New Zealand is a long way from anywhere and that means that after a flight across an ocean, the resultant jet lag compounds the difficulties of coming to grips with an unfamiliar country’s road rules. If you believe the promotional images (and you should), New Zealand is full of spectacular scenery and, unless you are from the minority of countries that drive on the left, everything about driving will be backwards; the driver is now on the other side, as is the gear stick and so is the radio.
The first thing you should do before driving here is to familiarize yourself with the Road Code. This is the national set of road rules, for that, you can read the whole thing on NZ Transport Agency’s website.
We’ll also cover some basics:
1. Measurements and Limits
New Zealand uses the metric system. Our speed signs are in kilometers per hour and our distances are in miles per hour. Speedometers on cars also mainly read in kilometers per hour, or both miles and kilometers. If you are from America or England and clinging to your imperial measurements, the simple rule of thumb is that 30mph (ca. 50 km/h) and 60mph (ca. 100 km/h), or thereabouts.
Those are the two most frequent limits you will come across, being the default urban and open road speed limits respectively. You will see other speed limits, and they are always marked by a red circle with a black number on the white center.
Usually, the police will allow a +9kph tolerance for exceeding the speed limit, except on national holiday weekends and other special occasions when this is reduced to +4kph.
There is a 20kph speed limit past school buses that have stopped to pick up or drop off children – be careful with this because on rural roads at 100kph, you will be exceeding the limit by 80kph and if caught that means the car will be impounded, and you will be disqualified and fined a very large amount.
The default limits through road works are 30kph, unless on a motorway when it is 80kph.
If you see a yellow sign with a speed mark, it is an advisory speed for a corner or road deviation for dry weather. If the weather is wet, take extra care. On some roads, you will see advisory speeds as low as 15kph for sharp turns on loose surfaces.
All speed limits end in 0 and all advisory limits end in 5.
2. Animals on the road
With more cows and sheep than people, it’s likely that you will come across livestock on the road at some point, either escaping from paddocks or being moved by a farmer from one paddock to another. Watch out for mud on the road as a tell-tale sign and for signs like these which indicate common areas where livestock are moved. Take care and follow the farmer’s directions. Note that cows and sheep will often run straight down the road if you chase them rather than running off the road, especially at night. If you come across livestock on the road at night, turn your main beam headlights off so that the livestock can see an escape route, then drive forward slowly.
You must carry your driver’s license with you at all times when driving. You are allowed to drive for 12 months from your date of arrival on a current full overseas license. If you don’t have a full license (i.e. it’s provisional, restricted, or a learner license) then you will need to have a person in the car with you that has had a full license in New Zealand for at least two years.
If your license isn’t in English, then you must carry an authorized English translation with you. You can find more information here.
New Zealand has a set of give-way rules which apply at intersections and roundabouts, which have greater clarity than many from overseas.
At a give-way sign, you must give way to vehicles from the right, left, and those coming straight towards you (if you are turning right).
At a stop sign, you must stop before giving way using the rules above.
There is no free turn on a red traffic light – you must wait for a green arrow, or green light and apply the give-way rules – and you must indicate your direction even if you are in a left-turn-only lane.
If you are turning left, signal left as you approach the roundabout in the left-hand lane.
If you are going straight through, approach the roundabout in any lane that has a straight arrow without indicating, then as you pass the exit just before the one you want to take, indicate left.
If you are turning right, approach the roundabout in the right-hand lane while indicating right. Indicate left just after you pass the exit before the one you want to take, and then exit the roundabout.
There will be plenty of scenic distractions, and we even let you carry children in the car, but one distraction you are not allowed to use is a hand-held cell phone. If you want to use a phone, ensure you are using a hands-free kit or you will be fined.
7. Alcohol, drugs, and safety
As of May 1, 2023, the legal limit for alcohol is 50 mg per 100ml of blood or 0.05% for drivers aged 20 and over; it’s a zero limit for drivers under 20. There is zero tolerance for illegal drug use behind the wheel, and some prescription drugs are also prohibited – check with your doctor before bringing them to New Zealand.
You must always wear your seatbelt in the car, and children aged 0-6 must be in an approved child seat. You can get these from the rental car company.
Our parking markings differ from the UK, Australia, and the USA. If you see a broken yellow line on the side of the road, this means no parking at any time. You’ll also see these around bus stops to remind you not to park there, too. If you see a clearway sign, it will have times that you are not allowed to park. If you do, you will be towed.
9. Quaint rural features
Due to New Zealand’s low population density, there isn’t always the money or the necessity to make bridges that take two lanes of traffic or to put lights and warning sirens on railway crossings. You’ll find this mostly in rural areas, but occasionally they will be on main tourist routes such as the Thames Coast road (as pictured). Be careful of both of these. If you approach a sign like this, it means that you don’t have the right-of-way over a one-lane bridge.
Finally, courtesy is important on New Zealand’s roads. Many of them are narrow and winding with few areas to pass, so if you are on a scenic ‘tiki tour’ (that’s what we call it when you’re meandering around the countryside looking at nature in all its glory), then make sure you keep to the left and pull over frequently to let other drivers past.