One of the most prominent features in American history has been the automobile. The United States, with its vastness, energy, and booming population, was the first country truly transformed by the age of the car. The highway system connected the country, and also helped lead to urban sprawl, as people pushed out of the city, thanks to the freedom of movement suddenly afforded to them. Huge muscle cars and luxury rides were part of the American psyche, and artists as varied as Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, and Bruce Springsteen paid homage to the open road, with its promises and perils.

Because of this, driving is a rite of passage in America. Teenagers across the country count down to when they get their learners permit, and then, finally: that symbol of burgeoning adulthood, the driver’s license. But while this is standard for American teenagers, it raises questions both for the international student and their host family. Should your international student get a driver’s license? Settling this issue is important, and serves as a great template for working through the student/host dynamic.


For good and ill, the open road has become a symbol of America. Whether the international student should drive on it is a question for them and their host family.
Image from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

Start with eligibility

The first question for the student is that of eligibility. While there are some countries that do, the United States does not offer an International Driver’s Permit.  This means you can’t get a license from your Embassy or Consulate that will cover everything. In America, most drivers are under the purview of either the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Secretary of State, which for these purposes are the same thing. You should look up the rules for whichever state in which you’ll be staying. Please note that while there isn’t a national driving permit, state licenses are reciprocal, so having one for, say, New York allows you to drive anywhere.

The Voice of America has a great list of tips about what to do to ensure that the process of obtaining a driver’s license and Social Security card goes smoothly.  While these tips are great, it is always best to check with your school’s international office, as they will have more specific information and will possibly be able to facilitate the paperwork.

1. Wait ten days after you arrive in the United States. You may want to apply for a driver’s license or SSN right away, but be patient. If you rush the process, you may encounter 20 or more days of waiting! These ten days allow time for all the government databases to update with your arrival information. While you are waiting, talk with your designated school official (DSO) to learn more about your state’s driving rules and regulations.

2. Make sure you are in active status in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is the database that manages information for all F and M students and J exchange visitors in the United States. Your DSO activates your record in SEVIS when you register for classes or check in for a program. Talk with your DSO before you apply for a license to make sure you are active in SEVIS.

3. Wait two days after your DSO activates you in SEVIS. After your DSO activates your record in SEVIS, you should wait at least two business days before you apply for a driver’s license or SSN. This gives all the databases time to update

Pressing the issue

Of course, having a license is a big step away from having a car. Unless you are very well off and able to buy your own car, you are dependent on the same thing that every other teen in America is dependent upon: the parental figures letting you borrow the car. This is tricky in the best of situations, and doubly so if you are an international student. After all, you don’t have the same history (which can actually work in your favor). Here are some things for both the student and host family to consider.

For the student: Obviously, if you are able to drive, it would be great. One of the difficulties of living with a host family is being dependent on other people to go places and do things, and the flip side of that: the feeling of being a burden. If you had a way to drive yourself, you could alleviate both those situations. You could set your own schedule, and not have to bother people for a ride.

But you don’t have your own car. This is a great opportunity to talk to your host family, establish yourself, and figure out the ground rules. As we discussed, there may be an element of disconnect between you and your family, as mutual politeness and true generosity of spirit conflict with competing needs. So if you want to drive, communication is key. Sit down and talk to them about it. Explain why you think it would be good if you can drive, how it would help everyone, and how you are going to be very responsible with the car (something that you should definitely follow through with). But don’t press the matter: if the answer is still a no after you’ve made your case, the answer is a no. Merely talking about it will help to foment a growing respect on issues moving forward.

For the host family: If you already have teens, you may be ulcerous at the thought of another one behind the wheel, especially if they are used to driving on the left side of the road. Well, for one thing, adjusting isn’t that hard; people naturally avoid oncoming traffic. But there are bigger issues at stake. If your student brings it up, hear them out. Let them state why they think they would be safe, responsible, drivers. And if the answer is no, explain why. Maybe you don’t have enough vehicles, or you feel extra nervous and wary because you are taking care of someone else’s child, but there needs to be a reason, other than “no”, if you want to have a solid relationship. It may also be helpful and ease some of the tension if you discuss with your visiting student ideas about how they might get from place to place. They will be comforted in knowing that you have put consideration into their need for freedom and movement, and are keeping their interests in mind.

The other issue is fairness. Though they are not your kid, it is important to treat them as equals. If your other two teens share a car, you may have to share it three ways. You don’t want them to be singled out because they are foreign, even if you have the best intentions. This is true in all areas of hosting an international student, which is why driving is such an important microcosm. While it might be hard, it is up to you to be fair to all the kids under your roof, and to treat them with equal respect. That is the only way to assure harmony, and a successful year for everyone.

So: whether you are going to tell your student to hit the road, or to take a hike, do so with the respect they deserve. If you let them use the car, contact your insurance agent to let them know. Make sure you let the student know the dangers of the road, and that they need to always be careful. Being a young driver and feeling like you’ve conquered childhood, with its attendant limitations, is one of the best feelings in the world, but it can turn tragic in the time of a hideous crunch. If you are going to be driving, or are allowing your international student to do so, take care to make sure it includes plenty of good memories of wind in the hair and bad singing at the top of newfound lungs.



The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.