How to get a temporary driving permit in Sri Lanka
Updated: Jan 17
Having only ever driven in Europe, it hadn't crossed my mind to get an international driving permit (IDP) to take travelling with me. I have since found out you can get these from the UK Post Office for just £5.50. Doh.
Legalities: Outside of Colombo, most companies and hotels will rent you a scooter without even checking you have a licence, let alone an IDP.
If you get pulled over by the police, you will likely get a 1000rs fine (£4) unless you can sweet talk your way out of it.
However, the bigger concern is if you get into an accident your rental insurance is not valid, nor is your travel insurance. For us, it wasn't worth the risk so we headed to the Department of Motor Traffic in Colombo to get a temporary driving licence to cover us.
This is a guide for those who also left the UK unprepared and wish to hire a scooter in Sri Lanka. The whole process was super easy and efficient, taking around 45 minutes in total.
What you need to bring
Originals: passport and UK driving licence
Photocopies: passport picture page, Sri Lankan visa page in your passport and driving licence
There are no photocopy facilities in the office so get the duplicates done before you arrive.
Key things to know
Office opens at 9am - get there on time to avoid massive queues
The whole process takes around 45 minutes
Card not accepted, bring cash
You don't actually need to have a UK motorbike/scooter licence to drive one in Sri Lanka but you do need at least a full car licence
Getting to the office from Colombo Fort
From Colombo Fort bus station, in a meter taxi expect to pay around 800rs (£3.40) - no doubt cheaper on Uber or PickMe. If the driver isn't sure where the Department of Motor Traffic is located, tell him it's in Werahera, it should take around 30 minutes in traffic.
When you get dropped off in the car park, walk past all the learning drivers.
There's no need to go to the front office, walk straight past it towards H building (it is signed).
When you enter, go straight to reception and get one token per person.
Then head to the room with the yellow pillars: it was on your left as you came in the main entrance. The bored security guard will check you have photocopies of everything then send you to desk 01.
Here you get your fingerprints and picture taken, and have to sign a form electronically. This all gets printed out and given to you before you get shooed away.
Fill out your Sri Lankan address on the form; you can just write the address of your hotel as nothing actually gets sent there. Next, take your signed form to desks 15-20 (or as directed).
Get everything ready or you'll be huffed at and cause the poor bureaucrat to turn to alcohol to drown out your incompetencies.
The second clerk will check everything again, make you sign the paper (again) and then take scans.
Now, prepared to be buffeted between the same desks: first, go to the payment desks. This is where you need your token. It costs 1000rs (£4) per 30 days you want the permit.
You'll then be sent back to the same counter for a final check.
Then return to the same cashier clerks to finally pick up your permit!
The whole process was incredibly easy and you are well-directed at every step. I would definitely arrive as close to 9am as possible because the office gets really busy quickly.
Now the excitement begins as we can finally embark on our 30 day scooter tour of northern Sri Lanka...!