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You asked: Do I need an international license to drive abroad?

By The Way Concierge looks into the rules of the road in Europe

(María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Traveling has always come with complications. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

We are planning a trip to Puglia in April and are renting a car. We have been getting mixed messages about whether we need to have an international driver’s license. What should we do? — Joe O., Berlin, Md.

You’re right about the mixed messages. The website for the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Italy says you “should obtain an International Driving Permit before leaving the U.S.” But a few paragraphs later notes that “tourists may also use their valid American driver’s license if accompanied by an official translation in Italian.” I talked to a bunch of Italy travel experts to sort out the rules.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, managing director and chief travel designer for Global Travel Moments, told me he advises anyone who plans on driving in a foreign country — Italy and otherwise — to get an International Driving Permit (IDP). He also said the rules for driving in Italy are clear: You must either have an Italian driver’s license or one issued by a European Union country. If you don’t have one of those, you need to get a IDP to carry with your home country driver’s license.

Rental car agencies may ask you for both your U.S. license and your IDP to pick up your vehicle, but not always, says Rocco Giuseppe Gambardella, who owns the Amalfi Coast culinary experiences company Bè Genuine Home Experience with his wife, Carla. It “depends on the car rental companies,” he said, so you may never need to present an IDP while you’re in the country.

That’s been the case for American travel journalist Angel F. Castellanos, who says he has never had problems getting rental cars or driving in Italy without an IDP. Even when he’s gotten speeding tickets, “I’ve never had to present my license to a police officer,” Castellanos said.

Basic traffic violations are captured by camera footage, then tickets get sent to travelers later. Those have been pricey, Castellanos warns, and come through the rental car companies who charge service fees on top of the violation.

But in the case you do get pulled over by Italian police or get in a car accident, and you don’t have the permit, you can get fined hundreds of euros. And Kathy McCabe, host of the PBS show “Dream of Italy,” says the requirement has been enforced more often in recent years.

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Fortunately, it’s easy to get an IDP, McCabe says. There’s a $20 fee, plus tax, to apply for one through AAA, and you don’t have to take a written or driving test. You just need to be at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. According to AAA, an IDP can’t be issued more than six months in advance of your trip, but it is valid for a year.

You can apply in person at a AAA branch by printing and filling out this form, submitting it with two original passport pictures and showing your valid U.S. driver’s license. Or you can apply by mail by sending that same application form, two passport pictures each signed on the back, a photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license and the fee. If you’re in a hurry, you can also pay more for expedited return mail service. (More on the process here.)

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Alternatively, as the U.S. Embassy website mentioned, you can forgo an IDP and get your license translated into Italian — but it’s more of a hassle than it sounds. You’ll have to get an official translation (a traduzione giurata) at a place like an embassy or consulate, or through a certified translator or interpreter.

I’d be remiss to not include a word of warning from some of my sources: Renting a car in Italy isn’t for everyone.

Because of potential “excessive costs and traffic problems,” Gambardella advises clients against renting a car on trips to the Amalfi Coast and southern Italy, although he added that many of his customers have rented cars without any problems.

Dominique Barbeau of the private tour operator Access Italy says the company also recommends against renting a car overseas. Clients often return home with lots of traffic violations, and, “at the end, it is worth hiring a driver,” she said. Gambardella says you could use a taxi service, such as NCC, or take trains (Italy has a great train system) or buses.

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With that being said, McCabe does recommend having a car to explore the Salento peninsula. And having traveled through Puglia myself, I’d also rent a car to hop between beaches easily if I went back again.

For good measure, I asked my Italian friend Vito Palumbo, CEO of the wine company Tormaresca, who has vineyards in Puglia. He’s 100 percent on board for travelers renting a car in Italy — particularly Puglia, where public transportation is limited. While parking can be confusing, he finds it less common to get speeding tickets in the region than in other parts of the country.

Should you decide to drive, in addition to applying for your IDP, download the navigation app Waze. Castellanos says it has helped him avoid tickets since he started using it. Not only does Waze give driving directions, but it also provides speed limits and points out where speed-trap cameras are located.

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