Although public transport in Portugal is quite good, nothing beats mapping out your own road trip. Driving in Portugal can be a challenge or a joy, depending on how well prepared you are. This guide gives you all the information you need about license requirements, rules of the road, how to hire a car, driving in the countryside, idiosyncrasies of Portuguese drivers, and where to get assistance in case of break down or accident.
The most important point is of course to have the correct driving license. To drive a car in Portugal, your own or a rental, you must be over 18 years of age. To hire car you must be over 21.
Americans and nationals of other European Union countries are allowed to drive in Portugal with their local driving license. Provided they don’t stay longer than six months, an International Driving License is not required. However, it’s a good idea to have one together with your local license in case you are pulled over by Police or involved in an accident. For one, the language barrier will be removed as the IDP is translated into Portuguese.
Here is a list of the documents you have to carry with you before you can drive off:
- Original driving license
- International Driving License
- Car documents
- Insurance documents
These are the emergency and safety items you are required by Portuguese law to carry in your car:
- Reflective danger jacket
- Reflective warning triangle
- First aid kit
- Strong flashlight and bulbs
- Spare wheel and tool kit
- Approved child seat for children under 12
Rules of the Road
In Portugal, you drive on the right and overtake on the left. It’s forbidden to pass on the right on a straight road other than a motorway with several lanes.
Cars driving on a roundabout have the right of way, and on crossings without stop signs or traffic lights, vehicles from the right have preference. You can’t make a right turn at a red traffic light, only if a green arrow is flashing.
It’s illegal to cross a white line or double white lines. If you want to turn left and there is a white line, you have to drive on to the next exit on the right, get back on the road in the opposite direction until you come to the exit you want.
It’s imperative to come to a full stop at a stop sign. If you don’t and get caught, you risk a fine of up to 2,500 euros.
Seatbelts are mandatory for the driver and front-seat passengers. Additionally, headphones and mobile phones are banned, unless used in hands-free mode.
It’s important to remember that Portugal has the metric system, so all measures are in kilometers per hour, not miles.
- 50 kph in residential areas
- 90 kph on rural roads
- 120 kph on motorways
Speed limits are indicated on round white road signs with a red rim and the number in black in the center. They are also often written in white on the road itself.
Portugal is a country where wine is consumed at practically every meal and where liquors have a higher alcohol content than you might expect, so don’t get carried away. Alcohol limits are low, and police controls are frequent. Don’t count on leniency from the Police. The best way to avoid trouble is to designate a non-drinking driver for the day.
The alcohol limit is 0.5 grams of alcohol for 1 liter of blood. If you are caught driving over the limit, the fines are severe. Bear in mind that alcohol tolerance depends on many factors, like sex, weight, or age, but as a rule of thumb, one large glass of beer or wine might keep you just below the limit. There is zero tolerance for drugs.
Portuguese police often carry portable credit card machines, so the fine is paid on the spot and your trip definitely ruined. It’s not worth the risk.
Car Rental in Portugal
If you don’t bring your own car, which is unlikely for Americans, you will want to hire a car for your road trips. Bear in mind that many vehicles in Portugal, even brand-new models, are stick-shift. If you are only used to automatic, make sure you request one when making your reservation.
Rental car firms are ample in Portugal. Requirements vary though, so some may request the driver to hold a license for five years. Check them out before making your choice.
When getting your reserved car, double-check that all the documents are there and up to date. Get comprehensive insurance, not just third-party, in case you scratch the car parking in a tight spot. Take pictures of the car from every angle, so they can’t come back to you later, trying to charge you for a scratch or dent you aren’t responsible for.
There are several motorways in Portugal which will take you fast from North to South and East to West before you venture further into the countryside. These are toll roads, and there are several options to pay. Purchasing a toll tag in advance through your rental company will allow you to whiz through the toll stations.
Other Tips for Driving in Portugal
Driving on the motorway is straightforward, but it can get tricky when you venture into the countryside. Slip roads are often short and turn in a tight bend. Slow down early. Portuguese drivers are known to be impatient and not overly fond of using turn signals. Be prepared to be cut off or met with a car that turns without indication. Keep your cool and be alert at all times. They also are prone to bumper ride. Stay calm; it won’t last long because they’ll overtake you are the first opportunity, pretty much ignoring oncoming traffic.
Road signs are quite good, but many won’t show up at night unless you shine a full light on them. Therefore it’s a good idea to get a car with GPS or bring your own. Also, old fashioned road maps are handy. Map out your trip in advance, and you’ll know where you are going.
Nearly all roads in Portugal are in good condition and well maintained. Venture into the mountains, and it’s a different picture. If you want to do several of those kind of trips, it’s a good idea to rent a vehicle with four-wheel drive. On narrow, steep, and tight mountain roads which turn into one lane, down coming traffic always has the right-of-way. Make use of your horn. Honk before driving around a bend, so the oncoming traffic knows you are approaching.
As impatient as drivers may be on motorways and two-lane roads, they seem to have all the time in the world in the country. Don’t be surprised to be blocked by a car parked in the middle of the road while the driver has a conversation with a pedestrian. Wait for a little; they’ll eventually get out of your way.
Talking about pedestrians: Except in the cities, there aren’t many sidewalks, so people walk in the street. Watch out for them. In the country, you may also encounter sheep or cows. Don’t get too close, drive at their pace, and they’ll eventually veer off.
Emergencies and Accidents
While it's hopeful you'll never need to use it, the police emergency number in Portugal is 112. There are options for languages.
If your car breaks down, put the hazard lights and your reflective jacket on and call the assistance number you will hopefully have contracted when renting your car. For Centaurauto, which has many outlets in Portugal, it’s 351 308 810 816.
In case of an accident, call 112 and do not leave the scene until the Police arrive.