An International Drivers Licence?
In some countries you can't drive without one

Driving abroad doesn't always require getting an international driver's licence - but in many cases it helps, especially in countries where English may not be understood well.

Driving abroad doesn't always require getting an international driver's licence - but in many cases it helps, especially in countries where English may not be understood well.

Formally called an international driving permit or IDP, this passport-size card confirms police and car rental agencies that you passed a driving test in your country and are therefore allowed to drive. Here are a few handy facts about the IDP:

  • You can't use the international driver's licence on it's own - you have to use italong with your own licence or driving permit.
  • You'll have to get it where you live - not at your destination.
  • You can apply for an international driver's licence at your nearest automobile club or association.
  • Cost varies but it's not hugely expensive when compared to an international travel visa. You don't need any classes or exams: just bring two photos and your own driver's licence.
  • It is valid for a year after issue.
  • The international driver's licence is not always compulsory. Even if it isn't, you're probably better off with it. Still, check each country individually.
  • The IDP has your photo, and a translation of your driver's licence into ten languages.

What else do you need to know about driving abroad?

An international driver's licence is the first step to driving overseas, but there is plenty more to keep in mind if you plan to drive abroad.

  • Get the side right. Not everyone drives on the same side of the road as you do. If you don't check this beforehand, you may be in for a surprise. Most of the Western Hemisphere drives on the right, with a few exceptions - especially former British Caribbean colonies. Most of Europe is also on the right, except the UK, and Africa and Asia have a bit of both, usually depending on their history. Beware - sides may change when you cross a border, which can be extremely confusing, like getting off the ferry from France to the UK, for example.
  • Don't drive at night. Some countries don't believe in headlights - or they believe that keeping your headlights on drains the battery and causes your car to stall. I recall a harrowing night drive across southern Nigeria from Lagos to Ibadan and beyond - at night - with no lights. There were several accidents, and I saw a man die crossing the road. Driving in Nigeria in daylight is courting fate - driving at night is marrying it. Nigeria of course is just one example - there are unfortunately many others.
  • Learn local signage and rules. You'll often find these on the national tourist board or other tourism sites. Or ask when you get your international driver's licence. Posting on expat forums is another good way of getting good driving pointers before you go.

Signs and rules often differ from country to country - in much of Europe you have to yield to someone coming from the right, even if you're on what you think is the main road. In many Central European countries, the car climbing a hill has priority over the vehicle heading down. You won't be amused if you have to reverse on ice because you thought you would get through.

  • Know local customs. Sometimes these are even more important than rules. In some parts of North Africa, you are obliged by law (as is the case in most countries) to stop when you have an accident. In practice, ask any local: you'll be told to hit the accelerator and run for your life. If you stop, and you've hurt someone, their relatives will come after you and may do so violently.
  • Find out where you're going. Organize your route before you leave. A map is good, a GPS and a map is even better. I say both because I've often been misled by GPS. If you're driving alone, the last thing you want is to have to stop and ask for directions at night because you're lost.
  • Learn to drive a stick shift. Many Americans drive only automatics - yet these are virtually impossible to hire in most countries and where they are available, they are much more expensive - they're considered luxury cars.
  • Learn basic maintenance. In many parts of the world garages will be too far to be of use and you'll have no way of alerting someone if you run into trouble. The best defence is being forewarned and forearmed - with tools and knowledge. Knowing how to change a radiator belt can save your life.
  • Take a course in defensive driving. Knowing how to escape a tight situation is good, but what this will really do for you is boost your confidence. If you've ever tried to cross a crowded bridge in Istanbul at rush hour or battle Rome traffic, you'll know that a bit of additional self-confidence will be more than welcome.
  • Always lock your door and windows. Whether in a poor country or rich, our civilization is unfortunately too unequal and a vehicle driven by a lone woman is a tasty target. From the simple grab and snatch to the violent carjacking, a locked door may be dissuasive enough to encourage a criminal to move on.
  • Don't use your cellphone while driving. This may be legal where you come from but in an increasing number of countries, it is downright illegal to use it at the wheel - even with a hands-free. Phone calls can be traced, so don't try it.
  • Park in a safe place. Ask around. In Italy, even a guarded garage may be unsafe (my insurer declined to renew my contract after my third radio was stolen in Italy - in a guarded parking lot). In many developing countries, you can pay people to watch your car while you're away from it. In East Africa this strategy guaranteed I'd find my four tyres intact - rather than my vehicle sitting on a bunch of old stones (that's happened too).
  • Some countries aren't quite sure which side to drive on. Take Burma. Driving was once on the left but it switched to the right. It may have changed by now but when I visited in the 80s and 90s most cars were imported from Japan, which drives on the left, giving you the worst of both worlds - driving on the wrong side from your steering wheel. Similar situations exist in Cyprus (British history, Turkish cars) and the US Virgin Islands. Beware!
  • Gas and petrol stations may not be as plentiful as back home. If you're used to letting your gauge drop to below half, you'd better learn new habits. In some countries where there is a fuel shortage, stations are closed or there may not even be any. You'll have to stock up or carry your fuel with you.
  • In less developed countries, the terrain isn't always what you expect. That solid red line across a country on the map might well be a near-invisible dirt track, which disappeared shortly after the map was drawn up decades ago. Make sure you ask locally before heading upcountry.
  • Animals on the road can be a major hazard. Kangaroos in Australia, wild boar in France, monkeys and other primates in southern Africa... you never know what's going to jump out at you. When roads aren't that well-traveled, animals don't fear them as much.
  • If you're from the US or Canada you may be accustomed to turning right when the light is red. Don't! In most countries, red means red.
  • Not all cars are made alike. In wealthy countries, you can count on a late model rental car. In developing countries, your rental car may leave something to be desired. It may be an old model, with no airbags, or much much worse.Most countries won't rent you a car if you're under 21 - and in some countries it's 25, even if you have an international driver's licence.

There are plenty of additional rules that distinguish one country from another, and some of the sites below should help.

International Driving Resources

Driving in Europe
Driving in the UK
Driving in France
Driving in India (tongue in cheek!) and a little more serious
Driving in Australia
Driving in New Zealand
Driving in other countries

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