You DO need an IDP when driving in Spain or pay 250 EUROS

Today I found out the hard way that you do need an IDP WHEN DRIVING IN SPAIN and elsewhere in Europe. We were randomly stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in downtown Barcelona and the policia urbana asked me to produce the IDP after I had already offered my state DL. I did not have an IDP, but I had bought one for 7 years straight (from 2001 to 2007),
never needing it, and then my wife got stopped by gendarmes (for a parking ticket) in France in 2007 and she showed the IDP but they only wanted her State DL and passport. They didn't even have a clue what the IDP was.
At this point, in the face of foreign law enforcement not even understanding what the IDP was, we thought the whole IDP was a scam. So we stopped getting the IDP.
We traveled to France and elsewhere around the world each year from 2008 to 2013 without incident. However in 2014, this year, when my wife rented a car on, they indicated an IDP was necessary to pick up the car although we had never been asked for an IDP from rental car agencies anywhere outside of
the US. She got her IDP before traveling to France, but they didn't ask her to produce it at the rental car counter, so I didn't bother getting an IDP when I came one month later, nor did I need one to get my rental car.
Flash forward to Barcelona, today.
So I ended up up getting my 250 EURO souvenir from the POLICIA URBANA, and they were not going to let me drive at all. Fortunately my wife had her IDP and she could drive.
Meanwhile they asked for a credit card or cash and I said "tarjeta credito por favor" because we did not have 250 Euros of smackers in our possession. They came back saying their credit machine was not working (I think this the typical problem with credit cards with magnetic bands, so I offered my chip & pin card, but he indicated his machine was broken).
Sooooo my wife said all we had was 85 Euros and the officer replied, "There was a Banco Populaire right there." How convenient the stakeout was next to a cash machine.
Already this had taken 1.5 hours, because we had each got another fancy souvenir in the form of plastic mouth piece from both our personal breathalyzer tests. Luckily we zeroed out on the breathalyzer) and passed despite the fact that we had had one and only one glass of wine each at lunch, 2 hours earlier. Passing the test made perfect sense in retrospect, but nevertheless it was nerve wracking.
OK, the plot thickens.
They had already taken my state DL license, my passport, my wife's IDP, and her State DL. She goes and gets the money, returns, we pay them, then they only returned my State DL, passport and her IDP, but not her State DL.
So she said, "Excuse me but you still have my State DL." Then we (all of us, police included) were in a full on search for the missing document and they searched their own vehicle, while we searched ours.
They turned up empty in their vehicle so they said we DID give it to you, quote: "I know I gave it to you". My wife replied, "I know you did not" and I replied, "You did not". Then they said, "Have you looked everywhere in your car. "Yes", we replied. We then opened up our car for them to search.


Then they said "you can drive without it, you don't need the State DL to drive in Spain or France." My wife said I know I need my state DL in France.
Then I said to the officers, "We are going to have to make a police report THAT YOU LOST MY WIFE'S ID".
There was an animated point of discussion between the officers about whether "We were going to make a police report that WE lost a license" OR "whether they (the policia urbana) lost it".

They were trying to make us culpable.

At this point I made it clear that I wanted to file a report (una multa) that they lost my wife's license. The five policia urbana now scrambled to find it and miraculously the State DL WAS PULLED OUT OF THE BACK OF THEIR VEHICLE.
What more can I say at this point, get your IDP you will need it if stopped in SPAIN.

Posted by Keith
United Kingdom
968 posts

Just to summarise your post -

a) you needed an IDP in Spain?
b) you didn't have one?
c) you were fined for breaking the law?

Is that right or have I missed something important?

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
22555 posts


Sorry to hear of your unfortunate experience in Spain, but thanks for posting! I always travel with an I.D.P. every year, whether I'm planning to drive or not. Given the very reasonable cost (especially compared to the overall cost of the holiday), it seems like a good idea to pack one along. This is one reason why I tend to prefer trains most of the time (although there can be "unexpected expenses" with them also, especially in Italy).

The world seems to be becoming more bureaucratic with permits, licenses, computer checks and so on, so I suspect this sort of thing might become more frequent as time goes on.

Posted by lizard
in France right now
4 posts

Ahh Keith,
I posted the information for people like Ken who appreciate such information so they do not get caught in the same bind. When I looked at sites online there is no clarity on whether or not a IDP was required. Even Ricksteves site has old post by readers and posters that linger online with misinformation about the utility of an IDP.

You did miss the other point of the story, the inept treatment of my wife by the policia urbana in "losing" her State ID for 1 hour. She was not the one supposed to be penalized, I was.

I accept my punishment.

Be forewarned when traveling in some EU countries that such ineptitude by law enforcement can happen.

I also wanted there to be clarity that there were indeed fines levied in some EU countries for lack of an IDP, but not others.

Now there is some evidence online as to this fact, albeit via a web posting.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3398 posts

You can be pulled over for speeding (anywhere) and maybe given a ticket and maybe not. Police discretion will always be around. The fact is that an IDP is a legal requirement for US citizens to drive in Spain. You unfortunately found out the hard way that such laws can be and are enforced. Thank you for sharing with others that may not be aware.

One thing I wanted to follow up on was your comment that since you had never been asked for it, you had begun to think of it as a scam. This is unfortunately a common belief. People think AAA invented it to make money from. But the requirement comes from the foreign country (like Spain) and AAA is simple the authorized US provider. Each country has it's own authorized provider.

It is also a very good idea to have one whenever driving in a foreign country, required or not. If stopped or in an accident, it can aid police review of your state license and validate it for police or even rental agents. It's like insurance: you hope you never need it but need to pay for it in case you do.

Posted by lizard
in France right now
4 posts

Thank you for the post about it not being a scam. That thread was in my posting when I described my wife going to get the IDP from AAA this April 2014 before traveling to France. We deemed it necessary at the time, but then it is apparently not necessary in France (but I would now get it when I travel to any country and need to rent a car). In this instance, we only went down to Barcelona (from France) for a 2 day trip, she had the IDP, but alas I did not.

In my posting, I also wanted to relate that it is not a scam but a legal requirement (in some countries but not others) so ricksteve's readership has the essential information on the IDP. Be prepared for additional problems in Spain on some stops.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
22555 posts

I.D.P.'s are definitely not a scam. These were developed after the 1949 Convention on Road Traffic, and the signatories to that have each established their own policies. Some make it compulsory, others don't and enforcement is somewhat random. CAA, AAA or similar organizations have simply been designated to be the official agencies that process these.

Also on the topic of I.D.P.'s, apparently I may need one to drive in the State of Florida in the near future. They were going to implement that requirement last year as I recall, but it's been "put on hold" for now. I suspect that initiative came to a grinding halt at least partially because of objections from "snowbirds".

Posted by Sharon
2728 posts

The fact that they insisted on cash and did the dance with your wife's DL makes it sound like they were extorting money. I have doubts that the police would have ticketed you for not having an international ID if they were making an honest stop, since this does not seem to be the usual practice.

Posted by Paul
Cedar, IA, USA
2734 posts

The IDP has been somewhat derided as unneeded, or just a translation of your drivers license, but it does serve a practical purpose. It is a legal, notarized statement that attests that your license is indeed valid. Otherwise, the officer stopping you really does not have to accept whatever card, piece of paper, etc. you give them without further checking. I'm in the camp of get it, always, whether you think it is needed or not.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3398 posts

The fact that they insisted on cash and did the dance with your wife's DL makes it sound like they were extorting money. I have doubts that the police would have ticketed you for not having an international ID if they were making an honest stop, since this does not seem to be the usual practice.

Completely and wholly untrue. Fines against non-EU tourists are often required to be paid on the spot (whether traffic or transit). Cash is standard since most cops don't carry around credit card scanners. DO ask for a receipt when fined so there is a record of it. The OP also described the "stop" as a police checkpoint testing mostly for DUI. But just as in the US, they'll check and fine for anything else they see during the inspection.

And as I described in my earlier post - police often don't bother with an IDP even where required. But sometimes they do as in this case. Just as sometimes you'll get off with a warning when stopped for speeding; and sometimes not.

Posted by lizard
in France right now
4 posts

I think it was a legit stop and a legit fine, the officer offered up his badge number on the ticket, and I attribute the lost State DL to simple incompetence. The officer was contrite with guilt, but the tactic we used, I think was effective. We were not going to leave the traffic stop until they coughed up the State DL. We were prepared to go to the Police Station and file the report immediately. We needed to protect the evidence chain. Had we driven away, as the officer insisted and filed a report later to try to get the State DL, it would have been a he-said-she-said story. We remained firm that we would file the report unless her State DL was presented. I add, that this whole process of getting the State DL took about 45 minutes of searching and arguing with the policia urbana officers. They searched the back of their vehicle (full of equipment, printers, and other Police gear) and meanwhile we searched our car to prove it was not in there. After it was clear they could not find it, they began to make all kinds of clearly untrue claims (that we could leave and just use the IDP for traffic stops in Europe, see the original post, above). The officer even said to my wife, "Maybe you dropped it when you went to the cash machine." This was a preposterous claim by the officer, given that we were not going to get our IDs back without coughing up the 250 Euros, so they simply had to have had the DL in their possession when she went to the cash machine.

The simple fact was that wife kept track of how many IDs we have given them (I did the same), and we made a note of how many IDs were given back (both of us was each others witness).

So the lesson is to make sure you get all the IDs back and hold firm, despite any claims by the officers to the contrary. We are not sure what would have happened to the State DL, had we not insisted on getting it back. We didn't know if they had accidentally given the ID to another motorist who had also been stopped (they claimed this was impossible, which I think in retrospect is true, because they have to protect those IDs in a chain of evidence, in little plastic baggies and separated from other IDs, but you never know, maybe mixing of IDs can happen). Had the DL been lost to another motorist, or elsewhere, who knows what would have happened after that point. Our stop took so long that they processed at least 8 other motorists during this period.

A State Drivers License is a key piece of ID that can be used to create a fraudulent ID (I had a friend lose their State DL, and this lost ID ended up being the basis for an identity fraud case that lasted years and years). Keep track of those IDs when you are stopped in Spain. The policia urbana do not have proper procedures in place to prevent such accidents from happening.

Posted by Irv
Beverly Hills, MI
490 posts

I can make you feel better about the 250 Euro fine. Had you had an accident, your insurance would have been void since were not a properly licensed driver and the whole thing would be on you ... kinda makes 250 Euros look like chump change. As for not being asked for an IDP when you rented the car there are 2 things. 1) If you picked the ccar up in France, no IDP is required; 2) Even in countries where an IDP is required, the people at the rental car desk are there to make money renting you a car, not to deny you a car because your documentation is incomplete. They have you by the credit card and they know they will get their money, they know they will get the car back and they don't give a rat's rump what happens to you.

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2381 posts

Asking for fines to be paid in cash by non-EU foreigners is a normal and perfectly legal practice.

The whole concept of a traffic citation requiring you to show up in 'traffic court' for minor violations is non-existent in most of Europe. In most countries, you need to pay the fine first before appealing it, if you think it was a wrong fine.

There is nothing uncommon or that makes it feel like an extortion about it.

Posted by selkie
276 posts

I do wish the rental companies did make it a little bit clearer at both time of reservation and at car pick-up that you need one if you're driving in certain countries. When we did the Germany-Austria leg of our trip, spouse did have a IDP because I'd read somewhere else they were needed in Austria, but I didn't see it in Hertz's terms & conditions, and when the rental car clerk heard we were going to be in Austria, we got the three minute explanation of the vignette and where to buy it, but no mention of the IDP from him either. (Though when we did hit a police check area, all they were looking for was the vignette sticker, and never got as far as asking to roll down the window to check for other credentials)

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
5779 posts

@selkie - the car rental agencies don't care if you have an IDP. It is a law, not a rental car requirement. Law enforcement cares.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3398 posts

^^^ In Greece they do care. You can't rent a car without one. And if a rental agent can't easily determine that your state license is valid, they may well ask you for the IDP. Both have happened to me.

I'll say it again, if driving in a foreign country, get an IDP, whether required by law or not.

Posted by Wonderful
538 posts

Posted by Andre L. 06/24/14 05:05 PM "Asking for fines to be paid in
cash by non-EU foreigners is a normal and perfectly legal practice. "

I think it is practice even for Europeans driving in another country. I have watched Blik op de Weg where Germans or Belgians have been stopped in The Netherlands and made to pay on the spot. But the Dutch police have card machines these days do they not?

Posted by Chris F
Basel, Switzerland
1760 posts

An IDP is a certified translation of your licence. If this is required, then you must show both your licence AND the IDP. You probably also need to show your pasport as well, as a driving licence is not an internationally recognised ID.
If the policeman doesn't read your language, he needs the IDP to tell that your licence is valid.

Within the EU they have solved this problem by having a standard format licence and a standard list of vehicle types. Name, vehicle categories, dates etc. are in the same place on a British, Spanish, Greek etc. licence so the police can "read" it whatever language it is in, and an IDP isn't needed by EU citizens.

Posted by Marbleskies
685 posts

Thanks for the post. Unfortunate about the cost of the learning experience. However, your post is informative and educational on how to handle the situation. Safe travels.