Driving in California – Getting Started

Standing in line at the DMVI want to share my newcomer’s experience of driving in California. I will discuss renting a car, buying a car, car insurance, emergency road-side service and getting a Californian driver license. I don’t intend to give a complete step-by-step guide, but a good overview of my personal experience as a driver from the Netherlands.

Driving in the first weeks

In the first weeks after arrival, we rented a car to be able to find our new home. It’s recommended to book the car in advance so you don’t have to stand in queue at the airport. After two weeks we returned the car to a local office in our new hometown. They offer many different discounts, so ask. We got 10% discount because I’m member of the Dutch Automobile Association (ANWB). On the day of arrival we bought a $100 navigation device from RadioShack, we never regretted it. Most tourists are allowed to drive in California with a driver license from their home country (check about the rules for your country) We got an international driver license from our National Automobile Association ANWB, before arriving in CA. That’s simply our driver license translated in English. The car rental company may ask for it. It cost me $24 and mine was valid for 6 months. I found driving in California quite easy. As a Dutch driver I learned a few new traffic rules you should know about before you hit the road. Most important rule, you must give way to pedestrians. They always have the right of way. Second, at intersections with stop sign you must stop and yield to drivers that arrived first. It’s not like in the Netherlands where you give way to drivers on the right! Third, you can usually make a right turn through red, if you make a stop, and give way to other traffic and pedestrians first. Keep a look put for ‘No Right on Red’ sign though, they are posted occasionally. Fourth, you must make full stops at stop signs. The rest of the traffic rules felt natural to me.

Buying a car, changing ownership and car insurance

We bought an 11 year old used car. You can find used cars on craigslist.org or supost.com. There are many dealers on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. If you have found an interesting used car I advise to get a vehicle history report (or carfax report) from the internet to check mileage, maintenance, unclaimed damage, total loss, and number of previous owners. One report is $25, I found someone on supost.com who e-mailed me a report for $5. You can check the price of a used car on Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com). If you still like the car you should ask the seller if you can take it to a mechanic (car repair shop) for a pre purchase vehicle inspection. It may cost you up to $100 but it saves you more money during negotiation. If you buy a car you must transfer ownership at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Read about buying and changing a cars ownership on www.dmv.ca.gov.  You don’t need a Californian driver license to buy a car. You can do that later. Before driving away you need car insurance. Some insurance companies do not insure foreigners, call them, explain your situation and ask if you can be insured by them, they are very helpful. Get a few quotations from geico.comamica.comprogressive.com, or others, and compare them. Californian law requires minimum liability coverage of 15/30/5. This means that they pay no more than $15.000 to an individual, $30.000 to all individuals in the accident and $5.000 for property damage. Medical care in the US is very expensive so I advise at least 100/300/50. You get discount based on coverage, car value, driver’s age, gender, driving experience, whether you have Californian driver license for  more than 6 months, whether you can prove that your driver license was never suspended, and if you have proof of years of claim free driving. I have requested proof that I have a valid driver license and that my license was never suspended from the Dutch national road traffic agency RDW. Also, I requested a document with years of claim free driving from my Dutch car insurance company. Once I have received my Californian driver license, I will inform my car insurance company about it and I will send the documents to prove that I’m a good driver to get more discounts. To pay the car I suggest paying with cashier’s check (certified bank cheque) from your US bank. This way you don’t have to carry thousands of dollars and the seller is sure to receive the money. After purchase you need register the car at the DMV within 10 days. For this all instructions can be found on DMVs website www.dmv.ca.gov.

Emergency road-side-service

You can get emergency road-side-service from the American Automobile Association (www.aaa.com), or from your car insurance. For me and my wife I pay $160 per year to AAA. For that money they help you in emergency situations to quickly get you back on the road and they tow you up to 100 miles. In addition you get many discounts on hotels, replacement batteries; you get free maps, etc.

Driver license

If you become a Californian resident (or if you stay more than 6 months) you need to apply for a Californian driver license. For regular cars you apply for class C driver license. You can apply at the DMV (www.dmv.ca.gov). First you need to do the written test. Once you have passed, you can apply for the behind-the-wheel drive test. To prepare for the tests I studied the California Driver Handbook for a few days. You can pick up one from the DMV. I also recommend the videos on the DMV website. The written test has 36 questions and you are allowed to make 6 mistakes. Often there are queues in front of the DMV and you may wait for 1.5 hour. If you want to skip the waiting line, you can make an appointment, however the appointments are often 4 weeks in the future. For the written test I decided to wait in line. As a foreigner you should also bring your visa documents and I-94 admission paper. Read the instruction on the DMV website carefully. The DMV website is bad, there is much information hidden behind tons of links, I hated it, but I rather stick to a confusing website than unofficial websites. You need to bring a car do the behind-the-wheel drive test, they don’t provide one. Once the paperwork is done at the DMV, you drive the car around the DMV building and wait for an examiner. First he/she will check if all lights work, you need to point out all the controls in the car (emergency light, windshield wipers, defroster, etc.), then you need to show the arm signals for left, right turn, and stop, and finally she/he will step into the car for the drive test. You will drive for 20 minutes; you will be checked on safe driving and obeying the rules. I received my driver license by post 3 weeks after the test. I paid only $32 for the written and the behind-the-wheel test.

This was my personal experience as a Dutch driver in California. I’m sure it’s not applicable to everyone or every situation. If you think essential information is missing, please comment. I wish you happy driving.

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