Graduated and Teen Driver’s License (GDL) Programs

An explanation of the different types of licenses teens and other unlicensed drivers need before obtaining an unrestricted license.

Driving is a state-authorized privilege, and each state has different rules and programs regarding how an unlicensed driver can obtain driving privileges. Often, states require new drivers to hold a variety of limited-use permits before obtaining an unrestricted driver's license. The requirements and steps a driver must take vary depending on the driver's age. This article will explain some of the standard requirements for new drivers.

What Is a Graduated Driver's License (GDL)?

Many states have graduated driver's license (GDL) programs. New drivers generally must go through a GDL program to obtain a full, unrestricted license.

The specifics of GDL programs differ by state. However, with all GDL programs, new drivers go through different levels of licensure (hence the name, "graduated") before being eligible to apply for an unrestricted driver's license.

What Are the Levels of Graduated Licenses (GDLs)?

The federal government issues recommendations for GDL programs for drivers under the age of 18. As the distribution of federal funds is tied to state compliance with these recommendations, most states meet the recommended minimums.

Along with a number of related rules, the federal guidelines recommend a two-stage licensing process including an instruction permit and an intermediate license.

GDL Instruction Permits

The first step to licensed driving is obtaining an instruction permit. Here are some of the basics on getting a permit and the restrictions that apply to driving with a permit.

GDL Instruction Permit Requirements

To apply for an instruction permit, the applicant typically needs to:

  • obtain parental consent
  • provide proof of identity, and
  • pay a fee.

The applicant must be at least 15 years old and pass a written and vision exam. The vision exam ensures that the driver can see clearly enough (with or without glasses) and the written exam covers the state's traffic laws.

GDL Instruction Permit Restrictions

A holder of an instruction permit is authorized to drive a motor vehicle with certain restrictions. The permit restrictions normally include:

  • The driver must be supervised at all times by a licensed adult over the age of 21.
  • Cell phone restrictions. The driver is prohibited from using a cell phone or other electronic communication device while driving.
  • Parental consent. As the permit requires parental consent, the signing parent is liable for any damages caused by the permit holder and is also authorized to withdraw this consent and cancel the instruction permit at any time.

Some states also have additional restrictions that apply to permit holders.

Completing GDL Instruction Permit Requirements

Before advancing to the next stage of licensure, the driver must generally complete 40 hours or so of logged behind-the-wheel training with a licensed driver and/or complete a driver's training course.

After holding an instruction permit for six months and completing all requirements, the driver can apply for an intermediate license.

GDL Intermediate Licenses

The second phase of the graduated license process is normally an intermediate license. Here are some of the basics on getting an intermediate license and the restrictions that apply to driving with this type of GDL.

GDL Intermediate License Requirements

To apply for an intermediate license, the applicant typically needs to:

  • be at least 16 years old
  • hold an instruction permit for at least six months, and
  • pass a driving examination.

Again, some states have additional requirements or slightly different rules.

GDL Intermediate License Restrictions

An intermediate licensee does not have to be supervised by an adult but must still abide by certain rules. These rules normally include:

  • Cell phone restrictions. The driver is still prohibited from using a cell phone or other electronic communication device while driving.
  • Driving during nighttime hours is often prohibited or restricted for intermediate license holders. Most states prohibited driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless supervised by an adult or in connection with religious, school, or certain extracurricular activities. On weekends, the hours are generally less restrictive.
  • Passenger limits. For intermediate license holders, the number of minor passengers is generally limited to one non-familial passenger unless supervised by an adult.

These restrictions will generally remain until the driver turns 18 years old.

Graduating to a Full, Unrestricted License

Once a driver turns 18, the restrictions are typically removed administratively without any need for additional testing or applications. Some states allow drivers to apply for early removal of these restrictions.

Once the intermediate license restrictions are removed, the driver will have a full, unrestricted license.

What Happens When GDL Holders Get Traffic Tickets?

Just like all drivers, the holder of an instruction permit or intermediary license must abide by all traffic laws. However, a traffic violation for GDL drivers can have additional penalties and consequences that most drivers don't face.

For most offenses (like no seatbelts) a driver's progression can be delayed for a few months. However, cell phone tickets often result in a license suspension of 30 to 90 days. For more severe driving violations (like driving under the influence), the license can be revoked and the driver will have to reapply for an instruction permit.

What Other Types of Special Permits Are There for Younger Drivers?

Some states have unique permits for minor drivers. Many farming states, like Kansas, offer a farm permit to 14-year-olds who need to travel between the farm, home, and school without parental supervision. Some states also have permits that authorize unsupervised operation for a teen who has no other way of getting to school.

Do Adult Applicants Have to go Through the GDL Process?

Most states do not require adult applicants to go through the graduated license process to obtain a driver's license. An applicant who's at least 18 years old will still need to take the written, vision, and driving tests before being issued an unrestricted driver's license.

A few states do issue an instruction permit to adults that pass the written exam but do not require a waiting period before attempting the driving test.