How to Live the Van Life in Europe
There are plenty of resources and groups out there for people who are ready to take on van life in the United States.
But, if you were like me back in 2018, you might be wondering, “How can I live out of a van in Europe?”.
Most people when they think about taking a vacation to Europe will plan a few weeks to travel to multiple cities by train or bus.
What if you wanted to stay in Europe for an extended period without having to rely on hotels and hostels? If that is your situation, then buying a vehicle in Europe might just be the choice for you.
There might be multiple ways this can be done but we are going to give you what we know on the situation based on real experience.
Here are the important steps to consider when choosing the van life in Europe.
Table of Contents
Purchasing the Vehicle Overseas
Registration & Taxes for the Vehicle
Car Insurance in Europe with a U.S. license
Passing a vehicle MOT test
Duration of Stay in European Countries
Buying a Van in Europe as a U.S. citizen (or different nationality)
Let me start by saying that buying a vehicle on a different continent is not an easy task and there is a good deal of research that is required before finding all the answers. We hope that this resource can eliminate some of the time it takes to get rolling (literally).
The good news is that finding a good van in the UK is not difficult and they are so much cheaper than buying a vehicle in the United States. While a resource like Craigslist is popular for finding used vans in the States, many people use Gumtree to find used vehicles in the United Kingdom.
You can find popular sleeper vans like a Volkswagen Vanagon or a Dodge Sprinter for sometimes 4x lower price than what it would be in the United States!
Why purchase a van from England rather than other Countries?
For starters, the fact that there was not a language barrier was a big plus in purchasing a vehicle from the United Kingdom. The rules and regulations that go into registration and insurance can be a hassle and trying to take care of that where the primary language is different is going to prove to be more challenging.
Next, we found that the used vehicles for sale in the U.K. had much less mileage on them.
We figured that since the U.K. was separated by the English Channel, vehicles would be less likely to travel far for trips rather than sharing borders with many other European countries.
Also, flights from the U.K. to other countries in Europe is ridiculously cheap compared to trying to fly the same distance in the states so how often would people really drive their vehicles out of the country?
The Downside to Buying a Van in the United Kingdom
There are not many cons to purchasing a vehicle in Great Britain.
The major downside that we see in a British vehicle is the fact that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car rather than the left!
Which also means that if you buy a manual, you’re going to be shifting with your left hand.
While this makes sense in the United Kingdom since all the drivers are on the left side of the road, once you enter mainland Europe, you switch back to right-side driving, like the United States.
This can be difficult to get used to at first, but in our experience, after a few weeks of nailing those merging lanes and roundabouts, it’s a piece of cake.
Buying the van is the easy part. What about taxes, registration, and insurance?
Registration for a Van from the U.K.
Registration in Europe works a bit different than the United States. While you may be used to putting a previously owned plate or buying a new license plate for the vehicle, a van in Europe is going to come with its own license plate with it.
That’s right. The plate comes with the vehicle!
The previous owner can easily sign over the registration to you and the process is straight-forward.
Now, if you are like me, you might think, “OK, with some insurance, I can go ahead and drive around.”
Well, that is not the case. I found out the hard way when a huge bright yellow sign was taped to my car that said, “Untaxed Vehicle”. If you know about the vehicle tax beforehand, the process is super simple as you just log into the gov.uk website to start the process.
It should only cost less than £200.00 for the year if you have a normal sized vehicle with less than a certain level of CO2 emissions.
One thing to note is that the U.K. government will require a physical address (and mailing address) for the vehicle. We used a friend’s address and that is where any important mail was received for the vehicle. That was where all of our speeding tickets went— I mean, we had to get used to kilometers instead of miles per hour right?
Registration and Taxation. Check.
Now, let’s talk about one of the more confusing parts of the process. Vehicle Insurance.
Obtaining Insurance for a Van in Europe as a U.S. Citizen
Having insurance on your van in Europe is absolutely essential and should never be overlooked.
You will not be able to cross borders and could face large fines and jail time for not having any insurance.
Finding a company to insure us to drive a vehicle across Europe took some time and classic cold-calling companies to try and find the right company. Since this is such an uncommon situation and the risk of liability, most insurance companies will not go near a citizen with a license from a different country.
After days and spending hours on the phone with multiple companies and reading tons
of online threads, we came across a company called Down Under Insurance.
This company claimed to have cheap travel and campervan insurance with offices in
the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
Without question, they are willing to accept a new customer with a U.S. driver’s license.
They will offer cheaper insurance if you are willing to buy for a 12-month period
but keep in mind that there are no month-to-month options offered by Down Under
so be ready to pay a large sum up-front (in pound sterling).
While each quote is going to vary depending on many factors, these were the quotes
that we received when requested.
4 Month Insurance: £314.57
6 Month Insurance: £422.50
12 Month Insurance: £586.08
While they were able to accept drivers with a U.S. driver’s license, they required a U.K. address to send paperwork and process the quote.
Keep in mind that not all European countries may be covered by this policy. For example, all of western Europe is covered (including Morocco) but once you start heading East, certain countries may or not be covered by the insurance policy.
The policy we got in 2018 included eastern countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, and even Turkey!
The van was not insured in Baltic states like Albania, Bosnia, and Montenegro. These countries operate a bit different and you can buy insurance at the border for the duration of your stay.
Passing a MOT Test for Vehicle
There is one final crucial detail to cover before you head out and explore the open
road in Europe and that is to get a MOT test for your vehicle.
The MOT test is like an emissions test in the U.S. with additional safety measures. The MOT test must be passed each year for any vehicle that is older than 3 years old and must be maintained each year.
Without the MOT test passed, you could be fined up to £1,000 and if you happen to get in an accident, your insurance will most likely be void. The test is not difficult to achieve, and it is recommended that you research what they inspect for a MOT test so you can make sure to take care of any minor repairs before going to a shop.
With your new (used) van, registration, taxes paid, MOT covered, and vehicle insurance purchased, you are ready to live the van life in Europe.
But wait… How Long Can I stay and live the Van Life in Europe?
You can live the European van life for an extended period if you plan accordingly. The major consideration is, of course, obtaining Visas from each country.
When it comes to western Europe, you will have to understand the rules of the Schengen Area and how you can move around without overstaying your welcome. Here is how it works…
The Schengen Area includes 26 countries in Europe that have joined together in an agreement to abolish passport and border control at each of their borders. When driving from one country to another in the Schengen Area, you can many times just drive straight through without any stops or complications.
While this is incredibly convenient when traveling through Western Europe by road, it does come at a price.
You can only stay within the Schengen Area for a total of 90 days during each 180-day period.
You could use the 90 days all in one period or you can leave the Schengen Area to another country and come back to continue the 90-day period.
So, let’s imagine that you stay for 89 days in the Schengen Area but do not want to leave Europe and continue living the van life overseas. Easy!
You could simply head over to another county in Europe that is not part of the Schengen Area that has different passport/visa requirements.
For example, you could spend the 90 days traveling across France, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia. Then when you find yourself at the Slovenian eastern border, you could head over to Croatia for a new visa that allows you to stay in the country for 90 days.
From here, you could spend the 90 days in Croatia and head back to western Europe or spend some time in another non-Schengen country like Serbia, Romania, or Bulgaria.
In fact, with an insurance policy from Down Under insurance, you may be covered to travel all the way to eastern Turkey!
Is the European Van Life for Me?
Traveling by van through any new country is an exciting experience and is very possible for many countries around the world.
If you are the type that is OK without the luxuries of living in a large home or staying in one spot for an extended period, then this way of traveling might be a perfect fit. It does come with certain risks though
and traveling alone can be dangerous in certain parts of Europe.
It is recommended to look at the U.S. Department of State website which lists important travel advisories and a general safety level of each country for U.S. citizens.
Overall, be safe and have fun and live the good life on the road. Feel free to reach out in the comments or shoot us an email if you have any additional questions or concerns with traveling Europe by van as we have first-hand experience with this method of travel.