Great responsibility and great power: This is what you need to know legally when you turn 18

In the US, turning 18 brings new legal rights and responsibilities.

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In the US, turning 18 brings new legal rights and responsibilities.

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In the United States, turning 18 means transforming overnight from a minor into a legal adult.  What rights and powers does one gain in the transition from being 17 years and 364 days old to the very next day? Since my 18th birthday is fast approaching, I realized that I had only a vague idea of what it means to be a legal adult living in Northern Virginia. After asking around and doing some research, I present the most important things to know legally when you turn 18:

*** Please note, I am in no way advising anyone to do any or all of the things that I mentioned (in fact there are a few I would highly advise against); I’m just letting you know that when you turn 18, you legally can.

1. You can sign contracts.

I put this one at number one because so much falls under this. A legal adult is fully responsible for his or her own actions, which means he or she is the one signing a contract. Many of the items on the rest of this list technically fall under this category, as well as many others that are not included.

2. You can vote in national, state, and local elections.

As members of a generally politically-enthusiastic and aware community (or just as responsible citizens), we consider this a big one. You must be a citizen of the precinct/state/country to vote in the respective election. (Also, for you 17-year-olds—you can vote in the primary election as long as you’ll be 18 by the general election!) Make sure you register by the deadline (usually 22 days before the election).   

3. You can buy lottery tickets.

This is another big one! You can also enter casinos and gamble. (Just watch out for signs of ludomania, also known as gambling addiction! “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” recognizes it as an actual addictive disorder. It’s evidently scarily easy to become addicted. For more information, look at these Stages of Compulsive Gambling.) You’re now 18, which means you are responsible for making smart and self-aware decisions.

4. You have the right to obtain medical treatment and participate in medical studies.

You can make an appointment with your doctor and receive treatment without your parents’ consent, ranging from your annual flu shot to more serious procedures.

You can also consent to your body being used in a medical study and consent to participating in psychological studies.

You can carry an Organ Donor Card, consent to your body being used in a medical study after you die, or consent to being part of a medical study while alive (depending, obviously, on the study), without parents’ consent. You can also donate blood and schedule doctor’s appointments (without parents’ consent or knowing).

Part of the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Code of Conduct requires psychologists to explain enough about the study that the candidate can give informed consent to participate; when you are 18, you can legally give this consent.

Important note: “Without parents’ consent” does not mean that you do it necessarily without consulting your parents; it just means that your parents are not the ones signing the forms and making the final decision—you are.

5. You can own property and inherit property.

You can buy land, a house, an apartment, a car, and stock; if someone left you something in his or her will, you are now the legal owner of it.

6. If you are adopted, you can request to have your original birth certificate and the information of your biological parents.

7. You can legally move out of your parents’ house.

This is another one of those I don’t necessarily recommend doing right when you turn 18. However, if/when the time comes, just make sure you have somewhere to go and a way to get food, et cetera.

8. You can open your own bank account and acquire your own credit cards.

Quick explanation of how credit works: When you buy something with a credit card and pay the bill later (or, for big things, over increments of time), this is buying on credit. Your credit rating depends on the stability of your income and punctuality of your payments and determines whether institutions will allow you to pay for goods and services on credit.

For these things to mean much, you would need money…

9. You can have a full-time job.

You are no longer confined to having part-time or similar jobs! You can now also acquire special licenses to operate heavy machinery, if your job requires such things.

10. You can go skydiving and bungee jumping.

11. You can go on “Jeopardy!”

…and other TV shows that require you to be 18 or older, including “American Ninja Warrior” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”Better start training!

12. You can play laser tag (without having your parents sign that form).

13. You can get any tattoo or piercing.

Just make sure you’re absolutely, 100%, completely sure. (Ask: “When I’m 80 and wrinkled, will I still want this on my body? When I’m in my wedding dress, or at a funeral, or applying for a job, or running for president, will I still want this?”) Getting a tattoo/piercing is usually either surprisingly expensive (for tattoos: usually around $50-700, depending on size, colors, etc.; for piercings: varies greatly) and pretty dangerous (in terms of infection, etc.). If you do change your mind, piercings leave scars; tattoo removal is not only very painful but is also extremely expensive (people usually spend anywhere from $1500-10,000) and almost always leaves unflattering residue. So… make sure you’re sure!!

14. You can go to most clubs.

Some require you to be 21. If the club serves alcohol, you will be required to bear a stamp or some similar mark that shows you are not yet legally allowed to drink.

15. You can get married and divorced.

Though you can legally marry at 16 years old with your parents’ consent, you can now do it totally on your own. This falls under your ability to sign legally binding contracts. (This is obviously another decision about which you should make absolute sure you’re sure—from a legal/financial perspective, and, of course, a personal one!)

16. You can hire a lawyer.

17. You can sue people.

18. You can make a will.

Kind of morbid; kind of cool.

19. You can buy a car.

(And insurance.)

20. You can have your own membership at Sam’s Club and Costco.

21. You can legally change your name.

22. You can buy, possess, and smoke tobacco products.

(But don’t.)

23. You can stay in a hotel by yourself.

24. You can buy fireworks.

(Keep in mind that, unfortunately, anything that projects anything into the air or travels laterally in any way is technically illegal and punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine in Virginia.)

25. You can join the military.

Any US citizen who is at least 18 years old has a high school diploma can enlist in the United States Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, or Navy. (Here are the specific requirements for each branch.)

26. You have greater legal driving freedoms.

Those who are 18 years old and older no longer have to abide by Virginia State driving curfew (midnight – 4 am) or passenger restrictions, and use their phones (minors technically cannot have them on or in the front seat) while driving—however, texting is illegal for everyone in Virginia. For anyone who does not yet have a license, you no longer need to have parental consent to apply for a driver’s license. Also, your parents can no longer cancel or suspend your permit or license through the DMV. (However, the Court can still suspend your license, if you commit so many traffic violations.)

Now, why not do all these things with no regard for consequences? Because, in addition to all of these privileges, you are now legally responsible for every one of your decisions and actions, which means…

27. Your parents are no longer legally required to support you.

It’s probably a good idea to keep this in mind before you proceed with any of #1-25.

28. You can go to actual adult prison.

When you commit a legal infraction as a legal adult, you are tried as an adult. Any sentences will go on your permanent record.

29. You can be sued.

It goes both ways (see #15).

30. You have to pay.

You are legally required to pay for any fines or fees for which you are charged (including taxes, depending on where you claim your residency, i.e. if you change it from where your parents live). This includes those for crimes spanning from traffic violations to misdemeanors and felonies.

31. You can be called for jury duty.

This is actually kind of cool, and has to do with the fact that your decisions and opinions are legally valid at this point.

32. If you are male, you must register with the Selective Service.

The Selective Service is also known as the military draft. All males must register within 30 days of turning 18, or they will face up to five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. All males between the ages of 18 and 26 who are not citizens of the United States also must register, unless they have legally entered the U.S. as non-immigrants. Interestingly, illegal aliens still are required to register for the Selective Service.


Turning 18, or entering into the “age of majority,” comes with excitement, weirdness, and some scariness. Whether you will take advantage of your new privileges or have to face the legal consequences or not, knowing what new powers and responsibilities you have will allow you to make informed decisions.

Most useful sources and more information:

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