LIFE IN NEW JERSEY: If you haven’t read any of my other blog posts on the DMV or the NJ MVC yet, then you may be forgiven for thinking getting your NJ driver license is a shoe-in. Not to disillusion you too soon but there are many expats who could disagree. They, like myself, know from personal experience that getting your license can be a road lined with cowpats that you will probably step in, if not prepared. If you still think I am exaggerating, then read on for a list of what things can go wrong when getting your NJ Driver License; with some helpful tips to avoid the fertilizer.
What Can Go Wrong When Getting Your NJ License? Too, too many things!
1. You don’t Have ALL the Right Documents
There are a lot of specific primary and secondary documents to take as well as back up documents, or so it seems. Make sure you go through the NJ MVC’s website list which is actually fairly clear about what is needed. Six Points of ID: your passport, I-94 form, and your Social Security card give you 5 out of 6 points. All you need is one more, and there are a number of alternatives that you can use. Then you need at least one residency proof. This isn’t really that hard either. Just sit down and go through it slowly. Be organized before you go and check everything off. In a previous post, on ‘How to Get a New Jersey Driver License as an Expat’, I go through all the documents needed in detail. Check this list when you are planning on the application at the start. Always bring one or two extra ID proofs as a backup.
2. Your Documents are in a Foreign Language and You Don’t Have Translations of these
You may not realize it but any foreign documents you use, either primary or supporting, must be accompanied with a translated copy, done by a recognized authority. Sure you might be able to translate them yourself but that won’t cut it. If getting the translation done here, the NJ MVC has a link to state approved translators on their website. Make sure you include extra time in your planning to get the documents translated, before you go to the MVC. If you somehow forget to get your home license translated, you may be able to use your International Driving License, as a translated version of your license but not all MVCs are this flexible.
3. You Don’t Bring Original Documents
This should be obvious but the MVC don’t accept copies of documents, only originals or certified copies. Nor do they accept certificates that are ceremonial rather than legal documents e.g. for a birth or wedding certificate. Make sure your documents are true originals or acceptable certified copies.
4. Your Name is presented Differently on Your Documents
For most of you with easy names like Jane Smith and so on, this is never an issue. However for other unfortunate people with more complicated names, there can be problems with the way it is recorded. People who have multiple surnames or first names are the most at risk but there can even be problems with names that have hyphens in them. These start to appear usually on things like your visa, your Dept. Homeland Security records (used when verifying your immigration status – perhaps an immigration officer recorded it incorrectly), Social Security and so on. It becomes a much more serious issue when you are at the MVC and your key documents don’t match. Perhaps your middle name is included with your first name or perhaps they left off one of your surnames, or as in my case, where the US online visa application wouldn’t let my name hyphen (the ‘-‘ between Anne and Marie) be entered. This small change meant I had a different name spelling on my passport and visa. This became an issue when at the MVC, where they insisted on treating this as “Anne M Watson”. Although I couldn’t get the visa issue fixed, it is much easier to get through all the rounds of name checking, especially at the DMV, when you have your name spelt and presented correctly. You can avoid this issue sometimes by asking wherever it is recorded to check the spelling or requesting your name be presented the right way for consistency where possible. They may not like you asking but it saves more delays down the track when name spelling comes under scrutiny.
5. They don’t Accept Your Proof of Residence
Normally this isn’t an issue but in a recent case, one of my relocation clients was told that his original lease would NOT be accepted because it was over two months old. This is not information that is shown anywhere on the MVC website. Fortunately he had a US bank statement showing his name and address, so it sufficed. There are time limits on the dating they will accept for bank statements, credit card bill statements, utility bills and most other resident proofs. Check the MVC list for accepted time limits.
6. You have the recommended documents that fit the MVC list but they don’t accept them
No, I am not crazy – this really does happen. On occasions you get MVC staff who seem to interpret the proof requirements listed in the MVC website differently than others. For instance, the ID proofs you bring are not accepted or they don’t like your residency proof as above. It is always a good idea to bring an extra proof if you can, for both ID and residency. For ID, staff members will not usually argue about your passport and SS card as acceptable proofs. These are straight forward. It is the 3rd proof needed where different rulings seem to apply. If you have an ATM card from a US bank, this is preferable for your third proof with most MVCs. Have another US based proof anyway, as a backup. The same applies to residence proof. Bring both a bank statement and a lease with your name and address on it. Then you have a suitable back up, in case you go to a MVC where the guidelines are interpreted differently.
7. You Can’t Get Your License as Your Expat Partner (L1) Has to be With You
For any L2 visa holders (accompanying an L1 in the US) who are applying for their license, they are technically required to have their L1 partner’s documents (and preferably have them there in person) in addition to bringing all their own documents. Although, not all MVCs actually seem to implement this policy, some do. The same applies to when an L2 renews their license. Although this is not on the MVC website anywhere, there is an implicit understanding that the renewal process, requires exactly the same documents as the initial application. While you can risk going without the L1 holder and their documents, you will risk your renewal being rejected until the L1 is with you. In my book, it’s always better to be prepared for the worst with MVCs, so to take them just in case.
8. Your Immigration Status is not Verified When You Apply
One of the most common issues preventing expats getting their license completed on their first try at the MVC, is that they are told by staff they are ‘not verified’ when their immigration status is checked. If this happens, your license application goes on hold until you are. The MVC will not allow you to proceed until this has been resolved. What does verifying mean? Like the Social Security Administration, the MVC checks your immigration status information against records contained in the Department of Homeland Security databases, including those housed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Updating your arrival information in all government systems takes time. This process usually takes at least 10-14 days after arrival however, it can take up to a month. If you are not verified at the time of applying, the MVC will give you a follow up option for continuing your application again at a later date. This follow up will occur after the MVC receive clearance you are now verified. It may take anywhere between a few days or even longer before this can occur. It is just a temporary delay though, not a problem that is unsolvable (in vast majority of cases). While this is one of the hardest things to control, it can be minimized to some extent by not applying for your license too early after arrival from overseas. It should be a minimum time of 14 days at least before you try, although even this is not foolproof. This waiting time applies to the latest date you arrived in the country. This means if you have relocated here but since been overseas and returned again, the countdown starts from the last time you arrived.
9. You Bring an old I-94 form for your application
Many expats come undone in their applications because they bring their original I-94 form, printed out just after arrival but have been in and out of the country since. This means the I-94 details printed out earlier on, are now out-of-date. You need to get a current form by going to the I-94 retrieval website, which is updated by immigration every time you leave or arrive in the US. Always make sure you print your I-94 out just prior to coming to the MVC, so it is the latest edition.
10. You Fail the Vision Test
As the vision test is relatively easy, most people do not usually fail. However, if you normally wear eyeglasses or contact lenses when driving, then you would be crazy to take the vision test without them. Make sure you remember to bring them with you in the car and into the MVC.
11. You Fail the Knowledge Test
Every country has its own road rules, and although most of them have basic similarities, it is in the small details that are different and need to be learned from scratch. There is nothing particularly hard about learning NJ driving rules. It is the fact that in NJ, you need to know almost everything in your Driver manual to give yourself the best chance of passing. You see, it is not just the road rules, that you need to learn for the exam. It is all the other extraneous information such as penalties for driving infractions, rules for young drivers, etc., that is often included in the knowledge test as well. Many expats just assume the road rules are what they will be tested on and forget to learn the rest. Needless to say most of them fail. To avoid this, obviously you need to do the long haul for your exam, if you want avoid re-doing the exam, which can only be done one week after your first attempt.
12. Your Home Country Driver License is Not Enough to Avoid Doing the Driving Test
Even experienced drivers from outside the US, may be required to do a driver road test in New Jersey. According to the MVC website, if your country is one that has signed the UN Convention on Road Traffic, you should be exempt. In practice though, this is not always the case. There are always expats that, for whatever reason, are asked to do the road test, regardless of which country they come from. The countries that are not signatories to this treaty include: Chile, China (Republic of China), Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, the Holy See, Indonesia, Ireland, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, and Venezuela. It is almost certain that expats from these countries will be road tested. Doing the road test may be impossible to avoid but if you come from a signatory country, at least give yourself a chance. Make sure you bring your valid home country license to the DMV, and that you add this information to your license application.
13. You fail your Driving Road Test
The last possible problem but certainly not the least is having to sit for the road test, then failing. Like most experienced drivers who haven’t been road tested for a while, I have no doubt lost some of the finesse one has when just newly licensed. That is when you cared if you used an indicator to show you were turning, you didn’t break rules as much, and you felt embarrassed if you parked across two parking spots. Make sure that if you sit the test again, you pass, as there are only three tries allowed before you are forced to wait another six months. If it has been a while since first getting your license, it is well worthwhile to get a driver lesson or two here in New Jersey before the test. Driving instructors can help you understand exactly what it is the MVC officer will be looking for to pass/fail you. They can also add just some extra finesse into your driving which won’t go astray and often helps you pass first go.
So there you have it – the monster list of things that can go wrong when getting your NJ driver license. It makes the Great Race look like a picnic, doesn’t it? What downfalls have you experienced at the NJ DMV getting a license?