If you're planning a trip to Australia, many great destinations are only accessible by car, so you'll need to get used to some major differences if you plan to drive across the country.
The differences between traveling on the right and left side of the road can really throw a driver off. To add more confusion into the mix, driving a car from a right-handed driver’s seat when you’re accustomed to driving from the left seat is even harder to acclimate to. There will be other differences such as traffic rules and how best to travel in the Outback of Australia.
International travelers are permitted to drive in Australia with a foreign driver’s license for up to three months, provided that the license is in English. If a driver’s license does not have a photo, drivers are required to carry another form of formal photo identification with them.
- Valid driver's license in English or an International Driving Permit (required)
- A minimum of compulsory third party personal (CTP) car insurance (required)
Rules of the Road
Before driving, familiarize yourself with the traffic rules in Australia, which vary from state to state. No matter where you're going in the country, though, you'll have to get used to driving on the left side of the road. However, there are also several other unique rules and recommendations for driving in Australia.
- Driving on the left side of the road: In addition to driving on the left side of the road, foreign drivers must remember to stay on that left side after they’ve turned.
- Right-sided driver's seats: Most Australian cars are fitted with right-sided driver’s seats, and this might be difficult for foreign drivers to get used to in addition to the reversed road position. To help become accustomed to sitting on this side, remember that the oncoming traffic will be coming on the side of your right shoulder.
- Slow lane: When driving on two-lane (or more) roads, slower-moving vehicles are required to stay in the leftmost lane. The right lane should only be used for passing.
- Speed limits: Residential and city speed limits are typically between 50 and 60 kilometers per hour (31 to 35 miles per hour) while country roads and highways have speed limits between 100 and 110 kph (62 to 68 mph).
- Alcohol: It is illegal to operate a motor vehicle in Australia if your blood-alcohol level is above .05 percent.
- U-turns: Unless there is a sign posted permitting a U-turn at an intersection, it is illegal to make, one except in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
- Left on red: Unless there is a sign permitting it, it is illegal to make a left turn at a red light.
- Fuel: Outside of major urban areas, gas stations are sporadic and far apart. Additionally, many rural gas stations are closed late at night, in the early morning, and sometimes even on Sundays.
- In case of an emergency: The police must be contacted in the event of an accident involving injury or death; the Australian emergency number is 000. Each state and territory has its own roadside assistance group you can contact in the event of an automobile breakdown.
Roadside Assistance by Region
In Australia, separate motoring groups operate roadside assistance programs in each of the territories and states of the country.
In order to access these services in the event of a breakdown, though, you'll have to purchase an annual membership to the motoring group of your choice. Fortunately, each group has reciprocal arrangements with the others, so you'll only need to purchase one to enjoy the benefits across the country. The American Automobile Association (AAA) has some degree of reciprocity with many Australian clubs and services. Roadside assistance programs are different in each Australian state:
- New South Wales and ACT: NRMA Insurance has roadside assistance.
- Northern Territory: The Automobile Association of the Northern Territory (AANT) offers roadside assistance with membership.
- Queensland: The Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ) provides roadside assistance as well as insurance.
- South Australia: The Royal Automobile Association of South Australia (RAA) provides road service, insurance, and member discounts.
- Tasmania: The Royal Automobile Association of Tasmania (RACT) has roadside assistance that can be purchased in addition to insurance.
- Victoria: The Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) provides roadside assistance, travel planning, and assistance and other services for motorists and homeowners.
- Western Australia: The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) provides insurance, roadside assistance, and other services to motorists.
In addition, some brands of cars offer a roadside service for purchase.
Should You Rent or Buy a Car?
Depending on the length of your stay, buying a car and reselling it at the end of your trip may be more cost-effective than renting one. Fortunately, there are a number of agencies in major cities across the country that specialize in selling to foreign drivers. Ideally, you should rent a car if you're driving in the country for less than three weeks, you should buy if you're staying for more than three months, and you can do either one if you're visiting between three weeks and three months.
Many Australian cars are now equipped with an automatic transmission instead of stick shift gears, but you should check with the rental company before reserving a car to get the transmission you prefer.
Driving in the Outback
Most rental companies do not allow their vehicles to be taken on unsealed gravel roads found in the Outback, but if you purchase a vehicle for a longer trip or rent from specific agencies, you may be able to enjoy a unique outing in the remote regions of Australia during your trip.
However, it's important to prepare for your journey by fueling up (and potentially bringing extra fuel) before you set out into the desert. Additionally, since temperatures can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the daytime, you'll need to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated and make sure your vehicle is able to withstand extreme heat.
Don't expect your cell phone to work when traveling in the Outback since cell phone towers are only found around rural towns and urban populations. If you plan to spend significant time exploring the region, though, you may want to purchase or rent a satellite phone, which can typically get reception anywhere in the world.
Large Animals on the Road
Australia is home to a number of large wildlife including emus, camels, horses, cattle, and kangaroos, which often wander onto the roads across the country—especially in rural areas and most of the Outback. When driving, scan the sides of the road and use caution when traveling through dense brush and rural areas. Also be ready to use your brakes and try to avoid swerving to miss these critters, which could cause an even bigger accident if you lose control of the vehicle.
Curfews are in effect for driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory to avoid serious injury from collisions with large animals. If you have to travel at night, reduce your driving speed and turn on your high beams (if not facing oncoming traffic).
If you do hit an animal, stop if it is safe to do so and phone the appropriate trained wildlife rescue group, which varies by state. Try to remove any injured or deceased animal to the side of the road if it is safe to do so, then call the appropriate rescue group.
- New South Wales and ACT: Call Wildcare Queanbeyan at 6299 1966. In the Braidwood area, you should call NARG (Native Animal Rescue Group) at 02 4846 1900.
- Northern Territory: Contact Wildcare at 08 89 886 121 or 0408 885 34.
- South Australia: Contact Fauna Rescue at 08 8289 0896.
- Queensland: Contact Wildcare Australia at 07 5527 2444.
- Tasmania: Contact the Wildlife Management Branch at 1300 827 727.
- Victoria: In Victoria, call Wildlife Victoria’s emergency response service at 03 8400 7300 even if the animal didn’t survive, someone may need to be sent to check the pouch for young.
- Western Australia: The Wildcare Helpline at 9474 9055 puts you in touch with a wildlife volunteer who can help you connect with an appropriate wildlife rehabilitation program.
Trams in Melbourne
If you're planning on driving to Melbourne, the coastal capital of Victoria, you'll need to be aware of the extensive network of streetcars that run across the city. Drivers are sometimes permitted to drive on the tram tracks the crisscross Melbourne, which is denoted by dotted yellow lines; however, you are not permitted to make a turn from the tram track or drive on one if there is a solid yellow line beside it.
To make a right turn from the left-hand side of the road (where Australians drive) if there is a tram track present at the intersection, you will need to make what is known as a hook turn. In order to do so, signal a right-hand turn, pull into the intersection as far left as you can without entering the pedestrian crosswalk, then turn right when the light for the perpendicular roadway (you're turning right onto) changes to green. A sign will be posted if a hook turn is required at the intersection, but if you do not see one of these signs, do not make a hook turn and simply turn right from the rightmost lane.