Driving in Germany

Aerial shot of highway crossovers in Germany

Markus Hanke / Getty Images  

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.

Driving Requirements

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. A 17-year-old driver is required to have an older licensed driver in the car with them.

Carry your license with you and be prepared to show it if requested by authorities. If you have an International Driver's Permit, that is recognized but not required.

When you drive in Germany, you should also have proof of insurance and registration with you for the car you are driving. Also, keep your ID (passport) handy as it may be requested if you are stopped.

Checklist for Driving in Germany:

  • U.S. Driver's License (Required)
  • International Driver's Permit (Recommended)
  • Proof of Insurance (Required)
  • ID/Passport (Required)

Rules of the Road

While some rules in Germany, where they drive on the right side of the road, are similar to those in the United States, most are more strict and are enforced, even for first-time offenders. You'll encounter differences in street signage and with rules at stoplights.

Seat Belts and Car Seats: Always wear a seat belt, even if you are sitting in the back of a car—it is the law in Germany. Children up to the age of 12 have to sit in the back, and those under three must use a child's safety seat. Babies are required to ride in car seats.

Distracted Driving: Don't talk on the cell phone or text while driving. It is illegal in Germany. You are, however, permitted to use a hands-free device to talk while driving.

Alcohol and DUI: 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 much more strict than the U.S.

Speed Limits: Speed limits in German cities are 50 kph (31 mph). Inside cities, there can be some inner residential areas where speed limits are reduced to 30 kph. On highways, you are not allowed to drive faster than 100 kph (62 mph), unless otherwise marked.

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 on the Autobahn.

Traffic Lights: Don't expect the rules for drivers at traffic lights to be the same as in the U.S. 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 which 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 just in the U.S. All drivers must give way to fire engines, ambulances, and police vehicles which have blue flashing 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.

Road Conditions

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).

Safety Gear

Germans take safety seriously, and there are safety items you must carry in the car at all times.

  • Warning triangle (compulsory in all vehicles with four wheels or more)
  • Reflective safety vest
  • First aid kit
  • Beam deflectors (to keep your headlights from blinding oncoming drivers) unless you can deflect the headlights manually.

If you’re driving where there might be snow or ice, then 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.

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 it's 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).

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 km or so. The roads have been built with rest stops every 40–60 kilometers. At 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
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