Driving in Spain

Traffic near the Puerta de Alcala in Madrid, Spain
delreycarlos / Getty Images

The Spanish are not the most considerate of road users. When merging with a motorway, don’t expect drivers to slow to let you on; you may have to stop at the end of the slip road. Many drivers show complete disregard for speed limits, and you may find some obstinant road users who deliberately straddle two lanes to prevent such speed freaks from passing. For these reasons, you may find it cheaper and easier to take the train.

Speed Limits on Spanish Roads

  • Expressways & major highways 68mph
  • Other roads 55mph
  • Built-up areas 18mph
  • Residential areas 15mph

Types of Roads in Spain

Spanish road names that begin with an ‘AP’ are toll roads and, as a result, are usually relatively free from traffic. They will invariably have a toll-free road running more or less alongside, which will be busier and probably more picturesque.

Fully-fledged expressways are actually few and far between. Most of the country is served by 'N' roads, which can vary in design quite considerably. Some resemble expressways in all but name, others have traffic lights and people's driveways leading straight onto the road!

What You Need to Carry with You When Driving

The following items must be carried at all times when driving in Spain.

  • Driver's license
  • Insurance documents
  • Ownership documents (or rental documents)
  • Wearers of spectacles should carry a spare pair
  • Fluorescent jacket (for all occupants)
  • Two warning triangles
  • Fire extinguisher (recommended)
  • First-aid kit (recommended)

Important Rules to Follow

  • Seatbelts must be worn.
  • The use of cell phones while driving is prohibited. Hands-free kits are permitted, but they are not allowed to have earpiece attachments. (Astonishingly, 98% of Spaniards don't know this!)
  • The use of screen-based navigation systems is prohibited.
  • Don't park next to a yellow line. If you do, you will most likely be towed away (especially if you are in a foreign car).

Types of Gas and Translations

  • Leaded = super or super 98
  • Unleaded = sin plomo 98 or Eurosuper 95
  • Diesel = gasoleo

The Guardia Civil

The Guardia Civil are notorious for being Franco's former personal guard. The service is rife with nepotism, and, though the reputation of the Guardia Civil is improving, it starts from a pretty low esteem in the first place.

When I first wrote this article, I said: "The Guardia Civil is the lowest of the three types of police officer (the others being the Policia Municipal and the Policia Nacional), and they are known to have quite an inferiority complex at times."

I have since received an aggressive email (after this article was linked to on Foro Policia) from a member of the Guardia Civil, telling me I am 'stupid' for my opinions ('tonto' in Spanish). He corrected me, saying that the Guardia Civil outranks the Policia Municipal, and proving me right that 'they are known to have an inferiority complex.'

When I said 'low,' I didn't necessarily mean in terms of rank, I meant in terms of behavior - such as emailing journalists and calling them stupid for their opinions. For further evidence of the reputation of the Guardia Civil, google "what do the guardia civil do?" Just on the Google results page alone, you'll see:

It is easy to find a lot more anecdotal evidence for negative behavior of the Guardia Civil. I have one. A friend of mine was overcharged by a taxi driver. He argued. When a member of the Guardia Civil approached him, my friend explained the situation. The Guardia Civil kicked his leg from behind him, held him against the car and said he should pay the amount the taxi driver wanted.

If the Guardia Civil has a problem with me calling them 'the lowest' type of police force in Spain, they only have themselves to blame.

What to Do When Stopped by the Guardia Civil 

The Guardia Civil like to catch out motorists for not wearing their fluorescent jacket when stepping out of the car, which Spanish law says must wear whenever you stop by the side of a highway. So, if they stop you, take your time to put it on before you get out of the car.

The Guardia Civil are entitled to ask you to pay your fine immediately as a tourist unless you can prove you have a Spanish address that will cover for you if you don't pay. If you are unable to pay immediately, they can impound the car. It is therefore wise to pay immediately, especially as there is a 20% reduction if you do so. Be sure to get a receipt, especially if you think the police officer has been unfair.