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Heading overseas and plan on renting a car? You’ll need an international driver’s license. Or do you? Here’s everything you need to know about the International Driving Permit, or IDP, to help you decide if it’s something you need before traveling to a foreign country.
A trip abroad, whether you’re on a road trip through Ireland, exploring Iceland’s geysers or touring South African wineries, is exciting. All of the planning is part of the fun. You research destinations, plot your itinerary and make and remake packing lists.
You check your passports – twice. And then, perhaps, you’re thunderstruck. “Hey,” you think to yourself. “I plan on renting a car in Belgium. Will they accept my US driver’s license?” A quick internet search relieves your anxiety, partially, since the answer in most countries is “yes.”
But there’s also the equivalent of an international driver’s license, officially called an IDP or International Driving Permit.
The anxiety kicks in again as you wonder “Do I need that???” Here’s the info to help you decide.
What is an International Driving Permit?
An International Driving Permit or IDP is an important travel document. It’s a form of identification accepted in more than 150 countries and offers a translation of your driver’s license in 10 different languages including the six United Nations official languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.)
What it’s NOT is a license to drive a vehicle. An IDP is a tool to help you communicate with foreign authorities. It must be presented with your current driver’s license from the state in which you live, if you are pulled over when operating a vehicle in a foreign country.
Why Should I Get an IDP?
Peace of Mind
Most people get one before operating a motor vehicle overseas because they assume that it will make life easier for everyone if an unfortunate circumstance arises. TravelingMom Catherine Parker says she’s been a permit holder for years. “I really liked having one…just in case.”
Personally, I’m NOT a fly by the seat of my pants traveler. So getting the IDP was important to me before heading to Europe for a multi-country driving trip. My husband and I are very cautious drivers. But accidents happen and having the permits in hand eased my anxiety.
Traveling Where an IDP is Required
A valid international driver’s permit IS mandatory in some countries. Sure. You could risk it, but incurring a massive fine or engaging in a bureaucratic hassle while vacationing isn’t worth it, in my opinion.
According to AutoEurope, US drivers are required to carry an IDP in the following countries: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain.
No one wants to get to the car rental agency counter and be turned away. So it’s best to check the country or countries you’re visiting in advance of your trip.
But not too far in advance, since an international driver’s permit may not be issued more than six months before your trip.
Do I Need an IDP to Rent a Car Overseas?
We booked our rental car in Belgium through Europcar and we were not asked for the International Driving Permit. And, despite confusing traffic signs, narrow one-way roads and bizarre rotaries, we did not get into an accident. Whew.
My fellow TravelingMom Terri Marshall is an experienced international road warrior – she’s driven in 11 countries to date. She’s never gotten an IDP, and has never been asked for one at the rental counter. Her overseas driving record’s been ticket- and accident-free to date, despite the challenges of navigating in a foreign country.
Unlike Terri, Catherine Parker feels more adventurous carrying an international driving permit. “It’s like a calling card for travelers,” she says. Catherine routinely carries hers when traveling abroad, just in case the opportunity to drive presents itself.
So, although an international driver’s license is not necessarily required to rent or drive a vehicle in a foreign country, there are certainly reasons to have one.
How Do You Get an International Driving Permit?
There are two organizations authorized by the US State Department to issue the International Driving Permit: the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). You must be 18 years or older to apply and it’s important to note that your driver’s license must be valid 6 months beyond the issuance date of your IDP.
International Driving Permits are valid for one year and are not renewable.
The IDP Application Process through AATA
- Download the application form from the AATA website. The form requires basic driver information including the class of vehicle you’re licensed to drive.
- Mail the completed application with 2 passport photos, a signed copy of the front and back of your driver’s license and payment of the application fee (currently $20) plus the fee for your selected shipping and handling method.
AAA and the IDP
AAA has retail locations throughout the US so you can obtain an international driving permit in person or by mail. The benefit to applying in person is that you can have your passport photos taken in the AAA branch.
The fee at AAA is also $20. There is no shipping and handling fee for mail applications if you don’t require any special or expedited return to receive your permit in a few business days.
Please note that if you’re mailing your application form and documents, AAA requires you to sign the back of each of your passport photos.
Only checks or money orders are accepted as forms of payment for the permit fee if applying by mail with either agency. If you want to pay by credit card, you’ll need to do so in person.
The Final Word on International Driving Permits
If an IDP isn’t required where you’re traveling, the choice to get one or not rests with you. While we were driving in Europe, I was very glad we carried some official assurance in case we were pulled over, got into an accident or needed backup at the car rental counter.
In hindsight, since we didn’t need it, I wonder if we wasted $40 and an hour at the AAA office.
Will I get one again? Probably. I’m that kind of traveler. If I’ve done everything I can on my end to avert disaster, when something does goes wrong, I don’t feel guilty.