Brazil laws and culture

Brazil laws, driving in Brazil, and culture for travellers – the things to remember that are different from Australia.


Welcome to Brazil, gringo. There are a few things here you may find different to Australia, so read on to find out why you should leave the Havaianas behind if you're driving, and watch your hand signals if you don't want to offend.

What side of the road to drive on. When to arrive at parties. How to avoid the Zika virus. - download the Brazil travel guide.

Laws in Brazil

  • It's no surprise that there are drugs in Brazil, particularly cocaine, but if you're caught using or transporting them the penalties and jail time will be significant. Police regularly search tourists outside nightclubs, in taxis and on the coastal drives from Rio to Búzios and Rio to São Paulo. Even coca leaves and coca tea aren't tolerated. Marijuana use, on the other hand, tends to be overlooked by police, although it is still illegal, so really not worth the risk.
  • The legal drinking and smoking age is 18.
  • Brazil has strict zero-tolerance drink driving laws and penalties are severe for driving with a blood alcohol level above zero.
  • Under Brazilian law, foreigners must carry their passports with them at all times, however because of the risk of theft, Smart Traveller recommends you leave your passport safely in your hotel if possible and carry a photocopy instead.
  • Prostitution is legal in Brazil for over 18s, but prostitution houses aren't, which of course creates a grey area.
  • Brazil has strict anti-discrimination laws, so overtly racist/homophobic statements or actions could land you in jail.

Driving in Brazil

See the transport in Brazil guide for all the transport options.

If you're only visiting cities in Brazil then it's highly unlikely you'll benefit from having your own car. Public transport will be far more convenient. You may, however, like to rent a car to see the sights outside of the city. If you're planning on driving, make sure you have the appropriate skills, licence and insurance.

Driving in Brazil is not for the fainthearted. Drivers can be aggressive and rules are often ignored, some roads are in poor condition and parking can be difficult to find in cities.

Licence: You don't need an international licence to drive in Brazil, but you do need a colour photocopy of your Australian licence with an official Portuguese translation (done by a sworn public translator or by the Embassy of Brazil) as well as photo ID. Car hire companies are unlikely to ask for this, but the police could make life difficult for you if you're pulled over and you don't have it. By law they can seize your vehicle for any infringement, and they may use that power to get an on-the-spot fine (aka bribe) out of you. If you have an accident without the proper licence, the consequences could be a lot worse.

  • Vehicles drive on the right.
  • Seatbelts are compulsory for drivers and all passengers. Children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. If a child is too small to use a seat belt, a child seat must be used.
  • Brazil has strict drink driving laws and penalties are severe for driving with a blood alcohol level above zero.
  • Mobile phones can only be used hands-free.
  • It is illegal to run out of petrol.
  • It is illegal to drive in thongs – so pack something other than your Havaianas.
  • Right of way is given to vehicles already on a roundabout.
  • Keep your windows up and your doors locked – car-jackings can happen at traffic lights and stop signs.
  • Because of the risk of car-jackings, many drivers ignore stop signs at night.

If you're not keen on driving, consider joining an organised tour (some offer small, friendly groups) or hiring a private driver for the day. In a place like Brazil, it's not as exorbitant as it sounds and it could save you a lot of stress.


  • Brazilian culture is made up of European, African and indigenous traditions. 
  • Religion and family life is very important to Brazilians; most people are Catholic.
  • Brazilians may refer to you as a gringo or gringa. Don't be offended, this is just a word to describe anyone who isn't Brazilian. They may also call you a marajá – a rich person –and compared to most Brazilians, you are!
  • A handshake is the standard greeting between men. A handshake or a kiss on both cheeks (left then right) is the appropriate greeting between women who know each other.
  • If giving gifts, avoid the colours black or purple as these represent mourning.
  • Arriving fashionably late to dinners and parties is the norm
  • Brazilians tend to make the effort to dress well and look their best (women pay particular attention to their hair and nails) – so they might judge you if you don't!
  • Brazil may be the home of Havaianas, but you'll need something more formal than thongs to get into the swankier restaurants and nightclubs.
  • Brazil is generally considered a gay-friendly country, particularly in the major cities. Sexual and gender diversity is accepted in Brazil, with gay couples allowed to marry and adopt, and gender reassignment surgery covered by the country's National Health Service (SUS). However, violence and discrimination against LGBTI people still happens, particularly in rural areas.
  • Brazilian men can be quite flirtatious and forward, so female travellers may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention. Some hotels now have women-only floors, and the Rio metro has pink, women-only carriages to provide a safe haven from harassment.
  • Despite strict anti-discrimination laws, class is still unofficially determined by wealth and skin colour. Darker skinned people may encounter some prejudice and mixed race couples may face judgemental attitudes.
  • A tip of about 10% is standard in restaurants and hotels, although check your bill as this gratuity is often already added to the total. Tipping taxi drivers is unnecessary but appreciated. The same goes for street sellers who may have a tip box on the counter. If you're a Spanish speaker, be careful not to use the Spanish word "propina" – in Portuguese it means bribe, not tip. The appropriate word in Brazil is "gorjeta".
  • The hand signal that we associate with "A-OK", using the thumb and forefinger, doesn't go down so well in Brazil. Stick with a thumbs up if tempted.


The official language of Brazil is Portuguese.

English isn't widely spoken or understood, so it's a good idea to learn a few words of Portuguese before you go, and to pack a phrase book or download a translation app on your phone.

  • Thank you: "Obrigada" (if you're a woman) / "Obrigado" (if you're a man).
  • Standard greetings: "Bom dia" (good morning), "boa tarde" (good afternoon), "boa noite" (good night).

Leave a comment

Display comments