What You Must Know Before Driving Overseas

If you thought a road trip in Australia took planning, a driving overseas is a whole different ball game. You’ve got border crossings, varying road rules, no speed limits, signs in different languages (or no signs at all!), no lane markings, and sharing the road with hawkers, cows and tractors are just a few. Freaked out? Don’t be. Taking a road trip overseas is great fun if you’re prepared for it. Here are my top tips for surviving an international road trip…

1. Get an International Driver’s Permit

Many countries require an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) to drive on their roads. If they do, driving overseas without one could be a criminal offence, avoiding any travel and vehicle insurance and being unable to rent a car. Obtaining one is quick and cheap via your state Motoring Club (such as the NRMA, RACV or RACQ). On top of this, you also need to carry your Australian driver’s licence.

2. Have the right insurance cover

Check that your travel insurance covers driving, damage to vehicles and other property/people as a result of your driving. If not, make sure you take this out through your car hire company.

3. Be prepared for very different (and often very dangerous) driving conditions

Australia is generally referred to as a “nanny state” because of all our rules. It can, therefore, be a slight shock when you encounter extreme driving conditions for the first time. Dangerous driving, unroadworthy vehicles, no obeyance of lane markings, ineffective law enforcement, and an unbelievable volume of motorbikes, unconventional transport, and human and animal traffic, all moving at a different pace, is just some of what you’ll be up against!

Even though it might seem like there are no rules, the truth is probably that they’re just different from what you’re used to. The key is being aware of them. And, of course, many countries drive on the right (wrong) side of the road. It’s no big deal; it just takes some getting used to.

A great place to find out the local road rules and driving conditions is The Association for Safe International Road Travel. You can download a guide for any of 150 countries at asirt.org.

4. Plan your trip in advance

Talk to the locals, get a guide and ask the hotel staff to plan your route in advance. Knowing road conditions, any special sights along the way and things to be wary of upfront can make a big difference to your safety and enjoyment of your trip. Some things to consider include:

  • ● Things could have changed since the guidebook was written. Locals can tell you if conditions have changed, and they usually have a different view of the best things to see and do.
  • ● If you’re travelling to a non-English-speaking country and don’t speak the native language, the number of English-speaking locals is likely to reduce the farther you venture out from the major cities. So consider whether you will be able to appropriately ask for directions and interpret road signs.
  • ● Will there be plenty of places to buy food, water and petrol?

5. Get a GPS (or at least a decent map)

These are worth their weight in gold when you don’t know where you are — especially if you can get one in English. Most car rental companies will have them as an optional extra (ask if they have an English version). You can also use your phone, but you’ll need to make sure you have a local SIM card, as international data roaming charges will apply.

6. Take some local cash

Have local cash on hand when driving overseas, and if you plan to cross a border, ensure you have some cash for your next destination as well. Not everyone takes credit cards. You may have to pay tolls, get petrol, or simply buy some munchies along the way.

7. Take your papers with you

If you get stopped by the police or have to cross a border while you’re driving overseas, the first thing they’ll ask a foreigner is to see your passport. If you are crossing a border you’re likely to have to show your plan to leave and that you have enough cash to survive. So make sure you have your itinerary (including name and address of where you’re staying), flight home, and credit cards and cash in your wallet. Also, ensure that you meet any visa requirements and have evidence of this.

Even if you don’t plan to cross borders, you don’t want to have to explain your lack of documentation to a policeman in a foreign language, so it’s best to be over-prepared.

8. Border crossings

Always be prepared with your papers and be polite to staff at the border. Cheeky doesn’t go down too well with some, and different cultures have different senses of humour. Stay calm, polite and patient — just because you’re a foreigner doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment.

9. Drive a roadworthy car

Drive through Europe and you may be lucky enough to drive a brand new European car. Drive through Cuba and you’ll get a 40-year-old has-been. Particularly in developing countries, keep an eye on how your car is running. Is the car blowing smoke, making strange noises, or just rough to drive? If you’re unsure, ask if there’s an alternative. If you’re really unsure, check out other local car rental companies, and always get a phone number you can contact in an emergency.

10. Know the emergency numbers

Your car rental company, hotel or guidebook should be able to give you the numbers to call in an emergency, including police, ambulance, breakdown services or highway patrol (if available) and towing companies.

11. Have a charged mobile phone that can make international calls

Forget about roaming costs — if you’re stranded, it doesn’t matter how much it costs. Mobiles on any overseas road trip are a must. Just make sure you have international roaming ability and know which numbers to dial, including country and regional codes. You might also want to consider purchasing a local SIM card. This will not only save on call costs but will make it easier to figure out how to dial local numbers.

12. Learn the local lingo

Learn important travel phrases and pleasantries and take a phrasebook with you. Some basic phrases such as ‘which way to’, ‘gas station’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ will come in handy if you’re lost and need to ask directions from a local.

13. Take some toiletries

Australian outback toilets can be bad. Toilets (or holes in the ground) in Southeast Asia are much worse. Take what you need to be prepared for a rest stop. And be cautious of stopping by the side of the road for a quick pee — it’s illegal in some countries, or at the very least seen as poor taste. So be careful not to get caught in the wrong place with your pants down.


Enjoy the adventure! A great road trip will be stored in your memory bank as some of the best times of your life. It’s one of the best ways to get to know this planet, without the interruption of guides, tour buses and other foreign tourists. A little bit of planning and you’ll have the time of your life driving overseas.

For more tips, tricks are car advice, check out some of the suggested articles below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Suggested Articles

Protecting Your Car Against Getting Stolen

In 2014 there were 60,000 cars stolen in Australia, or 4.5% of all cars, and that number is on the rise. While 80% of stolen cars are eventually recovered, most of them are badly damaged.   Having a car stolen is annoying, an invasion of your property and downright inconvenient.... ...

Car Service Costs: 6 Upsells to Look Out For

Ever gone into a workshop for what you thought was a routine service and suddenly you’re hit with a bill in the thousands? Ouch. All those little extras certainly add up. And, although frustrating, we mostly just accept these extras as we’re told “they’re good for the car” - make... ...

Are you looking for a trustworthy mechanic?

Yes I am

Who is Elvio?

Elvio is a seasoned Motor Mechanic with 25 years experience in the automotive industry. Well-known for asking the most obvious questions and his bizarre obsession with Datsuns (having owned more than 10), he seems to think the 70s was the golden era of motoring. Current rumours suggest he owns more than 100 caps, prefers Belgium bier to Australian and has been confused with the real Speedy Gonzalez. Well-known at the racetrack for getting maximum performance on a budget and his obsessive attention to detail, he is now taking his passion for all things with an engine to help his customers in his blog. Ask Elvio.