Know Before You Go: Do You Really Need an International Driving Permit?

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Know Before You Go: Do You Really Need an International Driving Permit?

JasonKnow Before You Go: Do You Really Need an International Driving Permit?Million Mile Secrets Team

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Jason is a Million Mile Secrets team member.

Jason:   My wife and I are preparing for a trip to Japan in a couple of months.  And while we’re planning on using public transportation in Tokyo, once we get out of the city we’ll be renting a car.

If you want to drive in Japan, you’ll need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP).  I’ve rented a car overseas before, but never in a country where I needed an IDP.  And the process isn’t as easy as I expected, because you can’t apply online. 🙁

How To Get An International Driving Permit
I Applied for My IDP at an AAA Office. I Was in and Out in Less Than 20 Minutes

US driver’s licenses are valid in a lot of countries, even without an IDP.  But you’ll want to do a little research before you arrive at your destination, because you can only apply for an IDP through the mail once you leave the US.  And if you apply from overseas, it could take over a month to get your IDP!

What Is an International Driving Permit?

An International Driving Permit is a document that accompanies your valid driver’s license and allows you to legally drive in other countries.  It’s a translation of your driver’s license, NOT a substitute for it.

How To Get An International Driving Permit
There Are Tons of Countries Where Your IDP Is Valid, but That Does Not Necessarily Mean You’ll Need an IDP to Drive There!

There is a long list of countries that recognize IDPs.  But just because a countries honors an IDP does NOT mean that you are required to have one to drive there.  For example, Iceland honors IDPs, but I rented a car there without an additional permit because they honor valid US driver’s licenses without an IDP as well.

When you are doing research on a country’s IDP rules is a good idea to NOT rely on the rental car companies to give you accurate information.  They want to rent you a car and just because they rent you a car without an IDP does NOT necessarily mean you don’t need one.  The rental company isn’t going to pay your fine if you get pulled over without an IDP!

It’s also important to understand the other driving laws (and driving culture) of country.  So doing a bit of Googling will be helpful before you get behind the wheel.

Where to Get an International Driver’s Permit

There are only 2 organizations authorized to issue IDPs in the US for a fee of $20:

Those are your only legit options.  So if you find other places trying to sell you an IDP, it’s a scam!

I did a quick Google search, and found sites selling IDPs for $55 to $150 (including outrageous shipping fees)!  If you pay more than $20 for an International Driving Permit, you’re being taken for a ride by middlemen who are jacking up the price on you.

Note:   If you are applying by mail, there may be an additional shipping fee, even for the official permits.  And you’ll have to get passport style photos, which will cost you extra.

How to Apply for an International Driving Permit

You can’t apply for an IDP online.  You’ll have to visit a AAA location to apply in person or mail an application to AAA or AATA.  And your permit will be valid for 1 year from when it is issued.  So if you come across a site offering IDPs that are valid for longer than a year, exit the way you came!

How To Get An International Driving Permit
Renting a Car Is Essential for Visiting Certain Places, Like Iceland’s Famous Waterfalls! And in Iceland, If You’ve Got a US Driver’s License, You Won’t Need an IDP!

In order to apply, you must be 18+ years old and hold a valid US driver’s license.  And the permit is only valid until your current license expires (but not for longer than a year).

To complete your application, you’ll also need:

  • 2 identical passport type photos (2″x 2″) signed on the back
  • $20 for the fee, if you’re mailing the application (it must be a check or money order)
  • Completed and signed application
  • If you’re mailing your application, you’ll need to included a photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license

If you plan on applying in person at a AAA office (non-members can apply through AAA as well), you might want to get your passport photos beforehand.  Because you’ll pay up to $15+ for the pictures if you’re not a AAA member.  However, some AAA memberships do come with a certain number of free (or discounted) passport photos per year.

Bottom Line

If you’re planning on renting a car during your next overseas trip, you’ll want to know the country’s driving laws.  Some countries allow folks with US driver’s licenses to drive without any additional paperwork!  But for other places, like Japan, you’ll need to get an International Driving Permit to go along with your license before you’re legally allowed to drive.

Only 2 organizations are officially authorized to issue the permits in the US (AAA & AATA).  And the fee is only $20.  So if you come across a a different site selling IDPs for absurd prices, they’re trying to scam you.

If you need an IDP, be sure to get it before you leave the country.  You can’t apply online, so you’ll have to mail in your application or apply in person.

Happy travels!

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Definitely worth having on hand for international travel. I am a US citizen but live in Guatemala and have an IDP issued in Guatemala, since I have a Guatemalan license. In Australia as an example, they only accept licenses in English or you must have an IDP. I was surprised in South Korea they only asked for the IDP; they didn’t even want to see the original license. Given the small fee, it’s worth obtaining one every year.

Author

Very true, it’s not much to pay for peace of mind!

The IDP scam is such a racket. It’s ridiculous that states don’t just provide a downloadable translation of your license or similar.

Author

That sounds like a quicker and cheaper alternative to the current system for everyone. So we can assume it won’t ever happen.

I usually get an IDP when I visit and plan on driving in a foreign country with the exception being Scotland and Ireland in 2016. Many countries, by law, require an IDP but if stopped for any violation you may not be asked by the authorities for your IDP. Your regular drivers license will suffice most of the time. The danger though is that if you are in a country that by law requires an IDP and you are asked for it the fine could be substantial so the risk is not worth taking the chance. Some car rental companies will not ask for your IDP when renting a car even if their country requires one but law enforcement may ask for it if stopped. Better safe than sorry. I have read that if stopped in Italy they will fine you on the spot if you do not have an IDP. Thankfully, I drove through Italy and did not get stopped so cannot personally verify if that is true. I did get stopped on the France side of the Mont Blanc tunnel for following too close and even though France does not require an IDP I produced mine. Made it easier for the police to write me a ticket. 🙁

https://www.tripsavvy.com/drivers-permit-europe-468475

Author

That’s a good point about rental car companies. They have an obvious incentive to rent you the car. I’m guessing that in most countries that require an IDP the rental company doesn’t get in trouble if you drive without one.

I will always get an Int’l driver’s license no matter if the country is supposed to require it or not. The reason is that in the last couple of years I have been stopped by local police who asked for one. In both cases, the countries were on lists saying they don’t require them for US drivers but that doesn’t stop local officers from asking for it. We were not stopped because of a traffic violation, just routine stops at check points. While we could have tried to argue if we didn’t have it, I’m sure having one saved us a bit of a hassle.

Author

That’s a good point. Just because the rules say one thing that doesn’t mean individuals won’t enforce it differently.

I just got an IDP from AAA for Thailand. We were told by a friend in Thailand that we may be able to rent a vehicle without it but we’d have to leave our passport with the rental agent if we didn’t and I’m definitely not letting go of my passport.
Also, the photos cost $20 for non members and you can pay by credit card in the office.
Just to clarify, non members can go to AAA for this service, it’s not limited to members only. I’ve rented cars in Europe and Africa many times without an IDP but in this case we’re hoping to be safe not sorry. Figured it’s worth the small cost to avoid any hassles. Plus, I couldn’t find a clear answer on any travel forums on whether we’d need one in Thailand. When traveling to all the other places we’ve rented I’d just google and have been able to find a straight answer on an IDP requirement.

Author

Nicole,
I agree that it’s a good idea just to get an IDP if it’s not clear whether or not you’ll need one.

And I’ll update the post to make it more clear that you don’t have to be a AAA member to get one there. I’m not a member and had problems.

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