International Students: Getting a License and Car in the US

by Susie Shen | In Immigration Assistance and Information | 7 August 2017 | Updated on: March 2nd, 2021

This is Susie and I am an international student from China. Back at home, I technically got my driver’s license several years ago – but my actual driving experience after that was only around 10 miles. When I moved to America for graduate school, though, I realized that I needed a car to get around. As you can imagine, I struggled to build up my car and driving knowledge piece by piece and finally worked everything out. Here I’d like to share my experiences and tips for foreign students who are considering driving in the U.S.

1. Get a driver’s license

With a valid driver’s license issued by the authority in China, I was allowed to drive in the U.S. for a period of time given by the state of Maryland, where my school is. But when that time expired, I needed a Maryland license, and for that, I needed to go through a series of tests. In Maryland, to get a driver’s license I had to take three tests: the alcohol and drug education program, the knowledge test, and the road skills test.

For the alcohol and drug education part, I took a three-hour course online and then afterward, took an on-site written test. The questions were quite straightforward and were scored immediately after submission. So, within an hour, I was all set and received my certificate.

The knowledge test required me to study the driver’s manual. However, I underestimated how much information there was and failed the test on the first try. After I had a serious study of the manual, I retook the test and passed it several days later, since Maryland only allows one exam try per day. Overall it wasn’t a difficult test, but it required a lot of preparation ahead of time.

The third and final test was the road skills test, which consisted of two parts – reverse parking and the public road test. The reverse parking was my biggest weakness until I figured out that technology had progressed so much that it was easy to just to follow the guidelines in a rear-view camera. For the public road test, I practiced several times under the guidance of an experienced coach and reviewed the safety issues I needed to pay attention to. Maybe because I took the test the day before Christmas holiday, but everyone was in a delightful mood. I drove clumsily through the test and got my license like a Christmas gift.

2. Where to buy a used car

  • a. Where to buy a used car

Once I received my driver’s license, I had to get a car. My expectations were pretty basic so I chose to buy a used car from a dealer. If you have time for negotiations, you could find individual sellers on Craigslist or other websites that might be a cheaper option. I chose the model I wanted based on preferences of car features and my price range. During the following two weeks, I started following the deals on different listing websites and got an idea about the current market price. This turned out to be very useful homework because I got a good bargain later.

Before committing to the car, I decided it needed to be test driven. The test driving was mainly done by my friends, who had several years of driving experience. But since they were not car experts, I decided to also go for an inspection before purchasing the vehicle. The expense for the inspection was worth it because it was the expense paid to avoid a bigger loss due to a problematic car. In my case, I made the right decision to get the car inspected. The mechanic told me that three of the four tires were almost worn out and two had nails in them. This was a significant issue both for safety and for potential repairing expenses. But he also said that the other parts of the car were performing quite well. With the inspection report, I bargained more confidently with the dealer and got four new tires for an extra payment of 50 dollars.

  • b. Car insurance could be a big chunk of money

I might not have chosen to own a car if I had known the quote I was going to get for my car insurance! I learned that age, driving history, the location of living, and many other factors determine the insurance quote. But I didn’t expect to get such a high quote. Five years of payment could even get me a new car! All I can do now is drive safely and wait patiently for the fee to drop. My important tip: Before buying a car, get an insurance quote and take that into consideration when budgeting.

  • c. Other things to notice

The used car transaction is a perfect example that business school professors use to explain information asymmetry. And so is my unpleasant after-sale experience with the dealer about the tire pressure sensor.

Just the day after I bought the car, the alarm light of the tire pressure went on. The problem actually occurred during my test drive and the dealer said it was due to the cold weather. At that time, he just pumped some air into the tires and the alarm light soon went off. But it didn’t work the next time so I went back to the dealer for help. However, the dealer told me the reason was that the sensors were too old to function well and they were not included in the warranty of the contract. I was very upset and went to an auto repair shop to fix the sensors on my own. To my surprise, the mechanic told me one of the sensors was actually broken and had been replaced with a sensor-like rubber to fill the hole. After he learned that I had just bought the car, he insisted that it must be the dealer’s fault and that I should go back and ask for a compensation. He even gave me his business card and offered to help me negotiate with the dealer over the phone.

Thanks to the help from my friends at school, I negotiated with the dealer and finally got partial compensation for the missing sensor. The moral of this story is that no matter how prepared you are, problems can pop up in areas that you don’t expect.

3. Lessons I have learned so far

After I got my driver’s license, the starting period was still rough. My first and only experience of being pulled over was that I accidentally turned on the beamlight and didn’t notice it at all. When the police car came behind me with lights flashing, I was totally freaked out and waited anxiously in the car. The policeman asked for my driver’s license, car registration, and car insurance card. However, I had no idea that those items needed to be kept in the car at all times. Luckily I was let go after an educational talk and a warning note. But getting pulled over at 10 pm is still a very unforgettable experience, and I now know that relevant car-and driving-related documents should be reachable anytime.

It was not easy to get everything ready and start driving. But with all the fun I’ve had so far, the lessons I learned preparing to drive and buy a car have been worth it.


How can an international student get a driver's license?

As an international student you can apply for a driver's license in the nearest DMV or RMV, but before you do make sure:

  • to wait 2 weeks after arriving in the USA
  • you have an active status in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)
  • you know the eligibility and supporting documents required in your state for a driver's license

Can international students get a driver's license in the USA?

Yes, international students can get a driver's license in the USA. You should check the eligibility for a driver's license in your state before starting with the application.

Can an international student buy a car in the USA?

Yes, any international student having a driver's license in the USA can buy, rent, or lease a car.

Susie Shen (申思), is a summer intern at MPOWER Financing from the University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business. Up till now, she has been driving safely and successfully for seven months!

Author: View all post by Susie Shen

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