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Car insurance for international drivers in the US

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If you’re traveling around the US and don’t plan to use public transportation, you’re likely going to need a car. To legally drive in most states, you need a minimum amount of car insurance. And different rules will apply if you’re driving a rental car, borrowing someone else’s or buying your own.

Do I need insurance to drive in the US?

Yes. In order to legally drive in most states, you’ll need to meet the state’s minimum car insurance requirements. 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’re renting a car, you can purchase insurance from the rental company — just make sure you’re not duplicating any coverage that 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, obtain insurance through the rental company or get short-term insurance through a provider.

Driving a borrowed car

Many policies cover anyone driving the car, not just the owner. 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 temporarily add you to their policy if you’ll be using it on a regular basis for an extended period of time.

Driving a car that you bought 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 it 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. 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 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. Turo covers the insurance, but requires you to replace the amount of gas used before you return the car. Whichever service you go with, always ask about insurance.

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 while on the road.

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, Florida requires all drivers to have $10,000 in personal injury protection (PIP) and $10,000 in property damage liability. In New York, however, the required coverage is far more extensive.

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.

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 car insurance?

The application process will likely depend on how long your stay will be.

How to apply for insurance as a short-term visitor

Getting car insurance through a rental company is probably your best bet if you’re only going to be in the US for a little while and aren’t purchasing a car. Likewise, if you’re borrowing a car from a friend or relative you should be fine as long as they have an active policy.

How to apply for insurance as a long-term visitor

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 only require 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 before you land in the US. 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

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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 carry an 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.

6 tips for driving in the US

For a smoother trip, there are a few things to keep in mind about road safety in the US.

  1. Keep right. Drivers must drive on the right side of the road. Additionally, if there’s more than one lane driving in your direction, slower traffic should stay to the right.
  2. 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.
  3. Use child safety seats. All children in the US must be safely secured with a child seat or seat belt. As a general rule, babies and small children are not allowed to sit in the front seat, and children under eight must be in a car seat or booster seat unless they’re over 4 foot 9 inches or weigh more than 40 pounds.
  4. 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.
  5. Watch for red-light cameras. If you go through a red light, you might receive a fine in the mail.
  6. Right turns at a red light. In many states, you can turn right at a red light if you come to a complete stop, there’s no oncoming traffic and there’s no sign indicating no turn on red.

Bottom line

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 to get the best coverage.

Common questions about driving in the US


Written by

Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron is a freelance journalist and editor, specializing in personal finance, mergers and acquisitions and immigration law. Her writing and analysis has been featured in TechRadar, MSN, Harper's Bazaar, Time and other top media. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of Central Florida. See full profile

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