The University of Iowa

This page gives a list of some local, State and Federal laws that international visitors to the US need to be aware of. While these are not immigration issues, all international visitors are required to follow the same laws. This information is meant to be a very basic introduction to the more common legal issues international visitors may encounter.

Students seeking legal advice outside of immigration issues for F and J status are encouraged to contact Student Legal Services, the office on campus that provides professional legal advice and representation in many cases for University of Iowa students.

Driving Laws

For complete information on Iowa laws regarding licenses and driving, please see the driver’s manual for the Iowa Department of Transportation. You may also find specific information regarding obtaining your license in Iowa City.

Some common laws regarding driving in Iowa:

  • Seat Belts and Restraints -
    • The driver and front-seat passengers must wear safety belts.
    • Children under one year of age and weighing less than 20 pounds must be in a secured, rear-facing restraint system.
    • Children under 6 or over 20 pounds must be in an age-appropriate restrain system, such as a booster seat.
    • Older children who are large enough must wear the car’s safety belt.
  • Insurance and Registration –
    • All drivers in the state of Iowa must carry minimum liability insurance on their automobiles. The purpose of this is to provide some financial coverage for injuries and property damage in the event of an accident. You must carry proof of current and active auto insurance when driving.
    • All owners must register their motor vehicles with the county in Iowa in which they reside, and update the registration each year.
  • Accidents
    • If you are involved in an automobile accident, even if there seem to be no injuries and damage is minor, it is recommended you contact local law enforcement to come to the scene of the accident. They will assess and investigate the situation, fill out any necessary paperwork, and also connect you and others involved with medical care if needed. You should not leave the scene of the accident until law enforcement has arrived and told you it is OK to leave.
    • Gather information from the other driver, including copying the name and address from their driver’s license, a phone number, and copy down the license plate of their car. Do NOT discuss or admit to any fault. This is something to discuss only with the police and your insurance company. Do not let the other driver try to talk you into not calling the police.
    • Contact your insurance company as soon as possible, ideally on the same day as the accident.
  • Cell Phones and Texting While Driving – As of this date, Iowa currently does not restrict cell phone usage while driving, but texting while driving is against the law.

Domestic Violence

In the United States, and more so in Iowa than in some other states, domestic abuse (or “domestic violence”) is a crime. Laws aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence are strictly enforced in Iowa City and on the university campus. If a couple is fighting and the police come to the scene and find evidence of assault (such as a cut, bruise, or scratch), they are required to arrest the attacker and take him or her to jail for the night. In the morning, after appearing before a judge who sets the date for a trial, the attacker is set free. A "no contact" order is put in place until the trial. The order forbids the attacker from returning home, seeing, talking to, or having any contact with the victim.

Women who are victims of domestic violence may stay temporarily at the Domestic Violence Intervention Project (DVIP), which is a "safe house" in a secret location. It is staffed by counselors who can help the woman and her children (if she has any) remain free of their dangerous situation and make decisions about the future.

The stresses of being a student family in a foreign country can sometimes lead to family violence, and wives of foreign students sometimes become victims of domestic abuse. Any woman who feels that she is being victimized by her husband or a person with whom she is living should seek help immediately. Staff are on duty at the DVIP (319-351-1043, or 1-800-373-1043) 24 hours a day. ISSS Advisors (319-335-0335), the RVAP (Rape Victim Advocacy Program, 319-335-6000, or 24-hour hotline 800-228-1625), and the WRAC (Women's Resource and Action Center, 319-335-1486) are committed to helping both foreign student wives and foreign student husbands who find themselves in abusive situations.

Child Abuse and Endangerment

In Iowa, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 18. There are numerous laws in place to protect children from physical, sexual, and mental/emotional abuse. Please see the Iowa Department of Human Services website for more specific details.

One area where some international parents may encounter problems is “denial of critical care.” In part this law has to do with ensuring children have necessary food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. But it also includes when it is considered legally safe to not supervise a child, or to leave them alone – something that can differ considerably from one culture to another.

“Failure to provide proper supervision of a child which a reasonable and prudent person would exercise under similar facts and circumstances, to such an extent that there is danger of the child suffering injury or death.” This definition includes cruel and undue confinement of a child and the dangerous operation of a motor vehicle when the person responsible for the care of the child is driving recklessly or driving while intoxicated with the child in the vehicle.

The Department of Human Services receives many inquiries each year regarding when a child can be left home alone safely. Iowa law does not define an age that is appropriate for a child to be left alone. Each situation is unique. Examples of questions to help determine whether there are safety concerns for the child include:

  • Does the child have any physical disabilities?
  • Could the child get out of the house in an emergency?
  • Does the child have a phone and know how to use it?
  • Does the child know how to reach the caretaker?
  • How long will the child be left home alone?
  • Is the child afraid to be left home alone?
  • Does the child know how to respond to an emergency such as fire or injury?

Alcohol and Illegal Drugs

Laws governing alcohol usage in Iowa can be complex and sometimes surprising for international students who may come from places that have different or no laws regarding alcohol. Below is a summary of the most common alcohol offenses. 

  • PAULA – Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age – The minimum age to legally consume alcohol in the state of Iowa is 21. This applies to not only drinking alcohol, but “possessing” it as well. If you are “just holding” a beer for your friends, or it was “just sitting in front of you,” you can be issued a ticket and fined several hundred dollars in Iowa City. The easiest way to avoid this is to not drink under the age of 21, don’t hold your friends alcohol, and don’t let your friends leave it sitting in front of you.
  • Providing to Minors – It is illegal to provide alcohol to persons under the age of 21. This includes not only selling alcohol to minors, but purchasing it for them or giving it to them as well.
  • Public Intoxication – This means “being drunk and disorderly in public.” If you are or have been drinking, and behave in such a manner to indicate you are intoxicated, you may be issued a ticket or arrested.
  • Open Container Laws – In Iowa it is illegal to have open containers of alcohol in a motor vehicle; it is also illegal to consume or have open containers of alcohol in public places. (Restaurant outdoor seating, such as you see in the Pedestrian Mall, is generally well-marked and they have special permissions for customers to consume alcohol in these areas.)
  • Driving Under Intoxication – Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) is illegal. In other words, driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs is a crime, and carry very expensive fines as well as the possibility of jail time. In other states this may be referred to as DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).
  • In the Dorms – UI policy prohibits possession or consumption of alcohol in the residence halls, even by students who are 21 and older. Be very careful about roommates, or visitors to your room, who refuse to observe this policy and who bring alcohol to your dorm room – if it is discovered, YOU may get in trouble even if the alcohol was not yours.


Iowa law prohibits smoking in almost all public places and enclosed areas within places of employment, as well as some outdoor areas.

On-campus – The University of Iowa is a smoke-free campus. Smoking is prohibited in all UI owned buildings, vehicles, recreation facilities, and parking lots.

Witness Tampering

“A person who offers any bribe to any person who the offeror believes has been or may be summoned as a witness or juror in any judicial or arbitration proceeding, or any legislative hearing, or who makes any threats toward such person or who forcibly or fraudulently detains or restrains such person, with the intent to improperly influence such witness or juror with respect to the witness' or juror's testimony or decision in such case, or to prevent such person from testifying or serving in such case, or who, in retaliation for anything lawfully done by any witness or juror in any case, harasses such witness or juror, commits an aggravated misdemeanor.”

If you or a friend is involved in a legal issue, or know someone who is, it is extremely important that you never contact others involved to try to get them to change their information, drop charges, or lie to law enforcement.

University Policies (Students only)

The University of Iowa Code of Student Life includes information on a variety of policies students must follow and be aware of, including academic misconduct, discrimination, University of Iowa policies on alcohol and drugs, legal assistance for students, etc.