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How to Get a California Driver’s License? Everything You Need to Know

California is one of the largest states in the country, so driving is essential. The state is also home to many immigrants and their families, and there’s a state bill that allows them to apply for a California driver's license, even when they don’t have legal status.

Put your worries aside as we break down the steps to obtaining your license quickly with or without an SSN!

Types of Driver’s Licenses in California

Before discussing the requirements and procedures, it’s necessary to know the two categories of cars that the U.S. authorities have defined as commercial and non-commercial vehicles.

Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMVs) - Large Trucks and Similar Vehicles

Are you a truck driver? If you’re not, know that CMVs are vehicles typically used for transporting large quantities of materials. They meet specific characteristics:

  • A single-vehicle combination of vehicles with a single or combined gross vehicle weight of 26,001 pounds or more.
  • A vehicle designed, used, or maintained to transport more than ten passengers, including the driver.
  • A vehicle towing another vehicle or trailer with a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or more.
  • A vehicle transporting hazardous materials or hazardous waste.
  • A vehicle towing a combination of two trailers.
  • A 3-axle vehicle weighing more than 6,000 pounds.

If you need this license, you’re probably a professional driver who intends to engage commercially in the transportation industry. You’ll first need to obtain a standard California Class C Non-commercial driver's license (DL), get a Commercial Learner's Permit, and ultimately apply for a Commercial Driver's License (CDL).

Keep in mind: Obtaining a CDL at any Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is a very detailed process. We recommend you take advice and support from your employer; you cannot apply for it without legal status.

Non-Commercial Motor Vehicles - All Other Cars and Motorcycles

Non-CMVs are all other vehicles that don’t meet the characteristics outlined above for commercial vehicles. You’re welcome to apply for a license to drive these vehicles regardless of your legal status.

There are four classes in this category:

  • Basic DL (Class C): a standard car or truck for personal use.
  • Motorcycle (Class M1 or M2): A 2-wheeled motorized vehicle. Learn how to apply for a motorcycle license.
  • Travel trailer/fifth-wheel (Class A non-commercial): Over 15,000 pounds gross weight or a trailer coach over 10,000 pounds.
  • Caravan (Class B non-commercial): over 40 feet, but not over 45 feet.

Requirements for a California Driver’s License

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Let’s discuss the requirements to apply for a Non-Commercial DL in California, which is the basic and most commonly used driver's license.

  1. Proof of identity: an original document or certificate containing your date of birth, full name, and address. You must be 18 years of age or older to be eligible.
  2. Social Security Number (SSN) or Assembly Bill 60 (AB 60) Documents: If you don’t have an SSN, you can enter here to check the documents you’ll need instead of an SSN.
  3. Proof of California residency: Only when applying with an SSN; otherwise, some of the AB 60 documents you’ll provide will serve as proof of residency.

7-Step Process to Get a Driver’s License

Follow these seven steps, and you’ll be driving from Sacramento to San Diego shortly; enjoy the view!

  1. Fill the DMV’s application form here, available in ten different languages — including Spanish.
  2. Get ready and study for your tests using the provided handbooks by the official website of the California DMV, which also offers Driver’s License tests for free from their database so you can practice. Make sure you don’t miss them!
  3. Schedule your appointment by clicking here.
  4. Make sure to show up on time for your appointment and bring all the paperwork requested.
  5. Pay for the fee related to the type of non-commercial DL. You can find an updated list of the prices here — it’s not very expensive.
  6. Take the written test and, if you approve, they will ask you to schedule your appointment for the behind-the-wheel test. 
  7. Ask a friend or relative to bring their car, which must be insured and registered in their name. Long-time-no-drive? You can find additional valuable tips on driving preparation here before you take your exams.
Keep in mind: At some point, the DMV is going to ask you to fill this Health Questionnaire. Take a look and see if everything’s in order, and don’t forget to bring your glasses to the test if you need them for driving!

What to Do Next?

Once you’ve completed the California driver’s license application process, you must wait a maximum of 60 days to receive your document in your mail. During this time, you’ll likely be granted a temporary license that’s valid for two months. If you haven’t received your license within 60 days, please call 1-800-777-0133 or visit the DMV offices for a status update on your application.

If you fail the exam, don't worry! You can make an appointment to retake the tests up to three times (provisional license applicants must wait two weeks before retaking the exam). If you still have not been granted your California driver's license after three attempts, you can start the application process once again from the beginning.

Obtaining a California driver's license shouldn’t be too difficult if you study, arrive on time, bring all the necessary documents, and most importantly, remember that there’ll be more opportunities if you fail to get the license on the first attempt.

More information on the California driver’s license