What You Can Legally Do When You're 18

By Cameron Banks
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In the U.S., it’s commonly accepted that you become an adult when you turn 18 years old. At this age, you can register to vote, sign contracts, join the military and do much more. Do you know what else you can and cannot do? Though some laws vary by state, here’s a list of things that you can and cannot do when you enter adulthood.

History: Why 18 is Considered an Adult

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Eighteen years old is a pretty random number, but in general, the age you become an adult in the U.S. is closely tied to voting rights. For instance, before the 1970s, most states required people to be at least 21 years old to vote in their state. The voting age was later lowered to 18 as debates about the Vietnam War stirred unrest. People argued that if a soldier was old enough to fight and die for his country, he was old enough to vote for his country as well.

What You Can Do: Register to Vote

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Although the legal age to vote was once 21, in 1970 it was lowered to 18. It was argued that if a person could be drafted at 18, he should have the right to vote on elected officials. Today, if you are a citizen of the United States, you have the right to register to vote and cast a ballot in all federal, state and local elections when you turn 18.

What You Can Do: Get Married

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Once you turn 18, you can legally marry in nearly all states without the consent of your parents. In certain states, you may be able to legally marry at a younger age, but only with parental consent.

That said, you cannot, however, have consensual sex anyone below the age of 18 once you turn 18 years old. This would be considered statutory rape in most states, and depending on the circumstances, can lead to trouble and maybe even jail time.

What You Can Do: Join the Military

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If you are male, not only are you allowed to voluntarily join the armed forces at 18 years old without parental consent, you are required to register for Selective Service. Established in 1917, Selective Service registration ensures the ability to draft men between the ages of 18 and 25. Any male citizen or male immigrant must register with Selective Service within 30 days of his 18th birthday. At this point, women are exempt from Selective Service, but are welcome to voluntarily enlist in the military.

What You Can Do: Contracts, Work and Business

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At 18 years old, you can legally sign contracts and other legal documents, do not need "working papers" or other permits required of minors, and can work full-time and can start a 401k (retirement) plan. Prior to turning 18, you could sign a contract, but may have not been held responsible to keep the contract – meaning you could break the contract with little or no consequence.

Varies by State: Tobacco and Alcohol

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In most states, you can buy tobacco products at 18 years old. But as recent as mid-2016, states like California passed bills that raised the smoking age from 18 to 21 years old. In other states like Alaska, Utah and Alabama, the legal age to buy tobacco is 19 years old.

As for alcohol, you cannot legally drink alcohol in the U.S. on your 18th birthday. Though the legal drinking age has gone up and down over the years, in 1984, the Uniform Drinking Age Act raised the drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. In some states, when you turn 18, you can serve alcohol at work (though not in all states, and there may be conditions).

What You Can Do: Other Legal Rights

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When you turn 18, you can receive medical care, donate blood and get tattoos and piercings without parental consent or permission. You can also buy lottery tickets in most states, gamble in casinos in some states, change your name, buy adult video games or go to an X-rated movie, buy a rifle or shotgun (depending on the state), move out of your parents' house, and be responsible for yourself. By turning 18, you are believed to have the maturity and judgment to make important decisions on your own.


About the Author

A former newspaper columnist and college writing instructor, Cameron Banks is the award-winning author of numerous non-fiction books for adults and young people, web and print feature articles, and essays. Banks attended Northwestern University and lives with her family in southern California.