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How International Students Get a Driver's License and Social Security Number

  • Jessica Stahl

International students in America can get a U.S. driver's license and a social security number (which you need in order to work), and the Department of Homeland Security compiled some useful guidance for students planning to apply for either. They tell students:
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. This step saves you 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 with your new information. This step can also save you 20 or more days of waiting.

They have three more bits of guidance for students, which you can see over on the Study in the States website. There's also a comprehensive fact sheet on how to get a driver's license as an international student available from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But here's one more important tip: Be aware that your unstamped I-20 may cause some confusion. As of early August, U.S. Customs is no longer stamping your I-2o form when you enter the country. It's part of an effort to make the process less paper-based, said U.S. Customs and Border Protection, adding that a stamp was never necessary to validate your I-20 form. It was always standard practice, but never required.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education though, unstamped I-20s have caused problems for some students applying for social security numbers of driver's licenses. They reported that many schools and benefits agencies weren't aware of the new procedure, resulting in delays for students. If you need to get your I-20 stamped, you can make an appointment with the local USCIS office (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) before November 21 to get it done.
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