The California Behind-The-Wheel Driving Test for Australians – Part Two

When I finally hit “publish” on my first epic DMV post, specifically giving Australians tips on what they could expect when trying to get a California license, it went off.

Expats actually commented on the blog *shock*. So you know it’s one of those annoying things that everyone has a story about. As you can tell by the comments on this post on the Australians in San Francisco Facebook page.

With that in mind, I’m moving onto documenting part deux of the driving test hoops you have to jump through to legally be able to drive in this state. You’d think it’d get easier. It doesn’t.

Also, a massive thanks to everyone from the Australians in San Francisco fb page who jumped in with important tips and information. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to take the test yesterday. Thanks guys!


So you’ve passed the computerised knowledge test and are ready to take the Behind-The-Wheel Driving Test. If you thought you could just make the appointment at the DMV while you’re still there, you’re wrong. Oh so woefully mistaken.

You get a little business card sending you in the direction of the DMV website to book in your appointment. It’s got a QR code and everything. You wish it was that easy though!


I logged on and went through the process. You’ll need your license number to complete it, which you can find on the learner’s permit you were given when you passed the knowledge test. It’s usually made up of a letter and seven numbers.

I  tried making an appointment five times that afternoon and the next morning. Each time I was met with a message pointing to my mystery ineligibility. So instead I rang the DMV phone line.

On The Phone

You have two options on the phone. Immediately press the “0” key and wait to talk to a real person. Or you can go through the automated process of booking an appointment.
I tried the second way but my accent was not appreciated by the automated computer man – he couldn’t understand me and I got more and more frustrated. Then he only gives you one time option to take the test, which I found difficult. You can ask to change the date and time but it doesn’t tell you what’s available on that day.

I hung up and went for the real person way of doing things and I was all booked in a matter of minutes. This is a great way of doing it because you can ask exactly what you need to bring with you and any other things you’re worried about. They’re not always pleasant about answering questions though.


Driving testers (for want of a better term) mark you on a set of criteria. It’s all explained in this helpful 90’s-esque video (even though it was posted eight years ago).

In short, get into the habit of stopping before the yield line at intersections and stop signs, don’t speed and check your blind spots religiously.

Before the test, the examiner will go through a pre-drive checklist with you to make sure your car is up to standard and you know where everything is. Take note: I momentarily hesitated on the windshield wiper/turn signal question because I sometimes get them confused since they’re backwards here.

Pre-Drive Checklist

  • Driver Window
  • Windshield (windscreen)
  • Rear view mirrors
  • Turn signals
  • Brake lights
  • Tires (tyres)
  • Foot brake
  • Horn
  • Emergency/parking brake
  • Arm signals (left, right and stop)
  • Windshield (windscreen) wipers
  • Defroster (Demisters)
  • Emergency Flasher (Hazard lights)
  • Headlights
  • Passenger door
  • Glove box
  • Seat belts


There are a list of requirements for the vehicle that you choose to do the test in, which you can find at length here… or I’ll give the cliff notes here:
  • two license plates. The rear plate must show current registration.
  • both front and back turn signal lights and working brake lights.
  • a working horn designed for the vehicle.
  • tires with no bald spots.
  • adequate brake pressure (you will be asked to step on the brake pedal to see if it works properly).
  • a driver’s side window that rolls down.
  • a windshield that allows a full unobstructed field of vision.
  • two rear view mirrors (one must be on the outside, to the driver’s left).
  • driver and front passenger doors that open from both the inside and outside.
  • a secured glove compartment door so it doesn’t open during the test.
  • a passenger seat permanently attached to the vehicle.
  • working safety belts, if the vehicle was manufactured with safety belts.
  • working emergency/parking brake.

Rental Cars

If you’re planning to use a rental car to take your test in you’ll need a few extra things from the rental car company (thanks for the heads up Annika).
You’ll need to take out insurance and bring your rental contract, with your name listed on it as being insured. You will also have to request a signed letter from the rental agency, stipulating that they know you’re using the car to take a driving test and they approve.

What You Need

You’re going to need to bring a few things (and people) with you on the day or you won’t be able to take the test.

  1. Your Learner’s Permit
  2. The vehicle’s registration
  3. Proof that the vehicle is insured
  4. A person over the age of 18 who holds a California Driver’s license (Thanks to Phill, Monika, Scott and many others for pointing this out to me)
@krasf If you are an adult, you need an adult, 18 or older, w/ valid CA DL. If you are a minor, you need driver 25 or older with a CA DL.

— CA DMV (@CA_DMV) November 2, 2016

 By law this fully licensed person must sit with you in the car while you wait to take your test.


Don’t wait in the usual “appointment” or “non-appointment” line. There should be a sign above the “Behind-The-Wheel” driver’s test window. Line up there.

Hand in your permit, registration and insurance at the desk and, once again, get fingerprinted. You’ll get a yellow laminated card clipped to your paperwork and then be directed to drive your car (with your licensed passenger) into the testing line.


Driver's license | License | Driving in America | Driving in the US | Getting a California Driver’s License | Drive | Aussie | Expat | Aussie Expat in US | expat life
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Be warned: My appointment was for 12pm but the examiner didn’t get to me until 1pm. So you could be sitting in that line for a very long time. Make sure the person you roped into doing you this favour knows that. Shrug and say “it’s the DMV, what’d you expect?”, they will understand.


The examiner will instruct you to “say good bye to your companion” and then ask for your paperwork. S/he will check that everything’s in order before showing you the marking sheet, asking you to read and sign it.
It says:
“To pass, you must have no more than three errors marked for Items 9-14 under PRE-DRIVE CHECKLIST, no marks in the CRITICAL DRIVING ERROR section, and no more than 15 errors marked for the Scoring Maneuvers”
Then you will go through the pre-drive checklist, before the examiner gets into the car and instructs you to drive away. We did a couple of happy laps, changed lanes a lot but thankfully I didn’t have to reverse park. I did have to pull up to a curb and reverse along it for a ways without hitting the curb.
I’m going to share my score sheet now. It’s not perfect but I passed. I’m a little unhappy with my driving so… yeah, try not to laugh too much


Once you pass you return to the DMV office and line up again to wait in line to be issued a fancy piece of paper that is your interim license. Your actual card copy should be mailed to you within 30 days.

However, it seems this isn’t always the case. Especially for those on E3-D Visa’s. Some have reported receiving their license within days or weeks, but there are others who went almost a full three months before getting it.

Just like expat Megan, who is still waiting for her shiny lisence to arrive in the mail:

“My husband and I did the driving test (and passed) on the same day at the start of September. He’s on an E-3, I’m on an E-3D. He got his license within 2 weeks, I’m still waiting on mine (I have a printed piece of paper that says temporary license).”

“The DMV website indicates that a temporary license is issued because the application is incomplete and pending additional information. They didn’t tell me that when they gave it to me, so I’ve no idea what is pending. I’ve tried to call them several times with no luck so I’m going to have to bite the bullet and go in soon before it expires!”

Make sure you chase it up with the DMV before your temporary license expires – because I can imagine that they might make you take the test again.


So it didn’t go so well. Sorry mate.  But, let’s be honest, this test is a bit of a pain in the rear. Nevermind – you can take the test three times before it all goes pear-shaped,
If you fail you’ll have to book in another test, and if you’re younger than 18, you’ll need to wait two weeks before you can take another test.

There’s also a $7 re-test fee to pay. If you fail three times you get to go through the whole knowledge test/driving test rigmarole from the very beginning. Fingers crossed for you.

29 thoughts on “The California Behind-The-Wheel Driving Test for Australians – Part Two

  1. I also noticed that my licence is only valid until the the end of my current E3-D visa. The expiry dates are exactly the same. Same goes for my husband (who is the E3). US permanent residents and citizens get 10 years I think? Anyway, I think these CA licences are going to have to be renewed every single time you renew your visa.

  2. Yes – this is correct. I've been waiting 3 months to get my license and it still hasn't arrived (apparently it did get mailed out but was lost in the mail so I had to go back in to the DMV to get them to send it out again) – and I have to renew my E3 in a few weeks so when I finally get the license, I'll have to renew it again anyway! The joys of being an immigrant 🙂

  3. Very informative post. As a US native, I already knew a lot of this, but it was nice that you broke it down for expats. I'd love to hear what makes getting a license easier/different in Australia since this method is the only way I've ever known to get a license. 🙂 Hope your license gets to you soon!

  4. This is such interesting perspective! I'm a US native and resident, so it's super eye-opening to hear about your experience! For what it's worth – the automated phone process is a total pain whether or not you have an accent. I like your description of being able to take the test three times before it all goes pear-shaped. =)

  5. Thanks! It's all very new and different to some of us. We have a similar system in Australia, but at least in Sydney, I feel like it is much more efficient and straight forward. Here it seems there are different rules depending on the DMV you visit.

  6. I think when it comes to SSN you are set lol. Even if you leave the US for almost your whole life I am told your SSN will be there waiting for you when you get back. You may as well get it tattooed on your body….

  7. My goodness, what a process to have to go through and I thought it was hard enough here in Australia! I'm wondering if in the US they have to do the whole 100 hours of driving before you can go for your license like here? Thanks for linking up! #teamlovinlife

  8. Wow. This is so interesting!
    What an eye opener.
    When I'm holidaying in CA I just use my Aussie licence because of our shared holiday "rules" in that regard. How long does that last for? At what point do you have to stop being a tourist and start being a resident? Is it a certain time period?

    Thanks for joining the Lovin' Life Linky!
    Hope to see you again next week.

  9. Oh dear, what a painful process. I thought Australia's license tests were bad enough. I have a teenage daughter who has just got her Learner's Permit. She failed her first computerised test and she wanted to try again – another $44 please (even though she hadn't even left the chair)!

    Don't think I'll worry about trying to get a license in California! 🙂 #TeamLovinLife

  10. Ugh, the driving tests in itself are not hard, since you can prepare on-line (you know you have example tests on-line? Easier and harder ones, it really helps!), but the WAITING, and waiting! In Los Angeles (that's where we lived the last time I took it) it was 2 1/2 hr. wait in line, before doing the eye test, and picture taking, just to renew it! Depending on your future plans, look at the deadline date to renew it, whenever you get your drivers license!

  11. In hindsight, I am appreciating the Australian way of driver's licensing so much more now. They do have to do the 100 hours of driving if you're not an adult. But if you're an adult I think it's open slather. You can do whatever you want.

  12. Interesting Leanne? Or really effing annoying? Because I'm going with the latter.
    So you stop being a tourist and start being a resident when you get "proof of residency", which is a bank statement, or a mortgage, or a lease agreement.
    Thanks for the linky!

  13. WHAT? $44? I didn't know that! So I probably got it first try in Oz. That's preposterous. I think all of those 16 year olds should get together and riot because that's just ridiculous.

    Did she get it the second time around Lyndall?

  14. Well I passed it so I guess it's not that difficult. But you have to remember Jeannette that I've got a lot of competing information in my head. Like driving on the left instead of the right, which doesn't seem like much but it confuses the hell out of you when they ask you things like "Which lane should you be in when turning left?", or "what does this sign mean?". Then there's the that whole metric system thing. Because I can't visualise feet. I don't know how far away you should be or how long you're allowed to sit in that lane before turning.

  15. That's wonderful that the post has been really useful. Although I do book reviews I rarely write posts of any interest / advice-like so I think it's great when people DO do that!

  16. WHOAH. What a lot of rigmarole! And allegedly it's really hard to get anywhere in LA without a car (so I've heard, never been there), so you kind of have no choice in a way! Congrats on passing! Meanwhile, I am still on green P plates (I was a very late driver) cos I keep procrastinating about going for my final test! I guess I'd be a hermit if I lived over there!

  17. Well-done. 1. On getting the driver's licence….2. Writing such a helpful post. This post needs to be on all the expat pages for those who are from other countries. Big kudos to you…for the writing and the success. Thanks for linking up. Denyse #lifethisweek

  18. SO much rigmarole. You should see the photo on my license though. It is truly awful. I was so mad when they took it. Anyway, yeah I guess that's why LA has such terrible traffic. When I moved here I was going to try and get around without a car, which you can do if you're in San Francisco proper but I'm further down the peninsula so a car is necessary.
    Haha, yeah I procrastinated on my green P's for a while as well. But the test's ok, just do the practice ones and you'll be laughing!

  19. Thanks for writing this up Kat. Super useful to have this as a resource.

    I just went through this process myself.

    I went to the Daly City DMV. I had an appointment and found the whole process relatively smooth – maybe 45mins each visit. After passing the written test the person giving out the permit told me explicitly I could drive (alone) with my valid Australian license and the Instruction Permit. He also said I could take myself to the driving test.

    Sure enough, I rented a car to take the test a couple of days later — Enterprise on Beach Street knew the drill. They gave me a letter giving permissions to use the car for a driving test, no problem. Then I drove myself to the DMV, took the test and passed without issue.

    Of course, raises the question if I had failed — in which case I'd have been perfectly in my rights to then drive off by myself.

    Luckily not the case! Thought I'd pass that on.

    1. I have an appointment for the DMV at Fremont. Fingers crossed they also say I can drive myself to the driving test (after I pass the written test of course).

  20. Thanks for passing on your experience, it's interesting that you were told you could drive alone on your Australian license. I get the feeling that different DMV's have different rules, since that hasn't been the case for a lot of others. Glad that you passed your test!

  21. Thanks for sharing! I am a Californian living in South America.

    Thankfully, the process here was way easier. All I had to do to get a Uruguayan driver’s license was to show them my valid Californian license.

    Now my son is looking at getting a Uruguayan lisense and will most likely face something similar to what you went through when he moves back to California next year. I’m shocked that you had to take the driving test. One would think that with an Australian drivers license, all one would need would be to take the written test.

    1. I was hoping that the process would be that easy for Aussie’s in California. I was so nervous jumping through all of those hoops again. It was like being 15 again. I checked it out a million times in the hopes that I could skip the driving test. But unfortunately we have to do it here.

      Ugh, that would be annoying for your son to have to do two driving tests. I can imagine that driving in Uruguay would be a bit different to California as well.

  22. Thanks for the article. I’m a bit confused about the Tweet that says you need to bring someone with a valid CA License to sit in the car with you? I have been scouring the DMV site for this requirement but cannot see this anywhere. Do you have any other sources for this requirement? It would be a real PITA to bring someone just to sit in the car and wait with me. Can you confirm this to be a real thing?

    1. It seems as though it depends on the DMV you to go to and who you get on the day Chris. I’m sorry that I can’t be more specific than that, but sometimes it feels like they make up their own rules. Many people have reported back saying that they weren’t allowed to take the test because they didn’t have a licensed driver with them, while others haven’t had that issue. I’d take one with me just in case.

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