Any individual who wants to drive in the United States must obtain a driver’s license from the state where he or she is a current resident. Generally there is both a written test and a driving test to obtain this license. After the license is obtained, it is valid for a period of time specified on the license as the expiration date. Driving with an expired license is illegal. Drivers must complete all paperwork and fees related to keeping their license current and renewed under the legal requirements of their state.

Drivers are not legally permitted to operate motor vehicles in any state if their license has been suspended or revoked, if they do not have a license, if their license is expired, or if they are under the age of 16. Some states allow drivers with a learner’s permit to drive in the car with a licensed driver as a chaperone.

What Are the Consequences for Unlicensed Driving?

Each state has its own legally mandated penalties for unlicensed driving. These are just a few representative examples.

  • New York: A fine between $75 and $300, up to 15 days in jail, or both. New York also has an additional Aggravated Unlicensed Operation charge for knowingly driving without a license. These carry additional penalties.
  • Florida: Fines between $63 and $5000 if a license has been permanently revoked, and up to 5 years in jail for severe cases.
  • Illinois: Fines up to $2500 and up to a year in jail for driving with a revoked license. Driving without a license carries less serious charges.
  • California: Jail time is rare in California, but probation is possible and the car that the unlicensed person was driving maybe towed and impounded.

What Defenses Are Common for Unlicensed Driving Charges?

Driving without a license is a crime that is easily and definitively proved by whether or not you have a legal license at the time you were driving. However, forgetting your license is not the same as being unlicensed. You will receive a ticket for driving without the actual document of your license, but the penalties will not be as severe as if you are being charged with driving without having been issued a legal license at all. If you move to a new state, check with the DMV regarding any grace periods available before you need to be licensed in that state.

In some states, there are certain conditions under which you can drive without a license. Federal government employees driving for business use in a non-commercial government-owned vehicle may be legally protected from unlicensed driving. Some states allow golf carts, tractors, and/or farm vehicles to drive on a highway without a license for a short period of time. 

Finally, residents of other countries who are in possession of driving licenses in their home country might be able to use this as a defense in some states if charged with unlicensed driving.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Since unlicensed driving carries severe penalties that are long-lasting, it is best to consult a criminal defense lawyer if you are charged with driving without a license. A lawyer can help you figure out the best defense for the charges and might be able to get charges reduced through plea agreements, especially for first offense.