What should you know before driving in New Zealand?

If you're used to driving in the city, you should take care when driving on New Zealand's open country roads. We have a good motorway system but weather extremes, the terrain and narrow secondary roads and bridges require drivers to be very vigilant.

You can find out what's different about driving in New Zealand on the NZ Transport Agency website. 

Important road rules

  • Always drive on the left-hand-side of the road.
  • Always keep on or below the legal speed limits indicated on road signs. The maximum speed on any open road is 100km/h. The maximum speed in urban areas is 50km/h. Adjust your speed as conditions demand.
  • When traffic lights are red you must stop. When traffic lights are amber you must stop unless you are so close to the intersection it is unsafe to do so.
  • Do not pass other cars where there are double yellow lines - these indicate that it's too dangerous to overtake.
  • Drivers and passengers must wear seat belts or child restraints at all times, in both front and rear seats.
  • Do not drink and drive. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a crime in New Zealand and strictly enforced by police, with severe penalties for offenders.
  • Signposting follows standard international symbols and all distances are in kilometres (km).

Test out your knowledge of New Zealand's road rules on the Driving Tests website.

Drive to the road conditions

  • Don't underestimate driving times. Although distances may seem short, New Zealand roads often include hilly, narrow or winding terrain, which slow down your journey. If you're used to driving in the city, take care when driving on the open country roads, and watch out for single-lane bridges. 
  • Road conditions are variable. Off the main highways some roads may be unsealed and extra care needs to be taken. A few of these roads are not safe for vehicles and insurance does not cover them - ask your rental car company to mark these roads on your map before setting off. 
  • In winter some roads may be treacherous due to ice or snow, particularly around mountain passes. Look out for signs indicating slippery surfaces in winter and drive slowly - do not brake suddenly on ice. See our winter driving tips for more advice.

Don't drive tired

  • Get plenty of sleep before a long drive. Take regular breaks - one every two hours.
  • Never drive if you are feeling tired, particularly after you have just completed a long-haul flight.

Cycles and Motorbikes

  • Helmets for riders of cycles and motorbikes must be worn at all times.
  • Rear and front lights on cycles are required at night.
  • Motorbikes should drive with a headlight on at all times.
  • Cycling is not permitted on motorways.

International Driving Licences and Permits

You can legally drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months if you have either a current driver's licence from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP). After 12 months you are required to convert to a New Zealand licence. This applies to each visit to New Zealand.

In New Zealand all drivers, including visitors from other countries, must carry their licence or permit at all times when driving. You will only be able to drive the same types of vehicles you are licensed to drive in your home country. The common legal age to rent a car in New Zealand is 21 years.

Make sure your driver's licence is current. If your licence is not fully written English, you must bring an English translation with you or obtain an IDP. Contact your local automobile club for further details about obtaining a translation or an IDP.

A translation of your overseas licence or permit can be issued by:

  • A translator approved by the NZ Transport Agency
  • A diplomatic representative at a high commission, embassy or consulate; or
  • The authority that issued your overseas licence (an international driving permit may be acceptable as a translation).

It is important to note that if you are caught driving without an acceptable English translation or an IDP, you may be prosecuted for driving unlicensed or for driving without an appropriate licence. You will be liable for an infringement fee of NZ$400, or up to NZ$1,000 if you are convicted in court.

The Police also have the power to forbid an unlicensed driver to drive until they have an appropriate licence. If you continue to drive after being forbidden, the vehicle you are driving will be impounded for 28 days, at the vehicle owner's expense. You may also risk not being covered by your insurance in the event of a crash.

More information about driving in New Zealand

Refer to the NZ Transport Agency website for country wide information on New Zealand roads, road rules and vehicle safety. For up to date information on South Island roads you can also call toll free 0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 44 44 49).