Your First-Time California Drivers License Guide

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: October 14, 2023

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:

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:

Now let’s take a look at what it’ll take to get those four steps done.

Step 1Take 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:

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

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:

It may also be a good idea to bring your Social Security card and a passport (if you have one) just in case.

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 is to consider one (or more) of the following:

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 for your test without a dress rehearsal; you want to pass the first time.

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:

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:

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.

BTW—If you are planning a family road trip, you may get the chance to do some practice driving in another state. Check this out to see if you can.

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:

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

California Parent-Teen Training Guide

Pre-Drive Checklist (Safety Criteria)

Preparing for Your Driving Test

DMV Driving Test Criteria

California Driver Handbook

The handbook is also available in