How to Get an International Driver’s License

Driving legally in a foreign country isn’t as easy as just showing up with your license. In many cases, you’ll need a special permit.

A small European car on a country road

Italy is one of the more than 150 countries in which you’ll need to bring an international driving permit along for your road trip.

Photo by Shutterstock

Planning an international road trip? You’ll want to get an international driver’s license (and possibly rental car insurance) before you head out; in the United States, it’s officially known as an international driving permit (IDP). Recognized in roughly 150 countries around the world when accompanied by a valid U.S. driver’s license, this passport-size booklet includes your photo, name, and driver information translated into 10 languages. Here’s what you need to do to get an international driving permit.

What should I know before applying for an international driving permit (IDP)?

U.S. State Department–authorized IDPs are only issued by the Automobile Association of America (AAA); fortunately, you don’t have to be a member to get the permit. Until recently, they were also issued by American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA), but that organization has stopped providing the permits.

Prior to applying, look up the license recommendations of the countries you will be visiting (and those of any rental car companies you plan to use). Official U.S. embassy websites and provide information about related destination-specific requirements and safety tips. Note that some countries, such as China and Ethiopia, don’t recognize international driver’s licenses; instead, they issue their own temporary driving permits for tourists. Others, like Brazil and Uruguay, only recognize a specific type of IDP called an InterAmerican Permit, which is issued by AAA and recommended for travel throughout Latin America.

To apply for an IDP, you must be at least 18 years of age, a U.S. resident, and in possession of a U.S. state- or territory-issued driver’s license that’s valid for a minimum of six months beyond the start of your trip. You must also be traveling or planning to travel: U.S. citizens living in other countries as expats cannot use IDPs in their current countries of residence.

These permits are not renewable and are usually valid for up to one year. (In some countries, such as Malaysia, IDPs are only valid for a few months before a driver has to apply for a local driver’s license.)

How can I apply for an IDP?

You can apply for your international driving permit either in person at your nearest AAA office or by mail.

How to apply in person

It’s fast and easy to apply for your international driving permit in person at the nearest AAA office. Call ahead to find out if you’ll need an appointment. Then, simply show up with two passport pictures (or plan to having photos taken at the office, for an additional fee), your valid driver’s license, a completed application, and the $20 permit fee, then leave with your IDP in hand. AAA can postdate your permit up to six months, so make sure to mark your application with the date you want the permit to become effective.

How to apply by mail

You can also apply via mail through AAA. The price is the same $20 and your permit will be mailed to you via standard shipping at no additional cost. You’ll need to enclose the fee, two passport-type photos, the application, and a photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license. You can mail it to the AAA office nearest you.

How to apply from abroad

AAA processes applications mailed in from abroad (though not via fax or email, unfortunately), which is especially good news for folks traveling indefinitely. The permit fee is the same, but the process takes longer than it would stateside. AAA, for one, estimates a four- to six-week turnaround with the included standard shipping, unless you opt for expedited shipping for an additional $75 to $100, which will reduce the time to 10 to 15 days. Send overseas applications to AAA at the address below:
1000 AAA Drive
Heathrow, FL 32746
Attn: Mail Stop #28

Do I really need an IDP?

In countries where these permits are required (such as Japan), nonresident drivers caught driving without one can face serious fines, legal sanctions, and, in extreme cases, deportation or prison time. But even in destinations where you can do without, this piece of paper with your photo, name, and driver information in multiple languages can go a long way toward facilitating communication. And for $20, it’s a small price to pay to cover your bases.

Do visitors to the United States need an IDP?

International travelers to the United States must carry a valid driver’s license from their home country if they want to operate a motor vehicle during their stay. They should also obtain an international driving permit from the relevant authority in their country of residence. While visiting drivers aren’t obliged by federal law to carry an IDP, some individual states and rental car companies require them.

This article was originally published in 2019 and most recently updated on September 26, 2023, with current information.

Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer with Midwestern roots. Her work can be found in Afar, BUST, Allure and Eater and beyond.
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