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Driving in Germany: Eight German road signs that confuse foreigners

Though many road signs are universal, some slight differences in Germany may catch you out.

Driving in Germany: Eight German road signs that confuse foreigners
Traffic signs - including a sign for a one-way and priority road - are seen at an intersection in Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Uwe Anspach

With its speed-limit-free Autobahns and beautiful countryside, Germany is well known as a driver-friendly destination.

When it comes to road signs, most of those you’ll find in Germany are the same or very similar to those you’ll find elsewhere in the world.

However, there are a few which are markedly different, or which have important rules attached to them that aren’t always immediately obvious.

Here are eight of the most important such traffic signs and their meanings. A comprehensive list of all of the German road signs in English can be found here.

READ ALSO: Germany ‘doesn’t have enough signs’ for Autobahn speed limit, says minister

1. Give Way

A give way sign is located in front of the corporate headquarters of Walter Bau AG in Augsburg, Germany. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Stefan Puchner

A similar upside-down triangle can be found on British and American roads, with either the words “Yield” or “Give Way” written in the centre.

In Germany however, the plain triangle on its own means Vorfahrt gewähren (give way) and that you should brake in good time before an intersection with this traffic sign. If the intersection is clearly visible, it is not mandatory to stop and, if the intersecting right-of-way is clear, you can drive through or turn at a moderate speed.

2. Right of way

A bus drives past right of way sign in Adlershof, Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Tim Brakemeier

If you see this yellow diamond on the right side of the road you are driving on, it means that you have Vorfahrt (right of way). If you are driving on a priority road, other road users must wait until you have passed.

The right of way ends when you leave the priority road, or when you see a yellow diamond with two black lines through it.

3. Town/city limit sign

The town entrance sign of Lützen in Burgenlandkreis. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas
The Ortseingangsschild – or town entry sign – is a yellow board with the name of a town of village on it. But watch out – this sign is not just there to inform you of the name of the village you’re entering. It also signifies that a speed limit of 50km/h now applies.

4. Green arrow at the traffic lights

A green arrow allows turning despite a red light at an intersection in Leipzig, Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

If you don’t recognise this traffic sign, you may find yourself getting some angry beeps from behind. That’s because the small tin sign with a green arrow on a black background allows right turns at intersections in many places despite a red light.

This traffic sign is a relic of the GDR, and made its way into the German Road Traffic Act and the rest of Germany in 1994. It is, however, still more commonly found in the east of the country.

5. 30 km/h zone

A traffic sign with the inscription 30 Zone, indicates a speed 30 zone in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

This is another one with a hidden meaning. When entering a 30km/h zone, it’s not enough to just kill your speed: you also have to be aware, that within this zone, you must give way to traffic coming from the right, including cyclists.

This particular rule is not always easily recognised, as there are often no other markings to indicate it. This is due to the fact that priority road signs are usually reserved for roads with faster speed limits.

It’s very important to know that the “right before left” rule applies here.

6. One Way Street

The Cardinalstraße street sign near the cathedral in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg
The traffic sign which reads Einbahnstraße indicates a one way street and the direction of travel is indicated by the arrow on the sign.

7. Exit sign

An exit sign indicates the end of the A44 Kassel – Eisenach. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Uwe Zucchi
The sign which reads Ausfahrt indicates the exit on the motorway. The exit sign can also be used outside freeways, though these then have black lettering on a yellow or white background.

8. St. Andrew’s Cross

A St. Andrew’s cross of the park railroad in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

In front of level crossings, the white and red Andreaskreuz (St. Andrew’s cross) means: “Rail vehicles have priority”.

According to the German Road Traffic Regulations (StVO), motor vehicles should keep a distance of at least five meters from the sign inside built-up areas, so that the sign is not obscured by the vehicle.

Member comments

  1. The only one that confuses us still is the parking/stopping ones. In the USA, you can almost always turn right on a red if it’s safe, unless there is a sign that says you can’t, which is rare. I’ve turned right on red here many times before realizing my blunder. It makes no sense to me that you have slam on your brakes and let someone coming from the right in, but you can’t turn right on a red if it’s clear. Pure silliness.

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Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

From major manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen to the world-famous Autobahn, Germany is said to be a country that loves its cars - but how much truth is there behind the stereotype?

Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

In many ways, Germany is a car lover’s paradise. Not only are some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers based here, but drivers also enjoy numerous rights that they don’t elsewhere, from cheap parking permits to speed-limit-free sections of the Autobahn.

It’s no wonder then that the country has developed a reputation for being somewhat car obsessed. But how true is it really? We take a look at some of the facts. 

The endless Tempolimit row 

It’s a topic that’s almost never out of the news, and a debate that has been rumbling on for years: should Germany finally introduce a hard speed limit on sections of its Autobahn? 

In German politics, the Green Party has been one of the loudest voices calling for so-called Tempolimit in recent years, arguing that the move would prevent accidents and drastically cut carbon emissions on the motorway. However, the liberal FDP were dead-set against the move when the ironically named traffic-light coalition sat down at the negotiating table last year. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that public opinion in Germany has been swinging towards the Greens. When framed as a solidarity measure in an ARD poll, 60 percent of Germans said they would be in favour of a temporary speed limit on the Autobahn, while just 35 percent were against.

Most surprisingly, even Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) – who’s said to be a huge fan of fast cars – has softened his stance on the measure in recent weeks. In an interview on political podcast Lage der Nation, Lindner signalled his readiness to negotiate on the issue.

“I would immediately be prepared to say that we would impose a speed limit in Germany if the nuclear power plants were to run longer,” he told podcast hosts Ulf Buermeyer and Philip Banse. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany introduce a motorway speed limit?

German car manufacturers 

One of the reasons Germany is so closely associated with cars is the unwavering national pride in its car manufacturers. BMW, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are all German brands – and politicians in Germany have often been accused of being in the pockets of these big companies over the years. 

Indeed, former chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has been branded the “car Chancellor” for her perceived friendliness towards the car industry – even when it interfered with her environmental aims. And there are endless jokes on German satire shows about Christian Lindner supposedly taking his policy ideas from the CEO of Porsche. 

However, there’s no denying that car manufacturing plays a significant role in the German economy. In 2021, the sector employed almost 790,000 people and turned over a whopping €410 billion – accounting for 24 percent of domestic industry revenue. Seen from that perspective, it’s understandable that successive governments have wanted to keep these heavyweights on-side. 

Angela Merkel BMW

(Former) Chancellor Angela Merkel looks an electric BMW at a car expo in Hannover in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Peter Steffen/dpa | Peter Steffen

Car ownership 

Though driving is clearly close to Germans’ hearts, it may surprise you to know that the Bundesrepublik is by no means at the top of the ranks in Europe when it comes to car ownership.

In a ranking of motor vehicles per capita in the EU, Germany actually ends up somewhere in the lower-middle, with a total of 14 member states – including France, Portugal, Italy and Finland – boasting more cars, vans and freight vehicles per person. (In case you’re interested, the Italian micro-state of San Marino topped this particular chart.) 

However, when you look at the number of motor vehicles in total, rather than just per capita, the stats paint a slightly different story. While Italy and France both have around 45 million motor vehicles in the country, there are 52 million of them in Germany.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with each other?

Average mobility spend

Of course, that’s not to say that the German love affair with driving is entirely a myth. A recent study found that the average German spends a whopping €233 per month on their Auto, which adds up to almost €2,800 per year, compared to just €33 per month on buses and trains. 

That’s not including the outlay for a car in the first place, which can cost well into the tens of thousands. 

Debates over right-of-way

The seemingly unshakeable bond between Germans and their cars has become the subject of heated debate recently as the government tries to encourage people to switch to more climate-friendly options. Some argue that people have become far too attached to convenience and need to make lifestyle changes, while others say the transport network in Germany just isn’t good enough to support this.

In fact, it would probably be fair to say that there are two competing forces in German civil society at the moment: those who are fighting to reshape cities for a more eco-friendly future, and those who are fighting for drivers to maintain their rights and privileges (at least for now). 

Climate activists in Munich

Climate activists glue themselves to the road in Munich’s Karlsplatz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

The latest front for this battle is Berlin, where the Senate has recently been forced to re-open a busy street to cars after a court ruled that there was no valid legal basis to redirect traffic. Friedrichstraße had originally been blocked off the motor vehicles as part of a traffic trial in 2020 – but the cycle paths and pedestrian walkways had simply remained in place ever since.

As the signage redirecting vehicles is removed from Friedrichstraße, it seems that those who wanted cars to return to the busy thoroughfare have won the battle. But with the Senate vowing to push ahead with plans to pedestrianise the street in the long-term, they may not have won the war. 

READ ALSO: How Berlin Friedrichstraße ended up at the centre of the car-free debate