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Low emission zones: What you need to know if you’re driving in Europe

More and more cities around Europe are introducing low-emission zones, mostly administered by a sticker in your vehicle windscreen – but what if you're travelling between different countries? Here's a look at the rules around Europe, and which countries will accept a foreign vehicle sticker.

Low emission zones: What you need to know if you're driving in Europe
Drivers in Paris are warned about entering a low emission zone. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

Hundreds of cities across the EU currently operate some form of low emission zone system in an effort to reduce air pollution caused by motor vehicles.

And the numbers are only going to increase, as more towns, cities and Member States set up low emission zones. In France, for example, from 2025 a total 43 towns and cities will require motorists, from home and abroad, to display the country’s Crit’Air stickers – with fines for non-appliance rising from €68 currently to €750.

Will one sticker fit all?

No. Some nations do recognise stickers from other countries – Spain has said it will recognise stickers from all EU states, Switzerland recognises France’s Crit’Air stickers, and Czechia has said that, when low-emission zones start coming into force, at first in the capital Prague, it will recognise stickers from Germany. 

But there is currently no standard, EU-wide system in place, which means that drivers planning multi-country journeys will have to ensure they follow the rules for low emission zones in each and every country they visit. That could mean a lot of stickers…

To make things more confusing, the rules are often complex, and may vary from city to city – even from day to day as temporary rules can come into effect during periods of high pollution.

Which countries in the EU have low emission zone rules?

There are a few, so we’ve broken them down EU nation by EU nation. Strap in.

Austria

There are seven low-emission areas in Austria – notably in the Vienna, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Styria, Tyrol and Burgenland regions – where stickers are required for light goods vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks, buses, and coaches.

Rules affecting older cars – those registered before January 2006 – are expected to come into force soon. And it should be noted that motorhomes registered in vehicle class N require an environmental sticker.

Some low-emission zones do not officially require stickers (though they may be useful) but you may need to show your vehicle’s documentation if you are stopped by police

A single badge costs €29.90 plus VAT, and can be bought from the DEKRA site here.

Belgium

The whole of Antwerp is a low-emission zone, while most of Brussels and certain areas of Ghent also have stricter emissions rules. 

Newer vehicles with Belgian or Dutch number places are not required to register on a database allowing them to enter these areas, but cars from other nations must do so – for free – before they are allowed to enter these areas. Alternatively, you can pay a fee (€35 per day for cars / 20€ for mopeds and motorbikes / 50€ for heavy goods vehicles) for an exemption pass.

Register your non-Belgian or Dutch plated vehicle for Brussels’ low-emission zone here

Any vehicle entering the Brussels Region Low Emission Zone without registering in advance is liable to a fine of €150, even if it complies with conditions for entry. Any inaccurate information submitted during registration is liable for an administrative fine of €25.

Register for Antwerp’s low-emission zone here, or use one of the Low Emission Zone machines dotted around the city. More information on those here.

You can check whether your vehicle is allowed in the low-emission zone in Ghent, here.

Buy your day-passes here – nb: Drivers of any foreign-registered vehicle (including The Netherlands) who would like to purchase a day pass must first register their vehicle.

Czechia

A low-emission zone is being set-up in Prague for which drivers will need a windscreen sticker. The Czech ministry is yet to announce which foreign stickers will be recognised for foreign vehicles – though it is expected that German ones will be accepted. Czech vehicles are advised to apply for a sticker when they become available.

Denmark

All heavy goods vehicles require a sticker to enter low emission zones throughout the country.

Meanwhile, older diesel vans, weighing up to 3.5 tonnes, lorries and buses aren’t allowed into the low-emission zones unless they’re fitted with a particulate filter.

As of October 1st, 2023, all diesel-powered cars must have a particulate filter in order to be able to drive legally in the low emission zones. 

The fine for cars driving illegally in the Danish low emission zones is DKK 1,500 (€202). 

If you drive a vehicle affected by the rules, you must register your particulate filter and/or euro norm. You can do that here.

Finland

In Helsinki, only local public transport buses and lorries are affected by low-emission zone rules.

France

France’s Crit’Air sticker system is currently in operation in 11 towns and cities, and will be extended to over 40 by 2025. All vehicles – including those registered outside France – are required to buy a sticker from the official site, here before they can be driven in any of the country’s low-emission zones.

The sticker costs €3.72 including postage if you’re in France, rising to €4.61 for those outside France. 

From January 1st, 2023, Crit’Air 5 vehicles (diesel vehicles produced before 2001) will be banned from all low-emission zones. This will be followed on January 1st, 2024 by Crit’Air 4 (diesel before 2006) and on January 1st 2025 by Crit’Air 3 (diesel before 2011 and petrol/diesel before 2006).

Local authorities can also impose targeted local bans – temporary and permanent – in zones under their jurisdiction. Since January 1st, Montpellier, for example, has required every car to have a Crit’Air 4 or lower sticker to drive in low emission zones, while lorries, minibuses and coaches need a Crit’Air 3.

The Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy is also an emission-check zone. Checks are manual and based on the age of the vehicle. It’s probably a good idea to have your car documents on you.

France does not recognise other countries’ stickers. 

Germany

Stickers allowing access to numerous low-emission zones in towns and cities across Germany can be purchased from garages, test stations, local authorities or online.

Proof of emissions is needed to purchase the sticker, so you’ll need your car documents if you’re buying in person.

If bought directly from city offices the stickers cost €5. Online they can cost more, while international postage will also add a premium onto the final bill. 

Alternatively, you can buy stickers from TÜV SÜD here – which will be shipped overseas – for €17.50, or from one of 300 TÜV SÜD service centres for €6.

TÜV-NORD, meanwhile, sells stickers online here for €9.90 if the vehicle is registered in Germany, or €17.50 if the vehicle is registered elsewhere.

Greece

Authorities have said that they want the capital Athens to be a diesel-free zone by 2025 and there are currently two schemes operational for part of the year in and around the city – the exact dates of the restriction period varies annually but it is usually from mid-October to mid-July.

In central Athens, during this restricted period, vehicles are controlled by their licence plate. Vehicles up to 2.2 tonnes are only allowed entry on alternate days, depending on whether their vehicle licence ends with an odd or an even number.

A special badge exempts certain categories of vehicle, such as electric, natural gas or LPG, hybrid, or Euro 6 class vehicles that emit less than 120 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre. To obtain a pass, click here

In the outer ring and the Attica prefecture region, Vehicles weighing more than 2.2 tonnes, including buses, must also meet minimum emissions standards.

Italy

Numerous low emission zones operate in Italy – mainly, but not exclusively, in the north of the country – with differing standards and time periods, while in numerous cities – including Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, and Bologna – restrictions may mean you cannot drive in certain areas during the day on weekdays, or on Sundays.

Penalties for entering restricted zones at the wrong time range from €70 to €450.

In most cases, permits to enter these zones when restrictions are in place aren’t available to visitors, though there may be exemptions to this, while Milan operates a congestion charge system – similar to the one in London – for vehicles that enter the historic centre of the city.

The Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy is also an emission-check zone. Checks are manual and based on the age of the vehicle. It’s probably a good idea to have your car documents on you.

Netherlands

Amsterdam, Arnhem, Den Haag, Utrecht and Eindhoven (from 2025) have “green” LEZs for light duty diesel vehicles – meaning only light duty diesel vehicles that meet the Euro 4 standard and above may enter the zone. Rotterdam port, meanwhile, operates to a tighter Euro 6 standard.

Rotterdam and Utrecht have low emission zones which allow entry based on the date of a vehicle’s first registration. Dutch vehicles are registered through the national database, while drivers of foreign vehicles will need to have their documents with them.

Similar to Belgium, drivers of older vehicles can apply for an exemption to enter low-emission zones in Rotterdam and Utrecht. To apply for a day pass in Rotterdam, click here. Passes cost € 22.70, and last 24 hours. 

Drivers of older vehicles without an exemption risk a fine of €95.

Since January 1st, 2022, Utrecht has limited entry to diesel vehicles. Click here  to see if you can enter the city in your diesel vehicle

Portugal

In Portugal, environmental zones are called Zona de Emissões Reduzidas (ZER) (Emission Reduced Zone). There are technically two zones – effectively an outer zone and an inner zone in the capital, Lisbon.

The inner zone (ZER ABC) is more strict than the outer one, allowing only vehicles of Euroclass 3 or better to access.

Euroclass 2 or better vehicles can enter the outer zone. Drivers who flout the rules can face fines of €120. The rules in Portugal allow for vehicle owners to retrofit their vehicles with filters that improve the engine’ Euroclass rating.

Spain

The rules in Spain are getting stricter. From 2023, all cities with 50,000 inhabitants or more must set up low-emission zones – that’s about 150 cities.

To date, however, Madrid and Barcelona are the only cities with low emission zones – Zona de Bajas Emisiones – in place.

Barcelona’s low-emission zone has been in place since January 2020. Vehicles must have a DGT environmental label to enter the zone between 7am and 8pm Monday to Friday. Additional rules may be enforced during periods of high pollution.

You can check whether you need a label here

Between 2023 and 2025, the Spanish capital, Madrid, will gradually become one giant low-emissions zone.

In Madrid, for example, vehicles without a Spanish sticker will no longer be allowed to drive on the M-30 ring road. 

You can order a DGT label, from €5 plus postage, here

Sweden

Low emission zones in Sweden can be found in Gothenburg, Helsingborg, Lund, Malmö, Mölndal, Stockholm, Umeå, and Uppsala. There are, officially, three classes of zone, which apply to different types of vehicle. Two are currently in use, while the third is on the statutes but not the streets.

The most common applies – a class 3 zone – to buses and trucks weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, which must, in affected areas, conform to Euro6 standards. 

The country’s sole Class 2 zone, applies to passenger cars, light buses and vans not powered by hydrogen or electricity, which must conform to Euro5 standards – though diesel Euro5 vehicles were banned from these zones in July 2022. This zone is only enforced on one street in Stockholm – Hornsgatan in the Södermalm district.

Electric, fuel cell and gas vehicles will only be permitted in currently theoretical Zone 3 areas, as the country gears up to ban petrol and diesel vehicles altogether from 2030.

You mention Euro standards a lot. What does this mean?

It refers to emission standards for passenger cars and light commercial vehicles.

Since 1992, European Union regulations have been imposed on new cars, with the aim of improving air quality – that’s the same year catalytic converters became compulsory on new cars. 

Since then, there have been a series of Euro standards as the rules become more strict – the current Euro 6 was introduced in September 2014 and was rolled out for the majority of vehicle sales and registrations from September 2015.

They define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new light duty vehicles sold in EU and EEA (European Economic Area) member states.

However, although there are EU standards for cars, there is as yet no EU-wide version of the emissions stickers. 

And finally… Beware of scams

One last thing to be aware of – watch out for scam sites. Make sure you only order your stickers from official websites. Some portals charge as much as five times more than the actual cost of the stickers in “administration fees”. The links on this page were, at the time of publishing, correct.

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TRANSPORT

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.

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