When traveling to a foreign country, it’s important to have a safe, affordable, and efficient way of getting around. If your destination isn’t entirely walkable or lacks a public transportation system, you’ll likely want to rent a car and drive yourself from place to place. Taxis can be costly, and driving offers travelers the freedom and practicality to make the most of their trip. It’s also a great way to see a city and scope out places you’d like to visit.
While renting a car can be a great option for getting around, there are several factors you’ll need to consider before you can start driving in a foreign country legally and safely. What follows is a guide containing all of the information you should know before you hit the road.
If you intend on driving a car in a foreign country, it’s important to research the legal requirements for foreign drivers.
1. Driver’s License
First and foremost, you’ll need to determine whether your current driver’s license is valid in the country where you’ll be driving. You can check the government website of your destination country to find out whether your license is recognized and if there are any other criteria you’ll need to meet before you can begin driving internationally.
Whether your current license is valid in another country is often dependent on the type and length of your stay. In some cases, you may be required to take a test and obtain a local license. However, if you’re planning to enter a foreign country on a tourist visa, it is unlikely that you’ll be required to obtain a local license.
2. International Driving Permits
Depending on the country, your current license might not be sufficient for driving internationally. In this case, you’re probably wondering how to get an international driver’s license. Although there is no license that will allow you to drive anywhere in the world, an international driving permit (IDP) can be used to translate your domestic license into another language and help you meet national driving requirements.
You may be required to present an IDP when renting a car, submitting an insurance claim, or getting pulled over. IDPs are regulated by the United Nations and must be applied for prior to travel, in the same country that issued your domestic license. You can usually request the documentation from your local auto club or government office. If you hold a US driver’s license, you can obtain an IDP from the Automobile Association of America (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA).
Check out this international directory to find an IDP-issuing organization in your country and determine whether you’ll need an IDP for your trip.
Most countries require all drivers, domestic and foreign, to hold some type of automobile insurance. The three types of insurance include those which cover damage to your rental vehicle, injury to yourself and your passengers, and injury to other drivers in the event you are deemed at fault in an accident. Regardless of whether all three types of insurance are compulsory, it is highly recommended that you are completely covered when driving a car in a foreign country.
While it’s possible that your domestic insurance plan offers overseas coverage, it is good practice to check with your insurance agency about whether your specific destination country is covered and whether full coverage is provided. It is unlikely that your domestic insurance plan will offer you complete coverage while you are abroad, so you may want to consider purchasing additional insurance from the rental car agency or the credit card company you are using to rent your vehicle. It may be beneficial to file a claim through a rental company rather than your own insurance agency to avoid raising your domestic insurance rates.
Renting a Vehicle
Unless you are driving to a neighboring country or planning to borrow a car from a friend, you will need to rent a car once you reach your destination. You will likely have the convenient option of renting a car directly from the airport, although airport rentals are generally more expensive than stand-alone services. It may be beneficial to weigh the cost of taking a taxi or public transportation to an off-site rental car company for a lower rate.
In addition to national driving requirements, rental car companies often have their own set of criteria. While most companies are willing to rent a vehicle to drivers 18 and older, some may require you to be up to 25 years old. Additionally, younger drivers usually face higher rental and insurance rates. It can also be difficult to rent a car without a credit card. Although many rental services will allow you to pay for the car with a debit card, you should be prepared to show multiple forms of identification and cover the cost of an additional security deposit.
Recommendation: You can compare car rental deals and find the cheapest prices at Rentalcars.com, an aggregation site that searches and displays prices and availability from hundreds of car rental companies, so that you can be sure of getting the best possible car for your budget.
Since driving laws differ across countries, it’s a good idea to research some of the basic rules and traffic signs in the country you plan to visit.
Learning the significance of various colors and symbols can be particularly helpful if you cannot read in the country’s language. It’s important to keep in mind that identical symbols and road markings can have different meanings depending on the country.
2. Basic Rules
Reading up on basic driving laws abroad, such right-of-way laws and toll systems, can save you from hefty fines later on. Watch out for urban access restrictions, particularly in European cities. Certain localities impose restrictions on who can drive in popular areas to help reduce pollution and congestion. If you’re planning to spend a significant portion of your trip in a restricted city center, you may want to consider alternate methods of transportation.
3. Right-Side vs. Left-Side Driving
One of the most prominent differences in driving laws across countries is which side of the road to drive on. A few countries in Europe and several Commonwealth nations around the world drive on the left side of the road. If you’re nervous about driving on the opposite side of the road than you’re used to, consider practicing your turns in a parking lot or on an empty street before taking on heavily trafficked areas. Driving on the opposite side of the road means that the steering wheel will also be on the other side of the car. Also keep in mind that when driving across certain borders, you may be required to switch sides when entering a new country.
In many countries, it has become increasingly common for traffic laws to be enforced by camera, especially for minor offenses such as speeding and failing to stop at red lights. In this case, any fines you incur will be billed to the owner of the vehicle. If you’ve rented your car, the rental company will be billed and, in turn, charge the card information you gave them at booking. If you’re pulled over by a police officer, it is important to determine how you can pay the fine and settle the citation. It may seem easy to ignore a traffic or parking ticket in a foreign country, but you can end up running into trouble when you try to leave the country or if you return in the future.
Almost as important as explicit traffic laws are local driving habits. Observe the behavior of other drivers, and do some brief research to determine the local road etiquette. For example, if you’re driving in a heavily trafficked area where drivers are more aggressive than you’re accustomed to, it may be dangerous to drive too hesitantly.
Some locations are known for providing leniency to drivers exceeding the speed limit, but this can vary greatly from place to place. Being aware of the policies in the country where you’re driving can help you to keep up with the flow of traffic while also avoiding a speeding ticket.
Local driving habits may also be determined by other types of vehicles on the road. If you find yourself sharing the road with a large number of bicycles and motor scooters, you’ll need to account for their varied speeds and movements.
When driving in a foreign country, it’s important to choose a vehicle that is both well suited for the environment you’re in and comfortable for you to drive. There are several countries where it’s more expensive or even impossible to rent a car with automatic transmission. If you’ve never driven a car with manual transmission, also known as stick shift, you might want to look up the convention for rental cars where you’ll be driving and practice beforehand. Learning how to drive overseas is difficult enough without the added stress of learning how to operate your vehicle.
Also consider the environment where you’ll be driving. If the weather and terrain are different to what you’re used to, you might want to factor this in when choosing a vehicle. When driving in areas where roads are particularly icy, hilly, or unpaved, renting a car with all-wheel drive could make your trip much safer and easier.
Before driving a car in a foreign country, it’s a good idea to identify any potential hazards or local roads and areas to avoid. Do a bit of research to determine if there are any areas or routes known to be particularly hazardous. Consider the availability of roadside assistance and gas stations, and carry a spare tire and extra fuel if you think you could get stuck in a remote or dangerous area. The US Department of State Travel Site offers international resources helpful for determining road safety risks in your destination country.
Also important for your safety is your ability to navigate the local area and find your way back to familiar territory. This can be especially difficult if you don’t know the local language well enough to ask for and receive directions, or if you’re planning to drive in a remote area. It’s becoming increasingly common for travelers to rely on navigation apps to find their way around, and certain apps are known to work better and more accurately in certain locations. Do a quick internet search to determine if there is a particular navigation app popular in your destination country.
If you think you might not have sufficient phone service while traveling, consider purchasing a separate handheld GPS system or choosing a rental car with navigation included. In the case that you are traveling to an area with limited navigation data or satellite service without a tour guide, be prepared to ask for directions, pack a paper map of the area, or download a map beforehand so that you can navigate offline.
Hopefully this guide helped answer some of your questions about driving internationally. No matter where you’re used to driving, the laws, norms, and vehicles can vary greatly across countries. Preparing beforehand may help mitigate some of the risks of driving in a foreign country and ensure that you have a safe and stress-free trip.