How does international car rental work?

The process for renting a car in another country is like renting a car in the United States, except that you should also consider applying for an International Driving Permit. An International Driving Permit can be helpful if your destination country doesn't speak English as an official language — which is often the case when renting a car in Europe. Before you go, you should also familiarize yourself with local driving laws, special insurance requirements, and age restrictions for renting.

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Check the local rental laws before renting a car abroad

Many countries allow you to rent a car and drive legally with your US driver's license, but they may have other stipulations about who can rent a car.

For example, when renting a car in Europe, pay close attention to minimum and maximum driving ages. Most European countries don't issue licenses to anyone under 18, so you might be unable to split the driving with teenage drivers on a family road trip. Some countries also establish maximum driving ages for renters. Ireland, for example, won't rent a vehicle to anyone over the age of 70.

Can you rent a car with an international driver's license?

Depending on your destination, you may need an International Driving Permit (IDP) when renting a car internationally. More than 150 countries worldwide recognize the IDP. Even in countries that don't require it, an IDP can be helpful when renting a car or dealing with authorities if you get a ticket.

What is an IDP?

The IDP is often mistakenly referred to as an "International Driver's License," but it's not a driving document. Rather, it's an official translation of your U.S. license data into ten other languages. Since it's not a driving document, you must bring your US license to show with the IDP if your destination requires one.

How to apply for an IDP

You must be at least 18 years old to request an IDP, and you'll need the following documents:

  • A completed IDP application
  • A valid driver's license issued by your state's DMV
  • Two passport-sized photos of yourself, and
  • Payment for the IDP is $20

Take those documents to either the American Automobile Association or the National Auto Club, the only two organizations authorized to issue IDPs in the U.S. Plan about whether to rent a car internationally. Only your home country can issue the IDP. You can't get it once you're at your destination, so bring it with you if you're considering driving abroad.

Logistics of renting a car in another country

There are several practical considerations for renting a car internationally.

  1. Consider manual vs. automatic transmission

    Compared to manuals, automatics may cost more to rent — if you can find one at all. If you don't already know how to drive a stick shift, make sure to budget for the cost of an automatic. A rental car in a foreign country isn't the time or place to learn. Booking a rental well in advance may help secure the cheapest international car rentals. Learn more about the difference between manual and transmission cars.

  2. Think about driving conditions

    For example, many places have smaller, winding roads perfect for driving enthusiasts who want to rent exotic cars. Smaller towns may have poorly maintained roads, dirt roads, or roads paved with stones. Remember, too, that in several countries around the world — not only England — cars drive on the left. Consider what kind of driving you're comfortable with before you rent.

  3. Get familiar with border crossing rules

    If you are leaving the country, check each destination's IDP and other legal requirements, as they may differ. Find out what paperwork you'll need to cross the border and if your rental provider allows you to take the car to another country.

    Sometimes, you may be better off renting two cars. For example, when renting a car in Europe, you may want to rent a left-hand car in England and a right-hand car in France. Bringing a rental car on a ferry and driving a car with the wheel on the wrong side for traffic can confuse you.

Does car insurance cover international rentals?

Most U.S. auto insurers won't cover you while driving abroad, except for driving in Canada and driving in Mexico. Unless you have a credit card offering rental car insurance, you'll probably need to purchase your insurance from the rental company. Learn more about international car insurance and rental car insurance.

The U.S. State Department recommends that you get roughly the same international insurance coverage you have here. Be aware, however, that some countries require additional coverage (Italy, for example, requires theft coverage). Because the laws vary from country to country, be clear with your insurer or rental company about where you plan to travel. Insurance that covers you in one country might not cover you when you cross borders.

Get familiar with the rules and signs

Some signs — like the stop sign — are the same almost everywhere, while other road signs and rules vary from place to place. Get familiar with your destination country's signage and learn about local laws or driving customs. In some places, for instance, flashing your headlights indicates you're letting someone over. In other places, it's a more aggressive driving signal that indicates the person behind you wants you to get out of their way.

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