For a relatively small country, Italy has so much to offer: historic cities, mountains for skiing, lakes for boating and long, wide beaches for catching some sun. It’s no wonder why Italians are so proud of their homeland and the diversity it can offer.
Most of its beautiful sights and experiences can be accessed by car via good, fast A-roads and motorways (autostrade). Leave the main routes and head for the countless towns and villages dotted throughout Italy and you’ll enjoy wonderful and interesting excursions and stop-overs in some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
The pace of life can be slower and more relaxed than in the UK, which gives visitors time to experience the enviable way of life many Italians lead. It’s what they call la dolce vita – the sweet life!
But you’ll need some careful planning if you do intend to drive in this Mediterranean country. The UK has a lot in common with its Italian friends but driving in their country is a completely different experience from doing so in Britain. For a start, they drive on a different side of the road from the British.
It’s so much more than that though, and planning a driving holiday, flying in and hiring a car or visiting the country and moving around on business, requires careful planning and a good understanding of what you can and can’t do while using Italy’s roads.
Here The Car Expert looks at the most important elements to consider when planning to take a car to Italy or to hire one there. We’ve included a handy checklist too. As each journey is unique, always check that you have everything covered for your particular visit.
Basic rules for driving in Italy
You must be 18 years or over and hold a full valid driving licence to drive in Italy. The licence card in your wallet or purse will do, as the paper counterpart is no longer a requirement. Nor is an international driving permit – some countries expect you to have this validation, but Italy is not among them.
You’ll need to prove that you have insurance cover (but you don’t need a European ‘green card’ any more) and you must carry with you documents that show the identity of the car, such as a V5 registration document or ‘logbook’.
Always carry your personal ID or passport with you everywhere, and if your car is more than three years old and has an MOT certificate, take that too. Ensure that the vehicle is fully taxed before travelling.
The vehicle’s ‘home country’ must be shown on it and for British cars that’s a ‘UK’ sticker or badge. The old ‘GB’ is no longer accepted in Europe, and neither are country badges incorporating the English, Scottish or Welsh flags.
You can buy small ‘UK’ stickers to fix to your front and rear number plates which are accepted by Italian authorities. But if you don’t want to do that, use a ‘UK’ sticker or magnetic sign for the back of your car.
As with most countries in the world, Italy uses the metric system for speed and distance. That means distances on road signs are shown in kilometres rather than miles, and speed limits are shown in km/h (kilometres per hour) rather than mph (miles per hour).
In built-up areas the limit is between 50km/h and 70km/h depending on the road and surroundings, so keep a close eye on roadside speed signs. A-roads outside of built-up areas have a 90km/h to 110km/h limit while on motorways the top end is 130km/h (dropping to 110km/h if it’s snowing).
Italian police take a dim view of speeders and you’ll find cameras and mobile units everywhere. Even a small amount over the limit can land you in trouble. Speeding fines vary greatly in Italy depending on how much over the speed limit you were when caught, the type of road you were driving on and the time of day (some fines are increased at night). Avoid all this red tape by staying on the right side of the limit.
You are not allowed to have speed camera locator devices in your car. However, if your car’s satnav unit shows fixed cameras as a ‘Point of Interest’, that is allowed.
Blood alcohol limit
Obviously, we don’t condone any kind of drinking before you get behind the wheel, but it’s important to know what the legal limit is.
There are strict drink-drive limits in Italy. Like most of Europe, the maximum level of alcohol in the blood (Blood Alcohol Content) is 0.5 grams per litre (also expressed as 0.05%) and 0.0 g/l for drivers with less than three years’ experience.
By comparison, it’s 0.8 g/l (0.08%) in England and Wales (0.5 g/l or 0.05% in Scotland).
If the highway police (polizia stradale) suspect you have been drinking they can request a roadside breath test similar to what you’d expect from British traffic police.
You can’t just pull up and park where you like in Italy and there are rules governing where and how you can leave your car unattended.
Don’t park on or near a bend in the road or the brow of a hill. You should also steer clear of road junctions, cycle lanes, bus stops, loading areas and pavements. Don’t park near a ‘no parking’ sign or in front of garage doors or driveways. These will often have a sign nearby saying ‘passo carrabile’ – it means ‘tow away zone’. Other areas might result in a wheel clamp being fitted.
You should park on the right hand side of the road so you’re not facing traffic. The only time you can leave your car on the left is on a one-way street but not in a narrow one – there should be three metres between you and the cars on the other side of the road.
Some areas are restricted for free parking and you have to pay to stop there. These are often controlled by meters from which you receive a ticket to leave inside your windscreen. These can cost between one Euro and four Euros per hour but everywhere is different. Some are free on Sunday so it’s always worth checking the signage.
What to carry in the car
There are several items that the Italian police will expect you to have in your car while motoring and you risk big on-the-spot fines if you can’t show them. These include reflective jackets (it’s not strictly illegal if you don’t have one but you can be fined for walking on the carriageway without wearing one) and a warning triangle for breakdowns.
Headlamps must be set so that they don’t dazzle oncoming traffic. This can be adjusted manually in some cars while, for others, you can fit headlamp beam deflectors. It’s not mandatory to carry spare lightbulbs but it’s still a good idea, and the same goes for a first aid kit.
Specialist suppliers, such as motoring organisations, sell ‘European driving kits’ for around £25, which contain everything you’ll need.
Seatbelt laws are the same as in the UK: if your car has them, front and rear, they must be worn. It’s the driver’s responsibility to make sure everyone is buckled up. Children less than 150cm tall or weighing less than 36kg must be carried in car seats or on boosters. Children over 18kg can use a booster if you wish. There is no age limitation on this.
Keep to the right hand lane as much as possible but if you are overtaking, do so on the left.
Don’t attempt to overtake anything on a bend, the brow of a hill, at a junction or when another car is slowing down for pedestrians at a crossing.
Generally, the right of way must be given to vehicles approach from the right, or if it’s on rails such as a tram. These have priority over everything, as do emergency vehicles. If you’re driving on a mountain road and come across another vehicle at a narrow point, the car coming down the hill would be expected to reverse up to a passing place.
Horns are not especially welcome in Italy and if you are in a built-up area it’s much better to use a flash of your lights rather than the hooter, unless there’s an emergency.
Traffic signals follow a similar pattern as in the UK, including the red and yellow phase just before the green for ‘go’. Always stop on a red light. Don’t make a right turn on ‘red’ as you can in some European countries – it’s not allowed in Italy. In some areas you might see a flashing amber light, which means ‘proceed with caution’. This could be at a busy junction, for example.
You cannot use a mobile phone while driving and the same goes for headphones – they are forbidden. A single phone earpiece is acceptable though.
If you are towing a caravan ensure that your car and the ‘van don’t exceed 12 metres in length, 4 metres in height and 2.55 metres in width. Make sure your rear view wing mirrors are wide enough to see clearly behind you.
Unleaded petrol, diesel and LPG are widely available in Italy. There is no leaded fuel but you are allowed to carry filled containers.
Most Italian motorways are paid for through tolls. You can generally use either cash or a credit card to pay for these and the fee depends on the length of motorway you have used. There is also a pre-paid card system called a Viacard which is accepted at most toll booths.
If you are planning to go through a lot of booths, a Telepass is available. It’s an electronic device that’s fixed to the inside of your windscreen and allows you to drive through toll booths in a special lane without having to stop.
Emergency assistance on the road
Italy’s roads have emergency phones sited every 2 km and they’re usually coloured yellow to make them easy to see. Some will connect directly to a call centre while others give you the option to call specifically for breakdown recovery, using a button with a spanner on it, or for medical assistance, which is a ‘red cross’ button.
You can also call 112 (the European emergency number) from your own phone and make contact with services such as fire, ambulance or police, 24 hours a day. They will speak English as well as a number of other European languages.
Checklist for driving in Italy
- Driving licence
- Vehicle insurance
- MOT certificate
- V5 or vehicle ID
- UK sticker or number plate markings
- Warning triangle
- Headlamp beam deflectors
- Hi-viz jackets
- First aid kit
- Spare bulb kit
- Screen wash
- Bottled water
- Map or satnav
- Phone power bank
- Fire extinguisher
- Fuel can