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international drivers permits explained

There are plenty of reasons to put an international drivers permit (IDP) near the top of your travel-abroad checklist. We'll explain how this document works and when your distant travels may warrant one.

What is an international drivers permit?

An international drivers permit (or international drivers license) isn't actually a license, per se. It doesn't mean anything unless you already have a valid U.S. drivers license.

If you do have a U.S. license, the IDP acts as a translation of that document in 10 different languages when you're in one of the 150 countries that recognize it. In some countries, your U.S. drivers license may not be recognized — but an IDP will.

Think of it as your intercontinental hall pass, so to speak. It lets international authorities know that your home country has given you permission to drive abroad.

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How do I get an IDP?

Apply for an IDP through the American Automobile Association (AAA) or National Automobile Club (NAC). You'll need to submit:

You can apply from inside or outside the U.S. as long as you're at least 18 and have a regular drivers license that will be valid for at least 6 months after the IDP is issued.

How long does an IDP last?

An IDP lasts up to one year from the date it was issued unless your U.S. drivers license expires before that time. (The IDP requires a valid U.S. license.)

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When to travel with an IDP

Here are some situations that might call for the use of an international drivers permit.

You're in a country that doesn't recognize U.S. licenses

This applies to a lot of them — including countries right in our backyard. For instance, driving more than 50 miles into Canada or 300 miles into Mexico requires an IDP. Other countries accept valid U.S. licenses. Check the regulations of your destination before you head off.

You're in a country that needs a translation of your drivers license

Some places, like Spain, recognize U.S. licenses, but only if they're translated into the local tongue. Your IDP can be great for this, as it translates your license into 10 foreign languages:

  • French
  • Italian
  • Swedish
  • German
  • Chinese
  • Arabic
  • Spanish
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Portuguese

You're using a rental car agency that requires an IDP

In addition to the countries themselves, rental car companies can have their own IDP requirements. Major agencies like Hertz might ask for them, even if the government in your destination doesn't.

Car insurance abroad

If you're an Esurance customer, your policy crosses the border into Canada with you. But it doesn't travel to Mexico or overseas. Check with your credit card company and the rental car agency to get a better understanding of your coverage options while you're traveling.

Related links

Driving in Mexico
A brief guide to the challenges you may face while driving south of the border.

Your car insurance in Canada
Get auto coverage and driving pointers to help you cruise up north.

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