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The Difference Between a California Driver’s License and a Driver’s Permit

In California, a driver’s permit and driver’s license are both essential to get you on the road, but the applications and requirements are very different.

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The Difference Between a California Driver's License and a Driver's Permit

The Difference Between a California Driver’s License and a Driver’s Permit


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There are more licensed drivers in California than in any other state, with over 27 million registrations in total. But despite those colossal figures, getting a driver’s license is still a huge step for Cali’s teens, and each one tells a story.

That story usually begins with the driver’s permit, which is available to drivers over 15 and a half and ends with a valid California driver’s license. But what’s the difference between these two, what restrictions apply, and what does the registration process look like?

What is the Difference Between a California Driver’s License and a Driver’s Permit?

The simple answer to this question is that a driver’s permit is a restricted license while a driver’s license is unrestricted. There is more to it than that though.

What is a California Driver’s Permit?

Californians can apply for a driver’s permit at 15 ½ years of age. Also known as a provisional instruction permit or learner’s permit, it requires applicants to complete a permit test that contains 46 questions. There is a passing grade of 83%, which equates to 38 correct answers.

Although the driver’s permit gives applicants a chance to jump behind the wheel, it has a few limitations. For instance, every time they drive, they must be accompanied by an experienced and licensed driver. The licensed driver can be one of the following:

  • A parent or guardian
  • A certified driving instructor
  • A licensed driver over 25 years old

How to apply for a California instruction permit

The application process varies depending on the driver’s age.

Drivers over 15 ½ but under 18 must:

  • Complete Form DL 44 and make sure it’s signed by a parent or guardian
  • Have a Certificate of Completion of driver education.
  • Pay an application fee
  • Pass a vision exam
  • Pass the knowledge test.

For drivers 18 and over, the only difference is that they don’t need a signature from a parent or guardian and aren’t required to have a Certificate of Completion of driver education.

What is a Provisional Driving License?

For young drivers, the next step in the process is to apply for a provisional driving license. It is available to drivers who meet the following requirements:

  • Are at least 16 years old
  • Have finished a driver training program or driver education
  • Have completed 50 hours of supervised driving practice, 10 of which are completed at night (confirmed by a parent or guardian)
  • Pass a behind-the-wheel driving test

A provisional license grants young drivers the freedom to drive alone until they are 18 years old. However, there are still some limitations, including:

  • Can’t drive between the hours of 11 PM and 5 AM.
  • Can’t have any passengers under 20, unless a parent, guardian, instructor, or licensed driver (over 25) is present.

What is a California Driver’s License?

At 18 years of age, the provisional license is upgraded to a full driving license.

At this point, there are no restrictions and the license grants the driver total freedom on the road.

If you are over 18 when you first apply for a driver’s license, you must first acquire a permit and then drive for 6 months before applying for your driver’s license. You will need to take a behind-the-wheel driving test, but there is no need to get a provisional license and you won’t be subject to the restrictions that go with it.

What Happens During the Behind the Wheel Test?

There are two parts to the CA driving test.

In the first instance, the instructor will ask the applicant to perform a pre-drive safety check. The purpose of this check is to make sure that they are familiar with the vehicle and that it’s up to the standard required.

This is followed by the Driving Performance Evaluation, whereby the applicant’s driving skills are evaluated. They are expected to abide by the rules of the road, drive safely, and pay attention to signals, signs, and other drivers.

The driving skills test takes about 20 minutes to complete.

What happens if I have a driver’s license issued by another state?

If you have a license issued by another state and wish to apply for a California license, you must complete an application and then supply the following at a CA DMV office:

  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • Proof of ID
  • Residency documents
  • An application fee

Your thumbprint will be scanned, your photo will be taken, and you’ll need to pass a vision exam and a knowledge test. Driving tests are usually waived for drivers with out-of-state licenses, but the DMV reserves the right to request such a test if deemed necessary.

What happens if I have a driver’s license issued by another country?

International drivers must complete all of the steps above while also passing a behind-the-wheel test.


What does a California permit allow you to do?

It allows you to drive with a parent, guardian, or licensed driver who is at least 25 years old. It’s very restrictive, but it’s only the first step in the licensing process.

Who needs a driver’s permit in California?

You need a permit if you are over 15 ½ but under 18.

Is it hard to pass the permit test in California?

It’s only hard if you don’t study. The test uses questions from the California Driver Handbook, so by studying this from cover to cover and completing a few practice tests (available through sites like DMV Cheat Sheets) you can adequately prepare for the exam.

Conclusion: CA Permits vs Licenses

A driver’s permit is the first step in the process of acquiring a driver’s license. It doesn’t require a road test, but applicants are expected to display a knowledge of basic rules and road signs via the permit test. It’s an opportunity for drivers to get on the road and start a journey that leads to an unrestricted license, one that is only available to drivers over the age of 18 who have completed a behind-the-wheel test.

At all stages of the learning and testing process, drivers are expected to get as much experience as possible, obey the rules of the road, and practice safe driving.

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