Driving in Europe

Tips & guides

8 April 2019

Breathtaking mountainside passes, scenic ocean roads and empty country lanes make driving one of the best ways to navigate Europe's varied landscapes. And whether you’re making the hop over the Channel for business or pleasure, bringing the car along could be a straightforward and relatively speedy journey.

However, driving abroad does mean being aware of (and sticking to) the local rules of the road. So, before you pack your bags and hit the highway, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different rules you’ll need to brush up on and the documentation and equipment you’ll need to carry with you.

Keep your trip safe and hassle-free by preparing your car in advance and getting to grips with European road rules with our practical guide to driving in Europe.


How will Brexit impact driving in Europe?

Post-Brexit, there’s going to be changes to the rules governing driving in Europe, car insurance and driving permits – issues which motorists will need to consider if they’re planning on hitting European highways after this date.

We’ve listed some initial areas to consider below, but you can read our full, most up to date guidance at www.axa.co.uk/car-insurance/brexit/

Will I still be able to drive in EU countries after Brexit?

Yes. UK-issued motor insurance policies automatically include the minimum level of third-party cover needed for driving in the EU. Given that this is a requirement of the UK road Traffic Act, it’s unlikely that this will change following Brexit day.

What documents do I need to bring when driving in Europe?

You’ll probably need your motor insurance certificate, a green card and an International Driving Permit.

What is a green card?

The green card is an international certificate of insurance issued by UK insurance providers which prove the motorist has the right motor insurance in place for driving in the EU country they’re travelling in.

To get your own green card ahead of your trip you just need to contact your insurer and ask for one. Be sure to give sufficient notice to get your green card in time, as they can take 14 days. If you don’t plan on driving your car outside of the UK, you don’t need to arrange for your insurer to issue you with a green card and there won’t be any other impacts on your insurance cover.

What about an International Driving Permit?

The Department for Transport has said that there’s a chance British motorists will need to buy an International Driving Permit if they plan on driving in countries in Europe (excluding the Republic of Ireland) after Brexit.  

An International Driving Permit is a basically a translated version of your existing driving licence, which allows foreign officials to easily check your driving credentials if required. They cost £5.50 to buy and you can apply for one at your local Post Office.

What else?

Because there’s lots about Brexit still to be finalised by the Government, we don’t want to give you information that could quickly become outdated. That’s why we’ve created a place on our website for you to get all the answers you need. We’ll update this as the situation develops, so you’ll know you’re seeing the most up-to-date information we have at that time.

To see the most up to date information, visit www.axa.co.uk/car-insurance/brexit/


What other paperwork do I need for driving in Europe?

If you drive safely and sensibly when travelling by road in Europe, you're unlikely to encounter many problems. However, if accidents happen, or you're stopped by local police, there are a few documents you'll need to have at hand:

  • A valid passport and personal ID. Depending on the travel agreements agreed between the UK and the country you’re travelling to, you may need these documents to enter or exit the country.
  • Full photocard driving licence. Since June 8, 2015, paper counterpart licences will no longer be valid, so make sure you always carry your photocard licence. To find out more, read our guide to the UK driving licence changes.
  • A copy of your DVLA driver record and a licence check code.
  • Your original V5c vehicle registration document.

It's also wise to take an international phone number for your car insurance and breakdown cover providers. AXA customers can contact us from abroad on the following numbers:

  • To make a car insurance claim: +44 (0) 1732 376 249
  • To call for breakdown assistance in Europe*: +44 (0) 1737 815 375

* Please note that European breakdown cover is an optional extra that you'll need to add to your policy.


Preparing your car for a European road trip

To ensure your car is both legally and mechanically fit for European roads, there are several items you may be required to install, display or carry. These could vary country to country, so you need to check before you depart.

For driving on the other side of the road, you'll need to apply headlamp beam adjustors to avoid dazzling drivers on your left. They're available from most auto shops, but aren't 'one size fits all', so make sure you buy the right kit for your car model.

Most European countries require cars to be marked with their country of origin, so be sure that your vehicle displays the GB-Euro sticker at the rear. In addition, some European countries may legally require that motorists carry items such as:

  • A warning triangle
  • A first aid kit
  • Reflective jackets/waistcoats
  • Spare bulbs for your headlights and taillights
  • A fire extinguisher and basic tool kit are often recommended, though not legally required

The rules can vary from country to country, so always check the legal advice for each country you’re travelling to first. And as with any long car journey, your vehicle should be in good condition before you leave, so it’s wise to get it serviced before your trip. There are certain safety measures you can take yourself too, such as:

  • Checking your tyre pressure is correct. You can find the correct PSI figure for your car in the user manual, on the label inside the door frame, or the label inside the fuel flap
  • Checking whether the tyres have enough tread – this should be a minimum of 1.6mm
  • Making sure there's enough oil in the tank
  • Topping up coolant and windscreen washers
  • Storing spare antifreeze, water and oil in the car in winter months
  • Packing a tyre inflator/sealant set

You may also want to see a registered mechanic to make further checks, especially if you have any rattles, chips, scrapes or handling issues already on your mind.


Practical tips for driving in Europe

Before you set off on your journey, it's a good idea to take some time to familiarise yourself with the key differences between driving in the UK and in the European countries you'll pass through. Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or driving abroad for the first time, here’s some essential road rules you should keep in mind before you put your pedal to the metal.

  • You must be over 18 to drive in most European countries
  • With the exceptions of Malta and Cyprus, you'll need to drive on the right-hand side of the road while travelling through continental Europe
  • Road markings vary from country to country, so familiarise yourself with important road signs, markings and crossings to avoid nasty surprises
  • Many countries have toll roads and bridges – check your route or carry plenty of change in the local currency to avoid getting caught out
  • Most speed limits across Europe are expressed in kilometres per hour (km/h) rather than the UK standard miles per hour (mph). As a rough guide, it's worth remembering that 10mph = 16km/h
  • Speed limits vary widely from country to country, so it's sensible to check local limits for your country of travel, and pay attention to speed limit signs
  • If an emergency arises, the emergency number is 112 across Europe
  • A GB sticker should be clearly displayed on the back of your vehicle, if this information isn't already included on your number plate.
  • Radar and camera detectors (which pinpoint speed cameras) are illegal across much of the EU, even when built into satellite navigation
  • In Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, Slovakia and Sweden, your car must be fitted with winter tyres during winter weather. Many countries also require drivers to carry snow chains in winter
  • In Croatia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, you must always have your headlights on, even during the day
  • Drink driving laws vary across Europe, with many countries having rules stricter than the UK
  • Many major cities have traffic-restricted areas and congestion charging zones, it's a good idea to avoid driving in urban centres, sticking to public transport instead.

The rules can vary from country to country, so always check the local laws and requirements for each place you’ll be driving through.

Toll roads

There aren’t many toll roads in the UK, but they’re a fact of life in continental Europe – especially on motorways. In Spain, Italy and Portugal, tolls are charged for stretches of road, while motorway vignettes (stickers that you display on your windshield) are compulsory in Austria and Switzerland. Vignettes are available in post offices, newsagents and petrol stations and should be on show from the moment you enter the country – failure to do so can result in an expensive on-the-spot fine.

While manned booths used to be the norm on motorway tolls, automated systems are gradually being rolled out and many don't accept cash. If you're travelling to France you should consider purchasing a Telepeage device, which is electronically read as your car passes through the toll booth. A benefit of these devices is that drivers in right-hand vehicles don't need to lean over the front passenger seat to pay the booth’s attendant.


Plan your route

In the age of the sat nav, getting lost on overseas roads isn’t the problem it used to be. That said, it’s still risky to be solely reliant on technology. If you're heading abroad, it's certainly worth purchasing a sat nav device for the trip, but you should also take a detailed, country-specific road atlas with you to be on the safe side.

Before you head off, take some time to plan the best route – and if you’re travelling with friends or family, ask one of the passengers to familiarise themselves with the route, too. If you do stray off-piste, it's also worth packing a phrase book and learning a few key terms in the local language. Just knowing the correct terms for ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘straight ahead’ can help a great deal if you need to stop and ask for directions.


Country-specific driving laws

Driving abroad in Europe isn’t usually drastically different from driving in the UK, but it’s important to be in tune with local laws of the road and stay observant for a safe, stress-free trip. Although this list isn’t exhaustive and you should always check the local laws for any country you drive through, here’s just a few country-specific road safety regulations to bear in mind when you’re behind the wheel.

Driving in France

  • Drivers in France must keep an unused breathalyser in the car and a reflective jacket in the passenger compartment
  • Radar detectors are illegal, whether they're in use or not – this law was extended in many European countries in 2012, including France, to include sat-nav systems that can show speed camera sites as points of interest
  • Notice two speed limits on the motorway? The lower number is for use in wet weather and for new drivers holding a licence for under two years
  • A single, continuous white line is equivalent to a double white line in the UK, meaning that you should not overtake
  • You must not use any device that is attached to the ear, such as headphones and headsets, when driving
  • Look out for the sign “priorité a droite” as this means give way to traffic coming from the right, or "Vous n'avez pas la priorité" or "Cédez le passage", which means traffic on the roundabout has priority. Where no such sign exists, traffic entering the roundabout has priority.
  • It’s mandatory for all cars to carry a breathalyser – a rule that took effect in spring 2013. It’s also a good idea to have a replacement in case of damage or malfunction.

Driving in Italy

  • Several Italian cities, including Rome and Florence, have banned car traffic completely in the city centre and will send you a ticket after the fact
  • Reflective jackets must be worn if involved in a breakdown or an accident or alongside where stopping or parking is prohibited
  • Residential areas are protected by ZTL (zona a traffico limitato) sectors. A wrong turn into a ZTL can result in a hefty fine if you’re caught by traffic cameras so look out for ZTL zone signposts in cities
  • Children under age 12 aren’t allowed to ride in the front seat of cars, and children up to age four must be in proper child safety seats
  • Headlights must be turned on whenever you’re driving in Italy, whether it’s dark or light out.
  • The left lanes of any multi-lane road are only for passing

Driving in Germany

  • Dipped headlights must be used in the daytime if there is poor visibility, while motorcyclists should always keep them on
  • The German police may collect on-the-spot fines for several offences, including running out of fuel on the Autobahn
  • You won’t have to worry about paying a toll on the Autobahn but keep an eye out for signposted speed limits in certain zones
  • If you have a GPS or Satnav system that can show the location of speed cameras, then this function must be disabled, or the system must not be carried
  • Some German have low emission zones like the London Congestion Charge

Driving in Spain

  • Drivers must carry a spare tyre, set of spare bulbs and tools, and a spare pair of glasses if required for driving
  • It's also a legal requirement to carry two red warning triangles. If your car breaks down or you have an accident, these should be placed behind and in front of the vehicle to alert other drivers. You'll also need to wear a reflective jacket, so ensure there's one kept in your passenger compartment
  • Many of Spain’s motorways (autovías) are toll roads, identified with the letter 'A'
  • It’s illegal to sound your horn at night in urban areas, so take care to keep quiet unless it’s an emergency
  • If you need glasses to drive, Spanish law requires you always have a spare pair in your car

Driving in the Netherlands

  • When driving in the Netherlands, beware of large numbers of cyclists and rollerbladers
  • However, a lower limit of 20 milligrams applies to new drivers for the first five years and to moped riders under 24 years of age
  • Please be aware, that penalties for drink driving in the Netherlands are severe and include a fine, withdrawal of your driving licence and in some cases imprisonment
  • Trams and buses have the right of way in the public transport-friendly Netherlands. If a tram stops in the middle of the road to let passengers on and off, you’ll need to stop and wait

Driving in Belgium

  • In Belgium, you must give priority to vehicles joining the road from the right, even if they’ve stopped for pedestrians or at a junction
  • In the case of a breakdown/accident, you (the driver) must wear a reflective safety jacket as soon as you leave your vehicle or if stopped where parking is not allowed
  • Vehicles with more than two wheels must carry a warning triangle
  • Don’t use horns in built up areas – except in emergency situations
  • The speed limit in built-up areas is up to 31 mph (50 km/h), for outside built-up areas it’s 55mph (90km/h) and for motorways it’s 74mph (120 km/h)

From carrying the necessary paperwork to familiarising yourself with local road signs and driving styles, keeping up to speed with what’s required to drive safely and legally in Europe safely can feel a little overwhelming. Preparation is key, which is why it’s a good idea to get as organised as you can and brush up with the latest driving laws before you hit the highway so that your European driving trip goes without a hitch.

Keep your car road ready with AXA

Don’t let an unexpected bump in the road but the brakes on your plans. Protect your vehicle with AXA car insurance to help keep it going from A to B – no matter what lies ahead.