In the stale air of a AAA office, I looked up from a poorly-cut paper pamphlet to the dead eyes of the old man handing it to me. “This can’t be legit,” I said as I flipped through my newly-minted International Driving Permit. Yet, incredibly, it was. Here’s your definitive guide to the absurd (but real) IDP.

(Full disclosure: Here we’re discussing International Driving Permits as issued in the United States. It’s not a guide on how to drive internationally and we’re not getting into any international driving permits that may be available in other countries.)

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Of course, any reasonable person would probably figure an American driver’s license wouldn’t let you drive in Spain or Mexico or Argentina. But as a raging ignoramus, I felt differently.

“Never needed no International Driving Bullshit to get through Quebec,” I slurred as I opened another wine bottle with my teeth spilled it all over the map of South America that my expedition partner and I used to plan our Dakar Rally pursuit.

“If you want to drive, get the damn permit.” he barked back. “You can complain about wasting fifteen bucks all the way to Buenos Aires as long as I see that document in your hand when we pick up the trucks.”

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From that conversation I resigned myself to the aforementioned AAA office. And the laughably illegitimate appearance of the credential I purchased inspired me to find out everything there is to know about International Driving Permits (IDPs), International Driving Licenses, the American Automobile Association which issues them, the State Department which gives them the right to do so, and the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic that made them a thing at all.

Why question the legitimacy of an International Driving Permit in the first place?

Come on, look at this thing.

Place of birth? What? They didn’t even put my actual address on the address line. Don’t worry though, they left a section for officials to deprive my right to drive in (country). That should make everybody feel a whole lot better.

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When I learned that IDPs were issued by “automobile clubs” and not governments, I figured there was no way these things could hold water in any legal context. How could a shop like AAA issue a regulated credential?

But it wasn’t until I held the thing in my hand that I figured it had to be some kind of scheme. After giving a nice man behind a desk $15 and letting him take my picture, I was in possession of IDP #121276.

With inconsistently-cut pages, poorly-worded English, and weird phrases like “NOT VALID FOR DRIVING” printed on it, all with my passport photo stapled in somewhere in the middle, the pamphlet looks about as legit as the program from a kindergarten class play. Actually, no, that would probably be a lot nicer to look at.

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There’s no way to look from the empty space in your wallet where $15 just was to your new AAA-issued IDP without thinking “I’ve been had.”

Except you haven’t been had. Sort of.

Well of course your International Driving Permit was bogus. Shoulda got an International Driving License, dummy!

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Negative. An International Driving Permit is a thing, and an International Driving License is not. Anyone who tries to sell you the latter actually is grifting you.

My investigation began with Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has a whole webpage dedicated to describing International Driver’s License Scams. They say there’s no such thing as an “international driving license” and there’s no sanctioning body that could issue such a thing. But a permit, which doesn’t actually license you to do anything, can in fact be “real” in certain contexts.

The funny thing about it is, the International Driving Permit I got from AAA, an FTC-approved purveyor, says, yep; INTERNATIONAL DRIVING LICENSE. Right above where the guy who works part-time at AAA signed it to confirm authenticity.

As usual the real lesson here is; nothing matters, life is meaningless. Let’s move on.

What exactly does an International Driving Permit do for you?

Straight from the FTC:

“An international driving permit (IDP) translates your government-issued driver’s license into 10 languages. Although your U.S. driver’s license lets you drive in many foreign countries, the translations in the IDP are intended to minimize language barriers when you drive in countries where English is not widely spoken or understood. That’s all an IDP does.”

But it doesn’t actually give you permission to drive? What sort of scam is this?

That was my first thought, but a little more digging proved that there is slightly more to it. While the document itself doesn’t bestow any legal privileges, possession of it does.

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In the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, about 150 countries got together and decided they’d pretty much let their citizen drivers use each other’s roads with the same privileges they get in their home nation. But they’d need some kind of carry-over translation permit.

For example, an American motorcycle license means you can ride a motorcycle in Argentina as long as you’ve got a certified slip of paper translating your license into Spanish.

As specified in Chapter V, Article 24 of the Convention; “Drivers Of Motor Vehicles In International Traffic”:

Each Contracting State shall allow any driver admitted to its territory who fulfills the conditions which are set out in Annex 8 and who holds a valid driving permit issued to him, after he has given proof of his competence, by the competent authority of another Contracting State or subdivision thereof, or by an Association duly empowered by such authority, to drive on its roads without further examination motor vehicles of the category or categories defined in Annexes 9 and 10 for which the permit has been issued.

A Contracting State may however require that any driver admitted to its territory shall carry an international driving permit conforming to the model contained in Annex 10, especially in the case of a driver coming from a country where a domestic driving permit is not required or where the domestic permit issued to him does not conform to the model contained in Annex 9.

And in the US State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), specifically section 7 FAM 1436, says:

Although many countries do not recognize U.S. driver’s licenses, more than 150 countries outside of the United States honor international driving permits (IDPs).

Whoa! Lotta scary words in there, chief. Break it down for me.

It pretty much says if you have a license from one of the countries in the Convention you can drive in all of them. As long as you have a permit from an entity so-empowered by the government of the country you live in.

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Also, apparently some countries won’t care about your US license at all and only want to see an IDP, but I’ve never heard any verification of that.

So who doles the real International Driving Permits out in America?

The United States Department Of State has decided that the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) are the only two outfits legitimately allowed to issue IDPs in compliance with the Convention.

Why are only AAA and AATA allowed to sell International Driving Permits?

Great question, and the only one I really wanted to answer for you, obviously. But the State Department’s PR people are running out of ways to say “I don’t know” in their reply emails to me, and I don’t think anyone that’s working there now was on the desk in 1949 when the Convention was signed.

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The most probable reason is that AAA and AATA were (basically still are) the preeminent private automotive associations in America. Passing the task of managing International Driver’s Permits off the government relieves the State Department of the responsibility and cost of dealing with these trivial documents while benefitting from their existence.

I feel like government-issued International Driving Permits could have been a revenue stream. But I guess, at least at the time, Uncle Sam saw it as more trouble than it was worth.

Do I have to be a member of AAA or AATA, or pay money to get an International Driving Permit?

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No, you don’t have to be a member. But yes, of course, you have to cough up $15 to make it happen. This is still America, and we don’t take no free riders here. Luckily one of these goofy documents can be yours very quick and painlessly if you walk up to either a AAA or AATA office that offers the service.

Alternatively, you can complete the process by mail with AAA here or the AATA here. Obviously, that takes a little longer and gives them the opportunity to sting you for shipping fees.

If an International Driving Permit is as sketchy-looking as you say, why do I have to buy one? What’s stopping me from just printing one out at home?

Oh, nothing.

Yes, my International Driving Permit has a number stamped on it. No, the man who sold it to me didn’t log that number in association with my name in any capacity whatsoever. There’s nothing tying the document to AAA, the US government, or any of my personal data except for what’s scribbled on the “ADDRESS” line in ink.

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As of this writing, there’s no way to prove a home-made IDP was fake. Since the document’s not valid in the United States anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism in place validating it, not to mention the fact that you could make a way more legitimate-looking version on your Etch-A-Sketch, I sort of feel stupid telling you to fork over $15 in exchange for one of these things.

But I’m a goodie-gumdrop who generally doesn’t like to break rules. Border crossings make me sweat enough anyway, and I’d rather not risk whatever ramifications there may be for fraudilizing this silly piece of toilet paper. So I just bought the thing. I’ll get another one when it expires. And you probably should too.

Plus, you’re already spending hundreds (at least) on the plane ticket to get wherever you’re going. You might as well drop an extra $15 to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up.

Which countries honor the IDP?

Pretty much anywhere you’re going to be driving. Since most readers might not want to scroll passed 150 lines before getting to the comment section, those who really want to know can check the UN’s treaty page regarding the Geneva Traffic Convention we’ve talked about.

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That page lists out every country involved, when they signed on, and any specificities regarding driving privileges there.

TL;DR. I’m going abroad, should I buy an International Driving Permit or not?

Just get one.

The State Department points out that some rental car companies will insist on it and if nothing else, it looks cool in your passport wallet. But better than that; it’s an ID you can’t get in trouble for using.

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I’ll leave you with one last anecdote from our South American drive chasing Dakar, just so you know that I know what I’m talking about

Somewhere between mile 1 and mile 4,999, I may or may not have maybe exceeded the posted speed limit on an empty Chilean highway in my overloaded SsangYong Actyon Sports pickup truck.

I say “may or may not” because if I really was speeding, I would have thought a medal and a handshake from SsangYong’s chief engineer would be in order rather than a ticket.

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Nevertheless, when I pulled up to grab some fuel, I was surprised by two men in green body armor yelling at me in Spanish before my boots hit the dirt.

It only took a second more to figure out they were cops, and they figured my little truck was a little too fast. They started to relax, we made it through the language barrier, and one asked to see my driver’s license.

Why of course, officer. Here’s a crumpled pamphlet with my face on it as officially issued by an organization in my home country that, as far as I know, doesn’t do anything besides offer discounts on tow trucks and Disney World tickets.

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But hey, AAA and the US State Department told me this is exactly the kind of situation the International Driving Permit was designed for. And then I found out why. The cop flipped through it, presumably read the Spanish translation, shrugged, and sent me on my merry way.

Would things have gone differently if I’d handed him my “real” Massachusetts-issued driver’s license? We’ll never know. But I do know South American authorities love flipping through papers, and they really appreciate you trying to communicate with them in their own language.

To the same effect, overlanders have told me they like to carry several IDPs in the event one or two get taken away at a border or traffic stop.

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Obviously, the best policy for safe travel is to obey local laws and make nice with any authorities you meet. Having an IDP is an easy way to do that.


Andrew is the off-road and adventure guy at Jalopnik. Shoot him an email at andrew@jalopnik.com or hit him up on Twitter to talk trucks.