How to Get a Driver's License as an Undocumented Immigrant

How to Get a Driver's License as an Undocumented Immigrant

Without comprehensive federal reforms, states have been taking immigration legislation upon themselves, one issue at a time. This includes the licensing of drivers who cannot prove legal presence. In fact, 10 states have enacted laws in the last three years to offer driving-privilege cards and IDs to their so-called undocumented immigrants. Other states, meanwhile, have imposed new (or held onto old) bans against such limited licenses.


What kind of licenses are available and where?

In the map below, it's important to note that even though 10 states, plus D.C., are already offering driving privileges, they differ on the degree of privilege: an unrestricted license is the same license that Americans have in their wallets; driving privilege-only licenses can’t be used for any other purpose; and driving-privilege licenses can be used as identification in the issuing state. Apart from Washington and New Mexico, five of the 12 states offering driving privilege (including Delaware and Hawaii, which are scheduled for 2016 enactment) also allow the license to be used as a form of in-state ID.

driving-privilege licenses available to undocumented immigrants by state

Status of states with higher undocumented immigrant populations

In the graph below, here is where California and states with their own sizable immigrant populations stand in the proposing and passing of legislation that is either for or against a restricted-license option. Their statuses are broken into four categories: those that have passed a ban on such licenses (Ban); have introduced a bill for such licenses (Introduced); have had the bill sent to a committee (Sent to a Committee); and have passed it (Passed). The states with the four most-concentrated undocumented immigrant populations — Florida, New York, Texas and California — are each, interestingly enough, in different categories.

More broadly, undocumented drivers can currently obtain a driver's license, or a similar certificate allowing them to legally drive, in Washington, D.C., as well as 12 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington. These licenses are often restricted, only giving the individual permission to drive but not acting as a valid document for federal identification purposes. For instance, these individuals wouldn't be able to use the license to board a plane.

While drivers may not have to provide evidence of citizenship or legal presence, these states still typically require multiple other forms of documentation to verify their identity and residency, such as:

  • State tax returns or a tax identification number
  • A valid foreign passport
  • Consular identification
  • Status as a dependent of a tax filer
  • Birth certificate
  • Home utility bills
15 States with Highest U.I Populations and Where Their Driving-privilege Legislation Stands

Undocumented immigrants once had an easier time getting full driver's licenses

Until 1990, no states required proof-of-legal status to obtain a license. Since 2003, however, the number of states issuing full-privilege driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants has decreased from 25 to two (based on AAMVA's 2014 report.) Over the years, this drop coincided with the U.S. government’s 2005 Real ID Act, which asked states to require additional documentation for citizens applying for licenses, and occurred simultaneously with the act's scheduled — although repeatedly postponed — enforcement.

Chart of the number of states issuing driver's license without proof of legal U.S. status between 2003 and 2015

Residents who qualify for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) have consistently been allowed to get a driver's license, and some states are expanding or reinforcing this policy. Rhode Island, for instance, passed legislation in June allowing children of undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license at age 16.

Now more states are introducing restricted driver's licenses

Many states started issuing restricted licenses to their residents, whether or not they could prove their legal status in the country. Aside from New Mexico and Washington, which are the two states that still offer regular licenses to undocumented immigrants, there are 10 other jurisdictions (including D.C.) that have or will have a restricted version of driver's licenses.

States offering driving privilege licenses to undocumented immigrants

How licensing undocumented immigrants can benefit other drivers

In many regions, it's difficult to accomplish important activities, such as commuting to work, without a vehicle. As a result, some undocumented immigrants drive without a license if they're unable to receive one from the state. Although it's difficult to determine how frequently this occurs, one state has offered a rough calculation. Colorado estimates 16% of its total driving population doesn't carry insurance, and 18% of its uninsured motorists are unauthorized immigrants.

Those in favor of licensing undocumented drivers regularly cite improved safety as a benefit, as they would need to pass road tests and traffic law exams. Unlicensed drivers, who frequently have less driving experience and knowledge of traffic laws, are a hazard for others on the road, particularly as their behavior may be unpredictable to other drivers.

Reducing uninsured motorists on the road

To purchase auto insurance, which is required throughout most of the U.S., a driver must provide proof of a valid driver's license. Most undocumented immigrants won't have a driver's license and therefore drive without coverage. This presents significant financial risks for both the driver and others on the road. The uninsured driver risks penalties for illegally operating a vehicle and high potential costs if their own car is damaged. The average collision claim is more than $3,400.

Driving-privilege laws draw bipartisan support in state legislatures

The map below depicts the current political leaning of each of the legislatures of the 50 states and D.C.: whether Democrats or Republicans elected comprise a majority in the legislatures. It also indicates that there has been bipartisan support for legislation. Thirteen have passed a bill supporting driving privileges ("Y" for "Yes"); 29 have denied driving privileges ("N" for "No"); and six are working toward one or the other ("P" for "Proposed").

State's Majority Political Party vs. Their Stance on Undocumented Immigrants' Driving Privilege

Driving-privilege laws passed by states (and D.C.) since 2010

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia, with varying immigrant populations and political leanings, have signed new laws relating to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants since 2010. Of their 15 new laws, 11 paved the way for driving-privilege licenses; and each of those 11 were authored (or sponsored) by Democrats or Democrat-dominated coalitions. Conversely, three of the four laws banning driving privileges were authored or co-authored by a Republican representative.

Number of U.I.*
For/Against Driving Privilege
Primary Sponsor Enacted
Hawaii35,000H 1007FORRep. Henry J.C. Aquino (D) 30-Jun-15
Delaware20,000S 59FORSen. Bryan Townsend (D) 12-Jun-15
Indiana85,000H 1393AGAINSTRep. Edmond Soliday (R) 4-May-15
Nebraska55,000L 623AGAINSTRep. Jeremy Nordquist (R) 17-Mar-15
District of Columbia20,000B 812FORCouncil Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) 17-Jun-14
Show All Rows
  • *Estimated by Pew Research Center's 2014 study
  • **Rejected by voters via ballot measure

Issuance rates of driving-privilege licenses

For undocumented immigrants, living in a state where driving-privilege cards are available doesn't mean they're actually being granted them right away. In the chart below, which is based on data from each place's Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Revenue, you will see that every state's undocumented immigrants have to wait in line for their driving-privilege licenses. Within the first three months of its law's existence in California, for example, 91% of the 493,998 to apply had the necessary documents to obtain a license without further review, but only 40% actually received their licenses.

In most states, at least 60% of applicants (in the nine states we have data for) have already been issued licenses. Colorado (46%), Illinois (45%), Nevada (34%), Connecticut (32%), and Maryland (17%) are the four states that fell below this average.

Side-by-side comparison of unrestricted, restricted licenses

To comply with the Real ID Act, states' driving-privilege licenses must contain the fine print, which comprises some combination of the words "federal limits apply." Put simply, restricted licenses need to look differently when juxtaposed with unrestricted licenses because they have fewer privileges.

In seven of the nine states that offer both restricted and unrestricted licenses, you can barely notice the difference between the two cards. Meanwhile, in D.C. and California, an undocumented immigrants' restricted license cannot be used by law enforcement as a basis for questioning one's legal status within the country.

Financial impact of licensing undocumented drivers

The economic benefit of licensing undocumented immigrants has been difficult to quantify, although Oregon's Department of Transportation estimated that its state gross domestic product would be reduced by between $134 million and $202 million if unauthorized immigrants had their licenses taken away. Experts suggested that unpredictable transportation impacts where people can work and can burden employers.

More tangibly, states that license undocumented immigrants are then able to collect fees typically paid by licensed drivers. These include driving permit fees, license fees and vehicle registration fees. The New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that the state would receive the following motorist fees if unauthorized immigrants are licensed:

  • $2.3 million for driving permit fees
  • $11.7 million for licensing fees (recurring every four years)
  • $3.9 million in vehicle registration fees

This is on top of the additional $223 million in auto insurance premiums that undocumented drivers would be projected to pay for coverage.

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