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Driving In Portugal As A Tourist?

While Portugal boasts an impressive public transportation system, there’s a unique thrill that comes with crafting your own itinerary and exploring the hidden corners of this sun-kissed nation from behind the wheel.

Driving in Portugal offers a blend of pure joy and unexpected challenges, and I speak from experience. Since moving here in 2020 and navigating in my trusty SMART car, I’ve covered a lot of ground across the country. I’m here to share what I’ve learned.

To ensure your journey on the Portuguese roads remains more scenic than stressful, here’s a detailed guide covering the essentials, from licensing requirements to understanding the distinct driving habits of the locals.

Is It Difficult Driving In Portugal?

Driving in Portugal offers a mix of experiences. While its modern highways are well-maintained and straightforward, navigating through ancient city centers or winding country roads can be challenging.

🚗 Let’s talk about my experience as a Canadian driving in Portugal and also a nervous driver. Also, if you’re asking: driving in Portugal left or right? It’s right.

One thing to note right away: many European cars are manual. I can’t drive those. Thankfully, I had the chance to lease an automatic SMART car, which, given its compact size, was a godsend, especially for someone like me.

Driving in Portugal is much easier with a smaller car, like this 2-door SMART car
Me in front of my SMART car the day I sold it in Lisbon, Portugal
Me in front of my SMART the day we sold it

Now, driving through major cities like Lisbon and Porto, especially downtown areas, can be tricky. The streets are incredibly narrow, parking is almost impossible to find, and underground parking spaces are tight. Also, practice your parallel parking skills.

Highways in Portugal are generally well-maintained but don’t forget about the tolls. However, be cautious with the entrance and exit lanes in cities. Slip roads leading on and off highways can be short and turn in a tight bend. It’s essential to slow down in advance.

And the signage? It leaves a lot to be desired. Even my trusty Google Maps has started me wrong at times. My golden rule: missed an exit? Stay calm and carry on.

So how bad is driving in Portugal? It’s pretty on par with other major European cities, but if you are coming from Canada or the US, you’ll probably find it a little tricky, as everything is much more compact here. If you are a nervous driver, avoid driving in cities with bigger cars, and avoid backroads or scenic routes like driving to Arrabida Natural Park or the Douro Valley.

⚠️ In rural areas, many roads, including sections of highways, lack proper lighting. So if night-time driving isn’t your strong suit, plan your journeys accordingly.

Driving In Portugal Requirements

To drive in Portugal, a valid driving license is essential, and you need to be 18 years or older to drive a car. If you’re from the U.S. or another EU nation, your home license works for up to six months.

Still, applying for an International Driving Permit, with its Portuguese translation, could simplify any encounters with local law enforcement. ↳ How to Get an International Driving Permit.

When driving in Portugal, here is a list of documents that you should have in the car at all times:

  • Your valid driver’s license
  • An International Driving Permit (if available)
  • Your passport
  • Vehicle documentation (including registration, ownership proof, and inspection report)
  • Insurance evidence (In Portugal, this is both a sticker on the windshield’s bottom right corner and an insurance certificate.)

Along with these documents, there are also emergency and safety items that you are required by Portuguese law to carry in your car. These include:

  • A yellow or orange high-visibil ity vest
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  • A reflective warning triangle
  • A sanctioned child seat for kids below 12 years old.

Road Rules

Portugal driving rules are a little different than American driving rules

So what are the driving in Portugal rules? Always remember, whether you’re driving in Lisbon Portugal, or the scenic highways, seatbelts are mandatory for all passengers, both in the front and back.

Now, while the views are breathtaking, resist the temptation to use your cell phone unless it’s in hands-free mode. Headphones and headsets are off-limits too. If you rely on navigation aids, you’re expected to pull over to access them, and failure to do so can result in fines of up to €600.

Signaling is essential, especially when overtaking, even if you notice some locals tend to overlook it. Speaking of overtaking, only do it on the left. If you’re venturing onto the highways, remember my personal tip: stay in the right lane unless you’re overtaking. I learned this the hard way after being fined for driving in the middle lane on a near-empty highway.

I always use Google Maps to make sure I don’t get lost when driving around in cities like Lisbon

Roundabouts are frequent, so always yield to the left for traffic already in the circle, and unless you’re exiting, maintain the inner lane. Also, keep those dipped headlights on during low visibility conditions and when traversing tunnels.

Speed Limits

In Portugal, speed limits typically fall into three categories:

  • 50 km/h in residential zones
  • 90 km/h on country roads
  • 120 km/h on motorways

Should a different limit apply, it’s indicated on a white and blue sign.

Parking In Cities

Be incredibly cautious about where you leave your vehicle. Many areas are reserved exclusively for local residents in residential areas, highlighted by specific signs, and they have particular permissions to park there.

There are also zones with designated parking times, and often payment is necessary. Ignoring these signs can be a big mistake. Not only are you liable for a fine, but there’s a real risk of finding a boot secured to your car’s wheel.

US driving tips for foreigners—make sure to park in the right spot, or you might get a boot on your car like this one

Speaking from personal experience, we once mistakenly parked in a residential spot. The attendant was still nearby, so we paid the fine of around  €150 (USD 161). If the attendant is not around, you’ll need to dial a number and wait around for someone to come and remove the boot. This is not only time-consuming, but it’s pricey.

If you are driving in Portugal for the first time, I always recommend finding underground parking as it’s the easiest option. Free parking is possible, but always check the signs.

Alcohol Limits

Portugal has set the blood alcohol limit for drivers at 0.5 grams of alcohol per liter of blood (0.5 g/l). The permissible amount can vary based on personal factors like weight and gender, but as a guideline, even a single beer might put you over the threshold. Here are the penalties:

  • 0.5 g/l to 0.8 g/l: Fines range from €250 to €1250.
  • 0.8 g/l to 1.2 g/l: Fines increase, ranging from €500 to €2500, and you risk losing your driving license in Portugal for up to two years.
  • Above 1.2 g/l: This level is considered criminal, with potential jail time of up to a year.

For those caught over the limit, Portuguese police are equipped with portable card machines to process fines on the spot. It’s essential to be aware of these limits, especially with frequent police checks. If you plan to drink, always have a designated driver. Drugs while driving are not tolerated.

The Good Samaritan Law

Under the Good Samaritan Law, there’s an ingrained legal and moral duty for motorists to assist in accidents or emergencies. If you witness an accident or find yourself near a site of emergency, your participation is not only expected but legally required.

Abstaining from assistance can lead to significant fines and, in extreme cases, imprisonment. And if, unfortunately, you’re at the fault of an accident and choose not to help, the penalties can be double.

Paying Fines

Portuguese traffic regulations are strictly enforced, and fines are usually expected to be settled immediately. Whether it’s a minor infraction or a serious violation, officers will typically ask for payment on the spot, either via cash or card.

DRIVING IN PORTUGAL

Via Verde & Tolls

When driving in Portugal tolls are something you should consider. In Portugal, the majority of motorways, designated as ‘A’ roads with blue signs, are toll roads. There are two primary systems for toll payments: traditional toll booths and camera-based systems. But before we talk about this, let’s talk about Via Verde:

Via Verde

When driving around Portugal, you’ll probably come across these toll booths

Via Verde is Portugal’s toll collection system, aimed at streamlining the toll payment process for drivers. At its core is the Via Verde identifier, a compact electronic device mounted on a vehicle’s windshield.

When you pass through toll points, the fees are automatically deducted from an associated account. It’s especially useful because you don’t need to stop or search for cash. When you’re on the road, keep an eye out for lanes marked with a green “V” — those are dedicated to Via Verde users.

For travelers renting a car, many rental services offer the option to include a Via Verde device. This system is a convenient way to handle tolls, especially on some Portuguese roads where manual payment isn’t even an option. Managing your account is easy, as you can do most of it online. It not only saves time but also helps you avoid potential toll-related hassles.

Portuguese Tolls

Now that we have that out of the way let’s look at the two primary systems for toll payments in Portugal.

With traditional toll booths, as you enter these toll roads, you’ll receive a ticket. It’s crucial to retain this ticket as it determines the amount you’ll pay upon exiting. Entering through ‘Via Verde’ without the device can result in being charged for the entire motorway stretch due to the lack of a ticket as proof of entry.

This is what the camera-based systems look like in Portugal (Photo: Doutor Financas)

Now camera-based systems are a newer method that uses overhead cameras on certain toll roads, eliminating the need for booths. For Portuguese-registered cars, you can either employ an electronic device for automated payments or opt to pay at the post office afterward.

Foreign-registered vehicles have a couple of payment options. The first is registering their credit card associated with vehicle registration at specific locations on the Portuguese-Spanish border. Alternatively, you can buy either a prepaid card with a balance or a 3-day unlimited-use card online at www.ctt.pt or at specific locations.

For detailed information about toll roads and payment options, the Portugal Tolls website is an invaluable resource.

Renting A Car In Portugal

hands on a wheel while driving in Portugal
Renting a car in Portugal with US license and driving in Portugal with UK licence is definitely possible.

First, securing a reservation early is important, especially during peak summer months when demand surges. Early booking can ensure availability and might even offer more competitive rates. 

In general, renting a car in Portugal is generally straightforward, but there are some requirements and recommendations to keep in mind:

  • Valid Driving License: Renters must have a valid driving license. If your license is not in the Latin alphabet (e.g., Cyrillic, Chinese, Arabic), it’s recommended to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) in addition to your national license. However, many car rental agencies might still require an IDP regardless, so it’s a good idea to have one.
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  • Minimum Age: The minimum age to rent a car varies by rental agency but is typically between 21 and 25 years. Some agencies may allow younger renters but could charge an additional “young driver” fee.
  • Passport or ID: A valid passport (for non-EU citizens) or a national ID card (for EU citizens) will be needed for identification.
  • Credit Card: Most rental agencies require a credit card under the main driver’s name for the security deposit. Make sure you have a sufficient limit on your card, as they might place a hold on the estimated rental charges plus a deposit.
  • Rental Insurance: While basic insurance (like third-party liability) is usually included in the rental price, you might want to consider additional coverages such as collision damage waiver (CDW) or theft protection. Some credit cards offer rental car insurance as a benefit, so check with your card provider in advance.
  • Driving History: Some companies may ask for a clean driving record or have stipulations about recent driving infractions.
  • Duration of License: A car rental company may require that the driver has held their license for a minimum duration, often 1-2 years.
  • Reservation Confirmation: If you’ve booked the car in advance, bring your reservation confirmation, either printed or on your mobile device.
  • Additional Drivers: If you plan to share the driving responsibilities with someone else, make sure to list them as additional drivers. This might incur an extra fee, and they’ll also need to present their driver’s license and meet the rental requirements.
  • Toll Device: Portugal has both traditional toll roads and electronic toll roads. Some rental cars come equipped with electronic toll devices, but it’s essential to clarify how toll charges will be handled by the rental agency.

Remember always to read the terms and conditions of your car rental agreement carefully and ask any questions if something isn’t clear.

Is It Worth Renting A Car In Portugal?

Yes — renting a car in Portugal is worth it if you’re keen on exploring beyond major cities. A car offers the flexibility to discover hidden gems, picturesque countryside, and remote beaches at your own pace.

However, if you’re only visiting major cities like Lisbon or Porto, you might not need a car. Public transportation and walking can be more convenient. Plus, there are many tours that can take you to places like the famous SintraPorto, Cascais, Ericeira, and many other spots.

⭐️ Looking for the best day trips from Lisbon? Read ► 20 Best Day Trips From Lisbon: Incredible Places To Visit.

Driving In Portugal Tips

The Portugal driving side? The right-hand side. So when you are doing your Porto to Lisbon drive,

So whether you are taking a Lisbon to Faro drive or going North and taking a Lisbon to Porto drive, there are a couple of other Portuguese etiquette tips. Ready for some more driving in Portugal advice? Here are things to know when driving in Portugal:

  • Portuguese drivers are known for their assertive driving. Don’t be surprised if someone tailgates you or overtakes you without much warning. However, many follow the rules, and it’s about being aware of the different driving behaviors.
  • Many roads are well-maintained but prepare for rougher terrain in mountainous areas.
  • It’s beneficial to have a GPS device or app, as road signs can sometimes be insufficient, especially at night.
  • Rural areas can pose unexpected stops due to cars parked in the middle of the road or livestock crossing.
  • Mountain roads may be narrow and steep. Cars descending usually have the right-of-way. Horns can be used to alert cars around blind curves.
  • In cities, be cautious of pedestrians since many areas lack proper sidewalks.
  • Watch out for self-appointed parking ‘helpers’ in larger towns and cities.
  • Night-time driving in urban areas can be challenging due to poorly lit signs.
  • Parking must always be in the direction of traffic.
  • Roundabouts can be confusing. Many drivers might not use indicators.
  • Always give way to drivers already on the roundabout and be extra cautious, as not everyone follows lane rules.

Emergencies And Accidents

While it’s hopeful you’ll never need to use it, the police emergency number in Portugal is 112. There are options for languages.

So, if your car encounters issues while on the road, activate the hazard lights, wear your reflective jacket, and dial the emergency assistance number. If you are renting a car, always ask and understand the designated emergency contact.

In case of an accident, call 112 and do not leave the scene until the Police arrive.

Is It Worth Driving In Portugal?

Absolutely! For a tourist driving in Portugal, it’s about what you’re looking to explore. The roads in Portugal offer stunning views, especially if you venture into the countryside or regions like Madeira. Portugal driving is perfect for anyone wanting to go off the beaten path.

On the other hand, if you’re planning on visiting major cities like Lisbon or Porto, then stick with public transportation. Not to mention, numerous tours are geared towards bringing you the best of both city and countryside. Consider what you want to experience and plan accordingly.

Driving In Portugal: Frequently Asked Questions

Many major cities have fantastic pubic transporation

Do You Need A Car In Portugal?

No—you don’t necessarily need a car in Portugal. Major cities like Lisbon and Porto have efficient public transportation systems. However, if you plan to explore rural areas or less touristy spots, a car can be beneficial.

Is It Safe To Drive In Portugal?

Yes, it’s generally safe to drive in Portugal. The country has a well-maintained road network, and traffic regulations are in line with what you’d expect in most European countries.

However, as with any unfamiliar destination, it’s essential for drivers to remain vigilant, especially when navigating narrow streets in historic centers or winding country roads.

It’s also advisable to be aware of local driving habits and ensure you’re familiar with Portugal’s specific road signs and regulations. Always exercise caution, and you should have a safe and enjoyable driving experience in Portugal.

Can I Drive In Portugal With A US License?

Yes—US citizens can drive in Portugal with their valid US license for short stays. However, it’s often recommended to have an International Driving Permit alongside it for clarity.

Can Tourists Drive In Portugal?

Absolutely! Tourists can drive in Portugal provided they have a valid driving license from their home country and meet the minimum age requirement, which is 18.

Is There A Speed Limit In Portugal?

Yes—Portugal has speed limits. In urban areas, it’s typically 50 km/h. On main roads, it’s 90 km/h, and on highways, it’s 120 km/h. Always check for local signage.

What Is Required To Drive In Portugal?

When driving in Portugal, here is a list of documents that you should have in the car at all times:

  • Your valid driver’s license
  • An International Driving Permit (if available)
  • Your passport
  • Vehicle documentation (including registration, ownership proof, and inspection report)
  • Insurance evidence (In Portugal, this is a sticker on the windshield’s bottom right corner and an insurance certificate.)

How Do I Pay Portugal Tolls?

Portugal has electronic tolls. Drivers can rent a transponder device or pay for tolls in advance. Some car rental agencies offer vehicles with built-in transponders. Traditional toll booths accept cash and cards.

Foreign-registered vehicles have a couple of payment options. The first is registering their credit card associated with vehicle registration at specific locations on the Portuguese-Spanish border. Alternatively, you can buy either a prepaid card with a balance or a 3-day unlimited-use card online at www.ctt.pt or at specific locations.

For detailed information about toll roads and payment options, the Portugal Tolls website is an invaluable resource.

Do I Need An International Driving Licence To Hire A Car In Portugal?

Not necessarily—While many car rental companies accept a valid national license, it’s often recommended to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) alongside your native license for hassle-free rentals and clarity.

Driving In Portugal: Final Thoughts

So how do you drive in Portugal? The decision on whether do you need to rent a car in Portugal largely depends on your travel plans. If you’re keen on road trips and exploring off-the-beaten paths, a car can be immensely beneficial. However, for those sticking to urban centers, public transport suffices. It’s imperative to understand how to drive in Portugal, considering the unique road dynamics.

Americans wondering about driving in Portugal with a US license should be relieved to know that it’s permissible for short stays. Still, an International Driving Permit alongside your drivers license Portugal recognition is advisable. For travelers from the United States, especially driving in Portugal as an American, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with local road regulations to ensure a smooth journey. And yes ydriving in Portugal with US license is definitely possible. Safe travels!

Source: https://nowinportugal.com/

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By Lala