How to ride a motorcycle in California

Considering I’m from the UK there were a few peculiar obstacles I had to circumnavigate before I could get back to riding a motorcycle, hence I thought it might be helpful for others if I jotted that whole process down. At the beginning it was pretty complicated and strange because I simply couldn’t find any info out there for me. So hopefully this guide is of use to you, fellow motorcycle enthusiast.

Step #1: What Do You Need?

OK, you’ve just moved to California from another country and you want to ride a motorcycle. Neat! If you already have a motorcycle license from your country of origin then you’ll need to get an M1 California driving license after 3 months of living in the States.

If you don’t have a license in your country of origin then you’ll also need to get an M1 license. To get it you’ll just need to complete a weekend-long driving course and a multiple choice written exam.

Step #2: Booking your Lesson

The state of California requires you to take a bunch of tests on a motorcycle at the DMV in order to get a license. However! You can take a two day course called an MTC which is about five hours of classroom teaching and ten hours of riding inside a private, fenced off area. That sounds like it’s a lot but it’s really just a weekend. If you take this course then you’ll get a waiver that you can take to the DMV which will excuse you from any road test but you’ll still need to take the written exam at the DMV.

Why’s that the case? Well, I’m not entirely sure but the MTC test is much easier than the slow riding stuff they’ll get you to do at the DMV.

So! I booked a course with Bay Area Motorcycle Training. In total, this was two days of training and it cost me a little over $200 — it was broken up into four classes over the weekend. Pretty simple.

Step #3: Buying Gear

The course that I took provided the bike and the helmet but they required that I bring the following along:

  • Boots that cover the ankle
  • Jeans
  • Jacket
  • Motorcycle gloves
  • Identification (I used my UK motorcycle license)

I already had some boots that were okay but the rest I needed to pick up from a local store. So next stop: Cycle Gear! This is a big franchise out here that sells all sorts of motorcycle gear and the one I went to had a pretty reasonable selection of quality stuff.

If you’re unfamiliar with buying the right clothes for riding then make sure to take it easy at first and don’t rush ahead – there’s no need to buy it all in one go since lots of equipment can be bought cheaply and slowly over time. With that said though, I kinda knew what I wanted. I bought a Dianese jacket for all seasons and a pair of Alpine Stars gloves. After the test, and a couple of weeks later, I went back to Cycle Gear and bought a Shoei RF-1200 helmet. All of this came to about $800 but that’s only because motorcycles will be my primary method of transport so everything needs to stand up to rainy weekends and cold summer nights in California. I also know that this stuff is going to last me years.

So this gear had to work for me in all weather and temperature conditions because it’s my one and only method of transport — splurging was kinda ok. But don’t feel like you need to spend lots on a cool jacket. You really don’t: a good helmet starts around $200 and a nice jacket can be found at around the $250-$300 range.

Once you’ve got your jacket, gloves, jeans and boots together now all you’ll need to do is the weekend course.

Step #4: Taking the Test

I’m not sure if this is the case for all test centers, but I had to sign a pretty serious waiver that described how driving a motorcycle would likely cause immediate death: take these notes seriously but don’t be frightened off by them.

Be sure to take the waiver that they send you in an email to the first lesson, along with your ID. I had to bring my UK driver’s license to prove that I was a human boy.

The classroom stuff is surprisingly easy because they’re methodical and spell everything out slowly. On the Sunday they then asked me to sit a multiple choice test that just repeats everything they mentioned — I was a little nervous about it because the test in the UK is pretty difficult but this one was a piece of cake in comparison.

So for the driving part of the course I spent that time on a Suzuki dirtbike but the strange thing about the test in California is that they don’t upgrade your bike during the course. In the UK you have to learn on a 250cc, 600cc and then finally an 800cc bike. And that makes a whole bunch of sense because a 250cc is a completely different vehicle to an 800cc. But that’s besides the point, you’ll only be on one bike and then at the end you’ll take a test on the same bike that lasts about 30mins.

The test that I took at the end of the two day course was absurdly easy, too. And if ya fail one part of it, don’t fret. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll fail this thing. Seriously. I cocked it up pretty bad and they still gave me a license.

And remember to be punctual and to bring your boots, gloves, jeans, ID and jacket to the test otherwise they won’t let you on the bike and you’ll have to come back and do the test again.

Step #5: The Written Test

A week after passing the two day course I received a form in the post as well as a card which I then had to take to an appointment at the DMV. Make an appointment if you can, but if not then turn up to the DMV a little before 7am and bring an audiobook with you. That way you’ll be at the head of the line at 8am when the DMV opens. It sucks, but that’s the least suckiest option. Booking an appointment isn’t likely to help because sometimes you have to wait months for a spot.

Once you’re at the DMV you’ll then need to fill out another form, do an eye exam, get your photograph taken and take what’s called a “written test” but it’s really just a simple multiple choice exam on a touch screen. That takes about ten minutes and weirdly enough you’ll have unlimited retries so it’s not anywhere near as intense as the one in the UK (where during a busy spell it can take a month to book a new one if you fail and you will most certainly fail it the first time). Anyway, you can take the written test before you get your card and form from the MTC but I’d recommend limiting the number of trips to the DMV as much as you can.

This is where I got into a bit of trouble though: I selected “Motorcycle” license on the form but the folks at the DMV applied me for a car license too. So double check to make sure that you’re only applying for an M1 license if that’s all you want. Because otherwise they’ll force you to come back and redo the form or they’ll get ya to come back with a car to do a driving test. Neither of those things are ideal, so beware. When I asked around at the DMV they all had me believe I ought to take a road test with them in a car before I could get my bike license but that’s simply not true. Misinformation is rampant at the DMV. If you want to just drive a motorcycle and get a license for that first then that’s totally possible.

Also if they’ve accidentally signed you up for both a car and motorcycle license, you’ll need to stand your ground a little bit without being a jerk. Thanks to this cock up I had to refill a motorcycle license application form which took several hours of waiting in line and faffing about.

OK, so this is where things get confusing.

I was told that because I’m a foreigner without a California driving license then I would have to come back and do all the tests that the course was supposed to waive me through. So after I applied for the license I was given a temporary permit and told that I’d have to return and take the damn road test at the DMV. So I got in contact with the Bay Riders Group to hire a motorcycle for the test and did an extra day’s training (the DMV test is a lot of slow driving stuff that every rider forgets with time) but once I got to the DMV they told me that the MTC waiver was still okay. All I’d need to do is drive around the block to test my road knowledge. Three left-hand turns later they gave me a slip saying that I had passed.

So compared to the UK, this was a thoroughly baffling process. I was told a million different things by everyone and had to go to the DMV a lot more than what was necessary. For all this confusion and foolishness, I was handed a temporary permit after a simple road test and in a couple of weeks I should get my real license in the mail.

Hopefully this helps you figure things out — the lack of information online is infuriating, without even mentioning the conflicting advice that I found everywhere. In short the process is pretty simple. Don’t panic, follow these steps, and you should be on the road within no time at all.