What Happens If You Drive Without a License?

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Driving without a valid license is illegal in every state and doing so can result in some fairly stiff penalties. There are different categories of offense, however, and a driver who forgets to grab his license on the way out of the house will not be in as much trouble as the driver who gets behind the wheel while suspended from driving.

Intentionally Driving Without a License

There are a number of ways in which a driver may commit a license-related driving offense. The most serious offenses occur when a driver intentionally drives without a license in order to get around a driving restriction, for example:

  • Driving with an expired license.
  • Driving with a suspended license.
  • Driving with a license that has been revoked.
  • Failing to apply for a driver’s license.

These offenses are known as willful violations. They are serious offenses since the driver is deliberately obstructing attempts to remove a dangerous driver from the road. If caught, the driver may be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor offense and his vehicle may be impounded.

Making an Honest Mistake

In most states, drivers are required to show their license when asked to do so by a law enforcement official. Mistakes happen, however, and it is not uncommon for a driver to leave his license behind when hopping into the car. If a driver cannot show a valid license when asked by a police officer, then she may be committing an infraction, which is a type of administrative offense. This is a much less serious offense than driving without a license, since all the driver has really done has been forgetful or made an honest mistake.

This offense is known as a correctable offense, meaning the driver can easily fix it. Most times the police will issue a "fix-it” ticket in which the driver is required to take her license and proof of insurance along to the traffic court to avoid conviction. It’s only if the driver fails to present her documents – or the license is not valid – that fines or other penalties may kick in.

Examples of State Penalties

Each state has its own traffic laws, and the penalties for driving without a license depend on where the driving offense is committed. By way of example, here’s what a driver can expect for willful violations in a couple of states:

New York

  • Drivers convicted of driving with an expired license will receive a fine between $75 and $300 if their license has been expired for more than 90 days, or $40 for a lesser expiration period. 
  • Driving while suspended is a misdemeanor offense known as "Aggravated Unlicensed Operation." The punishment is up to $500 in fines and up to 30 days in jail. Second and subsequent offenses and those associated with DUIs face heavier penalties, including up to 180 days in jail. 
  • Intentionally driving while under permanent revocation is the most serious offense and, depending on the circumstances, could be a Class E felony offense with a maximum $5,000 fine and up to four years’ incarceration.   


  • Driving while unlicensed carries a fine of up to $200 for the first violation. 
  • Driving while suspended or revoked is a Class C misdemeanor (the least serious type of misdemeanor offense) punishable by a maximum fine of $500. Second offenses carry a maximum fine of up to $2,000 up to 180 days in jail.
  • Driving while suspended is punishable by fines up to $4,000 and up to 12 months in jail if the driver also had no insurance and caused an injury accident. 


  • A driver may willfully drive without a license, such as driving after his license has been revoked, or he might make a mistake and leave his license at home. The first is a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines and even jail time; the second will usually be dismissed if a valid license is produced to the court.

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