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What you need to know about driving overseas

Do you need an International Driving Permit to drive overseas? We explain car hire and road rules abroad.

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Last updated: 07 October 2021
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Having your own car when travelling overseas is a great way to get off the beaten track and move around at your own pace. You can use an Australian driver's licence in most countries you may travel to, but many countries will require you to also have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is a United Nations-sanctioned translation of your Australian licence into nine different languages. 

We look at car hire and road rules from North and South America through Asia and Europe so you can plan for your next trip.

Driving in Europe

Many European countries recognise Australian licences, but you'll need an International Driving Permit for Austria, Greece, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Turkey, Armenia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

In some other countries it's recommended you carry an international permit, as it may be a requirement to rent a car.

Which side of the road do you drive on in Europe?

In the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the road. In all other European countries, vehicles drive on the right. Laws vary throughout Europe.

Car hire in Europe

You'll find most of the major international car hire companies in Europe, as well as some local ones. If you're planning on picking up and dropping off in different locations, you're probably best off renting through one of the larger companies. International companies can also be easier to deal with if there's a dispute.

Can you drive a rental car across country borders?

If you're planning to drive a hire car between countries, explain your itinerary when you make your booking enquiry. Most companies allow their cars to be taken across borders, but some will refuse for insurance reasons and many will charge an additional fee. Some companies don't allow their cars on ferries, and some companies have restrictions on driving cars from Western Europe into Eastern Europe.

Road rules in Europe

  • Drink driving is illegal in all of Europe but the blood alcohol limit varies from 0 to 0.08, depending on which country you're in.
  • Almost all European countries prohibit the use of mobile phones, unless they’re hands-free.
  • Under EU law, a seat belt must be worn in any seat fitted with one.
  • Rules about child seats vary, but the law is consistent across EU countries: children under 135cm tall must use the appropriate restraint (taxis are exempt from this rule).
  • Some countries insist that cars carry a safety kit with a high-viz vest and reflective triangle for use at accident sites. This should be included with your rental car.
Tolls and charges in Europe

There are plenty of toll roads across Europe so consider an electronic tag (or e-tag) for your hire car. Some European cities, such as London, Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen, impose a congestion charge to discourage driving in city centres.

Driving in the UK and Ireland

If you've been in the UK for fewer than 12 months, there's no need to get an International Driving Permit – you can drive with your Australian licence.

Car hire in the UK and Ireland

Many well-known companies operate in the UK and Ireland, including Avis, Thrifty, Hertz and Europcar. Hiring a car is a great way to see the region, particularly if you're planning to visit rural areas where public transport may not be convenient.

It’s possible to take a hire car by ferry between the UK and Ireland, but most companies will charge a substantial premium. It's usually cheaper to hire two separate cars.

Road rules in the UK and Ireland

  • Driving in London is not recommended as parking is scarce and traffic moves at a snail's pace. Plus, you'll be charged a congestion toll for entering the city.
  • Vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the road.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • Where seat belts are fitted, they must be worn.
  • Car horns are banned in residential areas between 11:30pm and 7:00am, except in an emergency.
  • Priority is marked at most junctions – there is no general rule as to who should give way.
  • In the UK, children under the age of 12 or under 135cm must use an appropriate child seat.
  • Ireland’s child seat rules are in accordance with the EU's child safety protection laws. Children under 135cm in height or 36kg (79lb) in weight must use a child restraint system.
  • The blood alcohol limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 0.08.
  • The blood alcohol limit in Scotland and Ireland is 0.05.
  • Country roads can be very narrow in places. Drive slowly and be prepared to compromise with other drivers and back up if necessary.

Driving in the USA

Check the law in the state(s) you'll be visiting to find out whether you can drive with your Australian licence, but be aware that some car hire companies will only rent to customers who have an international licence.

Car hire in the USA

Most companies will only rent to drivers aged 21 and over who have held a licence for more than a year. Some may have a maximum age limit, or they may charge a young/senior driver surcharge.

Road rules in the USA

  • Vehicles drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • All occupants must wear seat belts.
  • Mobile phone use is not permitted while driving, unless with a hands-free device.
  • Child seat laws vary by state. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a rear facing child seat until the age of two and booster seats until about age seven.
  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.08.
  • At intersections with no traffic lights, vehicles give way on a first come, first served basis.
  • Right turns on red lights are generally permitted provided you give way to other vehicles and crossing pedestrians unless signed "No right turn on red".
  • Most multi-lane roads have marked median areas where U-turns are permitted. These can be used by motorists travelling in either direction.
  • School zones have reduced speed limits, as in Australia.
  • If a school bus stops and its lights begin flashing, all traffic travelling in both directions is required to stop while students enter or exit the bus safely.
  • If an ambulance, police car or fire truck approaches with its siren on, pull over to the side of the road and stop the car until the emergency vehicle has passed.
  • If you are stopped by the police, don’t get out of your car. Wait for the officer to approach your window and keep your hands in plain sight.

Driving in Bali and Indonesia

You must have your Australian driver's licence as well as an international licence to be properly insured (and to avoid fines from police).

Car hire in Bali and Indonesia

Car hire is available in major cities and airports, but it's not a very popular option for travellers. If you do decide to hire a car, be aware that Indonesian roads can be quite chaotic. 

It's best to book with a major international car hire company (Avis and Europcar both operate in Indonesia), as local businesses may not rent to foreigners or may be difficult to deal with if something goes wrong.

Motorbike and scooter hire in Bali and Indonesia

Getting around on two wheels is a popular option for travellers, but it's also a risky one. You'll need an international motorcycle licence as well as your Australian motorcycle licence, but it's unlikely the person who hires you the bike will tell you, much less check. 

This, of course, could bring you major pain if you have a crash or get stopped by the police. By law you'll also need a helmet. Be aware that standard travel insurance policies may not cover motorcycle or scooter accidents.

Road rules in Bali and Indonesia

  • Vehicles drive on the left.
  • The blood alcohol limit is zero and there is zero tolerance for drink driving.
  • Motorcycle and scooter riders and passengers must wear a helmet. Even though many locals ignore this law, police often issue on-the-spot fines (especially to cashed-up tourists).
  • You may also be fined if you’re caught driving without an international licence, as well as your regular licence.
  • Motorcycle and scooter riders must have an international motorcycle licence.
  • Always carry your regular licence, international licence, passport and documents such as the rental contract and the vehicle's registration papers with you in the car. Police may ask to see them.
  • No more than two people can ride on a motorcycle or scooter (by law, that is – you'll regularly see families of four breaking this rule).
  • Seat belts must be worn in cars.
  • Using a mobile phone while driving is illegal.
  • The unofficial rule of the road is that smaller vehicles give way to larger ones, so watch out for trucks and buses.
  • Roads can be extremely hectic, with many drivers speeding and breaking the rules. Driving in Indonesia is not for the faint-hearted!

Driving in Brazil

If you're only visiting cities in Brazil then it's highly unlikely you'll benefit from having your own car. Public transport will be far more convenient. You may, however, like to rent a car to see the sights outside of the city. If you're planning on driving, make sure you have the appropriate skills, licence and travel insurance.

You don't need an international licence to drive in Brazil, but you do need a colour photocopy of your Australian licence with an official Portuguese translation (done by a sworn public translator or by the Embassy of Brazil) as well as photo ID.

Car hire companies are unlikely to ask for this, but the police could make life difficult for you if you're pulled over and you don't have it. By law they can seize your vehicle for any infringement, and they may use that power to get an on-the-spot fine (aka bribe) out of you. If you have an accident without the proper licence, the consequences could be a lot worse.

Road rules in Brazil

  • Vehicles drive on the right.
  • Seat belts are compulsory for drivers and all passengers. Children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. If a child is too small to use a seat belt, a child seat must be used.
  • Brazil has strict drink driving laws and penalties are severe for driving with a blood alcohol level above zero.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • It is illegal to run out of petrol.
  • It is illegal to drive in thongs – so pack something other than your Havaianas.
  • Right of way is given to vehicles already on a roundabout.
  • Keep your windows up and your doors locked – carjackings can happen at traffic lights and stop signs.
  • Because of the risk of carjackings, many drivers ignore stop signs at night.

If you're not keen on driving, consider joining an organised tour (some offer small, friendly groups) or hiring a private driver for the day. In a place like Brazil, it's not as exorbitant as it sounds and it could save you a lot of stress.

Driving in Argentina

You can use your Australian driver’s licence in Argentina as long as you have a valid visa.

  • Vehicles drive on the right side of the road and overtake on the left.
  • Driving in Argentina can be hazardous, especially in Buenos Aires, with many cars ignoring traffic rules. Stay vigilant and don't expect cars to stop at a stop sign or to obey traffic lights.
  • Seat belts are compulsory for all passengers in a vehicle. Children under 10 must sit in the rear seats.
  • Driving while wearing headphones is illegal.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • Vehicles already on a roundabout have right of way.
  • On main roads, low-beam headlights must remain on during the day, regardless of the conditions. High beams should be used in rural areas and highways in low light or low visibility conditions.
  • Keep your windows rolled up and your doors locked as there's a risk of carjackings at traffic lights and stop signs.
  • Petrol stations can be far apart and not obvious from the highway, so take precautions to make sure you don't run dry.
  • Bike riders must wear helmets at all times.

Driving in Chile

If you'd like to drive in Chile, you'll need to get an International Driving Permit from your state's motoring association before you leave. 

Driving in Chile can be dangerous as others on the road can be aggressive and roads poorly maintained and lit. If you do decide to drive, don't drink any alcohol before getting behind the wheel – the legal blood alcohol limit in Chile is zero.

Driving in Singapore

You can drive in Singapore on your Australian licence (or a licence from any English-speaking country) for up to 12 months.

Car hire in Singapore

Car hire isn't a popular option for tourists, since Singapore is so easy to navigate by public transport or taxi. The country has a high tax on car ownership, so most locals don't drive either. If you do decide you need a hire car, you'll pay a lot for the privilege, and for the petrol and tolls.

Local car hire companies may offer slightly cheaper rates than the big international agencies.

If you're travelling from Singapore to Malaysia, wait until you're in Malaysia to rent a car – you'll get a better deal

Singapore has a private car rental scheme which allows car owners to hire out their vehicles on weekends and public holidays. The owner is responsible for making sure the car is insured, and the driver must meet the minimum age and licence requirements on the insurance policy. 

It's illegal for car hire agencies to offer these kinds of rentals, but they have been known to do it. If a rental price seems too good to be true, check that it's not a privately owned vehicle and ask to see the insurance certificate.

Road rules in Singapore

As with everything else in Singapore, most drivers follow the rules – or else they face hefty fines and jail time.

  • Vehicles drive on the left.
  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.08. Penalties for drink driving include fines or jail time.
  • Seat belts are compulsory, as are child seats for children under 135cm.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • Buses have right of way, and it's illegal to drive in a bus lane.
  • Headlights must be turned on between 7pm and 7am.
  • Keep left if you're not overtaking. 'Road hogging' is an offence.
  • Road markings are different to those in Australia, and include white or yellow lines or zig zags to indicate parking rules. It's worth familiarising yourself with these markings to avoid parking illegally.

Driving in Malaysia

You'll need an International Driving Permit as well as your Australian license if you're in the country for fewer than 90 days. Any longer than 90 days and you'll need to apply for a local licence.

Although congestion can be quite bad at times, peninsular Malaysia is covered by a network of good quality roads. The roads in East Malaysia aren't as well maintained, and many areas are inaccessible by car. 

Car hire in Malaysia

Car hire is available at most airports, cities and towns from Avis, Hertz and a range of local companies.

  • Check that your travel insurance covers you for driving, and make sure the car is properly insured, either through your own insurance or through the rental company.
  • You may get a cheaper rate from a local car hire company, but international companies are likely to be easier to deal with if you get into a dispute.
  • Malaysia has many toll roads, so make sure an electronic tag is included in your rental.
  • If you're travelling from Singapore to Malaysia, wait until you're in Malaysia to rent a car – you'll get a better deal.

Road rules in Malaysia

  • Vehicles drive on the left.
  • Front seat belts must be worn at all times.
  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.05. The penalty for drink driving is severe, and is likely to include jail time.
  • Police have been known to fine foreigners for driving on an international permit, despite the fact that they aren't breaking the law.

Driving in Thailand

Thailand's roads are the most dangerous on earth according to a report by World Atlas, with an average of 36.2 road deaths per 100,000 citizens. If you're planning on driving, make sure you have the appropriate skills, licence and travel insurance.

You'll need an international licence in Thailand – some hire car companies may not rent to you without one, plus you run the risk of being fined by police or negating your insurance.

Car hire in Thailand

Car hire is available from major airports, cities and tourist centres. Operators include Sixt, Budget, Thai Rent A Car, Avis and more. It's a good idea to book with a well-known international car hire company as they're likely to be easier to deal with if you get into a dispute.

Make sure you and the vehicle are properly insured (through your travel insurance and through the insurance offered by the car hire company). Before you pay extra fees for vehicle insurance, check to see if you're already covered by your travel insurance for the same clauses.

Book with a well-known international car hire company as they're likely to be easier to deal with if you get into a dispute

Motorcycle and scooter hire in Thailand

Motorcycle and scooter hire is easy to find on the street in tourist areas. Most vendors are local small businesses and they may not check your licence (you'll need an international motorcycle licence), offer you a helmet (it's the law) or any kind of insurance (if you crash, you’ll probably have to pay for damages).

  • Never leave your passport as collateral.
  • Make sure your travel insurance covers you for injuries, as many policies exclude motorcycle or scooter crashes.
  • Foreigners have been arrested and detained by Thai police until they agree to pay compensation to locals for motorcycle or jet-ski crashes (or, in the case of scams, for damage they didn't even cause).

Road rules in Thailand

  • Vehicles drive on the left.
  • You need an international motorcycle licence if you plan to drive a motorcycle or scooter.
  • Seat belts are compulsory but child seats are optional.
  • The blood alcohol limit is 0.05, or 0.02 for drivers who have held their licence for fewer than five years.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • Right of way is generally determined by size of vehicle (i.e. trucks trump cars, cars trump motorcycles, etc.)
  • There is no fast lane or slow lane on highways, and drivers will rarely indicate when changing lanes.

Driving in Vietnam

You need a local licence to drive in Vietnam, so self-drive holidays aren't possible for most visitors. However, you can hire a car with a driver, which doesn't cost as much as you might think. Try to find a driver who speaks a little English. Travel agencies and hotels can find someone for you, or better yet, ask other travellers for a trusted recommendation. If you're happy with your driver's service, make sure you tip them.

Don't get too annoyed if your driver makes a pit stop at their "favourite" shop. They're probably being paid a commission to bring you in, but you should never feel obliged to buy anything you don't want.

Driving in Japan

You'll need an International Driving Permit as well as your Australian licence. Japan has an extensive network of good quality roads that are relatively safe and easy to navigate. Congestion and expensive parking, countered by cheap and easy public transport, makes driving unappealing in cities, but it's worth considering if you're venturing out of town.

Car hire in Japan

Although Japan has an excellent public transport system, you may want to consider hiring a car if you're travelling to rural areas or want more freedom to explore.

The main rental companies include Nippon, ORIX, Nissan, Toyota and Times Car Rental.

Budget, Avis and Hertz also operate in Japan, but they generally act as agents for the local companies, so their rates will probably be no better. They will, however, be easier to communicate with in English.

  • Check that your travel insurance covers you for driving, and make sure the car is properly insured either through your own insurance or through the rental company.
  • There are two types of driving insurance in Japan, jibaisekihoken (compulsory insurance) and nin'i no jidoshahoken (voluntary insurance). It's recommended that you have both.
  • You may get a cheaper rate from a local car hire company, but international companies are likely to be easier to deal with if you get into a dispute.
  • Japan has some toll roads, so you may need an electronic tag (or e-tag) included in your rental.
  • If you don't want to navigate using international roaming data on your phone, ask for an English-language GPS when you book.

Road rules in Japan

  • Vehicles drive on the left side of the road.
  • Japan has zero tolerance for drink driving and the blood alcohol limit is 0.03. It's even an offence to be a passenger in a car with a drunk driver.
  • Front seat belts must be worn, and rear seat belts on expressways.
  • Children under six must use child seats. These can be ordered in advance from most car hire agencies.
  • Most road signs are in Japanese and English.
  • Speed cameras may catch you if you break the speed limit.
  • Drivers must give way to pedestrians.
  • At intersections, cars going straight and turning left have right of way.
  • Some petrol stations are fully serviced by attendants who are unlikely to speak English. Self-service petrol bowsers only have Japanese-language instructions.

Driving in China

Car hire isn't an option for most tourists, since you need a local licence to drive in China. Plenty of visitors hire private drivers or enlist taxis for a half day or full day. If you do this, make sure you agree on the rate first. Try to use a driver recommended by your hotel or by other travellers.

Driving in New Zealand

There's no need to get an International Driving Permit – you can drive with your Australian licence or any other licence printed in English.

Car hire in New Zealand

Hiring your own set of wheels is a great way to see New Zealand on your own schedule, particularly since many of the country's best parts are well off the beaten track and may not be accessible by public transport.

You'll find the usual international car hire companies in New Zealand, including Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Thrifty, as well as NZ companies such as Jucy, Ezi and GO Rentals.

  • Most car hire companies don't allow their vehicles to be taken on unsealed roads, so consider a 4WD rental if you're planning on going off-road.
  • Most car hire companies won't lease vehicles to drivers aged under 21.
Can I take my hire car between the North and South Islands?
  • If you're planning to travel between the North and South Islands, check first with the car hire company. Many don't allow their vehicles to be taken on the inter-island ferry, so you'll need to drop off your car at one port and pick up another car once you've made the crossing.
  • Most of the major hire companies offer inter-island deals, making the drop-off of one car and the pick-up of another a relatively smooth process.

Road rules in New Zealand

  • Vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the road.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • Seat belts must be worn at all times in the front and back seats.
  • Children under seven must be properly restrained in an approved car seat or booster seat suitable for their height and weight.
  • The blood alcohol limit for drivers aged 20 and over is 0.05. For drivers aged under 20 the limit is zero.
  • The open road speed limit is 100 km/h on the open road, with 110km/h on some stretches of motorway and mostly 50 km/h in urban areas.
  • It's illegal to overtake if there's a yellow line (rather than white) down the middle of the road.
  • Many roads are narrow, winding or unsealed and can be particularly treacherous in wet or icy weather. Drive carefully, and do your research first on the roads you'll be using. Some (such as the road to Milford Sound) are notoriously hair-raising, so if you aren't a confident driver, consider alternative transport.
  • Driving times may be longer than you expect due to road conditions.

Where to apply for an International Driving Permit

  • New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory – NRMA
  • Queensland – RACQ
  • Victoria – RACV
  • South Australia – RAA
  • Western Australia – RAC
  • Tasmania – RACT
  • Northern Territory – AANT

Apply for your IDP well in advance, as it may take a while to process your application and receive your IDP by mail. If you're in a hurry, applying in person could speed up the process.

Important: You'll still need to take your Australian driver's licence with you overseas. An IDP alone doesn't count as a licence to drive.

An IDP is valid for a year. If you stay in Europe longer than that, you may need a local licence. Some countries require that you get a local translation of your licence sooner than that.

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