Guide to Driving in New Zealand

Driving tips in New Zealand

Are you planning an unforgettable road trip adventure in New Zealand? You might think that because this is a small country with a sparse population that it should be easy. Or you may think that compared to the hazards of travelling in outback Australia, there should be no problem. While Australians shouldn't find driving in New Zealand a major problem, there are still some important things that you need to be aware of.

Rent a car in New Zealand

The basics of driving in New Zealand

  • In New Zealand, they drive on the left-hand side of the road.
  • All speed limits and distances are measured in kilometres.
  • The maximum speed limits on open roads is 100km/h, while it is 50km/h in urban areas.

Common road safety signs in New Zealand

RED AND BLUE SIGNS: These signs indicate that the driver must take a compulsory action, like turning a certain direction or coming to a complete stop. Signs indicating the speed limit will be circular, red and white.

SPECIAL LANES: White signs with red borders indicate bus lanes, and transit lanes (requiring certain numbers of people to be travelling in the vehicle).

WARNING SIGNS: Yellow signs are permanent warning signs that indicate narrow roads, clearance limits or pedestrian crossing areas. Orange signs refer to temporary hazards like roadwork or flooding.

Alcohol limits when driving

Tourists planning on driving in New Zealand should note that we have strict drink-driving laws. Drivers over 20 years old must stay under the legal alcohol limit, which is less than 150 milligrams per litre of breath. For young drivers under 20 years old, there is a zero alcohol limit. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect your driving, so it is recommended that you do not drink and drive. You are also not allowed to drive under the influence of any drugs that can affect your ability to drive safely.

General road rules and safety tips

  • You may be driving on different terrain than you are used to in New Zealand. It is a mountainous country, and many roads are windy and narrow. Weather conditions are also changeable, particularly in alpine regions in both the North and South Island. Allow yourself plenty of time to reach your destination and maintain slower speeds.
  • In rural areas, and in some cases on major tourist routes, you may encounter one-lane bridges. If you see a red circle with a red arrow and the words "Give Way", you must wait for any traffic coming from the other direction. If you see a blue square with a white arrow, this means the traffic on the other side of the bridge will give way to you. On narrow roads through mountainous areas, it is easier for cars heading downhill to give way to vehicles travelling uphill.
  • Railway level crossings can be a hazard. Some have arm barriers and bells, some have flashing lights and others only have passive signage. Come to a complete stop every time you encounter a railway crossing, and if you see a train, make sure you wait for it to pass and do not attempt to beat it.
  • While New Zealand is considered to have a small population, the roads can still become congested at peak times. The highways in Auckland can be heavy as people commute to and from work, and the highway to the Coromandel Peninsula is often busy during holiday periods.
  • You are not permitted to use a cellphone while driving.
  • Petrol stations are not as frequent off the main highways. In some remote areas of the South Island they can be difficult to find, and State Highway 27 through Matamata, Rotorua and Taupo has a 70km stretch without a petrol station. 
  • While the scenery is amazing, it can also be distracting. There are plenty of places to stop along the highway, so take your time and take plenty of breaks.

Driving tips for popular destinations in New Zealand

  • Inter-Islander Ferry: If you're planning to cross the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands, keep in mind that you will have to pick up a new rental car at the other side. Major car rental companies do not permit their vehicles to be taken on the ferry, however there are plenty of rental car depots in both Wellington and Picton.
  • Milford Road: It is one of the most visited areas in New Zealand, so prepare to share the road with a lot of other traffic. Although it might look close to Queenstown on a map, the journey to Milford Sound will take over four hours. You can break up your journey by spending the night in Te Anau. That way you can take extra time and enjoy all of the scenic stops in Fiordland National Park.
  • Queenstown: If you are planning to drive the popular Crown Range Road in winter, you will need to have chains. The road is windy, and challenging. Allow plenty of time to make the crossing.
  • Auckland: If you are planning on using any of the toll roads in the region, you can pay online or at select petrol stations. There are three toll roads in the North Island: the Northern Gateway, the Tauranga Eastern Link and the Takitimu Drive.