Can an Undocumented Person in Washington Get a Driver's License?

In Washington, someone with no legal immigration status in the U.S. can obtain a standard driver’s license by proving identity and state residency.

By , J.D.

In a small number of U.S. states, including Washington, someone who was born outside the U.S. and who has no legal U.S. immigration status can nevertheless obtain a standard driver's license. (The short term for such a person "undocumented." You might also hear the slang term "illegal alien.")

This article explains Washington's law and procedures for getting a driver's license if you are an undocumented person.

Does Getting a Washington Driver's License Make Your Stay in the U.S. Is Legal?

Getting a standard Washington driver's license simply means that you are allowed to operate a vehicle within the state of Washington and to carry an identity card proving that fact.

Obtaining a standard Washington driver's license does NOT give you any sort of legal immigration status in the United States. Washington State has no power to legalize your U.S. immigration status—this is a matter governed solely by federal law. (For an overview, see What's the Easiest Way to Get a U.S. Green Card?.)

That means, for example, that you cannot use your Washington driver's license for federal identification purposes or to vote in U.S. elections. (Also see How Falsely Claiming to Be a U.S. Citizen Can Make You Deportable.) And you will not be eligible for a REAL-ID type license (required for airplane travel in the future) nor for what's called an "enhanced" Washington drivers' license, which are accepted at the ‘Ready Lane' at the border crossing between Washington and Canada.

Eligibility for a Washington Driver's License

As an undocumented person wondering whether you are eligible for a Washington driver's license without legal status or a Social Security Number (SSN), the important issue is whether you can meet the terms set out Chapter 46.20 of the Washington Code, passed in 1993.The statute doesn't directly talk about issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants—it just doesn't require you to prove lawful immigration status in the United States in order to get a license.

The main requirement you will have to meet is that you can prove your identity. You can use things like a foreign passport, a consular ID card, a birth certificate, a U.S. Military DD Form 214, and various other documents. See the "Steps to getting your first driver license: Proof of identity" page of the Washington State Department of Licensing website (and be sure to check both "A-List" and "B-List Documents." You might need to provide several documents in order to satisfy this requirement.

You will also, when you go to the driver's licensing office to apply, be required to sign a declaration regarding your lack of a Social Security number.

If you present documents in a language other than English, you may be asked to also submit a translation done by an approved agency.

Application Process for a Washington Driver's License

To apply, you will be expected to fill out an application form, pay fees, and pass a written exam, a vision screening, and a driving test. While study materials are available in a number of languages on the "Driver training and testing" page of the Department of Licensing (DOL) website (under Driver Guide), your language options for taking the written test are limited to English and Spanish.

Will Your Washington Driver's License Indicate That You Don't Have Immigration Status?

There will be no direct indication of your immigration status on your Washington license. However, it will say "FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY," a reminder that it's not a REAL-ID and doesn't give you the same sorts of access as that or an enhanced ID.

Who Should NOT Apply for a Washington State Driver's License

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 experienced immigration attorney about the risks before applying. While applying for a license does not normally cause the Washington DMV to turn someone's name over to federal authorities, it probably could not refuse such a request from enforcement officials if you run into trouble with the law.

Where Should I Go for More Information?

See the Washington State Department of License's Getting a license page.

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