Do You Need a License to Ride a Motorbike in SE Asia?

Whether you’re in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bali, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, or anywhere outside your home country… the simple answer is yes.

But, what type of license? Get it wrong and you could find yourself in all sorts of bother with the local authorities.

Sometimes your home country 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.

Before we get stuck into the details, here’s one other important point to note for World Nomads policyholders from Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Ireland: you must ALSO hold a valid motorcycle license from home.


Motorcycle Licencing in Southeast Asia

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.

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 company (more on that in a moment).

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: Bali, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. But get the license before you leave home, the permits are not valid in the country of issue – so you can‘t apply from within Thailand for a permit to use in Thailand.

Motorcycle License in Vietnam

Vietnamese law clearly states that to ride a motorcycle of 50cc or greater you must have a local Vietnamese license. You can obtain one only if you have a visa that allows a stay of longer than 30 days. Tourist visas allow stays of only 30 days – so, as a tourist, you cannot obtain a Vietnamese license. World Nomads insurance policies, regardless of your country of residnence, state you must abide by local laws to be covered. Clearly, as a tourist, this is not possible in Vietnam. For more information, check out our article on motorcycle riding in Vietnam.

Can I Ride a Motorcycle in Southeast Asia Without a Licence?

Don’t have a valid license from home? Get one locally – take the local test. It won‘t be valid back home, but it will be right here, right now, when you need it. For example, in Bali, if you don‘t have a license from home, you can line up with everyone else at the Denpasar police station, do a little practical test, hand over $45 and you get a tourist license.

Just remember, these licenses are not valid outside the country you obtained it. if you move to another country, you’ll need another local license.

I Was Told That I Didn’t Need a Motorcycle Licence To Ride in Southeast Asia

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 travellers 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). 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.

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. Apart from the fact no one should be seen on a scooter with a sewing machine engine for propulsion – it‘s only some European countries that have this law.

Travel Insurance Cover for Motorcycle Riding in Southeast Asia

You can keep on riding regardless, but what if you do have a crash, and you need to call on your travel insurance?

It‘s pretty straightforward; no valid license in the country where the accident happened, means you‘re riding illegally and you‘re not covered. Sorry, but you cannot insure against illegal activity. That also includes riding under the influence of drink or drugs (everywhere) and not wearing a helmet where it‘s compulsory (Cambodia, Thailand, Bali). Also, check your policy wording, it most likely says your insurance is valid only if you’re wearing a helmet.

Injury from a motorcycle accident is one of the most common claims received by World Nomads. If it‘s a bad one and you need medical evacuation, the cost could run to $100,000 or more. Don‘t be fooled, we will check if you have a valid license (forging that international permit isn‘t looking so smart anymore). Many, many claims are rejected simply because the rider didn‘t have a license (and in the case of Australia, NZ, UK and Ireland policyholders, no valid motorcycle license at home too). You might say “that‘s not fair. Everyone‘s doing it!“ to which your mum would say: “If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you do it, too?“

Don‘t assume you‘re covered. All insurance policies are different, so make sure you check the whole policy wording carefully to understand how this works with the policy you buy.

How to Ride a Motorcycle Safely in Southeast Asia

If you‘re still tempted to roll the dice, (unlicensed and uninsured) 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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