Driving Abroad: International Driving Permit

"I can drive" in 11 languages!

During my past summer in France, while the grape harvest was winding down, those of us who remained on the vineyard were loading sticky buckets and hand tools into caravans for transport back to home base, about an hour and a half freeway drive distant. The main man noticed there were more cars than Frenchmen. How would we get all of these vehicles back home?

He turned to me and asked if I could drive. Of course I can, but in France this is a valid question to ask of a 24 year old. The French (and many other peoples, I suspect) do not necessarily gain their drivers license at 16 as a sort of automatic coming of age thing (the French balk at the idea that we Americans let prepubescent 15.5 year-olds tear around in huge American cars). First off, driving age is 18. Secondly, cars, their fuel, and their insurance are all astoundingly expensive. Third, public transportation around the country is fairly good, and cuts out the need for a car for most people. Thus, the French only own and drive cars if they really need to, if you live in the countryside and can actually afford it.

“Sure, I can drive,” I said, “but I don’t know if I’m allowed to drive here…”

Rats. There would have to be multiple trips made to get all the cars back to base. The last thing I want to do is get pulled over by les flics without a drivers license and end up in some French jail cell (although they probably have decent food). Everything worked out fine and all, but it would have been handy if I had some kind of international driving permit or something so that I could have helped out in this situation.

Did you say International Driving Permit? You are in luck! Such a thing exists.

The IDP:

Many countries, especially ones which share your home country’s language, will recognize your normal driver’s license for a short period of time. For example, Australia recognizes foreign driver’s licenses, which are in English, for three months (essentially the length of a visitor’s visa). In order to drive legally in Australia beyond that, you can be issued an Australian license, converted from your native license, for a fee. This means that you do not have to take driving tests and all of that nonsense. This is probably the way to go if you plan to stay and drive in a country for a long time, but if your home country is not on the list of recognized licenses, you don’t get any of these privileges.

This is where the IDP comes in. If you want to travel to and drive in a country where your current driver’s license is not recognized, the IDP works as a sort of bridge. The IDP is essentially a multi-language translation of your native driver’s license, and is recognized (sometimes required) by some 150 countries. Think: If you show your Wisconsin driver’s license to a policeman in Japan, you can not expect that he will give a damn, mush less be able to read it. But, show your IDP to the cops, and suddenly everything is kosher because A) it is legally recognized and B) because a policeman can actually read the thing.

So do you actually need it?

The Need:

  • If your current license is valid in the country you plan to visit, you likely do not need the IDP at all. You might want it for language purposes.
  • If your current license is not valid in the country you plan to visit, see if the country recognizes the IDP. If they recognize the IDP, get one. If not, there is probably a whole different process to become a legal driver there.

The Rules:

  • the IDP is not valid unless it is accompanied by your current, native, unexpired license. The IDP is not a freestanding license. That is, you do not take a driving test and a written test to get it.
  • Also, the IDP must be issued by the country who issued your drivers license.

The Process:

I have not actually done this. Here is how it supposedly works.

  • Bring your drivers license, two passport-sized photos, and $15 to an authorized IDP issuing agent (AAA does it).
  • Fill out a form and wait around for a bit. See if they have free coffee or cookies or dumdums at the office.
  • Walk away with your handy new International Driving Permit!
  • You can also do it by mail.

The Notes:

  • The IDP, since it is based on your current drivers license, is valid as long as your actual license if valid.
  • Similarly, your IDP will carry on all of your endorsements such as motorcycles or passenger vehicles.
  • There are a bunch of companies, many of them illegitimate, who want to sell you IDPs for too much money, and many of them are not even real IDPs. Just go get one at AAA for $15 bucks.
  • The IDP is another official form of photo ID, too.

The ability to drive legally is an attribute which is often taken for granted. It may help a migrant to get a job abroad when you come across a place that needs a delivery driver or something. Now go driving! Wear your seat belt.

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