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Expat’s Guide to the German Autobahn

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

German Autobahns are well known around the world. In any case, a foreigner arriving in Germany will not leave without experiencing it at least once.

Driving in German autobahn. Maximum speed in German autobahn

What is an autobahn?

Originally established in 1932, the Bundesautobahn or simply autobahn is the nation's highway network. The purpose of the road was to reach cities as fast as possible by motor vehicle.

It is mandatory in Germany for autobahns to have two lanes in each direction. Both lanes must be separated by crash guards or concrete safety barriers, ideally. The autobahn allows only vehicles capable of traveling more than 60 kmph in order to accomplish faster movements.

The Autobahn now stretches 13,000 kilometers (8,080 miles), making it one of the world's longest and densest highway systems. The majority of autobahn sections have two, three, or even four lanes in each direction, and a permanent emergency lane.

Despite the fact that the Autobahn is an everyday, unremarkable sight for many Germans, true fans still adore it.

German Autobahn Speed Limits: How Fast Can You Go?

The Autobahn is known for allowing you to drive as fast as your car can go. In some ways, that's true.

The highest speed ever achieved on an autobahn was 432.7 km/h by Rudolf Caracciola, a famous German race car driver in the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen in 1938 on a closed section.

It is possible to drive at maximum speed on the German Autobahn on some stretches depending on your vehicle and your driving skills. Approximately 70% of the Autobahn network has no speed limit. There is, however, a recommended speed limit of 130 km/h on German autobahns in stretches even though the speed is not controlled.

My fastest speed on a German autobahn has been 302 km/h on an Audi Q6 between Haar and Munich international airport. Although it was an experimental ride when there were travel restrictions during Corona's peak in 2021, many people take advantage of the opportunity to experience the magic of the autobahn. However, most Germans don't often drive that fast on a daily basis and may don’t recommend driving so fast.

Expats' tips for driving on the Autobahn

Follow the speed limit

The unlimited speed is only permitted in some stretches, as mentioned above. This means that most parts of the autobahn are speed-limited. Be sure to pay attention to the signs. There are speed radars in the autobahn, both permanent as well as temporary speed radars in accident prone areas. Speeding on controlled areas can lead to expensive fines or even the loss of your driving license in the worst case if you exceed the speed limit way too much.

If there is a traffic jam, keep an emergency vehicle corridor

There are times when traffic jams can occur on autobahns as well. Even if there is no emergency, you should always keep a rescue lane between two lanes whenever there is a traffic jam. If there are three or more lanes, the corridor should be formed between the left most lane and the lane right to it.

Don't provoke other drivers and don't let others provoke you

While you are on any roads in Germany, especially on the autobahn, never tailgate a car in front of you or get provoked by someone tailgating you. You could get fined up to 400 euros for that.

The minimum distance between two cars on an autobahn should be half the speed at which you are going. For example, if you're going 100 km/h, keep a 50 meter distance from the car ahead.

Overtake using the leftmost lane; don't drive continuously in it.

Cars that drive the fastest typically use the leftmost lane. It's possible that you'll get scared and end up in a worse situation if you stay in the left lane and see a car approaching you at high speed in the rear view mirror. There is a possibility that you will be flashed or honked at by a car behind you. When you're driving at 150 kph, that's the last thing you want.

Never overtake a car on the right

If you see a car driving slowly on the middle lane while you are in the third lane and there is space in front of you, never overtake from the right. You might see other drivers do this often. But, keep calm and only overtake on the left.

On the autobahn, never stop or reverse

You are not allowed to stop or reverse on an autobahn. You are driving with the help of Google maps and you missed an exit? Still drive forward and allow the map to recalculate the route.

On an autobahn, drivers going at high speeds will not expect you to stop or reverse and might crash into your car if you do.

Driving with children in German autobahn

If you are an expat and you want to take a taxi ride or drive with your child in Germany, there are certain rules you need to consider before starting your ride.

The German law specifies children up to 12 years of age and are less than 1.5 meters in height must only ride in an approved car seat or booster either in a personal car or in a taxi.

Controlling in the autobahn

The Autobahn has its own police force, the Autobahnpolizei, which often documents speeding violations with unmarked police cars equipped with video cameras.

When the Autobahnpolizei need to stop you, they overtake you and drive in front of your vehicle with a signboard stating 'Bitte Folgen' or 'Follow me'. The police car needs to be followed until it stops somewhere appropriate. Keep both hands on the steering wheel while still sitting inside your car. An officer will approach you and instruct you on what to do next. If the officer gives you instructions, you are obliged to follow them.

On the autobahn, I was stopped by the police once just because my friends in our car looked into the police car without knowing it was a police car. Although they left us up on checking the IDs and inspecting the car, we had to drive off the autobahn, which cost us both time and fuel.

Driving in Germany as an expat

If you are planning to move to Germany for a longer period, or if you are here for a short visit, you can use the driving license issued in your country for the first 6 months provided you have an IDP (International Driving Permit). You will need to either translate the IDP to German or request an English version if your IDP isn't in English at your local driving license issuing authority.

If you are moving to Germany for a longer period, you may consider converting your non German driving license to get a German driving license (Führerschein).

Finally, there are discussions about removing the unlimited speed and setting the speed on the autobahn to 130 km/h. Even though there hasn't been a decision yet, it won't take long for the government to decide. Therefore, if you are in Germany even for a short visit, don't miss a chance to take a spin on the German autobahn.

Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Driving on the German Autobahn as an Expat

What should I do if I encounter an accident on the Autobahn in Germany?

If you encounter an accident on the Autobahn in Germany, it is important to stay calm and alert. Move your vehicle to the side of the road if possible, turn on your hazard lights, and call emergency services immediately by dialing 112. It is also recommended to have a first-aid kit in your vehicle and to provide assistance to any injured parties while waiting for help to arrive.

Do I need to purchase a vignette or toll pass to drive on the German Autobahn?

Are there speed limits on the German Autobahn?

Can I use my foreign driver's license to drive on the German Autobahn as an expat?

What should I do if I get lost while driving on the Autobahn?

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