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I'm planning to attend a Californian university as a visiting scholar (not paid by the university) on a J-1 visa, for a total of four weeks; a colleague of mine will do the same, but for 12 weeks. I've been told (personally, ie. no citable sources) that, if you're staying on a J-1, you're effectively a California resident for the time you're there, and, therefore, need a Californian driver's license.

I've read up on this and found this DMV page that states:

If you are a visitor in California over 18 and have a valid driver license from your home state or country, you may drive in this state without getting a California driver license as long as your home state license remains valid.

If you become a California resident, you must get a California driver license within 10 days. Residency is established by voting in a California election, paying resident tuition, filing for a homeowner's property tax exemption, or any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents.

I'm not planning to vote in any elections, nor will I own a home there, but I'm not sure what would constitute "privileges or benefits not ordinarily extended to nonresidents".

Do we need to get driver's licenses in California, or can we use our foreign licenses? How about day trips to Arizona or Nevada?

Note: this seems to be related to What are the residence requirements to use a foreign driving licence in California?, but my question is specifically about staying there on a J-1.

  • Do you plan to drive while you're there? Will you be renting or borrowing the vehicle? – phoog Mar 5 '18 at 15:51
  • @phoog: If at all possible, I'd like to be able to drive, yes. I'd most probably be renting a car, at least for a few days, if not for all of the four weeks. – rainer Mar 6 '18 at 13:21
  • The close votes in favor of Expatriates are baffling. Spending four weeks in California as a visiting scholar don't even come close to being an expatriate. – phoog Mar 6 '18 at 16:15
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The line between resident and nonresident for California driving purposes is murky. As you have read, certain actions mean you are probably a resident, but this is not a complete list, so just because you have done none of those things doesn't mean you are a nonresident.

Here is what the law says:

CVC 12502(a)(1):

(a) The following persons may operate a motor vehicle in this state without obtaining a driver’s license under this code:

(1) A nonresident over the age of 18 years having in his or her immediate possession a valid driver’s license issued by a foreign jurisdiction of which he or she is a resident, except as provided in Section 12505.

CVC 12505(a)(1):

(a) (1) For purposes of this division only and notwithstanding Section 516, residency shall be determined as a person’s state of domicile. “State of domicile” means the state where a person has his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which he or she has manifested the intention of returning whenever he or she is absent.

Prima facie evidence of residency for driver’s licensing purposes includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(A) Address where registered to vote.

(B) Payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education.

(C) Filing a homeowner’s property tax exemption.

(D) Other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state is more than temporary or transient.

So basically it boils down to whether California is your "domicile", but the definition of that is also somewhat subjective.

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    The probability of someone in the state as a "visiting scholar" for four weeks, or even for twelve, being found to be domiciled in California therefore seems to be quite small. – phoog Mar 6 '18 at 3:07
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    "“State of domicile” means the state where a person has his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which he or she has manifested the intention of returning whenever he or she is absent." Thanks! I'm accepting this answer, since this seems most interesting in my case -- with plane tickets back home, it seems that it should be rather easy to argue that California is not my state of domicile. – rainer Mar 6 '18 at 13:26
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Depends if you are paying resident tuition or nonresident tuition. If paying nonresident then as long as your home state or country's driving licence is valid you are fine using that.

New California Residents

want to drive in California, you must apply for a California DL within 10 days. Residency is established in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Being registered to vote in California elections.
  • Paying resident tuition at a California college or university.
  • Filing for a home owner’s property tax exemption.
  • Receiving any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents.

Adults Visiting California

from their home state or country may drive in California without getting a California DL as long as their home state or country DL is valid.

Link to State of California Department of Motor Vehicles

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    Thanks! However, as a visiting scholar, I won't be paying any tuition, so unfortunately this distinction seems to be not applicable in my case. I didn't even know that there was a difference between resident and nonresident tuition, though. – rainer Mar 6 '18 at 13:24
  • Then none of those resident points seem to be applicable to you so you're fine as long as home state or country's driving licence is valid. If your driving licence is in English I'd recommend and international driving permit. – BritishSam Mar 6 '18 at 14:28
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    @SamJones I think you inadvertently left the word "not" out of "if your driving license is in English I'd recommend an international driving permit." – phoog Mar 6 '18 at 16:16
  • @BritishSam California doesn't recognise international driving permits. See here: dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/dl/dl_info#international – RodeoClown Aug 25 '18 at 21:47
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J-1 is an exchange visitor category. By definition, you are a visitor to the United States and a nonresident of the United States. Therefore, you may drive with a valid, unexpired license from your home country for the duration of your J-1 program.

If your license does not contain your biographic information in English (so a U.S. law enforcement officer can read it), you should get a translation to keep with your physical license. The translation can be in the form of an International Driving Permit (IDP) or may be an alternate format. The translator should attest that he/she is competent to translate from the other language to English, and that the translation is correct to the best of his/her ability.

I happen to advise J-1 scholars and students on this issue quite often. We have many who come to USD for J-1 exchange visitor programs.

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    Welcome to the site. Good to have someone that advises students, as you have a lot of knowledge. – Willeke Aug 7 at 16:23

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