Police traffic stop in Thailand - International Driving Permit

How to Get an International Driving Permit IDP: Your License to Drive Abroad

Driving abroad can be one of the most exhilarating experiences during your international adventures. From navigating unfamiliar roads to soaking in picturesque landscapes, the thrill of the journey often lies in the drive. But before hitting the road, it’s essential to be armed with the right documentation. Enter the International Driving Permit (IDP). Why would you need it, and how do you obtain one? Stick around to discover how an IDP can turn your driving experience from daunting to delightful as I address some of the most common questions and why I think an IDP is on top of the essentials list for your next trip abroad.

Before venturing off to Thailand’s mesmerizing beaches and bustling streets, I made a pit stop at the AAA office to get an International Driver’s Permit. Many travelers had suggested it might be redundant, but for a mere $20, I thought, “Why not be prepared?” My decision proved invaluable, especially during unexpected encounters with local law enforcement in cities like Chiang Mai and Pattaya Beach. It saved me from the potential hassles and stress of dealing with traffic checks in a foreign land.  On two occasions, I was pulled into a random checkpoint, and on both occasions, I was sent on my way within minutes of the stop.

What is an International Driving Permit

An IDP, also known as an international driving license, is a document that translates your national driving license into ten different languages. It serves as a valid form of identification in over 150 United Nations member countries (76% of all countries), bridging language barriers and simplifying driving regulations for travelers. Much of the info on the back of your driver’s license (class of vehicle, conditions, etc.) is translated to make it easily understandable. It honestly eliminates the language barrier if you are stopped by law enforcement. When driving outside the U.S., an IDP is not just a convenience but often a necessity.

How to get International Driving Permit
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Why Should You Carry an IDP When Driving Abroad?

Driving in foreign countries can be challenging, with varying regulations and requirements. The IDP is an internationally recognized translation of your license, making it easier for local law enforcement or rental agencies to identify your driving credentials. Plus, as I experienced, it’s a quick pass through unexpected traffic stops. An IDP allows you to drive legally in many countries, whereas sometimes, a foreign license on its own may not.

traffic ticket international driving permit
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What are the IDP Application Requirements?

You’d need a valid US driver’s license, two passport photos, and the completed application form for the IDP application. The cost? Just $20. And no, you don’t have to be a member of AAA to obtain one. In my experience, I was in and out in less than 30 minutes. The photos can be taken at AAA (extra fee), but using a passport photo app is often more economical, especially if you foresee needing multiple copies in the future.

Pro travel tip: I use an app called PhotoAid. It can take a headshot, remove the background, and make a template you can then print in pairs on a standard 4×6 sheet at Walmart for about 20 cents. This allows you to print a dozen for less than the cost of just two passport photos.

How Long is an IDP Valid?

An IDP remains valid for a period of one year from the date of issuance. However, when applying, you can specify the desired effective date. This flexibility allows you to prepare in advance, ensuring your IDP is active when you touch down on foreign soil.

Do All Foreign Countries Require an IDP to Drive?

Not all countries require an IDP, but many do. The IDP is based on the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic and is recognized in numerous countries worldwide. However, checking your destination’s specific driving permit requirements is essential before your international trip.

police checkpoint in Thailand
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What’s the Difference Between an International Driving Permit and International Driving License?

Although sometimes referred to as an international driver’s license, the IDP is not an international driver’s license. An IDP serves as a translation of your national driving license. The term “international driving license” is often used in place of IDP, but it is not really correct as it is not a license to drive but rather a translation of and confirmation that your license was issued to you. It also identifies any limitations, license requirements, or exclusions noted on any national driving license.

Can You Drive in the U.S. With an IDP?

For foreign visitors, an IDP provides an additional form of identification and may help simplify driving requirements. However, they must also carry their local license, as the IDP is a supplementary document. For U.S. citizens, your local license is what you need for driving in the United States. An international driving permit may only be used with your valid license in a country outside of your own.

What if You Lose Your IDP Abroad?

How to get International Driving Permit
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In case of loss or theft, head to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. While an IDP is authorized by the U.S. Department of State, they don’t actually issue them. However, they can guide you on the next steps. It’s recommended to have a backup – either a photocopy or a digital version. You may also need to apply for a new IDP through a local AAA office, likely when you return to the States.

The Department of State’s Stand on IDPs

The U.S. Department of State recommends travelers obtain an IDP when planning to drive abroad. While they don’t issue them directly, they acknowledge the role of authorized organizations like the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance in IDP issuance.

Can I Get an International Drivers Permit Outside of the U.S. or Home Country?

You must obtain an International Driving Permit BEFORE leaving for your trip to ensure you can drive legally in foreign countries. While an IDP may not be required in all countries around the world, an IDP must be issued in your home country. Remember, your IDP is valid only for international driving but must accompany your driver’s license and be obtained before leaving your home country.

international driving checkpoint
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Belfast, Northern Ireland. 24 Nov 2016 – An armed PSNI officer waves on traffic during a vehicle checkpoint. Credit: Stephen Barnes/Alamy Live News

Final Thoughts on Driving Outside the U.S.

Having an IDP isn’t just about compliance but peace of mind. Like in my personal experiences in Thailand, the value of the IDP became abundantly clear. The unfamiliarity of foreign roads and language barriers can make interactions with local authorities challenging. You will soon experience many challenges on the road, so making sure you are legal to drive is one thing you need not worry about.

An IDP can be the difference between a prolonged stop and a quick wave-through. For a mere $20, you’re buying not just a document but confidence and assurance as you navigate your international adventure. I am not sure what happened to the others pulled over at the traffic stop; one did appear to be getting a citation. In any event, minimizing these experiences is always best, especially while traveling.

In the end, get the permit and, above all, make sure you follow the basic rules of the road and common sense. Be mindful that the rules of the road as you know them may be very different; you may be unable to read street signs (thank goodness for universal signs), and you may even find yourself driving on the other side of the road. You will quickly see that you have much to worry about; get an IDP, so it is one less thing you need to worry about when during in a new land, and ensure you are legal when traveling.

Quick Summary Tips:

  • An IDP translates your national driving license into ten languages.
  • Valid in over 150 UN member countries.
  • It may be essential for driving outside the U.S.
  • Obtainable from AAA for $20 (membership not required).
  • Valid for one year; you can set the activation date.
  • Not all countries require it, but it’s always good to have.
  • IDP is different from an international driving license, which is not a real thing.
  • Lost IDPs can be addressed at U.S embassies or consulates.
  • The U.S. Department of State recommends obtaining an IDP for international travel.

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