The German Autobahn Highway

The Autobahn is the German highway system. It is known for infinite speeding possibilities and its Nazi past connection.

Here you will learn about the speed limits, tolls, the dos, and don’ts, signboards and I also share some common German words that you will encounter on the Autobahn.

The German Autobahn Highway pin picture

πŸ“• What is the Autobahn?

The Autobahn is the German highway system connecting towns and cities in Germany with the rest of Europe.

β€œAuto” means car and β€œBahn” means a way in this context. The word Autobahn is just a mash-up of the two, which was inspired by the German word Eisenbahn, the railway. The official term is Bundesautobahn.

Originally, it was called the Reichsautobahn, the highway of the empire, as the building of highway infrastructure construction saw a boom during Nazi rule.

The plans had been drawn during the Weimar Republic but due to WWI, the building of the highway system was almost halted.

Adolf Hitler somewhat promoted the project once he came to power in 1933, which would promote the creation of jobs during a time of hardship. In the process of modernization, forced labor was also used to build the German Autobahn road network.

The network of roads saw a huge construction boost in the 30s in Germany and this was continued over the borders after the annexation of Austria and also Poland.

Eventually, the Autobahn became an essential tool to get things from A to B during wartime. Later on, it served the people well to rebuilt their cities.

A tumultuous past and the association with the Nazis and Hitler are one of the reasons why the Autobahn has received a myth-like status over the decades.

β˜„οΈ Is there a Speed Limit?

Generally speaking, German highways do not have set speed restrictions with limits. BUT there are sections of the Autobahn that have limits set at 130, 120, 100 and even 60.

These sections are maintenance areas where men are at work, they can be steep road sections, heavy curves and tunnels. For example, Munich to Salzburg has many such sections.

Some sections can have a speed limit for night traffic, which is usually mentioned with a timing such as 22:00 to 06:00 (10 pm to 6 am).

You can drive high-speed on German freeways and people do it, but if you were the one speeding, and you are involved in an accident, you will be automatically faulted.

That said, it is not uncommon to see a sports car, such as Porsche or Ferrari, drive 150 mph (ca. 240 kph) in the left lane. With a regular car, you will easily drive on average 110 mph (180 kph) if the traffic is good.

Because of these liberal Autobahn speed limits, it can be a bliss to drive long stretches across the country.

πŸ’Ά Toll

Driving on the German highway is completely free! There are no toll booths and no stickers that you need to get when driving in Germany.

This simplifies one’s life a lot, especially if you are new to driving in Europe. But because it’s free, you have most of the world using the highway as well.

The result is, traffic jams are very common on German highways. Add to that continues modernization and maintenance of the roads, and you can see that this might slow you down naturally.

german highway stuttgart bosch parkhaus bridge
3 lane Autobahn at Stuttgart and Bosch Parkhaus

πŸ‘ Do’s

  • Drive in the right lane. The left lane is only used to take over. You can’t see a fast approaching Porsche from far, they are just there all of a sudden and you will be blocking them.
  • Use your indicator way in advance to switch between lanes. Germans use them properly, Italians still haven’t learned it yet.
  • Keep a good distance between other cars and trucks.
  • Drive early mornings before 7 am to have the road to yourself or after 8 pm. Germans get up early and go to sleep early.
  • Plan a road trip on Sunday because trucks don’t drive on that day and that means more space and less traffic.
  • Follow road signs and radio traffic news. Your radio might be set to play half-hourly automatically radio traffic news.
  • You can drive with regular combustion engine cars, electric vehicles, RVs and even with larger motorbikes on the highway in Germany.
  • Take as many stops as possible and keep change with you because highway restrooms cost about € 0.50 to € 0.70 to access per person.
  • In a traffic situation, place your car at the border of the highway to create an emergency alley passage for ambulances, fire brigades and Autobahn police. If you are in the left lane, move to the left, if you are in the right lane, move to the right. This is called a β€œRettungsgasse” in German. All cars do that automatically in traffic, no matter if an emergency vehicle is approaching or not.
rettungsgasse autobahn Germany at traffic jam
Cars keep to the side to form a Rettungsgasse during traffic jam

πŸ‘Ž Don’ts

  • Don’t drive too fast when there is a speed limit. The consequence is a Blitz speed camera light and a letter from the German Polizei. I got one of these when coming down a hill at 20 kph too fast. The letter made me pay a fine of €130 and the warning said not to get caught again speeding in Germany within a year, or I would be banned from driving in Germany.
  • Don’t speed in tunnels. They have cameras taking pictures of your number plates and if you were speeding and coming out before the time that you should from the tunnel, you will get blitzt
  • Don’t drive on German highways if you are not used to fast driving and rigid road rules. Germans are exact folks, and they have fast cars and a no-speed-limit highway system. The strict licensing test system won’t let everyone drive those roads.
  • Don’t stop on the hard shoulder just to relieve yourself. But you can stop there if you have an emergency with your car or if you feel like throwing up.
  • Don’t ignore the car that places itself in front of you with a sign changing to “Polizei“. That’s the actual police asking you to follow them to the next station.

🧭 Signboards

Most autobahn signs are blue in Germany and those are the ones that you need to pay attention to to get from A to B.

While the Americans have a nifty interstate highway signboards system, showing the cardinal points, east, south, west and north, the European signboards lack it altogether.

You have to know the cities on your way to your prime destination. The directional signboards will read various cities with the farthest one at the top.

The signboards do include the road number as well, which can be helpful.

Yellow signs indicate a detour. The bright large neon yellow signboard with a hand and a stop on it means that you are about to drive onto the wrong side of the highway.

Brown signboards may appear along the way, indication heritage sites and special tourism related places. They are just there to inform you about tourist places.

πŸ†— German Highway Vocabulary

Raststation/RastplatzService Station. It may contain parking, a restaurant, restrooms, gas station and EV-charging points.
AusfahrtDrive out, your way out of the highway.
EinfahrtDrive in, your way in to the highway.
RadarkontrolleRadar Control/ Speed cameras
FalschWrong (as in wrong way)
RettungsgasseRescue Alley (a passage created by cars in traffic so that emergency vehicles can pass quickly)
TankstelleGas/Petrol station

Learn more German to English phrases to prepare for your trip.

thunderstorm on the autobahn in Germany
Heavy Thunderstorm on the Autobahn near Augsburg

❗️ Neighboring Countries Tolls and Speed Limit

Highway tolls are very different between countries in Europe, and it might be confusing if you are new to driving in Europe. Fortunately here, every one drives on the right side, even the Brits!

Austria – You will need a highway sticker to drive on it called a Vignette or Pickerl. You can buy it at petrol pumps in Germany and Austria or also online as a Digital Vignette. They offer 10 days, 60 days or 360 days toll stickers ranging from €10 to €100. Speed limit is usually 80 mph (130 kph) except on stretches in Tyrol where it’s 100 kph.

Switzerland – The Swiss operate like the Austrians with a Vignette motorway sticker system, but you can only get a yearly sticker. Nonetheless, it’s priced at only CHF 40, which is almost a steal in Switzerland. Speed Limit here is 75 mph (120 kph).

France – Old school cool France still keeps classic toll booths along the highway. When you enter a freeway, you take a ticket (which you don’t lose!) and when you leave the highway or change into another new section, you pay for that stretch. Rates can vary and yes, it’s pricier than Switzerland! Speed limit is set at 75 mph (120 kph).

Belgium – The Belge motorway is known for broken-down, pot-holed, toll-free highways. Their streetlamp system at the center is but the only good thing on these highways. Speed limit is set at 75 mph (120 kph).

Luxembourg – A small country doesn’t have many kilometers of highway but at least they are functioning and free of charge with a speed limit set at 80 mph (130 kph).

Netherlands – The highways are free of charge but speed limits are sometimes set at a slow 60 mph (100 kph).

Denmark – No toll roads and a speed limit of 80 mph (130 kph) makes it easy to cross this Nordic country.

Poland – Here you will find toll booths just as in France and the speed limit is a whooping 85 mph (140 kph).

Czechia – Get a Vignette for 10 days, 30 days or a year. The cost is between CZK 150 and 1500. The speed limit is 80 mph (130 kph).

πŸ’­ FAQs

Where was the first Autobahn stretch built in Germany?

The first highway stretch between Cologne and Bonn was completed in August 1932.

Was Germany the first one to build highways?

No, the Italians build the first Autostrada highway between Milano and Varese. It was inaugurated in 1924.

Why is the Autobahn no speed limit?

Germany is the country of carmakers and lobbying will take place. The idea of the Autobahn is to move quickly between cities and Germany has many cities right next to each other.

How long does it take to cross Germany all the way from south to north?

With the average traffic conditions in mind, driving normal with regular stops included, it can take about 10 hours to cross Germany fully. That’s about 620 miles (1000 kilometers).

Can an American tourist drive in Germany?

Yes, with a valid internation driver’s license. You can get one in your local DMV center.

The German Autobahn Highway pin image

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