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Iceland Driving Permit for Visitors

You probably don’t give much thought to your driving license. It’s an exciting milestone when we first get our provisional papers and another rite of passage when we get the all-clear to drive by ourselves. After that, well, if you’re anything like me, it stays in your wallet until it needs renewing and you pretty much forget about it unless someone asks for photographic ID. But when you plan to rent a car abroad, you need to make sure that the document you use at home will serve you on the roads of another country. In many cases it does, but sometimes your driving license isn’t acceptable by itself and if that’s the case, you need to apply for an international driving permit as well. So what exactly is an international driving permit and, more importantly, if you’re planning a road trip in the next few months, will you need one for Iceland?


What is an international driving permit?


First and most importantly, an International Driving Permit (or IDP for short) is not an International Driving Licence. In fact, despite what you might have read, there’s no such thing. What people sometimes refer to as an International Driving Licence is actually an International Driving Permit. There’s a difference. The IDP doesn’t give you the right to drive. Instead, it is an official translation of a national driving license. This piece of paperwork crucially gives the holder the right to drive anywhere it is recognized, so long as they hold a valid driving license from their home country as well. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. If you failed or never took your test, or have been banned for driving since you passed it, then you’re not qualified to drive. It doesn’t matter where you are, that would be the case. Applying for a permit can’t possibly be a substitute for all those hours of driving lessons and nights you’d probably rather forget spent learning the rules of the road.


The website of the Icelandic Transport Authority has this to say:

“All valid driving licenses issued in other countries allows tourists in Iceland to drive the same categories of vehicles as stated in the license. The license holder has to fulfill national rules on minimum age and the license must be printed in Latin characters. Commercial driving is only allowed on the basis of licenses from other EC countries.”


Can a visitor drive with their country's license in Iceland?


Strictly speaking, yes, you can drive with your country’s license, but only because there’s no such thing as an international version. If you’ll forgive me for being a pedant, you drive with your own country’s license. But you might need an IDP as well and if you need to get such an IDP you have to already hold a driving license for your home country. The IDP is just the paperwork that ensures that a license is a legal document in the place you intend to drive. In Iceland’s case that usually only comes into play if your license is not printed using Latin characters, for instance, if it’s in Japanese, Arabic or Thai. Most other driving licenses would be perfectly acceptable as they are. If you’re confused, or you just want to make absolutely sure, why not get in touch with one of Iceland’s car rental agencies to ask for advice?

Currently, therefore, US driving license holders can drive in Iceland without an IDP. It’s the same for citizens of Canada, EEA countries and those in the EU. However, because of Brexit, Brits are more likely to get tripped up, as they may soon have to secure an IDP for countries where it wasn’t previously needed. This useful guide from the British government shows where an International Driving Permit is required, or will likely be needed. Really it comes down to the fact that though Britain’s decision to leave is clear, the exact terms of its departure are not. That government advice will be updated once the full terms of the exit deal from the EU are negotiated and in place. For Iceland, what’s expected to be the case is that British license holders will only need an IDP if the UK leaves the EU without a deal and their proposed stay is over 1 month.


Where to get an IDP if you need one


Permit issuing can’t be done by just about anybody and has to be done from the relevant organization in the country which issued the license. So if your license was issued in Canada, for instance, then if you were to require an IDP it too would have to be sourced in Canada. Remember, for many countries, the driving license you hold will be valid in Iceland as it stands. But if you need an International Driving Permit, you’ll need to double-check where you should buy that IDP before you leave home, as you won’t be able to get it once you’re there.


In many countries, if you need one you apply for an IDP from a recognized Automobile Association, such as the American Automobile Association in the USA. In India, you would need to pick up the form from your local RTO. In other countries, such as the UK, where required you need to buy your permit at the post office. You fill out a form, take along anything else that might be necessary (such as photographs and proof of ID) pay your fee and you’re good to go. For most nationalities, that’s no problem. However, China doesn’t recognize the IDP and nowhere in the country issues one.


What’s the difference between the 1926, 1949 and 1968 IDPs?


You should also be aware that there is more than one kind of IDP and it is vital that you buy the IDP that is mandatory in the country you intend to drive in. There are three IDP categories: 1926, 1949 and 1968. The 1926 document falls in line with the Paris International Convention relative to Motor Traffic, the 1949 one follows the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic and the 1968 version takes note of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Iceland uses the 1949 IDP where relevant.


What else do I need to know?


To be able to rent a car in Iceland, a foreign national driver must be at least 20 years of age. Driving in Iceland is a pleasure, which is why so many people love the idea of a road trip around the country’s ring road. Renting a car for an international driver is straightforward, so long as you have a credit card, and your car rental company will be happy to advise you as to the type of car that would be most suitable. You might need an all-wheel-drive vehicle, for instance, if you intend to visit in summer and fancy challenging yourself to drive the interior F roads. If you’re content to visit Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, and the Blue Lagoon, you’ll be perfectly OK with a two-wheel drive, saving you money on the cost of renting a car with 4x4 capabilities. Perhaps most important of all, we drive on the right side of the road here in Iceland, something that’s second nature to our visitors from continental Europe and North America but alien to Brits, Aussies and Indians.

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