international drivers permit idp

What is an International Driving Permit (IDP) and when do you need it?

When you’re traveling to a new country, you may think that you can just rent a car with your regular valid driver’s license. But you’d be wrong. To drive legally in most other countries, you need a valid International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany your driver’s license.

What is an International Driving Permit?

The IDP is basically a booklet translation of your license that serves as international confirmation of your ability to drive. It’s required because some countries may not recognize your country’s license as valid at all, while others require a translation to consider it usable. Since foreign countries can’t necessarily verify what your license says, the IDP bridges the gap as an internationally recognized alternative.

An IDP is especially relevant when you’re traveling to a country that has a different alphanumeric alphabet. So if you’re only licensed to drive automatic vehicles or you’re on a learner’s permit, someone who only uses the Cyrillic alphabet can check your IDP for that information and verify your ability to drive. The IDP has your license translated into 10 languages and is valid in 150 countries. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you need to have both your IDP and actual license to legally drive. The IDP alone is not a substitute.

Where do you need an IDP?

It can be difficult to find centralized and consistent information on which countries require an IDP to drive legally. Laws may change at any moment and secondary websites may not have updated information, leading some websites to claim one thing and others to claim the opposite. You probably don’t want to base your information on some blog post written in 2019. Even the AAA website only lists countries that “honor IDPs” but don’t specify which require it to drive.

In addition, driving laws may not even be consistent across the entire country you’re visiting. For example, an IDP is required in some US states but not others. So in order to find out which countries require an IDP, you need to look up the specific laws for the countries or regions you’re traveling to from an official authority. Your country’s embassy website will probably also provide this information.

How do you obtain an IDP?

The good thing about the IDP is that it doesn’t require a special test or even a lot of money or effort to acquire. If you already have a valid license, you need to go to the IDP-issuing authority in your country with your license and two passport photos and apply for a small fee. For Americans, this authority is AAA. They are the only authority that can issue this document, not even your local DMV handles this. Luckily, the process is fast, and you can leave in less than 30 minutes with your IDP in hand if you apply in person.

Many websites like E-ITA claim to offer this service, and those websites are usually price-gouging you and providing you with a fake document.

Can you obtain an IDP abroad?

If you didn’t know you needed an IDP to drive abroad before you went abroad, you may be in a bit of a pickle. You can’t obtain an IDP from any country other than the one that issued your license. And while it is possible to apply for an IDP by mail, that process can be quite lengthy. For example, AAA offers a 5-7 week turnaround time for applications submitted by mail from overseas. So unless your trip is three months long and you don’t need to drive for the first half of it, this probably isn’t really a viable solution.

Can someone back home apply for an IDP on your behalf?

Yes! If you have family or friends back home in the US, they can apply in person on your behalf for your IDP. They just need a copy of your license and your passport style photos. This can save you some of the processing time of mailing it in, as long as you find a way to get your passport photos to them. There are also companies like Fast IDP that act as expediters. For an insane amount of money, they take your IDP application personally to AAA and mail you back your completed IDP.

Do you really need an IDP?

By law, an IDP is required in many regions and countries around the world including the European Union and Asia. In some cases, you won’t even be able to rent a car without a valid IDP. If you’re still inclined to chance it, you could potentially face a huge fine if you’re stopped by police or get into an accident. Technically without an IDP, the local authorities can’t verify that you have a valid license – which is fair, since you can’t expect a Korean police officer to know how to read your language.

A bigger issue in the event of an accident is that if the authorities decide you were driving without a valid license, you could be fully liable for all damages. It can also void any insurance you may have taken out on your car rental. Fun!

Ok but do you really need an IDP?

The letter of the law and the practice of the law are rarely in sync, and how strictly countries adhere to the requirement of an IDP varies wildly around the world. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already come across countless TripAdvisor and Reddit threads and Facebook groups with people sharing their opinions and experiences about driving abroad without an IDP. For instance, we’ve driven in the UK and Israel without one, and nothing happened.

Whether this is enforced by law or by rental companies might be a bit of a mixed bag. If you’re traveling to a country whose official language is the language on your license, you would probably be fine. Even if you’re not, many car rental agents look the other way even if the police wouldn’t. And in many cases, even police officers will be lenient, letting you off with a warning in the event you get stopped. The thing is, it’s impossible to know if you’re getting the laid-back officer, or you’re getting a fine of several thousand euros. Obviously, some routine stop is less likely to lead to this kind of punitive consequence, but the same is not true if you’re involved in an accident.

So should you drive abroad without an IDP?

The answer probably depends on your risk tolerance. Many people have confidently driven without an IDP all over the world without consequence. And even more people have been able to rent a car around the world without issue. But it’s important to remember that just because the rental company lets you rent a car, it doesn’t mean they would take any responsibility for any legal issues you may have while driving.

Most of all, it likely depends on where you’re going. In countries that are strict, like Japan, you would probably have trouble even finding a car rental company that would rent to you without a valid IDP.

So it helps to plan ahead, or prepare to take the train.

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