Driving from the UK to Portugal is a fantastic journey, giving you the opportunity to enjoy the many toll roads in France (!), the long open roads and scenery of Spain and the windy rural motorways and villages of Portugal. If you plan to drive your own car from the UK to Portugal, though, you should bear some legal requirements in mind.

Apart from the fact that you have to drive on the right instead of the left, the law in Portugal is stricter for drivers when it comes to documentation. It’s illegal to drive without a bright reflective jacket (yellow, orange or red) in the car and an approved reflective warning triangle. In the event of an accident or breakdown, you must don the jacket and position the triangle on the road a safe distance behind your car as a warning to other road users.

Driving in Portugal, guimaraes

A driving scene in Guimaraes.

If you are stopped by police, you may be asked for a driving licence, proof of insurance, proof of address and proof that your car has an MOT road-worthiness certificate, as well as proof of ownership of the vehicle. A UK licence is usually acceptable in Portugal, but it’s best to show the plastic version with a photo and an EU flag rather than the older paper version. You should always carry your passport as well as your identity document – Portuguese citizens always carry their ID card, because they can be asked to produce it and it is an offence not to do so.

If you are stopped by police, especially driving a UK car, you are likely to be treated with polite respect and you may not be asked to produce much documentation, but this will depend on the mood of the policeman and where you live. In the north, for example, the police stop very few UK cars, so these are often dealt with as tourists, but in the Algarve, the police often do sweeps looking for cars owned by residents who do not properly import them.

How long can I drive my UK car in Portugal?

This is a common question, particularly for British expats seeking to move to the country.  You can’t keep your UK car in Portugal for more than 183 days in any year. Some people mistakenly think the 183 days is consecutive, but it is actually a total number of days – so you can’t keep leaving and coming back if your total days in Portugal tops that figure.

After that time, the car must leave the country, or you can pay to have it “matriculated”, which means getting a new Portuguese registration and cancelling the UK registration.

There are agents who can help with the importation process. You have to prove that you owned the car in the UK for at least a year, to avoid having to pay an import duty or VAT (IVA, in Portugal) on the car. You can only bring in one car per family.

The Honest John website has an excellent guide to this process. I did go through the process with my car when I moved to Portugal.

Insurance for driving in Portugal

Before you bring your car to Portugal, check your insurance, because you will most probably need to pay for additional European cover, if you don’t already have that, as well as breakdown cover for the period of your trip. You can get separate insurance in Portugal for a UK vehicle. Ibex Insurance, based in Gibraltar, covers Spain and Portugal for UK vehicles at competitive rates.

The cost of insurance should be the same for a right-hand-drive vehicle as a left-hand drive one. The price of insurance in Portugal is based on category of driver and other conditions, as well as the level of insurance cover you choose.

Tips for driving in Portugal

The rules for driving in Portugal are similar to the rules in the UK, with two major differences. First, in Portugal you drive on the right-hand side of the road. Second, Portugal, like most of Europe, has a series of toll roads, but Portuguese tolls have two types, which I explain below.

Toll roads in Portugal

The two types of toll roads in Portugal are, first, the ones where you pay on entry or exit (usually on exit, after taking a ticket on entry); second, the automatic tolls where you automatically incur a cost, which can be drawn from credit you pre-pay, or you pay at a designated location, based on your registration. These are known as SCUT tolls.

Via Verde toll road exit in Portugal

A manned toll road exit looks like this. With a pre-payment Via Verde card you can drive straight through the V lane. Otherwise, pay by cash or card.

You can tell when you are approaching a manned toll road by the presence of a “portagem” sign.

Portagem sign for toll road

The portagem sign tells you which lane to choose as you approach the toll booths. Choose V if you have a pre-pay Via Verde account.

The SCUT tolls, officially called electronic tolls (peaje electronico) can be paid for using your Via Verde card but you can also buy an EasyToll card or Tollcard, which will be valid for use in electronic tolls.

If you drive through the electronic tolls without having pre-paid, or without paying later, you could be liable for a fine back in the UK.

Also, another big warning – if you buy only an EasyToll card, you cannot use this in a Via Verde lane.

Find full information about toll payment options and locations here.

Speed limits in Portugal

Throughout the country, these are the general speed limits to be aware of.

  • Urban areas: 50kmh
  • Open roads in built-up areas: 90kmh
  • Motorways: 120kmh (but not less than 50)
  • Cars towing on open roads: 70kmh
  • Cars towing on motorways: 100kmh

Laws of the road

Portugal has some laws for motorists that you must abide by, especially if you are driving a UK car in the Algarve, because the Police may decide to pick on you as a good target for a fine.

  • You must carry a warning triangle in the car, a reflective vest, which should be in the car so you can don it before getting out of the vehicle (so, not in the boot).
  • You should have a valid UK driving licence, but make sure you carry photo ID at all times. If you don’t have a photo licence, get an international driving permit.
  • If your car doesn’t have EU-branded registration plates, put a GB sticker on the back of the car.
  • Take the valid insurance certificate, the V5 ownership registration (or car hire contract) and, if the car is more than three years old, the MOT certificate.
  • Stickers on the headlights to divert the beam away from cars coming towards you on your left. Also, carry spare bulbs for your lights.
  • If you drive across the mile-long 25 de Abril bridge across the River Tagus, it’s illegal to run out of fuel on the bridge.
  • Everyone in the car must wear a seatbelt at all times.
  • Motorcyclists must dip their headlights during the day and wear crash helmets.
  • For emergency services, dial 112.

For additional tips on driving in Portugal, view The AA’s guide. There is also a great list of driving rules and regulations on the Anglo Info website.

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