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Driving in Germany: A Complete German Driving Guide

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For expats in Germany, driving is an exciting proposition as the nation is famous for its excellent, high-speed roads and motorways, fantastic cars, and stunning landscapes. Though you can use the nation’s efficient public transport system to travel, having a vehicle of your own would give you unmatched flexibility and convenience. If you plan to drive your own vehicle in Germany, here are a few things to consider and know about before moving to Germany.

Driving on the famous Autobahn – why is it a must-have experience?

Though many think of the Autobahn as a “lawless” highway system, the German highway system isn’t a playground with no speed limits where speed enthusiasts can drive like crazy! Instead, most of the Autobahn expressway has speed limits together with a police presence to ensure the excellent roadway infrastructure is maintained well. This is especially true when you enter the Autobahn close to larger cities, such as Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, where the speed limits could vary from 80 km/h to 130 km/h (50mph-80mph). You’re also likely to see speed limits around narrow sections of the Autobahn network and otherwise dangerous areas. Yet, beyond these, you can legally cruise down the highway at breakneck speed by taking your vehicles to v-max and move closer to light-speed.

Since the Germans are typically law-abiding drivers, expats in Germany need to know the rules of driving on the Autobahn. Some of the key ones are to: 

  • Remember that slower traffic stays to the right
  • Avoid passing a vehicle on the right
  • Check your left side-view mirror before you move into the left lane
  • Take a break every 40-60 km to relax your mind and eyes and wash away the stress of driving on the Autobahn
  • Drive fast while obeying the speed limit

If driving on the Autobahn excites you, you’ll need to plan ahead to get a vehicle when moving to Germany.

Options for driving in Germany – rent, lease, or buy

To drive in Germany, you can rent a car, lease one, or even buy a vehicle of your choice. If you want to opt for either renting or leasing, you should ideally initiate the process before moving to Germany. When searching for vehicles available on rent or lease for expats, you should consider a few factors including:

  • the type of car
  • cost
  • stick-shift vs. automatic transmission

At first, you’ll need to decide on the brand and model of the car you want to rent or lease. If budget isn’t a constraint, you could take a pick from some of the premium models of leading German brands, such as Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, and Bugatti (owned by the Volkswagen Group). Else, depending on your budget, you could choose from a wide variety of economic models of convertibles, sedans, minivans, and SUVs. You would also need to choose if your vehicle is powered by diesel, gasoline, electricity, or is a hybrid. 

Most cars available on rent or lease in Germany are manual-shift models. Typically, they come equipped with a four or five-speed transmission with the shift lever positioned in the centre floor console. If you don’t know how to use the shift gears and a clutch, you would need to rent or lease an automatic. In such a case, be ready to pay a higher rental fee or lease amount together with bearing higher fuel costs since you’ll get lower fuel mileage with the automatics than their manual-shift counterparts. 

How to buy a car in Germany?

Buying a car is often on the top of the minds of expats in Germany. You could decide to buy a new car (Neuwagen), a used one (Gebrauchtwagen), or a car that has been used for a year at the maximum (Jahreswagen). Whatever be your choice, you can buy one from authorized dealers, online brokers, or private sellers. To find a car, you can use car search engines like:

You may even visit car comparison tools like DriveMag or to compare cars based on key specifications and narrow down your options.  

When searching for cars to buy, you should focus on its:

  • Fuel type – diesel, petrol, electric, or hybrid
  • Date of first registration – it indicates the car’s age
  • Mileage – for used cars, it indicates the vehicle’s condition and the wear and tear it has undergone (which would mean higher/lower cost of maintenance and servicing)
  • Number of previous owners – one is certainly better than two or more
  • Gearing mechanism – manual-shift and automatic
  • Maintenance record – ideally, you should consider used cars that come with a full maintenance record
  • The date for the next general inspection (HU or Hauptuntersuchung) – HU ensures your car’s road safety, environmental compatibility, and compliance with regulations, and your car should either have a new HU upon purchase or at least a year until the next HU

As expats in Germany, some other factors you need to consider are the car’s engine power, if it has an AC installed (not all used cars and car manufacturers offer it), and its emission sticker. It’s important for you to look for a car with a green emission sticker (Euro 4) that indicates newer and less-polluting vehicles, which are allowed to enter low-emission zones. 

Once you’ve short-listed a car, you can take it for a test drive. Some dealers may ask you for a security deposit before letting you take the vehicle for a test drive. However, if you’re buying a car online, test-drive options are extremely limited. 

If you’re buying an economy car or a used car, you could be tempted to pay in cash. But most authorized dealers won’t prefer this option as the German law requires cash purchases of €10,000 or more (the previous threshold was €15,000) to be declared. This means you’ll need to look for a dealer or bank financing. For expats in Germany, this could mean more complications to navigate, depending on the type of their German residence permit. If you’ve got a long-term or an unlimited German residence permit, you’ll need to prove residency and present proof of adequate financial resources and/or income to get your car loan approved.

Even after you’ve signed a sales contract with the car dealer, made the down payment, and secured a loan for the rest amount, you can’t drive away with your car. You’ll need to insure and register it. Some dealers can handle the registration for you, either against a fee or for free. Since the registration process is complex for expats in Germany, you should ideally get help from your dealer or hire experts for the job. 

Vehicle insurance

Before you register your car, you’ll need to buy car insurance to receive your eVB number (proof of car insurance, which is mandatory for registration). In Germany, there are three categories of car insurances, namely:

  • Car Liability (Kfz-Haftpflichtversicherung) – covers damages caused to third parties (people or property) but doesn’t include damages to your health or car; 
  • Partial Cover (Teilkasko) – usually offers coverage for robbery, theft, explosion/fire, broken glass, damages to car’s wiring due to a short circuit, bites from marten and wild animal accidents, and natural catastrophes;
  • Comprehensive Cover (Vollkasko) – covers almost everything and includes partial cover and car liability insurance along with extra coverage for vandalism and damages to your own car (even when an accident is caused by your fault)

Which insurance you should buy would depend on your car’s value and your typical driving circumstances. To get insurance with better coverage at lower monthly premiums, you should shop around a bit or seek help from expat insurance experts.

Register your vehicle

Your next step is to make an online appointment at your vehicle registration office (Kfz-Zulassungsstelle) to get your vehicle registered. At the appointment, all your paperwork would be examined. These would typically include:  

  • Valid ID (a foreign/German passport, or an ID card)
  • Registration certificate (Anmeldebescheinigung)
  • Proof of ownership (Registration certificate part 2/Fahrzeugbrief if you’re buying an old vehicle)
  • Proof of roadworthiness (TÜV certificate)
  • Proof of car insurance (eVB number)
  • SEPA direct debit mandate (to let the customs authorities debit vehicle tax from your bank account)
  • Certificate of conformity (if applicable)
  • Foreign registration certificate (applicable only for imported cars)

If all are found in order, your car will be entered into the German register of vehicles, following which you’ll receive your car’s number plates long with the stamp sticker or seal of registration (Stempelplakette) with hidden security codes.

Next, you should visit an Autoschilder to get your license plates printed. Take the plates to get the official seal applied at the vehicle registry office before hitting the road in your vehicle.

After your vehicle’s registration, the customs office (Zollamt) will automatically send you a tax notification, which will mention the vehicle tax payable and the procedure of making such payment.

How to get a driving license in Germany?

You can drive in Germany with 

  • an EU/EEA driving license
  • an IDP (International Driving Permit) together with its German translation attached to it
  • a German driving license

German translation isn’t needed for EU and EEA countries as well as for Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Senegal.

Short-term vs. long-term stays

The foreign driving license of expats in Germany that have been issued by a country outside the EU/EEA country will typically remain valid for short-term stays until their expiry date. For instance, you can drive on German roads for up to 6 months with a US-issued driver’s license. In case you can prove you won’t stay in Germany for over a year, you could even extend the period to 364 days. However, if you are planning a long-term sojourn in Germany, you’ll have to exchange your EU/EEA driving license for a German Führerschein. 

Converting your existing license

You’ll need to visit the Bürgeramt (citizens’ office) to convert your national driving license against a fee into a German license. Depending on your home country, the documents you need to furnish would differ.

Citizens of certain countries and states in the U.S. don’t need to take a driving test. They’ll just have to pay the fee and have these documents to convert their license:

  • Valid residence permit
  • ID
  • Original and copy of national driving license with its German translation attached 
  • Registration confirmation from the Bürgeramt
  • Biometric passport photo (with a size of 35 x 45 mm)

However, American expats in Germany from some U.S. states may need to surrender their foreign driving license to receive a German driving license.

Citizens of all other (non-EU/EEA) countries need to enrol in a driving school to take a practical and theory driving test at a motor traffic technical testing centre. They’ll have to surrender their foreign driving license and submit these documents of proof (in addition to the ones mentioned above) to get a new German driving licence:

  • an eyesight test
  • Registration for practical and theory driving tests in Germany
  • Enrolment in a first aid course

Licence cancellation 

Your licence can be cancelled from 2 years and six months to 10 years for road traffic offences. Such offences can also lead to sanctions of penalty points and heavy fines together with prison time (for up to a year). Even when you’re driving with a foreign driving licence, you’ll still be liable for prosecution as expats in Germany for committing driving offences.

How can we help you navigate the maze of insurance?

For expats in Germany, navigating the complex maze of German insurance on their own is a tough task. But you aren’t alone because MW Expat Solution Services GmbH can help you to find the insurance coverage that would suit your budget and needs the best. Whether you need expat insurance for your vehicle, personal accident insurance, healthcare insurance, insurance for your household contents, or have other requirements for insurance, savings, and investment products, we can help.

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