An International Driver’s Permit (IDP) lets you hit the road—legally—in almost any country on Earth. Keyword: legally. Even though it’s required in over 150 countries, few people seem to know about it. Yet, law enforcement, car rental agencies, and insurance companies may require you have one if you cross paths.
You’ll hear them referred to as the International Driving Permit or License. But, it is not a license. It’s a UN-sanctioned permit. A booklet detailing your driving credentials in 10 languages, along with a 2-inch photo of your face. And it works in addition to the driver’s license from your home county. Not on its own, so you need both.
The thing is, many countries lack a stringent system for checking IDPs. This is why you have probably underestimated its importance— myself included. No one is asking for one at the border, so it’s easy to skip and hope for the best. But, your luck can change as suddenly as a hairpin turn in Chiang Mai if you don’t have one. Especially at the car rental counter or if insurance has to get involved.
So, whether you’re embarking on a long-term relocation or a quick holiday escape, the International Driver’s Permit is your key to smooth driving. Here’s a closer look at all the reasons why.
1—There’s a cost to not having an International Driving Permit
While you might be proud of obtaining your driving permit for international travel, you’ll ideally never have to present it. That is, until you face an unexpected scenario, like a minor accident or a routine police checkpoint, and suddenly, you’re asked for your documentation. Not having an IDP in a country that requires it can invite unwelcome penalties
Some places may slap you with a fine. In India, this could be as nominal as $10-$25 USD, often paid directly on-site. Meanwhile, in Spain or Greece, it could stretch from €80 to several hundred euros. For those eyeing a drive through Dubai, brace yourself—a fine there can skyrocket to 5,000 AED, roughly $1,300 USD.
But Japan takes stringency to another level. You can be riding windows down, radio up on the stunning Shimanami Kaido expressway over the Seto Inland Sea a little too fast, and suddenly get arrested and deported for driving without the proper documentation!
It’s essential to stay informed. Always check the requirements of the country you plan to visit before traveling—rules and laws change frequently. The International Drivers Association keeps an updated list of countries that accept the International Driver’s Permit.
2—The Permit steers you through rentals and insurance
While immigration or customs might not ask for your International Driving Permit upon landing, car rental agencies often have different requirements. Before handing over the keys, many will request to see your IDP, ensuring you are legally allowed to drive in their country.
However, it’s not just about fulfilling rental prerequisites. You’ll thank your past self for getting the IDP, especially if you end up getting into an accident. When the insurance company asks for a copy, having the correct paperwork helps make the process a lot less expensive and work more in your favor.
3—Motorbikes and RVs are covered
The IDP covers cars, but it also works for a variety of motorized vehicles. Picture riding a motorbike through the serene landscapes of Thailand or commandeering an RV on a classic American cross-country expedition. It covers both.
Whether on two wheels or four, all you have to do is mark which type of vehicle you’ll be operating in the application process. It’s a simple step, but one that guarantees your adventures remain boundless.
4—You aren’t fluent in the language of your host country
Sure, you might have mastered “hello” and “thank you” in a few languages, but explaining your driving qualifications during a traffic stop? That’s another story.
The IDP bridges that gap, translating your credentials into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, ensuring that wherever you are, your qualifications speak for themselves.
5—The IDP can live on your phone
If you’re anything like me, you dread the thought of having to carry around one more piece of ID you could potentially lose. The good news? Most countries now accept a digital version of the IDP, which looks much like an app on your smartphone.
Just be wary of countries with strict laws against driving with cell phones. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal to drive with a phone in the car. Showing the digital version could lead to bigger complications, so it’s a good idea to have both.
How do you apply for an International Driver’s Permit?
Securing an IDP is a breeze. Issued by select private agencies in your home country, for example AAA in the U.S., there’s no need to navigate through tests. And you can apply online, just make sure you have the following ready to go:
- A driver’s license from your home country that remains valid for at least another six months.
- Two identical 2 x 2-inch photographs, offering a clear view of your face.
- A processing fee (this varies by agency).
If you go digital, you can often get the Permit immediately. It can take anywhere from a week to a month for the hard copy to arrive.
Remember, the IDP is not a replacement for your driver’s license, so, always keep both on hand when you’re driving abroad.
The IDP means smoother roads ahead
At first, rules for international drivers can seem confusing. You may even be tempted to throw caution to the wind. But an International Driver’s Permit is easy to get, doesn’t cost much, and gives you peace of mind.
Fines and possible deportation. Not being able to rent a car. Expensive insurance bills in an accident. Unpleasant interactions with the law. A little foresight with this simple permit goes a long way.
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