Gianetta Palmer is a writer for, copywriter, and essayist. Her work has appeared in, Healthline, and The Dyrt Magazine. She is the author of Scrunchie-Fried and writes a lot about car insurance in her spare time.

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Melanie Musson is the fourth generation in her family to work in the insurance industry. She grew up with insurance talk as part of her everyday conversation and has studied to gain an in-depth knowledge of state-specific car insurance laws and dynamics as well as a broad understanding of how insurance fits into every person’s life, from budgets to coverage levels. She also specializes in automa...

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Reviewed by Melanie Musson
Published Insurance Expert

UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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Many people come to the United States each year, either to visit or to seek new opportunities. With a huge tourist industry and many types of jobs, the United States is an attractive destination for people from all over the world. While foreign drivers are allowed on US roads, they need to obey the laws of the state they drive in. This means that everyone who drives in the United States needs to have car insurance.

Do I need car insurance to drive a car in America?

Auto insurance primarily serves to cover damage caused by a vehicle, as well as paying for the damage to the vehicle itself. Because of this, insurance is purchased for a specific vehicle, not for a driver. Therefore, if you are visiting a foreign country, the question of whether or not you need insurance primarily depends upon who owns the vehicle you will be driving.

For United States tourists, renting a vehicle is the primary option during short visits. If you rent a car, you can purchase car insurance from the rental company. This insurance will pay for any damage caused by the rental car, and will also cover if the vehicle is damaged. You will need to put down a deposit on the car to help pay for any damage caused to it, but that deposit is refundable if no accident occurs. The car insurance itself is not refundable however.

If you do not rent a vehicle, you may end up borrowing a car from friends or family that do live in the country. In this case, the vehicle should have its own insurance policy. If the vehicle you are driving is already insured, you do not need to purchase additional insurance for yourself. You may, however, need to be added to your friend’s policy as a driver if you will be using that vehicle often.

Of course, if you are planning to be in the country for an extended stay you may end up leasing or even buying a car of your own. In this case, you will need to purchase auto insurance in order to register the car. Depending on the amount of time you will be in the country, you can buy temporary coverage or a regular insurance policy.

Temporary Auto Insurance

Regular insurance policies renew every six months. If you will have a vehicle for less than six months, you will need to purchase a temporary auto policy. Many insurance companies do not offer temporary auto coverage, so you will need to purchase it from a local broker in some situations. You can also search online for temporary auto insurance quotes.

In order to qualify for insurance, you will need to prove that you can legally drive in the US. This will usually mean having a driver’s license that can be accepted in the country; you may need to take an additional driver’s course in order to have your license accepted in the US. You will also need an American address.

Individuals who are in the United States for an extended period, such as those here on work visas, will probably need to purchase full insurance coverage for any vehicle that they own. You can check with the insurance provider to see if there are any special requirements you need to be aware of in order to purchase an auto policy.

Will my car insurance from my home country apply?

Insurance companies vary in regards to how they pay for damage that occurs outside of the country they originate in. For example, if you are a US citizen who gets into an accident in Mexico, the accident may or may not be covered depending on how far from the border you are. The same is true in reverse.

If you are from Mexico or Canada and drive your own vehicle into the US, your auto policy may cover an accident or it may not. Coverage will depend on how far into the country you travel and what limitations your insurance places on the policy.

One coverage that should apply regardless of where you are involved in an accident is your personal injury protection or medical payments coverage. First-party medical coverage should pay for your accident regardless of where it occurs.

If you have any sort of personal liability coverage, this should also transfer with you regardless of where you travel. Personal liability insurance pays for any damage or injuries that you are responsible for whether or not they are caused by an auto accident. For example, if you are riding a bicycle and collide with a pedestrian, your personal liability coverage would pay for their medical expenses. In cases of foreign accidents, personal liability coverage can take the role of auto insurance and pay for damage that your auto insurance may not be able to cover.

Of course, every insurance company will have its own rules about coverage, and insurance in foreign countries is often significantly different from American insurance. Some coverage may not be available in all countries, or may be handled differently than in the US.

Before traveling to a foreign country, you should always contact your insurance provider to determine how your auto coverage will apply. He or she will be able to look at your policy and any federal rules your country may have regarding auto insurance and can advise you as to what coverage you may need to purchase for your journey.