Experienced travelers know that exploring Europe behind the wheel of a car is the best way to go. It makes the trip more romantic, spontaneous, and flexible and allows you to enjoy many places off the beaten path.
Spain is perfect for road trips with its enchanting landscapes, olive groves, vineyards, cozy little villages, perfect quality of the road surface, little to no road cameras, and excellent highway system.
However, it is better to know a few things before starting the engine and setting off for your Spanish adventure.
Here is some general information and tips I prepared to make your driving experience in Spain enjoyable.
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Driving in Spain with a US license
In most cases, an American driver’s license and passport are more than enough to drive a car in Spain (with the minimum driver’s age of 18).
But having an International Driving Permit (IDP) will benefit you as a translated version of your driver’s license. However, it will not be valid by itself and must be carried with your driver’s license.
Getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) is relatively easy. You can do so via the American Automobile Association (AAA) website or your local AAA branch. Also, you do not need to be an AAA member to apply for an IDP; you will have to pay $20, however.
If you stay in the country for less than 90 days, you can drive for the whole period.
If you are getting a residential visa
You can drive with your US license for half a year starting on the residence permit’s validity date. Then, you must obtain a valid Spanish driver’s license.
Currently, there is no agreement between the United States and Spain for the validation of a US driver’s license; therefore, if you are a resident, you must attend a driving school and take the exam in Spain.
In my experience, if you have some knowledge of the Spanish language, you can pass the theory driving test quite easily (although there are more than 800 questions). You will have to answer 30 questions with no more than three mistakes).
If you don’t know Spanish, they also have an English version of the driving test, but it is more like a Google Translate version with many inconsistencies.
And with the practical exam, it takes up to 5-10 driving lessons with the instructor to get used to Spanish driving culture and get all the nuances. But that is another big topic to cover, of course.
Renting a car in Spain
To rent a car in Spain, you must keep in mind the following requirements:
1. Spain’s minimal car rental age is 18, but some car rental companies may apply additional charges unless you are 23-26.
2. You must have held a driver’s license for at least one year.
Here are some of the trustworthy car rental providers:
Driving in Spain and the US looks pretty much the same. The Spanish people also drive on the right side of the road, and traffic regulations are identical, so the traffic flow is predictable. Nevertheless, there are some minor differences to keep in mind.
1. The units: You will have to get used to kilometers per hour (km/h) instead of miles per hour (mph).
2. The rules: Be extra careful when driving using a mobile phone. The best option is not to even touch it. It is also prohibited to wear earphones in the driver’s seat (even one Bluetooth earphone). And don’t use a car horn unless in an emergency (someone sleeping ahead of you at traffic lights is not an emergency).
3. The speed limits: These are different in Spain, compared to the US, and are standardized all over the country. Although sometimes you will not even see a speed limit sign at the village or town entrance, a driver must still know the basic restrictions.
So, once you enter any settlement, check your speedometer – staying in a 50-60 km/h speed range will never put you in trouble. Moreover, there are many other means of transport in a big Spanish city (scooters, bikes, etc.), so staying slow and alert is essential.
The general speed limits are:
50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour) in towns and villages unless otherwise indicated.
90 km/h (56 mph) for main roads outside towns and villages.
120 km/h (75 mph) for highways (motorways).
4. Blood alcohol content is even lower than in the US – 0.05%. Although the Spanish are known to have a glass of wine and then get behind the wheel, I strongly recommend being careful with your calculations. With this drink driving limit, you can only have one glass of wine. If you have consumed some alcohol already, it is always better to ask your sober friends to pick you up or order a taxi.
5. Roundabouts: For some reason, Spanish people love roundabouts much more than intersections – they are everywhere! So, make sure you are confident when driving through them.
Slow down before entering.
The right signal will help other drivers to see that you are about to exit the roundabout.
Drivers on the roundabout have priority, as opposed to those trying to enter the roundabout.
The flow on the roundabout is always counter-clockwise.
Watch out If a roundabout has multiple lanes, sometimes a Spanish driver will be willing to exit it from the very inner lane and with the shortest possible trajectory (which seems reckless).
Parking your car in Spain
Parking rules are the same as in the US. However, once you park in the city, ensure you know whether it is a paid parking space.
For example, in many Spanish towns, they have color-coded parking lots on the pavement:
Blue color means a paid parking space for the visitors (with no more than 2 hours straight). Sometimes, the blue zone offers free parking (mainly in the off-season)
Green color – residents only.
Yellow – do not park.
White – free parking space. To my surprise, there are many white parking areas in many big cities in Spain.
If you are ready to pay, go to a parking kiosk, choose the number of hours needed, take the ticket, and place it on your car’s dashboard. Sometimes, you can use a parking app. My favorite one is EasyPark, as it has a pretty user-friendly interface.
Another issue drivers can face in Spain is the payment system at public garages. You should keep the ticket you got when entering and then pay at the kiosk before exiting. The machine will give you the ticket back after paying, so you can scan it at the very end, at the actual garage exit.
Here is a list of things you need to have in your car while driving in Spain:
Documents: Driver’s license, car registration certificate, technical inspection sticker (in the corner of the windshield)
Two reflective triangles. Remember, you are not required to set it up if you are putting your life at risk by doing so.
Know where you are parking in every town, and every site, before you go. Otherwise, you risk spending too much time and effort parking your car, especially in big cities. The Waze app is the best way to go, showing the nearest parking areas.
Be careful with speeds over 120 km/h. I would not recommend you drive faster on a highway, and at 150 km/h, you can get a beefy fine ticket. The rule of thumb, as always – is to follow the traffic flow.
Spanish toll booths may not accept some non-EU-issued credit cards. Bring some coins.
Take pictures of your rental car before and after turning it in, just in case.
Remember to get a rental car with an automatic transmission, as the default version is stick/manual.
Fill the gas up before you return the rented vehicle.
Keep original documents with you, as the photocopies do not work!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use my US license to drive a rental car in Spain?
Yes, and it is even better with an official translation of your US license. Get an International Driving Permit via the Automobile Club of America (AAA) – it will allow you to travel across Europe and get along with the cops or parking authorities. Without an IDP, if you get pulled over, the police can give you a ticket (although they are very loyal and friendly in general).
Did Brexit affect driving in Spain for those with British driver’s licenses?
Driving in Spain after Brexit is no big deal. You can still use your British driver’s license, but only if the mainland UK authority issued it. For example, Jersey, the Isle of Man, and Gibraltar do not fall under that category – an International Driving Permit must accompany licenses issued by those authorities. For car owners, the vehicle needs a UK sticker.
What is the driving age in Spain for tourists?
The minimum driving age in Spain is 18 and over; if you drive a motorcycle, the minimum is 16. Also, there is no maximum driving age limit, so you can go even if you are over 70.
What is the driving side in Spain?
Fortunately for Americans and many others, in Spain, vehicles are driven on the right side of the road.
What are the speed limits in Spain?
The speed limits are standardized all over the country: – 30 km/h (18.6 mph) for urban roads with one lane per direction. – 50 km/h (31 mph) for urban roads with two lanes per direction. – 90 km/h (56 mph) for rural roads. – 120 km/h (75 mph) for highways and motorways.
What is the speed tolerance in Spain?
Spanish speed cameras allow a margin of 10% over the speed limit + 2 mph; if you go over it, you may receive a €100-€400 ticket. Paying early (within 15 days) will cost you two times less – the only problem is that most of the time, you will not receive a ticket that early (assuming you are renting a car).
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