Driver's licenses in the United States

An example driver license issued in Florida

In the United States, driver's licenses are issued by each individual state, territory, and the District of Columbia rather than by the federal government due to federalism. Drivers are normally required to obtain a license from their state of residence and all states recognize each other's licenses for non-resident age requirements. A state may also suspend an individual's driving privilege within its borders for traffic violations. Many states share a common system of license classes, with some exceptions, e.g. commercial license classes are standardized by federal regulation at 49 CFR 383. Many driving permits and ID cards display small digits next to each data field. This is required by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators’ design standard and has been adopted by many US states. According to the United States Department of Transportation, as of 2018, there are approximately 227 million licensed drivers in the United States.


A Maryland driver's license from the mid-1950s
A Maryland driver's license from the mid-1980s

As the number of motor vehicles in the US reached tens of thousands, state and local governments assumed a new power: authorizing vehicles and drivers. In 1901, New York became the first state to register automobiles. By 1918 all US states required license plates; states were slower to require licenses for drivers. Only 39 states issued them by 1935 and few required a test, despite widespread concern about incompetent drivers. Early motorists were taught to drive by automobile salesmen, family and friends, or organizations like the YMCA. By the 1930s, many high schools offered driver education.

Massachusetts and Missouri were the first states to require a driver license in 1903, but there was no test associated with the license. In 1908, Henry Ford launched the Model T, the first affordable automobile for many middle-class Americans (in 1919, when Michigan started issuing driver licenses, Ford got his first one at age 56). The same year the Model T debuted, Rhode Island became the first state to require both a license and a driver's exam (Massachusetts instituted a chauffeur exam in 1907 and started requiring tests for all other drivers in 1920).

Standard and special licenses

  • Unrestricted licenses are driver licenses that most US drivers have to drive. Various states differ on what class they utilize to distinguish between a typical driver license and special licenses, such as restricted, chauffeur, or motorcycle licenses. For instance, Tennessee designates Class D as a regular driver license, while Class M is a motorcycle license and Class H is a hardship license (see below).
  • Hardship licenses for minors are driver licenses that are restricted to drivers between 14 and 15 (sometimes up to 18) years old who need to drive to and from home and school due to serious hardships, e.g. the driver's family has financial or medical problems, or the driver needs to get to work or school and has no other practical way of getting to work or school. A hardship license for minors is distinct from hardship licenses granted for drivers with revoked or suspended licenses. The table below includes states that provide hardship licenses for minors.
  • Provisional licenses are functionally the same as a driver license, but are typically issued to new drivers under the age of 18, i.e. 14 to 17 years old. Almost all states have some form of a graduated licensing provision. The actual restrictions and the length of time a new driver must adhere to them vary widely by state. Restrictions frequently include:
    • A curfew, after which night driving is not permitted (unless 18 years of age, or if the individual has completed an online course) without an adult present (typically 11 pm, like Pennsylvania, or 1 am, like Wisconsin). Some states (e.g. North Carolina) have curfews as early as 9 pm. Some states such as New York provide exceptions for special situations, such as driving home from work or school functions, picking up family members, or for medical appointments, while others such as Massachusetts do not.
    • Restrictions on the number of passengers under a specific age present in the vehicle. For example, in California, minors may not transport people under age 20 for the first 6 months of licensure unless said passengers are family members (brother, sister, cousin, niece, nephew, or anyone who is 21 or had their license for 1 year or longer etc.).
  • Chauffeur licenses are functionally the same as a passenger car license, but also allow the holder to drive a taxi, limousine or other livery vehicle for hire. Livery licensing in the US is somewhat complicated. In the US, chauffeur licenses are not considered commercial or professional driver's licenses, and (assuming the driver already holds a regular passenger license) a road test is usually not required to convert it to a chauffeur license. Some states do require a short written exam on taxi-specific driving laws or a background check, and require the driver to be at least 18 years of age (many taxi companies will not hire drivers under 25 for insurance reasons). This type of license is typically, though not universally, called "Class E". Some states add an endorsement to a regular license, while others require no special permission at the state level to drive a taxi or limousine. Florida once issued chauffeur licenses through its Class D licenses, a designation that was eliminated in 2006. Regardless of whether and how the state handles chauffeur licensing, a permit or license must always be obtained from the city, town, or county the driver will be operating in.
  • Motorcycle licenses covers motorcycles only, frequently combined with a regular driver license. In some states this does not include some types of mopeds, scooters, or motorized bicycles, but with a wide variety of different state-by-state definitions for these vehicles. A common but not universal criterion is an engine displacement of 250 cc (15 cu in) or less, but also wheel size, type of transmission, and more are sometimes used in the legal codes to distinguish mopeds and scooters from motorcycles. These vehicles sometimes do not require a motorcycle license, or in some states any license at all, as well as in some states avoiding insurance and registration requirements. Some US states differentiate between low and full powered motorcycles for the purposes of licensing. Some states require an additional motorcycle license to operate a sidecar rig.
  • Enhanced licenses are issued to US citizens in Washington, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York, and establish nationality in addition to driving privileges. An EDL is a WHTI compliant document, acceptable for re-entering the US via land and sea crossings from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. A US passport, birth certificate, or another document proving citizenship is required to apply for this type of license. Motorcycle and commercial driver licenses (see above and below) usually can also be issued as enhanced.
  • Handicap permits are issued to persons who meet the proper guidelines for requiring handicap driving and parking access. They are granted special access to improve their quality of life as a driver. In certain states, namely Texas, a handicapped person's driver license can be revoked based on their disability.

Some states also have additional classifications. Nevada, for example, has a separate license category for drivers who only operate mopeds, while some more northerly states have separate categories for snowmobiles and ATVs. South Carolina and Georgia have non-commercial versions of every commercial class license for agricultural purposes.

Commercial driver's licenses (CDL)

Class C licenses are issued in all states, except Massachusetts, in both commercial and non-commercial status. A non-commercial Class C license may not be used for hire. Most recreational vehicles that do not fall into the class D/E category, such as converted buses, tractor, lawn mowers, or full size (greater than 40 feet (12 m)) campers require a non-commercial Class C license and the corresponding permit from the state with which you reside.

CDL classifications

  • Class A: Combination (tractor plus trailer) vehicle of 26,001 pounds (11,794 kg) or more that tows a vehicle or unit weighing more than 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg). Examples are tractor-trailers and trailer buses.
  • Class B: Single (straight) vehicle of 26,001 pounds (11,794 kg) or more (includes most buses including articulated buses) provided the vehicle being towed weighs 26,000 pounds (12,000 kg) or less. Examples include trucks and buses.
  • Class C: Single vehicles that weigh 26,000 pounds (12,000 kg) or less being used to transport more than 15 passengers (including the driver), haul hazardous material, or to operate a small school bus. Examples include small buses, strecthed limousines designed to carry 16 or more passengers, and non-commercial vehicles equipped with hazardous material placards.

Professional drivers are usually required to add endorsements to their CDL to drive certain types of vehicles that require additional training. CDL endorsements requirements are mostly similar, but some vary between states. The training and testing requirements are regulated by the US Department of Transportation. Endorsements are as follows:

  • P: Passenger Transport (required to transport more than 16 or more passengers and to drive a bus)
  • H: Hazardous Materials (requires a TSA background check as well as an extensive written exam. Required to haul dangerous goods. The driver must be a US Citizen or permanent lawful resident to obtain an H or X endorsement.)
  • N: Tank Vehicles (Required for carrying liquids in bulk.)
  • T: Double/Triple Trailers (Class A licenses only - required to operate double or triple trailers. Most states do not allow triple trailers on the state roads.)
  • X: Hazardous Materials and Tank Combination
  • S: School Bus (In addition to a standard bus endorsement, more stringent TSA and CORI background checks are required. Required to operate a school bus and transport students to/from school.)

There are two endorsements that do not come with a code:

  • Air Brakes: Required to drive vehicles equipped with air brakes. If the CDL holder decides not to pass the written test, or be tested on a vehicle without air brakes, they'll be assigned an L restriction that will bar them from operating vehicles with air brakes.
  • Combination Vehicles: Required for the Class A CDL to drive combination vehicles. Without passing this test, the applicant cannot apply for a Class A CDL, though they may instead opt for the Class B or Class C CDL.

CDL restrictions

Licenses can be restricted through any of the following ways:

  • B: Corrective Lenses are required while operating a motor vehicle.
  • C: A mechanical aid is required to operate a commercial vehicle.
  • D: A prosthetic aid is required to operate a commercial vehicle.
  • E: The driver may only operate a commercial vehicle with an automatic transmission.
  • F: An outside mirror is required on the commercial vehicle.
  • G: The driver of a commercial vehicle is only allowed to operate during daylight hours.
  • K: Drivers are authorized to drive a commercial vehicle within the state of issue (intrastate) only. This restriction applies to any holder of a CDL license who is under 21 years old or is not healthy enough to cross state lines.
  • L: Drivers are restricted from operating a commercial vehicle with air brakes. This restriction is issued when a driver either fails the air brake component of the general knowledge test or performs the CDL road skills test in a vehicle not equipped with air brakes.
  • M: CDL-A holders may operate CDL-B school buses only.
  • N: CDL-A and CDL-B holders may operate CDL-C school buses only.
  • O: Driver limited to pintail hook trailers only.
  • Z: Alcohol Interlock Device required in the commercial vehicle.
  • T: 60-day temporary license.

Foreign officials and diplomats

In a rare exception to states and territories issuing driver licenses, the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) issues driver licenses to foreign officials and diplomats, bypassing the states and territories in which they live. OFM-issued driver licenses are equivalent to a regular state-issued license.

Drivers licensing laws

Restricted license age requirements by US requirements to receive a restricted driver's license by state
  14 years and 3 months
  15 years
  15 years and 6 months
  16 years
  16 years and 3-4 months
  16 years and 6 months
  17 years

The minimum age to obtain a restricted driver license in the US varies from 14 years, three months in South Dakota to as high as 17 in New Jersey. In most states, a graduated licensing law applies to newly-licensed teenage drivers, going by names such as Provisional Driver, Junior Operator, Probationary Driver, or Intermediate License. These licenses restrict certain driving privileges, such as whether the new driver may carry passengers and if so how many, as well as setting a curfew for young drivers. For example, Utah drivers who are under 18 may not drive other people outside the family in their first six months with a license. Unlike in some states of Australia and some provinces of Canada, graduated licensing laws do not require lowered speed limits, displaying of L and P plates, restrictions on towing a trailer or boat, or prohibitions on highway driving or operating high performance cars.

Drivers under 18 are usually required to attend a comprehensive driver's education program either at their high school or a professional driving school and take a certain number of behind-the-wheel lessons with a certified driving instructor before applying for a license. Some states like New York also require new adult drivers to attend some form of driver education before applying for a license.

In some states all newly licensed adult drivers may be on probation for a set amount of time (usually between six months and two years), during which traffic violations carry harsher penalties or mandatory suspensions that would not apply to experienced drivers.

According to federal law, the minimum age to operate a commercial vehicle in interstate transit is 21. As a result, the minimum age to apply for an unrestricted commercial driver's license is 21.

Driving a school bus requires a CDL. The minimum age to drive a school bus is typically higher, usually 25. Some states issue restricted intrastate commercial driver's licenses, valid for operating commercial vehicles in that state only, to drivers aged 18 and older. Professional drivers who are aged 18–20 typically cannot be licensed to drive tractor trailers, hazardous materials or school buses.

Licenses for adults and minors; GDL laws

Below is a list of Graduated Driver's Licenses (GDL) and hardship licenses for minors laws for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The list includes the state agency responsible for issuing driver licenses and the length of time that a full (unrestricted) driver license is valid for.

Decline in licensing among juveniles

According to a December 2, 2004 Los Angeles Times article, only 43% of US 15-to-17-year-olds had drivers licenses in 2002. By comparison, the percentage of drivers licenses in this age group in 1982 was 52%.

Use as identification and proof of age

Driver's licenses issued in the United States have a number or alphanumeric code issued by the issuing state's department of motor vehicles (or equivalent), usually show a photograph of the bearer, as well as a copy of the bearer's signature, the address of the bearer's primary residence, the type or class of license, restrictions, endorsements (if any), the physical characteristics of the bearer (such as height, weight, hair color and eye color) and birth date. Driver's license numbers issued by a state are unique. Social Security numbers are now prohibited by federal law from appearing on new driver's licenses due to identity theft concerns. In most states, to be compliant with AAMVA standards, the orientation of a driver's license for persons under the age of 21 is vertical while a driver's license for those over the age of 21 is horizontal. Since the driver's license is often used as proof of a person's age, the difference in orientation makes it easy to determine that a person is legally allowed to purchase or consume alcohol and purchase tobacco (the drinking and tobacco age in all U.S. states is 21). Some states, such as Arizona, do not require that a driver's license be changed to horizontal at age 21. The vertical license does not expire until age 65 in the state of Arizona. Most states require that when a driver establishes residence in a state, he or she must obtain a license issued by that state within a limited time.

A vertical California drivers license for minors and young adults under the age of 21 (pre-2018 design)

Because there is no national identity card in the United States, the driver's license is often used as the de facto equivalent for completion of many common business and governmental transactions. As a result, driver's licenses are stolen and used for identity theft. Driver's licenses were not always identification cards. In many states, driver's licenses did not even have a photograph until the 1980s. Advocacy by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for photo ID age verification in conjunction with increasing the drinking age to 21 to reduce underage drinking led to photographs being added to all state licenses. New York and Tennessee were the last states to add photos in 1986. New Jersey later allowed drivers to get non-photo licenses, but that option was subsequently revoked. Vermont license holders have the option of receiving a non-photo license. Tennessee drivers 60 years of age or older had the option of a non-photo driver's license prior to January 2013, when photo licenses were required for voting identification. Those with valid non-photo licenses were allowed to get a photo license when their current license expired. Thirteen states allow a non-photo driver's license for reasons of religious belief: Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Later additions to licenses have included fingerprints, bar codes, magnetic strips, social security numbers, and tamper-proof features, most of which were added to prevent identity theft and to curb the use of fake IDs. States have slowly added digitized features to driver's licenses, which incorporate holograms and bar codes to reduce forgery.

Non-driver identification cards

Many states provide identification cards for people who do not drive, usually through the same agency that issues driver's licenses.

Real ID

The Department of Homeland Security enforces standards of the Real ID Act of 2005 for identification of applicants and license design for state-issued driver licenses and identification cards. States are not required to comply with Real ID, but any driver licenses or ID cards issued by that state will not be valid for any official purpose with the federal government, including entering federal buildings or boarding airplanes.

For a state to comply with Real ID, licenses and ID cards issued from that state must be approved by DHS to meet Real ID requirements.

States can choose to issue both regular licenses and ID cards as well as Real IDs, but any non-Real ID must be marked "Not for Federal Identification". Real IDs are normally valid for eight years.

Real IDs are allowed to be issued only to legal immigrants and citizens of the United States.

An applicant for a Real ID, either as a new driver license or ID card applicant, or renewing a current license or ID card, must present a citizenship document (US passport, certified birth certificate or citizenship certificate) or proof of legal immigrant status, proof of a Social Security number if they have been issued one, proof of any name changes if using birth certificate, and two proofs of residency in the state. The state then must verify the documents and store them either electronically or on paper. No one may have more than one Real ID at one time.

A Real ID can be identified with a gold or black star located on the top right third of the ID, depending on the state. As of October 2011, Connecticut issues them. Starting in January 2013, Ohio is issuing Real IDs under the name "Safe ID". California started issuing Real IDs on January 22, 2018.

Enhanced driver's licenses

Some states, mostly those with an international border, issue enhanced driver's licenses and enhanced ID cards. Enhanced licenses combine a regular driver's license with the specifications of the new federal passport card. Thus, in addition to providing driving privileges, the enhanced license also is proof of US citizenship, and can therefore be used to cross the Canadian and Mexican borders by road, rail, or sea, although air travel still requires a traditional passport book. The enhanced licenses are also fully Real ID compliant.

On March 27, 2008, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that Washington's enhanced driver's license was the first one approved under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. According to a Homeland Security press release, the department is working with Arizonan authorities to develop enhanced driver's licenses. On September 16, 2008, New York began issuing enhanced driver's licenses that meet WHTI requirements. Texas was expected to implement an enhanced driver's license program, but the program has been blocked by Texas Governor Rick Perry, despite a state law authorizing the Texas Department of Public Safety to issue EDLs and a ruling by the state attorney general, Greg Abbott, that Texas's production of EDLs would comply with federal requirements.

As of May 2009, Vermont, New York, Michigan, and Washington were issuing enhanced driver's licenses and ID cards. In January 2014, Minnesota became the fifth state to issue enhanced driver's licenses, while Ohio is set to become the sixth state once it has been approved by its legislature.

Digital driver's licenses

California, Iowa, and Delaware have proposed digital drivers licenses as a means of identification. The license would be available as an app by MorphoTrust USA and installed on a user's personal cellphone. Questions have been raised about user privacy, since a police officer may ask for one's license and gain access to one's cellphone.

Louisiana passed House Bill 481 in 2014 which became Act 625, making Louisiana the first state with a legally accepted digital driver's license via LA Wallet, an app created by Envoc that launched in July 2018. The law allows Louisiana residents to present driver identification using LA Wallet "...upon demand of any officer or agent of the department or any police officer of the state, parish, or municipality...". The Louisiana digital driver's license requires no additional hardware to accept and includes a “no-touch” policy whereby the citizen remains in possession of the mobile device at all times. In October 2018, the Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin approved usage of LA Wallet for voter identification at the polling stations. In January 2019, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control issued a notice legally approving LA Wallet, Louisiana's Digital Driver's License app for purchase age verification for tobacco and alcohol sales.

See also

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Driver's licenses in the United States, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.