How Old Do You Have to Be to Drive?

By Teo Spengler

Getting "on the road again" for the first time

How Old Do You Have to Be to Drive?

Learning to drive is a rite of passage for many, an essential step toward becoming an independent adult in the U.S. But that doesn't mean that one set of laws and regulations applies across the country. In fact, you'd have to work hard to find two states with the same exact procedures for getting you behind the wheel legally for the first time. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the differing state driving rules for beginners.

Q: How old do you have to be to drive?

A: Driving age varies among states. Even in the same state, the minimum age is usually different depending on whether you want a learner's permit or a full license. The minimum driving age ranges from age 14 to age 18.

Q: What is a learner's permit?

A: No one is a natural at driving. Most states offer a learner's permit for the initial stage involving the learning process and getting behind the wheel for the first time. Often, with a learner's permit, you are permitted to drive only with a parent or another adult.

Q: How old do you have to be to get a learner's permit?

A: The minimum age to get a driving permit varies between states. It ranges from age 14 (in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota) to age 16 (in many states).

Q: How old do you have to be to get a full license?

A: Depending on where you live, you can get a license as young as age 16 (Montana and North Dakota). You'll have to wait until you're 18 years of age in many states, and all other states have rules that fall within that range. Some states let teens who complete driver training get a full license at age 17, imposing a minimum age of 18 years for those who don't participate in driver education.

Q: What is a hardship license?

A: Teens too young to get a regular driver's license (usually those between the ages of 14 and 15) can apply for a hardship license if they meet certain criteria. Not all states offer hardship licenses. They are more frequently offered in rural states where public transportation isn't available. Teens have to show that they need a license to drive to work or school. Some states impose per-day mileage restrictions on these licenses.

Q: What is a provisional license?

A: Some states, like Texas, offer teens under 18 years of age the chance to get a real driver license (marked "provisional") if they complete the requirements. The teen must be 16 years old, must have held a learner's permit or hardship license at least six months, completed driver education, completed a driving course called Impact Texas Teen Drivers and passed a driving test. The provisional license can be used until the teen turns 18, at which time the teen can qualify for a regular license.

Q: Are there other driving restrictions for teens?

A: Yes, and they also vary between states. Some states forbid teens from driving during certain night hours. Other make it a crime for a teen driver to use a cellphone, even if it isn't hand operated. In some states, a teen driver cannot have any passengers who are minors. In others, more than one passenger is not allowed in the front seat. In some states, the restrictions apply only to teens with permits. In others, they apply to teens with licenses too. All drivers should familiarize themselves with the driving rules in their state.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.