Expat Life: Passing an American Driving Test | What To Expect!

Last Updated on August 6, 2022

I’m not going to lie, in the first week of driving in the States, I reversed into a tree while backing into a car parking space.  My car already had a giant dent in the bumper when we bought it so other than my self esteem, there wasn’t really much damage.  Anyone that has passed a car test in Europe will know what an awful experience it is. However the American driving test seems so simple in comparison!

American Driving Test

American Driving Test VS UK

In the UK we have tests that last for over 1hr30 (including a warm up lesson before it) which include parallel parking, reverse parking, reversing round corners, 3 point turns, emergency stops, roundabouts, traffic, clutches, biting points, gear changes, the lot.  It’s also CRAZY expensive! The USA driving test? 15 minutes!!

Driving As An Expat

Before leaving the UK, I emailed the Iowa Department of Transport, every State has different rules.  I discovered that from arrival, I had 30 days to take and pass the written and practical tests, after then my UK license would no longer be ‘valid’.

Documents Needed For The American Driving Test:

  • The joy in my life: The Social Security Number
  • My visa (I used the temporary ‘sticker’ in my passport)
  • An ‘insurance card’…you take the test in your own car so you have to show you are insured to drive it.
  • 2 forms of ‘proof of address’…as a new arrival I didn’t exactly have a lot.  I used the piece of paper that came with the Social Security Number (as it’s an official document) and a dated, postmarked envelope (I had ordered a free copy of the Iowa tourism brochure before moving!)

How To Pass Driving Test In USA

The Written Test

Being the good egg I am, I downloaded the Iowa Driving Handbook…read it from front to back and when I arrived and could finally access the Department of Transport website (for some reason it wouldn’t load while in the UK), I took the online practise tests multi times.

My nearest test station was in Dubuque.  The written tests require no booking in advance.  You just turn up, get a ticket and wait for a desk to become free.  I handed over my documents, had my picture taken (could smile but no open mouth) and was told to go to an available computer.  

There were no individual booths like in the UK, the computers just all sat side by side.  I punched in a password that I was given and began.  I opted to skip the 5 practise questions and just went straight for the ‘big’ 20. Just like the UK, they were multiple choice questions answered by touching the screen.

HOWEVER. The questions were EXACTLY the same as the practise test that’s on the website…I sat there and was like “no…surely not?!”. With each question I answered, it told me if I had got it right, which was great because as I went through I knew when I had reached the 80% pass mark so could get all the rest wrong if I didn’t know them! But of course I passed 20/20 because I had gone through the online test so many times!

I went back to the desk, told them I passed and arranged my car test for 2 days later.  I walked out without paying a single penny!!!!!!  It felt like I had just stolen from them or something!!

Driving in USA

The Practical Test

I was ridiculously nervous about the practical test which is silly.  Everyone had told me how easy it is to pass and I was worried that I’d be the idiot to fail it.  I passed my UK car test first time, I even passed my UK TRUCK (CDL) test first time so I really didn’t want to break my chain of first time passes! I had picked up 9 years of bad driving habits, had only been driving in the States for 2 weeks and had no lessons to know the official way their roads work…it could have been a disaster!

As mentioned above, the test is taken in your own vehicle so they have some requirements:

  • The front windows have to go up and down
  • There must be no cracks in the front windscreen
  • All lights must work
  • The horn must work
  • You have to prove you are insured to drive it
  • You have to have someone go to the test centre with you in case you fail so they can drive you home

The test…listen to this UK people (!!!)…is 15 MINUTES LONG.  A lady came out to the car with me, checked all of the above and then explained how the test worked.  Typical me I thought I had blown it as soon as I left the test centre, I misheard one of her instructions and nearly put myself under the back of a school bus…however I only ended up with a minor for my mistake!

We went:

  • Down the empty dual carriage way.  I was asked to make a left lane change and then go back to the right…where I received my 2nd minor of not looking over my shoulder out of the back window…again bad habit alert, I was a full time van driver for 3 years, the work vans had no back window so you learn to do everything with just side mirrors!
  • Came off at the first exit and went round the block of an empty housing estate.
  • Took the bridge back over the dual carriage way, turned left and headed off down an empty ‘back’ road.
  • Took another left and ended up back at the junction opposite the test centre.
  • Turned into the test centre car park and was told to park in whatever bay I wanted.  I even pulled across the car park…the woman started freaking out because she thought I was going to park in a disabled bay to which I told her I was lining myself up to reverse park into a space behind me…I prefer reversing into spaces, everyone else must just drive in because she seemed pretty shocked.
  • I was then told I had passed.  End of test.  End of 15 minutes.  I was told about the 2 minors and then had to go back into the centre and take another ticket.


I went up to the desk and the lady asked ‘How can I help?’, which I thought was a bit strange so was just like ‘errrrr I passed?’.  I was asked a couple of questions, things like would I like to be an organ donor.  To be honest, this question really shook me, as a new arrival in the country I had a million questions going round in my head. I obviously still consider myself English and my home is in England.  So to donate my body to America…I wasn’t completely comfortable with…until recently I didn’t even think a Brit could donate blood because the government still think we have mad cow disease!

I had my eyesight checked…after I had just taken one of their employees out on the road with me…Then had to give my eye colour, height and weight, which will be printed on my ID card yay!

Still I paid NOTHING for the tests I had taken.  The only thing I had to pay for was my USA driving license card which was $32…$4 a year and I got one valid for 8 years, if I had opted for less it would have been even cheaper.  They printed off a temporary paper license that looks identical to the plastic card that arrives in around 7 – 10 days.


…after I left the test centre, about 5 minutes into the drive back…my car broke down, I lost all steering!  I’m SO thankful it didn’t happen during the test!!!!

Related reading: 24 Driving in USA Tips For Overseas & International Visitors

Are you an expat that’s had to take a driving test in a different country to your home country?  How did you find it?  To anyone still living in their home country, do you think YOU could pass a driving test again after years of picking up bad habits?  I’d love to know!

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Expat Life: Passing an American Driving Test

6 thoughts on “Expat Life: Passing an American Driving Test | What To Expect!

  1. That sounds so easy! I’m glad you get a year in the UK to get your license because the process is a bit more lengthy and it took a few months for me to feel confident on the windy country roads!

    1. Yeah I’d imagine lessons would probably be needed in the UK too! I’m surprised at how many country roads there are in Iowa, loads of them are gravel too so it’s a bit like driving on ice!

  2. OMG… you had me rolling with laughter. Good for you for passing the test, you really learn how to drive AFTER passing the test LOL. My first car was a Datsun B210 that I bought for $100, the week after passing my test (I never drove in England) I drove from Redwood City to Bakersfield to visit a friend who was stationed there with her husband. I put my two year old in the back seat and headed across country all by myself, don’t know what the hell I was thinking! On the way back It was so windy, huge tumble weeds were flying across the road and I was almost out of gas in the middle of the bloody dessert! Crazy times, but memories to look back on and laugh about. You’ll have fun driving on the wrong side of the road and dents can always be fixed. The bigger and older the car, the safer you’ll be in it. Glad you’re settling in and yeah… the mad cow thing is a crock! You can’t even donate blood!

    1. Wow! That’s brave! Yeah it’s quite nice knowing if I ever hit a deer the bonnet is so long I’ll be miles away from it! You’d think they’d be over the mad cow thing by now, it’s not like every single person in the country caught it!

  3. I moved from the UK to Delaware and had to do my test, and had a guy drive towards me up a one way street! For just a second I didn’t know which one of us was wrong lol my test lasted less than 10 minutes though which was great. The only downside was that my 16 yr old son passed his test before me due to me being in a cast and having to wait before I could drive, the gloating seemed to last forever 😉

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Haha I bet!! That’s crazy! The girl before my test had a beaver run across the dual carriage way in front of her! *Tough wood* I’ve only driven on the wrong side once! I thought I was in a 1 way street but I wasn’t!

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