Do I Need a License to Ride Motorbikes in Southeast Asia?

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Whether you're in Southeast Asia or anywhere in the world for that matter, the simple answer is yes. You do need a license to ride a motorbike, no matter where you are traveling.


Riding a motorbike through Ubud in rush hour Photo © Getty Images/Boogich

Motorcycle licensing in Southeast Asia

Sometimes your home country motorcycle license will do, sometimes the local police will insist you need an International Driver's Permit too, and in some cases, you'll need to sit and pass a local test for a local license.

In the countries where an International Driver‘s Permit is accepted, it allows you to drive/ride the same class of vehicle covered by your home country license. (Bear in mind, there is more than one type of International Driver's Permit, depending on which international road traffic convention it's governed by. Whether it's valid for your purposes depends both on your country of residence and the country where you plan to ride. Check your home country's government pages and/or the embassy site for your destination if unsure.)

So, if you're licensed ONLY to drive a car at home, you are NOT covered to ride a motorcycle or scooter just because you have an international permit. Similarly, if your motorcycle license restricts you to a certain engine size, you cannot jump on a pimped-up scooter with a throbbing engine. It's up to you to make sure you are licensed for the type of motorbike (or moped) you hire.

Some travelers openly admit to ticking the “motorcycle“ box on their permit even though they don‘t have a valid license at home. That might fool the traffic cop who pulls you over in Phnom Penh, but it won‘t cut it with your travel insurance.

Plus, if you have absolutely no training and no experience at handling a two-wheeled machine at home, what makes you think you‘ll magically acquire those skills in a foreign country where the roads are shoddy, the vehicles dodgy, the congestion is mind-boggling and the road rules boil down to “might equals right“? Seriously, Ho Chi Minh City is NOT the place to learn to ride. Thailand and Vietnam have shocking road accident fatality statistics, among the highest per capita in the world. The other regional nations aren‘t far behind.

But if you DO have a valid motorcycle license from home, the International Driver‘s permit will be accepted in many Southeast Asian countries. But get the license before you leave home. You can‘t apply from within Thailand for a permit to use in Thailand, for example.

Can I ride a motorcycle in Southeast Asia without a licence?

Tens of thousands of visitors each year rent a motorcycle/scooter and ride around Southeast Asia totally unlicensed. That doesn't mean it's legal.

What if you‘re stopped by police? In the poorer, less-developed countries, it‘s easier to bribe your way out of trouble. “Tea money“ of a few dollars and the problem disappears. Many travelers report bluffing their way out of police checks with the official-looking International Driver‘s Permit (even though they don't have a valid license from home to back it up).

But just because the policeman lets you go on your merry way after paying the "fine," it does not mean you are riding legally; you‘ve just avoided the law by paying a bribe. We recommend that you don't pay a bribe – it's illegal.

The fact that the shop rented you the bike without asking for your license doesn‘t mean you don‘t need one. They know you‘re coming back (they have your passport), and it‘s not their responsibility if you don‘t check out the local law.

It‘s also not true that you don‘t need a license for a scooter under 50cc in Southeast Asia. It‘s only some European countries that have this law.

How to ride a motorcycle safely in Southeast Asia

If you‘re still tempted to roll the dice, do everything you can to make sure you don‘t get hurt in a crash.

  • Wear a helmet – preferably full-face
  • Wear protective clothing – flip-flops, a t-shirt and shorts don‘t count as “protective“
  • Wear gloves  anyone who‘s falling puts their hands out to protect themselves  can't help themselves, it's a natural reaction, even on a hard bitumen road approaching at 50 km/h. Ouch!
  • Don‘t speed
  • Don‘t drink or do drugs and ride
  • Don‘t ride at night
  • Do follow the locals and do as they do

The protective clothing is the toughest one – it‘s stinking hot and humid, you‘re just zipping back from the beach to your room, you‘re on holiday, who wants to follow rules! Just make sure you have cash in the bank to pay your medical bills.

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