Make sure you’re legally covered behind the wheel before driving off on your American adventure.
If you’re traveling around the US and plan to see the sights beyond big cities with public transportation, you’re likely going to need a car. To legally drive in most states, you need a minimum amount of car insurance. In case of an accident, auto insurance typically covers medical fees, vehicle repair damages, bodily injury, legal fees and property damages. Depending on whether you’ll be driving a rental car, borrowing a car or purchasing one while here, different rules for car insurance apply.
Compare car insurance for international drivers
Do I need insurance to drive in the US?
Yes. In order to legally drive in most states in the US, you’ll need to meet the state’s minimum car insurance requirements. But your specific situation as an international visitor will affect the type of policy you’ll need.
Driving a rental car
Rental companies offer insurance coverage on their vehicles. If you’ll be renting a car, you can simply purchase car insurance from the rental company. But make sure you’re not duplicating any coverage you might already have. Many credit cards with travel rewards include car rental insurance, so check to see if you’re already covered. If not, you’ll need to obtain insurance through the rental company or get short-term insurance through a provider.
Driving a borrowed car
Will you be driving the car of a friend or family member in the US? Many policies cover any driver of the car, not just the car’s owner. But not all do. How long you’ll be driving the borrowed car will also affect whether you’ll be covered under the existing policy, so check with the provider. The car’s owner might need to add you to their policy temporarily if you’ll be using the car on a regular basis for an extended period of time.
Driving a car you purchased in the US
Many visitors to the US opt to purchase a car here for a road trip around the country. Some will sell the car before they head back to their home country, while others export their car back home at the end of their trip. In either case, you’ll need to register your car in the US once it’s purchased. Some states offer temporary registrations. In order to register your car, you’ll need to show proof of insurance, so temporary insurance might be a good option in this case. Alternatively, you can purchase a traditional insurance policy that allows you to cancel coverage at any time without any fees.
Driving a car-sharing vehicle
Travelers are no longer limited to the traditional, big-name car rental companies. Alternative car-sharing services are popping up all over the country. Most car-sharing vehicles will already be covered under an insurance policy, so you likely won’t be required to obtain insurance. Zipcar, the most well-known car-sharing network, takes care of the insurance and gas, while Turo covers the insurance but requires you to replace the amount of gas you used before you return the car. Whichever car-sharing service you go with, be sure to ask about insurance.
What are the car insurance requirements in the US?
Coverage requirements vary by state, but most require you to have some amount of liability protection.
For example, in the land of Disney World, Florida requires all drivers have $10,000 in personal injury protection (PIP) and $10,000 in property damage liability.
In New York, however, the required coverage is more extensive, with a minimum of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident for bodily injury, $10,000 for property damage, $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident for uninsured/underinsured bodily injury and $50,000 for basic personal injury protection.
Check with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for the particular state you’ll be driving in. If you’re renting a car as opposed to purchasing or borrowing a car, the rental agency can help you with insurance requirements.
What kind of coverage do I need?
Most states require a basic policy with minimum coverage levels that you’ll need to meet. You can then choose to add optional coverage that offers extra protection against all the other mishaps that might happen to you while on the road.
Basic coverage usually includes:
- Bodily injury liability. Covers injuries to another person in an at-fault accident including medical care, legal help and funeral costs.
- Property damage liability. Covers damages to someone else’s property in an at-fault accident including repairs to vehicles, buildings or fences.
- Personal injury protection. Covers health care after an accident regardless of fault, including ambulances, nursing care and lost income.
- Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. Covers costs caused by another driver if they have little to no insurance.
Optional insurance coverage can include:
- Comprehensive. Ensures you’re covered for the expense of replacing or repairing your vehicle — regardless of fault — for damages that aren’t within your control, including fire, vandalism and flooding.
- Medical payments. Helps you with your medical costs resulting from a car accident — no matter who’s at fault.
- Collision. If you’re at fault in an accident, your liability insurance kicks in and pays for the other driver’s costs.
- Umbrella. Protects you beyond the coverage offered by your insurance.
How do I apply for insurance?
In order to take out a policy from an insurance provider as opposed to a car rental company, you’ll need to meet specific eligibility requirements. Some states require only that you have a valid, unexpired driver’s license from your home country. Other states require an international driving permit (IDP), which must be obtained in your country of residence. Regardless, you’ll also need to provide appropriate details when applying for coverage, which may include:
- Mailing address in the US
- Contact phone number or email address
- Vehicle registration details
If you’re opting to obtain insurance through a car rental company, they’ll handle it for you.
Do I need the additional coverage offered by the rental company?
If you happen to have a vehicle registered and insured in the US, typically that coverage will extend to a rental car. Be sure to check with your provider to find out if this is the case for you, as well as how much coverage applies to the rental car. If you don’t have insurance on a vehicle here in the US, you’ll need to get insurance through the rental company.
Another option for avoiding the insurance coverage offered through the rental company is utilizing the car rental insurance benefits that come with your travel rewards credit card. Check with your card’s issuer to find out if they offer this coverage and what exactly is included. If it’s only the bare minimum, you might want to consider some of the additional coverage the rental company offers.
License requirements for visitors to the US
If you plan on driving while visiting the US, you’ll need a valid driver’s license.
In some states, your valid, unexpired license from your home country is sufficient. Other states will require you to also carry an international driving permit (IDP). Check with the DMV of each state you’ll be driving in to find out its requirements.
In either case, an IDP can be helpful. It translates information from your license into English so an officer can read it. IDPs must be obtained in the same country that your driver’s license was issued, and you must carry both the IDP and your driver’s license. IDPs are valid for one year.
7 tips for driving in the US
For a smoother trip, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind abut road safety in the US.
- Keep right. Drivers must drive on the right side of the road. Additionally, if there is more than one lane driving in your direction, slower traffic should stay to the right.
- Buckle up. Most states require front seat passengers to wear their seat belts at all times. Some states require all occupants to wear their seat belts.
- Use child safety seats. All children in the US must be safely secured with a child seat or seatbelt. As a general rule, babies and small children are not allowed to sit in the front seat, and children under 8 must be in a car seat or booster seat unless they’re over 4’9″ or weigh more than 40 lbs.
- Don’t drink and drive. US police officers are vigilant about cracking down on drunk drivers. Most states have a blood alcohol limit of 0.08.
- Watch for red light cameras. If you go through a red light, you might receive a fine in the mail.
- Know how to use four-way stops. When coming to a four-way stop — an intersection with four stop signs — the car that arrives and comes to a complete stop first can proceed through the intersection first. If two cars come to a stop at the same time, the driver to the right has the right of way.
- Right turns at a red light. In many states, you can turn right at a red light if you’ve come to a complete stop, there’s no oncoming traffic and there’s no sign indicating no turn on red.
Most states in the US require some amount of car insurance coverage. How you go about obtaining a policy will depend on whether you’re renting a car, borrowing a friend’s or buying one to use on your trip. Check with the DMV in the particular states you’ll be driving in to find out what’s expected of you in terms of coverage amounts and driving permits.
Compare car insurance coverage to learn more about how car insurance works in the US and get the best coverage.