Most first-time drivers in California must complete a drivers ed course to learn how to drive safely. This step is required by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CA DMV) to obtain a driving permit or a drivers license. Fortunately, it’s not difficult going through one of these courses, and there are plenty available to choose from.
Steps to Getting Your California License
If you’re looking to get your California drivers license, we’re here to help. Welcome to our step by step guide to get you off of your couch and out onto the road.
Getting your license is an exciting, scary, and confusing time, sometimes all at the same time.
First off, let’s clear up some California DMV terms. In some cases, it seems they’ve gone out of their way to make it confusing.
Terms (and abbreviations) you should know:
- Provisional Instruction Permit—This is also known as a learner’s permit. It’s the “license” you will use for behind the wheel training as you prepare for your driving test. Some places on the DMV website also refer to an “Instruction Permit.” This permit is the one you’ll need if you’re over 18.
- DL—Drivers license. It’s not important now, but the one you are working toward is a “Basic” DL, also known as a “Class C.”
- DT—Driver Training. This refers to the time you’ll spend behind the wheel with a licensed driving instructor. More about this in a minute.
- DE—Driver Education. This refers to the time you’ll spend outside of the car, learning the rules of the road and how to become a safe driver.
The big thing to know here is that without DT and DE, you’re probably never going to wind up with a DL.
Who Must Take California Drivers Ed?
No matter your age, it’s probably not a bad idea for anyone to take a drivers ed course before getting their first license. However, California only requires drivers ed for driving candidates aged 15 1/2 to 17 1/2 years old.
If you are 17 1/2 already you won’t be required to take drivers ed, but you can get your provisional license to start practicing. Unfortunately, you still won’t be able to take your driving test until your 18th birthday because California driving law requires a license candidate to hold a provisional license for six months before becoming eligible for a behind the wheel driving test.
The Road to a California License in a Nutshell
The quick and dirty looks like this:
- Take drivers ed
- Get a provisional permit
- Complete 50 hours of practice driving
- Pass a road skills test
Now let’s take a look at what it’ll take to get those four steps done.
Step 1—Take Drivers Ed
If you are 15 1/2 to 17 1/2, you’ll need to satisfy California’s driver training and driver education requirements.
The driver training portion is complete after spending six hours behind the wheel with a professional driving instructor. You can’t get credit for this time at a rate greater than two hours per day. If you are in a car with multiple driving students, you won’t get credit for your time observing them; you can only count the time when you are behind the wheel.
The drivers ed portion involves 25 hours of classroom instruction where you’ll learn topics like these, all designed to prepare you for getting behind the wheel safely and legally:
- The basics of being a safe and responsible driver including the necessary knowledge, attitudes, and skills for operating a motor vehicle safely
- California driving law and rules of the road
- Identification of California road signs and their meanings
- How to drive successfully in dangerous conditions such as heavy traffic, bad weather, construction zones, railroad crossings, and other challenging and potentially hazardous situations
Drivers ed can be completed at a driving school or, if it is offered, at your high school. Perhaps the easiest way is to complete it online. Taking drivers ed online means you can complete this portion at a pace and on a schedule that works best for you. If you think completing a course online might be a good fit for you, here’s a list of some great California online drivers ed providers.
Best California DMV Approved Online Drivers Ed Course Providers
|1DrivingSchool.com||1 Driving School||E2152||626-328-8705|
|Aceable.com||Aceable Drivers Ed||E2017||512-900-6837|
|IDriveSafely.com||I Drive Safely||E4496||866-388-9068|
|MyImprov.com||CA Drivers Ed by Improv||E4611||800-660-8908|
|TeenDrivingCourse.com||CA Teen Driving Course||E1990||800-482-6593|
|IGottaDrive.com||I Gotta Drive||E4752||877-336-6872|
|CaliforniaDriverEdCourse.com||DMV-Approved Drivers Ed||E4608||888-349-8425|
|CaliforniaTeenDriving.com||California Teen Driving||E4613||888-639-2812|
|MyCaliforniaPermit.com||My California Permit||E3448||800-777-0133|
|TeenDriversEdOnline.com||Teen Drivers Ed Online||E4434||916-663-6573|
|TeenDriverEducation.com||Teen Driver Education||E4613||888-639-2714|
If you (or your folks) would prefer a traditional driving school experience, check out our guide to selecting the best driving school.
Step 2—Apply for a Provisional Permit
Here’s the rundown of the dance you’ll have to do so that you can stop dancing and start driving:
- Apply for your Provisional Instruction Permit—A provisional permit is required for all license candidates aged 15 1/2 to 18. You can start the application process online. You will need to provide the following information on the application:
- Your full legal name
- Your Social Security Number
- Your California DMV ID information If you don’t have an ID already through the DMV, you’ll need to create an “ID Me” account.
- Head to your nearest DMV office—Make sure to bring the following with you:
It may also be a good idea to bring your Social Security card and a passport (if you have one) just in case.
- Once they’ve figured out that you are who you say you are—
- Pass a vision exam
- Provide your signature
- Pass a written test (if it wasn’t included as part of your drivers ed course)
To pass the written test, you’ll need to answer 38 out of 46 questions correctly. Here are some suggestions from the DMV on how to prepare.
Another way to give yourself a leg up on passing the permit test, you might want to consider one (or more) of the following:
- Study the California Drivers Manual
- Complete a driver prep course
- Quiz yourself with a California permit practice test
A permit practice test has everything the “real” test does, except the pressure. That’s because practice tests feature questions taken from actual DMV exams. It’s like seeing all the answers before the test even begins! Don’t head to the DMV without a dress rehearsal, you want to pass the first time.
You can find permit practice tests (both paid and free versions) all over the internet.
BTW, The DMV stops administering the test at 4:30 PM, so you’ll have plenty of time to finish before they close for the day.
What If Your Test Didn’t Go Like You Planned?
What if you get to the testing center and, despite all your best preparation, your nerves get the best of you and you wind up failing the test? First, don’t panic. Nearly 1 out of 3 test-takers fail on their first attempt.
The California DMV gives every test-taker three attempts to get a passing score. The only frustrating thing is that you have to wait 7 days before you can try again.
Another Note—If you have recently moved to California and started this dance in another state, here are some tips that might help.
It may be less confusing than what the DMV has to say about it.
“If your DE/DT were completed in a state other than California, DMV will accept a letter from your out-of-state secondary school on the school’s official stationery. The letter must be signed by a school official stating that the completed courses you have taken are equivalent to a California secondary school course as described in Section 10020 of Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations and on form “To Secondary Schools Other Than California Schools” (DL 33).”
See what I mean?
Step 3—50 Hours of Practice Driving
Now it’s time to put that learners permit to good use. Before you can take a driving test, you’ll have to complete 50 hours of practice driving, and at least 10 of those will need to happen after dark.
There are some important restrictions on a provisional instruction permit you need to be aware of:
- Your permit is not valid until a licensed or authorized driving instructor has signed it if you’re younger than 17 ½.
- You cannot drive with your permit unless accompanied by a California licensed driver aged 25 or older in the front seat.
- You can never drive alone, even to the DMV to take your driving test.
While you might be nervous at first, do your best to enjoy this time and always pay close attention to what’s going on around you. You never know the kinds of things, good and bad, that you might learn from the drivers around you. Also, do yourself the favor of driving in as many conditions as you can, places like:
- On the highway
- In neighborhoods
- On winding or hilly roads
- In downtown areas
- In bad weather
It’s better if you don’t see these things for the first time on your own.
Remember, you’ve got six months to kill. No reason not to drive WAY more than 50 hours! It can only do you good.
Step 4—Pass a Driving Test
Finally, the last hurdle, your driving test. It’s all good. You got this.
The DMV requires a driving test because they want to make sure you can:
- Safely operate a vehicle.
- Use safe driving habits.
- Apply your knowledge of traffic laws in real-life situations.
The California driving test is divided into 2 parts, a pre-drive safety check, and a Driver Performance Evaluation or DPE. Here’s a peek at the scorecard you’ll be graded on.
A Final Note
Any licensed driver will tell you that you will never face a driving situation as complicated, nerve-wracking, and time-consuming as getting your license. By no means should you let your guard down once you’re behind the wheel but, rest assured. You’ll never face anything on the road that will compare with the process it took to get you your license.
Good luck as you work your way through this. Can’t wait to see you out on the road!
A Final Final Note
If you’ve made it this far, may we suggest you bookmark this page? You’ll probably be coming back to it often as you work your way through this!
Additional Helps from the California DMV
The handbook is also available in
- and in ASL via video
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