We spend a lot of time selecting the right rental vehicle in Iceland for our needs, comparing size, price, features, and even fuel consumption. But one of the things that are overlooked is preparing to drive. Think about it: how long did it take to study for your driving test? As well as the practical exam, you’ll have worked hard to learn about the Highway Code and the meaning of the various road signs you are likely to encounter on your journey.
So why should hiring a car and driving in a different country be any different? After all, if we ignore the road signs we see, we risk getting a ticket or at best, a warning from traffic police. And don’t be tempted to think that because the driver in front of you has done something, it’s legal. In Iceland, a larger proportion of drivers than you might expect are on vacation, especially in summer.
How to Read Iceland's Road Signs?
If you intend to spend at least part of your holiday driving in Iceland, remember that in general, triangular signs give a warning, while circular signs mean something is prohibited. The word “Stans” on a sign means stop, such as at a busy junction or for a toll booth. Here are some of the other road signs you need to be aware of.
Common road signs in Iceland: speed limits
If we only have time to consider one type of road sign in advance, it’s very likely that’s going to be those that tell us the speed limit set for each type of road.
Yellow circles, bordered by red and bearing black numerals, indicate the speed that’s permitted in kilometers per hour. In residential areas, that limit is likely to be 30kph (around 18 mph); elsewhere in built-up areas, it can rise to 50kph (around 31 mph). To be clear, built-up areas are indicated with a sign depicting a black silhouette of a cityscape on a yellow background:
When you cross the boundary and leave that town, the same sign will be shown but it will have a diagonal red line through it. Outside populated areas, gravel roads tend to have a limit of 80kph (49 mph), while tarmacked roads such as the ring road can be 90kph (55mph).
If you see a speed limit marked on a rectangular blue sign with white lettering, that’s an advisory rather than mandatory sign, but nevertheless it’s worth heeding, as you won’t know the road as well as a local.
What other road signs in Iceland are important?
Strictly speaking, the answer to that question should be “all of them”, but in reality, some are more useful than others to the holiday driver. If you’re planning a road trip, perhaps to loop the ring road or access the country’s mountainous interior, understanding some signs will be crucial.
Gravel Surface Road sign
There are certain driving conditions in Iceland that present a potential hazard, such as the uneven road surfaces found on the country’s F roads – or even its gravel roads. For instance, the grip your wheels have on this kind of loose surface is less effective than if you’re driving on a paved surface, which will affect stopping distances. You don’t want to lose control, so look out for this sign, which advise of a change to a gravel surface:
One-lane Bridge Sign
Another common occurrence on an Icelandic road is a one-lane bridge. These catch out many visiting motorists; in Iceland’s light traffic it’s easy to become complacent to the danger presented by these bridges. But in fact, accidents are surprisingly common, particularly in inclement weather when stopping distances might be considerably longer thanks to ice or water on the road, especially if you are driving in winter. You need to brake slowly when approaching such a bridge and ensure that you can see far enough up the road to be sure you can cross safely. A similar sign exists for one-lane tunnels. Sometimes, the length of the one-way section is marked on the sign as well.
Blind hills and blind curves should also be approached with caution. Keep over to the right, as far as you safely can (though don’t be tempted to drive on the loose gravel of the hard shoulder). Slow down as you approach and make sure that if you need to stop, you can safely do so. It’s better to be cautious, even if it risks irritating the driver behind you.
4x4 Road signs in Iceland
4x4 drivers tackling some of Iceland’s most adventurous roads will need to be able to interpret other signs, such as that which warns of an unmarked river crossing. If you’ve rented a 2WD city vehicle or one with low clearance, this kind of crossing would be inadvisable as there’s quite a risk of your car becoming stranded.
Some signs in Iceland warn of a difficult road, usually an F road:
Most challenging of all are stretches of F road preceded by this sign above, and you must exercise caution even if you are driving a sturdy, reliable vehicle, like those in our fleet of 4x4 rentals. If the Icelanders label it as “Torleiði” it means “extremely difficult terrain” you need to heed their warning. Be clear that advanced driving skills might be required!
Animal road sign
Even on good roads, if you see a road sign that indicates livestock of any kind, be especially vigilant. You’ll see signs bearing the silhouetted image of sheep, cows (representing domesticated animals in general) and horses, as well as wild animals. Be particularly careful if sheep grazing have lambs present; if they become separated from the ewe, they’re likely to cross the road to join her and they have no road sense.
City Driving in Iceland - Common Road Signs
Such signs are all well and good for a road trip, but what about city driving?
City driving requires a whole other knowledge base. Instead of physical obstacles created by the natural landscape, you’ll need to be able to identify traffic signs that deal with more mundane matters such as parking restrictions and right of way. Let's learn some of them!
The first red circle with a yellow bar means "Entry prohibited" That means you cannot turn or access the road from the direction you are coming from. But you can get into that road using a different entry.
The second yellow and red circle means "driving prohibited". The prohibition of movement applies to all vehicles from all directions. You can simply not drive in that area. If you see the same exact sign but, let's say, with a motorbike on it, that means the driving prohibition only applies to motorbikes. Or trucks, or bikes...whatever the sign shows.
Parking signs in Iceland
The first blue circle with just one red line across it means "Parking is prohibited". That translates to: You cannot leave your vehicle stopped and unattended temporarily. However, you can pull over, leave your vehicle and parking lights on, and wait inside for your friend for a short period of time. Not to be confused with the second circle with a red "X" on it. That means both parking and stopping are prohibited.
Most are self-explanatory, but you don’t want to get it wrong and pick up a ticket. Incidentally, if you do, you’re required by law to pay it even if you’ve already left the country and in practice, your rental company will have passed the charge onto you.
The first blue sign stands for "Parking" and yep, you have to pay for it! The second sign specifies the parking is for passenger cars. You can find the same sign but with a motorbike, a truck, or an electric car. It is just to specify to who is the parking lot. The third sign shows it is for the disabled. Finally, the last sign shows the parking is limited to 30 minutes.
Iceland's Road Signs and Particularities
These Iceland road signs meanings are worth committing to memory; to read up on other road signs in Iceland as well as useful tips for driving, read this handy guide produced by Iceland’s Road Traffic Directorate.