Travel Question – Do I Need an International Driver’s License

Even though I’ve been traveling internationally for a couple of decades, I have somehow managed to avoid driving overseas. When I was younger, it was a matter of budget. I didn’t have much of one. As I got older though, I enjoyed using the public transportation in new cities; metro systems for me are as big a travel highlight as landmarks or museums. I don’t think I was avoiding driving, not really, it just wasn’t a necessity. That’s changing this summer.

I will be driving in not one, but two countries – New Zealand and Australia – and the question came up of what do I need in order to be street legal in these far away locales.

I first posed the question to a few Twitter friends, none of whom were sure of the answer. I then decided to involve Facebook and once again I was met with a mixed bag of answers. No one really seemed to know the answer and, as it turns out, there was a reason for that.

First, the short answer is that no, in most (but not all) situations, you do not need an international driver’s permit. BUT, finding out the reason is a bit complicated. First, I turned to the U.S. State Department, keeper of all practical information for American travelers abroad. Their web site though artfully dodges the question by stating similar, but incongruous facts.

Although many countries do not recognize U.S. driver’s licenses, most countries accept an International Driving Permit (IDP). An IDP (which cost me $15 at AAA) functions as an official translation of a U.S. driver’s license into 10 foreign languages.
Let’s separate the facts. Most countries do accept a U.S. Driver’s license as proof of driving ability. This has been set up through international conventions and the United States in return accepts many international licenses for temporary visitors. That’s actually an important note, if you are going overseas for a prolonged period of time, this information may not be applicable to you.

Some countries, but not all, accept the U.S. Driver’s License, but only with an accompanying translation. This is where the International Driver’s Permit comes into play. The Permit is just that, a permit, and not a license and holds no value unless used in conjunction with your own driver’s license. So, if you are traveling to a non-English speaking country, it would be smart to have in your possession a translation of your license or, you guessed it, the Permit.

Then, just to add a fun twist, some countries don’t accept either. China technically requires drivers to obtain a special license, but this tends to be easier if you already have a U.S. Driver’s License.

So to sum up, you do NOT need an International Driver’s Permit if you are traveling to an English speaking country. You MAY need a Permit or translation of your license if you are traveling to a non-English speaking country, but always check first. SOME countries have special rules and regulations that you have to follow before you are allowed to drive.

Any traveler should always review the laws of new countries and definitely make sure they are following all rules and laws to the letter, especially when it comes to driving.

Where to obtain International Driver’s Permit in United States:

AAA (American Automobile Association)

National Auto Club

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

16 thoughts on “Travel Question – Do I Need an International Driver’s License”

  1. Hi Matt

    I always advise people wanting to hire a car overseas to take an International Driver’s Permit *and* their national license from their country of residence. English-speaking country or not.

    We’ve been driving overseas ever since we started travelling together over 20 years ago and my husband Terence has probably driven in 20-30 countries (I navigate) across the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

    Whereas once upon a time we could get away with him just using his United Arab Emirates or Australian license to hire a car, we’ve increasingly been finding over the last five years that car rental companies in most countries (including English-speaking countries) now require an International Driver’s Permit as well. Despite asking online whether we’ve needed one or not when hiring a car, we’ve nearly always been asked for one when picking up the vehicle at the airport.

    You generally don’t need to show your home country license to the car rental company but if stopped by the police you probably will have to, so it’s always a good idea to carry both. International Driver’s Permits are so easy to get when you get them in your home country (whereas they’re next to impossible to get overseas – we’ve tried), and they generally don’t cost much, so why wouldn’t you carry on?

  2. I think it’s always a good idea to take both licenses to avoid any problems. Good luck driving over here in Australia and NZ, everything will be backwards for you :). It was strange for me when I first had to drive overseas in Italy, where like the US, they drive on the right hand side of the road and cars are left hand drive. But after the first day of driving I had gotten used to it.

  3. My advise is always take an international driver’s license :) You never know when you might need it, and it’s not that expensive. Although reading that US Citizens don’t always need one it depends on where you go.

    I always take one, my license is European and probably only valid in Indonesian bribing hotspots :)

    1. Well definitely nervous about it, particularly since we’ll be in a camper van in Australia. :) Should be fun though, love having the freedom to explore.

  4. This was an awesome resource Matt! Thanks for this b/c i’ve been wondering about it for awhile!!! I had no idea about the AAA permit and will def. get that before I move abroad again this year!
    Appreciate you sharing this a lot man!
    – Laur :)

  5. Matt, I have not driven in Australia or NZ, but I Have been driving through Central and South America for the last 2 years and I can inform any interested party that you definitely do not need an international drivers license (IDL) in Latin America with one caveat: if you get pulled over by a greedy cop (plenty of them in some countries) he may ask for an IDL in hopes to get a bribe if you do not have the “required” international license.

    Thanks for your article, as usual your site is always a good source of info.

  6. I have been to 86 countries and have rented a vehicle in more than half. I never needed an International Drivers License/Permit. Most recently I rented an RV in Australia an NZ for the Rugby World Cup and my US license was all good. Even in Saudi Arabia, Isreal (into West Bank, Ramallah and Bethlehem) China and Russia. Keep in mind, I do tend to rent from Hertz or Sixt.

  7. Great tips my friend! I drove throughout Tuscany and loved it very much! Avis, where I rented my car advised I didn’t need an International permit so I felt secure for that time. However, after reading above, it makes me think twice about future trips. I revel in exploring new country roads like Tuscan and look forward to doing the same in France!

  8. I picked up an IDP when I took my holidays in Ireland a few years ago. We were pulled over by the police for speeding, and when asked for a license, I produced my Canadian license. The officer looked at it confusedly, then just let us go with a warning (and a verbal description of their speeds and the fact that its in kilometers per hour). It wasn’t until after that I realized I forgot to mention the IDP. I sort of feel like it was a waste of money as it’s only valid for about three years.

  9. Although it’s about to change, for the last few months everyone including Canadians needed one to drive in Florida.

  10. You definitely don’t need an IDL to drive in Australia and we’ve rented scooters in most countries through SEA and India without needing one either. However, Indonesia (including Bali) requires it by law and targeting tourists without one is a major source of revenue for the local police ;)

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