In a handful of U.S. states, including California, someone who was born in a country other than the U.S. and who has no legal immigration status in the U.S. can obtain a driver's license. (The short term for such a person is "undocumented." You might also hear the term "illegal alien.")
This article explains California's law (referred to as AB 60, passed in 2013) on getting a driver's license if you are an undocumented person.
Getting a California driver's license simply means that you are allowed to operate a vehicle within the state of California and to carry an identity card proving that fact.
Obtaining a California driver's license does NOT give you any sort of legal status in the United States. California has no power to legalize your U.S. immigration status—this is a matter governed solely by federal law. That means, for example, that you cannot use your license for federal identification purposes or to vote in U.S. elections.
The main reason the California legislature passed this law was traffic safety. It noted various studies finding that around one in five fatal crashes involved a driver without a proper license; and that millions of California drivers lacked car insurance.
As an undocumented person wondering whether you are eligible for a California driver's license without legal status or a Social Security Number (SSN), the important issue is whether you can meet the terms set out in AB 60.
This law requires you to not only meet the same standards as other prospective drivers do (for example, understanding the traffic laws and having adequate vision), but to:
You will need to supply proof of your identity, such as a passport, consular card (matricula consular), or electoral card.
You will also need to submit proof of your residence in California, such as rental or lease agreements showing your and the landlord's signature, mortgage and home utility bills in your name, school, medical, insurance, bank, and employment records, and so on. See the AB 60 Checklist page of the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website for more specific guidance on what documents to submit.
If you present documents in a language other than English, you will need to also submit a certified translation or an affidavit of translation into English.
To apply, you can either make an appointment or show up at one of various driver license processing centers.
You will be expected to fill out an application form, pay fees, and pass a written exam and possibly a road sign test, an eye test, and a driving skills test. Study materials are available in a number of languages.
For details, see the AB 60 Driver License page of the California DMV website.
Your California driver's license will bear the notation "FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY." That means anyone reading it will have a pretty good idea that you are not a U.S. citizen—but don't panic. The law also forbids discrimination against people holding an AB 60 license, and California police do not, by and large, turn over undocumented people to federal immigration enforcement agents.
It remains true, however, that nothing stops federal immigration officials from arresting someone who holds an AB 60 license—perhaps after encountering them during a home or workplace raid, placing a hold on them after an arrest and imprisonment by law enforcement, or accessing the DMV files because they are searching for that person.
Think twice about applying if you have a record of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (a DUI) or other criminal record, have been ordered deported (removed) in the past, or have used false documents to obtain a past drivers' license. Consult with an attorney about the risks before applying.