What You Should Know About An International Driving Permit Before Traveling Overseas

Imagine cruising past the pastel-colored villages along the Amalfi Coast, driving among the dramatic landscapes on Iceland's Ring Road, or taking an epic road trip to Patagonia down the Pan-American Highway. As we begin to make summer travel plans, let's not forget the joy of the open road. Although the U.S. is synonymous with the road trip, U.S.-based travelers tend to pump the brakes on driving internationally.

When most think of traveling abroad, many U.S. travelers don't consider driving themselves around to explore the cities or regions they'll visit. Travelers may be intimidated by local laws, anxious about foreign driving norms, or think the process of gaining a permit is too complicated. Many simply don't think driving's an option — at least not a hassle-free one. However, driving through a particularly beautiful region abroad can be an awesome way to explore.

Besides Canada and Mexico, most places in the world require more than a U.S. driving license to drive in their country. In a majority of these countries, you'll need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). Fortunately, these permits aren't hard to get, and after acquiring one, you'll be prepared to hit the world's open road.

What is an International Driving Permit (IDP)?

Simply put, an International Driving Permit (IDP) verifies that you hold a valid driving license in the U.S. and also translates your English-language driver's license into 10 additional languages. These include French, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. 

The information on your IDP includes your name, a passport-sized photo, and driving details. The permit is formatted in an internationally recognized manner, so regardless of where you visit, the IDP should be accepted by all participating countries and car rental companies in that country. By obtaining an IDP, you are not required to take any further testing or paperwork. 

However, it's important to understand that your International Driving Permit does not replace your U.S. driver's license. To avoid any fines or other legal mishaps, you need to carry both your IDP and U.S. driver's license whenever you're driving in a foreign country. 

How to obtain an International Driving Permit

Currently, the only way to obtain an International Driving Permit in the U.S. is through the Automobile Association of America (AAA). Fortunately, the organization provides a pretty straightforward process for applicants. First, to apply for an IDP, you must be at least 18 years of age and a permanent U.S. resident. You must also hold a U.S. driver's license that will remain valid for the next six months.

To apply, you can download and fill out a simple IDP application to take with you to the nearest AAA branch. You'll also need to take your U.S. driver's license, two passport photos (which the branch may be able to provide), and $20 for the application fee. That's it! The AAA branch should be able to issue you an IDP immediately.

You can also obtain an IDP through the mail using a photocopy of your driver's license. However, this may take a few weeks for the application to be processed and the IDP to be issued. If you're on a tight departure schedule, it's probably worth receiving your IDP in person. 

Where are IDPs accepted (and not)?

Currently, over 150 countries of the United Nations accept IDPs as legal documentation to drive in their country, and 186 countries accept International Driving Permits as a valid form of identification. If you're traveling to Europe for a short vacation, you may not require an IDP to drive. For European trips lasting under three months, you can typically drive with only a valid U.S. driver's license and passport, depending on where you're driving.

However, if you plan on road-tripping through Europe, it's a good idea to still obtain an IDP. Currently, you'll still need an IDP to legally drive in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Spain.

International Driving Permits are also widely accepted in Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, but to legally drive in China, visitors must carry a China-issued driver's license. Most Central and South American countries also accept IDPs, with two notable exceptions: Brazil and Uruguay. If you plan on driving in these two countries, you'll need an Inter-American Driving Permit (IADP), which AAA can also issue.

Benefits of carrying an IDP

If you plan on driving during your trip abroad, there are plenty of benefits to carrying an IDP. First and foremost, you'll avoid steep fines for driving without one if you're pulled over by law enforcement. Considering the heightened risk of experiencing a driving mishap, given your unfamiliarity with local driving laws and norms, it's prudent to carry the correct documentation. You don't want to make an unfortunate incident abroad worse. Also, since the IDP translates into 10 languages, you'll be able to communicate with local authorities who may not speak English.

Even if you're traveling to a country that doesn't require an IDP to drive legally, most major rental car companies require non-residents to provide an International Driving Permit to rent their cars. While you may find a way around an IDP requirement, it may mean higher rental prices or dealing with a less reputable rental car company. 

A few things to consider about IDPs

Obtaining an IDP is both simple and cheap, but there are a few things worth noting to help you plan. You must wait until six months before your departure date to apply for an IDP. Once you're approved, International Driver Permits are valid for one year. While the easiest method of obtaining an IDP is meeting with a local AAA branch stateside, you can receive an IDP if you're already overseas. However, the process may take between 5-7 weeks.

It's also worth noting that you'll find plenty of "International Driving License" scams, especially over the internet. For U.S. residents, AAA is the only organization that's legally authorized to issue IDPs. If you come across any U.S. or international organization or company claiming otherwise, it's a scam.

For only a few bucks, International Driving Permits provide travelers the freedom and peace of mind to legally drive abroad. While we may associate traveling internationally with organized tours and public transit, consider grabbing the wheel. With an IDP, you may just steer your vacation toward something new.