Foreign drivers

A survey carried out in 2003 found that the number of foreign registered heavy goods vehicles travelling to Great Britain had increased almost two-and-a-half times (232%) over the last 10 years. [1] In the UK, there are up to 10,000 foreign vehicles working every day. [2]

However, in order to drive in the UK, foreign drivers do not need to undergo any additional training or testing on how to drive safely on our roads - this could be putting a huge number of our country’s road users at risk.


Drivers from EC countries
If a driver holds a valid Community licence and is visiting Great Britain, they can drive any vehicle for as long as their licence remains valid. The appropriate full entitlement for the vehicle they wish to drive must be shown on their licence.

If a foreign driver decides to remain in Great Britain, their Community licence will remain valid in this country for up to 5 years, depending on age and licence type.

If someone wants to take a GB driving test, they must normally be resident in Great Britain.

Drivers from Northern Ireland
A full Northern Ireland driving licence can be exchanged for a full GB licence or can be used in Great Britain until it runs out.

Drivers from Gibraltar and Designated Countries. Designated countries include Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Falkland Islands, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.

If a driver is resident outside the UK but is temporarily in this country and holds full ordinary entitlement, they can drive any category of vehicle (up to 3.5 tonnes and with up to 8 passenger seats) as shown on their licence, for up to 12 months from the date they last entered the UK. If they also hold full entitlement to drive large lorries or buses they are only allowed to drive large vehicles registered outside GB that they have driven into the country.

Jersey, Guernsey or Isle of Man. Ordinary licence holders: Provided their ordinary licence remains valid, a driver can drive any category of vehicle shown on their licence for 12 months.

Vocational licence holders: A driver visiting Great Britain who holds a vocational licence issue in Jersey, Guernsey or Isle of Man, can drive British registered, or vehicles registered outside GB that they have driven into the country for up to 12 months.

All other countries. Visitors may drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes and with up to 8 passenger seats provided their full licence or driving permit remains valid for up to 12 months from the date of entering the United Kingdom. However, they may only drive large vehicles which have been registered outside GB and which have been driven into the country. [3]

If they remain in the country as a resident they must take a test *before *the first 12 months are up, otherwise they must stop driving until they pass a GB test.

For more detailed information on driving rules for visitors and new residents, click here.


Currently it is not possible to give foreign drivers (non-GB licence holders) an endorseable fixed penalty notice. Also, if a foreign driver is summonsed and issued with a non-endorseable fixed penalty notice, there is no way of ensuring that they do not simply evade punishment by leaving the country. [4]

Research shows that foreign drivers are at least as likely to offend as UK drivers are. VOSA statistics show that drivers’ hours offences are detected in 3.7% of UK drivers, but this rises to 12.8% for overseas drivers. However, they cannot, in practice be prosecuted. The Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 makes it clear that failure to comply with a warrant served at an overseas address does not constitute contempt of court nor is it a ground for issuing a warrant to secure the attendance of the person in question. [5]

However, a number of proposals have been made under the Road Safety Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. These include:

A new system of endorsement. The European Commission has upheld a complaint about the fixed penalty system and the Government is therefore obliged to make the necessary changes to put an end to the discrimination. It is intended to introduce an alternative system in two ways. The first stage will introduce the system of endorsement of driving records for unlicensed and foreign drivers and allow them to be given fixed penalty notices. The second stage will introduce this new system of endorsement of driving records for all drivers with the result that counterparts (issued to drivers in Great Britain) will no longer have any function. [6]

A deposit scheme. The deposit scheme will be similar to arrangements which already exist in many EU countries and will ensure parity of treatment and penalties between UK and non-UK resident offenders. The deposit would be immediately payable at the roadside. At the moment it is proposed that it would be equal to the sum which would have been payable if it had been a fixed penalty or, in more serious cases which warrant prosecution, the sum of the likely court fine. Drivers will still be able to contest the charge in court and if the court decides in their favour, the deposit would be returned. [7]

Enable disclosure of driver and vehicle data to foreign authorities. Current legislation does not provide for the disclosure of driver and vehicle registration information to foreign registrars. The Bill will provide statutory authority for the DVLA in Great Britain and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland to disclose driver licensing and vehicle registration information to their foreign counterparts. This will help bring about the reduction in the import/export of stolen and/or illegally tampered with vehicles and to reduce the number of drivers ‘banned’ in other countries from driving in the UK. [8]

Case study - unpaid parking tickets in London. Foreign drivers owe almost £13m in unpaid parking tickers issued in London in 2004, according to a survey by the Association of London Government (ALG). Of the 330,000 penalty notices served to owners of foreign-registered vehicles, only 4.5% could be traced. Worst offenders were drivers registered in France, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Lithuania. [9]

Case study - foreign drivers not fined for speeding. In 2004, 1,148 foreign drivers who were caught breaking the speed limit on camera escaped without penalty. UK drivers are traced through the DVLA database and fined within the 14-day notice period, but police said there was no easy way to trace foreign drivers. [10]

Case study - six killed in crash. A minibus driver, his four passengers and a lorry driver were all killed in a crash on the A52 near Grantham in February 2006. The occupants of the minibus were all foreign nationals, thought to be from Hungary and Portugal. Police believe the crash happened when the minibus was overtaking two lorries. [11]

Case study - foreign vehicle in serious collision. A foreign registered goods lorry was involved in a collision with a car on the M4, which left a man critically ill with a spinal injury. The man’s wife suffered severe head injuries after being thrown from the Fiat, which rolled several times before landing on the hard shoulder. A man was arrested following the incident. [12]

Case study - lorry sheds its load on A14. A section of the A14 in Northamptonshire was closed after a foreign-registered lorry crashed into barriers and shed its load of floor tiles. Several tonnes of the ceramic tiles fell from the raised carriageway on to the country road below. [13]

Depending on the country they are from, foreign drivers may not be familiar with:

  • Driving on the left-hand side
  • Our speed limits
  • Britain’s road signs - there could also be confusion between imperial and metric signs (such as speed limits or bridge heights) - Give-way rules (for example, these are quite different in New Zealand)
  • Mobile phone laws
  • Tacograph laws (this may mean drivers are excessively tired, having driven longer hours than they should have)

There are also problems relating to the actual vehicles driven by foreign drivers: - Maintenance - different countries have different standards of vehicle road-worthiness and this means that foreign vehicles with major faults could be travelling on our roads. - A study of work-related road crashes found that drivers of foreign-registered left-hand drive trucks had a particular problem with being unable to see other drivers in their blind spots. [14]


Brake feels that it is outrageous that foreign drivers are able to commit offences and not be prosecuted for them. The current policy allows drivers from other countries to commit crimes on our roads and get away with it. This is putting our country’s road users at risk. The changes proposed in the Road Safety Bill will hopefully put an end to this and mean that anyone driving dangerously on our roads will be punished for doing so.

However, we still need to see a change in policy which ensures that foreign drivers are aware of the rules of our roads, and must undergo tests to demonstrate that they are able to drive safely. If they fail to do so, they should be prosecuted in the same way as British nationals are, and charged, fined or banned accordingly. It is vital that nobody is allowed to get away with endangering the lives of road users in our country.

For more information:
Department for Transport
Freight Transport Association
Road Haulage Association
The Burns Freight Taxes Inquiry

[1] Survey of Foreign Vehicle Activity in GB ? 2003, (Department for Transport, 2003)
[2] £3bn Free Ride for Foreign Trucks on UK Roads, (Road Haulage Association, 31 October 2005)
[3] Driving in Great Britain As a Visitor, (DVLA)
[4] Road Safety Bill Note 6: Foreign Drivers, (Department for Transport, 2005)
[5] Road Safety Bill Note 6: Foreign Drivers, (Department for Transport, 2005)
[6] Road Safety Bill Note 6: Foreign Drivers, (Department for Transport, 2005)
[7] Road Safety Bill Note 6: Foreign Drivers, (Department for Transport, 2005)
[8] Road Safety Bill Note 6: Foreign Drivers, (Department for Transport, 2005)
[9] Foreign Motorists ‘Escape Fines’, (BBC News Online, 25 October 2005)
[10] Foreign Speed Drivers ‘Not Fined’, (BBC News Online, 23 February 2005)
[11] Inquest Into Crash Deaths Delayed, (BBC News Online, 15 February 2006)
[12] Man Arrested After M-Way Crash, (BBC News Online, 8 July 2004)
[13] Lorry Crash Closes A14, (BBC News Online, 27 February 2003)
[14] An In Depth Study of Work-Related Traffic Accidents, (Department for Transport, 2005)

Tags: European Commission Northern Ireland penalty foreign driver