Heading abroad and planning on buying, renting or borrowing a car? Learn more about car insurance for Americans overseas.
Driving overseas isn’t always as simple as getting behind the wheel and hitting the open road. Depending on the destination, your American driver’s license and insurance might not be accepted, meaning you may need additional documentation. Also, if you plan on taking a car outside of the US, you’ll need to know about customs.
You’ll also need to be aware of the differences you’ll encounter on the roads and what to do if you have an accident. This guide explains what you need to know before hitting the road in countries outside the US.
Overseas car insurance options for Americans
The most important forms of coverage you need are medical and personal liability. Travel insurance will generally be the most cost-effective way of finding these types of coverage, but you should check your policy to make sure it includes coverage while you’re driving overseas. And since many policies only provide coverage when driving in the US, Canada and Mexico, you may want to consider an international car insurance policy. However, it depends on how you’re planning on driving:
- If you’re renting a car: You can get car insurance through the rental company. If you plan on doing this, it may be a good idea to consider zero deductible rental car insurance to reduce the cost of your deductible in the event of an accident. In most cases, this is available as a standalone policy or included with travel insurance.
- If you’re borrowing a car: Check what kind of policy the car owner has. It might not cover you, or it might not have enough coverage for your needs. Once again, travel insurance can provide liability and medical coverage when you’re abroad. The ideal option may be to contact the car insurer and see if you can adjust the coverage or add yourself to the policy.
- If you’re traveling outside of the US with your car: International car insurance will generally be required. You will also typically need a carnet, which should be available through the same organizations that offer overseas car insurance.
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International Driving Permits
Not all countries will recognize an American driver’s license. If you are pulled over in one of these countries and don’t have an International Driving Permit (IDP), you may be treated as if you were driving without a license. IDPs require a full American driver’s license, but are universally recognized, valid for 12 months and will let you drive legally almost anywhere in the world.
Which countries require an International Driving Permit?
- IDPs are valid in over 150 countries. Check with the DMV to find out if you’ll need one for your upcoming trip.
What you need for an IDP. IDPs are valid for 12 months and have the following requirements:
- You must be over 18 years of age.
- You must have a valid American driver’s license (not a probationary or learner license).
- You need two recent photos of yourself (passport-sized and signed on the back)
- You need to pay the application fee. This varies depending on your method of application, where you are traveling, which agency you obtain the IDP through and more.
Where to get an IDP. There are only two agencies that are authorized to issue IDPs in the US.
- American Automobile Association (AAA)
- American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA)
You can think of a Carnet de Passages en Douane, or carnet for short (pronounced car-nay), as a passport for your car. You will generally need one if you’re temporarily taking a car outside of the US. Without it, you’ll need to pay customs charges in the local currency when bringing your car across a border.
When you get an ATA carnet in the US, you will avoid paying duties and import charges on property (in this case, your car) that will be re-exported within 12 months.
- A carnet is essential for taking vehicles through African, Asian, Middle Eastern, South American and Pacific countries.
- A carnet is not required for cars, campervans or motorcycles entering most countries in Europe or North America for holidaying purposes. For all other vehicles, and all other purposes, you will either need a carnet or you will need to pay the local import duty. If you’ll be driving through Europe or Oceania, you can visit the USCIB website for a list of countries where it can be used or contact them for more information.
Tips for driving overseas
Driving overseas carries significant risks and you should exercise great caution on unfamiliar roads. Worldwide, more than a million people die on the roads each year, and over 90% of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.
Statistically, you can expect more dangerous roads in almost any other country and should anticipate certain hazards. Depending on your destination, the following are some of the main hazards to watch out for:
- Poorly maintained roads
- Reckless drivers
- Poor lighting
- Other traffic, including pedestrians, cyclists and livestock moving at different speeds
- Transport crime
- Unfamiliar driving laws (direction of traffic, etc.)
Consider your need to drive and whether it’s the right way to see each country. In addition, keep the following information in mind:
- Know how to contact your travel insurer. Keep your travel insurance info with you while traveling, so you can easily get in touch with your insurer as needed. Take down their emergency contact number and keep it in your phone or somewhere safe just in case you lose the papers.
- Know how to use your insurance: Make sure you know how to use your overseas coverage. This guide explains what to do after an accident. After an accident, it’s important to contact your insurer as soon as possible.
- Consider an International Driving Permit even if you don’t need one. It’s another form of internationally recognized identification in case your passport goes missing. It’s also the only type of formal identification that comes in nine languages, making it useful almost everywhere.
- Watch out for counterfeit IDPs. These are available online and are usually sold at inflated prices. If it costs more than $20, it might be fraudulent. If it’s being sold on eBay, it’s probably also a fake. The AAA and AATA are the only two authorized issuers.
- Remember that some countries drive on the left. If you’ve only driven in North America, you’re probably used to driving on the right side. Many places in Europe and Oceania drive on the left, which will cause issues if you fall into old habits.
- Pack travel insurance. The government recommends travel insurance for all overseas destinations, regardless of how safe or dangerous they might be. Unfamiliarity means things are more likely to go wrong for travelers, and personal liability and medical expenses can be potentially devastating no matter where in the world you are. For the coverage it delivers, travel insurance can be exceptionally cost effective.