Driving in New Zealand for Tourists
Do you long for open roads with little traffic, deep valleys, covered in lush vegetation? Are you a fan of road trips in beautiful locations? You are going to love driving in New Zealand!
Driving in some parts of the world is a soulless affair thanks to modern motorways, toll roads, traffic, and lack of scenery. That’s not the case down in our corner of the world. New Zealand’s roads are in many cases, tourist attractions all of their own, once you've driven the Milford Road, the Haast World Heritage Highway or Great Alpine Highway over Arthur's Pass you'll see what we mean. Tourists flock to this small country on the edge of the world to drive some of the most scenic routes on the planet.
We're MoaTrek and we've been driving all over New Zealand for years on our small group tours, and reckon we're the perfect people to share a few tips on driving in our neck of the woods. Here's our handy guide to driving in New Zealand and whether you can drive here on a US, Australian or British licence too.
New Zealand is a lightly populated country. With just 4 million inhabitants in a landmass the size of the United Kingdom, there are plenty of places to get away from the crowds. Granted, the road network is not as extensive as in the USA, parts of Europe and the UK, so all traffic is limited to the few roads available. Despite that, you can sometimes drive for an hour in New Zealand without seeing another driver. Traffic lights are few and far between outside of main cities and toll roads are limited to a handful on the North Island. If you’ve made up your mind to hit the open road, here are a few tips to make the experience a happy one.
Can I drive in New Zealand on my licence?
You’ll need a full driving licence to drive in New Zealand. Presuming you’ll be renting a car within a year of arriving, you won’t need any special endorsements on your licence. The one you use in your home country is good enough if it’s in English. If not, you’ll need an International Driving Permit.
And now the most important news: In New Zealand, we drive on the left. That’s great news for drivers from the UK, Ireland, Japan, South Africa, Thailand and a few other nations. For everyone else, including those of you from North America and Europe, we recommend caution when driving for the first time on the "wrong" side of the road. Changing sides of the road is something lots of people do regularly, but don't take it lightly and allow plenty of time to get into the “mode”.
The speed limit here is measured in kilometres per hour. The speed limit on the open road is 100 kph, which is roughly 60 mph. Our American friends might need to familiarise themselves with the speed limits and also the road signage. A large red circle surrounding the speed limit on a white background is the standard.
To get ready for your trip, you can practise the New Zealand road code on this website.
Driving in New Zealand with a US license
Visitors from the US don’t need any special endorsements on their driving license. US citizens that have driven in other countries may be aware of the International Driving Permit, which works as an official translation into several foreign languages. In NZ, we speak your language (mostly!) so you won’t need it. As long as you are visiting New Zealand for a short time you won’t have to get any extra documentation. Take your time when approaching roundabouts and remember to look to the right for approaching traffic. Take your time and don’t rush. You might be surprised to find that rental cars are mostly small Japanese or Korean models. SUVs and larger American cars are quite expensive to rent and difficult to find.
Driving in New Zealand with an Australian licence
Our Aussie cousins are welcome to drive in New Zealand without any extra documentation. Car rental companies will have different rules based on age and licence type (learner, provisional, etc) but in most cases, Australian and New Zealand road rules and car rental requirements are similar.
Driving in New Zealand with a British licence
If you’re coming from the mother country and expect everything to be the same, well you’ll be pleased. We not only speak the same language, we drive on the same side of the road, and we like the same sports. A UK driving licence is valid for one year in New Zealand. After which time you will need to pass the NZ driving test. You can only drive the same type of vehicles that you are permitted to drive back home.
On the road in New Zealand
In general, Kiwis are friendly and courteous and look out for visitors, especially out of the cities. It always makes me smile when I see several motorists stopping to help a driver whose car has broken down, or is in distress. New Zealanders are handy with tools of any kind and amateur mechanics are never too far away.
Boy racer culture can be seen quite clearly in certain parts of the country but most of this is limited to the main cities. Speeding motorcyclists prefer to use long straight stretches of motorway.
The NZ police might pull you over or flag you down as you’re driving. There’s nothing to worry about if you’ve been following the road rules. Carry your licence at all times, as this is the first thing the police will ask for. You don’t want to spend your precious holiday time travelling to a police station to present the documentation at a later stage.
You’ll find that the police here are friendly and courteous. They might even call you “mate”. It’s not a sign of disrespect. It’s just the Kiwi way. You’ll get used to it and even get to love it.
New Zealand roads are unbelievably scenic!
The scenery in both the North and South Islands is awesome and it can be easy to lose yourself in thought. If you get tired from driving long distances look out for signs that show a picnic table and tree. Stop at these areas to rest, stretch, or eat your New Zealand lamb sandwiches. Break up long distances to avoid fatigue.
Wherever a major road passes by a scenic valley, waterfall, or landmark, there is sure to be a viewpoint. We’ve built New Zealand roads with plenty of Instagram-friendly vantage points so we can show off our beautiful country. But please don’t stop your car near bends for (we hope) obvious reasons. Another advantage of using these viewpoints is that other motorists stop there too. If you’re driving solo or you want a group photo with the stunning view, you can ask someone to take a snap.
The west coast of the South Island is one of the wettest places on earth and although floods are rare, you will definitely need to take extra precaution when it’s bucketing down. The driving rain can also make it pretty difficult to see the road ahead. We don’t recommend navigating these roads at night in the rain. Drive slower if you have to head out in bad weather and be doubly conscious of other traffic.
If you fancy a bit of skiing or snowboarding then, depending on the weather and the area, you might need chains on your vehicle to climb the mountain roads. Accidents are very rare but exercise all caution.
Driving Times and Distances
Don’t expect journeys to take the same amount of time that they would back home. Distances in New Zealand can be misleading if you’re planning a trip. Winding, undulating roads are the norm. Though there are long stretches of straight open road, the majority of journeys will be spent driving through scenery that will literally make you stop in admiration. Expect the wonderful countryside to slow you down. But that’s not a bad thing.
It would take you around 3 days to drive from the top of New Zealand to the bottom, driving like the clappers and not stopping to enjoy the view. But don’t do that! If Google Maps tells you the driving time is one hour, add 20 minutes to that number. You have to account for photo stops, caravan drivers, sheep, and various other things that will make the journey a bit longer than expected.
What are all those brown lumps on the road?
Don’t panic if you see lots of brown coloured bumps all over the roads. 99% of this furry mess is possum. Be prepared to see a lot of road kill. But don’t get too upset. One less possum means more breathing space for the indigenous flora and fauna of New Zealand. The possum is a pest that destroys New Zealand’s natural environment and the government has a bounty on their heads. So, as much as we all like to be kind to animals, don’t feel guilty if you run over a possum. You’re actually saving New Zealand and you'll notice that the locals will applaud you if you do manage to take one out.
Driving in New Zealand not for you? Take a tour.
Driving on the "wrong" side of the road, in an unfamiliar car, on our windy narrow roads aren't for everyone.
If you're unsure about driving yourself and would rather someone else takes care of all that, then we have the solution. Join us on one of our small group tours. We’re MoaTrek. We’ve spent all our lives holidaying all over New Zealand, we’ve driven these roads and know the best spots. Our guests love not having to worry about the driving and our Kiwi Guides will introduce you to the best little spots that you would never find on your own. Find out more about our tours here, or drop us a line now if you'd like to chat about your trip to New Zealand!