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

New York's "Green Light Law" allows undocumented persons living in the state to get a so-called "standard" driver's license. Here are the steps for applying.

By , J.D.

Although it's not true of most U.S. states, a few states will allow foreign-born people who are living here without lawful immigration status to obtain a driver's license. (The short term for such a person is "undocumented"; or you might hear the term "illegal alien.") New York is among hose states, having passed what it calls the "Green Light Law" in 2019. More formally, this is the Driver's License Access and Privacy Act, found within New York's Vehicle & Traffic (VAT) code, Chapter 71, Title 5, "Licensing of Drivers."

If you are an undocumented person living in New York, you'll want to read this article explaining your state's rules on getting a so-called "standard" driver's license and outlining the steps toward applying.

Does Getting a Standard New York Driver's License Make Me Legal?

Unfortunately, getting a New York State standard driver's license does NOT give you any sort of legal immigration status in the United States. Only the U.S. federal government has the power to legalize someone's U.S. immigration status—no individual state can do that.

What getting a New York driver's license does mean is that you are allowed to operate a vehicle within the state and to carry an identity card proving that fact. The so-called "standard" license you will receive is your only option; specifically, you will NOT be able to obtain an "Enhanced" or "REAL ID."

That also means you cannot use your New York driver's license for federal identification purposes such as boarding a commercial aircraft, showing to a U.S.-based employer, or voting in U.S. elections.

Undocumented Persons' Eligibility for a New York State Standard Driver's License

As an undocumented person seeking a New York driver's license, you will need to not only meet the same standards as other prospective drivers (for example, understand the state's traffic laws and have adequate vision to drive safely), but also be able to prove your:

  • identity (name)
  • date of birth (you must be age 16 or over to legally drive), and
  • that you live in the state of New York.

You will need to document all these things as part of the application process, described next.

Preparing to Apply for a New York Driver's License

Before applying, you will need to prepare for the required road test and written exams by learning to drive a vehicle and studying the rules of the road; and also will need to gather documents proving your eligibility.

Preparing for the Driving Exams

Even if you already know how to drive, it's best practice, and to do so legally. For that, you'll need to get a learner's permit from a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. You might also want to take a state-approved driver education course or pre-licensing course.

Another preparatory step will involve preparing for the written driver's exam, which you can do by reading the New York State Driver's Manual and taking practice tests.

Gathering Documents Showing Eligibility for a Standard New York Driver's License

The next step is to gather documents proving all three of the things on the list above: again, including your name, birthday, and residence in New York state. Fortunately, one document can serve more than one function in this situation. Also, you will need to account for whether or not you have a U.S. Social Security Number (SSN).

Possible forms of documentation of your name and identity as well as birth date (in some cases) include:

  • debit card with your name preprinted on it
  • printouts of bills you paid online, such as a phone, electricity/gas, water, or cable bill.
  • divorce papers (either original documents or a certified copy)
  • duplicate marriage certificate, which you can get from the city, town or county where you wed.
  • high school diploma or GED
  • U.S. college transcripts and a photo ID from the college
  • job identity card, paystub or W-2 from any state
  • union card, which can also be from another state
  • life insurance policy in your name, which must be in effect for at least two years.
  • check cashing card from a supermarket chain with your name printed on it
  • a valid, unexpired foreign passport issued by your country of citizenship
  • a valid, unexpired consular identification document issued by a consulate
  • a valid foreign driver's license that has your photo, and either hasn't expired or expired less than 24 months ago
  • a green card (lawful permanent resident card), which either hasn't expired or expired less than 24 months ago
  • a work permit from USCIS (formally known as an Employment Authorization Document or EAD), which either hasn't expired or expired less than 24 months ago
  • a Border Crossing Card
  • a U.S. Municipal ID Card with photo
  • a foreign marriage or divorce record or court issued name change decree, or
  • a foreign birth certificate

The list of types of documents proving your residence in New York State is much longer (though some of the above items could potentially satisfy it, too). It includes things like utility bills, Social Security statements, postmarked mail, property deeds or lease agreements, and more. See this handy How to Apply pdf issued by the New York DMV for more ideas.

With regard to a Social Security Number, if you don't have a valid one, you can instead submit a Form NSS-1A (Affidavit Stating No Social Security Number). The form is available in various languages on New York's DMV website.

Submitting Your Application for a New York Standard Driver's License

To submit your application, you can either try walking into a state Department of Motor Vehicles office or make an appointment. You'll also need to take the written test at a DMV office, and a vision exam. After that, you can schedule a road test with the DMV.

What an Undocumented Person's New York Driver's License Will Look Like

Your license will look like any other standard license in the state of New York, but will say "NOT FOR FEDERAL PURPOSES" in the upper right-hand corner.

Who Should NOT Apply for Driver's License in New York

Obviously, applying for a New York State driver's license gives a local government your name and address. Nevertheless, the language of the Green Light Law prohibits using this type of license as evidence of their immigration status.

If there's suspicion that you committed a crime other than unlawful entry to the United States, however, the federal government could potentially obtain a court order, subpoena, or warrant from a judge to access your information. You should therefore consult with an attorney about applying for a standard license if you have a record of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (a DUI) or any other criminal record, have been ordered deported (removed) in the past, or have used false documents to obtain a past drivers' license.

Where to Go for More Information

If you are an undocumented person living in New York State and wish to obtain a standard driver's license, check out the Get a driver license page of the New York DMV's website.

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