When it comes to the law, playing it safe in foreign countries is always a good idea — especially if you plan to get behind the wheel. Having an International Driving Permit with you when you travel is a surefire way to ensure you’re following local driving requirements. Whether you’re heading to a country that requires one, or plan to do a bit of country hopping and visit multiple places, this document can come in handy in situations including an accident, a traffic stop, renting a car, and obtaining car insurance in foreign countries. As a traveler, you can stay ahead of the curve by keeping this handy permit in your pocket along with your passport and insurance card. Here’s what an International Driving Permit is, and how to get one.

What is an International Driver’s Permit?

The short answer is that an IDP is an officially issued document which certifies the Driver’s License you have in your home country. An IDP is not in itself a Driver’s License; you still must maintain the original license issued at home. The IDP certifies you across international boundaries and in ten languages. The IDP requires a passport-size photograph and presents your name, ID number, and other information in an internationally recognized format.

Why do I need an International Driver’s Permit?

First and foremost, many countries require one. Italy was the first European country to require an IDP for all non-European Union drivers, and several other countries have followed suit. Even though enforcement may vary, as we noted above, it’s always better to be prepared and follow local laws.

Even in countries where you may not be required by law to have an IDP, car rental companies often require one in order to rent from them or obtain local car insurance. Most countries today have at least a partial requirement. Some, such as Indonesia and Egypt, require most or all foreign drivers to carry an IDP in all situations. In many countries, including South Africa and Namibia, an IDP is not officially required but is strongly recommended as many insurance companies and/or local car rental companies will ask to see it, especially in the case of an accident. Other countries will request that you bring your IDP to the local police or transportation bureau in order to obtain a local driver’s license.

When researching regulations in a specific country, you may come across two separate forms of the IDP: IDP 1926 and IDP 1949. These numbers refer to the year in which the IDP regulation was drafted. The older of the two, IDP 1926, is far more rare and only required in Iraq, Brazil, and Somalia. IDP 1949 is a modification of the 1926 enactment, which happened again in 1968 and 2011, but 1949 is still used as the official label.

How do I get an International Driving Permit?

For US citizens, there are two officially authorized ways to get an IDP. The best and most convenient way is through the American Automobile Association. AAA issues the document in their physical locations throughout the country. The first step is to visit their website and download and print the application. Then, bring it to your local office along with two passport-size photos, along with a $20 fee.

You can also obtain an IDP through the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Download and print their application, fill it out, and mail it along with two passport-size photos and $20, plus a $10 shipping and handling fee (more if you need it shipped express — so don’t procrastinate!).

As a warning, the internet is full of IDP scams and rip-offs. These websites are not officially licensed issuers of the document and are essentially just taking your money and (maybe) sending you a piece of paper in the mail. As much of a nuisance as it may seem, take care of the process through one of these two paths. For those outside the US, check with your local motor vehicle department.