Driving in Europe

I have taken this directly from the Money Saving Expert website as I think it is a very good guide to driving in Europe, I removed one or two of the moneysaving links, for the full site follow the link https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/driving-in-europe/

Full help, incl equipment needed, insurance & speed limits

Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France

Taking your car to the Continent, or flying there then renting one, can save money and hassle – but get it wrong and you can run into problems and potentially face hefty fines. This guide has full help, including how to check you’ve the right paperwork and insurance cover, plus country-specific info on speed limits, emissions rules and extra equipment you’ll need.

Brexit may affect some of the info below in future, but nothing’s likely to happen until we actually leave the EU. We’ll update this guide when we know more.  

Driving in Europe checklist

Here are the key things to check before driving to or in mainland Europe:

Make sure your driving licence is valid

If you’re driving in Europe, you’ll need to take your licence with you. The good news is Great Britain and Northern Ireland driving licences can be used in all countries in the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) – so long as you have a full, not provisional, licence

Which countries are in the EU and EEA?

EU: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, UK.

EEA: Includes all the countries in the EU, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

While Switzerland isn’t in either the EU or EEA, UK driving licences are also valid there provided the holder is 18 or over.

If you’re planning to drive elsewhere in Europe, you might need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is a requirement or recommendation in over 140 countries worldwide. For example, in Andorra and Hungary you’ll need one if you’ve still got a green paper UK driving licence, while in Turkey you’ll need one if you’re staying more than three months. For more info on where you need an IDP and how to get one, see our Is your driving licence valid? guide.

Has your driving licence expired?

It may sound obvious, but it’s an easy one to miss at any time, let alone when driving abroad. So before you depart, check the expiry date on your current licence. If it’s due to expire before your planned return from Europe, you’ll need to renew before you go. Full details in Is your driving licence valid?

Hiring a car? Request a DVLA code to take with you

If you’re hiring a car abroad, then as well as taking your driving licence you should request a personal code from the DVLA. You can do this up to 21 days ahead. It’s so hire firms can check for points on your licence – you may need to provide the code when you go to the counter to collect your car.

In practice many firms don’t seem to ask for the code, but it’s wise to get one anyway just to be on the safe side. For full info on how to get it, see DVLA code help.

Take the right documents

The AA recommends taking the following documents with you when driving abroad, to avoid being fined or even having your car towed:

  • Passport. Obviously.
  • Travel insurance documents. Also obviously
  • Valid driving licence.

If you’re taking your own car, you’ll also need:

  • Vehicle registration certificate. Otherwise known as the V5C or log book – you’ll need the original, not a copy.
  • Motor insurance certificate. See more on this below.

As we’ve said above, if you’re hiring a car in Europe, you’ll need:

  • A DVLA licence check code. Hire firms won’t always ask for this, but it’s worth taking to be on the safe side.

If travelling outside the EU and EEA, you may also need:

  • Visa(s). Check the entry requirements of the country you’re visiting on Gov.uk – for example, you’re likely to need one in Turkey.
  • International Driving Permit. See more on this in Is your driving licence valid?

Taking your own car? Check your insurance…

Under EU rules, if you have a UK car insurance policy then when driving within the EU or EEA you automatically get third-party cover – ie, your provider will pay out if you damage another car, but not if you damage your own or it gets stolen. Some comprehensive UK policies go further and also offer comprehensive European cover – if in doubt, check.

  • Make sure you take a copy of your motor insurance certificate with you so you can prove you’re covered.

If you’re planning to drive in a European country that isn’t part of the EU or EEA, you may need to ask your insurer for a ‘green card’ – essentially an international insurance certificate that proves your policy provides minimum cover.

You won’t need a green card in Andorra, Serbia or Switzerland, which recognise third-party cover in the same way as EU countries. But you will if taking your car to Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Turkey or Ukraine. The green card should be free of charge, although your insurer may charge you to extend your cover if it sees fit.

If you need to extend your insurance – for example, if your policy only gives third-party EU cover but you want comprehensive – call your insurer giving your dates of travel and the countries you’ll visit (or plan to pass through, even if it’s only for a few hours) to extend the policy. There may be a charge of £20-£30, but some providers will do it for free if you’re only going for up to three days.

…and check whether your breakdown cover is valid in Europe

UK breakdown cover is rarely valid overseas, so check before you go anywhere.

If yours isn’t, and you’ll only be away for a short time, contact your provider to upgrade your cover to Europe. As with car insurance, this could cost you extra.

If you don’t already have breakdown cover, and you’re only likely to be away for a few days a year, take out a cheap UK policy and then upgrade it just for a few days– check that option’s available before taking out the policy though.

If you regularly drive on the Continent, it may be cheaper to take out an annual breakdown policy that also covers Europe.

You may need extra equipment in your car, e.g., a reflective jacket

In the UK there’s no legal obligation to carry any particular equipment in your car. But in many European countries it’s compulsory to have certain gear – exactly what depends on the country and time of year, but usually it includes some or all of the following:

  • Reflective jacket
  • Warning triangle
  • Snow chains or winter tyres (depending on season, conditions and terrain)

While it may seem unlikely you’ll be caught without the necessary equipment, bear in mind that by not carrying it you’ll be breaking the law. In Belgium, for example, you could face a fine of up to €1,500. So if you’re driving your own car in Europe, or hiring one to use there, you should buy the equipment that’s compulsory in the country/countries you’ll be driving in before you travel.

To find out what you’re legally obliged to carry in popular European destinations, check out the country-specific help below. You can buy accessories and kits that meet European regulations from the AA shop* and RAC shop – you may be able to find what you need cheaper elsewhere online, but check it conforms to the necessary standards of the country you’re visiting before buying.

Hiring a car? Check the boot before you drive off

Car hire firms will usually provide all the necessary equipment – but it’s technically the driver’s responsibility, not the hire firm’s, to make sure it’s onboard. So when checking over a rental car before you drive off, make sure you have all the necessary equipment.

Turn your phone into a free sat-nav

While it’s not required equipment, you’re likely to want a sat-nav system when driving in Europe. Car rental firms often charge over £10/day extra for one, but you don’t need to pay – there’s a trick to turn your phone into a free worldwide sat-nav.

Check if you need an emissions sticker to avoid a £70+ fine

Depending on where you’re planning to drive in Europe, you may need to display an emissions sticker or badge on your windscreen. Several countries on the Continent require you to do this to drive through certain cities at certain times, to curb pollution. If you have an older car it could be banned altogether at certain times.

France introduced an emissions sticker scheme last year, and there is a similar one in place in Germany. In Belgium, only drivers of the most polluting vehicles need buy a permit, while in Italy you can only drive through certain historical centres and major towns if you’re a resident.

In some cases you’ll have to order a sticker before you leave the UK, so check what you need and see full details of how to get one in our country-by-country info below. It’s vital to do this if you’ll be driving in a low emissions zone – usually the stickers only cost a few quid but if you’re caught without one you could be fined £70+ in some cases.

  • Beware rip-off emissions-sticker sites. We’ve seen third-party websites selling French and German stickers at more than FIVE TIMES the going rate. For the cheapest options, see our country-by-country info.

Hiring a car? Check with the rental firm

What if you’re renting a car in Europe and driving in a low emissions zone? Well, check with the hire firm if it’s organised a sticker. In Germany, for instance, hire cars come with stickers by default.

You’re unlikely to be able to apply for a sticker yourself as you’ll need vehicle registration details to do so.

Keep loose change in your car for tolls

Many European countries, including France, Ireland, Italy and Spain, have toll roads where you pay at a gate to use them. While most tollbooths now accept a variety of payment methods, it’ll make your journey a lot less stressful if you’re prepared for any eventuality.

So keep enough loose change and cash in your car in the correct currency or currencies to cover the cost of toll roads – there are websites that can give you an idea of costs before you go – and keep it somewhere accessible to avoid any last-minute fumbling at the barriers.

Many toll roads now accept credit cards too – so if you’ve a specialist overseas card, you may be able to use that instead (and get a better rate).

Remember: drive on the right

Apart from the UK (and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man), there are just three European countries that drive on the left – Cyprus, Ireland and Malta. So, chances are that if you’re driving in Europe, you’ll be driving on the right.

As you’d expect, it can take some getting used to if you’ve not done it before, especially in a left-hand drive car. The AA advises first-timers to give themselves extra time to get where they want to go, take regular breaks and travel with an alert passenger so you’ve someone to give you the heads-up if you lapse into ‘left-hand side autopilot’. This is especially easily done when pulling back onto the road after a fuel stop or lunch break, so be aware.

Also exercise extra caution at roundabouts and junctions, and when overtaking. For more help, see the AA’s tips on driving on the right.

Going in your own car? You’ll need headlight converters

If you’re taking your own wheels overseas, you’ll need headlight converters. That’s because at night the headlights of cars designed for driving on the left-hand side of the road will dazzle oncoming drivers in countries where you drive on the right. It’s a legal requirement in most European countries not to dazzle oncoming drivers, and if you don’t take steps to ensure your car doesn’t, you could receive a fine if stopped – or even invalidate your insurance.

Headlight converters are stickers that adjust the dipped beam of your headlights to prevent them dazzling oncoming drivers. They’re generally compatible with a huge range of cars and come with fitting instructions. Kits are widely available and usually cost about £8-£10 – AA converters* are currently discounted and cost £5.55, not including delivery.

Don’t leave looking into them until the last minute, as depending on your car you may need to get a mechanic to adjust your headlights for you instead.

Remember to remove converters as soon as you return to the UK, and also that in some European countries it’s compulsory to use dipped headlights or daytime-running lights in tunnels, when visibility is poor due to rain, fog etc or even throughout the day regardless of the conditions.

If you’re hiring a car in Europe, you can take a child car seat for free

If you’re travelling with tots and planning to fly to the Continent then hire a car once you get there, you’ll need a car seat.

Renting one can be pricey, adding £7-£8 a day to the cost of hiring a car in many cases. The good news is many airlines let you check in a car seat for free, in addition to your usual luggage allowance.

For more info, and an airline-by-airline list of exactly what you can take with you for free, see our Overseas Travel Tips guide.

Do you need to display a GB sticker?

Unless the number plates on your car have a Euro symbol and the Great Britain (GB) national identifier on, it’s compulsory to display a ‘GB’ sticker on your car when travelling in the EU – according to the AA and RAC you could be fined if you don’t.

Stickers and magnetic plates are available from the likes of the RAC and Halfords*, the former costing about £1-£3 and the latter around £3-£4. You may be able to find them cheaper elsewhere online, but make sure they conform to the following specifications:

  • Black letters
  • White background
  • Ellipse shape with width greater than height
  • Letters at least 80mm high with a stroke width of at least 10mm

Country-specific need-to-knows

The rules on how fast you can drive, what equipment you need to take and what emissions stickers you may need vary by country.

To help, we’ve summarised the key info below for the most popular destinations in Europe for UK drivers. (There are 50 sovereign states in Europe, so we haven’t done them all. But for comprehensive country-by-country info, see the AA website.)

  • Double-check before you go. We’ve summarised the info for each country below as best we can, based on local information plus AA and RAC tips – and last updated it in August 2018. Rules can change without warning though, particularly with emissions schemes which are mid-roll-out – so check local info too before you go.
Belgian flag

Driving in Belgium

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 120km/h (75mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 90km/h (56mph) in Brussels-Capital Region and Wallonia, 70km/h (43mph) in Flanders
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)
  • Residential areas: 20km/h (12mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Reflective jacket
  • Warning triangle

Emission rules

Antwerp and Brussels each have a low emission zone (LEZ).

  • Antwerp: To find out if you have to pay for your car to enter the LEZ, take the test on the Antwerp city website. If your car passes but has a UK number plate, you’ll still need to register for free no later than 24 hours after entering the LEZ, again using the Antwerp city website

    If your car doesn’t pass the test, you can buy an LEZ day pass online, which you can do on the day – these cost €35 (about £30) and allow you to enter the LEZ until 6am the following day. You’re limited to eight per year per vehicle. If your car fails the test and you enter the LEZ without buying a pass you could be fined €150 (around £130).
  • Brussels: If your car has a UK number plate you’ll need to register in advance on the Brussels region website before entering the LEZ. To check if you’ll have to pay, refer to the tables on the Brussels region website – you’ll need your vehicle registration certificate (aka logbook or V5C) handy if you don’t know your emissions standard.

    If your car meets the criteria for entering the LEZ for free, registering is all you’ll have to do. But if you have to pay, you can buy a day pass after registering. These cost €35 (about £30), and you’re limited to eight per year per vehicle. If you enter the LEZ without registering your car, or in a car that doesn’t meet the free-entry criteria and doesn’t have a day pass, you could be fined €150 (around £130).

Registration and day passes for Antwerp and Brussels are not interchangeable. Registration and day passes are only available online – you’re not required to display a sticker or any other physical proof in either city as checking is done by number plate.

French flag

Driving in France

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 130km/h (81mph)
  • Urban motorways and dual carriageways with central reservations: 110km/h (68mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 80km/h (50mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Reflective jacket – kept within reach
  • Warning triangle
  • Breathalyser – while there’s no fine for not having one, the law states you must be able to produce one unused, certified self-test breathalyser. You can get a pack of two from Halfords* for £5.99 in store or via click and collect, or order for £5.99 including delivery from Amazon*
  • Snow chains – compulsory in some areas during winter, must be used as per road signs

Emission rules

A number of French cities now have low emission schemes, and more are being added all the time. Cities affected include:

  • Chambery – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level
  • Grenoble – permanent scheme, only applies to commercial vehicles
  • Lille – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level
  • Lyon – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level
  • Marseille – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level
  • Paris – permanent scheme, applies daytime on weekdays
  • Strasbourg – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level
  • Toulouse – emergency scheme, access only restricted if pollution reaches a particular level

If you want to drive in a restricted area, whether there’s a permanent or emergency scheme, you’ll need to display an air quality certificate sticker, known as a Crit’Air vignette, on your windscreen. If you don’t you could be hit with an on-the-spot fine of €68 – over £60.

There are six different types of sticker – the type you get will depend on the emissions standard your car meets, and will dictate where you can drive. Once you’ve got a sticker you can drive in any city’s restricted area and it’s valid for the lifetime of your car.

Stickers cost €4.21 (about £3.75) including postage from the official French environment ministry website. It’s worth digging out your vehicle registration certificate/logbook before you get started if you’re not familiar with your car’s emission standard. While the website says stickers should arrive within 10 days of application, the RAC says it can take up to six weeks, so take that into account when planning your trip.

German flag

Driving in Germany

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 130km/h (81mph) on some – on others there is no official speed limit (shown by a circular white sign with five diagonal black lines)
  • Outside built-up areas: 100km/h (62mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

It’s not actually compulsory for UK-registered cars to carry any special equipment. However, it’s recommended you carry a reflective jacket and warning triangle, as these are compulsory for German cars.

Emission rules

There are low emission zones in most major German cities, including Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart.

Drivers are legally required to display an emissions sticker known as an ‘Umweltplakette’ to enter these zones. There are three colours of sticker – green, yellow and red – with the colour denoting a car’s emission standard and therefore whether it can enter a particular zone. Most cities only allow cars with green stickers to enter. If you enter a low emission zone without a sticker, you could be fined £70+.

The cheapest way to buy one is from the official Berlin city website (though stickers are valid in all LEZs across Germany). They cost €6 (around £5.30) including postage – allow 14 days for delivery. They only need to be replaced if they’re damaged or you re-register your car. While you can also buy stickers from the vehicle licensing authority, vehicle inspection centres and some garages, be aware that the price isn’t fixed by the German government, so some places sell them for more than twice the price.

Irish flag

Driving in Ireland

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 120km/h (75mph)
  • National roads (including dual carriageways): 100km/h (62mph), or as indicated by road signs
  • Local and regional roads: 80km/h (50mph), or as indicated by road signs
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

As in the UK, it’s not compulsory to carry any special equipment.

Emission rules

Ireland doesn’t have any low emission zones or schemes that apply to cars.

Italian flag

Driving in Italy

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 130km/h (81mph)
  • Dual carriageways: 110km/h (68mph)
  • Urban motorways: 70km/h (44mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 90km/h (56mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Reflective jacket
  • Warning triangle
  • Snow chains (or winter tyres) – depending on conditions, must be used where signs indicate

Emission rules

Most major towns and cities in Italy have low emission zones, especially in the north. There are restrictions on where you can drive in Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Bologna and many more cities.

In most cases, you can’t drive into cities during the day on weekdays, although in some, cars are barred on Sundays too. Penalties for entering at a restricted time range from €70 (about £62) to a very steep €450 – circa £400.

For the vast majority of zones, permits to enter them when restrictions are in place aren’t available to visitors, though some cities do allow you to enter if you’re staying at a hotel within a low emission zone. Information in English is difficult to come by, so check with your hotel before travelling if that’s the case and your Italiano is non buono.

The exception is Milan, where a congestion charge is payable, much like in London, if you want to enter the historical centre, otherwise known as area C.

Dutch flag

Driving in the Netherlands

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 130km/h (81mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 80km/h (50mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

Like in the UK, it’s not compulsory to carry any special equipment.

Emission rules

Rotterdam and Utrecht have low emission zones (LEZs). But you don’t need to order an emissions sticker in advance – all that matters is the date of your car’s first registration, which you can find on your vehicle registration certificate (which you may know as your logbook or V5C).

  • Rotterdam: If you have a petrol car, you can enter the LEZ without paying, provided it was first registered after 1 July 1992. If you’ve a diesel, you can enter without paying if it was first registered after 1 January 2001. If you have an older car and want to enter the LEZ, you can apply for a one-day exemption. These cost €25.30, last 24 hours and are only available via the official Rotterdam website. Enter with an older car and no exemption, and you risk a fine of €95 (£85).
  • Utrecht: Have a diesel car? You can enter the LEZ if it was first registered after 1 January 2001. You risk being fined €90 (£80) if you enter with an older diesel car. There aren’t currently any entry requirements for petrol cars.
Portuguese flag

Driving in Portugal

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 120km/h (75mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 80km/h (56mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Photo ID
  • Reflective jacket
  • Prepaid motorway toll tickets – you have to prepay tolls on many motorways in Portugal. You can do this via an automated credit card system, a prepaid card activated by text message, a prepaid ticket or an electronic device that you rent temporarily and link to your bank account. Full info, including rates, can be found on the official Portugal Tolls website

Emission rules

Lisbon is the only city in Portugal to have a low emission zone (LEZ) – and it’s actually two zones. You can drive in zone 1 provided your car, whether petrol or diesel, complies with Euro 2 emission standards, which generally means cars manufactured since January 1996. You can drive in zone 2 as long as your (petrol or diesel) car meets Euro 1 emission standards – those manufactured since January 1992.

There’s not a lot of information about the zones available in English, but this Lisbon city council leaflet gives you an idea of where they are.

Spanish flag

Driving in Spain

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 120km/h (75mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 90km/h (56mph) on ordinary roads, 100km/h (62mph) on roads with more than one lane in each direction
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)
  • Residential areas: 20km/h (12mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Reflective jacket – you won’t be fined for not carrying one, but you could be for not wearing one on the road should you break down, so keep it handy
  • Warning triangle – one is compulsory, but two are recommended as you could get fined for using only one in the event of an accident or breakdown
  • Spare wheel and tools to change a wheel

It’s worth noting that you’re NOT legally obliged to carry a spare pair of glasses with you if you need them to drive, as is sometimes reported. But according to Spain’s Directorate of Traffic you could be fined if you need your glasses to drive and they’re broken, so carrying a spare pair is advisable.

Emission rules

Spain doesn’t have any permanent low emissions zones or schemes at present, but Madrid and Barcelona sometimes put temporary restricted zones in place if air pollution reaches a high level.

  • In Barcelona, this means petrol cars manufactured before 2000 and diesel cars manufactured before 2006 aren’t allowed in the restricted zone. See the Barcelona city council website for more info.
  • In Madrid, this can mean speed and parking restrictions, and the banning of 50% of vehicles on alternating days depending on their number plates. See the Madrid city council website (in Spanish – translate into English using Google Translate or similar) for more info.
Swiss flag

Driving in Switzerland

Speed limits

  • Motorways: 120km/h (75mph)
  • Outside built-up areas: 90km/h (56mph)
  • Built-up areas: 50km/h (31mph)

Compulsory to carry

  • Snow chains – must be used where signs indicate
  • Warning triangle – must be kept within easy reach, ie, not in the boot
  • Motorway tax sticker – if you drive on the motorway you’ll need to display a colourful vignettesticker to show you’ve paid tax. You can buy these in advance online for £35 from the official Switzerland Travel Centre, or get them from customs offices at the Swiss border for about £31 – they’re also sold at most Swiss post offices, petrol stations and garages. They’re valid between 1 December of the previous year and 31 January of the following year. If you use the motorway without a sticker you could be fined around £155.

Emission rules

Switzerland doesn’t have any low emissions zones or schemes at present.