Is It Illegal to Drive Without a Drivers License?
Yes. It is 100% illegal to drive without a valid drivers license. It doesn’t matter what state you are in; you need a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle.
Suppose you have a license, but it is not the right classification for the type of vehicle you are driving. In that case, it's similar to driving without a license or any motor vehicle knowledge. For instance, you cannot operate a car with a motorcycle license, and vice versa.
Some states will impose more strict sentencing for driving without a license, resulting in longer jail time or more considerable fines. While it’s illegal to drive without a license, no matter what, a past criminal background will also work strongly against you if you drive without a license.
Why Would You Drive Without a License?
We’ve all heard of teens going out for a joyride, thinking that they can make a quick drive to the store or a friend’s house without an official license. Other drivers with revoked licenses may continue to drive because they have no other way to get to work or their kids to school. Some drivers simply continue to drive without a valid license because they don’t think they’ll get caught or they don’t understand the illegality of what they are doing.
Intentionally driving with no license at all is often done out of necessity, like if you have to pick up your paycheck and have no other way to get to a job site. Everyone has their own definition of what’s urgent and what isn’t. While some might be forgiven in a court of law (woman in labor or a life-and-death situation), it’s improbable that you or I will run into an instance where we can justify not having a license and operating a motor vehicle anyway.
What Happens if You Drive Without a License?
If you drive without a license, the punishments can range from a fine to actual jail time. The severity of your punishment for driving without a license is dependent on various factors, which include where you live and if you have a criminal record.
Driving without a license runs the risk of paying a fine around $500 in many states and facing up to two months in jail. Your case will be brought up before a judge, and while judges are there to rule in favor of the law, you will have the opportunity to state your case. You may hire a defense attorney to assist you in the proceedings.
Apart from a fine and jail time, you may also be unable to apply for a license for a set period. This action may be a part of state-specific sentencing, or it might follow you anywhere in the United States. In addition to a fine or jail time, you might need to do some community service or you might subject to vehicle forfeiture.
State by State
Here’s a closer look at penalties for driving without a valid license in every state.
In the state of Alabama, fees can reach up to $500 for a misdemeanor offense. Additionally, a jailing offense could run you up to 180 days in a local jail. If you manage to undercut jail time, you may still face an immediate impoundment for your vehicle. If the charges are strongly against you (such as if you caused an accident or broke a law while driving) or you have a criminal background, you may also lose your license (suspension) for up to six months.
In the state of Alaska, you have a first and subsequent offense that you can incur. Initially, a misdemeanor will result in a ten-day suspension of your license, as well as immediate vehicle impoundment.
Alaska is not the most forgiving state: a Class A misdemeanor may result in forfeiture of the vehicle and up to eighty hours of community service to regain your license. Additionally, subsequent offenses will result in the same penalties, but a judge will look much more severely on your case considering you didn’t learn from the first time. A ninety-day license suspension is possible.
In the state of Arizona, your vehicle may be impounded for up to thirty days. Still, the biggest kicker is that you may be imprisoned for up to six months, meaning your vehicle would become forfeit after you are unable to retrieve it.
Subsequent offenses may incur a four-month jail sentence, fines up to $750, and a wholly revoked license. A judge will inform you of what the time frame is before you may apply for another license. Repeated subsequent offenses may result in never being allowed to hold a driver’s license in the state of Arizona again.
In the state of Arkansas, you will not incur more than a $500 fee, but you may also receive between two days in prison and a total of six months. Arkansas forgives initial offenses, but subsequent offenses extend the period of your suspension (nearly doubling your initial sentence). Subsequent offenses may result in license revocation and the inability to apply for another driver’s license for up to one year after the initial offense.
The state of California doesn’t play games: you could be hit with a $1,000 fine right away, and an imprisonment sentence from five days to six months in total. Subsequent offenses up the ante. You may be imprisoned for up to one full year for subsequent offenses and receive up to $2,000 in fines. In the state of California, you are more likely to face severe charges for driving without a license than you would in many other states.
You will not receive more than a $500 fine for your first offense in the state of Colorado. As subsequent violations are incurred, fines may be raised to $3,000. You can expect to face imprisonment for up to six months for a first offense, with a license suspension for one full year. If your initial offense is related to driving under the influence, you will spend between thirty days and a full year in jail. A second influence-related offense may result in two years in county jail.
The state of Connecticut has a clear expectation that you will not drive without a license, but relatively meek consequences if you do so. You may face a fine up to $200 for a first offense and up to a maximum of three months in jail. Subsequent offenses may result in a total of one year of imprisonment and a fine of $600. In comparison to other states, Connecticut has more relaxed laws, although continued offenses will cause a judge to permanently revoke your license.
The state of Delaware is reasonably straightforward. You will face imprisonment for no more than a total of three months, and initial fines from $500 up to $1,000. Subsequent offenses are severe in comparison. You may receive two months to one year in jail, as well as a $4,000 fine, and vehicle impoundment for one full year.
District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.)
With perhaps the most specific laws, Washington DC states that you will pay a precise fine of $2,500 regardless of the nature of the offense, as well as spend no more than one year in jail. However, it’s uncommon to face jail time in Washington DC for driving without a license, although that hefty fine is entirely unavoidable.
The state of Florida is rigorous when it comes to license laws. Your first misdemeanor offense will result in a fine from $500 up to a maximum of $5,000. You may also receive a second-degree misdemeanor charge. This may result in imprisonment for up to two months.
If you incur subsequent offenses, you will face a first-degree misdemeanor that will result in imprisonment for no more than one year. A third offense is a third-degree felony, meaning you may face an additional $5,000 fine and up to five years of imprisonment.
In the state of Georgia, this is classified as a misdemeanor. Initially, your first misdemeanor will cost you anywhere from $500 up to $5,000. First offenses also carry the weight of a possible two-day to one-year imprisonment, and additional, separate fines than those you incurred initially up to $1,000 (though these secondary fines are rare).
For second offenses, fines may result in an additional $2,500 and one year in jail. Fourth offenses are felonies and should be taken seriously. They can result in five years in prison as well as $5,000 in fees.
The state of Hawaii classifies first offenses as misdemeanors. They may result in around $3,000 in total fines (two combined fines), a license suspension timeline of one year, and imprisonment from three to thirty days.
For subsequent offenses, you may face up to two years of license suspension and an additional $1,000 fine along with a maximum of thirty days in jail. A third offense will result in a structured one-year imprisonment, $2,000 fine, and permanent license revocation. You will not be able to apply for a driver’s license (any class) in Hawaii after this point.
In the state of Idaho, this counts as a misdemeanor worth $3,000 in fines. As a first offense, you may face imprisonment up to six months, and an increased license suspension of 180 days (after jail time). Your second offense is much more severe, imposing up to one year in jail and an additional fine of $1,000. Subsequent offenses may result in two years of license suspension, jail time up to one year, and an extra fine of up to $3,000. Permanent license revocation is rare in Idaho.
In the state of Illinois, a misdemeanor can result in a minimum fee of $2,500 and a maximum fee of $25,000 - ten times the amount of Washington DC, just for some reference. A first offense will not incur more than that baseline of $2,500, but a subsequent offense will see more considerable fines imposed.
Driving without a license counts as a Class Four felony, which means you may also end up facing up to three years in jail with a minimum sentence of one year. Seizure of your license is common with your fourth offense.
The state of Indiana isn’t playing any games. If you are caught driving without a license, you may face up to $10,000 in fines and be charged with a Class Six felony. This charge results in six months in jail, with maximum sentencing of up to two years.
There are no subsequent offense charges. While many states try to make their first offenses less harsh to give second chances to drivers, you won’t face that nicety in Indiana.
In the state of Iowa, there is no difference between a first and second offense. You will receive a misdemeanor charge up to $1,500 in fees, with a lowest possible fee of $250 for first offenses. Judges will look upon you less kindly for second offenses and exercise the maximum fee. You will endure a license suspension for one year, which can happen if you are caught for a second offense with a suspended license.
For first offenses in the state of Kansas, you receive a Class B non-person misdemeanor, which results in five-day imprisonment and a fee of up to $100. You will not receive a lessened jail sentence for any reason. Subsequent offenses increase your penalties. A class A offense will result in imprisonment for five days, a $100 fine, and a license suspension for no more than ninety days.
In the state of Kentucky, your first offense registers as a Class B misdemeanor. This results in imprisonment for up to ninety days, as well as a six-month license suspension, coupled with a flat rate $250 fine. Your second offense will be registered as a Class A misdemeanor, which may result in a minimum imprisonment sentence of ninety days, with a maximum of one year. License suspensions will increase to one year as well.
Subsequent offenses will register as Class D felonies that may result in one to five years of imprisonment and a two-year license revocation.
In the state of Louisiana, a first-time offense depends on the class of your license. Class D or E drivers will face imprisonment for up to a maximum of six months, as well as a $500 fine. Class A, B, and C drivers will face imprisonment for up to six months, as well as fines up to $5,000. Civil penalties (fees) may also be applied separately.
Subsequent offenses could receive additional $500 fines, more civil penalties, and license suspensions reaching no more than one full year.
The state of Maine has fairly relaxed laws. These are not labeled as misdemeanors, but instead it’s classified as a Class E crime. You may receive a fine up to $1,000, as well as up to six months in jail. There are no further issues with subsequent offenses, although, at the discretion of a judge, your license may be permanently revoked if these issues persist and you continue to offend.
The state of Maryland classifies driving without your license to be a misdemeanor. You will face imprisonment for no more than one full year and a fine of up to $1,000. You may also face license suspension for up to a year.
Subsequent offenses may result in extended imprisonment sentences of two years, 18-month license suspension, and the potential that you will have your vehicle impounded.
The state of Massachusetts labels this as a misdemeanor, with fines extending from $500 up to $1,000 and imprisonment for no more than ten days. This first offense is minor compared to other states but will be increased through subsequent offenses to an imprisonment sentence of no less than sixty days and no more than one year.
You may receive a license suspension for sixty days and, depending on the situation and timeline from the first to the second offense, a judge may apply that $1,000 maximum fee again.
The state of Michigan classifies this as a misdemeanor for a first offense, for which you can be imprisoned for no more than ninety-three days, and may have to pay a fine of up to $1,000. Subsequent offenses are still classified as a misdemeanor (no felony charges).
Still, they will result in imprisonment for up to one year, an additional $1,000 fine (optional depending on the situation), and cancellation of your vehicle’s license plates, registration, and insurance. Your license will also be suspended for an unknown amount of time.
The state of Minnesota classifies a first offense as a misdemeanor. This may result in a fine up to $1,000 with no minimum set amount, meaning it could be extremely negligible depending on your driving and criminal history.
Additionally, you may incur imprisonment for up to ninety days. Minnesota does not have a different penalty for subsequent offenses but may exercise the maximum fine for additional offenses.
In the state of Mississippi, this is classified as a misdemeanor. Imprisonment limitations range from only two days up to a total of six months, as well as a fine between $200 and $500. In almost every case, your license will be suspended for six months regardless of your imprisonment sentence. There are no additional penalties for subsequent offenses, other than receiving the maximum fine and potentially receiving the maximum imprisonment sentence.
In the state of Missouri, a first offense is classified as a Class D misdemeanor, which may result in a fine up to $500. There is no set term on imprisonment, leaving it up to the discretion of the judge, although this may not extend to longer than one full year.
For subsequent offenses, you will see a Class A misdemeanor, meaning a $2,000 fine ceiling and imprisonment up to one year, with a minimum of six months. Further offenses may result in a Class E felony, extending imprisonment for up to four full years.
In the state of Montana, this is classified as a misdemeanor. It’s unlikely, but you may receive imprisonment up to a total of six months. You will always receive a fine that does not exceed $500. Subsequent offenses may incur longer sentences up to six months with a minimum threshold of two months, as well as license suspension for up to one year. Additionally, your vehicle is likely to be seized and utterly inaccessible to you for no more than thirty days.
The state of Nebraska classifies this as a Class II misdemeanor, which does not incur an imprisonment sentence or a fine. Instead, your license may be revoked for up to one year, and you will be deemed unable to operate any vehicles during that time. Second and third offenses will result in longer license revocations.
Fourth offenses are classified as Class I misdemeanors, extending those penalties and the inability to operate a vehicle for two years and license revocation for the same time period.
In the state of Nevada, this is classified as a misdemeanor and will incur a fine ranging from one dollar to $1,000. While unlikely, you may be imprisoned for up to six months. License suspension is also on the table and may be extended for up to one year depending on the situation and the details of why you lost your license in the first place or if you ever had one.
However, these sentences usually follow imprisonment terms or a few months for a first misdemeanor. There are no subsequent penalties, so you can expect a second offense to result in the maximum allowable penalty.
In the state of New Hampshire, you may receive a fine up to $1,000 for a misdemeanor charge, as well as imprisonment. Their imprisonment sentencing works differently, where you have the option of when to apply it. You have six months to deal with seven, twenty-four-hour imprisonment sentences as a form of probation. Your license may also be suspended for up to one year.
In the state of New Jersey, this is classified simply as a first offense, which will result in a $500 fine. There are no other penalties known for a first offense. For a second offense, you may be imprisoned for up to five days in total and pay a fine up to $750. Subsequent violations (3rd and up) may result in imprisonment for up to ten days, a $1,000 fine, and license suspension that can extend for up to six months. There are no further penalties in the state of New Jersey.
The state of New Mexico isn’t messing around; although it classifies a first offense as a misdemeanor, imprisonment may last from four up to three-hundred and sixty-four days. Your vehicle will be immobilized and you will be expected to pay a fine up to $1,000.
There are no subsequent offense penalties, as they believe this is enough to deter people from making this mistake in the first place.
The state of New York classifies this as a misdemeanor, which may result in a fine of up to $500 with a minimum threshold of $250. It’s also possible to face imprisonment up to thirty days for a first offense, although this is rarely enacted.
For subsequent offenses, you may face imprisonment for up to six months and a second fee of up to $500. There are no further penalties for subsequent violations.
In the state of North Carolina, this is classified as a Class III misdemeanor on your first offense. A first offense may result in imprisonment for up to ten days, a fine up to $300, and license suspension for no more than one full year. These terms are dependent on the situation and criminal/driving history. Subsequent offenses may result in a license suspension running to two years, or permanent license suspension for a third offense or more.
In the state of North Dakota, this is classified as a Class B misdemeanor. For your first three offenses, you will receive penalties ranging in fines from one dollar to $1,500, as well as imprisonment for no more than thirty days.
For fourth offenses, it will be classified as a Class A misdemeanor, resulting in a $3,000 fine and imprisonment that may not exceed one full year. During this time, you may be forced to surrender your license plates to be destroyed by the state (technically, you could think of this as an additional fee for getting those plates and registration back, as well as new vehicle insurance).
In the state of Ohio, a first offense is an unclassified misdemeanor. This could result in a fine of $1,000 as well as community service. For a first offense, you could be required to commit to no more than 500 hours of community service (20.83 uninterrupted 24-hour days, for some context), which may seem excessive.
Subsequent offenses may result in a 1st degree misdemeanor classification, resulting in an additional $1,000 fine, and up to six months of imprisonment. It is possible to have your license plates impounded during this time.
In the state of Oklahoma, this is classified as a misdemeanor. First offenses are very lax, resulting in a fine up to $500 and nothing more. Second offenses may result in an increased fine up to $750, while third offenses and more will extend that fine up to $1,000 and land you in jail for up to one full year. Oklahoma offers a gradual penalty system.
The state of Oregon classifies this as a Class A traffic infraction, which is different from a misdemeanor. Your vehicle may be impounded on the spot, although this is not always the case. If you simply forgot your license at home, you may only incur the fine, though this can be argued against if the driver can prove they were licensed at the time of the stop. This fine ranges from $220 up to $2,000 for any driver.
There are no known subsequent offenses for repeated violations, although it is not outside of the Oregon traffic court’s power to impose harsher sentences for repeated offenses.
In the state of Pennsylvania, this is classified as a traffic offense with harsh penalties. Your license might be suspended for up to one year, or up to two years if it was initially revoked. The fine is a flat rate of $200 (there are no known increased fines). There are no subsequent offenses either, as the state appears to think this will be enough to deter first offenders.
In the state of Rhode Island, this is classified as a misdemeanor. You may be imprisoned for no more than thirty days and face a fine ranging from $250 up to $500. Additionally, your license may be suspended for three months at most. Subsequent offenses may result in imprisonment for up to one year and an increased fine of $240 to $1,000. Additional offenses also carry the weight of an increased duration of time for license suspension, up to six months. Your license may also be revoked depending on the circumstances.
The state of South Carolina classified this as a misdemeanor. You may be imprisoned for no more than thirty days and receive a fine up to $300. Subsequent offenses do not carry the weight of a more severe classification but will result in an increased $600 fine and imprisonment up to sixty days.
For third offenses, the fee is increased to $1,000, with an imprisonment sentence of ninety days. There are no further subsequent penalties; the third offense penalties will simply be repeated for additional offenses.
The state of South Dakota classifies this as a Class 1 misdemeanor, resulting in imprisonment for no more than one year. South Dakota is known to extend imprisonment penalties as far as they can. Additionally, you may also receive a fine up to $2,000 and a suspended or entirely cancelled license.
If you are lucky enough to receive a Class 2 misdemeanor instead, your imprisonment may not extend past thirty days and a fine may not increase past $500.
The state of Tennessee classifies this as a Class B misdemeanor, resulting in imprisonment for no more than six months and a fine that does not increase past $500. Your license may be suspended for the time of imprisonment, but no more.
Subsequent offenses are upgraded to Class A misdemeanors, which may result in a very specific ceiling of imprisonment of 11 months and 29 days, and a fine that may not exceed $2,500. The license suspension will extend to the imprisonment time, but no more.
In the state of Texas, this is classified as a Class C misdemeanor. This simply means you will be subject to a fine up to $500 for your first offense. Secondary offenses are classified as Class B misdemeanors, which may incur a fee up to $2,000 as well as imprisonment for no more than 180 days. There are no subsequent offense penalties beyond this.
In the state of Utah, this is classified as a Class C misdemeanor, resulting in a fine up to $750. You may also be imprisoned for up to ninety days, although this is not likely for a first offense. There are higher classifications for subsequent offenses, although fines may be increased moderately up to $1,000.
The state of Vermont classifies this as a misdemeanor, which may result in imprisonment for up to two full years, as well as a $5,000 fine. This is for a first offense and is reserved for those operating a vehicle with no license at all, not those who forgot their license at home. Subsequent offenses repeat initial penalties. On your sixth subsequent offense, all initial penalties stand, as well as possible license plate seizure.
In the state of Virginia, this is classified as a class 1 misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of no more than $2,500. Additionally, you may be imprisoned for one full year. There are no known additional penalties or misdemeanor classifications.
The state of Washington classified this as a gross misdemeanor, which may result in a fine that will not exceed $5,000. Additionally, you may be imprisoned for up to 364 days with no minimum imprisonment terms set. There are no additional penalties or misdemeanor charges as the state of Washington believes this will be enough to deter first-time offenders.
The state of West Virginia classifies this as a first offense misdemeanor, which results in a moderate fine of $100 up to $500. Subsequent offenses may result in an additional fine that may not exceed $500, as well as imprisonment for thirty to ninety days, depending on the number of offenses and the severity of the offense.
The state of Wisconsin classifies this as a misdemeanor, which may result in a fine up to $200, with a minimum of $50. However, your license may be revoked, your vehicle may be impounded, and you may receive an increased fee of up to $2,500. There are no further classifications of misdemeanors.
The state of Wyoming classifies this as a misdemeanor. This may result in imprisonment for up to six months or a fine that may not exceed $750. Both penalties may be applied at the same time. There are no further penalties or misdemeanor classifications beyond this.
Can You Drive Without a License On-Hand?
Many drivers do not know their license number by heart. This is a good idea, because if you hold a license but do not have it on-hand when you are pulled over for a traffic violation, you may still face some penalties.
If you state your license number, you may be let off the hook with a warning. This varies from state to state, so don’t expect this to be a perfect defense to forgetting your wallet at home. This is just a good idea in case you run into a situation like this.
You will not be hit with felony charges unless you continually drive without a license, whether or not you hold a license, multiple times. Felonies are designed for gross negligence and one incident is generally enough to remind anyone to remember their license in the future.
Does a License-Related Charge Overshadow a Traffic Violation?
If you were pulled over for a traffic violation and you were discovered not to have a license on-hand, you are still on the hook for that traffic violation. Generally, this will be brought up while you are in traffic court, and the judge discusses the charges against you for not having a license with you. They are rarely dealt with as separate affairs.
However, you will still have to face the penalties for that traffic violation, which vary not just from state to state, but municipality to municipality. Being caught driving without a license is one of the worst things that can happen to a motorist, but it does not undo or overshadow the initial reason as to why you were pulled over. If anything, it may result in a penalty for that initial violation where you might have otherwise been let off with a warning.
Different Penalties by State
Every state has different penalties, although you will find similarities when looking at federal laws. If you do not have a license, you shouldn’t even bother backing up your car out of the driveway on your property. Leave the keys on the counter for someone else to use.
Acquiring your license has varying degrees of difficulty from state to state; for instance, some states rarely require parallel parking in their tests, which is the most common difficulty that drivers encounter, while others don’t. Regardless, it’s always best to face the trial of acquiring your license instead of operating any motor vehicle when you are not authorized to do so. Another hot topic that you may want to read, laws and penalties for distracted driving using a cell phone.