Driving in Bulgaria

Driving in Bulgaria for First Timers

Bulgaria is the “must-go”, “have-to-go”, “obliged-to-go” country for those who are fond of the nature or outdoor sports. The country is full of forests, rivers and endless fields which offers a wide range of opportunities from camping to rafting, accompanied by a great deal of wildlife (there is still one animal that I’ve come across with, which I have not been able to identify ūüėõ ) Naturally, most tourists reach the country by plane. However, Bulgaria has a strategic location in the middle of five countries (Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece) by which means it also welcomes a great deal of tourists and travellers through the land route. For those who still ask “Why would I drive in Bulgaria?”, here are some great sights that you can see on the road:

If you cross the Kyprinos (Greece) – Ivaylovgrad (Bulgaria) checkpoint, and drive northbounds (towards Svilengrad), you will come across with this beautiful dam in the middle of the forest:

Ivaylovgrad Dam

Ivaylovgrad Dam

Or you’re into Kayaking? Good… Because again northbound from Elhovo, you’ll come across with this:

elhovo kayaking

Still not convinced? Driving in Bulgaria is worth a try for this:

turnovo bulgaria

Turnovo, Bulgaria

And having quite an experience in ‘driving in Bulgaria as foreigners‘, we believe what we have in our pockets related to driving our own car in Bulgaria might come in handy for first timers.¬†In general, driving in Bulgaria is like everywhere else. You need to have a valid (and international) driving licence, a valid insurance for your car which covers for the damage inflicted upon third parties in case of an accident and regular driving skills. However, it might still be useful to¬†put this matter on the table in some more depth, combined with our own experiences.

Licence to Drive in Bulgaria

Ok, I know it comes as no surprise to the drivers that you need a driver’s licence to drive in Bulgaria. But the question is, is it internationally valid? For instance, in Turkey, the regular licences (nowadays the old ones) are not valid internationally, which means you can use it only in Turkey. However, in Turkey’s case again, the new driving licences (the ones which look like EU licences) are valid across 80+ countries. For EU citizens, this is no problem. But if your country is not a member state of the European Union, you need to make sure that you have an international driving licence.

Normally, a couple of photographs and a varying of money is needed to claim your driving licence international. But the important thing is, you need to do it before you leave your country so that you can use it.

Border Tip:¬†The Bulgarian border police does not ask to see your international driving licence at the border, unlike the Greek border police. However, in case of an accident, or anything official, you’ll be liable to punishment if you do not possess one.

Car Insurance in Bulgaria (Non-EU Citizens)

Like most countries in the world, legally driving in Bulgaria as a foreigner requires that your car has an insurance policy which covers the damages inflicted upon third parties. I know that “Green Card” means something entirely different to US citizens and those who want to live in the US, but be aware that this international car insurance is also known as the Green Card, or Green Insurance, since the policy is typically printed on a green card.

Depending on how many countries your green card is valid in, the prices for the international insurance change. For instance, a 3-month valid Green Card in Turkey costs approximately 145 Euros and it covers a whole bunch of countries regardless of their EU membership. If you get it in Bulgaria, on the other hand, you pay only 67 Euros for a 3-month Green Card, in which case you have to keep in mind that the insurance is valid only in EU countries, or NOT valid in Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia and other Eastern European countries which are not EU states. It is best to ask in which countries the insurance is valid before having it prepared.

Border Tip:¬†The Bulgarian border police¬†DOES¬†ask to see your Green Card at border crossing, so you’d better have it once you’re there. Around some check points (Kapitan Andreevo – KapńĪkule which you can use for crossing between Bulgaria and Turkey, for instance), there are insurers so you may be able to cross the border on foot, get your insurance and then cross the car. But it may not be available everywhere.

Disinfecting the Car at the Bulgarian Border

Again if you’re entering Bulgaria from Turkey, you need to get the car disinfected with a bleach-smelling fluid (so much bleach-smelling that I believe it’s bleach) being sprayed from a special spot. Supposedly, that’s an FMD (Food and Mouth Disease – A livestock disease) disinfection and it comes with a price, of course. At this point, it’s wise to keep all your windows closed since sometimes it sprays a bit too much.

When you approach the counter upon getting your car disinfected (I know it’s not infected, but that’s how things in Bulgaria work…), the lady, as if automatically, says “Tri Evro, Shest Leva, Ten Liras!” (yeah, ten¬†liras) which means that you have to pay “Three Euros, 6 Levas or Ten Liras”.

I have to add here that the actual price is something like 5.87, but each time you have to pay 6 Levas. I honestly don’t know what happens to the remaining 0.13 Levas (I have some ideas, though) but the receipt clearly says 5.87 Levas.

Border Tip:¬†It is also a good idea to keep the exact amount at your hand before moving there since I am a bit suspicious about this “not given back and not recorded” 0.13 Levas especially when you consider that a few thousand cars cross the border daily. Moreover, once I paid 50 Turkish Liras and received only 35 in return. When I said there was a mistake, the lady gave me another 2 Liras and said “OK, go”, which was still 3 Liras short of the exact amount. I didn’t make a big fuss about it, since the amount was too small, but it left me with a question of trust.

Vignettes in Bulgaria

So you reach the actualy border checkpoint, get stamped in, cross the customs (they may search your car really good sometimes) and finally you’re in Bulgaria. However, like some other countries, and unlike others, the toll charges are processed through the sales of vignettes in Bulgaria. Vignettes are sold according to their duration, and they look like this:

Vignette Bulgaria

A vignette like this…

The prices also vary according to the duration of validity, but generally, a weekly vignette costs 8 Euros for cars and a monthly one is 15 Euros. If you’re going to stay longer, your next option is an annual vignette, which costs 50 Euros. If you see a blue-white-black sign with a road in the middle and saying “Vignette”¬†and do not possess a vignette, you might get in trouble with the police, which ends up in a fine of 150 Euros. Enough to regret not giving 8 Euros in the beginning…

And solely buying it will not do the trick. Each vignette must be affixed onto the windshield of the car from the inside so that it can be checked if needs be. How to pull it off once you’re done with it is your concern as the driver. I have never tried but I strongly believe that some acetone will do the trick. I tend to take this seriously, because in the first¬†weeks I started to drive in Bulgaria, a Bulgarian friend, upon seeing that I bought it, but not affixed it to the windshield said these words:

“Are you crazy? You have to stick that!” Thus comes the seriosity…

You can obtain the vignette which suits your needs at the borders, they say… But I’ve never been able to achieve that. So here’s a more practical advice: You can buy your vignettes from many of the gas stations, especially from those close to the border. Just say “Vignette, 1 week” and they’ll know what you’re looking for.

Highways in Bulgaria

First of all, Bulgaria is a relatively small country in terms of its population, therefore, there are not as many cars as in larger metropolitan cities of the world, so do not expect German-large or Turkish-large highways in Bulgaria, because it is not needed.

A Highway in Bulgaria

A Highway in Bulgaria

The highways in Bulgaria are typically 4-lane roads, and the most important one appears to be the one which connects Istanbul to Sofia, since it is the main international route in the country which leads to the rest of Europe.

The highways are generally in good condition, although there may be occasional potholes, which I believe is just normal.

Roads in Bulgaria

Like the highways, the roads in Bulgaria are generally in good condition, but only the main roads which connect cities. For instance, if you’re going from Plovdiv to Asenovgrad, you’re fine. Or driving from the Turkish border to Bourgas, the roads are in perfect condition, below you can check out for yourself.

Burgas-Elhovo Road

The road between Burgas and Elhovo

However, the alternate routes, from my experience (mostly eastern Bulgaria) requires a lot of attention and really low speeds, since the pot holes in those are more than occasional. One day we went from Svilengrad to Kardjali from an alternate route which connects villages, too, and the intention was to see some villages and beautiful nature, which worked like charm since all around was totally perfect! The exception, however, are the roads in this great route. I’m sure you’ve heard some stories about the Bulgarian roads being holed everywhere all rough. Well, it is quite safe to say that this legend is not true. But in this alternate route, you can see potholes large enough to make you stop the car, think and act. Moreover, in higher areas, there are large cracks on the road, which may be signalling an engineering problem.

Speed Limits in Bulgaria

Following the speed limits, like anywhere else in the world, is not a problem in Bulgaria since there are signs practically everywhere, even before sharp turns. Do follow them, and you’ll be fine.

However, the speed limits are generally lower in Bulgaria than its neighbouring countries Greece and Turkey. While it is allowed to drive with a speed of 130 in Greece and 120 in Turkey, Bulgarian highways generally have a speed limit of 100, which is reduced down to 80 near exits and 90 in some other places.

On the intercity roads, the limit is usually 80, but you’ll always see signs of 70 or 50 before sharp turns, which is good.

Urban areas have a typical speed limit of 50, but if you see a sign saying 40 (like Haskovo downtown), do take it for granted.

Practical Tip:¬†Between cities, you’ll notice that Bulgarian drivers don’t care much about the speed limits or any other rules, so several times you can see some drivers flashing their headlamps behind you. This way, the driver communicates that he wants you to drive faster. Just don’t mind, lean right a little bit and let him overtake you. Moreover, if you see the drivers slow down all together, do the same because it means there’s a police control spot or a radar.

Drinking & Driving in Bulgaria

Drinking and driving Bulgaria is a “no no”, for practical, legal and vital purposes and there is no need to mention that this principle (and rule) is a universal one.

However, it can be useful to know that the legal limit in Bulgaria is 0.05%, which equates to what is slightly above 0.5 liters of beer. Above that, if you get caught and asked to use the breath analyser, you’ll be taken to a hospital for a blood test and you’ll get a ticket, which will make you regret that second beer. However, mind you, if your alcohol level is above 0.12% (I may need verification here), you may face a prison sentence.

Crossroads in Bulgaria

OK, normally this doesn’t need an explanation, because you only need to watch the traffic lights and move the car when it’s green. However, there’s one thing related to the crossroads in Bulgaria that I’m not familiar with, so I believe it could be useful for other foreigners as well. To get the picture clearer, please see the following figure:

Bulgarian Crossroad

Crossroad Figure

Suppose that you are “A” and you want to turn left at this crossroad. When your light is green, just don’t move without looking around carefully, because the traffic light may also be green for “B”, so that guy will move as well. They usually stop to let you take your turn, which is nice, but this usually happens in the dead centre of the crossroad, and the driver may not be careful enough, so double-check before you complete your turn.

Conclusion

So all in short, Bulgaria is a nice country to drive in as a tourist, because it offers you so much nature and beautiful scenery if you like driving for the sake of driving. This is all I know about driving in Bulgaria, but bear in mind that I go there on a weekly basis, thus the more I learn, the more I’ll add to this post.

Do you have any interested experiences related to driving in Bulgaria? Please comment below to share with the rest of the world! 

Or are you interested in the next country, Greece? Check out our Greece Survival Guide!

 

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