How To Get a Motorcycle License

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You don’t need to own a motorcycle — or even a helmet — to earn a motorcycle license. In fact, it’s better to learn to ride before buying a bike. You’ll really find out if motorcycling is for you. If it is, you’ll be able to choose a motorcycle based on more than looks alone.

If this website hasn’t already made it clear, motorcycles are fast (or slow), hilariously fun, and economical. They’re also a great way to get around every day. I learned to ride at a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course in a parking lot in Michigan more than a decade ago, RideApart staffer, Wes Siler learned to ride in England, and we’re still not quite sure if Justin Bieber knows how to ride. Angelina Jolie certainly does.

Why ride? Some motorcyclists want to get out of the subway or always wanted a Vespa. Maybe you always dreamed about riding a certain type of bike. Maybe motorcycles just look like more fun than the cars on the road these days. Maybe you’d be able to ride in HOV lanes. Or perhaps you’re about to go over on your lease mileage. Or maybe, you just want to ride.

In America, earning a motorcycle license isn’t very hard. State governments leave most of the work and most of the proficiencies up to the rider.

Read on to find out how to get a motorcycle license, and the steps you need to take to become a safe, proficient rider.

Getting a License:
For a new rider, the best way to get a license is to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course costing anywhere from $25 – $300, depending on the state you live in. This 2-3 day class is split between the classroom and a practice range, where students learn to ride a motorcycle. Graduates earn a road test waiver to take to the DMV and exchange for a motorcycle license.

To sign up for a Basic Rider Course near you, visit MSF-USA.org and find the phone number of a local training center. Call the phone number and sign up for a class. You may need to apply for a learner’s permit prior. To find out if you do, call the training center or check the requirements for your state. (Oregon, for instance, has their own course, called Basic Rider Training).

Basic Rider Courses are often booked weeks in advance. In the meantime, consider riding a bicycle. Being able to ride a bicycle is a prerequisite of the Rider Course, and being comfortable on a bike can make the course easier. It’ll also help you feel comfortable around traffic while on two wheels.

Because the Basic Rider Course isn’t long enough to take students on the road and to teach them more advanced maneuvers, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers additional courses like the Basic Bike-Bonding Rider Course — which helps riders become comfortable on their specific motorcycles — and the Street Rider Course 1, which is a one-day course where instructors stay in radio contact with students as they venture out on the streets. The more training you get, the better. This applies no matter how experienced you become, riding a motorcycle is a lifelong pursuit of skill.

Things To Think About On Your Way To Becoming a Proficient, Safe Rider:

Protect Yourself:
Buying protective gear should be part of the budget for your first bike. Read here to see why.

Take Care of Your Vision:
Good eyesight can mean the difference between an accident and an incident. I wear contacts or clean glasses with a clean, fresh shield on my helmet. It’s important to be able to see the road clearly. Clean mirrors make it easier to see what’s going on behind you. Protect your eyes at all times, catching a bug or rock in the eye can cause a crash.

Pick up a copy of Proficient Motorcycling — it does a good job bridging the gap between the minimal training required to get a motorcycle license in the U.S. and the extreme amount of training required to get a license in Europe. Safe riding doesn’t mean boring riding. Proficient Motorcycling explains late apexes, gear selection and body positioning, the importance of riding sober, and not giving into peer pressure while on a bike.

Practice:
Head out early in the morning on the weekends — the roads will be nearly empty, and you can focus on riding technique rather than being overwhelmed with cars. Ride with a buddy who has your safety in mind, not someone who will be pushing you to ride in situations you’re not ready for. Empty parking lots at giant box stores make great places to practice.

Remember That You’re Invisible:
Expect oncoming cars to turn across your path. Try not to get upset when they do, just plan for it in advance and avoid them. Be vigilant with your focus and always use caution.

Expect The Unexpected:
You may get a flat tire. You may take a bird to the faceshield. You may unexpectedly run out of gas. When these things happen, keep calm, wave a hand to let others know you’re in trouble, and pull over to the side of the road.

Get The Right First Bike:
To find a great first bike, look at used bikes 500cc or under, or check out RideApart’s Buying Guide. Keep in mind that everybody drops their first bike. Save the expensive, fancy purchase for when you’re skills are up to speed and your really ready for it.

Be safe and have fun. We look forward to sharing the road with you.

Related Links:

Guide: The Complete Guide To Motorcycle Categories
Buying Guide: Buying a New vs. Used Motorcycle – Which Is Right For You?
Safety: How To Make Your Motorcycle More Visible
How To: How To Buy a New Motorcycle – Advice for Dealer Virgins

  • akaaccount

    Everyone, rider or not, should take the MSF course.

    I didn’t. Instead, I went ahead and bought a beater bike, drove over to the DMV and measured the course, replicated it in a disused parking lot behind my place of employment, left the bike out behind work and practiced everyday for a total of about 10 hours all in all, had a coworker follow me with my learners to the DMV, and aced the test. MUCH easier than spending a Saturday morning riding around on someone else’s Rebel 250. (Sarcasm)

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.briere1 Martin Briere

    Here in Quebec (Canada) getting a licence is a real ordeal. First, a motorcycle training course is obligatory with a minimum of 9 hours of theory and 18 hours of practice.

    First step, You need to pass a theoretical exam just to have the right to climb on a bike in a closed circuit.

    Second step, after completing the practical part of the course you have to pass a closed circuit exam to get an apprentice license. The apprentice license gives you the right to ride anything, as long as you are accompanied by a licensed chaperone on another bike. The idea is that you should follow a more experienced ridder who won’t do anything foolish. In practice it’s just a pain.

    Third and final step. There is a minimum waiting period of 11 months (11!!!) before you are judged fit enough to try a road exam that would give you a full license. Once you have the full license you are free to ride anything you like.

    The process is so long that I’ve resorted to riding on a 50cc scooter while I jump through all those hoops. I’m having great fun, can’t wait to get on a bike.

    • http://www.mises.org/ Core

      IF they cut down on the theory… to like a more reasonable time. an hour Plus whatever it took to talk about the basics, and then 18 hours of practice… and then did the practical course and maybe 4 months of practice then the road exam.. wouldn’t be so bad.

      I had to take a drivers ed course not to long ago to get points knocked off my license (here in the US) and.. I thought they were honestly trying to kill us with boredom in that late night class… *sighs* Ironically the four or five hours (I forget how long it was) they talked about nothing but drinking, drugs.. etc.. nothing really in regards to speeding.. because really speeding is all about tax money.

  • Nathan Wiley

    I feel the best place to learn to ride a motorcycle is off road and in the dirt. Buy a small displacement used dirtbike, some decent gear, and hit the fields or trails. One can quickly flirt with, and exceed the limits of traction in the dirt, with little damage to their bike or themselves. This can’t be said for the street, where even a low speed drop on pavement can have serious consequences. Run a little wide on that dirt trail? No big deal, crank on the gas and be on your way. Do this on the street at street speeds and it may mean death. The street, with oncoming traffic and 55 mph limits is no place to be learning the skills needed to ride a motorcycle.

    We’ve all seen that guy that wobbles through the intersection on his streetbike and has to use both lanes to make a simple turn. Don’t be that guy. Even those who have no desire to ride dirtbikes would be well served to START with them anyway.

    • Jesse MacGregor

      I don’t doubt that what you say is true but there are places where riding off road means a trailer and a couple hour drive (I know: sounds pretty awful right!). For those of us in metropolitan areas this just isn’t feasible.

      • http://twitter.com/KeyserBroze JB

        If you live in the metro, your first step to moto freedom should be moving out. I kid, but the metro really can be an unforgiving venue for motorcycle experimentation. At least the kind we’re talking about here.

  • Mister X

    Martin B. you Rock, you realize it’s not What one rides, it’s being out Riding that defines being on two wheels, I started on a Mini-bike (a tiny non-street legal lawnmower engine powered fun machine) and have had over a dozen street motorcycles since those days of yore. You’ll love riding something that has more power and can keep up and ride in highway traffic.

    My brother was a MSF teacher for many years and I learned some valuable tips from him so I encourage anyone to take it if it’s available.

    And as far as difficulty in getting one’s motorcycle license, I feel the USA need More rider education as there are still too many squids and clueless cruiser riders out there that could likely benefit.

    Oh, yeah… and when you guys with your new bikes and gear come through my small coastal town, the speed limit downtown is 25 MPH, please observe it as closely as possible because when you don’t it gives us local riders a bad name (small towns can be like that), so haw about showing some biker like comradeship and observing the speed limit in town, thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/martin.briere1 Martin Briere

      Thanks, I’m having great fun with the scooter around town. I’m past the phase where I need to prove anything and I can just enjoy being on two wheels

      On my 50cc two stroke I don’t have much trouble keeping up with normal street trafic and with the under seat storage and a top box It’s really practical. The only thing missing is the ability to get out on the highway. If you live in the city, a scooter is really a load of fun.

      Just love the scooter but I still dream of getting myself a Bonneville once I get my licence.

  • Eric Shay

    I never dropped my first bike, must have been doing something wrong.

  • Stef

    Getting your licence in Holland is a bit of a hassle. First you got 4 types of licence (Am,A1,A2,A) Am is 50cc scooter and you get it with your car drivers licence. A1 is voor 125cc and max 11kw bikes. A2 is for 35kw bikes and A is unlimited.

    Now, for getting your A (and you’re under 24) you first need to get the A1 and A2 to licence. You can start lessons for A1 at 18 years old, to get the licence there are three exams (theory, bike control and final exam). the cost for lessons and exams are between 1000 and 1200euro.

    When you get your A1 you need to do 2years of driving before you can do the final exam for the A2 licence.

    Then after another 2 years of driving with the A2 licence you can do the final exam for the A licence.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mugget mugget man

    I did a bunch of different roadcraft type courses, as well as on-track tuition over a number of years before finally going for a day at California Superbike School. That was one of the things you do, and then wish that you would have done it right at the start. Honestly I can’t speak highly enough of CSS. If you can go, turn and stop – you qualify for CSS. As a new rider you’ll learn answers to questions that you didn’t even know you had. Actually that was true of me and I’d been riding for 5 years before I went, as well as having read all the Twist books and others!

    Good advice to take care of your vision, beware that rocks and insects can get in your eyes with the visor up. People have lost eyes that way, you can get a nasty infection if the wrong kind of bung goes in your eye as well (trust me). Also worth mentioned that hearing needs protection as well (ear plugs, peoples!)

    One other really helpful bit of info I learnt along the way revolves around this little quiz:

    Q: What do you know if an oncoming car is indicating that they will turn off the road?

    A: You know that their indicator works.

    Most people would say that the car is going to turn off the road… but that’s wrong! An important lesson there – don’t assume anything. (Which is actually a good life lesson, but especially relevant to motorcycling.)

  • http://twitter.com/Mr_Paynter Mr Paynter

    In South Africa, we still have a written test for the motorcycle learners’ licence, and then no limitations on your choice of ride (you can finance a brand-spanking new Hyabusa with your learners licence having never SAT on a bike, if that’s your thing) or limitations on riding alone other than no pillions, which isn’t policed at all.

    Whenever you’re ready you do a 20 minute yard test with the tester/instructor standing stationary in one point consisting of 3 emergency stops, a curve to the left in a 3 foot wide lane, an opposing curve to the right, a lane-change and a pathetic hill-start. Done, dusted.

    Sounds great, and it worked for me but you also see a lot of guys riding who maybe should be practicing before they’re out on the road!

  • Zac

    If you are in California I would add that it makes a lot of sense to go to the DMV and get your permit before going to the MSF course. Not only will you get some more background info, you will also be issued your license automatically upon completing the course.

    You then also have the added option of getting some saddle time before the course. I had a few rider buddies and those sessions and hours of practice put me well at the head of the class.