California Driver's License: A Step-by-Step 2018 Guide

Learn what to expect and how to get behind the wheel faster.
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On this page: Types of driver's licenses How to apply Knowledge test Road test Replace or renew New residents

How Does It Work?

If you are a California driver, or would like to become one, you will need a California driver's license. Getting your license is pretty simple. All you need to do is provide the correct documentation to the California DMV, understand the material and demonstrate your ability to drive safely. To save you some time, here is a step by step guide that you will need to follow to get a driver's license in California.

Get an Instruction Permit

Allows you to practice driving under supervision.

Get a Provisional License

Allows you to drive unsupervised with restrictions.

Get a Full License

Allows you to drive without any restrictions.

Types of Driver's Licenses in California

For each license type there's a corresponding type of instruction permit
California Class C Driver's License
Class C
This is the usual kind of driver's license. It allows you to drive common cars: 2-axle vehicles which gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) does not exceed 26,000 pounds, such as automobiles and vans with fewer than 15 occupants, including the driver. Valid for five years and will expire on your birthday. Read the CA DMV Handbook or take a free CA DMV practice test.
California Class A Driver's License
Class A
Allows you to tow travel trailers whose gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) exceeds 10,000 pounds, and 5th-wheel travel trailers weighing over 15,000 pounds, as well as any vehicle that a Class C license allows you to drive. Also allows a farmer to drive a livestock trailer whose GVWR exceeds 10,000 pounds but does not exceed 15,000 pounds, as long as the vehicle is not being used in commerce. Read the CA CDL Manual or take a free CDL practice test.
Class B Driver's License - Trailer
Class B
Allows you to tow a single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) not exceeding 10,000 pounds and 5th wheel travel trailers not exceeding 15,000 pounds, as well as any vehicle that a Class C license allows you to drive. With a housecar endorsement, you may also drive a housecar between 40 and 45 feet in length.
California Class M Motorcycle Driver's License
Class M
Allows you to ride a motorized bicycle, moped, any bicycle with an attached motor, or motorized scooter. Read the CA Motorcycle Manual or take a free motorcycle practice test.

How to Apply for Your Class C Driver's License

To apply for a Class C driver's license, you must first get an instruction permit certifying that you passed a vision exam and a written knowledge exam, then take a driving test. This is your complete plan of action depending on your age:

How to Apply for Your Instruction Permit for the First Time

You must apply in person at your local DMV office. Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. Make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133.
Tip: applying for an instruction permit starts a 12-month driver's license application period. You should try to meet all the requirements for a driver's license before that period ends.

1Fill out and submit a DL 44 Form

The Driver's License or Identification Card Application form (DL 44) is not available online: visit a DMV office to pick one up in person or call the DMV's Automated Telephone Service at 1-800-777-0133 to have one mailed to you). Since you are under 18, your parent or guardian must sign on the form (if that person has custody) or both parents (if they have joint custody).

2Provide required documentation for regular or AB 60 licenses

  • Your identity, including your full name
  • Your Social Security number (unless you are applying for an AB 60 permit)
  • Your birthdate
  • Your legal presence in the US (unless you are applying for an AB 60 permit)
  • Your residency in California

3Give a thumbprint and have your picture taken

4Pass a vision exam

You must be able to pass a vision test, with or without corrective lenses, with visual acuity better than 20/200 in at least one eye.

5Pass a knowledge test

You have three chances to pass it within the 12-month application period. Take a free practice test here.

6Pay the $33 application fee

You may pay the DMV office in person with cash, a check, a money order, or a debit card. (DMV offices do not accept credit cards for payment in person.)

7If under 17 ½: Complete a Driver's Ed course

You must complete one of the following classroom driver education and driver training courses (learn more):
  • 25 hours of classroom instruction, home study or Internet training program
  • 6 hours of behind-the-wheel practice
  • 50 hours of supervised driving practice with10 hours of driving during darkness
If you're over 17 ½, you are not required to complete a Driver's Ed course to get an instruction permit. Still, the DMV recommends it to all young drivers.

If you have changed your name so it no longer matches that on your documentation, you must have Social Security update your name before you provide that documentation to the DMV.

What is AB 60 permit/license? AB 60 licenses are equivalent to full driver licenses of the same class for driving purposes and are recognized by California as a valid form of identification. However, AB 60 licenses may not be recognized by the Federal Government as legal identification. It means a AB 60 license holder should not rely on it to enter Federal buildings or pass through checkpoints at airports. The other requirements for an AB 60 license are the same as those for a regular driver's license. That is, you must still be able to provide adequate proof of your identity and residency in California.

Tip: Use these ideas to select the documentation: for a regular instruction permit, or for an AB 60 permit
What if I’m not 15 ½ yet but need to drive? If you are at least 14 years old and absolutely must drive unsupervised to or from school, to or from work to support your family, or for medical reasons, you can apply for a junior permit, which will function as a restricted driver's license.

How to apply for junior permit
  • You must have already applied for a California Identification (ID) card.
  • Within six months of receiving the junior permit, you must complete the same kind of driver training or education course that all applicants for California instruction permits must complete.
  • Complete an Application for Junior Permit DL 120 form. Someone other than yourself (an ill family member, a patient, your doctor, your school principal, or your employer) must fill out the parts of the form that describe the nature of your hardship and show that no other form of transportation is available to you.
  • Fill out and submit a Driver License or Identification Card Application form (DL 44). This form is not available online: visit a DMV office to pick one up in person or call the DMV's Automated Telephone Service at 1-800-777-0133 to have one mailed to you. Since you are under 18, your parent or guardian (if that person has custody) must sign on your form or both parents (if they have joint custody).
  • Submit the DL 44 and DL 120 forms together to your local DMV office.

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How to Apply for Your Provisional License if You Are 16-17 ½ with an Instruction Permit

A provisional license allows you to drive the same kinds of vehicles that a full Class C driver's license would allow you to drive. Unlike the instruction permit that you have held, a provisional license allows you to drive unsupervised but with significant restrictions. Plan of action: Apply for the Provisional License in person at your local DMV office. Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. Make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133. Provisional License requirements:
  • Hold an instruction permit for at least six months prior to applying for the provisional license. (This means that you are now at least 16 years old.)
  • Provide proof that you have completed a Driver's Education course that meets California requirements.
  • Provide both your driving instructor's signature and a parent's or guardian's signature on your instruction permit, verifying that you have completed 50 hours of driving practice (of which 10 hours must be at night).
  • Pass a driving test
Provisional License restrictions:
  • You may not drive with any passengers under the age of 20 unless there is a licensed parent, guardian, or driver over 25 years old in the vehicle.
  • You may not drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
  • The only exceptions to the above two restrictions are as follows:
    1. Medical necessity, as certified in writing by your physician
    2. Employment necessity, as certified in writing by your employer
    3. School-related activities, as certified in writing by your school principal or dean
    4. Immediate need of a family member, as certified in writing by that family member
    5. Emancipation: your status as an emanicipated minor
  • You may not use a cell phone or other wireless communication device (whether hand-held or hands-free) while you drive, except in an emergency.
On the lower right corner of your provisional license is the date on which you were issued this license. After 12 months or you turn 18, whichever comes first, the provisional license restrictions will no longer apply to you and the provisional license will be effectively a full class C driver license. You don’t need to get a new driver's license until your current license expires. You may, if you wish, have the DMV exchange your provisional license for a full driver's license which doesn't have the word "Provisional" on it, if you pay a $33 fee.

How to Apply for your Full (Adult) Driver's License

Got a provisional license (must be 18+ or have held it for 12 months)? You only need to do Step 7 below.
Over 18 and got your Instruction Permit? Start with Step 8.
Over 18 and never held any type of license? Start with Step 1.

1Apply for the Instruction Permit

You must apply in person at your local DMV office. Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. Make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133. Tip: applying for an instruction permit starts a 12-month driver's license application period. You should try to meet all the requirements for a driver's license before that period ends.

2Fill out and submit a DL 44 Form

The Driver's License or Identification Card Application form (DL 44) is not available online: visit a DMV office to pick one up in person or call the DMV's Automated Telephone Service at 1-800-777-0133 to have one mailed to you).

3Pass a vision exam

You must be able to pass a vision test, with or without corrective lenses, with visual acuity better than 20/200 in at least one eye.

4Provide required documentation for regular or AB 60 licenses

  • Your identity, including your full name
  • Your Social Security number (unless you are applying for an AB 60 permit)
  • Your birthdate
  • Your legal presence in the US (unless you are applying for an AB 60 permit)
  • Your residency in California

5Give a thumbprint and have your picture taken

6Pass a knowledge test

You have three chances to pass it within the 12-month application period. Take a free practice test here.

7Pay the $33 application fee

You may pay the DMV office in person with cash, a check, a money order, or a debit card. (DMV offices do not accept credit cards for payment in person.)

8Pass the driving test

Adults are not required to hold the instruction permit for any minimum amount of time. You may take your driving test as soon as you feel you are able.

9Final checklist:

To get the license, you'll need to provide the following:
  • your instruction permit showing that you passed a knowledge test and vision exam
  • proof of your legal presense in the U.S.
  • proof of residency
  • proof that you have passed the driving test
Once you have met these requirements, the DMV will issue you a temporary license that is valid for 90 days. The DMV should mail you your permanent license before your temporary license expires.
Tip: Use these ideas to select the documentation: for a regular instruction permit, or for an AB 60 permit

Can't show proof of your legal presence in the US? Normally, to apply for a Class C driver license, you must also be able to show proof of your legal presence in the US. However, starting in January 2015, California began issuing AB 60 driver licenses (noncommercial Classes A, B, and C), along with corresponding instruction permits, to persons who could not show proof of their legal presence in the US.

Residency: For purposes of motor vehicle licensing, California considers your residency as your state of domicile. Your state of domicile is the state in which you have your true, permanent home and principal residence and to which you intend to return whenever you leave it. Evidence of residency for driver licensing purposes includes, but is not limited to, the following:
  • Your address where you are registered to vote
  • Payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education
  • Filing a homeowner's property tax exemption
  • Other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state is more than temporary

California Knowledge Test (aka Written Test)

All questions are based on the information from the California DMV handbook and are offered in several languages. Remember that you have to read the whole handbook to be familiar with the rules of the road, traffic signs, and driving laws. The questions are multiple choice with two wrong and one correct answer only.
Take a free practice test
How many questions are on the test?
In California, the number of knowledge test questions is different depending on how old you are. If you are under 18, you will get 46 questions, 38 of which will need to be answered correctly. If you are over 18, the written part of the driving test will have 36 questions. You must answer 30 questions correctly. Read the test questions very carefully. There will be one correct answer and the other two choices will be either wrong or not suitable for the question asked.
What common errors must I avoid when taking the CA written test?
After putting so much effort into studying, you don't want to make mistakes that you can easily avoid! The biggest error to avoid is rushing through questions. The DMV explicitly states that they are not trying to "trick" you. Just take your time and remember what you have studied.
Can I use the driver's manual when I take the actual test at the DMV?
Absolutely NOT! This is not an open book test. The purpose of the test is to make sure you understand and apply the rules of the road. Moreover, the use of any kind of testing aid during the test will mean an automatic failure of the test, and the DMV may take additional sanctioning actions against your driving privilege, so please do not cheat.
How do I know when I'm ready to take my CA written test?
When you are familiar with the handbook and can easily take the practice test, you are ready. If you have passed the practice tests available at https://driving-tests.org/california/ and feel comfortable with your score, you are ready!
Where is the easiest DMV office to pass my knowledge test in CA?
There is no "easy" place. The ONLY place to take a permit test is at the DMV office. The easiest thing to do is be prepared. The test is computerized and the questions are randomly picked.
What if I fail?
You may reschedule to take it again. You have three chances to pass it within the 12-month application period. You must wait 7 days before taking it again.

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Road Test

What to expect
This exam is going to test your ability to drive safely and accurately. The test will last about 20 minutes.
Road Test FAQ
You must bring a vehicle that is safe to drive, along with proof of its registration and proof of adequate insurance. You have three chances to pass the driving test; each time that you fail the test, you may not retake the test for another two weeks. You must make a separate appointment in advance for each driving test. You may make these appointments online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133. The first test is free; subsequent tests will cost a modest fee. Call your local DMV office for more information.
Documentation You'll Need
The examiner will ask you to see your instruction permit, driver education and driver’s training completion certificate (if you are under age 18), and proof of vehicle insurance.
Your car safety check
If your vehicle does not meet the minimum safety requirements, your driving test will be rescheduled. The examiner will ask you to show the following:
  • Two license plates
  • Front signal and back signal lights
  • Working brake lights
  • Horn
  • Good tires without bald spots
  • Emergency parking brake
  • Two rear view mirrors
  • Adequate brake pressure (you will step on the brake pedal to see if it works)
  • A windshield without cracks in the field of vision
  • A driver’s side window rolls down
  • Both front doors open from both the inside and outside
  • Working seat belts
  • Securely closed glovebox
  • Passenger seat permanently attached to the vehicle
Before starting the engine
Show that you:
  • Adjust the mirrors and your seat
  • Fasten the seat belt
You may be asked to demonstrate the arm signals for right and left turns, and for stopping or slowing down as well as show where the operating controls are located.
Starting the vehicle
  • Your car is in in “Park” or “Neutral”.
  • Your foot is on the brake pedal.
  • Signal
  • Start the car smoothly and drive out of the DMV driving test line.
On the road
You should show the following techniques:
  • Looking in the mirror and over your shoulder before merging into traffic
  • Keeping both hands on the steering wheel
  • Stopping behind crosswalks and limit lines
  • Checking traffic, including pedestrians. Demonstrate your head and eye movements and look into mirrors
  • Signaling before pulling into or out of traffic, changing lanes and making turns
  • Driving at an appropriate speed- neither too fast nor too slow
  • Following at a safe distance ( 3 second rule)
  • Yield and accept the right-of-way if necessary
  • Obey all traffic laws
Critical skills maneuvers
You will be asked to complete these basic actions at some point of the exam:
  • Backing up
  • Driving through intersections including controlled, uncontrolled and stop signs
  • Making left and right lane changes
  • Driving in regular street traffic
  • Left and right turns
  • Driving on the freeway ( optional)
Critical driving errors (CDE)
These are dangerous or potentially dangerous actions on the road. If you make a CDE, you will fail. The following are some examples of most common CDEs.
  • Driving 10 miles over or under the speed limit.
  • Not looking over the shoulder when pulling into traffic or changing lanes.
  • Running a red light.
  • Hitting the brakes too aggressively
  • Not using windshield wipers when necessary in the rain
End of the test
Upon your return to the DMV, your examiner will tell you whether your driving test was "satisfactory" (pass) or "unsatisfactory" (fail). You will also look through your score sheet together. The examiner will explain any mistakes you made and show you the areas that need improvement. If you fail, you can reschedule your test no earlier than in 2 weeks for a fee.

How to Replace or Renew Your Driver's License in California

  • Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. You can make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133. You will receive a temporary license that will be valid for the next 90 days. You should receive your permanent license in the mail in the next 60 days.
    Find a DMV office near you
    Make an appointment online
    Download DL 44 form
  • Fill out either the renewal notice or the form. You are eligible to renew your license by mail if you meet the following requirements:
    1. Your license will expire no later than 60 days from now.
    2. You will be younger than 70 years of age on the day that your license expires.
    3. You do not have a driver's license from more than one jurisdiction.
    4. You have not received two consecutive renewals by mail.
    5. You are not on any kind of driving probation or license suspension.
    6. You have not violated a written promise to appear in court within the last two years.
  • You are eligible to renew online if you are eligible to renew by mail and meet the following additional requirements:
    1. You have registered as a certified user with the DMV.
    2. Your address and personal description have not changed.
    3. The DMV has verified your Social Security number.
    4. You can pay the $33 renewal fee electronically by credit card (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, or Visa), debit card, or eCheck.
    Renew online

New residents: How to get the California Driver's License

If you become a resident of California and want to transfer your out-of-state or out-of country driver's license, you must apply for a California driver's license within ten days.
Out-of-state license Foreign license
Not sure if you are a resident of California?
Are you a California resident?

For purposes of motor vehicle licensing, California considers your residency as your state of domicile. California defines your state of domicile as the state in which you have your true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which you intend to return whenever you leave it. Evidence of residency for driver licensing purposes includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Your address where registered to vote.
  • Payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education.
  • Filing a homeowner's property tax exemption.
  • Other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state is more than temporary or transient.
Just visiting?
Are you a visiting California

Good news! If you are visiting California and you are over 18, you may drive using your valid home state or country driver's license.

I've Got a Valid Out-of-State License

Moving from another US state? Welcome to California!
Moving from another state?
Similar to Applying for a New License
The procedure for transferring your out-of-state license is similar to that for applying for a new California driver's license. You must pass a vision exam and a written knowledge test. If your out-of-state license has expired, you'll have to pass a driving (road) test too. Otherwise, you won't have to take a driving test. You must transfer your out-of-state license in person at your local DMV office. Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. You can make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133.
Plan of Action
  1. Fill out and submit a Driver License or Identification Card Application form (DL 44).
    DL is not available online: visit a DMV office to pick one up in person or call the DMV's Automated Telephone Service at 1-800-777-0133 to have one mailed to you). If you are under 18, your parent or guardian must sign on the form (if that person has custody) or both parents (if they have joint custody).
  2. Turn in your out-of-state license.
  3. Give a thumbprint.
  4. Have your picture taken.
  5. Provide required documentation - you'll need the verification of the following, with documentation selected from these lists:
    • Your identity, including your full name
    • Your Social Security number
    • Your birthdate
    • Your legal presence in the US
    • Your residency in California

    Note: If you have changed your name so it no longer matches that on your documentation, you must have Social Security update your name before you provide that documentation to the DMV.

  6. Pass a vision exam.
  7. Pass a knowledge test. You have three chances to pass it within the 12-month application period.
  8. Pass a driving test, if required.
  9. Pay the $33 application fee. You may pay the DMV office in person with cash, a check, a money order, or a debit card. (DMV offices do not accept credit cards for payment in person.)
Interim driver's license in California is valid for 90 days
Temporary License is Valid for 90 Days
Once you have met these requirements, the DMV will issue you a temporary license that is valid for 90 days. The DMV should mail you your permanent license before your temporary license expires.

I've Got a Valid Foreign License

The procedure for transferring your foreign license is similar to that for applying for a new California driver's license. That is, you must pass a vision exam and a written knowledge test, and a driving test. You must transfer your foreign license in person at your local DMV office. Currently, only four offices accept walk-ins as well as appointments; the rest are by appointment only. You can make an appointment online or by calling the DMV at 1-800-777-0133.
Plan of Action
  1. Fill out and submit a Driver License or Identification Card Application form (DL 44).
    DL is not available online: visit a DMV office to pick one up in person or call the DMV's Automated Telephone Service at 1-800-777-0133 to have one mailed to you). If you are under 18, your parent or guardian must sign on the form (if that person has custody) or both parents (if they have joint custody).
  2. Turn in your foreign license.
  3. Give a thumbprint.
  4. Have your picture taken.
  5. Provide required documentation - you'll need the verification of the following, with documentation selected from these lists:
    • Your identity, including your full name
    • Your birthdate
    • Your legal presence in the US
    • Your residency in California

    Note: If you are a noncitizen, you should not normally need a Social Security number to get a driver's license from the California DMV as long as you can provide documentation verifying your birthdate and legal presence in the US. However, if you wish to get a Social Security number or contact the Social Security Administration to learn more, please read this short publication from Social Security.

  6. Pass a vision exam.
  7. Pass a knowledge test. You have three chances to pass it within the 12-month application period.
  8. Pass a driving test.
  9. Pay the $33 application fee. You may pay the DMV office in person with cash, a check, a money order, or a debit card. (DMV offices do not accept credit cards for payment in person.)
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