Is driving without a license a felony?

Driving without a license is not a felony, at least not the first time. The consequences vary according to the circumstances of the offense, with driving with a suspended or revoked license being the most severe.

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Tonya Sisler has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of South Carolina in Journalism and has worked for 15+ years in management. She has also completed a proofreading certification and is currently a professional writer.

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Brad Larson has been in the insurance industry for more than a dozen years. He started out as a claims adjuster for a national carrier. He has since switched to the agency side of the business. Brad is licensed in all P&C lines.

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Reviewed by Brad Larsen
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent Brad Larsen

UPDATED: Apr 15, 2022

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Things to Know

  • Driving without a license is not a felony, but it is illegal and could lead to an infraction or misdemeanor if caught
  • Driving without a license can mean driving with an expired license, driving with a suspended/revoked license, or not having a license at all
  • Repeat offenses for driving on a suspended/revoked license can lead to a felony charge

Is driving without a license a felony in the United States? Well, not exactly.

Though driving without a license is illegal, most states do not classify it as a felony offense. At least not for the first offense.

So if you are caught driving without a license, you’re unlikely to see the inside of a jail cell — or other similarly severe consequences typically associated with felony convictions. However, you will still be subject to fines and other penalties. Following a license violation, most insurance companies make it more difficult for drivers to obtain or maintain cheap car insurance rates. 

In other words, if you get pulled over without a license, don’t think that you can get away with it easily. You could still end up paying a hefty price for your mistake.

This article will examine how you can be prosecuted for driving without a license, what happens if you get caught driving without a license, and the maximum fine for a conviction of driving without a license.

What makes you guilty of driving without a license?

People who drive a license show that they understand traffic rules and how to operate a vehicle. Driving without a license has consequences that include receiving a ticket, being charged a misdemeanor, or arrest. These are the situations that fall into driving without a license:

  1. Driving without owning a license
  2. Driving with a revoked or suspended license
  3. Driving with an expired license
  4. Driving without a license in possession

Driving without a license is prosecuted in all states regardless of whether the driver owns the vehicle.

If this is your first offense, you will most likely receive an infraction. If it’s a repeat offense, you could be looking at a misdemeanor, and multiple repeat offenses will lead to a felony.

Here’s a rundown of the four scenarios above and their consequences:

1. Driving without owning a license

Depending on the state, driving without ever being issued a license is not a felony. You may only receive an infraction if you’re lucky, which carries a fine between $25 and $200, and some states also add demerit points to your record.

On the other hand, if it’s a repeat offense, you could be looking at a misdemeanor charge and fine of up to $1,000. You may also have to participate in community service. However, you are unlikely to serve jail time unless you were convicted of other crimes in conjunction with driving without a valid license.

2. Driving with a revoked or suspended license

Any driver caught operating a vehicle with a suspended license will face severe penalties. For first-time offenders, you’ll be looking at a misdemeanor. Repeat offenders face arrest and felony charges.

Either way, driving with a suspended license will result in an extended suspension period, not to mention thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time.

To put things into perspective, suppose a Colorado driver accumulates enough demerit points and gets a suspension. The maximum penalty for driving in violation of that suspension is six months in jail and a maximum fine of $500. That’s already rather severe. However, if said driver is caught driving while on a DUI suspension, they’d be looking at a jail sentence of 30 days to a year and a fine of $500 to $1,000. The consequences are more or less the same for most states as well.

3. Driving with an expired license

Driving with an expired license is not a felony and does not have the same severe repercussions as other scenarios we have listed. Typically, offenders receive traffic infractions. Fines for driving with an expired license usually range between $25 and $250. There may also be points added to your license.

However, it is also important to remember that in the eyes of your insurance company, you are legally unauthorized to drive a car after your license expires. In an accident, your insurance company can decide to not pay for your coverage.

If you ever find yourself in this unfortunate situation, there is some good news. If you obtain a valid license or successfully renew it before the court date, some judges may reduce the fine or dismiss the charge altogether.

4. Driving without a license in possession

You may receive a ticket if you do not have your license when the police pull you over. However, since you weren’t driving without it intentionally, you can later reduce the penalty fee if you contest the ticket and show proof that you currently possess a license. In any case, this is certainly not a felony.

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What is the maximum fine for a conviction of driving without a valid driver’s license?

The penalty for driving without a license varies, and it depends on the seriousness of the offense and the driver’s history. First-time offenders may be looking at a fine of up to $500, while repeat offenders might be looking at a maximum fine of $5,000 plus possible jail time. In general, repeat offenses carry more severe penalties and longer prison terms.

The punishment also depends on the state where the driver committed the offense.

In Texas, for example, the first offense is classified as a Class C misdemeanor, and the fine is no more than $500. A repeat offender may be fined up to $2,000 and sentenced to no more than 180 days in jail.

In Florida, driving with a suspended, revoked, canceled, or disqualified license is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum jail sentence of 60 days. A second offense will result in a Third-degree felony, punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and a maximum jail sentence of five years.

First offense misdemeanors in Washington can result in a fine of up to $5,000 and one year in jail.

How to Drive Without a License Legally

A valid driver’s license is required whenever you operate a motor vehicle in the U.S. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule.

The following situations are exceptions to driving without a license:

1. Driving on Private Property

If you are driving on private property, you do not need a license. The same is true for minors. Minors who do not have driver’s licenses can ride dirt bikes or drive vehicles on private property if there is no public access to the property or third parties present who might be injured.

2. Special-purpose vehicles

People driving farm machinery, emergency vehicles, and military vehicles are not subject to the same license requirements as those driving passenger vehicles. Special-purpose vehicles, such as those listed above, do not require a standard driver’s license. However, they may require a different form of license. 

3. Licenses from other states

Drivers with valid licenses from other states or countries can generally drive in any state without any problems. However, this can vary based on the respective state’s motor laws.

What constitutes a felony traffic offense? 

A felony traffic offense — such as running someone over or causing massive property damage in an accident — is the most serious driving offense anyone can commit. Drivers convicted of these offenses face harsher punishments.

Most states consider the following offenses to be felony traffic offenses:

  • Homicide or manslaughter by vehicle
  • Repeat DUI convictions
  • Repeat driving offenses in general, including driving without a license
  • Reckless driving resulting in injuries or property damage
  • Trying to escape from law enforcement

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Consequences of a Felony Offense

A felony offense usually has more severe consequences than a misdemeanor offense. Among the potential penalties are:

  • Steep fines
  • Costly court fees
  • Jail time
  • Additional points on your license
  • A criminal record

Having a criminal record is probably the worst outcome of all of the above. A person with a criminal record can’t serve on juries or purchase firearms. They may also not hold certain professional positions, such as law, teaching, or the military. Additionally, a felony conviction will appear on their employment record, adversely affecting job prospects.

Driving Without a License: The Bottom Line

Although it isn’t a felony, driving without a valid driver’s license is still a serious criminal offense and not something to be taken lightly. In most states, driving with a suspended or revoked license or without a license can result in an infraction or misdemeanor. You could receive fines or points on your license, which you certainly want to avoid.

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