The legal drinking age in countries around the world varies dramatically, ranging from no age requirement to the age of 21 (in the United States, to name one) — which is the most stringent and scarce — most of these laws apply solely to drinking in public.
Believe it or not, the average age globally where drinking alcohol first occurs is 12 years old, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which also states that about 80 percent of people start consuming alcoholic beverages regularly at the age of 15 or younger. This is below the legal drinking age in countries that regulate alcohol consumption.
Even here in the U.S., however, exceptions to legal drinking ages exist. For example, in some states, people younger than 21 can drink alcohol when at home with their parents. Additionally, the legal drinking age in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is 18. In the United Kingdom, however, no one age 5 or under may drink at any time.
In fact, the most common legal drinking age in countries worldwide is 18. According to the WHO's "Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018,” 108 countries have an on-premise and off-premise 18-years legal purchase age for beer and wine, while three additional countries have an 18-years legal purchase age for either on-premise or off-premise spirits.
What Is the Importance of Drinking Age Regulations?
In the U.S., much debate and research surrounds the federal minimum legal drinking age, which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as the legal age when a person can buy or publicly consume alcoholic beverages.
The legal drinking age in the U.S. wasn’t 21 until the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed and enacted in 1985. Prior to this, according to the CDC, the legal age for purchasing alcohol varied from state to state.
Nonprofit Choose Responsibility launched a campaign to change the federal law in 2006, which was followed two years later by the Amethyst Initiative — a group of more than 100 U.S. university presidents and chancellors — calling for a legal drinking age re-evaluation. The reason, the initiative said, was because the age-21 law wasn’t working, as proven by an underground culture among college students of heavy drinking.
Because those campaigns grabbed headlines, public health experts launched new studies to determine the drinking-age law’s impact, and the research showed that since the legal drinking age changed to 21, not only have American youth been drinking less, but they’re also less likely to get into drunk-driving crashes.
According to a CDC Fact Sheet, there have been fewer motor vehicle crashes in states that increased the legal drinking age to 21 — they experienced a 16 percent median decline. Once all states adopted the 21-year-old legal drinking age, drinking among persons aged 18 to 20 years during the previous month declined from 59 percent in 1985 to 40 percent in 1991. There is also evidence that the legal drinking age of 21 “protects drinkers from alcohol and other drug dependence, adverse birth outcomes, and suicide and homicide,” the CDC Fact Sheet states.
How Do Drinking Ages Differ around the World?
In some countries, no laws around drinking or purchasing alcohol even exist (we’re talking about you, Armenia). Some don’t specify a minimum drinking or purchase age, while others specify a particular age for drinking and purchasing. Some laws are rather elaborate, and a few countries have deemed alcohol illegal.
Cyprus and Malta appear to be the only countries that designated age 17 for both drinking alcohol and purchasing it, and South Korea looks to be the only country with a designated age of 19 for both drinking and purchasing.
Read on for your all-access guide to the legal drinking age in countries worldwide.
Countries with No Age Requirement
In some countries, there are no laws in place that specify a minimum legal drinking age,. However, generally speaking, it appears that bartenders, shopkeepers and waitresses tend to serve individuals who appear to be 16 or older. Enforcement, however, is loose — if it even exists at all. Additionally, there’s no consistency from one place to the next.
The legal drinking age in the following countries are nonexistent, according to WHO data from its 2014 report:
Countries with Legal Drinking Age of 16
According to data from the WHO, the following countries have a set legal drinking age of 16 for both purchasing alcoholic beverages and consuming them in public.
Countries with Legal Drink Age of 18
The age of 18 for both drinking alcohol in public and purchasing it is, by far, the most popular legal drinking age worldwide, as demonstrated by the lengthy list below.
Countries with Legal Drinking Age of 20 and 21
In both Japan and Iceland, you must be age 20 for both purchasing alcohol and drinking in public. In the following five countries, you must be age 21.
Countries Where Drinking Alcohol Is Illegal
Whether you’re 16, 18, 21 or 62, or whether your parents are with you or you’re alone, it doesn’t matter — drinking in the following countries is simply not allowed. It isn't legal in public, not even in the privacy of your own home.
Additionally, having a cold beer or a glass of wine at the end of a long day isn’t worth it. The reason? If you’re discovered drinking alcohol in some of these countries, like Iran and Afghanistan, you can be punished with lashes.
Countries Where the Legal Drinking Age Is Complicated
While some of the following countries’ laws align in part with those of the previously mentioned countries, their laws aren’t quite as cut and dry. Take a look.
In Bahrain, the drinking age is either 18 or 21 — it depends on the bar's rules.
In Barbados, the drinking and purchasing age is 18 if you’re alone, but it’s 16 if you’re with a parent.
In Belgium, individuals who are 16 years old can purchase and consume beer and wine, but you must be 18 to buy and drink spirits.
There’s no drinking age in Bulgaria, but you must be 18 to purchase alcohol.
Denmark also lacks a designated drinking age, but to purchase alcohol of less than 16.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), you must be 16. Additionally, you must be 18 to purchase alcohol with an ABV over 16.5 percent and to be served in restaurants, pubs and bars.
In Finland, you must be 18 to consume alcohol between 1.2 percent to 22 percent ABV, age 20 for 23 percent to 80 percent ABV, and 18 to be served in bars, clubs and restaurants.
In Germany, those who are 14 years old can consume beer and wine when with their legal guardian. However, to drink beer and wine without parental supervision, you only have to be 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for spirits.
In Gibraltar, 16-year-olds can drink beverages with less than 15 percent ABV.
In India, the drinking age varies between age 18 and 25; it just depends on which state you're in. However, don’t drink at all in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Gujarat — it’s illegal there.
In Israel, it’s illegal to sell alcohol outside of bars and restaurants between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., but you only have to be 18 for both drinking and purchasing.
In Liechtenstein, the legal age for drinking wine, beer and cider is 16, and you can enjoy spirits once you’re age 18.
The legal drinking age in Malaysia is 16, but you must be 18 to purchase alcoholic beverages.
In the Maldives, you must be 18 for both drinking and purchasing, but alcohol sales are limited to tourist resorts. It’s also illegal for Muslims to buy alcohol.
There is no drinking age in Montenegro, but you must be 18 to purchase alcohol.
It’s the opposite in Nepal - a drinking age of 18 but no purchase age.
There’s no drinking age in Norway, but to purchase beverages that are less than 22 percent ABV, you must be 18. To purchase drinks that are 22 percent ABV or greater, you must be 20.
In Pakistan, you must be 21 for both drinking and purchasing alcohol, but any alcohol purchasing or consumption is illegal for Muslims.
In Portugal, you must be 16 to purchase and consume beer and wine, as well as 18 to purchase and consume spirits.
In Qatar, you must be 21 for both drinking and purchasing alcohol. While Muslims are allowed to purchase alcohol, they may not consume it.
There is no designated drinking age in Romania, but you must be 18 to purchase it.
The same goes for Russia: There is no drinking age, but you must be 18 to purchase it.
There is no drinking age in Singapore when the beverages are consumed on private property, but individuals must be 18 to both drink in public places and purchase alcohol.
In Slovenia, you must be 18 for both drinking and purchasing alcohol, but there’s no designated age for drinking on private property.
In Switzerland, you must be 16 to consume “fermented alcoholic drinks” and 18 to drink spirits.
In Tajikistan, you must be 21 for both drinking and purchasing alcoholic beverages, but only if you're not Muslim.
In Thailand, you must be 20 for both drinking and purchasing alcoholic beverages, but selling alcohol is banned daily from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 12 a.m. to 11a.m., as well as during some religious festivals.
In Turkey, you must be 18 for both drinking and purchasing alcoholic beverage, but shops are barred from selling alcohol from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
In the United Arab Emirates, you must be 21 for both drinking and purchasing alcoholic beverages. You must be a non-Muslim visitor and must request a liquor permit to do so.
In the U.K., you have to be at least 5 to drink alcoholic beverages on private property, but you must be 18 for both drinking in public and purchasing alcoholic beverages.
Legal Drinking Age in the U.S.
While the blanket rule in the U.S. is that the minimum drinking age is 21, there are actually many different circumstances under which people can legally drink below that age.
The previously mentioned National Minimum Drinking Age Act required all states to raise their minimum age to both purchase alcohol and possess alcohol in public to 21, and states that didn’t comply faced reduced highway funds. As a result, all states took part.
However, here’s where it gets tricky. This act does not prohibit individuals under the age of 21 from drinking—it prohibits them from "public possession" and the purchase of alcohol.
So, while many states have chosen not only to prohibit the purchase and public possession of alcohol, but also the consumption of alcohol by individuals under the age of 21, they still have various exceptions.
Some states, for instance, allow for consumption by those who are underage when a family member consents and/or is present — though state laws vary widely as far as which relatives must give consent or be present and in what circumstances those under 21 may consume alcoholic beverages.
Then, there are some states that permit underage drinking as long as it’s done on private property, while in other states, those younger than 21 may drink in any private location. In other states, underage drinking is only allowed in private residences, or solely in a parent or guardian’s home. Underage drinking is sometimes considered legal so long as it’s done in the presence — and/or with the consent — of the parent, legal guardian or legal-age spouse.
What Are the Penalties for Drinking Underage in Different Countries?
The public legal drinking age in the U.K. is 18. So, let’s say you’re a 17-year-old (or younger) walking around taking sips from an open bottle of beer. What might happen? At the very least, the police can confiscate that beverage.
If you’re caught doing this three times, you may face a fine, a social contract, or even an arrest. Police in the U.K. can also confiscate alcohol from anyone — no matter their age — if they believe that someone under the age of 18 has been, or will be, consuming it in a public place.
While most countries are relatively tame in their punishments, some may make you rethink if that beer is really worth it (no matter your age). One example is El Salvador, where your first drinking and driving offense can be punished by firing squad. Over in Germany, biking under the influence may earn you a psychiatric evaluation.
While there is a federal law here in the U.S. that restricts anyone under the age of 21 from drinking in public, how that limit is enforced depends on which state you’re in.
If someone underage attempts to buy alcohol in California, for example, that person may be fined up to $250, may be required to perform anywhere from 24 to 32 hours of community service, and may have his or her driving privileges suspended for one year.
Moving east to Idaho, a minor who purchases, attempts to purchase, possesses or consumes an alcoholic drink is considered guilty of a misdemeanor. The individual will be fined up to $1,000 for the first offense, and his or her driving privileges will be suspended for up to one year.
Heading further toward the Atlantic Ocean, if someone under 21 is caught possessing, consuming or attempting to purchase alcohol in North Carolina, he or she will be fined $100 to $200. This may come with a 30-day jail sentence. The underage individual will also have to participate in and successfully complete a Department of Alcohol-approved alcohol prevention education program and may have his or her driving privileges suspended for 120 days (for the first offense).
While drinking sure can be fun no matter the country you’re visiting, being smart about — and abiding by — the drinking age law wherever you are is a smart move.