So, you’ve decided you’re not content with just taking trains and buses to get around in Italy, and you’re going to rent a car. It’s a great way to see parts of the country many visitors miss, and can be an economical way to transport a family or other group – but it’s important to understand Italian driving laws before you get behind the wheel.
Don’t miss my other articles in this series: Driving in Italy 101 and Italian Road Signs 101
Italian law requires foreign visitors who get behind the wheel to carry an International Priving permit (IDP). There’s no test to complete, don’t worry – it basically tells non-English speakers that you’re licensed to drive in your home country. You’ll need to bring your regular driver’s license with you, too, as the two documents work in tandem. Licensed drivers age 18 and up can get an IDP at AAA in the United States for $15 or AA in the UK for £8.50. Find out more, including what’s on the application and what you need to bring, on the AAA website for U.S. drivers and AA website for UK drivers.
Truth be told, I know many people who have never bothered to get an IDP for an Italy trip. Rental car companies don’t ask if you have one, so you won’t be denied a car. I’d still recommend getting one, though, so that if you get pulled over by the Italian police you’ll have all your proverbial ducks in their rows. It’s not a huge expense, and an IDP is valid for one year, so you may be able to get even more use out of it.
For the most part, driving laws in Italy are probably quite similar to driving laws in your country (provided you’re not in the UK or Australia or Japan or another place where driving on the left side of the road is the norm). There are a few rules of the road that are more strictly enforced in Italy than in the United States, for instance, so it’s important to be aware of them.
Violations of Italian driving laws means getting a ticket and a pretty sizable fine. Those fines just get worse when you’re late in paying them, which you’ll certainly be since the ticket goes to the rental car company first before it eventually makes its way to you. And the rental car company will likely add a fee for their troubles, too.
In other words? Follow the rules and everyone goes home happy.
Parking a car in any of Italy’s city centers can be a big hassle. Historic towns weren’t designed with wide streets or space for parking lots, so Italians have had to get creative with where and how they park. That’s not always a good thing, but it’s often amusing. Take, for instance, this story of a few locals repainting a recently-designated bus-only zone.
If you’re staying in a hotel, ask if they’ve got a dedicated parking lot somewhere nearby. If they don’t, ask them where they recommend you look for parking, and whether you’ll need a permit for that area. If you know what to look for, you’ll see indications of parking regulations on streets and curbs.
Some cities and towns have parking lots or parking garages just outside city centers, too, which are easy to use if not always easy to find – some are underground. You can usually find out the location of parking lots and garages from hotels if you’re staying in one, or from the tourist information office.
Some Italian cities now have restrictions on driving in their urban centers in an effort to reduce pollution levels. You’ll likely be notified of this if you’re renting a car and say that you’re planning to drive in one of the cities with such restrictions, but if you’re not sure you should ask the rental car company.
What these restrictions often mean are surcharges for driving in the city center (called “congestion charges”), though sometimes they prevent some cars from being used on certain days. License plates ending in odd numbers, for instance, would be allowed one day and even-numbered plates the next. Sometimes it’s on an as-needed basis, and some cities have restrictions in place at all times.
I recommend not driving in Italy’s big cities anyway, for a number of reasons, and this just adds another reason to my list.
With a USA driving license, what is the maximum age permitted ? Thank you.
I’m not sure I understand the question, Felix – the maximum age? As in, a person cannot be older than X in order to drive in Italy?
Hello! Can i drive as a tourist with my argentinean licence?
Although the information in the section “Before You Go: Getting an International Driving Permit” is geared toward US or UK drivers, it applies to all non-Italian drivers, so take a look at that part of the article above again. 🙂
Get your IDL. Currently, even in the middle of nowhere, renting a car (or exchanging a rental) they always ask for it (and your passport). Plus, when the Polizia Stradiale, or worse, “nostri amici in macchine azurro scuro e rosso” (Carabinieri, in their dark blue cars with the red stripe) want to see your documenti… and you don’t have it… your trip becomes more, um, interesting.
One other thing – parking. You will still see time limited parking signs (especially in smaller towns: Ore 08:00-20:00 or such)… on a rental there’s a little paper clock thingy on the passenger side windshield you have to set for the current time when you park. If you don’t… or you’re late returning, and the local polizia municipale checks (and they do, occasionally)… I *have* set these ahead at times (like parking at 1300, but setting the clock for 1400) –grins– but it’s like rolling the dice. You DON’T want to pay your parking ticket! (Again, another “interesting” experience…)
Thanks for the advice, Susanna! I’m a cautious person, so I’d always opt for the IDL. I know plenty of people who don’t, though…
Hi , I have found this and the related sites on road signs and driving generally very useful. I wonder if you might be able to add something about approaching roundabouts? I am living in Salento, teaching English, and am getting used to driving here– roundabouts are where I feel most uncertainty about how to proceed. Thank you!
I’m American, so we don’t have the most experience with roundabouts, either!
Hi there, sorry for the little help this will be, but IF its anything like spain: by law the left hand (inside) lane is always for overtaking, even on a roundabouts (it’s stupid- I know). The logical thing is to be on the outside lane to be going 1/4 way around and the inside lane for 3/4 turns on the roundabout. Seeing as one is lawful and the other is logical, drivers generally do either or which creates lots of near misses. I imagine Italy will be like this but cant confirm. My advice would be to stay in the outside lane always until you get more confident and understand the system better and watch for people cutting out sharply in front of you.
I recently got a ticket in Italy but am only dealing with the rental car company at this point. They are telling me that they do not know the details on the ticket. They also said it may take the Italian government up to two years to send me the ticket (in which case the fine will be hefty). Whom do I contact within Italy so as to find out what the ticket is for and pay it off quicker?
Oh, that’s awful – I’m so sorry, I don’t know the answer to your question. If you can get a contact within the rental car company who’s actually in Italy (in the city where you got your ticket) that may help. I’m so sorry!