How to Get a Driver’s/Learner’s Permit

The important thing to remember here is that where you live will play a huge role in determining how and when you can get a learner’s permit. Each state is a little different on how hands-on and classroom training time is judged, how old a person needs to be, and what the new driver can actually do with their permit.

There’s also a slight difference between states when it comes to what you can do with your newly obtained license. Nearly everywhere has a graduated license system, through which new drivers are limited in their ability to do things like drive after dark or drive with other passengers in the vehicle that are not family members or guardians.

What isn’t all that different from place to place is the fact that, in almost all places, it’s customary and expected that a new driver obtains a learner’s permit before being able to apply for and obtain a full-on driver’s license. This isn’t always the case, as some states allow new drivers to satisfy other requirements, but it’s far and away the most common pathway to getting a driver’s license.

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Age Requirements For Learner’s Permits and Licenses

Having 50 states with 50 different sets of laws unfortunately means that there are also 50 variations on driver’s license law and the requirements around getting a learner’s permit. In general, permits are issued at or around the age of 15 and driver’s licenses come at 16 years of age. There are exceptions to that rule, and some states allow for a hardship license in cases of families that need a younger driver on the road sooner than the laws typically allow.

State By State

Here, you’ll see the age requirements for each state, both to obtain a learner’s permit and a driver’s license. Some states allow what is known as a hardship license, through which a person who might not otherwise qualify for a driver’s license can temporarily bypass age and other restrictions to get a limited license. The unrestricted license age is the age at which a new driver can travel in a vehicle without any limitations on the time of day or number of passengers.

StateHardship License Available?Learner's Permit Age (Years)Restricted License Age (Years)Unrestricted License Age (Years)

Learner’s Permit

You can view our coverage of state-by-state learner’s permits and driving schools here, but the basic idea is that a learner’s permit is designed to give new drivers the opportunity to pilot a vehicle in a controlled environment with a parent or other experienced driver riding to provide guidance.

Where things get cloudy is in the requirements to pass the learner’s permit stage. The number of learning hours, behind-the-wheel hours, and more are all up to each state’s department of motor vehicles.

Driver’s License

No matter where you live, a driver’s license is a driver’s license. That said, we still come back to there being different definitions of the graduated license system, which is a sort of staggered license issuing process where new licensees are limited in their ability to drive alone, after hours, and with other people in the vehicle.

In general, obtaining a driver’s license involves the following steps:

  1. Obtain a learner’s permit: You will need to check with your state’s department of motor vehicles to determine what you need to do to get a learner’s permit. This will sometimes involve a written test, driving exam, or other educational requirements.
  2. Take a driver’s ed course: These courses are usually split between hands-on and classroom time, which means that you or your new driver will have to spend at least part of their time with a permit behind the wheel to qualify for a driver’s license.
  3. Driving test: Each state has different testing criteria, but the driving portion looks pretty much the same no matter where you go.

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How Long Does It Take To Get A Learner’s Permit?

This will depend mainly on where you live, as some states have different testing and drive time requirements. It will also depend heavily on your ability to pass written and driving tests. If you’re a quick learner and can complete your studies in a few days, you could realistically get a learner’s permit in less than a week, but there’s no set timeline for how long it should take.

Do I Have To Get A Learner’s Permit Before Getting A Driver’s License?

This all depends on where you live. Some states do not have a requirement for new drivers to obtain a learner’s permit, but there are typically other hurdles to cross before they’ll hand over an unrestricted license. Check with your DMV to be sure.

My Child’s Learner’s Permit Has Expired. What Now?

Most places allow teens and new drivers to keep a learner’s permit for up to two years before it expires. At that point, you or your child won’t be able to renew the permit, but can reapply to get a new permit, and may be required to re-pass the original permit testing requirements.

I Don’t Want To Go To The DMV. Can I Do Any Of This Remotely?

Unfortunately, you’re probably going to have to get in line at the DMV at some point, even if it’s just to get your picture taken for a license. On top of that, getting a driver’s license also requires a driving test and a written test, both of which are generally taken on-site and with an instructor.

What Documentation Will I Need To Get A License?

States differ slightly, but in general, expect to need:

  • Proof of U.S. citizenship
  • Proof of residency in the state where you reside
  • Proof of identity
  • Proof of social security number
Can I Drive Around With A Learner's Permit?

Once you’ve passed all of the requirements and have obtained your learner’s permit, you can only drive with a licensed driver in the vehicle with you. States’ requirements on what you can and can’t do are all different, so check with your local DMV.

I Moved To A Different State. Can I Transfer My Learner's Permit?

Maybe, but you’ll be making a trip to the DMV to do it. Check with your local office on the requirements. Keep in mind that you may be required to take some or all of the testing again in your new home state.

I Lost My Driver's Permit. What Can I Do?

If you’ve lost your learner’s permit, the first thing you should do is notify your local DMV. This will allow them to issue you a new one.

Can I Ride A Motorcycle With My Learner’s Permit?

No, you’ll need a motorcycle license to do that. It’s also worth keeping in mind that many states don’t even issue motorcycle licenses until a person turns 18, and those that do sometimes require a parent’s authorization to get one.

Editor's note and disclaimer: Car Talk is supported by our fans, readers and listeners. When you click on some of the links on our website, we may receive referral compensation. However, you should know that the recommendations we make are based on our independent editorial review and analyses.
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