Swapping Your Australian Driver’s License For A California License – Part One

California-driver-knowledge-test
Yes, you read that right. PART ONE. Because when the DMV is involved, nothing is as easy as it seems it should be. It took me FOUR visits to get this far.

This  post will detail exactly what you need to do if you’re an Australian living in California and want to drive. I’m writing it in the hopes that you won’t have to go through the frustration that I did.

THE LOWDOWN

You need to get a California driver license (their words, not mine) within 10 days of moving to the state/establishing residency. This is true if you’re switching from an Australian license, but also if you’re coming in from another US state.

Establishing residency means that you have a signed lease with your address on it, or have utility bills, insurance documents, or student bills that prove you live in California.

This can be established at different times depending on which visa you’re on. I’d suggest double-checking with the DMV. There’s more info on this in the “What You Need” section below.

WARNING

Those found to be driving on an Australian driver’s license after that time, could be charged with Driving Without A License, which is a serious offence in California. It’s a misdemeanor, meaning they can haul you off to the cells then and there.

If convicted, it becomes part of your criminal record and is likely to appear on any background checks.

The penalties for driving without a license are:
  • Up to six months jail time
  • A fine of up to $1,000, not including fees
  • Up to three years informal probation
  • Impounding your vehicle for up to 30 days

THE TESTS

You will need to visit the DMV twice. Once to complete a written road rules test and a second time to take a driving test – much like you did in Australia all those years ago. I know, I’m as annoyed as you are.
There are two ways to go about taking the written test. You can either call the DMV phone line during business hours on +1-800-777-0133 and make an appointment at your closest branch, or you can try your luck by just showing up and waiting in line (DO NOT show up after 4.30pm – that’s when they stop giving written tests).
Note: I tried to make an appointment in early October and was lucky enough to nab the last one in October. When I was unable to take the test during that appointment (for reasons I will no doubt whinge about later), the next available appointment was not until December. This was after trying all of the DMV’s that surround me. So be aware that you might be better off showing up without an appointment.

 

CALIFORNIA DRIVER HANDBOOK

You will need to read the California Driver Handbook. It is filled with confusing measurements like feet and inches. I’m sorry. It is also filled with epic advice, such as, not shooting your gun on a highway. So maybe it’s not all bad. If you’re just driving a car to get around you’ll need a Class C license.

 

PRACTICE TESTS

It doesn’t hurt to take a few dry runs to see how you’ll fare on the test. You can find a few on the DMV website or there are others available on other sites on the web.

 

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

You’re going to need a bunch of identification, some of which they don’t actually alert you to beforehand (cue me wasting my first appointment). Here’s what you’re going to need:
  • DL 44: You can either call the DMV phone line and ask them to mail you a DL 44 form, or they will give you one at your appointment (these are not available online). A DL 44 is just the application form that you need fill in and sign.
  • Proof of residency documents: These take the form of any official document with your address on it (please note your address needs to be exactly right on these documents otherwise they will not be accepted). You will need TWO of these. Examples include:
    1. Utility bills (includes mobile phone bill)
    2. Lease agreement signed by you and your landlord
    3. Mortgage bill
    4. Vehicle Registration documents
    5. Insurance documents
    6. Student bills
    7. A signed employment contract
  • I-94: This form is distributed to resident aliens and records their arrivals and departures to and from the US. It’s issued by the US Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services. You can download and print a copy of yours from this website. If you are in the US on an E3-D visa, you can use your work permit or EAD card instead of the I-94.
  • Passport: Please note if you have renewed your passport since getting your US visa, you will also need to bring your previous passport, containing your visa.
  • Social Security Number: If you have been issued a SSN, the DL 44 form will ask you to list it. However, it is not necessary if you don’t have one.
  • Patience: I’m not even kidding. You’ll need much of this.

Post Script: On advice from reader, Monika, I’ve got to add a caveat (you can read about it in the comments if you’d like).

This blog is written from the point of view of an E3 visa holder. Monika, however, is the proud owner of an E3-D visa, which adds certain restrictions such as not being able to hold a job for at least three months after arriving in the US.

She says it best:

I’m in the US on an E3-D Visa and you’re actually allowed to drive for more than 10 days on an Aussie Licence (on E3-D) because US residency is only automatically in effect on arrival for E3 visa holders, not E3-D holders (who are not required to be immediately employed as part of their visa).”

 
“E3-D are not considered residents until they have met other, less well defined, residency requirements such as getting a job (which they can’t do for 3 months) or living in the state for a minimum of 6 months (and a few other criteria).”
Thanks for the input!

THE KNOWLEDGE TEST

It’s a 36-question, computerised multiple choice knowledge test. Fair warning: the test costs $33 and they will take your thumb print and use it as identification.

You have three chances to pass it. If you don’t know the answer to a question you can skip it. But you may only skip three questions. Once you complete the test it will let you know whether you have passed or failed..

Return to the line of very patient people waiting for their interim license. From here on out you are allowed to drive if you have a Californian resident who is 18 or older in the car with you.

Once you pass that, you’ll get a card with a phone number and website to make an appointment for the driving test. And here’s the process for taking that test. Enjoy!

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22 thoughts on “Swapping Your Australian Driver’s License For A California License – Part One

  1. So nostalgic about my experience getting the Aussie driving licence when I moved to Sydney from Mumbai. Of course nothing like the DMV 🙂 still I had to take the written test and driving test after driving in Mumbai for many years. Can't believe I have to do this all over again and guns blaring on the highway, no less!

  2. So this is your third driving test? Wow, you must be amassing those licenses! What's driving in Mumbai like? I feel like if you can drive there, you'd be well equipped to drive anywhere!
    Best of luck on your test! Dodge the shotguns on the highway 😉

  3. Please note
    I went through all this last month and was told after passing the written test ' welcome to California, as you are now registered for a learners permit, you can no longer drive on your foreign license, you need to be accompanied by an adult with a valid California license until you pass the road test!
    So apparently it's perfectly legal to drive to the written on your Aussie license but if you pass it's illegal to drive away on your own!!!

  4. I'm in the US on an E3-D Visa and you're actually allowed to drive for more than 10 days on an Aussie Licence (on E3-D) because US residency is only automatically in effect on arrival for E3 visa holders, not E3-D holders (who are not required to be immediately employed as part of their visa). E3-D are not considered residents until they have met other, less well defined, residency requirements such as getting a job (which they can't do for 3 months) or living in the state for a minimum of 6 months (and a few other criteria). In theory an E3-D visa holder could drive on their Aussie licence for up to 6 months provided they avoid doing the various things that enable the state to categorise them as "resident". So you probably should make a note of that somewhere in your blog.

  5. While it's true that getting your learners technically means you can't drive on your Aussie licence anymore, its actually a bit of a grey area legally. the DMV will not stop you from driving home or even admit to you that it's illegal. When I did my learners written test I wanted someone at the DMV to clarify for me whether it was legal for me to drive home on my own on my Aussie licence and I could not get a single person in authority there to confirm (or deny) it. Not even "off the record" They insisted that it was my responsibility to know the law and to independently make inquiries with the appropriate authorities (such as the police). They got pretty angry that I had asked to be honest. I don't know who made the "you can't drive on an Aussie licence after you get your learners" rule…..but the DMV refuse to have anything to do with it. Suffice to say I drove myself home (I had no choice at the time) and the DMV didn't call the police on me. But I did end up leaving the car in the garage until I did my practical test two weeks later.

  6. Also, those on E3-D visas can bring their work permit (or EAD card) to the DMV for their driving test instead of an I-94. I brought both and they never asked for the I-94 (and actually said an EAD effectively overtook the I-94).

  7. be aware you can book the appointment online through the dmv website through the appointment sections. If you try to line up without an appointment you will be there all day.

  8. We discovered soooooo many grey areas around the E3-D at least! There seem to be so many small things that apply to the E3 that are different to the E3-D. Logically you would assume both visas should be the same or very similar….but nope! It's been very frustrating actually since most of the E3 information out there only refers to the main visa and not the spouse version (the E3-D) so we ended up being very confused when doing things like setting up bank accounts and driver's licences. And it's not like there is a huge amount of info about E3 to begin with! I'm glad at least someone is blogging about it!

  9. I can't believe you have to get your license within 10 days of arriving to California! Of course, this rule varies from state to state, I think. Still, I think it's ridiculous. Especially for people coming from a different country! … That E3-D also sounds ridiculous. I agree with David that the lines are miserable. I received my license before appointments were a possibility (but also not in Cali) and the idea was to arrive an hour or more before the DMV even opened just so you wouldn't have to wait forever. The nice thing is, once you have your license, you can renew for like … 10 years, I think it is… online no less! I know in some countries you can renew for longer, but it's a very recent thing that they even allowed 10 years. It used to be that you had to go in the DMV, wait forever, get your picture taken, answer some questions … and repeat every 5 years. Bleh. 😞

  10. Yes, me either! Although I may have stretched it out a little too much considering I've been here for a while…. Shhh! Don't tell anyone. I was scared!
    I tried the "arriving early" trick one day a few weeks ago and there was a huge line up into the car park. It turned out that all of the Californian DMV computer systems were down on that day so it ended up being a total waste anyway!

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