Driving in France Guide 2020
Driving in France 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.
November 20, 2020
Driving in France for the first time can make even the most experienced driver a little nervous. Will you understand the road signs? Are there conventions or “unwritten rules” for driving in France you need to know about? Is driving in France with a US license allowed? What about the driving age and the driving rules in France?
All these questions and more are likely to cross your mind, and might even make you think twice about wanting to get behind the wheel. However, driving in France is really not so different to driving in the USA. In fact, many Americans find it even easier than driving in the UK, as the France driving side is on the right, just like at home.
Excluding Russia, France is the largest country in all of Europe, with a total land area of 643,800 square kilometers, which is just under 250,000 square miles. That’s around twice the size of Colorado. The public transportation network is fine from getting between cities like Lille, Nice and Paris. But to properly explore such a large country, you really need to have a car.
DO I NEED AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT TO DRIVE IN FRANCE?
If you are planning on driving in France with a US license, you need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you travel. The IDP is an internationally recognized document that provides all the information shown on your US driver’s license, but translated into the local language. This means that if you are renting a car, obtaining insurance or presenting your documents to a police officer, you will be able to demonstrate that you have the necessary driving qualifications.
Without an IDP, you will face problems at the car rental desk obtaining a rental car. And even if they do provide one, you could face bigger challenges in the event that you are stopped by the police or involved in an accident.
Do I still need my original license with me?
Keep in mind that the IDP is not a replacement or substitute for your actual license. Whenever you are driving in France, you must keep both documents with you, as the IDP will refer directly to the license and both documents need to be examined together. An IDP is not a requirement if you have a license that was issued within the European Union. However, if that license is in any language other than French, it is a wise precaution to get one. That way, nothing can be “lost in translation.”
Am I eligible to apply for an IDP?
If you have held a US driver’s license for six months or more and are aged 18 or above, then yes, you are eligible to apply for an IDP. You won’t be asked to take any additional written or practical test, as the IDP does not bestow any new driving privileges as such. It is simply a translated version of the existing information that’s held on your US license.
How long is the IDP valid?
An IDP remains valid for 12 months from the date it is issued. This means you need to plan carefully and think about exactly when to make your application. It’s worth noting that you can obtain one through a fast-track service in a matter of hours if you have left everything to the last minute, or made a late decision that you are going to be driving in France with a US license on your trip to Europe.
How Do I Go about Renting a Car in France?
As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in Italy are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.
Whether you book well in advance or decide to try your luck at the car rental desk at the airport, you will find that the overall car rental process is very similar in France to the USA. You will see all the familiar names like Hertz, Avis, Sixt and Budget. Although, if you decide to rent from a small town or more rural location, you might find yourself dealing with an independent local company.
As a general rule, the best rental rates are obtained by booking well in advance. However, just like hotels, there are sometimes last-minute bargains to be had if a rental company has cars sitting idle. So, if your decision to try driving in France is a spur of the moment one and you have your license and IDP in hand, go and talk to them and see what they can offer you.
While the overall booking process is not different to the United States, there are some specific rules and procedures you will need to consider.
1. Choosing a suitable car for driving in France
There are two important points to keep in mind about cars in general, and rental cars in particular, in France. The first is that cars are smaller than you might be accustomed to in the US. Large cars and SUVs are available, but they will be expensive and are not ideally suited to winding roads and small parking lots, so go with something smaller. The second point to remember is that the majority of rental cars are manual (stick shift). If you’re not accustomed to driving with a stick, auto transmission might be available, but will most likely mean higher rental cost and a more restricted choice.
2. Legal driving age in France for rental cars
Like most countries in mainland Europe, the legal driving age in France is 18. However, to rent a car, you will need to be 21 or above and to have held your US driver’s license for at least 12 months. If you are under 25, you will most likely be presented with a young driver surcharge on top of the standard rental price. You might also be excluded from hiring some categories of car. So if you dream of traveling in France at the wheel of a high-performance sports car, be prepared to wait till after your 25th birthday.
3. What do I need to drive in France and the requirements to rent a car?
The car rental company will ask to see the following driving in France requirements before you can drive away and start exploring France in your rental car:
- Your valid driver’s license
- An International Driver’s Permit (unless you have a driver’s license issued in the EU)
- Your passport
- A major credit card in your name
- The booking confirmation (if the rental was pre-booked)
4. Insurance for your rental car
The major car rental companies operate the same way throughout the world in that they generally include the basic minimum insurance coverage you need in order to drive legally. They will also provide an option to purchase a higher level of cover should you wish to do so. Check what is included in the basic cover before you decide, and in particular, check the level of excess so you know how much you would have to pay in the event of a claim for damage or theft. Also, bear in mind that your credit card company or the car insurance company you use at home might be able to offer you the same higher level of cover at a cheaper rate, so make some phone calls before you travel.
5. Taxes and fuel surcharges
As well as the insurance considerations, check the small print in the rental agreement for any taxes or surcharges that are payable. Some companies offer deals that look incredibly cheap, but then pile on additional charges. Fuel is a case in point. Policies vary from one rental company to another, with some providing the car with a full tank, and others providing it empty. Read the terms carefully and if you are expected to return the car with a full tank, be sure to do so or you will face additional fees.
What side of the road do they drive on in france?
The good news for those driving in France with a US license is that the France driving side is on the right, just like at home. Of course, that can still be cause for confusion if you have just got used to driving in the UK, where they drive on the left. It is doubly complicated if you have driven directly from the UK in a car rented there, where the steering wheel is on the right, but we will cover that in more detail a little later. One of the major complications that can instill fear into the heart of an American driving in France is the concept of the roundabout, or rotary. There is no escaping them when driving in France, and you’ll find them in the big cities and tiny villages. It’s really not as complicated as some people like to make it sound. Just remember that vehicles already on the roundabout have priority and those joining must yield to them, and you can’t go wrong.
IS DRIVING IN FRANCE VERY DIFFERENT TO DRIVING IN THE USA?
Driving in France is not so different to driving anywhere else. As long as you follow the rules of the road, concentrate on what you are doing, and practice defensive driving techniques, you will be just fine and will soon feel comfortable and confident behind the wheel. However, there are a few differences between driving in the USA and driving in France that you need to keep in mind.
Fuel costs – a gallon of gas costs between $5 and $6. The majority of rental cars run on diesel, which makes them a little more economical, but the price per gallon is about the same. There’s another reason for choosing a smaller rental car while driving in France!
Toll roads – France loves its toll roads. They provide a great way of getting from point to point with minimal inconvenience, and are usually clear of congestion or delays. However, the price can rapidly mount up. For example, the toll road from Calais to Paris is a popular one for tourists driving through France, but drive the full 180 miles of it and you will have to pay €22.10 ($24.20). Most tolls accept cash or card, but some are cash only, so be sure to have some Euros in the car, just in case.
Motorcylces and mopeds – these are allowed to drive between lanes in busy traffic, so keep your wits about you. In major cities like Paris, you will soon find yourself surrounded by mopeds buzzing around you like insects. Keep your eye on your mirrors and pay special attention when changing lanes.
No right turn on red – the convention of turning right on a red light if the road is clear is a purely American one. When driving in France, remember that a red light means stop, no matter what, and wait for green before you proceed.
Keep right – most highways (auto-routes) in France have three lanes, and the French takes lane discipline more seriously than in the US. In particular, the left lane is for overtaking only, and you must move back to the middle lane as soon as possible, and then to the right lane, unless it is heavily occupied by slower vehicles.
driving in france rules
The above rules and conventions are specific ones that can catch an American driving in France by surprise. With those out of the way, let’s take a look at driving rules in general to ensure you stay on the right side of the law while driving in France.
French speed limits are posted and measured in kmph. Speed checks are commonplace, both from police officers and static cameras. Keep in mind that on toll roads, in particular, average speed checks are common. These measure the time a vehicle takes to travel from one toll plaza to another, and thereby calculate your average speed. The penalty for breaking the speed limit depends on how fast you are going and ranges from €68 ($75) for exceeding a limit of 70 kmph or more by less than 20 kph right up to a fine of €1,500 ($1,640) for exceeding the limit by more than 50kmph. In the latter case, you could also have your vehicle impounded and even face a custodial sentence.
Mobile phone use
Drivers are prohibited from using a cell phone while driving, and offenders will face an on-the-spot fine of €135 ($150). French traffic law has recently banned the use of headsets while driving in France, so this type of hands-free set up is not permitted. The safest advice is to keep your phone switched off and out of reach while you are behind the wheel. If you want to use your smartphone’s GPS for driving directions in France, place it in a purpose-built cradle in your line of sight. Alternatively, purchase a driving map of France, and ask your passenger to navigate.
Sounding your horn
The horn is only to be used to warn other road users of your presence, for example when approaching a blind corner on a narrow, single-track road. After the hours of darkness, you should instead flash your lights. Use of the horn is frowned upon in built up areas, so only use it in a real emergency.
Wearing seat belts
As is the case in most EU countries, seat belts must be worn by the driver and any passengers if they are present. That includes those sitting in the back, and the French police are eagle-eyed in this respect. If they spot anyone not wearing a seat belt, the driver will be presented with a fine of €135 ($150).
Child restraint rules
If you have children below the age of 10, they must sit at the back seat of the car and use a suitable child restraint according to the weight of the child. This means a rear-facing child seat for babies weighing up to 13 Kg (29 lbs), a five-point child seat for children up to 18 Kg (20 lbs), and a booster seat for larger children up to the age of 10. Be aware that failure to follow these rules will incur a fine of €135 ($150), and the police officer will not let you continue your journey until your child is securely buckled up according to the law.
WILL I UNDERSTAND FRENCH ROAD SIGNS?
If you are a seasoned driver, you won’t realize just how much you take US road signs for granted till you try driving in France. The good news is that although they might look a little confusing at first glance, they are actually quite intuitive and after an hour or so of driving you will become accustomed to them.
Take note of the shape, as this gives an indication of the type of information the sign provides:
Circular signs – these are regulatory signs that inform you of rules that must be followed. They include speed limits, weight restrictions or “no overtaking” signs.
Triangular signs – these are warnings of hazards ahead, for example intersections, sharp bends or pedestrian crossings.
Square signs – these provide information, and examples include bus stops, breakdown lanes and so on.
Rectangular signs – these are directional signs. Note that they are color coded according to the type of road: blue for autoroutes, green for major roads, white for minor roads and yellow for temporary roads or detours.
Speed limits in France
As mentioned above, it is important to observe the speed limit while driving in France to protect your safety and your bank balance. Under normal road conditions, the standard speed limits are as follows:
- Auto-routes: 130 kmph (80 mph)
- Major roads: 110 kmph (68 mph)
- Minor roads: 80 kmph (50mph)
- Built-up areas: 50 kmph (30 mph)
However, these standard limits are subject to local regulations displayed on signs. For example, many minor roads will have a posted limit of 50 kmph, even outside built-up areas.
Also, be aware that standard speed limits are reduced if it is raining or snowing to 110 kmph on autoroutes, 100 kmph on major roads, and 70 kmph on minor roads. If visibility is less than 50 meters (55 yards) there is a blanket limit of 50 kmph on all roads.
While signs for sharp bends, intersections, and speed limits are obvious to understand, there are some signs that might have you scratching your head:
Cedez le passage – displayed below a triangle with a red border, this is the French equivalent of the US “yield” sign.
Circulation restreinte – a square sign with a red circle indicates that you are approaching a restricted driving zone. This has been introduced in major cities like Paris in an attempt to reduce air pollution, and only cars holding a special permit may enter. This mostly applies during specific hours, and this will also be indicated on the sign.
Ralentir travaux – this means slow down, as there are people working in the road ahead.
WHAT IS THE GENERAL STANDARD OF DRIVING IN FRANCE?
To answer that question, you really need to consider two different things. Driving in France and driving in Paris. To take the first case first, French drivers have managed to acquire a reputation for tailgating, speeding, and generally being a danger to themselves and others over the years. While there are, of course, bad drivers everywhere, the standard of driving is far better in France today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Having said that, you should be extra cautious when approaching rural roundabouts, as there are some who still insist on following the old “give way to right” rule, even though this has largely disappeared. Also, take care when merging onto a major road, where some drivers might take the rule of yielding to traffic to an extreme, slowing almost to a halt. These, however, are exceptions to the rule, and the majority of French drivers are friendly, courteous, and law-abiding.
Driving in Paris
This brings us to the second half of the equation. If you’ve ever driven in New York City, you will have an inkling of what to expect in Paris. The locals tending to leave their cars parked on the outskirts of the city, and to use the excellent Metro system, is a wise choice for visitors, too. If you decide to drive in Paris, be prepared for driving standards to drop, and for aggression levels to increase around you. As mentioned earlier, you should also be on the lookout for mopeds coming at you from every angle and at every moment.
Driving in Paris is the ultimate challenge. Given that most of the streets are narrow and parking is expensive at best and impossible at worst, nobody will think less of you for leaving the car on the edge of town and exploring the city by public transport.
CAN I DRIVE FROM THE UK TO FRANCE AND VICE VERSA?
France and the UK are the two most popular European destinations for American tourists, and they are separated by just 20 miles of water at the Strait of Dover. It’s a little surprise that many visitors choose to visit both countries in a single trip. Taking your rental car from most of the major car rental companies in France will allow you to take your rental car to other countries in the European Union. At present, this includes the UK, but of course, that is subject to change. If driving from France to the UK forms part of your plans, check with the rental company in advance, to be on the safe side. The same applies if you rent your car in the UK and plan to drive it to France. Some rental agencies will levy an additional charge, so again, check in advance and factor this into your decision on which company to use.
Ferry or train? You have two choices when it comes to crossing the English Channel with your car. Ferries operate daily from Dover, Newhaven, Portsmouth, and Plymouth in the UK to Calais, Dieppe, Le Havre, and Cherbourg in France. The crossing is a fun experience, and if you choose one of the longer routes, for example between Portsmouth and Le Havre, you can book a cabin and take an overnight crossing. However, for sheer convenience, most people opt for the Eurotunnel. There are 42 crossings every day, and the journey takes just 35 minutes. With Eurotunnel, you should complete the necessary immigration formalities before boarding, then drive your car onto the train. Remain in your car for the crossing, and when you arrive, you can drive straight off and onto the open road.
Just remember, when you arrive in the UK, speed limits are in miles per hour, and you must drive on the left!
ARE THEY VERY STRICT ABOUT DRINKING AND DRIVING IN FRANCE?
The short answer to this question is a resounding yes. The French love affair with wine is known the world over. Back in the old days, France had a reputation for being somewhat relaxed about getting behind the wheel after a few glasses. Those days have most certainly been consigned to the history books.
In 2017, driving under the influence was responsible for more than half of all road traffic accidents. Even more shocking is that drinking and driving led to more than 1,000 fatalities in the same year. Little wonder, then, that France has introduced severe penalties for those who drink and drive.
Blood alcohol level
The first thing to be aware of is that the legal blood alcohol limit is just 0.5 mg/ml. That’s significantly less than the 0.8 mg/ml limit in the USA or the UK. It means that just one glass of wine could put you close to, or even over, the limit. The best advice, therefore is to completely stay off the alcohol if you are going to drive in France.
Also remember that alcohol does not magically disappear from your bloodstream after sleep. It takes about two hours to metabolize a pint of beer and three hours for a large glass of wine. Although, these figures can vary significantly depending on your size, whether you have been eating and numerous other factors.
Penalties for offenders
Police will often ask for a sample of breath during a routine stop, and always in the event that they suspect you of being intoxicated or involved in an accident. Driving with a blood alcohol level between 0.5 mg/ml and 0.8 mg/ml means an automatic fine of between €135 and €750 ($150 to $820) and the suspension of your license. If you give a reading of more than 0.8 mg/ml, you could face a fine of up to €4,500 ($4,925) and a two-year prison sentence. The severity of the penalty depends on the offence, for example, if you were driving recklessly or your actions resulted in injury to others.
WHAT IF I GET STOPPED BY THE FRENCH POLICE?
French roads are policed by two branches of law enforcement. Gendarmes are the regular police force, while the Gendarmerie Nationale is a branch of the French army that is responsible for highway patrols. Either branch is legally entitled to stop you and ask to see your papers at any time, and they are not required to give a specific reason.
Getting stopped by the police is never an enjoyable experience, and can be frightening when you are in a foreign country. However, it is really not different to a police stop in the US or any other country in the western world. If you act with courtesy and follow all instructions, the officer will treat you with the same level of respect. Make sure you have your passport, driver’s license, IDP, and car rental documents to hand, as the officer will want to see all of these.
Penalties and fines
French police officers can implement on the spot fines for many driving violations. This includes the most common offences, which are speeding, using a mobile phone, and failing to wear a seat belt.
In most cases, the fine is €135 ($150), and in some cases, this is reduced to €90 ($100) if you pay it then and there. The police officer is required to provide a receipt for any on-the-spot payment you make. If he forgets, politely request one.
WHAT ACTION SHOULD I TAKE IF I AM INVOLVED IN AN ACCIDENT WHILE DRIVING IN FRANCE?
Accidents happen to even the best drivers, and the likelihood of a mishap when you are driving an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads increases. However, there is one important rule to follow in France.
Even if you are not directly involved, you have a legal obligation to render assistance if you are driving in France and you witness an accident. Driving on and not stopping to help can result in a major fine, and even a prison sentence.
Whether you are directly involved or just a witness, there are some set steps you need to follow.
A road accident is a stressful situation, but by taking a deep breath and a methodical approach, you will be part of the solution, not the problem. So be objective, act with kindness and courtesy to others and focus on doing what you have to do to get through the situation with the minimum stress and inconvenience to yourself and others.
Get everyone to safety
Assuming nobody is trapped or injured, the first priority is to protect the safety of yourself and your passengers by getting everyone out of the car. Put on the hi-vis jacket or tabard that you will find in the trunk and escort your passengers well away from the traffic. This is particularly important if you have children in the car.
Check the other vehicles for injuries
With your passengers taken care of, you can check on other people. Help them to get to a position of safety, and if anyone is injured, call the police and ambulance services on 112. This number works throughout the mainland Europe, and will connect you to English-speaking assistance. Unless they are in serious risk, for example from fire, you should not attempt to move those who are trapped or injured. Speak to them, try to keep them calm and reassure them that help is on the way.
Warn other road users
If vehicles are obstructing the road and cannot be moved, you need to warn other road users quickly or else, the situation could escalate rapidly. This can be done by taking the warning triangles that are in the trunk of the car and placing them to the rear of the vehicles on auto-routes and dual carriageways, or to front and rear on smaller roads with two-way traffic.
Complete the accident form
Your car hire insurance documents will come with a European Accident Agreement Form. This is a standard document that guides you through all the information you need to gather, and allows you and any other drivers to agree on the facts of the incident, without admitting liability. If the form is absent, make sure you obtain personal and insurance details from the other drivers, and also note down their vehicle details. If it is safe and practical to do so, take photographs of the vehicles and their surroundings.
Inform the insurance company. This should be done as soon as possible, as any delay could affect your claim.
A Trip to Remember
France is a country like no other. It truly has something for everyone, from the bustling metropolis of Paris to the tiny towns and villages of Normandy, and sun-kissed beaches to the south. Those who are willing to try driving in France will be rewarded with a unique insight into the country, and one that simply cannot be experienced when you rely on trains and planes alone.
Keep the following driving in France tips in mind, and you will be ready for everything the French roads can throw at you:
- Make sure you have a valid license and an International Driver’s Permit with you at all times.
- Carefully read the small print of the rental agreement when you get your rental car, particularly when it comes to insurance coverage and fuel surcharges.
- Follow the rules of the road. In particular, remember, speed cameras are all around and the French approach to DUI effectively boils down to “zero tolerance” so don’t risk it.
- If you are driving from France to the UK or the UK to France, remember to drive on the correct side of the road.
- Always have some Euros on you, just in case you find yourself on a toll road or on the wrong side of the law.