License to Drive: Welcome to America
by Neil Powell
I came to America last August on the invitation of a lady with whom I had been in
correspondence for a few years. Fell madly in love, got married and decided to stay.
I now had to change my legal status from visitor to resident. My first visit to the
Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) office in downtown L.A. I filled out all
the forms, paid $90.00 for a medical exam and $180.00 to the INS, and jumped through
various hoops for the government. At the top of the form it said that we would be
notified of our date for an interview for the INS within 60 days. This is to satisfy
the INS that this was a genuine marriage, and not one of convenience. Sixty days
later we had heard nothing.
So off to L.A. again.
Please bear in mind that each time you visit the INS you can expect a minimum two-hour
wait. After the obligatory queue (a great way to learn Spanish) I was asked, "Where
did you get the 60 days from?"
"Itís at the top of the form."
"Itís an old form, you will be contacted in about 14 months."
I then asked why they were still giving out the same form to new applicants if they
were out of date.
"We have lots of them," was the female INS stafferís reply.
In the meantime, I bought a motorcycle and one bright and sunny afternoon I was
making my attempt at the world land speed record on the 605 freeway. Well, thatís
what the CHP officer told me when he pulled me over. All my documents were in order,
except for my driverís license. Itís British, so no photo, just an A4 size piece of
paper. Realizing that this meant a mountain of paperwork, the police officer let me
off with a warning. But he did point out that I was required by law to get a
California Driverís License within 10 days of taking up residence.
This is where the fun starts.
Pasadena DMV (Chinese and Armenian lessons this time).
A short queue got me to the inquiry window. I told them what had happened.
They gave me the obligatory form. I filled it in, and joined the main queue.
At the window I handed over the form.
The lady took one look at the form.
"You havenít put your SSN in."
"I donít have one."
"Then I canít accept this."
"So what do I do now?"
"You have to go to the SS office and get a temporary non-working SSN."
At the Pasadena Social Security office (no queue this time!) I explained that I
wanted a temporary non-working SSN so I could get a driverís license.
"Who told you to come here?"
"We wonít give you a temporary non-working SSN. What we do is give you this letter,
which you take to the DMV. You then take the written part of the test and, assuming
you pass, you come back here and we issue a temporary non-working SSN. So you can
then go back to the DMV and take the driving part of the test."
Slightly stunned, and with letter in hand, I went back to the DMV queue.
I have to digress slightly here.
The U.S. Immigration operates a visa waive scheme with certain countries. That is, if
you have a return ticket, sufficient funds, and if you donít look like you will stay
illegally, you are given a small green card called an I94 that is a 90-day visa.
Back at the DMV, I handed over my application, valid British passport, valid I94, the
SS letter and $12.00.
The lady took one look at all this and said, "I canít accept this."
"Your I94 has to be valid for more than 60 days."
"Where does it say that in the instructions?"
"It doesnít, but itís one of the rules."
I had a few words with the lady at this point which resulted in them waking up a
supervisor who told me the same story.
The advice I was given was to get my I94 extended and then come back.
Back at downtown L.A., another 2-hour queue and Iím at the counter.
"Could I please have a form to extend my I94?"
Poor man was shocked; not only did I speak perfect English, but I knew what I wanted.
The sort of thing legends are made of. He gave me a yellow form, which wasnít what I
"This is the wrong form."
"Weíre out of the I94 forms, you have to use that one."
I quickly read the form.
"Let me see if Iíve got this right. You have run out of the I94 forms, so you gave
me this form which I fill out and mail off. They will then send me the proper form
which I fill in and bring back here?"
Ten days later I am back in the queue with the proper form and a money order for $70.00.
A slight change this time. When I show them all my forms, they give me a ticket with
a number on it. I canít remember the number but I do remember there were 200 numbers
to be called before it was my turn. I gave the cashier my money order and got my form
stamped to say Iíd paid. Then I took a seat.
Three and one half hours later my number is called. I gave the lady my form and all my
"I canít accept this," she says.
"Itís an application to extend a visitorís visa."
"Thereís no fooling you is there?"
"But youíre not a visitor. You have a permanent address, youíre a resident."
"So what do I do now?"
"You need to apply for a work permit."
"I donít want or need to work. All I want to do is comply with the law and get a driverís
She just stared at me.
"How do I get a work permit?"
"Fill out this form, and report to room 101 on this date."
This date was 60 days away.
Sixty days later I reported to room 101. The whole process took 15 minutes.
Back at Pasadena Social Security office I again applied for a SSN.
This time no problem.
"You will get your SSN in the mail in about 3 weeks."
"Why so long?"
"We have to check with the INS that all your documents are genuine."
I thanked them and left. It actually arrived eight days later. The rest of the story
is straightforward. I took both my car and motorcycle test and passed both the first
time. They took my picture, gave me a temporary driverís license and told me I would
get the picture license three to six weeks later.
Eight weeks later, no picture license. Back to the DMV.
They plugged my details into the computer.
"Oh, I see you're not a U.S. citizen."
"No, not yet."
"That explains it. We have to check with the INS that your documents are genuine. You
should get your picture license within six to seven months."
"It only took the Social Security office eight days to do the same check."
"Yes, but to them youíre a potential taxpayer, so they do it quicker."
So to sum up: Under California law I am required to have a valid picture driverís
license within 10 days of taking up residency. Over a year later Iím still trying to
comply with that law.
Epilogue: My temporary license had about a week to expire, so I went down to
the Glendale DMV. The nice lady punched some numbers into her machine, told me that
the Immigration service had O.Kíd my documents, and that a license had been mailed
out a month ago. Told her I hadnít received it. Had a new picture and thumbprint taken
and they promised faithfully that I would get my license within 14 days. Just for a
change it arrived 6 days later. Not the one I had just had my photograph taken for,
but the first one! The second license arrived 5 days after that! First a famine, than
The last surprise is that itís only valid for one year.