Getting a driving licence as an international student: what are the rules for the UK, US, Australia and Canada?

Do I need to take a driving test when I study abroad? Can I transfer my driving licence from home? What is an international driving permit? Your guide to driving licences as an international student

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Joy Hunter

Student content curator
November 29 2021
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Depending on your needs, preferences and your university’s location, you may wish to drive when studying abroad as an international student.

While it’s not essential for all international students to drive at university, if it’s something you want, you’ll need to be prepared and do the necessary admin to get you on the road safely and with the right licence.

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Different countries have vastly different driving rules, from which side of the road you drive to how to pass a driving test, so it’s important you check the specific requirements for the country you’re moving to.  

This is our guide for international students who want to get an international driving permit or driving licence for the UK, US, Canada and Australia.


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What is an international driving permit?

An international driving permit (IDP) is a multi-language translation of your driving licence recognised by many countries around the world. It is not a driving licence.

It can be used in some countries to get the driving licence issued in your home country recognised for driving abroad.

If you intend to get an IDP you must do so before you move abroad for your studies – as they are only issued by the country that issued your licence.

Applying for an IDP is usually relatively simple and cheap, but the costs and process do vary from country to country, so it’s best to do your own research based on the country that issued your licence and the country you intend to use it in.

UK

If you already have a driving licence from outside the UK, you may be able to use it to drive in the UK.

Licences issued in an EU or EEA country can be used in the UK for as long as the licence is valid.

If you have a licence issued in a “designated country or territory,” or an IDP, you can use that to drive in the UK for up to 12 months, then you must apply to exchange it for a GB licence within five years of becoming a resident.

Designated countries include Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Republic of North Macedonia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe.

You can also use this useful tool on the government website for more information on what you need to do with your home licence to drive in the UK.

If your licence is not from a designated country, or you do not already have a driving licence, you’ll need to apply for a provisional licence, then take a driving test and apply for a full licence upon passing. In Northern Ireland, those who do not hold a licence must have been studying there for at least six  months prior to taking a driving test or applying for a full licence.

The driving test in the UK consists of both a practical driving assessment and a theory test covering your knowledge of the UK Highway Code.

Driving licences are issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) in England, Scotland and Wales and in Northern Ireland by the Driver and Vehicle Agency Northern Ireland. If you violate the terms of your visa, the DVLA may revoke your licence.

US

Getting a driving licence recognised or issued in the US depends on which state you’ll be driving in.

The best approach is to find your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) and check its specific requirements.

You may not be able to apply for your state licence immediately upon arrival as an international student, as your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System record must be active.

This is only activated once you arrive and can take up to 10 days to process. It is advisable to wait two weeks after arrival before applying for your licence or your application may be automatically rejected.

You’ll need to provide the following:

  • I-20 form
  • Your unexpired passport with required US entry markings
  • A utility bill or bank statement showing your US address
  • Your Social Security Number or a letter from Social Security stating non-eligibility
  • Your school enrolment form (DL-1/93)
  • US visa with supporting documents, all valid for at least 160 days
  • I-94 form
  • Money to pay any fees


If you don’t already have a licence, you’ll need to apply for one in the state where you are studying and take a test before you can drive in the US.  Tests are organised at the state level, so again it’s best to check your local DMV or RMV for its requirements.  

Rules of the road vary between states in the US, and while you can drive across states once you have your licence, you’ll be expected to know and follow the different rules in each state.

Australia

If you already have a current and valid driving licence from your home country, you can use it to drive in Australia as an international student.

However, if your licence is not written in English, you will need to apply for an IDP through your home country, or have your licence translated into English by a translation service certified by NAATI.

If you don’t have a driving licence but want to drive in Australia, you will need to apply through your state or territory motor registry:

You’ll then need to take a driving test. It’s important to be aware that driving rules in Australia vary between states and territories, so make sure you learn the rules that apply to where you’re planning on driving.

Canada

You can get a driving licence as an international student in Canada, but the process depends on where you’re from and which province you’ll be driving in.

If you’re enrolled full time at a Designated Learning Institution in British Columbia, you are likely to be exempt from having to convert your licence, meaning you can continue to use your licence issued by another country as long as it is current and valid. Otherwise, you have 90 days to switch your valid licence issued outside Canada to a British Columbia licence, which you can do through the ICBC.

In Ontario, students with a valid foreign licence are authorised to drive for 60 days after first arriving in the province. Beyond this, international drivers in Ontario must exchange their licence for an Ontario licence or apply for a new licence. Ontario also offers a licence exchange programme for certain countries.

In Alberta, students with a valid foreign licence and an IDP can drive for one year before needing to obtain an Alberta licence, but if the student leaves and returns, the one-year period starts over.

To drive in Quebec, international students and trainees can use their driving licence from their home country indefinitely.

Even if you don’t need a new licence to drive in Canada, it is advisable to obtain an IDP if your licence is not in French or English.

If you don’t have a driving licence but would like to get one, you’ll need to apply and take a test through your province.

Important note: If you do choose to obtain or exchange your driving licence in the country where you are studying, it is advisable to check the rules around how to use or convert your licence in your home country, for if and when you choose to return. 


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