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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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Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.