The Essential Guide to Road Safety and Driving Abroad

Here’s the information you need to legally and safely drive in countries outside the United States. Have fun and be safe while driving abroad.

You’ve got your ticket and reserved your lodging, but your plans for traveling outside the United States aren’t complete if you expect to drive a motor vehicle abroad.

Whether you’re headed to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, vacationing in Europe, or conducting business in Asia, you’ll need advance preparation before you can legally drive when you get there.

Here’s what you need to know about driver’s licensing, auto insurance, the rules of the road, and other essential information to drive safely and confidently outside the United States.

Your Driver’s License Isn’t Enough

Your American driver’s license and auto insurance won’t be enough to drive in most countries legally. However, it’s not too hard or expensive to get the documents you’ll need so long as you meet the basic requirements.

International Driving Permit

There are a few countries that will recognize a valid U.S. driver’s license on its own, but most countries require or strongly recommend an International Driving Permit (IDP).

An IDP is a valid form of identification in more than 150 countries. The permit contains your name, photo and driver’s information translated into ten languages.

Check the most recently published requirements for the country you plan to visit to verify an IDP will be honored. For example, you can’t drive in China without a valid Chinese driver’s permit. In Bermuda, visitors aren’t allowed to drive at all.

To apply for an International Driving Permit:

  • You must be a permanent resident of the United States, over 18 years old, and have a valid U.S. driver’s license.
  • Your U.S. license must be valid for at least six months beyond the issuance date of the IDP.
  • IDPs cannot be issued more than six months before your intended effective date.
  • An IDP is good for one year.

Only two organizations are authorized by the U.S. State Department to issue valid International Driving Permits:

You may apply for an IDP in person or by mail. The completed IDP application from AAA or the IDP application from AATA may be mailed along with the permit fee, copies of your driver’s license, and two passport-size photos as instructed on the application page.

Americans can only get an IDP issued in the United States. You cannot use an IDP issued from another country.

If you are already overseas, and you have a valid driver’s license issued in the United States, you’ll have to mail your application to the U.S.

Car Insurance Coverage Outside the U.S.

If you’re planning to drive outside the United States, first check with your auto insurance carrier. Your policy coverage may extend to Mexico or Canada, but make sure you understand any exceptions.

Find out if your auto policy:

  • Only covers your personal vehicle
  • Covers a rental car
  • Provides liability coverage for personal injuries or property damage if you’re at fault for an accident

Most American auto policies won’t cover you for vehicle travel overseas. Your agent may be able to offer you “vacation insurance” or refer you to an agency that can help you.

Credit Card Insurance

Many major credit card companies will provide auto insurance for rental cars, so long as you use their credit card to rent the vehicle. Contact your credit card company to verify:

  • Coverage is available for your destination country
  • If the coverage includes liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage
  • If you’re covered for renting a motorcycle, moped or RV
  • The limits of each type of coverage
  • What the international coverage will cost you

Every credit card company has different rules for different countries. Do yourself a favor and compare the options available through your credit card companies.

Rental Car Company Insurance

You may be able to purchase insurance through the rental car company. Be sure you read and understand the insurance agreement provided by the rental company.

If you’re covered by your credit card company, you may still want to take the rental car insurance, especially if it offers a loss or collision damage waiver. With a collision damage waiver, the company may waive any costs to you if your rental car is damaged or stolen.

Try to get an advance copy of the rental company contract before you leave home. You’ll need time to read it carefully, especially if the contract isn’t in English. Any disputes won’t be subject to American laws, so be sure you know what you’re signing.

Driving Laws and Road Safety Abroad

Just like at home, most countries outside the United States require drivers to be properly licensed and insured. You’ll also need to know the rules of the road for each country where you’ll be driving.

There’s much more to know than what side of the road to drive on, although that’s a huge consideration.

The U.S. Department of State provides updated safety and security information for each country. Look under the Travel and Transportation tab for the traffic laws in your destination.

The State Department recommends you learn about road safety in the country you’ll be visiting, and keep the following in mind as you plan your trip:

  • Documents to carry, including your passport, driver’s license, IDP, insurance information and special permits
  • Potential hazards and road conditions
  • Roads or areas to avoid
  • Availability of roadside assistance
  • Emergency gear and spare tires are required in many countries
  • Local emergency numbers
  • Vehicle safety features, like seatbelts

Don’t drink and drive. Many countries have a much lower legal intoxication limit than the United States, and some, like Japan, have zero-tolerance laws.

Be careful of border crossings. Only enter countries you are authorized to visit. Be aware that driving a rental car across country borders may be restricted. Many rental vehicles have a GPS that notifies the company of the car’s location. You may be charged fees or lose insurance coverage if you stray out of the allowed region.

Do your research. Some countries, like the Dominican Republic, have such terrible road conditions and high traffic fatalities you may be better off leaving the driving to someone else.

Be Ready for Travel Emergencies

There are several actions you can take to ensure safe travel outside of the United States. Travelers should be prepared to deal with health or weather problems, family emergencies, and potential civil unrest.

International Safety and Security

The first safety step for traveling outside the United States is to stay on top of any travel advisories issued for your planned destination. Travel advisories are issued at four levels:

  • Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions
  • Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution
  • Level 3: Reconsider Travel
  • Level 4: Do Not Travel

The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs offers the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP is a free service offered to American citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the closest U.S. Embassy or consulate.

The STEP program sends updated alerts about safety conditions in the destination country, helps the Embassy contact you in emergencies, and will help your family and friends reach you in an emergency.

Protect Your Health and Well-Being

Health insurance coverage is important. Find out if your health insurance covers medical emergencies while you’re out of the country. If not, think about purchasing a supplemental health insurance policy to cover you and your family while you’re abroad.

Have good maps of the region you’ll be driving through. Look for alternate routes that will get you to safety (like the nearest U.S. Embassy) in a crisis if your planned route is blocked or unsafe.

Lodging staff should be able to tell you about the hotel or hostel’s emergency plan in case of fire or other problems.

Stay alert for changing situations. Monitor local news for updates and have a plan to get out.

Stay in contact with your airline or cruise company for evacuation instructions. You may need to coordinate with the rental company to return the vehicle to an alternate location.

Travel documents should be safely organized. Never leave your papers in a hotel while you’re out driving. If you need to evacuate, you’ll need your passport, driver’s license, IDP, insurance papers, travel tickets or vouchers, copies of your medication prescriptions, and local currency. Have a list of emergency contact numbers with your papers.

Be prepared with a portable bag that holds your medications, cell phones and chargers, an electric current converter, a flashlight, water bottles, and some food. Have suitable clothing and footwear for the region you’ll be driving through, in case you have to get out of the car.

Communication is critical. Have a plan to communicate with loved ones in an emergency. Phone lines may be down, but you might be able to send text messages or post on social media. U.S. Embassies and the Bureau of Consular affairs will also broadcast information on Facebook and Twitter.

Driving in other countries can be pleasant and safe with advance planning and reasonable safety precautions. Relax and enjoy the ride, knowing you’re ready for anything.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>