Learning How to Drive on Your Exchange: Harder Than You Might Think!

We get questions every year from students about how they can get a driver’s license during the exchange year. In some countries, it is very expensive to get a license, and the age limits are higher than they are in the U.S. So we understand why students are interested (and why parents who are paying the bill might find it an interesting possibility as well).

We send out an email about this to our incoming students each year, to give them some information ahead of time. It occurred to us that readers of this blog might find some of this information useful as well. So, read below for some practical tips about exchange students and drivers’ licenses. It’s impossible, however, to speak to the situation facing all exchange students in all part of the U.S. (much less in other countries).  Host families — please check with your own local coordinator and your state’s motor vehicle department before making any decisions regarding your student; your exchange program may have policies about this (some programs prohibit their students from getting a license, or have specific restrictions).  Students — make sure you check your own program’s rules as well as the rules in your home country.

It’s Less Common Than You Think

First and foremost, it’s less common than most exchange students think for a student to get his or her drivers’ license while on exchange. Of course, many incoming students will hear from students who have returned that they knew exchange students who got their license. And for some students, in some locations, it works out nicely; in rural areas, for example, it can be quite handy for a student to have a license for getting into town, and that advantage for perhaps half the year may outweigh the difficulties in getting the license. But the challenges are significant, including:

123102009 student driver with teacher* Difficulty in getting a driving permit: The permit is the piece of paper you need to be allowed to practice driving. You need a driving permit to even get behind the wheel of a car. To apply for a permit, a student needs to show proof of residence, often proof from the program as to his or her exchange status, signed forms from parents back home, sometimes permission from the high school, and usually a form to show why the student does not have a U.S. Social Security number. This can take time (and usually requires help from host parents).

Getting a driving permit requires a written test. It’s harder than you think to pass the permit test. Even native English-speaking teens have difficulty. In Oregon, at least half and perhaps up to 70% of teens taking the permit test do not pass the test the first time; perhaps 50% have to take it more than twice. Non-native speakers have even more difficulty. It often takes several months, as a result, just to get the permit.

* School rules: To get a driving permit, many states, including Oregon, require that a teen get permission from their high school. School districts can set their own rules on this issue. For example, no exchange student attending school in the city of Portland is allowed to get a driving permit.

* Timing: After a student gets his permit, most U.S. states have a waiting period before a teen under the age of 18 can actually get his license. Oregon law requires teens to wait at least six months before they can take the driving test.

152132803 deadlineAn additional timing issue applies towards the end of the exchange year. Students generally cannot get a driver’s license after their visas expire. The precise date on which students’ visas expire will vary from program to program; for our students, for example, it’s usually on or about June 10th. The U.S. government allows students to remain in the U.S. for up to one month after their visas expire, but they cannot get a driver’s license during that time. Last year we had one student who got her driving permit in early January and was planning on taking her driver’s license test on July 8th, exactly six months later. She was very upset to learn she could not get her license, because of the visa issue.

* Amount of practice: In addition to the six months, many states have a requirement that a teen show a certain number of hours of driving practice. In Oregon, a teen must have 100 hours of driving practice. This is a lot of driving. The teen cannot practice with just anyone. It must be an adult over a certain age; the department of motor vehicles in the state will have rules on the minimum age of the teaching driver. In Oregon, the minimum age is 21; in some states, it’s 25.

In some states, the hourly requirement can be reduced by taking a driver’s education class.  Sometimes the schools offer these classes, but exchange students often are not eligible to take the driver’s education classes due to high demand.

* Impact on a student’s life: Learning how to drive takes up time that that a student could be spending on her exchange year: studying, making friends, learning about the host culture, and participating in host family activities. We do see that students who get their driving permit tend to focus on the driving: they want to practice driving all the time and add to their driving hours. We have seen that this can affect their ability to finish school work, do well at school, make friends, and take part in host family activities.

* Impact on host parents: Host parents usually are the ones who end up teaching their exchange student to drive. It’s a significant burden. While it can work out, we do also see that it can cause stress in the host family-student relationship. Keep in mind that this relationship is just getting under way, and it takes time to build. It can be hard enough teaching your child to drive when you have known that child for 16 years; it’s even harder if you have known him for only a few weeks.

465641367 car accident* Insurance: Automobile insurance can be expensive, especially for teen drivers. The rules for getting insurance will vary from program to program. Our program, for example, requires students to get their own insurance and not rely on the insurance of the host family. Students, families, and host families should keep in mind that if the student has an accident while driving the host family’s car, the host family’s insurance premiums could increase, perhaps significantly, for several years, long after the student returns home.

These challenges are not unique

Before your child speaks up saying, “I’m not going to Oregon on my exchange, I’m going to California/Nebraska/Alabama. So I don’t have to worry about these rules” – I use Oregon as an example because that’s where we live, so we have more information and more familiarity with the rules here. But most U.S. states have similar rules for teens under the age of 18:

* Six months’ time period between getting a permit and taking a driving test is common. In some states, the waiting period is longer. In fact, some states require one year between the time a teen gets a permit and can take the driving test.

* Some states require that a student take the drivers’ education class.  If you can’t take drivers’ education, the result in those states is that you can’t get a license until you are 18.

* Some state motor vehicle departments will not allow exchange students to get a permit because they do not have a U.S. Social Security number. In other states, even if a student can get a permit without the Social Security number, the process for bypassing this requirement can be difficult.

* Some states include a requirement that a certain number of hours be nighttime driving.

Even if you are successful, a U.S. teen driver’s license may not transfer to your home country

Teen drivers in the U.S. under the age of 18 usually do not get a “full” license after they take a driving test. The license usually has restrictions. Some exchange students may be 18 or turn 18 while they are here, and may not face these restrictions. Restrictions can include not being allowed to drive between 12 am – 5 am, for example, or not being allowed to transport anyone outside their immediate family for six months (or longer) after first getting a license.

Any student who does have the opportunity to get a permit and learn how to drive should first check that it will transfer in their home country. Different U.S. states have different restrictions, but the common theme is that the provisional license may not be a “full” license – and as a result, the student’s home country may not recognize the license.

Risk & Reward AheadIn closing: getting a driver’s license sounds like a good idea to many students before they leave their home country, and their parents may think it makes sense due to cost or age restrictions at home. But once you actually think it through, look at the rules, and add up the costs, it’s not as much of a “win win” as it seems at first glance, and in many cases it simply isn’t possible.

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