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Can You Legally Drive with a Foreign License?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Mar 11, 2024

California has become an increasingly international community, with individuals from other countries commonly finding themselves behind the wheel. Suppose you are a foreigner operating a motor vehicle. In that case, you're generally permitted to do so if you have a current license from your country of origin--however, there may be other issues to consider. 

In other words, you can legally drive in California if you have a valid driver's license from a foreign country. You are not required to obtain a California driver's license or international driving permit (IDP).

Can You Legally Drive in California with a Foreign License?
If you have a valid driver’s license from a foreign country, you can legally drive in California.

This applies if you are at least 18 years old and your driver's license was lawfully issued in the country where you live. It must also cover the type of vehicle you drive in California, such as a car, motorcycle, truck, etc.

A rental car agency might sometimes require an international driving permit and a foreign license. The IDP could be helpful if your driver's license is not in English.

Suppose you are 16 or 17 years old. In that case, you can drive in California for only up to ten days after you enter the state. 

Notably, however, this ten-day limit would not apply if you have a valid driver's license issued by your country of residence, obtained a nonresident minor's certificate from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and filed proof of financial responsibility (car insurance).

You must have all these documents while driving a vehicle in California. Let's discuss the state's laws regarding foreign drivers so you can be informed.

Driving in California with a Foreign License

California law permits foreign visitors to drive using their home country's driving license for their visit. This provision is designed to facilitate ease of mobility for tourists, business travelers, and other international visitors.

To be eligible to drive with a foreign license in California, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Validity of License: The foreign driver's license must be valid and not expired. It must also be in the driver's possession when operating a vehicle.
  • Age Requirements: Foreign drivers must be at least 18 years old to legally drive in California, regardless of the age requirements in their home country, unless additional criteria are met. 
  • Residency Status: The driving allowance on a foreign license applies only to visitors. Once a person establishes residency in California, they must obtain a California driver's license within ten days.

What are the Limitations and Considerations?

While California permits the use of foreign licenses, there are several limitations and considerations that drivers must be aware of:

  • Language Requirement: If the license is not in English, it is recommended (though not legally required) to carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) or an official license translation. This can aid in interactions with law enforcement and ensure that the driver's credentials are easily verifiable. You must obtain the IDP from your home country.
  • Insurance Coverage: Drivers must adhere to California's minimum insurance requirements. Foreign drivers should ensure their insurance policy, whether from their home country or purchased as a traveler, meets California's standards.
  • Duration of Stay: The permission to drive with a foreign license is intended for temporary visitors. Those planning to become California residents must obtain a California driver's license.
  • Vehicle Type: The foreign license must authorize the holder to operate the vehicle they intend to drive in California. For example, if someone plans to drive a motorcycle, their license must be valid for motorcycle operation.

Some countries do not require or issue driver's licenses. In such cases, California law permits you to drive your own foreign vehicle without a license, provided you are over 18 years old. In any other situation, you must obtain a California driver's license.

What About Minor Foreign Drivers?

The situation differs for foreign drivers under 18 (i.e., age 16 or 17). If you are 16 or 17 and have a valid driver's license from your country of origin, you are permitted to drive for a maximum of 10 days from when you arrive. 

Suppose you plan to stay longer and wish to keep driving. In that case, you must obtain a nonresident minor's certificate from the Department of Motor Vehicles and keep it along with your foreign license on your person whenever you drive.

Should You Get an IDP?

An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not required to drive in California, nor is it recognized as a valid driver's license. In other words, you can't drive simply with an IDP and no accompanying driver's license. However, an IDP can be helpful for several reasons:

  • It is recognized as a valid form of identification.
  • It can be useful to translate your ID if your driver's license is in a foreign language and
  • Some insurance and rental car companies require an IDP for foreign drivers. Thus, having an IDP opens more driving options for you.

What are the Penalties for Driving Without a Valid License?

Driving without a valid license in California is a “wobblette” offense under Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or an infraction. 

VC 12500 says, “(a) A person may not drive a motor vehicle on a highway unless the person holds a valid driver's license under this code, except those persons expressly exempted.

(b) A person may not drive a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle upon a highway unless the person then holds a valid driver's license or endorsement issued under this code for that class, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code, or those persons specifically authorized to operate motorized bicycles or motorized scooters with a valid driver's license of any class, as specified in subdivision (h) of Section 12804.9.

If charged as an infraction, you could face a fine of up to $250. If charged as a misdemeanor, you could face up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Additionally, your immigration status could be at risk, and you could potentially face deportation. Contact our law firm for more information or a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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