Driving and Public Transport for Expats in Brazil

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: May 2014


The road network in Brazil is the world’s fourth longest; it is concentrated in the southeast but includes other routes such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Less than 10% of these roads are metalled, and though this proportion is increasing, the quality of many roads is poor.

The quality of driving is also poor – many motorists are oblivious to other road users or erratic. As a consequence of this, Brazil has a high level of fatalities from road traffic accidents, approximately 22 deaths per 100,000 people per annum, putting the country in the top third in the world table. Considering problems with road rage, the long distances between Brazilian cities, the level of congestion in major cities and the risk of carjacking and similar crimes, you may want to think again about driving in Brazil. Other than public transport, car hire is a viable alternative.

Citizens of other countries are permitted to drive in Brazil using their existing licence or an International Driving Permit for six months. You should carry a full Portuguese translation of these documents, and get them stamped by the highway authorities. After six months, you will need to apply for a Brazilian licence. The test must be taken in Portuguese with no translator provided and may involve a medical and psychological examination (the latter, presumably, to establish your ability to cope with driving on Brazil’s roads.)

In addition to your driving licence, insurance and registration documents and passport or ID card (which you must always carry anyway), whenever you are driving in Brazil, you will need to have the following with you at all times:

The speed limits in Brazil are 110 kph (68 mph) onmost national roads, 80 kph (50 mph) on other stretches of open road, and 60 kph (37 mph) in built-up areas. Toll roads have recently been introduced in some areas of the country, particularly São Paulo state. Electronic payment systems are available.

Driving in Brazil is on the right, as is the case in most of South America. The legal blood-alcohol limit is very low, at 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.02%). If caught, you will be fined and have your licence suspended. If highly inebriated, you may be imprisoned.


The Brazilian railway network has been neglected in favour of roads for decades. Total track length has decreased and, more importantly, services have also declined, especially long-distance ones. Only major cities and their suburbs are connected – excluding Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo!

Metros in Brazil are regarded as a cheap, safe and reliable form of city transport. There are metro systems in eight Brazilian cities, including São Paulo, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. Cities with metros currently under construction include Recife, Fortaleza and Porto Alegre.

Buses and Coaches

Partly due to the inadequacy of the railway network, most people get around using buses and coaches – they carry more than 140 million passengers annually. The locals consider buses so important, in fact, that in Rio de Janeiro in February 2014 there were serious riots due to a proposed 10% bus fare increase. Buses are cheap and an important means of getting around major cities; they are even more important for cities without metro or suburban train lines. However, bus transport is not especially safe, as there are crashes sometimes and petty crime is frequent in some areas.

Coach services are available between larger cities. They provide a much cheaper alternative to flying, though obviously they take much longer (for example, Rio de Janeiro to Belém in the far north takes around 52 hours.) For those wanting more comfort, luxury coaches are available.


Brazil has one of the world’s most extensive internal air networks. In a country as large as Brazil, air transport is virtually essential for travelling medium and longer distances. All the major cities have airports, as do many of the more remote minor cities. Short-haul ‘shuttle’ flights between the country’s four largest cities are frequent. Services to and between minor airports are less regular.

Major airlines include Transbrasil, VARIG and VASP (São Paulo’s State Airline.) Note that some of the less well-known airlines do not have quite as good a safety record as the major ones.


In Amazonia, ferries and other boats are the only viable means of transport  Across and up and down the River Amazon.