The AutoSlash team really loves traveling, both domestically and abroad. In fact, we're all at various stages of visit X number of countries by age X such as "40 by 40" and "50 by 50". We're also adventurous in our travels -- we spend more time speaking foreign languages abroad than English (although a trip to the U.K. is always welcome). And the fact that we frequently find ourselves speaking multiple languages during our travels is a reminder of an oft-overlooked factor for international travelers desiring to drive; whether the vehicle in question is a rental car or a privately-owned vehicle, driving in many countries on a standard U.S.-issued driver's license is illegal without the addition of an International Driving Permit (IDP). And while we might immediately think of the language(s) spoken at the rental car counter, an IDP is specifically about meeting legal requirements in a consistent manner.
Travel is easy to take for granted in the United States. No matter where we fly in the U.S. and Canada, we can readily pick up a rental car with a driver's license issued in any state. It's part of our regulatory framework. When we travel abroad, many global languages come into play, which led to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Travel. The countries that signed onto that agreement (or decided to honor without being a signatory) set up a framework where International Driving Permits could be issued that translated a driver's license in one language into many languages. Governments could thus require travelers who possess driver's licenses in non-native languages to carry the permit along with the original driver's license as a legal pairing and identity-proving document. After all, a license in any single language makes no sense in a country where that language is neither an official nor transactional language.
In the United States, there are precisely two organizations authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue International Driving Permits for residents:
That's all -- any other organization offering to issue an International Driving Permit is stealing a consumer's money and likely stealing the consumer's identity. IDPs can only be issued by the country of residence, and can only be issued by countries accepting the 1949 Geneva Convention -- a recent scandal had Japanese rental car firms rejecting Chinese drivers with false IDPs from the Philippines. China has not signed the 1949 Geneva Convention, which means those citizens are precluded from renting and driving in much of the world. Besides, every tourist to Japan is required to possess a valid IDP to drive (as noted in our Guide to Driving in Japan).
Is An IDP Needed for My Trip?
That depends upon the destination -- just like issues with passports and visas, it's always the responsibility of the traveler to understand the laws of the country being visited and embassies to the United States can frequently provide guidance on the destination country's laws. The answer to the question about the necessity of IDPs can vary from "yes" to "no" to all sorts of "maybe". Why?
- There are the laws of the country where an individual might pick up a rental car,
- There are the laws of the other countries where an individual might drive the rental car, and
- There are the rules of the rental car company when the contract is issued, which are ordinarily based upon local laws but may be more stringent.
Rental car companies care about satisfying the laws and rules at the location of pickup, not necessarily the laws of any country other than their own. And every single rental car company provides rules about driver licenses (and pretty much every other conceivable rule) to a renter before a booking is ever made. The image below from Avis shows how renters always have to accept the rental car company's rules -- which come directly from the rental car company -- before a reservation can be completed. The rules might seem tedious but the renter's getting access to a very expensive asset for a comparatively small amount of money!
How do rules about IDPs look in real life? We'll stick to Avis for these sample terms and conditions from actual reservations; even though the company (Avis) and continent (Europe) remains the same, each site has their own set of rules and regulations!
No IDP Needed
Traveling from the U.S. to the U.K.? There's no IDP needed by the rental car company but note that if a renter is going to take the vehicle through Eurotunnel, the renter would be responsible for meeting any laws relevant to a country being visited. One doesn't want to be involved in a traffic stop in a foreign country where one's driver's license alone is not legally acceptable!
IDP is a Maybe (So Choose Yes)
Flying to France? Note that Avis' rules seem to be a bit confused on the "maybe" part -- there's the ability to provide either an IDP or a notarized English-language translation. We would recommend just dropping the $20 on the IDP. Why? One might get away from the rental car counter with a vehicle and just a driver's license in English but the French Embassy says the notarized translation must be in French or an IDP is required. Even if the renter is able to pick up a car without the IDP, there's going to be an issue if the renter is involved in a traffic stop, accident, checkpoint, or travels across borders. If the answer appears to be "maybe", think about what happens when pulled over by police in foreign countries -- an IDP cannot be acquired except in one's country of residence, so it's a little late once a trip commences!
IDP Clearly Required
Then there are countries where the rules are completely unambiguous -- no IDP, no car. Avis in Sofia, Bulgaria says that a driver's license has to be issued in the European Union or a renter must have a driver's license plus IDP. Flying from the states and want a car in Bulgaria? Failure to acquire an IDP means many buses, taxis, and trains are in that traveler's future.
The Exceptions Close to Home
The IDP is accepted in more than 150 countries around the world. In the Western Hemisphere, there's also the concept of an IADP (Inter-American Driving Permit) that covers almost all of North and South America. The problem? Brazil and Uruguay never signed onto the IDP program, so those two countries only accept the less common IADP. This is effectively the same as a store accepting Discover but not MasterCard of Visa, yet it was a decision entirely within the control of those two countries.
Traveling abroad to a country where English is not the predominant language? An IDP is either going to be recommended or required by both the rental car company (which has to write a contract) and by local law enforcement (to be a valid identity document for driving). At such a low cost, we would much rather err on the side of caution in scenarios where the IDP might be necessary or we might decide to cross geographic borders (again, when allowed by the rental car company). The fee for acquiring passport photos and the $20 for the IDP itself provides us much more than $20 in value for the peace of mind accorded for wherever we choose to drive each year.