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Common Tread

How to get your motorcycle permit and license

May 09, 2021

Want a motorcycle learner’s permit or license? Not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. We’ll cover all the basics to get you riding on two wheels in no time.

Every rider starts somewhere. Luckily for you, it isn’t difficult to earn a motorcycle permit or license and start riding, even if you’re totally new to motorcycling. All you need to succeed is basic preparation, a few key pieces of protective gear, a willingness to learn, and some common sense. 

Note: This article is intended for motorcyclists in the United States, although the general guidance and suggestions here can be helpful in other places. If you don’t live in the United States, your motorcycle license structure may be tiered, with different tests and restrictions as you advance. 

It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover specific laws in every state, so your very first step should be a visit to the motorcycle section of your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website. This article is meant to help you through the process with some best practices and general advice, but you should always refer to your state’s specific regulations as you work to earn your permit or license.

What if I really don’t know anything about riding a motorcycle?

Don’t worry, each state offers rider education before testing. These programs start from square one, adding new skills and information as you progress. You're probably ready to start if you can ride a bicycle.

What if I already know how to ride? Can I skip the safety course and just take my test?

Sure. If you feel ready, you can schedule a test to demonstrate your skills and earn a license. You may be required to pass the permit's written test before your skills test.

Do I need a learner’s permit or a license to ride a motorcycle on the street?

Legally, you definitely do, but there are some license-free riding opportunities if you stay off-road. Dirt bikes are fantastic tools for learning to ride. In fact, countless motorcyclists get their first tastes of riding far away from pavement. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn with an afternoon, a little dirt bike, and a wide field or trail.

Learning to ride
You don't need a license to learn off-road. Mostafa Rezaee photo.

Your local motorcycle track may be another way to ride without a permit or license, though you'll need to know how to ride a motorcycle proficiently before you go. Most tracks do not require a motorcycle endorsement to enter. Give the track’s organizers a call to make sure you’re in the clear if you aren't sure.

It’s worth noting that small motorcycles and scooters under 50 cc can be operated on the road with just a basic driver’s license in some states. No motorcycle permit or license needed! Others require a restricted motorcycle license.

How do I get a motorcycle permit?

A permit is a limited form of motorcycle endorsement from your state’s DMV. (If you had a permit before getting your basic driver’s license, this is pretty similar.) You’ll study your state’s rules for riding, take a short written test, and if you pass, you can legally ride a motorcycle on the street with some limitations. Those limitations vary from state to state, although they may restrict your ability to carry passengers, ride at night, or ride on freeways. Minimum age for a permit is usually 15 and a half or 16 years old and younger riders may be required to log a number of hours while under the supervision of licensed riders before getting licenses of their own.

Permits typically have expiration dates, so be smart about when you get it. It’d be a shame for your permit to expire mid-season or right before your license test. Your state should offer a state motorcycle handbook to help you prepare. All the information you need to earn your permit is in that handbook. You can even take practice tests online to make sure you’re ready.

How do I get a motorcycle license?

A motorcycle license means full riding privileges. There are two common paths to getting your license. First, you can schedule a skills test through your state’s DMV. You’ll be asked to ride a short course to earn the evaluator’s approval. They need to see that you can handle a motorcycle safely, so make sure you can command your motorcycle with confidence. You should be able to find private training courses to help you prepare for the state test if you’d like. Keep in mind that you'll need a motorcycle with current registration, insurance, and inspection (if applicable) to pass a state test, so this can be a difficult option if you don’t have a motorcycle. Here's a video of South Carolina's motorcycle license test.

The other option is getting your license through an approved motorcycle safety course. Successful completion waives the license test requirement. These courses are especially appealing for those who don’t own motorcycles, as the courses provide learner-friendly bikes for you to use. You’ll spend a couple sessions in the classroom, then head out to the range for hands-on instruction.

Motorcycle license class
Coaches guide students through the basics of riding using a training range, painted lines, and lots of cones. Sergio Herrera photo.

Coaches guide students, answer questions, and assess technique. Some insurance companies give discounted rates if you’ve completed a safety course. Plan ahead when signing up, though. These courses can cost a few hundred dollars, and they fill up quickly when the weather's nice. Sign up for a course though your DMV's website.

I have my permit! How do I work towards my license?

That’s a common question for new riders. If you've never ridden a motorcycle, familiarize yourself with the basics of riding a motorcycle using our handy video.

What you do with your permit depends on which licensing path you choose. If you’re taking a state-approved course to earn your license, focus on gathering your required safety gear and getting signed up for a course. You can worry about learning to ride once your class starts.

Those taking the skills test directly through the DMV should use their permit to get plenty of riding practice, building skills and confidence to ace the test. You can take the test again if you fail, but that can be inconvenient and discouraging. A little research should give you an idea of what to expect from your state’s test. Talk to riders you may know about their license test experiences, and listen carefully for tips. You’ll probably do some maneuvers in a parking lot with cones, then a short ride on the road to show that you can safely interact with traffic and road conditions. Be sure to practice controlling your motorcycle at low speeds. Stalling or dropping the bike will only hurt your test.

Either way, riders with permits should be wearing safety gear whenever they ride. Start with a DOT-approved motorcycle helmet that actually fits. You should also have eye protection, closed-toed shoes that cover your ankles, sturdy gloves, and clothes that fully cover your arms and legs. You’ll be required to bring similar gear to a safety course, anyway. Add a motorcycle jacket and riding pants for added safety.

Now that you have your permit and basic gear, you need a motorcycle and somewhere to ride it. Don’t stress if you can’t wrangle up a bike right now. Get signed up for an instructional course that provides bikes for you, and they’ll take it from there. If you do have access to a motorcycle, try to start in an open area without traffic, like an empty parking lot, for your first practice sessions. Bring cones and an experienced friend along if you can. Once you’ve got the basics of riding, try some short rides on the street to build your skills and confidence. Always ride your own pace.

You should notify your car or motorcycle insurance provider once you start riding with your motorcycle permit, especially if you are borrowing a motorcycle as you practice.

How much does a motorcycle license cost?

The answer varies from state to state. There can be smaller fees for your permit and license testing, and it may cost a few bucks on top of that to add a motorcycle endorsement to your existing license card. Safety courses range from free to a few hundred dollars.

Tips, tricks, and suggestions for earning your permit and license

For your permit, get a copy of your state’s motorcycle handbook and read it front to back. Now read it again. Is there a practice quiz in there? You'll have it memorized in no time, and they’ll probably ask you the exact same questions at your actual test. Upon passing, you’ll be issued a permit of some kind. Don’t lose it! You’ll need to keep it on your person every time you ride, and you’ll probably need to bring it to your safety course or license test. 

Motorcycle license test
The evaluations focus on control at fairly low speeds. Photo by Ida Irby via Marine Base Quantico.

As for license tests through your DMV, it really is best to ask other local riders for what to expect. Most tests favor smaller motorcycles. Show up on a bike you know well, or at least one you can handle well. 

You can expect a lot more coaching and note-taking from the safety course route. These programs are designed to teach every part of basic motorcycle operation, including shifting, braking, turning, and accelerating.

Motorcycle test
Note the lightweight training motorcycles in the background. They're full size machines, but completely docile. Some beginners head to the showroom and buy the same model they learned on. California Highway Patrol photo.

If you already have motorcycling experience, and you're just taking the course to get street-legal, stay open to changing your riding habits for the duration of the class, even if you don’t agree with the instructor’s reasoning. They can't bend the state-approved standards for you. Like it or not, you're on their turf, and you need their signature to pass. It doesn't matter how many years or miles you've got under your belt.

What do I do after I get my motorcycle license?

Start shopping bikes if you don't already own one, borrow a friend’s, or never touch a motorcycle again; it’s your call. Assuming that you'll continue riding, check out RevZilla's beginner rider page. It covers everything from how to choose a motorcycle, to which gear you’ll need, to basic maintenance and mechanical knowledge. Your riding experience is now your own responsibility, and that's a good thing! Keep learning, practicing, and riding. Motorcycling will continue to reward you.