When I was first traveling in India, I wanted to rent a scooter to get around but I also didn’t want to get arrested (I hear Indian jails aren’t exactly the Hilton). The locals I rented a scooter from didn’t care if I had an Indian driver’s license, but was it actually illegal?
Do I need a driver’s license to drive a scooter in India? Officially, you need an international driver’s permit and a driver’s license from your home country. But…
Like many things in India unofficially you don’t need any of these. I rented a 110 cc Honda Activa scooter without showing my license or passport to anyone. The man who rented it to me asked, “Can you drive?” I said, “Yes.” He handed me the keys and off I went.
My idea of fun is not rotting away in an Indian jail cell though, so while I’ve never been stopped by the police after 6 months of driving, I do want to know what I need to do to be compliant with the law. That’s why I decided to research exactly what I need and to share it with you…
Everything You Need to do to Legally Drive a Scooter or Motorcycle in India
India’s a lot of fun because they don’t always go by the book. I rented my house for a year with a handshake and the first 3 months paid in full.
It was the same with renting a scooter. I first rented a scooter from a guy who sold shirts. A friend asked him if he knew anyone with a scooter and in 20 minutes we were off.
However, I don’t like to worry about getting stopped. I live in a smaller town, but when I travel to a big city I want to know exactly what I need to avoid any extra trouble.
Here’s an official checklist of what you need to legally drive a scooter or motorcycle in India:
- An International Driving Permit (IDP)
- Driver’s License from your home country
- Insurance – Ask to see it, make sure it’s valid and photograph it.
Keep these in your pocket and you will have ZERO problems driving around India… aside from the occasional bribes and cows in the road 😎
Other suggested items to maximize your safety and experience:
- Keep a copy of your passport with you
- Wear a helmet – It’s not legally required, but when you see the drivers you’ll understand why this is important
- Wear shoes
- Carry ~500 INR or so (NOTE: I’ve never been asked for a bribe)
This is the list your over-protective mom would give you.
If you look at the actual streets, there are kids that look like they’re 12, with 4 of their friends on the back, with no shoes or helmets, and they’re driving through a field full of goats and look like they’re having a great time. Somehow it works and the police let this slide.
Now I’m wondering do I really need an international driver’s permit, what actually is it, and how do I go about getting one?
What is an International Driving Permit?
An international driving permit (IDP) let’s you legally drive in 174 countries, including India, when you have a valid US driver’s license.
This list does NOT include all countries (notably China) but India is on there and so is Sri Lanka, Thailand and more.
Full details of the International Driving Permit:
- You must be a permanent US resident at least 18 years old
- You must have a US driver’s license that will stay valid for at least six more months
- The cost is $20
- You need two original passport photos
- Two official organizations can issue an IDP: American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) and Automobile Association of American (AAA)
- The IDP is valid for one year.
How to get an International Driving Permit
The Indian government and automobile associations will NOT issue an IDP to drivers who are NOT Indian citizens. The Indian IDP is for use by Indians when they travel.
If you’re a US citizen like myself, you must apply for an IDP in the United States.
You can apply and receive your permit if you visit an AAA branch. Or you can apply by mail and receive your IDP in 10-15 business days.
Here’s the AAA IDP Application.
Or if you’re living in India, like me, then we can also apply by mail in the US. I’m reading it could take 7-10 days for my letter to reach the US. Then it could take 10-15 days for AAA to process my application. Finally returning in another 7-10 days. So we’ll see if I can do this…
WARNING: If you Google “International Driving Permit,” you will see a number of unofficial organizations. The US State Department has advised drivers to only obtain an IDP from AAA or AATA. The US Federal Trade Commission has warned that any other organization, especially one claiming to offer an “international driver’s license” could be a scam.
Is it Easy to Rent a Scooter in India?
It should be easy to find someone to rent a scooter if you are in a tourist area. In fact, you are probably going to be turning people down in the streets as they offer you a “two-wheeler.”
I’ve been here 6 months and people regularly ask me, how much I’m renting mine for.
You do want to be conscious of who you decide to rent from.
To be smart, shop around at 3 to 4 places. If you’ve read about the Indian culture you’ll know that everything is up for negotiation. So the initial price you will be quoted is probably 2 to 3 to 10 times higher than what is reasonable.
When I was traveling, I paid 1000 rupees a day to rent a scooter. Now I pay 94 rupees a day. They expect to negotiate so play along.
Ask about insurance: When you’re negotiating, ask about insurance and ask to see their paperwork. Take a photo of the paperwork. You probably won’t need it, but you’ll be happy to have it if you ever do.
Inspect the scooter: The people I’ve rented from were super chill but you may get a nefarious type. Take a video on your phone as you inspect the scooter looking for dents and scratches. Start it up and take a short ride. Do the basic stuff you would do, if you were renting a car in the US or buying something off Craigslist.
What to do if you get in an Accident?
I asked a friend of mine, who has lived in India for over 10 years, if he had ever been in an accident.
“Once,” he said. Apparently, a kid on a scooter had pulled out in front of him, and Whamo! The locals nearby saw what had happened and started crowding around pointing at the kid saying it was his fault. This scared him and he hopped on his bike and drove off.
My friend’s bike had some dents but it was able to be repaired. When someone asked him if his insurance covered it, he laughed, “Yeah we exchanged insurance cards.” 😉
Basically, accidents do happen. But you’ll probably expected to cover any damages even if it’s not your fault.
After my first ride from the airport, I would have thought accidents would happen all the time. But even though the drivers here are crazy, they’ve also been driving crazy their whole life and are really good at it.
The important thing is to buy travel insurance. My travel insurance is from World Nomads and covers getting in a motorcycle or scooter accident. I hope I never have to use it but it has been essential for a piece of mind as I drive the streets.
Tips for Safely Driving a Scooter
When I first arrived, I vowed I would never drive on these streets. I’m not joking about it being crazy. But after a week or so, I saw some friends hadn’t been flattened by a bus, so I decided to give it a shot.
Now it’s been over 6 months and I haven’t had any accidents yet (fingers crossed). Here are some tips to help you stay safe:
- Stay off the roads at night. Everyone use’s their high beams all the time.
- Prepare for plenty of hazards in the road– cows, chickens, horses, pigs, dogs, cats, kids, people walking in prayer, people talking on their phone, people talking to each other, speed bumps, potholes, recently laid soft gravel, grain crop drying on the road, and the worst are the buses which barrel through town at top speed blaring their horn.
- Wear shoes. I went without a few times but one time, as I was standing just outside my house, a motorcycle crashed inches from my bare foot. Many of the locals do go without shoes and it looks fun, but I like my toes too much.
- Beware the fuel scam. Just make sure when the fuel pumper starts pumping gas into your machine, they start at zero. I’ve never had a problem, but whenever they start pumping they make a show they are in fact starting from zero. If someone doesn’t do this, be wary.
Should I rent a motorcycle like a Royal Enfield or a scooter?
The Harley Davidson of India is the Royal Enfield and they look like they’re a lot of fun to drive. You’ll pay about 1200 rupees a day and have to put down a ~40,000 rupee deposit. But they look and sound great.
For practical purposes though, in most places, you can’t go fast enough to need a motorcycle. I can barely get my scooter up to 25 mph without having to slow down to avoid a chicken or something, haha.
For most people, a scooter will be more than enough and they’re affordable. They’re a lot of fun too!