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New Zealand Driving Guide 2020

Driving in New Zealand 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

January 28, 2020

INTRODUCTION

Tucked away in the South Pacific Ocean, beyond Australia, lies New Zealand. This country is made up of two major islands, the North Island and the South Island. The country that was the backdrop for Lord of the Rings is truly an enchanting place to visit. Its sheer diversity in landscapes makes it a delight to explore by driving around it.

While you may want to hop into a car as soon as you land to explore New Zealand, there are some important things to consider first. Renting a car, the rules of the road, having the necessary documents, are important to understand before stepping behind the wheel of a car in New Zealand. After you read this in-depth guide, you will feel far more confident that you will be able to enjoy an extraordinary getaway on these magical islands.

New Zealand is best seen in a car. You will probably be in continuous awe seeing the natural beauty of this country. However, there is a bit of danger to driving in New Zealand, considering how far you may have to drive to a destination. There is also the issue of unpredictable weather, which may turn a simple trip into one that is slightly more complicated. The variation in terrain, from plains to mountain passes, means that you may find yourself in treacherous situations if you are not careful.

All in all, driving in New Zealand with a foreign license is a phenomenal and unforgettable experience that will give you memories that will last a lifetime. 

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in between, whether you are driving in Northern New Zealand or down in the south.

Do you need an International Driver's licence in New Zealand?

You do not need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in New Zealand, although you may find it will make your life easier in certain situations. You are legally allowed to drive anywhere in the country if you have a current driver’s license from your home country. If you’re asking, “can I drive in New Zealand with a US license?”, the answer is yes! The privilege of driving in New Zealand with a US license is allowed for up to 12 months. Your license will be valid to use in New Zealand if it is in English and if not, you will be suggested to get an IDP. Your license will also have to be clear of any traffic infringements.

If your driver’s license is not in English, you can get it translated, so that you can use it in this country. This must be an officially recognized translation from either one of the official partners of New Zealand’s Transport Agency, a translation from a diplomatic representative, or from your home country’s issuing authority. In lieu of a driver’s license, you will be required to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). If you are driving in New Zealand with a US license, you should not have any issues, but consider getting an IDP to play it safe.

Does an IDP Replace My Driver’s License?

An IDP does not replace your driver’s license. You should be carrying your current driver’s license, along with your IDP, when you are driving around New Zealand. This is simply an additional redundancy measure.

What are the Requirements for an IDP?

Regardless of whether you have a driver’s license or an IDP, you will have to have it on you whenever you are driving. You can only receive an IDP if you are over 18 years old. This permit is not allowed to be used for commercial use, but you will be able to drive everything from a sedan to a motorcycle, provided that you have those licenses in your home country. You can get an IDP very easily. In fact, you can get it online and bypass the arduous process of going into one of the few places authorized to provide IDPs. You will get your IDP instantly when you apply electronically.

How Long is the IDP Valid For?

You will be able to use your IDP for up to 12 months. Even if you decide to travel to another country after New Zealand, you will be able to use your IDP.

When Should I Apply for an IDP?

You will have to apply for an IDP and receive it before you travel to New Zealand. To play it safe, you should get all the paperwork taken care of two weeks prior to your travel date in New Zealand. This is because, depending on where you live, it may take longer for the IDP to get to you. If you live in a country such as the United States, you can receive an IDP on the same day that you apply for it. You will have your picture taken at a location, such as an AAA office, where an IDP booklet will be created and stamped for you.

The Driving Age Is 18 for an IDP

You are probably wondering what is the driving age in New Zealand. Although the legal driving age in New Zealand is 16, you must be 18 to obtain an IDP. However, you have to be over the age of 21 to rent a car. Additionally, you will discover that many car rental companies in New Zealand will tack on an additional surcharge to your car rental booking if you are under a certain age, usually 25. Taking into account this additional fee will help you avoid any unforeseen surprises when you come to pick up your car.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in New Zealand, 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.

Which Side of the Road Do You Drive on in New Zealand?

It is likely that you will be visiting New Zealand from a country where you drive on the right side of the road. When comparing driving in New Zealand vs US, in New Zealand, you will be driving on the left side of the road. There is no need to panic! Driving on the left side of the road is not anymore difficult than driving on the right-hand side. It may take some getting used to initially, so just take it slow and easy until you get the hand of it.

You may only find certain aspects of left-hand side driving will take a little bit of time to get used to, such as the “give way to the right” rule. If you are visiting New Zealand from another country where driving is done on the left-hand side of the road (Australia, Ireland, the UK, Singapore, or Japan), you will notice that in New Zealand, uncontrolled intersections (no traffic signals) are treated like roundabouts. For example, if you are making a left-hand turn, the vehicles turning into the same lane will have the right of way. Driving in New Zealand vs USA is pretty similar besides these differences. Besides this important difference in the way driving is done in New Zealand, we will get into some of the major rules of the road next.

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 Are the Important Rules of the Road in New Zealand?

Besides driving on the left side of the road, there are other important driving rules in New Zealand you will have to follow when you are a US citizen driving in New Zealand. Most of these will be familiar to you since they are similar to driving rules and laws all around the world. Here are some important elements of driving law in New Zealand.

Don’t Drink and Drive

In places like the United States, a blood alcohol level of 0.08 is commonplace. However, in New Zealand, the BAC limits are even more strict. You are going to want to make sure you are erring on the side of caution, so you can avoid high fines. We will get into New Zealand’s drinking and driving laws in more depth a little later.

Don’t Use your Phone

Countries all over the world are starting to clamp down on people using their phones while driving, whether that means calling or texting. New Zealand has come out strongly against cell phone use while driving. You are not allowed to use any hand-held device while operating a vehicle in New Zealand, so keep this in mind if you want to avoid hefty fines.

Change Lanes Safely

New Zealand’s roads are generally a single lane, especially on the South Island. Unless you are on a highway, you are going to drive on narrow roads. Given this, you should have at least 100 meters of clearance on the road ahead of you before you pass another car. You will be unable to do this when there is a double yellow line, however.

 

Wear Your Seat Belt

No matter who is in the car, in whatever seat they are located, every person must wear their seat belts. That means both the driver and any passengers must be buckled up.

Speed Limits

The speed limits in New Zealand generally fall into two categories: urban and rural. The urban speed limit is normally 50 KM per hour, whereas the speed limit out in the country is usually 100 KM. The rural speed limit may differ from this, but you will see signs posted if it does.

One-Lane Bridges

A common sight in New Zealand is the one-lane bridge. As charming as it may be, it does pose a challenge when driving. Thankfully, there are signs that will give you instructions on what to do. When you approach a one-lane bridge, you may see two arrows on a sign. You will have to slow down and allow incoming traffic to cross the bridge first if the arrow for your direction is a small one. If you have a larger arrow than the incoming traffic does, you have the right-of-way and can go first.

Animal Crossings

In New Zealand, there are just three million people, yet there are 60 million sheep. This means that rather than looking out for pedestrians, you should be looking out for animals. Besides a farmer’s herds roaming the roads, you will also have to be on the lookout for wildlife. When you are driving on a road that crosses pasture grounds, you will probably see some sort of signage that advises you to be on the lookout for animals. When you see these signs, take it slow and stop if you have to.

No Turning on a Red Light

Depending on what country you are from, you may be allowed to make a turn at a red light on the side of the road you are on. However, this is against the law in New Zealand. This means that you are not allowed to make a left turn on a red light. Additionally, you should always yield to pedestrians.

Allow Other Vehicles to Pass You

With speed limits generally being between 80 KM and 100 KM an hour, even in the mountains, you may quickly discover that this may be too fast for you to safely navigate the rugged terrain. Locals may be more used to those winding turns through the mountains, so you will see them attempting to dart past you. You will want to let them pass you. In fact, according to the law, if there are four or more cars behind you, you have to allow them to pass you.

What Do I Need to Know in renting a Car in New Zealand?

Given how beautiful New Zealand is, you may want to rent a car right away and start exploring. However, there are a few things you should know before you rent a car. Any car rental agency will ask for either your driver’s license or IDP. These documents are required by car rental agencies to confirm that you are allowed to operate a car in New Zealand. When you approach the front desk of any car rental office in the country, they will ask for either your IDP, driver’s license, or both. If you happen to get pulled over by a police officer, you should show them both the IDP and your driver’s license. Additionally, here are some other points you should know before renting a car in New Zealand.

Book in Advance

You should book your rental as far in advance as you can. The best time to rent a car is as soon as you have locked in your travel dates. The sooner you book, the better price you will get. Prices will balloon during the high season as well, which is from December to February. Given the popularity of this time of the year in New Zealand, there are fewer cars to choose from, either an expensive rental or a car you are not happy with, or both. Booking several months ahead of your trip will help you have peace of mind, where you will not have to worry about either of these potential issues.

Rent a Vehicle For Your Purposes

The most popular choices for renting a vehicle are either a car or camper. If you plan to be doing lots of camping, you should look into renting a camper. You can also rent a large van and sleep in it, to save on costs. Given the price of fuel these days, you may want to opt for a vehicle that is smaller, like a sedan. A small car with an automatic transmission is a great choice for most people. You may also find it easier to navigate on the roads, especially if you will be going to the South Island, given how narrow the roads are, sporting many twists and turns when going through the mountains.

Obtain Additional Car Insurance

The roads in New Zealand are surprisingly well-maintained. However, you may still err on the side of caution. Rock slides can happen. Pebbles can hit your windshield from other cars on gravel roads. There is always something that can happen in rugged terrain, even if you are as careful as you can be. The last thing you want to be dealing with on a relaxing vacation is a headache resulting from damages to your rented car. While it is not necessary to do, if you are driving in New Zealand with US insurance, you can give yourself peace of mind by purchasing some additional car insurance. Some car rental companies will nickel and dime you for every little scratch or dent on a rented vehicle.

Understand the Fuel Policy

Rental car companies will usually have fuel policies that you will want to understand well before you rent a car. The clerk at the desk in the rental car office will inform you of the specific policy that the respective rental car company abides. They may expect you to fill up the fuel tank prior to returning the vehicle, in order to avoid any excess charges. They may also say that you can return the car empty, or partially full, but you will have to pay for the additional fuel necessary to fill it up. When this is the case, the car rental company will normally quote you a cost per liter that is significantly higher than what you would have paid if you had filled up the car yourself. Get familiar with the fuel policy, so you can avoid any surprises once you return your rented vehicle.

How Safe Is it to Drive in New Zealand?

New Zealand is probably one of the safest countries you can travel to. However, there are herds of sheep crossing roads at times. There are also rock slides when you drive up into the mountains. You will want to stay vigilant at all times, although you can be fairly confident that you will not come across any major issues if you are an American driving in New Zealand. If you want to play it safe, you can hide your valuables in your car whenever you park it. Alternatively, you can leave anything valuable at whatever place you may be staying at.

What Are the Speed Limits in New Zealand?

The speed limits in New Zealand will always be somewhere between 10 KM per hour and 110 KM per hour. On the low end, there are roads where you can only go 10 KM/H. These are shared pedestrian zones, which is why the speed limit is at a snail’s pace. Next, you have certain urban and residential roads, where the speed limit is 30-40KM/H. After that, there are roads with just light urbanization that have a speed limit of 60-80KM/H. There is an occasional highway that will be 70 KM/H. After that, there will be some rural roads where the limit is 80-90KM/H. The speed limit on many rural roads will be 100KM/H. Beyond that, there are some new roads that allow for driving at 110 KM/H.

Can I Go Faster Than the Speed Limit?

In New Zealand, you are allowed to go 10 KM/H faster than what the speed limit says. This rule is in place to account for slight inaccuracies in your vehicle speedometers. This tends to mean that drivers are traveling slightly faster than the 100 KM/H speed limit that is common in most of New Zealand.

Even though this unwritten rule is in place, the official policy of the police is that you are not allowed to drive above the speed limit. If you are caught doing so, they have the discretion to issue you a speeding ticket. In fact, some of the stricter police officers give speeding tickets to drivers going just 5 KM/H over the speed limit. This is why when drivers do go over the speed limit, they limit the excess speed to 4 KM/H or lower. However, you should not let this scare you into driving too slow. Police will sometimes give you a ticket for driving under the speed limit as well. If you drive over 40 KM/H faster than any posted speed limit, that will invoke harsh penalties, such as arrest, driver’s license suspension, and even vehicle impounding.

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.

How Easy Is it to Understand Traffic Signs in New Zealand?

Most traffic signs in New Zealand are easy to understand. Here are the most common traffic signs that you will come across during your travels in New Zealand.

Speed Limit

The most common traffic sign you will see is for the posted speed limit. These signs are circular, with a red outline that contains the speed limit within it. Occasionally, you will see a sign under a speed limit that says it is temporary. These signs are normally put up when there is construction on a section of a roadway, or beside it.

Accident

When you come across a long rectangular sign that says “ACCIDENT” then you know that there is a crash site coming up. These signs will be in either orange with black lettering or blue with white lettering. You should drive at 20 KM/H or slower when driving through one of these areas.

School Bus

There are a few different signs related to school buses. A school bus will have a rectangular yellow sign with black lettering that says “SCHOOL BUS” to make it clear there are probably children on-board. When a school bus has stopped, you will have to go 20 KM/H or slower. You may also see a yellow sign with two children depicted on it, looking as if they were walking across the road. The school bus is likely to be picked up or dropped off children. You may even see the Maori word for “school” on a school bus, Kura.

School Zone

Schools will have special signs, which are turned on before or after a school is in session. They may also be turned on during lunchtime. These will have a rectangular sign with a red circular outline, containing a speed limit within it. Below it, there will be a yellow rectangular sign that says “School Zone” and may flash. Another school zone sign is seen on the side of the road. It is rectangular, indicating the school zone speed limit, along with what hours the school zone speed limit is in effect.

Curve Warning

There are also signs which warn you of a potentially dangerous curve coming up in the road. You will see a yellow diamond sign with a curved arrow, situated above a yellow rectangular sign containing the speed limit. Additionally, there is a long and yellow rectangular sign with four black arrows and a speed limit, indicating how fast you can safely go around a curve or bend in the road.

How Is the Weather While Driving in New Zealand?

One thing about New Zealand that you will quickly learn is that the weather can go to any extreme. One day it may be a beautiful and sunny day, whereas the next may be a torrential downpour. During the winter months (June to August), there are a lot of heavy rains, whereas during the summer (January and February) there are flash floods at times. You will sometimes even see roads closed due to the heavy rain.

There is a reason why New Zealand is emerald green. All of that rain is necessary to keep the country as beautiful as it is. In addition to all of the rain, there will sometimes be some intense snowstorms, which will close many roads as well. Do your research and prepare accordingly. You may end up moving your travel dates because of what the weather may be like. You will want to avoid having difficulty and stress while driving because of the weather. Once you get to New Zealand, keep your eyes peeled for what the day-to-day weather will be, so you can enjoy your time in New Zealand, without getting stranded.

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 There Toll Roads in New Zealand?

If you would have asked this question a little over a decade ago, the answer would have been a resounding no. However, in 2009, New Zealand’s first toll road made its appearance on the North Island. Called the Northern Gateway, this is a toll road that runs north of Auckland, which is the country’s largest city.

Besides this toll road, there are only two more as of right now, both on the North Island. These other two are the Tauranga Eastern Link and the Tauranga Takimitu Drive, both of which are close to each other.

All these three toll roads are electronic, meaning there are no booths to stop at and pay a toll to. Instead, cameras are used to identify a vehicle’s number plates. If you want to take an easy way out and avoid the toll roads, you are in luck. New Zealand has signposts indicating alternate routes that will take you to the same destination as the toll roads, but for free. It will take you a little longer to get to your destination, but these free alternate routes can actually be more scenic, as well as an enjoyable way to see this gem of a country.

How to Pay for Toll Roads

If you decide you want to take the toll roads, you have a few payment options. The first is a Pay & Go option, which allows you to pre-purchase up to 10 trips using the toll roads. This will be valid for up to two years, so you can even come back to New Zealand within that time period and still be able to use them. However, this is impractical if you are renting a car, since you need to provide vehicle registration information prior to purchasing the toll road trips. The easier route is paying the toll fee online after you have used the toll road. You can use a debit or credit card; all you need is the vehicle’s registration/plate number. As long as you pay within five days of using the toll road, you will not incur any fines.

You can also pay at a petrol/gas station at either the start or end of the toll road. The one caveat with this method is that you will pay an additional fee that is currently $1.20. Finally, you can pay over the phone, using the toll-free number 0800 40 20 20. However, using this method will incur an even larger fee of $3.70.

What are the Drinking and Driving Laws in New Zealand?

When it comes to driving under the influence in New Zealand, you need to make sure that you know what the law is, or else you will be paying dearly for a misstep. If you drink and drive and you are under the age of 20, no matter how little alcohol you may have in your system, you are already considered breaking the law. This is because there is a zero-tolerance law in effect for drivers ages 19 and younger.

If you are 20 years old or older, the blood alcohol content (BAC) level that is allowed is 250 mcg of alcohol per liter of breath. If a breathalyzer is used, or 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood if a blood test is conducted.
There are two ways on how the alcohol limit is tested for in New Zealand. You will either be given a breathalyzer test or a blood test. While these may seem like they differ, they are basically the same. They will both accurately measure the same level of alcohol that is safe to have while driving. A blood test is generally used if a driver refuses to take a breathalyzer test. It is also used as a means of double-checking the accuracy of a breathalyzer test.

What Do I Do If the Police Stop Me While I Am Driving in New Zealand?

When you see flashing red and blue lights and hear sirens, you should look to see who is behind your vehicle. If it is a police car, you should pull over right away. If you fail to stop for the police, you will run the risk of getting arrested and putting other drivers in danger when you attempt to flee.

Police in New Zealand has special officers who solely patrol the highways. You will be able to identify them by their vehicles, which are yellow, white, and blue. Other police vehicles are orange, white, and blue. Police officers may also drive in unmarked vehicles, so you should pay attention to all traffic laws and follow them. When it comes to police officers in New Zealand, they will almost always pull you over for speeding. Other traffic offenses are generally not as high of a priority for them.

If the police stop you in New Zealand, there are a few simple rules you should follow to ensure you and the police officer are both protected.

Pull Over

The very first action you should take when you see that a police patrol vehicle is flagging you down with its lights and sirens is to pull over. Slow down gently and pull over onto the left-hand side of the road. You should also flick your turn signal to indicate that you are pulling over. Make sure to pick out an area where the police officer can also stop their vehicle in a safe way.

Remain Courteous

Follow the courteous actions of turning any music down, turning off your engine, rolling down the window, and placing your hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them. If you get pulled over at night, turn on the interior cabin light to make it easier for the officer to see you. Being a police officer can be a stressful job, so you want to make sure their job is as easy as possible. Once the officer approaches you, remain courteous in how you speak with them. Address them formally and provide simple, yet proper responses.

Avoid Incriminating Yourself

You want to avoid admitting guilt at all costs. If the police officer asks you whether you know how fast you were going, you can let them know that you are unsure. As soon as you admit guilt, the officer will be obligated to hand you a speeding ticket. If you respond that you are unsure whether you were going over the speed limit, they may let you off with a warning.

Remain Calm

If you are a hothead, make sure to be on your best behavior. Any perceived hostility by police officers in New Zealand may land you a free trip to a police cruiser. When an officer requests to see your US driving license in New Zealand, IDP and documents related to your rental car, you should hand these over without any argument. They will take these documents back to their vehicle and run a few verification checks. Within a few minutes, you should receive these back and be on your way.

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 the Enchanted Land of New Zealand

New Zealand is a beautiful country that is best seen by car. When driving in a US car in New Zealand, you will have complete freedom over what you see and do. You get to organize your adventures in a way that you want to. Spontaneity will be yours, thanks to taking this liberating way of seeing New Zealand. You may even want to move there, so if you love driving on New Zealand roads and quality for a skilled New Zealand visa, you may be able to pick up truck driving jobs in New Zealand.

While this is a place full of wondrous sights to behold, you will want to make sure that you are prepared accordingly. To make the most of your trip to New Zealand, use this guide as a primer to preparing for your journey. You will ensure that you have an incredibly enjoyable trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Kiwi 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.