In theory, citizens of the European Union can move freely throughout the Union without any formalities. There are however several qualifications to this happy general assertion.
First, you are legally obliged to carry some form of identification papers in most EU countries. Most countries have an official identity card; Britain doesn't, though the photo-card driving licence looks increasingly like a back-door attempt to introduce one and it will often suffice as an identity card in other countries too. A passport is the best bet.
Second, although there is no legal requirement for a Briton to carry a passport in order to leave or enter Britain -- being a British subject is enough, though you have to be able to prove it -- you are likely to have considerable difficulty in persuading British immigration officials of this. The great majority of immigration officials are fair, reasonable people, but there are still far too many who aren't, and who take it very ill if you even begin to question their ineffable wisdom, let alone answer back.
Third, because of genuine problems with illegal immigrants, there is an overtly racist approach to foreigners in many countries, especially foreigners who have dark skins. If you are not of pink Northern European stock, be prepared to be asked more often for your papers than those who are. The only immigration service we have encountered that contains more paranoid or arrogant officers than the British service is the American Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, widely known in California and other Spanish-speaking states as 'La Migra'.
If you can produce your passport (or whatever) there shouldn't be a problem. Even if you can't, you should be better off than the Indian professor of mathematics who had no money and no passport on him when he was was picked up in Los Angeles by La Migra, loaded into a bus, driven into Mexico and dropped two hundred miles south of the border. He didn't speak Spanish, either.
Fourth, you need your driving licence. In the EU, the current photocard-style EU licence (issued by any EU country) is valid, as it is in an ever-increasing number of other countries. EU and American state licences are often mutually recognized but not exchangeable. There are however some countries where an International Driving Permit (IDP), as described below, is either desirable or essential.
Fifth, most countries require you to produce your bike papers on the spot if you are stopped by the police, unlike Britain where you can produce them a few days later at the police station of your choice. This means the registration document (log book), a letter of permission from the owner if it is not your bike, evidence of insurance and in some (but not all) countries, a certificate of roadworthiness such as a British MoT. Hired bikes will normally come with all the paperwork that you need.
Sixth, many countries demand nationality plates. These are further described below.
Seventh, in a very few countries -- again, listed in the country by country section -- you are required to take out a 'carnet de passage' which guarantees you will re-export the vehicle (to stop you selling it) and you may also be required to pay a deposit or take out insurance against failing to meet this obligation.
Eighth, in Spain it is an excellent idea to have a 'bail bond' in case you are arrested. Nowadays this is often given as a part of EU insurance or travel insurance, but check your policy.
INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMITS
International driving permits (IDPs) function as a supplementary driving licence in some countries which refuse to accept other countries' permits without a translation. You should always carry both your national or state licence and your IDP, though in practice, you are rarely likely to be asked to produce either, and if you are, the IDP is normally accepted on its own.
IDPs are normally issued by national motoring clubs -- the RAC and AA in Britain, AAA in the United States, and so forth. This seems surprisingly casual, and argues that the whole concept of an IDP is pretty vestigial anyway. Their main use is to provide photo ID (when your local licence doesn't) and in some cases to provide a translation into the local language. As IDPs are in relatively few languages, and look quite easy to forge, their legal usefulness may be questioned. But if you have to have one, you have to have one.
I have tried (generally successfully) to ascertain which countries demand them, and noted this in the country-by-country sections. Note that in several cases holders of EU licences do not require IDPs if they have the new photo-style standardized pink-and-green EU photo-card licence, but do need them if they are still carrying their old-style national licences.
As a general rule, IDPs are not required in the United States but may be required in some countries in Europe and are required in India.
These are the little stickers with national identifications on them, such as GB for Great Britain, F for France, SLO for Slovenia and so forth. They refer to where the bike is registered, not the nationality of the rider; their purpose, of course, is to make it easier for the police to track the vehicle (and hence its rider) down if they have to.
There are standardized sizes but they are not particularly rigorously enforced and motorcycles are allowed to carry smaller plates than other vehicles -- if they can find them, which is not always easy.
The habit of mounting 'false' nationality plates to indicate sympathy for or attraction to a foreign country, or to proclaim ethnic origin, is not a good idea, as it can attract a fine in its own right.
Although nationality plates are not universally required, and although hardly anyone ever takes any notice of them anyway, it is still a good idea to have one on your bike. It only takes one bored policeman to make a mountain out of a mole-hill, and if you are nicked for something else, failing to show a nationality plate can provide them with another charge (and another fine) if they want to make life difficult for you. I have noted where nationality plates are specifically required in the country-by- country section wherever I have been able to find out.
Any vehicle insurance issued in any EU country is required to give the legal minimum insurance in all other EU countries, but this can sometimes be pretty minimal. Your insurance policy may or may not extend some or all of the insurance in your own country to other countries: you may not even be covered for fire and theft. The only way to be sure is to read your policy, carefully, and to ask questions of the brokers or insurers if you are uncertain.
Often, EU insurance will also cover you for other, non-EU countries: again, this may be for the legal minimum, or it may extend some or all of your domestic insurance to those countries. Again, you will have to check.
For additional coverage abroad, you may have to notify your insurance company. At one extreme, you may have to give precise dates and pay a supplement for those dates. At the other extreme, they may say, "Don't worry, you're fully covered". Get that in writing, in the form of a 'green card', which is neither green nor a card, if possible.
Ever fewer countries refuse to recognize foreign insurance, and require you to take out insurance at the border when you bring the bike in, but some still do. Again, these are listed in the country-by-country guides. If you buy a bike in a country, it is generally best to insure it there. India requires Indian insurance, for example, though this should be taken care of for you if you hire a bike from a reputable source.
CONSTAT A L'AIMABLE
This is a form that both you and the other party fill out if you have an accident. The aim is to write down an agreed version of events, as soon after the accident as possible: the advantages are obvious. Your insurance company should give you at least one, either as a matter of course when you get the policy, or when you ask for a green card (see above). In some countries it is compulsory to fill out one of these before you leave the scene of the accident.
More and more EU policies include international breakdown assistance as a standard part of the policy, and if you can get this on your policy, it is well worth having. It is bad enough to be stuck with a broken-down vehicle in a country where you don't necessarily speak the language very well: the 'hand holding' you get from these companies is well worth the money.
Otherwise, take out either annual breakdown cover or cover for the trip. Single-trip insurance is often insanely expensive on a per-day basis as compared with annual insurance, so if you plan on making more than one or two trips a year, annual insurance may work out significantly cheaper. Many clubs also provide international breakdown insurance.
Again, hire bikes should have breakdown insurance built into the hire fee.
For years now, we've taken out annual worldwide travel insurance. When we were based in the UK, it was about GBP 120 (call it US $180) per year for the pair of us. In France, we are still insured with a British company because the French don't appear to understand annual travel insurance, and it's just over GBP 200, call it US $300. Many travel insurances in Britain are sold on two levels, European and world-wide: European is quite a bit cheaper, principally because it excludes the United States, where lawyers' and doctors' bills can be very high.
We can recommend the company we use, Worldwide. It is worth knowing that they will insure most people, in most countries, and that you are then insured in all countries except the one you live in. They have many competitors who are also good.
Travel insurance covers health -- particularly important in the USA -- and a host of other things: luggage (though with very small limits for individual valuable items such as cameras), cancellation, missed flights/trains, delay, loss of cash (typically up to about GBP 200, US $300), death and dismemberment, and so forth.
Always check very carefully to see that motorcycling is not excluded. Some insurers exclude all motorcycling, on the grounds that it is a Dangerous Sport (there's often a heavy loading for skiing, for rather more convincing reasons). Others exclude motorcycles up to a specified capacity limit, on the grounds that these are likely to be small, poorly maintained vehicles hired by tourists who can't actually ride anyway. Yet others exclude motorcycles beyond a certain capacity limit, on the grounds that they are faster and therefore more dangerous. Read the proposal form carefully, and if in doubt, ask. When you get the policy, read that carefully too. You can usually repudiate the insurance and get your money back if it does not provide the cover you want, provided of course that you haven't already made a claim on it.
British citizens should go to their nearest Post Office and pick up an E111 (E-one-eleven) that entitles them to most forms of medical treatment when they are in other EU countries. Fill it in; get it stamped; and it is good for the rest of time. As far as I understand it, all other EU countries offer something similar. It may even have the same name.
Apart from health insurance, you need take only the precautions that you would take at home if you are travelling in the EU or the USA: in Europe there are no special needs for vaccinations, etc., though it is always a good idea to make sure that your tetanus injections are up to date. It's also a good idea to visit the dentist regularly. It may not be fun, but it's better than nasty surprises on the road. I know: I've had dental trouble on the road, and that is even with regular check-ups.
Carry adequate supplies of any prescription drugs, including contraceptive pills, and a 'to whom it may concern' letter from your doctor saying what they are. This can be useful at border crossings, or in the unlikely event that you are busted, or in the rather more likely event that you stay away a bit longer than you intended, or simply miscount, and need a few extra pills. Surprisingly many pharmacists will oblige.
Young male travellers may care to carry condoms. Availability varies widely throughout Europe. France is probably easiest, where there are vending machines all over the place, including at the entrances to schools (usually the back entrance, as a sop to decency).
First aid kits are covered under Equipment and after this, it's a question of country-by-country requirements as given in the appropriate sections. It is however worth knowing that American doctors can be disgracefully ignorant of, and lax about, such things as hepatitis jabs and (especially) anti-malarial precautions for India. Don't necessarily assume that your doctor knows better than we do, though in the majority of cases, he will and should.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
Go to the Home Page
or support the site with a small donation.
last updated: 29/10/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks