Driving in Europe after Brexit: what are the new rules?

Brexit will impact UK motorists driving in EU countries in a number of ways; our guide sets out the changes

EU / UK Flags

The Brexit transition period came to an end at 11pm on 31 December 2020, with a deal between the UK and the EU having been agreed at the last minute.

Since the UK voted for Brexit back in 2016, there was much speculation on what leaving the EU would mean for British motorists driving on the continent. For the first time since then, we now know for certain what the rules are around driving licences, car insurance, driving permits and a host of other factors.

Bottom line, driving in Europe is not going to be quite as simple or as convenient as it was before we “transitioned” at the end of 2020. Nor will it be as cheap, despite the UK’s trade deal with the EU, which has made driving in Europe slightly simpler than it might have been. 

Even so, there are still things you can do to reduce your European motoring costs and stresses. There are also procedures you’re now legally obliged to follow as a UK motorist when driving in the EU, not least the ever-changing Covid restrictions, which may vary from country to country.

It should also be noted this guide does not deal with any travel restrictions currently in place due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. If you are unsure of the rules where you live, please consult the GOV.UK website.

Here’s everything you need to know about driving in the EU post-Brexit...

International Driving Permits

The good news is that most of us won’t need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive on the continent. Following our last-minute deal with the EU, a UK licence remains valid for the vast majority of UK drivers in Europe. The exceptions are people who only have a paper licence rather than a photocard one, as well as those with licences issued in Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey or the Isle of Man.

The Government’s current advice if you are in one of these groups is to check with the embassy of the country in which you’re planning to drive to see if you’ll need an IDP. But be warned that according to the DVLA, more than three million people in the UK still have paper-only driving licences.

Obtaining an IDP sounds like it could be horrendously complicated, but it actually involves nothing more than a visit to your local Post Office and parting with £5.50. You can use one of the many online sites that advertise to do this for you, but most of these outfits will charge you a handling fee, and some may not be entirely reputable. 

To get an IDP you need to have a full UK licence and be 18 or over. Frustratingly, there are two different licences needed to cover you for driving in the whole of Europe, both of which cost £5.50: one is known as the 1949 Convention, the other the 1968 Convention. The latter licence covers most European countries, but to drive in Andorra, for instance, you’ll need the former. And remember: you’ll need the correct licence not just when driving your own car but when you’re hiring one, too.

Once your licence is sorted, in theory it should be business as usual when driving in the EU; in reality, it could be somewhat different. Expect local authorities to now enforce driving laws to the letter; laws that were always there, but which many of us have probably taken for granted. Plus there are some new aspects you need to be aware of as well.

Make sure you take your driving licence with you when driving in the EU, as well as the logbook for the car you’re driving, plus a copy of your current insurance policy. You’ll need to obtain a green card from your insurance company to drive in another country, and these can take six weeks or more to arrive at the moment. 

Separate green cards are needed for caravans and trailers, and remember that green cards are proof only that you’re covered by the minimum third-party level of insurance. Just because your policy is a comprehensive one in the UK, it won’t automatically mean you’ll get the same level of cover in the EU. 

Insurance

Check precisely what you’re covered for when driving in the EU with your insurance company, and do it well before you travel, because there’s another new issue to consider here, which is what happens now if you’re involved in an accident. The consensus among motoring and legal experts is that if you’re involved in a collision in the EU and need to make a claim against another driver, you will need to do so in the country where the accident happened. Not only that, you may also need to make the claim in the local language. At that point a comprehensive European insurance policy will be worth its weight in gold.

EU driving kit

Make sure you also have a full EU driving kit in the car. This should include an EU-spec breath-test kit, a proper warning triangle and so on, plus hi-visibility jackets for every passenger on board. These kits can be obtained from any of the ports in the UK for around £45, or you can buy them for far less online before you travel.

In France and Belgium especially, your high-viz jackets need to be immediately accessible from inside the cabin, rather than buried beneath your luggage in the boot. And if they’re not, the local police can fine you.

Number plates and GB stickers

If your car has a GB logo resting on the blue EU flag on its number plate, you’ll need a separate GB sticker. If your car has the GB logo on its own or on the Union Flag on its number plate, you should be okay. Nonetheless, it’s wise to apply a GB sticker regardless; anything to keep the local authorities happy, in other words.

Car requirements

Similarly, if you have clever auto-dipping, corner-sensing LED headlights on your car, you won’t legally need to fit stickers to adjust the dipped beam for driving on the left because, via its GPS system, your car will know where it is and adjust its lights accordingly. If not, you’ll need to fit beam benders on your lights to adjust their direction. The best of luck explaining to an angry Belgian traffic policeman – in Flemish – that the lights on your new Audi adjust themselves automatically. Carry a set of stickers, just in case.

Most of the above requirements were legally applicable before 31 December last year, but as we’ve already intimated, expect them to be much more rigorously applied from now on. Stick to the rules, and you should be fine.

Documents and other preparation

There are a few non-motoring aspects to remember when driving in Europe, too. Check with your mobile provider to make sure you won’t get hit by unforeseen new roaming charges when using your phone in the EU. However, most mobile providers haven’t changed their terms on roaming within mainland Europe, yet.

You’ll also need a minimum of six months left on your passport before travelling anywhere within the EU from the UK. Remember, too, that your blue European Health Insurance Card won’t be renewed at the end of its term, but will instead be replaced by a new Global Health Insurance Card once your current card has expired, so check the expiry date on this.

Don’t just join the nearest EU customs line on autopilot at the ports, look instead for booths marked UK customs, otherwise you’ll be turned away. And remember, there are limits to the amount of goods you can bring back to the UK without having to pay duty. It’s now almost the same as if you were entering the UK from outside the EU, although the limits on cigarettes and alcohol are increased slightly.

Bonne Chance, as they say in France, although hopefully by reading this lot you shouldn’t need it.

Check out our guide to renewing your driving licence here...

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