The University of Iowa

Owning and Operating a Car

A Word of Caution

It may seem to you that everyone here needs a car. In fact, it is quite possible to live in Iowa City without one. Owning a car is expensive and often troublesome, because they need repairs that are usually costly and are not always reliable. Cars require regular and continuing spending for maintenance, license plates and annual registration, insurance, and fuel. Unless you have an ample supply of money, therefore, it is wise to be cautious about buying a car.

Driver's License

The Iowa Department of Transportation has a great handout with basic information including answers on whether you can use an international license, what insurance and registration are and if they are needed, and other common questions international students have about driving.

Only “Iowa residents” can be issued Iowa driver’s licenses. You can qualify as an Iowa resident by living in the state for at least 30 days, or by having children registered in school in the state. Generally speaking, you are legally a resident if you are present in Iowa and intend to remain in Iowa for the time being.

To obtain an Iowa license, you must go to the Driver's License Department in the Eastdale Mall, at 1700 1st Avenue in Iowa City, 800-532-1121 (toll free in Iowa), or 515-244-8725, Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. and Saturdays, 8:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m (please see DOT website for holiday hours). You will need your passport (to prove your identity and age), I-94, and certificate of eligibility (I-20 for people in F status, DS-2019 for Js). You will be required to take an examination concerning driving laws and practices. The test is not given within 30 minutes of closing time. In addition to the test (which you can take in writing or on a computer), you may be required to take a "road test." If so, you will be asked to drive your car while accompanied by a driver's license examiner. (You must furnish your own car for the test.)  Road tests are given on a walk-in basis. To insure that an examiner will be available, it is best to go in during the early office hours.

Before going to take the driver's license examination, you should study the booklet, Iowa Driver's Manual, which is available at the Driver's License Department, the Civic Center, the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, the Police Department, or the Public Library. The booklet contains all the information needed to pass the written part of the test and is available free of charge. The booklet is available at the Department of Transportation web site,, in several languages. So is other information about driver’s licensure in Iowa.

The DMV website provides information about approval driver education in Iowa (

It is vital to learn and follow traffic regulations. Regulations concerning driving speed, turning, and parking are used to control automobile (and bicycle) traffic in the U.S. Most people generally adhere to those regulations, and the regulations are enforced by the police. Violations of traffic regulations are punished by fines, jail sentences, and/or loss of driving privileges. Cars parked in violation of regulations may be towed away, and the owner required to pay a fine, towing costs, and storage costs.


Driving in Iowa City

In addition to knowing local traffic laws, it is necessary, for safety's sake, to know the customs and practices local drivers follow. A related matter is what the Americans call "defensive driving." In their driver-training classes, Americans are generally taught to "drive defensively," which means to drive with the assumption that other drivers might make mistakes or drive dangerously. Some suggestions for driving defensively:

  • Watch other drivers (not just in front of you, but beside and behind you as well), and make sure they are staying in their lanes, not turning from the wrong lane, not driving too fast, not overtaking on the wrong side, or otherwise following illegal or improper practices.
  • Always allow enough distance between your car and the car ahead of you to come to an emergency stop without hitting that car.
  • Always watch for other drivers entering an intersection. Don't assume that, because you have the right-of-way or a green light, all drivers will yield for you. Drivers who are obeying the law will yield, but drivers who are not paying attention or otherwise driving recklessly may not.

In some countries, driving regulations are not as detailed or as strictly enforced as they are here, and driving habits may be shaped more by competition with other drivers than by laws. The laws regulating traffic are detailed but are different from the ones in the U.S. People who have learned to drive in other places may easily but unintentionally violate driving regulations here and then be penalized for their violation.

Iowa's Safety-Belt Law

Iowa law requires the use of seatbelts by the driver and front-seat occupants of any 1966 or newer car, truck, or van. Infants under 20 pounds must always be placed in an appropriate rear-facing car seat that meets federal safety standards, and which ideally is secured in a rear seat or (if there is no rear seat in the car) in a seat where there is no airbag. Should a collision occur, an infant placed in a rear facing car seat that is struck by an inflating airbag can be seriously injured or killed. Children under three years of age must be secured in a car seat that meets federal safety standards; children between 3-6 may either be secured in a car seat appropriate for their size/weight, or restrained with a seat belt. Ideally, all children under age 12 should always ride in the rear seat to avoid injuries caused by collisions and inflating airbags.  Failure to use seat belts can result in a fine and court costs.

Buying a Car

You will probably be buying a used car, either from a car dealer or from a private individual. In any case you should have with you an acquaintance who is both knowledgeable about cars and skeptical by nature. Such a person could help you evaluate both the condition of the car and the claims made by the person who is selling it. These evaluations are essential, because buying a car, especially a used one, can be very tricky. 

Remember that when you buy a car the "certificate of ownership" or "certificate of title" must be transferred to you from the previous owner.

Automobile Registration

If you buy a car, you must register it and obtain license plates for it. This is done at the Motor Vehicle Department in the Johnson County Administration Building, 913 S. Dubuque Street. Requirements for registering a car vary depending on whether the car is new or used and, if it is used, how old it is. To find out what you would have to do to register a particular car, visit the Motor Vehicle Department, call them at 319-356-6091, or go to

If you sell a car, you must also do certain paperwork through the Motor Vehicle Department. You need to return the license plates to the MVD.

It is essential to have at least liability insurance if you have a car. You are required to have documentary proof of insurance in your car. Failure to do so can result in fines and in temporary loss of your license plates, automobile registration, and even your car.

Automobile Insurance

There are several types of automobile insurance:

  1. Liability insurance is the most basic type. It protects you if your car kills or injures someone else, or damages someone else's property. You are considered legally liable if a car you own (whether you or someone else is driving it) causes injury or death to another person or damage to someone else's property, unless the accident is clearly not the fault of the person driving your car. If you are legally liable for injuries, death, or damages resulting from an automobile accident, you could face payments of tens of thousands of dollars. If you do not have liability insurance to help pay those costs, you will have to pay them yourself. This is why you will want to have liability insurance, even if your car itself is not very valuable.
  2. Collision insurance protects your car in case of collision with another car.
  3. Comprehensive insurance covers losses caused by storms, thieves, and vandals.

Buying Car Insurance

In the yellow pages of the telephone directory you will find a long list of insurance agents under the heading "Insurance." Unless a friend can recommend a reliable agent to you, you should talk to at least two agents about your insurance needs. The amount of insurance you buy for your car should depend on its value. Insurance rates vary from company to company, and they depend also on the value of the car, the amount it is driven, the age of the drivers, and the past driving records of the drivers.

In Case of an Accident

Student Legal Services advises these measures if you have an accident in your car:

  • Call the police if there is any substantial damage to any car or other property.
  • Do not move any car that was involved in an accident until the authorities arrive.
  • Obtain identifying and insurance information from all drivers involved, and furnish your own to other drivers.
  • Never admit that you were at fault in the accident.

In Case Your Vehicle Breaks Down on the Roadway

  • Stay calm.
  • Park your vehicle as far off the traveled portion of the highway as possible.
  • Make your vehicle visible. Turn on the four-way emergency flashers.
  • Exit the vehicle from the passenger’s side, away from traffic.
  • Open the vehicle’s hood and leave it open.
  • Put reflectorized triangles behind your vehicle to alert other drivers; use your emergency flashers. If it is dark, turn on the interior dome light.
  • Use your cell phone to call for help.
  • If someone stops to help, keep your doors locked. Open the window slightly and ask the person to call law enforcement for help.
  • It is inadvisable to walk on an interstate, especially during inclement weather. However, if you can reach a source of help on foot, without jeopardizing your physical or personal safety, try the direct approach by walking. Keep as far from traffic as possible and walk on the right side of the roadway. Never attempt to cross a multi-lane, high speed roadway.

Driving in Winter

Winter often brings dangerous driving conditions to the Iowa City area. If you plan to operate a car during the winter, there are some things you should remember:

Get your car "winterized" 

This means putting on "snow tires" (that have a heavier tread than regular tires), or at least making sure your tires are not worn smooth; putting anti-freeze into your radiator, unless your car's engine is air-cooled; changing to a lighter weight oil; and making certain your brakes, windshield wipers, turn signals, and headlights are in good operating condition. Be sure you have an ice scraper and a snow brush in your car. The American Automobile Association (AAA) recommends having a "winter driving kit" that includes tire chains, a small snow shovel, extra clothing, traction mats, booster cables, warning devices (flares or triangles), a small bag of abrasive material (sand, salt, or kitty litter), a flashlight, some cloth or a roll of paper towels, and a blanket.

Drive carefully

There are times in the Iowa City area (radio and television reports will tell you when they are) when roads are so slippery and/or visibility is so limited that automobile driving should be undertaken only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive under these adverse conditions, you should remember several safety rules:

  • Before starting off, remove snow and ice from all windows and remove snow from the entire car, so blowing snow does not obstruct your vision once you begin driving.
  • Start slowly, using second gear.
  • Do not follow other cars closely.
  • Drive slowly.
  • To stop, pump your brakes, rather than pressing steadily on the brake pedal.  If your car starts to spin, turn your wheel in the opposite direction of the spin.
  • Watch other cars very carefully, and assume that their drivers are having difficulty controlling them.
  • Be very careful to obey all traffic regulations.


Buying or Renting a Bicycle

Bicycling is popular as a sport and means of transportation. Iowa City is considered a fairly "bike friendly" community, given a Silver rating by the League of American Bicyclists association.  Whether you use a bike to commute to and from classes or work, enjoy riding paved urban trails, or enjoy taking your bike on more rugged, gravel trails in the country, it is easy to find a bike to fit your needs.  Used bicycles are advertised on Craigslist and local bike shops.

The Iowa City Bike Library is available for those who wish to rent a bike for short term purposes, even for a day or weekend or up to six months.  Visit the Bike Library site for more information.  Local bike shops may also rent bikes.

Bicycle Registration

You do not need to license a bicycle in Iowa City. However, you may wish to have your bicycle's serial number registered at the Police Department. Having the serial number registered can help the police recover your bicycle if it is stolen. You can take your bicycle serial number to the Iowa City Police Department in the Civic Center, 410 E. Washington. There is no fee for registering the serial number.

You can also register your bicycle with the university. Registration offers the following advantages:

  • Unregistered bicycles will be immobilized or impounded for all parking violations.
  • Registration serves as a deterrent to theft.
  • Registration assists in the identification of lost or stolen bicycles.
  • It allows the University to better plan for improved bicycle parking and operation on campus.

You can register your bicycle on Biking at Iowa website:  The site also shows maps of places to park your bike on campus, special rules for biking on campus, and events geared to cyclists.

Bicycle Theft

It is important to lock your bicycle securely whenever you leave it. Although bicycle theft is not as common in Iowa City as it is in large U.S. cities, it is still a serious problem. Ask the person who sells you the bicycle to recommend an effective lock for it. You should lock your bicycle into a bicycle rack, not to light poles, trees, or posts.

Bicycle Safety

When you are riding your bicycle on a street or road, you must obey the same rules and traffic signs as someone driving a car. You can be ticketed by police and be required to pay a fine for violating traffic regulations with a bicycle, just as you can for violating them with a car. There are hand signals you should use to let motorists know when you plan to make a turn. Putting your left arm straight out from your side signals a left turn. Bending the left arm upwards at the elbow indicates a right turn. If you are riding your bicycle before sunrise or after sunset, you must have a headlight and rear light or reflector. It is a good idea to wear light-colored or reflective clothing when riding at night, and a very good idea to wear a helmet anytime you ride a bike. 

An increasing number of roads in Iowa City, as well as outside Iowa City, have special "bike lanes" designated for bicycles.  Be aware that you are still required to follow the same rules as cars, should always signal your intentions to turn, and pay attention when changing lanes.

Before riding a bicycle in the Iowa City area, spend some time observing bicycle traffic patterns. Those patterns might not be the same as the ones you are accustomed to. Notice that cars do not usually yield to bicyclists.  Neither do pedestrians. Bicyclists must therefore be quite attentive to cars, trucks, and pedestrians, and must be able to stop or turn aside if they find their path obstructed. In some other countries, bicycle traffic gets more preferential treatment than it generally does in the United States.

Bicycle Routes

A map of bicycle routes for recreational riding in Iowa City/Coralville/North Liberty is available at For example, it is possible to ride between North Liberty and Iowa City using only trails/wide sidewalks!  Other routes permit you to ride south of Iowa City to visit the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, including a nice loop around the small lake there.  In other cases, certain roads are designed as "bike friendly" and contain extra wide shoulders for cyclists to use, though if riding on roads caution should always be used.  Note that the City does not allow bicyclists to ride on sidewalks in the commercial districts of Iowa City, or in the downtown City Plaza outdoor mall. Outside of these areas, bicyclists may ride on sidewalks but shall yield the right of way to any pedestrian and shall give audible signal before overtaking and passing such pedestrian (ringing a bell or calling out "passing on your left" is a common way to do this). 

The State of Iowa is home to many beautiful bike trails that permit you to see aspects of Iowa that you may not otherwise see by staying in Iowa City or even driving on major roads, and these trails - often built on former railroad lines - are expanding every year.  These include bike trails in the area of Lake Macbride, West Branch, between Washington and Keota, between Ely and Cedar Rapids, between Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls, etc.  You can visit the website to discover maps and descriptions of trail systems through Iowa as well as other states, some that run for 100 miles or more!

Rules for Bicyclists

To improve conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, the UI has adopted a set of rules for cyclists. Some definitions are used in these bicycle regulations, including “pedestrian areas” or “slow zones”, which mean any walkway, sidewalk, crosswalk, plaza, patio, play court, parking facility, loading zone, and any other University facility that is intended primarily or partially for use by pedestrians. In pedestrian areas, individuals traveling on foot or in a wheelchair always have the right of way. For more information on bicycle regulations on campus, please see

Public Transportation

Bus Service

Three local bus systems operate in the Iowa City vicinity--the University's bus system, called "Cambus;" the Iowa City public bus system; and the Coralville transit system. The central departure and arrival point for all these systems is the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets. You can check bus routes and schedules of all these bus lines on Bongo, a GPS-based, real-time passenger information system. You can either see the Bongo website or use the Bongo app on your smartphone. Note: Of these bus lines, only some Cambus routes operate on Sundays.


The Cambus is a free means of getting around campus. Rectangular, black and white “Cambus” signs mark the places where Cambuses stop. Cambus schedules vary with the academic calendar. You can consult the UI Cambus website, UICambus Facebook page, or the UICambus Twitter for important service updates and announcements. See the Cambus website or Bongo for complete information about other routes.        

Iowa City Transit System

Iowa City's public bus service is better and less expensive than that of most American cities.  Service is provided between 6:00 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays. No service is available on Sundays. Complete details about routes, fares, transfers and related matters is on the Iowa City Transit website and at Bongo.

Coralville Transit System   

There is a separate bus company based in Coralville, the community adjacent to Iowa City. To get information about Coralville Transit schedules and routes, use the Coralville Transit website or the Bongo system, or call 319-248-1790. Coralville buses are blue in color.


There are several taxicab (usually called "cab") companies in Iowa City. Taxicabs have meters that register the fare a passenger must pay. It is customary to pay an additional 10 to 20 per cent of the fare as a "tip." Many of these companies provide transportation between Iowa City and the Eastern Iowa Airport.

Intercity Buses

Intercity bus service is a transportation resource for people in Iowa who do not drive or choose not to drive. The service allows them to reach destinations across the country. For more information visit the Iowa Intercity Bus Companies or Google companies such as Greyhound, Burlington Trailways, Megabus, etc. 

Air Travel

The airport nearest Iowa City is the Eastern Iowa Airport, which is on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, about 20 miles away. 

You can make reservations for air travel directly with an airline, through a travel agency, or with one of several websites, like KAYAK, Priceline, etc. that sell tickets on behalf of several airlines. Ask friends or acquaintances what sites they have found helpful.

Transportation Service to/from the Eastern Iowa Airport

Please see for means of transportation.


The railroad line is known as Amtrak. It stops in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (about 50 miles from Iowa City) and in Davenport, Iowa (about 51 miles from Iowa City). Train service in the U.S. is not of the high quality found in Japan or Europe, but it can be an interesting way to see the country. For more information on Amtrak, please see

Car Rental

Any licensed driver can rent a car for a day, weekend, week, or month. Prices vary, so you should call a number of agencies and ask about their charges.

Iowa City and the University of Iowa have a contract with Zip Cars which may be rented by the hour or the day.

You may also Google "Iowa City car rental" for a number of local businesses that rent cars. 


It is unusual on American highways to see people hitchhiking, that is, standing beside the road and indicating with a thumb or sign that they want a ride in a passing car. Hitchhiking is illegal in many states and is considered dangerous.