It was quite difficult for us to decide to rent a car and drive in Sri Lanka. Actually, Andrei made up his mind quickly, but it took him a while to drag me into the same mindset. I read and heard about lots of warnings regarding horrible traffic, bad roads, problems for foreigners if they are involved in an accident and so on. Not to mention that driving in Sri Lanka is the left side on the road and neither me or Andrei ever drove like this before. You also need to get an equivalent for you driver’s licence to be allowed to drive in Sri Lanka as a tourist.
In the end, I agreed for Andrei to get the papers and try the crazy idea of driving in Sri Lanka. This was the best decision we could make! It is much easier to travel for a few hours with a toddler secured in his car seat that in a tuk-tuk, local bus or train. Safer too, not to mention cleaner, Eric could rest and sleep between the locations and we had enough flexibility to visit Sri Lanka at our own peace.
Honestly, in our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, we probably saw only 3-4 foreigners driving. Everybody was looking at us with a mix of shock and amazement, especially that we had a young kid with us. So I’m writing this as an attempt to make more popular among tourists the idea of renting a car in Sri Lanka. Hope that after reading this, there will be more visitors less afraid of the idea of driving here, it is really nothing to be worried about.
Getting the temporary driving permit for Sri Lanka
If you want to drive as a tourist in Sri Lanka, you will need a local temporary driving permit. You can get it easily in 1-2 hours. There is a lot of information available on the internet and companies willing to assist you with this, in exchange for a fee. I’m just summarising here our experience, as of December 2018. We paid 1000 LKR (a bit over 5 USD) for the whole thing, while the car rental company was asking for about 30 USD to support us in the whole process.
To get your temporary driving permit in Sri Lanka, you need to go to the Department of Motor Traffic with your passport and driving licence. It was mentioned you also need copies from these, plus copy from the Sri Lankan visa, but no one asked Andrei about them. Still, better have them, as there no copy center there. It is advisable to go early morning, but he went at noon, while Eric was taking his nap. Still, he solved the whole thing within 45 minutes.
As you arrive at the Department of Motor Traffic, head to building H (it is a huge complex, but quite well organised) and take the left door. Here you will need to wait at a few different counters. You will most likely see long queues for each counter, but things work quicker than it seems. First step, wait at Counter 1, where your documents will be checked and you will get photos and fingerprints taken. You will then be pointed to one of the Counters 17-20, where your documents will be scanned and then to Counter 31 to make the payment. You wait in another line at Counters 14-15 to get the final approval and then again at the counter where you made the payment to get the printed document. No need to wait in line for this final step! At the end, you will have a printed A4 document that allows you to drive as a tourist in Sri Lanka, for the following 30 days.
Rent a car in Sri Lanka
We saw great deals from local companies, but decided to go with recognised brand, to make sure we won’t have problems. We rented the car in Colombo from one Hertz affiliate and everything worked smoothly. The fee was around 22 $/day, with a child car seat included. We also left 350$ deposit, in cash, which was fully refunded when we returned the car. No hidden fees, no problems, quickly and efficiently.
Tips for driving in Sri Lanka
- Rent a car with automatic shift.
- Avoid driving around high traffic hours in large cities. The traffic tends to be hectic starting early afternoon until it gets dark. Combined with not knowing exactly where you are going, this will make you quite uncomfortable, especially if you are sill unexperienced with driving in Sri Lanka
- Avoid driving at night. Public lighting is problematic and pedestrians, tuk-tuks and bikes are quite difficult to be seen on the narrow roads.
- Give yourself some time to get used with left-side driving, if you’ve never drove like this before. Still, this was much easier than we expected! Andrei was very comfortable after the first day driving in Sri Lanka.
- When in trouble, do what locals do. A couple of times, when we got stacked in traffic or we were not on the right lane, Andrei just let the window down and signalled the other driver to let us pass. There were some laughs, but we got our way out instantly.
- Be careful with speed. The speed limits are lower than in Europe/US. But most likely you’ll want to admire the scenery and won’t be tempted to speed up anyway.
- Use a good navigation system. You can’t always count on the road signs, especially for side roads. Google maps proved very useful each time and we never got lost.
- Get an local SIM card, to have internet access all the time, on your phone. We bought a SIM card from the airport, for MobiTel. It was 2000 LKR (about 11 USD) for 40 GB (20 during the day and 20 during the night), which was much more than we needed. This proved to be very useful to build our route one the way. It was also the ultimate solution in case something bad happens – luckily it was never the case!
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