If you are a non-U.S. citizen who will be driving in the United States, you will need car insurance. The way you will need to approach obtaining suitable coverage depends on how long you're planning to be in the country, along with the circumstances of your stay. Of course, before you can get insurance, you will need a valid driver's license from your home country. You may also need an International Driving Permit (IDP).
Rental Car Coverage for International Visitors
If you will be renting a car during a brief stay (less than 30 days) in the United States, you can get insurance through the rental car company from which you are renting your vehicle.
The coverage you most want to concern yourself with when renting a car as a non-U.S. citizen is usually called SLP, which stands for supplemental liability protection. This coverage is what protects you when you cause a motor vehicle accident resulting in physical damages to someone else's vehicle or property, as well as any injuries they sustain. In most cases, these policies carry very high limits, and the carrier for the policy handles the claim and provides legal counsel should the case proceed into litigation.
Rental car companies offer other coverages as well, depending on the state. It's essential to understand these coverages. Options may include personal medical insurance that covers a certain dollar amount for medical care for any passengers in the vehicle. If you don't have health coverage that extends out of the country, this can be a worthy investment, especially if you are traveling with a group of people.
The price of liability coverage available through rental car companies can vary, primarily based on what state you are renting in. The typical range is anywhere from $7 to $15 a day in most cases. For example, Enterprise Rent a Car in Torrance, California, charges $11.68 a day for SLP while the cost in New York City is $13.80 per day.
A Word of Caution
Do not be fooled into thinking your auto insurance - or credit card - back home automatically covers you when you are driving in the U.S. There is a lot of confusion around what your credit card actually covers in the way of insurance. Any credit card that extends coverage to a rental car is almost always only covering what's typically called the DW, or damage waiver, protection. This is only reimbursement for the damages you cause to the rental car itself, fault or no fault. It does not extend to any damages you cause to anyone else's property or person.
If you check with your personal automobile carrier and they say you are covered for driving in the U.S., ask for a letter in writing and confirm what coverages are extended under your policy. Bring a copy to the rental car counter. As it's mandatory to carry liability insurance in most states, you'll need to show proof that your own insurance will extend coverage to a U.S. rental. Without proof, some rental car agencies may require you take the additional SLP protection.
Long-Term Car Insurance Options for Non-Citizens
If you'll be in the U.S. longer than a holiday visitor who will be renting a car for a few weeks, the process of obtaining auto insurance can be much more difficult, and pretty expensive.
Relocating to the States
In many cases, travelers to the U.S. who are staying longer than 30 days on a non-visitor visa are people relocating to the country. This may be for a job, or immigrants coming on a fiancé or marriage visa. In these cases, obtaining insurance can be a lengthy and somewhat frustrating process. You will find that may insurance companies want you to obtain a local driver's license first, and they may charge you higher rates because you don't have a driving history in the country.
Before arriving in the US, talk to your employer if you're on assignment for work, and/or your personal automobile carrier in your country of residence. Some companies may be able to provide an insurance rider that gives you temporary coverage in the U.S., if they are licensed to sell insurance here. Also, ask if they can give you proof of your driving record (accidents, etc.) in your home country, as it may help with your new carrier in the U.S. to get your rates down.
You can try to get a policy with some of the big U.S. carriers, but you will need to go through an agent. Don't expect to be able to submit your info to the insurance company's website and get an instant quote. Instead, call the office, explain your situation and find out what options may be available. Discussions on some expat group websites indicate some people have had success with getting a policy through big well-known carriers and also through smaller ones like Omni Insurance.
Long Term Visitors
Are you coming to stay with family for a few months rather than making a permanent move? If you will be driving their vehicle while you're in town, have them check with their carrier to see about either adding you to the policy or verifying you are covered. If you have a valid license and IDP, in many cases you will automatically be covered to drive their vehicle. Insurance follows the vehicle, not the person, so there is a good chance you don't need to buy your own insurance. If that is not the case with their policy, you will need check follow the same procedures as someone who is relocating to the county.
Some colleges and universities have programs in place to help international students purchase auto insurance, so it's a good idea to ask there first. Alternately, you can look for a policy geared towards international students, but expect this type of coverage to be pricey. This is due in part to the company not being able to run a driving or credit history, both factors that help an insurer determine rates.
Visitor Guard is one option, as they help provide health and auto insurance for international students. Of course, be sure to check that your International Driving Permit is up to date and there are no outstanding fines or warrants before you apply.
Insurance for Mexican Vehicles
Another common scenario is Mexican citizens crossing the border into the U.S. for either work or pleasure. Companies like Mexpro are well-versed in these scenarios, and can help you buy liability auto insurance policies that range from one day to one year. The actual coverage is typically through National Unity.
Understanding the Difficulty
You may be frustrated researching online that no one offers online quotes to non-U.S. citizens, but there is a reason for that. Insurance prices take into account a number of factors that are largely unknown for people who are applying for coverage in the U.S. who are not citizens and have not been here long enough to have a local driver's license. Examples include:
- Your past driving record
- Previous gaps in coverage
- The vehicle you will be driving
- Annual mileage
Because you don't have a U.S. license with any driving history in the country, it is difficult for an insurance provider to come up with a generalized quote. Therefore, trying to submit an online quote won't work. You need to go into an agent's office and sit down with them to talk about your personal scenario. It's worth checking around with a few companies to see what options you have and where you might find the best rates.
Driving Without Insurance
Driving without car insurance is not a good idea. In fact, it is a criminal offense in most states. Each state has mandatory minimum limits on the liability insurance that drivers must have. Only two states (New Hampshire and Virginia) don't require liability insurance, although the repercussions are high if you cause an accident. For this reason, most drivers in these two states still opt to purchase the insurance because they can't meet the financial burden if they cause a wreck.
In general, a person who does not have liability insurance in place could lose their driving privileges and be slapped with a heavy fine. If you're involved in a motor vehicle accident, and found to be at fault, you also become personally liable for the other person's damages when you don't have the proper liability coverage. And, in the case of serious injury accidents, a judgment against you means you could be slapped with a lien, wage garnishment, bank levy, and more, if you can't pay the damages awarded.
Getting a Local Driver's License
Once you've been in the country long enough to obtain a local driver's license, it's easier to get traditional insurance if you have a local driver's license. If you're staying in the U.S. longer than 30 days and are not in the country on a visitor visa, you may be able to obtain a local driver's license. Once you obtain a local driver's license, you can get quotes from carriers like Progressive, GEICO, State Farm, etc. You may still find that your rates are higher than for citizens, due to the fact that you still have no verifiable driving history in the U.S.
You will need to check the legal requirements for state where you will be living to verify if you are eligible and find out what you need to do. As an example, Washington D.C. issues what's called a DC DMV REAL ID driver license to non-citizens who qualify. You will need to take and pass the driver's knowledge test, even if you have a valid out of country driver license, unless you're from one of a few countries with reciprocity agreements.
A Complicated Process
Getting car insurance coverage when an individual is not a U.S. citizen can be complicated, but it isn't impossible. The key to doing so effectively is to make a plan to obtain an IDP first, prior to leaving your home county. You will also need to take steps to ensure that you valid coverage in place before leaving your home country.