Driving in Spain

Puerta de Alcala in Madrid, Spain
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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.

While it's relatively easy to catch a train or bus to almost anywhere in the country, some places in Spain are only accessible by car or on foot. If you're considering buying or renting a car during your trip to Spain, though, there are a few rules of the road that differ from American driving laws you should keep in mind.

Driving Requirements

To drive in Spain, you'll need to carry your primary driver's license as well as an International Driver's Permit (IDP), and a collection of safety gear is required to help in an emergency, even though you are not required to have it at all times. For example, while you won't be punished for not carrying safety vests if you are stopped by police, you could be fined if any occupant of the vehicle exits to the roadway in an emergency without wearing a vest.

  • Driver's license and IDP (required)
  • Insurance documents (required)
  • Ownership documents or rental documents (required)
  • Fluorescent jacket for all occupants (required)
  • Two warning triangles (required)
  • An extra pair of glasses, if you wear them (required)
  • Fire extinguisher (recommended)
  • First-aid kit (recommended)

Rules of the Road

Although Spanish motorists drive on the right side of the road as they do in the United States, there are many subtle and overt differences between the driving laws in the U.S. and those found in Spain. From being required to travel with a fluorescent jacket and warning triangles in the car to not being able to use your phone or screen-based navigation while driving, you'll need to learn these rules of the road before you drive in Spain.

  • Seatbelts: All passengers in the front and back seats of a car are required to wear a seatbelt.
  • Driving age: You must be 18 years old to drive and 21 years old to rent a car in Spain.
  • Alcohol: The legal blood alcohol limit for driving is 0.05 percent or 0.25 milligrams per liter in exhaled air. Drunk driving laws and punishments are strict in Spain, and you could be thrown in jail for having a high blood alcohol level.
  • Cell phones: The use of cell phones while driving is prohibited. Hands-free kits are permitted, but they are not allowed to have earpiece attachments. Additionally, the use of screen-based navigation systems is prohibited.
  • Yellow lines: In residential areas, 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).
  • Gas stations: While you can typically fuel up almost anywhere in Spain, the major difference in Spanish gas stations from American ones is that fuel is labeled differently in Spain. Leaded gasoline is called super or super 68, unleaded is called sin plomo 98 or Eurosuper 95, and diesel is called gasoleo. Additionally, you must shut off the engine, radio, lights, and your mobile phone when refueling.
  • Fines and tickets: Unless you have a permanent address in Spain, the Guardia Civil are entitled to ask you to pay your fine immediately as a tourist. 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 percent reduction if you do so. Be sure to get a receipt, especially if you think the police officer has been unfair.
  • Children: Kids 12 and under and measuring less than 4 feet, 5.5 inches (135 centimeters) or riding in the front seat must be seated in a child restraint system fitted to their height and weight.
  • In case of an emergency: You can dial 112 from anywhere in Europe to be connected to local emergency services, but there are also emergency telephones linked to the emergency network in Spain every mile or so along motorways across the country.

Types of Roads and Speed Limits in Spain

Spanish road names that begin with an "AP" are toll roads and, as a result, are usually relatively free from traffic. However, these toll roads will invariably have toll-free roads running more or less alongside them, 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 while others have traffic lights and people's driveways leading straight onto the road.

For the most part, speed limits on Spanish roads stay consistent across the country with expressways and major highways having the highest limits and residential and built-up areas having the lowest speed limits.

  • Expressways and major highways: 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour)
  • Other roads: 56 miles per hour (90 kilometers per hour)
  • Urban areas: 31 miles per hour (50 kilometers per hour)
  • Built-up areas: 18 miles per hour (11 miles per hour)
  • Residential areas: 15 miles per hour (9 miles per hour)

Law Enforcement in Spain

Unlike in the United States, which is served by police departments across the country, Spain is protected by three main types of law enforcement officers: the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), the Policia Nacional or Cuerpo Nacional de Policia (National Police Corps, CNP), and the Policia Municipal (Urban Guard). However, there are also regional police forces in Autonomous Communities across the country including Mossos d'Esquadra (Troopers) in Catalonia, the Ertzaintza in the Basque Country, and the Policia Foral in Navarre.

While most traffic stops are performed by the CNP or Urban Guard, you may run into the Guardia Civil, which was notorious for over-policing under the rule of the dictator General Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975 and known for overstepping authority in pursuit of criminal and civil investigations and peacekeeping operations.

Members of the Guardia Civil are the authorities known for fining motorists for not wearing their fluorescent jacket when stepping out of the car. Since Spanish law requires all motorists to wear these jackets whenever stopping by the side of a highway, be sure to put yours on before getting out of the car, especially if you're stopped by the Civil Guard.

Parking in Spain

While parking is relatively easy in most rural towns and smaller cities, it can be difficult to find a spot outside of paid parking garages in major cities of Spain. Additionally, there are a few rules and laws governing where you can park that make it even more difficult to find a good parking spot:

  • Parking is not allowed within 16 feet (5 meters) of a bend or intersection.
  • In general, parking is permitted in blue parking zones called zona azul or zoa O.R.A., which are marked with signs in Spanish and have a maximum of two-hour limits during the day but no parking limits between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Cars must be parked on the right-hand side of the roadway, except on one-way streets, which may allow parking on both sides of the road.
  • Paid parking spots typically have two-hour limits and are marked with signs and blue or green lines. These spots can be paid for at roadside meters or machines, or by using a mobile app in some cities.

Illegally parked cars may be towed, and in order to get it back, drivers will need to visit the nearest police station and pay the fine and all associated fees for towing and storing the illegally parked vehicle. Additionally, some municipalities use wheel clamps (known locally as cepo) to enforce the fine—especially on rental vehicles. If your car's wheel is clamped, you will need to visit the nearest police station to pay the fine and schedule for it to be removed.

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