LIFE IN NEW JERSEY: OK. You’re an expat and you’ve been here two months already. You have an International Driver License (IDL) but do you need a New Jersey Driver License too? Well according to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (NJ MVC), the answer is yes!
When to get a New Jersey Driver License
The MVC and it seems also, New Jersey Police, are of the opinion that the 60 day limit given for out-of-state US drivers to get a New Jersey Driver License, applies to out-of-country drivers as well. This means that 60 days after first arriving here, expats should at least have started the process of applying for your permit, whether you have an IDL or not. While it seems a bit unclear to me what happens to you legally if you miss the 60 day deadline but still have your IDL in date, I have heard expat stories of unpleasant roadside encounters with State Police, that make me cringe a little in terror. Auto insurance policies in the US can distinguish between an IDL versus a state-licensed driver, in how expensive the premium is, and perhaps your coverage as well. So to avoid hassles from both police authorities and insurance companies, it may be safer to get the license as recommended before your 60 day anniversary. Since you will need a Social Security Card and other forms of ID and residency proof, most newcomers will have to wait to apply until at least a few weeks after arriving. After the right documents have been obtained though, other than skilling up on New Jersey road rules and getting driving practice, there is no real reason to wait.
What will you be tested on?
The NJ MVC will test you on three specific areas: Vision, Knowledge and a Road Test (practical driving skills). If you wear glasses to drive you should wear these to your test.
Getting to know the New Jersey Driver Manual well enough to pass the knowledge test, is the main challenge that most expats will face. Although you only need an 80% test mark to pass, it’s not exactly the most riveting stuff to learn. Using an online test site is always helpful for practicing with sample tests. Learning the New Jersey Driver Manual is not rocket science. Knowing all the penalty levels for every conceivable driving infraction is exceptionally tedious but necessary .
If I’m an experienced driver, do I have to do a Road test?
If you have no driver experience, then you will have to do the road driving test. Even when you are experienced though, to avoid the road test, you will need a valid permit from your home country or last place of residency as proof of previous driver experience elsewhere. The NJ MVC recognizes driver permits from any countries that are signatories to the UN Convention on Road Traffic. If your country is not listed here but you have a valid driver permit, you should ring the NJ MVC to ask if there are other options available for you to avoid the road test.
Where do you apply for a Permit?
An application for your driver’s permit can be obtained at any MVC office location and after completion, submitted with your ID and residency documents as per the process described below. Not all MVCs do road tests though, so if planning on doing one of these, you should make a booking for it online. If planned ahead, you may be able to schedule doing both the Knowledge and Road test in one day at the same location.
What documents will you need as an expat to apply for a Permit?
You need to provide proof of your ID (6 Points of ID) and New Jersey residency (1 proof). Personal Identification The six points of ID can include:
- Your passport with at least six months left on the expiry date, together with your immigration papers (I-94 form). As these are done electronically now, you will need to go online and access your latest I-94 details and then print a copy to bring with your passport. (4 Points)
- A Social Security card (1 Point)
Other forms of ID (worth 1 Point) in your name that can be used to make up the total of 6 Points. This can be one of the following:
- An ATM card, or
- A bank statement, or
- A Work Authorization card (EAD) or
- A Health Insurance Card, or
- An employer Personal Identification card with pay stub.
Proof of Residency
Only one proof of residency is officially stated as needed by the NJ DMC. It is always a good idea though to have a second proof as back up, just in case. Acceptable proofs of residency with your name and address include:
- A bank statement, or
- A utility bill, or
- A signed lease.
You can check the details of these options or find alternatives for ID and residency proof at the State of New Jersey MVC website.
All documents should be originals and must also be available in English or be translated by an acceptable agent. The translations should accompany the originals. Sometimes an original birth certificate may be requested if there is any question about your identity. Like above, this needs to have an accompanying translation if the original is not in English.
How long will it take?
I am not sure if the New Jersey Driver License application process was modeled on the British TV comedy ‘Yes, Minister’, or perhaps the MVC is thinking of starting their own bureaucratic Olympics event. Either way, the process seems interminably long and rigorous. I know they need to be very careful but wow…. The application process has several stages that usually include:
- A check of your paperwork
- A check of your immigration status
- Paying your $34.00 payment
- Taking the vision test
- Taking the knowledge test
- Getting your photo taken
- One last scrutiny of your details before receiving your photo license card (assuming you pass).
The MVC offices are often very busy and the process can seem to take forever. There is usually limited seating so if it is crowded, you may be standing for a little while at least. Staff can be gruff and very serious, just like at Immigration on entering the US. This is not the place for jokes or a warm/personal exchange. One other word of warning: the staff do not take kindly to people accompanying the applicant through various stages. I don’t just mean the test process but even standing in the queue. So if you have come along to help your spouse navigate the process here, you may be told to sit down or leave the applicant on their own to get photographed, answer questions on their documents and even to pay. Don’t take offense-that’s normal.
Doing the Road Test
Keep in mind if you are doing the Road test, you need a licensed NJ driver to accompany you. You are expected to provide your own car which should be roadworthy, and have current registration and insurance papers. You will need to pick up some decals (red round discs) which have to be placed on your car. Whatever you do, don’t have your mobile phone on during the test. If it rings and you answer it, it’s an instant fail!
Good luck and good driving. Remember to stay on the right (or is it left?) side of the road!