Monday, November 14, 2005

Driving in Cars

In comparison to the UK, the USA is BIG. Its countryside is big; its homes are big; and its roads are big. I know that this is not necessarily true in certain cities, such as New York, but generally speaking, everything is big and everyone relies on cars. One thing that I was certain of before we moved to the US was that I would need a car. With this in mind, I thought I'd dedicate this blog entry to the joys of buying a car and getting a licence.

If you ask people about what you need to be able to legally own and drive a car, the answers will vary depending on who you ask. This is because:

  • laws vary from state to state
  • even within a particular state (at least in this State), very few people know, including those who work at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
I thought I'd just say what we did and if it helps anyone, then that's good.

In this state, if you are a resident, you must have a state driving licence within 30 days of having become a resident. However, if you a non-resident (this includes non-resident aliens), you can drive on your existing driver's licence from your country of origin.

Firstly, we found an insurance agent whose quote fell short of actually drawing the life force from our bodies as part-payment. Many insurers will not take into consideration any driving experience from another country, so my husband's nearly 20 years worth of clean licence and no claims bonus counts for nothing. In addition, most insurers would not touch you with a barge pole unless you have a local state driver's licence. However, there are insurers out there with more flexibility. We were lucky in that we had two good recommendations, so we chose the best quote. If anyone wants to know who we went with, let me know and I can send you some details.

Secondly, we found a car we liked and put down a payment.

Ford Taurus
Ford Taurus

Thirdly, we got temporary insurance coverage from the insurance broker so that we could drive the car off the lot. One also needs the temporary insurance to be able to take a driving test. One needs to take the driving test in order to get a driver's licence; and one needs the driver's licence to get the non-exorbitant insurance.

It took us a bit of time to figure this out, but, in the US a car licence does not automatically come with a car, but is bought by an individual as part of the process of registering the car's ownership with the Department of Transport. They then send you your number plate (singular, because one only has to have a number plate on the back of the car). When the car is subsequently sold, you can take your number plates with you to your replacement car. The car salesman will issue you with a temporary number plate until your actual number plate arrives.

Fourthly, the plan is to pass our state driving tests so that we can get properly insured. This is the bit I haven't done yet. The good news, though, is that this is much easier here than it is in the UK. These are the steps to passing your driving test:
  1. Read the DMV Driver's Handbook from cover to cover. Although most of the driving laws are intuitive, there's the odd thing that's different than in the UK, such as being allowed to do U-turns and being allowed to turn right even if the traffic light is red. In addition, you'll need to have read the handbook ready for your written test.
  2. Get some driving practice under your belt.
  3. Go to the DMV with your passport, proof of local residency (eg. a utility bill), UK driving licence (with counterpart) and your SSN or ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). Take the written test. No appointment is necessary as it's done on a first-come-first-served basis. If you pass the written test (25 multiple choice questions), they'll take you straight out on the road test. If you pass that, they issue you with a licence there and then.

This all sounds easy enough doesn't it? But it's not so simple if you happen to be a "trailing spouse".

The plan falls apart at the mention of the "SSN or ITIN". The DMV say that one cannot take a driving test without a SSN or ITIN. That's the bottom line. There's no way round it. Unfortunately, as I am not allowed to work, I am not entitled to a SSN; and as I don't pay tax, I'm not entitled to an ITIN.

Although there is such thing as a non-working SSN, Social Security are adamant that they will not issue them for the purposes of getting a driver's licence. They also sent out memoranda in 2003 to all the DMVs nationwide instructing them that the SSN should not be requested for identification as a requirement for taking a driving test. Nevertheless, the DMV require an SSN or ITIN.

It's not, however, all bad news. I can get an ITIN number if I submit a joint tax return with my husband. I have been told that the earliest I can get an ITIN is about next February or March. We were very pleased that our insurance broker was understanding enough to insure my husband as a main driver and me as an occasional driver for six months pending my getting an ITIN.

I have spoken to other H4 visa holders who have not had this problem. One friend said that she went with her husband when he applied for his SSN and they allowed her to apply for an ITIN at the same time. They still have to file a joint tax return, but at least she hasn't had to delay getting her driver's licence.

So, if you're coming to the states on an H4 visa, perhaps you can get your ITIN at the same time that your H1B partner is getting his/her SSN and, hopefully, the rest can be plain sailing.

December 02, 2005

As I had talked to several H4 visa holders who had received their ITINs without any trouble, just by going to the IRS office, I decided to give it a shot even though this was contrary to what the IRS documentation said. So, today I went to the IRS just to see what happens. They told me what I already knew -- that I would need to file a joint tax return with my husband.

I quizzed them further on this. It seems that it used to be possible for H4 visa holders to get an ITIN without submitting a tax return, but the regulations were changed in December 2003. Now that I think about it, everyone I have spoken to has been here since before then.


Michael said...

This was my first visit and won't be my last. Thanks for the details. Did you hear anyone referring to the license plate as a 'tag'?

Now how American are the girls becoming?

Viola said...

I haven't heard 'tag' yet, but Mark has.

The girls are becoming 'Americanized' at a very rapid rate. They've taken to the whole adventure like ducks to water, Lauren more so than Emily (prbably because she's younger).

When I meet Lauren for lunch at school, we tend to have lunch with her new 'best friend' as well. She quite happily speaks to her friend in a strong southern drawl, then switches to an English accent when talking to me. It's very funny to see.

SinnaLuvva said...

Hi Viola, just popped by to say hello. Thanks for an 'educational' blog. Will keep popping in to check up on the Americanization process. Love to y'all. Malcolm (& Helen)