Driving in Durham: Tips for Future International Students

Durham is a small city, but at the same time, everything is scattered around. I like to wander, but it’s still a little hard to quickly travel around Durham by bus. So I got a car soon after moving here.

As Kelvin mentioned in an earlier post, you can absolutely travel around Durham with public transportation, and Duke makes it really easy with the GoPass it provides. But sometimes, public transportation is a bit limited. For example, when I have to stay at Fuqua past midnight to work on group assignments with my team, it just isn’t practical to rely on public transportation to get home since many buses don’t run late at night. Having a car is much more convenient. If you would like to see some of the Duke campus and surrounding areas, you can take a look at this short video I made while driving around Durham.

If you’re planning to come to Durham from outside of the U.S., you may be wondering about how to get a car here. Since Durham is relatively small, there are a limited number of car dealers. A new car might be a little bit more expensive than what you might find in other areas in the country. As an international student, you might want to stick to bigger dealers to make sure the buying process is handled correctly to avoid future trouble.

The incoming student website (you’ll gain access to it after you’re admitted to Fuqua) includes links to a couple websites where you can search for cars. Of course, if you plan to buy a brand-new car, I recommend that you go directly to the website of the specific brand you like to find a local dealer. But since most international MMS students only stay in Durham for one year, most of us purchase a used car. Some specific resources for used cars include Kelley Blue Book, usedcar.com, and CarMax – these might give you some great cars to choose from.

After locating the car you want, you might want to call a local dealer to schedule an appointment to see the car. If you are buying from a franchised dealer, which I recommend, they will help you with the warranty and whatever is needed regarding the maintenance and repair of the car. But before that, there are still many things you need to sort out.

A driver’s license (or a Learner’s Permit here in NC—because it is a hard card-type ID issued by the DMV, it is accepted as a legal proof of identity—unlike some other states where the Learners’ Permit is just a piece of paper with no photo) is necessary to purchase a car. The license represents your legal status in the United States as well as your ability to drive a car.

How to Get a Driver’s License in Durham

  1. Visit a local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office to take a written test. You’ll need to take the following documents with you:
    •  I-20
    •  I-94
    •  Proof of residency (ex: a copy of your apartment lease)The written test includes questions about traffic rules and road signs. You’ll also have to pass a vision test. If you pass these tests, you’ll receive a learner’s permit, which is like a pre-license.
  2.  With your learner’s permit, you can drive a car as long as someone over 21 who has a driver’s license is in the car with you. I recommend that you practice driving with your friends to get familiar with the roads and how to drive in the United States. The traffic rules and the way people drive here may be different from what you’re used to in your home country.
  3. After you’ve practiced driving with your learner’s permit, return to the DMV to take the driving test to get your official driver’s license. You’ll need to take the following documents with you:
    •  I– 20
    •  I– 94
    •  Proof of residency
    •  Proof of insurance – even if you drive a friend’s car, you still need to provide proof of insurance for yourself
    •  Car registration – it should be the registration of the car you will be driving, and since you can buy a car with a Learners’ Permit, a lot of my friends chose to bring their own car when taking the final test.

For the driving test, an examiner will get in the car with you, and you will have to drive along a specific route designated by the examiner. During the short drive, you will be tested on how well you handle the car, how flexible you are when handling road situations, how strict you follow the traffic rules, and other specific requirements like stopping or turning, etc. Most of my friends took the driving test only once, but some people have taken it multiple times until they pass it.

If there’s one thing I need to stress about here, it’s the importance of insurance. Normally people go with the big insurance companies like Progressive, Geico or State Farm, because they have a better reputation and even provide student discounts that are far more reliable than other smaller companies. It is required by law to be covered by at least liability insurance when you’re driving on the road, and the dealers won’t sell you a car without one. I went to my dealer the first time with everything but insurance hoping they may able to take care of it, but was turned down and ended up wasting most of my day. I want to point that out, so you don’t make the same mistake and waste your time.

A license (or permit) and insurance is all you need other than the identification documents you already have to be able to purchase a car. The only step left would be to pick out your ideal car among millions of links online. Good luck with your search and have fun driving around Durham!

Zhi "Frank" Li

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MMS, Class of 2014. Find out more about me...

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