What Does it Mean?! – How To Read Icelandic Roadsigns

 In How to Iceland

When driving abroad, I’ve often been surprised by how often you see signs with long, elaborate sentences like “road ends,” “school zone” or “look out over there, there’s some roadwork going on and John can be a bit careless about leaving his jackhammer lying around.” You know what I’m talking about.

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This is because I come from Iceland, where almost all of the signs you see are graphic, word-free and incredibly confusing. My guess is that back in the day, the authorities were concerned about the uneducated and the foreigners, and didn’t want to make a bunch of signs that couldn’t be understood by some people. So instead they made a bunch of signs that couldn’t be understood by anyone. In order to make driving around Iceland a bit easier for you, here’s some of Iceland’s most common roadsigns – decoded.

1.  So, what is it exactly you’re forbidding me to do?

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You might have some variant of this sign in your country, which tells you there’s NO ENTRY. which of course is COMPLETELY different from…

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NO TRAFFIC AT ALL.

Nope, not confusing at all. The difference being that if there’s no entry, you can still enter from another side. But if there’s no traffic, there’s no other way in, and no other vehicles, not even bicycles!

Also that’s not to be confused with NO PARKING.

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Which is totally different from NO STOPPING.

The distinction being that if there’s no parking, you can still pull over and sit in your car or pick up a passenger, you just can’t leave the car. But where there’s no STOPPING, you literally can’t STOP your car, even for a minute.

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Of course, none of these are even remotely similar to this one which warns you of a dangerous crossing.

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This actually emphasizes an important difference between different kinds of signs:

  • Restriction signs, such as the “no entry” and “no parking” signs, are circles, and usually red and yellow, though parking signs are red and blue.
  • Warning signs are red and yellow triangles, such as the dangerous crossing sign above.
  • Finally direction signs are blue and white circles. (We haven’t looked at any of those yet.)

2.  Please refrain from driving into the ocean.

This actually warns you that you are in a harbour area. You know, in case the harbour, ships, and OCEAN didn’t tip you off. Also, please don’t drive into the ocean. You’re almost certainly not insured for it.

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Driving into rivers, on the other hand, is perfectly normal in Iceland. As long as people have a 4X4 car and take care. Though of course you’re probably still not insured if anything goes wrong, so you know, proceed at your own risk. This is a sign for an un-bridged river, which is a thing we have in Iceland.

All kidding aside, we generally encourage non-locals who want to go beyond the un-bridged rivers of the highlands to take a tour instead. It’s safer and you’ll have more fun if you’re not worrying about tricky driving and extremely expensive accidents.

3.  If in danger…

These ones are actually pretty useful to know – they indicate emergency services in the area:

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And if you ever need to call emergency services the phone number is 112!

4.  Smile – You’re on Candid Camera!

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As you drive around Iceland you will definitely see these. They warn you there is a traffic camera coming up so watch your speed. But of course, you weren’t speeding anyway, right? So no worries 😉

5.  But what does it MEAN?

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Road signs have the road number on the left, the number of kilometres to the destination on the sign on the right. Mountain roads have “F” in the road number and are only traversable by 4X4 vehicles.

Also note that mountain roads are often closed in the winter, and then you will see a closing sign, and you should definitely follow it. (If emergency services have to waste their time to come get you when you’ve disregarded a closing sign, it can cost you a pretty penny. Also you could die, so there’s that).

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Speaking of F roads, they should usually have one of these signs, depending on how difficult it is. None of these should be travelled unless you have a capable vehicle but as you can imagine, they get progressively worse and any road marked “Torleiði” probably has very steep hills, snowdrifts (yes, even in summer), and rivers that can just barely be crossed by vehicles.

6.  The hills don’t have eyes – they’re blind!

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This sign indicates a “blind hill” on a single lane road coming up, meaning you won’t spot traffic coming up from the other side. You know, in case you didn’t spot the HUGE HILL to which it refers.

7.  The long and winding road

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The thick line is the main road, and the sign means that the main road will TURN – This is very important because the main road has the right of way over non-main roads. So at these intersections, the thick line has the right of way.

8.  Try not to hit any blind or deaf people with your car.

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There’s even a sign for the blind and deaf. Of course, you should always pay consideration to the differently abled, but these areas might have associations or schools for the deaf or blind.

9.  YOU SHALL NOT PASS – until it’s your turn.

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Finally, these signs warn you of an iconic Icelandic thing: bridges and tunnels that are only wide enough for one car at a time.

They usually are not very long, or they will have places where you can pull over and let people pass. Just drive carefully.

At a single-width bridge, the person who gets to the bridge first has the right of way, which is why you’ll occasionally get into a surreal game of chicken. If in doubt, let the other car pass, it’s the polite thing to do and you’ll probably get a small thank you wave in return as you pass.

In a tunnel, people going in one direction usually have the right of way, so look out for those signs too.

10.  There’s danger – obviously, be careful!

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If someone took the trouble to make a special sign warning you of danger, you really REALLY should listen to it!

Icelanders are not into fencing things off, so if there’s even a small sign saying something is dangerous, it definitely, DEFINITELY is. So please respect the signs, they just might save your life!

These are some of the most confusing or useful signs we could find in Iceland – did we miss any? Hopefully, they’re a little less confusing after reading this but comment below if you’ve seen other signs we should cover on your travels – we’ll do our best to explain!

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