A Beginner’s Guide to International Driving

Embarking on an international driving adventure can seem like a thrilling chapter straight out of a globetrotter’s diary. The freedom to explore at your own pace, to discover hidden gems far from the tourist trails, is tantalizing. Yet, for many, the thought of driving abroad is met with anxiety. Language barriers, cryptic road signs, and arcane local customs can transform what should be an exhilarating experience into a daunting challenge. 

Street signs in ThailandThe first mistake most newcomers to international driving make is to do little or no preparation. Do some study and reading about local driving customs and road conditions. Study the State Department’s or Global Affairs Canada’s information regarding driving abroad. Road etiquette is not just about mastering the physical roads but also navigating the cultural rules of the road. In some countries, the car horn is a form of street poetry, while in others, it’s used only in dire emergencies. Understanding the local driving etiquette is as crucial as knowing your left from your right. Take the time to learn about the unique customs, from the mandatory offering of a ‘thank you’ wave in rural England to the aggressive merging techniques in Italy. Familiarize yourself with local laws, such as restrictions on turning at red lights or the requirement to carry high-visibility jackets in your car in parts of Europe.

Does your destination country’s norm include driving on the opposite side of the road from your own? Especially in countries that drive on the opposite side of the road from your domestic norm, practice is important.

Hint: “they” don’t drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Nor do you in your home country.

If you plan on driving in a country where driving on the left is the norm and you are used to driving on the right, practice extensively in an open parking lot on the weekend. Find a good, safe space and practice driving on the “other” side of the road.  If you have a friend who can practice with you, all the better!  Think through situations like 4-way stops, turning left or right at a street light with multiple lanes, merging lanes, and, of course, the dreaded roundabout. Remember too, that the steering wheel in your destination country may be on the other side. In counties that drive on the left, approaching traffic will come at you from a different direction. All in all, with practice, you can easily master the new habits, which is important because, in a panic situation, we tend to revert to the habits we know best.

Round about sign for right lane countries

Once you are at your destination, don’t head right out onto high-traffic roads. Rather, find a quiet area to practice and gain your confidence. Drive more slowly at first and be sure to make good use of your mirrors. If you have a traveling companion, make them your co-pilot!

Will your U.S. driver’s license be valid? In some countries, yes; in others, no. Enter the International Driving Permit (IDP) – your golden ticket to the world’s highways and byways. The IDP validates your license, making it comprehensible to local authorities. Securing an IDP from the AAA before your departure smooths over many bureaucratic hurdles. The IDP is typically valid for only one year and must be accompanied by your native license.

The protective cloak of insurance is a near necessity. Your domestic insurance policy may have no validity in most countries outside of North America. Fear not, for there are ways to arm yourself adequately. You should inquire of your insurance company if your policy extends its embrace to your destination or consider purchasing a temporary policy that does. Car rental companies often offer insurance options, but beware – the coverage may be minimal. You should consider upgrading to a coverage level that would be the equivalent of your U.S. policy.

On the open road in foreign lands, you might find yourself on a serpentine mountain pass where guardrails are considered optional or in urban jungles where traffic laws are more like loose suggestions. Researching your destination’s road conditions is a worthwhile exercise. Take the time to study and learn to interpret the local hieroglyphs of road signs. Equip your vehicle with necessities like a spare tire, a map (or a local SIM card for live GPS navigation), and a basic understanding of the local language – at least enough to ask for directions or assistance.

Street signs in Brazil

Arm yourself with knowledge of local emergency numbers and ensure your phone is equipped to call for help. The availability of roadside assistance can vary wildly from one country to another, so it’s wise to know beforehand whether help is just a call away or if you’re more likely to be assisted by a passing good Samaritan.

 No matter where in the world you find yourself, the seat belt remains your most loyal protector. It’s the one rule that transcends cultural and legal boundaries, offering a degree of safety in the most unfamiliar terrains. Buckling up is not just a legal mandate but a universal nod to safety.

With preparation, a dash of courage, you can master the art of international driving.