Seven things you need to know before driving in Europe to stay legal

Are you planning a road trip to Europe? Discover seven things you need to know before you drive in order to stay legal.

We’re used to obeying the road laws in our own country, but what happens when we travel abroad? Before you get behind the wheel in Europe, it’s important to understand the rules so you don’t return from your trip with a large fine.

To help you, Ali Ingram-Seal at Saga shares her advice, highlighting crucial differences in road laws, a checklist of items you must carry in your car and an important warning about unlimited road speeds in Germany. 

1) Check you have these six essential travel documents

When driving in Europe there are six travel documents you need to take with you:

  1. Passport (in good condition)
  2. Valid driver’s license
  3. Vehicle logbook (V5C form)
  4. Car insurance certificate
  5. EU breakdown policy information, if relevant
  6. Up to date vehicle tax and MOT

2) Check your vehicle is compliant with low-emission zones

If you’re planning to visit countries like France and Germany, be aware of low-emission zone rules.

For example, most major German cities require a green emissions sticker that confirms your car’s compliant with their low-emission zones. This is usually determined by when your car was registered.

Most cities only allow green emission vehicles, unless anyone in the vehicle has a blue EU parking card for people with disabilities. If you don’t have a sticker, you’ll be facing a €100 fine anytime you enter a city with an environmental zone like Dusseldorf.

In France, the government has introduced ‘clean air’ windscreen stickers as a legal requirement in some cities. These stickers, called a Crit’Air vignette, identify your vehicle’s emissions levels and, in some cases, restrict access in order to improve air quality.

Crit’Air vignettes cost just €4.61 (including postage) per vehicle. However, if you are caught driving without one you could receive an on-the-spot fine of up to €135.

Find out what Euro rating your vehicle is with this tool. If needed, you can purchase your emission sticker online from sites like this.

3) Be aware of different driving laws – including drink driving

There are some critical differences between driving in the UK. Using speed camera tracking software is prohibited in France, Belgium and Germany which can lead to a €75 fine if caught, so make sure that you turn this feature off on any navigation system.

Drink driving rules are also slightly different as the limit in France, Belgium and Germany is 0.5mg/100ml, slightly less than the UK’s limit of 0.8mg/100ml – but the same as Scotland. 

This means that drinking just one pint or glass of wine could put you over the legal DUI limit. It may be best to avoid drinking at all if you are planning on driving within the next 24 hours.

4) Check the speed limits

The last souvenir you want from your holiday in Europe is a speeding fine. So, to avoid getting caught by a speed camera, make sure you know the speed limits of in the countries you are visiting – and don’t rely on guesswork and assumptions!

For example, Germany is notorious for its unrestricted Autobahns with no speed limits, however only an eighth of the motorway system is completely unrestricted. These sections are identifiable by a white sign with four black lines running diagonally across.

Half of all highways in Germany have a recommended speed of 130km/h (80mph) while the rest of the network has variable speed limits in place. Any area with an advisory limit will be signposted by a square blue sign with the limit in white writing, while limited speed zones are indicated by a circular sign with a red outer ring.

This website has a handy list of speed limits in Europe. However, the best way to avoid getting caught speeding is to watch out for and obey the speed limit signs on your drive.

5) Review your insurance cover

Before your trip, check your car insurance policy to see what you’re covered for when driving abroad and for how long. By law, all drivers in the EU need third-party insurance, which fortunately all UK car insurance policies include as standard.

Check that you can access your car insurance documents online or on your phone in case you need them while abroad. It may be worth considering EU breakdown cover as an add-on for extra peace of mind.

6) Make sure you have a UK, not a GB, identifier

All UK-registered vehicles need a national identifier displayed when driving in the EU. The current identifier is ‘UK’ which replaced ‘GB’ in 2021.  

If your car currently has a ‘GB’ identifier on the registration plate, you must also put a ‘UK’ sticker on the rear as ‘GB’ is no longer valid abroad. Without the correct identifier, drivers could face a fine of up to €140 or be refused entry abroad.

7) Make sure you have these four things in your car

Here are four things you need in your car when driving in Europe:

  • Beam deflectors: Stickers to place over your headlights that prevent dazzling oncoming traffic due to driving on the opposite side of the road.
  • Reflective jackets: They must be worn by every passenger in the event of a breakdown. They can be either red, yellow, or green.
  • Warning triangle: In the event of a breakdown, this must be placed 30m behind your vehicle on single and dual carriageways and 100m behind on the motorway.
  • First aid kit: In some countries this recommended; in others it is compulsory. It is wise to have for practical purposes, too.

Saga is a leading provider of products and services primarily tailored for customers over the age of 50 in the UK. The Saga brand has been carefully developed over the past 70 years to become one of the most recognised and trusted brands among UK consumers over 50.