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Driving in California

If you plan to drive in California and BUY a car (different from RENTING a car: see below).

You must have a California driver's license, issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The DMV is the California state agency that is responsible for processing and issuing your driver’s license or your state identification card (ID). The DMV office closest to Caltech is in Pasadena

There are two tests to take at the DMV.

The Written Test.  The written test examines your understanding of the California driving laws, which differ from other states. We highly recommend that you schedule an appointment online, or call 1-800-777-0133.  Otherwise, you can come without an appointment but you may have to wait 3 to 4 hours to take the written test. It's envouraged to take the written test in the morning or early afternoon as the exam time slot if off after 4:30pm. The results are available as soon as you finish the test. 

For your written test appointment, be prepared to:

  • Bring your passport and Social Security Number
  • A print of your I-94 and DS-2019
  • A proof of your residency (see below for more details)
  • Pay an application fee ($33 in cash or debit card only, DMV does not accept credit card)
  • Pass a vision test
  • Have your picture taken
  • Give a thumbprint
  • Pass the “traffic laws and sign” test, also known as the Written Test. The California Driver Handbook and sample tests will help you study for the test.

Tips: For those who are NOT eligible for a Social Security Number (usually, the spouses of the scholars), you can still apply to the DMV and obtain a California Driving License.


The Driving Test (behind-the-wheel).  Once you have passed the written test (you will know the same day, right after your exam), you may immediately schedule the driving test.  The DMV does not provide cars to take the test, so you are encouraged to rent a car or ask a friend to drive you to the DMV and use his/her car while you take the driving test. Alternatively, you can enroll in a driver education course and the driving school may lend you a car for the driving test. 

Tips: If the day and time offered seem too far away (one month and more sometimes), you should check the online appointment system for the Pasadena site and other DMV sites around.   


Proof of Residency: the DMV requires two documents from this list (only one before). For those who don’t have a Social Security Number, they can apply to the SSN Denial letter form so that it has the address and it works as another document.  Here is the extract of California Residency Requirement (AB 1465, Gordon): This law will require an applicant for an original driver license or identification card to provide proof of California state residency, starting July 1, 2016 and it will bring DMV into compliance with a federal law requirement. The DMV will need to adopt regulations relating to the procedures for verifying that the applicant is a California resident.

Driving Under the Influence (SB 61, Hill): This law extends the existing Ignition Interlock Device (IID) pilot project to July 1, 2017 for, Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Tulare counties. The IID pilot project requires a person convicted of a DUI to install an IID for five months upon a first offense, 12 months for a second offense, 24 months for a third offense, and 36 months for a fourth or subsequent offense. The project was originally set to end on January 1, 2016.

Earbuds or Headsets (SB 491, Transportation Committee): This law, among other things, makes it unlawful to wear a headset covering, earplugs in, or earphones covering, resting on, or inserted in, both ears, while operating a motor vehicle or a bicycle. This prohibition does not apply to persons operating authorized emergency vehicles, construction equipment and refuse or waste equipment while wearing a headset or safety earplugs.  


Rent, Buy, or Lease a Car

Rent. California law allows you to drive a rental car with a valid driver's license from your home country (you do NOT need a California driving license).
Caltech has some agreements with major rental car companies.

Hertz (Limited Damage Waiwer included in rates. 2738 East Colorado Blvd, Pasadena 91107. Phone (626) 578 0448. Agreement CDP No. 63515

Enterprise (Collision Damage Waiwerincluded in rates). 1890 East Colorado Blvd, Pasadena 91107. Phone (626) 405 0900. Agreement No. XZ32S52

Add California tax rates + Vehicle licensing fee (~ 10%).

Contact Caltech at 626 395 6273 if you need assistance with the rental agreements or information about a a multi-months rental (62 days and over).

The mechanic part only may be included in the insurance fees but ask and check about the liability part. Liability insurance is a part of the general insurance system of risk financing to protect the purchaser (the "insured") from the risks of liabilities imposed by lawsuits and similar claims. It protects the insured in the event he or she is sued for claims that come within the coverage of the insurance policy.
Caltech Zipcar membership allows you to rent a car for hourly or daily use. Another general source for rental information is

Buy. If you purchase a car, you need to apply to a California driver's license.  You should conduct research to determine the value and price of the car you want to buy.  Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book provide information about what a car is worth. American Automobile Association (AAA) has walk-in vehicle pricing reports for their members and to non-members for a nominal fee.  Consumer Reports  also provides a comparison of cars.
Buying a used Car. If you buy a used car, the seller must provide you with the current smog certificate, issued within the last 30 days, and the CARFAX to learn the history of the car. Both these documents are required by the DMV.
You can buy a used car by browsing The Recycler, and (select “Cars and Trucks” under “For Sale”) offer listings of used cars for sale.
You can buy a used car from any car dealer. You can also search through the Caltech Postdoc Association (CPA) weekly email list and the Caltech Marketplace email list to read the weekly ads from departing Caltech and JPL community members.
Buying a new car. Pasadena has a large range of car dealers, selling European, Asian and US brands.

Lease. When you lease a new or used vehicle, you are essentially renting it for a longer period of time.  You will pay a monthly fee, and you must return the vehicle at the end of the lease.  In many leases, you have the option to buy the vehicle at the end of the lease.  A Credit history may be required in order to lease a car.


Car Insurance 

If you own, lease, or rent a car, automobile insurance is mandatory in California.  An automobile insurance policy must provide a minimum coverage per accident for injury/death for a single or more persons and for property damage.  This "third party coverage" covers the cost of any injury or damage you may cause if you are in an accident.

If you move to California from another state, be aware that many out of state insurance companies may not be authorized to do business in California.  Before you drive, find out from your insurance company if you are covered in the case of an accident in California.

Los Angeles has some of the highest automobile insurance rates in the country.  The California Department of Insurance provides information about various types of insurance and a cost comparison of insurance premiums (monthly or annual payments).  Securing liability and comprehensive insurance can be very expensive, particularly for first-time drivers.  If you maintain a good driving record for the first 18 months, your premium may decrease.  If you can provide written proof (in English) that certifies your good driving record for the last three years, you might be eligible for a good-driver discount with some insurance companies.  Insurance companies also offer discounts based on the driver's education level and profession.  Ask the insurance company what discounts are available to you.

There are many auto insurance companies to select from, including:  Allstate, American Automobile Association (pronounced Triple A), Farmers, Geico, Mercury, State Farm and 21st Century.


Special Consideration

SAVE is a database that verifies your immigration status. If, for any reason you have some difficulties with the DMV to apply / renew your driving license, we encourage you to check SAVE. It’s a system that allows DMV agencies throughout the United States to verify valid status of driving license applicants. Click here for more information.

DMV Fees.  Any car purchased requires payment of various fees such as the vehicle registration fee, new license plates, transfer ownership fee and a sales tax fee (about 9% of the cost of the car purchased).

Roadside Assistance.  Many drivers choose to enroll in AAA roadside assistance service for an annual fee.  Membership includes 24-hour roadside assistance and towing if your car breaks down. Free State and city maps, travel guide books, passport pictures, discounts for events, attractions, hotels and car rentals are also available to AAA members. You can become an AAA member for roadside assistance even if you choose another company for car insurance.

International Driving License. International Driving License is valid in California on a temporary basis, approximately 2 to 4 weeks only.

Driving License from another US State. If you already have a Social Security Number and are moving from another US state to California, you must register your vehicles within 20 days of your arrival in California. Also, you will have to pass the DMV written test (and not the driving test) as California has its own driving rules. The California Driver Handbook and sample tests will help you study for the test.

Dependents.  If you (or your spouse) do not have a Social Security Number, you can still apply to a California driver’s license. There is a section only for those who are not eligible for a Social Security Number but are still considered as California residents according to the DMV.


DISCLAIMER:  The information provided on this website is for general information only.  Caltech does not endorse or recommend any of the organizations listed.