Legal drinking ages around the world vary greatly. Most such laws apply only to drinking alcoholic beverages in public. The only countries with a minimum legal age for consuming alcohol at home are England and Wales. They prohibit drinking below the age of six.
- World Legal Drinking Ages List
- Alcohol Prohibition
- Legal Drinking Ages in U.S.
The average (mean) minimum legal drinking age around the globe is 10.3. Ninety-six (96) countries/possessions have a minimum drinking age of zero. And of those that have higher legal drinking ages, the average age is 18.6.
The enforcement of minimum legal drinking ages also varies widely between countries. And often within countries. In many nations, officers generally don’t enforce the law in the absence of abuse.
World-wide, the average age at which drinking alcohol first occurs is 12 years. About 80% of young people begin drinking alcoholic beverages regularly by age 15 or younger. That is according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Drinking Age Laws
Countries may have age laws for drinking under various conditions. For example, for drinking with parents, in public, on private property, with parental approval, etc. Or they may combine different conditions. For example, drinking on private property with parental approval without their presence. Or drinking in public with a parent.
The second sets minimum ages for buying alcohol beverages. Again, laws may set conditions. For example, a person may legally buy low alcohol proof beverages but not those of high proof.
However, this policy is based on an old that continues. It’s that some alcoholic beverages are “stronger” than others. Yet standard drinks of beer, table wine and liquor (distilled spirits) all have the same amount of pure alcohol. Specifically, it’s 0.06 ounce. They’re all the same to a breathalyzer.
Very commonly, countries set lowest legal alcohol purchase ages. However, they don’t set any minimum age for its consumption. In fact, many listings of drinking ages actually use purchase ages for drinking ages! That is, compilers falsely assume that purchase ages and drinking ages are the same.
Therefore, many compilers incorrectly list countries that have no minimum drinking age as having them. This leads to much confusion. Especially, when the lists carry titles such as “World Drinking Ages,” “Drinking Ages in Different Countries,” and so on.
II. World Legal Drinking Ages List
No Minimum Legal Drinking Ages
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Brazil (19 in some provinces)
- Burkina Faso
- Cape Verde
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Equatorial Guinea
- Hong Kong
- New Zealand
- Northern Ireland
- Sao Tome & Principia
- Sierra Leone
- Solomon Islands
- South Korea
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Turks & Caicos Islands
- Western Sahara
Minimum Drinking Age of 15
- Central African Republic
Minimum Drinking Age of 16
- Austria (18 in some areas and varies by beverage)
- British Virgin Islands
- Germany (varies by beverage)
- Guyana (varies by beverage)
- Liechtenstein (varies by beverage)
- Palestinian Authority
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- San Marino
- Wales (age 5 in private)
- Zambia (varies by beverage)
Minimum Drinking Age of 17
Minimum Drinking Age of 18
Countries that set different laws for different alcoholic beverages aren’t based on science. Specifically, standard drinks of beer, wine and liquor (spirits) contain the same amount of pure alcohol. That is, six tenths of an ounce. A breathalyzer can’t tell them apart.
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Australia (varies by state)
- Barundi (any age with parent)
- Canada (19 in many provinces)
- Chad (any age with parent)
- England (age 5 in private)
- Falkland Islands
- Finland (varies by beverage)
- Fiji (lowered from 21)
- France (any age in private)
- Grenada (any age in private)
- Guyana (varies by beverage)
- India (varies by state)
- Ireland (any age in private residence)
- Lebanon (no enforcement generally)
- North Korea
- Pakistan (for non-Muslims)
- Papua New Guinea
- Puerto Rico
- Republic of Congo
- Samoa (any age with parent)
- Scotland (any age in private)
- Singapore (any age in private)
- South Africa (any age with parent)
- South Sudan
- Sweden (none for low proof beverages)
- United Arab Emirates (varies by jurisdiction)
- U.S. Virgin Islands
- Minimum Drinking Age of 19
- South Korea
Minimum Drinking Age of 20
Minimum Drinking Age of 21
- American Samoa
- Cameroon (18 with a 21 year old)
- Congo – Brazzaville (18 with a 21 year old)
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Marshal Islands
- Northern Mariana Islands
- Samoa (any age with parent)
- Sri Lanka
- U.S. (with many exceptions, see below)
III. Alcohol Prohibition
In addition, some countries prohibit alcohol for religious reasons.
- Bangladesh (no minimum age for non-Muslims)
- Brunei Darusssalem
- Maldives (except for non-Muslim tourists)
- Pakistan (18 for non-Muslims)
- Saudi Arabia
IV. Legal Drinking Ages in U.S
People commonly believe that the minimum drinking age in the U.S. is 21. However, people can legally drink below that age under many different conditions.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 went into effect the next year. It requires all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21.
States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds. However, the law does not prohibit persons under 21 from drinking. The law also strictly defines “public possession.” It does not apply to possession for the following reasons.
- An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or guardian age 21 or older.
- Medical purposes prescribed by a licensed physician. Or by a pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution.
- In private clubs or establishments.
- During the course of employment by a licensed producer, wholesaler or retailer.
Many of the states that specifically prohibit drinking alcohol by those under age 21 have a variety of exceptions.
Some states allow underage drinking when a family member consents and/or is present. States vary widely about which relatives must consent or be present. Also, in what conditions those under 21 may drink.
Some states permit underage drinking on private property. In some states those under 21 may drink in any private location. In others, it’s only in private residences, or only in the home of a parent or guardian. Sometimes underage drinking requires the presence and/or consent of a parent or legal-age spouse.
U.S. Exceptions to Minimum Legal Drinking Ages
The following map shows exceptions to the minimum age of 21 for drinking alcohol.
Note: This map is based on laws only. It doesn’t include exceptions created by case law, custom, etc. Also, Utah sets the law at 0.05.
The problem of identifying the optimum minimum drinking age to reduce alcohol abuse is a serious one. It involves issues of freedom, responsibility, parental rights, religion, politics and many other realms of life.
The minimum drinking age of 21 in the U.S. appears to be not only ineffective but actually counter-productive. Congress passed it with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, it has had some of the worst of outcomes.
In reaction to these problems, the president emeritus of Middlebury College, Dr. John McCardell, took action. He created the non-profit Choose Responsibility.
Its goal is to promote discussion about how best to reduce alcohol abuse. As a matter of fact, MADD opposes any such discussion!
The group has suggested a number of ideas. Some of these are described below.
It believes Congress should not penalize states having pilot alcohol education programs. These would be based on a minimum drinking age of 18.
Thus, the organization believes the following.
- A state should be able to present a plan for educating and licensing young adults age 18-20. The federal government should grant the state a waiver of the 10% highway penalty for five years.
- States would collect data required to monitor the effects of the program.
- States would submit these statistics to Congress. Also, they would submit an analysis of the effects of the program.
- Individual state proposals would include the guidelines for eligibility and suspension of licenses.
Choose Responsibility also proposes a new approach to alcohol education. It would be similar to Drivers’ Education. The program would
- Use certified alcohol educators. They would cover the legal, ethical, health and safety issues of drinking.
- Give accurate alcohol education.
- Consist of at least 40 hours of instruction. Most would be in the classroom. However, there would be enrichment. That might include attending DWI court hearings, safe ride taxi programs, community forums, etc.
- Have a final exam that students must pass for licensing.
The alcohol education course curriculum would:
- Be based on reality.
- Involve collaboration between state, school, and home.
- Create a basis for responsible choices about alcohol. Responsible behavior would be part of provisional licensing for 18-20 year-old adults.
- Be developed and implemented on a state-by-state basis.
- Provide accurate, truthful, and unbiased alcohol education. It would seek only to promote responsible choices about alcohol.
Upon successful completion of the course, each student would receive a license. It would provide all the privileges and responsibilities of adult alcohol purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol.
A majority of states already permit those under 21 to drink alcohol. For example, most states allow parents to provide their children with alcohol in the privacy of their own homes.
But in others, parents may not legally provide their children alcohol until they’re 21. Thus, those state laws hamper law-abiding parents. They can’t introducing their young adults to alcohol in a controlled home environment.
This typically relegates drinking “underground” where there is no responsible guidance. And, worse yet, peer pressure to abuse alcohol. Parents should be able to provide their own young adults alcohol to teach responsible drinking.
Research suggests that these changes could reduce alcohol abuse. Of course, those with a vested interest oppose even discussing any of these proposals. But reducing alcohol abuse is in the public interest. So let the discussion begin.
V. Resources on Legal Drinking Ages
Duffy, D. Raising the Drinking Age. Hartford: CT Gen Assem, 2005.
Kiesbye, S. Should the Legal Drinking Age be Lowered? Detroit: Greenhaven, 2013.
Piehl, N. Underage Drinking. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2010. (Juv)
Thurnell-Read, T. Drinking Dilemmas. London: Taylor & Francis, BSA, 2018.
Amethyst Initiative. The Amethyst Initiative is a program of college and university presidents. It promotes discussion about the the age 21 legal drinking age.
Legal Drinking Age Not Up for Debate. PDF download
Carefully follow legal drinking ages. Don’t use the facts here to guide action. Laws often change and courts sometimes re-interpret them.