International Travelers Driving in the U.S.

If you’re traveling to the U.S. and planning to rent a car or road trip on a classic coastal drive like the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ve got some homework to do first. Before you leave your home country, you’ll need standard travel documents, plus a valid driver’s license and a valid International Drivers Permit. You’re also responsible for being aware of the laws governing drivers in each state you visit. Here’s a closer look at those requirements and a few other things you should know.

Passports and Visas

Visitors from other countries must have a valid passport and a visa. Visitors with current passports from one of the following countries qualify for the visa waivers: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

For a visa waiver, you must apply online with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization at and hold a return plane ticket to your home country less than 90 days from your time of entry. Holders of Canadian passports don’t need visas or waivers. In most countries, the local U.S. embassy can provide a tourist visa. Plan for at least two weeks for visa processing, longer during the busy summer season (June-Aug.). More information is available online.

The famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, along the Pacific Coast Highway.
The famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, along the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo © Maciej Bledowski/123rf.


Foreigners and U.S. citizens age 21 or older may import (free of duty) the following: 1L of alcohol; 200 cigarettes (one carton); 50 cigars (non-Cuban); and $100 worth of gifts.

International travelers must declare amounts that exceed $10,000 in cash (U.S. or foreign), travelers checks, or money orders. Meat products, fruits, and vegetables are prohibited due to health and safety regulations.

Drivers entering California stop at Agricultural Inspection Stations. They don’t need to present a passport, visa, or even a driver’s license, but should be prepared to present fruits and vegetables, even those purchased within neighboring states just over the border. If you’ve got produce, it could be infected by a known problem pest or disease; expect it to be confiscated on the spot.

International Drivers Permits

International visitors need to secure an International Driving Permit from your home country before coming to the United States. You should also bring the government-issued driving permit from your home country. You are also expected to be familiar with the driving regulations of the states you will visit. More information is available online.

Conduct and Customs

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21. Expect to have your ID checked not only in bars and clubs, but also before you purchase alcohol in restaurants, wineries, and markets.

Smoking is banned in many places. Don’t expect to find a smoking section in restaurants or an ashtray in bars. Some establishments allow smoking on outdoor patios. Many hotels, motels, and inns are also nonsmoking. Smokers should request a smoking room when making reservations.


The currency is the U.S. dollar ($). Most businesses accept the major credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express. ATM and debit cards work at many stores and restaurants, and ATMs are available throughout the region. You can change currency at any international airport or bank. Currency exchange may be easier in large cities and more difficult in rural and wilderness areas.

Banking hours tend to be 8am-5pm Monday-Friday, 9am-noon Saturday. Never count on a bank being open on Sunday. There are 24-hour ATMs not only at banks but at many markets, bars, and hotels. A convenience fee of $2-4 per transaction may apply.

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