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Driving in Portugal - rules and advice to ensure a safe trip

​Driving in Portugal might sound challenging but with an International Driving Permit and knowledge of the key driving rules you will soon feel comfortable behind the wheel.
  • October 14, 2019
  • 7 min read

Introduction

Driving in Portugal is essential for any foreign visitors who want to get the maximum from their visit. At a little over 92,000 square kilometers (about 35,000 square miles) the nation is relatively small, certainly when compared with its closest neighbors, Spain and France. However, it manages to pack an immense amount into such a small area, including the sun-kissed beaches of the Algarve, ancient cities like Lisbon and Porto and even mountain skiing at Serra da Estrela. Little wonder, then, that the nation welcomes more than 20 million overseas visitors every year.

Lisbon, Porto and Algarve hot spots like Portimao each have their own character, and if you are only planning on visiting these tourist hubs, you can probably manage without driving in Portugal at all. However, in doing so, you will be missing out on truly experiencing the country, its inhabitants and its culture, as these are exemplified by the people and places that you will drive through in between the main tourist hubs.

Its comparatively small size makes Portugal an ideal country to explore by car, Of course, for the first time visitor, the idea of driving in Portugal with a US license can seem daunting. From understanding road signs to getting to grips with the driving regulations in Portugal, there are certainly plenty of things to think about, and you are likely to have a whole list of questions related to driving in Portugal advice.

That is quite natural for any tourist driving in Portugal if they have never done so before. Like any country, Portugal has its own rules and conventions. However, none of these are complicated or difficult to understand, and driving in Portugal is certainly no more challenging than driving in any other country in Western Europe.

Contents

Given that the country packs so many tourists into its relatively small area every year, there are understandably some questions related to driving in Portugal that come up time and again. We have gathered the most common ones that are certain to cross your mind if you are planning on driving in Portugal with an American license.

Is an International Driving Permit required in Portugal?

Unless your driver’s license was issued by a European Union country, you will need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to drive in Portugal. This is a document that is easy to obtain online and that is recognized by car rental agencies and traffic enforcement officers all over the world. The IDP translates the information that is contained in your US driver’s license into 12 of the most commonly used languages, one of which is Portuguese.

Rental companies will need to see a valid IDP before they will hand over the keys to a rental car and allow you to drive in Portugal with a US license. In addition, police officers will ask to see it during random traffic stops, so make sure you have it on you at all times whenever you are driving in Portugal.

US License + IDP = all set to drive in Portugal

It is important to remember that having an IDP does not change the need to carry your driver’s license with you when you get behind the wheel. The simple fact is that one is no use without the other and car rental clerks and police traffic officers will ask to look at both to satisfy themselves that you are entitled and qualified to be driving in Portugal.

Eligibility for an IDP

As long as you are aged 18 or older and have been in possession of your US driver’s license for a minimum of six months, then you will have no problem applying for an IDP. For young or inexperienced drivers, that does not necessarily mean you will automatically be able to rent a car, but we will explore that in more detail in the next section.

When to apply for an IDP

An IDP is typically processed in a matter of days, and can even be turned around on the same day if you choose the premium urgent service. This is ideal for those who make a sudden decision that they want to rent a car and try driving in Portugal after they have arrived. Your IDP will usually be valid for a period of 12 months, although two and even three year IDPs are also available. As the validity period starts on the date the IDP is issued, it makes sense to apply for it shortly before you travel.

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 do I need to bear in mind when renting a car?

Even the people in the capital, Lisbon, will agree that by renting a car, you will have the best opportunity to experience “the real Portugal.” That’s perfectly understandable. After all, however proud they might be of where they live, no New Yorker or Washingtonian would suggest that visiting their city would give a tourist a full taste of America.

Most visitors to Portugal arrive through Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport. Here, American tourists will be greeted by a familiar sight at the car rental area. All the usual names are there, such as Hertz, Avis and Sixt, plus some other large European rental companies that include Europcar and AutoEurope.

It’s not just the names that are the same across the world. The overall process for renting a car is largely the same, too. However, there is a difference between “largely” and “completely” and it is the small variations that can catch you out. Here are some specifics to bear in mind when you rent a car to go driving in Portugal with an American license.

1. Book in advance

There’s always the possibility of getting a great deal by just turning up at the desk and asking what is available. But at Lisbon airport, that possibility is quite remote. It’s by no means the largest airport in Europe, and the large amount of tourists coming through each day means that demand often outstrips demand. By all means try your luck, but in general, prices at the desk are higher than if you book well in advance.

2. Prepare to give it some stick

The above rule is doubly important if you want a rental car with automatic transmission. In Europe, a manual gearbox, or stick shift, is the standard choice, and while all the rental companies will have a range of automatics too, these are less common, and usually cost more per day. If you are comfortable with the idea of driving in Portugal with a stick shift, that will give you a better choice of vehicles and save you some money, too.

3. Young drivers beware

The age limit for driving in portugal is 18. However, many of the larger rental companies will only rent a car to drivers aged 21 or more, and almost all require you to have held a full license for a minimum of one year. On top of that, drivers aged 21-25 will typically find there is an additional fee called a young driver surcharge that is added to the overall rental price. Major rental companies will sometimes restrict the categories of vehicles that are available to young or inexperienced drivers.

4. Check out all the options

One peculiarity about renting a car in Portugal is that there is far more choice than in other larger countries. As well as all those major companies we mentioned above, the nation has a thriving industry populated by small-scale independent car rental firms. These might have a more limited choice, but they can offer some great deals to undercut their multinational competitors. It is also well worth talking to them if you are a young driver or have not held your license for long, as they might just give you a “yes” when others have declined you.

5. Small is beautiful

For many visitors, the best part of driving in Portugal is visiting the tiny villages with their narrow, twisty streets. These were originally donkey tracks, and many have not changed much since the invention of the automobile. Under these circumstances, an SUV or luxury sedan is the last thing you need. Rent as small a car as possible, as long as it will comfortably accommodate the passengers and luggage you need to carry. Given that gasoline and diesel cost around €1.50 per liter (more than $5.00 per gallon) in Portugal, your wallet will thank you for choosing a smaller, more economical car, too.

6. Make sure you have the right documentation

Whether you rent from a large or small agency, the clerk behind the desk will want to see the same documentation. Ensure you have your driver’s license, IDP and passport to hand. Of course, you will also need a suitable payment card, which must be in the same name as the person renting the vehicle. If you booked the rental in advance, take a printed copy of the confirmation with you so that you can easily check everything is as agreed. Don’t rely on it being saved on your cell phone, as fate is certain to ensure the battery has magically run out of power when you switch it on after leaving the plane.

7. Driving into Spain

While driving in Portugal and exploring the countryside, you might decide to venture across the border into Spain. Both nations are part of the European Union and there is free movement from one to the other, so this is usually permitted by rental companies. However, there are a few exceptions that specifically prohibit drivers from taking the vehicle outside Portugal, so if a visit to Spain forms part of your agenda, check with the rental company in advance.

8. Consider your own insurance

Rental companies will, of course, offer a range of insurance options from the basic standard cover, which is enough to comply with the law for driving in Portugal to fully comprehensive cover where you don’t have to pay a cent in excess or deductible. The problem is that the former really offers very little comfort and can leave you liable for a four figure excess if the vehicle is damaged or stolen while in your care. The latter, on the other hand, can increase the overall rental cost by as much as 50 percent. For these reasons, it is well worth doing a little homework and speaking to your own vehicle insurer, credit card company or travel insurance provider. There’s a good chance they will be able to offer better cover for a lower price.

9. Fuel policies

If you’ve rented a car in the US or elsewhere, you will know that fuel policies can be complex and constantly seem to change. It’s no different when renting a car in Portugal. The best advice is to listen carefully to the clerk, read the small print in the rental agreement and make sure you are clear as to whether you are expected to return the vehicle with the tank full, empty or somewhere in between. Do what is expected of you, or you will be presented with a top up cost that works out at more per liter than you would have paid at the gas station.

10. Essential equipment

Driving rules in Portugal state that you must carry spare bulbs for the external lights and a reflective triangle and reflective jacket in case of breakdown. Check that these are present before driving in Portugal in your rental car. The rental agency should provide them as a matter of course, but if they are missing, it is the driver who will be handed a fine by the police.

What side of street is for driving in Portugal?

Driving in Portugal with a US license is made extra easy due to the fact that you sit on the left and drive on the right, just the same as you do at home. The same applies across the whole European mainland, which is logical, as the nations are all interconnected by road networks. It is a different matter in the UK, Malta and a few other island nations, where they drive on the left.

That’s not to say that Portuguese roads are identical to US roads, however. We have already mentioned those narrow, winding streets that go through the countryside villages. But even on the major highways, there are some notable differences. For one thing, slip roads on and off can be chaotic affairs, as on-slips are often immediately before off-slips. This means that while you are slowing down to take an exit, there are other vehicles joining from your right. Also, keep in mind that those exit slip roads are often very short, meaning you really do need to reduce your speed before leaving the main highway.

What are the important driving rules and regulations in Portugal?

The legal requirements for driving in Portugal are similar to those across western Europe. However, they are a little different to what you might be used to at home if you are driving in Portugal with an American license. Here are some of the important things to remember:

Don’t use your cell phone

Fatalities on Portugal’s roads have increased for the past two years in succession. This is in contrast to neighboring EU countries, where the numbers are falling, and the authorities have set out a number of initiatives to reduce dangerous driving. One is a crack down on drivers using cell phones while behind the wheel. You may only take or receive calls using an in-car hands free system. Note that headsets are not allowed, so unless your phone can connect to the car’s audio system by bluetooth, leave it switched off and packed out of the way. The police will fine you on the spot if they see you with a phone in your hand – even if the car is stationary at a red light.

Fasten your seat belts – even in the back

Across the European Union, it is a requirement that everyone in the car is properly buckled in. That applies to all passengers, including those in the back, and again, an on-the-spot fine will be handed to the driver if a police officer spots someone without a seat belt on. Note that under-12s are only permitted to sit in the back, and must have either a child seat or booster seat that is appropriate for their weight and height.

Drive on the right, pass on the left

Lane discipline is strictly enforced in Portugal. That might not seem immediately obvious when you watch the way some locals drive, but we will say more about that in a moment. The rule on multi-lane roads is to stay right unless you are passing other vehicles. Passing on the right is a road traffic offence, and will result in a stern word from a police officer and a fine. The exception is in congested, slow moving traffic if the right lane happens to move faster than the left lane.

Spare glasses

If you have to wear glasses or contact lenses for driving, you are required to have a spare pair with you in the car. In the event of a police stop, this is something the officer will want to verify. If you don’t have them, that’s another offence that carries an immediate fine.

What is the standard of driving like in Portugal?

One of the biggest concerns that visitors have about driving in Portugal is “doing battle” with locals on the roads. In reality, it is more often a case of “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Of course there are some drivers who go too fast or too close, and who treat indicators as an optional extra. However, sharing the roads with people who have bad, or even dangerous, driving habits is something you have to do every day, whatever country you are driving in.

On major roads, be aware of the chaotic nature of the on and off-slips and remember those defensive driving tips you were taught when you first took lessons. In short, these state that you should assume every other driver is likely to do something unexpected, so keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

When you are driving on rural roads, there are a couple of specific points to keep in mind:

Flashing lights – as is the case in Spain and Italy, if someone flashes their lights, it is a warning that they are coming through. If the flash comes from a car behind you, it could also be a way of asking you to move across to the right to provide some extra space to get past.

Stationary vehicles – these are common out in the countryside, as drivers think nothing of stopping their vehicles in the middle of the road so that they can have a chat. Sometimes you might even see a seemingly abandoned vehicle blocking a single-lane road. In most cases, the driver or drivers will see you approach and get out of the way. If not, a gentle press on the horn will be enough to convince them to move. Remember to give them a friendly wave when they do so.

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.

Is it easy to understand traffic signs driving in Portugal?

To get the best experience during your trip to Portugal, you will benefit from learning a few phrases in Portuguese. However, even if you don’t speak a single word, you will have no difficulty understanding the main traffic signs driving in Portugal.

The shapes follow the usual convention of triangles for warnings, circles for rules, squares for information and rectangles for directions. Yield signs, stop signs, speed limits and information regarding intersections and rotaries are all impossible to get wrong.

Having said that, there are just a few signs that might have you scratching your head. For example, an image of a car that appears to have toppled over means there is an obstruction ahead, while if you see what looks like a vehicle being attacked by a swarm of insects, it is actually warning you of reduced visibility. Finally, there is the triangle containing a single exclamation point. This means there is a some unspecified hazard ahead, so slow down and be prepared for anything.

Speed limits in Portugal

The speed limits on Portugal’s roads are indicated by the traditional black number inside a red circle on a white background. Portuguese police officers are as strict about speeding as they are about cell phone use – it is all part and parcel of that overarching campaign to make Portugal’s roads safer and ensure the number of fatalities drops in the years ahead. If there is no specific limit posted, the standard speed limits when driving in Portugal are 120 km/h (75 mph) on the autoestrada or motorway, 90 km/h (55 mph) on open roads and 50 km/h in towns and built-up areas.

Are there times of the year I should avoid driving in Portugal?

Portugal enjoys Mediterranian climate, so unlike some countries in northern Europe there is no reason to avoid driving in Portugal in winter. Snow is practically unheard of, unless you venture up into the mountains, and when there was snowfall in Lisbon in 2006, it was the first time it had happened in more than 50 years, and was a major news event.

However, there are a couple of dates to keep in mind on which you might want to avoid driving a car in Portugal. Specifically, these are around May 13 and October 13, when thousands of believers set out for the Fatima pilgrimage. Portugal’s roads are not as well-lit as you might be accustomed to, and most do not have sidewalks. This adds up to hazardous driving conditions with a dangerous mixture of tourists in cars and pilgrims on foot sharing the same road space late at night.

Should I avoid driving in Lisbon Portugal?

We have already discussed the fact that most people driving in Portugal with a US license collect the rental car from Lisbon airport. You will undoubtedly want to spend at least one day exploring Portugal’s historic capital city. The areas to the west of Lisbon around Pasteis de Belem are not too challenging, even to someone who is new to driving in Portugal.

However, the main tourist destination in Lisbon and the place that you will really want to see is the Old Town. As you head uphill, the roads become gradually more narrow, while the density of cars, cable cars and even auto rickshaws gets thicker. Drivers are noticeably more aggressive in this area of the town, too, and it couldn’t be more different to the relaxed attitude you will see in the rest of Portugal.

Complete gridlock is part of day to day life here, with people walking and riding bicycles and scooters between the cars and trams. All this takes place in a cacophony of shouts, ringing bells and blasting horns.

Then there is the question of finding somewhere to park. If you do decide to brave the Old Town, you will be glad you chose that small rental car, but even then, you can find yourself going round block after block desperately searching for a space. Parking lots exist, but seem to be permanently full. That doesn’t just apply to the marked spaces, locals will leave their vehicles blocking others, and if you are lucky enough to eventually find a spot, there’s no guarantee you will be able to get out of it.

For a stress-free visit to Lisbon’s old town the best strategy by far is to park your car before things get crazy and use a bus or tram. You could even walk, as Lisbon is a relatively small city.

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 toll roads work in Portugal?

Like France, Spain and Italy, Portugal has adopted the toll road system with enthusiasm, and you will need to pay to use the autoestrada. While you should certainly spend some time exploring the back roads and villages, there will be occasions on which you simply need to get from A to B, and under these circumstances, the toll road is the obvious choice. For example, the 160 mile journey from Lisbon to Albufeira in the Algarve takes a little under two and a half hours if you use the toll roads. Allow at least an extra hour if you choose to avoid the tolls.

When driving in Portugal, you will encounter two types of toll roads. Some are entirely electronic, while others offer alternative payment methods at toll booths. Let’s look at each of them.

Mixed toll roads

These are the simplest toll roads to use. You take a ticket when you enter the toll road and then feed it into a machine or hand it to someone in a booth when you leave, and pay what you owe then and there. Most allow for card or cash payments, but make sure you carry some Euros on you just to be on the safe side in case the card machine refuses to work.

Here, you should avoid the lane marked Via Verde – this is reserved for vehicles that have a transponder fitted. Unless, of course, you are one step ahead and have already prepared yourself for the fully electronic toll roads.

Electronic toll roads

When the toll road is fully electronic, there are no toll plazas or booths. The A22 in the Algarve is an example of this type of toll road. There’s no ticket to take. Instead, overhead cameras record the license number of every vehicle entering the toll road and its point of exit. The automated system then calculates the appropriate toll charge. It takes around 48 hours for your journey to appear on the system, whereupon payment must be made within five days.

Residents driving their own cars can simply register an account and pay online. When driving rental car in Portugal, however, the easiest way of handling electronic toll roads is by placing a transponder device in the car. Rental companies will charge a small fee of one or two Euros per day, and you can then settle your total toll charges when you return the vehicle.

What are the drinking and driving laws in Portugal?

This question can be answered with one word: strict. Over the Christmas period in 2018 there were twice as many deaths on Portugal’s roads as the previous year. This frightening statistic is a major driver of the current campaigns to cut down on all sorts of dangerous driving, and DUI is right at the top of Portugal’s agenda.

Police will subject anyone they suspect to have consumed alcohol to a roadside breath test, and any driver over the legal limit will face a severe fine, and could even find themselves inside a prison cell. Also, be aware that refusing to give a sample of breath is treated with exactly the same severity as being over the limit.

The legal blood alcohol limit in Portugal

Like most of mainland Europe, drinking and driving laws in Portugal allow a maximum blood alcohol limit of just 0.5 mg/ml. For new drivers, the limit is just 0.2 mg/ml. When you consider that the limit in the US and the UK is 0.8, you get an idea of just how strict the law is in Portugal. Just one glass of wine could easily put you over the 0.5, so don’t risk it.

Contrary to what you might assume, many DUI convictions occur when people are driving in Portugal early in the morning. This is because a few hours sleep is not always enough to allow your body to fully metabolise the alcohol if you have been enjoying Portuguese hospitality the night before. As a very rough guide, experts suggest that a pint of beer, a small measure of spirits or a medium sized glass of wine remains in your system for around two hours.

What do I do if the police pull me over while I am driving in Portugal?

The occasional police stop is part and parcel of driving a car in Portugal, just as it is in the US or anywhere else for that matter. The procedure for dealing with a police stop is also much the same as it is at home.

Police traffic officers in Portugal

Portugal’s roads are policed by two distinct bodies. In Portugal, there is not the same distinction between the police, the military and the judiciary as there is in the US and in northern European countries. This can lead to confusion for those who are driving in Portugal for the first time.

The Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) or Republican National Guardis a paramilitary force, and operates in much the same way as the Guardia Civil in Spain or the gendarmes in France. They chiefly patrol rural areas and Portugal’s network of autoestrada and report to the nation’s Ministry of National Defence. GNR officers wear blue uniforms.

The Polícia de Segurança Pública (PSP) or Public Security Police is a more conventional police force in the US sense of the word. This branch is non-military and reports to the Ministry of Internal Administration. The PSP chiefly manages urban areas. You can recognise the officers by their blue and white uniforms.

Getting stopped by the police

Either branch of the police force is liable to stop you for any reason, or sometimes for no reason at all. Getting pulled over does not necessarily mean you have committed some traffic violation – random stops to check paperwork are common, and the Portuguese police are experts at spotting visiting tourists.

The most important rule when you have any encounter with the police is to be polite. Despite the difficult job they have to enforce the laws and make the roads safer, Portuguese police officers have a reputation for being friendly and professional. Most also speak good English. However, if you are truculent, argumentative or aggressive, the stop will take twice as long and is more likely to lead to problems.

Ensure you have your driver’s license, IDP, passport and car rental agreement to had. The officer might also ask to see identity documents for your passengers, so it is a good idea for everyone to carry their passports with them when out on the road, just in case.

On the spot fines

As mentioned earlier, if you have committed one of the more common driving infringements, such as speeding, using your phone or not checking your back seat passengers are wearing seatbelts, you can expect to receive an on the spot fine. The amount will vary depending on the severity of the offence, but something between €70 and €130 ($80 to $145) is common. The quickest and most painless way to deal with it is to pay then and there. In some cases, this will mean a reduction in the fine amount, too.

Portugal - the tourist’s paradise

Portugal squeezes so much into such a relatively small area that you will never be short of something new to see or do. Driving in Portugal is the perfect way to fully experience the authentic country and its people. The above tips will help you fit right in and you will soon be driving in Portugal with all the confidence of someone who’s lived there for years.

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.

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