16 things every expat driver should know

Most of the time, driving safely and legally requires just a bit of common sense. But if you’re returning to the UK from abroad, it won’t do you any harm to refresh yourself on the rules of the road.

In the time that you’ve been away, it’s likely that a number of rule changes have been introduced. It’s important that you don’t fall foul of the law as this could have consequences not only for your driving licence but also your expat car insurance premiums.

In our guide to the things every driver should know, we’ll leave out the most obvious rules – like how you need to insure your car (with expat car insurance or another type of policy, depending on your circumstances) – and focus on what you might have missed or forgotten.

Although the majority of points will be based on driving laws, we’ve included some handy pieces of advice that you might want to consider before recommencing motoring in the UK.

1. If you passed your test abroad, you might need to exchange your licence

This is a good place to start as any, as your immediate thoughts before taking to the road will be whether or not your foreign licence is valid in the UK.

The good news is the answer is usually yes – at least for the first 12 months of driving back in your homeland.
If you hold a full licence issued in a European Union country, you don’t need to mess around with exchanging it for a British licence until it expires (when you turn 70).

If you hold a licence issued in a ‘designated country’, you’re also good to go – but you’ll need to exchange it after 12 months.

To exchange your international driving licence for a British one, you’ll need to download a D1 form from the DVLA website and send it on to the relevant address along with any requested documents (including your driving licence).

If your licence was not issued in the EU or a designated country, after the 12 months, you’ll be required to sit the UK practical test before you can continue driving on British roads.

2. When you turn 70, you’ll need to renew your driving licence online

We’ve touched on this already. But once you reach 70, you must renew your driving licence every three years.

If you’re 70 or over, or will be 70 in the next three months, you can easily renew your licence online.

If you return to the country holding a licence issued in a country within the European Union or a designated country, you can drive while your licence is being renewed provided you meet all the following conditions:
  • you have the support of your doctor to continue driving
  • you only drive under the conditions of the previous licence
  • your application is less than a year old
  • your last licence wasn’t revoked or refused for medical reasons
  • you’re not currently disqualified
  • you weren’t disqualified as a high risk offender on or after 1st June 2013
If you’re in any doubt about the validity of your licence, you should consult the government website.

An couple in their 70's driving

3. You must declare any medical condition that can affect your driving

If you’re unfortunate enough to have developed a medical condition during your time away from the UK, this could have consequences for your return to driving on British shores.

Failure to tell the DVLA about a medical condition that affects your driving could result in a fine up to £1,000. The government’s online service makes it easy to check if your condition needs to be reported. It also has an A to Z list of hundreds of different conditions for you to consult to get a better understanding of whether you need to be forthcoming with your ailment.

If your condition does need to be reported, you will be advised on how to do so – either via the online service or by printing off and sending a paper form – once you’ve made your submission.

Not reporting a condition on the list could invalidate your expat car insurance if you needed to make a claim.

4. Pay any parking fines as quickly as possible

It goes without saying that you should take steps to avoid picking up a parking ticket – read signs closely, make the use of text reminder services, always park within the lines of the bay, make sure your ticket is clearly displayed etc.

However, with millions of parking tickets issued each year, it suggests that sometimes drivers, try as they might, still struggle to stay on the right side of the rules.

If you ever return to your car and find an unenviable yellow ticket stuck to the windscreen – once the initial annoyance has worn off – you should pay it off as quickly as possible to minimise the cost of the fine.

If you pay the parking charge notice (PCN) within 14 days, you’ll usually be charged a reduced rate. If you wait the full 28 days, you’ll have to pay the full whack.

If you don’t pay a PCN within 28 days, you’ll get a ‘charge certificate’ and you’ll have 14 days to pay the original fine plus 50% more.

As well as for parking, you can get a PCN for other driving indiscretions such as driving in a bus lane or failing to pay a congestion zone charge in the allocated time.

5. You’re not allowed to park in front of a dropped kerb

Whilst we’re on the matter of parking, did you know that you can be fined if your vehicle is found parked in front of a dropped kerb?

The Highway Code is very clear about this, stating that you should “not stop or park where the kerb has been lowered to help wheelchair users and powered mobility vehicles, or where it would obstruct cyclists except when forced to do so by stationary traffic.”

So, even if it’s the last space available on the street where you need to be, avoid the temptation to park – even partially – across a dropped kerb. Both the police and the local authority in your area have the power to hit you with a PCN if you do.

The rules for pavement parking are a little more localised. Local authorities can prevent pavement parking on individual streets (or by area) by making a traffic regulation order (TRO).

There is currently no national legislation on pavement parking – but the government did recently run a consultation on the matter so watch this space.

In London, parking on the pavement is forbidden by a Private Act of Parliament. Elsewhere, you should check for any signs before parking your vehicle, and consider whether you’ll be causing an obstruction to pedestrians using the walkway.

6. Using a mobile phone at the wheel can land you with six points

It’s been illegal for quite some time now to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. The law was first brought into force in December 2003, and since 2007 the penalty was three points on your licence and a fine (£60 at first, but £100 from 2013).

But the law was updated in 2017, with the penalty doubled – so being caught using a mobile phone while driving now carries a penalty of six points and a £200 fine.

It’s illegal to use any hand-held device while driving, including a sat nav or a tablet. So, if you need to change the route on your sat nav, you should safely pull over first before fiddling with it.

The law was updated again in 2022 to close a loophole that allowed drivers to avoid prosecution if they were using their mobile phone to take photos, scrolling through playlists or playing games. There is now a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to using a phone behind the wheel.

That means you can’t even touch your phone if you're stopped at traffic lights or in a queue. You should also leave your phone in your pocket or bag if you’re supervising a learner driver.

A man using his phone while driving

7. You can only accrue 12 points on your licence

If you get 12 or more penalty points within three years, you risk a ban from driving. In other words, you only need to be caught using your phone twice and you could have your licence suspended.

The court will decide the length of the ban. You’re looking at least six months, but it could be longer depending on the nature of the offences.

Points for most offences last for four years, but some points stay on your licence for 11 years like those for drink or drug driving, or causing death by careless driving.

Once you’ve served your ban, you’ll be instructed by the court on what you’ll need to do to return to the road. You may need to retake your driving test – at the very least you’ll have to apply for a new licence after a six-month ban via the points system.

New drivers have a smaller margin of error to play with. If you get six or more penalty points within two years of passing your test, you can have your licence revoked. Following a ban, drivers are required to get another provisional licence and take new theory and practical tests before driving again.

Accruing points on your licence is an expensive business. Each offence comes with a fine. It can also drive up your expat car insurance premiums. So, it pays to take a cautious approach to driving.

8. The ‘two-second rule’ is often ignored – but is vital for avoiding collisions

Most drivers claim to be aware of the two-second rule’. Yet, a National Highways trial of new tailgating cameras shows that motorists often unintentionally drive too close to the car in front, putting themselves and their fellow drivers at risk.

Commenting on the findings of the trial, National Highways Head of Road Safety, Jeremy Phillips, said: “The closer you get, the less time you have to react and to stop safely. So to avoid inadvertently getting too close to the vehicle in front, we would urge drivers to use the two-second rule and to always ‘stay safe, stay back’.”

As per the Highway Code, a two-second gap between you and the vehicle in front should be maintained on roads carrying faster-moving traffic and in tunnels where visibility is reduced.

However, the gap should be at least doubled on wet roads and increased still further on icy roads in winter.
Driving too close to another vehicle falls under ‘driving without due care and attention’. This offence carries a minimum fine of £100 and three penalty points.

9. There is a ‘hierarchy of road users’ – know your place

It’s not only your fellow drivers that you need to give more thought to. The most vulnerable road users are pedestrians and cyclists and, as per a new ‘hierarchy of road users’, they have priority above cars.

What does that mean exactly? Well, if a pedestrian is crossing or waiting to cross the road, drivers turning into that junction must oblige by bringing their vehicle to a halt, whereas previously vehicles had the right to move off first.

Similarly, if you’re looking to turn into a junction with a cyclist approaching from behind, you must wait until they have passed before making the manoeuvre.

The other cyclist-related law to note from the revised Highway Code is that cars must leave at least 1.5 metres room when passing bicycles – and revised guidance also says "it can be safer" for cyclists to ride two abreast.

A dad teaching his daughter how to drive

10. There are three types of smart motorway

The government has been converting motorways into smart motorways over the past decade – but the adaptations, designed to regulate traffic flow and ease congestion haven’t been without their critics.

There are currently three different smart motorway schemes: controlled motorways, dynamic hard shoulder and ‘all-lane running’.
  • Controlled motorways

These have three or more lanes with varying speed limits but keep the standard hard shoulder, which should only be used in a genuine emergency. Speed limits are shown on overhead gantry signs – if there isn’t a speed limit on the sign, then the national limit applies.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder

This type of smart motorway opens up hard shoulders as a standard traffic lane during busy periods to ease congestion. Solid white lines set apart the hard shoulder from the carriageway, while the signs overhead will show whether the hard shoulder is open or not.

If there’s a red ‘X’ on the sign above the hard shoulder, or it’s blank, then the hard shoulder is out of bounds unless there’s an emergency. The sign could read ‘hard shoulder for emergency use only’.
  • All-lane running

An all-lane running smart motorway section permanently replaces the hard shoulder with a running lane. The hard shoulder is known as lane one, and will only close to traffic if there’s been an incident.

In the event of an accident or emergency, a red ‘X’ on the overhead gantries signals the closure of one or more lanes. You might also see a verge-mounted sign, which means you need to leave the lane as soon as possible.

It is the all-lane running scheme which has come under the greatest scrutiny, prompting the government to pause roll-out of new stretches until 2027 whilst it undertakes a thorough safety assessment and adds new safety features where needed.

Protect yourself from the financial fallout of car accidents on smart motorways or elsewhere with specialist expat car insurance.

11. When buying a car, you have options

One of the great things about buying a car in the UK is that you have options. Finding a car to fit your budget and needs shouldn’t be too much of an issue, providing you know said options.

For example, if you’re short on cash (making the return to the UK isn’t cheap) then you might want to consider a car financing option like hire purchase where you can spread the cost of a vehicle over a number of years.

If you’re wondering how best to go about getting your hands on a set of wheels, check out our ‘Expat’s guide to buying a car in the UK’.

12. All new homes to get EV chargers by law

When eyeing up your four wheels, you really need to consider whether it’s the right time to go electric. Not only will you be doing your bit to save the environment, you might save yourself a pretty penny in the long run, too.

Amid rising petrol and diesel prices, charging an electric car at home costs less than £20 for a full charge.

It’s set to become much easier to keep an electric vehicle (EV) in the coming years with the UK government having set a new target to increase the number of electric car chargers more than ten times to 300,000 by 2030.

All new-build houses from 2022 will need to be fitted with electric car chargers, or the ability to charge electric cars, to encourage more motorists to go green.

An electric car on charge

13.  More cities are introducing clean air zones (CAZs)

Another reason to go electric is that more clean air zones (CAZs) are expected to be introduced in the coming years. In CAZs, if your vehicle exceeds emission standards, you may have to pay a charge to use it in the area.

Bath, Birmingham and Portsmouth have already adopted CAZs, with Bradford, Bristol and a number of other cities expected to follow at some time in 2022.

There are four types of clean air zones, Class A to D. Only a Class D clean air zone applies to cars.

In London, there’s both Ultra Low Emission Zones and Low Emission Zones (ULEZ), which are designed to drive down the number of older, higher-polluting cars taking journeys through the capital.

Some low-emission cars are exempt from fees. If your car isn’t ULEZ compliant, however, you’ll have to pay a charge for entering the zone. That charge is £12.50 for cars.

14. Motoring scams are rife in the UK

You may have seen our previous article which highlighted a huge rise in scammers posing as the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to use personal details to commit fraud.

In the three months to September 2021, the DVLA reported a 603% rise in scams, compared with the same period in 2019.

Fraudsters will try anything to get money out of their victims, from selling licences to claiming that a road tax payment has failed.

The best advice we can give is to stick to reputable providers and question every text you receive requiring you to provide your personal details.

15. Installing a dash cam could bring down your insurance

You can pick a dash cam up for as little as £40. They can often prove a worthwhile investment – not only do they provide you with some hard evidence should you ever find yourself in an accident that isn’t your fault, they can bring down the cost of your expat car insurance.

Other ways of driving down the cost of your insurance include paying a higher voluntary excess, driving less miles every year, opting for a lower powered car and building up a no claims discount – as a returning expat, it will obviously take you a bit of time to do this.

A car fitted with a dashcam

16. You can buy specialist expat car insurance

Admittedly, this last one is a bit niche, but it’s important that returning expats are aware of expat car insurance – specific cover designed for UK residents who are returning to the United Kingdom after being away for a period of time and are looking to insure their car.

Whether you’re returning from the Costa del Sol or anywhere abroad, the Insurance Factory is here to help you get back behind the wheel in your home country.

Whatever your personal requirements, speak to a member of our team today and we’ll work hard to find you an expat car insurance policy to suits your needs.