Getting pulled over in America is already nerve-wracking, but when it happens somewhere far from home it can be even scarier. Laws are different, customs vary, and you may have to pay a fine on the spot. Here’s what you need to know before you get behind the wheel outside of the U.S.
Research Driving Customs and Laws Before You Go
This should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, you absolutely need to do research on driving in the country you’re visiting. You need to know the basic laws and customs for the area, as well as be aware of the items you should have on hand or in your vehicle while you drive. Some countries require your car to have a spare tire, reflective vest, and traffic cone. Others require you carry an extra pair of prescription glasses if you need them to drive. The moment they see you’re a tourist, there’s a good chance they’ll look for any way they can ding you, so be ready.
“U.S. Embassy & Consulates in [country you’re visiting]”
You should see a URL like “https://fr.usembassy.gov” (that’s the one for France) in your top hits. Go there and look for a “U.S. Citizen Services” tab. On that tab, look for the “Additional Resources for U.S. Citizens” link. Then scroll down and look for the “Driving in [country]” section or link. That should give you all the vital information you need to know, or at least guide you to where you can get it.
Stay in Your Car and Crack Open the Window
If you do get pulled over, try to find a place off to the side of the road and stay in your car the same way you would here. Some countries, like Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, may allow for drivers to exit their vehicle and approach the police officers, but this is not common in most places. Most police officers around the world would rather you stay in your vehicle and await instruction, so do that. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
When they approach, crack open your window and keep your hands on the steering wheel. If something feels off, ask to see their badge. There have been incidents of fake “police” pulling people over and demanding bribes in some countries. A real officer will gladly show you their credentials.
Have Your Documents at the Ready
There are several documents you should have and be able to easily access in the event you get pulled over or go through a police checkpoint. You should have:
Valid U.S. driver license.
International Driving Permit (IDP) if required in that country.
All relevant paperwork give to you by the rental company (if you rented a vehicle).
If you’re not sure whether you need an IDP or not, check the laws of the country you’re visiting. Most non-English-speaking countries require them. You can get them through AAA.
Use Something to Help You Translate
If you don’t know the language, let them know that you’ll have a hard time understanding their instructions. Knowing simple phrases in the local language, like “I don’t speak [language]” or “I don’t understand” are good to know. It might be useful to keep a pocket phrasebook or a card with some essentials stashed with your other driving documents. You’ll be able to access it easily and without raising suspicion.
Yes, you could bust out the Google Translate app, but reaching for your smartphone isn’t ideal. They might think you’re trying to record them, activate something, or that you had your phone out while you were driving—which is often even more illegal elsewhere than it is here.
Be Prepared to Pay Right Then and There
In addition to your driving documents, you should have some cold hard cash on hand. Why? Two reasons: paying fines up front, and paying bribes to avoid hassles. For the first, it surprise many folks who drive abroad when a police officer issues a ticket then asks for payment right then and there. But this does happen!
If you pay it at the time of the infraction, they’ll give you a receipt and you’ll be on your way. If you don’t, they might warn your car rental company (who will charge you later); or worse, take your license or IDP until you come to the station to pay. It’s best to have some cash in your travel budget specifically for this purpose. Just pay it upfront and be done with it. Don’t forget to research how ticketing and fines work in the country you’re visiting before you go.
Some “fines” aren’t exactly what they seem, though. If you’re in an area known to have corruption problems—Mexico, Russia, parts of Africa, parts of Southeast Asia—any fines you’re asked to pay might just be them asking for a bribe. Again, trying to avoid paying will likely make everything worse. Give them cash and be on your way. They rarely ask for much, so don’t give them any reason to harass you further. The best you can do is pay up, then let the nearest U.S. consulate know what happened. They can’t reimburse you, but they might be able to appeal to the local government, or at least warn other travelers. Always check for travel advisories before you head out so you know what you might be up against.
The world is a big place, and driving customs are completely different in every country. If you have some good advice for people driving in certain parts of the world, let us know in the comments below!