Practical tips > Driving in Europe: the rules of the game

Driving in Europe: the rules of the game

 - 10/12/2015

In terms of Highway Codes, the European Union hasn’t quite harmonized its rules yet. So once you leave the comfort of your own country, here’s what you need to know to drive safely and legally all over Europe...

There are 28 member states in Europe today, each of which has its own Highway Code. Thankfully, however, road signs vary very little as all the member states have signed the Vienna Convention of 1968, which lists all the road signs of the world. The colour and icons can however vary from country to country, otherwise read on…

Don’t forget before leaving
  • A valid passport.
  • A valid full driving license. An international driving permit (translated into three languages minimum, English, Spanish and Russian) is not compulsory, but can prove useful, in the event of an accident for example, and may smooth out some dealings with local authorities.
  • Vehicle registration papers.
  • Motor insurance certificate. An international green card is not compulsory within the EU, but it is internationally recognised and can thus speed up the process in the event of an accident.
  • A European Accident Notification.
  • Indication of the country of origin on the number plates. Alternatively, can you purchase a sticker.
Similarities and differences with the UK
  • The minimum driving age is 18 throughout Europe (unlike Ireland and the UK, where it is 17). Learner drivers are not allowed to drive outside their country of origin.
  • Throughout most of Europe, vehicles drive on the right, with the exception of Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and the UK. We recommend having a left-hand wing mirror fitted if you don’t already have one to facilitate overtaking and improve safety.
  • It is compulsory to wear a seatbelt in the front and the rear of the car, including for coach and minibus passengers since May 2006. Motorcyclists and their passengers must wear a helmet.
  • It is illegal to use your mobile phone while driving in the EU. Hands-free sets are however tolerated, with the exception of Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Local differences
  • Vehicles in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Italy (on motorways and main roads), Latvia, Lithuania (from 01/09 to 31/03), Poland, Portugal (on the IP5), Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden must switch on their passing lights while driving in the day. France and the Netherlands simply recommend this practice. Drivers from the UK and Ireland must equip their headlights with beam converters to compensate for driving on the other side of the road.
  • Motorways have tolls in many European Union countries: Austria, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, drivers must buy a tax sticker for the windscreen that can be purchased at the border or in petrol stations.
  • In Spain, all vehicles must be equipped with two warning triangles that are placed in front and behind the vehicle should you break down on the road. In Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the United Kingdom, one triangle is sufficient. Failure to have such equipment in your vehicle can lead to a fine that can vary from €15 to140 depending on the country.
  • Reflective safety jackets in line with EU 471 norm are compulsory in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The jacket must be inside the car itself and not in the boot. In some countries, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, you must have enough jackets for each person in the car.
  • A first-aid kit is compulsory in some countries such as Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom.
  • You must also have a set of spare light bulbs if you are driving in Denmark, Italy and Spain and Belgium also requires all vehicles to carry a fire extinguisher.
Speed limits around Europe

The following are the current speed limits in EU countries. Drivers should also be aware that some countries have lower limits for “young” drivers and/or in the case of bad weather.

  • In built-up areas, the speed limit is 50 kph (31 mph), with the exception of the United Kingdom, where it is slightly lower (48 kph/30 mph), Poland at night-time (60 kph/37 mph) and Slovakia (60 kph/37 mph).
  • On dual carriageways, the speed limit is 80 kph/50 mph (Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands), 90 kph/56 mph (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain). There are four exceptions to this rule: Austria and Germany (100 kph/62 mph), Sweden (70 kph/43 mph) and the United Kingdom (96 kph/70 mph).
  • Some countries authorize higher speeds on express roads: 90-100 kph/56-62 mph in Sweden, 100 kph/62 mph in Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain, 110 kph/68mph Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy and 112 kph/60 mph in the United Kingdom.
  • On motorways, the speed limit is 100 kph/62 mph in Cyprus, 110 kph/68 mph in Sweden, 112 kph/69 mph in the United Kingdom, 120 kph/75 mph in Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland and Spain and finally 130 kph/80 mph in Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany (where some sections don’t have speed limits), Hungary, Italy (some sections are limited to 150 kph/93 mph), Lithuania, Luxemburg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Driving over the authorised speed limit can lead to fines which vary between €10 and 3,000 depending on the speed and the country concerned. The harshest member states in terms of speed limits today are Belgium and Portugal, followed by Denmark and Italy. You may be interested to know that drivers in Finland are fined according to their income. So, a “simple” speeding ticket can cost tens of thousands of euros to wealthy Finnish drivers!

Alcohol limits

The blood alcohol content (BAC) limit when driving is 0.5 grams/litre in 15 of the 27 member states. The exceptions are:

  • Zero tolerance (0 g/l): Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Slovakia.
  • 0.2 g/l BAC: Poland and Sweden.
  • 0.4 g/l BAC: Lithuania.
  • 0.5 g/l BAC: Cyprus and Ireland.
  • 0.8 g/l BAC: Malta and the United Kingdom.

Whatever the country, drivers tested with BAC levels above the legal level face fines that vary from several hundred to several thousand euros and can also expect to be prosecuted in some cases.

How are such offences dealt with?

Drivers who do not respect the speed limits or authorised BAC levels will generally be required to pay a fine on the spot to ensure they pay. If you aren’t actually pulled over, there are two possibilities: either the authorities forward the fine to your country of origin, particularly true of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Luxemburg, or they “drop” the matter and you won’t have to pay the fine. Whatever the case, you will not lose any points off your driving license. In terms of parking fines, the risk of being tracked down is minimal because most fines under €70 are dropped in the case of foreign drivers. However, to ensure motorists pay their fines, some countries don’t hesitate to impound vehicles. A radical but effective solution.

In the event of an accident?

Your motor insurance should cover you with the same guarantees as if you were in your country of origin. We nonetheless recommend contacting your insurance firm to see whether any suspensive clauses apply. In the event of an accident, you must declare the accident to the National Office of Vehicle Insurance of the country concerned (ask your insurance firm), which will indemnify all the victims of the accident before contacting the insurance firm of the person responsible for the accident. Important: whatever the event (accident, vandalism, theft), you have to make a declaration to your insurance firm within 48 hours to 5 days (depending on the contract). Check with your insurance firm.


For more information about legislation in the different countries, we recommend consulting the following motoring sites:

Photo credits: ©Julien Eichinger/