What You Need to Know About Transportation When Moving Abroad

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Transportation can either make your life easy, or become a bit of a nightmare. That is especially true when you move abroad. Understanding the laws, how to drive safely, and how to purchase the right car can make your life a little easier and keep you safe or even save you thousands of dollars by helping you avoid costly mistakes.


Here are the 6 things expats should be mindful of regarding transportation when making an international move.

1. Understand the rules for your driver’s license

Can you drive on your license?

The first thing to understand when deciding how to get around in a new country is whether or not you can legally drive on your home country driver’s license. When you can get a driver’s license from your host-country varies, but it is typically restricted to temporary or permanent residents and can be a lengthy process. In order for you to drive legally on a foreign driver’s license special rules may apply. For example, in Costa Rica you must leave the country every 90 days in order to legally drive on a foreign license. In other countries you may legally be able to drive as soon as you have submitted your application for residency.


Regardless of these rules, it is always a good idea to carry your passport or a copy or photo of your passport when driving on a foreign license. Traffic policy may expect or require this additional level of identification when presented with a foreign license.

International Driver’s Licenses

Many popular destinations for U.S. and Canadian expats allow individuals to legally drive on their home-country driver’s licenses while in the country as tourists. Other countries require you to have International Driver’s Permits. You can apply for an International Driver’s Permit here. It will cost you around $20 and will take a few weeks to arrive.

Driving before residency

Some countries will allow you to operate on your home-country license for a certain period of time before requiring an IDP or host-country permit. Portugal, for instance, allows US citizens to drive on their US licenses for 185 days. Costa Rica allows tourists to use their US licenses for the duration of their 90-day tourist visa, which will expire even if a temporary residency application has been submitted.

2. Understand the laws around driving

Buying car insurance, what to do in case of an accident, and how to pay a traffic ticket can be very different processes in other countries.


Car insurance

Most countries require you to have some form of car insurance. Your U.S. or Canadian car insurance policy will likely not cover you internationally, although it is worth checking with your provider before making the move. Even if your policy does cover your new host-country, it may not meet local minimum requirements. Many expats in Costa Rica are surprised, for instance, when their car rental bill is much higher than anticipated, and it’s almost always because the rental company is charging for mandatory third-party liability insurance.

What to do in case of an accident or ticket

Once you’ve got your insurance figured out, you should understand what to do in case of an accident, how to avoid tickets, and what to do if you do get a ticket. This can be very different from what you’re used to at home, so make sure you understand what to do if you find yourself in these situations. It’s best practice to ALWAYS have a copy of your passport on you.

3. Where you live will affect your options

This is true in the U.S. and Canada as well, but it is worth reiterating. Many soon-to-be-expats assume they’ll buy a car, and make a decision based on their expectations of what their lives will look like. It’s worth really thinking through exactly what your transportation requirements will be based on where you choose to live, and what’s the most efficient or cost-effective way to meet your needs.

Transportation in an urban area

If you live in a city or urban area, you can potentially avoid purchasing a vehicle altogether. Most big cities that are popular with expats will have at least decent public transportation options – think of Lisbon’s train cars, Madrid’s subway, even Panama City’s busses. Parking can be extremely difficult and expensive in those cities, and you will likely have affordable rental options if you find yourself wanting to get out of the city for the weekend.

Besides taxis, Uber and Lyft are now nearly ubiquitous in popular expat areas, and often cheaper than taxis. Many countries also have likely alternatives to Uber and Lyft. Easy Taxi in Costa Rica, for example, can be a good option. If you do use taxis, make sure you only use official taxis that are sanctioned by the government. In most countries, there is one color that all official taxis are painted, and they often have a medallion on the side. Never get into a taxi with more than one person in it. You can also avoid being scammed by knowing if there are set taxi prices from the airport, for instance, or by insisting that a driver turns on the meter if that is common practice in that country.

Transportation in rural areas

If you do live in a place with less options, though, understand what you actually need and the best way to get it before purchasing a car. If you live in an area with good roads, you can likely save yourself money by getting a smaller car without 4×4. Some areas with heavy rainy seasons and dirt roads, though, absolutely require a 4×4. You can save yourself some headaches by really understand your needs before making an investment.

4. Know how to keep yourself safe on the roads

Whether you are able to get by with public transportation or need to buy your own vehicle, there are several principles you can follow to make the roads safer for you.

Drive defensively

The first principle is to drive defensively. You may be used to driving in countries with well-paved and well-graded roads where most drivers adhere to traffic laws. In that kind of environment, you can generally get by on autopilot while driving. IThe experience of driving can be very different in other countries. Although densely populated areas generally have good roads, road quality can drop dramatically in more rural areas. You will need to be more alert to narrow, curving roads, pedestrians and animals on the road, one-lane bridges, one-way streets, and other drivers passing in risky situations – driving after you’ve moved abroad can be a pulse-pounding experience. You should get used to driving defensively, especially as you acclimate to the new driving environment.

Use the same driver

If you live in a place where you take taxis or Ubers frequently, it is advisable to use a driver that you trust and whose driving style makes you feel safe, and use them consistently.

5. Learn how to purchase a car in a new country

The process for purchasing a car will be different depending on the country you are moving to. There are, however, a few common tips that can help reduce the pain of the car purchasing process.

Opt out of convenience, travel to the best location

Where you buy a car in a country can make a big difference. While countries like Portugal will have plenty of the type of car dealerships Americans and Canadians are used to, in “developing countries,” like Panama or Costa Rica the car market might be less formal. There are good car dealerships, but they often charge premiums. If you live in an area near the coast with a lot of expats, used cars may be more prone to have rust issues and there might be more lemons being sold to gullible expats who want to make a quick purchase. It is worth incurring the expense to travel to an area of the country with greater supply and more reliable sellers to invest in a car.

Have a mechanic on your team

Consider bringing a trusted mechanic with you to inspect any used car before buying in a new country. You may not have access to the same kind of guarantees, refunds, car history reports, and consumer protection laws you are used to in your home country, and a mechanic can help you avoid a lemon. Note that if you are not paying the mechanic, or if the mechanic isn’t a personal friend of yours, he or she may make a commission from a sale and may not be on your side. It’s a good idea to get an objective inspection on any car before paying thousands of dollars for a vehicle.

6. Choose brands that are popular in your new country

Last, and least obvious, consider which types of cars are abundant in the marketplace. If you buy a brand that is quite rare in the country, it’s likely that parts to fix that car will be scarce and/or expensive. You may need to import them yourself. Similarly, you ideally want to find a make and model that mechanics in the country are generally familiar with, so you won’t have to travel long distances for specialist help. Search “most popular cars in [country]” to get a sense.

StartAbroad is here to help

Get a free consultation with international move experts at StartAbroad to discuss your situation and learn what’s right for you. StartAbroad provides a comprehensive suite of services to make your move abroad as easy and painless as possible. StartAbroad’s international moving experts have over 20+ years of experience living abroad and helping others get settled. Get a free consultation at www.startabroad.com to discuss your situation and learn what’s right for you. Ask us about our holistic concierge package, and our medical, visa, and tax solutions!


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