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Poland Driving Guide 2020

Poland is a dynamic country, modern and ancient at the same time. Getting your International Driving Permit is the first step to enjoying every nook and cranny of this country by car.

Lisa Brown

February 26, 2020

INTRODUCTION

Poland is an ancient state that was established close to the middle of the 10th century. It has been independent and under Russian, Prussian, Mongol, Balt, Austrian, German, and the Soviet Union rule at different times in its history. It held free elections in 1989 and 1990 for the first time since World War II, and its economy became one of the strongest in Central Europe in the early 1990s. It joined the EU in 2004, and it has become a more active part of Euro-Atlantic organizations. Poland links the Atlantic Ocean and forests of northwestern Europe with the Eurasian border, making it a geographically important country.

Poland’s 1791 constitution is Europe’s oldest and included ideals of both the French and American revolutions. Polish artists like Frederic Chopin and Adam Mickiewicz improved the world with their insight and talents in the 19th century, and it was the birthplace of Copernicus. Pope John Paull II also hailed from Poland.

Poland dealt with a lot of damage in the 20th century. World Wars I and II were devastating, and its Jewish population was almost entirely wiped out in World War II. Germany never officially declared war on Poland and invaded on September 1, 1939, which started World War II. This country did not cooperate or surrender a battle to the Germans, the only country to do so in Europe.

Poland became a communist satellite of the Soviet Union after World War II, and the country’s workers and the Catholic Church called the Soviet system to account after World War II. Solidarity was the movement begun in the late 1970s to challenge communism. Despite opposition, it kept spreading its work and ideals throughout the country. In 1989, the Polish government fell, and Poland began to transform into a democracy.

Today, you’ll find that Poland is covered in ancient forests, plains, rivers, and mountains as well as historic buildings from hundreds of years ago. But, the country has strong roots in modernity as well. About 60 percent of the country’s population lives in urban areas, and 40 percent live in rural areas.
Located in Central Europe, east of Germany, Poland takes up 312,685 square kilometers. It’s about twice the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, and somewhat smaller than New Mexico. It borders seven countries: Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Poland is divided into different geographic regions. The Baltic coastal plain lies across northern Poland from Germany to Russia. This coastline was created by the action of waves and the reduction of the ice sheet and rising sea levels. Just south of the coastal plan is an area with lakes and hills created by glaciers. The region I has three parts: the Pomeranian Lakeland, the Masurian Lakeland, and the Great Poland Lakeland. Most of the population lives along the river valleys in this region.

The Little Poland Uplands is located south of the central lowlands, and they stretch from east to west. You’ll find the coal deposits and rocks that jut to just over 600 meters. You’ll also find other rocks and mountains to explore in the area, which is also rich in mineral deposits.

You’ll find more than just rugged geology in the Sudeten. Check out the area for many small towns with resorts and spas. The highest portion of this area reaches to 1,602 meters above sea level and is known as the Karkonosze, or “Giant Mountains.”

The most scenic part of Poland is the Carpathian Mountains in the southern area of the country. You can find a large rural population here, but there are also several medium-sized towns. Drive through these areas to get a feel for some of the most beautiful and rugged scenery in Europe. The landscapes there are definitely impressive. The highest peak in this area is Mount Babi and is 1,725 meters above sea level. The Tatra Mountains have a maximum elevation of 2,499 meters and are the highest part of the Polish Carpathians.

The weather in Poland is often wet and a bit chilly. Poland’s climate is temperate, and its winters are moderately severe, cloudy, and cold with lots of precipitation. The summers are mild with plenty of rain.

The country has about 38,282,325 people, and 96.9 percent are ethnically Polish. Silesians make up 1.1%, and Germans comprise 0.2% of the population. Ukrainians make up 0.1 percent of the population and 1.7% of the population is of unspecified ethnicity.

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

Where to Go in Poland

It isn’t exactly simple to pinpoint a few spots of interest to visit in a country like Poland. With its history and expansive size, it is a country that just begs to be explored by car over a period of time. Starting in Kraków, the old royal capital, you’ll love Old Town with its streets from medieval times, and plenty of cafes and exciting nightlife spots. Take in St. Mary’s Basilica, and then climb its towers to get gorgeous views of the city from above. Wawel Castle is also in Krakow, and it features a courtyard modeled after Renaissance themes, and it also has a cathedral with a crypt full of kings, revolutionaries, and heroes.

Also, check out the Wieliczka Salt Mine as well. It’s in a small city on the southeastern side of Krakow, and it is an engineering feat, to say the least. Visit St. Kinga’s Chapel beneath the surface of the earth, and see statues made from rock salt. There are also dozens of passages and lakes to see. The Collegium Maius is the oldest part of the Jagiellonian University with a courtyard from the 1300s and spectacular university halls from medieval times.

In Gdańsk, you’ll feel like you’re walking around in a city straight from a fairy tale with its colorful houses, churches from hundreds of years ago, and its many towers and gates. During World War II, the city was bombed heavily, but it was rebuilt after the war, and many of its old buildings were restored. The city was also where the Solidarity movement started that lead to the end of communism in Poland. Gdańsk is located by the sea, and you can take in its Museum of the Second World War. Just down the coast from Gdańsk lies Sopot, which is the country’s famous resort. You’ll be able to take in some spectacular views of the Baltic Sea, especially on Molo Sopotskie, which happens to be the longest wooden pier in Europe.

For a city that is actually not known for its ancient history, try Łódź. This city was transformed into an area of alternative culture, finance, and business. It features old cotton factories that are being made into lofts, halls, community centers, galleries, and more. It is known for its unique tenement houses constructed by businessmen in the past. You can also find several amazing murals downtown.

In the Gothic Old Town Square, you can see some stunning colors in the city of Wrocław. This is the fourth-largest city in Poland, and it is the capital of Lower Silesia. You’ll notice small dwarf statues, or Kasnale, all over the city in streets, doorways, and shop entrances. They’re also in parks. Check out the views from the top of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, and it’s located in Cathedral Island, the oldest areas of the city. Check out Aula Leopoldina, a Baroque hall of the area university.

You can find lots of castles and palaces in the Lower Silesia area of Poland. For instance, Czocha Castle is now a hotel with rave reviews, and you can also explore Książ Castle, which is said to have a Nazi gold train in the tunnels beneath it.

Southwest of Wrocław, you can find Błędne Skały in the Stołowe Mountains National Park, a rock city formed by nature. It looks like something out of a fairy tale with its maze of massive boulders.

Toruń is another center of tourism in Poland, and it’s known by its Gothic architecture of red bricks. The city wasn’t damaged much by WWII, and it is also where Nicolaus Copernicus was born. It is called the capital of gingerbread as pierniki, a cinnamon, and ginger cookie baked there is very popular. By climbing to the top of Gothic City Hall, you can see the oldest parts of the city. You can also see views of the Vistula River. Malbork is a massive and intriguing Castle about a day trip from Torun. It is a UNESCO-protected Gothic masterpiece, and it is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

The High Tatra Mountains border Slovakia, and the best way to get into the mountains is through Zakopane, a small resort city. You can find historic wooden homes, shopping, and wonderful skiing and hiking, depending on the time of year you visit. Take a tour to Morskie Oko Lake, to find some truly stellar scenery. You will also find some tasty local cuisine in the Tatras. Take a cable car ride to Kuźnice just outside Zakopane to see views of the top of Kasprowy Wierch.

Mosna Castle is a beautiful castle worth exploring. It features gardens, orangeries, towers, and spires. The castle was constructed by a family of rich industrialists, and the castle became home to different medical facilities and then a tourist magnet after World War II. It has a hotel and a restaurant.
Also check out Białowieża National Park, which is a UNESCO-protected area of the primeval forest. You can see bison there with the help of a guide, which is the only way you can go into the forest. You can find guides on the edges of Białowieża village.

Check out the tiny village of Kuszyniany to see one of the oldest mosques in the country. This area is on the border of Belarus, and Lipka Tatars have lived there for hundreds of years. You can visit the Tarska Jurta restaurant to try real Tatar dishes.

If you’re looking for a countryside place to relax, check out Kazimierz Dolny, a town on the edge of the Vistula River. It is picturesque and has gorgeous Market Square and historic houses. There are also castle ruins above the city on a hill to explore.

Warsaw was decimated by World War II, but it has become one of the fastest-growing areas of Europe, and its Old Town is UNESCO-protected and was rebuilt by careful craftspeople. It is the largest business center in Central Europe but is welcoming as well. You’ll love the culinary venues there, especially if you’re vegetarian. Climb to the top of the Stalinist Palace of Science and Culture to see great views of the city. Wilanów Palace was built by Polish royalty, and it is one place you can see what pre-war Warsaw was like.

If you’re driving in Poland and bed and breakfasts are on your mind, don’t worry, the country has hundreds of them located in each region. A search on one travel website showed a listing of 427 of them, as of the time of writing (February 2020). They range significantly in price, but then tend to be less than USD$100 per night. If you’re looking for something a bit more personal and quiet, a bed and breakfast can be the perfect way to enjoy more of what the country has to offer.

As you plan your trip, keep driving distances in Poland in mind. Poland is a medium-sized country, and if you’re thinking ahead of where to stay the night on your trip, knowing how long it will take you to get to different places, even in different countries, or from different countries to Poland, by car is a smart move. For example, from Warsaw to Bialystock in the northeast is 450 km, and it is 360 km from Warsaw to Gdańsk on the coast. From Warsaw to Zakopane on the southern border is 680 km.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Poland, 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 Driving Safe in Poland in the Winter?

If you’re planning to drive in Poland, you may wonder about whether it’s safe to drive there in the winter as that season can be very harsh. With the right precautions, your risk of having an accident on the road in Poland diminishes significantly. While Poland is known to have more accident-related deaths than many other EU countries, most of the problem is not caused by winter driving conditions.

Deaths by driving in Poland are higher than in many EU countries. In fact, its death rate for traffic accidents is over 50 percent above that of the EU average of 55. The country cut road deaths by 35 percent between 2001 and 2011, but the EU as a whole cut it by 45 percent, as of a 2013 World Bank report. The country developed the National Road Safety Program to further reduce deaths on the roads in Poland between 2013 and 2020 with the help of the World Bank. Some areas of need identified in a review of the country’s road included roadsides that are not easy to stop on, undivided roads, poor use of child seats and seat belts, high-speed limits, speeding, and drinking and driving.

Since then, the situation has improved in Poland. The country saw a 26 percent drop in fatalities per million inhabitants between 2010 and 2018. Still, the country has a higher-than-average number of road fatalities per million inhabitants (76) than the EU average (49). By comparison, the UK has about 28 fatalities per million inhabitants.

To be safe in winter, you need to make sure that you keep a close watch on weather conditions along your route. Having safety equipment and supplies is essential if you plan to drive in Poland in the winter. You should have a safety blanket, extra food and water, extra medication, a glass scraper, and other items that can help keep you warm in case your car breaks down or you are in an accident, such as disposable hand warmers, gloves/mittens, heavy coats, and boots. Also, good to have on hand are a flashlight, an extra battery or battery charger for your phone, a change of warm socks and clothes, and a hat. Consider having a small snow shovel as well. Drive when it is daylight if you can, and delay your trip if you feel uncomfortable driving.

Drive slowly, and follow at a safe distance (5-6 seconds) from the vehicle in front of you if you do drive. If you anticipate particularly heavy snow, find out about the availability of snow chains to put on your tires as well, as they are required in some mountainous areas in the winter. If you rent a vehicle, inspect the condition of the tires. They should have a good bit of tread depth on them and be winter tires, if possible. Make sure they have enough air, too. Ensure your car’s gas tank is full before you leave, and consider carrying extra fuel in a safe container.

Also, accelerate and slow down carefully. If you come to a traffic light, slow down enough to keep rolling until it changes if you can. Avoid powering up hills so that your wheels don’t spin. Before going uphill, get a little speed on the flat part of the road before you go up the hill. Let someone know when you are expected to arrive and where you are going before you leave.

If you get in an accident or have a breakdown in severe winter weather, stay with your vehicle as it offers shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to find you. You can easily get lost in blowing snow if you try to walk. Tie a colored cloth to your antenna or put it in your rolled-up window as a distress signal. Also, ensure that your exhaust pipe doesn’t have snow, ice, or mud. This can cause carbon monoxide poisoning inside the car when the engine is running. Use the engine and heater just long enough to reduce the chill so that you can conserve fuel longer. Use whatever you have at hand to stay warm, including newspapers, and paper maps to act as insulators.

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 Driving in Poland Dangerous?

As mentioned in the previous section, Poland has made significant headway in improving its overall driving system and laws in recent years. However, it makes sense to be aware of some of the instances that can cause accidents in Poland.

  • If you’re someone from the U.S. driving in Poland, you should be aware that you will drive on the same side of the road as you do in the U.S.: the right. So, you don’t have to worry about trying to figure out what side of the road to be on at any given moment.
  • Wearing seat belts is required for both front and rear seat occupants of a vehicle if the vehicle is fitted with them.
  • Children under the age of 12 or shorter than 1.5 meters must ride in child seats in the back seats.
  • Yield to buses because they have the right of way when they exit bus stops in Poland.
  • Avoid using a mobile phone while you’re driving because it is illegal. Hands-free devices are allowed.
  • Some roads are not in good condition, so pay close attention while you’re driving. There is a national renovation program underway, but it will take time before it is completed. Rural roads are in worse shape than the major highways as they are dark and narrow.
  • The driving speed in Poland is 50 km/h in urban areas and 60 km/h between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. You’ll see a white rectangular sign with the name of the city you’re entering or a skyline in black on a white background. You’ll see exits from motorways with this type of sign with a red diagonal stripe.
  • You can drive up to 90 km/h outside urbanized areas and up to 100 km/hr on class-A roads that are marked with a sign with a white car on a blue background. On motorways, you can drive up to 130 km/h.
  • Stay alert for pedestrians and cyclists, even at night.
  • Drive carefully around trucks, and don’t pass them unless it is safe to do so.
  • Watch for agricultural vehicles and horse-drawn vehicles in rural areas.
  • Park in guarded lots, and take your valuables with you.
  • If your vehicle has foreign plates, be aware that fake police officers have been known to hit rural and tourist areas. Ask to see identification if you’re not sure.
  • Drive until you find a safe place, like a well-lit supermarket, if someone is signaling you that there is something wrong with your car.
  • Headlights must be on at all times, during the day and at night.
  • Call 112 if you break down or have an accident. This is a service available across Europe, and English-speaking operators will help you contact emergency services in Poland. The Polish emergency number is 122.
  • If you have an accident, you must stay at the scene, call the police, and wait for them to come. Call an ambulance if someone is injured. You must provide first aid until paramedics arrive.
  • Your vehicle should have a reflective hazard triangle, a first aid kit, reflective vest, and a fire extinguisher. This is required by law.
  • You will have to pay any fine you’re given on the spot. Get a receipt from the officer. If you’re a foreigner with a permanent address in Poland, you may get a fine you can pay later.
  • You can turn right at a red stop light when you have a green arrow to the right, but you have to give right of way to pedestrians.
  • You usually have to pay and display your parking ticket so that officials can see it.
  • Roundabouts are supervised by police officers, so watch their instructions carefully.
  • Some roads are specifically for buses and taxis and are clearly marked.
  • On some parts of motorways, expect to pay a toll. You can find more information on the toll operator website. If you rent a vehicle, ask if they have prepaid toll tags available or if you are charged when you return the vehicle.

Renting a Car in Poland

As an American driving in Poland, insurance will be one of your top priorities. When you rent a car, your rental car company will provide your car insurance if you choose that option in your rental package. You can also check with your travel insurance policy to see what kind of coverage they may offer as well.

You’ll need to be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver’s license for at least a year and an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) to rent a car with some companies and depending on what country you’re from. If you’re 70 or over, you may be subject to a maximum rental age as well.

If you’re driving a rental car in Poland, make sure it has a fire extinguisher, a reflective jacket, a first-aid kit, a hazard warning reflective triangle, and that the vehicle is in good driving condition. You’ll also need to have your personal identification and your international driving permit. Carry your vehicle registration with a valid Ministry of Transportation certificate and insurance information in the vehicle. Your vehicle may be impounded, and you may be charged if you don’t have the right documents. This may happen if you are stopped by the police or if you’re crossing non-Schengen borders (26 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland). 

Some rental car companies will allow you to drive their rental cars across borders in Europe, and some do not. Some allow only specific countries. You will have to check with individual companies to see what their rules are. Renting a car in Poland for driving across borders is likely possible, but you’ll need to know the specifics of where you want to go before you talk about taking a rental car outside of Poland with a rental agency. For example, if you are renting a car in Germany and driving to Poland, you may need to work with a particular rental company that allows this. Be aware that some companies will charge a fee for crossing a border. Ask about that before you rent so you can know what your expected costs are.

What are the Laws Regarding Drinking and Driving in Poland?

Drinking and driving in Poland is no joke. If you are pulled over by the police, and they find that you have been drinking alcohol, you can get in a lot of legal trouble. The blood alcohol content (BAC) limit in Poland is 0.02 percent. Think twice and then again three times before you drink alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car in Poland. You can be put in prison for up to two years if you have 0.05 percent BAC. Have a backup plan to get where you need to go if you are drinking. If you have an accident that causes injuries or death while you have been drinking, you can be in prison for up to 12 years.

The legal driving BAC in Poland vs. the USA is significant. If you are 21 or over, the BAC limit is 0.08. States in the USA have different rules regarding BAC limits for those less than 21 years of age. Remember that the legal age to drink alcohol is 21 in the U.S. Texas, for example, has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol in drivers under 21.

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 Poland with a Foreign License

If you have a valid EU driving license or a driver’s license from Poland, you can drive in Poland for up to 180 days. After that, you’ll need a Polish license. You have the option if you’re an EU national to renew your driving license from another EU country at a Starost (district) office for a fee (PLN 100.50, USD$25.40). If you renew a license from an EU country, it’s not necessary to have a new medical exam.

If you’re from outside the EU, you need your original license and an IDP, which is only valid for 180 days after your entry into Poland. You’ll need to get a Polish driver’s license at that point to avoid car insurance issues. To get a Polish driver’s license, you need to live in Poland legally and to have lived in the country for more than 180 days. You will also need to meet the minimum age requirements for the type of license you want. Finally, you’ll have to take both a theory and a practice test.

Americans driving in Poland should be aware that they need an IDP in Poland. You can apply for one before you leave the United States, and you can use it for up to six months after you enter the country, even though an IDP is valid for 12 months in general. You can also drive with a Polish national driver’s license if you plan to stay in Poland for longer than six months. In short, driving in Poland on vacation with a US license is not enough. You will also need to have an IDP.

Getting an International Driving License for Poland is not very difficult. You can apply for it before you leave home. You’ll need your original license, two original passport pictures, the fee (varies), and an IDP application form. Be sure to get your International Driving Permit for Poland before you leave to avoid any hassle when you try to pick up your rental car. Your IDP certifies that you have a valid license in your country. It’s not really a license, but “permit” and “license” are used often interchangeably. It is a document that translates your home country driver’s license information into 12 languages.

If you want to get a Polish license but don’t have Polish citizenship, you can take driving lessons in Poland to pass your exam. You can start a driving course for a category B license (passenger cars) three months before you turn 18, but you’ll need parental or guardian permission. Driving classes will be in the Polish language only. You can pay for an English- or German-speaking instructor for an extra fee, however. You’ll get 30 hours of theoretical and practical driving courses with a certified instructor. After you complete the courses, you can register for the exams, which could even be held on the same day you finish the course. Tests can be arranged at the local Provincial Road Traffic Centre (Wojewódzki Ośrodek Ruchu Drogowego).

You can take the theoretical exam in English, and they are 32 questions long. The maximum score is 74 points, but you can pass with a 68. You’ll pay 30 PLN (USD$7.58) for the theoretical exam, and the practical exam costs 140 PLN (USD$35.59). You’ll have to take the exam in the presence of a sworn translator if you don’t know Polish.

There are at least four different categories of licenses in Poland. Category A1 allows you to drive vehicles with engines of up to 125 cc, and you can get your license at 16. Category A2 is for up to 35 kW engines, and you have to be 18 years old to get this license. For a Category A (more than 35 kW), you need to be 24 years old, or 20 years old if you have had a category A2 license for a minimum of 2 years. Category B licenses for passenger vehicles require you to be at least 18 years old.

If you need a Polish license, you’ll also need to go to your Town Council to get a Pesel number. You need to have been a resident of Poland for a minimum of 3 months to get this number. You’ll need it when you apply for your license.

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.

Experience the Magnificent Country of Poland

Driving in Poland is definitely an adventure. You’ll travel through some of the most beautiful countries in Europe as you meander through medieval, winding streets, along the coast, and into majestic mountains. Take the time to learn what you need regarding your license and rental car before you leave, and you’ll be set to explore every nook and cranny of the country with confidence and ease.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Polish 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:
The World Factbook: Poland, Central Intelligence Agency
Poland’s Most Beautiful Places, CNN Travel
Road Safety in Poland, The World Bank
2018 Road Safety Statistics: What is Behind the Figures?, European Commission
Winter Driving Tips, AAA Exchange
Driving Tips: Poland, Sixt
DUI and the Legal Alcohol Limit, DrinkAware
What is the Difference Between a DUI and a DWI under Texas Law?, Johnson, Johnson & Baer, P.C.
Driving in Poland: 4 Tips for a Safe Journey, World Nomads
Can You Drive a Rental Car Across a Border in Europe?, Auto Slash
Driving Rules and Regulations: Staying on the Right Side of the Law, Just Landed
Driving in Poland, Vanone
Driving in Poland, Zest Car Rental
Poland Bed and Breakfasts, BedandBreakfast.com
Driving Distances Road Map of Poland, European Drive Guide
The Schengen Visa, European Commission: Migration and Home Affairs
Foreign Travel Advice: Poland, Gov.uk
Poland Car Rental Driving Information, AutoEurope
Driving in Poland, ExPat.com
Category B, MotoStart
Driving Licence Renewal in Another EU Country – Poland, Your Europe – European Union
Getting a Driving License in the EU – Poland, Your Europe – European Union
10 Things which Foreigner[s] Have to Know about Driving in Poland, European Legal Centre, Lex Polonia
How to Get an International Driver’s License, Conde Nest Traveler
Poland, Britannica