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Driving in California with a Foreign License

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 14, 2024

If you're a visitor from another country, you'll be delighted to know you can use your foreign driver's license to drive in California. The state warmly recognizes out-of-state and foreign driver licenses for nonresident individuals, enhancing your travel experience with added convenience.

Vehicle Codes 12502 and 12505 VC define nonresidents based on their state of domicile, where a person has their true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence to which they intend to return.

Driving in California with a Foreign License
If you're visiting from another country, you can use your foreign license to drive in California.

Understanding the rules is quite straightforward. As a foreigner operating a motor vehicle in California, you're generally permitted to do so if you have a current license from your country of origin. This clarity in the rules should give you confidence and peace of mind during your visit.

You can legally drive in California with 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).

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

However, if you are 16 or 17 years old, you can drive for only up to ten days after you enter the state, with some exceptions. Understanding these exceptions will help you prepare for your visit.

The ten-day limit will 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). This is an important exception to note, especially for minors.

Sometimes, rental car agencies require an international driving permit and a foreign license. The IDP is often helpful if your driver's license is not in English.

California Vehicle Code 12502 VC

VC 12502 says, "(a) The following persons may operate a motor vehicle in this state without obtaining a driver's license under this code:

(1) A nonresident over the age of 18 years having in his or her immediate possession a valid driver's license issued by a foreign jurisdiction of which he or she is a resident, except as provided in Section 12505.

(2) A nonresident, 21 years of age or older, if transporting hazardous material, as defined in Section 353, in a commercial vehicle, having in his or her immediate possession a valid license with the appropriate endorsement issued by another state or other jurisdiction that the department recognizes, or a Canadian driver's license and a copy of his or her current training certificate to transport hazardous material that complies with all federal laws and regulations concerning hazardous materials, both of which shall be in his or her immediate possession.

Driving with a Foreign Driver's License

(3) A nonresident has a valid driver's license issued by the Diplomatic Motor Vehicle Office of the Office of Foreign Missions of the United States Department of State for the type of motor vehicle or combination of vehicles the person is operating.

(b) (1) A driver required to have a commercial driver's license under Part 383 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations who submit a current medical examiner's certificate to the licensing state by Section 383.71(h) of Subpart E of Part 383 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, documenting that he or she meets the physical qualification requirements of Section 391.41 of Subpart E of Part 391 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, is not required to carry on his or her person the medical examiner's certificate or a copy of that certificate.

(2) A driver may use the date-stamped receipt, given to the driver by the licensing state agency, for up to 15 days after the date stamped on the receipt as proof of medical certification.

(c) A nonresident possessing a medical certificate by subdivision (b) shall comply with any restriction of the medical certificate issued to that nonresident.

(d) This section shall become operative on January 31, 2014."

California Vehicle Code 12505 VC

VC 12505 says, (a)(1) For purposes of this division only and notwithstanding Section 516, residency shall be determined as a person's state of domicile. "State of domicile" means the state where a person has their true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which the person has manifested the intention of returning whenever they are absent.

Foreign Driver's License

Prima facie evidence of residency for driver's licensing purposes includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(A) Address where registered to vote.

(B) Payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education.

(C) Filing a homeowner's property tax exemption.

(D) Other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state are more than temporary or transient.

(2) California residency requires a person to be issued a commercial driver's license under this code.

(b) Satisfactory evidence that the licensee's primary residence is in another state may rebut the presumption of residency in this state.

What are the Eligibility Requirements?

As noted, in California, foreign visitors can drive using their home country's driving license for their visit. This law is designed to facilitate ease of mobility for tourists, business travelers, and other international visitors. The eligibility requirements are as follows:

  • Valid License: The foreign driver's license must be valid and not expired.
  • Age Requirements: Foreign drivers must be at least 18 years old to drive in California legally.
  • Residency Status: The driving allowance only applies to visitors. If you establish residency in California, you must obtain a California driver's license within ten days.

What are the Limitations?

There are several limitations and considerations that drivers must know, such as the following:

  • Language: If the license is not in English, it is recommended that you carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) or an official license translation.
  • Insurance: Foreign drivers must follow California's minimum insurance requirements.
  • Duration: Permission to drive with a foreign license is only for temporary visitors.
  • Vehicle: The foreign license must authorize you to operate the vehicle you intend to drive in California.
  • Underage. If you are 16 or 17 and have a valid driver's license from your country of origin, you can only drive for ten days from arrival.

If your country does not require or issue a driver's license, California law permits you to drive your foreign vehicle without a license if you are over 18 years old.

Do You Need an IDP?

An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not required to drive in California. You can't drive with an IDP and no accompanying driver's license. However, an IDP can be used for the following reasons:

  • It's recognized as a valid form of identification.
  • It's helpful to translate your ID if your driver's license is in a foreign language and
  • Some insurance and rental car companies require an IDP.

What are the Penalties for Driving Without a License?

Driving without a valid license in California is a "wobblette" under Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC, meaning 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."

Infractions include a fine of up to $250, a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in county jail, and a fine of up to $1,000. Your immigration status might 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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