I've recently moved to California as a postdoctoral researcher. I'm here with the J-1 visa (exchange visitor program) which expires after one year.

I'm planning to rent a car to visit California. So I'm wondering whether I need to get a California driver license or I can use the one issued by my home country.

From what I understood (see this related question), any foreign person can drive in California with his/her foreign driver license unless he/she is a resident of California. My problem is that I do not know if I am or not considered a resident of California.

Since I will stay in California for (at most) one year, I would say that this constitutes enough evidence to prove that I am not a resident. However, I would love to hear any experience/comment/suggestion from those of you that have been in a similar situation.

Thank you so much for your help.

  • 2
    This seems to be a better fit for Expatriates.
    – phoog
    Jul 1 '18 at 22:48
  • @phoog, shall I answer here, or wait until it's moved to Expatriates? Jul 1 '18 at 22:49
  • Relevant: If you are a visitor in California over 18 and have a valid driver license (DL) from your home state or country, you may drive in this state without getting a California DL as long as your home state DL remains valid. src: dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/dl/dl_info#two500 Jul 1 '18 at 22:53
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas Except that if one becomes a California resident, one must get a California license. See my answer below. Jul 1 '18 at 22:55
  • @David -- It's hard to become a resident, though. It's one of those things you have to do intentionally. The OP is not one for tuition purposes, nor due to voting, so all that's left as a possibility is one of the tax-related avenues. Jul 2 '18 at 0:20

On this page, California DMV addresses who's a resident:

If you become a California resident, you must get a California DL within ten (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.

Thus, if you don't do the listed things, it looks like you can continue to use a valid drivers license from your home country. If that license is printed in a language other than English, you should obtain an International Drivers Permit (which is actually not a license, but only a translation into English of your license) to ease any interaction you might have with the authorities here.

  • Thanks for your answer! I don't do the listed things, but the only thing that I'm worried about is the last sentence, that is "...any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents". In particular, is having a SSN (Social Security Number) and/or a salary considered a privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents?
    – Ludwig
    Jul 2 '18 at 0:13
  • @Ludwig You're welcome. I don't think receiving a salary would be a "privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents," as the quid pro quo of the salary is the work you're doing, not your presence. Having an SSN is a more difficult question, as the Social Security Administration says ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10096.pdf that one who is "lawfully present" (or going to be so in the future) in the US can obtain a SSN. However, it's not clear that "lawfully present" alone constitutes "residency." I'd be more comfortable arguing that it does not, but I'm not experienced here. Jul 2 '18 at 1:49
  • 1
    I am afraid if you "moved to California" and are not "visiting California" then you are resident. If a police officer catches you and is a jerk, he may say to you (as he said to me), "You have ten days since moving here to continue using your Wyoming license. After that, you are an unlicensed driver. I get to take your car," and then, he took my car! Jul 2 '18 at 9:25
  • 1
    @DouglasHeld The police officer is doing his job in enforcing the law. That does not make him a jerk.
    – gerrit
    Jul 2 '18 at 10:58
  • 1
    "or any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents." -- This is maximally fuzzy: Essentially it says you aren't a resident unless you are one. Is there a comprehensive lists of those benefits? (At least, it is better than it used to be, where one criteria for being a resident was "Getting a California driving licence.")
    – npl
    Jul 2 '18 at 11:32

As far as I can understand from this, you should be able to use your own driver's license.

"...California does recognize a valid driver license that is issued by a foreign jurisdiction (country, state, territory) of which the license holder is a resident..."

You are still a resident of you own country; as long as your driver's license is valid you should not have a problem.

  • 1
    Keep in mind that the language quoted by @Max is operative only if the driver has not become a resident. If the driver has done so, or has taken some action that may be so construed, it could be an issue. If the OP is polite and respectful with law enforcement, I think he should have no trouble on this account, Jul 2 '18 at 2:06
  • 1
    @DouglasHald - Police officers are wrong sometimes. They're not lawyers, just public servants. What did the courts say? Of course, it you met the criteria for a California resident (tuition, voting, taxes, etc), then it was you who were wrong. Jul 2 '18 at 12:47
  • 1
    @DouglasHald, I'm sorry you had a very hard time with this. But without knowing the circumstances of your presence in California, it's not possible to assess whether your experience would be seen as exceptional or expected. Jul 2 '18 at 13:47
  • 1
    @Roddy, You've got that backwards. California law presumes that if you are driving in California you are a California resident and it is your burden to rebut that presumption with evidence that you meet the criteria to be resident somewhere else. See CVC 12505(b).
    – Dennis
    Jul 2 '18 at 19:04
  • 1
    @Dennis - The first line of that law contradicts you directly: ...[R]esidency 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. Jul 2 '18 at 21:49

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