The ultimate guide to driving in Europe

By Jess Shanahan | Europe

Feb 21

No matter where in the world you’re from, there’s plenty you need to know about driving in Europe. As a British driver, I’ve driven over to the continent a number of times as there’s all sorts of culture right on my doorstep.

My first big road trip around Europe involved driving a friend’s two cats all the way from the UK to Sweden in just 19 hours. It was quite the adventure but during that trip and subsequent ones, I learned a lot about the law in Europe.

The biggest change for me is driving on the right-hand side, which can be tricky at first in a right-hand-drive car. You get used to it pretty quickly but a left-hand-drive car that’s set up for European roads will be much more comfortable and changing gear with your right hand isn’t too hard.

There are other things to consider too. For example, when I was in Austria we learned the hard way that you need a vignette sticker for the toll system. An 8 Euro sticker bought at the side of a motorway would’ve saved us from a 300 Euro fine. 

This guide looks at the law, things you need to consider and some tips to make driving on the continent as easy as possible. It also looks at a few country-specific quirks that you need to know about too.

Headlights

In all EU countries new cars are required to have daytime running lights but older cars aren’t required to turn their sidelights on as an equivilent.  But in some countries you’re required to have your main headlights on at all times. These countries are: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland.

In other countries you’re required to have your headlights on under certain conditions. This includes:

  • Outside populated areas: Italy, Hungary and Romania
  • Indicated roads only: Portugal
  • Motorcycles only: Belgium, France, Spain

Consider what you need to keep in your car

There are numerous rules stating what you need to carry in your car in the different countries of Europe. 

Nearly all European countries require you to carry a warning triangle to be used in accidents and break downs (and Spain, Cyprus, Estonia and Bosnia want you to carry two). 

The majority of European countries also require a reflective jacket or vest for either just the driver or every passenger in the car. The notable exceptions are France, Germany, the Netherlands and some Nordic and Eastern European countries. 

A first aid kit and fire extinguisher are required by law in most Nordic, Eastern European, Baltic and Soviet countries. 

For driving in France, the Czech Republic and the Balkans you’re also required to carry spare light bulbs.

A self-test breathalyser is required for driving in France so make sure to carry one in your car. That being said, fines are on hold for now.

Make sure you have a GB sticker

Your car will need a country sticker to identify it as you travel around the content. Often you can get a number plate with a GB sticker on it so check if you need new number plates before you set off on your journey.

You’ll need a passport or ID card

Despite free movement within the EU, you still need to carry a passport or ID card with you. There are border checks in place in and out of the UK and you may find intermittent checks elsewhere on the continent. Make sure your passport or EU identity card is with you as you travel.

International driving license

Generally, a valid UK photocard licence will be accepted in EU countries. 

For European countries outside the EU, UK driving licences may not be accepted and you may require an international driving permit. Check the government website of any non-EU countries you’re going to be travelling to so you can find the exact requirements.

Get the right insurance

As standard, all UK insurance gives you third party coverage in the EU. Check with your insurer to check if you get a higher level of cover. Here’s an example of the kind of coverage you need to look for.

For European countries outside the EU, you may need a Green Card from your insurer to prove that you have the right coverage to drive in that country.

Adjust your headlights

If you’re bringing a British car over to the continent, you’ll need to adjust your headlights so you don’t dazzle oncoming drivers. A lot of modern cars will allow you to do this from the cockpit but for older cars, you can get headlight adapters, which are stickers you use on your headlights.

Understand local driving laws

As well as knowing what you need to keep in your car, there are a few different rules across European countries that you need to know about. We’ve tried to list as many of the obscure ones as we can below but always do your research on the countries you’ll be travelling through.

  • If you wear glasses or contact lenses for driving, you need to carry an additional set in your car when in Spain, Portugal or Switzerland.
  • In Portugal, it’s illegal to carry a can of petrol in your car.
  • Passengers in the front seat of your car are not allowed to be visibly under the influence of alcohol in Macedonia.
  • Cyprus has a zero-tolerance policy to eating and drinking behind the wheel. 
  • In Slovenia, you need to have your hazard lights on when reversing.
  • It’s illegal to hitchhike in Russia, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
  • A dirty car could get you in trouble in Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia.
  • Your dog is required to wear a seatbelt in Italy.
  • Parking laws vary from country-to-country and, often, city-to-city. Do your research and look out for local signage to guide you.
  • Children under 10 aren’t allowed to sit in the front seat of the car in France.
  • If you run out of fuel on a motorway in Germany, you will face a fine.

Keep your spare change for tolls

Keep lots of local currency to hand for tolls. This is pretty easy in countries that use the Euro but be aware that you may need small change in other currencies, depending on what countries you’ll be visiting. 

Most tolls now accept contactless payments but it’s better to have change just in case.

Understand the more advanced toll systems

When I was in Austria, we kept seeing signs for a toll vignette and, foolishly, assumed this meant we were coming up to a toll gate. This was not the case and actually meant we needed a sticker in our car that would be picked up by automatic cameras on the main roads.

The Austrian vignette costs about eight Euros and can usually be picked up at a service station near any border crossing. Do not forget this because fines can be in the hundreds.

Do your research on individual countries before you set out so you don’t get caught out by automatic systems like this.

Do your research

The UK Foreign Office website will often give you important information on each country you are travelling to. Take a little time before you set off on your road trip to do your research.

A road trip is an adventure and you can’t always be prepared for every eventuality but make sure you understand local laws and are equipped with the necessary documents to help you out of any sticky situation. 

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About the Author

Jess Shanahan is a road trip journalist and motorsport consultant who loves high heels, V8s and the open road. You can find her on Twitter @Jetlbomb.