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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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  • 2
    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
  • 1
    IIRC the correct term is "international driver's permit", and "international driver's license" is actually an internet scam. Mar 1 '16 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. Mar 1 '16 at 4:50
  • The IDP just serves as a translation of your license, nothing more. If your license is issued in the same language as your destination country - 9 out of 10 times you can leave the IDP at home. Aug 7 '17 at 7:17

10 Answers 10

38

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 UAE 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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  • 9
    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
  • 1
    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. May 12 '15 at 7:25
  • Australia and the US both speak English. The purpose of an IDP is translation. Translate English to English? Jan 19 '17 at 2:28
  • 1
    @yo' and RACV even claims that Armenia drives on the left... Aug 7 '17 at 7:54
26

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? Jun 25 '11 at 10:22
  • 2
    @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
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    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. Jun 25 '11 at 10:38
  • 1
    @hippietrail: Added another detail to my answer.
    – Ankur Banerjee
    Jun 25 '11 at 10:40
  • In Japan an IDP is normally required. However, there are a handful of countries whose IDPs are not valid in Japan; in that case you must obtain a certified Japanese translation of your original driver's license from the Japan Automobile Federation.
    – fkraiem
    Jun 20 '16 at 4:56
15

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. Nov 27 '11 at 21:54
  • 3
    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
  • 3
    @vartec There is nothing indicating that the people who were fined had EU licenses.
    – fkraiem
    Jun 20 '16 at 8:35
  • 1
    @fkraiem But the answer implies everyone (unqualified "you") needs an IDP. Aug 7 '17 at 9:03
  • 1
    The friends had U.S. licenses, not international/EU/Spanish licenses. Jul 2 '18 at 16:42
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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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  • How long ago was the rental in Japan? Nowadays if you don't show either a IDP or a Japanese licence, "most" places wont rent to you. We will see how that stands in the lead up to the Olympics however... Jun 20 '16 at 6:04
  • In Japan, you would be charged with driving without a valid license, just like a Japanese person doing the would.
    – fkraiem
    Aug 7 '17 at 9:29
  • For the UK and EU, if you're stopped by the police, you could face a fine and losing the hire car, followed by a further fine by the hire car company. Also, the insurance is invalidated by your lack of acceptable license, which could see you face prison terms if you are involved in any incident, and fines if not. A Canadian, EU, UK, Australian, or a few others are accepted in the UK and the EU for short durations, but US driving licenses are not - the reason for this is due to the complexity of the driving tests, and thus the proficiency required to pass.
    – SEoF
    Sep 20 at 10:40
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Beware - Korea requires one. I arrived to collect my Avis rental, and they refused to give me the keys as I didn't have an IDP. They were adamant that this is a requirement of Korean law, not just of Avis.

They directed me to the Department of Motor Vehicles and said that the DMV could issue an IDP based on my UK licence. So I spent the morning going to DMV - who said that the IDP can only be bought in home country. So the end result was that I couldn't get my rental and am taking the train. It messed up my travel plans big time!

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  • I lived in Korea for 4.5 years and only started driving there my last six months. In Korea, there's really no need for a car unless you plan to visit the remote areas. There are trains to all the major destinations and buses to just about everywhere else. Not to mention that taxis are cheap and plentiful. But fuel and freeway tolls are horrendously expensive (equivalent to just under USD $2 per liter when I was there). Most Koreans get by on one car per family; in general, there's just no reason to bother with a car. Jun 21 '16 at 4:52
  • And yes, what you were told was correct, though Avis should have told you that you have to get your IDP in your country. Jun 21 '16 at 4:53
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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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In the GCC - much like EU - a valid license issued by a GCC member state is valid for other GCC member states.

GCC = Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Visitors to the GCC need to carry their home country license, passport and IDP at all times.

Once you are a permanent resident, you need to get a GCC license - holding permanent residency and driving on your foreign license is a crime punishable by fine, arrest and/or deportation.

I have heard friends renting cars without issue with their GCC driver's licenses (the licenses have both English and Arabic content) in various EU countries, but none of my friends were ever stopped by the police so I don't know if this is a hard requirement.

For Spain other than the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein all other drivers need the IDP.

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For my first adventure outside Europe, a trip that covered 18 countries (Asia and Australia), I got not just one but two IDPs. My research told me that there were two conventions and that not all of the countries that I hoped to visit had signed the same one. These got very little use, partly because I did not drive much except in Australia and also because on the few times that I did, no one cared.

That was a very long time ago (early 1980s). I have had not had an IDP since. I have driven in the US, Canada, and quite a few Asian countries since and no one has every asked for one.

As other have said, if you are resident then different rules may apply.

In the 1990s, I lived in Sri Lanka and I needed a local licence. I visited a police station, showed my UK licence, and an officer typed my details onto a pre-printed card. Later again, I lived in the Philippines and again got a local licence. This was a bit more complex; I had to take the theory test but not the practical test. I received a credit card sized photo licence similar to my UK one. The procedure took several hours but did not cost much. Renewal can be slow. Once I needed to give a urine sample and take an eye test. The eye test was not hard; the optician asked: "Do you wear glasses?", I said: "No", she said: "Are you sure?", I said: "Yes" and the test was complete.

There may be other things to watch. Here in the UK when we switched to credit card sized photo licences, we were issued paper counterpart licences. In principle, you needed this when renting or driving abroad. I have been asked for a couple of times in the UK (renting a van and test driving a car and a motorbike) but never abroad. I remember once on holiday in Florida, I noticed that some of the people ahead of me in the queue for the rental cars had these counterparts. I was a bit nervous as I had forgotten mine. Fortunately, I was not asked for it.

These counterparts are now obsolete; they have been replaced with a web service. You should visit this before renting. I did before my last US visit but, of course, I was not asked about it.

DVLA View Driving Licence

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They're only necessary if local car rental offices say that they're necessary to rent a car for license holders from your country. For example Avis Japan is very clear that an IDP is mandatory:

You will need your passport and International Driving Permit (IDP), recognized under the Geneva Convention. The IDP must have an expiry date of one year after issue. It will be valid in Japan one year after entering the country (immigration stamp).IDP recognized under the Paris Convention (1926), Washington Convention (1943), Vienna Convention (1968) are not permitted in Japan. *IDP issued in Japan will not be accepted.

On the other hand Avis Australia only requires an IDP if your license is not in a "Roman alphabet":

The Driver must (i) hold a full and valid driving licence (not being a learners licence or provisional licence), (ii) have an International Driving Permit (IDP) or official translation (if licence is not in Roman alphabet), (iii) have held their licence for minimum 12 consecutive months immediately prior to signing the Rental Agreement.

Avis UAE has a list of countries for which an IDP is not required:

All non-UAE residents wishing to rent, are required to hold a valid International Driving License along with their National Driving License, except drivers holding driver’s license from the following countries: GCC countries - Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait European Countries - Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Slovakia, Finland, Spain, Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Turkey, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, France, United Kingdom, Norway, Romania, Luxemburg, Latvia, Serbia, Lithuania North American Countries - United States of America, Canada East Asian Countries - Japan, Australia, Singapore, People's Republic of China, South Korea, New Zealand, Hong Kong Africa States - South Africa Note that the original license should be from the same country as the passport issuing country.

So the answer is yes, its sometimes required. You have to check if your particular license/destination combo is valid by looking up the rental car T&Cs before traveling.

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  • The IDP also 'translates' the driving classes/categories. An IDP will be required when the police wish to determine if you are allowed to drive a specific type of vehicle and the category system of your licence is radically different from theirs. If it cannot be determined, then you can be charged for driving without a valid licence. This is the main purpose of an IDP. Sep 20 at 5:00
  • @MarkJohnson if this is a real concern major rental agencies will demand to see an IDP before they give you the keys. If its not, they'll let you drive off without one. If there are no major agencies in the country of question, you have to ask local travelers for their experience.
    – JonathanReez
    Sep 20 at 5:11
  • Taking the advice of other travelers, who may never had been in that situation, is a bad idea. In the past an IDP was required in Poland because the categories were completely different. In the 15 years, I was never checked. It was only checked in cases of accidents or speeding. The police don't care what other travelers told you, they care only if you have a valid licence to drive the vehicle you are driving. Sep 20 at 5:43
  • @MarkJohnson yes and I'm sure in the past major rental agencies required an IDP when renting a car in Warsaw Airport.
    – JonathanReez
    Sep 20 at 5:44
  • In the 1970's/80's there were no rental agencies there. Most people drove with their own cars. Sep 20 at 5:55
-1

TLDR

International driving licenses are accepted everywhere, however, they don't circumvent other restrictions, like age restrictions. No single national license is accepted everywhere.

Basic understanding

Some countries driving licenses are accepted by others, sometimes reciprocally, but often not. The reason for this is due to the tests that the typical license holder went through and the restrictions their license applies.

For driving in the EU (and the UK) an EU or UK license is required if driving for more than a short visit (something in the order of months). These were standardised with each other and are accepted as one in the same.

For short visits to the UK, all licenses are accepted due to fairly recent relaxations in the regulations to aid with trade and tourism.

US licenses were not accepted until recently as they were considered too simple to obtain (the DMV queues and hassle don't count for testing your driving competency) and don't restrict access sufficiently (3.5 tonnes being the limit on a car license in the EU and the UK). Granted, applying for an international license doesn't test your driving competency, but it was an additional step that if you went through showed competency in another way - checking what you need to do to drive in another country before you get there.

The UK has a helpful form to find out your restrictions, though the information is incomplete: https://www.gov.uk/driving-nongb-licence

Other Restrictions and Requirements

Other restrictions, like age, can result in a normally acceptable license not being sufficient. It's my understanding that some states allow children to drive from as young as 14 - even with an international license, they would not be allowed to drive in the EU or the UK until they reach the age requirement by the driving country.

There are further exceptions to the above, but generally it's worth reading up on the destinations driving regulations and requirements. Little things like additional road signs, recovery equipment, and spares can also trip visitors up.

Some other legal requirements for EU countries I drive in that differ from the UK:

  • spare bulbs
  • breathalysers
  • high vis jackets per seat
  • warning triangles
  • stopping to help broken down vehicles
  • lights on in tunnels
  • tire chains (and in some countries, no tire chains)
  • no radar detectors

Consequences

First, it's worth noting that you can hire cars, vans, lorries, motorbikes, and other vehicles from most countries without showing your driving license. That does not mean you can drive them. It's also not to their benefit to try to restrict who can hire, unless the responsibility has been placed upon them by their insurers.

Insurance - insurance is null and void if you aren't allowed to drive the vehicle. In some countries, this is a criminal offence that could result in prison time. If you're involved in an accident and found not to have valid insurance, you could face prison time in many more countries.

In some countries, vehicles are confiscated from the drivers for lack of sufficient insurance, or driving without a valid license, along with on the spot fines. This could have knock-on fines from the hire companies.

Summary

Check your license for the destination country, get an international license if necessary, and learn the destinations rules and regulations.

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  • You say that USA licenses aren't accepted in EU countries or the UK because they don't test your driving competency, but an international driving permit doesn't test competency either, it's just a translation of your current drivers license. The last time I was in the UK, I rented a car with my American license without a problem.
    – Johnny
    Sep 20 at 23:20
  • Like I say, rental companies don't care. Yes, it's due to competency, but if you've made an effort to get an international driving license, you've shown competency in other ways.
    – SEoF
    2 days ago
  • The only competence demonstrated to get an IDP in the USA is that you've managed to ask for one at AAA. I'd like to see a reference for a USA citizen needing an IDP in the UK. This site says: International driving permits (IDP) are not required for American licensed drivers to drive a rental car in the UK
    – Johnny
    2 days ago
  • It's possible my information is out of date, and in which case I'll update accordingly, but this was the case a few years ago. In the mean time, check: gov.uk/driving-nongb-licence
    – SEoF
    2 days ago

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