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Who Needs A California Driver’s License And When

Once you become a California resident, you have 10 days to get a California driver’s license if you want to drive anywhere in the state that is held open to the public, including private property. The only exceptions are for drivers of certain off-road vehicles, farm equipment, road repair equipment or federally owned vehicles.

If you are not a California resident, you may drive with your license from another jurisdiction so long as you keep it with you and are 18 years old or over. (This includes licenses issued to diplomats by the state department.) If you are under 18, you may drive with your out-of-state license for 10 days only and need to get either a California license or a nonresident minor’s certificate from DMV to drive after that.

Nonresidents may also transport hazardous waste or operate commercial vehicles without getting a California license if they have the appropriate licenses and medical certificates from their home jurisdiction.

For help if your driving privileges are at risk because of an investigation or denial of renewal, contact the Law Office of Rodney Gould. Call 818-570-6989 or email Beat DMV through this website to request a consultation with an attorney.

The Fine Print

Section 12500 requires a California driver’s license to drive any motor vehicle or motorcycle on any highway or in any parking facility open to the public. Section 360 defines highway very broadly to include any place open to the public. (Note, however, that Section 591 excludes from the definition of highway any location where road repair or construction is being done, at least as far as repair equipment is concerned, and Section 592 excludes any place under the jurisdiction of a federal agency. Thus, you would not necessarily need a California license to operate repair equipment on a road construction site or to drive in a federal park.)

Because of the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, California cannot require a license of federal employees driving federal vehicles on official business, so they are expressly exempted under Section 12501(a). These employees would still need a California license if they are in a commercial vehicle, because California has adopted the federal commercial vehicle scheme.

Section 12501(b) exempts drivers of farm equipment (called implements of husbandry by the vehicle code) from needing a driver’s license just to cross a highway, unless they pull a produce trailer (Section 36300) or a bale wagon for more than one mile (Sections 36005(k), 36102.)

Under Section 12501(c) you don’t need a license to cross a highway in an off-road vehicle such as an ATV, motorcycle, snowmobile, dune buggy or jeep (as defined in Section 38012) or, in the case of a motorcycle, to push it along the highway as allowed by Section 38025.

Nonresident driving privileges are provided by Sections 12502-12504 and allow a nonresident to drive with the license from her home jurisdiction, including licenses issued by the Diplomatic Motor Vehicle Office of the Office of Foreign Missions of the U.S. Department of State. Licensed nonresident minors must get a financial responsibility certificate from DMV to drive more than 10 days under Section 12504. In the event a nonresident comes from a jurisdiction that does not license drivers, that nonresident may drive in California for 30 days without getting a California license. (Section 12503.)

Note that the 10-day grace period applies to nonprofessional drivers only; drivers for compensation must get a license before being employed to drive. (Section 12505(c).)

Under Section 12502(b), nonresident commercial drivers must maintain in their possession their home state license for the class of vehicle they are operating. (Medical certificates under Section 12804.9 are good for two years, and no longer need be carried in the commercial vehicle. Medical certificates are now entered into the home state’s driving record database, but for the first 15 days after submitting the certificate to your home state, you may present your receipt as proof that you did so.)

Nonresidents may transport hazardous materials without getting a California license if they are over 21 years of age and have the appropriate license from a jurisdiction recognized by DMV (or a Canadian driver’s license plus a valid training certificate for transportation of hazardous materials). (Section 12502(a)(2).)


VC 360, VC 591, VC 592, VC 12500, VC 12501, VC 12502, VC 12503, VC 12504, VC 36005, VC 36102, VC 36300, VC 38012, VC 38025

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