Driving in Ireland as a tourist for the first time can be hugely stressful, but it doesn’t have to be.
However, they rarely prep themselves for what happens when they actually get the car, and that’s where problems frequently arise.
Below, you’ll find handy tips on how to drive in Ireland, including everything from signage to many, many warnings.
Quick need-to-knows about driving in Ireland as a tourist
Driving in Ireland as a tourist visiting for the first time can be tricky – please take some time to read the points below as they’ll get you up-to-speed quickly:
1. It’s not all narrow country roads
Some websites would lead you to believe that driving in Ireland as a tourist means learning to get to grips with narrow roads with grass up the centre of them. Yes, these roads exist, but the condition of roads in many parts of Ireland is excellent (there are plenty of exceptions!).
2. Make sure you meet licence requirements
Before you even look at how to drive in Ireland, you need to ensure you’re legally able to drive here. When it comes to renting a car, you’ll need to hold a valid driver’s licence. Drivers from an EU/EEA member state are able to drive in Ireland for as long as their licence is valid. Meanwhile, tourists with a driving licence from any state outside the EU/EEA can normally drive in Ireland for up to a year provided they have the correct licence.
3. Set yourself up for success BEFORE you arrive
You really don’t want to be winging it when driving in Ireland for the first time. It’s important to know not only the laws and regulations but also the informal driver etiquette. We’ll go into more detail on this below, but time spent understanding the likes of road signs and how to use roundabouts will pay dividends.
4. Automatic vs stick shift
Manual/stick shift, vehicles are more common in Ireland than automatics. Unfortunately, many people who plan on driving in Ireland for the first time fail to specify that they want an automatic when renting a car, and end up with a manual transmission instead. If you’ve never driven stick, that can be a big problem!
5. We use km/h
Well, in the Republic of Ireland anyway! In Northern Ireland, it’s miles. So, when you’re looking at speed limits, remember which one you’re in! Bear in mind that depending on where you rent your car from, the speedometer might be in mph (NI) or km/h (ROI). See our guide to the differences between Ireland and Northern Ireland if this has you confused.
6. Toll roads
You’ll find eleven toll roads across the Republic of Ireland. Ten of them are fairly standard, whereby you approach the toll gate, and then pay by cash or card at the gate to continue. Meanwhile, the M50 Toll is a ‘free-flowing toll system’, without any gates to pay at. Instead, you’ll have to pay this toll either online or in certain shops. This one catches a lot of people out, as if you don’t pay, you’ll be fined.
7. Never drink and drive
This goes without saying really, but it’s well worth mentioning. The drink-driving limit in Ireland is a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.05. The Gardaí (police) frequently carry out roadside breath tests.
A safety/general checklist for driving in Ireland for the first time
With the basics of driving in Ireland as a tourist out of the way, now’s a good time to talk about safety.
WARNING: This is not an exhaustive guide on how to drive in Ireland – care, the ability to drive properly and preparation are all required.
1. Test the car’s key functions before you leave the rental centre
When you pick your car up, it’s best to go over the key functions with the agent before you leave the centre. Once you leave a lot of rental centres, such as the one at Dublin Airport, you’ll find yourself on a busy major road almost immediately!
We’d recommend that, before you move the car, you get to grips with key functions like indicators, how to clear the windows, etc. It’s then worth having a drive around the rental car park to ensure you’re comfortable and confident before setting off.
2. Seat belts must be worn
By law, anyone driving in Ireland along with all passengers must wear seat belts whenever the vehicle is in motion.
In Ireland, it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure that all passengers are wearing their seat belts.
4. The use of child restraint systems
The only exception to the seat belt rule is for children under 150 cm (around 5 ft) tall and less than 36 kg (around 80 pounds) in weight.
There are a variety of different types of child restraint systems on offer, including booster seats for older kids and rear-facing child seats for younger children.
5. Never use a phone while driving in Ireland
6. Be vigilant for cyclists and those walking on the road
Irish roads can be very narrow, especially in the countryside. Some were effectively former farm tracks, so space for pavements is limited in some place.
As a result, you’ll often find people walking or cycling on the road itself.
7. In case of an emergency
The Gardaí have a good breakdown on what to do for a variety of emergency types.
It’s also worth checking with your rental company to see what to do in the event of a minor incident (e.g. if the car won’t start).
The rules of the road for driving in Ireland
There are key rules of the road that you need to be familiar with when learning how to drive in Ireland.
There’s also many road signs that can cause confusion if you’re driving in Ireland as a tourist for the first time.
Here are some key rules to be aware of but, please remember, that this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list.
1. Understanding road signs is crucial
If you’re following one of our Ireland itinerary guides, the chances are you’ll be stepping well off-the-beaten-path. But, regardless of where your trip takes you, you’ll encounter a wide variety of road signs and markings.
It’s imperative that you familerise yourself with these in advance. Hit play on the video above to see them in action.
2. Drive on the left-hand side of the road
In Ireland, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. This can be tricky at first, especially at junctions and roundabouts where you might switch to autopilot. Fortunately, there are almost always arrows pointing you in the right direction, particularly near airports and ferry ports.
3. Speed limits
Generally, there are 5 different types of speed limits in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (note: these may change):
- 50 km/h (30 mph): in towns, cities, and other built-up areas
- 80 km/h: on smaller regional and local roads
- 100 km/h (60 mph): on larger, national roads including dual carriageways
- 120 km/h (70 mph): on motorways
- 30 or 60 km/h (20 mph): these special speed limits may be in place around schools, for example.
In Northern Ireland, the speed limit is 60 mph outside of built-up areas on roads that aren’t dual carriageways or motorways. Of course, there will be exceptions, though these will be signed.
4. Changing lanes
If you need to change lanes on the motorway or dual carriageway to take an exit, or at a roundabout, care must be taken. Keep an eye on the road signs so that you have plenty of time to move over and remember “mirror, signal, mirror, manoeuvre”.
First, check your mirrors to ensure your way is clear. Next, indicate your intent. Check your mirrors once more to ensure your lane is still clear, and if so, begin to move into the next lane. ALWAYS check your blind spot.
Many guides to driving in Ireland as a tourist rightly emphasise the importance of known when and when not to overtake. When driving on a dual carriageway or motorway, you’re required by law to remain in the left-hand lane unless you’re safely overtaking another vehicle.
The process for overtaking is much the same as changing lanes; check twice and indicate, before moving over. Once you’ve overtaken the vehicle, repeat the process to return to the left-hand lane. Stick to the speed limit as you overtake and look out for signs/markings indicating that overtaking is forbidden.
U-turns are typically prohibited unless traffic conditions make the manoeuvre completely safe to carry out. On some roads, including one-way streets and motorways, U-turns will still be prohibited even if conditions are safe. Other roads that prohibit U-turns tend to be marked by either an upright sign or a continuous white line in the centre of the road.
If you do need to carry out a legal U-turn, for example, if the road ahead is blocked, follow these guidelines:
- Find a safe place with full visibility of incoming traffic in every direction,
- Give way to other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians
- Ensure there is space to safely complete the manoeuvre
- Once complete, check for oncoming traffic before moving off.
7. Slowing down or stopping on a road
Occasionally you may find you need to pull over or slow down on the road. Only do so if it’s safe and you can be sure you won’t block the road for other users.
Before you begin to slow down, check your mirrors to see if there’s anything around you. Signal your intent by using your indicators or hazard lights in case of an emergency and begin to slow down.
Once stopped in a safe and legal spot, such as a layby or parking bay, switch off your headlights and put on your parking, or side lights. Also, switch off the ignition while you’re not moving.
8. Driving at night
If you’re nervous and driving in Ireland for the first time, we’d recommend that you avoid driving in the dark until you’re comfortable and confident.
When driving at night, ensure your windscreen and lights are clean (the weather in Ireland can play havoc on a cars condition!) . If you’re bringing your own vehicle and it’s a left-hand drive, be sure to apply headlight beam converters to avoid dazzling other road users.
Headlights must be on when driving at night. Avoid high beams when driving in built-up areas, when there’s oncoming traffic, or if you’re driving behind someone, as this can endanger other road users.
9. Right of way
Right of way in Ireland is fairly simple to understand. If you’re joining a road in any direction, the traffic in either direction on that road has the right of way and you must wait for it to clear. At a crossroad or roundabout, the traffic to your right has right of way, unless signage says otherwise.
Driving in Ireland as an American
We get emails asking about how to drive in Ireland as an American every couple of days without fail.
As it stands, United States citizens can can go about driving in Ireland for up to 12 months as a tourist. If you want to get an international permit, you can do so via the AAA in the US.
If you’re an American driving in Ireland for the first time and you’re worried, relax. Once you follow the tips mentioned above you’ll set yourself up for success.
If you’re looking to follow a logical, straigtforward road trip itinerary but don’t want to do the research/planning, see our free self guided driving tours of Ireland.
FAQs about driving in Ireland for the first time
Since we started publishing Irish Road Trip itineraries many years ago, one of the most common queries we get relates to driving in Ireland as a tourist.
Below, we’ve attempted to answer the most FAQs, but if you have one you’d like to ask, shout in the comment section.
Is driving in Ireland difficult?
Driving in Ireland for the first time can be intimidating. Whether it’s difficult is completely person dependant. With proper preparation and planning, most will find driving here fine.
Can tourists drive in Ireland?
Yes, once they meet the driving in Ireland requirements. For example, visitors from America can drive for the duration of a visit up to 12 months with a valid licence.
What do I need to know before driving in Ireland?
At a minimum, you need to know the rules of the road, you need to understand the various road signs, you need to know how to navigate situations (e.g. roundabouts) and you need to understand how to use the vehicle you’re driving in Ireland.