Driving in the United States

Do I need a Georgia driver’s license?

Georgia law permits an individual who possesses a valid driver’s license issued in his or her home country to operate a motor vehicle in Georgia. This permission is limited to a maximum period of one year and it applies only to those who are non-residents of the state. Thus, as foreign citizens in non-immigrant classifications, international students and scholars should, in theory, qualify as non-residents and therefore use a valid out-of-country license to drive in Georgia for up to one year. However, international students and scholars should note the following:

Because of these issues, ISSS recommends that all students and scholars (and their age-eligible dependents) who intend to drive in the United States obtain a Georgia driver’s license.

What is an International Driving Permit (IDP)?

Many students and scholars have questions about the “International Driving Permit” or “International Driver’s License.” An International Driving Permit (IDP) is simply a translation of an individual’s home country license into ten languages. As of January 2009, Georgia law requires foreign nationals whose home country license is not in English to also possess an IDP in order to drive under the provisions outlined in the introductory section of this page.

The “International Driver’s License” does not exist. In fact, the U.S. government warns both Americans and foreign citizens to beware of companies who claim to sell an “international driver’s license” as these operations are fraudulent.

How do I apply for a Georgia driver’s license?

International students and scholars who have recently arrived in the United States may not immediately apply for a Georgia driver’s license at the Department of Driver’s Services (DDS). They must first await confirmation of their arrival information in a government database. After this information has been received, they must then request either a Social Security Number (SSN) or proof of ineligibility for an SSN from the Social Security Administration (SSA). When these preliminary steps are complete, the student or scholar may apply for a driver’s license. Please note: this same process applies for students and scholars who wish to obtain a Georgia-issued state identification card.

Step 1: Confirming Arrival Information

A student or scholar’s arrival in the United States is communicated from the electronic systems used by officials at the port of entry to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database. When a student or scholar applies for a driver's license, the representatives at the DDS must check SAVE to confirm the applicant's legal presence.

Although border officials immediately enter the arrival information into their system, it can take 10 calendar days for it to appear in the SAVE database. Within a few days of a student or scholar’s orientation session at ISSS, his or her arrival on campus is confirmed by the advisors at ISSS. For those in F and J status, this information is communicated to a database called the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) which, in turn, sends a message to the SAVE database. The information from SEVIS usually takes two business days to appear in SAVE following ISSS confirmation in SEVIS.

In addition to the port of entry information and the SEVIS registration/validation information, the SAVE database also requires an applicant to provide current immigration documents in order to confirm legal presence. Thus, although many immigration statuses allow foreign citizens to enter the United States prior to the start date listed on the immigration document, the SAVE database will automatically reject any query that occurs prior to the start date.

Therefore, given the requirement for current documents and the delays in updating the SAVE database, ISSS recommends that students and scholars wait until the start date of the immigration document has been reached, 10 days have passed since their entry at the US border and at least three business days have passed since ISSS orientation before moving on to the next step in the process. 

Step 2: Applying for an SSN or SSAL-676

The DDS requires proof of a student or scholar’s Social Security Number (SSN) or ineligibility for the SSN as a part of the driver’s license application. The SSN is issued by the United States government in order to track employment for tax purposes. Students in J-1 status and scholars in J-1, H-1B, O-1, and TN statuses are immediately eligible and must submit an application for an SSN and wait to receive the card in the mail prior to visiting the DDS.

Students in F-1 status and dependents in J-2 status are only eligible for an SSN if they provide proof of work authorization; F-2, H-4, TD, and O-3 dependents are never eligible for an SSN because they are prohibited from engaging in employment in the United States. A letter of ineligibility issued by the SSA (also called Form SSAL-676) is a required part of the DDS application if an individual is not permitted to apply for an SSN; thus, individuals currently ineligible for an SSN must also visit the SSA prior to applying for a Georgia driver’s license in order to obtain SSAL-676. This rejection letter is produced at the time of application, so SSAL-676 applicants may visit the DDS immediately following their visit to the SSA as long as they have all other required documents for the application (see below) and at least 10 days have passed since they entered the United States.

Step 3: Applying for the Driver’s License

After you have completed the steps listed above, bring the following documents to a DDS office:

  • Immigration documents (I-20, DS-2019, I-797 approval notice, etc.)

  • Passport with valid I-94 printout or card

  • Social Security Card or SSAL-676

  • Home country license (if applicable)

  • Proof of residence

    • A student or scholar living off-campus should bring an apartment lease and a secondary item, such as a utility bill, which lists his or her name and local address

    • Emory provides letters confirming the local address for undergraduate students living on campus. Those on main campus should visit Alabama Hall to obtain the letter. Those on Clairmont Campus must visit the Community Office in the Tower Apartments.

How do I renew my Georgia driver’s license?

The Georgia DDS will only issue a driver’s license for the approved period of time listed in official USCIS documentation. Students, scholars, and dependents extending their stay beyond the currently approved end date or changing their immigration status from within the United States are not eligible to extend the driver’s license until the approval for the extension or change of status is received. In the case of extensions, this circumstance would apply to H-1B, O-1, and TN scholars who have filed petitions to extend their employment as well as F-1 students and J-2 dependents applying for EAD-based work authorization from USCIS (ex: OPT, 17-Month Extension of OPT).

Following receipt of the official approval, students, scholars, and dependents may immediately visit the DDS. However, in many cases the extension approval information is not immediately accessible in the SAVE database despite the fact that the individual has documentation of the approval in hand. The SAVE verification process thus may continue to cause delays beyond the receipt of the approval and the DDS may not issue a new driver's license until the extension or change of status appears in SAVE.

Why is my driver’s license application still pending?

As referenced above, a variety of factors can affect issuance of a Georgia driver’s license. In some cases, delays relate to DDS policies (which are based on Georgia law). In other instances, applications are delayed because information that you can provide on paper (i.e. approval of your extension or change of immigration status) may not appear correctly in government databases meant to verify this information (SAVE, SEVIS).

ISSS is advocating for change at all levels of the process and can also assist with your individual case. If you have questions about the application process or are confused about the current status of your application, please bring the information you have received to your International Student or Scholar Advisor and he or she will help explain – and potentially take steps to address – your delay.