Common Legal Issues for International Students
Penn State welcomes thousands of international students to our campuses every year. United States laws are complex, even for a U.S. citizen, and even more so for someone who is not familiar with our legal system. The following is a guide to help international students protect themselves and avoid situations where they may face legal challenges. This guide touches on the most common problems we see students encounter. If you have more detailed questions, please ask.
No legal advice is provided on this website. Every case is different. For advice about your specific situation, please complete our intake form to request an appointment with an attorney.
United States laws about driving are made by both the federal government and the individual states. While the federal government makes the treaties between the United States and other countries regarding the applicability of driving licenses around the world, each State determines who may be eligible to drive in that state and what you must do to register your vehicle.
- International Treaty
Many countries have agreed to be part of the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic.
If you have a valid driver’s license from one of the 72 countries that have ratified the treaty, you may be able to drive in the United States for up to one year from the date you entered the U.S. However, if your home country’s driver’s license does not have English translations, you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to drive legally.
- International Driving Permit (IDP)
You may apply for an IDP in your home country prior to coming to the United States. The IDP will be issued as a gray booklet with translations into English as well as many other languages. The IDP is carried along with your government issued driver’s license so that if you are stopped, the police officer can verify your driver’s license is valid. The IDP itself is not a valid form of identification, nor does it give you any legal right to drive without also having a valid driver’s license along with the IDP.
- International Driving Permit Scams
Many fake websites claim that they are able to sell you a valid IDP. Not only are these websites going to take $80 to $400 for issuing you the fake IDP, but you may also find yourself in legal problems if you attempt to use the fake IDP with police officers or other government officials. Contact your home country’s issuing agency to find out the proper procedures and organizations that can issue you a valid IDP.
- Pennsylvania Driver’s License
If you are going to be driving for more than one year or your home country is not a signatory to the international treaty, you must obtain a driver’s license from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. You must apply in person. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is the official organization that issues permits and driver’s licenses. The nearest office is located at 812 West College Avenue, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823. If you do not have transportation, CATA operates the XG bus service that will take you to the PennDOT location. The CATA schedule can change from time to time so visit the CATA website in order to find the current schedule.
- Learner’s Permit
If you have never had a Driver’s license issued in the United States or your Driver’s license from another state has been expired for more than 6 months, you must first obtain a Learner’s Permit. If you have been using an IDP to drive but want to get a Pennsylvania Driver’s license, you will also need to start with a Learner's Permit. You cannot directly transfer your out-of-country Driver’s license to a Pennsylvania Driver’s license.
You will be required to take and pass an examination about Pennsylvania driving laws, complete a physical examination, and pass an eye examination. As foreign citizens, you must provide your USCIS documents that prove your legal status in the United States, your passport, and a Social Security card. If you do not already have a Social Security card, meet with your DISSA advisor.
- Transferring your license from another state
If you have already resided in the United States and have a driver’s license issued by another state, you may be able to transfer your license. Students who have a driver’s license must transfer their out-of-state license to Pennsylvania within 60 days of moving to Pennsylvania. F-1 and J-1 students are required to present a valid passport, I-94, visa, letter from the U.S. Department of State stating you can apply for a driver’s license, and 2 proofs of residency.
Proof of residency can be somewhat difficult for a student to obtain. Residency may proven with a signed lease, utility bills such as electricity or cable, W-2s, tax records, or a mortgage. If a roommate already has a valid drivers license with the same address, they may be able to go with you and vouch that you live where you say you do.
- Updating your name or address
You must update your driver's license or permit if you change your name or you change addresses. If you change your name due to marriage or divorce, you are required to update the information with PennDOT. If you fail to update your address, you may not receive important information from PennDOT or may receive the information too late.
Violations of driving laws
- Getting pulled over
It is extremely important that you learn and follow the rules when driving in the United States. Not knowing the law is never an excuse for breaking the law.
- If you are driving and you see a police vehicle behind you with its emergency lights on, slow down and pull off to the side of the road at the nearest safe area to do so.
- If you are not able to immediately pull over due to unsafe conditions, put on your blinker and wave so that the officer knows that you are acknowledging the officer’s presence.
- Once you have pulled over, roll down your window, turn off your car and place your keys on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel.
- Do not attempt to get out of the car unless you are instructed to do so.
- Have your driver’s license out and ready to hand to the officer when asked.
- The officer will inform you as to why they pulled you over.
- Be respectful of the officer and do not argue with the officer.
- If you disagree with why the officer pulled you over, you will have an opportunity to dispute it in court at a later date.
- Never attempt to pay the officer money on the spot. This could be viewed as an attempt to bribe the officer and could result in you going to jail.
If you are pulled over and the officer issues you a ticket, you may respectfully ask the officer about the ticket and what your options are. The officer should explain what the ticket is for and why the officer issued it. In Pennsylvania, you have 10 days to respond to the ticket. This means that you will either plead guilty or not guilty by signing on the appropriate line at the bottom of the ticket and mailing it to the address on the ticket. If you fail to respond within 10 days, you will have your Driver’s license suspended and potentially face even larger fines and penalties. Ignoring the ticket is never a good idea.
If you plead guilty, you are accepting the ticket as true and are agreeing to the fines and penalties that are imposed. If you wish to plead not guilty, sign the line on the ticket for “not guilty” and send it to the address on the ticket. You will receive a letter from the court telling you when your hearing is set for. If you fail to attend the hearing, you will be automatically found guilty. If you attend the hearing you will have an opportunity to have a judge determine if the officer was right or wrong. Again, not knowing the law is never an excuse for breaking it.
In addition to the fine you will have to pay if you get a ticket, you may also receive “points” on your driver’s license. Points are a way for PennDOT to discourage repeated violations. If you accumulate 6 or more points on your Driver’s license, you may have your license suspended or have to take a safe driving course. Receiving two speeding tickets in one year could easily put you at the 6 point mark.
One common mistake made by international drivers is failing to stop for a school bus when its red lights are flashing. Since children often cross the street when getting on or off a school bus, you are required to stop regardless of which direction you are traveling. If you see a school bus with flashing yellow lights, slow down and be prepared to stop. The yellow lights are a warning that the school bus will soon come to a complete stop and turn on its red lights. Failure to stop for a school bus results not only in a fine, but also an automatic 60 day suspension of your drivers license.
Owning a car
If you decide to purchase a car in Pennsylvania, the car must be properly registered, inspected, and insured. Failure to do any of these may impact your ability to drive in Pennsylvania and subject you to large fines or penalties.
- Registering your car
Before driving your car, you must register your car with PennDOT. If you purchase a car from a Pennsylvania dealer, the dealer should be able to help you with all of the registration requirements. If you purchase a car from an out-of-state dealer or from a friend, there are numerous procedures you will need to follow.
You will also need to renew your registration once every one or two years, depending on your choice of registration options. Keep your address updated with PennDOT so you do not miss important deadlines. Failure to receive the renewal notices will not excuse you from these requirements.
- Inspecting your car
You must have your car inspected every year for safety and emissions. There are dozens of inspection stations in the local area. Most mechanic shops and car dealers can inspect your car. They will place two stickers on the left lower windshield with dates for when the next inspection is due. Failure to have your car inspected can result in having your car impounded by the police and subject you to large fines and penalties.
- Insuring your car
You are required to have insurance for your car in order to lawfully drive it. Dozens of insurance companies offer insurance coverage. Insurance is broken down into two categories: liability and collision.
Liability insurance covers damages you may cause to other people and their cars. Collision insurance covers damages that happens to your car. Liability insurance is required for every driver in Pennsylvania. It is illegal to operate a car on the road without liability insurance.
Collision coverage is not required. It is cheaper to forego collision insurance, but if you are in an accident, you may have to pay for all or the repair costs out of your own pocket.
Liability coverage is further broken down into two subcategories: “full tort coverage” and “partial tort coverage.” Partial tort coverage is cheaper than full tort, however, partial tort coverage may limit how much you may recover from the insurance company or other driver in the event of an accident. Ask your insurance company about the difference so that you can make an informed decision about what is best for you.
- Failure to insure your car
Your car must be insured 365 days of the year. If your coverage lapses, your insurance company will notify PennDOT and your vehicle registration will be suspended. This may cause you to receive large fines and other penalties. Many international students wrongly believe that if the car is not being driven for long periods of time, they do not need to insure it. This is not true. Even if the car is sitting in a garage, it must be insured. Many insurance companies offer reduced rates for times when you will be out of the country for long periods. You should contact your insurance company to find out the requirements to qualify for the reduced rates.
Many students will also often forget to renew their insurance before leaving the country and then have difficulty contacting their insurance company online to pay the renewal fee. This is especially a problem for many Chinese students who may not be able to access their insurance company’s website due to internet restrictions. Taking 20 minutes to ensure your car’s insurance will not lapse while you are away can save you hours of time and other potential problems later.
- Alcohol use
It is permissible to drink alcohol in the United States only if you are over the age of 21. If you are under the age of 21, it is illegal to buy, possess, or drink alcohol. If you get caught with alcohol while underage, you may be fined up to $500.00 for your first offense and lose your driver's license for 90 days. A second offense is up to $1000.00 fine and a one-year suspension of your driver’s license. Driving a car while your license is suspended can have significant penalties.
However, even if you are over the age of 21, it is still illegal to be drunk in public. If you endanger yourself or others you may still end up with a citation for Public Drunkenness. Doing too many shots at a bar could still end you up with up to a $500.00 fine and a criminal record. It is important to always drink responsibly.
- Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol (DUI)
It is illegal to drive a car while under the influence of alcohol. The legal blood alcohol limit in Pennsylvania is .08 percent, which is usually no more than 1 beer, 1 glass of wine, or 1 shot of liquor per hour, depending on your body size and other factors. If you are under 21, the legal blood alcohol limit while driving is .02 percent.
If you are pulled over by the police and charged with a DUI, your visa will likely be revoked immediately by the U.S. State Department. If your visa is revoked, you will not be able to leave the country and come back in without getting a new visa from your home country. You will also have to go through a lengthy criminal process and face fines in excess of $2500.00. If you decide to drink while in the U.S., drink in moderation.
- Marijuana use
While it may legal to use marijuana in several other states, it is illegal to use or possess marijuana in Pennsylvania. If you are charged and convicted of possessing or smoking marijuana, your visa might be revoked and you would need to reapply for a new visa, which could take up to six months to accomplish.
When you are looking for a place to live, remember that when you sign a lease, it is a legal contract. You should never sign a lease for more than one apartment at the same time. If you do, you may end up having to pay rent on both apartments.
When you move into your new home, always take pictures of everything and write a list of all damages that exist when you moved in. Most landlords will give you a form to note all of the pre-existing damages. If your landlord does not provide one for you, you can create your own. There is no official form. Write down any marks on the walls, broken blinds, stains on the carpet, problems with the appliances, etc. If you do not document the condition of the apartment when you move in, you may be charged for pre-existing damages when you move out. Move-in day is your best opportunity to protect yourself from losing money on your security deposit. Most landlords will give you 72 hours to turn in the move-in checklist after you take possession of the apartment. Even if it takes you an extra day or two to complete the list, you should still turn in the checklist.
If you are leaving State College over the winter break, set the heat high enough to keep the pipes in the walls and floors from freezing. Never turn the heat off completely. Every year a few students turn off the heat completely to save a little money while they are gone, only to end up owing their landlord over $10,000 in damages from broken water pipes.
It is highly recommended that you purchase renters insurance. Almost all of the major insurance companies offer renters insurance, which costs as little as $10 per month. If you are living in an apartment building and the person who lives above you floods your apartment, your landlord is not responsible for replacing your possessions.
The website, lionslease.com, provides detailed information about renting in State College and resources for getting help.
Most international students who enter on an F-1 or J-1 visa can work only on campus. F-1 students may work on campus up to twenty (20) hours per week. Working off campus without first getting permission from USCIS can jeopardize your current and future visa status. International students sometimes think that doing things like driving for Uber is not work. It is! If there are any questions, talk to your global programming advisor to stay on the right side of the law.
Reviewed: November 20, 2017