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Congo Driving Guide 2020

Driving in Congo is not so different to driving in the USA, as long as you have an International Driving Permit and an understanding of the basic rules.

Lisa Brown

February 11, 2020

INTRODUCTION

With the country so spread out and difficult to access using public transportation, driving in Congo is something that is practically unavoidable when you go there on a trip. Sometimes, you can find drivers that will take you to-and-fro within the country, but because of the famously unsafe and unstable conditions for tourists that are exacerbated by its residents, it is usually recommended that if you must travel by car within country borders, that you do so yourself.

The public transportation options in Congo are spotty at best. A lot of the time, you will only find public transportation in the two main cities of Congo; however, it is strongly advised not to use public transportation—especially the public buses. While there have been no recent reports of crimes against tourists on buses, it is still a threat to your safety should you climb aboard a bus. The taxis are also wishy-washy at best; there is no designated national taxi cab agency, just independent drivers who have obtained their commercial licenses. Some of the taxis that have designated colors painted on them are safer than others, but you could still run the risk of running into danger.

Even with the potential for danger in Congo, visitors still flock there every year for the natural aspects of it. Congo is a fantastically green region of Africa and surprises visitors just how luxurious the vegetation is and the number of animals there are to enjoy and learn about. The main attraction of Congo is what is known as primate tourism, where people can have encounters with the mountain gorillas that live there. These animals are typically found in the Virunga Massif, which is a chain of eight volcanoes that provide an interesting attraction on their own.
Some of the most popular attractions outside of primate tourism include:

  • The city of Kinshasa, a bustling city and cultural center
  • Nyiragongo Volcano, an active volcano and lava lake
  • Virunga National Park and Garamba National Park, both of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage site full of safari animals and exotic birds
  • Lake Kivu, the sixth largest lake in Africa
  • Salonga National Park, home to Africa’s largest tropical rainforest
  • Kisangani, a shopping hub with plenty of local restaurants and gorgeous architecture

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in Congo.

If you’re intending to drive in Congo, it’s important to note that driving in Congo with a US license is not an option. This is due to the fact that the driving law in Congo does not accept a United States license, only a Congolese national one or an international one in the case of a foreign traveler. Even though you won’t be able to go driving in Congo with an American license, you can obtain an international driving permit to get you rolling without breaking the law.

While obtaining an international driving permit might seem like a nuisance by adding another step toward planning your vacation to the Congo, fortunately enough, it is pretty simple to obtain. The only thing you’ll need to do in order to get an international driving permit is filled out some basic information from your existing license while also giving any personal information needed to complete the form, and you’ll have an international driving license in a matter of days. To make it even simpler, there is an expedited service that will allow you to receive your international driving permit electronically the very same day.

No matter what reason you have for driving in Congo, chances are you are eligible to get the international permit you need. The only requirement for obtaining an international permit is that you are a minimum of 18 years of age and have already had a driver’s license for at least six months before the application.

Once you have obtained your international driver’s license, it will be valid for an entire year from the date that it was issued to you. This is especially convenient for those who are planning several trips to Congo within a year, as you’ll only need to apply one time and can get plenty of repeat use from it.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Congo, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

What Side of the Road Do They Drive on in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

One of the most common questions travelers have when they are planning to drive in a foreign country is: what side of the road do they drive on? For travelers coming to Congo from the United States, it may please you to know that Congolese people drive on the right-hand side of the road, which is how it is done in America. For a US citizen driving in Congo, this will be good news, as this also means that driving US car in Congo is totally legal and will, therefore, make you feel more comfortable and confident while driving on your trip overseas. Without having to worry about getting adjusted to a new driving style, you can focus on safely navigating the roads, which have been reported to be pretty unsafe.

While the driving direction in Congo may come as a relief to some, it is posing a bit of a problem for the natives. Congo is going through the process of banning cars that feature right-hand drive orientations in an effort to make improvements on the safety of the roads there, which are in dire need of repair. This has caused an uproar with the people of Congo, especially in the south and eastern regions of the country where many of the vehicles have the steering wheel positioned on the right. Most of the cars in these regions of the country are typically imported from Asia through its neighboring countries of Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia, which are former colonies of Britain that use right-hand drive cars. As for drivers in the west of Congo, their cars are typically brought in from continental Europe where left-hand-drive cars are already the norm. This issue stirred up quite the controversy within the borders of the country.

Gilles-Benjamin Saidi Kampene, the President of the National Road Safety Commission in Congo, says that the reason for this shift is because vehicles that have right-side steering wheels are more likely to cause accidents on roads where driving on the right side is the norm. Even so, many drivers across Congo view the ban as unrealistic and unfair. Many struggles with being able to afford to buy a new car, let alone go about what they consider the difficult process of driving a left-hand vehicle after driving a right-hand model for so long.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

What Is the Driving Age in Congo?

Once you feel comfortable with the types of cars that are driven in Congo and on which side of the road they are driven on, you can start thinking about the actual logistics of driving in Congo. When you begin looking into the process and procedures, one of the questions you will need to think about is, “what is the driving age in Congo?” Driving ages vary around the world, and while a traveler from the United States might be hoping to be able to drive in Congo as early as they would in the United States, which is 16 or 18 years of age depending on the state, that is not the case. The driving laws in Congo are not the same as the driving laws of the United States.

In fact, the driving age in Congo is a few years behind that of the United States, as the law requires that you are at least 18 years of age to take to the road. As mentioned before, you cannot use a US driving license in Congo, so you will need to get an international permit. In this way, the legal driving age in Congo aligns perfectly with the requirements needed to obtain the international driver’s license that you are going to need to drive in the first place.

Is it Easy to Rent a Car in Congo?

When it comes to driving in Congo vs US, the process of renting a car is one of the ways that these two places can be quite similar. So long as you come prepared with your international driver’s permit, your national driver’s license and your payment card, you will see that renting a car in Congo is fairly similar to renting one in the United States or elsewhere. Sometimes, you may even see car rental companies that you are familiar with, especially if you are renting at the airport. For your convenience, it would be best to go ahead and rent the car at the airport, so you are in control of your travels right out of the gate. You also won’t have to worry about obtaining a car later in a place you aren’t familiar with.

 

1. Book Earlier for a Better Deal

Just like it is in the States and in some other parts of the world, it is usually true that the earlier you reserve a rental car, the better the price. By booking earlier, you can keep an eye on the prices as they ebb and flow during the time you are preparing for your trip, letting you grab the best deal well in advance. The latest you should wait to book your car is two weeks before you are set to arrive, just to be sure everything is in place. This will also afford you the peace of mind as you tie up loose ends for your trip that you’ll be driving in Congo in a car you are comfortable with and without breaking the bank.

The most popular cars rented in Congo are Economy class vehicles such as a Hyundai Accent or other similar cars, although you should make sure that no matter what type of vehicle you rent, you are getting one that has 4-wheel drive. Prices typically average around USD $86 per day or $599 per week. The most popular locations to rent a car in Congo are Lubumbashi and Kinshasa.

 

2. Be Mindful of the Terrain

As stated, in Congo, it is recommended that you choose a vehicle with 4-wheel drive due to the terrain of the country. You are going to a vehicle that can handle all of the bumps and weather, so you won’t have to worry about getting stuck or stranded somewhere. Typically, Congo is thought to be a pretty dangerous place to drive, so you want to eliminate the chance of getting stuck somewhere without help as much as you are able to. The fact that most roads are not paved is already working against you.

Just like many other countries, you can expect the terrain in Congo to be diverse. The terrain varies greatly depending on where you are in the country. The center of Congo is a plateau that is mostly covered by lush tropical rainforests that could pose quite a driving challenge if you don’t have a lot of experience driving in this type of terrain, no matter where you call home.

In the south and southwest of the country are plains and savanna, while you will find grasslands in the north and mountains in the west. Visitors who intend to tour the mountainous western portion of Congo will specifically benefit from a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

 

3. Consider Insurance

Just like you had to think about driving in Congo with a foreign license, you also need to think about insurance, which is another crucial issue when driving almost anywhere in the world. Driving in Congo with US insurance may or may not be possible; it all comes down to the type of insurance you have and the company you get it from. Before applying for an international driver’s license and well before booking your trip, it is important to check with your own insurance agency to determine whether or not you are covered. You may have to obtain international coverage in that case, but be mindful—some insurance won’t cover driving in Congo at all due to conditions.

4. Think About Fuel
Much like when renting a car in the United States, in order to save money and time, you should think about how you want to treat the fuel for your rented car. Are you looking to save time by prepaying for the tank, making it full and bringing it back empty? Or do you want to bring it back full to avoid those costs? Usually, if there is an option for prepayment, that is how you are going to ensure that you are getting the best price for gas, as this typically will be cheaper than fueling up at a gas station. Furthermore, by the time you drive from the gas station back to the rental car location, you might have used enough that you end up getting charged for fuel anyway. Talk to the desk agent at the rental car location and let them help you understand how much fuel is expected to be in the car when you return it so you can make a more informed decision.

5. Make the Process Quick by Bringing the Right Documentation

Once you have the car selected, the insurance handed over and the arrangements for the gas agreed to, you’ll just need to pass over any documents they need, pay the amount that is due and grab the keys. The items you’ll need include your international driver’s permit, your driver’s license, and your payment card. Usually, Visa, American Express and Master Card can be used in these situations, but check with the place you intend to rent from before you rent just to be safe and to make sure you don’t end up without proper payment when you’re trying to walk out of the door.

Driving in US vs Congo – What are the Differences?

Naturally, when you are planning to drive where you have never before driven in, you will be wondering what it will be like driving in Congo vs US. Before embarking on a trip to Congo, it is important to know about the various road conditions that you may encounter in Congo so you can prepare, especially because many of the conditions are different from what you might encounter in the US.

Generally speaking, traffic safety in Congo is quite poor due to various hazards that are not as common in the United States. Most of the hazards come in the form of the high speeds that motorists often travel in Congo, and when paired with the aggressive driving that often takes place, this can be a recipe for disaster. It isn’t only when driving a car that you’ll have to worry about other motorists, however; there seems to be a bit of indifference toward pedestrians and those on bicycles as well, resulting in many accidents involving both. Finally, the vehicles in Congo are known to be rather poorly maintained, which only makes the issue of safety on the roads in Congo worse.

The conditions of the road are also considered to be quite poor when you compare them to the health of the overall infrastructure of the United States. If you are traveling during the rainy season between November to May, you may note that they are particularly bad because of the rain deteriorating them. The main road linking Pointe Noire and Brazzaville, known as The National Highway 2, is mostly unpaved. Because of this, during the rainy season, it can be impassable in some places. There are few paved roads in Congo, and those that are paved are poorly maintained. If you want to travel easily across these roads or especially off of the main roads, you will definitely need a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Traveling in rural areas is a bit similar to how it is in the US; it could be difficult regardless of the conditions of the roads because finding diesel fuel or unleaded gas can be particularly difficult. This is also true in major cities, but it is even harder to find these types of gas in the more isolated areas of Congo. Another difficulty in rural regions that Americans haven’t experienced in their own country are the many checkpoints throughout the countryside that are not marked clearly. Beyond that, they are often manned by soldiers considered largely to be undisciplined, so these areas need to be embarked into with caution.

When it comes to public transportation like buses, it is strongly discouraged for you to use them likely due to the conditions of the vehicle itself. Traveling in a taxi cab is a better option more often than not. Even though there are no taxi companies that are officially registered in Pointe Noire or Brazzaville, all taxis have to have a legal operator permit. It used to be notoriously unsafe for Americans to take taxis in Congo, but in the last few years, there have been no criminal incidents reported. Even so, it is important to hire only the blue and white painted cabs in Pointe Noire, and the green and white painted taxis in Brazzaville, as those are the reputable and therefore the safest ones.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Travel Advisory and Tips for Driving in Congo

It is generally considered very unsafe to travel in Congo, and it is recommended that you reconsider your travel to Congo if you can because of it. This is due to various issues, though the main ones are civil unrest, crime, and Ebola. If you are traveling to Congo, avoid traveling to Ituri and North Kivu provinces because of the present threat of terrorism. Avoid Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu because of Ebola. Finally, avoid traveling to the eastern region of the country as well as the three different Kasai provinces because of kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest and general crime. Some of the crime comes from a surprising source—the mineral tantalum. Tantalum is a valuable commodity used in cell phones that is driving much of the violence in Congo Tantalum is commonly mined in Congo due to the high concentration of it and is therefore considered to be quite precious and worth fighting for.

A crime like an armed home invasion, armed robbery and assault are common threats, as well as violent crimes, and because of the lack of police presence, it can be hard to keep yourself safe. If you do travel, avoid public demonstrations as they often turn violent, and always carry a copy of your visa and your passport while keeping the originals in a secure place. In most places in the United States, it is generally safer to travel in a car than it is on foot, but that isn’t necessarily the case in Congo. In fact, it can be nearly equally as dangerous to travel by car as it is to walk depending on where you are in the country, so it is important to exercise caution while doing both.

It is also important that, before you travel, you check with medical professionals for advice on how to avoid illnesses in Congo. You should also check Travel notices on both Ebola and general health on the CDC website before you travel. While Ebola is the main pressing threat to your health in Congo, there are many other illnesses that present similar symptoms. You will need to know how to recognize your symptoms in the event that the medical advice you received and the preparations you took did not help you protect yourself. If you do end up contracting Ebola, you risk quarantine, delayed travel and exorbitantly priced medical bills both abroad and even once you return to the United States.

What Are the Most Important Driving Rules in Congo?

Driving law in Congo shares similarities with the United States, but there are some differences that you need to prepare for. As stated, driving in Congo is famous for being a dangerous activity, and in most cases, doing so at all let alone on your own is not recommended. Even so, if you do intend to drive in Congo, do so cautiously and with the driving rules in mind.

For instance, while Distracted Driving isn’t technically an offense punishable by law in Congo like it is in the United States, cops could still pull you over for driving while talking or texting. While driving while distracted by phone is already unsafe on its own, it is especially unsafe in Congo. It is important that you are vigilant and attentive when driving in this country due to the usually dangerous nature of it—that includes both the terrain made difficult by a combination of the weather and the road conditions as well as the people and events you might encounter while driving.

Of course, driving under the influence in Congo is against the law as well, and it is illegal at the national level. There is a certain blood alcohol concentration that you cannot go over, just like in the United States, but in Congo, the blood alcohol level that will get you in trouble with the law is 0.01 percent.

As mentioned, there are checkpoints that you will likely run into when you are driving in Congo that you will need to look out for. These checkpoints are not usually clearly marked, so you will need to be on the lookout for them. Keep in mind for your safety that the security forces operate these roadblocks and they often consist of undisciplined soldiers. Because of these dodgy checkpoints, you need to be sure you always travel with a copy of your passport ready to present if asked for it. If you are stopped at one of these checkpoints and are asked to show documents, you should stay in your vehicle and show them to the officers through a closed window. At these checkpoints and elsewhere in the country, it is in your best interest to always drive with the windows up and all the doors and windows locked.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Are Road Signs in Congo Easy to Understand for Foreign Drivers?

Unless you took up French as a foreign language or have a great memory from what you learned in school, reading the signs in Congo might pose a challenge or an outright problem to the average American. Present-day Congo is located in an area that was once occupied by the French, and so the language has stuck around for the most part. Because of this, you will notice that in Congo, many of the road signs you will encounter are going to be written in French more often than not. Therefore, it couldn’t hurt for you to brush up on your French or even spend a few hours learning basic directions in French, so you can navigate the roads and various paths in Congo with greater ease.

It is worth noting that even if you could potentially understand the French signs with ease, you might still have trouble actually seeing the signs, let alone reading them. In many areas of the country, the signs are difficult to read due to weather eroding them over time and the country not bothering to spend any time replacing or fixing them. Depending on where it is you are driving, the signs may be missing altogether in some cases. This can make travel particularly frustrating in a place where driving is already expected to be more difficult than it is in the United States. Along with the poor attention that is paid to the, to this day, mostly unpaved roads in Congo, the signs on the path are also neglected.

What Are the Speed Limits in Congo?

In Congo, there is a national speed limit law in place. In urban areas, Congo driving law states that you must maintain a maximum speed limit of 60 kilometers per hour. When you are in a more rural area that has less traffic, you may drive as fast as 110 kilometers per hour. On other motorways, there tends to be no speed limit law in place. The dominant type of speed enforcement in Congo comes in the form of manual detection from police officers. Even so, the laws for driving in Congo are not evenly enforced; certain laws may be enforced more often than others or treated differently from one another. For instance, you should be prepared for the possibility that you might be pulled over for speeding, but instead of being given a ticket, offered for a bribe to let you go free for an exchange for something else of value.

Is Driving Dangerous in Congo?

Many travel advisories for Congo are nearly constantly put out for your consideration, and it is important to check these advisories and the levels they are at on the lead up to your trip to Congo. Travel advisories issued by the United States government are usually ranked according to severity, and at any given time, you will notice that these advisories are high level and in place for at least three cities or regions. There are various factors that make driving or even just visiting Congo remarkably unsafe, and it’s good to know about them and prepare for them if you must go to this country.

The three main threats that are present in Congo almost constantly are that of terrorism, crimes of various stripes and Ebola. The most common crimes that take place in Congo include armed robbery, armed home invasion and violent crimes like rape, assault, kidnapping, and even murder. Even those who work with NGOs and other such organizations are not necessarily safe from these threats, and reports of some of them going missing or being kidnapped are quite common.

There are documented cases of Ebola in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri, so you will want to steer clear of those as not to contract the oft-deadly disease. In Ituri and North Kivu, there seems to be a near-constant threat of terrorism, which can often cause civilian casualties and injuries; therefore, do not travel to these areas and, if you absolutely must, do not approach any demonstrations that may be going on against the government, as these can turn violent quickly. By avoiding the three Kasai areas of Congo as well as the eastern part of the country, you can keep yourself safe from the frequent crime that happens there. There have been cases of Western tourists being kidnapped, but there is also a sense of general civil unrest in this area that may put you in danger. Violent crimes like murder and rape are sadly a common occurrence as well across most of the country.

Be aware that the threats don’t stop once you get out on the road. There are checkpoints that are poorly marked along many of the driving paths, and these are often controlled by soldiers. They will ask for your passport and identification, so be prepared to show them, but for your safety, do so through a locked door and closed window. Do not leave the vehicle.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Tips for Staying Safe

  • Avoid high threat level places in the country that are detailed in travel advisories.
  • Check travel notices before going to Congo.
  • Read up on the CDC notices about the current issues surrounding disease besides just Ebola.
  • Avoid public transportation such as buses and taxis whenever possible.
  • Be diligent both when walking and driving.
  • Always carry a copy of your passport with you for checkpoints and other such occurrences. Be sure that you keep your original passport in a safe and secure location when you travel out of your accommodations.

Is Driving in Congo with US Insurance Enough to Protect You in Case of an Accident?

Just like driving in Congo with a US license isn’t something you can do, more often than not, you also cannot travel using insurance from a United States country and expect to be covered in the event of an accident. Some American driving insurance policies do allow for international driving, but that varies case by case, so you will need to contact your provider in advance to see whether or not that applies to you. Even if you receive news that you are covered internationally, you will need to check one step further on this information. This is due to the fact that a lot of international insurance policies may not cover driving in Congo due to the dangerous conditions of the roads.

In the event that you do not have coverage from your insurance company, you can obtain international insurance that is sure to cover it. There are different policies you can research to see which one gives you the coverage you need to drive with greater peace of mind in what is already considered to be a tricky place to drive.

Are There Many Driving Jobs in Congo?

Just like nearly everywhere else in the world, there are various modes of ground transportation for both locals and tourists alike to take in Congo. You can find pretty much every type of public vehicle that you are used to in Congo, including buses, trucks, taxis, and more. Of course, all of these will require that you are in possession of a commercial driver’s license in order to operate them professionally or otherwise.

However, if you are interested in snagging some good driving jobs in Congo, you might be out of luck. These kinds of jobs are not open to citizens of a foreign country, and having an international driver’s license is not enough to gain employment in this case. Because of this, the only way you would have a chance at any driving jobs in Congo is if you are a Congo resident that possesses a Congolese driver’s license.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

Enjoy One of a Kind Natural Tourism

The surprising nature of the robust landscape in Congo affords you plenty of opportunities to embark upon adventures in natural tourism, giving you the chance to encounter gorillas and other such primates in the wild that you might normally otherwise only see behind glass in the zoo. While the risks of driving in Congo cannot be overstated enough, if you follow the tips given in this article and take heed of the various dangers that you might encounter, you’ll be able to make your trip as easygoing and safe as possible to this African nation.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Congolese drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.