The United States is a huge country and it’s definitely one where having a car crucial. To drive from coast to coast takes more than 40 hours, and that’s without stops for gas or rest. Although a cross-country road trip is a bucket list item for many Americans and visitors alike, you’ll still likely need a vehicle for your everyday needs. Given the urban sprawl of the landscape and the cities, you can expect that everything from weekday commutes, to meeting friends, shopping to weekend getaways rests on your access to a car. That is of course unless you’re in a crowded metropolis such as New York City, for instance.
If you’re a foreigner visiting for an extended period of time, chances are that you’ll eventually need to drive. Thankfully, driving in the U.S. with a foreign license isn’t too difficult, as long as you know the rules.
You can drive in the U.S. with a foreign license for up to three months. This should be more than enough time for most visitors. However, if you’re planning to live or travel within the country for an extended period of time, you might need to apply for a driver’s license. This will require a trip to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You’ll need to provide some documentation and you may also need to pass a written and/or behind-the-wheel driver’s test.
Each state has its own DMV with a different set of rules, so it’s best to check the local DMV website for whichever state you’ll be applying to. If a driver’s test is required, make sure to check up on the local driving laws. Driving laws usually differ from your home country.
If you’re applying for a driver’s license here, you’ll most likely need to provide a permanent address and proof of residence. Keep this in mind while apartment hunting for your fixed address. Furnished housing providers like Blueground are a great option. They provide turnkey, serviced apartments that come with everything you’ll need to live like a local resident. With their move-in-ready apartment options, you can have a permanent address in the U.S. starting from before you arrive. That will help jumpstart your paperwork immediately.
There are three types of documentation you might need to carry while driving in the U.S. with a foreign license:
Obviously, you won’t be able to drive at all if you don’t have a valid license from your home country. In 49 of the 50 states, this is a requirement that is applied by law for foreigners to drive. Just check before you leave to make sure that your license won’t expire before you plan to drive in the U.S.
If you plan to drive in (or through) the state of Georgia, make sure to get an International Driving Permit; this is the only state that requires this type of documentation. However, it’s actually a good idea to get one of these permits anyway when traveling abroad.
If your home driver’s license is in a language other than English, American authorities might not be able to read it. Some car rental agencies may also require an International Driving Permit before they’ll give you a car. If you do plan to get an International Driving Permit, you’ll have to get one before you leave your home country as they aren’t issued to foreigners in the U.S.
Whether you have an International Driving Permit or just a driver’s license issued by your home country, you should also always carry your passport with you if you plan to drive in the U.S. Authorities may ask for this document alongside your driver’s license to prove that you’re visiting the country legally. You’ll also need to show it as proof of identification if you plan to rent a car.
Nearly all car rental agencies will have no problem renting to someone with an international driver’s license. Check the website of the rental agency you plan to use to see specific requirements and documentation. Most car-sharing services will also accept your foreign license. However, you’ll have to wait a bit of extra time for your application to be processed.
Things may get a bit more complicated if you plan to use a long-term car rental (meaning, it extends beyond the three-month period during which U.S. law allows you to drive with your foreign license). Call the rental agency to ask whether you’ll need to prove that you’ve applied for a U.S. driver’s license once the grace period is over.
When it comes to adding on a GPS, most renters these days rely on their maps or traffic apps. As a visitor with plans for big road trips, make sure that your local mobile data plan can support you in terms of coverage and bandwidth.
When driving in the U.S., you should always make sure you’re covered by auto insurance. Most car rental companies offer insurance for an additional fee when you rent a car. Some credit cards also provide rental insurance as a cardmember benefit. That applies as long as you pay for the rental car with that credit card.
If you won’t be covered by either of these options, you might want to consider purchasing auto insurance from a third party. Many insurance companies will offer coverage at a reasonable price. This is usually the best option for long-term car rentals.
The last thing you want to happen while driving in the U.S. with a foreign license is to get in an accident. Unfortunately, car accidents do happen, and it might not be your fault or within your control. Keep in mind though that every car accident is taken very seriously in the United States.
The most important thing to remember if you’re in an auto accident is not to leave the scene. That also applies even if it’s a minor accident. Regardless of whether or not anyone gets injured, you should call the police. The responding officer will create a police report that you’ll need to send your insurance company. While you’re waiting for an officer to arrive, take photos of all of the damage. Also, exchange details with the other driver, including their name, phone number, and insurance information.
As long as you’re able to drive the rental car after the accident, the police officer should let you go once you’ve given your statement. Ask for the police report number and contact your insurance company as soon as you can to begin the claims process.
Driving in the United States with a foreign license is fairly straightforward and will open up a whole set of new opportunities for your time abroad. Enjoy hitting the road and discovering all the exciting destinations the country has to offer!