Last updated on May 9, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, travelling and renting cars In Spain

Renting a Car in Spain: Things to Know Before Any Car Rental

Renting a car in Spain turned my holiday from a destination hopping to a full Spanish adventure. I could experience the real local life beyond the main tourist towns and resort areas.

My first time in Spain was over 20 years ago. It was love at first sight, even at my young age (back then). I drove all around the country for a month. Then more trips, from Madrid to Barcelona, from Mallorca to Fuerteventura, getting around with public transportation or hiring a car in Spain, with all the pros and cons.

In this guide, you will find all you need to know before booking your car in Spain, based on my past and most recent experiences, including a video for a more visual experience. 

Without further ado, let’s start.

Entering the beautiful Cadiz in the south of Spain
Entering the beautiful Cadiz in the south of Spain

Car hire in Spain: is it a good idea?

I wrote extensively about getting around in Spain, including a full comparison between hiring and public transportation, including a couple of examples. 

Quickly. You do not need to hire a car if you are planning to move between major towns and destinations.

For example, if you are travelling in Spain to visit Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga and Alicante, you can easily catch the train to hop between the cities. You will not have any issues with parking or any stress with driving in a foreign country.

View of Malaga from the Gibralfaro Castle
View of Malaga from the Gibralfaro Castle

However, the car in Spain gives you the possibility to experience real local life, something that you can have only outside of the main tourist centres, sometimes on the road sometimes in the villages where you will have a stop for lunch or for a night. In a few words, the authentic vibe of the country.

Moreover, with the car you will save a ton of time (walk/bus to the station, waiting for the train, delays etc) and possibly money if you are travelling in a family or group of people.

Ultimately, if you are planning a holiday by the beach, relaxing with a drink and some nightlife, then use public transportation and taxis. However, if you are organising, for example, an itinerary of Northern Spain or Andalucia, with the possibility of experiencing some remote beaches and characteristic villages, then leasing a car in Spain will be the best idea for your holiday.

AspectRenting a Car in SpainPublic Transportation in Spain
FlexibilityHigh flexibility to explore remote areas and change plans.Limited to fixed routes and schedules of buses/trains.
Authentic ExperienceAllows for spontaneous exploration of local villages and off-the-beaten-path locations.Mainly connects major tourist destinations and urban centers.
Time EfficiencySaves time, especially for direct travel and in rural areas.Can be time-consuming due to waiting, transfers, and walking to stations.
CostCost-effective for families or groups; shared expenses.Cost effective for a solo trip
Stress and ConvenienceDriving stress in unfamiliar territory; parking challenges.Stress-free travel, no worries about navigation or parking.
Environmental ImpactHigher carbon footprint compared to public transport.More eco-friendly option with lower emissions.
Access to Major CitiesNot ideal for city travel; parking and traffic can be problematic.Excellent for city-to-city connections, especially with high-speed trains.
Local InteractionOpportunities for unexpected local interactions and discoveries.Less interaction with locals and rural areas.
Beach HolidaysConvenient for transporting beach gear and accessing remote shores.Ideal for relaxed beach holidays, especially with good coastal transport links.
Scenic RoutesOffers the freedom to take scenic drives and explore countryside.Limited to specific routes; misses out on scenic drives.
Luggage ConvenienceEasy to store and transport luggage.Handling luggage can be cumbersome, especially during transfers.
Cultural ImmersionEnhanced ability to immerse in Spanish culture in less-visited areas.Focused more on major tourist spots, less cultural immersion.
Summary table of pros and cons of renting a car in Spain Vs Public Transportation

Driving License and International Driving Permit for Spain

The rules are very clear, or almost clear.

If the driver’s license is from the European Community (German, French, Greek, etc) then you can easily organise a rental car in Spain and drive through the country.

With the British license you have, at the moment, the same rights, at least till now. Things may change in future, so I always suggest to check the rental conditions.

For everyone else, you need an International Driving Permit (IDP) which is essentially a translation in multiple languages of your driving licence. 

I have created a guide about easily getting an IDP for Italy which is 100% applicable to Spain (the same rules apply in the entire European Union). I included a list of the local offices in the USA, Canada, Australia and many other countries, where you can apply for it.

There is an important thing to keep in mind. When driving in Spain, you must always take with you both your local driver’s license and the IDP. The IDP alone will not be enough and you may get fine and possibly in trouble.

Waiting for the courtesy van to take us to the car rental outside the airport to collect the vehicle
Waiting for the courtesy van to take us to the car rental outside the airport to collect the vehicle

Rental age in Spain

The minimum driving age in Spain is 18 years old. However, if you plan on renting a vehicle, most companies require the driver to be at least 21 and up to 25 years old, depending on the company and the type of vehicle being rented.

In saying that, you can still rent a car even under 21 years old in Spain, but you will have fewer choices and possibly higher costs.

Additionally, some rentals may also impose an additional fee on young drivers and/or require 6/12 months of driving experience.

It is important to check the specific requirements of the rental company you plan to use before making a reservation.

Typically the “Driver Requirements” in the rental conditions will specify the minimum and maximum rental age. The “young” fee is typically added, if applicable, at the end of the process and before confirming the payment.

Car rental in Spain: what do you need to take with you?

There are 3 important things you need to take with you when you pick up your car:

  • Valid driving licence (and IDP, if needed)
  • Credit Card
  • Passport or ID Card

You may be able to hire a car in Spain without a credit card (check my full guide), however, it’s not that easy. A few companies in Spain offer the possibility to use debit cards, however, there are a few caveats.

They usually want you to fully insure the car and they will charge you 2-3,000 Euros on your debit card as a deposit. This money will be returned at the end of the trip, deducted from all possible expenses (missing petrol than agreed, etc). Keep in mind that this refund process may take up to 30-45 days after your drop-off date.

When selecting the car hire agency make sure they do accept debit cards, if this is your form of payment. For example, on DiscoverCars, the website where I usually hire my vehicles, I can filter on the payment type.

Filtering by Payment Card (Debit or Credit)

Be aware of what I call the “Debit Card Scam”. A few rental car companies accept debit card payments, however, they will require a credit card for the refundable security deposit. Of course, you will discover this only at the counter.

You will have the choice to cancel the rental or buy an extra insurance cover from them (typically 30 euros/day). Unfortunately, it has happened to me.

Best car size to rent and drive around Spain

The best car size to rent in Spain depends on the number of people sharing the vehicle and the places you want to visit.

For singles and couples a small car will do, unless you are planning to drive through the high mountains like the Pyrenes or Sierra Nevada and in that case I suggested a Small SUV.

In a group of 3 or more people, you need to scale up. It’s not just about the seats inside the car but also about the space for your pieces of luggage.

A larger car or even better a SUV typically costs 50% more than a compact car or a smaller car.

Nowadays, I rent my cars from DiscoverCars, an aggregator website that compares local and international providers giving the best deals. I love it because it works as AirBnb. Rental companies are ranked based on customer feedback on a 10-star scale.

Moreover, for just 8 Euro/day, they provide a no-worries full insurance which is such a great peace of mind at a very affordable cost (at the provider desk you would pay anything between 25 and 50 Euro/day).

Typical direction sign you find in the airports for the car rental (Aiquiler de coche)
Typical direction sign you find in the airports for car rental (Aiquiler de coche)

Manual or Automatic car

I usually suggest manual transmission because cheaper and easier to find. 

However, if you have never driven a manual car, or you are used to driving on the left side (like I usually do in Australia), then automatic will make things easier. One less thing to think about when getting around Spain.

Understanding Car rental insurance in Spain

Understanding car rental insurance in Spain is not as complicated. The rented car usually comes with Third Party Liability (TPL), Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), Theft Protection and Roadside Assistance. These are usually part of the advertised price (make sure they are actually included in your Rental conditions).

There is a small caveat, however. CDW has typically a Refundable deductible/security deposit of 2-4,000 euros to cover possible car damages.

Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon to scratch or dent the car in the parking areas or in the narrow streets of the Spanish villages. This could lead easily to 500-1,000 euros in damages and that’s why I highly suggest always adding full insurance that covers the deductible.

As I previously mentioned, DiscoverCars offer it for 7-8 Euro/day, which is a total bargain and in my opinion a no-brainer.

Always check the protection section in the rental conditions
Always check the protection section in the rental conditions

Best car hire companies for your trip

I may be a bit biased but I tend to not trust the rental companies, at least not totally. Doesn’t matter if local or global companies. Most are amazing but then there are always the fishy players, like with any other industry.

That is why I nowadays book my car with DiscoverCars where they rank all the Car Rental Businesses based on customer feedback (a sort of Airbnb of cars), giving me more confidence in my decision process. I personally prefer to spend 1-2 Euros more if the customer comments are much better like I do when I rent accommodation on Airbnb.

Important! Be aware of the biggest of the scams that usually run in Spain, which I like to call the “full insurance scam“. 

Let’s say that you hire your car with full insurance at the very competitive price I mentioned previously of 8 Euro/day. At the pick-up desk, they will offer you another full insurance to add on top of your full insurance, or in place of it. It costs, however, 25-40 Euro/day. 

They will tell you that it is Spanish-designed, created to work in Spain meanwhile the other one is generic. I went through it and honestly, it’s the same (have a read anyway to be double-sure).

The only difference is that in the case of damages, the car hire companies in Spain will either:

  • let you go without any payment, if you have done their 25-40 Euro/day full insurance, or
  • ask you to pay the damages, if you have done the website 8 Euro/day full insurance. Then you will have to claim this expense from the website itself.

I had on one occasion a 2,500 Euro damage which they kept on my security deposit. I then claimed this amount from the website and they refunded me in 4 weeks. It took longer than I wanted but on a 10-day rental deal, I was able to save 220 Euro on full insurance.

Another important thing. Make sure to have winter tyres and/or chains included in the deal, if renting a car in winter to go skiing. You may need them.

In this case, I also highly suggest renting an SUV or 4×4. Roads in the Spanish mountains can be very steep, especially if you are driving to Andorra.

Entering the town of Cadiz, on the Ocean coast
Entering the town of Cadiz, on the Ocean coast

Cheap car hire in Spain

Let’s be honest, car rentals can be expensive. In saying that, car hire deals in Spain are always possible. For example, last October I was able to hire a car in Malaga for just 7 Euro/day and it was a Fiat 500 XL which worked great in both power and size for the three of us.

Also, consider that you are actually going to save some money if travelling with the family or in a group of friends where you can share all the costs (rental, petrol, highway tolls, parking etc)

These are my top tips to find the best deals on car:

  • avoid if possible the peak summer season (July and August). That’s when prices tend to be the highest.
  • go for 1 driver only. Having a second driver usually adds 8-10 Euro/day
  • do not select the car GPS. Google Maps is anyhow more accurate and includes traffic data.
  • book well in advance. The longer you wait, the more likely prices will rise. Keep also in mind that most, if not all the providers offer free cancellation up to 48 hours from the pickup time
  • take your own booster seat for your kid. They usually charge 6-8 Euros/day. I once bought my own just outside the airport for 30 Euro and on a 3-week rental deal, I saved well over 100 Euro.
  • avoid, whenever possible, every motorway that has a toll. The cost is around 10 Euro per 100 km, quite expensive. I usually use Google Maps and activate in the “Trip options” the “Avoid tolls” flag. The beauty of the secondary roads is also that you can come across some amazing villages, the best places to eat in Spain the most genuine local food.
Amazing inland landscape of Spain
Amazing inland landscape of Spain

Car hire locations in Spain: Madrid, Barcelona and beyond

Spain is one of the biggest countries in Europe with most of the destinations offering car rental deals. 

In saying that, only in a few cities in Spain you will be able to find a long-term car rental or a luxury car. These cities are Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, Malaga, Sevilla, Valencia and another bunch.

Islands tend to offer mostly small cars, that honestly work better on the tiny streets and small parking spots, especially close to the beaches.

Airport locations tend to offer better deals than cities/towns. The rental process is also smoother in an airport.

One-way rental is usually available, however, it tends to cost much more, sometimes twice as much.

The busiest Spanish airport is in Madrid with 4 Terminals where you can rent your car. The cheapest operators are usually outside the airport (like in any city).

From Madrid, you can explore historic Toledo, Segovia’s Roman aqueduct, medieval Ávila, El Escorial’s royal palace, Cuenca’s hanging houses, and the scenic Guadarrama National Park, all within a few hours’ drive.

Barcellona, 2nd busiest airport, is a great starting point to discover the enchanting Costa Brava, mountainous Montserrat, ancient Girona, picturesque Sitges, the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres, and the wine region of Penedès, all easily accessible by car.

From Malaga-Costa del Sol you can explore the captivating Alhambra in Granada, the stunning Caminito del Rey, picturesque Ronda, the white villages of Andalucia, Marbella’s beaches, and the natural beauty of Sierra de Grazalema National Park.

And finally, from Palma de Mallorca, the 3rd most popular Spanish airport, you can venture to the charming Valldemossa, scenic Serra de Tramuntana mountains, historic Alcúdia, beautiful Formentor Cape, serene Cala d’Or beaches, and the picturesque town of Deià.

You see how many great road trips you have in Spain. So much to experience!

Playa de La Caleta in the Old Town of Cadiz
Playa de La Caleta in the Old Town of Cadiz, a few hours south of Malaga

Tips for Renting a Car with Children

Below is a full summary table for the car seat laws in Spain based on the age and weight of the kid. 

Attention! Rules may change at any time. Check out the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) for the most up-to-date information

Age GroupWeightType of SeatPosition in CarAdditional Notes
0-12 monthsUp to 10 kgRear-facing Infant CarrierRear SeatThe airbag must be deactivated if in front
1-4 years9-18 kgForward or Rear-facing SeatRear Seat
4-6 years15-25 kgHigh-back Booster SeatRear Seat
6-12 years22-36 kgBooster CushionRear Seat
12+ yearsOver 36 kgAdult Seat BeltFront or Rear SeatMust be at least 135 cm tall
Child seat regulation – Always refer to the DGT website for the latest information
  • Children taller than 135 cm can use an adult seat belt.
  • Rear-facing seats should not be used in front seats with an active airbag.

The rental cost for a child seat is between 4 and 7 Euros/day.

My tip here. If you book a car for 2-3 weeks and you need a booster, then it’s going to be probably cheaper to either bring it with you or buy a cheap one locally (around 30 Euros).  

Seat belts are mandatory in both the rear and front seat
Seat belts are mandatory in both the rear and front seat

Pick up your rental car (inspection)

By now you should know everything about the booking process. So, let’s jump to the actual rental time, with the pick-up being the first step.

This is an important part because you need to check the car upside down and make sure that all the car damages are well documented in the rental contract. Do not drive away without being sure it’s all on paper.

Moreover, take photos of the car, both inside and outside. I usually do also a video, just to be sure. You can use them in case of issues when you return the car. It happened to me, it’s a safety net.

Another important tip, inspect carefully any damage inside the car. These could be damages from cigarettes or simply seats with white halo due to the seawater. Include these damages in the contract, if not already done, because not even full insurance is going to cover them.

This is probably the most stressful part of renting a vehicle but once done the holiday starts and you will have an incredible adventure.

Taking photos and videos at pickup and drop off time
Taking photos and videos at pickup and drop-off time

Top tips for driving in Spain: Speed limits and Local Regulations

If you are used to the European road rules, then Spain is not going to be much different. True, some of the locals may seem too aggressive, but that’s just the way they drive, mostly in Madrid and Barcellona. 

I am always very careful, and honestly, I just take it easy, I am on holiday after all. There is no need to start competing with the locals in a macho race.

If you are driving in Spain as a US citizen, just be aware of 3 small things:

  • You cannot turn right at a red traffic light
  • Traffic lights are not on top but on the side of the streets
  • Carry some cash on toll roads or use your credit card (widely accepted)

There are no particular driving laws in Spain for tourists. Just pay close attention to the speed limits because they actively check and even if they do not stop you, they will send the fine to the car provider that will charge you admin fees on top.

Here below I have summarised the speed limits to follow in Spain

Type of RoadCars & Motorbikes (km/h)Buses & Vans (km/h)Trucks & Vehicles w/ Trailer (km/h)
Urban Roads505050
Non-Urban Roads
– General Roads908070
– Roads w/ Hard Shoulder > 1.5m1009080
– Dual Carriageways1009080
Motorways12010090
Speed limits in Spain – Always check local signage for specific speed limits, as they can vary

Be also aware that country roads may be not well maintained, which means you can have some unexpected potholes, another good reason to be careful and drive under the speed limit.

60 kmh speed limit approaching a roundabout
60 kmh speed limit approaching a roundabout

Nowadays things are very easy with the GPS signal.

Honestly, there is no need to rent a GPS system for your car. Besides being expensive, you can use Google Maps instead.

The rare times I had a GPS navigation system in the car, it was not updated and it could not provide traffic conditions or incident alarms, quite disappointing.

Usually, today’s cars have a USB charger where you can plug your mobile, so just remember to take with you a charging cable to avoid running out of power by mid-afternoon.

Important tip: data signal is not totally reliable once you enter the countryside. Download the Spanish area map that you are going to visit on Google Maps, it will save you some data usage too.

Driving along the Costa del Sol
Driving along the Costa del Sol

Handling Fuel and Maintenance

Petrol/gas stations are available everywhere in Spain. The price per litre is very similar to most of Europe, which means expensive by American or Australian standards (almost twice as much).

I usually use Google Maps to find the best prices in the area. Just position the map around the area you need to refuel, search for “Petrol Stations” and you will get a map with the advertised prices.

Technically speaking you do not need to do any maintenance to the car, however, I always suggest checking the oil and the tyre pressure the first time you stop by a petrol/gas station. In Spain, the petrol stations usually charge 1 Euro for the tyre inflator usage, I know, ridiculous.

Having the correct tyre pressure will help with the car’s stability, besides saving on petrol usage (minimal gain though).

Petrol stations charge 1 Euro for the air compressor
Petrol stations charge 1 Euro for the air compressor

Dealing with Restricted Traffic Zones in Spain (Zona Verde)

Some cities and towns with a historical centre may limit access or parking in part of it, These areas are called Zona Verde (Green Area). Some destinations may have street cameras to control the flow. 

If you have your accommodation in such areas, you may enter and park, but only if the hotel has given you the permit. Contact them before arriving and make sure to print the permit and put it in a visible place on the front.

In Cadiz, for example, you cannot park inside the historical centre and access is very limited. On my last trip, I parked outside for 10 Euro/day and walked in with my bags.

You may see these areas as an annoyance, however, they are there typically to help maintain the beautiful historical centres.

The Gree Zones (Zona Verde) are dedicated to the residents only. You may be able to enter but you cannot park there
The Gree Zones (Zona Verde) are dedicated to the residents only. You may be able to enter but you cannot park there

Parking in Spain

Parking a car is relatively simple in small towns but it can be quite challenging in bigger cities, like Madrid and Barcelona. In this case, make sure to either book accommodation with parking included or ask the hotel/host for local parking before driving there.

In these destinations, you can also leave your car in parking silos for a daily rate of around 10-20 Euros based on the area.

My personal tip here is to book outside of the city centre if you have a car, things can be quite complicated, not only for parking but also for driving in the historic centres.

Parking is colour-coded. The table below summarizes the different colour meanings.

Colour on CurbMeaningAction Required
BluePaid ParkingPay at the meter, display the ticket
GreenResidents or Limited TimeCheck signs for time limits
YellowNo ParkingDo not park
RedNo Parking or StoppingDo not park or stop
WhiteFree ParkingYou can park without payment
Colour-coded parking in Spain

If you do not see any line delimiting parking areas and there are cars parked there, then you may assume it is free of charge (ask around if unsure).

You can pay for the parking with blue lines at the Parking Meters (“Parquímetro“). They usually accept both coins and credit cards. The cost is around 1.5-2 Euro/hour. You can also pay with a few Apps.

My favourite is EasyPark because I can stop the charge for parking when I am back at the car, or extend the parking time if needed. Basically, I pay for the actual time without any worry.

When parking between blue lines make sure to get a ticket at the closest pay-and-display machine
When parking between blue lines make sure to get a ticket at the closest pay-and-display machine (on my back in the photo above)

Dealing with car accidents and breakdowns in Spain

Unfortunately, car accidents and breakdowns happen, doesn’t matter where you drive. Of course, take all the precautions and drive safely but be prepared in case something happens.

Usually, the hiring company will provide you with a 24/7 phone number in case of urgent matters. Below is also a table with other local phone numbers for emergencies.

ServiceEmergency NumberDescription
General Emergency112For all general emergencies, including car accidents.
National Police091For reporting crimes and incidents that require police intervention.
Local Police092For local issues, including minor traffic accidents.
Civil Guard062For rural areas and highways, often the first to respond to road accidents.
Fire Brigade080 or 085For fire-related emergencies.
Ambulance061For medical emergencies requiring immediate medical attention.
Emergency numbers in Spain

Should you fix the car yourself or wait for the rental agency? If it’s about topping up oil, you can do it yourself, if fine with you. It saves the annoyance and time to call and take the car to a centre

Otherwise, always call the hiring company. For minor fixes, they may ask you to take the car to a local mechanic and you will be refunded later (remember to ask for the invoice though).

Most rentals have also a network of mechanics around Spain.

You can use cash or credit cards at the pay-and-display machines
You can use cash or credit cards at the pay-and-display machines. Alternatively, you can also use one of the many parking Apps

Returning the Rental Car

Make sure to return the car at the agreed time. Most of the companies charge a late return fee of one day-rental past the agreed time + 1 hour.

My tip here is to put a return time that is one or two hours later than needed, just to cover unexpected delays. 

For example, if my flight out is at 6 pm, although I would usually try to be at the airport by 4 pm, I put a return time of 5-6 pm. This leaves me also more time in case the flight is delayed.

In saying that, some companies may charge a fee for early returns, typically if you return the car one or 2 days in advance (because of stocking, they argue)

Before returning the car make sure to:

  • check the fuel level and return it as agreed (usually like for like, which is typically full-full)
  • verify the car’s cleanliness and do not return it way too dirty otherwise, they will charge a cleaning fee. On my last trip, my car was a total mess after 3 weeks, with sand inside the car and mud around. I decided to give a quick 10 Euro wash, a much better deal than risking the cleaning fee (usually 40-70 Euros)

Once the car is returned they will inspect it and sign all the documents. In case of any damage, they will keep the money from the deposit. However, if fully insured you can claim back that money from DiscoverCars or any other operator that you will use (keep all the documentation, you will need it).

My personal experience is that the entire refund process takes time, 20-30 days, however, it works, which is the most important thing.

If this is way too long for you, then opt for full insurance directly with the rental company. The drawback is that it’s very expensive (25-40 Euro/day instead of 7-8 Euro/day), but you will not pay anything in case of damage, very straightforward.

Avoid these scams when you hire a car in Spain

Let me start by saying that the majority of providers are honest and straightforward, however, as in any industry, there are exceptions.

I already talked about the two biggest scams that may happen in Spain and how you can avoid them, the Full Insurance Scam and the Debit Card Scam. Below is a table with other minor ones and easy fixes.

Scam NameDescriptionHow to Avoid
Hidden FeesExtra charges added without your consent.Read the contract thoroughly.
Fuel Policy ScamCharged for a full tank but given a half-full one.Check fuel level before leaving.
Upgrade TrickOffered a ‘free’ upgrade that isn’t actually free.Decline unnecessary upgrades.
Damage ScamCharged for pre-existing damage to the car.Take photos before and after rental.
Toll ScamCharged extra for tolls that were never crossed.Keep toll receipts.
Extra Driver FeesCharged extra for additional drivers without notice.Ask about fees for extra drivers.
Airport SurchargeExtra fees for picking up at the airport.Consider off-site rental locations.
Late Return FeesExorbitant fees for returning the car slightly late.Return on time or extend in advance.
Cleaning FeesUnreasonable cleaning fees for minor dirt or trash.Clean the car before returning it.
Possible scams in Spain
Renting a car in Spain - All you need to know
Renting a car in Spain – All you need to know

Conclusion

I was recently in the South of Spain and I have enjoyed so much the possibility of exploring the most hidden villages and beaches, places hardly reachable by public transportation and still with a sense of local community. 

And this is a region largely dominated by big tourist centres, like Torremolinos or Ronda. However, as I often say, hidden gems are always around the corner in Spain.

Enjoy your Spanish adventure, wherever you go, whenever you decide.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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