If you are going on vacation to scenic Finland in Northern Europe, whether to the capital city Helsinki or more rural areas, be prepared for beautiful natural landscapes and attractive cities in the country known for the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. Before you go, there are some important things to learn about the required paperwork and driving laws in Scandinavia. Finland has roads that are generally in good condition, with light traffic jams that are rare compared to what people from other countries are used to.
However, drive along carefully as you may occasionally see a moose or another animal. The highways are great, but many routes are indirect because of the numerous lakes in the country's south. As you head north in Finland, there are fewer roads. You'll find that Finnish traffic rules may not be so different from the ones used in your homeland. However, a few things may vary significantly, so read on to learn about what you should keep an eye out for.
There are a couple of things you should have on you at all times when driving. Before setting off in the car in Finland, you should carry your valid driver's license and current passport with you, as well as the car's vehicle registration form, which at the same time serves as proof of insurance for the vehicle. Also, take note that drivers have to be 18 to get behind the wheel in Finland.
It's the law to use headlights at all times, not just during dusk, rain, fog, or otherwise bad weather in Finland. In newer car models in Finland, the headlights are automatically on at all times, so you won't have to worry about that part if you decide to get a rental car. In the winter months, all vehicles must have snow tires—preferably studded—for the roads maintained by snowplows. If you are renting a car, request winter tires from the rental agency when making your reservation.
Rules of the Road
One difference from other parts of the world is that in Finland, like in the United States and Canada, you drive on the right side of the road, unlike countries that drive on the left side, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Australia. In Finland, drivers overtake (pass) on the left. In addition to possibly adjusting to that, it's a wise idea to familiarize yourself with these rules before you set out on the road. The Going Abroad app is a helpful resource as well.
- Distance measurements: Traffic signs in Finland are in kilometers, and 1 kilometer equals 0.6 miles. Find a reliable conversion calculator and get accustomed to that mode of measuring and judging distances.
- Seat belts: In Finland, seat belts are mandatory for the front and rear seats. Kids under three years old or measuring less than 4 feet, 5 inches (1.25 meters) tall must ride in an appropriately-fitted car seat.
- Flashing high beams: If a car coming in your direction flashes its high beams at you, there may be an accident or a moose on the road ahead, or you may need to turn your headlights on. Stay safe by keeping an eye out for these possibilities anytime you are driving.
- Drinking and driving: The alcohol limit in Finland is 0.5 grams/liter for drivers, and the tolerance for this behavior is low in this part of the world. Keep in mind that the police can pull you over for testing at any time, and if you're over the limit, you're going to jail—it's that easy to see a Finnish jail from the inside. Instead, catch a taxi or select a designated driver ahead of time, rather than endangering others on the road, along with yourself.
- Drugs: Scandinavian countries are strict regarding driving under the influence of psychotropic substances and do not allow driving under the influence of methylamphetamine, marijuana (THC, cannabis), or MDMA (ecstasy). Police will test drivers for various substances if needed. If you are caught operating a vehicle while under the influence, it can result in a large fine, imprisonment, or a possibly being banned from Finland.
- Cyclists: Maintain awareness that bike lanes and cyclists are frequent sights across the region. As long as they are in designated lanes, cyclists have the right of way.
- Parking: Always park in the direction of traffic, with a 5-meter distance from intersections or pedestrian crossings. Most cities have parking spaces with time limits; use a credit card or cash to buy a voucher from street vending machines or gas stations, and display the voucher on your dashboard. Check the nearby signs to see if a parking disc is required (in some areas) and place the disc on your dashboard, making sure your arrival time is displayed.
- Gas stations: Gas is called petrol. After filling their tank, people in Finland move their cars off to the side while paying inside. Check current gas prices (use a translation website if necessary).
- Speed limits: You'll find the speed limit on a round sign with a red circle outline, measured in kilometers per hour; follow the standard speed limits unless a sign indicates otherwise. Driving too fast earns you tickets in Finland, just like in most other places around the world. The speed limit on highways (motorways) is 100 kilometers/hour (120 kilometers/hour in the summer), while the general speed limit is 50 kilometers/hour in built-up areas and 80 kilometers/hour outside of those areas. In winter, the general speed limit is reduced everywhere to 80 kilometers/hour.
- Tolls: Fortunately for tourists and locals alike, Finland does not have toll highways or bridges. Beautiful scenery and free roads in good condition are a nice combination.
- In case of emergency: If you get into an accident or require other emergency services in Finland, call 112 nationwide to reach the police, fire department, and ambulance. You can immediately ask for an English-speaking staff member and have appropriate emergency services dispatched to your location. To indicate where you are, provide at least the street and city, or in rural areas the kilometer markers of side roads or country roads.
Finnish Road Signs and Helpful Phrases
In all public traffic areas, road signs use standard international symbols. They sometimes include Finnish phrases, and it is good practice to familiarize yourself with those phrases before arriving at the airport in Finland.
A few key phrases to ease your driving experience include:
- Petrol or gas station: Huoltoasema
- Parking: Pysakointi
- Entrance: Sisaantulo
- Exit: Uloskaynti
- Detour: Kiertotie
- Drive slowly: Aja hitaasti
- Road under construction: Tie rakenteilla
- Road repairs: Kunnossapitotyö
- Local speed limit: Aluerajoitus
- Hospital: Sairaala
- Police: Poliisi
- Airport: Lentokenttä
Renting a Car
You'll find rental car companies at the airport (they may add a convenience fee) or in all major cities and towns—booking in advance helps, and you'll need a credit card. To rent a car, you must be at least 20 (age sometimes varies by car category) and to have held your license for a year. Drivers under 25 may have to pay a young driver fee to rent a car. Travelers from the U.S. and Canada can rent a car with a domestic driver's license that has been valid for at least one year.