Driving in Germany is part of the vacation experience for many visitors to Europe. Scenic routes lead you through some of the best areas of Germany including the Black Forest and the "Castle Road" where you will travel back in time on a route lined with more than 70 castles and palaces. There are car-lovers' attractions like the BMW factory, a racetrack you can drive on, and international car shows.
You'll probably spend some of your time driving on the world-famous Autobahn, and will need to know how to do that safely as well as understand the most important rules of the road and how to read key street signs that are in German.
Even if you have a driver's license from your state or country of residence, you still have to be at least 18 to drive in Germany, though 17-year-olds can drive with an older licensed driver in the car. Carry your license with you and be prepared to show it if requested by authorities. An International Driver's Permit is recognized but not required.
Germans take safety seriously, and there are basic safety items you must carry in the car at all times. Other items are only required in certain situations. For example, if you’re driving where there might be snow or ice, you need snow tires or should carry snow chains. While these are not required, if you are in an accident on a snowy or icy road, and don't have them, you'll be blamed for the incident.
Checklist for Driving in Germany
- U.S. Driver's License (required)
- International Driver's Permit (recommended)
- Proof of Insurance (required)
- ID/Passport (required)
- Warning triangle (required in all vehicles with four wheels or more)
- Reflective safety vest (required)
- First aid kit (required)
- Beam deflectors (required if you cannot deflect headlights manually)
Rules of the Road
While some rules in Germany are similar to those in the United States, like driving on the right side of the road, many are more strict and enforced even for first-time offenders. You'll encounter some significant differences in street signage and with rules at stoplights.
- Seat belts: Always wear a seat belt, even if you are sitting in the back of a car—it is the law in Germany.
- Children and car seats: Children up to the age of 12 have to sit in the back, and those under 3 must use a child's safety seat. Babies are required to ride in car seats.
- Distracted driving: Talking or texting on a cell phone is illegal in Germany. You are, however, permitted to use a hands-free device to talk while driving.
- Alcohol: As is the case anywhere, don't drink and drive in Germany. The blood alcohol limit is 0.5 grams per liter. Violators must pay high fines and can lose their driver's license. Punishment is generally more strict than it is in the U.S.
- Speed limits: Speed limits in German cities are generally 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour), though in limits in some inner residential areas are reduced to 30 kph (19 mph). On highways, you are not allowed to drive faster than 100 kph (62 mph) unless otherwise marked.
- Traffic lights: Germany uses a three-light system, but it is a bit different. Right turns on red lights are not allowed unless there is a green right-turn arrow, and yellow lights serve as a warning signal and are used before the lights turn green.
- School buses: Just as in the United States, you cannot overtake or pass a school bus that has stopped to let passengers on or off. Watch for the red flashing lights.
- Right of way: At crossroads, traffic coming from the right has priority. All drivers must give way to fire engines, ambulances, and police vehicles that are flashing their blue lights.
- Roundabouts: Traffic in a roundabout has the right of way, except when signs indicate otherwise. Drivers must use their directional signals before leaving the roundabout.
- Parking: If a vehicle remains in the same place for more than three minutes, it is considered to be standing (waiting) or parked. Standing and parking are usually allowed only on the right side of the street unless it is designated one-way. Cars can be towed if they are in violation of parking rules or signs.
Roads are usually well-maintained in Germany and connect every corner of the country. While driving isn't necessary for most major cities because of readily available public transportation, many Germans have a driving license, and drivers usually follow the rules. That said, traffic accidents, rush hour, and holiday times can cause massive delays (stau).
The German Autobahn
By the 1930s, the mayor of Cologne, Germany, Konrad Adenauer, had opened the first crossroads-free motorway in 1932 (now known as the A555 between Cologne and Bonn). More freeways, termed autobahns, were planned to be built, but during WWII, manpower, equipment, and supplies were directed to the war effort. The freeway medians were paved over to create airstrips, aircraft were parked in its tunnels, and the railways were used for transporting goods. The war left the country and the Autobahn in poor shape.
After the war, West Germany was quicker to get to work repairing the existing roadways and adding connections. The East was slower to repair, and some routes were only completed after German reunification in 1990.
Driving today's Autobahn has its own unique customs and rules.
- Speed: On the Autobahn, you can drive as fast as you feel is safe (unless otherwise marked); the German authorities recommend a "suggested" speed of 130 kph (80 mph). There is no speed limit on the Autobahn, except where posted. For example, speed limits are posted in construction zones or in high traffic areas, so watch out for these signs—you can get a hefty ticket for speeding in restricted areas on the Autobahn.
- Passing: You can only pass another car in the left lane. The right lane is for slower vehicles, and overtaking cars in the right lane is illegal. Unlike in the United States, this is strictly adhered to.
- Look carefully: Before you pull into the left lane to pass another car, make sure to check the rearview mirror carefully—some cars travel as fast as 200 kph and approach very suddenly. If a car flashes its lights as it approaches from the rear, it means "get out of the way," and you should move to the right.
- Stopping: You are not allowed to stop, back up, or U-turn on the Autobahn. And if you run out of gas, that is considered illegal (because you are not allowed to stop) and preventable.
- Take a Break: Driving the Autobahn can be intense, so consider stopping every 100 kilometers or so. The roads have been built with rest stops every 40 to 60 kilometers. In these service areas, you'll usually find a gas station, restaurant, convenience store, and bathrooms.
Important Street Signs in Germany
In Germany, road directions are clearly marked with good signage. Most road markings are white, although any yellow markings have precedence. Cyclists may ride in marked bicycle lanes or Radweg. Drivers must stop at pedestrian crossings, called Zebrastreifen (zebra stripes) when pedestrians are waiting to cross. The police have blinking signs of Polizei Halt or police stop and Bitte Folgen, or please follow. Typical signs read:
- Ausfahrt: Exit
- Umleitung: Detour
- Einbahnstraße: A one-way street
- Parken verboten: Parking is forbidden
- Parkhaus: Parking garage
- Tankstelle: Gas station
- Benzin: Gas