Driving abroad - the rules and regulations

Before you head off in the car to Europe or hire a car in North America, make sure you’re aware of the regulations that apply in each country you’ll pass through. For example, did you know the French government has made it a legal requirement for all motorists driving in France to carry a breathalyser?

Red car driving towards sea on a hillside

Save money on your car insurance

Start a quote

While you may have prepared yourself for driving on the right (or the ‘wrong’) side of the road and sorted out adequate car insurance, travel insurance and breakdown cover, you may not be so sure on how the rules of the road change from country to country.

So here’s a rundown of the requirements motorists face in Europe and the US that may not be so familiar to visiting UK drivers.

Europe-wide rules

In most European countries, the use of dipped headlights is compulsory for cars in poor daytime visibility and compulsory for motorcycles no matter what the visibility, day or night.

European speed limits are displayed in km/h and not mph, so watch your speed. And as drink-driving limits vary across the continent, it’s best simply not to drink and drive.

If travelling between countries, ensure you have a warning triangle in your boot, reflective jackets for each passenger and, if you are travelling to or through ski resorts, snow chains. If you do run into trouble, the emergency number in most countries is 112.

You’ll need to display a GB sticker on your car when driving within the EU – failure to do so could result in an on-the-spot fine. It’s also a requirement in some non-EU countries so it’s best to display one wherever you’re driving.

Drivers of diesel vehicles should also be aware that, if there are no pumps marked ‘diesel’, they should use the ones marked ‘gas-oil’ or ‘gaz-oil’, or it may also be labelled Gaseolo ‘A’ in Spain. 

Under no circumstances put Gaseolo ‘B’ in your tank as this is heating oil only. In addition, LPG may be called GPL or gaz de petrole liquefie. At least the strength of sterling against the euro means you should get more fuel for your pound.

If you have a satellite navigation system be aware that some countries prohibit the use of those that identify the position of fixed speed cameras. If your system has this you should disable the ‘fixed speed camera PoI (Points of Interest)’ function.

Similarly, any device that can detect police radar is illegal in most European countries and the use or even possession of one can result in a fine, a driving ban or even imprisonment.

It is compulsory to have photographic identification on you at all times in many European countries so keep your photo driving licence or passport with you.

You should also make sure that your breakdown cover includes recovery from European destinations as this is not often a feature on standard policies. If you need to take out added European breakdown cover then MoneySupermarket's comparison tool will help you find the right level of cover to suit your needs.

There are also some country-specific rules you may not be aware of…

Cars must be fitted with winter tyres marked M&S (mud and snow) on the side wall with a minimum tread depth of 4mm when driving between November 1 and April 15.

It is against the law to drive a dirty car – though quite what constitutes ‘dirty’ is unclear.   Bulgaria
Visiting vehicles are required to purchase a road tax ‘vignette’ and to drive through a liquid disinfectant upon entry into the country, for which a €12 fee is charged. Parking is only permitted on the left in one way streets.

France and Monaco
Drivers in France must carry a French authority-certified breathalyser, showing an ‘NF’ number, in their vehicle at all times. One must be produced to police upon request so it is best to carry two in case you have to use one or one gets damaged.

Approved breathalyser kits are available in the UK but may not yet be widely available throughout France so don't panic if you can't find a replacement kit while on holiday.  

Furthermore, although the rule was introduced at the beginning of July, it is not due to be enforced until November, at which point any motorist found driving without one present in their car will face a fine of €11 (£9).

Children under the age of 10 must travel in an approved child seat and are not allowed to travel on the front seat of a vehicle without using a special child restraint. The only exception is if the vehicle has no back seats, no rear seatbelts or if the rear seat is already occupied with children under 10.

Children under 12 years old and less than 1.5metres in height must be seated in a child seat or use a child restraint and cannot sit in the front passenger seat unless the airbag has been deactivated.

If driving during the winter you must have winter tyres fitted.  

If you have a bicycle rack on the rear of your car or caravan or have any overhanging load you need to display a fully reflective, red and white diagonally striped, square panel measuring 50cm x 50cm. Failure to do so can result in a fine.

A person visibly under the influence of alcohol is not allowed to travel as a front seat passenger.

Anyone up to the age of 18 that measures less than 1.35metres in height cannot travel as a front or rear seat passenger unless using a restraint system adapted to their size.

Children under three can travel in the front as long as airbags have been deactivated and they are in a rear-facing child seat, but are not allowed to travel in any vehicle that does not have rear seat belts.

As with most European countries on the spot fines can be issued for motoring offences, however, Portuguese police seem particularly keen as they often have portable ATM machines in their vehicles to ensure immediate payment!

Unless the vehicle is a two-seater or not fitted with rear seat belts, children under 12 and below 1.50metres in height cannot travel as front seat passengers and must be seated in the back with a suitable restraint.

As with Belarus, it is against the law to drive a dirty car in Romania.

Upon entering the country drivers must disclose to the authorities their identity, place of residence, car details and the number of days they are planning on staying and pay a requisite amount of road tax. This information is placed upon a database and enforced by roadside cameras.

If you are towing a caravan or trailer than exceeds 12metres in length then you need to display two yellow reflectors at the rear of the caravan/trailer. For rules on cycle racks see Italy.

Some cities in Spain have convoluted parking rules on one-way streets so that vehicles must park on the side of the road where the houses have uneven numbers on uneven days of the month, and on the side where the houses have even numbers on even days. This rule also applies in parts of Sweden.

Children up to 12 years-old must use a UN ECE regulation 44.03 approved child restraint unless they are bigger than 1.5metres in height.

Hitchhiking is prohibited on motorways and certain other roads.

US rules of the road

Having driven from San Francisco to Las Vegas I can vouch for the fact that America is a great place to discover by road – even if the signs proclaiming “State Prison. Do not stop for hitchhikers” can be a little disconcerting.

Once you escape the city, the roads are well-marked, easy to navigate and often take you through breath-taking scenery.

However, the US has a host of driving rules and regulations that will not be familiar to UK drivers, many of which are state-specific and should be thoroughly researched before you travel.

To get you on your way, here are some of the universal US Highway Code rules you should get to know before you get your kicks…

If you see an emergency vehicle stopped at the side of the road you must change lanes or slow down significantly to pass it. As well as police cars, fire engines and ambulances, tow trucks are considered to be emergency vehicles in some states.

When a school bus is stopped for passengers and has its lights flashing you must stop no matter what side of the road you are on as it is illegal to pass the bus in either direction. This is one of the most basic and strictly enforced driving rules in the US and penalties can be severe.

Lower speed limits, usually 20mph, are enforced near schools at times of day when children are going to or leaving school. The times are generally between 6am and 9.30am and between 2.30pm and 3.30pm and may also be in force away from school zones.

One part of US traffic law that you may find difficult to grasp at first is that you can turn right on red signals if the road is clear of pedestrians and traffic (remembering that a right turn in the US is a nearside turn, the same as a left turn in the UK).

This is the case on all roads (except in New York City) unless there is a specific restriction at an intersection, marked by a red arrow in place of the standard red light.

When parking your car you must always park on the right hand side of the road, in the direction of the traffic.

The legal blood/alcohol limit is 0.08%, the same as the UK, though this can differ between states, for example, in Arizona any degree of impairment on a driver that is caused by the consumption of alcohol can be a civil or criminal offence.

So, as always, the best advice is to not drink any alcohol at all if you are driving. Furthermore, in some states it is an offence to even keep alcohol in the cab of a car, even if it is unopened, so make sure you put it in the boot.

The rules of interstate highway system (which is a bit like the UK motorway system) can vary from state to state and speed limits are determined by population size, the general rule being that the lower the population size the higher the speed limit and vice versa. In the main, speed limits will be between 55mph and 75mph.

You can tell what direction you are travelling in by the interstate number as even numbers run east to west while odd numbers travel north to south.

Renting a car in the US

Most US rental cars have automatic transmission so, if you’ve not driven an automatic before, make sure you familiarise yourself with the controls.

In most states cars are fitted with a tracking device that will show the rental company where you have been. If you drive between states without permission you may get charged an additional fee.

The legal minimum age to obtain a driving licence in most states is 16 but most rental agencies prefer not to rent to very young or very old drivers and will most likely not rent to anyone under the age of 21, so check before you travel.

Make sure you have an adequate level of motor insurance, including indemnity cover, for damage to your vehicle, another vehicle, person or property and make sure medical cover is also included.

Finally, as it’s unlikely that you’ll be taking your own car across to the US then, not only will you find yourself driving on the wrong side of the road but, to paraphrase National Lampoon’s Clark Griswald, you’ll also be driving on the wrong side of the car, so make sure you get to grips with the controls before you set off.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

Did you enjoy that? Why not share this article

Take control of your energy bills

Our handy tips and tools will help make sure you never overpay again

Popular guides