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Driving in Ireland - useful advice and driving tips

Driving in Ireland is the ideal way to explore this popular destination. Get your International Driving Permit and prepare for the trip of a lifetime.
  • October 18, 2019
  • 7 min read

Introduction

Driving in Ireland might sound like the ultimate challenge, and driving in Ireland as an American especially so. To the uninitiated, it certainly sounds like something you’d think twice about. Narrow back roads that are as likely to be occupied by sheep as oncoming trucks; roundabouts wherever you look; manual transmission as standard; oh, and of course, everything is back to front, so not only are you sitting on the right but the gear shift is on your left.

Sure, put like that, driving a car in Ireland sounds like something that is not for the faint hearted. But here’s the thing, some 2.4 million Americans visited Ireland in 2018, a number that goes up by more than 10 percent every year. The majority of them chose to rent a car, as it is really the most practical way to get around. Driving distances in Ireland are not immense by US standards. But still, the drive from Dublin to Cork, for example, takes around three hours. It is far better undertaken in your own vehicle at your own pace.

Of course, while cities like those mentioned above are places you will love to visit, the real joy of driving in Ireland as a tourist is visiting all those little places in between and a little off the beaten track. Who cares if you find yourself sharing the road to Bunacurry with a few sheep? It’s all part of the experience and the stories you tell when you get home will go down in family folklore. But you really need your own set of wheels to fully experience all that the Emerald Isle has to offer.

Driving in Ireland is actually nowhere near as challenging as you might think. It’s also far easier than you will probably let on when you return home ready to share your tales of adventure.

Contents

Benjamin Franklin said that when we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. It’s a philosophy that can be applied to almost any situation and for an American driving in Ireland, preparation is certainly key. The first step is a simple one. Sit down calmly and turn every concern you might have about driving in Ireland into a clear question. Next, read on, as we have almost certainly got the answer for you. Here, then, are the most important driving in Ireland tips, gathered by finding answers to the questions that those driving in Ireland with a US license most commonly ask.

Do I need to get an International Driving Permit to drive in Ireland?

The rules relating to driving in Ireland for tourists state that you either need a full driver’s license that has been issued by a European Union member country or an International Driving Permit (IDP) to get behind the wheel. An IDP is easy to obtain, and you can get one online. It is a document required by car rental agencies and police forces to confirm that the driving license issued in your home country allows you to drive a rental car in Ireland.

The clerk at the rental desk will need to see your valid IDP, as well as your US driver’s license before they will allow you to take possession of the rental car. Likewise, if you happen to be stopped by the police while driving in Ireland, you will need to show them both documents.

Who can get an IDP?

If you are 18 or above and have held your US driver’s license for a period of six months or more, you can apply online to get an IDP. However, note that drivers who are under 25 or over 75 might face additional costs or restrictions when renting a car in Ireland.

How long is the IDP valid?

In most cases, an IDP is valid for a period of 12 months. The clock starts ticking the day it is issued, so while you won’t want to leave it till the last minute, it is also a waste of money ordering it too quickly. For frequent overseas travelers, IDPs with to or three year validity are also available.

Can I get an IDP at short notice?

Some people make a late decision to try driving in Ireland. If you’ve already arrived and only now have you realized you really want to rent a car, it is not too late. There is a fast track service whereby you can complete your online application and get the IDP issued and sent to you electronically, all on the same day.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

What is the process for renting a car in Ireland?

The average American driving in Ireland collects his or her vehicle from one of the car rental desks at Dublin airport. If you decide to do the same, you will find that the experience is very similar to renting a car back home in the US, or indeed elsewhere in Europe.

You will see all the usual big name rental companies like Hertz, Avis and so on, plus major European rental firms that include AutoEurope and Europcar. They will take you through the usual process and paperwork. However there are some specific tips for driving in Ireland that you need to have at the forefront of your mind before you even book the rental car.

1. It’s better to book in advance

Sure, some people like to take their chance on the day, and if your decision to try driving in Ireland is a last-minute one, you’re certain to be able to rent a car on the spot However, it might mean having to accept whatever vehicle is available, and you will almost certainly have to pay more than someone who booked well in advance. If you have your heart set on a specific type of car, or you have special requirements, reserving the car in advance is essential.

2. Automatic transmission is a special option

When you are driving in Ireland as an American, there is one special requirement that is likely to be at the top of your list. The vast majority of cars in Ireland have manual transmission. If shifting gear, and doing so with your left hand, is something you don’t want to do, then automatic transmission is something the rental firms can offer. But book well in advance, and accept the fact that it will add a premium to the overall rental cost.

3. There are certain age restrictions

The good news for young tourists is that the minimum driving age in Ireland is 17. This is younger than most countries in the European Union. The bad news is that the major rental companies insist that drivers must be 21 or over, and most will charge a young driver fee if you are under 25. For drivers at the other end of the spectrum, there are also restrictions. These vary from one rental firm to the next, but usually there is a similar additional fee for drivers aged 75 or older. As a general rule, if you are 70 or above, take a look at each rental firm’s age policies to see what, if any, restrictions or surcharges you might face.

4. Small roads are best explored in small cars

You will be presented with all the usual options when choosing your rental car online. But before you decide to spoil yourself and pay a little extra for an SUV or a cavernous executive sedan, think again. Once you get away from the main cities and the motorways that link them, Ireland’s rural roads are much more narrow than those in the US. Trying to negotiate them in a large vehicle, and safely getting past oncoming traffic when you are sitting on the right and driving on the left rapidly gets stressful. Of course, you don’t want to be cramped or overloaded, but choose a car that is big enough to accommodate you, your passengers and your luggage – but no bigger. Still not convinced? Now might be the time to remember that driving in Ireland means paying between €1.45 and €1.50 per liter. That works out at well over $5.00 a gallon. Still think that huge gas-guzzler is a good idea?

5. You need to have the right documentation to hand

This is one aspect of the car rental process that will be mostly familiar. Just remember that you need both your IDP and your US driver’s license. You’ll also need to show your passport as additional ID, and have a recognized payment card. Be aware that Visa and Mastercard are fine, but some agencies are less willing to accept American Express. This is a phenomenon that you will encounter at retail outlets throughout the country as an American driving in Ireland, so make sure you have more than one type of plastic in your wallet, just to be on the safe side.

6. Driving into Northern Ireland

When you are driving in Ireland as a tourist, it is natural that you will want to explore both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We will discuss the differences between the two, specific driving laws for Northern Ireland and all the rest in a moment. But the important thing to mention here is that rental companies on both sides will generally have no problem with you taking their vehicle across the border. However, you do need to tell them in advance. They will ask you to complete a form called a VE103, and this is used to extend the insurance coverage, as you are actually driving the car into a different country.

7. Weigh up the insurance options

The rental car will automatically include basic insurance cover that means you will be driving in Ireland legally. However, keep in mind that this will essentially cover loss, damage or injury to third parties. While it is not one of the driving in Ireland requirements from a legal perspective, most will also include some form of cover against theft of or damage to the vehicle and personal injury to the driver. However, these aspects of the cover will still leave you exposed to an excess, which is the amount for which you are liable before the policy kicks in to cover the rest. This excess can often run to four figures. The rental firm will offer you enhanced cover to reduce or eliminate this excess, but prepare yourself for the fact that the overall rental fee will also increase significantly. If you are well-organized, you could try asking your insurer back home or your credit card company for a quote – it will almost certainly mean you get better coverage at a lower cost.

8. Comply with the agreed fuel policy

Rental companies and fuel policies are enough to put your head in a spin. There is no set rule, and if you are presented with different options, for example to either prepay for a tank of gas and return it empty, or not to prepay and to return it full, there is no “right answer” as to which you should do. Discuss the options with the clerk, explain the approximate mileage you are likely to cover and ask him or her to recommend which option is the most cost effective. Remember, the clerk gets paid no matter what, so it is in his or her interest to deliver the best customer service and that means offering good advice. Most importantly, comply with the policy terms that you agree – otherwise you will get a penalty refuelling charge that works out far more expensive.

What side of the road do they drive on in Ireland?

The UK and the Republic of Ireland are among the few countries in Europe where they drive on the left. In other words, the driving side in Ireland is the same in both the north and the south. This is often one of the biggest concerns for driving in Ireland as an American, but you will get used to it far more quickly than you think.

The biggest challenge is when you initially get behind the wheel. If you have never driven a right-hand-drive car before, there is no denying that it feels strange at first. The front left corner seems to be a long way away, and if you have hired a car with manual transmission, you will inevitably find yourself reaching for the door instead of the gearshift for the first few miles! However, you will be amazed how fast you adapt, and driving on the left hand side of the road will soon feel like second nature.

An inevitable part of driving in Ireland is negotiating roundabouts (rotaries). Here, you need to keep your wits about you and remember to stay left and follow the driving direction in Ireland which is clockwise on roundabouts. Other than that, follow the simple rule that vehicles joining the roundabout must yield to cars already on it, and you will have no problems.

The other small detail to remember about the driving side in Ireland concerns motorways and multi-lane roads. Here, the general rule is to stay left, and only use the right lane for passing slower vehicles. Passing on the left is not allowed – as well as being dangerous, as the car on the right could easily fail to notice you and move across, it is a traffic offence. It will result in a stern word from any police officer that sees you, and potentially a fine.

What are the most important driving rules in Ireland?

Driving in Ireland requirements are not dramatically different to anywhere else in the world. The most important thing to remember is the factor mentioned above, about driving on the left. Once you have mastered that, everything else will be simple and intuitive. Of course, as a relatively small and highly rural country, there are some specific conventions that you need to keep in mind. Let’s run through some of the core driving rules in Ireland, along with some basic driving in Ireland tips that will help you to fit right in like a local.

Don’t even touch your cell phone

A common factor across Ireland, UK and mainland Europe is that the local police take a zero-tolerance approach to using your phone while behind the wheel of a car. That is meant quite literally – even if you are waiting for traffic lights to turn green and the car is stationary, you must not use your phone. To do so is to invite a penalty of €60 ($67).

Data from the UK Department of Transport shows that using a phone makes drivers four times more likely to be involved in an accident. Interestingly, this applies equally to those using a hands-free kit, so the strong advice is to leave your phone switched off and stored out of reach while you are driving in Ireland. Hands-free devices are not illegal in themselves, but police can and will stop you and issue you with a fixed penalty if they feel that by using one you are distracted from the road ahead.

Make sure everyone wears a seat belt.

Another easy way to lose €60 is failing to wear a seat belt. Front seat passengers will be reminded to buckle up by that annoying chime, but there is no such audible warning in the back. However, the law is very clear – every passenger, front or back, must wear a seat belt. Police officers are experts at spotting offenders at a glance, and it is the driver who will face the fine. So double check everyone before you let the clutch out and start driving in Ireland.

Yield to larger vehicles

This is not so much a law as an exercise in both good manners and common sense. Many of Ireland’s roads are single lane and it can be a squeeze getting past oncoming vehicles. Those driving buses, trucks and agricultural vehicles have an even tougher job, so make their lives easier by getting your more maneuverable vehicle well out of the way and letting them go first.

Plan your fuel stops

Once you start exploring the rugged countryside of Ireland, you will find that gas stations (or petrol stations as they are generally known) can become few and far between. Once the tank is below half full, it makes sense to top it up for peace of mind. A few specific points to remember here:

  • In the majority of cases, gas stations are self service. There is no need to prepay, you simply pull up to the pump, top up the tank, and then go inside to pay. Take a note of the pump number to make sure you pay for your fuel, not someone else’s.

  • Most filling stations accept visa and mastercard, but there are a few rural locations that are still cash only. Make sure you have a good supply of Euros on you – these will also be useful if a card machine fails to recognize your US payment card.

  • Rental cars often have diesel engines, so make certain you use the right fuel. Petrol (gasoline) pumps are usually green, while diesel ones are generally black. Check twice before fueling to avoid making an expensive mistake!

Are the Irish dangerous drivers?

Driving standards in Ireland are generally of a high quality, and on an average day, you will not experience anything worse while driving in Ireland than you will back at home. Nevertheless, every country has its share of irresponsible drivers, and police in Donegal, in particular, have reported an upsurge in road safety violations in recent years.

Be alert for drivers passing slower vehicles on blind corners or close to the brow of a hill, breaking speed limits or failing to use their turn signals. This sort of activity is the exception, not the rule, and the best advice is to exercise defensive driving techniques, and not to retaliate if you experience bad driving by others. Think of it this way, if someone is driving dangerously, it is far better to have him in front of you where you can see him than behind you, where he could involve you in a collision, so let him pass and get on with your day in safety.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Will I understand the traffic signs driving in Ireland?

The great thing about driving in Ireland compared to some nations in Europe is that all the road signs are in English. Place names are also shown in Irish, but this language is only used by a small minority of the population, Most traffic signs are simple to understand, although some, especially in rural areas, are old-fashioned and have been in place for decades.

Still, that largely comes down to Irish pragmatism and the attitude that there is no need to change a winning formula. Direction signs are color-coded according to the road you are using, so blue for motorways, green for major roads and white for minor roads. Tourist spots and places of interest are shown on square signs with a black background (brown in Northern Ireland). In the Republic of Ireland, you will see distances given in both miles and kilometers, while in Northern Ireland, only miles are indicated.

What are the speed limits in Ireland?

Irish police regularly monitor speeds, and will not hesitate to issue fixed penalty fines to anyone driving too fast. Also be aware that the use of radar equipment to detect speed cameras is an offence. There five different speed limit categories to keep in mind when driving in the Republic of Ireland:

Towns and cities – the speed limit in built up areas is 50 km/h (30 mph) unless otherwise indicated.

Motorways – all motorways have a standard speed limit of 120 km/h (75 mph)

National roads – these are the “A” roads that use green signs. They might consist of one or two lanes for each direction of flow. The standard speed limit here is 100 km/h (62 mph) unless there are signs that state otherwise.

Regional / local roads – on non-national roads with white road signs, the standard limit is 80 km/h (50 mph) unless otherwise indicated.

Special roads and zones – local authorities have the power to enforce bye-laws that set special speed limits under certain circumstances. Typically, these are in high-risk areas, for example in residential areas or close to schools. The limits will be clearly signed, and are sometimes as low as 30 km/h (20 mph). Often, these only apply during certain hours, typically around the start and end of the school day

Speed limits in Northern Ireland
If you travel into Northern Ireland, keep in mind that speed limits are shown in mph, not km/h. Here, the standard limits match the rest of the United Kingdom and are 70 mph on motorways and dual carriageways, 60 mph on single lane carriageways and 30 mph in built-up areas. In all cases, these national limits are subject to any special limits that are indicated on road signs.

Can I drive between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

We have already mentioned that driving between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is something you will need to discuss with your car rental agency to ensure you are covered by insurance and not in breach of your rental agreement while driving in Ireland. Beyond that, however, there is nothing to stop you crossing the border between the two countries. It is something that locals do every day without a second thought, and there is no border control. However, you are still crossing from one country into another, and while under most circumstances nobody will know or care, it is important that you and your passengers carry your passports with you at all times. That way, in the unlikely event that you are involved in an accident or some other incident, you can demonstrate who you are and how you came to be in the country. Keep in mind that driving laws in Northern Ireland are a little different to those in the Republic of Ireland, and that speed limits and distances are shown in miles instead of kilometers.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

How do I negotiate the toll roads in Ireland?

One thing you won’t have to worry about in Northern Ireland is toll roads. However, in the south, there are 11 different toll roads. They provide a great way to get quickly from Point A to Point B, and even if you are in no hurry, you will probably find yourself using a toll road to make your immediate escape if you collect your rental car from Dublin airport.

Paying the toll

In the case of 10 out of the 11 toll roads, paying your way could not be easier. There are toll plazas when you enter and exit the toll road. Take a ticket on entry, then hand it to the cashier at the exit and make your payment. Some accept card payments, but it is wise to have cash on you just in case.

Using the M50 toll

The exception is the M50 toll. This is the orbital road that goes around Dublin, and you will almost certainly use it if you are driving to or from the airport. Here, there are no toll plazas or payment booths. Automatic license plate cameras identify every vehicle that joins or leaves the toll road, and the driver must pay the appropriate fee online by midnight the following day. Some rental agencies have existing contracts and pay the toll for you automatically – check with the clerk when you collect your rental so that you know what to do and do not find yourself with a late payment fine when you return the vehicle.

What are the regulations concerning drinking and driving in Ireland?

Ireland is one of the best places to visit if you enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink. Its breweries and distilleries are world-famous, and every beer-lover should try a proper pint of Guinness in Dublin. Irish whiskeys like Jameson and Bushmills enjoy just as good a reputation among those who prefer spirits.

However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Ireland’s association with famous alcoholic drinks makes it OK to drive a car after sampling them. The Irish police will breathalyze anyone suspected of having had a drink, and they will automatically take a breath sample from anyone involved in an accident.

DUI is a serious offence and if you are over the limit, you will face arrest, a hefty fine and possibly even a prison sentence. You will also need to deal with the cost of recovering the vehicle if it is impounded.

What does “over the limit” mean?

The Republic of Ireland allows a maximum blood alcohol limit of 0.5 mg/ml. In Northern Ireland, the limit is 0.8 mg/ml. Even a pint of Guinness or a shot of Bushmills can easily be enough to push you over the limit. The potential consequences of DUI, in terms of road safety, cost and inconvenience mean it is really not worth taking the risk of driving in Ireland after even one drink.

The message is a clear one. By all means, enjoy that famous Irish hospitality during your visit. But don’t even think about getting behind the wheel afterwards. Also, avoid driving early in the morning if you have over-indulged the night before. Every pint of beer or glass of wine needs approximately two hours to leave your system. Depending on your size, metabolism and how much you have eaten, it can often take even longer.

What do I do if the police stop me while I am driving in Ireland?

Let’s be honest, if you drive a car anywhere, you will get pulled over by the police sooner or later. This is no different when you are driving in Ireland than it is back at home in the US. Ireland’s roads are kept safe by the Garda. This is short for Garda Síochána, which is an Irish term that literally means “Guardians of the Peace.”

The Garda typically patrol the roads in white cars that are covered in fluorescent yellow and blue strips. Officers wear a black uniform, but again, will typically wear a fluorescent jacket when on duty.

Garda officers might pull you over for any number of reasons. However, the way you react will be the biggest deciding factor in how long the stop takes and what are the outcomes. For minor traffic offences, the Garda has the option of letting you off with a warning or giving you a fine. The way you handle the stop is the biggest factor in their decision-making:

1. Park safely

The officer will indicate that he wants you to stop by driving behind you, switching on his blue lights and gesturing to the left. He might also sound the siren briefly to attract your attention. Don’t panic – slow down gently, switch on your turn signal to indicate you have seen him and stop in an area where the police vehicle will also have room to park behind you.

2. Be polite

Being a police officer is not an easy job. Remember, these men and women put themselves at risk every day to keep the rest of us safe. A little courtesy and respect is the least we can offer them. Switch off the engine, roll down the window and wait for the officer to approach. If it is dark, switch on the overhead light in the car, so that the officer can see you and your passengers. Remember, they have no idea whether they might be walking into a hostile situation.

3. Don’t admit guilt

A common question is “do you know how fast you were going?” If the answer is one that constitutes an acknowledgement that you were speeding, it is better to politely say you are not sure. An immediate admission that you breaking the speed limit and you know it really gives the Garda no choice but to give you a ticket.

4. Be calm and patient

The Garda will want to see your paperwork, including your driver’s license, IDP, car rental documents and so on. He might need to take these back to his patrol car to carry out verification checks. This is all perfectly normal, so sit patiently and wait for his return.

5. Penalties for offenders

If you have committed a serious offence, for example DUI, dangerous driving or excessive speeding, you will face a fixed penalty fine at the very least. You do not pay this to the officer himself, but he will explain how you can do so either online or at a police station. In many cases, the fine is reduced if you pay within a set number of days. For more minor offences, for example if a back seat passenger was not wearing a seat belt or you were just marginally over the speed limit, the officer can make a discretionary decision to let you off with a warning. That’s very much in your hands, so remember to do all you can to help him make the stop go smoothly.

Enjoy the unique experience of Ireland

The Emerald Isle is famous for its friendly people, its historic sites and its stunning natural beauty. Driving in Ireland is the perfect way to fully appreciate all of these things and to make your trip one that you will remember for the rest of your life.

It might sound like a challenge to try driving in Ireland with a US license for the first time, but if you keep the above tips in mind, you will be able to enjoy your time behind the wheel and drive in Ireland with complete confidence.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Sources:
North Americans Visiting Ireland (Mar 2019), Michael Dorgan, Irish Central
EU Member Countries, European Union
Driving in Ireland with a US License and Staying Calm (May 2018), Keryn Means, Walking on Travels
Driving in Ireland, The RAC
Tips for Renting a Car in Ireland, Sher She Goes
Ireland Information: Travel by Road, Travel Ireland
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in your Body, Healthline 
Ireland Gasoline Prices, GlobalPetrolPrices.com
Can I Drive a Hire Car Across the Border in Ireland, RentalCars.com
Mobile Phones and Driving, Road Safety Authority
Driving in Ireland, (Feb 2019), Natalie Kennedy, Trip Savvy 
Dangerous Driving in Donegal (Jul 2018), Rosita Boland, The Irish Times
Crossing the Irish Border (Jul 2017), Jill Bowderry, Reading the Book
What to do when you get pulled over by the Gardaí (Nov 2016), David Stafford, Car Buyers Guide

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