driving in Portugal
Last Updated: June 17, 2021

Driving In Portugal

If you’re planning on a visit to Portugal then you’re going to want to have a car. Portugal has hundreds of beautiful towns, beaches, and natural areas that are all worth spending time in but a pain to get to via public transport. Instead of spending a lot of your vacation time sitting on or waiting for a bus, you’re best off driving in Portugal. 

Like any new country, driving in Portugal isn’t going to be like driving at home. Sure, the general rules are pretty similar but there some things you won’t be used to that you need to know about before you get there. 

In this article, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about driving in Portugal from local laws to the rules and regulations so you’re not caught by surprise when you get there. 

Rules & Regulations 

Portugal’s driving rules and regulations are pretty similar to most EU countries but there are some slight differences to what you’re used to so it’s best we go through them. 

  • In Portugal, you drive on the right-hand side of the road, which is easy if you’re from the US but if you’re used to driving in the UK it might take some time for it to click
  • You must be 17 or over to drive a car in Portugal, however, tourists under 18 are likely to get into trouble with the police
  • When driving in Portugal you must carry your driving license and a valid photo ID – a passport is best, and your road tax certificate and registration documents 
  • Anyone in the front or back seats must be wearing a seatbelt if the car has seatbelts – slightly concerning that maybe a lot of cars don’t 
  • Kids under 12 years old under 1.5 meters high can not travel in the front seat. They must be in the back seat with a suitable special restraint system for their size. But only if the vehicle has back seats or has seatbelts. 
  • Kids under 3 can be in the front seat as long as they are in a suitable child restraint but the airbag must be turned off if using a rear-facing child restraint system. 
  • Drinking and driving is not permitted. Anyone caught with an alcohol blood level of 0.05% to 0.08% could face a fine and have their license removed for a month to a year. Anyone caught with an alcohol blood level of over 0.08% may get a fine and their license removed for two months to two years. 
  • Police carry the equipment to test drivers for narcotics. 
  • You must use dipped headlights in poor daylight conditions and in tunnels 
  • It’s compulsory to have third-party insurance when driving in Portugal and display your insurance sticker on your windscreen.
  • Driving while using a mobile phone in Portugal is illegal and you can be fined up to € 600.00.
  • It’s illegal to overtake on the right in free-flowing traffic.

These are all the major rules and regulations for driving in Portugal. As you can see, they are pretty standard bar the fact that they insinuate that quite a lot of cars don’t have seat belts, or it’s ok not to have them. 

Having lived in Portugal for a few years, I can attest that 99% of cars do have seatbelts, so it’s nothing to worry about. 

Speed Limits For Driving In Portugal 

Speed limit signs in Portugal are regular so you do always know what speed you are allowed to drive. However there are some quirks and since they are all in kph, so if you’re used to miles you might find it a little slow. 

Speed cameras and checks are few and far between in Portugal but they are there so it’s not worth the risk of getting a fine. Here are speed limits. 

  • Drivers who have held their license for under a year cannot go faster than 90 kph or 55 mph
  • When driving in built-up areas the speed limit is 50 kph or 31 mph 
  • On motorways, the maximum speed limit is 120 kph or 74 mph 
  • On motorways, the minimum speed limit is 50 kph or 31 mph 

Parking In Portugal  

If you’re out visiting the rural areas of Portugal like the wild west coast or the stunning inland nature reserves, then parking will be very easy. But, when you get into the busy centers of Lisbon like Cascais or the Algarve’s major towns like Lagos and Faro, parking becomes a bit trickier. 

But, somehow, there is always a space for you, it might take a while to find, but even in the busiest areas, one tends to pop up. You’ll also find locals in parking lots directing you to empty spaces – you can trust them and leaving them a euro for their services is a good idea. 

While parking isn’t too hard in Portugal, there are still some rules to follow and here they are. 

  • If you see a sign that says Estacionamento Probido, it means no parking 
  • If you see a white and blue sign with a red line running through it, it also means you’re in a no-parking zone 
  • Red or yellow painted curbs are another sign for a no parking area 
  • You must always park in the same direction as the traffic on a one-way street 
  • You cannot park 25m before or 5m after a bus stop, within 6m of a tram stop, or within 5m of a junction
  • If you are caught parking illegally you can end up with a hefty fine, and if you do it repeatedly you may even lose points on your license. 
  • When you park you should also check the signs in the area to see if it’s a residents-only area for certain hours of the day. 

As you can see, parking in Portugal is pretty normal when compared to other countries and parking tickets are pretty rare in my experience. 

Local Laws & Things To Know 

When it comes down to it, the drivers in Portugal tend to follow the rules and it’s actually a pretty easy country to drive in but there are a few things to watch out for. 

Indicators Are Optional 

The main thing that drives me a little crazy when driving in Portugal is that the drivers tend not to use their indicators. While this is manageable in most circumstances, it’s a pain when entering a roundabout of which there are many.

You’re never sure if they are turning off and you can pull out or if you have to wait. It’s not a big issue but once you deal with it for a while it does start getting to you, well to me anyway. 

Driving In Old Towns Is Tricky 

If you’re staying in or visiting the old town of cities like Lagos, Faro, Lisbon, or Porto, then be prepared for some seriously narrow streets and a lot of one-way streets too. The roads are very pretty, cobbled and lined with beautiful architecture but sometimes the gap is so small that you don’t this you’re going to fit. 

Using a navigation app is key in these areas as the one-way systems are impossible to navigate if you haven’t spent much time there. But, they can lead you to narrow roads that are a no-go so you might have to do a little on-the-fly navigation from time to time. 

Be Careful Driving At Night 

A lot of the roads in Portugal are poorly lit, some aren’t lit at all, so when driving at night it’s best to take it slow and steady. 

Speeding On The Motorway 

The toll road motorways in Portugal tend to be unmanned when it comes to speeding and there aren’t any speed cameras either. This leads to drivers going way over the 120 kph speed limit. Don’t be tempted to follow suit as it’s a tad dangerous and the cops are waiting sometimes. 

Vans Are Annoying 

Portugal is a place van-ers love to travel to. If you’re anywhere near the west coast then be prepared for van’s to be on most of the roads you want to travel on. Chances are, you’ll get stuck behind quite a few of them and have to go very slowly. Don’t let it frustrate you, just enjoy the ride and the beautiful scenery. 

The locals in certain areas have created some conflicts with van tourists, mainly because they do all their shopping at Lidl and don’t provide any money to the economy like renting a room or going out to restaurants. There have been fights and I’ve even heard of fires being lit under vans parked up for the night. If you plan on some van life in Portugal, these are things to be aware of. 

Gas Stations 

Gas stations are everywhere in Portugal so you are never likely to get caught out. Petrol is currently extremely expensive and ranges from €1.6-1.72 euros per gallon where are diesel is a lot less expensive. So if you have the choice, you’ll save quite a bit of cash driving a diesel car around Portugal than a petrol one. 

Road Conditions 

Road conditions vary a lot in Portugal. If you’re in an urban area they are excellent and the more rural you get the worse they become. The worst you’ll find is a tarmac road covered in patches with a pothole every now and then, so all in all, they are very manageable roads for all vehicles, even small cars. 

If you plan on exploring a little, like trying to get to hard-to-reach beaches so you can surf an uncrowded wave, then you will end up driving on dirt roads. Most of them are doable in a small car but I have come to parts that just aren’t manageable and have had to turn back. So, there is a risk going down them but most of the time it’s worth it. 

Tolls 

Portugal is covered in toll roads that link the entire country and go into neighboring Spain. They are worth using if you have to drive say from Lisbon to the Algarve or Lagos to Faro as they will cut your journey time in half. 

They are not that expensive either, driving from Lisbon to the Algarve is about 20 euros one way, and Faro to Lagos around 6 euros one way. 

Paying for tolls is a different story and it is best to have a Via Verde machine in your car the automatically charges your card when you go through a toll, or charges your car hire company that then charges you. 

When driving large distances like Lisbon to the Algarve you take a ticket at one end, then put in a machine at the other for payment if you don’t have a Via Verde machine. You can pay with a card but they only accept Portuguese cards, so it’s best to carry cash if you’re visiting. 

Car Rental In Portugal 

Renting a car in Portugal is simple, easy, and reliable. There are tons of local and known international car hire companies that have cars waiting for you to collect at airports and in larger towns or cities. 

You will have to pay a deposit when renting a car on a credit or debit card which will be returned to you at the end of the rental. 

At the car rental desk, you’ll need to be able to show the following to get the keys. 

Age & License 

To rent a car in Portugal you must be at least 21 years old and most drivers under 25 will suffer and young driver fee. You must also have held a valid driving license for 1 year or more. 

You can use any EU, UK, or US license to rent a car. But, if you have a license from another country, you might need an international driving license. You should check this with whichever car rental company you choose before traveling. 

Costs 

The cost for car rentals in Portugal is pretty similar to any other European country. A little tip is to go with the local ones, they tend to have lower prices but require bigger deposits, MasterKing Cars are great, especially for long-term rentals. 

Insurance 

All cars come with insurance that covers everything bar your excess. You can choose to upgrade to full insurance for a cost but I recommend buying excess car hire insurance as it costs £65 a year instead of £20 a day. 

Useful Apps 

There are no apps specific to driving in Portugal but it’s handy to have GoogleMaps or Waze for navigation. Both of them are accurate and very helpful. If you’re from the EU then your home SIM should work fine, if not you might need to get a local SIM card. 

 

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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