Applying for a U.S. Driver's License

While driving a car in Tennessee, you must have your driver’s license or Temporary Driver's License in your possession to show on request to any law enforcement officer. If you do not have your license with you, you may be required to pay a fine.

International students and scholars normally apply for a Temporary Driver’s License (Class XD). The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issues a photo license document valid for both driving and identification purposes. A TN Temporary Driver’s License is issued until the expiration date specified by your immigration documents. If you apply for and receive an extension to stay beyond the original date, then you will need to present your extension papers to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) location for renewal of your license.

Unless you previously obtained a driver’s license in another U.S. state, you will have to pass two exams to get your license: the Driver License Knowledge Test and the Road Skills Test.

Step One - Confirm Eligibility

Verify that your SEVIS record is active. Check the “Form Issue Reason” on your I-20 form. If your SEVIS record is active, it will say “Continued Attendance”. If your I-20 Form Issue Reason is “Initial Attendance” or “Transfer Pending” you should complete the Immigration Check-in process with ISSS before applying for a Tennessee Driver’s License.

Step Two - Prepare for the Knowledge Test and Submit Your Application

The Driver License Knowledge Test test consists of 30 multiple-answer questions, and you must score 80% or higher (at least 24 correct answers) to pass. To prepare, you should read and study the Tennessee Driver’s Manual. You can also practice with a website like this one.

Once you are ready for the Knowledge Test, submit a Driver’s License Application online. To take the exam, you can either directly go to the DMV during their operation hours, or you can schedule a Knowledge Test Appointment to reduce waiting times. You will be required to pay a fee. Contact the DMV of your choice for information on current rates.

Step Three - Visit the Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)

It is important to clarify that the acronym “D.M.V.” is used as a general term to refer to the agency that oversees vehicle-specific processes in the state you are in. In Tennessee specifically, the DMV refers to the Drivers Services, which is a part of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security (DOS). Please note that Tennessee’s Drivers Services Centers, which is where you physically go to apply for or renew your license, are different from County Clerks. Even though County Clerks also provide some vehicle services, they are not related to this process specifically.

Knoxville has five DOS Drivers Services Centers that you can go to:

Choose the one that is more convenient to you, and make sure to gather all the required documentation before you go in for your Knowledge Test. Prepare to wait in the queue if you decide to do a walk-in, as it can last up to around an hour.

Step Four - What to Take to the DMV

A summary of the required documents is provided in the Tennessee Driver’s Manual. Generally, students and scholars in F-1 or J-1 status must take these documents with them to the DMV. Documents must be originals.

  • Valid Foreign Passport with Valid F-1 or J-1 Visa

  • Printed I-94 Record

  • I-20 (F Status) or DS-2019 (J Status). For the I-20 to be considered valid, you must print the electronic I-20 using a color printer. Then sign your name on the student attestation line in blue ink.

  • Two proof of identity documents: (License from home country, Certified Birth Certificate, Valid Passport)

  • Two documents, no older than three months, that prove you have a Tennessee residential address. Examples include: Current utility bill, bank statement, rental contract, paycheck, or pay statement with your address on the check.

  • Proof of SSN (or affidavit if no SSN has been issued)

Step Five - Take the Road Skills Test

Once you have passed the Knowledge Test, you will be able to take the Road Skills Test. It takes approximately 10-15 minutes and you must bring a car to take it. You will also be required to pay a fee, and we recommend you bring the same documentation you gathered for the Knowledge Test.

After you pass both tests, they will give you a paper copy of your license. You will receive your official document in the mail in the following weeks.

Renewing your License

If you already have a Temporary Driver’s License (TDL) that is going to expire within the next months and you wish to renew it, you will have to go in person to one of the Driver Center Services locations listed above. You also must bring the same documents you provided the first time, which are also listed above. Some things to take into consideration:

  • At this point, you might have different versions of your documents. Always bring everything.

  • If you renewed your passport and the latest version does not contain your current stamped visa, also bring the old one that has it. This also applies to your I-20. If you have a new one, bring the old one as well.

  • If you are renewing your license, it is likely because your period of stay has been extended. The DMV database might not reflect your new status immediately, so plan to start this process ideally a couple of months before the expiration date.

  • If you are planning to renew your driver's license for your OPT period, you also need to bring your physical Employment Authorization Card (EAD). The DMV may require that your OPT (or STEM Extension OPT) be “approved” before renewing your driver’s license.