When planning a trip to Europe, many of our clients are keen to rent a car and travel at their own leisure.

However, most of them feel nervous about driving in Europe for the first time. 

Does that sound familiar?

Navigating through busy streets, driving on the left for the first time or simply driving in a country where traffic laws may be substantially different from those in your home country can make you feel anxious and insecure.

On top of that, you might ask yourself whether you need to have an International Driving Permit in order to drive in Europe as a tourist. 

Getting behind the wheel in Europe may seem a scary and crazy adventure, but it’s easy to get the hang of it quickly if you know the laws and regulations. 

This post goes into the most important rules you need to be mindful of when driving in the Schengen Area as a non-EU national. 

Table of contents:

  1. Driving in Europe as a tourist: What driving licence do you need?
  2. Tips and road rules for driving in Europe  

1. Driving in Europe as a Tourist: What Driving Licence Do You Need?

Driving in the Schengen Area with a non-EU Licence

If you have a valid driving licence issued by your country of residence, you can use it to drive in most European countries. 

However, some countries may require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP).

Typically, Embassies don’t require proof of holding an IDP when applying for a Schengen Visa – even if you plan on travelling around Europe with a rental car. 

However, it is important to know what type of licence you need to legally drive in each country. 

An IDP is a document certifying that you are the holder of a valid driver’s licence in your country of residence.

An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not a licence and does not substitute your domestic driving licence. You should always show your original driver’s licence along with your IDP to local authorities

You can think of an IDP as a booklet that includes the translation of your driving licence in various languages in case you need to communicate with local authorities.  

It is important to know that an IDP is accepted in over 150 countries as a recognisable form of identification. This means that it can be a helpful form of identification even if you do not intend to get behind the wheel throughout your stay in the Schengen Area. 

Holding an IDP is usually required in countries that are signatories to one of these three international conventions: the 1926 Paris International Convention on Motor Traffic, the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, and the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.

These conventions result in three different types of IDPs: 1926, 1949, and 1968.

A 1926 IDP is not required in any EU state. However, some Schengen countries may require either a 1949 or a 1968 IDP. This means that if you’re travelling through more than one Schengen country, you might need more than one type of IDP.

Keep in mind, however, that certain car rental companies may require you to hold an IDP even if this is not specifically required by the country’s government. 

In addition, some insurance companies may request your IDP if you’re involved in an accident.

Learning all the rules on the IDP may sound daunting, but you should know that in most countries, the IDP is issued online through official organisations and automobile associations, so it’s relatively easy to get one. 

Just make sure you avoid the unofficial sellers claiming to sell legitimate International Driving Permits on the Internet.

The Alliance Internationale de Tourisme (AIT) and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) have created an approved directory of all organisations around the world which are officially authorised to issue international Driving Permits. 

You can check the AIT/FIA approved directory here

Driving in the Schengen Area as a Tourist

Applying for an IDP is typically a quick and hassle-free process. Usually, you are required to complete an online form, provide two passport-size photos, a copy of your driving licence and pay an administrative fee.  

Now, you might ask yourself, “How do I know if I need an IDP to drive in the Schengen Area?”.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question. 

Whether or not you need an IDP to drive in the Schengen Area may depend on: 

  • The country that issued your driving licence
  • The country you’re visiting
  • How long you’re staying

That’s why it’s best to check with the Embassy of the country you will be travelling to. You may also want to check with the rental company to see if you’ll need an IDP in order to rent a car. 

However, it may be a wise precaution to get an IDP anyway. 

The best part is that a 1949 IDP is valid for one year, while the 1968 model is valid for up to 3 years (provided that your driving licence is valid throughout this period). This allows you to plan ahead and get an IDP ahead of time, even before submitting your Schengen Visa application.

With your IDP tucked in your wallet, you can have peace of mind knowing you can rent a car from all major car rental companies and legally drive in Europe.  

2. Tips and Road Rules for Driving in Europe

Tourist Driving in Europe

Getting an IDP is a great idea before going on your adventure, but you should also get familiar with local driving customs. 

You do not want to collect traffic or parking fines, so it helps to know the rules. 

Here are some tips to help make your European road trip a safe and enjoyable one: 

  • Always keep in your car your full valid driving licence, IDP, passport, travel insurance, and relevant vehicle documents.  
  • Always drive on the right-hand side of the road (vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the road only in the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta). 
  • Some big cities (e.g., Florence, Paris, Madrid, etc.) have restrictions on vehicles in the town centre in order to reduce traffic and improve air quality. 
  • In most big cities, parking spaces can be hard to find and expensive, so it’s best to reserve your car rental for travelling between different locations or for driving in rural areas. 
  • Ideally, you should return your car to the same city in which you rented it so you can avoid high one-way drop-off fees (which are fees you pay to pick up your car in one place and drop it off somewhere else).  
  • In many European countries, it is mandatory to use dipped headlights even during the day.
  • When driving on roundabouts, always give way to vehicles coming from the right. 
  • Pay attention to areas designated as low-emission zones, as some major European cities restrict access to vehicles with high emissions during specific hours.
  • Many European countries use automatic cameras to monitor traffic and check car speed. It is wise to be aware of and adhere to the posted speed limits in the area.
  • In Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), the police may adjust the speed limit on a daily basis based on factors such as visibility and road conditions.
  • When driving in Italy, avoid ZTL zones. The ZTLs are zones of restricted circulation where only authorised vehicles are allowed to enter. If your hotel is located in a ZTL zone, inquire with the hotel staff to have your licence plate registered for the duration of your stay. 
  • In many countries such as Italy, France, and Spain you’ll encounter toll booths where you are required to pay a fee based on the distance you drive. It’s wise to keep some spare coins on hand, as not all tolls accept bank cards as a form of payment. Other countries such as Austria, Hungary, and Romania require drivers to pay a road tax in the form of a sticker (called “vignette”) that is valid for a defined period.
Driving Legally in Europe as a Tourist

The Bottom Line

Renting a car is a great way to explore Europe on your own. 

However, when you plan on driving in other countries, you should know each country has its own traffic rules and regulations.

First and foremost, it’s important to know that you need both your passport and your driver’s licence to rent a car in Europe. Additionally, some countries may require you to hold an International Driving Permit (IDP).  

Before getting behind the wheel in Europe for the first time, you should also be prepared and get familiar with driving regulations and road rules. 

Driving customs may vary between your home and the destination you plan to visit, but the basic rules remain the same: adhere to speed limits and traffic rules at all times and carry all of your important documents with you.  

Want to explore Europe while enjoying freedom on four wheels? Don’t let Visa complications ruin your road trip in Europe! Contact us today and let our experts help you handle your application process stress-free so you can have more time to plan your next adventure.