Most tourists traveling to Costa Rica can use their license from their home country to drive. But visitors from some countries will need an international driving permit. Likewise, people who normally use a Costa Rica driver’s license may find one necessary when traveling to other countries. In this post, we’ll let you know what an international driving permit is and give details about how to apply for this special document.
We recently had to apply for an international driving permit in Costa Rica. Though originally from the United States, we have permanent residency in Costa Rica and hold Costa Rica driver’s licenses.
Our driver’s licenses in the United States had expired, so we needed a way to rent a car in the States (to visit family). We needed to use our Costa Rica license, until we could get the US one renewed.
The rental car agency in the United States that we were using told us that we could only use our Costa Rica license if we also had an international driving permit to go along with it.
What is an International Driving License/Permit?
An international driving permit is a document that translates your current driver’s license into 12 different languages. This makes it easier for law enforcement to read your license in the country you are visiting. The permit also certifies that you have a valid driver’s license in your country of residence (i.e., you can legally drive).
International driving permits are regulated by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA/IAT) under direction of the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States.
These permits are considered a valid form of identification in more than 150 countries.
It is important to mention that the international driving permit must be presented along with the original driver’s license to be valid.
Important: Do You Need One to Drive in Costa Rica?
An international driving permit is not typically required for visitors traveling to Costa Rica. Most tourists can use their home country’s license, even if it is in a different language. The license just needs to be in the same alphabet that Costa Rica uses (e.g., A, B, C, D).
For example, those traveling from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Spain, etc. will NOT need an international driving permit to rent a car in Costa Rica.
Foreigners with licenses in different alphabets (e.g., Mandarin, Arabic, Hebrew) WILL need to get an international driving permit before they arrive in Costa Rica, if they want to rent a car.
Be aware that some websites make it sound like you should still get an international driver’s permit, even if one is not required. These sites say that local police or officials can give you a hard time if they cannot read the license. We have not heard of any travelers experiencing this problem in Costa Rica.
Tip: If you are renting a car in Costa Rica, be sure to use our discount through one of the most reputable companies. Get 10% off plus free extras like car seats for kids, surfboard racks, and coolers.
How to Apply for an International Driving Permit
The application process for an international driving permit varies by country. Typically, the process is carried out by the country’s automobile club or association. These clubs are something like AAA (link) in the United States. Other countries use different offices, like the post office, to issue them.
The best way to find out the specific requirements for your country is to visit the official International Driving Permit website. On this site, you can enter the country where you hold a driver’s license. You will then be directed to the official agencies in your country that offer the service. Those websites will explain the requirements and let you know how to apply.
Note: There are many unofficial websites claiming to sell international driving permits. Only agencies that are FIA/IAT approved can issue valid permits. If you go through the International Driving Permit website, they will direct you to the official page for the country where you reside.
How Much Does the International Driving Permit Cost and How Long Are They Valid?
The cost of the license/permit varies by country. Some are as little as $5 USD in the case of the United Kingdom, or upwards of $100 USD in the case of Costa Rica (read more below).
In Costa Rica, an international driving permit is valid for only one year, then you need to apply for a new one.
Some countries issue permits that are valid for three years. It depends on which UN Convention they are signed onto.
Applying for an International Driving Permit in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, applying for an international driving permit is simple. The process is done through the Automovil Club de Costa Rica (Automobile Club of Costa Rica).
The Automobile Club of Costa Rica
The Automobile Club of Costa Rica (ACCR) is a non-profit association that was founded in 1955. In addition to issuing international driving permits, they also do campaigns and studies on road safety, pedestrian and cyclist accessibility, and driver-training programs.
Another cool thing that the ACCR does is that it issues sport licenses (for motorsport racing) and helps supervise Costa Rica’s motor-sport races and activities.
Steps for Applying (Costa Rica License Holders)
You can apply for the international driving permit in person (with an appointment) or online.
When applying online, you will then need to go in person to pick it up, or give authorization to someone who can pick it up for you.
The Automobile Club of Costa Rica is located in San Jose, a little south of La Sabana Park. It is inside Centro Comercial Sabana Sur (found on Waze or Google Maps).
Since we live far from San Jose, we did the process online and picked up the permit when it was ready. The process was fast – it only took four days for them to process our application and have the permit ready.
International Driving Permit (IDP) Requirements (Applying Online)
To apply online, you will email the following information to the Automobile Club of Costa Rica. Please double check their page to make sure nothing has changed.
1) Photo (front and back) of your cedula (identity card) in JPG format.
2) Photo (front and back) of your Costa Rica driver’s license in JPG format.
3) A 5×5 cm passport-style photo (without any borders) in JPG format.
4) Copy of the $90 USD payment voucher. Payment is by bank deposit or transfer. They will email you the bank account information after you send the first three items.
The Club may email you some additional questions, like where you were born, what province you live in now, and your phone number. They will notify you when the permit is ready and give you an appointment to pick it up.
When you arrive to pick up your international driving permit, you also will need to bring the following:
1) Printed 5×5 cm passport-style photo on glossy photo paper.
2) Your original ID (cedula).
3) Your original Costa Rica driver’s license.
Getting our international driving permit in Costa Rica was very simple. The whole process took less than a week, and we are now allowed to drive in other countries, like the United States, using our Costa Rica license. The only downside is that the permit was expensive, at $90, and is only valid for one year.
Have a question about getting an international driving license? Ask us below.
Looking for more practical information for your trip. Check out these articles:
Arriving at SJO Airport – Looking for information about Juan Santamaria International Airport? This post will let you know what to expect.
Renting a Car in Costa Rica: Clearing Up the Confusion – If you are overwhelmed with the information online about renting a car in Costa Rica, this article will help you understand things like the mandatory insurance and extra charges that are often left out of quotes.
Getting a SIM Card in Costa Rica – If you need to stay connected during your trip, this article will explain how to get a sim card for your phone.