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Updated June 15, 2022
Are you coming to the United States? Whether you’re starting a new job, enrolling in a degree program, or just breezing in for vacation, you might be hoping to drive while you’re here. After all, outside of New York and certain other cities, America is very car-centric. But you may wonder whether non-U.S. citizens can drive legally—or whether your driver’s license from your home country will work. And what about insurance?
This article will help foreign drivers make sure they have the right license and insurance policy to get cruising on American highways. It’s not too complicated. And when you’re ready to shop for an insurance policy, consider comparing quotes online.
You can usually drive with your foreign driver’s license in the United States, but depending on which state you’re visiting, you may need an International Driving Permit.
Many car insurance companies sell insurance to foreign drivers, though it’s often pricey.
International drivers will save money by getting on someone else’s insurance, getting a U.S. license, and in general, shopping around for car insurance.
Licensing for Foreign Drivers
Do international drivers need a special license to legally drive in the United States?
Generally, driving with your foregin driver’s license in the U.S. is legal. However, some states may require an international driving permit.
Before you figure out car insurance for your time in America, you’ll want to make sure you can legally drive in the U.S. The good news is that your driver’s license from your home country should almost always permit you to drive in the United States. Some states will also require you to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) that provides a translation of your foreign license.
What is an International Driving Permit (IDP), and how do I get one?
If you have the time to secure an International Driving Permit before you come to the United States, it will make your stay easier, and in some states, it will be required for you to drive legally. An IDP is not a driver’s license, and you don’t need to take a test for it. It simply translates your international driver’s license into 10 languages so that Americans can read it.
You can’t get an IDP from the United States government or a state's department of motor vehicles (DMV). You have to get it from your home country’s vehicle services office.
Remember that you will probably want an IDP because:
Some companies will require you to have an IDP to purchase an insurance policy.
Some states require you to have an IDP in addition to your foreign driver’s license to drive legally.
When to Get a U.S. Driver’s License
If you receive a Social Security number (SSN) through your employer or live in one of the 16 states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a U.S. driver’s license, you can apply for a U.S. driver’s license. But this is only necessary if you’re staying long-term. For short visits, your international driver’s license and/or IDP will be enough to get you on the road.
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Auto Insurance for International Drivers
Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to secure a valid driver’s license, it’s time to strategize on how to obtain proper insurance coverage. It’s illegal to drive without a car insurance policy in most U.S. states. So let’s talk through how to get the right auto insurance based on your plans for driving in America.
Tips for Short-Term Visitors
Short-term visitors staying in the United States for less than one year typically don’t buy their own car. Here’s what to do if you’re renting a car or plan to borrow someone else’s car.
Getting on someone else’s policy: If you’ll live with someone who already has a car insurance policy and you’ll be borrowing their car, your best option by far for cheap car insurance is to be added as a temporary driver on their policy. Keep in mind that if you don’t have a driving history in the U.S., you’re going to be considered high-risk, and premiums might be high.
Rental car insurance: When you rent a car, usually the car rental company will provide you insurance or you can qualify through your credit card. Call your credit card company and the car rental company you plan to use to make sure things are squared away before you arrive.
International Car Insurance for Long-Term Visitors
Staying in the United States for a year or longer? It might be worthwhile to get yourself a U.S. license at your state DMV. That way, you won’t have to renew your IDP. And having a valid driver’s license in the United States will help you build up your driving history and lower your insurance premiums. Plus, you’ll have more auto insurance companies to choose from.
If you’re driving your own car in the United States, you’ll need to seek out your own auto insurance policy. Many car insurance providers offer policies for foreign drivers. The problem is that rates are often fairly high, even if you’ve driven in your home country for years without incident. Getting a U.S. license will help.
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What kind of car insurance coverage should I get?
Auto insurance in the United States can get confusing. Let’s talk about car insurance requirements, which vary by state, and what your insurance covers in a car accident, depending on the insurance options you choose.
Liability Insurance and Other Car Insurance Requirements
State-required minimum coverage auto insurance comes in two basic forms, with a few variations. Look up your state’s DMV to see what’s required. Minimum coverage will be some combination of the following:
Property damage liability coverage helps you pay for damage to other people’s cars and other property that you damage in an accident that’s your fault.
In addition to liability coverage, some states require personal injury protection (PIP), which covers your medical bills up to a certain coverage limit should you get injured in an accident, no matter who is at fault.
Sometimes required and sometimes optional is underinsured/uninsured motorist coverage, which covers the cost of your damages if you’re in an accident and the person at fault doesn’t have adequate insurance, or any at all.
Other Types of Coverage to Consider
The minimum coverage is rarely enough to keep you protected if you were to be involved in a car accident. You will want to consider a full-coverage auto insurance policy, which protects you from bodily injury and damage to your car in case of theft, vandalism, collision with non-moving objects, weather events, and other unfortunate situations.
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Lowering Your Insurance Costs
It’s a bummer, but American auto insurance policies can be expensive for foreign drivers. Insurance companies set prices based on a driver’s likelihood of getting in a car accident, and without a U.S. driving record to show how safe you are, insurance companies will label you “high-risk.” Progressive and State Farm have good rates for high-risk, foreign drivers.
In most states, insurance companies love to give low insurance premiums to drivers with high credit scores, but as a foreign national, you won’t have this option. This is why permanent residency and a U.S. driver’s license can help bring your costs down in the long run, so try to get that going as soon as you can. In 16 U.S. states, you don’t need an SSN to get a driver’s license.
A lot is out of your hands. But what you can control is the car you drive. High-risk drivers get better rates when they drive cars with great safety features. These features convince insurance companies that your bodily injury might not be as bad if you’re involved in a car accident. Your insurance agent will hopefully have some ideas on how to lower your rate.
Drivers from Canada
In general, most Canadian drivers with a valid Canadian license and auto insurance policy are not required to carry an International Driving Permit or purchase new auto insurance when they visit the United States on a short-term basis. Check that this is true for the states you’re visiting and your home auto insurance company before you go.
Car Insurance for International Drivers by U.S. State
We looked up the ins and outs of a few U.S. states that get a lot of visits from foreign drivers. Here’s what to expect in these hot spots:
You won’t need an IDP to drive in California. Your valid license from your home country will do. To rent a car, you might need an IDP, but you can also probably find a car rental company that doesn’t require one.
Most foreign driver’s licenses are good in Hawaii, though the state DMV strongly recommends obtaining an IDP to overcome language and cultural barriers should you ever have to deal with the authorities.
A hub for international students, Massachusetts doesn’t require IDPs for foreign drivers unless that license doesn’t have an English translation, in which case you’ll need an IDP.
Only New York residents need New York driver’s licenses, so your foreign driver’s license will be fine. You’re also not required to carry an IDP in New York, but the state encourages you to.
In North Carolina, you’ll be fine without a U.S. license or IDP. But it never hurts to have it.
The Best Auto Insurance for International Drivers
When you’re buying an auto insurance policy and facing high insurance costs, it pays more than ever to shop around for the best insurance quotes. Compare quotes from all the important insurance companies in your area to find something that fits your needs and budget.
Frequently Asked Questions
Usually, it is. In some states, you’ll be required to carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) in addition to your foreign license, so make sure to obtain it from the government office that issued your driver’s license. Even if it’s not required, it can be helpful to have on the road.
You can’t get an IDP from the United States government. You must get one from your home country, or more specifically, the country that gave you the license you currently carry. Remember that your IDP is a translation of your foreign ID, it's not a license on its own. For your IDP to be useful, you need both.
If you’re borrowing someone else’s car and living with them while staying in the U.S., ask them to add you to their policy. If you’re renting a car, the rental car company’s insurance policy should be sufficient, but give them a call first. For longer stays, you’ll want a full-coverage auto insurance policy from a stand-alone insurance company.
Because you won’t have a driving history that insurance companies can count on to give you discounts, having abundant safety features on the vehicle you choose to drive can help lower your rates. If you’re a visiting student, you might also qualify for a student discount from most car insurance companies. If you can afford it, choose a high deductible to lower your rates.
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Data scientists at Insurify analyzed over 40 million auto insurance rates across the United States to compile the car insurance quotes, statistics, and data visualizations displayed on this page. The car insurance data includes coverage analysis and details on drivers' vehicles, driving records, and demographic information. With these insights, Insurify is able to offer drivers insight into how their car insurance premiums are priced by companies.