Driving in Italy as an American – IDP & Major Differences
Driving in Italy as an American can be both an exciting and challenging experience, with traffic rules, etiquette, and even road designs differing from those at home.
Whether you’re tackling the tight turns of the Amalfi Coast or navigating the bustling streets of Rome, understanding these differences is key to a safe and enjoyable journey.
This comprehensive guide will help you with the necessary knowledge, from securing an International Driving Permit (IDP) to understanding local traffic rules and successfully renting a car in Italy.
You will find also handy tables that compare the Italian way to the American way, really all you need to start your adventure in Italy.
Driving in Italy as an American – Familiarize with these traffic rules
As an American driving in Italy, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the local traffic rules, which might differ from those in the U.S.
The good news is that Italians drive on the same side of the road as the Americans, on the right-hand side.
However, there are some key differences in the rules, road signs, and roundabout etiquette.
|Traffic Rules in the U.S.
|Traffic Rules in Italy
|1. Right turn on red is typically permitted unless signed otherwise.
|1. Right turn on red is not allowed.
|2. Four-way stops are common.
|2. Roundabouts are more prevalent than four-way stops. In fact, four-way stops do not exist in Italy.
|3. Red > Red+Yellow >Green
Green > Yellow > Red
|3. Red > Green
Green > Yellow > Red
|4. Use of handheld mobile phones while driving is permitted in some states (for example, Montana has no law restrictions at all).
|4. Use of handheld mobile phones while driving is strictly prohibited (both talking and SMS).
|5. Seat belts are required to be worn by all vehicle occupants.
|5. Seat belts are required to be worn too, but this is not always strictly enforced in the back seats.
|6. In most states, children must be in an appropriate child car seat.
|6. Children under 12 or shorter than 150 cm must be in a child car seat or booster.
|7. Many states permit right-lane passing.
|7. Passing in the right lane is prohibited unless in a built-up area.
|8. No priority for buses merging back into traffic.
|8. Buses have priority when merging back into traffic.
|9. Speed limit signs are in miles per hour.
|9. Speed limit signs are in kilometres per hour.
|10. Pedestrians have the right of way at crosswalks.
|10. Pedestrians have the right of way but this rule may not be strictly adhered to. Watch out as a pedestrian and follow the rules as a driver
|11. Police officers and traffic lights control intersections.
|11. Traffic is more self-regulated, particularly in roundabouts. Traffic lights are more common in cities
|12. Turning left on red from a one-way street into another one-way street is often allowed.
|12. Turning left on red is never allowed.
|13. Drinking and driving laws are strictly enforced. Legal limit varies from state to state.
|13. Drinking and driving is prohibited too. The legal limit is 0.05% BAC or typically one glass of wine.
|14. Stopping at railway crossings is not always required.
|14. Stopping is required when lights at a railway crossing are flashing.
|15. U-turns are allowed at intersections unless signed otherwise.
|15. U-turns are generally prohibited.
|16. Stop signs are used at intersections.
|16. “Yield” or “Give Way” signs are more common than stop signs.
International Driving Permit
For Americans driving in Italy, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is necessary, alongside a valid U.S. driving license.
The IDP, recognised internationally, contains your name, photo, and driver information translated into ten languages. T
The AAA or AATA can issue an IDP in the U.S., and you should obtain it before travelling to Italy.
This is a summary of the step-by-step process that I extracted from my Essential Guide to the International Driving Permit for Italy.
|Download and fill out an application
|Get two original passport pictures (signed at the back)
|You can do them at a AAA branch office, or any place that provides passport photo services
|You can do them at a place that provides passport photo services
|Valid U.S. driver’s license (photocopy if applying by mail)
|Payment ($20 USD permit fee)
|Visit your nearest AAA branch with your application form, passport photos, U.S. driver’s license, and permit fee. It will be done on the spot.
|Mail your application package (including IDP application form, two signed passport photos, the $20 USD permit fee, and a photocopy of both sides of your U.S. driver’s license) to the nearest AAA office
|Check if your AAA branch offers IDP services. A few don’t.
|Include additional money for expedited return mail service (check USPS.com or Fedex.com for rates)
If you’re already abroad and need an International Driving Permit (IDP), you can mail your completed application to
1000 AAA Drive
Heathrow, FL 32746
Attn: Mail Stop #28
Given potential postal delays, you should allow between 5-7 weeks for your IDP to be returned to you. It’s important to note that the IDP might be delivered via FedEx, requiring a physical street address.
To avoid any stress or inconvenience, it’s recommended to start this process several weeks in advance of your intended travel date, factoring in both application processing and mailing times.
However, keep in mind that the International Driving Permit cannot be issued more than six months in advance and it is typically valid for 12 months.
Car Rental in Italy
Renting a car in Italy offers freedom and flexibility to your travel plans.
While making rental arrangements, consider the type of car you need (automatic or manual transmission, which one works best?), and assess your comfort and familiarity with each.
Also, consider insurance for your rented car in Italy. Many American credit card companies provide rental car insurance as a cardholder benefit, so check the terms of your card agreement before purchasing additional insurance from the rental company.
My Recommendation: Get a Full Coverage (No Excess) Insurance. Streets and parking areas are tiny and, unfortunately, it is quite easy to scratch or dent the car.
One challenge when driving in Italy is the Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or Limited Traffic Zones. These are restricted areas in many Italian cities, typically the Historic Centres, which you can’t access. Check the ZTL maps in Italy when planning your travel itinerary to avoid heavy fines (there is a clear red-circle sign delimiting them).
I usually rent my cars on the DiscoverCars website, a rental aggregator that compares the prices of local and global operators providing the best deal around, with the possibility to add Full Insurance (No Excess) for just 7 Euros/day, such a great peace of mind.
Driving Etiquette in Italy
Italian driving etiquette is slightly different to what you are used to in the US.
This is not to say it is either better or worst. Certainly, with time and patience, you’ll get easily used to it.
Here below are the major differences
|Americans maintain a safer distance between vehicles.
|Italians usually drive close to the car in front, a practice known as tailgating.
|Flashing high beams usually mean that a driver is yielding the right of way.
|Flashing high beams usually implies that a driver wants you to yield or move out of their way.
|The use of horns is generally discouraged and used only in emergencies.
|Italian drivers use horns frequently to warn others of their presence, especially around blind corners.
|Lane splitting is not allowed in many states.
|Motorcycles and scooters often navigate between lanes and cars, particularly in traffic.
|Most US drivers use automatic cars.
|Manual transmission is more common in Italy.
|U-turns are generally allowed unless specifically prohibited.
|U-turns are generally not allowed in Italy unless indicated by a specific sign.
|Bicycles often have dedicated lanes and follow the same rules as motor vehicles.
|Bicycles are common and can often share the main roadway, so extra caution is required.
|Road signs and directions are given in English and sometimes in Spanish in certain areas.
|Road signs are in Italian, but most are universal symbols. german is often used in the north-east of the country.
|Parking rules can be complex in urban areas, with different rules based on time of day, etc.
|Italy also has complex parking rules, with colored lines indicating different restrictions. Understanding Parking in Italy is crucial.
|Traffic lights are usually located at the far top of the intersection.
|Traffic lights in Italy are often located at the line where you should stop, on the near side of the intersection.
Navigating Italian Roads and Highways
Italy has an expansive network of roads and highways, from scenic country roads to high-speed Autostrade.
I have driven extensively in both countries and I have organised the table below with the major differences.
I have also written an extensive guide about driving on Italian motorways, with plenty of information on tolls, speed limits, etc
|Navigating Italian Roads and Highways in the USA
|Navigating Italian Roads and Highways in ITALY
|Freeways and highways are often wide with multiple lanes in each direction.
|Highways (Autostrade) are often narrower with fewer lanes.
|The U.S. uses an exit number system on its highways.
|Italy uses names of towns and cities for exits on its highways.
|Road signs are generally in English and use miles for distance.
|Road signs are generally in Italian and use kilometres for distance. Signs are in German and Italian in the north-east of the country
|The interstate system spans the entire country, making travel between states straightforward.
|Italy has an extensive motorway network (autostrada) for long-distance travel, often with tolls.
|In cities, streets are often laid out in a grid pattern.
|In Italian cities, especially older ones, streets can be winding and narrow, with a central square.
|Most intersections are controlled by traffic lights.
|Many intersections in Italy use roundabouts instead of traffic lights.
|The U.S. uses a yellow line system to control traffic flow. A double yellow line indicates no passing.
|Italy uses a white line system. A continuous white line means no overtaking.
|Emergency lanes are common on highways and freeways for breakdowns.
|Emergency lanes are also present on Italian Autostrade, but may be narrower.
|Speed limits vary by state and type of road, but are typically higher on highways.
|Speed limits in Italy are strictly enforced, especially on the autostrada, and are often monitored by automated speed cameras. On Autostrada, they implemented cameras to monitor the average speed between two points (sometime kms apart)
|The U.S. uses standard road signs that are recognized internationally, with additional signs unique to the U.S.
|Italy uses international road signs, along with country-specific signs, such as the “Zona Traffico Limitato” sign.
|Rest areas with facilities (restrooms, vending machines, etc.) are common on U.S. highways.
|Rest areas (Aree di Servizio) on Italian Autostrade often include cafes, shops, and sometimes even small hotels. I highly suggest stopping at Autogrill for lunch, so yummy!
|The U.S. uses a system of state and U.S. routes in addition to interstates for shorter distance travel.
|In addition to the Autostrada, Italy has a network of state roads (Strade Statali – SS) and provincial roads (Strade Provinciali – SP).
|Most highways in the U.S. are toll-free, with some exceptions.
|Most Italian Autostrade are toll roads. Pay either with cash or better with Credit Cards.
Parking in Italy
Parking in Italy can be challenging, especially in large cities.
Also, the parking system might be different, although mostly in the size of the parking spot, typically much smaller.
Also, in this case, I have organised an extensive guide to parking in Italy, with a few great tips.
In this table, I have summarised the major differences in parking between Italy and USA
|Parking in the USA
|Parking in ITALY
|Many cities have metered street parking, often with time limits during the day.
|Metered street parking (pay and display) is common in Italy, usually indicated by blue lines.
|In residential areas, free street parking is common, unless otherwise marked.
|In many Italian cities, street parking in residential areas (white lines) is free to residents with a permit, but often fee-based for visitors.
|Many U.S. cities use parking meters that accept credit cards and mobile payments.
|In Italy, parking meters often accept coins, and some accept cards or mobile payments (EasyParking is the most used App).
|In some cities, drivers must “feed the meter” to avoid a parking ticket.
|In Italy, drivers also have to pay attention to time limits at parking meters to avoid fines (with EasyParking you can extend the time from your mobile).
|In many cities, there is ample parking space.
|In older Italian cities, parking can be more challenging due to narrow streets and limited spaces.
|U.S. drivers are used to parallel parking, particularly in urban areas.
|Parallel parking is also a common skill needed in Italy, especially in cities where parking spaces are at a premium. However, it’s not allowed and you can be fine on the spot.
|Some U.S. cities use residential parking zones where only residents with a permit can park.
|Some Italian cities also use residential parking zones, often denoted by white lines (signs saying Residents only). Most of the Historic Centres have ZTL (Limited Traffic Zone) where you cannot enter, nor parking.
|Parking rules can vary widely from city to city, and sometimes even within different areas of a city.
|Italy uses a color-coded system (blue, white, yellow) to denote different parking rules, which is used consistently across the country.
|Valet parking is commonly available at upscale restaurants, hotels, and other venues.
|Valet parking is less common in Italy, and is typically only found at upscale venues.
|Most parking spaces in the U.S. are perpendicular or angled.
|Due to space constraints, parking in Italy is often parallel, even in parking lots.
|Disabled parking spaces are clearly marked and require a placard.
|Disabled parking spaces in Italy are marked with a wheelchair symbol, delimited by orange lines and also require a placard.
|Many U.S. cities enforce parking regulations Monday through Friday, with more relaxed rules on weekends.
|In Italy, parking regulations are usually enforced every day, including holidays.
|Some U.S. cities use “alternate side of the street” parking rules for street cleaning.
|This type of rule is not common in Italy. Street cleaning is usually done in the early morning hours when parking is less dense.
|Most private establishments like shopping centres and restaurants have their own parking lots.
|In Italy, many private establishments in cities do not have their own parking lots due to space limitations.
|Large events often have designated parking areas, and sometimes offer shuttle service to the event.
|In Italy, large events also often have designated parking, but shuttle services are less common.
|Electric vehicle charging stations in parking lots are becoming more common.
|Italy also has electric vehicle charging stations, but their availability can be limited, especially outside of larger cities.