Driving in New Zealand is different to driving in other countries. What do you need to know before getting behind the wheel?

Hiring a car, campervan, or motorhome is a popular way to explore New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes. However, even if you’re used to driving in other places, you need to be aware of things like weather extremes, narrow roads and different road rules before you begin your journey.

Road rules and safety tips

We've answered some of the most common questions around driving in New Zealand. 

Do I need an international driver’s licence to drive in New Zealand?

Yes. If you wish to drive in New Zealand, you must hold a valid international driver's licence or a driving permit accompanied by the driver's licence that the permit is based on.

What side of the road do New Zealanders drive on?

We drive on the left-hand side of the road and our vehicles seat the driver on the right. If you’re used to driving on the right-hand side of the road, this can be a challenge to remember especially when pulling out into traffic. Remember – if you are driving, you must be seated in the middle of the road – your front seat passenger will be the on edge of the road.

What are the road conditions in New Zealand?

New Zealand’s diverse terrain means roads are often narrow, hilly and windy with plenty of sharp corners.

Outside of the main cities, there are very few motorways. Most of our roads are single lane in each direction without barriers in between. You may also encounter gravel roads.

It’s important to allow plenty of time, go slow and pull over in a safe place if traffic wants to pass from behind you. Take plenty of breaks so that you stay alert.

Are there rest areas on New Zealand’s roads?

Yes, there are rest area signs across the roads where you can stop. It is recommended to never drive when you are tired and take regular breaks. It doesn’t matter what country you are driving in; it is extremely dangerous to drive when you are tired.

Visitors to New Zealand might be tired because of jetlag, early starts and late nights, or because they had a long day driving the day before.

Because driving in New Zealand can be very different from other countries, you need to be well-rested and alert – tired drivers are dangerous drivers.

What are the driving distances in New Zealand like?

It’s easy to underestimate drive times when looking at a map. Maps don’t show how narrow and windy roads can be. What might look like a short trip can take a long time.

For example: Hokitika to the town of Haast, a popular drive for visitors stopping to see New Zealand’s glaciers, is 278 kilometres (172 miles) on the map and may look like a short three-hour drive.

However, drivers should allow for up to four hours of driving time because of the windy road. This is common all over New Zealand. Always allow for more time than you think you’ll need. 

What are the weather conditions in New Zealand for driving?

In New Zealand, you might experience four seasons in one day. It’s possible to start your day off with blue sky and sunshine but arrive at your destination in rain and hail. Because of this, weather-related hazards on the road can occur at any time.

Always check the weather forecast before departing, and adjust your plans accordingly. If you’re driving in the South Island in winter, spring or late autumn, snow is a possibility – ensure that you’re carrying snow chains if a cold snap has been forecast. Most rental companies will provide you with chains and demonstrate how to fit them. 

Winter roads can be treacherous.

Snow, ice and fog can be common in winter, especially in the South Island and around mountain passes. Ensure you’re clued up on the weather forecast for the region that you’re driving in, leave large following distances and make sure you’re travelling with snow chains (and know how to fit them).

Be prepared by brushing up on our winter driving tips.

What are the rules on drink driving in New Zealand?

Drink driving is dangerous and New Zealand has strict penalties if you are caught doing so. In New Zealand, the legal drink drive limits for drivers 20 years and over are a breath alcohol limit of 250 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per litre of breath and a blood alcohol limit of 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.  If you’re under 20 there is a zero alcohol limit.

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