How to Obtain your Motorcycle Driver’s License

Obtaining your motorcycle driver’s license in the USA is a comparatively easy affair compared to the likes of Western Europe and Japan. But because of federalization, there isn’t a one size fits all rule, and every state can make their own unique requirements.

These requirements don’t differ wildly. However, there are some interesting state differences on such things as the legal age to ride a moped.  Incidentally, in Arkansas, this is ten years of age.


Fundamentally speaking, the same rules of the road that apply to car drivers apply to the motorcyclist. But to get you on the highway, you are going to need an operator endorsement on your driver’s license.  Alternatively, you will need to apply for a learner’s permit.

In some states, you can legally ride a moped with a full driving license while in others a learner’s permit is mandatory. In Colorado, for example, you have to have a current driver’s license before you can apply for a motorcycle category endorsement.

However, in Indiana, if you have a full driving license, you can request a motorcycle learner’s permit, merely by passing a vision and written knowledge test. Regulations in California state that you can apply for a learner’s permit over the age of 15 ½ years of age, as long as you have passed a driver education course.  Remember, though you are not allowed to ride after dark, on the freeway or carry a passenger.

Motorcycle Driver’s License: Requirements

Some states don’t require you to obtain a specific learner’s permit to ride a moped.  However, if you want to progress to a large capacity motorcycle, then this is an excellent time to go out practicing. Use your time wisely, before you sign up for any further training and get used to the world of two wheels and the differences between driving and riding.

If, however, you do need a learner’s permit, the procedure is quite easy. Realistically speaking, all you are doing is demonstrating to the licensing authorities that you possess sufficient knowledge and can demonstrate the skill sets needed to operate a bike safely, and in a responsible manner.

Once again, the difference between states is interesting, to say the least. On the West Coast, everyone, regardless of age, needs a learner’s permit so they can practice riding their bike before any testing. Furthermore, if you’re below 21 years old, and applying for an M1 license, you must take a state-approved motorcycle safety course. In addition to this, a minimum of six months must have elapsed before you apply for your test.

Over the age of 21? In which case, you can progress straight to applying for an M2 (larger motorcycle learners permit) without the need for a driver education training certificate, or a motorcycle-training certificate. Both M1 and M2 categories require a vision test as well as the relevant skills and knowledge test.

Motorcycle Driver’s License: Courses

Although taking a course is not compulsory for the over 21’s it is, and I quote, ‘strongly advised.’ The largest state approved training scheme is run by the CMSP (California Motorcycle Safety Program) and administered by the California Highway Patrol.

The courses are approximately 15 hours in total and will set you back $180 for under 20’s and $258 for the over 20’s. Pass with flying colors, and you receive a skills test waiver.  The waiver lets you go straight to the front of the queue at your local DMV, with only the written test to pass.

The CHP says you don’t necessarily need to have any riding experience for the course.  However, you do need to be able to ‘balance a two-wheeled vehicle’ (always handy when riding a bike).  Should you need a motorcycle, then one can be provided.

Once again, it’s not as daunting as it sounds as all the information you need is available is in the 50-page California Motorcycle Handbook. The handbook is available free of charge from the State of California Department of Transport. Apart from having additional and potentially life-saving hints and tips for the younger riders, it has a section on riding apparel.

Page nine of which, expressly covers the use and purchase of correctly certified crash helmets or the US. DOT approved.  On this page, I found out that Non-Us DOT approved helmets may be referred to as, and I quote: ‘Novelty helmets, rain bonnets, loophole lids, beanies or brain buckets.’

A fully certified US DOT approved helmet can apparently be ‘modified by its owner with decals, Mohawks and Viking horns without detriment to the safety of the helmet.’

Levity aside, the booklet does tell you exactly what to expect in the motorcycle skills test. If you aren’t prepared to practice, you should probably go back to riding a lawn mower.

Meanwhile over on the East Coast, New York bikers are required to have an M or MJ (junior) license. As with California, NY has its own set of rules and regulations. If for instance, you have a full motorcycle license from another state you can virtually swap it (with appropriate ID’s and fees) for an equivalent one. You do have to be moving there permanently, though.

If you already have a New York driver license, you won’t need to take a driver’s education or pre-license course. You will, however, need to pass a written test. And as in California, a free downloadable book called Drivers Manual and Practice Tests  is available from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Once that’s in the bag, head over to the DMV and get ready to shell out anything from $21 – $120 to get your learners permit. This permit is valid for one year.

You would think that was enough to get you upwardly mobile and on the road to motorcycle nirvana, but the NY DMV still hasn’t finished with you yet. If you go out on the road practicing your skills, say the DMV, you are legally obliged to have someone 21 years of age or older accompanying you. This person must have a valid bike license and be supervising you at all times. They must also be no more than 1/4 mile away from you and keep you in sight at all times.

On first reading, I had visions of motorcycle escorts or pursuit cars following novice riders around the city. I suspect, however, that you can get a fully licensed 21-year-old chum, to ride as pillion with you.  But these are the only passengers permitted. There are the usual junior license restrictions in place as well, such as no night riding, no freeways. (No passing go and no collecting $200!)

Motorcycle Driver’s License: Steps for newbies

Not required by law, the DMV also recommends that newbies old and new get themselves along to a commercial motorcycle riding school. Find an approved rider course and preferably one that has had its course mapped out by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. On this course, you can learn what to look out for and how to ride safely before hitting the street (hopefully not literally).

There are several 2/3 day courses available around the Bronx, Queens, and Long Island areas.  These courses aren’t cheap, (around the $300+ mark) but it can be worth it.  Passing one can exempt you from having to take a further test at the DMV as well as get you discount on insurance.

On the day of your actual motorcycle test, however, make sure that 21-year-old buddy that spotted you when you still had training wheels, is still available. He or she will have to accompany you in an ‘inspected and registered car or truck’ to play chauffer to the examiner during your test. 

Red Tape

Further red tape unique to the NY DMV involves temporary licenses and returning to the DMV seven days later with an arm full of paperwork.  Plus, paying another fee of $12.50 should theoretically be the end of it. But this is the Big Apple!

 Learner’s Permit 

Whichever of the 50 states you live, you don’t need to own a motorcycle before applying for your learner’s permit or even take your test on. Meaning you can borrow one, as long as the motorcycle is legally registered, has all the relevant paperwork of ownership and is insured.

Be warned, show up with the wrong paperwork or inadequate insurance and you risk being ticketed! You will also need a US DOT approved helmet and eye protection as a minimum.  It would also be advisable to find out from your local DMV if they have regulations regarding the rest of your riding apparel.

Don’t worry if you fail a particular part of your test, as you can of course re-test, once again, though; time constraints may be applicable in your state.

You may also be affected by one of the 21 states where rider education is mandatory. Perhaps due to age constraints, failure to pass on two occasions or related to engine size.

Put off yet? Maybe you should just go dirt bike riding. You don’t even need a license for that although California motorcycle law does insist on you being able to reach the controls! Now that’s sensible.