The International Drivers Permit – A cautionary tale

We recently decided to book a trip to Okinawa, Japan. All the feedback from those who lived there is that public transport is not sufficient and that you really need to rent a car. Plus we booked an Airbnb in the northern part of the island (about 2 hours from the airport) making it even more of a necessity.

So I made my rental car reservation and didn’t think much more about it until began bombarding me with emails saying I needed to make sure I had an international drivers permit (IDP) to accompany my stateside license. I have never had to use an international drivers permit to drive in any country I’ve rented a car, so I was a little concerned. I immediately started my research, but there really wasn’t much information on the process from South Korea.

Most people originating from the US, but living in South Korea obtain their IDP from AAA before they leave the states. However, it looks like Seoul Global Center in Jongak, the Korean Department of Motor Vehicles and the Police Department all can process IDPs. So we opted for the Seoul Global Center as they are close by and speak good English. The trouble was Lunar New Year was fast approaching and we only had a couple days before the whole city basically shut down for 3 business days!

When we arrived to the Seoul Global Center, we completed the paperwork and provided our passport, SOFA license, and photographs. That was when we were informed the bad news. A Korean drivers license is required to get the IDP, a SOFA license (although the it allows you to drive in South Korea) does not suffice. So we had another roadblock.  The staff suggested that we could trade in our US license for a Korean license. We figured at this point that would be our best bet and said  great let’s do that! But then they said we needed a document from the Embassy or an “Apostille” document from the states (basically certifying the authenticity of our license) . When I called the Embassy I was rudely informed that there is no such document provided by the US Embassy and basically told I was out of luck as far as they are concerned. Getting the Apostille document from the states would have taken too long in our case and we didn’t really want to surrender our license that badly. So if you want to get your IDP in Korea, make sure you are aware of all of those things.

At this point, our only choice was to send the docs to AAA overnight, have it overnighted back to us, and to cross our fingers that nothing went wrong since we were leaving that Friday. The application process is extremely simple through AAA.

Things you need:

1. IDP Application (make sure it is completely filled out and signed)

Download the application here –

2. 2 Passport size photos (sign each photo on the back)

3. Copy of valid US Drivers License (front and back)

4. $15 processing fee

Luckily Scott’s mom was amazing and acted as our middleman. She got the docs on a Monday and we had the IDPs in hand by Thursday. Thanks Mom and Fedex!

I definitely recommend making sure if an IDP is needed to obtain a rental car in the country you are planning to visit. And to go through AAA to process the IDP if you hold a US drivers license.

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