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.
Planning an international road trip? You’ll want to get an international driver’s license before you head out; in the United States, it’s officially known as an international driving permit (IDP). Recognized in 174 countries around the world when accompanied by a valid U.S. driver’s license, this passport-sized booklet includes your photo, name, and driver information translated into nine languages. Here’s the ultimate international driving permit primer to help get you on the road, fast.
What should I know before applying for an IDP?
U.S. State Department–authorized IDPs are only issued by the Automobile Association of America (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA); fortunately, you don’t have to be a member of either association to get an IDP.
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 travel.state.gov 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?
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, 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.
You can also apply via mail through AAA or AATA. Through AAA, the price is the same $20 and your permit will be mailed to you via standard shipping at no additional cost. AATA charges $10 for standard domestic shipping and handling. Both organizations process permits in 10 to 15 days and offer optional expedited shipping, too. Just note that AATA-issued IDPs are effective upon processing (no postdating is offered). Send your completed application, two passport photos signed on the reverse side, and a signed photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license either to the AAA office nearest you or to AATA at the following address:
American Automobile Touring Alliance
P.O. Box 24980
San Jose, CA 95154
Both AAA and AATA process 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. The international shipping fee for AATA is $85. Send overseas applications to AATA at the San Jose address listed above or to AAA at the address below:
1000 AAA Drive
Heathrow, FL 32746
Attn: Mail Stop #23
Do I really need an IDP?
In countries where these permits are required, 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.
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Road Trips