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Do I Really Need an International Driving Permit to Drive in Italy?

Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.

Driving in Italy can be a challenge. Don't make it any harder than it needs to be!

Driving in Italy can be a challenge. Don't make it any harder than it needs to be!

One of the most confusing questions that faces travelers heading to Italy is whether they need an International Driver’s Permit, otherwise known as an IDP. It’s a valid question and one that we have asked and debated over and over again before leaving on vacations to a host of European countries.

For the first few trips we made to Italy where we planned on driving a rental car, we made sure to get one before leaving. And as many seasoned traveler friends had predicted, not once were we asked to produce the document while renting the vehicle. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t need the permit—it could just have been our good fortune to not have had any reason to interact with the local police.

International Driving Permit

International Driving Permit

In Italy, Having an IDP Is the Law

While there are a few European countries that speak English and will recognize a United States driver’s license, you need to keep in mind that there are many nations, including Italy, that don’t. And this is where the International Driving Permit is legally required along with your home country driver’s license.

Please note that the IDP is not a European Driver’s license, but a permit that translates your existing license into many different languages. What it does is allows the police over there to easily write out a ticket to you with all of your information already translated via the IDP.

Can you imagine the confusion and stress if presented with a situation where you don’t speak their language and the foreign police can’t communicate with you? If you don’t have an International Driving Permit and you get pulled over, you run the risk of being fined, which will then make the $20 you saved by not getting the permit seem trivial.

Look at it this way: it’s a legal requirement to carry an International Driving Permit in countries that require you to carry one, so it’s probably a good idea to make sure you have it before departing. Fines for not having one can run up to several hundred euros and have to be paid within five days or else the fine goes up dramatically.

International Driving Permit

International Driving Permit

Some Commonly Visited European Countries

Countries that require you to carry an International Driving Permit along with your countries driver’s license:

  • Italy, Greece, Spain, Austria, Germany, Poland, Croatia, Czech-Republic, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Countries that recognize a United States or Canadian driver’s license and also speak English:

  • Ireland, ​Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England

Non-English speaking countries that do not require an IDP, but where it’s a good idea due to the language barrier:​

  • Portugal, France, Switzerland
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Countries that recognize an International Driving Permit.

Countries that recognize an International Driving Permit.

Where to Get an International Driving Permit

An International Driver’s Permit can only be purchased through your local American or Canadian Automobile Association branch or through the American Automobile Touring Alliance, otherwise known as the AATA.

You will need to bring 2 passport-sized photos or purchase them there in addition to the fee for the permit (which usually costs no more than $20). If you come across another website that offers to issue you an IDP, don’t be fooled—the AAA and AATA are the only agencies authorized by the US State Department to issue an IDP. The permit is good for one year from the date of issue.

As a general rule, the cars in Italy are small.

As a general rule, the cars in Italy are small.

Hopefully, if your trip goes smoothly, you’ll never be asked to show your permit, but if for some reason you wind up dealing with the police because of an auto accident or a speeding ticket, you will most likely be asked to produce the permit. The bottom line is that for $20, it’s a good thing to have just in case you have an issue.

That’s one small vehicle.

That’s one small vehicle.

Over the last 12 years, we have driven rental vehicles in Italy, Greece, France, and Spain, and not once has the rental car company asked us for our International Driver’s Permit. It would seem that it’s more of a requirement to drive, rather than a requirement to rent a vehicle in these countries.

It has certainly helped that good fortune has followed us on our adventures and we have managed to avoid any vehicle accidents or issues involving the police. We have received tickets while in Italy, one for speeding and one for entering a restricted driving zone, but both of those tickets came in the mail months after returning home.

Beware of the Limited Traffic Zones.

Beware of the Limited Traffic Zones.

What to Expect When Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy can be a stressful experience. Some European countries are worse than others, but Italy is regarded as one of the more challenging. Just the language barrier of not being able to read road signs combined with driving on unfamiliar roads can create anxiety.

As a general rule, we have found Italian drivers to be somewhat impatient and aggressive, especially in the larger cities. They drive fast, tailgate if they think you are not going fast enough and will jump at the first opportunity to pass you.

Beware the Limited Travel Zones (ZTLs)

Another thing to consider is that many cities have ZTLs, or limited travel zones that are restricted to just the locals who live there. Enter one of these restricted areas and you will receive a hefty ticket in the mail a few months after returning from your trip.

How will they know? Look carefully and you will see the cameras everywhere. Once they get your plate number, they will trace it to your rental company and get your information from them. Pretty sneaky, but very effective.

Oh the places you can go, when you have the freedom of a rental vehicle.

Oh the places you can go, when you have the freedom of a rental vehicle.

Italian Roads and Cars

Other things to be aware of when driving in Italy are the narrow roads and the use of round-a-bouts, which are used extensively so be prepared. Just always remember who has the right of way when entering and traversing through the round-a-bout. Vehicles already in the round-a-bout have the right of way and cars trying to enter the rotary need to yield.

One last thing to consider if you want to rent a vehicle in Italy is that most of the rentals come with a manual transmission and the cars tend to be on the smaller side, so pack light. Vehicles with automatic transmissions are available, but they come at a hefty premium. If you are not completely comfortable driving a manual transmission, you may want to reconsider your plans for driving. If you do decide to throw caution to the wind and drive, be sure to utilize a Garmin or some other navigation aid to make life easier for yourself.

Hard to forget our lime green Fiat rental.

Hard to forget our lime green Fiat rental.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Bill De Giulio

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