Sometimes, it’s possible to get away with just using your normal license to drive or rent a car.
I mean, how many college kids from San Diego manage to make it to the Tijuana border every weekend? Driving in a foreign country isn’t as bad or complex as people make it out to be. Aside from worrying about things like thinking in the metric system or driving on the opposite side of the road, the hardest thing is probably just making sure you’re legal to drive. Which can just mean bringing your driver’s license along.
For examples, Americans don’t need anything special to drive in Australia. Foreign driver licenses from certain countries are valid for up to three months there. The British also hold a similar policy: you can use your license unless you plan to be on the road for more than a year. The grace periods are, in fact, pretty generous and should cover most extended trips. The rule of thumb is that countries that operate in the same language as yours may not necessarily need the IDP, but this should be always verified before you leave for your trip. In case you get in a traffic accident, you may need to seek the services of an auto accident lawyer to help you understand the local accident laws and protect your rights.
In other countries, though, where that won’t work, the International Driving Permit is basically an official and recognized document translating your license. About 186 countries currently honor the IDP in some sort of fashion, since not all of them will observe your state-issued license. In some cases, you have to have it on hand in order to drive or to even rent a car. (Most of this stuff is dictated by the United Nation conventions on driving, which was last amended in 2011.)
In the States, there are only two places where you can get a legitimate IDP. You can grab one from either the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the National Automobile Club for $15 after filling out a completed application form and sending in two passport-type photos. You’ll also have to send in a copy of your driver’s license if you’re mailing it in. Though there seem to be some varying information on how long the IDP is valid for, depending on the specific convention, it is valid for at least one year minimum for anyone over the age of 18.
Among a notable exception, the IDP doesn’t work in China – only Chinese driver licenses do. Even Hong Kong and Macanese licenses won’t fly, so don’t try to pull this one while you’re in the People’s Republic of China.
(Brazil and Uruguay only honor the Inter-American Driving Permits, which is something else entirely different from the IDP, so be sure to check driving laws if you’re planning to go anywhere in South America. There are some reports that the IADP is not absolutely necessary, but you still might need a sworn translation of your license.)
Got all the information you need? Good. Now don’t get into an accident!