Most of Europe has good roads, but in comparison with the United States, fuels and other costs for driving are high. A car is usually the most practical vehicle for moderate distances (10–300 km) in the countryside. In big cities, street congestion often makes public transportation and cycling better options and cars are often a liability. On long distances, rail or air travel is usually faster between cities, and intercity buses often cheaper.
Driving can be an enjoyable and feasible way to see the countryside and smaller cities. As the process of obtaining a driver's licence is a lot harder than in the U.S. or many developing countries, for example, and as there are plenty of alternatives to driving especially in urban areas, those who do drive tend to be confident and comfortable with driving. However, driving culture varies widely between countries.
Driving is seldom a good option in cities: one-way streets make navigation difficult, there may be congestion and parking is usually expensive and hard to find. Many cities also impose congestion charges, low-emission zones or other limitations. On the flipside, urban public transport tends to be good, while walking and cycling are serious alternatives in many cities. Many European cities have a compact central area that can be covered on foot, and in such places car ownership among residents is often low.
Cars are usually in good working order as most European countries have requirements for a regular check-up to ensure all cars on the road meet minimum safety standards. Starting from Sweden and the Netherlands, policies to increase road safety to a goal of zero traffic fatalities have spread through Europe and are gaining ground. Those "Vision Zero" policies manifest in different ways, but aim to discourage risky behaviour and build infrastructure in such a way that mistakes are less likely and their consequences less severe. Sweden, Norway and several other countries have since the 1970s seen a steady and substantial decline in fatal accidents.
Road conditions vary widely. Most major roads in temperate climate zones are in very good condition, though minor roads may not be well-built or maintained. In remote areas, poorer countries and in extreme climates, even major roads may be potholed and uneven, and some may not be paved. In winter and spring, driving can be challenging because of snow and ice, especially in the extreme north and in the mountains.
International Vehicle Registration Codes
- Main article: European_quick_reference
All European countries demand that foreign vehicles display their country of origin. This can either be inside an oval disk or in small letters on the left-hand side of their number-plate. These codes are also used on certain road signs that give directions to neighbouring countries The codes used do not follow the ISO 3166 system or the convention used for internet domains but follow codes allocated at the 1909 or 1924 international conventions.
All the European country codes are listed alongside, together with the flag of the country concerned and the name of the country in the local language(s) and script. If you are planning to drive in a country that does not use the Latin script, it is advisable to familiarise oneself with the local script. Where two or more languages are in widespread use in a country, the local name is given in all commonly-used languages
A 140 mm by 110 mm sticker, which is attached to the vehicle's bodywork.
International code on the blue strip of this registration plate.
For country-specific info, you should generally consult the By car sections of the country's article. However, Wikivoyage does have dedicated articles about driving in some European countries:
- See also: Driving in Austria
To visit rural Austria, car can be a good option.
- See also: Driving in Denmark
While the bicycle can be a good alternative to the car in Denmark, driving is usually easy. Parking in cities can be a hassle, though.
- See also: Driving in Finland
With exception of the coastal areas, Finland is sparsely populated. Some roads are very scenic.
- Main article: Driving in France
Similar to much of Europe, driving in France is very straightforward unless you go through the cities.
- Main article: Driving in Germany
Germany is known for its motorways, called Autobahns.
- Main article: Driving in Iceland
Iceland is a fairly large island with a sparse population and no railways, so driving is the obvious choice for getting around outside the capital region. The ferry from Denmark takes three days, so consider hiring a car rather than bringing your own.
- Main article: Driving in Italy
It shouldn't be hard to get around Italy if you have the money to pay tolls, and therefore drive on quieter roads.
- Main article: Driving in Norway
Norway goes a long way north to south, and by driving you can reach places in Norway that are difficult to reach using other forms of transport. Countless scenic drives on roads that are often narrow and steep. Distances and driving times are frequently underestimated. Driving in winter can be very challenging even for locals.
- See also: Driving in Poland
Poland has a decent system of public transport, though if you find it inconvenient you always can hit the road. Beware that roads are often congested, not up to western European standards and highways frequently go through small villages.
- Main article: Driving in Portugal
From fast modern motorways to middling national roads to narrow unpaved rural roads, Portugal's roads offer varied landscapes and conditions. Sometimes rewarding and often challenging, driving in Portugal offers adventure beyond the country's rail and bus systems.
- Main article: Driving in Russia
The largest country in the world is so large that it is hard to get around, even by car. While viewing the countryside by driving is an interesting idea, it's best to know where you're going so you don't end up on the Kolyma Highway.
- Main article: Driving in Spain
Getting around for example central Madrid by car is usually a bad idea, but if you plan on exploring La Alpujarra it can be really convenient. Spain has a good road network and is one of the largest countries in Europe.
- Main article: Driving in Sweden
Generally, driving in Sweden works well, but be careful about driving in winter or going into wilderness areas and be careful about drinking before you drive.
- Main article: Driving in Switzerland
Switzerland is a small but mountainous country, so you will generally not need to drive long distances to get from place to place but the drive itself may be challenging.
- Main article: Driving in the United Kingdom
The only country in Europe to widely use the imperial system of measurements on signage. A car in London and other major cities is an unnecessary liability, but if you're driving around the country or going through small towns, a car is useful and sometimes essential
- Original registration document for the car is compulsory.
- Motor vehicle insurance certificate is compulsory.
- A black and white, 1–3 letter country identity sticker is compulsory, although a number plate that includes the country code suffices in most countries. In particular, such number plates from EU suffice in any EU country.
In most European countries, you are required to carry your driving licence when driving, in some cases accompanied by the International Driving Permit (IDP). While the latter is not compulsory for certain nationalities in some European countries, it is cheap and could save you from nasty incidents with authorities in some.
Countries outside EU have not harmonised their rules. See the individual country articles.
Rules on driving licences from non-EU countries vary widely inside the EU, but in general they are valid for short stays. In some countries the IDP may be required. There may be more strict requirements. The local minimum age for driving will usually override a foreign driving licence. Almost everywhere, especially in the EU, you need to be at least 18 years old to drive, even supervised.
In countries with learning schemes, it's usually an exhaustive and expensive procedure to get a permit, and rarely applicable to foreign citizens anyway. Exceptions include Portugal, Ireland and the UK.
The European Union has a standardised driver's licence. A licence obtained in one EU country is valid in the entire EU – if the holder satisfies general requirements, such as age – even if the holder moves to a different one. To obtain a driver's licence in a particular member country, you must be a resident of that country for a period of at least 180 days.
Two exceptions to the rule on EU driver's licences:
- If you convert a foreign licence to an EU one and then move to a different country, you may be required to convert the licence again (or obtain a full EU licence by taking a driving test).
- Expiration is governed by the country of residence, not the issuing country. For example, German licences issued before 2013 do not expire, but if a holder of such a licence moves to Italy, that licence can be used in Italy for a maximum of 10 years (the validity period in Italy beginning with the first day of residence for non-Italian licences).
There may occasionally be issues with law enforcement refusing to recognise old licences issued by other EU members before the EU model was introduced (or before these countries joined the EU), even if they are still valid. It is safest to exchange these licences for a new one.
Insurance is not only sensible, but in all European countries third party insurance is mandatory. The EU requires that any motor vehicle insurance taken out in any member state automatically meets the minimum insurance requirement in any other EU country. EEA countries as well as the United Kingdom are also party to this agreement. If you are travelling across borders of countries that are outside this scheme (such as Russia), you will need to get a "Green Card", which is proof of your insurance in a standard format. You can get one from your insurance company.
The required insurance is mainly about damages to another party. To cover your own losses (and compensation to your car hiring firm) in case of an accident, you need additional voluntary insurance.
- See also: Winter driving
- A warning triangle is compulsory nearly everywhere, as is using it in case of breakdowns.
- First-aid kits are compulsory in certain countries.
- Carrying high-visibility (reflective) vests in cars is compulsory in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Serbia and Spain and gaining popularity elsewhere.
- Headlamp adjusters are compulsory equipment in most countries, but in the UK and Ireland only if you are driving a continental car.
- Driving in winter or mountains, you may need winter tyres or chains. Legal requirements vary. Chains are mostly used in mountain passes, winter tyres in general wintry weather. Unstudded winter tyres are allowed anywhere; studded tyres or chains are forbidden in some countries and in some city areas elsewhere.
Rules on use of video cameras mounted in the car ("dashcams") vary. If you consider using one, check the regulations of each country.
- No restrictions beyond the usual road safety rules: Spain, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, UK, Latvia. (After a serious accident, the UK police will often ask the public who were not involved to check whether they captured the accident on a dash-cam).
- Restricted to private use only: France and Belgium.
- Completely banned: Austria and Portugal.
The use of hand-held mobile telephones is prohibited in most European countries while the use of hands-free phones is under review as of 2022. In many countries however, it is permitted to use mobile telephone (cell phones) as satellite navigation devices provided that the device is mounted in a manner that the driver can safely view it without touching it. The intending driver should review the local laws before entering the country concerned.
Renting a car
- See also: Car rental
If you plan to rent a car to drive around Europe, it often makes sense to check the rates in different countries rather than just getting a car in the country of arrival. The price differences can be substantial for longer rentals, to the extent that it can make sense to adjust your travel plans accordingly, e.g. if you plan on travelling around Scandinavia by car, it will often be much cheaper to fly into Germany and rent a car there. Compared to North America, you should be prepared for smaller, more fuel efficient cars, and most of them have manual transmission, so don't expect an automatic without requesting one when placing your order (and often paying extra). Some rental agencies also have stipulations in their contracts, prohibiting the rental of a car in one country and taking it to some others. It is for example common that a car rented in Germany may not be taken to Poland due to concerns of theft. This is less common the other way round, so if you are planning on visiting both countries by rental car, it might be easier (and cheaper) to rent a car in Poland and drive to Germany with it.
In most of Europe, crossing borders by car is a painless process. The Schengen Area allows you to drive from the Arctic to the Mediterranean without so much as a passport check. Besides the members, some microstates have open borders with the Schengen Area. Light border controls are maintained between Schengen and non-Schengen countries of the European Union (EU). Border crossing is also reasonably smooth between the EU and countries with ambitions to join the union.
Within the Schengen Area, you may hardly notice when crossing a border. Normally, the only evidence you're doing so is one sign welcoming you to the new country and another telling you the default national speed limits in pictogram form. However, rental car contracts may forbid you from taking the car to certain countries or even from crossing borders altogether. Schengen countries are allowed to reimpose temporary border controls during times of perceived crisis; some of these "temporary" controls are better described as semi-permanent. Your papers may also be checked elsewhere, at random.
Ireland and the United Kingdom maintain their own open-border zone called the Common Travel Area. However, since Brexit, more intensive border controls between the UK and other EU countries have been imposed — depending on traffic volumes, flow can fluctuate from relatively smooth to logjammed.
Elsewhere, such as in the Caucasus, or between the EU and Russia or Belarus, border crossings can be involved and slow, and there are countries with tense or even hostile relations with their neighbours.
In countries with vignette-based tolls, you should ideally get a vignette before crossing the border; alternatively they should be available at rest stops in the border area or at the border crossing.
Default speed limits in the country that you are entering, in this case the Netherlands: built-up areas (50 km/h), rural roads (80 km/h), expressways (100 km/h) and motorways (130 km/h)
Fuel is highly taxed in most EU and EFTA countries. As of January 2020, a litre of 95-octane petrol was about €1–1.50, 98-octane costed around 10% more; in June 2022 there were prices in the €2–2.50 range. These prices correspond to €3.75–9.50/US gallon. In Russia and other eastern non-EU countries fuel is around 30–40% cheaper. There may be significant price differences across national borders.
Car rentals cost around €30/day and more, but in Eastern-European countries you may find cars as cheap as €10–15/day.
The cost of parking varies greatly. In suburban areas on-street parking is often free, although in higher density areas free parking spots might be difficult to find. There may be free parking with a time limit (commonly ¼–2 hr), usually controlled by requiring the display of a parking disk that shows the time of arrival. Other areas charge for parking (both on-street and off-street). The costs of parking varies greatly from area to area and can be expensive in city centres (€2 per hour or more).
Toll roads, toll bridges and toll tunnels have a fee ("toll") assessed for passage. Tolls might well be different for private cars, buses, vans and HGVs (heavy goods vehicles). Those are very common in some countries while absent from some, and some might be quite expensive for foreigners. While most surface roads are toll-free for private cars, trying to avoid toll roads is hardly ever worth it in either time or money even on the shortest transits. You may still prefer rural roads for the scenery and landscape. City centre congestion charges, getting more common, are a separate cost.
Toll systems vary widely. Different types include:
|Type of fee||Description||Albania||Andorra||Armenia||Austria||Azerbaijan||Belarus||Belgium||Bosnia and Herzegovina||Bulgaria||Croatia||Cyprus||Czech Republic||Denmark||Estonia||Finland||France||Georgia||Germany||Greece||Hungary||Iceland||Ireland||Italy||Latvia||Liechtenstein||Lithuania||Luxembourg||Malta||Moldova||Montenegro||Netherlands||North Macedonia||Norway||Poland||Portugal||Romania||Russia||Serbia||Slovakia||Slovenia||Spain||Sweden||Switzerland||Turkey||Ukraine||United Kingdom||Comments|
|Distance-based||A fee based on the distance driven in kilometres and the type of vehicle. These are used primarily for revenue generation to repay for long-term debt issued to finance the toll facility, or to finance capacity expansion, operations and maintenance of the facility itself.||HGV only||HGV only||HGV only||HGV only||(few roads)||HGV only|
|Period-based||A vignette or sticker is bought for some period (a day, week, month or year) and then attached to a vehicle for easy check-up. These toll systems are used as general tax funds to maintain roads of a country.||(state and regional roads)||(state and regional roads)|
|Congestion||Used as a tool to reduce peak hour travel and the associated traffic congestion or other social and environmental problems, such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, visual intrusion, noise and road traffic collisions||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||?||Milan Area C||Jūrmala||Curonian Spit||?||?||?||?||Curonian Spit||?||Stockholm||?||?||Bath, Birmingham (mid-2021), Durham, London, Oxford (mid-2021)|
France and Italy are examples of countries that have distance-based systems and France has a lot of private, for-profit highways. There are however sometimes bridges or tunnels with considerable tolls for relatively short distances and you might consider avoiding them for whatever reason. Some toll collection points are autonomous, and the user deposits money in a machine which opens the gate once the correct toll has been paid. To cut costs and minimise time delay, many tolls are collected with electronic toll collection equipment which automatically communicates with a toll payer's transponder or uses automatic number plate recognition to charge drivers by debiting their accounts. In Spain a seemingly indecipherable system exists where some highways are tolled and others aren't depending on whether the national government or the autonomous community built and operates them and sometimes other factors. Annoyingly tolls can often be "odd" amounts (like €5.31) and there might not always be an easy option of paying cashless. French toll booths timestamp receipts and if you moved so fast between two toll booths as to indicate speeding, you are automatically issued a ticket, even if you did not get caught by a speed camera.
Many countries have vignette-based systems. Vignette is a fixed fee for driving a vehicle on that country's highways (except Moldova, Bulgaria, and Romania where it includes non-highway roads). You need to buy it before you enter the country online or it can sometimes be bought at customs, some gas stations near the border, which used to be the norm but has now gotten rarer - when in doubt research online in advance. It is sometimes at least theoretically possible to avoid the vignette toll by avoiding highways, however you'll likely spend more in time and nerves than you could possibly save in tolls. Plus, countries like Austria frequently shut down local roads to non-local traffic during the peak season(s) in essence forcing people onto the highways and hence to pay the vignette toll.
In some countries, you pay the fee and receive a sticker to affix permanently to the windshield of your car. In other countries, physical stickers are unnecessary now. Your payment is recorded electronically and can be looked up automatically via the licence plate number (and will be, by licence-plate-reading cameras that automatically issue hefty fines against unpaid vehicles that have barely crossed the border). Rental cars usually have the necessary vignette for their country of origin but not for neighbouring countries, so be sure to ask.
Most countries that use vignettes for light vehicles have long dismantled their tollbooths, so travelling in a vehicle over 3.5 t (buses, trucks) typically requires buying/renting a government-issued transponder or similar device (for example see Go Maut in Austria).
The systems vary greatly even inside the EU. Some countries charge all types of vehicles, and some demand tolls based on some combinations of these parameters: number of axles, maximum weight, passenger number, vehicle height, and vehicle category. Tolling systems can be relatively flexible and cheap (only €6 in Lithuania for 24 hours transit) or quite expensive for foreigners (Switzerland only offers annual vignettes regardless of the origin of driver or car. As of 2022 the price was CHF40 (€39 £33)).
Some Alpine passes have a separate toll, which you have to pay in addition to the general motorway toll, although in theory if your only toll road on your trip through the country is one of those, you don't have to pay for a general vignette.
|Country (date of check)||Vehicle types||Vehicle description||Periods and prices||Roads and map||Comments|
(as of July 2020)
||Motorways and expressways.||Electronic vignette. Heavier vehicles are exempted from vignette, but have to pay distance-based tolls (Streckenmaut). Some motorway/expressway stretches are subject to distance-based tolls even for passenger cars (Sondermautstrecke); vignettes are not required on these stretches. Official website|
|All passenger vehicles with full mass ≤ 3.5 tons.||
|All passenger vehicles with full mass > 3.5 tons..||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.||Go Maut|
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycles.||Free.||All roads outside of cities.||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|Light motor vehicle. Trailer with full mass >3.5 tons.||
|Trucks.||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.|
(as of May 2022)
|Motorcycles.||Free.||Motorways and expressways with some exceptions. See official map (PDF).||Electronic vignette. Official website. Be careful when buying physical vignette: there are scam kiosks at the borders, . If you still decide to buy vignette physically, then do it at electronic booths.|
|Light motor vehicle with full mass ≤3.5 tons. The mass of trailer doesn't matter.||
The reduced prices apply only to vehicles powered by natural gas or biomethane (also in combination with another fuel), (not to LPG):
|Trucks.||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.|
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycle, cars and trucks with gross weight ≤3500 kg. Buses. Towed trailers have additional toll.||Vehicles D1M: motorcycles, D1: with full mass ≤3.5t or ≤7 passengers, D2: all others
||Motorways and expressways except for parts of Budapest bypass M0. See official map.||Electronic vignette. Annual vignettes can also be purchased for only a part of country (5,000 Ft per each county). Official website|
|Trucks with gross weight >3.5 t||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.|
(as of July 2020)
|M1 category vehicle, N1 category vehicle with mass ≤ 3000 kg||Free||Almost all main state and regional roads (outside of cities). Official map||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|N1 category vehicle (transportation of goods with full mass from 3001 kg to 3500 kg); all kind of trucks and buses.||
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycles, M1 category vehicles (passenger vehicle with full mass ≤3.5t).||Free.||Most of the main state and regional roads. Official map (OpenData).||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|M2, M2, N1, N2, N3, A, B categories (any vehicle with full mass >3.5t or >8 passengers). Only M1 category vehicle is exempted from charge.||
(as of August 2020)
|Motorcycle||Free||All roads.||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|All vehicles with 2+ axes.||
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycle||Free||Almost all main state and regional roads (outside of cities).||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|All other vehicles||
(as of July 2020)
|All two-track motor vehicles or vehicle combinations <3.5 tons and for two-track motor vehicles of M1 category regardless of their total maximum permissible weight.||
||Motorways and expressways, except for some parts (mostly in Bratislava). Map Map of subject to toll collection||Electronic vignette.|
(as of May 2022)
|Motorcycles (one-track motor vehicles).||
||Motorways and expressways except for H2 in Maribor.||Electronic vignette.|
|Caravans (regardless the height above the front axle) and two-track motor vehicles, whose height above the front axle is up to 1.30 m, and whose maximum permissible weight does not exceed 3,500 kg, with or without a trailer.||
|Two-track motor vehicles whose height above the front axle is 1.30 m or more, and whose maximum permissible weight does not exceed 3,500 kg, with or without a trailer.||
|All vehicles with full mass > 3.5 t.||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.|
(as of August 2020)
|All vehicles with full mass ≤ 3.5 t||1 year (CHF 40 ~€39)||Motorways and expressways. Official website . Official map. Some stretches also have distance-based tolling for all vehicles (St. Bernard Tunnel etc.).||It has been proposed to introduce an electronic vignette in 2023.|
|All vehicles with full mass > 3.5 t.||No vignette. Distance-based tolls apply.|
Road classification in Europe varies from country to country. Broadly speaking four types of road can be found in Europe, though the details vary greatly from country to country:
- Urban roads which typically have a 50 km/h speed limit (30 mph in the Untied Kingdom) and pass through built-up areas. They vary from narrow medieval streets, through roads in built up areas to residential streets in suburbia. Increasingly, local authorities are placing 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limits in residential areas.
- Rural single-carriageway roads which typically have a speed limit of 80 to 100 km/h. These roads vary from relatively high-speed routes that have since been bypassed by motorways to narrow country lanes where passing is difficult.
- Dual-carriageway expressways which, while not motorways, might well have restrictions for certain types of slow-moving traffic. Their speed limits typically vary from 100 km/h to 130 km/h. Not all countries differentiate between expressways and rural single-carriageways.
- Motorways, which are often known even amongst English-speaking travellers as Autobahnen in Germany, autostrade in Italy, autoroutes in France and autopistas in Spain.
In addition to the type of road, roads are also classified in accordance with their national or regional importance. These classifications are colour-coded for easy identification, though there are different schemes of colour coding – in particular green is used in the United Kingdom to denote primary routes and blue to denote motorways while in Italy those colours are interchanged.
Most medium and long-distance European roads are identified by a letter followed by a number that can be up to four digits in length. The exact format varies from country to country, though the letters A, B and C are frequently used. Moreover, specific letters can have different meanings in different countries for example in France and Italy the letter “A” denotes a principal motorway while in the United Kingdom the letter “A” denotes a primary road, which is usually not a motorway. In some countries, e.g. France and Italy, the letters tell whether the road is operated by the national government or by a lower tier of government. In the latter case, the road number might change when you cross from one province (or equivalent) to another.
There is one road classification that is used throughout Europe – the E-route scheme. The “E routes” traverse Europe but are overlaid onto the national road system. The “E” route numbers replace or are shown alongside the associated national road number, for example, the Belgian A3 is part of the E40, but when the road crosses into Germany, the E40 continues along the German A44. Although E-routes are used in British government planning documents, the United Kingdom is one of the few (if not the only) European country not to identify e-routes on road signs.
Destination confirmation sign on the German A3 (part of E42)
Location marker on the Belgian A2 (part of the E314)
The ease of driving on the continent varies greatly, and, as a general rule, east and west of the erstwhile Iron Curtain are two different worlds. Western and Northern Europe for the most part have good road conditions and an extensive and well-developed highway network, whereas Eastern Europe is still working hard on the backlog left from communist days. For example, in the Latvian capital Riga, not a single bridge has undergone maintenance since the fall of the Soviet Union, and there are still nine bridges that don't belong to anyone. Poland and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic have built a lot of highways since the fall of the Iron Curtain to cope with rising automobile ownership. Minor country roads are sometimes in bad shape in countries with an otherwise well developed road network, such as England or Finland.
The end of the Cold War caused a shift in traffic patterns with some road and rail connections now appearing oversized while others are still strained to the breaking point after years of upgrade and expansion.
While drivers need to prepare for winter driving through the cold season in northern Europe and the high mountains, snow can occasionally disturb traffic even in the south. In general, snow and ice disrupt traffic more the less common it is in the affected area and the first snow of the season tends to have this effect to an even greater extent. Snow that might be shrugged off in Sweden in January may lead to total chaos on the roads and grind everything to a halt in Italy in November.
During vacations, especially during the summer and around major holidays such as Christmas, driving on the motorways (freeways) can be very tiring owing to high volumes of traffic. In France school summer holidays start on the same day all around the country and driving during that weekend should be avoided. See country articles for holiday calendars.
Even in high-income countries, some regional roads may be of lesser quality: road 945 in Kemijärvi; gravel and 15% slope
Latvian regional road P86 in 2020, uneven and over-patched
Country road in winter, Norway
Autobahn interchange near Frankfurt, Germany
Narrow residential street, Bilbao
Avoid large cities if you are not used to driving in Europe. Most central districts were built long before the introduction of automobiles, and were not meant to cope with the levels of car traffic common these days; getting a car into an old town can be impossible, or at least very difficult. High parking fees and congestion taxes are used to allow the precious road space for those who really need it, but still, driving in the city can be slow, frustrating and potentially dangerous, and finding a parking spot can take a long time and cost several euros when you find it. There are often few parking spots because of narrow streets and generally limited space. In cities like Lisbon, Istanbul, Naples and Bergen narrow and often steep streets make driving difficult and navigation is frequently confusing.
Large cities tend to have one of more suburban transport hubs with free or cheap parking, reasonably priced hotels, and public transit to the city centre. If you visit a big city by car, try to park and get accommodation there. If you are renting, try to "work around having a car" while visiting large cities.
Travellers with disabilities can in many cases (check national law) drive and park at pedestrian streets. There may be a few parking lots dedicated to the disabled near the entrance of large supermarkets and certain services. Have a permit with the international sign to put at the windscreen.
Low emission zones
In 1992 the European Union published regulations that place limitations on noxious components of motor vehicle exhaust fumes, which applied to all new cars registered in the EU. The 1992 regulations were known as the "Euro 1" regulations, the 1996 regulations as the "Euro 2" and so on. As of 2022, the most recent regulations, introduced in 2014, are the "Euro 6" regulations. In most cases, restrictions on older vehicles are defined using the oldest regulation to which they were built. Often different sets of regulations are used for diesel and petrol engines. For example, as of 2022, London's regulations permitted diesel-powered vehicles that complied with the "Euro 6" regulations and petrol-powered vehicles that complied with the "Euro 4" regulations to enter the Ultra Low Emission Zone free of charge.
Many cities operate clean air zones or low/ultra-low/zero emission zones which prohibit or impose tolls on older vehicles that do not meet specified regulations. Some countries require vehicles, including foreign vehicles, to display a sticker showing their emission classification when entering city centres. Such stickers can be bought from a variety of outlets after demonstrating that the vehicle meets the required standard. In most casse, it is sufficient that the vehicle was first registered after the specified regulations came into force.
Although the boundaries of clean air zones are clearly signposted, there is no pan-European design for such signposts; indeed signage can vary within a single country. You should therefore research any emissions requirements before starting your journey, especially if you are using your own vehicle.
London (signage varies in UK cities)
Rules of the road
Traffic circulates on the right-hand side of the road, except in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, Malta and Cyprus (all of which are islands). For the left-hand countries any references to right or left below might be reversed. Apart from the United Kingdom, Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, all distances are in kilometres (km) and speed limits in kilometres per hour (km/h).
Speed limits differ between countries and in the case of Belgium between Flanders and Wallonia. The fabled limitless German Autobahn is now confined to mostly rural sections. The majority of motorways/freeways have a 110–130 km/h (68–81 mph) speed limit, while the limit on undivided highways varies between 80 km/h (50 mph) and 100 km/h (62 mph). For North Americans, a major difference is the left lane on motorways, which is not the "fast lane" you're used to, but rather the "passing lane". It's illegal to overtake on the right (left in the British Isles). You should only occupy the fast lane when you are overtaking someone; stay there, and you will have other vehicles tailgating while flashing their lights in annoyance and traffic police eager to fine you. Remember to use turn signals when changing lanes
The German autobahns are unique in having an "advisory" limit of 130 km/h when no other speed limit is in force. In practice such "advisory limits" are only found well away from large towns or cities.
The signs denoting a lower speed limit on entry to a built-up area vary from country to coutnry. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, speed limits are explicitly denoted, in others such as France and Germany, the name of the locality in a standarised format automatically declares a speed limit. Other countries might have more stylised entry signs, but they have the same effect.
60 km/h Speed limit (DE)
End of 50 km/h speed limit (FR)
End of all speed restrictions (ES)
Start of built up area. Implied 50 km/h speed limit (FR)
End of built-up area and implied 50 km/h speed limit (FR)
Start of built-up area. Implied 50 km/h speed limit (SE)
End of built-up area and implied 70 km/h speed limit (SE)
Priority at junctions
Except for priority roads (check the yellow diamond symbols) in most continental countries, there is a general duty to give way to traffic from your right in crossings and intersections when order of priority is not settled by stop/yield signs, and other drivers have every expectation that you'll adhere to this. This also applies to unmarked T-intersections, unlike in North America, Australia or Japan, where the ending road should normally yield to the through road even if unmarked. Priority to the right does not necessarily apply to cars exiting petrol stations, parking areas, private driveways and similar. In the UK and Ireland, priority is almost always controlled by traffic lights or signage; if not, vehicles on the larger road have priority.
On the ubiquitous roundabouts (circles) you find in most countries, cars already in the circle always have right of way; don't give way to incoming drivers while on the roundabout, or you will mess up the system, potentially causing a nasty accident. Entry roads are usually also helpfully marked with yield signs. Roundabouts also carry a special round blue sign (similar to the recycling sign); circular intersections without that sign usually aren't roundabouts and might not even be one-way. Finally, don't turn right on red lights, it's illegal, and because it's not common practice, also dangerous.
At zebra and pelican crossings, you must stop for pedestrians, who have right of way. In most countries these are marked by a blue triangular pedestrian crossing sign, but in Cyprus, Gibraltar, Ireland, Malta, and the UK, they're marked by a pair of Belisha beacons - a sort of flashing yellow lollipop on a stripy pole. This also applies when you are turning on a green light (unless there is a separate arrow light for those turning). Pedestrian behaviour varies widely, as do laws concerning jaywalking and priority away from junctions; in some countries, pedestrians have right of way at all times.
Fast bikers usually rely on other traffic following rules and behaving predictably. Check your mirror before opening a door and use your indicators before turning and changing lanes, to warn bikers in blind spots. Be careful when your road crosses a cycleway (which may have priority) and when turning over a cycleway.
Give way (IT)
Give way to oncoming traffic (NO)
Oncoming traffic must give way (NO)
Priority road (IT)
Priority road ends (DE)
Pedestrians on crossing have right of way (LV)
Markings and signs are similar throughout Europe but variations in design and interpretations exist so it may be best to research each country individually before you travel. The most basic symbols are geometric shapes in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which is adhered to in large parts of the world. The signs differ markedly from those based on text as used in some countries, and shapes and colours may also differ. The use of pictograms avoids most of the need to learn the local language for driving (there may still be specifications in text), but on the other hand, if you cannot guess the meaning, a normal dictionary cannot help. In the Nordic countries the part of signs that usually is white is often yellow for better visibility in snow and ice.
Familiarizing yourself with the most common Vienna Convention signs should be the first thing you do before planning a trip by car in Europe. Most signs are found in w:Comparison of European road signs.
Countries that adhere to the Vienna Convention use a red triangle pointing upwards to denote warning signs. The diagrams below show a selection of signs from different countries. Equivalent signs in other countries are broadly similar:
Other dangers (UK)
Curve to right (UK)
Crossroad on priority road (NO)
Minor road to the right (UK)
"S" bend to the left (FR)
Caution - cyclists (NL)
Unguarded quayside (IT)
Road tunnel ahead (SE)
Countries that adhere to the Vienna Convention use a red circle to denote prohibition signs. The diagrams below show a selection signs from different countries. Equivalent signs in other countries are broadly similar:
Speed limit (DE)
Give way to oncoming traffic (DE)
No overtaking (DE)
No U-turn (DE)
No entry (DE)
No parking (DE)
No stopping (DE)
Height limit (DE)
Width limit 2 metres (AT)
Left turn prohibited (BE)
No vehicles carrying dangerous goods (HU)
Countries that adhere to the Vienna Convention use a blue circular sign to denote Mandatory directions. The diagrams below show a selection of signs from different countries. Equivalent signs in other countries are broadly similar:
Forward mandatory (DE)
Right turn mandatory (DE)
Right turn ahead mandatory (DE)
Minimum speed limit (FI)
Pass either side (IT)
Cycle track (ES)
Other signs include direction signs and distance signs which vary from country to country. Many countries have standardised on using brown to denote tourist features. This and certain other signs encountered in many European countries but not in use in the United States are shown below:
Oncoming traffic must give way (DE)
Motorway begins (CZ)
Advisory speed limit (FI)
Tourist sign for Archer Castle (UK)
Dead end (FR)
Runaway truck escape lane (BE)
Associated information applies for 1,500 metres (FR)
Interactions with the law
Hopefully you will not need to interact with any law enforcement agencies. However it helps to know what to do should the need arise.
Accidents and breakdowns
In most European countries it is mandatory for vehicles to carry a warning triangle and for the driver to have a fluorescent jacket to hand. In the event of a breakdown or accident the triangle, which typically has sides of 600 mm, is placed between 20 and 100 m behind the vehicle to warn oncoming traffic of the stationary vehicle. The exact distance is dependent on the type of road and also on local laws.
If most European countries you are required to stop if you are involved in an accident and in many cases if you witness an accident. You should exchange details (name, address, insurance details) with the drivers of other involved vehicles. You should also record the registration numbers of all vehicles involved in the accident and details of any damage, tasking photographs if possible. In some countries, if the accident is a minor one (no injuries or fatalities and only minor damage to the vehicles), there is no need to call the police, especially if all parties involved agree to the facts of the case.
If you are involved in a serious accident in any European country, you are required to call the police and, if neccessary, the ambulance - in all European countries the emergency phone number is 112, though some countries have alternative numbers that can also be used, such as 999 in the UK. The exact procedure to be followed varies from country to country, but common sense dictates that your first priority is to secure the accident scene (ensuring that car's hazard warning lights are switched on and red triangles put in place. As soon as it is safe to do so, first aid should be rendered to anybody who is injured - in many European countries it is mandatory to carry a first aid kit.
If you do not have a mobile phone, then you should use an emergency roadside telephone. Most European motorways have such telephones at regular intervals. Their location (ahead of you or behind you) is often indicated by a small arrow on the closest location marker (markers spaced at 100 metre intervals) or other roadside posts.
Interacting with police
Many traffic violations have "automatic enforcement" – speeding tickets will be issued based on a stationary or mobile speeding camera and many traffic lights have a built-in camera to detect red light violations. Traffic police will still stop cars from time to time to check whether the driver's licence, registration and other things are up to date. They may also perform breath tests for alcohol, particularly around drunk-driving "hotspots" such as beer festivals or discos. In general, they do not expect interactions with motorists to turn violent and are usually polite but professional in those interactions. While there are no systematic border controls in the Schengen Area and no customs barriers within the EU, police do stop and search cars on highways looking for drugs and sometimes also checking up on the immigration status of the people in the car.
Fines vary widely. Most of Europe has fixed rates (sometimes with higher fines for foreigners), but some countries, especially the Nordic countries, tie traffic fines to income and/or wealth. While this is perceived as more just and equitable, it can result in quite significant fines (a Finnish millionaire probably holds the record with €100,000 for speeding), and cause legal problems for foreigners without salaried income. Drunk driving is usually heavily fined and in Norway leads to mandatory prison sentence.
While some fines can still be paid on the spot (you'll be issued a receipt) concerns with corruption have increasingly led to you getting issued a ticket with instructions where and how to pay and many fines are simply delivered by mail to the address under which the car is registered. In many countries, fines are never paid on the spot.
In most countries of western, northern, and central Europe a traffic officer asking for a bribe, or locals trying to bribe a police officer, is more or less unthinkable. A bribery attempt will be treated as a serious offence. Nevertheless, in eastern and southern parts of Europe, the risk of corrupt officers asking for bribes may arise — for local specifics see the country articles.