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When I first started travelling internationally about 20 years ago I was young and naive and bought an international driver's license for my trip to the United States.

Then I discovered that it was not at all needed. All that was needed was a licence from my own country with a photo. At that time photo licences were relatively new in Australia.

So my question is, is this the case everywhere or are there some countries which really do not permit foreigners to drive without an international licence?

(I don't need a full list of countries as an answer, just a yes or no with a couple of examples is fine)

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Of course, this depends on the country. In some 3rd world places, it may be better to give the cop an IDP than the original license, especially if they're intent on keeping it until a small gift comes their way. – dbkk Jul 3 '11 at 8:26
IIRC the correct term is "international driver's permit", and "international driver's license" is actually an internet scam. – Andrew Grimm Mar 1 at 2:07
@AndrewGrimm: That seems to be the favoured wording these days, but an image search on Google finds also "licence" and "document" plus a couple of other minor variations. I had mine in 1989-1990 and we called it a "licence" though I don't recall the wording printed on it. Seems to vary over time and geography anyway. – hippietrail Mar 1 at 4:50
up vote 21 down vote accepted

It does vary a lot, depending on both the issuing and visited countries.

For visiting Australia for an example, you either need your license to be in English, or have an IDP that translates it. There's a much narrower list of countries for whom getting an Australian license doesn't require a test, see here for more details on those things.

As an Australian, RACV maintain a handy list of which countries need an IDP, which one's it's merely recommended for, and which ones you can just drive with your Australian license in. For some examples, UK doesn't require it, USA recommends it, and UEA requires it.

For how to get an IDP as an Australian, see smart traveller.

Also worth noting that they're more commonly called an International Driving Permit (IDP) in official circles, rather than an International Driving License.

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What is an IDP? – hippietrail Jun 25 '11 at 9:25
IDP = International Driving Permit, it's the official name for an International Drivers License – Gagravarr Jun 25 '11 at 9:27
An important point, is that an IDP is not a licence itself. You need to present your foreign licence at the same time. – Ray Feb 27 '12 at 21:29
The site "RACV" does not look too accurate considering U.S., isn't driving legislation highly dependend on the specific state (which is not mentioned there)? – yo' Mar 21 '13 at 20:19
I have never, ever had a problem with an Australian driving licence in the USA, either with rental car companies or police. The only place that won't accept an Australian drivers licence is a supermarket if you're buying beer - they insist on a passport. – Bruce Chapman May 12 '15 at 7:25

Most Asian countries do not accept a foreign driving license as a valid document for driving vehicles, and legally most of them require International Driving Permits. In practice however, a lot of tourists do not bother to get an IDP and instead leave their passport wherever they are hiring a car/motorcycle from.

If you get stopped by the traffic police though - and in Asian countries, stopping anyone looking foreign driving a vehicle is a big business because they know most people break rules - you will be asked to pay a fine on the spot. Official fines should result in you getting a receipt for the transaction; otherwise, you know the payment you make is a bribe. Many tourists bribe their way out of a situation to save themselves from the 'hassle' of getting an IDP but it's worth remembering that encouraging corrupt practices is not the best thing to do as a traveller.

Even if technically you might be allowed to drive without one, awareness may be low among rental owners or local police. I see in Gagravarr's answer, for instance, on the Australian RACV list that for Indonesia they list 'recommended' instead of 'required'. I don't know whether this is a specific waiver for Australian driving license holders, but I know friends who got fined for trying to use an EU driving license when stopped by police. An IDP leaves no room for doubt.

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When you say most Asian countries do you mean most countries in the area between India, Japan, and Indonesia? – hippietrail Jun 25 '11 at 10:22
@hippietrail: I mean India and South/South-East Asia. I cannot speak authoritatively on other parts because I haven't visited those. :) Indian subcontinent + ASEAN region is a large chunk of Asia though. – Ankur Banerjee Jun 25 '11 at 10:31
I was just in Korea and Japan but I didn't drive there though I was offered a drive once in Japan and wasn't sure if it would be strictly legal. – hippietrail Jun 25 '11 at 10:38
@hippietrail: Added another detail to my answer. – Ankur Banerjee Jun 25 '11 at 10:40

For European countries, you're at least technically supposed to have one. My friends got fined 250 euros each for riding scooters without international licenses in Barcelona. The scooter rental didn't request the license, but the cops cared.

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The same happened to us in Indonesia, even on Bali where it is a sport for the cops to fine foreigners riding scooters and not having international licenses. I always take mine along. – Peter Hahndorf Nov 27 '11 at 21:54
In case on Spanish Guardia Civil it's a common scam to get their ticket quotas. The would as international licenses of EU citizens, while both Spanish and European law clearly states that any EU license is valid in all EU. – vartec Feb 10 '14 at 15:34

I've always had one to rent a car, but I've never had a rental agent request the license. A USA drivers license, passport and credit card has been always been sufficient to rent a car. I've rented cars in Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, France and Germany. I have never been stopped by the police and I do not know what would happen in this case. Given that the cost of getting a IDP is small (at least in the USA) and in theory it's required I would recommend you get one, but in practice it seems like they are not really necessary in many places.

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Since an IDP is mostly just a dictionary on a very specific topic (being able to drive), the answer depends on reciprocity and ego. To find out if you need an IDP, it is best to learn which countries need an IDP in your country.

The ego comes into the equation, when there are hostile feelings in the general public towards the country you are a citizen of. If you are for example a citizen of a former colonial power visiting a former colony, better bring an IDP, otherwise your license is just a proverbial stick to hit the dog. I have seen it many times, where between two EU drivers one got a penalty because he happened to be from the former colonial power, whereas the other from another EU country was perfectly okay. Yet, technically all EU drivers licenses are the same.

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