What You Need to Know: How to Get an International Driver's License
As an expat, you will need to get around and public transportation may not be accessible. You may need to drive in your foreign country and be a licensed driver. As every country’s laws are different, you will need to comply with each country’s unique rules. In general, if you are staying somewhere less than a year, you likely won’t need to obtain a driver’s license for that country.
While many countries have arrangements that allow people to drive with their license from their home country, having an international driving permit is the best way to make driving from country to country as smooth as possible.
Get a Permit, Not License, from AAA or AATA
It’s easy to get confused between an international license and a permit. You will need a permit, not a license. If you search the Internet, you’ll come across “International Driver’s Licenses.” These are not official documents, and do not extend driving privileges to foreign countries. They’re simply a translation of a driver’s license. They might be helpful when renting a car, but they are not valid forms of Identification.
What you want is an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). These are documents recognized by countries that translate your driver’s license to various languages. The IDP and your valid driver’s license — which you also have to have on you when driving in a foreign country — allow the holder to drive in more than 100 countries, including many where a foreign driver’s license alone won’t be accepted.
In the U.S., individuals at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license from a U.S. state or territory, can purchase an official IDP. To get an IDP, you need to have a valid driver’s license from any U.S. State, fill out the international drivers license application and pay the fee. No test, either written or practical, is required to obtain the permit.
International Driver’s Permit is a gray booklet, about the size of a passport, with “United States of America” printed on the cover, along with the seal of the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) in the middle of the cover.
AAA and AATA are the only two organizations that are authorized by the U.S. State Department to issue an IDP. According to the Federal Trade Commission, both organizations charge less than $20 for an IDP. If you’re asked to pay more, the FTC says it’s a “rip-off.” Furthermore, the website warns that purchasing a fake IDP could lead to legal problems or travel delays if you use it for driving purposes. Anyone who thinks they have purchased a fake IDP, should report it to the Federal Trade Commission.
How to Change Your License in Europe
International Driver’s Permits are valid for a year. If you stay in a country for more than a year, you likely will need to get a driver’s license for that country. Again, the process of getting a license will vary from country to country.
In France, for example, driving with a foreign driver’s license is allowed, and the country recognizes licenses from many countries for up to a year, as long as it’s accompanied by an International Driving Permit. Drivers with a license from a European Union nation can drive for an unlimited period of time with that license, as long as the license is valid, they are at least 18 years old, and are in compliance with medical requirements, such as eyeglasses.
France has reciprocal arrangements with a number of countries, such as Australia, South Africa, and some states and provinces in the U.S. that allows them to exchange their license for a French license without having to take any tests.
Drivers from a country that doesn’t have an agreement with France, can apply for a French license. This will require passing both a written and practical driving test.
In the UK, expats can drive with their existing license for three years following their arrival in the country. Because U.S. driver’s licenses are in English, Americans probably won’t need an International Driver’s Permit to drive in the UK. Still, because they are easy to obtain and aren’t expensive, the U.S. State Department recommends getting one.
Only UK citizens can apply for a driver’s license. The UK does have reciprocal arrangements with certain nations that allow people to exchange the license for a UK one, but UK citizenship is required to get the license. Those countries are: Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.
Residents of the UK, who do not have a license from one of those countries, will need to pass written and practical tests in order to get a license.
In Germany, U.S, citizens staying less than a year can drive in Germany with their license from their homeland, and an International Driver’s Permit. After six months, drivers must go to a driver’s registration office (known as a Führerscheinstelle), and notify the office that they will continue to drive on that license for another six months. You need to bring a translation of your license (i.e. the International Driver’s Permit) and proof that you will leave Germany before you have a spent a year there. Forms of proof include a return ticket home or a work contract with an expiration date on it.
Anyone staying for longer than a year will need to get a German driver’s license, and this can get complicated. German has reciprocal arrangements with 27 states, and partial reciprocal agreements (meaning no driving test is required, just a written exam) with 10 other states, and Washington D.C. Here's a list of states that are reciprocal and partially reciprocal.
How Long Can You Drive with a Foreign License in the US?
So let’s say you’ve obtained a driver’s license from another country, and return to the U.S. How long you’ll be able to drive with that license, and what you will need to do to obtain a license, will depend on what state you live in. In general, you can expect to be able to drive with that license (along with your International Driving Permit) for at least six months. Whether or not you will need to take written and/or practical tests depends on the country you had a license from, and the state you have moved to.
10 Tips for Driving in a Foreign Country
- Obtain an International Driving Permit. Carry it and your driver’s license at all times.
- Contact an embassy in the country to find out ahead of time what is needed to legally drive there.
- Do some research into driving laws in the country where you are headed. Clements’ articles about driving laws in Europe and differences between driving in the U.S. and UK are helpful resources.
- Be aware of road permits that are needed to drive on highways in certain countries. Instead of paying tolls to drive on a highway, some states require a sticker (known as a vignette) that allows a driver to drive on a highway for a certain period of time. In most countries, these are issued on an annual basis, but most countries allow for the purchase of short-term vignettes. But if you go to Switzerland and want to drive on highways, you’ll have to purchase an annual one. Countries that use vignettes include Switzerland, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
- If you are visiting a country where driving is done on the left, such as the UK, India and Australia, practice driving in an area, such as a rural area, that isn’t very crowded before driving in heavy traffic. Don’t start off driving in a big city.
- Have a good road map handy as you might find yourself driving in areas with poor signals for the GPS system on your phone. Moon.com and the United States Geological Survey are two resources that provide maps to print.
- If you wear prescription eyeglasses, be sure wear them while driving in a foreign country. While laws vary from country to country, chances are any medical requirements you have to meet in the U.S. will also be required in any country you drive to.
- You might be required to keep certain things in your car. For example, France and Austria require that a fluorescent jacket be kept in the passenger part of the car (not the trunk) that must be worn in the event of a breakdown. Belgium requires a fire extinguisher, and many countries require warning triangles to be displayed in the event of a breakdown, and a first-aid kit.
- If you have children, find out the car seat law. Find out if it's based on height or legal age for a child to sit in the front seat. In the U.S. the child must be either 135 cm or 12 years old until they ride in the front of the car. Also, check to see whether your car's air bag has an on-off switch or if you can manually disable the air bags.
- Check your insurance to make sure your domestic policy is extended with the same amount of 3rd party liability and physical damage coverage. A lot of people think their insurance covers them while driving abroad, but your coverage may be altered if you drive in a different country. Contact your provider to find out if you can get extra coverage as it might save you a lot of money if you get in an accident. Look into breakdown coverage.
Ensure You Have Proper Insurance Coverage
Another important step is to have borderless coverage overseas. Clements’ International Car Insurance offers Physical Damage coverage and Third Party Liability to expats driving abroad, and adjusts requirements from country to country.
Know the Local Rules and Laws of the Road
While you are getting an international permit, you may want to check out the most important rules of the road in Europe - such as being aware of the 'priorité à droite,' which is signified by a black cross in a white triangle with a red outline in France.