Friday, 27 June 2014

How I Got My Texas Driver License

It felt like I was 16 again, walking on to the stage to get a prize at a public-speaking competition. I could almost feel the spotlight of triumph lighting up in my Toyota Prius as Dietrice, my DPS examiner, told me I passed the on-the-road driving test with a perfect score. (Of course I asked what her name was, and told her she was my hero for passing me.)

And I became an official Texas driver license holder.

I took my test at the amazing Austin-Pflugerville DPS Megacenter
Because I feel so grateful and lucky to have the privilege of driving (legally!) on the road, I thought I'd share on my blog about the detailed process: in hopes of helping other international students or who ever is taking the driving test in Austin, Texas. :)

As an overview, there are 5 steps in getting your license:
1. Take the written test
2. Get a learner's permit
3. Take the vision test
4. Take the road test
5. When you pass the test, you'll receive a temporary license immediately and get the real one mailed to you in about a week.
The Written Test
The new law in Texas is that if you're 24 or younger, you have to take a 6-hour mandatory course about road rules. Technically I'm 25, but I took the course anyway, since I didn't grow up in the U.S. and wasn't familiar with the road signs or rules. I took it at Austin Driving School at their Burnet Road branch, and paid $75 as the fee.

Another reason I wanted to take the course was because they administer the test in 2 parts, during the course itself -- and they assure all the students that they will pass. The class was pretty fun, and I could see why Austin Driving School is confident that everyone can pass. It was easy! All you had to do was pay attention to the instructor and answer the questions carefully.

Alternatively, if you're older than 24 and don't want to take the driver's education course, you can take online courses or just study the handbook on your own. I studied the handbook before I took the course as well, but it was a thousand times easier with an instructor and course. (You can also take all the required tests at a DPS office in one day and skip the long-way-around that I took.)

After I passed the written test, the receptionist/clerk at Austin Driving School issued me a certificate (and a discount voucher for a defensive driving course, haha) and told me to take it to a DPS office to turn it in for my learner's permit.

You can even take free practice tests online, like at

The Learner's Permit
Darren took me to the Austin-Pflugerville DPS Mega Center in Pflugerville because the road rules instructor had raved about it, saying it's the best and the only one we should go to. It's true: it really is the best. The wait lines are practically non-existent and everyone is friendly and helpful. It's not at all like the DMV I grew up seeing in movies, where the angry lady rejects your paperwork and grumpily says "NEXT."

I had to prepare a bunch of paperwork to bring to DPS, along with the written test certificate. You can read more about the necessary documents here, but essentially I had to bring stuff that proved I was legally in the U.S. (passport, i20, Social Security card) and 2 documents that proved I was a resident of Texas (see residency document options here).

I took the vision test and had my photo taken during the filing for a learner's permit. You also need to pay a fee of about $25, and the DPS officer will issue you a temporary learner's permit with a B restriction. It means you can't drive on your own without an experienced driver by your side. This is so that you can take driving lessons or practice on your own for the road test.

The waiting area seats at Pflugerville

It is incredibly hard to get driving lessons in Austin during the summer. All the driving schools were booked for at least a month, and I was really upset because I thought this meant I would need to take the test 2 or 3 times to pass it -- like most of my friends had to do. Darren practiced with me and reassured me that I would pass, but he has way more faith in my testing and driving ability than I have in myself! Fortunately for my peace of mind though, the lady at Longhorn Driving School was really nice and recommended an independent instructor to me -- about two weeks before I was scheduled to take my test. His name was George Kosho (Target Driving School), and he was awesome! I took two lessons on Monday and Tuesday night after work the following week. Each lesson was 3 hours long, and the total cost of the lessons was $350. I was exhausted, but I felt really lucky that he had a last-minute cancellation by another student and was able to squeeze me into his schedule.

He taught me what I needed to know for the test: parallel parking, reversing in a straight line and driving on all the Pflugerville test routes. There were so many little tips and tricks for each street, and notes to remember -- I really don't think I could have done it without an instructor who specializes in the driving test. It's not terribly difficult, but as someone who isn't from Texas and never drove on these streets, it was a huge challenge. Despite driving for 6 years in Malaysia, I never drove much and the little driving I did was on the opposite side of the road from in the United States.

Road Test
There are a few components to this, so I'll organize my recollection for you:
1. Schedule a road test in advance
2. Showing up at least an hour before your test time
3. Paperwork, photo & vision test
4. Car inspection
5. Parallel parking & reversing
6. On-the-road driving test
First things first: schedule your road test online at least 2 weeks before your desired test date, if possible. Darren told me to pick the earliest time slot available -- and this was brilliant, because the earlier it is, the less cars there are on the road and in the neighborhood. I picked 8.20am on June 12th. Print out the confirmation slip and bring it with you on test day.

Second: don't be late. The paper said to be there at least an hour before the test time. So I thought, okay, the Pflugerville center only opens at 7.30am, I'll leave my house at 6am. I got there at 6.30am, and spent an hour waiting in my car while watching parents show up with their kids to take them for driving tests. By the time it was 7.30am, the line was pretty long. I only got out of my car to get in line when the doors opened, because I didn't want to stand outside in the morning cold, and because I thought I didn't need to when I already made an appointment online. (I was wrong about that last part though!)

Third: I filled in a form while waiting for my turn -- and the lines move so fast that it was my turn before I finished filling in the form! So I finished filling it up while I sat at the DPS officer's desk. Then, she looked at all my paperwork, took my fingerprints, took my picture and administered a vision test again. (I remember panicking and thinking, "Oh gosh, what if I fail the vision test? All that worrying about the driving test, and I didn't get to worry about the vision test!") There was a minor hiccup when the officer was going through my paperwork and asked me where my I-94 was. I didn't print it out because they didn't ask me for it when issuing my learner's permit, so I only brought everything that I brought for my learner's permit application. Anyway, she got annoyed and told me I should've brought it and that it was proof of my lawful presence in the U.S. -- then she went on the website to get my I-94 and printed it out for me. Phew. I also paid an $11 fee to take the test and get my new license (if I pass the test).

Fourth: It was 8am when that part was done. I took all that new paperwork to the front desk, where they were telling people their testing times. I go up to the counter and they tell me my test time is 11.20 am. I'm like, "Errr but I have an appointment for 8.20 am." He looked at my confirmation slip and said, "Umm okay. Just drive up to Lane 1 at the testing area and go when it's your turn." So I drove up to the testing area and got in line, with about 3 cars ahead of me and a dozen cars already on the road taking their tests. One DPS officer inspected our cars while we waited in line: valid auto insurance, license plates, registration sticker, working lights, functional horn, etc.

Fifth: It was about 9am when I took my test. It turns out Pflugerville is the only DPS center that allows walk-ins, but it works on a first come, first served basis. So the guy who was in line at 6.30am would have been the first to take his test, at 7.45am or so. Each test only lasts about 10-15 minutes, so I didn't mind the wait. My examiner -- Dietrice -- got into my car, asked me to sign some paperwork, told me about the aspects of the test she would be watching me on, and asked me if I was nervous. I was like omg yeah. And she told me not to be nervous, to take a deep breath, and pull out into the second lane. At this point I was really thankful that Darren and George had both taken me to the testing site, because one time I almost drove up the curb when pulling out to the second lane, and Darren warned me about that. :) And George had told me when and where I needed to make it obvious that I was looking at my mirrors. So I didn't do any curb-climbing or lose observation points on test day!

Parallel Parking
Here's the truth: I cannot parallel park. My car always ends up practically in the middle of the road, and way too far away from the curb. If you fail parallel parking in Austin, you automatically fail your driving test. But I aced parallel parking on the test -- despite Dietrice covering my reverse camera with her hand. Why? Because George taught me 3 simple steps.
  • Step 1: Back up straight, not too far away from the poles, kind of just outside the test box. Turn your head to the right. Stop when the pole reaches the "middle" of your right passenger window in the back.
  • Step 2: Signal to the right (don't forget to use your turn signals, because they dock a lot of points for them!). While you are still stopped, turn your wheel all the way to the left. Turn your head to the left. Then reverse slowly until the pole reaches about 35-40% of your back left passenger window. 
  • Step 3: While you are still stopped, turn your wheel all the way to the right. Look at your right rearview mirror now: keep reversing til you see the curb is straight next to your car (or until your car gently bumps the curb). Then straighten your steering wheel and inch forward to center your car in the spot.
  • To leave: Reverse your car until you have enough space to exit without hitting any poles. (Automatic failure if you hit any poles!) Then signal to the left, look in your mirrors and blind spot, and drive out!
I don't know if there are specific rules for reversing in a straight line, but my instructor taught me to put my right arm around the front passenger headrest, and turn half my body to the right. Then keep my left hand at the 12 o'clock position on the steering wheel, then reverse slowly until the examiner says to stop.

On-the-road driving test
My instructor told me to always drive 4 mph under the speed limit, and taught me the speed limits for the various streets in the test route. I also had to be careful to come to a complete stop at all the stop signs. At some signs, I had to make two complete stops if I can't see the oncoming traffic clearly. During the actual test, the examiner took me on a really short route: I was barely driving for 5 minutes, and we headed back to the testing center. The shorter the drive, the better it is: the less likely you are to make mistakes! :) Basically, you need to show you are able to:

  • Follow the road rules: road signs, speed limits, and the examiner's instructions.
  • Control your vehicle: stay in the center of your lane, slow down at turnings, speed up on highways.
  • Observe: watch out for other cars and pedestrians; basically show you are looking at every intersection, blind spot and mirror when you turn or change lanes.

I hope this extremely long recount of my driving test experience will help someone out there: please leave a comment if you have any questions or want to share your experience too!


Audrey Larcher said...
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Audrey Larcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sha-Lene said...

Hi Audrey! Glad you found my post helpful. If I remember correctly, there was only one uncontrolled intersection: basically when you have to exit or enter the DPS area.

I don't remember the roads I took anymore, but looking at the roads nearby the Pflugerville DPS office on Google Maps is a great tip! The routes usually involve Champions Point Dr, Settlers Valley Dr, Broken Feather Trail. And Heatherwilde and Wells Branch Parkway for sure since that's where the main road is.

Each test may take a different route so it's best to learn the speed limits for all the nearby roads.

Austin Native said...

Do you have the contact information for the independent instructor?? That sounds helpful!

Jessika Martinez said...

Hello, I appreciate your information!
Did you have to get on the highway?
For the parallel parking, were the cones (or poles?) pretty far away? like it wasn't to tight?

Jessika Martinez said...

Hello thank you for the information!
I was wondering if you had to get on the highway?
Also when you were parallel parking were the cones (or poles?) far away from eachother? like a good distance?
And did they ask you about your car? like where the lights are and windshield whippers and stuff like that ?

Sha-Lene said...

Hi Jessica, I didn't have to get on the highway for the Pflugerville test site. The fastest road I had to take was only 55 mph, the Wells Branch one in front of the DPS center.

In parallel parking, I can't remember if the cones were far apart. I just remember it was curbside and not to knock over any poles! You can always go to the Pflugerville test site and practice during non-test hours so you know what it looks like. :)

They didn't ask me any questions about my car, they seemed to know where everything was when they did the inspection. They asked me to turn my lights on and off, etc.

Hope that helps!

Sha-Lene said...

The independent driving instructor I hired was George Kosho, the owner of Target Driving School:

He was very experienced, patient and I couldn't have passed my test without him!

India Library Friends said...

My daughter had her road test today at the Pflugerville center. She passed! Wanted to thank you for your extremity helpful blog, especially the instructions on parallel parking. She would not have passed the test but for those!
The mega center is very efficient and quick. We got there an hour ahead. They looked at the paperwork and sent her out to the test lane 30 minutes before the appointment time.
Thanks once again :)

Sha-Lene said...

Thanks for your feedback, I'm so happy I could help!

Unknown said...

Thank you for the detailed blog.
In step 2 parallel parking, do you mean turn the wheels all the way to the right? I kind of remember it that way. Assuming the parallel parking was on your right.

Trang Le said...

Thank you so much for your blog. I'm taking my driving test in 2 weeks. There is something I'm confused about is that: there was a part that I had to drive on Well Branch (speed limit 55mph) then turn right at the DPS parking lot (speed limit 5mph) and there was a car behind me honking like mad...
So would I be automatic failed if someone behind me honking like that?
And also, if I am going in a residential area and there is no speed limit sign, what speed should I drive? (like Lantern Dr)...
Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks again!

Sha-Lene said...

Hi Unknown - Haha, I know it sounds strange but that was not a typo. That was the technique my instructor taught me.

Hi Trang - if you have your turn signal on to turn into DPS, cars should not honk at you if you are slowing down to make the turn. I don't believe DPS would fail you if you weren't doing anything wrong - we can't control other drivers' actions. As for the residential areas, there are speed limits for all of them - the signs are sometimes not posted until further up the road. If not, then use the same speed limit as the nearby residential roads. If you want to be absolutely sure, you could call a driving instructor to ask. My instructor was from Target Driving School.

Hope that helps! :)