In the U.S., 18th birthdays are often celebrated as the start of legal adulthood, and it's certainly true that 18 is the age of majority in many jurisdictions for several purposes – but not all. For example, while 18-year-olds can serve on juries, be drafted into military service and vote in state and federal elections, they cannot legally purchase or publicly consume alcoholic beverages. Other rights and obligations may vary from state to state.
Turning 18 does not release a young adult from having to comply with parental rules in the family home, however, since the right to control the use of one's property applies to every homeowner.
The Right to Vote
One benefit of turning 18 is that you are now eligible to vote in local, state and federal elections. The voting age across the U.S. is uniformly applicable, thanks to the 1971 ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment provides in section 1 that the "right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years or age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age."
However, each state may legally adopt and enforce different regulations and rules regarding voter pre-registration and registration. Those rules can and do vary from state to state. For example, in Colorado, new voters may register to vote at age 16, while in Wyoming, citizens must be at least 18 years old on or before the next election in order to register to vote.
In several states, people can register to vote online through various registration portals and websites. You can also download the National Mail Voter Registration Form, fill it out and mail it to the specified location for your state of residence. Alternatively, contact your state or local election board office to find out how to register in person.
The Right to Emancipation From Your Parents or Guardians
Another perk of being 18 is the ability to make your own decisions. Finally, you can move out of your parents' house and live on your own – assuming, of course, that you have a means of supporting yourself.
Eighteen-year-olds can also do things like open checking and savings accounts in their names at banks and credit unions (subject to meeting their customer criteria); apply for credit cards and establish a credit history; and select and attend a college in another state. They can also play the lottery at 18.
The Right to Enter Into Contracts
Minors in most jurisdictions are legally deemed to lack the capacity to enter into binding contracts. Any such contract or agreement is deemed void and unenforceable, unless the contract is for the provision of a necessity such as food or shelter.
However, once a minor turns 18, most states provide some period of time during which she can affirm or reject any contracts signed as a minor. If you affirm the contract, it validates the contract and makes it enforceable. Consequently, if you violate the contract's terms by not paying for the goods or services, for example, you can be sued for breach by the other party.
The Right to Drink Alcohol
A person who has reached the age of 18 may not purchase or publicly consume alcoholic beverages. This is due to the federal 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This legislation conditioned the receipt of federal highway funding by the states on raising the drinking age to 21. Consequently, all 50 U.S. states have adopted or maintained laws that prohibit the purchase and public consumption of alcohol by any individual who hasn't reached the age of 21.
However, in many states 18-year-olds have the right to consume alcohol privately. For example, if a parent or other person over the age of 21 serves a glass of wine at dinner, in many states it can be consumed without incurring legal liability.
The Right to Smoke
In some states – 18 as of September 2019 – you must be 21 to purchase and use tobacco products, including cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco. However, in other states it is possible to buy tobacco and smoke or chew it if you're 18 or over. Bear in mind that cities and counties may have other laws or ordinances that restrict where tobacco can be used in public and by whom.
The Right to Be Held Accountable
Once you turn 18, it is more important than ever to follow all laws at all times. If an 18-year-old gets in trouble with the police due to criminal behavior, he can be arrested and tried as an adult. Adult criminal punishments are typically much more serious than juvenile punishments.
- USA.gov: Voter Registration Age Requirements by State
- Constitution Center: 26th Amendment - Right to Vote at Age 18
- Vote.org: Register to Vote
- USA.gov: How to Vote or Register to Vote
- U.S. Election Assistance Commission: National Mail Voter Registration Form
- APIS: The National Minimum Drinking Age Act
- NYRA: State Guide to Drinking Age Law
- Nolo: Who Lacks the Capacity to Contract?
- Tobacco Free Kids: States and Localities That Have Raised the Minimum Legal Sale Age for Tobacco Products to 21 (PDF)
- The Law Dictionary: What You Can Legally Do When You're 18
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.