What’s Required to Get a Motorcycle License?
When you’re first interested in riding, start your research, and then roll out with a plan.
The United States is a big place with tons of states, but fortunately, the motorcycle licensing rules and requirements are similar in many of them. This can be true even from largest to smallest bike states. For instance, with nearly 1 million registrations, New York tops the list for “active” motorcycles, followed closely by California and then Florida in third. On the flip side, little Delaware and Rhode Island have only about 25,000 registrations apiece. Now, among these states, in California, fledgling riders can get a “learners” permit at age 15 ½, but in Delaware the rule is 17 years old. Other states may further differ, but likely not by much.
Motorcycle.com thanks Yamaha for sponsoring this new rider series.
In our experience, six important items likely need fulfilling before you’re a fully licensed, go-anywhere-on-your-own rider. We’ve listed them below. However, first and foremost, before embarking on the process (and especially before buying a street bike), look up your state’s requirements; they may deviate from other states’ rules as to initial licensing age, what defines a learner’s permit vs. a full license, interim operating rules (i.e., restrictions) while you’re learning, and even potential displacement caps for beginners.
1. Legal Riding Age
Your state may differ, but in California where Motorcycle.com is based, a learner’s permit may be obtained by written application at age 15 1/2, and a full license (aka “motorcycle endorsement”) at 16. The difference is that, in the Golden State at least, the learner’s permit doesn’t allow riding at night, with a passenger, or on the freeway. In Europe, displacement or horsepower limits can apply for younger riders. This approach exists here too; in at least one state, the displacement of a learner’s bike (e.g., under 150cc) is required for a certain period, before graduating to bigger engines.
2. Safety Certification
Our understanding is that a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) or similar certification is not essential for everyone to obtain a motorcycle operator’s permit, but it does permit you to obtain one at younger age – say, 15 or 16 vs. 18 or older for example. Then, once you’re legally an adult, while MSF training is still quite valuable, it isn’t legally required to earn your license. Again, your state may differ – check its specific regs.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum includes a combination of classroom and riding. To get you up on two wheels, the MSF course may provide small-displacement learner bikes for students to use; alternately, students may have one provided for them, such as by a friend or family member. Note that legally, you’re not licensed to operate a motorcycle on the street until you’ve been issued a permit by the DMV, and so, riding a motorcycle of any kind to the MSF training isn’t legally possible.
3. Parental Permission
If you’re a minor, we’re talking two different kinds of permission here. One is for permission to ride a motorcycle at all; this can be within the family and needn’t be a legal agreement or even in writing. (Although, our opinion is that permission should come with terms and conditions, such as keeping a certain GPA at school, working, or paying for some of the bike and related costs – and staying traffic-ticket free!) The other needed parental permission is to obtain a street license, and that likely requires a parent’s signature. Hopefully, this is self-evident, but both permissions must line up to make the happy transition into having and riding a street bike. Once you’re 18, as an adult, it becomes your business.
4. Written Exam
Consult your state’s DMV website to determine the written testing requirements to qualify for a license and how to obtain a study guide (handbook) that you’ll need to prepare. Everything in that handbook should be useful to you as a new rider, so read it cover-to-cover multiple times. Do this well in advance of your test, and preferably while you’re earning your safety certification.
5. Riding Test
Where we live, the actual DMV riding test is more like a “maneuvering” test than a comprehensive riding test. That’s why some people call friends or bike shops looking for small, tight-turning, easy-to-handle machines for their “final exam.” We might too, if we
bought an Easy Rider chopper before finding we needed to navigate some traffic cones for a bored DMV examiner.
The riding test may well be a matter of demonstrating your competency at starting, stopping, accelerating, braking, and following a prescribed (and well worn) path around a predetermined parking-lot course. If you’re a graduate of a MSF school, you’ve got this.
What the DMV test will likely not do, is grade you on the tougher stuff, such as blending from an on-ramp into heavy traffic on the freeway; lane-splitting (or “lane filtering” to use official parlance) where allowed; emergency avoidance maneuvers, and so forth. Consider the riding test basic competency – it’s like doing three pushups when your real goal is an Ironman triathlon. Go figure, but that’s regulatory agencies for you.
6. Temporary Restrictions
Per the comments above, when you’re first permitted for the street, you may have temporary riding restrictions. These can include a prohibition on carrying a passenger behind you (a good call as this requires additional skills; plus, you’re responsible for another person’s welfare). You may also be displacement limited and restricted about where and even when you can ride (see above about freeways and nighttime). But after that’s over and done, the world is yours!