Driving in Scandinavia

Cars on street in Stockholm

Johner Images / Getty Images 

Scandinavia is a popular travel destination, especially for fans of nature. In the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, you'll find vast and beautiful wilderness with glaciers in the north and forests and lakes in the south as well as fascinating, clean, and attractive cities spread throughout the region.

While you can typically take a train or bus throughout most of Scandinavia, many opt to drive themselves instead. If you plan on driving during your trip to Scandinavia, there are a few things you should know before you set out on your adventure.

Driving Requirements

Since the rules and regulations governing the operation of motor vehicles vary slightly by country, prepare for your Scandinavian driving vacation by reviewing specifics for each country you plan to visit first. These requirements are in addition to the general requirements for driving in Scandinavia.

  • Sweden: All U.S. driver's licenses are valid in Sweden as long as the driver is at least 18 years old and the license is still valid at home. If you are staying in Sweden for more than a year, you must get a Swedish driver's license. To rent a car, drivers must be at least 20 years old and must have had a driver's license for two years. In addition to the universal requirements for driving in Scandinavia, Sweden requires that you carry a warning triangle and, in winter, have studded tires. Sweden remains one of very few European countries that still allow mobile phone use while driving.
  • Norway: You cannot use a hand-held phone while driving in Norway. Driving licenses from most countries outside the EU/EEA including the U.S. can be used in Norway for up to three months. When renting a car in Norway, you may need to have had the license for at least one year. For stays in Norway exceeding three months, a Norwegian driving license is needed.
  • Denmark: Drivers must be at least 18 years old (and 21 to rent a car and must have had the license for a year). Some people recommend getting an international driver's license in Denmark, but a driver's license from the U.S. is currently acceptable. You cannot use a hand-held phone while driving in Denmark.

Checklist for Driving in All Countries of Scandinavia

  • Valid U.S. driver's license (required)
  • Valid U.S. passport (required)
  • Car's insurance certificate and registration (required)
  • Must be 18 years or older (required)
  • Warning triangle (required in Sweden)

Rules of the Road

When you drive in Scandinavian countries, you will soon notice that they have very similar laws and regulations to those found in the United States. However, there are a few distinct differences—that often vary by country in Scandinavia—in how the driving laws are written in much of the region.

The Going Abroad app, administered by the European Commission, has information about important driving facts such as laws in each country about speed and alcohol limits, traffic lights, seat belt rules, and distracted driving. You'll also find the laws about wearing helmets on bikes and motorcycles

  • Side of the road: Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road in 1967, uniting all Scandinavian countries in requiring motorists to drive on the right side of the road.
  • Right of way: Trolleys, buses, and disembarking passengers always have the right of way in all Scandinavian countries. If a bus passenger gets off at an intersection, you are to wait until they cross the street to continue forward.
  • Seat belts: Passengers in the front and back seat must all wear seat belts when in motion.
  • Children and car seats: Children under 3 years old or under 4 feet, 5 inches (1.25 meters) tall must ride in an appropriately-fitted car seat.
  • Alcohol: Drivers are not allowed to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of over 0.05 percent in Denmark or over 0.02 percent in Norway and Sweden, which is lower than the limit in most of the United States (0.05 to 0.08 percent). Police in these countries randomly administer breathalyzer tests and issue hefty tickets for breaking the individual laws in each country. Additionally, drunk driving will likely land you in jail.
  • Other substances: Scandinavian countries have strict laws governing driving under the influence of psychotropic substances. All countries ban driving under the influence of marijuana (THC, cannabis), methylamphetamine, and MDMA (ecstasy); however, Norway and Sweden have laws about even more drugs. Police will test drivers for a variety of substances if they believe they are under the influence. Being caught operating a vehicle while under the influence can result in a hefty fine, imprisonment, or even a ban from the country.
  • Headlights: Unlike in the United States, headlights must always remain on—even during the daytime. Dipped headlights, or low beams, are required during the daytime whether the weather is cloudy or clear.
  • Tolls: While you generally do not have to pay tolls in Denmark or Sweden, numerous toll roads in Norway require you to set up automatic payment before you travel. Pre-register your toll tag with a credit card through the Euro Parking Collection (EPC) before your trip to save time and hassle on your trip.
  • Cyclists: Be aware of bike lanes and cyclists across Scandinavia as many people bike across the region. While in designated lanes, cyclists have the right of way.
  • In case of emergency: In most of Scandinavia, everyone is required by law to help in the event of an accident, even if not involved in the accident itself. In Sweden, dial 020912912 to reach emergency services, or you can use the European Emergency Number, 112, in any Scandinavian country (including Sweden).

Types of Roads in Scandinavia

There are four types of roads in Scandinavia, and each type has its own designated speed limit. The speed limit is displayed on a round sign with a red circle outline, and will be in kilometers per hour (kph) rather than miles per hour (mph). The standard speed limits should be followed unless a sign indicates otherwise.

  • Residential areas: 30 kph (18 mph)
  • Urban roads: 50 kph (31 mph).
  • Non-urban roads: 70 kph (43 mph) in Sweden, 80 kph (50 mph) elsewhere
  • Motorways or expressways: Up to 130 kph (80 mph) in Denmark, 110 kph (68 mph) in Norway, and 120 kph (75 mph) in Sweden

Winter Driving in Scandinavia

Due to the heavy snowfall Norway and Sweden receive every winter, drivers are required by law to equip their vehicles with snow tires once the police determine they are necessary for safe transit. Snow tires must have a minimum tread depth of 3 millimeters, but most winter rentals will already have these tires equipped when you pick up your car.

Meanwhile, snow tires are not required by law in Denmark but are recommended for winter road conditions and can be requested from the rental agency when you book your car reservation.

Major Roads in Scandinavia

European route E6 is a 1,939-mile (3,120 kilometers) north-south route going from Trelleborg in Sweden to Kirkenes in Norway. This is a scenic drive where you can see mountain and fjord vistas and cross the arctic circle.

The 988-mile (1,590 kilometers) E4 runs from Helsingborg via Jönköping to Stockholm (where there is a bypass) and all the way north to Haparanda at the Finnish border. Only one kilometer of E4 is in Finland while the remainder runs through Sweden.

Using a car ferry often shortens driving times and affords access to Scandinavia. The shortest routes from Denmark to Norway and from southern Sweden to Finland are ferry routes. Denmark is connected to mainland Europe and Sweden by bridges.