Driving in a foreign country
This article is a travel topic
Driving may be a convenient way to get around your destination just like it is in your hometown. Depending on the location, driving may even be the easiest or most economical way and in some places the only practical way to get around.
The automobile allows quite a lot of freedom. Most countries gladly allow tourists and other visitors to drive in their lands, and cars and other types of vehicles are available for rent at airports and other locations.
There are a lot of considerations to keep in mind before you get behind the wheel in a country you are visiting, for all roads are not created equal. Traffic patterns, road conditions, traffic volumes, driving habits, and traffic laws can greatly vary by country and jurisdiction, and may be quite unlike what you are familiar with in your home territory.
When planning a trip somewhere, if driving will be your way around, it is wise to read up about what it is like in that place. You should study the meanings of all road signs, as they may be quite different from where you live. Of prime importance are the laws. Not only can they vary, but also how they are enforced. In the article on each country and many smaller jurisdictions, in the "get around" section, you will find details describing what driving is like in that country. You can get good information here. You may also find an entire article devoted to driving in a particular country; some articles like these exist. But you shall also look at other sources for more detailed information, such as books and web pages; the more knowledge, the better.
Some of the information in this article is useful not only for foreign travelers but also those traveling within an unfamiliar part of their own country.
Not all country driving licenses are valid in other foreign countries. So before driving, check if your license is valid in the country in which you wish to drive. Whether you are allowed to drive with your own country's driver's license may also depend on your visa status. Even if your country's license is accepted, however, there might be exceptions depending on your visa status. In many countries, after a certain duration of stay you might be required to obtain a local license. As a rule of thumb, while you are on a tourist or business visa (or you are on a visa waiver program), you will probably not have to get a local license. If you are on a residence visa, on the other hand, you might be required to pass a local driver's test and get a local license.
Traffic laws vary, sometimes drastically, by country. The laws in a country where one is visiting may be substantially different from those of one's home. It is essential that one make oneself familiar with the traffic laws of a country where one is visiting prior to taking the wheel there. Something that is legal in one place could be banned in another, and officers may not be so merciful to the tourist who is simply ignorant.
For example, in some countries, turn on red is permitted at many intersections; in others, the practice is totally prohibited. In some countries, traffic already in a roundabout has the right of way; in other countries, traffic entering the roundabout has it, while vehicles already in the roundabout must yield. Some countries may give you some grace when exceeding the speed limit; others do not. In some countries, running a red light is permitted under certain circumstances, and when it is, not only may you be allowed to, but you also cannot take a green light for granted. Some countries require you to carry certain emergency equipment in your vehicle when driving, and officers may ask to see that you have it. Some countries require headlights to be on at all times, even in broad daylight.
Speed limits exist everywhere. There are few exceptions. Speeding is one of the most enforced traffic laws of all, with both police units and cameras. But one thing that varies by country is how much grace you are given above the speed limit before actual consequences kick in. Some jurisdictions give plenty of grace. That being 10, 15, 20 miles or kilometers per hour. Others give none at all, with citations starting at just one mile or kilometer above the speed limit. Speed enforcement is not completely about safety; it is also about money. So some jurisdictions are eager to give speeding tickets in order to nickel and dime motorists. The future is seeing less and less grace being given in all places. Therefore, it may be advisable to drive a little under the speed limit in order to be sure that you do not exceed it. Speedometers are not 100% accurate, and going down a hill will cause the car to pick up speed if the brakes are not applied. Many officers set up speed traps and many speed cameras are placed at the bottom of hills for this reason; they know it's a gold mine. Even if your cruise control is applied, the car will still pick up speed going down a hill.
Not all laws regulate one's actions behind the wheel. There are varying laws regarding a minimum age to drive; one who is licensed to drive in one country may be too young to in another. Some countries may require visiting drivers to obtain and carry proof of insurance in that country, and their home insurance is not sufficient. In some countries, an officer may only stop a motorist for an actual violation; in others, an officer may stop a motorist for no reason at all. The documents that must be carried and presented to an officer on demand also vary.
We all hope that you will not be involved in an accident as a tourist, and the likelihood of having one, despite all the dangers that lie out there, is still very low. But each country has different laws regarding how you must handle an accident. In some countries, the consequences for causing an accident can be quite severe, even if the accident is really minor.
Traffic laws are generally enforced by the government in one of two ways: either by live police officers, who have the authority to stop vehicles and cite their drivers, or by cameras, that film violations, followed by a citation being mailed to the vehicle's owner. The latter is becoming increasingly common over time, and as technology improves, they are capable of catching a greater variety of violations.
Contrary to what you may think, a traffic or parking citation is not something you can run and hide from just because you do not live in a country or do not plan to return to once you leave. If you are fined, you generally cannot ignore the fine and let the authorities pursue it at your mercy. It can follow you all the way home and haunt you for quite some time, especially if not handled properly.
Each country has different laws regarding the handling of traffic violations committed by foreigners. Some countries will demand payment on the spot. Others will not allow you to depart until the matter is settled.
If the vehicle is cited by camera, the fine is passed on to the owner of the vehicle. If this vehicle is rented, the rental agency in turn can bill this to the credit card of the renter. If they are unable to do this, they may pursue civil action, such as the use of a collection agency or a civil lawsuit. If the agency operates in your own country, they may be able to take this action in your country's court system.
Some countries have reciprocity with one another. For example, in some Canadian provinces, a traffic violation can lead to points against your American driver's license in some states.
In some countries, debt of even the most minute amounts is a criminal matter, thereby allowing such debt to be pursued in the criminal justice system. This may lead to your arrest if you ever take foot into that country in the future. Even if you do not, if such an arrest warrant is issued, you may face arrest and extradition to that country if you take foot into another country that country has a treaty with, even if you are just transiting at an airport.
Not all action taken against you is governmental. Private credit bureaus also keep track of violations, even abroad, and this information is used in determining auto insurance rates, and may even be used to deny you a vehicle rental in the future.
In some countries, the consequences for a traffic violation may be a lot harsher than in your home country, even if unintentional. It could be much worse than what you know at home, and may even include imprisonment. Try to notice what extremes native drivers go to in order to avoid accidentally breaking certain laws.
In some large cities, especially in Europe, are restricted areas, or "forbidden zones," where driving is restricted in a particular area, sometimes in an entire city. Depending on the city, driving may be open only to those who purchase a permit, or in some cases, to those who belong to a category that money can't buy.
These areas are generally indicated by a sign of some sort. The sign may vary by location, and may not always be understandable to outsiders. Before driving in a city, it is recommended that you read about that city to determine if there are any restricted areas.
Often, these laws are photo enforced. Entry to a restricted area results in your vehicle's number plate being photographed, and a fine later being charged. If your vehicle is rented, the rental agency can pass this fee onto the credit card you use for the rental.
If you are unable to obtain a permit to drive in a restricted area, it may be necessary to seek an alternative mode of transport.
In many places, tolls are collected for the privilege of driving on certain highways or across certain bridges or tunnels. There are various ways in which this is accomplished. The most common method is by a good old-fashioned booth in which money is collected either with cash, vouchers, or a device that is placed on the windshield of a vehicle. In some places, including Italy, individual tolls can be paid by credit card at the booth.
In some places, there are no booths. Tolls are collected simply by filming the number plate of the vehicle, and the bill is sent to the owner. In this case, the rental agency will pass this cost onto the renter. An example of this is Israel's Highway 6. On the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, USA, motorists have the option of paying using the EZ-Pass system on the windshield or by having their plate filmed and a bill sent by mail. If the latter option is chosen, the toll is 50% more.
And in some countries, the motorist must purchase a sticker that must be placed on the windshield. The sticker allows for unlimited driving within the period of time for which it is valid. This system is used in places including Austria and Switzerland. Failure to display a valid sticker on the windshield will result in the reader photographing the vehicle and sending a citation to the vehicle's owner, which if that is a rental agency, will pass the cost onto the renter. This system, while it may be a bargain for the highway's regular users, could be costly to tourists, who must pay full price to use the highway for only a brief period of time.
Most places have compulsory insurance laws of some type. Automobile insurance is generally considered mandatory in this world. And there are different types of insurance. There is insurance that covers your liability to the rental agency in the event their vehicle is damaged while in your possession. There is insurance that covers injury to yourself and other occupants of your vehicle. And there is insurance that covers your liability toward others if you are at fault in an accident, including damage to that party's vehicle and injury to its occupants.
When renting a vehicle, the rental agency will typically try to offer you insurance for all of the above. It is something you may or may not need, depending on coverage you may already have.
Check with your own automobile insurance company. Do they provide you with rental insurance? Do they provide it when you are traveling to that country? How easy is it to file a claim should you need to?
Also check with the provider of the credit card you are planning to use to pay for the rental. Do they provide any coverage in the country where you are traveling? If so, how easy is it to file a claim? Many credit cards do provide insurance, but with a large number of restrictions, such as what countries they cover, what types of vehicles they cover, and how long following the accident the claim must be made. All too often, they place so many clauses in this insurance that there is a strong chance they can find a loophole to deny such a claim.
Even if your own insurance company offers coverage, there is still a good reason to accept coverage from the agency. Your own insurance company may raise your rates if you make a claim through them. But if you make the claim with the agency's insurance plan, this will not likely affect your own insurance rates.
Keep in mind that if the vehicle you are renting is damaged while in your possession, you are liable for the cost of damage to the rental agency, regardless of fault. This includes damage from accidents caused by others for which you fail to obtain a claim or from which a claim is delayed from the other party, no-fault accidents, hit-and-runs, scratches and dents, damage caused by nature (such as falling rocks, hail, or natural disasters), or "acts of God." Even if you are an excellent driver, it is too risky not to carry insurance.
And as mentioned above, don't mistakenly assume that you can dodge paying up just because you are in a foreign land and have the protection of your home country to where you can disappear.
International driving permit
An international driving permit (IDP) is a document that translates your license into different languages. The permit is not a license itself, and is not valid for driving in the absence of a driver's license issued by the country of one's legal residence.
In some countries, an international driving permit may be required for each driver to rent a vehicle. If this is the case, find out in advance where you can obtain one where you live prior to departure for your trip.
Not all rental agencies ask for the IDP. But it may be required if pulled over by police, involved in an accident, or filing an insurance claim.
Traffic signs may vary by country. Identical signs that appear in two or more countries may have different meanings in each country. It is necessary to study the meanings of signs before taking the wheel in a country.
Signs may also be found exclusively in the language of that country, and not in your own native tongue. Even if you cannot master speaking or reading the language where you will be traveling, at the very least, you shall study and memorize the meaning of all these signs.
Painted line markings that appear on the roads in different countries have different meanings. Identical markings in different countries may mean something substantially different. For example, a broken white line in some countries may indicate two lanes of traffic flowing in the same direction, and in other countries may also be used to divide traffic flowing in opposite directions.
In the United States, Canada, and much of the Western Hemisphere, opposing directions of traffic are typically divided by a double yellow line. The colour yellow carries the connotation that traffic is two way. In some countries, the colour yellow denotes a waiting restriction or a box junction.
Whenever a vehicle is not in use, it must be parked. Somewhere. Just like where you live, parking spaces come along with guidelines, and in some places, may be quite coveted, especially in urban areas.
It is important to understand what different signs mean when it comes to parking. In many places, curbs are painted different color codings to indicate the parking guidelines, and these vary by country. Many countries have signs written in the native language only describing the parking rules, and knowing the words in that language that may be found in these signs is helpful. And when it comes to metered spaces, having the currency of that country comes in handy.
In many places, illegally parked vehicles may be ticketed or even worse, towed. Some countries allow illegally parked vehicles to be booted, and sometimes, the boot will only be removed upon payment of a hefty sum of money.
In some places, driving is not recommended simply over the parking issue. In some cities, it may be difficult or impossible to park, even if you are willing to pay for that privilege.
In many countries, not all roads are paved. Roads may be made of gravel, dirt, sand, or rocky surfaces.
Some road types may require or strongly recommend the use of a 4-wheel drive vehicle. These may cost more to rent, but the additional fee is a necessity.
For example, in much of Latin America, many of the roads are gravel, have potholes, or are otherwise extremely bumpy. In many African countries, most roads are made of dirt or sand. In much of third world Asia, roads can be muddy. A common vehicle on roads like these will not suffice.
Some roads may be extremely dangerous due to the lack of safety features. There are many mountainous roads all around the world with such a high grade that control of a vehicle is not easy, especially for a novice, or even an experienced driver who has not driven much in such terrain. This could be compounded by the lack of a guard rail, and immediately outside the boundaries of the road could be a cliff that goes down a significant distance. One mistake could spell almost certain death.
Some roads have been built dangerously so that visibility past a certain curve or slope is difficult.
Weather conditions could be another matter. In some places, the roads are regularly icy or slippery. Visibility can be limited by fog that is ever present. Sudden storms and flash floods are a fact of life in some places.
On many roads, especially in urban areas, it is not the natural but the manmade features that can be hazardous to the outsider. Many streets and roads have traffic patterns in which negotiation is tricky, and for the outsider, hesitation or sudden correction of error due to lack of familiarity can create a high risk for an accident. Sometimes a wrong move can be made easily due to easy confusion, leading the unfamiliar motorist to being where one shouldn't be, such as the wrong side of the road, or to turn from a lane not intended for such turns.
Some roads are dangerous simply because of the demographics. For example, many roads pass through areas containing numerous establishments that serve alcohol, and the rate of intoxicated motorists is high. Some areas have a high presence of tractor trailers due to being heavily industrialized, and such trucks may outnumber passenger cars.
Many situations like all these examples exist not only in foreign countries but also parts of one's own country as well. For example, the United States has many places fitting these descriptions, and being in English, many readers of this article are from the United States.
Just keep in mind, not all roads are created equal.
Right-hand vs. Left-hand driving
Some countries drive on the right-hand side of the road; others on the left. For a driver who is regularly accustomed to driving on a particular side, there can be some confusion when it comes to driving on the opposite side from what one is naturally used to.
If you plan to drive in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from what you are accustomed to, and you feel concern about this, it is advisable that you first test the feel of being behind the wheel in a parking lot or a little traveled street, then gradually work your way up to larger roads, making both left and right turns in the process.
In opposite side driving situations, the cause of most accidents by foreign drivers comes not when traveling straight on the same road, but when turning. In particular, turning from a side street, parking lot, or driveway onto a main road can be where one's usual habits lead to error. Remember, if you are at a stop sign or light in such a situation, you will need to first look in the opposite direction from where you are accustomed. This is where the traffic you must yield to will come from.
In most countries, the driver's seat is located is located on the opposite side of the vehicle from the side the vehicle travels on. This may be a source of confusion for those unfamiliar with such vehicles.
Regardless of laws on the books, the actual driving habits in each place varies. Some places are known to have particularly bad drivers. There are places where motorists at large are known to engage in certain behaviors such as excessively break speed limits, change lanes without signaling, tailgate, run red lights, run stop signs, fail to yield right of way, pass on the wrong side of the road, or worse. The bad habits in one place, while they may be described the same on paper as in another place, may turn out to have quite a different appearance from that place in reality, so no real comparison can be made.
In many places, it is no secret traffic laws are being broken en mass. Rather than law enforcement attempting to curb the problem, locals have learned to live with these habits and have mastered their survival skills. The newbie to the area, meanwhile, who spends a lot of time guessing where to turn, and slows down to do so, may be no match to the herds of impatient regulars who are found cruising the same route at any given moment.
It may be wise to observe the way others drive in a place before taking the wheel there oneself. If you are going to spend a significant amount of time somewhere, perhaps consider holding off the car rental or the first day or two and using other forms of transportation, and if you feel comfortable after watching others, then you can consider braving the waters.
If you must really drive the moment you arrive in your destination, consider watching a video of the area's traffic. In many places now are live cameras that display what is going on at the very moment somewhere. Try to view a webcam of a place if you can find one. View it at the peak times to get a sense of the very worst it can be.
Also be aware that there may be some events at certain times that you may be unaware of that draw huge crowds, and along with that, heavier volumes of traffic than you can imagine.
Other types of vehicles on road
In some places, automobiles routinely share the road with other types of vehicles in large numbers, such as motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, or horse-drawn carriages. The combination can make negotiating the roads all the more trickier, as these vehicles operate differently and at varying speeds, and can make sudden moves not expected from motor vehicles.
For example, in central Pennsylvania and some other parts of the United States, there is a heavy presence of Amish people who use horse-and-buggies as their main form of transport. In Vietnam, there is one motor scooter for every three members of the country's population, and the scooter operators have a reputation for being reckless. In many third world countries, motorcycles and bikes compose the majority of vehicles.
In many areas, especially urban areas, a heavy volume of pedestrians can be found. Sometimes, pedestrians themselves can be reckless and can walk out into the path of traffic without warning, often against their own crossing signals. In some places, if a pedestrian is struck, the motorist striking a pedestrian is nearly automatically guilty, and absolution from criminal and/or civil liability may be difficult or impossible.
The culture of a place can have an influence on the way people drive. You may not make the connection but it is there. Cultural values, such as the value for human life, can impact how safely the citizens drive. How much the people of a country respect their fellow citizens can manifest itself in driving habits. The wealth of a place can be reflected in the average age and condition of vehicles.
Keep in mind that when you drive in a foreign land, you are sharing the road with those of a different culture and you must adapt to their way of life.
Safety of area
In some places, the driving safety is not so much the issue as is the general safety of the area itself. In some parts of the world, both urban and rural areas alike, crime, conflicts, and other unsavory activity may pose danger to anyone who merely takes foot into the zone. And a tourist who is unaware of the situation may be just the perfect target they are looking for.
There are numerous situations that pose these problems, including common street crime, drugs, gangs, ransom-motivated kidnappings, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. It is unlikely that any map, written directions, or navigational device will warn a motorist of these "danger zones" that are responsible for a lot of the problems that may or may not make news.
If you are planning to travel to a country or region, read the "stay safe" section in that place's article to learn more about what lies ahead of you where you plan to visit.
Around the world are dozens of motor vehicle manufacturers from many countries. No nameplate is found in every single country in the whole world. Some manufacturers make vehicles exclusively for their own countries; others export only within the continent. Additionally, many manufacturers make different models for different countries where they do business, or have different names for identical models sold in different countries.
While the general principle of driving is the same everywhere, each manufacturer makes vehicles with distinct features, including the way controls that may be needed in a moment's notice, operate. Before driving off, it is necessary to identify a vehicle's features and how they work. The important features on a vehicle that one must determine the operation of include, but are not limited to:
Automatic vs standard transmission
In many countries, renting a vehicle with automatic transmission is difficult or sometimes impossible. It may come at a higher cost. In the United States, fewer than 10% of motorists know how to drive a manual transmission, and only automatic transmission vehicles can be rented in most places. Not knowing how to drive a stick shift may alone be the biggest obstacle to driving abroad.
In general, the principle of buying fuel for a vehicle is the same worldwide. Fuel is sold at filling stations, where hoses protruding from pumps are placed inside the vehicle, and the fuel is pumped. In some places, the pumps may be more high-tech than others. There are also different customs by location as to whether full or self service is more common. And the ease of finding a filling station varies by location.
The price of fuel can vary drastically by country, and may be substantially more or less than what you are used to paying, depending on what country you are in. A list of fuel prices by country can be found here. If the place where you are traveling to has prices far above what you are accustomed to paying, and you are planning to do a lot of driving, this is something you must budget for before your trip begins.
In some countries exist filling stations that are unmanned and only accept credit or debit cards issued by banks in that country. If this is the case, it may be necessary to find another station that will accept your payment. Whenever you are in a place where you are unfamiliar with the location of filling stations you can use, it is recommended that you fill your tank often and not let it run extremely low.
Finding your way around
Even in your own town, finding your way around an unfamiliar neighborhood may not get easy. While most motorists drive the same roads daily without thinking twice, you may find yourself hesitating and reading signs as they wiz by. You may even get honked by insensitive motorists who lack the understanding that it is your first time there and you simply are figuring out where to go.
Now, try compounding that with the fact that you do not speak the language of the land. Winding down the window and asking for directions is not much of an option. You do not know how to properly pronounce the names of the roads. And traffic patterns are much different than you are accustomed to.
Fortunately, we live in an age where technology has made life a little easier. GPS navigational devices are available on the market that tell you where to go turn by turn as you do the driving. Suddenly, it is a lot less of a nightmare out there. A machine on your windshield can be your best friend, easing your fears.
GPS devices are available to navigate you around most countries, and they can be purchased or rented. They are extremely accurate. Most of the time, that is.
Here are some things to keep in mind about GPS units:
If you can't get a GPS
If you are unable to get a GPS unit that covers the place where you'll be driving, you should try to get the best paper map possible. Paper maps are available that show details of most major cities, as well as main highways between cities.
You can also use sites like Google Maps or Mapquest to see your route in advance online. Most mobile phone providers make it difficult to use your smartphone in a foreign country. But if you can obtain a smartphone that can be used with unlimited or large amounts of data in the country where you are, you can use it as a navigational device.
Seeing it before you get there
Many companies now have created online street-level imagery of numerous places all over the world. The most extensive collection is Google Street View, which is a feature of Google Maps. Google Street View can be found in over 40 countries. This allows you to see and study a place from your home before you reach it.
Studying Street View may be time-consuming. But it is sure worthwhile if you can. If you do, try to notice and memorize details of the scenery, even if they would ordinarily be trivial, such as the color and shape of buildings or certain businesses at key points, such as places where you must turn. Keep in mind that some landmarks may have changed since the imagery was taken.
Driving across an international border
Most countries share land borders with at least several other countries, and in most such cases, there are roads connecting the two countries. Generally, these borders can be crossed by anyone in a motor vehicle, provided they meet the proper criteria.
In some cases, it is permitted to drive a rented vehicle across an international border. This is especially the case in many states of the United States that border Canada (and vice versa), and in much of Europe. To know if it is permitted to make such a crossing, examine your vehicle's rental contract. If you are planning a trip that will take place in multiple countries, try to find a rental agency that will permit its vehicles to be driven into all the countries you plants visit.
In some countries, it is difficult or impossible to find a vehicle that can be driven across the border. In Israel, rental car agencies generally do not allow vehicles to be driven into neighbouring countries, and many agencies also prohibit renters from driving vehicles into the West Bank.
Sometimes, bordering countries will drive on the opposite side of the road, requiring the motorist to switch sides of the road once they cross the border. This is the case with Thailand, which drives on the left, and all its neighbours which drive on the right except Malaysia. Hong Kong drives on the left while neighbouring mainland China drives on the right. The southern third of Africa drives on the left, and the remainder of Africa on the right.
There are some pairs of countries that do not have any roads connecting them, even though they do share a land border. There are multiple reasons for this, including impenetrability of the natural terrain, hostile relations between the countries, or simply the lack of desire among one or both governments to build such a road. Examples of this are Colombia, which does not have road connection to its neighbours Panama and Peru, and Israel, which has no public roads connecting to Lebanon or Syria.
It is not uncommon for a border to have long lines. Try to get information on how long you might spend at the border crossing and factor that into your travel time. While the distance itself may seem short, you may need to add several more hours to your travel time to factor in time spent at the border. In many places, it could be several hours, and this may make a day trip to the other country impractical.
Some border crossings have limited hours of operation. For example, there is a single crossing that exists between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It is only open 06:00-20:00, and crossing at all other times is not possible.
If you are driving but not renting
Perhaps you will be driving abroad not by renting, but by obtaining a vehicle some other way. Maybe you will be driving from your home territory across land to that country. Or perhaps you will be borrowing a vehicle from a friend once you arrive, or you will be working and using a vehicle provided by your employer.
Find out what the laws are. Are you even allowed to drive in that country using your license from your home country? Do you need to obtain a special permit? If not, you could be breaking the laws and not even knowing it. While a relative or friend who owns a vehicle will probably not put the same demands on you for the required documents, and with whom a trusting relationship takes the place of a company's policy, this may still not be enough to pass muster with an officer demanding proof.
Also, find out if you need to purchase any special insurance. For example, if you drive a US vehicle into Mexico, you must carry insurance for the vehicle in Mexico independently from your US coverage.
If you can't drive
There may be many reasons why you may be unable to drive in the country where you are visiting. Some countries don't allow foreigners to drive, or make it very difficult to qualify. In other countries, it may be prohibitively expensive. Some countries place limits on the number of vehicles available for rent, and they must be reserved well in advance. And in some countries, no vehicle rental agencies exist. If any of these scenarios are the case, you should plan an alternative mode of transportation for your trip. See the "get around" section in the article about that place for more information
Even if you think you can drive, look for an alternative. You may plan the trip with the expectation of driving, then once you get off the plane, and even after obtaining the vehicle, find that it is much harder than you expect, and you may not be able. If you have a Plan B before you leave your home, it will make your life much easier.
Possible alternative modes of transport