All states require motorists to have a valid driver's license when operating a vehicle on a public road. Unlicensed driving generally falls into one of four categories: driving without a license on your person, driving without ever having obtained a license, driving on an expired license, and driving on a suspended or revoked license. All four are illegal; however, driving on a suspended or revoked license is a more serious offense than the other three and isn't addressed in this article.
This article covers state driver's license laws and the penalties you might face if you're cited for unlicensed driving or operating a vehicle without having your license in your possession.
In all states, you generally must possess a valid license to lawfully operate a motor vehicle on a public roadway. So, you can be cited for unlicensed driving for operating a vehicle on a public road:
In some states, these three violations are, for the most part, one and the same. Other states have separate statutes defining these violations.
State licensing laws are fairly consistent in requiring that all motorists must be licensed to operate a vehicle on a public roadway. So, if you're operating a vehicle on a public road and never obtained a driver's license, you can be cited for a violation.
State licensing laws also require drivers to have valid licenses and to renew their licenses from time to time. If your license is expired and you continue to drive, you can be ticketed for doing so.
Police need to be able to verify that drivers are licensed. So all states require drivers to have their licenses in their possession while operating a vehicle. If you get pulled over and can't or won't provide your license, the officer can give you a ticket.
In many states, the penalties differ for unlicensed driving, driving with an expired license, and driving without a license in your possession. The options for dealing with tickets for these violations also sometimes differ.
If you're caught driving without ever having been issued a license, you'll generally be looking at an infraction or a misdemeanor charge. Infractions typically carry up to a few hundred dollars in fines and possibly traffic violation demerit points on your driving record. For a misdemeanor, you could be facing up to $1,000 in fines (though probably no more than $300 or $400 in most cases), a maximum of six months or so in jail (though a long jail sentence is unlikely), and possibly demerit points.
Driving on an expired license is typically an infraction or misdemeanor, like regular unlicensed driving. However, in many states, the penalties for driving on an expired license are less severe than unlicensed driving, especially if the license hasn't been expired for very long.
In some states, the judge can dismiss the ticket if the driver renews their license within a short period of time.
In some states, operating a vehicle without a license in your possession is a misdemeanor. But more often than not, this offense is an infraction. Typically, this type of violation carries only a small fine. And, in many states, the judge will dismiss the ticket altogether if the driver can provide proof of a then-valid license in court.
To lawfully detain a driver, an officer needs only a "reasonable suspicion"—based on the facts of the situation—that the motorist has violated the law. For example, a missing license plate or erratic driving provides a valid basis for a traffic stop.
But if the officer doesn't have "reasonable suspicion," there is no legal authority for the stop. There's basically no way for an officer to know whether a driver is licensed by just looking at a passing vehicle. So, police typically aren't allowed to stop cars just to check for a valid license.
Most of the time, police issue tickets for unlicensed driving when they stop a driver for some other violation (like speeding) and find out the driver doesn't have a license during the stop.
All states have exceptions to the licensing requirement. Some common exceptions include:
However, drivers who are licensed out-of-state generally must obtain an in-state license within 30 days or so of taking up residence in a new state.