The Complete Guide to Driving in New Zealand
Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a New Zealand road trip! There may be a few differences between driving in New Zealand and how you drive at home. The biggest change for some is driving on the left side of the road, so this is something you need to get used to. Nevertheless, there are many great reasons to take a road trip in New Zealand. Learning these little changes in your driving habits is well worth it.
Check out our guide below on how to drive in New Zealand, what license you need, how to get a vehicle and more before departing on your great road trip. That way, you will not be hit with any unexpected fines that otherwise could have been easily avoided.
Before we begin, be sure to bookmark The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand for even more tips.
What Rules Do You Need to Know for Driving in New Zealand?
We are glad you asked, your safety-conscious so-and-so! This guide will point out how driving in New Zealand differs from other countries, including:
- You must hold a valid driving license
- Keep left and know how to use intersections
- Wear a seatbelt and children 7 and under need a restraint
- Respect the speed limit
- Stop at red lights and stop signs
- Know how one-way bridges work
- Overtake only when it’s safe and use passing lanes
- It is illegal to use a cellphone while driving
- It is illegal to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Know how to use roundabouts
- Know all of the give-way rules for T-intersections and oncoming traffic
- Park on the side of the road in the same direction as traffic
- Slow down for animals
- Stop for pedestrians
- Slow down and slowly overtake cyclists
- Know how to use rail crossings
- Take into account the longer travel times when planning
- Wear a seatbelt!
We cover these driving rules in detail in the driving guide below.
What License Do I Need to Drive in New Zealand?
In order to drive legally in New Zealand, you must have a valid driver’s license available while you are driving. The license must be in English or have a valid form of an English translation. The easiest way to get around this is by getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic. Find out how to apply for an IDP in Why You Need an IDP for New Zealand.
Note that an approved translation or IDP must be accompanied by your original driver’s license these are based on.
The license must be up-to-date for your whole stay in New Zealand. You can drive on an overseas driving license for up to 12 months from the date you arrived in New Zealand. After that, you can use it for another 12 months only if you leave and return to the country. Alternatively, you’ll need to get a New Zealand driver’s license, which is also a valid form of ID when buying alcohol.
See how to convert your overseas driver’s license into a New Zealand driver’s license in our How to Convert Your Overseas License to a New Zealand Driver’s License.
What is Driving in New Zealand Like?
Driving in New Zealand is a mixture of experiences. The country has diverse terrain with long straight motorways in some areas and narrow winding roads in others. As a rule of thumb, it always takes a little bit longer to drive the same distance as back home.
Outside of the main cities, like Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, there are very few multi-lane motorways. Most of the “State Highways” are two-way roads with one lane in each direction and no barriers in between. In rural areas, gravel (unsealed) roads are common.
New Zealand’s roads aren’t particularly busy unless you’re in a city or a large town. However, they do get busier between December and April. See The Best Time to Visit New Zealand to find out why.
The frequent change in weather conditions can also make New Zealand feel different to drive in. You need to be aware of slowing down when roads are wet and be extra cautious when driving in winter.
Contrary to popular belief, New Zealand’s roads are not “full of snow” in winter. Most roads are below the snowline, where the maritime climate makes it more likely to rain than snow. However, snow chains are recommended in a few instances, such as if travelling up ski field roads or over the South Island’s mountain passes in winter.
Is Driving in New Zealand Difficult?
Driving in New Zealand is not particularly difficult as long as you drive appropriate to the road conditions, i.e. slowing down on winding roads and gravel roads. Driving is perhaps the most difficult in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch where there is the most traffic.
Do I Need a 4×4 in New Zealand?
You absolutely do not need a 4×4 or 4WD in New Zealand. The roads where most visitors go are either tar-sealed or well-maintained gravel roads that are suitable for 2WD vehicles. Only in rare instances, like accessing some ski fields in winter and remote backcountry areas, do you need a 4WD. For more information on what type of car is suitable for New Zealand, check out What is the Best Type of Car to Rent in New Zealand?
New Zealand Road Rules: Explained!
At the beginning of this guide, we listed some quick New Zealand road rules to know. For elaboration on the New Zealand road rules, stick around or check out our in-depth guide, The 15 Essential Driving Rules in New Zealand.
Which Side of the Road Does New Zealand Drive?
Here in New Zealand, we drive on the left side of the road. It’s easy to forget if pulling out from an intersection, but always remember to keep left!
New Zealand Give Way Rules
Speaking of intersections, you must give way to oncoming vehicles that are not turning. Use your indicator to show which way you are turning.
When at an intersection with a traffic light, you cannot turn left when the traffic light is red. Once the light turns green, you must give way to pedestrians crossing the road before turning.
Additionally, you need to give way to vehicles if:
- you are turning right and the oncoming traffic is also turning right,
- there is traffic at the top of a T-intersection and you are on the bottom of the T (think “top of the T goes before me!”),
- and vehicles are turning left if you are turning right.
It’s pretty confusing, so take a look at some diagrams over on the NZ Transport Agency website for examples.
Cellphones, Alcohol and Drugs
No this is not a list for a modern-day rave; these are limitations while driving. It is illegal to use a hand-held phone while driving. You must use a hands-free device if you want to chatter to your mates while driving.
Additionally, don’t drink and/or use drugs then drive. Although there is an alcohol limit for driving in New Zealand, it is best to not drink and drive at all.
Overtaking in New Zealand
Obviously, only overtake when you can see it is safe to. Most roads are two-way with one lane in each direction. Some roads have passing lanes, which is your best option for overtaking.
If there is a solid yellow line in the middle of your side of the road, this indicates it is too dangerous to overtake.
If you start to get a line of vehicles driving behind, keep an eye out for a safe place to pull over and let them pass. Unfortunately, a lot of drivers tailgate in New Zealand. Again, if there’s a car behind making you feel uncomfortable (and you probably don’t want dangerous drivers behind you), just pull over and let them pass only when it is safe to do so.
Parking on the Side of the Road
Where you are permitted to park on the side of the road, you must park in the same direction as the flow of traffic. On one-way roads, you can park in either direction.
The New Zealand Speed Limits
There are signs on New Zealand’s roads indicating the maximum speed you can drive on that road. Obviously, it’s not a challenge to reach that speed limit, some roads are winding or the weather can be bad so keep your speed accordingly.
New Zealand speed limits are measured in kilometres per hour. On most rural roads, the limit is 100km/h. In urban areas, it tends to be 50km/h. You will also see recommended speeds for sharp corners signposted.
Many bridges in New Zealand are single-lane bridges. At the entrance to one-lane bridges, there will be a sign with a black or white arrow showing which side of the road gets priority. The small red arrow must give way to the larger black/white arrow.
For rail crossings, only around half of the crossings have lights. When lights are flashing, stop and only proceed once the lights have stopped flashing. Other crossings have signs. If a sign says stop, you must stop your vehicle and only proceed if there is no train approaching. If there is a give way sign, make sure to slow down as you approach the crossing so you are ready to stop in case a train comes.
Everyone Must Wear a Seatbelt
Seatbelts are mandatory for the driver and all passengers in New Zealand. Child restraints are required for children under seven years old.
That’s a rundown of some of the most important road rules for driving in New Zealand. For more, check out The 15 Essential Driving Rules in New Zealand
New Zealand’s Driving Hazards
Extra hazards you might find in New Zealand are the winter conditions, animals on the road, and gravel roads. The slippery surface sign shows that the road is hazardous when wet or icy, so keep your speed down and avoid braking suddenly. If you are going through a snowy mountain pass or driving up a mountain to a ski field, for example, make sure you have chains and know how to fit them before tackling the snow.
From all the hilarious “animal on the road” photos that come out of New Zealand, it is obvious that cars are not the only thing you share the road with. If you see farm animals on the road, slow down or stop to let the animals move past. You may need to move slowly behind the animals if they are walking up the road. A farmer might give you some instructions. Basically, don’t run animals over and don’t sound your horn at them in case they get startled.
Drive on gravel roads slowly and carefully, as they can be narrow and slippery. Slow down further when approaching oncoming traffic because dust can obscure visibility and loose stones might chip your windscreen.
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What You Need to Know About Travelling Times in New Zealand
What may seem like a short distance on the map can actually be much longer in reality. As New Zealand roads tend to be winding, hilly and narrow, this can add to your travel time. Keep this in mind when planning to travel, so you don’t end up rushing to get to your destination.
Check and Double-Check Your GPS Route!
Some GPS apps and systems will propose the fastest route to your destination but not necessarily the best route. For instance, a narrow and winding logging road might be the fastest route to your destination in kilometres, but the road might not be ideal for your rental car or campervan. Check with a paper map or on the satellite view of your GPS that you will be following a proper road.
Allow Extra Time onto Your Estimated Travel Time
The New Zealand roads are winding and are sometimes gravel roads, which means you’ll be driving slower. Always add a bit of contingency time to your estimated travel times. Note that GPS travel times are more likely to be accurate on the main roads of the North Island than on the South Island.
Use the Rest Stops and/or Plan Breaks
Along New Zealand roads, rest stops on the side of the highways are clearly signposted with a picnic table icon. These are safe places to pull over, stretch your legs and have a break from the long drive. Better than rest stops, plan some amazing places to stop along the way.
To see how long it takes to drive around New Zealand, check out The New Zealand Driving Times You Need to Know.
Getting a Vehicle in New Zealand
It might seem obvious but one of the essentials of driving in New Zealand is the vehicle itself. So, how do you go about getting a car in New Zealand?
Should You Buy or Rent a Car in New Zealand?
Deciding on whether to buy or rent a car in New Zealand basically depends on how much time you have in New Zealand. If you plan to be in New Zealand for less than a month, then renting a car is the fastest no-nonsense way of getting on the road quickly. On the other hand, buying a car is much more cost-effective if you plan to be in New Zealand and need to use a vehicle for much longer.
Each method has its pros and cons, for instance, renting a car is much more straightforward than buying a car, which is often time-consuming and requires maintenance. Nevertheless, if it’s not obvious whether you should buy or rent a car to travel New Zealand then take a look at our complete guide, Should You Rent or Buy a Vehicle to Travel New Zealand?
How to Rent a Car in New Zealand
It’s simple. Compare car rental companies by following the tips in How to Compare Car and Campervan Rental Companies in New Zealand and simply make a booking with your desired dates and pick-up/drop-off locations. When you make a booking, you will either have to pay the price of your rental in full or make a non-refundable deposit. Either way, when you rent a car in New Zealand you pay for the rental before you drive the car, not when you drop it off.
The Best Car Rental Companies in New Zealand
While we’re here, we might as well share with you some of the best car rental companies in New Zealand. Check out the links to rental company comparisons based on pick-up locations:
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Auckland
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Wellington
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Christchurch
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Queenstown
- The Best Car Rental Companies in New Zealand
Plus, check out RentalCars.com for cheap car rental deals.
New Zealand Car Relocations
It’s also worth mentioning car relocations, which can actually be the cheapest type of car rental in New Zealand! This is when rental companies need to relocate vehicles from one depot to another, often offering the rental for free! The downside is that usually the relocation is required to be completed within just a few days. Find if it’s the right option for you by checking out our full car relocation guide, New Zealand Car Relocations: How to Get Free Car Hire.
For much more details on the car rental process, be sure to check out Renting a Car in New Zealand: The Essential Guide.
How to Buy a Car in New Zealand
Because buying a car is usually a large investment, you will really want to make sure you follow all the necessary steps when buying a car. You can find cars listed on backpacker or city/town Facebook Groups, the New Zealand auction site TradeMe, car dealerships, even hostel notice boards and more. Use a combination of these, as well as what we mention in 5 Ways to Find a Car for Sale in New Zealand to find some vehicles quickly.
Next, you will need to arrange a car viewing with the seller. Make sure to inspect the car for any faults, do a test drive and make sure the vehicle has all the necessary certificates, such as a Warrant of Fitness (WOF), which is a legal requirement to drive on New Zealand roads. There’s a lot to go through but don’t worry, we go through it all in Buying a Car in New Zealand: Step by Step.
Gas Stations in New Zealand
New Zealand is well supplied with gas stations. There are approximately 1,300 gas stations in New Zealand. The most abundant gas station chains you’ll find are BP, Mobil and Z, while smaller (and often cheaper) gas station operators are Gull, Waitomo and Allied. In our experience, we have found that the most expensive gas station is usually Z and the cheapest gas stations are usually Gull, Waitomo and Allied.
Gas stations in New Zealand are a mix between self-service stations, full-service stations (where an attendant fills up the fuel in your vehicle) and stations where you fill up your own fuel and pay in the shop by telling the cashier your pump number.
For the most recent gas prices in New Zealand, head to NZ Travel Budget: How Much Does a Trip to New Zealand Cost? or The Cost of Renting a Car or Campervan in New Zealand: FULL Guide.
Note that many gas stations also have charging stations for electric vehicles. Check out NZ EV Rental Guide: Hiring an Electric Car in New Zealand for more details.
Frequently Asked Questions About Driving in New Zealand
Still have some questions about driving in New Zealand? These answers to frequently asked questions might help!
Is an Australian License Valid in New Zealand?
Yes, because an Australian driver’s license is written in English, it is a valid form of license for driving in New Zealand for up to 12 months.
Is a US License Valid in New Zealand?
Yes, because a US driver’s license is written in English, it is a valid form of license for driving in New Zealand for up to 12 months.
Can I Drive in New Zealand with a Foreign License?
Yes, you can drive in New Zealand on a foreign license as long as it is a full valid license that is written in English. If it is not written in English, it needs to be accompanied by an approved translation on an IDP.
Do I Need Snow Chains in New Zealand?
Most roads are below the snowline, where the maritime climate makes it more likely to rain than snow, so not everyone needs snow chains in New Zealand. However, snow chains are recommended in a few instances, such as if travelling up ski field roads or over the South Island’s mountain passes in winter.
Is it Safe to Drive in New Zealand in Winter?
It is generally safe to drive in New Zealand in winter, as long as you drive to the conditions and have snow chains available if driving into mountainous areas, like ski fields or mountain passes on the South Island. Check the NZ Transport Agency‘s website for road closures and warnings.
What Do They Call Gas Stations in New Zealand?
Gas stations in New Zealand are commonly known as service stations, petrol stations or “a garage”.
More About Driving in New Zealand
That’s it for our complete guide to driving in New Zealand. For more driving tips, check out our other handy articles:
- 10 Most Beautiful Roads in New Zealand
- The North Island Scenic State Highways
- The South Island Scenic State Highways
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in Travel by Car: How to Plan a Road Trip in New Zealand.