Since Iceland doesn’t have any trains or any well-developed long-distance transport system, the best way to travel around is by car. Sure, you can fly between towns, but when driving you get to stop along the way. For those visiting Iceland, there are some things you need to know about driving in Europe if you’re hiring a car. The Icelandic traffic laws may be different than what you are used to.
Driving in Europe for the First Time
For my North American readers, you’ll be pleased to hear that Icelanders also drive on the right-hand side of the road. This is the case in most European countries, with the exception of the British, Irish, Cypriots, and Maltese, who drive on the left-hand side. If you are coming from one of these countries, take it slow and practice in quiet streets first if you need to. You will be surprised how fast you adjust, but it does take consistent focus.
If you have a driving license from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or another country in the European Economic Area, it will be valid in Iceland. If your license is not from one of those, provided it has a photograph, valid date, license number and is written in Latin characters, it is likely valid. If your license is not written in Latin characters, you will need an International Driving Permit. Check our blog post about driving license requirements for car rentals in Iceland for more details.
Iceland’s drink-driving laws are extremely strict, as are the laws in most countries in Europe. What may have been a legal amount for you to drink and drive under in the US will likely not be in Europe. Play it safe, don’t drink at all if you are planning to drive.
Note that Iceland’s highway system is not nearly as developed as that of the US or Australia. Very few roads are wider than two lanes so be careful if overtaking. Also, most cars in Iceland are manual. They’re better suited to the unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather that occurs here. However, if you have never used manual gears before, you can also hire an automatic car. They’re slightly more expensive, but the bigger price difference is between renting a four-wheel drive car vs a 2WD.
Some of you may be very familiar with extreme weather, but if you aren’t, know that Iceland has all manner of it. Sandstorms, snowstorms and strong wind are common in autumn, winter, and spring. Always have warm, waterproof clothing with you just in case. Check the weather forecast before leaving and pay attention to weather warnings and road closures. Just the other day, on a trip to the north of Iceland, a section of Route 1 was closed just after I had passed it.
Do I Need a Green Card to Drive in Europe?
If instead of using a rental car, you want to bring your own car from home, it is possible to do so. But if you are bringing your car from anywhere outside the European Economic Area, you will need a Green Card or other proof of third-party insurance. For those that aren’t aware, a Green Card is a document produced by motor vehicle insurers to prove that the car is adequately insured to drive abroad. If you would prefer to drive your own car here, contact your car insurance company beforehand to arrange the Green Card. Some rental cars in Iceland come with a standard insurance package included in the price, whereas others don’t. Check what you are insured for before taking a trip, as you may want to purchase extra, more specific cover, such as Sand and Ash Protection. When you rent a car in Iceland, you must provide the details of a valid credit card.
Specific Laws in Iceland
If you want to rent a car in Iceland, you must be at least 20 years of age and have held a driving license for at least 12 months. Be aware that the road signs are only in Icelandic, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to learn some basic words to help you. Look up the road sign symbols and find out what they mean.
In Iceland, it is legally required for headlights to be kept on at all times, day and night. Off-road driving is illegal, and if caught violating this you face heavy fines. Two-wheel drive vehicles are permitted on any road except for the highland, or F, roads. These F roads lead up to the highlands of Iceland in the interior, and can only be driven on by 4x4 vehicles. Those roads are gravel roads and involve river crossings, so don’t attempt the drive with a small 2WD rental car not designed for it.
The general speed limits are 50kmph (31mph) in urban areas, 80kmph (50mph) on gravel rural roads and 90kmph (56mph) on paved rural highways. Considering that the country’s main highway, the ring road (Route 1) is only two lanes wide, these limits are very reasonable.
Before embarking on a road trip, make sure you know a little about the road layout, such as tunnels and toll roads in Iceland. There are many tunnels in Iceland, some of which are only a single lane wide, with passing bays. In these cases, drive slowly and be considerate to other drivers. There is only one place in Iceland that requires a toll to use: Vaðlaheiðargöng tunnel.
Know also that Icelanders don’t really carry cash. Iceland is fast on the way to becoming a cashless society, and this is relevant because many petrol (gas) stations are automated, with no staff present. To buy gas at these places you must have a chip and pin card.