The International Driver's License

By Jeff Sanders  [January 2nd, 2012]

What It Is ... And What It Isn't

Note: The correct terminology, for the US AAA issued document is "International Driving Permit" and the AAA and National Auto Club are the only agencies in the US legally authorized to issue IDPs.


I've received more than a few emails asking whether it's necessary to have an International Drivers License to drive while visiting abroad.

The answer is no, you don't need an International Drivers License to drive abroad. If you have a driver's license in good standing from your home state, that's sufficient to rent a car and drive in most countries.

I do feel, however, that you should get an International Drivers License anyway.

I'll tell you why, but first, let me elaborate on what an International Drivers License is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.

An International Drivers License IS NOT a license to drive a car or any other vehicle. I can't stress this enough. Any Internet site or email that tells you differently is either terribly misinformed or is outright lying.

One thing these sites have in common is that they all quote the 1949 United Nations convention that made the International Drivers License accepted in most countries. Talk about twisting words!! An international Drivers License does not, and was never intended to, replace a regular driver's license issued by the state in which you live.

I have personally received spam email offering an International Drivers License to anyone whose current U.S. driver's license is suspended or has been revoked. These companies charge hundreds of dollars promising that with an International Drivers License you can get around the system and drive anyway. This is NOT true.

I know one site in particular that promises they can do this for a mere $350. They have a page with the entire United Nations proclamation written out. The gall! The United Nations doesn't dictate who may and may not have driving privileges in a country and they never intended the International Drivers License to do that. Each country has its sovereign right to determine laws of the road. The United Nations doesn't dictate who can drive in the state of Connecticut, for instance. I know it, you know it, and I dare say the folks who put up that site know it too. They are preying on people and it really burns my dirndl to think about it.

There are also sites on the Internet that offer International Drivers Licenses for anywhere from $60 to several hundred dollars. These sites imply that an international drivers license is necessary to drive when you are visiting abroad and are hoping to make big bucks by spreading misinformation.

Which brings us to what an International Drivers License is.

An International Drivers License IS a translation of your current driver's license.

What the United Nations intended with its decision was to make it easier for governments and their agents (i.e. the police) to determine whether a driver's license was authentic and whether it had expired or had any restrictions on it.

Think about it: could you tell an authentic driver's license from France from a forgery? If I handed you my German driver's license, would you be able to tell for sure whether it was real or something I whipped up on my computer in my spare time?

This is especially tricky with American licenses, since each of the 50 U.S. state has its own, each with a different look and style. How is a police officer in Europe to know whether it is authentic or not?

The International Drivers License provides a translation for your current driver's license and MUST be presented with your current driver's license from the state in which you live. The officer can then use the International Drivers License, which has your picture on it, to refer to your regular license, and can tell the expiration date from your birth date from the license number. It makes life easier for everyone, and trust me – when you're on vacation you want things to stay easy.

An International Drivers License is like an insurance policy.

When you pay your premiums for homeowners insurance or auto insurance, you don't do it confident that before your next premium is due, your house will burn down or someone will steal your car. You buy insurance and pay the premiums, all the while hoping you'll never actually need to draw on that policy.

I tell the people who ask me about the International Drivers License to think of it in the same way. For the cost of $15 to $20 you have a bit of insurance so that if for any reason you need to prove to a police officer that you have an authentic driver's license, you'll be able to do it quickly and in a manner that s/he will recognize.

You may be the best driver in the world and have no plans whatsoever to put the pedal to the metal on Germany's roads. You may never speak to a police officer during your entire time in Europe.

But, then again, someone may bump into you in a parking garage. You may get pulled over during one of the routine road checks for license and registration that occasionally occurs on German roadways. There could be an instance when you'll need to prove that you have a valid driver's license.

As anywhere else, how you are treated by a police officer can have a lot to do with the kind of day s/he has had. If it hasn't been a great day, the coffee didn't taste right that morning, or s/he had an argument with his spouse, the officer could be very, very picky. S/he may detain you longer in order to investigate your regular driver's license. The International Drivers License, while no guarantee against bad coffee, is an insurance policy that could make life much, much easier if you ever need to speak with authorities.

What to Pay, What to Expect

An International Drivers License should cost between $15 and $20, with a bit more added for shipping if you order it over the Internet. You must have a current driver's license in good standing to get an International Drivers License. You will need to provide one passport size photo and your passport number. If you get the License in person, you may need to show your passport.

The least expensive place to get an International Drivers License is at your local AAA office, or, if you live outside the United States, the most prominent automobile club in your country.

At AAA offices, the current cost is $15 if you provide your own passport photo, slightly more if they take the photo for you.

Note: The article above may not contain current information.

See also...

AAA Official Site

International Driving Permit (IDP)

International Law