Driving In The U.S. With Foreign Plates In A Foreign Script

This Polish woman is driving across the U.S. in her camper van, the vehicle proudly displaying Polish/EU plates. Some Googling seems to reveal that it’s perfectly OK to drive a vehicle in the US with foreign plates on it, so long as the registration is current, all of the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed insurance-wise, yada yada yada.

Here’s the thing: I imagine maybe four in ten cops in Flyover States are going to recognize EU license plates. If she were to be pulled over, Johnny Law would probably be able to suss out that the plates were foreign, and with some help he could probably figure out the Poland/EU connection. Helping him along is the fact that the letters on the plates are Roman, the numbers Arabic, just like on all of the plates issued in the U.S.

But what if she’d brought her vehicle here from, say, Israel or Saudi Arabia.? I looked, and it appears they’re a combination of local script plus Arabic numerals. Since no state trooper in the US can reasonably expected to make sense of that kind of foreign script, how would this play out when the cop tried to radio the driver’s plates back to dispatch? Further still, I’m going to guess that no police database in the US has access to foreign registrations – or do they?

Israeli license plate:

Probably easier to read that American plates, actually.

Well, yes. “Foreign” plates in the US are an everyday occurrence, as Canadian cars can often be seen there. I’ve driven my Ontario- and Alberta-plated cars in the US many times; just as I have seen many US state plates on cars driving in Canada.

More to the point, I’m sure that there is some document from the issuing government that can be obtained that explains what the plate says, if it is in neither Latin letters nor Arabic numerals nor both. Much like an International Driving Permit, which explains in maybe ten different languages (and their alphabets) how and where you are licensed to drive, and what you can drive (e.g., the one I had some years ago said I could drive a vehicle weighing not more than X pounds/Y kilos, with no more than Z axles, etc.).

Saudi licence plates are bilingual; they have the same alphanumeric code in both Arabic and Latin writing onto them. For numbers this is easy, because there is a one-to-one relation between their digits and ours (and even the direction in which they’re written is the same as ours); for letters the authorities defined a table which Arabic letter would be transcribed to which Latin one. This also reverses the direction of writing, but it doesn’t matter because the letters do not have to form meaningful words.

Take, as an example, the image on the top right of this Wikipedia article. You see the numbers 7403 and above them its exact equivalent in Arabic. You also see the letters RUA and above them corresponding Latin letters; the leftmost of these is a ra (ر ), corresponding to our R; then you have a waw (و), corresponding to our U or W; and lastly an alif (ا ), our A. In Arabic you would read these letters right-to-left, but on the licence plate they are represented in such a way that each Latin letter is underneath its Arabic counterpart.

As far as countries that use Cyrillic are concerned, what I have seen, e.g. in Russia, is that only letters which look the same in Latin and Cyrillic would be used on plates. This does not necessarily mean that the letter would be equivalent to ours (e.g. a Cyrillic C is our S), but that doesn’t matter, because all you need is a letter that is readable without problems by readers in either script.

So, in summary, the situation is: Countries that use non-Latin scripts are aware that internationally, the Latin script is the dominant one, so they design their licence plates in such a way as to avoid problems for international readers.

Indeed there is, and there’s an international standard for it. It’s called a carnet de passages en douane, or just a carnet for short. People taking their vehicles abroad (usually very long distances, such as overseas) often get these to prove to customs and law enforcement officers that the vehicle was lawfully and temporarily imported. The carnet provides all the relevant information on the vehicle, registration, owner, etc. The carnet isn’t strictly required in many countries, but a lot of drivers get one anyway, presumably to avoid getting hassled by police. As the OP rightly points out, most police in the US won’t be familiar with foreign plates, but the carnet serves as an official (and official-looking) document, in English, that may assuage many of them. (And if they remain skeptical, they can always call their headquarters to describe the carnet; hopefully at least someone up the chain of command, or working in an administrative role, will know what it is and how to check its validity.)

Incidentally, here’s a video of the sort of incident the OP envisages. A tourist is driving his UAE-licensed car (where the number plates are mostly numeric, but usually also have the name of the emirate written in Arabic) in the US and is pulled over by a belligerent Oregon State Trooper who doesn’t know what to make of the situation. The driver has to explain everything and urges the trooper to check his carnet.

I just chatted a [Boston] police officer who has been on the force for almost 30 years. He says he has no idea what a “carnet” is not has he ever stopped a car with anything other than US or Canadian plates. Not even Mexican.

I’m guessing the vast majority of US law enforcement never encounters a license plate other than US, Canada and Mexico in their careers.

I work for a global company, if some expat executive insisted on bringing their car over, it was titled in the company name, inspected and registered in the state I was garaged in. The last time was over 15 years ago. He wasn’t driving around with Swedish plates.

We see lots of cars that were overseas here - from the air base, I think. They leave the (usually) EU license plate on the front and have the Arizona plate on the back.

At least least the cop gave up and let the guy go. This woman was actually arrested in Georgia for driving with a perfectly valid driver’s license:

I think most countries require the country origin of the car to be clearly labelled - I know they do in the EU. With EU cars, the country is shown on the plate (with the EU flag), like so:

Now that the UK is out of the EU, we’ve lost our country identifier on our plates, so now I have to drive with a big ugly ‘UK’ sticker on the back window.

Why not buy UK No plates?

Because those aren’t legally acceptable in the EU, for whatever daft brexit-squabbling reason, You have to have the white sticker, in a defined (gigantic) size.

I was kind of wondering about foreign plates other than Mexican/Canadian and licensing and registration/license/insurance requirements. Someone with Canadian or Mexican plates almost certainly drove over the border and may be visiting the US for anything from an afternoon to a few months. Someone driving a car with Polish plates didn’t drive it over the border - they either shipped it from Poland or somehow got Polish plates for a car that was already in the US. As far as I can tell, it costs at least $1000 and takes a minimum of two weeks to ship a car from Europe to the US. No one is going to bother doing this for a two or three week vacation and a lengthier stay will at some point almost always collide with requirements that people be licensed in the state where they reside and cars be insured and registered in the state where they are garaged.

For whatever it’s worth, the Polish woman in the video in my OP shipped the vehicle to Mexico(?) from Poland, toured around Mexico, then came to the US. For reasons she didn’t make fully clear (she maybe never got an explanation), she was detained at Customs at Laredo, interrogated repeatedly for hours, put into a cell, and then let go. My guess (and this is just a guess) is that the Customs people working that day didn’t know what to do with a European vehicle being driven by a European into the US. And also, this was Texas and she’s likely in her 30s, so something something abortion.

For a single car done privately, it’s a lot more than that if you are using agents to do everything. We (company I work for) shipped a car back and forth within 18 months and it cost a bloody fortune. He could have leased an equivalent car for a lot less stateside. But he wanted his car.

There very likely isn’t a procedure for a European vehicle being driven into the US from Mexico* ( or Canada) and a vehicle being imported from Europe would have to go through Customs. In fact, a Mexican/Canadian vehicle being imported to the US has to go through Customs as well and it’s just the case that 90+% of the vehicles being driven over those borders with Mexican/Canadian plates aren’t being imported.

Call me crazy but just because I can drive a car from Poland to Germany without getting new plates , etc wouldn’t make me assume I can ship my car from the US to Poland , drive around Poland for a while with US plates and then drive across the German border under the same rules as a car with Polish plates. I mean, maybe I could, but I wouldn’t assume it.

  • Because after all, how often does that happen?

If your number plate includes the UK identifier with the Union flag (also known as the Union Jack), you do not need a UK sticker.
If you’re in Spain, Cyprus or Malta, you must display a UK sticker no matter what is on your number plate.

If you have a GB sticker, cover or remove it before driving outside the UK.

Note, it has to be UK, not GB.

In 1970 I bought a Volvo for European delivery that included free shipping to NY (or Halifax). I drove it for a year in Switzerland and got a cantonal licence plate. Then I drive it up to the Volvo factory in Goteborg and, a couple weeks later went to the port in NJ to get it through customs. The customs agent was utterly confused since I was not importing it into the US, but just going to drive it to Montreal and register it there. He had never seen this before and had to call a supervisor, who was unfazed. He gave me papers that said something about duties not paid. I assume that would prevent me from registering it in the US. At any rate, with the Swiss licence plate, drove it to Philly where my family was and then to Montreal where I finally registered it.

A friend of mine spent a sabbatical in France and did ship his car in both directions. In France, someone stole his plates. He went to a place that manufatures plates and had them make a facsimile of NY state plates. When he returned with his car, he drove to upstate NY where he lived. A cop noticed something funny about the plates and stopped him. He explained and the cop said that there was nothing in the code that made it illegal (of course, the number on his registration matched that on the plate), but he should get replacements ASAP. Which he did.

Japanese plates also include Japanese script, though it’s probably very rare for a car registered in Japan to be driven in the US.

I saw a Honda Gold Wing (with Japanese plates) in Sweden.

I have once seen a car from Mexico (I forget which state) being driven in Canada. More rare is to see a plate from NWT (Polar bear profile) or even Nunavut - I have seen one of those… Which is odd, because you can’t drive here from Nunavut.

My dad took his car to Europe from Canada when he was on sabbatical back in the 70’s, so I assume it made financial sense. My step-sister bought a BMW while she was a visiting prof in Germany, then a few months later had it shopped to the USA - apparently it’s an effective savings due to new car vs. used car tax rules at the time, or it didn’t count to US import quotas, or something.

My hope is that someday I could take my car to Europe to drive around - it’s got to be cheaper for a long-ish vacation than trying to rent cars. It just depends what the Tesla charger adapters are like in the future.

IIRC, Egyptian license plates for example are purely Arabic numerals and letters but do say “Egypt” in both scripts.
Unfortunately, cannot embed in post.