Seasoned tourists know that visiting Europe by automobile is the best way to go. It makes the trip more romantic, spontaneous, and flexible, and it allows you to see several off-the-beaten-path locations.
With its lovely landscapes, olive orchards, vineyards, pleasant little villages, perfect road surface, few to no road cameras, and excellent highway infrastructure, Spain is ideal for road travels.
Therefore, it is best to be prepared before starting the engine and embarking on your Spanish journey.
Driving in Spain with a US license
Most of the time, an American driver’s license and passport are sufficient to drive a car in Spain (with the minimum driver’s age of 18).
But, possessing an International Driving Permit (IDP) as a translated version of your driver’s license will assist you. It will not, however, be valid on its own and must be carried in conjunction with your driver’s license.
Obtaining an International Driving Permit (IDP) is a simple process.
You can do so via the American Automobile Association (AAA) website or your local AAA branch.
You can drive for the entire term if you stay in the nation for fewer than 90 days.
If you are getting a residential visa
You can drive with your US license for six months, beginning on the validity date of your residency permit. Then you’ll need to get a legitimate Spanish driver’s license.
Because there is currently no agreement between the United States and Spain regarding the validation of a US driver’s license, if you are a resident, you must attend a driving school and take the exam in Spain.
In my experience, if you have some knowledge of Spanish, you may easily pass the theory driving test (although there are more than 800 questions). You must answer 30 questions correctly (with no more than three errors).
If you don’t speak Spanish, there is an English version of the driving test available, however it’s more like a Google Translate version with many discrepancies.
And, for the practical exam, it can take up to 5-10 driving lessons with an instructor to become acquainted with Spanish driving culture and all of its intricacies. But, of course, it is another major matter to discuss.
Driving in Spain as an American tourist
Driving in Spain and the United States appears to be very similar. The Spanish drive on the right side of the road as well, and traffic restrictions are the same, thus traffic flow is predictable. Nonetheless, there are some subtle distinctions to be aware of.
1. The units: You’ll have to adjust to kilometers per hour (km/h) rather than miles per hour (mph).
2. The rules: When driving while using a cellphone, be extra cautious. It is best not to touch it at all. It is also illegal to use earphones while driving (even one Bluetooth earphone). Also, unless it’s an emergency, don’t use your automobile horn (someone sleeping ahead of you at traffic lights is not an emergency).
3. The speed limits: In Spain, unlike in the United States, these are standardized throughout the country. Even if there is no speed limit sign at the village or town entrance, a driver must be aware of the basic rules.
Hence, as soon as you reach any settlement, check your speedometer; keeping in the 50-60 km/h area will never get you into trouble. Also, in a large Spanish city, there are many other modes of transportation (scooters, bikes, etc.), so staying slow and vigilant is crucial.
The general speed limits are:
- 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour) in towns and villages unless otherwise indicated.
- 90 km/h (56 mph) for main roads outside towns and villages.
- 120 km/h (75 mph) for highways (motorways).
4. Blood alcohol content is even lower than in the US – 0.05%. Although the Spanish are known to have a glass of wine and then get behind the wheel, I strongly recommend being careful with your calculations. You can only have one glass of wine with this drink driving restriction. If you have already taken alcohol, it is usually preferable to ask sober companions to pick you up or to call a taxi.
5. Roundabouts: For some reason, roundabouts are considerably more popular in Spain than crossroads – they are everywhere! Hence, when driving through them, make sure you’re confident.
- Slow down before entering.
- The right signal will help other drivers to see that you are about to exit the roundabout.
- Drivers on the roundabout have priority, as opposed to those trying to enter the roundabout.
- The flow on the roundabout is always counter-clockwise.
- Watch out if a roundabout has multiple lanes, sometimes a Spanish driver will be willing to exit it from the very inner lane and with the shortest possible trajectory (which seems reckless).
Parking your car in Spain
The parking regulations are the same as in the United States. However, once you’ve parked in the city, make sure you know if it’s a paid parking place.
Many Spanish municipalities, for example, have color-coded parking areas on the pavement:
- Blue color means a paid parking space for the visitors (with no more than 2 hours straight). Sometimes, the blue zone offers free parking (mainly in the off-season)
- Green color – residents only.
- Yellow – do not park.
- White – free parking space. To my surprise, there are many white parking areas in many big cities in Spain.
If you are ready to pay, go to a parking kiosk, select the amount of hours required, receive the ticket, and place it on the dashboard of your vehicle. You can sometimes utilize a parking app.
Another issue that drivers in Spain may encounter is the payment procedure at public garages. Keep the ticket you were given when you entered and pay at the kiosk before exiting. After paying, the machine will give you the ticket, which you can scan at the very end, at the actual garage exit.
Here is a list of things you need to have in your car while driving in Spain:
- Documents: Driver’s license, car registration certificate, technical inspection sticker (in the corner of the windshield)
- Two reflective triangles. Remember, you are not required to set it up if you are putting your life at risk by doing so.
- Fluorescent safety vest.
- UK stickers – even for the vehicles that do have the UK identifier within the license plate.