While driving in Spain’s big city centers may be a liability, it can be a necessity for those living in suburban or rural areas; shopping centers, as well as medical and entertainment facilities, can be sparse in these areas. If you live in a major city, it is probably not necessary to have a car — which is a good thing, considering that finding a parking space and maneuvering rush hour traffic, as well as the driving style in Spain, usually make it more stressful than convenient.
On the other hand, if you are a good driver — secure and cautious — you will not have a problem driving in Spain. The public transportation system in cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia is excellent and can get you to your destination for a low price and with little bother.
Spain’s road network is very well developed and spanned over 683,000 kilometers of paved, well-kept roads in 2011. To get free maps and general information on Spanish roads, check out the Michelin website for Spain.
While most Spanish drivers are, in fact, very good drivers, they have a loose interpretation of sharing the road with other vehicles. It is not uncommon for you to be overtaken from both sides while driving in Spain.
The roads are classified into highways, national roads (carretera nacional), and rural roads. There are two types of highways, autovías and autopistas, the latter often being toll roads (carretera de péaje), which form about 2,000 kilometers of Spanish roadways. Since tolls are relatively expensive, most Spanish drivers tend to avoid these and usually take the national roads. As a result, toll roads are comparatively uncongested and safer.
Toll roads can be paid for either in cash or by credit card. Holders of a Spanish bank account can also obtain a small onboard unit called the Via-T, which permits electronic toll payment without stopping at toll booths. The toll is then automatically deducted from the driver’s bank account.
If you plan on staying in Spain for less than six months, you do not need to exchange your license for a Spanish one. However, you might need an international driver’s license in combination with your national driver’s license to be able to drive in Spain. This applies to you if your country is not a contracting party to the following two UN treaties:
Find out the necessary details by going through the UN Treaty Collection. Please be aware that an international driving permit should be issued in your home country and must still be valid before you hit Spanish roads.
For a stay of over six months, the following nationalities can simply exchange their national driver’s licenses for Spanish ones (2015):
If you are neither a national of any country listed above, nor of an EU or EFTA member state, you have to take a Spanish driver’s test after six months. This process will require you to enroll in a driving school (autoescuela), take driving lessons, and complete both a written and a practical driving test. On average, first timers passed their test with 20 lessons of 45 minutes each, which cost them approximately 700 EUR in 2014.
EU nationals can drive in Spain using their national driver’s license for an extended period of time. However, after two years of official residency in Spain, their license has to be renewed according to Spanish standards. After obtaining your Spanish driver’s license, you must renew it every 10 years if you are still under 65, or every five years if you are over 65 years of age.
The following documents, along with a very basic medical examination, are needed for the renewal process:
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