You can see why Portugal is such a popular tourist destination for UK and other European travellers. Sitting proudly in the southern part of Europe, Portugal has a lot to offer: great coastlines, fine weather, exciting cities and excellent cuisine.
If you like city life, capital Lisbon or Porto are exciting destinations while, if the sea is more of a pull, the Faro district and Algarve on the Atlantic Ocean offer much to visitors. There’s a rich history here and architecture, ancient villages and a vibrant culture all help to make Portugal a country well worth experiencing.
It’s a bit of a drive to get there – from the UK you must go through France and Spain by road, but it’s certainly achievable. But even if you fly in and then hire a car, driving around Portugal, with its open roads and friendly people, is a pleasure.
But you’ll need some careful planning if you do intend to drive in the country. The UK has a good relationship with Portugal and the Portuguese, 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.
Planning a driving holiday there, or flying in to take a hire car, requires forethought and a good understanding of what you can and can’t do while motoring on Portugal’s roads.
Here The Car Expert looks at the most important elements to consider when planning to take a car to Portugal or hiring 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 Portugal
You must be 18 years or over and hold a full valid driving licence to drive in Portugal. A regular licence card will be sufficient, as the paper counterpart is no longer a requirement. You won’t need an international driving permit either. Some countries expect you to have this document – basically a translation of your UK licence – but although it’s recognised in Portugal, it’s not a legal requirement.
What you will need to stay on the right side of the law though, is proof that you have insurance cover for your vehicle (although you don’t need a European ‘green card’ any more). And you should 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 in the UK 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 have the ‘UK’ letters incorporated into your front and rear number plates or buy small ‘UK’ stickers to fix to the plates and these are acceptable in Portugal. If you prefer, a single ‘UK’ sticker or magnetic badge on the rear of the car would also be permitted.
As with most countries in Europe, Portugal uses the metric system for speed and distance, so all its road direction signs are shown in kilometres rather than miles, and speed limits are shown in km/h (kilometres per hour) not mph (miles per hour).
Special speed restrictions apply in certain areas for motorhomes and vehicles towing trailers so keep an eye out for these or check before you travel but, in general terms the speed limits are quite straightforward.
In built-up areas the limit is 50km\h (just over 30mph). Out of town this rises to 90-100km/h (55-62mph) and is indicated by local road signs. The 100km\h limit is usually for dual carriageway routes. Portuguese motorways have a flat 120km/h (75mph) limit.
Speeding fines can be expensive if you are caught going seriously over the limit. It also depends on the type of road you are driving on. Penalties start at €60 to €300 for speeding at less than 20km/h above the limit. For 40km/h over it’s up to €600 and if you’re caught at more than 60km/h over the speed limit in a built-up area, the fine could be as high as €2,500.
Portuguese authorities use radar speed cameras and unmarked vehicles – often hidden away or lurking on motorway bridges – to catch offenders. Police speed traps are known locally as ‘Caça a Multa’ which literally means ‘fine hunting’, so the best advice is to make sure you’re not the one being ‘hunted’.
In-car devices that show the location of mobile police speed cameras are not permitted – fines can reach more than 2000 Euro if you’re caught using one. However, you will often see official signs showing that police speed equipment is being used in the area, as a form of warning.
Blood alcohol limits
We don’t condone any kind of drinking before you get behind the wheel, but it’s important to know what the drink-drive limit is. As with most of Europe, in Portugal the maximum level of alcohol in the blood (Blood Alcohol Content) permitted is 0.5 grams per litre (also expressed as 0.05%). For commercial vehicle drivers it’s lower: 0.2g/l (0.02%), and that’s the same for new drivers with less than three years’ experience. By comparison, it’s 0.8 g/l (0.08%) in England and Wales, and 0.5 g/l (0.05%) in Scotland.
Police can randomly ask for a breath test to be carried out if they suspect you are under the influence of alcohol. You will almost certainly be asked to provide a sample if you’re involved in any kind of collision. You can refuse the breath test but you will be taken to a police station for a blood test instead.
Police can confiscate your vehicle for several reasons including failing an alcohol breath test, not having vehicle registration documents, having forged number plates or refusing to pay a fine.
Be careful where you pull up and park to ensure you don’t break any local rules. You must leave your vehicle facing in the direction of travel, unless signs tell you otherwise. When parking in built-up areas ensure your car is not within five metres of a junction or blind bend, within three metres of a tram stop, on a pedestrian crossing, opposite a building entrance or on a taxi rank.
Elsewhere, avoid parking at night on a carriageway, on a bridge, a level crossing, in a tunnel, or anywhere else where visibility is restricted. And stay at least 20 metres away from junctions and intersections.
Portugal’s main towns and cities such as Faro, Lisbon and Porto operate ticket machines for parking – each one will have its own instructions so check carefully. If the police don’t like your choice of parking space you could be clamped or even towed away. And you won’t see your car again until you pay a fine plus costs involved with the towing and impounding.
What to carry in the car
Portuguese police will expect you to have in your vehicle a reflective jacket for anyone who gets out of the car and stands on the carriageway. A warning triangle for breakdowns is not compulsory for foreign vehicles although it is recommended as a safety precaution.
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. You don’t have to carry spare lightbulbs but it’s still a good idea, as are a first aid kit and fire extinguisher, both of which are well worth considering.
Much of this equipment can be found in useful ‘European driving kits’, sold by specialist suppliers such as motoring organisations for around £25.
Seatbelt laws are the same as in the UK: if your car has them, front and rear, they must be worn. Make sure everyone is buckled up as there are fines of up to €600 for failing to wear a belt. Children who are under 12 years and less than 150cm in height must be carried in a proper child seat or restraint.
If you are planning on carrying a child in a rear-facing restraint on the front seat, the passenger airbag must be switched off.
Keep to the right-hand lane as much as possible but if you are overtaking, do so on the left. If you are being overtaken, move over as far as possible to the right and don’t start accelerating.
If you see a tram unloading people, be prepared to stop – you can’t pass one unless there is a boarding island for passengers. If that’s the case, move past slowly and carefully. Don’t enter any junction or crossroads if you don’t think you can get through without obstructing traffic.
There are plenty of narrow streets in Portuguese towns and villages and, if you’re the closest to a ‘pull-in’ place, you will be expected to do so, even if it means reversing. On a hill, the vehicle going up should give way to the one coming down. Always give way to an emergency vehicle, or a military one.
Horns are not especially welcome in Portugal and should be used only if absolutely necessary. Far better to flash your lights instead to warn of your presence. Using a horn is not permitted during the hours of darkness except in an emergency.
Portugal’s traffic lights are red, amber and green like the UK’s, but there is no amber after the red ‘stop’ signal. A flashing red signal will be seen near level crossings to warn of approaching trains.
You cannot use a mobile phone while driving in Portugal, even if it has a hands-free option. It’s illegal to carry cycles on the back of a car.
Cars towing a caravan must not jointly exceed 18.75 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. No load should exceed 10 tonnes at any axle.
As with many European countries, you must pay a toll to use the motorways. Most will take cash or a card while on many M-ways there’s the option of the Via Verde system which has an electronic reader attached to the car’s windscreen to automatically register your usage. Approaching special Via Verde lanes, you will see a ‘Portagem Peage’ sign.
There is also a system called ‘EasyToll’ which allows foreign visitors to register their vehicle details and credit card number so that automatic payment can be made. It’s convenient and easy to sign up for: (www.portugaltolls.com).
There is a good range of service areas on Portuguese motorways and from these you can buy unleaded and diesel fuel and make use of electric vehicle (EV) charging points. Some larger towns have automatic fuel pumps.
Emergency assistance in Portugal
Portugal’s motorways have emergency phones sited at 2km intervals. 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 Portugal
- Driving licence
- Vehicle insurance
- MOT certificate
- V5 registration or vehicle ID
- ‘UK’ country sticker
- Headlamp beam deflectors
- Hi-viz jackets
- Warning triangle
- Spare bulb kit
- Fire extinguisher
- Map or satnav
- Fuel can
- Screen wash
- Bottled water
- Phone power bank