I am considering getting a PhD in the US (mainly East or West coast universities), and I am debating on the importance of getting a driving license.

I did my undergraduate studies in the UK, where there was an excellent public transport system of buses, metro and trains. As such, I was able to travel to and around Europe, as well as around individual cities, without needing a driver's license at all.

However, I have heard many stories that due to the ubiquity of cars in the US, public transport systems are terrible in comparison to Europe. One of my friends (who also lacked a license) ended up paying over a hundred dollars for an airport transfer to his university, due to the lack of public transport options.

How necessary is a car in the transport of an average American PhD student? Is it cost-effective to get a driving license solely for the purposes of travelling around the US during the 5-6 years of PhD study?

  • 1
    One half of this calculation is the cost of getting a license. It varies by state, but it's commonly on the order of $50 and a few hours of your time. Assuming, of course, that you already know how to drive. Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:57
  • @NateEldredge What if I do not know how to drive (which is currently the case)?
    – March Ho
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 10:14
  • 2
    @MarchHo most states have an extremely minimal instruction requirement, so it really depends on how much instruction you require before you drive well enough to pass the test.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 19:28

2 Answers 2


As Scott Earle says it's highly situational whether you need to drive or not.

However, I must disagree with the rest of his answer.

You do not need a driver's license for ID or proof of age, the DMV also issues an equivalent (and almost identical) document that serves all secondary purposes of a driver's license but does not allow you to drive. These are also cheaper to get.

As for renting a car on holiday--if you don't otherwise drive you won't have insurance and thus will have to take the horribly overpriced offering from the rental car company. This is likely more than the cost of renting the car itself.

  • Can you comment on what this equivalent document is?
    – March Ho
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:15
  • 2
    @MarchHo A non-driver's ID. Here are ours: dmvnv.com/idcards.htm Images: safe.courseinstruction.com/course/demo/unit1/1.inc_files/… Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 4:45
  • Add this information to your answer. Comments tend to get lost. :)
    – JoErNanO
    Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 8:11
  • Renting a car without insurance may be expensive. But still, for American holidays outside major cities, there are limited alternatives.
    – dan1111
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 8:03
  • I have frequently rented cars in the US on holiday and it was never horribly overpriced. Using the European website of an international franchise chain, it was included and reasonably priced.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 23:45

When you say "in the US", the answer will vary considerably depending on exactly where you will be. The US is a huge country, comparable in size to Europe.

If you are living in downtown Manhattan, you would be crazy to buy a car. If you live in rural Kentucky you would not be able to do much without one.

However, a driving licence is more than the ability to drive - it also serves as ID or proof of age, without having to carry a passport with you at all times.

I would say that if you have the opportunity to get a driving licence, then it is worth getting one. Apart from anything else, you would be able to hire a car and go driving around during holidays.

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