If you're planning a trip to Europe for leisure or business and plan on driving while you're there, you'll need to acquire an International Drivers Permit (sometimes erroneously called an International Driving License), but do note that an International Drivers Permit is different from a European Drivers License, which is an EU-designed drivers license designed to replace individual country licenses.
An International Drivers Permit (IDP) needs to be used in conjunction with a valid United States license in order to be valid as it's basically a translation of your existing driver's license into different languages. This government document provides some basic identifying information like your photo, address, and legal name and translates your license into ten different languages.
In the United States, IDPs can be obtained at American Automobile Association (AAA) offices as well as from the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA), typically for a fee of $15 or $20. These are the only two organizations in the United States that are authorized to provide international drivers permits, so do not attempt to acquire an IDP from any other service provider.
Some European countries require Americans to have an International Driver's Permit, while most do not. Many times, rental car companies will not enforce this requirement, but they may come in handy if you are pulled over for a traffic incident.
Countries that Require an IDP
It's best to check with the tourist board for the country you're visiting before you go to get the latest information on exactly what you need to drive in another country. In general terms, though, most European countries do not require American drivers to have an IDP.
However, the following countries do require International Driver's Permits in conjunction with valid United States' driver's licenses: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Slovenia, and Spain; again, you might not even be asked for the IDP in these countries, but technically you're required to have one or risk being fined.
You should also be aware of other countries' rules of the road, and the U.S. Department of State has good resources for overseas travelers, including country-specific road and traffic information—their Road Safety Overseas page provides specific recommendations for safe driving.
To be sure you have everything set before you travel to a European country, it's best to contact the embassy or consulate of the country you're planning on visiting to inquire about their requirements in regard to IDPs or use of your existing license. Business travelers may also want to check the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs for additional information about different counties, contact information, and each country's requirements.
Be on the Lookout for Scams
Travelers interested in International Driver's Permits should be aware of potential scams and outlets selling them for inflated prices. For more information, read our article "International Driver's Permit Scams," which covers the basics of the underground world of illegal IDP sales.
Basically, though, don't fall for any websites that offer to provide an International Drivers License, or provide licenses or permits to people that don't have licenses or have suspended state licenses—these are definitely scams.
Not only will you waste your money on these invalid documents, you could possibly put yourself in a position to have legal problems overseas if you're caught with an illegal IDP, so always be sure to check you're going through the only two licensed issuers of IDPs: AAA and AATA.