Car insurance for foreign drivers in USA

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Non-U.S. citizens can seek a car insurance policy whether in the country long-term or temporarily as a tourist, on an F1 student visa or an H-1B specialty worker visa. Nearly 45 million immigrants, 14% of the U.S. population, lived in the United States in 2019. If you’re one of these foreign-born drivers and need car insurance, the best car insurance companies in the U.S offer competitive options.

U.S. car insurance for short-term visitors

Short-term visitors are individuals in the country for a few days or weeks, whether for business or personal reasons. Short-term visitors who will be driving typically rent a vehicle during their stay. For this reason, the most sensible option for short-term visitors is likely to purchase rental car insurance from the car rental company. If you’re only in the U.S. for a short amount of time, you typically won’t be able to purchase an insurance policy directly from a stand-alone car insurance provider.

Vehicle rental companies typically offer a baseline liability coverage option, along with collision coverage/loss-and-damage waiver, personal effects coverage and personal accident coverage. Choosing from these rental car insurance options is likely the easiest way to obtain car insurance for a short-term stay in the U.S.

Canadian drivers can typically use their existing auto insurance while in the U.S. Your Canadian car insurance may also extend to covering a rental car. You may want to check with your auto insurance company and/or your rental car company before traveling to confirm the bounds of your car insurance.

U.S. car insurance for long-term visitors

Longer-stay visitors on a visa, such as students or specialized workers, may have trouble getting affordable insurance coverage if they do not have a U.S. driver’s license. However, the good news is that it is possible to get car insurance as a non-U.S. citizen.

Longer-term visitors may want to apply for a U.S. driver’s license, even if they already have a foreign license. Having an American license and driving record may help foreign drivers save money on car insurance down the line.

International drivers permits

If you plan on temporarily driving in the USA with a driver’s license from your home country, be aware of the local rules about how long you may legally drive using a foreign license. You may only be able to drive with an overseas driver’s license for up to three months.

If you intend on staying stateside longer than a handful of weeks, some states advise you to get an international driver’s permit. Even if an IDP is not mandatory, having one may be a good idea. The document doesn’t replace your foreign-held driver’s license — it serves as an accompanying translation of it. If you get pulled over, the officer can look up the translation of your foreign driver’s license in the IDP booklet in the language of their choice and see that you are a valid driver.

To get an international driver’s permit, contact your home country’s traffic or motor vehicles agency to apply for one before you plan to leave. It takes approximately two weeks to receive your IDP, so be sure to apply well in advance. An IDP is typically valid for one year from when you get it and includes your information displayed on the driver’s license. You will need to provide a passport-style photo that the agency can attach to the IDP.

U.S. car insurance requirements

Car insurance for foreign drivers in the U.S. also depends on where you plan on staying. Each state in the U.S. has its own rules and insurance requirements. Most states only ask for liability insurance to legally drive, which pays for the damages and losses you cause to others. A small number of states also require you to have underinsured/uninsured motorist insurance, which steps in to pay your expenses if the party at fault did not have insurance.

In no-fault states, drivers carry coverage for personal injury protection (PIP) and/or medical payments to cover their medical expenses regardless of fault. In these states, drivers still carry liability coverage and are still liable to cover damages they caused in a collision. PIP pays for medical and burial costs, lost wages, childcare expenses and other household services, regardless of who was at fault in the accident. Medical payments coverage only covers medical payments.

Car insurance rates by state will vary based on local factors such as local cost of living, population density and crash statistics. Your car insurance rates will also vary based on whether you have full or minimum car insurance coverage. While minimum coverage car insurance is typically cheaper, it can leave you financially vulnerable in the event of an accident. If your car insurance doesn’t cover the full amount of damages, you may end up having to pay out-of-pocket. Minimum coverage also does not include coverage for damage to your own vehicle. Full coverage car insurance, on the other hand,  includes coverage for your vehicle, may include other optional types of coverage and is more likely to protect your finances.

Do I need to buy car insurance if I visit the U.S.?

Car insurance is legally required for all foreign visitors operating a vehicle in the U.S. (except in New Hampshire), regardless of how temporary your stay may be. If you plan on driving a rental car in the U.S., most rental companies will offer the option to purchase coverage for the entire rental period, as the protection extends to the rental vehicle itself.

Some foreign visitors choose to ship their foreign vehicles to the USA instead. This is an option that will require you to purchase a separate car insurance policy before you can legally operate your vehicle on U.S. roadways. Many of the cheapest car insurance companies can help you find the right amount of coverage for your foreign vehicle at an affordable rate, so you can begin driving as soon as it arrives here in the U.S.

Frequently asked questions

What is a REAL ID?

A REAL ID is a driver’s license that can also be used as identification when you fly. These IDs have security specifications, including a hologram meant to prevent the creation and usage of counterfeit IDs. The U.S. is phasing out traditional driver’s licenses and replacing them with REAL IDs.

Do I need to buy car insurance if I visit the U.S.?

If you are only visiting the United States for a short period and plan on renting a car, you will not need to buy a separate car insurance policy, but you will likely be required to have insurance provided by the rental agency to provide liability coverage. If you will be visiting friends or family and will not drive during your visit, or will use public transportation in a larger city, you will not need auto insurance.

Can I use an international driver’s permit without a license?

The IDP only serves as a translation of your foreign driver’s license. You cannot replace your foreign driver’s license with an international driver’s permit.

Written by
Lizzie Nealon
Insurance Writer
Lizzie Nealon is an insurance writer for Bankrate. Her favorite part of the job is making home, auto and life insurance digestible for readers so they can prepare for the future.
Edited by
Insurance Editor