Unsplash / Juan Di Nella

Hooked on old movies set in Monaco or international spy thrillers with chase scenes? You may get so caught up in the romance and espionage you never even think about how Americans are driving in other countries. But to do the same, you’ll probably need an international driver’s permit. Don’t mix this up with an international driver’s license, though. An IDP doesn’t grant you the right to drive. Instead, it is more like a permission slip you use along with your valid American driver’s license to be allowed behind the wheel in any of the more than 150 countries that accept it. And unlike in the movies, you’ll have to do a bit of planning before you can hop into the driver’s seat while traveling abroad. Here are the ABCs of getting an IDP.

When you’ll need an IDP

Start making your international driver’s permit arrangements while you’re still in the U.S. If you’re just considering it now and you’re already at your destination, you’re too late. And you never want to ignore the possibility that you’ll need the IDP because penalties can be strict if you get caught driving without one. In Japan, for example, deportation is possible. But if you’re still in the trip planning stages, contact the embassy at the country you’re traveling to. They’ll tell you if you’ll need a permit. Most countries make it illegal to drive without a valid license and what they consider ample amounts of car insurance. You may get lucky and be traveling to one of the countries that will accept just a U.S. driver’s license, but more likely you’ll also need a special international permit. Also, find out how long your IDP will be valid in the country you’re visiting. Even though an IDP is good for a year from the time you get it in the U.S., most countries have a limit to how long it’s valid when you’re visiting them. Check the specifics for every country you plan to visit. It’s also a good idea to look at the rental car company requirements way ahead of time, even if you’re planning to wing rentals once you get to your international destination.

And remember, if you can’t drive in the U.S., you won’t be able to get an IDP. The requirements for applying include being a permanent resident of the U.S., at least 18 and already possessing a valid driver’s license in this country. You also must start using the IDP within six months of acquiring it.

Because the IDP translates your American license into 10 languages, you might want one even if it’s not required. “It’s really in case something were to happen—you’re pulled over for a driving infraction, or there’s an accident, or something goes awry,” Bryan Shilling, AAA’s managing director of travel products and services told Conde Nast Traveler. “If you don’t have an international driving permit, [the police] may not be able to communicate effectively with you.”

Where to get an IDP

Here’s where you want to be skeptical of Internet ads. The only approved places to get an IDP are AAA and the American Automobile Touring Alliance, no one else. Either place charges $20, though you may have to pay extra for shipping. For the AATA version, you fill out an application and mail it to the address on the form. You’ll also need to send two passport-size photos and a photocopy of your driver’s license – front and back. To pay shipping and the IDP fee, you’ll need either a check or a money order. You can opt for ordinary or expedited shipping and handling. It’s also possible to get an international driver’s permit from AATA shipped to an address outside the U.S., But that requires a hefty shipping fee, around $80. And like all versions of the IDP, you must still be a permanent resident of the U.S. and have a valid license from the States.

The AAA international driver’s license

If you live near a local AAA office, that might be the fastest way to get the permit. You don’t have to be a member to get a AAA international driving permit, but you will need to pay a $20 fee. In addition, bring your valid driver’s license, two passport-size photos, and a completed application to the office. You can print out the form ahead of time or get one at AAA. At some branches, you can also have your passport-size photos made on the spot for an additional fee. You can also opt to do the whole process by mail, but it will take a lot longer.

International driving tips

Beyond planning for an international driver’s permit, there are other safety measures you’ll want to take before driving abroad. Make sure you have ample auto insurance, for example. Ordinarily, U.S. policies won’t cover you, though they may in Canada and Mexico. Before you leave the states, confirm that you have coverage in place and that it meets the minimum requirements of your host country. Also, budget enough in case you need to supplement your insurance as needed at your destination.

Take time to learn about the local laws and emergency numbers where you’re going. And see if the foreign government tourism office or your travel agent can tell you more about the driving culture where you’re going. Once you’ve heard about the breakneck speeds, small village delays or intense traffic, you may want to leave the driving to someone else.