My husband always calls himself a “belt-and-suspenders” guy because he takes great care in avoiding problems whenever he can by having a back-up. Just a couple of examples: He checks the lock on the car doors twice when we park and he prints out his boarding passes in addition to saving them on his cellphone.
As we were planning our trip to Spain and thought about renting a car, we realized that Spain was on the list of countries that the U.S. Department of State identifies as requiring U.S. drivers to have an International Driving Permit.
In fact, in the case of Spain, their website notes:
You must obtain an International Driving Permit prior to your arrival if you plan to drive in Spain… It is illegal to rent a vehicle if you don’t have an International Driving Permit. Your rental car may be impounded, and you will be required to pay a fine if stopped by the police.
But before we found that definitive (and sternly worded) information, we had to wade through a lot of misinformation online. Here are some of the things we learned that might be useful to other travelers wondering if they need an International Driving Permit (also called an IDP):
What is an International Driving Permit?
It is important to emphasize that an International Driving Permit is not a driver’s license.
It is a document that is required to be carried with you, along with your valid driver’s license, when operating a vehicle in some 150 countries.
An outgrowth of a 1949 treaty between the U.S. and the United Nations 1949 Convention on Road Traffic, it has been in effect since 1952. Its intent is to minimize language barriers between drivers and authorities in non-English speaking countries.
The document itself is a gray, multi-page document that is slightly larger than a passport. It translates your government-issued license into nine languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Italian, German, Arabic, Swedish and French).
For what length of time is an IDP valid?
They are valid for one year from the date of issuance. They cannot be renewed. After the expiration date, a traveler has to file a new application.
How vigorously is the IDP requirement enforced?
Even in countries where the IDP is required, there is tremendous variability depending on the country you visit and the auto rental company you are dealing with. Because car rental companies are incentivized to rent cars, many are unlikely to turn away potential customers that don’t have an IDP, even in a country where the permits are required.
Where can I get an IDP?
If you do an internet search, you’ll be astounded by the number of businesses offering IDPs at a wide variety of price points.
However, the U.S. Department of State only authorizes two private entities to issue International Driving Permits to U.S. residents: the AAA (the American Automobile Association) and the AATA (American Automobile Touring Alliance).
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has identified some ways to spot questionable companies. For example, some call the IDP a license, which it is not; others charge far more than the $20 fees charged by the two authorized entities.
What are the eligibility requirements for an IDP?
- You must be a permanent resident of the U.S. (Citizenship is not required).
- You must be at least 18 years of age.
- You must have a valid driver’s license issued by a U.S. state or territory, and the license must be valid for at least six months after the date of issuance of your IDP.
How do I apply for an IDP?
In the case of the AATA, the application can only be submitted by mail.
In the case of the AAA, you can either mail the application or bring it to your nearest AAA branch office (see the AAA branch locator here).
Both applications require:
- A completed, signed application
- Two original passport photos in color signed on the back
- Photocopies of the back and front of a valid U.S. driver’s license
- A $20 permit fee (payable by check or money order)
What are the specific photo requirements for an IDP?
They are identical to the passport requirements for photos posted by the U.S. Department of State.
How long will it take to get an IDP?
It can take up to two weeks to get an IDP by mail; while the mailing time can be expedited, doing so can be quite costly.
I obtained my IDP on the spot at an AAA office that was about 20 minutes from my home. It was a fast, hassle-free experience that took less than 10 minutes. The permit cost $20 plus the $15 cost of the two passport size photos (taken by the AAA on-site), totaling $35.
But do I need an International Driving Permit? Is it really necessary?
The AutoEurope website states that U.S. residents need an International Driving Permit in the following countries: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Spain. There are a number of other countries, like France, where they are strongly suggested.
But it is always prudent to check up-to-date information concerning requirements in the countries where you’ll be traveling. The U.S. Department of State website offers road safety information that includes country-specific IDP requirements.
Bottom Line: Better Safe than Sorry
One never knows when they will be pulled over by authorities for a minor infraction or for no reason at all. Worse, you may be involved in an accident overseas.
My fellow blogger, Jackie Smith, an ex-pat living in Greece, recently recounted a story of her friend who was broadsided by a local driver as she was returning her car to the airport in Corfu. Although the accident wasn’t her friend’s fault, the woman wound up being arrested, fined 1000 euro, and missed her flight. When the police asked, she couldn’t produce an International Driving Permit because she had failed to get one, ignorant of the requirement.
The dollar costs of getting an IDP are minimal compared to the risks of not having one. And while the chances are you won’t need one, getting an IDP when traveling in those countries where it is required makes eminent sense. It certainly buys peace of mind.
Resource: FAQs about IDPs from the AAA
In the New York Times: Article about the perils and promises of driving abroad
All photo credits: Irene S. Levine (except lead photo, Pixabay)