The Road to Mobility

Published: Jul 23, 2016

In locations with ample public transport options, assignees and spouses may not need a personal vehicle while on assignment. Not all will be so lucky, however. Stress and costs of driving in a foreign country can be minimized with proactive awareness and some simple steps. Just as assignees must become familiar with speaking a new country’s language and converting local currency, employees and accompanying family members who use vehicles while abroad should study the unique intricacies and laws pertaining to driving vehicles in host country locations.


For those assigned to the auto-dependent U.S. and some other countries, efficient public transport is not always accessible. Distances from suburban or rural homes to office, town, schools, and shopping can appear vast to those coming from overseas. It’s not uncommon that an employee and his or her spouse may each need a vehicle.

Regardless of where an employee’s international assignment may be or what nearby countries they may explore, a little knowledge and preparation can go a long way to reduce fines, insurance woes, and serious stress. Learning on the fly is not recommended.


Drivers on international assignment can avoid most difficulties with preparation. Checking traffic laws, cultural nuances, and tips for driving in host countries and places they plan to visit by car is highly recommended. It is risky to assume that all countries have the same rules.

But isn’t driving everywhere pretty much the same—keys, license, sunglasses, fuel, and common sense? Well, the answer depends on where you are and your risk tolerance. In addition to many countries requiring drivers to carry a first aid kit, warning triangle, and reflective jacket, here’s just a small sampling of some interesting rules of the road:

• Cyprus: Hungry or thirsty? You had better pullover, because eating—or even drinking water—while driving is illegal.

• Japan: Don’t assume the rules and the signage will be the same everywhere. Many nations use different colors or symbols. For example, in Japan, a stop sign is an upside down red triangle—though there has recently been discussion of adopting the more internationally recognized red octagon in time for the 2020 Olympics.

• Brazil and the Philippines: Several cities in these countries restrict some cars from being on the road on specific days, depending on the license plate number.

• Italy, France, and Spain: Drivers who wear glasses/contact lenses must carry a spare pair.

• Germany: It is illegal to run out of fuel on the German Autobahn; it’s considered stopping unnecessarily, because running out of gas could have been avoided.

• United Arab Emirates: Mind your manners in the UAE, as swearing or making rude gestures to drivers or pedestrians can lead to fines, imprisonment, and even deportation.

• France: It’s technically still the law that you must carry a Breathalyzer, but the offense no longer carries a fine.

• Saudi Arabia: The law requires people to use a locally issued license while driving in that country, and licenses are not issued to women—so, effectively, they are not allowed to drive.

• Norway and Sweden: Headlights must be on all the time a vehicle is in use, even in daylight.

• Finland: Don’t beep your horn in an urban area, or you could be fined unless it’s a dangerous situation—and always report an incident involving deer, elk, or moose; otherwise, it’s treated as a hit-and- run accident.

• Russia: Is your car very dirty (on the outside)? Don’t drive it in Russia, as doing so is illegal. The law also requires you to carry a fire extinguisher, and police can stop a car at any time for checks.

• Spain: Be sure to wear shoes while driving in Spain and some other countries; there are high fines for operating a vehicle while wearing flip-flops.

• China: You cannot drive with a foreign license—including Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan licenses—or an International Driver’s Permit. Also, keep in mind that the largest vehicle on the road in China really has the right of way.

As a rule of thumb, while on a tourist or business visa, or a visa waiver program, one will probably not have to obtain a local license. If on a residence visa, individuals might be required to pass a local driver’s test to get a local license, and some countries’ tests are offered only in the local language. 


Thirty-five percent of the world’s population drives on the left side of the road—or, as the other 65 percent likes to jest, the “wrong” side. While the debate on this difference rages on, there are actually interesting historical reasons for this left-side rule, stemming from the U.K. and many former British colonies.

• Right-handed knights preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent.

• A right-handed person would wear his sword on the left and would therefore find it easier to mount a horse from the left side.

• In Japan, using the left side was an unwritten rule until it became more official in 1872.

Swords and horses aside, knowing how to drive using the side of the road opposite to one’s home country practice is important for starting off an assignment well. The stress of arriving in a new country can quickly intensify when driving a vehicle is thrown into the mix—especially after a long flight with luggage, family, and perhaps a pet in tow—and it’s easy for travelers to go on autopilot and fall into old driving routines and old location protocols. Some drivers place reminder notes on dashboards, and others use visualization exercises to prepare for driving on the opposite side of the road.

Using Google’s Street View before heading out into unchartered areas can also be a worthwhile investment. The online tool can show details of the drive that may not be noticed by simply glancing a map. Street View essentially allows one to “test drive” an actual itinerary and become familiar with road types, scenery, and visual navigation clues before experiencing it live.

Visiting Scotland, I had myself prepared, visualized, and Googled for driving on the “other side” of rural Scottish roads. Yet, imagine my jet lagged surprise to get the only remaining vehicle in the rental car parking lot, which was a stick shift, despite confirming an automatic. This only added to the anxiety of the driver ’s seat being on the opposite side of the car, driving on the opposite side of the road, and shifting gears with the opposite hand. Paying “a wee extra” for unlimited vehicle collision insurance at the rental counter was worth every penny for peace of mind.


Though many nations don’t recognize foreign driver’s licenses, most countries accept an International Driving Permit (IDP)—often incorrectly called an international driver’s license. An IDP is recognized as valid in more than 175 countries, and many car rental companies require an IDP for international rentals.

An IDP contains your name, photo, and driver information in 10 languages, but an IDP does not replace your official driver’s license. It is a translation of your license in an internationally recognized format. You must carry your official license with your IDP in order for it to be valid. Also, despite a persistent rumor, an IDP won’t protect you from tickets, fines, or insurance points deducted for bad driving. U.S. assignees headed abroad, for example, can obtain an IDP before departure at a local office of one of the two automobile associations authorized by the U.S. Department of State: AAA (American Automobile Association) and the National Auto Club. To apply for an IDP, you must be age 18 or older, submit two passport-size photographs, and present your valid U.S. driver’s license. The cost is less than $20. Yet, even with an IDP in hand, it is highly advisable that drivers also always carry their home country driver’s license when driving abroad.

Traffic rules in different countriesBACK TO SCHOOL—DRIVER’S ED AND PERMITS

For assignees or spouses who wish to become more accustomed to local driving etiquette, rules, and customs, paying for in-country driver ’s education classes can be a great investment in safety and stress reduction. Local driving schools can be beneficial both for those who have limited driving experience in their home country due to reliance on public transport and for those with many years’ experience behind the wheel. Professional assistance with navigating seas of vehicles in unfamiliar surroundings, pedestrian traffic, or the wild driving scenes for which some countries are well-known will help to prepare you for a better experience.

While assignees/spouses might be able to get through a day not speaking the local language, they may be required to take the written driving test in it. For example, in Italy, if assignees do not have a European Union driver’s license or if they have resided in Italy for more than one year, they take a large risk by driving with their national license.

“American or Canadian assignees, for instance, need a driver’s license within one year after establishing residency, and they must complete the driving courses—both theoretical and practical—in Italian only,”says Mollie Ivancic, NEI Global Relocation’s director of international operations.

“This becomes quite a challenge for many assignees living in Italy to remain compliant with local regulations. It is strongly recommended that companies’ relocation partners assist in setting up the driving courses with a trusted local destination services provider in Italy and also factor in the need for Italian language training and proficiency, for the process to work successfully.”

You may need to know the language to take a foreign driving test.READ THE FINE PRINT

Tickets, vehicle theft, breakdowns, and accidents can happen even to the best of drivers, despite how much preparation and homework is done. The importance of having the right documents before getting behind the wheel cannot be under stated. Before renting or driving a vehicle, assignees should read the fine print on their insurance policies and, to be safe, call their insurance company representative to check whether their current policy extends to driving abroad. Often, it does not. It’s also wise to determine one’s insurance levels and responsibilities.

For instance, if one has U.K. comprehensive coverage, this may be equal to only third-party fire and theft when driving abroad. Not all policies are created equal or treated equally. Regardless of country, if hiring, borrowing, or renting a car, always:

• Ask whether the car has breakdown coverage and what to do in an emergency.

• Obtain the correct paperwork and read the small print.

• Complete a thorough all-over inspection of the car in front of the person or firm from which you are renting it. Make notes of any existing damage to the car, and take photographs as evidence. If you do not, you could be blamed and charged for something that was not your fault.

According to the U.S. Department of State, car rental companies overseas can usually provide auto insurance, but in some countries, the coverage maybe minimal. When renting a car in the assignment country or driving to neighboring countries, employees would be wise to consider purchasing additional insurance coverage at least equivalent to what they carry in their home country. Commonly, an assignee’s U.S. auto insurance will not cover them in other countries, but this can vary widely by rental company, policy, and country. Again, always check before departing. If the transferee’s host-country-issued insurance policy is in the local language, it pays to get an interpreter. No matter what the country, legal terms are usually far from clear—even in one’s native tongue! Assignees and travelers need to be confident about what their policies state if it’s in a host country language, and they should have someone they trust verify what it says. If in doubt, call the policy provider for confirmation, and get it in writing.

Even if the assignee’s U.S. insurance policy is found to be valid in a particular destination country, it may not meet that country’s minimum requirements. If you are under insured, purchase additional insurance. Travelers abroad can also shop for companies that offer “worldwide” insurance. Some insurance companies adjust to local requirements that vary from country to country.

Insurance might include physical damage coverage with “political violence protection,” depending on the assignment location.

It’s also important to note that some nations may require third-party liability policies that are issued through a local insurance firm. If so, assignees might consider physical damage and excess liability coverage to help confirm international, hard-currency, “worry-free” coverage beyond any locally required coverage. Often these worldwide policies can be researched online and paid by credit card.


Driving abroad can be a rewarding experience, allowing for independence and freedom to explore. While situations will occur that may not make for the greatest of travel or assignment memories, stress and costs can be minimized—before buckling up and hitting the road—with proactive knowledge and some basic action steps:

• Understand the local rules of road before you start driving in the host country.

• Prepare for what you expect to experience: Use Google Street View, etc.

• Check on your insurance policy regarding what would be covered, and determine how you may need to supplement your coverage while abroad.

• Apply for your International Driver’s Permit.

• If driving in your host country or nearby countries, participate in local driver’s education training.

• When renting or borrowing a vehicle, inspect it for damage, take pictures, and discuss breakdown coverage with the agent before accepting the auto.

• Read the fine print on anything you are about to sign, and hire an interpreter if necessary.

Written by Tom Paton of NEI Global Relocation and published in Mobility Magazine in June, 2016