Do I need an International Driving Permit? Or is it an International Driver’s License? If you travel abroad, you may ponder this question. Let’s solve this mystery once and for all.
What you should actually know about an International Driving Permit
An International Driving Permit (IDP) is a legal identification which allows the holder to drive private vehicles in any country that recognizes the document. For many people, they mistake this permit for an International Driving License (IDL), but there is a distinct difference between these two.
You see, an IDP is required to drive a vehicle in any non-EU country or country that uses an alternative alphabet to the American/British language. In other words, an IDP is a translation of the most important information on your driving license which makes it easier for officials in foreign countries to understand.
However, this permit can only be used in conjunction with a valid driver license from your own country. For this reason, an IDP gives you peace of mind in terms of dealing with foreign police or officials.
On the other hand, an International Driving License is not recognized as a legal document. That is to say, this license does not really exist, and you should ignore anyone or any agency that tries to sell you one.
But why might you even need an International Driving Permit?
Why you actually need an International Driving Permit
In fact, you might have never thought about an IDP before. Generally, mainstream tourists who do not intend to drive during their trip abroad do not need one.
On the other hand, as a seasoned independent traveler willing to step outside of the comforts of predefined tourist routes, you surely heard about it. Simply put, if you want to drive in foreign lands, you better have both your driver’s license and an IDP.
It’s all started during the United Nations 1949 Convention on Road Traffic when a treaty for an International Driving Permit was initiated by the United States Government. This document allows you to drive a motor vehicle in more than 150 countries.
Whether you are American or Canadian, your driving license and passport are usually enough to drive a private vehicle in Europe. However, some countries require an International Driving Permit.
Now, that’s not to say you are completely protected with this permit. The IDP does not affect your obligation to conform to the specific laws and regulations in each country.
What happens if you receive a citation abroad?
According to the American Automobile Touring Alliance FAQ: “If you are traveling in a foreign country and are stopped by a law enforcement officer, you should present both your U.S. driver’s license and IDP. If a citation is issued to you, it will not attach to your IDP. Any traffic violation penalties incurred in a foreign country would apply to the country in which you received the citation. Serious traffic violations may result in having your IDP invalidated for use in that country.”
But what does this actually look like on the road?
IDP: different rules for different countries
From my experience of renting cars and driving around the world, an IDP is more important in some countries than others.
For example, foreign visitors cannot rent a car or a motorcycle in Japan without an IDP, period.
On the other hand, in Taiwan, while most providers require the permit, there are a few who would consider renting you a motorbike without it. The catch? You better not to get into an accident since your insurance will be void.
Meanwhile, rental companies in Vietnam are refusing to rent cars to visitors due to safety concerns and for the fact that dealing with local police can cause all sorts of problems. Ironically, renting motorbikes is Ok. Technically, the country of Vietnam recognizes an IDP. On the ground though, rental companies implement their own rules.
At the same time, all bets are off in Thailand where you can sometimes rent a car without a company checking your driving license, not to mention an international driving permit. It’s true, Thailand is incredibly nonchalant when it comes to renting vehicles, but you should be aware that police stops often involve bribes for one reason or another.
Just so you know, I have also managed to rent cars with only my US driving license in Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Lebanon, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia and many countries in Europe. In contrast, it was a real bummer when I learned too late that my only choice of a wheeled vehicle without an IDP in Japan was a bicycle.
Where and how to get an International Driving Permit
First and foremost, you have to apply and get your International Driving Permit in the country that issued your driver’s license.
Let me explain. Let’s say you visit Taiwan and, naturally, you have a driving license issued by your native country. You can’t apply for an IDP in any of the Motor Vehicles Offices on the island. Instead, you have to do it where your driver’s license was issued.
For this reason, the procedure of getting an IDP varies country by country. Even though the general rules are pretty much similar, you would have to do a bit of research.
If you are an American, you are in luck. Below, I am sharing my personal experience of getting my International Driving Permit in the United States.
How to get an International Driving Permit in the United States
International Driving Permits are valid for one year. They can be issued only to persons 18 years of age and older who hold a valid US driver’s license. The US driver’s license must be valid for at least 6 months past the issuance date of an IDP.
You can walk in into any of local AAA offices to apply for an IDP. With a complete set of required documents, IDPs can be issued on the spot. The cost is $20 for one year.
Alternatively, you can get an IDP via mail. Both AAA and AATA accept mailed applications. Furthermore, you can do it from abroad too.
Anyway, it will take 5-10 minutes to fill out the application, and you can expect to receive your IDP in approximately 2-3 weeks if you mail in the application domestically. Naturally, international delivery time varies greatly mostly depending on a state of the postal service in a particular country.
Just so you know, here is how an IDP booklet looks. The appearance slightly differs depending on the authority that issues the permit.
Beware of pitfalls while obtaining an IDP from abroad
Unfortunately, applying from abroad is not so straightforward.
In my personal experience, finding a place to make passport photos was tricky.
When I was living in a small community in Taiwan, there was little to no English spoken, and I knew just as much Chinese. Needless to say, it was challenging to explain to the local photographers what I needed, and they had no knowledge of a “US passport size photo.”
Equally important, neither AAA nor AATA accept online payments. At the same time, many countries actively combat money laundering which means you cannot send checks or cash via the postal service.
Taiwan is a good example. I tried to send my application and a check to AATA via DHL. They refused to accept my envelope. Thus, I had to mail it to a relative who wrote out the check and sent everything onward to AATA on my behalf.
One month later, AATA issued my International Driving Permit. In case you might be wondering, both AAA and AATA are willing to mail the IDP abroad for an extra fee.
But which issuing authority should you use?
AAA or AATA – which one to use?
Surely, AAA is the better-known organization in the United States. With local branches conveniently located around the country, this is an obvious choice for those who wish to get an IDP in person.
When you walk into the nearest AAA branch office, it’s literally just a case of filling out the form, submitting two photographs and paying with a credit card. After a short wait, while the staffer processes your application, you will get your permit on the spot.
That being said, I ended up going with AATA and popularity was the reason for this decision. Since fewer Americans have heard about AATA, I thought that they are less busy and can process applications faster.
On one hand, the process took seven weeks. On the other hand, I will never know if one of these organizations can process these permits faster than the other.
I have lived on both coasts in the United States where an AAA office was always within reach. For this reason, it might be better if you just walk into AAA and apply for an International Driving Permit in person. However, using mail is always an option, and it would seem that both authorities are well respected in the industry.
Moral of the story: Obtaining an IDP is relatively straightforward so long as you avoid the pitfalls.
More posts to help with your trip planning
- Travel Planning Resources
- Budget Airlines And Regional Carriers
- Multi-Country Car Rental Pitfalls
- Driving Smart In Costa Rica
- Medical Insurance for Travelers and Health Resources
- Long-Distance Gifts
- Travel Resources For Your Next Trip
… and, of course, read about us and how our nomadic slow travel journey had started.
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