Driving around New Zealand

Even if you’ve been driving for a lifetime, driving around New Zealand is a bit different to the rest of the world. There are a few things that may seem unique when it comes to our roads – we drive on the left hand side for a start! Over the years we’ve been on our fair share of kiwi road trips. We’ve driven Ninety Mile Beach in the Far North; we’ve zig-zagged the rainforests of the Coromandel and we’ve visited Milford Sound via the Milford Road. So, we reckon we know our stuff when it comes to driving in New Zealand. Here are a few local tips we’ve put together. 

Kiwis drive on the left

Did you know that New Zealand is one of a handful of countries that drive on the left-hand side of the road? British people won’t have a problem with this, but if you’re from North America or Europe this might be a bit hard to get your head around. Also, our cars are made so the driver is on the right and the passenger is on the left; you may find yourself hopping in the wrong side of the car more than once during your vacation! Here’s a quick tip to help you remember what side is the correct one: if you are the driver, you will be closest to the middle of the road; if you are the passenger, you will be closest to the edge of the road. But you know what they say, ‘practice makes perfect’ – have a quick look at AA NZ’s Visiting Driver Training Programme to test your skills driving on New Zealand’s roads before you leave home.

The paperwork involved in driving around New Zealand

If you’re daydreaming about a New Zealand road trip, the first question you have may be can I drive in New Zealand? Yes, you can drive for up to 12 months in New Zealand if you hold a current driver’s permit in English. If your driver’s license isn’t English, you can apply for an International Driver’s License here. A valid translation of your own license is also acceptable. Remember to carry your license (and translation, if necessary) 24/7 when driving as our police force do a great job at patrolling the New Zealand roads.

You’ll probably also want to know the answer to the question do I need car insurance in New Zealand? While it’s not compulsory, we definitely recommend it as a costly accident could put a stop to your New Zealand adventure, and that’s no fun! Third party insurance is a cheaper option and covers you for the cost of any damage you cause to another car.

Mountain road around Lake Pukakai - Driving in New Zealand

Driving to Kiwi conditions

It’s not uncommon to experience four seasons all in one day in New Zealand. It might be bluebird skies and tank top weather in the morning but, by lunchtime, you could be rugged up and sheltering from hail. We reckon you should check the weather report before heading off, especially if you’re travelling New Zealand in winter, as landslides, heavy rain and snow can occur at any time, closing roads and causing delays. If you’re driving in bad conditions, reduce your speed, leave a large gap between you and the car in front of you and turn your lights on. If it’s really wild, consider pulling over in the next town, grabbing a coffee and waiting it out. 

Common road rules and etiquette

For a fun and stress-free vacation, make sure you are clued up on our Kiwi road rules. Not following the law can result in a hefty fine and, more importantly, puts yourself and others at risk.

The main rules to remember are:

  • Keep to the left hand side of the road
  • The driver and all passengers must wear a seatbelt at all times
  • Give way to your right
  • Our maximum speed limit is 50km in urban areas and 100km on the open road
  • It’s illegal to use a cell phone while driving
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol is a crime in New Zealand

Get familiar with all the New Zealand road rules with the NZTA Booklet for Overseas Drivers.

As common courtesy in New Zealand, if you are driving well under the speed limit, pull over in a safe area to let the cars behind you past. When someone does the same for you, a friendly “toot-toot” of your horn says “cheers, mate!”

Watch out for Penguins! Road sign in New Zealand - Driving in NZ

Navigating New Zealand landscapes

We’re pretty used to driving around our backyard. Kiwi roads twist around rugged coastlines, squeeze through narrow river gorges, wind up and over misty mountain passes and, in the country, are sometimes blocked by the odd herd of sheep. As enchanting as these roads may be, they can become dangerous if you aren’t used to them. We want you to stay safe, so drive to the speed limit and make sure you stay alert. Get a good night’s sleep before setting out each morning and make sure you swap drivers or take a break every two hours to stay as bright eyed as possible.

Our winding and hilly roads make it easy to underestimate driving times. On a map, a drive may seem like an easy three hours, but depending on the nature of the terrain it is covering it could easily turn out to be double that. Use AA’s Time and Distance Calculator or ask a local for directions (gas stations or cafes are good places to stop for local advice).

Caution Kiwi! Road sign in New Zealand - Driving in NZ

Keeping both eyes on the road

While we don’t like to brag too much, we reckon kiwi roads are home to some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. Just out the window you’ll see everything from volcanoes to golden beaches, thick rainforests, snowy mountains and sheer granite cliffs (hello, Milford Road). While this may all sound fantastic, our stunning scenery can be a distraction in itself – it’s pretty hard to keep your eyes on the road when you’re zooming past scenery so special it played a starring role as ‘Middle-earth’. While it’s possible to pull over and take plenty of photo stops, a guided tour can be a great alternate option – with an experienced Kiwi guide doing all the driving, you won’t miss a second of our spectacular landscapes.

A top-notch alternative to driving around New Zealand

We understand there is a lot to remember when driving in a foreign country; we would get pretty overwhelmed when thinking about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road too! If you’re worried about tackling our New Zealand roads, why not let someone else the wheel – literally. Here at MoaTrek, we specialize in guided small group tours to all the places we loved to holiday as kids. Let our friendly Kiwi guides take care of all of the driving – we’ll even pick you up from the airport, so you won’t need to worry about transport at all. Sound like you? Take a look at our Kakapo 23-Day small group tour – it’s perfect for that ‘bucket list’ trip down under – then give us a call.

Tours You'll Love

Kakapo 21 Day Tour

The ultimate New Zealand small group itinerary, this is the very best of our country. Milford Sound, Queenstown, Mt Cook, Abel Tasman, Tongariro, Rotorua, the Bay of Islands and a few more surprises. Small friendly groups led by our expert Kiwi Guides.
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