Can you imagine driving yourself through streets like this? Dartmouth, Devon

We bought a car in the UK for our three month across Europe road trip in 2011. If we hadn’t been doing this big trip, I doubt we would have bought a car at all. We lived in the city of Brighton and had easy access to many places via public transport. We did hire a car several times, for mini-trips to places a little harder to reach. When we did buy our car though, I was surprised at how easy it was.

I would really advise against buying a car if you plan to live anywhere in central London. There are very few reasons to, seeing that the public transport is fantastic and it would be a nightmare for you to navigate the vehicle around AND get parking. Secondly, question buying a car if you live in any of the other major cities i.e. with a population over 100,000. Despite what the locals will say, the public transport (within the city and to other surrounding areas) will still be pretty good and not too expensive (not cheap either mind you). Furthermore, if you live close to the city centre a lot of places will be walkable. I therefore write this article intended at those who want to road trip around the UK, or on the continent. This is what Jean Robert and I did while we lived in England – we did not have a car for the majority of our time living in a city but bought one right at the very end to explore the country and then go to Turkey. Yes, Turkey. But that’s another story! (link here)


Practicalities

No question about it, British roads are numerous, busy and darn right confusing at times. Having a map or sat nav is pretty essential – there will be at least a dozen roads and routes that can get you to your destination, some of them faster but busier than others. British roads are OLD (or built on old ones); consequently there is no grid system (or logical city lay-outs…) that you might be used to at home. There are also a lot of traffic lights, roundabouts (rotaries) and one-way systems. If you get off the main roads in rural areas you also might be surprised by wonderfully narrow and twisty country roads, barely wide enough to fit one car. When you finally stop somewhere (especially in towns and cities), you will most likely have trouble parking – both location and price wise. Having said this, British road trips can be certainly be fun, just be prepared for slow journeys, busy roads and general confusing-ness!

For visitors from most countries, you can drive on your home license for up to a year. If it’s not in English then a translation is preferable. After a year, it is possible to apply for a British license, but only if you’re classed as a ‘resident’ and have some proof of living at a UK address (bills, bank statement etc). The DVLA states it’s definition of a resident being –

Applicants will not be considered ‘normally resident’ for the purposes of a driving licence application if they:

  • do not have leave to remain in the UK
  • are in the country on a temporary basis without leave to remain either while awaiting a decision on an application to stay in the UK or following a decision refusing such an application

Source: Direct.gov.uk (UK government public service website)

Driving around the Peak District, Central England

This makes working holidayers in the UK in a bit of a grey area. Technically they can drive or rent a car for up to 12 months after they’ve arrived, after which time they’d need to get a UK license. BUT to get a UK license you need ‘leave to remain’ which working holidayers don’t usually have (you get this if you’re permanently moving to the UK due to work or your spouse etc). Further, it is quite hard to get car insurance with a foreign license, see ‘insurance’ for more about this later.

To make things more difficult, it is interesting (and ridiculous!) that Canadian citizens cannot get a full license, even if classed as a ‘resident.’ If Canadian, you will be given a license that entitles you to only drive automatic cars. This might sound OK until you realise that most cars in the UK are manual (stick!)! When renting for example, you have to pay more for requesting an automatic or might not be able to get one at all since most of the fleet will be of the manual variety. Having said this, it is possible to find automatic cars to buy – ours was!

Insurance and fuel are not cheap. Petrol is around 142.5 per litre, while diesel is 147.9 per litre. Yes, that’s 2.2 CAN$ and AUS$, and almost 3 NZ$! Crazy hey? Insurance doesn’t get much better…see a bit further below for info about that.


Price

There isn’t really a specific ‘market’ for cheap traveller vehicles, like there is in New Zealand for example, so it’s hard to narrow down an average cost. This also means that there isn’t the seasonal variation of price that there is in NZ, which is one advantage. We paid 800 pounds for our 1995 Toyota Estima, which was in fairly good shape and had just over 200,000 kilometres on the clock (though usually British cars would have miles, but ours was an import and the odometer had not been changed). When I say ‘fairly’ good shape, we had to replace the exhaust box (muffler) and two shock absorbers. This took the true price up to more like 1200 pounds. For a car of this size and condition, I don’t think that was a bad price at all – many of the other cars of this type we looked at (online) were selling for around the 800-1300 mark, depending on condition/mileage.

We chose this type of vehicle for the potential to convert into a mini-campervan. You could buy a much smaller and less powerful car for under 1000 pounds quite easily.

Our car (1996 Toyota Lucida), bought for 800 pounds in May 2011.

Searching

If you are planning to go on a long road trip around Europe such as ours, then it is pretty important that you actually purchase your car a few weeks before you actually plan to leave. For one thing, this allows you to repair/improve any parts of the vehicle that need it (or even convert it like we did), but it also allows time for the V5C document to be sent to you through the post. I will explain more about this later (under ‘Purchasing’) but it’s really important to have this document to go outside of the UK since it is the official registration paper that lists you as the owner as the vehicle. Otherwise you could end up in a potentially tricky situation at border crossings or if the police stops you before you even make it there first.

One of the most important things to look for when searching for a vehicle is to check when the next MOT (Ministry of Transport test) is due. For vehicles over 3 years old, a MOT check is needed every twelve months (annually) to make sure the car has a basic standard of road worthiness. If a car fails, then you have to improve what is needed (luckily the garage will give you a nice list) and re-take the test. Most people don’t tend to sell their calls with the maximum amount of time left on the MOT, so most likely you’ll be looking at vehicles with six or so months remaining before the next test is due. Check the vehicle’s last MOT papers to see what if there were any advisories, so you have some idea of what might need to be looked at for next time. Our car had only four months left on the MOT (not our preference, bit of a mix-up on the owner’s side but I won’t go into that) and of course we were planning to go abroad for three months. Garages are not meant to preform MOT checks before the time is due, but luckily we found a local one who would.

Approaching the car ferry to cross the harbour, Dartmouth, Devon

There are a lot of online resources to search for cars in the UK. Try Autotrader, Gumtree, Ebay (auction listings and classifieds) as well as the Marketplace on Facebook. In person, look out for adverts on people’s cars, in local newspapers, on supermarket and newsagent noticeboards, and also visit the local second hand car dealer.

Our car was purchased via E-bay. Well, sort of. We saw the listing and then visited the car and arranged a private-sale (check if this is against rules!) We had a very specific car in mind and did not have transport of our own so it did take some time finding one that was both close to us (accessible via public transport) and at a reasonable price. We actually also sold our vehicle six months later via E-Bay classifieds, roughly 24 hours after I posted the advert. This section is a bit different to the normal auction listings – you can advertise your vehicle for a fixed price and then sell it privately i.e. no other payment goes through the site at all.

Purchasing

It can be tricky to test-drive cars in the UK since car insurance actually covers the driver more than the car…meaning that if you don’t have insurance at all, you can’t just go and drive someone else’s car, unless it’s a driving instructor’s car. The owner of our ‘potential’ car allowed us to sit as passengers while he drove it around for us. Technically we shouldn’t have even done that since the car was listed as ‘off the road’ i.e. had no tax!

Insurance 

You need to have insurance to legally (and safely) drive your new vehicle away from it’s old home. Insurance is usually instant, so when you buy it online/over the phone you can get it to start straight away or on a specific date.

If you didn’t miss my rant earlier, then you’ll know insurance is expensive (sorry, last one I promise). Third Party is the minimum you need to drive legally in the UK. If you have a long (and safe) driving history at home it might be worth trying to get records from your insurance company at home so you can plead your case with a British insurer. Don’t ask me how, but it’s a thought! There are seemingly hundreds of different insurance companies in the UK – some can be found on comparison sites like Compare the Market/Confused/Go Compare, others only on their own website.

Aside from the expense, there is another problem; most UK insurers require the main insurance holder (the main driver) to be a UK or EU resident, holding a UK drivers license. Having a non-UK citizen as a named driver can be tricky too, so don’t just rely on this.

If you’re thinking of going on a European road trip like we did, you’ll also need to make sure that any insurance will cover you in whatever countries you aim to go to. Most UK car insurance usually cover you for driving up to 30 days in EU countries. So if you’re just planning on a little trip to the south of France for a few weeks, make sure you check in the small print that you’re covered and you’re good to go. Thinking of heading to Turkey like we did? Then you’ll need specialist insurance – see our story below.

Rental Fiat 500, in Cambridgeshire

Our story: I passed my test at 17 driving my mother’s car, was out of the UK during my gap year, and then started university….and hence never had a car of my own. Jean Robert on the other hand passed his test at 15, drove and owned various cars and vehicles in various provinces, but then left Canada to travel. Alas, all that driving in different provinces and countries doesn’t make for a long history with insurers. We were therefore expecting to pay a lot for insurance – a few quick (who am I kidding, it takes ages!) searches on some of the comparison sites brought up quotes of minimum 2,000 pounds just for me to drive our ‘ideal’ car for a year – the Toyota Estima. And that was without adding Jean Robert as a named (and foreign) driver.

Upon doing research, I realised that there are companies who offer long term European coverage (longer than a month and outside of the EU!) for people with caravans or motorhomes (RVs). We planned for our vehicle to stay a car – in order to reclassify the car as a ‘motorcaravan’ there are certain minimum requirements you have to abide by, see here. We did not have the time, money or will (for a three month trip it didn’t seem worth it) to comply with the requirements so would have to keep searching for specialist car insurance.

We eventually bought ‘Walkabout’ insurance through Herts (HIC), which covered both of us, driving our van for six months overseas travel in all EU countries plus Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and Albania. If you want to read exactly what I thought of this insurance policy, take a look at our European road trip pages. Another company I found was Down Under Insurance, which insurers Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians and Americans over the age of 20. We couldn’t use it since British license holders have to be over 25, ruling me out!


Registration – V5C (previously known as the log book)

The owner of the vehicle will have a document called a V5C, which is car’s registration document. It has all the info about the vehicle on it, as well as the owner’s address. Needless to say, if the name/address of the owner doesn’t match up, do not go ahead! All being well, there is a little section on this form which you, as the new owner, will need to fill out and keep, as this is your temporary proof that you own the car before the new V5C is sent to you. The previous owner also has to sign a small section to confirm that they have indeed sold the vehicle, and has to send this off to the DVLA. In case you missed my comment about this before; you need to wait until you get the new copy of the V5C before you leave the UK. Without this, you have little proof that you own the vehicle – the temporary one might be fine for UK police, but as soon as you leave, you are risking it if you get stopped and your registration documents get checked. At every border we came across in Europe, we had to show our V5C in order to temporarily ‘import’ the car.

Tudor style houses by the roadside in Sandwich, Kent

Vehicle Tax

Ah, tax, you can’t get away from it. Vehicle tax is compulsory to drive on UK roads and when you pay it you get a little disc to display in the windscreen. If you don’t have one, then you can get fined. If your vehicle does not have vehicle tax, then it legally needs to be listed as ‘off the road.’ Our car was listed as such but as soon as we bought tax for it this notification was void, and we were good to go. To buy tax, you need the car’s current MOT certificate, the V5C registration document (or the temporary supplement) plus proof of insurance. You can buy tax online, on the phone, at the PostOffice or at a DVLA office. The cost of tax depends on the size and type of your vehicle, as well as how long you want it for. Take a look at the prices here and remember that you get a slight discount for paying for a year in advance, rather than buying six months and then another six months later.

When you purchase tax, you pay for the whole month. So say you bought a car on the 15th of June and it has no tax; when you buy tax, you will pay for the start of June onwards. There are no ‘part month’ payments or anything like that – it’s all or nothing. When your tax runs out, the DVLA do send you a notification to renew it, which you can do after the 5th day of the month of which the current tax disc expires.

Parking on the beach, Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

You can renew it up to two months in advance if you’re abroad, which is handy. I’ve heard of a 7/10 day ‘grace period’ in regards to displaying a tax disc because as you can buy it online, it can take some time for the disc to get to you. Make of this what you want, we never tested the theory – do some further research if you’re planning to.

You’re probably thinking, ‘hey but I’m going to be abroad for most of the time, do I need tax?’ Bit of a grey area here since, essentially, no, you don’t need it while you’re abroad, but you do need it up until you land on the continent and then as soon as you return. However, since you can only buy it in six month or twelve-month increments, it’s a bit difficult to get around paying something, unless you time your trip exactly right. Bear in mind that if you’re selling your vehicle after your trip, it’s useful to have current tax on it and it’s way more sellable.


MOTs

Expect to pay between 40 to 55 pounds for a MOT (Ministry of Transport annual test of road worthiness for cars older than 3 years). It’s a relatively quick test (40-45 minutes) and you don’t necessarily need to book, but I would anyway to save waiting around. In a MOT test they are checking the condition of the vehicle’s tyres, steering, brakes, emissions etc. You cannot drive a car around without a valid MOT, unless you’re driving to a MOT test or to get repairs. When your car passes, you will then have a year before it will need another test. All you ever wanted or needed to know about MOTs here

Spotted this at Shoreham Airport, East Sussex….car like this is a bit out of my budget!

Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

2 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I have loved reading you blog and we have also bought a diesel Toyota lucida.
    We are currently in the UK and will be heading to France soon – then Germany.
    How did you go with the emission stickers / zones in country’s like Germany & Netherland?

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Tess,

      Thanks for checking us out! I actually didn’t even know that there was such a program in Germany and the Netherlands. We actually didn’t venture into the latter on our 2011 Europe trip. With Germany, I’m not sure what happened there – it looks like emission stickers & zones appeared in 2007 but we didn’t see any reference to it anywhere, and we drove into the outskirts of Berlin.

      I had a look at your Facebook page and I had to do a double take – you have an identical Lucida to our old one! It’s a great vehicle, I have no doubt you will have a fantastic trip 🙂

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