How To Get Your Motorcycle License

An in-depth guide of what you need to do to get your motorcycle license.

2020 Yamaha R3
Motorcycles like the 2020 Yamaha R3 make great beginner bikes because they don’t have the intimidating power of the 998cc R1 yet still have that sporty stance that some riders look for when they purchase their first motorcycle.Courtesy of Yamaha

Deciding to get a motorcycle license is a big deal. It’s a huge step to freedom and takes commitment to learning, understanding, and preparing to safely maneuver the roads on a motorcycle.

You may have already started wrangling up the funds for a great-fitting helmet, protective riding gear, and the motorcycle itself. A key first step, though, is getting your motorcycle license.

First Steps To Getting Your Motorcycle License: Take A Rider Training Course

A great starting point to acquiring your motorcycle license is to take a state-recognized training program through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), Total Control, or other similar organizations.

Although taking a basic rider course prior to licensing is not required in all states (see chart below), we recommend enrolling in one because they provide in-class instruction and closed-course training taught by professional instructors who thoroughly educate students on the basics of riding a motorcycle. Most schools provide a motorcycle to train on during the class too. Prices for these programs can range from $0 to a few hundred dollars, varying from state to state.

state required rider education for motorcycle licensing
MSF provided the data gathered here that shows which states require rider education for licensing. Age is also a factor that increases the likelihood of the rider course being a requirement.MSF

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse (BRC) curriculum is used by all branches of the US military and a majority of the states (excluding California, Idaho, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Ohio uses their own curriculum, but recognizes the MSF BRC. Alaska and Mississippi don't have an administering agency). According to the MSF website, MSF’s course involves approximately three hours of online instruction, five hours of classroom activities, and 10 hours of hands-on motorcycle skills development on a paved lot. If your state utilizes the MSF program, visit the MSF website to find a class near you.

Total Control’s Beginner Riding Clinic is taught in several states including California (known as CMSP MTC), Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas. The Total Control BRC includes five hours of classroom and 10 hours of on-cycle instruction. For more information on booking a beginner class visit totalcontroltraining.net.

Another course option is the Harley-Davidson New Rider course. This also offers classroom and two days of on-bike training. This course, depending on the schedule provided by your dealer, typically consists of three hours for the first class meeting, two days of paved-lot, closed-course riding, and finally, an in-class graduation day to complete paperwork and celebrate your completion of the course. Learn more about the New Rider Course here.

Next Steps To Obtaining Your Motorcycle License: Complete DMV Requirements

Once a state-recognized rider course is successfully completed it could potentially waive the skills riding and or knowledge portion of the Department of Motor Vehicles test, depending on the state.

According to MSF, Kentucky is the only state that does not waive the skills portion, D.C. does not offer the skills test (but rider must complete rider course approved by any US jurisdiction), and Alabama does not require a skills test. The rest of the states do waive the skills portion as a result of a successfully completed rider training course.

States that do not waive the knowledge test include: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia.

If your state waives one or both of the above tests, bring the completion card and current driver’s license with you when you finalize the endorsement at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

If your state does not waive the license requirements, those tests (and potentially a vision test) will need to be taken and completed at the DMV to meet license requirements. Check with your department of motorized vehicles to confirm if the waiver applies.

Many states also offer motorcycle learner’s permits, which limit the learner to daylight riding as well as riding on specific roadways, riding without a passenger, and/or riding under supervision of an endorsed rider. As with licensing, states have varying requirements such as knowledge and vision tests, so be sure to check the specific steps your state requires. Taking a rider course prior to permitting is also recommended.

Kawasaki Z125
If you need to take the skills test at the DMV, a Kawasaki Z125 would be a great ally for the job.Courtesy of Kawasaki

Like anything involving motorcycles, it is best to be prepared. Practice tests and handbooks are often available at the DMV so you can study up and best prepare yourself for a passing grade.

For more information, the AAA is also a valuable resource that breaks down the motorcycle permit or license laws/requirements for each state.

Different Classes of Motorcycle Licenses

California, for example, has different classes of motorcycle licenses including the Class M1, Class M2, and even Class C (the standard car-designated license). Class M1 grants access to ride any motorcycle or scooter. Class M2 is limited to only motorized bicycles, moped, or any bicycle with an attached motor. In California, a scooter can be operated with either an M1 or M2 license and a Class C license allows you to ride three-wheeled motorcycles or a motorcycle with a sidecar attachment. Other states such as Georgia, Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming call the endorsement “Class M” and these vary in including motorcycle, scooter/moped, or three-wheeler allowances.

What Is Tiered Licensing?

Tiered licensing is a motorcycle license system commonly found in Europe that limits the motorcycle engine size options for riders, so beginner riders don’t start on too-powerful motorcycles, but can work their way up. MSF provided a comprehensive list of the states that implement the tiered licensing system. These include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

You Have Your Motorcycle License. Now What?

  • Be sure you have the appropriate gear. The Cycle World website is filled with reviews and gear roundups to get you on the right path.
  • Purchase the most appropriate motorcycle for your skill level. The “Great Beginner Motorcycles to Get You Into Riding” would be a good place to start. 
  • Make sure you have motorcycle insurance.
  • Don’t forget to take your riding to the next level by following up your training with higher-level riding courses from MSF, Yamaha Champions Riding School, or the like. Also, Cycle World contributor and lead instructor of Yamaha Champions Riding School Nick Ienatsch offers helpful riding tips in his Ienatsch Tuesday columns.
  • Enjoy the ride!