Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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UPDATED: Sep 23, 2021

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Important facts to know...

  • It is very important to get an International Driving Permit before you leave your country of origin to visit the US
  • An International Driving Permit acts a form of identification in 150 countries and translates information for you
  • An IDP isn’t enough alone to drive in the US. You must have a foreign license to get your IDP
  • To get an insurance policy in your own name, an IDP will not satisfy the company’s licensing rules
  • Some carriers won’t insure drivers with their foreign license unless they will get their US license within thirty days

When you get a visa to work or study in the United States, it’s important to find out the steps that you have to take to get properly licensed to drive a car.

Some of the college areas and metropolitan areas around the country have excellent walking paths and public transportation systems, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be dependent on a car. And since a rental company would be too costly an option, the only way to have an affordable, reliable vehicle would be to purchase it.

About 95 percent of all Americans own their own car and 85 percent of them use their car to commute. Since getting around in some cities requires a

  • A license: you won’t be a valid driver without one
  • A car: having a valid license will allow you your own vehicle
  • Car insurance: you don’t want to own a car without coverage

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Benefits of having your own car include not being dependent on public transport, and being able to go wherever you’d like whenever you’d like. Below we cover what you need to know about buying and insuring a car.

Can you drive in the United States without a valid U.S. license?

You don’t necessarily need to apply for a U.S. driver’s license to legally drive in the country when you first arrive. If you did, it’d be very difficult to get around your city until you qualified for a state-issued driving privilege.

Foreign nationals and short-term visitors may drive in the country as long as they have a foreign driver’s license and they meet all of the state’s driving requirements. If you’re a resident, at some point you’ll become eligible for a U.S. license.

When you become eligible, you’re required by the state to apply.

In some states, you need more than just your foreign driver’s license to satisfy the licensing requirement. This is typically true when your license is in another language and it needs to be translated.

Check with the state you’ll be driving in to see if you’re required to have an International Driving Permit or IDP.

An IDP isn’t a license. It’s a document that’s issued in your state of origin that translates all of the information on your government-issued driver’s license.

The foreign license will be translated into ten different languages and is accepted in 150 different countries, including the United States.

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When should you apply for your IDP?

You need to apply for your International Driving Permit from a motor vehicle agency in your country of origin. It’s very important to time the application right so that you get your IDP before you leave to the United States.

Some agencies can issue you the permit right at the site and others require time for processing. Be sure you have the following:

  • A complete International Driving Permit application
  • Two original passport pictures
  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • A valid foreign driver’s license
  • Photocopies of the front and back of your license
  • Money for the permit fee

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Can you buy a car when you’re on a visa?

There are rules for residents and foreign nationals who are staying in the U.S. on a visa. If you are in the country on a student, work, or tourist visa, you may be able to buy a car in your name but finding financing will be a little more difficult.

There are lenders who will offer financing to students with an F1 visa as long as it’s not expiring soon.

It’s best to buy a vehicle outright with cash to avoid issues with financing. If you have the money to make a cash purchase, you’re better off buying the car outright for now.

Your interest rate to finance will be high because you don’t have established credit and because you’re a flight risk.

After you buy a car, it’s your duty as the vehicle owner to register the vehicle in your state of temporary residence. Buying a car and register a car are two different transactions altogether.

It’s easy to buy a car on the private market, but you’ll need all of the documents the state requires to be able to legally drive your car.

If you want to register yourself as the owner of the car, you need proof of ownership and proof of your identity.

Your IDP or foreign license can satisfy the proof of identity requirement. Just be sure that you aren’t required to apply for your driver’s license after you become a property owner.

Does my car have to be insured before it’s registered?

Not only do you need to bring ownership documents and identification, you also need to bring proof of financial responsibility when you’re registering your car.

Proof of financial responsibility generally means that insurance is required. In some states, you can choose alternatives forms of proof, but it’s best to satisfy the law by carrying insurance.

Before you make an appointment with the DMV to submit your application you should know the state-mandated insurance law where you’re living. The insurance laws in the U.S. aren’t universal. Most of the time you’re required to have at least motor vehicle liability insurance.

Every state gets to choose what’s required in terms of insurance coverage. It’s also the state’s responsibility to regulate the industry and oversee business transactions. You have to satisfy the law where the car is registered. Sometimes that means you’ll have to purchase additional coverage if a standard policy isn’t enough.

You can find this information online or you can look it up in your driver’s manual. Some of the coverage that you’re required to carry in most states include:

  • Bodily injury liability
  • Property damage liability
  • Personal injury protection or medical payments (required in some states)
  • Comprehensive (required by finance company)
  • Collision (required by finance company)

There are many types of coverage that a provider carries, so you’ll want to ask them what the best fit will be for you and your car. Asking questions means you’ll end up with an insurance premium that is not just affordable, but also covers you no matter the scenario. Plus, depending on the type of coverage you end up with, you could also look into whether or not discounts are available in order to save you a little bit of money.

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Can you get auto insurance with an IDP?

Insurance companies have very strict and rigid requirements. When you’re applying for an auto policy, you need to be sure you meet the requirements or you’re wasting your time submitting an application. Some of them have minimum requirements that need to be met, otherwise you could be rejected.

You’ll automatically be denied if you have an IDP and you don’t have your foreign license.

No auto insurance carrier will approve your application for standard coverage with just an IDP. Your IDP is strictly meant to translate your license, it’s not a document that replaces the need for a government-issued license.

You still might need this document for translating purposes as you’re applying for insurance, though.

Can you apply for auto insurance in the U.S. with your foreign license?

There are benefits to having a foreign license when you move. If you have a foreign license, you’ll fare better when you’re shopping for auto insurance. That doesn’t mean just any company is going to insurance your car even if it is registered domestically.

Some companies will only insure driver’s with a valid U.S. license. Others will issue insurance on a contingent basis as long as the applicant is going to get their U.S. license within 30 to 45 days after the policy is issued.

If you do find a substandard company that will issue you a policy with your foreign license, expect to pay a high rate for insurance. Since you have a foreign license, it’s likely that the company will charge you high-risk rates just like an inexperienced driver would pay.

There are ways to reduce your rate. Sometimes, when you get your U.S. license, the insurer will give you credit for your foreign experience. This is why you should apply for a domestic driver’s license as soon as you’re eligible for one.

You can drive, buy a car, and insure your car all with a foreign license. Make sure that you take the right steps and get your IDP before doing anything else. And don’t drive your car without proper coverage. By ensuring that you satisfy all the auto insurance requirements that exist, you’ll have no trouble finding a policy that suits you perfectly.

Then, get online quotes for insurance in the state that you’ll be calling home so that you can compare auto rates. Use our free rate tool today!