Sun, sea, sangria… and superb roads. With its warm climate, beautiful towns and villages, exciting history and stunning scenery, Spain makes an ideal destination for a holiday. It’s also one that can be easily enjoyed by road, either in your own car or one you’ve rented at the airport.
Spain is a big country – the largest in southern Europe – with long, open roads leading you to exciting places on the coast, through quaint historic villages, up breathtaking mountain passes and deep into major cities with museums, churches and architecture in abundance.
But you’ll need top plan ahead if you intend to drive in the country. The UK has a great friendship and a lot in common with its Spanish counterparts but driving in their country is a rather different experience from doing so in Britain.
It’s more than just driving on the other side of the road, and a Spanish driving holiday requires some careful planning and a good understanding of what you can and can’t do on Spanish roads.
Here The Car Expert looks at the most important elements to consider when planning to take your car to Spain 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 Spain
You must be 18 years or over and hold a full valid driving licence to drive in Spain. 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 you can drive in Spain for up to six months without one.
You’ll need to prove that you have insurance cover (but you don’t need a European ‘green card’ anymore) 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 buy small ‘UK’ stickers to fix to your front and rear number plates. However, even if you have these, the Spanish authorities will want to see a ‘UK’ sticker or magnetic sign on the rear of the car too.
If you’re travelling to the major cities of Madrid or Barcelona you will probably notice stickers on the rear windows of cars showing their emission levels. These are required for local drivers only, so if you are visiting in your own (ie foreign) vehicle, you won’t need one.
As with most countries in the world, Spain uses the metric system for speed and distance, so all of its 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).
There are strict speed rules in Spain and you should be mindful to stick to these as road conditions and surroundings change. In residential areas the speed limit is 20km/h. This equates to around 12mph in UK terms, which may seem slow, but don’t be tempted to stray above it.
In built-up areas the limit rises to 50km/h (approx. 30mph), while outside of built-up areas it’s 90 to 100km/h (55 to 60mph), depending on the road and as indicated on roadside signs. Dual carriageways and motorways (autopista) have a speed limit of 120km/h (75mph) and there’s a minimum too – your vehicle must be capable of at least 60km/h (40mph) to travel on a motorway.
You can briefly exceed the speed limit by 20km/h outside of built-up areas if you are overtaking a slower vehicle. It’s the only time this is allowed and does not apply to motorways or dual carriageways. If you are driving a motor caravan (a campervan or motorhome) or towing a trailer, limits are lower – reduced by 30km/h on motorways, and by 20km/h on dual carriageways or any road beyond built-up areas.
Be aware of speed radars, both fixed and mobile, as they are prevalent, as are traffic light cameras. Speeding fines range from €100 to €600 depending on the severity of the violation. Tickets are issued at the roadside. There is a 50% discount if you pay the fine within 20 days, but obviously they’re best avoided the first place.
Satnav units that show the siting of speed cameras are permitted in Spain, but don’t carry any sort of radar jammer if you have one – they are illegal.
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 legal limit is. As with most of Europe, in Spain the maximum level of alcohol in the blood (Blood Alcohol Content) is 0.5 grams per litre (also expressed as 0.05%) and 0.3 g/l (0.03%) for new drivers with less than two 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.
If the traffic police (policia de trafico) suspect you have been drinking they will request a roadside breath test similar to what you’d expect from UK police. They can also ask you for a breath specimen if you have committed a traffic offence. Anyone involved in any traffic accident will be breathalysed.
Don’t just pull up and park where you like in Spain as there are rules governing where and how you can leave your car unattended.
Don’t park within five metres of a bend in the road or a junction. If the street is poorly lit, the police will expect you to leave your side lights on.
As in many countries, you should only park in the direction of travel, which in Spain means parking on the right-hand side of the road and facing the direction of travel. The only time you can leave your car on the left side is on a one-way street. This is different from the UK, where we are allowed to park on either side of the road and facing either direction.
It should be clearly marked at the roadside if you have to buy a ticket for parking. ‘Blue’ zones are limited in time (usually two hours) while ‘green’ zones are usually shorter than that. Avoid any ‘yellow’ markings – these mean parking is prohibited.
Spain uses meters and ticket machines for parking purposes – larger cities will offer machines that take credit cards.
Park illegally and you could be towed away. Wheel camps are used in some cities but only when the vehicle is not causing an obstruction.
What to carry in the car
There are several items that the Spanish 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. You don’t have to carry spare lightbulbs but it’s still a good idea, and the same goes for a first-aid kit. 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.
It’s the driver’s responsibility to make sure everyone is buckled up. Children under 12 and less than 135cm tall can travel in the front or rear passenger seats but they must be in a child seat adapted to their size and weight. Children over 135cm can use a booster seat and the usual adult belt. There is no age limitation on this.
Dogs must be properly restrained in cars.
Keep to the right-hand lane as much as possible but if you are overtaking, do so on the left. Always show your indicators when moving out and again when returning to your lane. A solid white line means no overtaking. The passing (adelantar) of other cars is prohibited within 100 metres of a blind hill or where visibility is less than 200 metres.
Exit and entry ramps for main roads (prioridad de paso) are always on the right and remember to drive anti-clockwise on roundabouts. Emergency vehicles and anything on rails have priority over other road users.
Horns are forbidden in Spain and shouldn’t be used unless in an emergency. In built-up areas they are especially unpopular so it’s better to flash your lights instead. In theory, you could be fined €80 Euro for sounding your horn, although it’s rarely applied.
Spanish traffic lights (semaforos) usually follow this pattern: red to green, then amber and back to red. 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 Spain.
As you approach some Spanish towns you might see flashing amber lights. These are to warn that you’re approaching a 50km/h limit and also serve to slow down traffic.
You cannot use a mobile phone while driving and the same goes for headphones – they’re forbidden and carry a fine of €200 if you’re caught. Hands-free devices are acceptable though.
If you are towing a caravan ensure that your car and the ‘van don’t exceed 18.75 metres in length, 4.0 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 (gasolina), diesel (gasoil) and LPG (autogas) are widely available in Spain. There is no leaded fuel.
Most Spanish motorways are paid for through tolls, for which you can generally use either cash or a credit card to pay and the fee depends on the length of motorway you have used. There are also electronic pay systems (toll tags), called VIA-T and Telepeage, which allow you to pass through toll booths without having to stop at a pay point.
Emergency assistance on the road
Like many European countries, Spain’s motorways have emergency phones sited every 2km. 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 Spain
- Driving licence
- Vehicle insurance
- MOT certificate
- V5 or vehicle ID
- ‘UK’ country sticker
- 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