What is a Learner’s Permit

A learner’s permit is a driver’s license given to those in the process of learning to drive. Learner’s permits are normally associated with teenagers, but some states require permits for anyone under 21, and still others (Wisconsin, primarily) require them for anyone getting a license for the first time..

The learner’s permit allows the student driver to drive while an instructor (meaning a legally licensed adult) rides in the vehicle with them. Some learner’s permits have further restrictions, according to jurisdiction. The learner’s permit given in Utah, for example, may have far fewer restrictions than one issued in California or Maryland. It’s important to know the rules of your state. These are usually laid out by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when the license is issued.

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What is a “Provisional License”?

There’s a difference between learner’s permits and provisional licenses, even though they’re sometimes thought of as the same. Where a learner’s permit is for people who are learning to drive along with an instructor or a parent or guardian until they receive a full license, a provisional license allows the driver to drive alone.

For example, in Massachusetts, drivers who have passed their driver’s test receive a “Junior Operator’s License” with several provisions attached regarding what hours they can drive, or who they can drive with. Newly minted drivers who are under 18 in Massachusetts must not:

  • Operate a vehicle between the hours of Midnight and 5:00 AM.
  • Operate a vehicle with anyone under the age of 18 in the vehicle, other than a family member.

There are a lot of things associated with a learner’s permit. This article will go through them to help you understand what your provisional license means. Throughout, we’ll use the terms “provisional license” and “learner’s permit” interchangeably, but be aware that in your state, they could mean different things.

Gaining a Learner’s Permit is Easy

The process for getting a learner’s permit varies state-by-state, but the overall procedure is largely the same everywhere. The person applying for the learner’s permit must be old enough to apply, have proof of identification, and (if under 18 year of age) have a parent or guardian’s permission. In most states, learner’s permits are issued at 15-16 years of age, though a few have younger age allowances. Some states do not issue full driver’s licenses until adulthood (18 years of age), issuing learners and provisional licenses at 15 or 16 years of age that are good for that two or three year period.

To gain a learner’s permit, the driver must pass an introductory exam, usually in written form. A few states require a perfect score on this safety test while others have lower requirements. Finally, most applying for a learner’s permit must also pass the physical eye exam as well.

What is the Age Minimum in My State for a Learner’s Permit?

Most states issue a learner’s permit at the age of 15 or 15-1/2. The following states issue permits earlier or later than that. The following states have different minimum age requirements from the 15-15-1/2 years norm:


What is the Age for a Driver’s License in My State?

Most states issue a full driver’s license after a minimum period of having a learner’s permit (usually 3-6 months). Some waive this requirement for adults. Traditionally, the minimum age to get a full driver’s license is 16 years of age. Some add restrictions to this, however, while others require the person to be older. Here are the minimum ages for a full, unrestricted driver’s license, by state:


Common Restrictions While Driving with a Provisional License

Most states have similar restrictions for driver’s holding a learner’s permit or a provisional licence. These include requiring a licensed adult be in the car while the provisional driver is operating the vehicle. Most states restrict this further, requiring that the ride-along adult be at least 25 years of age. The goal of a learner’s permit is to teach the new driver how to operate the vehicle safely, hence the fully-licensed adult requirement as a ride-along. The adult present must have an unrestricted driver’s permit, at minimum.

Normally, provisional licenses also have other restrictions such as number of passengers under 20 years of age and curfews for driving times. Both of these restrictions often have exemptions, such as when traveling to or from work or when the underage passengers are members of the driver’s family.

Some states do not allow provisional license holders to operate a vehicle on some roadways, such as freeways, expressways, and so forth.

My Provisional License Says I Must Comply with Drug and Alcohol Testing. What Does That Mean?

In many jurisdictions, the learners or provisional license requires compliance with any requested drug or alcohol screening. Often of both the permit holder and the accompanying adult driver. This requirement is usually a part of the agreement to receive the learner’s permit. Under most state laws, anyone operating a vehicle with a learner’s permit will have that permit revoked and face fines should they test positive for any drug or alcohol use, whatever the legal limits might be. Additionally, the accompanying adult, if found legally drunk or drugged, could face DUI/DWI (driving under the influence) charges.

There are Provisional Licenses for Those Returning to Driving After a Long Absence

Some areas offer provisional driver’s licenses to those who are returning to driving after a long absence without a legal license. This could be due to legal reasons, health reasons, or for any other reason the person has not been licensed for a long period of time. Requirements and restrictions differ by area, but many provisional licenses are given in lieu of a learner’s permit for adults learning or re-learning to drive. Some permits are given with restrictions for those convicted of drunk driving and who are now legally able to return to the roads.

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Can I get a learner’s permit in another state if we’ve just moved?

In most cases, if you have proof of a new residency in a state, you can obtain a permit for learning to drive. If you’re already licensed in another state, most areas will merely require a re-take of the eye and verbal exams as well as proof of residency and identity to issue a license in your new state of residence.

What paperwork will my teenager require in order to obtain a learner’s permit?

Some details may vary by state, but in general, the requirements are simple. You’ll need:

  • Your teen’s Social Security Number.
  • A certified birth certificate for the teenager.
  • Proof of residency, such as school documents, medical insurance documents, or a paycheck stub. In some areas, the parents can provide this if they are listed as legal guardians or on the child’s birth certificate.
  • Proof of insurance for a motor vehicle (usually the parents’).
  • A passing score on a written driver’s knowledge exam.

Some states also require enrollment in a qualified driver’s education course and paperwork from the instructor to that effect.

Which states offer both learner’s permits and provisional licenses to teenagers?

Most of the states which have age requirements above age 17 for full driving privileges offer provisional licenses in the meantime. Indiana, for example, gives a Probationary License to all teenagers under the age of 21 with restrictions and penalties for non-compliance after the teen has completed a learner’s permit and driver’s education course. A Provisional License in California is less age restrictive and is the next step after a learner’s permit.

What happens if my teen drives the car without an adult in it?

A person driving with a learner’s permit or provisional license that restricts their driving to include an adult (usually one over age 25) in the vehicle will have their permit revoked and could face fines and charges. Most states also restrict the teenager from applying for a new learner’s permit for a period of time. Usually six months to one year, or “foreverrrr” if you’re a teen.

Are there provisional licenses for those convicted of DUI?

There are some license provisions or restrictions in almost every state, though they do not all get called the same thing. Some states issue a Provisional License or something similar, others merely place restrictions on an existing driver’s license. These restrictions are usually up to the court, but standard requirements are a breathalyzer starter device to prevent the vehicle from starting while drunk, a restriction on where the person can or cannot drive or at what times, and requirements for higher-risk insurance coverage such as SR-22 or similar.

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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