Driving in Spain

Every year, hundreds of thousands of foreigners drive in Spain. Many worry about it before they do it for the first time. Very few worry the second time. This guide sets out some common-sense preparations and precautions to keep you safe.

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Introduction

This guide is about driving in Spain – the quality of its highways and the rules of the road.

It describes, in particular, driving in the area of Andalusia/Andalucía – which contains the Costa del Sol. See a map here. Please note that certain aspects of the law in Spain vary from one “autonomous community” (comunidad autónomalightbulb image - click here for more information on this subject to another.

Driving on the Costa del Sol is a lot more pleasant than it used to be. Stay off the roads during the peak times for tourists and you’ll be able to enjoy the views of sparkling seas without getting stuck in traffic for hours.

On the other hand, driving in Madrid, Malaga and other big cities  seems to get worse and worse as the years go by.

Be sure, though, that you’re not unwittingly breaking any road laws. There is a big police presence on the roads in Spain and they don’t hesitate to fine or otherwise punish rule breakers.

Driving in Spain is pretty simple – especially if you come from a country where they drive on the right-hand side of the road!

Its traffic laws are similar to those in most European countries, as are the rules about who can drive.

Video guide to driving in Spain

You can get a quick overview of driving in Spain by watching this video interview (below) with Spanish lawyer Miguel Manzanares. Learn more by scrolling down and reading the detailed guide he has written with us.

Travelling by road in Spain

The roads in Spain are much, much better than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Back then there were few or no motorways, dangerous four-way junctions, and travelling times were probably three times higher than they are today.

The Costa del Sol, for example, has successively built new roads to supplement the old roads. There is now motorway running from the French border right the way to Gibraltar. Roads are wider, better quality and (very) liberally sprinkled with artfully decorated roundabouts, which have caught on in a big way.

As a result, traffic isn’t usually the horrendous ordeal it used to be. You’re still likely to hit long delays at peak times, though, so plan any road journeys accordingly.

SatNav works perfectly in Spain. It will guide you through motorways and also help you get around smaller villages and towns. It is a very useful tool for getting round the country, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish.

In some cities, you can hire a bicycle, and in all towns and cities you can easily get a taxi. Prices and availability will vary depending on the city or town that you are visiting.

If this is a short visit, you will also be able to find a wide range of car hire companies. Most of the time, you will be able to book your hire car online or over the phone from your own country, or at the airport. Booking in advance is highly recommended, especially during tourist season. However, be aware of the “tricks of the trade”: often little short of fraud.  A few tears’ ago, some of the more dubious car hire companies started to attract customers with low daily rates but them hammer them with all sorts of extras: some dishonest. Sadly, today all companies seem to have caught this bug.  Be sure you know exactly what you will be paying and what is covered by your insurance.

Despite this,, many people who are on quite lengthy visits – perhaps spending half of the year in Spain – will choose to hire a car rather than owning their own. Car hire is inexpensive and there are always deals to be done, particularly if you are hiring out of season. Try to use a smaller company and to become well known to them. Hiring a car has a number of huge benefits compared with owning your own. They keep all of the paperwork, insurance etc in order, they maintain it and if you suddenly find that you need a larger car because (for example) you have relatives coming to visit, you can simply swap it for another, bigger, vehicle for a few days.

Driving licences in Spain

See our guide to Driving Licences in Spain for details about which licences are valid for use in Spain and how to obtain a Spanish driving licence.

Essential items and documents whilst driving in Spain

As well as a valid driving licence, you must carry:

  • Proof of identification
  • Proof of insurance
  • Proof that you own the vehicle (a Permiso de Circulación or equivalent)
  • Two warning triangles (or one if you’re not in a Spanish-registered vehicle – but two is a good idea). You can purchase these online very easily. These must be placed at least 50m (164ft) in front of and behind the vehicle if you break down.
  • If your car is not a left-hand drive vehicle, headlamp beam deflectors
  • A reflective jacket/waistcoat (strangely, carrying one isn’t technically a legal requirement, but you do legally have to wear one if you’re walking on the side of the road – so it’s a very good idea to carry one). Ideally, you should have one per passenger as otherwise they will have to stay in the car.
  • If you’re driving a foreign car you must display the internationally recognised plate showing the vehicle’s country of origin.

Rules of the road in Spain

If possible, familiarise yourself with the Código de Tráfico y Seguridad Vial – the Spanish highway code. You can find it online or in most Spanish bookshops – or download it in Spanish here. However, it’s very long and (as far as we can determine) only available in Spanish, so we’ve tried to cover the essentials in this guide.

Which side of the road?

In Spain they drive on the right-hand side. If you don’t, it’s very important to remember that this means you go anti-clockwise around roundabouts!

Giving way

As a rule – and if it’s not explicitly signposted otherwise – give way to traffic approaching from the right. Also give way to any emergency vehicles (ambulance, police, fire engines) and utility vehicles (gas, water, etc).

Look out for ceda el paso (give way) signs or a triangle painted on the road, which also oblige you to give way.

Speed limits

Spain has national speed limits:

Within a town50 km/h (31mph)
Standard/ single carriageway roads90 km/h (56mph)
Dual carriageways100km/h (62mph)
Motorways120km/h (75mph)

However, these can vary (in some inner city areas the limit may be as low as 20 kph and areas around schools are likely to have low speed limits) – so always keep your eye out for speed limit signs.

Spanish road signs

Spain’s road signs should be easily recognisable to anyone used to driving in Europe, and they’re usually fairly self-explanatory even if you’re not. However, it’s worth studying them before you drive in Spain. See an image list here here.

Traffic lights

Spanish traffic lights have three colours: red (stop), amber/orange (stop unless doing so will cause an accident) and green (go).

If you see a flashing amber light at the side of the road, slow down. It means that you are coming up either to a restricted speed limit area or to traffic lights.

Some traffic lights have now been upgraded with a device giving a countdown of the time remaining until the light changes to green. Excellent!

Pedestrian crossings

Pedestrians have an absolute right of way on pedestrian crossings. You must stop if you see a pedestrian on the crossing or about to step on the crossing. If you are a pedestrian, don’t rely on this happening!

Seat belts

Wearing a seat belt is mandatory in any private vehicle, for both you and your passengers.

Children under 135cm (4’5″) are not allowed to sit in the front seats of cars unless all back seats are occupied with other children, and they must be restrained in proper child seats.

Mobile phones

You cannot use a mobile phone whilst driving. Similarly, wearing headphones/earphones whilst driving is illegal. You can be fined €300 and lose three points from your licence.

Overtaking

A single, intermittant white line in the middle of the road means that overtaking is allowed – do not overtake if you see a single or double solid line in the middle of the road. You can’t overtake if you’re on a road with less than 200 metres visibility.

Filling up your car

At most petrol/gas stations you will have to go inside and pay for the petrol before you fill up your car.

Parking

Car parks are marked with the internationally recognised ‘P’ symbol (see right). Street parking, which is regulated by meters, is marked by a blue or green line running down the side of the road.

Footwear

A point you may not be aware of – driving footwear in Spain must be ‘bound to the feet’. Police have been known to fine people for wearing flip-flops, for example.

Traffic/road police in Spain

There is a heavy police presence on the roads in Spain and they routinely stop drivers to check on their insurance and other driving documents.

The roads Costa del Sol have a heavy and strict police presence. You may be regularly pulled over at check-points – and fined if you’re not following the law. Make sure you’ve always got your necessary documents! (See above.)

The police officers are invariably courteous but they are also invariably strict. If they discover that you have committed any offence or that your car is in any way defective you can expect an on-the-spot fine or a summons to attend court.

Despite what many people believe, the fines levied by the police do not go into their pockets! You will always be given an official receipt for the money.

You’ll often see pairs of motorcycle police patrolling the roads, who will be trained in first-aid and car mechanics.

Speed cameras in Spain

Speed cameras are common and often difficult to see – they are painted grey. You probably won’t know anything about it until you get a letter detailing your fine.

Motoring offences in Spain

Fines

If you are a non-resident of Spain, you will have to pay an on-the-spot fine. The police can escort you to the place you are staying or to a cash machine/ATM if you don’t have the money on you.

If you are fined, you should receive a boletín de denuncia, which specifies the offence and the fine. If it’s not an on-the-spot fine you can pay it at any post office or at some banks. You have to pay within 60 days and may get a discount if you pay within 30 days.

If it is an on-the-spot fine, make sure you receive a receipt. This is normal. The idea that on-the-spot fines are the police officer’s drinking fund are not true!

Minor traffic offences

Minor offences such as speeding, illegal overtaking or not wearing a seat belt can lose you points on your licence (you start with 12) and cost you a hefty fine. Again, be sure to familiarise yourself with the Código de la Circulación.

Minor offences are often dealt with by way of an on-the-spot fine. You should always be given an official receipt for the fine. If you do not think that you have committed any offence, you are entitled to reject the on-the-spot fine and to insist on a court hearing. If you do this and you are convicted, the fine will be at least three times higher than the on-the-spot fine offered to you.

Driving drunk/drinking and driving

Don’t drink drive in Spain. The standard punishment is 12 months without your licence and a fine or even a prison sentence.

The alcohol in blood limit in Spain is 0.5g per litre for standard drivers, but 0.3g for commercial or novice drivers.

See our Guide About Drinking and Driving in Spain for more information.

Driving dangerously

Dangerous driving is very subjective. It can cover driving too quickly, driving too close to another vehicle, overtaking on bends, using your mobile phone whilst driving and all sorts of things pretty much at the discretion of the police officer who stops you.

Serious dangerous driving can result in a prison sentence of up to two years.

Driving without insurance

Driving without insurance is a very serious offence. Don’t do it.

Road accidents in Spain

See our Guide to Accidents on the Road in Spain.

Conclusion

Driving in Spain is no more difficult than driving in any other country and a car is a good way of getting to explore some regions of the country.

If you decide you are going to drive, just drive carefully and do not drink at all.

When driving in Spain, it is very important to be aware of any differences between the laws there and the laws of your country. Do your research first and you’ll find that getting around by car is a fairly easy way to travel (assuming you miss the peak traffic times!)

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