Posted in Life

Getting a US driving license – Watertown, MA

If you have questions about my experience, feel free leave them in the comments. The official information is at – don’t rely on what is written here!


I passed my first driving test almost 15 years ago, in the UK, and I’ve driven in Australia for many years.  Due to the unique way this state of the USA works, I had to take another two tests (theory and practical) to get my Massachusetts driving license.

Theory test

Before even contemplating the theory test I decided to spend $5 on a copy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Driver’s Manual (it’s actually available online for free, but I wanted a hard-copy). This involved going to Watertown RMV, queuing up, then being told to jump in the queue at a certain desk where the woman sold me a copy.

The theory test covers the whole book, even the stuff on Junior Operators, and the fines and all the technical details.  We actually found this webpage to be very helpful in preparing for the type of questions. If you don’t know most of the answers on that site, keep memorizing.

We did our theory test on Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – and we didn’t have to wait at all. Once we’d passed we also prepaid for our road test and the license fee to save having to queue up again.

Practical test – preparation

To try to get acquainted with what might be on a Mass. road test I booked a lesson with Love Driving School (617-497-5683), recommended to me by a friend.  It was expensive – $50 – and we drove for less than an hour (he stopped at a cafe for 10 minutes for a bathroom break), and we didn’t practice any maneuvers, so I decided not to spend another $50 on another lesson.

The key points from the lesson were:

  • Head check always, even if you use mirrors (he actually said “don’t use mirrors”)
  • When turning right, check over right shoulder for cyclists
  • When reversing, look over right shoulder only (not forwards)
  • When pulling out, check over left shoulder (look out passenger window).
  • When stopping in traffic don’t get too close to the car in front: (1) for a normal vehicle, your wipers must be below the tyres of the car in front, and (2) for a large vehicle you must stop at least one car-length behind
  • Always position your hands at 10-to-2 on the wheel
  • Only drive between 25-30 mph max
  • At stop signs, stop for three seconds behind the white line, then, unless you can see everything from the stop sign, pull forward to the crosswalk line, pause (or stop) and check again.
  • When you turn left out of a side street, pull out straight ahead – don’t cut across diagonally
  • Turning left into a side street:  pull into the middle of the road so you are level with the entrance of the street
  • At pedestrian crossings, always stop for people who are waiting.

And of course, remember to indicate! Pulling out from the curb, turning at a junction, parking.

So I booked my test online – for a month an a half ahead (the first available appointment).

To inconvenience the least amount of people, and because we don’t have a car, I decided to use a Zipcar for the test. If you decide to use Zipcar it’s essential you get a letter from them saying you have permission to use the car in a roadtest – so book a car then phone them at least 3 business days in advance and tell them what’s going on. They will email you a letter and the registration document for the car you have chosen.  The person I dealt with actually did it within a few hours of me phoning.  There was a slight complication because they ‘couldn’t locate’ the registration for the car I had reserved – but they phoned me to sort it out and they changed me to another Mazda 3.

The other thing you need for a MA road test is a sponsor – someone over 21 who has had a MA license for a year or more.  I found someone through HSSPA (thanks Dominic!).

I borrowed a Mazda 3 Zipcar for a few hours in the preceding week – just to make sure I could parallel park and knew how to work all the switches in the car… and to get out of the habit of scrambling in the door for the gear lever (stupid wrong side of the road!).

Practical test – take 1

The day of my (first) road test turned out to be snowy. I managed pick up my sponsor, get to Watertown without crashing but they still refused to test me!

Conditions were not ideal...
Conditions were not ideal…
First job - clear all the snow off the car...
First job – clear all the snow off the car…

When you arrive at the RMV Watertown you can bypass the queue and just head to the open door to the right of the ticket desk (as you face it). The sign is above the door. There are two guys in there looking bored. They were the ones who told me to go away because of the weather. I decided to wait. The examiner also came in a few minutes later, and he also told me to go away.  They said I would be able to reschedule the test for free (if I waited til after 5pm), which turned out to be true.

The website, of course, said nothing about cancellations.

So over the next few days I kept checking the reservations site and the weather and the locations until a few days later an appointment opened up again at Watertown for Thursday at 9am (one week after my first test).  I grabbed it – it did mean I could only give Zipcar two days notice of the test but they emailed me again with the docs within a few hours of me phoning.  The night before the test I absorbed the driving manual (Chapters 3-5), which reminds us frequently that “right of way is something you give, not take”.

Practical test – take 2

I picked up the car at 8am, under clear sunny skies and mostly dry roads.  I checked it had enough gas, and cleaned all the dunkin donuts sprinkles off the passenger seat, and drove very defensively to pick up my sponsor: I figured I needed to save up all my good karma for the test!  Needless to say I was completely carved up twice in the 1.5 mile journey.

Conditions were much better!
Conditions were much better!
Car – take 2

We arrived at Watertown at about 8.45am and spotted several nervous looking people walking around with folders in their hands… other road test people.  The branch didn’t open til 10am but I spotted one of the road testers (from the snow day) so I approached him and he sorted out my paperwork. He wanted the letter from Zipcar and the application form and my learner’s permit.  He didn’t ask to see my passport, my overseas license, or any other personal stuff.

He also wanted to see the registration for the car. I’d also pulled out the insurance from the glove compartment, just in case. I guess because it was a Zipcar he didn’t look too closely at either of these.

(As for the rest of the people waiting, I imagine that he or someone either just shouted out or waited at the “quick registration” desk, near Target, for people to approach him.)

He directed us out the back and told us to park behind the orange and white cone (directly behind Best Buy) – it turned out, even though we pulled up at 8.50am, there were already about 6 cars in front of us.  Next time (ha!) I would park there first, then go in – this is what other people were doing.  The examiners serve you in the order you’re parked.  While I was waiting I took these pictures.

My view from the queue.
My view from the queue.
The back door where you come out from, or go into, the RMV.
The back door where you come out from, or go into, the RMV (as seen from the car).

We waited about 40 minutes in the end (luckily I’d booked the Zipcar for plenty of time – 2.5hrs in fact).  When the examiner came (the same one that looked at my docs, thankfully) he asked me to show him the hand signals and then for me to turn on the indicators/turn signals – I had to quickly turn the car on! He checked front and back signals were working.

Then he got in and we pulled out of the line (once the person in front of me had stopped trying to reverse into me), drove along the bit of road to exit the carpark (speed limit 10mph), turned right (on red, after stopping) onto Arsenal Street.  Then we drove along a bit and bitched about the state of the road and the gigantic potholes. I actually went through some of them (trying to avoid swerving into the other lane of traffic!). Then we turned right at a set of lights (also on red, after stopping) – I forgot to headcheck. That was School Street. I then turned right again into Dexter Avenue.

A bit further along he asked me to parallel park behind a car, and asked I do it quickly, but then someone came up behind us so he told me to forget it.  The next car that was an option had someone else parallel parking behind it — someone practicing on the course, which he wasn’t happy about – he correctly pointed out the residents of the area have enough to put up with with the road testing, without people practicing and potentially crashing into their cars (the roadtesters “know how to stop a vehicle”).

So with the parallel parking abandoned he basically directed me back to the testing center via a back way, including a really narrow, snowy road (Willow Park, Nichols Ave, Arlington St, Elm St).  As we were going along he asked to see my paperwork, which was in the pocket of my door – but he didn’t seem to care that I had to (once I was stopped at lights), take my hands off the wheel and fish it out. “We ask people to keep it on the dash board,” he said (evidently he forgot to tell me that, but I didn’t mention it!).  Then he asked me what country I’d previously driven in.

When we got back to the carpark he asked me to parallel park behind the car waiting at the RMV cone, which I managed to do without any trouble (my hint, don’t think about it, just park it).  He told me I’d passed and I had 30 days to pay, and that was that.

As I said before, we’d actually paid for the road test and license when we took our theory test, so I’m expecting the license in the mail any day!*

*[EDIT 7 March 2014] see my next post for why this didn’t happen!


Travel, photography, blogging, being an expat. And that's just in my spare time.

7 thoughts on “Getting a US driving license – Watertown, MA

  1. Congratulations for passing the test and always safe rides! It was a pleasure to join you through a few steps of your endeavor and it was an interesring experience for me as well. Your report is a great guide for all driving students in Massachusetts. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We don’t know how you can be so adaptable to so many driving rules in so many countries. We almost pulled our hair out trying to stay on the “wrong” side of the road in Ireland that I thought we’d never go back. A couple of years ago we traveled through England — with a driver!!! Thanks for following Oh, the Places We See. And best wishes for good writing and good driving!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Life in a foreign country is full of treachery :o( but when you survive it’s so fulfilling! Interesting to read experiences and adventures of people acclimating to the US. I’ve been on the road since October and plan to be gone for another 6 months or more – Balkans are interesting – then back to Oregon to recoup before taking off again. Good luck to you in your adventures!


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