In California there are two classifications of driver’s licenses that allow an individual to legally operate a two-wheeled motor vehicle on public roads: the M1 and M2 endorsements. Each can be obtained independently or added to any other class of license already held (commonly class C). They are, however, not the same thing. The M1 classification covers a broader range of vehicle types with M2 operating as a subcategory. In other words, if you get an M1 endorsement, you’ve also got M2 coverage.
Here’s what you need to know about each classification including the requirements for obtaining the respective level of licensure. Please note that each license type covers a specific category of vehicles. If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by moped, motor-driven cycle, or the like, please reference my earlier article on motorcycle types.
M2 Motorcycle License
An M2 motorcycle license is the lesser of the two endorsements. The holder of an M2 license can legally operate motorized bicycles, mopeds and motorized scooters.
M1 Motorcycle License
An M1 motorcycle license authorizes the holder to operate any street legal two-wheeled motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized scooter, including all the vehicles covered by an M2 license.
Class C License
A class C license authorizes the holder to operate cars and light trucks and is the primary type of licensure in California. More importantly for our purposes, it also authorizes the holder to operate motorcycles with attached side-cars and most three wheeled vehicles which are sometimes lumped with motorcycles in terms of recreational uses.
Obtaining your motorcycle license
There are two paths to motorcycle licensure: one for adults over 21 years of age, and another for those under 21 years of age but at least 15 and ½ years of age. Applicants who do not already hold another class of license may be required to pass a DMV observation test in addition to the requirements listed in the following sections.
Adults over 21
If you are at least 21 years old, the process for obtaining your motorcycle license is somewhat simpler. All drivers must pass both a written examination and a skills test. Upon completion of the motorcycle specific written test, which consists of only half the questions on the usual class C written test, applicants will be granted a learner’s permit. This permit, which must be held for six months prior to obtaining a full M1/M2 license, allows the holder to operate the applicable class of vehicle on public roads but not on freeways, not after dark, and not with a passenger. After the 6-month training period, the applicant is eligible for the skills test and, upon passing, will be granted their license. An applicant may pass a CHP approved training course in lieu of the DMV skills test.
Adults between 18 and 21
For adults in this narrow two-year range, the above requirements apply with the additional requirement that the applicant also take, and pass, an approved skills training course offered by the CHP. There is a fee for this course.
Minors may apply for a class M1/M2 permit starting at age 15 ½, provided the applicant presents proof of passing both a driver’s education and a driver’s training course and obtains signed permission from both parents (where two or more parents or guardians have custody). A license may be obtained after the applicant has held the permit for 6 months, is at least 16 years old, and passes a CHP approved skills training course.
A few caveats
It’s important to note that holding a valid license or permit for the type of vehicle you are operating does not waive or excuse any of the other requirements of driving legally in California. Specifically, even if you hold a valid license, you must still maintain insurance or equivalent financial responsibility as provided by law, you must still operate only legally registered street legal vehicles, and you must still follow all applicable rules and regulations.
Finally, I strongly recommend that anyone applying for a motorcycle license seriously consider taking a CHP rider training course, even if there is no legal requirement to do so in your case. These courses are specifically designed by highly qualified motorcyclists to provide you with many of the basic skills you will need to ride safely. The class might just save your life. For details click here.
For more details on motorcycle licensure requirements and for information about CHP approved rider training courses or the DMV skills test please see the California DMV motorcycle handbook.