Learning the basics: Driving overseas
From bike racks to breathalysers, sat navs to speed limits
Driving overseas can be daunting for both experienced tourers and newcomers because of the wealth of differing laws and regulations of the road. Whilst the European Union has meant that some laws are uniform across the continent, others still remain specific to certain countries. So here we learn the basics of driving overseas.
Our long-term campsite assessor John Corrall has been travelling to the continent with his caravan for over 30 years. He's compiled his expertise into this handy information sheet for first-timers to France and beyond.
Towing a car behind your motorhome abroad? We recommend that you do not use an A-frame and that you carry your car on a type-approved trailer with all four wheels of your car off the ground.
Much has been written about this on various forums. In short, here in the UK, specific activities are prohibited by law; since there is no UK law explicitly stating that the use of an A-frame is forbidden, it is generally tolerated. By contrast, in the EU, regulations approve certain actions; as there is no law specifically permitting the use of an A-frame, such usage is prohibited. This comes down to vehicle-type approval (or lack of) for this mode of towing a vehicle. Once a frame is attached to a car, it effectively becomes a trailer, and therefore will not have type approval.
Some A-frame suppliers will provide CE certification to assist in overseas use and will state that according to the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic of 1958, any vehicle registered in the United Kingdom is granted the privilege of unrestricted movement within all European Union member states for a maximum duration of six months within a given period. The exception to this is Spain which has not ratified this agreement. In the real world, if stopped on the continent, whilst towing with an A-frame, the outcome may depend on the circumstances around any checks, the mood of the officials carrying out the inspection and your attitude towards them.
Further details for the use of A-Frames in the UK can be found on the Government website.
You have two options for carrying bikes on your vehicle. If you choose to mount them on the roof of your car, they must be securely attached to an adequate bike rack and the total height of your vehicle and mounted bikes must not exceed 4m. Alternatively, you may choose to mount them on the rear of the vehicle. They must not obscure your lights, indicators or number plate.
If you're travelling through Portugal, ensure your bikes are mounted at the rear of your caravan or motorhome, not your car. In Spain and Italy, overhanging loads must be indicated by a reflecting red and white diagonally striped square panel measuring 50cm x 50cm. In Spain, these panels can be made of either aluminium or plastic but in Italy they must be aluminium.
Bike racks can only rest on the towbar if the maximum weight on the towbar is not exceeded.
Once a legal requirement in France, breathalysers are now not a requirement but it is advised that you have one to hand. Make sure your breathalyser is NF approved.
Bringing food into the EU
The rules on bringing food, animal produce and plants into the EU from the UK have changed. All non-EU countries currently have restrictions on what they can and can’t bring into the Union.
You are not allowed to bring any meat or dairy products into the EU. You can bring a limited quantity of fruit and vegetables as well as eggs, egg products and honey. Limited amounts of fish and fish products are also allowed.
Further information can be found at europa.eu
Although not compulsory, carrying a vehicle fire extinguisher is recommended in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Given that most of Europe drives on the right, and the UK drives on the left, it is vital you adapt your headlights so you don't dazzle oncoming traffic. You can do this manually or by using headlight converters. Eurolites are available from most motor accessory shops or online (find them on Amazon) and are compatible with over 600 different vehicle types and clear lens, projector and xenon headlights.
Travelling in Spain? Does your outfit exceed 12m? If the answers are yes, you are required to fit marker boards to the back of your vehicle. You can either have two small boards or one large board but they must be placed at the back of the outfit between 50cm and 150cm off the ground. The marker board must have a plain yellow centre with red outline, be made of aluminium and manufactured to the ECE70 standard.
Travelling in France? Does your vehicle exceed 3,500kg? If yes, you must have a sticker showing the position of blind spots, visible on the sides and at the rear of your vehicle. This regulation has been in force since January 2021.
- Must be visible from the sides and rear of the vehicle, and be positioned at a height between 90cm and 150cm from the ground
- Be glued, painted on the bodywork or affixed by reverting or any other means of fixing
- Must be placed so as to be visible at all times
- Must not obstruct the vehicle's number plate or lights, indicators or the driver's field of vision
- Must comply with the model set by the decree of 5 January 2021
- Foreign vehicles passing through France are also subject to this signing obligation
Low emission zones
Low Emission Zones are special areas within urban spaces that regulate the most polluting vehicles by placing restrictions on when or if they can enter the zones. LEZs affect most vehicles except public transport, motorcycles and electric vehicles so its worth being aware of them so that you're not caught out when driving in cities.
From 28th September 2021, new national vehicle identifiers were introduced. It is now illegal to display a GB sticker on the rear of your vehicle. Instead, you should display a UK sticker if your number plate has any of the following:
- a GB identifier with the Union flag (also known as the Union Jack)
- a Euro symbol
- a national flag of England, Scotland or Wales
- numbers and letters only - no flag or identifier
If your number plate includes the UK identifier with the Union flag (also known as the Union Jack), you do not need a UK sticker.
If you’re in Spain, Cyprus or Malta, you must display a UK sticker no matter what is on your number plate.
If you have a GB sticker, cover or remove it and replace it with a UK sticker.
You can no longer use the Pet Passport scheme to travel with your pet to the EU. Instead, you must get your pet microchipped and then vaccinated against rabies before it can travel.
You will also have to obtain an Animal Health Certificate from your vet no more than 10 days before you travel.
You can find the full requirements for taking pets to the EU at gov.uk.
The certificate needs to be signed by a vet and will be valid for 10 days after the date of issue for entry into the EU and Northern Ireland and four months for onward travel and re-entry to the UK.
Sat navs and dashcams
Sat Navs are a useful tool in helping you get from A to B. But the use of navigation systems to give directions isn't the issue here. Some models can actively search for mobile and fixed speed cameras or interfere with police equipment. Models that offer this option are illegal in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Make sure you disable this feature in the listed countries.
Dashcams are something of a grey area in some parts of Europe as they potentially break privacy laws, especially if the footage captured is shared online or with your insurer without the consent of those in the video. Because of this, using your dash cam in Austria, Luxembourg and Portugal is illegal. In Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland they are legal but with strict conditions so it's best to research this before you travel. Dashcams are unrestricted in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and, of course, the UK.
The Schengen Area bus an area of 26 European countries that have relaxed internal border controls, allowing for free movement. Not all countries in the EU are part of this agreement, so it's worth checking before you embark on your journey.
Member states: Austria; Belgium; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Iceland (non-EU); Italy; Latvia; Liechtenstein (non-EU); Lithuania; Luxembourg; Norway (non-EU); Poland; Portugal; Slovakia; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland (non-EU). Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City all operate open borders but are not part of the Schengen Area.
The Republic of Ireland is not a member of the Area.
Croatia has joined the Eurozone - On 1 January 2023, Croatia became the 20th member of the Eurozone, adopting the Euro. Croatian Kuna notes can be exchanged for the equivalent value in Euros at the Croatian National Bank until January 2026.
In some countries it is a legal requirement to use winter equipment such as snow chains or winter tyres. We also recommended that, in addition to the information provided, you take a snow shovel and add antifreeze to your vehicle's windscreen fluid.
We advise buying a driving in Europe kit which includes a first aid kit, hi-vis vests, warning triangle, headlight converters, UK stickers, breathalysers and other tools. We recommend the Gadlane kit on Amazon.
Most trips go without a hitch but it's best to be prepared in the even of an unexpected problem occurring. Here are a few top tips suggested by the Caravan and Motorhome Club:
- Only pull over on motorways and dual carriageways if you are requested to do so by a marked police car. It is very rare for plain clothes police in unmarked cars to do traffic stops. If you have any doubts, ask to see identification and call 112.
- If you are waved at by another vehicle encouraging you to pull over, don't. Only pull over if your outfit/vehicle feels un-safe to drive, and if you do pull over, lock all of your valuables in the glove compartment and lock your vehicle.
- When using busy service stations try not to leave your outfit unattended; if you are not driving solo, take it turns to use the facilities and whilst one person pays for the fuel the other person should stay with the vehicle(s).
- If you notice that you have a flat tyre, make sure all your valuables are out of sight and secure before changing the tyre.
- If you are a victim of this type of robbery or attempted robbery please report it by calling 112. If you are in Spain you can call 902 10 21 12 which is number is manned by English speaking staff who will take your statement in English, translate it, then fax/email it to the nearest police station. They will also advise you where the nearest police station is so you can go in and sign your statement.
- Do not leave wallets/handbags/valuables out in the open.
- Do not keep all your cards and cash together in one place.
- Where possible always ensure any windows, ventilation grates and doors are kept firmly fastened or locked.
Get the lowdown on Low Emission Zones
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