Every driver needs car insurance, including non-US citizens. Each year millions of people enter the United States, and for many different reasons. Some come for work, some come to study, and some come as tourists — a common thread among many of these people is the need to drive a car while in the US.
There is quite a bit of incomplete, dated, or downright faulty information out there when it comes to coverage for international visitors. In the following, we’ll specifically touch on….
Let’s get started….
Driving a Car in The United States
To legally drive in the United States, Non-US citizens must carry either an American drivers license or an international driver’s license (IDL). An IDL should be obtained in your home country, as it cannot be obtained upon arrival in the US. You can buy International driver’s licenses for different amounts of time, from one year to five years.
A 3 year driver’s license costs $45 and a 5 year international license will cost $55. Also, be sure to bring your current license (from your home country) with you as it may be required in some states. If you’re planning on staying in the states for more than 1 year you’ll need to apply for a U.S. driver’s license.
You can check these state-specific requirements by clicking here.
Car Insurance For Non-US Citizens: Short-Term Visitors
If you’re staying in the country less than 30 days it’s probably best to rent or borrow a car. Rental car companies always cover their vehicles or require that a renter has sufficient coverage. There will be either a policy included in the price of the rental or the option to purchase supplemental coverage.
The option sold to non-U.S. citizens is usually called SLP, which stands for supplemental liability protection.
As a non-resident, the simplest option is typically to purchase the protection offered by the rental company. Many licensed US drivers decline this coverage (as it’s additional) but for a foreigner, it makes a bit more sense.
If you’ve borrowed a vehicle from a friend or family member the responsibility is on them to ensure the vehicle is fully insured. This can be cleared up with a brief conversation.
Insurance For Long-Term Visitors and Temporary Residents
People staying in the US for a longer period than 30 days face a more challenging task in getting insured. Non-resident drivers often present as something of an unknown to the carrier. They have no history and are thus hard to assess as a risk (this issue goes away after 3 years of in-country driving history).
Insurance carriers rely on the following types of information to make their premium determinations:
- Driving history, including accidents and moving violations such as speeding tickets, etc
- Credit history in all states except California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, where such information cannot legally be used
As a foreigner, you don’t have this type of information and because of this many local insurance companies will not accept (or charge significantly more) to take you into their pool. Some will flatly refuse, others charge more, and some may require you to get a local driver’s license.
This is not impossible, but again, it’s a process, and it takes time.
By law, every vehicle driven on a US roadway must be insured. Failure to do so carries stiff penalties. But what about vehicles that enter from Canada or Mexico?
These vehicles must show proof that they carry policies that are extended to provide coverage inside the US. If a driver can show valid insurance and driver’s license then the vehicle will (generally) be admitted by border guards.
So, this is another option. If you’re from Canada or Mexico check with your local carrier and see if an extension for the United States can be purchased (or already exists).
If you fly into the US and then obtain a vehicle by borrowing or buying one you still (of course) need to comply with state mandated auto insurance laws. If you are not able to get a local driver’s license or extend your coverage then you need to find a carrier that is lenient with non-US residents.
If you are relocating for work your employer will likely offer support services that can help you get insured. Utilize these to their maximum. If you’re not coming for work you may have to dig a little harder to find a plan that doesn’t have very high rates.
Anecdotal evidence on some expat groups  indicates that a few people have had some success with large carriers (Allstate, State Farm, Geico, etc). But these cases required more effort, phone calls, office visits, etc — don’t expect a smooth click, quote, purchase experience.
If you’re coming for an extended stay with family members your best bet is to try to lean on their existing policy. Be sure, however, that they check with the company and ensure that you’re covered while driving. If you have an IDL odds are you’ll be fine, plus insurance typically follows the car, not the driver — but double checking is a smart thing to do.
Another common example is a Mexican citizen entering the U.S. This could be people looking to either work in the United States or arriving for vacations. This happens thousands of times daily and companies like Mexpro and National Unity are great options for coverage in this specific situation. They will help you purchase liability auto insurance policies that meet requirements and are valid for whatever period of time you need them.
The actual amount of insurance required (policy limit, coverages, etc) is going to vary depending on the state, the vehicle, and your specific circumstances. In this sense, typical coverages are no different than for citizens. You’ll probably need liability, personal injury protection and possibly collision or an uninsured motorist policy.
An insurance professional can advise you on the specific requirements of the state you are in.
Insurance for International Students
In some cases, the search for insurance by an international student will be much the same as a long-term visitor or temporary resident. The one great advantage of students is that many universities have already done the hard work for you. Many major American universities have pre-organized auto policies for students or at the very least they have coordinators you can ask for assistance.
If you’re an international student the absolute first step is to check with your school to see if they have any recommendations lined up. If there is nothing, you can follow some of the approaches mentioned above and find a provider extending service to international students.
Be aware though, a student’s young age, a lack of a US driver’s license, and the inability of the company to check a credit or driving history can lead to rates that can be higher than for the average American citizen.
You may be frustrated if you’ve tried to get an insurance online quote as a foreigner. This is to be expected as the algorithms that spit out quotes likely don’t have the data points necessary to assess you.
If you’re visiting the US and need auto insurance the best thing you can do is rely on an employer, school or once in the country sit down with an agent and explain your personal situation. Ignore all the conflicting advice on Lonely Planet and Quora.
Let’s do a quick review of the most critical points.
- In order to drive a vehicle in America, you need either a local license in the state you will be staying or an IDL. For stays longer than 1 year you’ll need an American license.
- For short-term visitors, the best bet is to purchase coverage through a rental company or rely on the existing protection of a friend or family’s policy.
- For long-term visitors or temporary residents, the best bet is to extend the policy from your home country to cover your time in America or to find an agency that will sell you a plan. Rates will likely be higher for non-residents as the carrier will not be able to pull your driving record or financial history.
- For International students the best bet is to check in with the school you’re attending. Odds are, the university has pre selected options for you and if don’t like these or they don’t have them you can do your own research/follow the steps as above.
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