How to get a Californian drivers license

In America you drive on the right side of the road and back home (Australia) you drove on the left side. So even if you hold an Australian yellow drivers license with good driving history in America you still need to:

a. Pass the theory exam and
b. Pass the practical driving exam.

Yes you heard this right. You still need to pass a practical driving exam.

Oh and don’t bother with the International driving license which NRMA (in Australia) can issue you for $50. It’s just a waste of money. Worthless. You will never use it. If you want to hire a car in California or drive a car you can do so safely on your normal Australian drivers license. No need for an International one. By the way, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need legal assistance related to driving offenses, such as drink driving, it’s crucial to seek the help of experienced professionals. In these cases, consulting with reputable drink driving solicitors can make a significant difference in navigating the legal complexities and ensuring the best possible outcome for your case.

DMV – California Department of Motor Vehicles

DMV is the government entity similar to RTA (Roads & Traffic Authority) in NSW Australia. DMV registers vehicles in California and licenses their drivers. This is where you will go to do both your Theory and Practical exams.

But first you need to book for the Theory exam. Do this online since it’s more convenient and you are after all in Silicon Valley where most services are organized online.

Make an appointment here:

The Theory exam

Here’s how I practiced for the theory exam. After this you should be an expert. Spend more time learning the ins and out because the theory will come in handy for the practical (harder) exam.

  1. Download DMV Driver Handbook and learn the new rules. Most of the rules should be 2nd nature to you if you did ok on your Australian drivers license.
    DMV Driver Handbook:
  2. Go through sample driver written tests here:
  3. Practise on an interactive DMV flash-based exam:
  4. Watch DMV YouTube exams videos:

Accelerated learning process – in my personal blog on productivity I covered an accelerated learning technique. See the blog post here for more tips on accelerated learning: I follow these techniques in my everyday life so you will find value outside passing your DMV exam.

Applying these techniques I studies like this:

  • Do the sample written tests until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Do the flash practise exam until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Watch the DMV YouTube videos once.
  • Read the DMV driver hand book. I skim read through it because it’s long and most of the stuff you should have learnt from the practice points a-c above. As you read the exam, write notes down of stuff you “did not know”.
  • Go over your notes, the DMV videos, sample written tests and flash practice exam before bed time.
  • Next day in the morning go over your notes and sample written tests to refresh your memory.
  • There is an iPhone DMV app which essentially carries the DMV videos and sample written tests. At the DMV I did the sample written tests on my iPhone since the wait was at 30 minutes (yes, even after booking the exam online).

After this you are guaranteed to pass with flying colors.

On the day of the exam at the DMV you will need to do a lot of paper work, get a photo taken and then a “written” test in a voting style booth. Not electronic like in Australia. The test should take no more than 20 minutes with 30 questions to answer. After your complete it, hand it to a DMV personnel and they will mark it on the spot. If you get more than 6 wrong answers you fail. But you shouldn’t since you prepared so well. You will be issued with a temporary 3 month license. This gives you 3 months to get your practical exam booked.

The Practical exam

Book for your Practical exam ASAP. Do not wait till the last-minute before your temporary license expires. The booking wait line is typically a month in the future. Book immediately after you pass your Theory exam!

Make an appointment here:

The practical exam starts at the DMV and ends at the DMV parking lot.

The practical exam consists of a number of pre-drive checks to make sure you know your vehicle well followed by the actual 20 minute drive around the neighborhood. So its important to use your own car. One which you are comfortable with and know where all the settings (like defroster) are located. The examiner will just sit there observing how you drive (normal stuff) and will only tell you where they want you to turn. So basically you just drive straight until you are given an instruction to turn.

To pass, you must have no more than 3 errors marked in the pre-drive checklist, no marks in the critical driving error section, and no more than 15 errors marked for the scoring maneuvers.

So you passed your practical exam!

At the end of the 20 minute practical exam the examiner will hand your “Driving Performance Evaluation Score Sheet” with a score of errors and whether you passed or not. You obviously passed so you take this sheet into DMV and provide it to the booth the examiner tells you to. In about a week or 2 you will receive your actual physical drivers license. It will look something like this:

Australian (top) vs Californian (bottom) drivers license


Bets of luck with your exams! If you follow my simple methods outlined above you too will have no trouble passing them. 2 friends have passed with flying colors and no stress after I shared this information with them. If you find this information useful in your exam I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below 🙂

Good luck!


Author: Ernest W. Semerda

Aussie in Silicon Valley. Veryfi CoFounder (#YC W17 cohort). GSDfaster Founder. View all posts by Ernest W. Semerda

15 thoughts on “How to get a Californian drivers license”

  1. dude i am well impressed by your tips – I am an aussie in san diego who has to face up and get the cali lic. I will follow your suggestions

  2. thanks for your helpful blog. 

    do you know how long can I use my NSW license before I have to bite the bullet and get an American license?

    1. Until you want to buy a car (you need a state drivers license) or until a cop finds out by running a background check on your name. Always good to have valid proof of id in the country where you reside.

  3. Great post! One question, when you get your 3 month temporary license, are you able to buy a car (and get it insured/financed) on that license? Or stuck with rentals during that period? Cheers!

    1. Cheers Mark!

      So back in 2010 (during economic meltdown) getting car insurance was the issue since I didn’t have a drivers license, a car or credit history. The car dealer wouldn’t sell me a car (on part loan for credit reasons) until I had insurance & full drivers license. Chicken and egg scenario.

      Big banks didn’t want to touch me since my credit rating was 0. After few recommendations I went with TechCU (Technology Credit Union) – they deal with new engineers in the valley & understand the issues faced early on. TechCU gave me a window to get all the pieces together and this worked out well in the end.

      Today (in 2013) this might have changed so best to speak to your bank and see what options you have.

      1. Thanks Ernest. Chicken and egg indeed! Funnily enough I was on the phone with TechCU today. They didn’t seem to know about the temp 3 month license. Did they give you a loan on your temp license or did you do that after your full license. Cheers mate!

        1. Temp license; but I was getting the full license in few days. Just had to explain to them the situation. Hope it works out well for you! I can connect with you with the person that helped me (pending she’s still there in MV office) if it helps.

          1. Ah OK I got my theory test Friday and hopefully do the behind the wheel test next month. Would be good to talk to the person that helped you out back in 2010 if they are still around. Thanks for the help!

    1. Neither. I have both (Californian and Australian) in the USA. Recently renewed my Australian on a trip to Sydney. I do not see any reason why you would want to destroy/hand it in.

  4. Thank you for your post – Im confused about how I book a Theory test… Can you resend the link as the one in your post doesn’t work.

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