A road guide on how to drive in Germany
With this page, specially dedicated to everyone who is about to drive a car in Germany for the first time, I would like to provide a basic introduction into the driving rules in Germany. If you have questions or comments or if you think a special topic isn’t covered enough, please let me know via the comment section at the end of the page.
Basic Driving Rules
The minimum driving age in Germany is 18 years and you need to have a valid drivers license. An international drivers license is normally not mandatory but if you have one, it makes sense to have it with you. The car you’re about to drive needs to have a valid TÜV certification and insurance. If you pick up a car while doing an European Delivery you won’t have to worry about the TÜV since the car is brand-new 🙂 Cars need to be equipped furthermore with a warning triangle, a first-aid kit and a high-visibility vest for each passenger.
Germany uses a system of “priority streets” (Vorfahrtsstraßen). While driving on these streets, you have the right of way as long as the street is indicated as a priority street. A priority street is indicated by road sign 306. The end of a priority street is indicated by sign 307. Cars driving on non-priority streets may encounter a yield sign (205) or stop sign (206) on their road when approaching a crossing.
Road Sign 306 Road Sign 307 Road Sign 205 Road Sign 206
The general right-of-way is structured with the following layers:
1. Police officer on the road directing the traffic
2. Traffic lights
3. Road Signs
4. Right has the right-of-way
As soon as you cross the border to Germany, sign 393 informs quickly about the three basic speed limits:
A speed limit of 50 km per hour (31 miles per hour) applies in towns unless otherwise indicated. The first sign “Wilster, Kreis Steinburg” marks the entrance of a town. A maximum speed limit of 50 km/h (31 mph) is now applicable. Be aware that there will be no separate sign indicating the speed! The second sign marks the village exit and informs that the next village (Schotten) is 6 km (3.7 miles) away. Outside urban areas a speed limit of 100 km/h (62 mph) applies now unless otherwise indicated.
Inside towns or smaller villages, it is common that you find so-called “30 km/h zone”, indicated by road sign 274.1. The speed limit of 30 km/h (18.6 mph) is applicable on each street in the zone. The end of the 30 km/h zone is indicated by sign 274.2. If you are still inside the town but you left the 30 km/h zone, the speed limit of 50 km/h applies again.
When driving in smaller villages you may also encounter zones marked with sign 325 (entrance) and sign 326 (exit). A maximum speed of 7 km/h (walking speed) is mandatory.
If no speed limit is posted on the Autobahn, the authorities recommend a speed limit of 130 km/h (80.7 mph). Now you’re able to drive as fast as possible BUT If you are involved in an accident on a section without a speed limit and you drove faster as the recommended speed of 130 km/h (80 mph), you will partial liable although that you may not HAVE BEEN responsible at all for the accident. A road sign I would like to point out is sign 282. It marks the end of all restrictions and not, as often interpreted, the end of a speed limit. For example it makes it now possible that trucks are able to overtake each other if it was forbidden on the Autobahn section before.
The legendary German Autobahn is probably the most famous part which comes to the mind of everyone who thinks and speaks about driving in Germany. In order to be able to enjoy driving on the Autobahn as much as possible, you should know and follow some general rules.
Basically every German Autobahn in laid out with two or three driving lanes and an emergency lane on the right side. Autobahnen (plural) near big cities, such as the A5 near Frankfurt, are designed with four driving lanes plus emergency lane. The emergency lane is, as its title suggests, only to be used in a real emergency, such as a real breakdown. The police imposes high fines if you use the emergency lane to overtake cars or if you experience a preventable breakdowns, such as running out of fuel. So always have also a eye on your fuel indicator. When you’re about to enter the Autobahn via the acceleration lane, make sure to accelerate properly up to a common Autobahn speed of roughly 100 km/h (62 mph). Normally the traffic on the right driving lane switches onto the middle lane (as far as traffic allows) to make room for you. Vice versa you should also switch onto the middle lane when you see cars upfront entering the Autobahn.
In general, traffic is always supposed to keep right. The middle or left lane should only be used to overtake slower cars. Right overtaking isn’t permitted in Germany and leads to fines when you’re caught by the police. Exception: When you’re going very slowly in traffic jam. If you start to overtake a slower car, make sure to check your rear view mirror and left side view mirror very carefully and look as far back as you can see. Speeding cars can approach out of nowhere with speeds up to 200 km/h (125 mph) and even more! Activate your turn signal before switching lanes. Use all available torque of your car to quickly pass the slower car. It’s not common to overtake a slower car, which is going 100 km/h (62 mph), with 105 km/h (65 mph). After overtaking the slower car, you are supposed to change back onto the right lane. With regard to the distance to the car in front of you, you should stick to the general rule of “half of the speed indicator”. So if you’re going 120 km/h (74 mph) your distance should be 60 meters (196 feet).
Although that the Autobahn has the reputation of “no speed limit”, there are actually plenty of speed limits on the Autobahn. Many Autobahn sections are generally regulated with a speed limit or the public authorities set up a flexible speed limit via the traffic guidance system according to the current traffic situation, weather conditions etc. In construction zones on the Autobahn, the speed is mostly limited to 80 km/h (49 mph). The minimum speed cars should drive on the Autobahn is 60 km/h (37 mph). The recommended speed for sections without a speed limit is 130 km/h (80.7 mph). In case of an emergency, turn on the warning lights immediately and try to make it to the next service area. If the next service area is no option for you, switch onto the emergency lane and leave the car via the passenger door to the right. Secure the car with the warning triangle (which should be placed roughly 200 m (650 feet) behind the car) and call help either via your mobile phone or with the nearest emergency call box.
Also make sure to plan enough time for a rest when you’re about to drive a longer distance. Especially when you drive at higher speeds for a longer time you should also rest appropriately. Driving at speeds between 130 km/h and 200 km/h (or even faster) needs a lot of concentration and awareness. If you want to rest close to the Autobahn you have two possibilities. Service ares (Rasthof) can be entered directly via an exit lane of the Autobahn. You will find a gas station, restaurant, restrooms and sufficient parking lots. Next to service areas on the Autobahn, there are service ares (Autohof) a few minutes away from the Autobahn. To enter an Autohof you have to leave the Autobahn and follow the driving directions to the Autohof. Make sure to have enough change coins with you as you have to pay a small fee for using the toilets (which are therefore extremely clean!).
Currently drivers in Germany don’t have to pay a toll for driving on the Autobahn. The Autobahn is financed via the taxes on fuel and cars registered in Germany. However, the German government is planning a toll to be introduced by the beginning of 2016.
Quick Autobahn wrap-up:
1) Enter the Autobahn via the acceleration lane and accelerate appropriately up to ~ 100 km/h (62 mph)
2) No passing on the right! Except you’re going very slow in traffic jam.
3) Keep right and change onto the middle or left lane only to overtake cars!
4) Check your rear view and left side view mirror very carefully and look as far back as you can.
5) Use all available power of your car to quickly overtake cars.
6) Stick to the indicated speed limit.
7) Plan enough breaks to rest (approximately every 2 – 3 hour)
Differences to driving in the United States
Although you might already noticed some differences compared to driving in the United States, I would like to summarize them briefly in this section.
1) No right turn on red. In Germany it’s not permitted to turn right on a red traffic light unless indicated by traffic sign 720 (green arrow). Before you can turn right at the red traffic light your car has to come to a complete stop.
2) No pass on right on the Autobahn except when going very slowly in traffic jam.
3) You’re able to pump gas before you pay. In the US you have to pay upfront before you’re able to fill up your car. In Germany as well as in most other European countries it’s common to pay the bill for gas after you have filled up your car.
The German Traffic Regulation (Straßenverkehrsordnung) lists a total of more than 900 different signs. Some of the most important road signs are already described in the beginning of the article. Nonetheless I would like to point out some additional road signs which you may encounter while driving in Germany.
When you’re about to arrow a narrow road or if construction work is performed on the street, you may see the following signs. Road sign 308 (blue with a white arrow, showing your driving direction and a red arrow, showing the opposite driving direction) grants you priority over oncoming traffic. The exact opposite meaning has road sign 208. It grants the oncoming traffic priority.
Although one-way-streets aren’t as common as in the U.S. you will also find them in Germany. Road sign 220 (Einbahnstraße) points into the direction of the one-way and sign 267 displays “no entry” into this street.
The last three road signs I would like to point are sign 101 (left), sign 250 (middle) and sign 283 (right). Sign 101 alerts you about danger ahead. You should be highly alerted and prepared to come to a complete stop. Sign 250 informs that no vehicles (cars, busses, bikes etc.) are permitted beyond this sign. Sign 283 informs that no parking is permitted in this area.
A complete overview of all German road signs can be found at Wikipedia (english) here.
Stay safe! Following the rules and their enforcement by the Polizei
The Polizei is responsible for enforcing the laws in Germany. If you ask yourself now immediately why there is the picture of a bimmer police car, you may want to have a look at this article first. In Germany it’s very common that the police drives cars from local manufacturers. Since the Polizei is organized per federal state, the Bavarian police is using BMWs and Audis while the Polizei in Lower Saxony drives mostly Volkswagen. Police cars can be easily spotted because of their green or blue plastic foil. However, the police uses also unmarked, civil passenger cars to check traffic on the streets. Special equipment, such as video cameras and measurement instruments are installed in some of the police cars.
The police furthermore performs radar-based speed checks in cities, urban streets and on the Autobahn. Speed cameras are also installed in the traffic guidance system on the Autobahn and monitor the speed as well as the distance between two cars. Next to the speed and distance, also the driving ability is checked by the police. Don’t drink and drive!
Crossing The Border – Basic European Road Guidance
If you continue your trip towards other European countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, make sure to get a toll sticker before you cross the border. A toll sticker (Vignette) can also be ordered in advance to your trip via Tolltickets. For driving in Italy you don’t need a vignette, but be prepared to stop at toll stations on the Autostrada or latest when exiting them. Make sure to follow the speed limits in these countries as well. Especially when you go to Switzerland you should drive exactly according to the speed limit. Already a few km/h more could lead to high fines!
List of sources for road signs:
Wikipedia (Road sign images are in the public domain according to German copyright law because it is part of the German Verkehrszeichenkatalog (Road Sign Catalogue), Straßenverkehrsordnung (Road Traffic Code) or other statues, ordinances or official decrees proclaimed in the Verkehrsblatt (Traffic Gazett) (§5 Abs. 1 UrhG)