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Can I Drive with Foreign License in California?

Posted in Criminal Defense on July 29, 2019

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and that’s especially true in California. Roughly of all Californians are either foreign immigrants, or they have at least one parent who was a foreign immigrant. In most cases, it is legal for these individuals to drive in California with a license from a foreign country. At least, it is legal to do so for a couple of weeks.

In this context, a “foreign” license could also be one from another state. Out-of-state licenses are temporarily valid in California as well. However, license-holders have a legal duty to quickly update their information with the DMV.

If police officers pull you over and you do not have a valid California license with a current address, you can be prosecuted, and convicted, under Vehicle Code Section 12500. So, unless an experienced Riverside criminal defense attorney represents you, there may be stiff consequences.

Invalid License

Foreign License Grace Period

Drivers who have licenses from Mexico or other foreign countries do not need California licenses, or even IDPs, if:

  • They are at least 18,
  • The license was legally issued in a foreign country, and
  • The license is appropriate for the vehicle operated (e.g. motorcycle riders need motorcycle licenses).

An International Driving Permit, which you may obtain in your home country, translates drivers’ license information into about a dozen different languages.

It is legal for foreign drivers under 18 to operate motor vehicles for ten days in California on a foreign drivers’ license. These individuals must meet the other two criteria listed above. In some cases, the grace period may double to twenty days.

A few countries do not issue drivers’ licenses, on the theory that the roads are public and everyone should be able to use them. If you are from such a country, and you are at least 18, you have thirty days to obtain a California drivers’ license.

If you have a drivers’ license from another state in the Union and you permanently relocate to California, you have twenty days to obtain a California license. The law is a bit vague as to what constitutes a “permanent” relocation. So, if you plan to be in California for more than a month, even if it is just a temporary job assignment, it’s probably a good idea to get a California drivers’ license.

Penalties for Driving Without a Valid License

VC 12500 is a “wobbler” which can be charged as either an infraction or a criminal offense. The bad news about infractions is they are not technically criminal offenses. So, many of the normal COnstitutional protections do not apply in these matters. The good news about infractions is they are not technically criminal offenses. So, an infraction conviction does not go on your criminal record, and it may not even affect your driving record. The elements of driving without a license are:

  • Driving in a public place
  • Without a valid California license in hand.

The aforementioned exceptions and grace periods are affirmative defenses. Basically, the defendant must show the court proof resident commencement date, like the beginning date of an apartment lease. If the gap between relocation and citation falls within the applicable grace period, the prosecutor or judge should dismiss the case.

If no grace period applies but the defendant obtains a valid California license before the trial date, the prosecutor may reduce the charges to Failure to Present a License (VC 12951). This offense is less serious than VC 12500. FPL is always an infraction.

Work with a Tenacious Lawyer

If you just moved to California, welcome to your new home and head to the DMV. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Irvine, contact Graham Donath Law Offices, APC. We routinely handle matters in Orange County and nearby jurisdictions.