Driving in Brazil is no easy feat and should never be underestimated. Due to the country’s vast, geographic size, driving can be rather intimidating. However, the distances and varying landscapes are not the main reasons that might keep anyone from driving in Brazil. Rather that’s due to Brazilian drivers and the road infrastructure. Drivers are not necessarily bad or aggressive, but their driving habits often differ significantly from what a European or North American expat might be used to. That is to say that most people drive impulsively and spontaneously, which is thought to be common in many Latin American countries.
With more than 1.7 million kilometers of roadways, Brazil boasts the largest road network in all of Latin America and the fourth largest in the world. The country is currently building even more roads in preparation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, the vast majority of roads are unpaved versus paved. Furthermore, the National Department of Transportation Infrastructure (DNIT) considers only 43% of the paved roads to be in good or excellent condition.
It is the more remote rural roads in Brazil that often seem to consist exclusively of potholes. Encountering farm animals, pedestrians, cyclists, and farm machinery is not uncommon. In addition, you should be cautious of extremely muddy roads, which may morph into mudslides and rivers during the rainy season, or even after a thunderstorm. It is best to remember this simple rule of thumb: State roads are generally in good shape, while federal/interstate roads are relatively poorly maintained.
Brazil has recently started introducing toll roads, especially in the state of São Paulo. The states of Bahia, Parana, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Santa Catarina have also implemented the electronic toll payment system Sem Parar/Via-Fácil to avoid traffic piling up at toll booths.
Another issue that affects driving in Brazil is traffic congestion in major cities, especially in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where pollution levels are sky high. In fact, São Paulo holds the infamous record of having some of the world’s worst traffic jams, which are sometimes almost 300 (!) km in length. To reduce this tortuous problem and to avoid further environmental pollution, the government of São Paulo implemented a rotation system (rõdizio). It prevents certain vehicles (based on the last digit of their license plate number) to enter the city on specific days of the week. Taxis and buses driving in Brazil’s biggest metropolitan area are exempt from this rule.
The minimum age for driving in Brazil is 18. Foreigners are allowed to drive in the country with a full driver’s license issued abroad for up to six months. Although it is no longer required to carry an official translation of your foreign license with you, it’s still recommended. After six months, it is mandatory to apply for a local license (Carteira Nacional de Habilitação or CNH) and for this you need an official translation.
In order to get this license, you generally must complete a test. The test comprises four parts: a medical examination which includes testing eyesight and logic, a psychological examination, road theory and traffic laws, and the actual practical driving test. Residents with a foreign license from the United States, the European Union, South Africa, and Australia do not need to take the complete test. However, even if you have a driving license from one of these countries, please contact your nearest Brazilian State Transport Department, DETRAN (Departamento de Trânsito), office for further details.
Keep in mind that only legal residents are allowed to apply for a Brazilian driver’s license. In addition, the standard tests for driving in Brazil are not given in any language other than Portuguese, so be sure you master it well enough to be able to pass the four parts of the test. Contrary to other countries, the use of a translator or interpreter is not permitted in Brazil. You register and take the test at your local DETRAN. You first receive a trial license for one year. If you commit no traffic violations during this period, you can then exchange it for a Brazilian license.
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