Do’s and don’ts of riding a bicycle in the Netherlands

What to do and what not to do when riding a bicycle in the Netherlands — these are big, important questions. Riding a bicycle in the Netherlands is THE main reason why I’m so happy here. But there are some rules you need to get used to.

I lived for 26 years in a big Mexican city with no biking infrastructure. Riding a bicycle to work was basically asking for a shorter life, and being stuck in traffic in my car was as common as breathing. But alas! Those days are behind me, and now I go back and forth everywhere with my trusty bicycle! 🚲

I love biking (and having money to eat) so much, that I even deliver food on my bicycle on the weekends for spare money. After a year of biking for leisure and work in this country, I have learned firsthand the do’s and don’ts of riding a bicycle in the Netherlands. Some surprised me, others made me go “well duh“. But all of them — without a doubt — I wish I knew from day one.

Here’s a handy guide of things you may already know, and some that may surprise you, about riding a bicycle in the Netherlands.

In a country that has built its cities with bikes in mind, you won’t be surprised that the legal system has also been shaped around cycle culture. Here are some legal requirements to note.

READ MORE |7 things that will get you fined while cycling in the Netherlands

Don’t ride under the influence (RUI)

Boy did this surprise me, back when I first started living here. It just made no sense. I mean, if I was drunk in Mexico after copious amounts of tequila, I would either take a taxi, walk home, or try to materialise a bicycle through nonexistent psychic powers and ride it home.

One of the first things I erroneously thought when I first got here, is that if you’re drunk, you could always ride your bike back home. Like a walk of shame, but on wheels.

Rule of thumb: don’t get on your bike if you can’t drunk-call your ex at 03:00 AM.

But, despite what most Dutchies do, it is actually illegal to ride your bike drunk or stoned. If caught, you can get a hefty fine of up to €140! Riding drunk is dangerous no matter what type of bike you’re on… so, no drinking and biking!

Get yourself a bell

Are you familiar with Ivan Pavlov’s experiments on classical conditioning and all that? Well, that’s me with bicycle bells. I turn around and look out for the impending bike when I hear the “tring-tring” of a bell.

Every bike should have one, it’s compulsory. They let you know when someone is behind you and wants to overtake you, or if you’re in the way. It’s very handy, and much more polite than being having cancer-swears yelled at you by an angry Dutchie.

If you’re like me and like being annoying but also safe on the road, you can get a bike horn. It’s just as good as a bike bell, but 1000% more hilarious.

bike bell
Honk honk! Image: Renan Alejandro Salvador Lozano Cuervo/Supplied.

Bright lights! Use them!

Using a properly attached white or yellow light on the front of your bicycle, and a red light on the back, is required if you’re riding at night. Not having a light can result in a fine. Also, worse than a fine, it can result in a car not seeing you and running you over.

Bicycle lights are very easy to find, and you can purchase some very cheap ones at the Hema or Action. If you get detachable ones, make sure you take them with you when you park. Stealing bike lights is the top Dutch national pastime right after getting cheap groceries.

Signal when you turn

I think the first time somebody yelled “lul!” at me, was when I did a tight turn with 10 high schoolers behind me. At first, I thought it was the Dutch variant of “lol.” Naturally, cause I am hilarious. But then, I realised I was called a d*** because I did not signal when I turned.

After being in the place of those 10 high schoolers a couple of times, I understood how important it is! In fact, it’s compulsory to signal, so make sure that you do it.

If you want to go left or right with your bike, stick your left/right hand accordingly! It lets non-psychic people know what direction you’re turning. It makes traffic more fluid and prevents any name-calling that hurts your feelings.

Do not text and cycle!

Much like how you shouldn’t text while driving, you also shouldn’t text while cycling. At first, this was only discouraged amongst Dutchies — have you seen them cycle? They can do almost anything on those bikes! — But now it’s illegal. If you’re caught even with your phone in your hand whilst cycling, you risk getting fined €95. So send those memes later, focus on the road.

What’s good to know?

That’s enough on law, let’s discuss some helpful tips for things like not getting your bike stolen. 😉

Put a lock on it — properly!

“If you like it then you should’ve put a lock on it?” It’s surprising how many people get their bike stolen cause they don’t know how to properly put a bike lock on. Now you might say “c’mon that’s easy! Besides, nobody steals anything in this country.” Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Stealing bicycles in this country is like eating tacos in Mexico. It happens every. Single. Day.

Although there are many types of locks out there, U-locks and/or sturdy chain locks are the best. The more expensive, the better, most of the time. If you want to cheap out on something while living here, it better not be your bike lock! Bike thieves in this country are also like taco stands in Mexico. They’re everywhere. (I’m from Mexico. I can make that joke *dabs in Mexican*).

Also, most people ignore it, but there is a proper way to lock your bike. You should lock your bike on a pole or biking rack, and your lock should surround your frame and your tire. To explain it better, here’s a handy picture.

how to lock your bike
Pretty simple!! Image: Renan Alejandro Salvador Lozano Cuervo/Supplied.

Don’t buy €10 bikes from shady guys in alleyways

Well, that one is pretty straightforward, right? I mean, who doesn’t dream of buying a cheap bike days after moving to a place where a lot of cities are very expensive. But, it should be obvious that any bicycles you buy from shady guys in the inner city are probably stolen.

“Not my problem!”exclaimed a person reading this while heading to the inner city, probably. Well good sir/madam, it actually is! If you’re buying a stolen bike, you’re supporting the offer of stolen bikes, which is a way of supporting the stolen bike market. Which perpetuates the cycle, and might even get your newfound bike stolen. So, don’t do it.

The Netherlands is filled with second-hand bicycle shops. While a second-hand bike shop will not sell bicycles for €10 euros, I’m sure you can find something that fits your budget.

Get your head in a helmet — maybe

Wearing a helmet while biking is important because it protects your brain in the case of an accident. And brains are important because — in my case — they hold a lot of 90s references, and the lyrics to R. Kelly’s “I believe I can fly.”

Although not compulsory, and although there’s this big helmet/no helmet debate, I recommend wearing a helmet if you’re like me and bike really fast. In three years of living here, nothing grave has happened to me. But hey, odds are something might. I remember I had this conversation with a colleague who also works in the bike-delivery business. He is pro-helmet, and told me something that made me laugh and also stuck with me:

“Helmets are just like condoms man, it’s better to have one and not need it, than to need one and don’t have one.”

That’s a good argument indeed. However, The Netherlands — right after Denmark — is the European country with least the least amount of accidents per square km that result in cyclists dying. So why wear a helmet then if it’s so safe, right? It would appear that the traffic infrastructure and a superb biking culture are better than enforcing helmet laws. Maybe that’s why not a lot of Dutchies wear helmets.

So wear a helmet! Or not! It’s your choice.

No headphones when riding your bicycle!

There’s two things I love doing but I know I shouldn’t do. One of them is having Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice-cream for breakfast every damn morning, and the other is riding my bicycle while listening to music.

There’s something spiritual about listening to Queen’s “Bicycle Race” while you’re riding your trusty steed down Scheveningen’s pier. Or blasting Meneer Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” on your headphones when coming back from having a good “coffee”.

While it’s not technically illegal to ride your bike while listening to some Iron Maiden on your headphones, it can be detrimental to your health. By detrimental to your health, I mean not hearing a tram and getting run over by it.

I stopped listening to music while biking after I got a close call with a bakfiets full of adorable children. I still remember the exact part of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” I was listening to when I almost crashed into that bundle of adorableness. God knows what would have happened, probably would’ve gotten deported or something.

So, like the helmet thing, it’s not illegal…but it is highly recommended to not listen to music while riding your bike.

Respect signs, pedestrians and watch out for tram lines!

Lastly, there are 3 things I always keep in mind when riding my bicycle: signs, pedestrians and tram lines. There’s a wide range of road signs that you need to keep an eye out for. Four of the most important ones to recognise are: uitgezondered fiets; rechtsaf voor fietsers vrij; let op! uitrit bouwverkeer; and “pedestrian zebras”

Uitgezonderd fietsers

I used to get intimidated when I saw these signs because they are usually on “no entrance” signs. But uitgezondered fietsers actually means “except people on bicycles”. So if you see a red sign with a white line in the middle (no entrance), but it is followed by uitgezondered fietsers, you may follow that road — if you’re on a bike, of course.

riding a bicycle in the netherlands
Keep an eye out for the signs people! Image: Renan Alejandro Salvador Lozano Cuervo/Supplied.

Rechtsaf fieters vrij

You’ll see these signs in white letters and on blue signs. These mean “right turn free for bikers.” So even if they’re next to a red traffic light, if you’re on a bike you can turn right freely — just remember to signal!

Let op! uitrit bouwverkeer

Back in the day when I didn’t speak any Dutch, I used to hate these. When they are on signs with tiny construction man cartoons it’s fine. But sometimes it’s just the words, and those I didn’t understand! It means “watch out for construction traffic.” Ride carefully if you see one of these because they are usually followed by mid-constructed bicycle lanes!

Zebras: pedestrians first!

It’s normal to feel super important when you’re on a bike all the time. Cars stop for you and pedestrians fear your bicycle bell. But, in the traffic hierarchy, pedestrians crossing on zebra crossing go first. So if you’re biking, and you see a zebra crossing in front of you, make sure you stop if you see any people trying to cross!

Tram lines: criss cross!!!

There are three things I have a deep and crippling fear towards spiders; that one scene in Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring; and crossing a tram line while I’m on my bicycle.

No matter how many times I’ve done it, my pulse skyrockets when I have to cross a tram line. If you fall in one it’s almost a guarantee you will fall embarrassingly. Best way to cross a tram line while riding a bicycle in the Netherlands is to cross one as perpendicularly as possible. Here’s a handy picture to save your life in the future.

tram lines bike
Beware the tram lines! Image: Renan Alejandro Salvador Lozano Cuervo/Supplied.

Did we miss something?

Well, that’s about it for thedo’s and don’tsof riding a bicycle in The Netherlands. Hopefully, you’ll find this list useful if you’re new to this country. Riding a bicycle here is easy and incredibly safe. But of course, if you keep these handy tips in mind, I’m confident your biking experience will be considerably better.

Did we miss any important do’s and/or don’ts? If we did, let us know in the comment section below!

Feature Image: Stocksnap/Pixabay
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2018, and was fully updated in November 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Renan Alejandro Salvador Lozano Cuervo
Pannenkoek en poffertjes connoisseur/expert. Mexican that came for the graduate education, stayed for the stroopwafels and bikes. Ask me how to make the perfect guacamole, and about the hot spots in The Hague.

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  1. Hola Renan!
    You forgot to mention parking spots! A friend got his bike taken away for parking it somewhere where it wasn’t allowed. He didn’t understand the sign text, and it was pretty small also (and suspiciously far away from the actual spot where he left it).
    The whole process of taking it back (and the risk of getting caught then if it is a stolen bike) could be worth reading in your guide!
    Kudos for the article, btw 🙂
    PD: Mexican girl here o/

    • Hola Iris!

      I definitely forgot about that! “geen brom- fietsen plaatsen” is for sure an important one to know. And yes, those signs are all in Dutch and sometimes crazy small. Although I have seen a bunch of illustration ones, like the “no bike” drawing.

      Saludos paisana!

  2. Riding side by side on a narrow path: Admit it. The only good reason to do this is because you want to have a chat while riding. Which implies that you will probably be cycling slower than the average. So you become an annoyance to everyone else who have to either cycle on your pace, or manoeuvre to overtake you.

    • Aw man, I really hate that too!! Although I do it sometimes… BUT, when I am doing it, I make sure to move aside when needed… But for sure annoying! That’s why bells are amazing and useful.

  3. 10 yrs of life in NL here; pretty well rounded article.
    Agree with Iris plus some extra info: when your bike gets taken ( and assuming you locked it properly as shown above); then it has been brought to a special bike depo. You have 6 weeks to claim your bike at this place, after checking for it on their website ( just type “fiets kwijt” into Google and take it from there). Should you fail to get your bike back it will be sold.
    You will pay € 25 upon picking it up. Cool eh ?

    • Definitely! Should have also added about locking your biking OUTSIDE of the bike racks on train stations… That sends your bike to those places where they keep’em!

  4. Nice article Renan but you forgot to mention all the baby/child seats before and after the bicycle seat absolutely mandatory for transporting your children from the moment they take their first breath. !

    And sorry only tourists on hire bikes and very small children wear helmets (other than Dutch cyclists in the Tour de France or racing clubs).

  5. And I forgot to mention cycling with your dog alongside on a leash. If you can master that then you are well and truly Dutch especially if your weekly shopping is at the same time balanced in your shopping bags (fiets tassen) with of course a huge bouquet of flowers strapped to the front of your handlebars. The Dutch cyclists love to multi task.
    I agree courtesy to pedestrians but you can be extremely rude to motorists!

  6. Always carry a repair kit with you so you can fix a leaky tire. It goes without saying that it should be accompanied by a pump…
    (I used to live in Nederland and not in a big city so had to do a lot of repairs or walk long ways!)

  7. About locking bikes: there are two sayings that I hear a lot in Amsterdam:

    1. Bikes are public property, locks are just a challenge.

    2. Your bike is safe as long as it has better/more locks than the one next to it

  8. Hello Renan. Lisbon, apart from many other problems (specially the hilly city), we also have the tram line problem. And even more: train lines! With a road bike, it is scary to cross them. Once, while following a car on a wet day and going down a bit faster than I should, I suddenly remembered the existence of a tram line, but it was too late. I went down like a pine tree, and then, while trying to get up, I slipped on the lines and twisted a thumb. Only noticed some minutes after, while waiting for a train.

  9. You already mentioned signalling when you change direction but there’s something even more important while negotiating traffic on your bike and it’s something that’s not easy to master: expressing your intentions and identifying those of others. You can compare it to people on sidewalks. They’ll subconsciously try to anticipate the movements and turns others will make, based on their body language. There are many subtle (and less subtle) signs that let you fathom the other’s next move.

    Cyclist will generally turn their head toward their intended direction. So even is someone is coming straight towards you, if they have their heads turned slightly to the left or right, you can bet they will soon turn that way. Also, if they keep left on the cycle path, they will probably turn left at the next crossing.

    In busy cities like Amsterdam or Utrecht (which has the busiest stretch of cycle lane in the world!), you can try to bike around just following the rules, but chances are that you’ll be either called names or get into unexpected trouble, needing to escape to the sidewalk. When thousands of cyclists all want to negotiate the same lane at one time, it’s the little signs of intentions that you need to be able to identify and, in return you need to show these yourself.

    I had a friend over from Germany and she stood ten minutes waiting to cross a road, yet couldn’t find a safe opening. The reason: she stood there and didn’t move. I learned her that she had to point her face to where she was going and start to move, even if only slowly. Others will notice and will give her a chance to cross. And if they don’t, you have to just muscle your way through, knowing that eventually people will hit their brake. But you must make your intentions clear and keep moving, otherwise no one can anticipate what you’re about to do and clear the way.

  10. If your lock is more expensive than your bike: that is fine because you will need a good lock. Abus for instance is a good, sturdy brand.

    If you have children and let them wear a helmet when they ride to school, they will be teased relentlessly by their classmates (“Haha! You can’t even ride a bicycle and you look stupid too!”) In any case in cities it’s social suicide.

    Having a child in a bikechair on the back, a smaller child in a different model bikechair on the front and your big bags of groceries hanging from the handles is pretty normal. Just about al Dutch parents (mostly mothers) do it. A bicycle is for leisuretime and for daily traffic both.

    Be prepared for that in cities in traffic bicyclers are treated with more “respect” than others. Which means: everybody knows that in cities bikers often don’t stop for you when you want to cross the bikepath. Cars might, bicyclists won’t (neither does the tram) If you cross a bikepath as a pedestrian be clear about your intentions (bodylanguage) and be swift. Otherwise you will get yelled at. No lingering on bikepaths! As a biker you are in the right if you chase pedestrians off the bikepath.

    Being drunk or stoned on a bicycle might not be allowed but everyone does it after an alcoholic night out. Expect it and anticipate on it if you are a pedestrian. Bikers expect it of you, also when they can hardly see where they are going anymore.

    Ah yes… if you are that drunk / stoned cyclist, beware of poles or cement obstacles on some bikepaths. If you ignore them, you might loose your teeth as you fly over your handles and smack on the pavement. The band Skik from the province Drenthe even wrote a song in Drents dialect about it called Betonpoalties Ben Kut

  11. As a tourist cycling in The Netherlands could you please let me know the etiquette with regard to cycling at cross roads in a city? Who has right of way and from which direction please?

    • No. Pedestrians have right of way on zebras. Cyclists don’t. And neither do cars of busses using zebras 🙂
      They don’t belong there.

  12. If you are so Lazarus drunk on your fiets, and the police stop you, one of the first things they ask for is your drivers license. And you can lose it!

  13. Such an amazing article. Nowadays, It’s so hard to see something informative like this article. Such an informative article and straight to the point. Keep this up.

  14. There are triangles on the bike paths that intersect. If the triangle points towards you, you need to yield to oncoming bike traffic (I noticed this missing in the article). However there are other markings that I will need to learn what they mean…

  15. Hi, Que hay acerca de tener una bici de montaña, de esas ultra equipadas, pues es la misma que usas cuando vas de paseo como cabra al monte. Es mas probable te la roben? aun amarrada con tres candados a la puerta neeeegra jajaja
    O deberias tener una para moverte en la ciudad y la especial para la montaña. Gracias y Salud….os

    Hi, What about a Mountain Bike, ultra-pro, those that you use like a goat in the mountain. It is more probable to be stolen? even with 3 locks .
    Or you should use a simple bike at cities and use the goat for the mountain. Thank you and keep healthy


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