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Do international students need a drivers license?

Katie Schenk - January 05, 2017

International student driver license

Anyone pursuing an international master's degree should prepare themselves for a lot of travelling. In addition to exploring a new city and country, you’ll be headed off on experiential treks, mini immersions, and incredible weekends away with classmates. And, we can help you get there

But, between all the school work, seminars, and fun times to be had, it’s easy to become a little jetlagged – and uncertain which side of the road you really should be on. That’s before wondering whether your license will work (be legal) at all. 

Most countries drive on the right-hand side of the road

For as many times as the British will tell you they drive on the correct side, it’s mostly their previous colonial holdings that persist in driving on the left. About 65% of the world drives on the right-hand side, so you should make that your default when driving overseas.

Apart from the UK (and all those little islands around it), the only other European countries to drive on the left are Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus. Most of the Caribbean drives on the left, though most of North and South America drive on the right. Australia, New Zealand, and most of Oceania drive on the left.

In Africa, Kenya and Uganda are the northernmost countries to drive on the left. Countries that follow suit on the continent make a “J” shape from this starting point, down to South Africa. Angola and the DRC, however, drive on the right. MBAs studying, even in these areas, are unlikely to drive cars across borders, though, so it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.

However, with Asian universities drawing increasing numbers of international students, you may find one or two confusing crossovers when entering and leaving mainland China. Hong Kong, for example, drives on the left side although mainland Chinese drivers drive on the right. Thailand, too, drives on the left, as do India and Pakistan. Japan is also a lefty country.

You can always check a complete list before travelling, but if you’re headed to a sizeable country and it’s not mentioned here, you can assume you’ll need to drive on the right-hand side of the road. 

You may not need to drive in your host country

You could spend the next year or two completely car-free, however. In some areas, a car would be much more of a hassle than a bonus. In most major European cities, for example, buying, leasing, or renting a car is an extreme waste of time. You’ll spend more time looking for a parking spot than actually driving around. And, you’ll pay through your teeth when you do find one.

So, a car is a no-go in Paris, which really does have an advanced public transport system. But, in nearby Fontainebleau, MBA candidates at INSEAD may find a car much more useful. Indeed, it’s often recommended that students (or a group of students) have access to a car. (You’ll drive on the right side of the road.)

Americans are far more likely to need and have cars. And, if you’re studying in smaller towns, you’ll want to consider it. But, you definitely don’t want a car in New York City. And, students attending Harvard also should stay away from driving. It’s not that you won’t be able to drive; it’s that you won’t be able to park. Sure, you can pay for a permit for campus, but once you head out, you’ll find yourself in trouble.

Other American cities present greater challenges just by design of the roads and layout of suburbs. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, most students can get by without a car; only a minority of students get to class this way. But, you can’t expect to explore very far around the city without a car.

You’ll often find options like ZipCar on and around campuses like Wharton. It’s a car sharing service that enables you to rent cars by the hour or the day (and it includes insurance which is a legal requirement for driving in the United States). Most international students can join as long as their licenses can be verified.

Where does your driving license work?

Almost without exception, a valid driver’s license from your home country will work in the United States for up to one year. However, some states also require an International Driving Permit (IDP) issued in the same country as your license was issued. Not every state requires the IDP, but you will definitely want one if your license is not in English.

If you’ll be studying in the US for more than a year (without stopping home to renew your IDP which is a grey area), you should be able to apply for a US driver’s license. Permits are issued by the state, not the federal government, and you’ll need to check on the requirements for your state of residence.

You’ll find similar measures in place in much of the world, though time limits and IDP requirements vary. In Australia, for example, where having a car is usually quite handy, international licenses are recognised for three months – and an IDP is a requirement for licenses in languages other than English.

EU licenses are typically valid anywhere within the EU for two years before a local license must be obtained. Citizens from other countries usually have a year – and even when an IDP is not a requirement for the country where you’ll be studying, you’ll want to have one. It’s far too easy to cross borders in Europe, and the fines are steep. Students in the UK are usually able to drive on their existing licenses, though you will want an IDP if you’re not from the EU and your license isn’t in English.

The major exception to this flexibility is China. You cannot drive in China without a Chinese-issued license. Even if you have a Taiwanese license, you can’t legally drive. Luckily, there usually isn’t much of a call to drive in China, and it’s often just as cheap to rent a car and driver as it is to rent a car. It's also relatively easy to secure a Chinese driver's license if you already have an IDP.

And remember, even if you’re not driving in any of these countries – you’ll want to be certain you check both ways twice before crossing the street. You really don’t want to rely on habit when it comes to a car coming from an unexpected direction.

Need help getting to the international campus of your dreams?

Once you get in, we can help you out with an international student loan. Whether you drive when you reach campus or not is up to you. 

Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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