Driving a Car in the US

Obtaining a California Driver’s License

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), State of California
1377 Fell Street, San Francisco
General Information and Appointments: 1-800-777-0133

Individuals who have entered the United States, other than as a tourist, who wish to drive in the state of California, must obtain a California driver’s license. For non-tourists, foreign driver’s licenses are valid for only 10 days. Also, please note that an international driver’s license is not recognized in California. To apply for a license, we advise you to visit the DMV website or local DMV office for additional information. Copies of the California Driver Handbook can be downloaded from the DMV website; they are available in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese, in addition to English.

To apply for a driver’s license, you must:

  • visit DMV office (make appointment by phone or online for faster service)
  • give your thumbprint
  • provide your Social Security Number (if available) Or see below.
  • pass a vision exam
  • pay application fee
  • verify birth date and legal presence (i.e. passport, Immigration document, valid I-94)
  • have your picture taken
  • complete a DL-44 application (available at DMV)
  • pass the traffic laws and sign test
  • provide true, full name

California State ID (for Non-drivers)

For individuals who do not need to obtain a California driver’s license, the DMV also issues identification cards.

To apply for an ID card, you must:

  • visit DMV office (make appointment for faster service)
  • give your thumbprint
  • provide your Social Security Number (if available) Or see below.
  • pay application fee
  • complete a DL-44 application form
  • have your picture taken
  • verify birth date and legal presence (i.e. passport, immigration document, valid I-94)

Social Security Number Requirement

If you are legally present in the US, but ineligible for a Social Security Number (i.e. if you are on J-2 status), you are exempt from Social Security Number requirements. However, you must still provide an acceptable birth date and legal presence document (passport, I-94 Form, and DS-2019 in the case of J-2) for any driver's license or ID card application.

You should also have a look at the Department of Homeland Security's fact sheet on driver's licenses for foreign nationals.

Owning A Car

Everything having to do with owning a car in this city is expensive. In addition to the cost of buying a car, you will need to pay annual registration fees, car insurance, smog tests, and parking costs. Added with the difficulty of finding a parking space (it often takes twice as long to park than it would to take public transportation), and you may give up the idea of having a car in San Francisco.

But if you are determined to have a car, please read through the guidelines below. You can find advice on buying a new or used car on the Better Business Bureau website.

Registering a Car

You must register your car with the state within 20 days if you brought it with you from another state, and within 30 days if you purchased it here. Failure to do so can result in a penalty and other legal difficulties. Registration can be accomplished at the DMV. If your car does not have a California emissions control system, you may have to pay $300 in fees or have your car retrofitted.

Your car may also have to undergo a smog control test. This will cost about $100. The test can be done at most gas stations, but look for an official "Emissions Control" sign. Don't panic if your car fails the first time. You may only need a tune-up. Consult the Vehicle Registration booklet, which you can download from the DMV website for registration fees.

Car Insurance

Drivers have a financial responsibility for personal injury and property damage caused during accidents. The State of California requires that all drivers be insured for this. Major carriers include AAA, Allstate, State Farm, and GEICO. Please check the Better Business Bureau website for valuable tips on understanding, shopping for, and minimizing the cost of auto insurance.

Hint for international drivers: a California driver’s license is required to get your car insured. Some of the cheaper insurance companies will not insure you for the first 18 months. Expect to pay more expensive rates for the first 18 months of U.S. residency, then shop around, and consider switching to a cheaper insurance company for potential savings in the hundreds of dollars per year!


Many neighborhoods require a residential permit in order to park on the street during the day. In order to get a resident permit, you must go to City Hall. Bring your California driver's license (the temporary will do), car title, and registration. The cost is about $27 per year. For more information, visit the San Francsico Metropolitain Transit Authority website for more information on Residential Parking Permits.

Also, be sure to watch the signs for 2-hour parking limits and street cleaning times. Failure to obey these signs or parking in illegal spaces will result in parking citation fees. Failure to pay fines may block registration of your vehicle and can raise your insurance.

UCSF Campus Parking

Visit the UCSF parking website for parking info around UCSF campuses.

Car Sharing Services

San Francisco offers two major car sharing services. They allow you to borrow a car when you need one, without having to own one.

You can visit the Zipcar website or the City Carshare website for more information.