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Germany Driving Guide 2020

Driving in Germany is an essential part of every European road trip. Collect your International Driving Permit and check out these driving tips to hit the road in safety.

Lisa Brown

October 13, 2019

INTRODUCTION

Driving in Germany is essential for tourists who want to fully experience the many sides of this nation’s unique character, from the industrial docklands of Hamburg in the north to the tranquil beauty of Baden Baden in the south. More than that, however, driving in Germany with US license is likely to be a major component of any European road trip. In part, this is because of Germany’s central location within the continent. However, the unique driving rules in Germany are undoubtedly a factor too.

Regardless of its role within the wider European context, Germany is a popular destination in its own right. In fact, tourism is booming here like nowhere else in Europe. The nation welcomes around 38 million visitors per annum, a number that keeps rising year on year. With an area of 357,000 square kilometers (almost 140,000 square miles) Germany is among the seven largest countries in Europe. To put that into context, Germany is about the same size by surface area as Montana.

When you think of it in that context, driving in Germany is an obvious choice. Sure, there are public transport options including low-cost domestic flights and a good rail network. However, while these effectively get you from, for example, Bremen to Frankfurt, they will leave you very little the wiser about everything in between these two cities. Just a glance at the country’s manufacturers tells you everything you need to know about the German love affair with the motor car. Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, Volkswagen, Audi – these are brands with a long history and a reputation for quality and craftsmanship that is the stuff of legends worldwide.

Little surprise, then, that an American driving in Germany will quickly learn that the country’s roads are just that little bit more special than those in the rest of Europe, too. In fact, the very act of driving in Germany is an experience that no car enthusiast should miss.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in between, whether you are driving in Germany.

SHOULD I GET AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT IF I INTEND TO DRIVE IN GERMANY?

Unless you hold a full driver’s license that has been issued by an EU country, you will need an International Driving Permit (IDP) for driving in Germany. The good news is that getting one is a simple matter. All you have to do is fill in your personal details and some basic information from your license and it will be issued in a matter of days. There is even a fast track service whereby you can get your IDP sent electronically the same day.

Who needs to see an IDP?

If you want to rent a car in Germany, or indeed elsewhere in Europe, the clerk at the rental desk will need to review your US driver’s license and a valid IDP. You will also need to show the IDP if you are stopped by the police while driving in Germany with American license.

Can anyone get an IDP?

The only stipulations to be eligible for an IDP are that you must be 18 or older and you are required to have held a full driver’s license for at least six months. If you can check both those boxes, you will be able to order an IDP without any problem. However, note that while the driving age in Germany is 18, there are specific restrictions relating to hire cars if you are under 25. We will look at those in more detail in a moment.

What is the validity period for an IDP?

A standard IDP is valid for exactly one year from the date it is issued. If you are planning several overseas trips, it makes sense to order your IDP a week or two before you go, to get the maximum use from it. Regular travelers also have the option to choose an IDP that lasts for two or even three years.

WHEN DRIVING IN GERMANY WHICH SIDE OF THE ROAD DO THEY USE?

Here’s some good news for any American driving in Germany. Like the rest of the European mainland, cars drive on the right and have the steering wheel on the left – in other words, it’s just the same as at home.

However, one area in which you need to be particularly watchful is when it comes to lane discipline. Europeans take this far more seriously than Americans, and one of the most important driving in Germany tips you will ever receive is to stay right except when passing slower vehicles. This is doubly important when traveling on the German Autobahn – something we will discuss at greater length a little later.

Germany also has its fair share of rotaries or roundabouts. These can generate a sense of irrational fear and dread among those driving in Germany with a US license, but they are not as frightening as people seem to think. Always remember that vehicles on the roundabout have priority over those waiting to join, and you will soon be negotiating them with confidence. In fact, you will probably leave Germany wondering why we do not make better use of this system in the US. It is a great way to keep traffic flowing at busy intersections.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Germany, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

IS IT EASY TO RENT A CAR IN GERMANY?

As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in Germany are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.

The German reputation for efficiency is a deserved one, and renting a car is very straightforward. Airports, train stations and cities all provide plenty of options in terms of the major rental companies that you see in the USA. There are a few considerations and tips worth keeping in mind, however, to ensure that your experience driving in Germany is a memorable one for the right reasons.

1. The earlier you book, the better the deal

In some parts of the world, you can get the best deal by renting a car at the last minute. This is a strategy that usually backfires in Germany. Here, booking well in advance will get you the best price. Ideally, track down the best deal and make a solid booking at least two weeks before you arrive. That way you can also relax, safe in the knowledge that you will be driving in Germany in the car you want and at a reasonable price.

2. Manual transmission and diesel power are the norms

The vast majority of cars in the US have automatic transmission and run on gasoline. In Europe, and especially in Germany, the opposite is true, and most rental cars are diesels with manual transmission. The good news is that this combination makes for far better fuel economy – important when gas and diesel are around €1.45 for a liter, which equates to about $5.50 per gallon. If you are really not comfortable with the idea of a stick shift, automatic transmission is an option that the rental companies will offer. However, that’s all the more reason to book early, and be prepared to pay a little extra per day.

3. Young drivers face additional challenges

We mentioned earlier that the legal driving age in Germany is 18. However, although there are a few exceptions, most of the large rental companies have a minimum age of 21. Drivers aged 21 to 25 are likely to incur a young driver surcharge, and will be offered a restricted choice that excludes high performance vehicles, as the sad truth is that they represent a much higher insurance risk.

4. Germany and beyond

The open borders between different European countries mean that people driving in Germany often stray into neighboring countries like The Netherlands, Austria or France – sometimes without even realizing it. As a general rule, this is not a problem, but always check with the rental company first, as there are a few that have exclusions when it comes to driving outside Germany. In particular, if it is your intention to take the car into Poland or beyond into Eastern Europe, make sure you discuss this with the rental agency to ensure you have appropriate insurance coverage in place.

5. Be smart with insurance

Anyone who uses rental cars on a regular basis will know that they typically offer the most basic type of insurance as standard and then do their best to persuade you to pay for enhanced cover. Typically, this increases the overall cost of the rental by at least 20 percent, sometimes more. Are you comfortable with basic cover and willing to accept the fact that if you damage the vehicle you will face a significant excess? Or would you prefer to pay a little extra and know that full cover is in place, whatever happens? Only you can answer that question, but if you go for the second option, shop around at home before you travel. There’s a good chance you can get cover that is every bit as good but less than half the price.

6. Work out the best fuel deal

Take the car empty and bring it back empty? Take it full, prepay for the tank of fuel and bring it back empty? Or take it full and bring it back full? These are just three of the possible options. Some rental companies even offer you the chance to buy a half tank, just to add to the complications. If the prepayment option is on the table, then this usually works out cheaper than refueling at a gas station – it is also one less thing to remember. However, discuss each option with the rental clerk and make sure you are absolutely clear about how much, if any, fuel needs to be in the vehicle when you return it. If you bring it back empty when you had agreed to return it full, you will face a refueling charge that will really make your eyes water.

7. Present the right documentation and you can be on your way

With the car, insurance and fuel arrangements all agreed, all that remains is to hand over your documents, pay your bill and take the keys to your hire car. There’s nothing unusual here, just make sure you have your driver’s license, IDP, passport and an acceptable payment card. Keep in mind that not all European retailers accept American Express, so if this is your payment method of choice, make sure you have a Visa or Mastercard as a backup in case you need it.

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.

DRIVING IN GERMANY VS USA - WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?

We mentioned earlier that driving in Germany with a US license is relatively easy, particularly when you compare it with driving in countries like the UK, Ireland or Malta, where they drive on the left. However, there are rules, conventions and road characteristics that you will not necessarily know anything about unless you got your driving license in Germany.

Narrower lanes – America is famous the world over for having cars and trucks that are larger than anywhere else. However, we also have the infrastructure for them. In Europe, cars are generally smaller, and that means narrower roads, lanes and even parking spaces. It can take a little getting used to, so concentrate on the road when driving in Germany and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Right is right – one of the more bizarre driving conventions in Germany and some other European countries is the requirement to yield to vehicles coming from your right. This can lead to situations where vehicles driving in Germany through built up areas have to slow right down on approaching every side street in case a vehicle wants to join the main road. In effect, most roads like this have a “right of way” sign that means vehicles on the main road have priority. Still, the “give way to right” convention still exists in some rural areas, so be alert when driving in the countryside or through small villages.

No passing on the right – remember the earlier advice about staying right unless passing other vehicles? Well, the converse also holds true, in that passing is only allowed on the left. Passing on the right (sometimes called “undertaking”) is prohibited on German roads. The only exception is when all lanes are moving slowly in congested traffic and the right lane happens to move faster than the left

Turning right on red – as is the case in most European countries, a red light means stop, regardless of which way you are going, and the American convention of being permitted to turn right if the road is clear does not exist. There is one exception in Germany, however. If the red light is accompanied by a green arrow pointing right, it essentially means the American-style right turn on red is allowed. However, you can only proceed if the road is clear, and must yield to other vehicles and to pedestrians.

WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT DRIVING LAWS IN GERMANY?

The above conventions are ones that might take an American driving in Germany by surprise. However, the most common violations of driving laws in Germany concern the types of misdemeanors that are commonplace the world over:

1. Failing to wear a seat belt

If you are driving in Germany, it is your responsibility to make sure that every passenger wears his or her seat belt when the vehicle is in motion. That includes those who are sitting in the back. Furthermore, children under 12 must be strapped into a suitable restraint – this means a child seat or booster seat that is appropriate to the age and weight of the child. Violating this regulation incurs a fine of €30 ($33) for not wearing a seatbelt or €60 ($67) for transporting an unsecured or improperly secured child.

2. Using your cell phone

Europe-wide statistics suggest that 50 percent of road accidents are caused by distracted driving. The biggest distraction of all is the cell phone. Little wonder that police forces across the continent are cracking down, and Germany is no different. If you are driving in Germany you are not permitted to hold, pick up or use your cell phone while the engine is on. Flout the law and you will be fined a minimum of €100 ($111). German police recently carried out a day of spot-checks and stopped more than 3,000 drivers who were using their phones at the wheel, in just a few hours.

3. Parking or stopping on major roads

It it illegal, not to mention highly dangerous, to stop on the Autobahn or on major roads, except in cases where it is unavoidable, for example in congested traffic, or in an emergency. Note that running out of fuel is not considered an emergency, as it is entirely avoidable. If it happens to you in a dangerous location, be prepared to pay a fine of around €30 ($33).

4. Essential equipment

The driving rules in Germany state that every vehicle must have certain items of safety equipment on board. Rental companies will ordinarily take care of this, but it is wise to check before you drive away, as if anything is absent during a police check, you will be the one who is handed the fine. Here’s what you need to have in the trunk:

  • Reflective jackets
  • A warning triangle*
  • A first aid kit*

Items marked * are only compulsory for vehicles registered in Germany.

ARE ROAD SIGNS IN GERMANY EASY TO UNDERSTAND FOR FOREIGN DRIVERS?

A common language

Germany has joined with most other European countries in adopting the Convention on Road Signs and Signals. While most of us have probably not read this 50 year old international treaty, we will be familiar with its content. It sets out some key standardized formats for traffic signs, and is a convention that has been adopted by 68 countries.

This means that by and large, if you are driving in Germany road signs are easy and intuitive to understand. For example, the “stop” sign is a red octagon that has the word STOP written inside it, while intersection signs show pictorial representations that anybody can understand.

But there are exceptions

It is worth mentioning, however, that the US is not among the countries that follow the above Convention in its road signs. There are some that are not quite as obvious. In addition, certain signs in Germany do not follow the convention. Here are some that are a little less intuitive:

Yellow diamond with a white border – priority road (meaning “right to right” does not apply).
Yellow circle with a green border containing a green “H” – bus or tram stop.
Yellow rectangle with a black border containing the word “Umleitung” – diversion.
Blue rectangle with an upward arrow, the letter U and a figure all in white – motorway diversion.
Blue rectangle with a range of speeds in white – recommended speed range.
Blue rectangle showing a house, a car and two figures playing with a ball – residential area.
Inverted triangle with a green border, showing a flying eagle and the words Landschafts Schutzgebiet – conservation area, parking only permitted in designated locations.

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 ARE THE SPEED LIMITS IN GERMANY?

The driving laws in Germany concerning speed limits are indicated by a black number on a white circle with a red border, and are impossible to misunderstand. The limits for passenger cars are straightforward. Keep in mind that if specific speed limits are indicated by signs, these take priority over the standard limits set out below.

  • The speed limit in built up areas is 50 km/h (30 mph). For the avoidance of doubt, a “built up area” starts when you pass a place name to indicate you are entering a city, town or village.
  • The recommended speed limit on Autobahns and dual carriageways is 130 km/h (80 mph).
  • The speed limit on other roads is 100 km/h (62 mph).

Penalties for speeding in Germany

Police patrols do not have as regular and visible a presence on German roads as they do in some European countries, such as France and Italy. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking nobody is watching while you are driving in Germany. Automated traffic cameras, known as Blitzers are commonly used to monitor speeds. If you get “blitzed” while speeding, a fine will be issued directly to the vehicle’s registered keeper. In the case of a rental car, this will earn you both the fine and an admin fee from the rental company.

Fines for speeding violations are on a sliding scale depending on how many km/h over the speed limit the vehicle is traveling. Amounts range from €10 ($11) for a minor violation right up to €680 ($750) for the most serious offenders.

IS DRIVING ON THE AUTOBAHN DANGEROUS?

One thing that will be certain to attract the attention of every American driving in Germany is the above use of the word “recommended.” German Autobahns have become almost legendary for the fact that large stretches of this 13,000 km (8,000 mile) network of highways have no speed restrictions.

The mental image that this conjures of drivers swallowing up mile after mile with their foot to the floor provokes excitement in some and downright terror in others when they contemplate driving in Germany for the first time. However, the truth is a little different. Here are some key points about driving safely on the Autobahn.

1. Speed limits do exist

Urban sections and locations that are higher risk, for example around intersections or curves have speed limits posted. Drivers are informed that they are exiting the restricted zone by a speed limit sign with a strikethrough.

2. Dangerous driving is not tolerated

Even in unrestricted areas, every individual driving in Germany has a legal obligation to drive safely. Driving in a way or at a speed that constitutes a danger to other road users is a traffic offence. It will result in police action that could include a fine of several hundred Euros.

3. Stay right

Everything we said earlier about staying right unless passing slower vehicles while driving in Germany is doubly important on the Autobahn. Here, two or three lanes are being shared by trucks traveling at 90 km/h (55 mph), cars traveling at 200 km/h (125 mph) or even faster, and vehicles moving at a range of speeds between these extremes.

4. Watch your mirrors

If you are new to driving in Germany on its Autobahn network, you will probably decide to join the many other road users who keep around the 130 km/h mark, even in the unrestricted areas. In this case, you will be somewhere between those extremes we mentioned above. One of the most important safety tips is to watch your mirrors closely. If you pull out into the left lane to pass a slower vehicle, you will be putting yourself in the path of those traveling at 200 km/h or more. Even at 130 km/h, that is the equivalent of being in a stationary car and having someone drive towards you at 70 km/h (45 mph).

5. Defensive driving is key

Every one of us learned about defensive driving as a concept in order to get our driving licenses. It is all about being aware of your surroundings, seeing potential hazards early and reacting to them in a way that keeps all road users safe. There is definitely an element of truth in the definition favored by some that it means driving on the assumption that every other road user is a dangerous lunatic. That sounds light-hearted, but the mindset is one that can save lives. For example, if you are traveling at speed on the Autobahn, look well ahead. If you see two vehicles close together and traveling at slower speed, consider the possibility that the rearmost one might move left to pass without checking his mirror. Slow down a little so that if he does so, you can brake and avoid disaster.

6. Drive within your limits

When you drive on an unrestricted stretch of Autobahn, you can cover significant distances extremely rapidly. However, do not feel pressured or obliged to do so. Always drive within the limits of your car and yourself. If the vehicle feels skittish and you are having to focus hard just to keep it in a straight line, you are clearly going too fast. Similarly, if you feel nervous or anything less than completely in control, slow down. Your experience of driving in Germany should be an enjoyable one, and if you do not feel confident behind the wheel on the Autobahn, reduce your speed by 20 km/h. It could make all the difference.

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 THE “GREEN ZONES” IN CITIES WORK?

The environmental and ecological impact of motor vehicles is something we cannot ignore. There are a range of measures that have been introduced in major cities across Europe to reduce both traffic congestion and air pollution in major cities. For those driving in Germany, these take the form of Umweltzonen (green zones).

Entry to green zones is restricted to vehicles that have an Umweltplakette, which is a green sticker that must be purchased in advance. The sticker lasts for the life of the vehicle and should be provided by the rental company. If it is absent, it is possible to obtain one either online or from a TÜV Inspection Station at a cost of €10 ($11). If you have entered Germany in a vehicle registered in another country, the cost of the sticker is €12.50 ($14).

Entering a green zone without an Umweltplakette displayed on your windshield means an automatic fine of €40 ($45) for every infringement. Green zones exist in all major cities and are becoming increasingly common in smaller towns, too, so ensure this is in place or the penalties can soon start to mount up.

WHAT IS THE POLICE ATTITUDE TO DRUNK DRIVING IN GERMANY?

Like so many countries in Europe, Germany has a great reputation for its hospitality and is the home of a wide range of unique beers, wines and spirits. If you enjoy a drink, you will be looking forward to sampling some of them. That’s fine, but never drive a car after doing so.

German police officers are as strict as their European neighbors in taking severe action against anyone caught driving in Germany over the legal blood alcohol limit. Offenders will face a minimum fine of €500 ($550). Like speeding fines, the penalty depends on the seriousness of the offence and how high a blood alcohol level is involved. In the most serious cases, driving laws in Germany allow for a fine of €3,000 ($3,350), which can be accompanied by a custodial sentence.

German police officers have the right to ask anybody driving in Germany to provide a sample of breath or blood. Note that failure to comply with this request is treated with the same seriousness a being over the limit, and incurs the same penalties.

How much is too much?

Germany has a maximum blood alcohol limit of 0.5 mg/ml. However, for young drivers, there is zero tolerance, and any positive reading will result in a fine. Compare this limit with the DUI rules in the US or UK, where the limit is 0.8 mg/ml and you can see just how strict the authorities are about drunk driving in Germany.

A glass of wine or beer can easily lead to a blood alcohol level that exceeds 0.5 mg/ml, so the wisest course of action is to avoid alcohol entirely on days when you are driving in Germany. Also, avoid excessive alcohol consumption if you are going to be driving the following morning. There is no magic formula to calculate how long alcohol remains in your system, as it varies according to so many factors. However, to give a very broad idea, around two hours per glass of wine or beer is common.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING A POLICE STOP IN GERMANY?

Nobody sets out driving in Germany or anywhere else with the objective of being stopped by the police. However, we all know that wherever we are, that is always a possibility the moment we get behind the wheel. German police officers have a reputation for being courteous, cooperative and professional. As long as you treat them in the same spirit, being the subject of a police stop does not have to be a cause for panic.

German police officers

Local and regional police units are divided into various categories and departments. As far as maintaining the driving rules in Germany is concerned, there are two particular branches to be aware of:

1. The Schutzpolizei (or Schupo) are local police officers who report to their local municipalities. They can be compared to uniformed beat officers in the US. Traditionally, German police officers used to wear either dark green or dark blue uniforms, which varied between states. However, in recent years, these have changed to blue uniforms that are similar to those used in other European countries. Patrol cars are white with a blue stripe and the word Polizei along the side.

2. The Autobahnpolizei is, as the name suggests, the German equivalent of the US Highway Patrol. These officers typically operate in high-performance vehicles that are often unmarked.

Pulling Over

Police officers will indicate that they want you to stop by switching on their flashing lights and displaying a flashing sign that will read either Polizei Halt (Police Halt) or Bitte folgen (Please Follow) if they pull in front of you. It is essential to react calmly. If the vehicle is behind you, slow down and look for a suitable point where you can stop safely without obstructing traffic. Make sure there is also room for the police car to stop safely behind you.

Switch off your engine, open your window and wait for the officer to come to you. He will explain the reason for the stop. If you do not understand German, explain this immediately. Most German police officers speak excellent English.

Making everything go smoothly

The police officer will ask to see documentation relating to you and the car you are driving in Germany. Make sure you have your license, IDP, rental documents and passport to hand.

Most important, keep in mind that if you have committed a minor offence, the police officer has some flexibility on how to deal with it. When a driver is argumentative or evasive, the officer will have cause to take more time searching the car and will probably issue an on-the-spot fine, If you are open, courteous and cooperative, there is a good chance that you can be on your way with nothing more than a verbal warning in a matter of minutes.

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.

ENJOY EUROPE’S UNIQUE HEARTLAND

Germany lies at the center of Europe, and not just in a geographical sense. Its historic towns, beautiful scenery and welcoming people make it the perfect place to explore by car. From its busy city centers to its twisty rural lanes to its unrestricted Autobahns, Germany also offers every type of driving experience imaginable. Follow the above tips and you will be able to enjoy experiencing all of them with confidence.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Italian drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.

Sources:
Fläche und Bevölkerung, Statistikportal
German Foreign Tourist Arrivals, Trading Economics
EU Member Countries, European Union
Driving in Germany, The RAC
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in your Body, Healthline 
Ireland Gasoline Prices, GlobalPetrolPrices.com
Mobile Phones and Driving, Road Safety Authority
Essential Tips for Renting a Car in Germany, (Jun 2019), Birge Amondson, Trip Savvy 
Mobile Phone Driving Bans in Europe (Nov 2017), Kaya Weissert, German Autolabs
Traffic Accidents, DE Statis
The Police, The German Way and More
Convention on Road Signs and Signals (1968), United Nations Treaty Convention
Driving in Germany: Green Zones, The German Way and More