What to know about driving in Europe

Keeping you right.

Many UK drivers would rather travel to Europe by car than fly or take the Eurostar. Driving in Europe is a great way to get off the beaten track or squeeze more countries into your holiday itinerary. That said, you might have to pick up some new safety equipment to do so, and it always pays to read up on the rules of the road in the countries you’re visiting. 

Here, we’ll take you through the documents and accessories you might need to keep with your vehicle to drive legally in mainland Europe. We’ll also look at the most common areas where European driving rules differ from those in the UK, so you can avoid any unpleasant surprises during your trip. 

Driving in Europe checklist: What do I need to legally drive in Europe? 

Let’s start by looking at the documents you’ll need if you want to drive in Europe. As well as your passport and travel insurance paperwork, make sure you bring: 

  • Your full UK driving licence. This should be well in date, so check your renewal date several weeks before your trip. UK driving licences expire after 10 years.
  • Your motor insurance certificate. This proves your car insurance meets the minimum requirements in your home country and the country you’re travelling to. Don’t worry, UK insurers already have checks in place to make sure their policies align with the law in foreign countries like France and Germany. 
  • Your vehicle registration documents. This could be the VC5 log book showing you as the registered keeper of your vehicle, or a VE103 form if you’re taking a rental car or a leased car out of the UK. 
  • Your blue badge. This is one aspect of driving in Europe after Brexit that hasn’t changed. The European Union generally reciprocates the UK’s blue badge parking rules

Your insurance company or hire company might also give you a European Accident Statement form (EAS). If you have an accident, you can record the facts on this form and sign it. This creates an agreed statement to use in an insurance claim later. 

And if you plan to hire a car in Europe, you might need a DVLA check code. Rental companies can use this code to check if you have a clean licence. You can get a DVLA code online on the gov.uk website by entering your driving licence number, NI number, and postcode. 

Can I drive in Europe with a UK licence?

As long as you’re only there on holiday or for a short trip, you can use your UK licence to drive in Europe. It’s much easier to use a UK photocard licence, as these are more widely recognised than paper licences.

If you still have a paper licence or if you’re driving to a non-EU or EEA country (like Serbia, Albania, or Montenegro), you’ll also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). IDPs are also compulsory if your UK licence was issued in Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man, or Gibraltar. You can get an IDP at the Post Office, where the form costs £5.50.  

What else do I need to pack to drive in Europe?

Now we’ve covered the paperwork, let’s look at the compulsory items you might need to carry with you if you want to drive your own vehicle to the continent. The list of emergency equipment differs from country to country — as do the fines from traffic police if you’re pulled over and you don’t have the right items in the right parts of your car. 

It’s possible to buy an EU driving kit in UK ports, but it’s worth knowing exactly what you’ll need so you don’t get caught out. You might even save money by buying the extra equipment locally or online before you set off. 

The most commonly required safety equipment includes: 

  • Warning triangles to put in the road if you have to pull over on the hard shoulder or if you break down
  • High-vis jackets for the driver and all the passengers, which often have to be stored in the glove compartment so you can put them on before you leave the vehicle 
  • A first aid kit

You might also need country-specific items, like a breathalyser kit if you’re travelling to or through France. 

Another common question is, “Do I need a fire extinguisher to drive in Europe?” Countries like Belgium, Poland, Greece, Turkey and the Nordic countries often require local vehicles to carry one, and it’s strongly recommended for tourists, too.

And if you’re travelling to Europe for the ski season, you might have to fit winter tires or even carry snow chains. In countries like Austria and Switzerland, you’ll often see road signs indicating streets where you need to use snow chains if the weather turns, as well as dedicated laybys to fit them. 

Do I need a UK sticker to drive in Europe? 

When you drive a UK vehicle in Europe, it’s a legal requirement to display a number plate with a UK identifier or put a UK sticker on the back of your car. Some countries (like France and the Republic of Ireland) don’t require a sticker, but others (like Spain and Cyprus) need a UK sticker even if you have a UK identifier on your number plate. 

While sticker regulations vary, one thing that’s certain is that old-style GB stickers now have to be swapped for UK ones. This rule changed in September 2021 and it applies across Europe.

Toll roads and emissions stickers

Finally, it’s a good idea to research congestion charges and emissions regulations in the country you’re planning to visit. For example, you’ll need an emissions sticker to drive in many big cities in Germany (similar to the ULEZ regulations in London). Low emission zones are increasingly common in large cities and towns, so make sure you’re up to date with the latest information. 

It’s also fairly common to have to display a sticker showing you’ve paid to use the major roads in a country. These stickers are called vignettes and they’re required in central and eastern European countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia. 

You can buy emissions stickers and motorway vignettes at service stations, petrol stations, and the border, but you can also save yourself a chore and order them in advance. It’s usually possible to do this online about two weeks before you plan to leave. 

Differences between driving in the UK and Europe

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an EU-wide highway code. The only Europe-wide rules are that:

  • Everyone in the vehicle has to wear a seat belt
  • Children have to be in an appropriate car seat
  • You have to use a hands-free kit if you need to use your mobile phone while driving

For country-specific information, it’s a good idea to check travel or embassy websites for the rules that apply to the countries you’re planning to travel to.

Having said this, the most famous difference between driving in the UK and the majority of Europe is your position on the road. Drivers travel on the right-hand side of the road in the vast majority of Europe, as opposed to the left in the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and Malta.

This comes with its own set of challenges to be aware of, especially if you take your right-hand-drive car on the ferry or the Eurotunnel rather than hiring a left-hand-drive car when you arrive. 

UK drivers should pay special attention to:

  • Giving way to oncoming traffic from your left
  • Roundabouts, which go anti-clockwise
  • Major roads, where the far right lane is the slow lane, and the inner left is fast
  • Navigating junctions, especially on quiet roads where you don’t simply go with the flow of traffic
  • Overtaking, especially if the pillars in your UK car restrict your view

If you’re driving a UK vehicle in Europe, you must also convert your headlights to suit driving on the right, so you don’t dazzle other road users. Some cars adjust this automatically when your GPS recognises the country you’re in, and some let you change the setting manually. If not, you can buy headlight converters, which you stick onto your headlights to change the angle of the beam. 

What kind of car insurance do you need to drive your car abroad? 

It used to be that you needed an International Motor Insurance card to prove you were insured for the country you wanted to visit, but this has been phased out in EU countries. UK third-party cover should give you enough protection to drive legally in different countries across Europe. 

However, it’s important to note that, when you travel abroad, even a comprehensive policy might mean paying for accident recovery or repairs in the country you’re visiting and then claiming the money back from your insurer later. After Brexit, it’s also increasingly common to have to make insurance claims in the country where the accident happened in the local language. 

One way to increase your peace of mind is to take out a comprehensive European insurance policy for your trip. Features like European breakdown cover can give you peace of mind and speed up the process if you have to make a claim. 

Talk to the experts at Howden about car insurance. 

Other road safety differences to know when driving in Europe

Before we wrap up, let’s look at four more areas where it pays to research local driving laws in all the different European countries you might travel through. 

  • Blood alcohol levels: Just as the legal limit varies between countries in the UK, EU member states have different limits. This varies from 0.05% blood alcohol content (BAC) in a lot of western Europe, to 0.02% in Norway, Sweden, and large parts of central and Eastern Europe. Note that all these levels are lower than the limit in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which is 0.08%.
  • Speed limits: National speed limits vary across Europe. They can even can vary according to the road conditions or the time of day in residential areas – even on German Autobahns, which many people believe to have no speed limit at all. 
  • Speed cameras: In some countries, you could be fined for using a GPS app that includes a speed camera alert function. Make sure to adjust your settings or choose a different GPS app to use if you’re driving somewhere like France or Germany. 
  • Tunnels: Compared to the UK, Europe has more long tunnels. It helps to know what to expect, and to be ready to take action, by keeping an eye on emergency exits and telephones, being ready to remove sunglasses as you enter a tunnel, and avoiding the glare as you come back out into the sun. 

What do I need to drive in Europe: The final word

Getting your head around the different European laws around speed limits, emergency equipment, and documentation takes some time, but the freedom of driving your own vehicle on holiday makes the effort and the small additional expenses worth it. 

One of the best ways to reduce the worry of driving abroad is with comprehensive European driving coverage. 

Whether you take the ferry or the Eurotunnel regularly, or you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime road trip across Europe, speak to Howden today about motor insurance and travel insurance to cover your holiday. 

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