Car insurance is required to drive or own a car in the United States, even if you are not a resident of the U.S. or have a foreign driver's license. But the best way to get it depends on how long you are staying. Short-term visitors to the United States who are renting a car can typically buy the necessary insurance coverage directly from the rental company. Longer-term international visitors who purchase a car (or bring one from their home country) will likely need to buy auto insurance from a U.S.-based company, and not every insurer covers foreign drivers. Additionally, many states require longer-term visitors to get a license, even if they don't intend to stay permanently.
Car Insurance for Short-Term Foreign Visitors
People who are visiting the U.S. for a short time, such as for vacation, probably won't need to buy car insurance from a stand-alone insurer. The easiest option is to get temporary insurance coverage directly from the car rental company, which will provide the legally required coverage that will protect you from the financial burden of an accident, though you may have to pay a few dollars extra for it. Most car rental companies will also offer you another layer of protection for $8 to $30 per day, depending on the level of coverage you get and which company you rent from. Whether the peace of mind from additional coverage is worth the extra fee is largely a personal decision based on your comfort with driving in the U.S. and your tolerance for financial risk.
Additionally, most visitors from Canada, especially if they are driving their own car, will be protected by their Canadian insurance while driving in the U.S. Check with your insurance company, as well as the laws in the state you will drive in, to be sure.
Car Insurance for Long-Term International Visitors
If you're staying in the U.S. for a sustained period of time and are planning on buying a car or leasing one, you will need to get your own insurance policy to cover you while you drive. Auto insurance is also a requirement in order to register a vehicle in the United States. Unfortunately, car insurance is not always simple or cheap to get for international visitors, as many companies won't allow you to buy coverage without a U.S. driver's license.
We checked with six of the most popular car insurance companies in the U.S., and only two offer car insurance to drivers with international licenses: Progressive and Farmers. Farmers charged our sample driver the same amount regardless of whether they had a U.S. driver's license, but Progressive quoted us the cheapest car insurance price for international drivers overall. It's worth looking into both companies to see which will give you a better price. You may also be able to get coverage from another provider by speaking with an insurance agent on the phone or in person—we limited our search to those who would sell to a visitor online.
Car Insurers That Sell Policies Online to Foreign Drivers
|Insurer||Price for Foreign Driver||Price for American Driver|
We also checked with major insurance companies GEICO, State Farm, Esurance and Allstate to inquire about car insurance for an international driver, but none would sell us a policy online. If you're interested in purchasing a policy from one of these companies, you may be able to get a quote by calling them directly.
In general, visitors from overseas are likely to pay more for car insurance. American car insurance companies use your driving history—including things like how long you've had your license and whether you've gotten into an accident recently—to determine how much to charge. If you don't have a U.S. license, an insurance provider won't have access to this information and may give you the highest rates as a result.
You May Be Required to Get a U.S. License
Depending on the laws of the place you are staying in the U.S., you may be required to get a local driver's license in order to legally drive there. For example, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, international visitors must get a Virginia driver's license if they live in the commonwealth for more than six months or are employed there. Application requirements vary by state, so check with your state's DMV to see whether you need to get one.
United States Car Insurance Requirements
In the U.S., car insurance requirements vary by state, both in terms of the type and amount of coverage mandated. Fortunately, if you have coverage that meets the legal limits in one state, you will be covered if you travel temporarily to another. For example, if you fly into New York City and rent a car at the airport, you'll have to get coverage that meets or exceeds the limits in New York. But if you drive to another state, you won't need to worry about meeting the auto insurance requirements in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Furthermore, insurance companies and rental car companies usually won't sell you coverage that does not meet the legal minimum.
Common Required Car Insurance Coverages
- Liability Coverage: Pays the other driver's medical and car repair expenses if you are at fault in a crash
- Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage: Covers your own medical and car repair expenses if the other driver is at fault but does not have insurance
- Personal Injury Protection: Pays for your medical treatment after a car crash, regardless of who is responsible
Not all of these coverages are required or available in every state, so check with your host state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if you're concerned about meeting its requirements. For example, the minimum insurance requirements in California are as follows:
|Coverage||Minimum Coverage Amount|
|Bodily Injury (BI) Liability Insurance||$15,000 per person / $30,000 per accident|
|Property Damage (PD) Liability Insurance||$5,000 per accident|
The state insurance minimum will be the cheapest, but there are tradeoffs to buying the lowest allowed amount of insurance.
Do I Need an International Driver's Permit as a Foreigner in the U.S.?
Any foreign resident who wants to drive in the United States must be registered in their home country and have their foreign license with them in order to drive in the U.S. Some states require foreign residents to have an International Driver's Permit (IDP) in order to legally drive within their borders, as do some insurance companies. An IDP is issued by your home country and has the details of your driver's license translated into several languages, including English. Note that an IDP is only a translation of your regular license—you need both documents to be considered "licensed" in places that require it.
Even if you are not obligated to have an IDP, it's often a good idea to have one while visiting the United States. An IDP will prevent any confusion or difficulty if you get in a crash or are pulled over, especially if your home license is not in English. Furthermore, you won't be limited in the places you can drive if your itinerary changes.
The term "International Driver’s License" or IDL is sometimes used colloquially to describe an IDP. However, this is an inaccurate term, and any organization claiming to issue or accept an IDL is likely in error or outright fraudulent.