International Driver’s License vs. International Driving Permit

Posted January 28th, 2019 by Jason Metz

An international driving permit (IDP) is not the same as an international driver's license. An IDP translates your U.S. license information into 10 different languages. It's important to have an IDP if you plan to drive in another country. In many countries you'll need an IDP, a valid U.S. driver's license and auto insurance in order to drive.

An IDP is not a card. Rather, it's a multipage booklet with the translations of your U.S. license information.

An international driving permit is often confused with an international driver's license. They are not the same thing.

What is an International Driving Permit?

An IDP contains your name, driver information and photo. It's a valid form of identification in over 150 countries. It translates a U.S. driver's license into 10 languages and helps minimize language barriers when you're driving in another country. For example, you may need to show your driver's license to an official in another country.

An IDP is not a substitute for your government or state-issued driver's license. And it can't replace a suspended or revoked U.S. driver's license. You will still need a valid U.S. driver's license to drive both in the U.S. and in a foreign country.

It's necessary to have an IDP in about 40 countries, and others recognize an IDP but don't require one. Here is a list of countries where IDPs are recognized.

If you have a license issued in the United States, you will need an IDP if you travel more than 50 miles into Canada or 300 miles into Mexico.

If you are visiting from outside the United States, some states require an IDP. For example, Massachusetts requires an IDP or a similar document with a photo that translates your license information to English. In California, an IDP is not required to drive. In Texas, you can drive with a valid foreign driver's license for up to one year and an IDP is not required. Check with the state's department of motor vehicles for specific requirements.

How do I get an international driving permit?

Only two organizations provide IDPs for folks with U.S. licenses:

Along with your application, you must be at least age 18 and provide:

  • A photocopy of the front and back of your valid U.S. driver's license.
  • Two passport photos according to U.S. Department of State requirements.
  • $20 fee (not including shipping & handling).

Whether you choose to apply through AAA or AATA, make sure you follow each organization's specific guidelines and shipping fees.

What is an international driver's license?

An "international driver's license" (IDL) is generally seen as a worthless document. The name "international driver's license" is misleading because the document does not grant driving privileges nor is it a substitute for a valid U.S. driver's license. An IDL might also be referred to as an International Driver's Document (IDD).

IDLs are often sold via email, websites or in-person and can cost around $25 to $100. They offer similar information as IDPs, such as translating license information to other languages, but many countries do not recognize an IDL as an acceptable document for driving.

It's smart to read the fine print. You can often find it in the FAQ section of an IDL seller's website. Look for language that states the IDL has no official status, that it is an unofficial translation of your driver's license, and that it is not meant as a substitute for a driver's license.

And remember that true IDPs are available only from AAA and AATA.

International driving permit highlights

Driving abroad

If you're licensed in the United States and planning to visit another country, your U.S. auto insurance policy generally will not cover you while driving abroad. You can look up information about your destination country at the U.S. Department of State.

If you plan to drive in Canada or Mexico, you may have limited coverage through your U.S. auto insurance policy. However, minimum insurance requirements differ. For example, in Ontario you must carry a minimum of $200,000 in liability insurance, while Mexican car insurance handles liability differently than the U.S. It's a good idea to contact your insurance agent before you travel to make sure you have the right coverage.

Getting U.S. car insurance with a foreign license

If you're visiting the United States from another country and plan to drive, make sure the car you're driving has auto insurance. You can generally get auto insurance in one of two ways:

  • Rental car company: If you're visiting for a short stay and renting a car, consider rental car insurance. You can typically get it through the rental car agency or with a credit card that has rental car benefits.
  • Car insurance company: If you plan on buying a vehicle in the U.S, like students or those who plan to become permanent residents, shop around for car insurance. In most states, driving without car insurance is illegal.