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

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INSIDER SECRET: An International Driving Permit is not a driver’s license, you’ll still need a valid license to accompany it. It is meant to function as a translation of a currently valid driver’s license.

Last year, my wife and took a trip to Japan. And while we used public transportation to get around, we did take one of those Mario Kart themed go-kart tours in Tokyo and you do need an International Driving Permit (IDP) for that.

Also, if you want to drive in Japan you’ll need to get an 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.

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!

How To Get An International Driving Permit
I applied for my International Driving Permit at an AAA office. I was in and out in less than 20 Minutes

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 here!

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.

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:

  • AAA (American Automobile Association)
  • AATA (American Automobile Touring Alliance)

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. Your permit will be valid for 1 year from when it is issued, so if you come across a site advertising 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 anyone with US driver’s license 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 (at best) an unnecessary middleman.

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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