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Drink Driving Laws - Need to Know About Drink Driving Abroad

Drink Driving, or Driving Under the Influence (DUI), whatever you want to call it, is a serious offence in most countries of the world, no matter what locals may tell you. In many countries you’ll find yourself in prison, facing a huge financial penalty, being banned from driving and as a result, the prospect of losing your job and your family. Driving whilst your senses are impaired by alcohol dramatically increases your chances of causing an accident and potentially killing, incapacitating for life or seriously injuring another road user or pedestrian.
Drink Driving Laws
Many people and increasingly many countries say that there should be zero tolerance of the mix of alcohol and driving. Taking chances late at night on the way home from the pub or club is a mug’s game. The police know the routes, recognise the signs and there’s a good chance you’ll be stopped and asked to take a breathalyser test. Even if you’re lucky and don’t get stopped, you are still risking an accident with its consequences and implications. The bottom line is that it’s just not worth it.

Every country has laws governing the level of alcohol in your bloodstream allowable before you are deemed to have committed an offence and this article will give you information, correct at the time of publication, on what level is permissible for many of the countries. It would be foolish to use these figures as a way of calculating how much you can drink before driving as there are many factors which affect the level of alcohol in the blood; body mass, size and weight, how much food you’ve eaten, when you’ve been to the toilet, even what food you’ve eaten, so instead it should be used as an indication of how seriously a country takes drink driving. At the end of the day, our advice to you is not to drink and drive. It’s the only way to ensure you stay on the right side of the law.

Whilst comprehensive information isn’t available from all countries, an indication of the way drink driving is viewed by the authorities can be gained from looking at the examples of the United States and the UK.

The US
There are many subtle differences between the laws governing DUI in the different states of the US but almost all have a core which includes:
  • If you’re under 21 years of age and caught with any alcohol in your blood whilst driving you’re in trouble
  • The legal alcohol/blood ratio has been lowered in all states to 0.08 from 0.1
  • You must not drive with an open container of alcohol, whether for you or your passenger
  • Mandatory alcohol education course, even for the first offence
  • Mandatory jail term, usually after the second offence
  • A device between the ignition and the driver that won’t allow the car to start if the driver has been drinking
  • Vehicle confiscation
  • Licence suspension
Some states invoke these penalties for the first offence and it’s not unusual for first time offenders to spend several days in prison.

Law agencies advise against employing a defence lawyer as many of the states enact statutory penalties against which an offender, even with the help of a lawyer has no redress.

Habitual violators can lose many of their rights in the US including not being allowed to vote and having weapons licence applications turned down, not renewed or revoked. Read our full guide to Driving in the USA here.

The UK
The UK’s laws seem a little less draconian but even so are quite severe, indicating the seriousness with which the offence is taken.

Being in charge of a vehicle whilst drunk

This can mean that you are sat in the driver’s seat of a car whilst over the blood alcohol limit of 0.08mg/l or that you are approaching a parked car alone, with the keys in your possession whilst over the limit. For such an offence you can be:
  • Fined up to £2,500
  • Face up to three months in prison
  • Banned from driving
Driving or attempting to drive whilst above the legal limit or whilst unfit to drive

This means being stopped by the police and breathalysed after which you are found to be above the legal limit for blood alcohol or where, even if you are below the alcohol limit, your ability to drive is severely impaired by your blood alcohol level. For such an offence you can be:
  • Fined up to £5,000
  • Face up to six months in prison
  • Banned for at least a year, up to three years if this is a repeat offence within ten years.
Causing death by reckless driving whilst under the influence of alcohol

Under this offence, if you kill someone because of your driving and are found to be over the legal limit for alcohol, you can be:
  • Put in prison for up to fourteen years
  • Fined an unlimited amount
  • Banned for at least two years
  • Asked to take an extended driving test before regaining your licence
Additionally, you can be considered a ‘High Risk Offender’ if you have
  • Two convictions in ten years
  • More than 2.5 the legal limit of alcohol in your bloodstream
  • Refused to supply a breath test
  • Refused permission for your blood to be analysed for alcohol content.
In the UK, you’ll also find that
  • Your car insurance renewal premium will rise dramatically
  • Your employer may see your conviction and you may lose your job, depending on how the offence impacts your ability to do your job
  • You may face travel restrictions to certain countries, especially the US
Read our full Guide to Driving in the UK here.

Elsewhere in Europe
All countries exact large fines on an offender, add points to a licence which can often be added to a foreign licence through an intra-European directive, and can impose jail sentences. In the majority of cases, a court case is a certainty. There are subtle differences across the EU which are documented below where they apply:

Whilst the limit is 0.05mg/litre, if you are tested as having over 0.2mg/litre you face automatic imprisonment whilst any alcohol at all found in your bloodstream if you are driving dangerously will also attract the same punishment. Even if you escape prison, the fine is the equivalent of one month’s net income. Read our full Guide to Driving in Denmark here.

Again, in Finland the limit is 0.05mg/litre. If you exceed this you will incur a fine or up to six months in prison, usually suspended until another offence is committed and licence suspension from one month to five years. A more serious charge of aggravated drink driving applies when the tested amount reaches 0.12mg/litre. At that point the prison sentence increases to two years although it is still usually suspended. You should be aware that random breath testing is common and the police do not need a cause of any kind to ask you to do a breath test. Read our full Guide to Driving in Finland here.

France is one of the most commonly visited countries by British motorists yet few make themselves aware of the country’s stringent drink driving laws. The UK limit of 0.08mg/litre counts as aggravated drink driving in France and incurs  a three year licence suspension, €4,500 fine and a prison sentence of up to two years. Below that level you’ll get a €135 fine, licence suspension for up to three years and six points on your licence. You have to carry a breathalyser kit with you in France to check your blood alcohol limit and it must be in date. The kits must be replaced every year. If you are stopped, you will be asked to produce an approved breathalyser kit although the proposed fine for not being in possession of one has been postponed indefinitely. Read our full Guide to Driving in France here.

If you’re under 21 years old or have less than two years driving experience or if you are a commercial transport driver you cannot have any alcohol at all. If you are stopped for a traffic offence and given a breath test which shows more than 0.03 mg/litre, you will receive a conviction but if alcohol is not thought to be contributory then the limit rises to 0.05 mg/litre. Over 0.11 mg/litre your licence will be revoked for a year and over 0.16 mg/litre, you’ll have to undergo a medical and psychological assessment before it’s returned. For the lesser charges, a fine or a short prison sentence, often suspended, is the norm. Read our full Guide to Driving in Germany here.

Learner drivers, those with less than two year’s driving experience and those who drive commercially must have less than 0.02 mg/litre of alcohol in their blood. This also applies if you don’t have your licence on you (a requisite of driving in Ireland). For everyone else, the limit is 0.05 mg/litre. You can be asked to provide a breath test even if there are no apparent reasons for doing so. The punishment is a two year ban from driving and a fine of €1500. Read our full Guide to Driving in Ireland here.

Italy has three levels of ‘drink driving’; the standard level where you must have less than 0.05 mg/litre of blood alcohol and two aggravated levels which carry progressively sterner punishments. At 0.08 mg/litre you’ll face up to six months in prison whilst for 0.15 mg/litre you’ll face from three months to a year in prison. Commercial drivers and those with less than three years’ experience must not drink and drive at all. Read our full Guide to Driving in Italy here.

In Poland the drink driving laws also apply in full to cyclists and 50% of prison sentences handed down to those with excess alcohol in their blood are to cyclists. Over 0.02 gm/litre of alcohol in the blood can see you in prison for a month and banned from driving for up to three years, over 0.05 gm/litre gets a ban of up to ten years and up to two years in prison.

There are varying levels of seriousness of drink driving in Norway. The base level is 0.02 gm/litre which usually attracts only a fine. At 0.05 gm/litre, you’ll receive a suspended prison sentence and have your licence suspended. At 0.1 gm/litre, you’ll face imprisonment for up to a year. Fines are variable below 0.05 gm/litre whilst above that level it’s one and a half times your monthly salary with a minimum of 10,000 NOK. Read our full Guide to Driving in Norway here.

With a blood alcohol level of 0.02 to 0.08, you can expect to have your licence suspended for three months and receive a fine of up to CHY500. Above this you will spend fifteen days in prison then the remainder of a six month period in penal detention, get a six month licence suspension and be fined up to CHY2000. Everyone who is convicted of drink driving must spend six months in detention.

Hong Kong
In Hong Kong you’ll find that over the legal limit of 0.05 mg/litre, you’ll receive a fine, a prison sentence of up to three years plus ten transferable points on your licence and will have to take a driving improvement course.

You can be convicted if you are driving the car, in charge of the car or sleeping behind the wheel whilst having a blood alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.05 – 0.08 mg/litre depending on age and experience. You can be convicted for refusing to give a breath test or a blood sample or allow a blood sample to be tested.

Your licence may be revoked whilst awaiting a court case, not just after conviction and a sliding scale of punishments apply depending on the number of previous offences:
  • 1st Offence: $1000 fine and one year licence suspension
  • 2nd Offence: Thirty days in prison and a two year driving ban
  • 3rd Offence: 120 days in prison and a three year ban
Regulations vary by province and may include ignition locks and refresher driving courses and psychological and medical assessments. You’ll find that if you have a conviction from another country within the last five years, you’ll be refused entry at the border. Read our full Guide to Driving in Canada here.

You’ll be refused entry to Mexico if you have had a drink driving conviction in the last ten years and if there are any outstanding charges, you may face arrest in Mexico. Read our full Guide to Driving in Mexico  here.

In Chile, drink driving takes two forms. Up to 0.08 mg/litre it’s classed as a DUI offence and you’ll be fined the equivalent of up to US$410 and have your licence suspended for three months. Above 0.08 mg/litre it’s a charge of drunk driving and you can spend up ten months in prison, a double fine and if it’s your first offence a two year suspension, five years for a second offence and a lifetime ban for a third. Read our full Guide to Driving in Chile here.

In Peru, any alcohol in the blood will be given at least a police warning. Over 0.05% you’ll receive a driving ban of at least six months and a fine. If you cause injury to others whilst drunk driving you’re likely to get a prison sentence whilst causing serious injury or death will earn a jail sentence of up to five years and a lifetime driving ban.

In Australia, the way that drink driving is treated varies from state to state. Currently, the strictest state is Victoria but many other states can impose lengthy driving bans, ignition locks, imprisonment and huge fines as well as driving courses and medical examinations. Read our full Guide to Driving in Australia here.

New Zealand
The punishments for drink driving vary by age with people under twenty having a lower alcohol limit and facing a prison term of up three months, a NZ$2250 fine and a minimum driving ban of three months.
For drivers who are 20 or older, the limit is 0.08 mg/litre and for repeat offenders a maximum punishment of two years in prison, a NZ$6000 fine and a driving ban of a year. Read our full Guide to Driving in New Zealand here.

Alcohol Limit Chart (Europe)
Alcohol Limit Europe

Alcohol Limit Chart (Rest of the World)
Alcohol Limits World

Chloe Demaret
Posted: June 24, 2013 by Chloe Demaret 2 comments
About the Author -

Travel writer, social media guru, Chloe keeps our readers and customers up to speed with all the car rental and travel trends on our blog. Favourite destination: Dubai.

Last updated: Monday, September 11, 2017
In UK the prescribed limit for alcohol is 35 microgrammes in 100 ml of breath, 80 milligrammes in 100 ml of blood, or 107 milligrammes in 100ml of urine. However, if the alcohol reading in breath is 39 microgrammes or below, the Crown will not initiate proceedings.
9/17/2015 2:25:13 AM
Cameron Morrall
Hello im from Australia. i lost my license 7 years ago for drinking driving for 24 months, does this mean i cannot enter Mexico?
12/11/2013 3:10:02 AM