While it is possible to get between popular tourist destinations in New Zealand by bus and train, to get to some of the more remote spots it’s necessary to have your own wheels. And, in reality, a lot of the most beautiful places in New Zealand are remote and out-of-the-way.
Outside of the main cities, drivers can expect reasonably well-maintained roads that pass through beautiful landscapes, from rolling farmland and scenic coastal drives to twisty mountain roads. Multi-lane highways are rare, and you might just come across livestock on the way.
Many travelers to New Zealand are able to drive using their licenses from their home country without applying for a New Zealand license for up to 12 months/ Travelers from countries with similar driving and licensing styles to New Zealand (such as the U.S., U.K., and Australia, as well as many European and some Asian countries) don’t need to convert their license to a New Zealand license. But, travelers from non-exempt countries will have to sit a written and/or practical driving test before being allowed to drive in New Zealand. See the full list of exempt countries on the New Zealand Transit Agency website. If you come from a country that’s not exempt and you’re only traveling in New Zealand for a short time, it’s probably not worth the trouble and you may prefer to find alternative ways of getting around New Zealand.
It’s not essential to have insurance to drive in New Zealand, although it’s highly recommendable to get at least third-party insurance.
It’s compulsory for all cars to have a Warrant of Fitness (WOF) and valid registration, and it’s the legal responsibility of the driver to make sure the vehicle they’re driving has this. If you’re renting a car, these will be taken care of for you. Both the WOF and registration must be displayed on the front windshield of the car.
Children below the age of 7 must be seated in an appropriate restraint for their age and size. It’s the driver’s responsibility to make sure minors are properly fastened.
All other passengers should also use a seat belt, including those sitting in the back. It’s the responsibility of adults to buckle themselves up properly, and you can be fined for not doing so.
Rules of the Road
New Zealanders drive on the left-hand side of the road, which can take some getting used to if you’re from a right-hand driving country. Most other rules are common sense, but it’s important to be familiar with any slight differences from what you’re used to.
- The speed limit on the open road is 62 mph (100 kph) with limits in urban and residential areas ranging from 31 mph to 50 mph (50 kph to 80 kph). School zone speed limits are 25 mph (40 kph) but when passing a school bus its 12.5 mph (20 kph). It’s never legal to go faster than 62 mph (100 kph), even on a passing lane or a highway. You can be fined and even lose your license (or your right to drive in New Zealand) if you’re caught or recorded speeding. Speed cameras are set up in many places.
- Gas stations are abundant in urban areas, but fewer and further between in remote areas. If embarking on a long journey, make sure to fill up before you leave town.
- Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal in New Zealand. Figuring out alcohol limits is very difficult to figure out in practice, so it's safest to simply not drink at all if you know you’ll be driving.
- It's illegal to use your phone while driving. The only instance in which it's allowed is if there's an emergency and it's unsafe to stop to make a call.
- In the event of an accident, if someone’s injured, you must tell a police officer as soon as possible, within 24 hours. If no one's injured, give your details to the owner or driver of the damaged vehicle within 48 hours, or if you can’t locate them, to a police officer within 60 hours.
- Police checkpoints are a common sight on New Zealand roads, and they might be breathalyzing drivers, checking WOF and registration, or checking licenses. Police also patrol roads in marked and unmarked vehicles, and you can get in trouble if you are caught speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign, running a red light, or breaking other rules. You can be fined, or lose your right to drive in New Zealand.
Weather & Road Conditions in New Zealand
While roads are generally well maintained in New Zealand, seasonal weather can affect driving, especially in more rural areas. Unsealed gravel roads require extra care and slower speeds. Central North Island and South Island in particular can be icy in the winter, and it’s not uncommon to see signs warning you to adjust your driving to winter conditions. Be aware that snowfall or heavy rain (causing landslides or flooding) can cut off more remote parts of the country. Roads such as the Takaka Hill in the Tasman district, the Lindis Pass and Arthur's Pass in the South Island, the Desert Road through the central North Island, and parts of the West Coast of the South Island (as well as other places) are sometimes closed because of the conditions. If driving in New Zealand in winter, it’s especially important to check conditions before heading out, and be prepared to change plans in case of closures.
Road Safety in New Zealand
Because New Zealand drives on the left, and many visitors from North America and Europe are used to driving on the right, this can be a problem for road safety. In a town with lots of traffic it’s easy to remember to drive on the left, but on rural roads without many other cars, it’s all too easy to slip onto the wrong side of the road. In many places, arrows are painted on the roads as a reminder of which side you should be driving on. Numerous accidents happen every year involving travelers driving on the wrong side, so don’t take this lightly.
The speed limit on the open road in New Zealand is 62 mph (100kph), and many locals familiar with the roads are comfortable reaching the speed limit. But, many of New Zealand’s most scenic roads are windy and mountainous, and only have two lanes. You don’t have to drive at the speed limit if you don’t feel comfortable, But, always check in your mirrors to see if you’re holding up traffic behind you, and pull over at a safe place to let other cars pass. Impatient drivers who risk passing at dangerous times are a hazard.
It’s not unusual to encounter cows and sheep in the road, as farmers move herds from one place to another. In these cases, the animals have right of way. Pull over and wait for them to pass. Don’t just try to drive through the herd, however slowly. Animals can startle easily, causing more problems for the farmer and you.