Driving in Germany

Autobahn Driving

Ger­many is famous for its cars and its high­ways. Porsche and Mer­cedes, both head­quar­tered in Stuttgart, are names that evoke qual­i­ty auto­mo­biles. Many peo­ple dream of dri­ving on the Auto­bahn with­out a speed lim­it. If you’re plan­ning to dri­ve in Ger­many as a for­eign­er, read on for the most impor­tant infor­ma­tion to keep in mind.

Driver Requirements

It will come as no sur­prise that you must have a cur­rent valid driver’s license in order to dri­ve in Ger­many. What kind of license is accept­ed varies by sit­u­a­tion. If you are stay­ing less than three months in Ger­many on a tourist visa, all you need is a cur­rent valid driver’s license from your coun­try of res­i­dence. If you are stay­ing between three and six months, you will also need an Inter­na­tion­al Dri­ving Per­mit. These can gen­er­al­ly be ordered for a rea­son­able fee at the office des­ig­nat­ed by your coun­try of res­i­dence (for exam­ple, the Amer­i­can Auto­mo­bile Asso­ci­a­tion in the USA, or a post office in the UK). Keep in mind that you gen­er­al­ly need to make the order in per­son in your coun­try of res­i­dence and you’ll need to allow time for ship­ping afterward.

If you are in Ger­many on a work per­mit and are stay­ing more than six months, you will gen­er­al­ly need a driver’s license issued by Ger­many or anoth­er EU coun­try. It is some­times pos­si­ble to extend the valid­i­ty of a for­eign driver’s license up to 12 months if you are cer­tain to leave with­in that peri­od, but a vis­it to your local dri­ving licens­ing office (Fürhrerschein­be­hörde) will be nec­es­sary. Alter­na­tive­ly, it may be pos­si­ble to exchange your for­eign driver’s license for a Ger­man one if you meet cer­tain require­ments. This may also require pass­ing a the­o­ry and/or prac­ti­cal dri­ving test. (US dri­vers can check reci­procity and test require­ments by issu­ing state.)

Obtain­ing a driver’s license for the first time in Ger­many is a process with strict require­ments, includ­ing lessons at an offi­cial dri­ving school (Fahrschule), an eye exam­i­na­tion, a first aid course, and final­ly an appli­ca­tion fol­lowed by a the­o­ry test and a prac­ti­cal dri­ving test. There is also a two-year pro­ba­tion peri­od with stricter pun­ish­ments for traf­fic violations.

Spe­cial class­es of vehi­cles (e.g. motor­cy­cles, com­mer­cial trucks, and bus­es) also require spe­cial licenses.

You should always have a valid pho­to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and proof of a cur­rent auto insur­ance pol­i­cy with you when you dri­ve. It is ille­gal to dri­ve in Ger­many with­out a min­i­mum lia­bil­i­ty insur­ance policy.

Dri­vers are respon­si­ble for ensur­ing that every per­son in the vehi­cle wears a seat­belt. They can be tick­et­ed for any­one found not to be wear­ing their seat­belt, although pas­sen­gers who also have a driver’s license will receive their own tick­et. Chil­dren up to age 4 must be fas­tened in a car seat in the back, and chil­dren up to age 12 or 150 cm (59 in) in height must be fas­tened in a boost­er seat in the back seat. Motor­cy­clists are required to wear a safe­ty helmet.

Drink dri­ving is tak­en very seri­ous­ly in Ger­many. The max­i­mum per­mis­si­ble alco­hol lim­it for dri­vers at a nor­mal traf­fic stop is 0.5 mg/mm blood – for most peo­ple, just one beer. The high­er the blood alco­hol con­tent over the lim­it, the more severe the pun­ish­ment. In case of improp­er dri­ving or acci­dents, the lim­it is 0.3 mg/mm. So, it’s gen­er­al­ly advis­able not to dri­ve if you’ve con­sumed any alco­hol. For dri­vers under 21 or those with­in a pro­ba­tion peri­od, that’s espe­cial­ly true, since the lim­it is in fact 0.0 mg/mm.

Vehicle requirements

All vehi­cles need to be inspect­ed every 24 months to ensure they meet the min­i­mum safe­ty stan­dards required in Ger­many. (New vehi­cles can wait 36 months for their first inspec­tion after pur­chase, though.) The inspec­tion (Haup­tun­ter­suchung) is done by a pri­vate orga­ni­za­tion like the TÜV or DEKRA. That’s why the inspec­tion is called “TÜV” for short (pro­nounced “toof”) in Ger­man. Dur­ing the inspec­tion, your car’s frame, wheels, brakes, exhaust, steer­ing, lights, indi­ca­tors, mir­rors, and seat­belts will be test­ed. You will receive a full writ­ten report with the results of the inspec­tion, high­light­ing any areas of con­cern. When your car pass­es, you will get a fresh round inspec­tion stick­er for your license plate. If it doesn’t pass, you have a month to resolve any of the issues found and then come back for re-inspec­tion. If you don’t bring your car back ready with­in that one-month peri­od, you have to pay for a com­plete new inspection.

You need to have snow tires or all-sea­son tires on your car in win­try con­di­tions. Since these can come up quick­ly and unex­pect­ed­ly, most Ger­mans fol­low the old rule of thumb of putting win­ter tires on “from O to O” mean­ing “von Okto­ber bis Ostern”, or from Octo­ber to East­er. Rel­a­tive­ly recent leg­is­la­tion has made the stan­dards for snow tires high­er; com­pli­ant tires are marked with the shape of a snowflake inside the out­line of a three-peaked moun­tain. Cer­tain high moun­tain roads may also require chains in the win­ter. They are marked with signs that read “Schneeket­tenpflicht”.

The fol­low safe­ty equip­ment is required to be car­ried in all vehi­cles with at least four wheels:

  • a warn­ing tri­an­gle to put behind your vehi­cle in case your vehi­cle becomes inca­pac­i­tat­ed and you are unable to move off the road,
  • beam deflec­tors to cov­er your vehicle’s lights in case they are stuck point­ing at oncom­ing traffic,
  • reflec­tive safe­ty vests or jack­ets that you can wear if you have to exam­ine your vehi­cle on the road or walk along­side it to get help, and
  • a first-aid kit (which must include a med­ical mask) to take care of any imme­di­ate med­ical needs in case of an accident.

Rules for Driving

In Ger­many, vehi­cles dri­ve on the right and pass on the left. Thus, the left­most high­way lane should gen­er­al­ly be left open except when you are active­ly pass­ing anoth­er vehi­cle, and you should nev­er pass on the right. Be very care­ful to look at both your mir­rors before chang­ing lanes, espe­cial­ly when moving into the left­most lane, as cars may dri­ve up very quick­ly from behind.

Always use blink­ers and turn sig­nals as need­ed. Unless oth­er­wise marked, you can’t turn right at a red light. You have to wait for green. At inter­sec­tions with­out traf­fic lights, you yield to vehi­cles on the right. When enter­ing a round­about, yield to traf­fic already going around, and use your blink­er to indi­cate when you are exiting.

Pedes­tri­ans have the right of way at cross­walks. Be sure to slow if you see some­one on the side­walk near a cross­walk and stop until they have fin­ished cross­ing. It’s also advis­able to watch out for pedes­tri­ans and cyclists more gen­er­al­ly, and espe­cial­ly at cor­ners. If you need to cross a des­ig­nat­ed bike lane to turn, you must yield to cyclist traffic.

Emer­gency vehi­cles will dri­ve up the mid­dle of a road, not the shoul­der. When­ev­er you hear a siren, pull over as far as pos­si­ble to the near­est side of the road to clear a mid­dle lane. If you find your­self in need of emer­gency assis­tance, dial 110 for police and 112 for an ambulance.

A com­pre­hen­sive course on dri­ving in Ger­many is beyond the scope of this arti­cle, so be sure to famil­iar­ize your­self with impor­tant reg­u­la­tions and road signs.

Speed Limits

Ger­many might be famous for hav­ing high­ways with­out speed lim­its, but Ger­man dri­vers will tell you the coun­try is also very effec­tive at tick­et­ing peo­ple who exceed the lim­its post­ed. There­fore, it’s gen­er­al­ly a good idea to keep an eye out for signs mark­ing changes in speed. Max­i­mum speed lim­its are post­ed with black text on white sur­round­ed by a red cir­cle, while min­i­mum speed require­ments (less com­mon) are writ­ten in white on a blue circle.

There are also stan­dard speed lim­its that can serve as your guide when you haven’t seen a sign yet. With­in towns the lim­it is 50 kph (~30 mph) unless oth­er­wise post­ed. You’ll know you’re with­in town lim­its when you see a yel­low rec­tan­gu­lar sign with the town name writ­ten in black. Out­side town lim­its (once you’ve passed a sim­i­lar sign with a black diag­o­nal line cross­ing through the name of the town), the speed lim­it is 100 kmh (~60 kph) unless oth­er­wise posted.

The famous Ger­man Auto­bahn high­ways do often have no speed lim­it, but many parts lim­it dri­ving speed to 100, 120, or 130 kph. These high­ways have names with the let­ter A fol­lowed by a num­ber and are marked with a blue traf­fic sign with a split white high­way. It may be a good idea to lim­it your speed to 130 kph any­way, since if you are in an acci­dent when you are exceed­ing that thresh­old, you might be held part­ly liable even if some­body else has caused the accident.

Tolls and fines

There is a vast net­work of speed cam­eras across Ger­many that serve to doc­u­ment speed­ing vehi­cles. The tick­et is then sent to the address of the reg­is­tered own­er of the vehi­cle, who is respon­si­ble for pay­ing or ensur­ing the cul­prit does, if they have loaned their car to some­one else. Car rental agen­cies will also be sure to pass on any tick­ets to the dri­ver respon­si­ble! Many Ger­mans mem­o­rize the loca­tions of each “radar” on their usu­al routes and will curse over get­ting “blitzed” by an unex­pect­ed tem­po­rary mon­i­tor­ing station.

Ger­many doesn’t have any toll roads (except for vehi­cles over 7.5 tons), so you can enjoy well main­tained roads thanks to tax-pay­ing cit­i­zens. How­ev­er, you should be care­ful when cross­ing bor­ders into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. For exam­ple, France has many toll roads with fre­quent pay sta­tions, while Aus­tria has a manda­to­ry “Vignette” you have to pur­chase and dis­play or else get sent a fine in the mail.