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The short answer is “yes,” and here’s why. While the foreign car rental companies may not care, legally you may require one especially if you get pulled over or in an accident far from home. Like many things (say, travel insurance or medical evacuation insurance) it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. And given the low cost and minimum hassle required to obtain such a permit, having one might save you a lot more time and money in the end.

Here’s a little background.

For starters, the document is called an “International Driving Permit,” not “International Driver’s License,” which means it is not a license to drive a car or any other vehicle. It is not intended to replace the regular driver’s license issued by your state.

What the International Driving Permit (IDP) actually gives you is a translation of your current driver’s license—in nine foreign languages and is acknowledged as valid identification in 174 countries around the world.

According to the 1949 United Nations convention, the intention was to make it easier for governments and police to determine whether the current license you are carrying was authentic and whether it had restrictions on it or had expired. For example, how was a Belgian police officer to know if your Texas license was a forgery or not, especially when each of the 50 states has its own version printed out at the DMV!

So while the foreign car rental company might not give a hoot if your Illinois license has a Tennessee number on it, should you get stopped for a driving violation, the foreign officer can detain you however long he or she wants in order to verify and investigate your so-called license. And that can put quite a damper on any vacation.

Like we said before, having an International Drivers Permit is like an insurance policy.

When you purchase protection, you do so hoping you will never have to use it, whether it’s for your health or your property. Having an IDP is pretty much the same. For a small fee (more on that later) you have that little square of paper with your picture on it that proves to the officer at hand that your state-issued driver’s license is authentic. Odds are, you’ll never have to pull it out. But when you’re in a foreign country where you may or may not speak the language or even understand the street signs, it’s best to have the odds be ever in your favor, if you know what I mean.

So what happens if you get a citation against your IDP?

According to the National Auto Club, whatever citation you get will be reflected on the driving record of your driver’s license, not the IDP. “While the various states Departments of Motor Vehicles access a national database for traffic citations within the United States, they do not have an international database. Any traffic violation penalties incurred in a foreign country would apply to the country in which you received the citation.”

So where do you get said IDP and how much does it cost?

Currently the only agencies in the United States legally authorized to issue IDPs are the AAA and the National Auto Club. The fee is $15 and you’ll need a completed application form, two original passport-type photos (each signed on the back) and a photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license. You can either mail it or take it to the AAA office nearest you. Already overseas? No problem, you can get one by post, just follow the instructions on the website.

Want to feel like an experienced world traveler? Carry one in your wallet (along with your SkyMed or GETS card, of course.)

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