I'm from the United States (born and raised) and have dual citizenship (Portugal). At some point, I want to spend time (more than just a vacation) in Europe. Linguistically, I feel confined to Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, and (if I can improve a bit) Italy.

How much is English spoken around the EU? I assume the general rule is true that English is spoken in tourist areas, but I want to know about the "real" parts. Are there places where I can get by with only English? Most importantly, is it seen as rude (acting like someone has to cater to me despite me being in their country) to use English?

  • 8
    An answer reminds me to advise: don't ask "Do you speak English?" Instead, ask a simple question in English and see how they respond. One thing that will go a long way is knowing how to say "hallo" and "thank you" in the local language. Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 22:58
  • 13
    What do you mean by "spend time"? You can "get by" with English only for vacations or business trips anywhere in Europe, but that's quite different from actually living in a country and having to deal with taxes, driving licenses, garbage collection and all that fun stuff. Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 23:44
  • 34
    Also, Europe is so large and varied that I'm not sure we can give you a meaningful answer that covers everything from central Stockholm to a rural village in Bulgaria. Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 23:45
  • 5
    Depending on how you see "time (more than just a vacation)" your question might be more on-topic for the expatriates.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic Stack Exchange site, because actually living abroad for longer than an (extended) holiday requires more than just finding people capable, willing and competent enough in English to be able to successfully communicate with. You will then also have to deal with local bureaucracy, institutions, utility companies, contracts etc. etc. and navigating those without a basic grasp of the local language will be easier or more challenging
    – HBruijn
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 13:58
  • 9
    OP: I only speak French, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. How can I possibly get around Europe? Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 16:03

9 Answers 9


How much is English spoken around the EU?

44% of EU inhabitants speak some level of English, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_European_Union:

English 1% 43% 44%
German 20% 16% 36%
French 14% 16% 30%

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_language_in_Europe mentions:

In the EU25, working knowledge of English as a foreign language is clearly leading at 38%

Here is a map showing the percentage of people who have some "Knowledge of English" per country:

enter image description here

Legend: "Knowledge of English".

(Credits: By Knowledge_of_German_EU_map.svg: AlphathonTM(talk)Knowledge_English_EU_map.png: Aakerderivative work: AlphathonTM(talk) - Knowledge_of_German_EU_map.svgKnowledge_English_EU_map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11308478)

Most importantly, is it seen as rude (acting like someone has to cater to me despite me being in their country) to use English?

If some autochthon doesn't like that you speak English, it's their problem, not yours.

  • 45
    From a visitor's point of view, though, the number is considerably higher since people working in hotels, restaurants etc are far more likely to speak English, and they will not be interacting much with rural farmers, retirees, children etc who are less likely to speak English. Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 23:47
  • 50
    "it's their problem, not yours" - well that depends on whether you are relying on them for something like getting your meal/catching a train/etc. Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 7:13
  • 4
    @lambshaanxy there are notable exceptions though - the former East Germany required me to dredge up my high school German rather quickly even in hotels and restaurants as I was dealing with people who grew up learning Russian as a second language. The young engineers I was working with of course spoke excellent English. Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 9:01
  • 3
    @ChrisH-UK When was that? The last generation that still got their entire school time in East Germany is close to retirement.
    – quarague
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 9:59
  • 4
    @quarague Pupils started to learn Russian Language from fifth grade until 1990. Those people are 20 years away from retirement Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 14:17

Most importantly, is it seen as rude (acting like someone has to cater to me despite me being in their country) to use English?

Not in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Being Swedish, I can confirm almost anyone raised and schooled there will have (often near-native) fluency in English by their upper teens. If anything, many will take a degree of insult to being asked if they know English, as not being fluent, or even just having a strong accent, is widely looked down upon. So over there, zero problems whatsoever. I know the same goes for Denmark in particular.

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 10:18

When you are a visitor, speaking English is acceptable all over Europe. It will not always easy but nobody expects a tourist to speak the local language and English is the most common foreign language in most of Europe. It may well be that in Spain, Italy and France you can get by with Portugese or however much you can remember of the local language better than English. But most tourist will speak English as first choice.

It is only in areas were English is the native language that you are going to have great difficulties finding people who can help you out if you do not speak the local language. There is less knowledge of a second language.

When staying for months or years, learning the local language is expected to essential. Even in the Netherlands, where everyone with a secondary school education in the last 60 years can handle a simple conversation in English, for some things Dutch is essential, like the tax officials are not allowed to communicate with you in English, for legal reasons.

And while people are mostly willing and able to speak with you in English, conversations around you will be in the local language. So if you do not understand that you will feel locked out of the group.

How much of a problem you experience depends on the people you mix with, if it is only fellow expats it will be less of a problem, if it is only young people it is also less of a problem. But if you want to work with the elderly, like having a job in medical care, speaking the local language is essential.

  • 4
    You will struggle in large parts of Eastern Europe if you only speak English. They're much more used to German speaking tourists than English monoglots. Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 9:14
  • 3
    Depending on social circles, it is becoming more and more common that only a few speakers not being able to use the native language results in the whole group switching to English. I observe that each week with groups in inner city bars, restaurants or parks in Berlin. Ten years ago, I was working for a small game developer company, and one single Australian employee lead to the whole office using English at all times.
    – ccprog
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 12:23
  • 1
    @JackAidley Outdated. Among younger Eastern Europeans who know a second language, this is normally English. German (or sometimes Russian) applies to the older generations
    – Crazydre
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 12:40
  • 2
    Perhaps things have changed in the last few years. This is my experience. There are far more German speaking tourists than English there so it makes sense for people who interact with tourists to learn it. Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 13:28
  • 1
    It all depends on the main language of visitors. There are hotels in India where literally all the employees speak Punjabi quite well because they get a lot of visitors from the Punjabi-speaking region of India who refuse to learn the language of that region, it's a question of demand.
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 15:18

How easily you can get by in Europe depends very much on country. Broadly speaking, I find that Western and Northern Europe are very English friendly, and Eastern Europe (e.g. former Soviet countries) are not. The following is based on my experiences in various countries, YMMV:

Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden: almost everyone speaks near perfect English, there is absolutely no problem at all conducting your business in English. In Copenhagen, people are (mildly) offended if you even ask if they speak English. So just open in English, and if they speak to you in Danish apologise and say you only speak English. However, whilst everyone speaks English: signs, menus, and attractions (e.g. museums, etc.) are often only in the local language outside of tourist spots.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria: heavily dependent on where you are. In Hamburg, Vienna, Cologne, Zurich or Berlin you will have no problem speaking English; however if you go into more rural locations you're much more likely to encounter shop staff, hotel staff, waiters, etc. who do not understand English or are uncomfortable speaking it with you.

France: much more English friendly than it used to be, and the famous French hostility to English speakers seems to have diminished. I've noticed a huge difference in ski-resorts, in particular. Still, even in tourist spots in Paris you'll encounter people who will not interact with you in English. However, if you know a handful of French words and are friendly you'll usually get by fine.

Czech, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia: outside of the biggest cities and most touristy spots (e.g. you'll be fine in Prague), English friendly places are uncommon. However, we found almost all tourist facing people spoke enough German to get by.

I haven't spent enough time in Luxembourg or Belgium to form a view, since I've only ever stopped for lunch or fuel there, but the people we encountered spoke English so I think it's probably fine.

I invite others to edit to add countries I haven't covered (since I have no experience of them) here

Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy) is so-so. You can get by in larger cities but in the boonies and smaller cities it's hit or miss even with younger people. (Copied from comment by @hilmar)

  • 2
    Luxembourg and especially Brussels are very international, more or less everybody speaks English (and typically at least two more languages!) Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 10:13
  • 2
    Good answer: adding a few more countries: Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy) is so-so. You can get by in larger cities but in the boonies and smaller cities it's hit or miss even with younger people.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 12:49
  • 7
    In France: you try to use English, and they answer in French. You try to speak French, and they answer in English. Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 12:50
  • 1
    This closely matches my experience. Scandinavians and the Dutch speak very good English, and in other countries it varies by area. I'll add that in Poland, there's a big difference by age: younger people generally speak at least basic English, while older people more commonly speak Russian or German.
    – Pkkm
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 15:20
  • 1
    @lambshaanxy I stopped for petrol in Luxemburg. The women in the station spoke to the first person in line in Dutch (I think?), the person in front of me in French, addressed me in German seeing the German numberplate on our car then switched to English when I replied in badly accented German. All without skipping a beat. Incredible. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 7:29

You have Portuguese citizenship and mention spending "more than just a vacation".

I assume you mean re-locating for at least a short while. That means dealing with some level of administration (health care, address and driver's licence registration, taxes, ...). That's a bit more complicated than ordering a coffee.

In general, as you go towards the north of Euope and towards larger cities you'll find it easier.

A rural town in France or Italy, I wouldn't expect much English at all to be spoken in local administration.

In Amsterdam or Oslo I wouldn't be worried. In the middle, it depends, and is a bit of a gamble. Even in Berlin, reputed to be quite international, it is far from obvious that an administrative clerk would speak English.

That said, if you speak Portuguese, any latin language should come relatively easily, so that makes most of the south of Europe more accessible. (Especially as you allude to the fact that you may speak Spanish and a bit of Italian)


I will have to contradict some of the answers and comments.  Yes, knowledge of English is widespread, but after spending seventeen months in Spain over my first five years of retirement, sleeping in at least 25 cities/villages and wandering around several others, I can assure you that there are villages where no one speaks anything other than Spanish.

But most of my time in Spain was along the Camino de Santiago, where hikers from over 150 countries travel. I'd say at least half of those spoke pretty good English. Especially the Dutch and the Germans.  The Dutch are required to learn another language in school, and most of them learn two.  Many of the Koreans who hike the Camino could not speak Spanish or English, but survived with their electronic translators.

Unless I misunderstood, you already speak French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  You should then have no problem in Italy or the Italian areas of Switzerland.  I can read French & Portuguese but not speak them, and my Spanish is probably only B1 or B2.  But that was enough to pass a sample A1 test in Italian.


As an American, I found that in 2018, we were able to get by on my wife's 8th grade Spanish teacher level of Spanish (i.e. she taught first year Spanish), and the French I could dredge up from high school.

While my French was embarrassing, generally, once we were found to at least be making an effort, most of the people we dealt with would switch to English. Even if their English wasn't great, we managed to get along in just fine in Spain, Austria and France. An occasional visit to Google Translate was necessary for more difficult transactions, but that was quite rare, and we usually did that before we started for things we thought would be difficult.

We did stick with primarily touristy areas, though, so that would be fairly expected, but did interact with random people on the street, too, trying to find places, get food, etc.


Are there places where I can get by with only English?

You can get by anywhere on the planet without speaking a word of the local language and without locals knowing a word of your native language. Google Translate works exceptionally great for most languages out there and gestures/drawings/hand signs fill the void where a translation falls short. Thousands of people have visited every country in the world - and I assure you they didn't have to learn the language of every country in order to make it happen.

So download Google Translate on your phone (it even has an offline version these days) and stop worrying about who does or doesn't speak English. It just doesn't matter and honestly... you just don't need to talk to that many people while traveling. It's nice to be able to strike up a conversation with a random farmer in rural Poland but your trip won't be ruined if the farmer only happens to speak Polish.

  • 1
    Millions of people traveled before computer translation existed, even before computers existed. Yes a translation tool/phrase book can be helpful but it is not essential.
    – Willeke
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 4:15
  • 1
    @Willeke definitely, see: history.stackexchange.com/questions/19318/…. But I do think that just because our ancestors have suffered doesn’t mean we should suffer :-)
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 4:35

I haven't been to every country in Europe, but according to the EF English Proficiency Index on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EF_English_Proficiency_Index I have visited several countries with very high English proficiency levels. The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are ranked as having "very high proficiency" and I was able to get by using only English during my visits to these countries. I have also been to the Czech Republic, which is ranked 26th with high proficiency. While I could still get by using only English in tourist areas of Prague, this was only true for tourist spots. According to the article "Hiring A Guide In The Czech Republic: Pros & Cons" https://gowithguide.com/blog/hiring-a-guide-in-the-czech-republic-pros-cons-5572 only about 10% of Czechs speak English in the country. Therefore, when visiting off-the-beaten-path attractions, I needed to learn some Czech or hire a guide. Spain is ranked 35th with moderate proficiency. My experience there was similar - but encountered fewer English speakers than in Prague.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .