In the U.S., the law that governs motor vehicles is the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

But according to the Constitution;

Freedom of movement under United States law is governed primarily by the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the United States Constitution which states, "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.

Case #1: "The use of the highway for the purpose of travel and transportation is not a mere privilege, but a common fundamental right of which the public and individuals cannot rightfully be deprived." Chicago Motor Coach v. Chicago, 169 NE 221.

Case #2: "The right of the citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his property thereon, either by carriage or by automobile, is not a mere privilege which a city may prohibit or permit at will, but a common law right which he has under the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Thompson v. Smith, 154 SE 579.

Case #3: "The right to travel is a part of the liberty of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment." Kent v. Dulles, 357 US 116, 125.

Case #4: "The right to travel is a well-established common right that does not owe its existence to the federal government. It is recognized by the courts as a natural right." Shachtman v. Dulles 96 App DC 287, 225 F2d 938, at 941.

So, are you allowed to travel in a motor vehicle in the U.S. without a driver's license?

  • 18
    "travel by motor vehicle" does not equal "operate a motor vehicle"
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 17:50

7 Answers 7


There is no basis for the view that requiring a driver's license is unconstitutional.

First, it's critical to realize that a right to travel has nothing whatsoever to do with licensing drivers. A right to travel does not in any way mean there's a right to travel in a particular way. Likewise, using a car does not mean you're traveling. Schactman is about the right to obtain a passport, which is a requirement to travel overseas. Kent is likewise about international travel.

Freedom of movement means the government cannot, without good cause (like being on parole), prevent you from traveling within the US, living where you choose, or working where you choose. Likewise, there's a right to international travel that means that without good cause, the government can't stop you from leaving the US or re-entering if you're a citizen. Requiring a drivers license to use public roads doesn't stop you from doing that -- there are other ways to travel.

The Thompson v. Smith decision explicitly supports the idea that requiring drivers licenses is allowed. To quote a more representative section from the case:

  1. STREETS AND HIGHWAYS -- Right of Citizen of Travel and Transport Property -- Use of Ordinary Vehicles. -- The right of a citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his property thereon in the ordinary course of life and business is a common right which he has under his right to enjoy life and liberty, to acquire and possess property, and to pursue happiness and safety. It includes the right in so doing to use the ordinary and usual conveyances of the day. This right is not a mere privilege which a city may permit or prohibit at will.

  2. STREETS AND HIGHWAYS -- Right of Citizen to Travel and Transport Property -- Use of Ordinary Vehicles -- Police Power. -- The right of a citizen to travel and transport property and to use the ordinary and usual conveyances of the day may, under the police power, be regulated by the city in the interest of public safety and welfare; but the city may not arbitrarily or unreasonably prohibit or restrict it, nor may it permit one to exercise it and refuse to permit another of like qualifications, under like conditions and circumstances, to exercise it.

  3. AUTOMOBILES -- Drivers' Permits -- Arbitrary Revocation. -- The regulation of the exercise of the right to drive a private automobile on the streets of the city may be accomplished in part by the city by granting, refusing, and revoking under rules of general application permits to drive an automobile on its streets; but such permits may not be arbitrarily refused or revoked, or permitted to be held by some and refused to others of like qualifications, under like circumstances and conditions.

While Chicago Motor Coach doesn't seem to be available online, searching it finds other sites stating that the real issue was a commercial operator licensed by the State of Illinois, and whether Chicago, as a municipality within Illinois, could require them to also be permitted by the city. Another line from it seems to be "Even the Legislature has no power to deny to a citizen the right to travel upon the highway and transport his property in the ordinary course of his business or pleasure, though this right may be regulated in accordance with the public interest and convenience."

To quote more recent precedent, Miller v. Reed from the 9th Circuit (a federal court of appeals, not a state court) states that

The plaintiff's argument that the right to operate a motor vehicle is fundamental because of its relation to the fundamental right of interstate travel is utterly frivolous.   The plaintiff is not being prevented from traveling interstate by public transportation, by common carrier, or in a motor vehicle driven by someone with a license to drive it.   What is at issue here is not his right to travel interstate, but his right to operate a motor vehicle on the public highways, and we have no hesitation in holding that this is not a fundamental right.

(incidentally: Drivers licenses are not required by federal law. They are required by state laws.)


Yes, you are allowed to travel in a motor vehicle without a driver's license, as long as you are not driving the vehicle.

  • 3
    Your attention to detail is suitable for a law site, in my opinion. :-)
    – dw1
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:10
  • @dw1 as one who does not own and rarely operates a motor vehicle, but who regularly travels travels on public ways, I don't find the distinction to be a matter of "detail".
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:14
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    @dw1 My point is that a traffic code should not be seen as modifying a right to travel. The cases cited concern a right to travel. The question itself implies that it is about the right or privilege to operate a vehicle. The two are not the same. The question's literal wording clearly conflates the two, asking if it is legal to travel without a driver's license, but whether it is legal to drive without one.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:34
  • 1
    @dw1 I meant to add that I opened the question expecting it to be about TSA identification requirements or the like (e.g. dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs). I would also like to state for the record that an earlier comment should have ended with "not whether it is legal to drive without one", not "but...."
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:59
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    @phoog: The distinction is already being considered, mostly thanks to DUI laws. Apparently, if there's no steering wheel etc, then many states' DUI laws don't apply, as they require actual physical control of the vehicle. If there's a line to be drawn re: "operating" vs "driving", that would be the most likely one.
    – cHao
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 19:31

All 50 states have seen fit to enact traffic codes pursuant to their police power. Such regulation has not been found to infringe upon the right of Freedom of Movement, aka the "right to travel."

Licensing requirements began in the early 1900's:

"No court after 1920 found the right to travel sufficient to strike down a driver license requirement." Source

Here are a few federal cases supporting the right of states to regulate the highways:

Hendrick v. Maryland 235 US 610 (1915)

"The movement of motor vehicles over the highways is attended by constant and serious dangers to the public, and is also abnormally destructive to the ways themselves . . . In the absence of national legislation covering the subject a State may rightfully prescribe uniform regulations necessary for public safety and order in respect to the operation upon its highways of all motor vehicles — those moving in interstate commerce as well as others. And to this end it may require the registration of such vehicles and the licensing of their drivers . . . This is but an exercise of the police power uniformly recognized as belonging to the States and essential to the preservation of the health, safety and comfort of their citizens."

Hess v. Pawloski 274 US 352 (1927)

"Motor vehicles are dangerous machines; and, even when skillfully and carefully operated, their use is attended by serious dangers to persons and property. In the public interest the State may make and enforce regulations reasonably calculated to promote care on the part of all, residents and non-residents alike, who use its highways."

Reitz v. Mealey 314 US 33 (1941)

"The use of the public highways by motor vehicles, with its consequent dangers, renders the reasonableness and necessity of regulation apparent. The universal practice is to register ownership of automobiles and to license their drivers. Any appropriate means adopted by the states to insure competence and care on the part of its licensees and to protect others using the highway is consonant with due process."

(via Is There A Right To Travel In The United States?)


Normally, I would simply answer the question at hand, taking the words as they are posed and not questioning whether they were meant to say something other than their actual meaning. However, with regard to this question the author (if taken using the words as stated) cites a variety of cases that stand for the proposition that travel is a right not a privilege, but yet simultaneously seeks to inquire whether one can be required to be be a licensed driver to merely travel. This is odd to say the least, since the question itself seemingly answers the query. That perplexity makes me wonder (1) is the author talking about driving? If not, why ask what he/she already knows to be true, which is that you have a right to travel. There were a few answers already so I didn't bother to chime in, but since today the question lives on, I thought I would weigh in on some issues, if not an answer in an of itself.

Two things are clear: The right to travel is just that, a right, not a privilege. However, a driver's license is a privilege and not a right.

To begin, I think it is only fair to point out a couple of things that are (at least to me) a bit confusing about this question. First, when I initially read this question, I assumed the drafter meant "do you need a license to drive, not just travel", since the he clearly knows your right to travel is not merely a privilege but a fundamental right. As I mentioned, he has cited myriad cases in his very question that stand for this proposition. So can that really be the question?

Frankly, I think I would've assumed the question was intended to be about the right to drive, despite the use of the term travel, as I don't think there are many people who would entertain the notion that one may need to be a licensed driver in order to legally travel as a passenger. In the U.S., people travel every day that cannot drive for one reason or another. Clearly there are all manner of reasons for this... from disability, to legal inability due to infancy, conviction, suspension, the elderly, and/or a whole host of other reasons; however, (almost) nobody would suggest that just because you cannot drive somehow limits your right to go somewhere when someone else is driving.

Whether the author meant drive vs. travel came up amongst a number of members both answering or commenting, however, the author never clarified his intention. Assuming people don't ask questions that cite the very answer they're seeking, I began thinking about it more.

Then I thought, did the author of this question, when choosing to use the term motor vehicle, intend to imply passenger travel in an individual's private motor vehicle, or, did he mean some other form of mass/public transit, or any/all of the above?

Next, I began to wonder about the use of the term drivers license. Is it possible the author was referring to identification (rather than a drivers license) in this scenario. Why? Because if the term license was intended, than the first issue is a non-starter in that regardless of what you travel in/on, the analysis doesn't change - you have the right to travel without being a licensed driver. That is clear. Not only in the cases sited in the answers herein, but pursuant to article iv of the commerce clause, the right to interstate commerce necessitates the right to free travel. But where my confusion comes in, which is why I wonder if he potentially meant ID, is that again, in reading the question the author makes clear that he is well aware of the fundamental right to travel. However, you do not have an absolute right to travel without identification. Even under strict scrutiny, being able to identify a passenger, especially using public transit, having identification serves an overriding and legitimate public purpose (actually multiple purposes) and as such, would survive the strictest of judicial scrutiny.

Why am I pondering all of these clarifications? Since taken at face value it's clear that the author already knows the answer to his question, I cannot help but wonder if we are missing the true meaning and there is really more to it that is either just missing or was somehow lost in translation.

I can see drivers licenses suffering from "the Kleenex" phenomenon. Just as people use Kleenex as synonymous with tissues, so do some use the word license interchangably with ID ("identification"). I remember as a college student heading out to the bars with my friends, and someone would inevitably ask "Everyone got their licenses?" This, despite the fact that many of our friends didn't drive, but they did have state issued identification cards so they could get into the bars! Many cities, like NYC, have full generations of residents who have NEVER had a license, because it's simply not practical to drive in a city that charges what most of us pay for a mortgage just for have a good parking space, there is nowhere to park if you drive away from your high-priced spot, traffic with the cab's is nuts, and the public transit system goes everywhere that you cannot walk to.

That said, it is difficult to assess who has the best answer when we don't know what was the intended query really is. This is all assuming he didn't just decide to ask a question he knew the answer to, and wanted to give his understanding of the law by citing cases in the question, so as to see if something unexpected would be written in an answer. Who knows! But that would be nearly as rare as thinking you could be legally required have a drivers license just to be a passenger in a car!

Anyway, If he meant do you need a license to legally drive, the answer is YES, and @Cpast and dw1 gave the best/correct answers IMHO, but those are mostly about regulating drivers (again, I too assumed this is what he meant, but only because of this discrepancy of form.

If he meant, do you need a license to legally travel in any moving vehicle, the answer is, "of course not" and his own question is the best source of (well, part of) why not.

But if the question was actually meaning to use the term Identification, then there is a whole other analysis to be done, and none of these answers are wholly adequate (and who will spend the time answering until we know!)

  • 4
    If you Google some of the material from the question, you'll see that this line of reasoning is taken from several web sites that employ the same sort of fallacious logic applied to a carefully selected subset of laws and precedents that is used by many to argue that income tax is unconstitutional. The OP has asked some other questions on this site that relate to income tax, too. Your confusion about the question stems from not knowing that it is based on a crackpot attempt to prove a proposition that is in fact false: that it is unconstitutional to require drivers to be licensed.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 3:00
  • 2
    ugh. I wish I knew I'd not have wasted my time.
    – gracey209
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 3:21
  • 7
    If it helps at all I did enjoy reading your answer :-)
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 3:24

I have been both on holiday and on business in many foreign countries, including the USA. If there was any need to have a driver's license to be allowed to drive in any of these countries, I would have expected the travel agency to tell me about it. Sure enough, they always tell me that I need a passport, and usually tell me whether some visa is required. I have never, ever been told that a driver's license would be required to travel anywhere in the world.

In addition, it would be completely unreasonable to deny children who are not old enough to have a driver's license, or senior citizens who are too old, or anyone with an illness that prevents them from getting a driver's license, the right to travel in the USA. Think about blind people who can't get a driver's license. Do you think they wouldn't be allowed to travel?

No, you don't need a driver's license to travel in the USA on airplane, river boat, as a passenger on a train or a bus, or a taxi, or as a hitchhiker, or on bicycle or on foot. I even saw a movie some years ago about an elderly man who lost his driver's license and travelled on his lawn mower ("The Straight Story", 1999). You don't have to leave your husband or wife behind if they don't have a driver's license, they are free to ride in a car as a passenger.


There is nothing fringe about exercising a right. Operating a conveyance whether motorized or horse drawn does not require a license when traveling for personal reasons as it is a right and not a privilege.

It is when one drives for commercial purposes that a license is necessary and enforceable through statute.

If I were a jurist trying a case dealing with such issues, I would nullify any statute that misleads the public into thinking that the state can abrogate a right by turning it into a privilege.

  • 6
    This "answer" consists of four sentences: Opinion, unsubstantiated claim, unsubstantiated claim, opinion. Can you provide any substance to back up the claims?
    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 2:44
  • 2
    I think you're missing the point that moral rights and law are not exactly the same thing. An argument from moral rights belongs on Philosophy SE; here, we accept that the law is what it is, regardless of whether it satisfies the function of protecting rights, and the question is, what, objectively speaking, does the law say?
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 4:51
  • The state of Georgia has already met this issue by passing the Georgia Right to Travel Act of 2010. If we study Maxim of law, the Constitution, civil law, and uniform commercial code all of which precede state statute ( public policy), it becomes apparent that you cannot contract under threat, duress, or coercion, and a constitutional right can not be converted into a crime. Remember a right is taken free and clear. You don't ask. legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20092010/97280.pdf Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 4:33
  • For the record, Georgia did not pass the Right to Travel Act. The bill died in committee and never became law. legis.ga.gov/legislation/28916. I couldn't find evidence that anyone supported it at all except its author, Rep. Bobby Franklin, who as one can see from his Wikipedia page, took many positions that are not exactly mainstream. Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 6:13

Having a 'Drivers License' to 'drive' or 'operate' a 'motor vehicle' are all activities related to commerce. I hate it when lawyers try and deceive the general public by sticking to the correct language that defines these commercial activities and then suggests that people to not have a right to use or travel on the public roadways without permission. Notice the careful use of the words "motor vehicle" and "Drive" and operate". When these words are used in this context then the writers above are correct and their deception is clear. A license is a request for permission...hmmm...permission to do what exactly? Well to drive, of course, which is a commercial activity. If you purchase an automobile and use is solely for personal enjoyment and travel then the government cannot compel you to register it in order to obtain a license, to insure it or to even get an emission sticker or test for it. UCC Title-9, Section 102 clearly states that any item that is purchased for personal use or enjoyment is considered "consumer goods" and you cannot be denied its use by the application of taxes or registrations or licenses. This would diminish its value to the owner which would create an unlawful taking of your private property. You do not need to have a license to use it or to have it insured as well. These requirements would also be considered illegal takings by the government. Don't listen to these lawyers who have a vested interest in deceiving the public by using language designed to deceive. Study up and learn the system and then assert your rights and know how to protect them.

  • 1
    This answer is very wrong: driving is not necessarily a commercial activity. A license is not a request for permission; it is a grant of permission. The government can and does compel registration, insurance, and testing of automobiles just as they do with other dangerous things. Consumer goods are not exempt from tax, registration, or licensing on the argument that these reduce the value of the goods. (Also, if driving is commercial activity, how is a car a consumer good?) Who would consider these requirements an illegal taking?
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 2:39
  • 2
    You're wrong. Your entire argument resets on the invalid premise established in the first sentence. Show me the legislation that defines that those activities are exclusively commercial. In fact, it's so wrong that I'm placing a notice on it.
    – jimsug
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 2:40
  • 1
    Yes, very wrong, and it certainly merits the notice. But remember that there are fringe theorists that espouse this sort of argument. I think it's amusing and perhaps even occasionally useful to be reminded that this is out there. In this case it adds "helpful" context to gracey's excellent answer.
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 23:30
  • 3
    Sovereign citizen BS Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 22:47

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