International Driving Permit or International Driving License? What are they, do I need one, and why the hell is this so confusing?
It is my hope that you stumbled upon this article because after asking around, looking at the Wikipedia page on the subject, and searching official and non-official channels, you ended up with more questions than answers. Yeah, that was me a few years ago. Hopefully this will be your last stop (if you’re American) and everything will be clear. To save you time, I separated everything into “essential info” and “additional info” for those of you who do not care about the history or the other nitty gritty details. This explanation is mostly for Americans and differs slightly per country.
WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY CALLED?
The official name for this document is an “International Driving Permit” or IDP for short. There is NO SUCH THING as an International Driving License.
However, since many countries call the document that lets you drive a “license,” the name is sometimes used interchangeably. Rest assured, there is only one document type, and this is it.
WHAT DOES IT DO?
If you hold an IDP, you can legally drive in any of the countries who signed the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. A full list is located within the document itself (pictured). This permit is NOT valid within the borders of the country that issued it.
Since the 1920s, countries have been meaning to find a way for a driver license holder of one country to legally drive in another country. As you can imagine, this is useful for diplomats, business people, and tourists alike. There were a number of treaties that tried to streamline the process:
- 1926 Convention
- 1949 Geneva Convention
- 1968 Vienna Convention
- 2011 Amending to the 1968 Vienna Convention
BUT, there were some monumental problems:
Some countries ratified one treaty but not others for one reason or another. For example, Korea signed the 1949 Convention, but not the 1968 Convention. Furthermore, Korea was unified in 1949, so currently, South Korea honors the treaty but North Korea does not. Germany had the opposite problem as it was not unified back then, but has agreed to pretend like they were and honor the IDP anyways. The IDP issued by AAA in the United States honors the 1949 treaty which includes about 150 countries. The reason an exact number cannot be given is that countries which were not in the original treaty (in this case, 1949) can jump in and out of the commitment whenever they feel like it. Furthermore, countries that have formed after the signing can choose whether or not to honor the treaty.
WHY DOES AAA ISSUE THIS PERMIT?
AAA was chosen in the US to handle IDPs.
To streamline the process for countries which issue more than one version of a license (like how America has a license for each state), it was agreed that ONE company or organization should handle the IDP issuing process. AAA was chosen in the US originally but now is one of two companies who can issue it. If you are not American, check which organization has this authority in your country. If your country has AA, they handle IDPs in some countries.
WHAT IS IN THE IDP DOCUMENT?
The IDP is essentially a translation document for countries where English is not an official language. It also translates what the driver is allowed to drive in their licensing country to an international standard of five license types (pictured above).
IS THE IDP JUST A TRANSLATION DOCUMENT?
Technically, yes. The treaties main purpose was to accept licenses from foreign countries across borders, not to issue a universal license. For this reason, your IDP is not valid UNLESS presented together with your actual license.
You might hear a lot of info out there saying that because it is just a translation document, the IDP is either useless, or unnecessary in general or in countries that speak English. It is true that in countries like New Zealand, you will never be asked for an IDP as proof of your license and your American license is quite enough. However, this is up to the country and not a general rule. Think about this: If you got stopped by a police officer in the tiny town of Oamaru, New Zealand and you present a Wyoming license, how would they know it is actually valid? Hell, I don’t think even I have seen one of those! Now expand that situation to 150 countries and you can quickly see how even IF the country you plan on driving in has English as their official language, they are not required to accept a foreign issued license if they don’t feel like it.
HOW MUCH IS AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT?
$15 plus 2 passport sized pictures. If you are doing a walk in and DON’T have passport pics, don’t worry, they can do it there for a fee.
COULD I GET AN IDP FROM ABROAD OR BY MAIL?
It requires you to mail a few things to AAA in Florida and takes 4-6 weeks.
HOW LONG IS AN IDP VALID?
From the day it is issued, it is good for 1 year (as you can see from the first picture above)
If for whatever reason, you are from a country that follows and issues an IDP according to the 1968 treaty, it could be good “for up to 3 years.” Their vague words, not mine. However, the 1968 treaty encompasses much less countries than the 1949 one, so be aware of this.
DO IDPs COVER MOTORCYCLES?
The IDP lets you drive whatever the permit says you can drive. Keep in mind though:
- This is just a reflection of what your actual license allows.
- You SHOULD explicitly ask for verification if you have the appropriate license already.
It also covers a lot more than just cars and motorcycles. Check the picture on the “What is in the IDP?” section above.
For example, I have C and M1 class licenses from the state of California. This lets me drive motorcycles and cars in the golden state which is honored by the rest of the US. When I went to AAA the first time, I made sure to tell them to stamp class A (motorcycles) and class B (cars) on the IDP, which they checked and stamped. However, this time around, I forgot to mention the motorcycle part and thus, forgot to stamp class A. Does this mean I can’t drive motorcycles abroad? This is a technically grey area because, more than anything, AAA just forgot to verify / translate. The foreign country COULD refuse to rent me a motorcycle but I COULD argue and show my actual license which COULD be accepted if anyone knows what M1 means. In the case of renting a bike, I think I COULD win that case. Legally, I wouldn’t count on it.
ANY ADDITIONAL THINGS I SHOULD KNOW?
- The IDP is NOT valid if you are planning to live in a country long term (working abroad) in many cases. For example, Korea requires any foreigner who works in the country to get a Korean license (which is an equally confusing mess).
- There is no way to get the IDP for more than 1 year without repeating the process every time. I asked.
- AAA had a great FAQ you should check out. It is short, I promise.
- Not every country will ask for an IDP. South East Asian countries are notorious for this.
- Even so, get one if you can. You are more likely to be scammed if you are willingly driving illegally than not. In Thailand and Indonesia, cops routinely stop foreigners and issue ‘fines’ (bribes) for driving without a license. Furthermore, rental places routinely look for excuses to charge “repair fees.” Having an IDP makes you look like a boss.
- Some countries ask if you have an IDP, but never bother to check for it (my experience in Korea and Japan). Some ask to look at it, but it is clear they have no idea what it is supposed to look like.
- If you get into an accident without an IDP, you are royally screwed. Bali companies, for example, will not issue car insurance to people without IDPs, despite them speaking English and recognizing a legit license.
- Hong Kong and Macao allowed the IDP under British and Portuguese rule respectively. However, China has never signed any of these treaties. As such, China honors the IDP only in those territories and NOT in the mainland.
I think I covered like 93.7% of all situations so if you think there is something I missed, or have additional questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.
[Sorry I was gone from blogging for so long. I was very busy.]