What is the Legal Drinking Age in Europe?

By Kathryn Walsh

Toast to adventure the legal way while traveling abroad

What is the Legal Drinking Age in Europe?

Although some U.S. citizens may think of "Europe" as a homogeneous place – after all, most nations use the same currency – every European country has its own laws. As such, every country has different rules regarding minimum drinking ages. If you can legally drink in the U.S., buying alcohol in a store or bar should be no problem during a trip to Paris or Madrid, as no European countries outlaw alcohol for people 21 and older. But it still pays to familiarize yourself with the specific guidelines of any country you plan to explore with a beer in your hand.

The U.S. vs. Europe

Unlike the U.S., where consumption of alcohol is illegal for anyone under 21, laws in many European countries differentiate between consuming alcohol and buying it. For instance, in the U.K., 16- and 17-year-olds may legally drink beer, wine or cider only with meals and only when it's purchased by an adult. Adults must also be present while they drink...it's legal for adults to buy alcohol for children older than 4 to drink at home!

Drinking in Europe

In most places in Europe, you can buy and drink alcohol of any kind if you're over 18. Although many countries allow minors to drink some alcohol, 18 is the minimum age to purchase in countries including France, Ireland and Germany. In Sweden, you must be 18 to drink but at least 20 to buy anything with an alcohol content above 3.5 percent. It's little nuances like this that make it important to research the liquor laws in each country you plan to visit if you're under 21 or traveling with a minor.

And as for minors, they have a much easier time finding alcohol in Europe than in the U.S., but they're subject to some restrictions. In Germany, for instance, 16- and 17-year-olds can drink beer and wine, but must be 18 to drink spirits. It's legal for 16-year-olds to drink in Spain, except in the region of Asturias, where the drinking age is 18.

How to drink safely in Europe

Getting drunk in a foreign country is dangerous. It's easy to feel safe when you're in a loud bar and feeling the thrill of adventure, but that feeling wears off quickly when you step onto a darkened street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Your best bet is to stick close to your hotel and visit bars, clubs and pubs that are recommended by hotel staff. They know which venues are safe for tourists. Another option? Enjoy the local culture by eating dinner out, then pick up a small bottle of something to sample in the safety of your hotel.

If you're traveling with others and feel safe venturing into a bar or club, you may not recognize some of the drinks being served. Drink slowly at first because some foreign alcohol brands are bracingly strong, and you should monitor your state of intoxication closely while you're in a foreign place. Make an effort to branch out from your usual light beer or gin-and-tonic in favor of trying a local specialty. Get a recommendation from the bartender if you're not sure what to order; many speak English, but you can also use a translation app to communicate simple messages.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.