive a temporary license plate, you should take the car to be registered as soon as possible.
To register your car, bring the following with you to the BMV:
- Bill of sale: The receipt that the seller gives you when you pay for the car
- Title and registration card: Proof of ownership of the car that you will get from the seller. If you have financed the car through a bank, the title to the car will go to the lending institution, not to you. However, you will have a registration card.
- Proof of automobile insurance: A letter or insurance card that you receive from your insurance provider
- Social Security card: If you do not have a social security card, take all your immigration documents, including your passport and I-94.
You will have to pay a fee, based on the price you paid for your car and the model and year of the car. The fee can range anywhere from $26 to $1,000 or more.
Other Important Information about Driving in the U.S.
Indiana law requires that you have your license, car registration, and proof of car insurance with you at all times when driving.
If you are ever pulled over by a police officer, stay in the car with both hands on the steering wheel until the officer comes to your window. If you get out of the car, the officer may assume that you intend to attack and may draw his or her gun. Once the officer arrives you can retrieve the vehicle documents for inspection.
Do NOT attempt to bribe the officer—they won’t like it!
U.S. laws are very strict about driving after consuming any alcohol. The best plan is to choose a designated driver if you plan to go out in a group. If you are found guilty of driving while drunk you can face jail time, heavy fines, loss of license, and in extreme cases, removal from the country. If you are arrested for drunk driving, you could have your visa revoked without warning.
Be especially careful around school buses or in school zones. Fines for speeding or passing a stopped bus can be very high.
Be aware that driving at really high speeds can sometimes result in an arrest, which may influence your ability to get future visas. Even when it is late at night and the roads are empty, you should still drive safely and within the speed limit.