Many travellers will hop on a motorbike at some point during their travels in Southeast Asia. Some may even decide to hire a car. So how do you do these things legally? Do you need an International Driving Permit? And how can you make sure you’re covered by your travel insurance if you have an accident while driving scooters, motorbikes or cars in Southeast Asia? We’ll explain everything you need to know in this guide!
Please note – This is mainly based on information from the perspective of a UK traveller.
Read more: (opens in new tab)
- Best Motorcycle Routes in Southeast Asia
- Travel Insurance for Backpackers
- Hiring a Motorcycle in Thailand
What is an International Driving Permit?
An International Driving Permit (or IDP) is a supplementary document that extends your home driving license by translating the terms of your license into an international format. Put simply, it is a ‘copy’ of your driving license from your home country translated into several different languages.
Driving a car in Southeast Asia
To legally drive a car in most countries in Southeast Asia, you will need an International Driving Permit. Although when hiring, the rules vary (some hire companies may not even ask you for a driving license at all!), to make sure that you’re on the right side of the law, it’s definitely recommended to get yourself an international driving permit (IDP) before you travel.
In addition, if you have a car accident while you are driving a car overseas and do not have an IDP, then your travel insurance will not be valid.
Riding motorbikes in Southeast Asia
As I said above, your International Driving Permit is just a copy of your driving license. This means that if you aren’t legally allowed to ride motorbikes in your home country, you aren’t legally allowed to ride them in Southeast Asia.
While many people risk it, when it comes to travel insurance, you will not be insured against accidents. With your normal UK driving license (Class 1 Car License) you are only covered to ride scooters that are under 50cc. However, the majority of scooters that you hire in Southeast Asia are 110/125 cc.
The way around this is to take your motorbike test (CBT in the UK) back home before you go, which means you can ride up to 125cc (without a passenger) legally. The price is around 90 GBP, it takes around 6 hours to complete and the license lasts two years.
After that, you will need to renew it. With the CBT, you will be insured to ride motorbikes in Southeast Asia (under 125cc). See here for more information on getting your CBT license. (You have to be over 17 years old to take your CBT.) Note: If you plan to get the CBT and ride motorbikes in Southeast Asia, be sure to check with your travel insurance to see if you are covered in the event of an accident.
Hiring a car or a bike without the correct license
This is Southeast Asia and rules are not as strict as they are in Europe or the United States. In many countries, it is possible to hire a scooter, motorbike (or even car!) without showing a valid driving license! This does not mean that what you have just done is legal. If you are not legally able to drive the vehicle in that country, your travel insurance will not cover you for accidents, which means damage to the bike and/or damage to you! Basically, the risk is all yours!
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
- Subscription style insurance
- Cheap and flexible
- Available after your trip has started
Police fines and bribes
There are some places in Southeast Asia that are notorious for fining travellers who are driving without an International Driving Permit. In Thailand, the fine is usually 500 THB (depending on the police officer) and in Vietnam, the fine is around 500,000 VND.
In Vietnam, Mui Ne, the Hai Van Pass, the Ha Giang Loop (see below) and Dalat are all places where the police are particularly vigilant and set up checkpoints to catch out foreign riders. In Thailand, watch out if you’re in Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai or Pai. (And of course, always wear a helmet or you’ll get fined for that too. Even if you see locals not wearing helmets).
Abiding by local laws
As well as abiding by the law of your home country, you will also need to be mindful of local laws if you want to be properly insured. Apparently, if you have a motorbike license in the UK (CBT) and you want to drive in the Philippines, you do not actually need an International Driving Permit. Whereas in Indonesia and Thailand the IDP is essential. In the UK, you can check if you need an IDP for the country to which you are travelling with this IDP checker.
The extraordinary case of Vietnam* – Please note that driving in Vietnam for foreigners is ALWAYS illegal unless you have a Vietnamese Driving License. Even having an IDP, or an IDP with CBT will not cover you. Due to this local law, be aware that most travel insurance WILL NOT cover you.
Update – We did hear from our fabulous Facebook community that certain travel insurances (like True Traveller) are actually quite realistic when it comes to getting insured whilst riding a motorbike in Vietnam. They have said that if you are legal in the UK then they will cover you. However, please check this information as rules can change and you don’t want to be caught out!
The Ha Giang Loop
The Ha Giang Loop is worthy of particular mention as it is becoming an increasingly popular road trip for backpackers to Southeast Asia. There are currently many places along the route where the police have set up checkpoints to catch out self-riders who do not have the appropriate driving license. (In Vietnam, this means anyone who does not have a Vietnamese driving license*, so, there is very little you can do to be legal and avoid getting fined!)
As well as the risk of being fined, there is safety to consider. For novice riders, the windy roads are treacherous and not being properly insured is just not a good idea. Of course, the decision is yours. To enjoy the Ha Giang Loop without the risk, we highly recommend booking a Ha Giang Easy Rider Tour, where you’ll sit on the back of the motorbike with an experienced local motorbike driver. This way, you can enjoy the views as well as experience a more local side of the loop as you stop off in home stays along the way.
How to get an IDP if you’re from/in the UK?
If you’re still at home in the UK, the easiest way to apply for an International Driving Permit is to pop into your nearest IDP-issuing Post Office. You need to apply in person and fill out the application form at the counter. You’ll need to take:
- Your Valid UK driving licence.
- Recent passport photo, signed by you on the back.
- Proof of identity, e.g. passport.
- And you need to be over 18 years old.
- Cost: 5.50 GBP.
The IDP is:
- Valid for 12 months.
- You can delay the start time of the IDP until 3 months after you apply.
- Only valid if you’re carrying your UK licence as well. (It is not a replacement).
Can you get an IDP while you’re travelling?
Up until last year, it was possible for UK citizens to apply for an IDP by post via the AA (Automobile Association). (I did this!) However, updates on their website suggest that this service is no longer available.
Beware illegitimate websites offering IDPs
International Driving permits are ONLY available from the registered driving license authority in your home country. There is no other way to get a legal license online. For example, the IDP offered by ITCA is not valid in Southeast Asia. If you have any comments or have any updates to add to this article, please contact us.
Hiring a car/motorbike as an expat in Southeast Asia?
For any ‘long term’ travellers or expats, the option is there to apply and get a local license in the country where you reside, whether you have your motorbike license in your home country or not. (This is only possible if you are renting long-term in a house/flat or you have bought a property.) A local Thai Driving License, for example, will then cover you for all ASEAN countries.
To get a Thai Driving License you need to…
(Info provided by Guy Mitchell – thanks Guy!)
- Get a TM30 form from your landlord.
- Take the form to Immigration to get residency certificate.
- Get a medical certificate from any walk-in clinic.
- Take both of them, as well as copies of your passport details page, and stamp-in page, home country license, IDP, and copies of both as well as your passport to the department of transport office.
- Do a simple colour blindness test and sit through a hour long video, then pay the fees and there you go!
- If you haven’t a motorbike license in your home country, you need to do a half day ‘motorbike training’ at a facility.
Photo by: Dario Crociani.
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