Like many major European cities, Paris harbors an excellent public transportation system. Its extensive metro, bus, tramway and inter-city train networks allow tourists and locals to get around easily between most places. And while cars have hardly disappeared from the streets, the local city government has worked hard to discourage people from driving within the city limits, notably by opening more pedestrian-only zones.
In short, the French capital is nothing like Los Angeles, where driving is practically an obligation unless you're willing to tolerate two-hour bus rides or can afford expensive taxi and ride-share fares across the city. In Paris, by contrast, you can get around quite easily without ever taking the driver's seat. And most tourists, in fact, avoid getting behind the wheel since it's a city with a reputation for aggressive drivers who don't often follow the rules to the letter.
Of course, some of you may need or simply prefer to drive in the city of light, for one reason or another. If you do, it's essential that you first get familiar with the basics on driving in Paris. Read on to learn all about requirements for drivers, some basic rules of the road, and tips for staying safe.
Before you take to the streets of Paris in a motor vehicle, you'll first need to make sure you've covered all your legal bases. Never get behind the wheel before checking that you have all the required documents and items with you in the car. In some instances, failing to show that you have these items can result in fines should you be pulled over or assisted by law enforcement.
Your essential checklist for driving in Paris
Make sure you have the following items with you before you hit the roads:
- A valid driver's license with corresponding registration or proof of ownership (if the car is yours) are required at all times. You must be at least 18 years old to drive in France. Driving permits are not valid in France, even if a student driver is accompanied by a supervising adult.
- A valid passport for the driver and all passengers traveling in the car.
- Make sure you have valid driver's insurance. If you rent a car, this should be included in your rental agreement, but always double-check that you and all those who plan to drive the car are properly insured. Make sure that you keep proof of your insurance policy with you in the car.
- If you're towing a caravan, boat, or other vehicle behind your car, it must bear license information for your country of origin or a sticker matching the one on the car itself. For example, a driver from Great Britain or from another European country would display a "GB" or European Union sticker on both the car and the item that is being towed.
- A high-visibility, reflective vest in case you get into an accident. French laws are relatively strict on this point: if you are involved in a car accident or incident that means you have to call for help on the side of the road, you're required by law to put on a high-visibility vest before exiting the car—and so are all the passengers you're transporting. If there are four of you traveling by car, make sure you have four vests readily available. Rental companies will usually provide these, but make sure to ask ahead to ensure you have the correct number in the car.
- A warning triangle to display to other drivers in case you get into an accident or traffic incident that requires you to pull over to the side of the road or highway.
- A full set of replacement bulbs for head and tail lights are required in case one or more burn out after dark.
- If you wear glasses, you must keep a spare pair with you in the car, in case your spectacles break or are otherwise damaged.
- If you're driving a car from the United Kingdom, headlight converters are required.
- If you plan to drive in central Paris, you may need a "Crit'Air" badge showing that your car adheres to anti-pollution standards enforced in certain zones of the city. Cars with insufficient ratings may not be able to drive in these zones, or could be restricted at certain "peak pollution" hours. Ask your car rental agency about these regulations if in doubt.
- A breathalyzer test for your car. Having one in the vehicle is technically required in France—although this regulation is not often enforced. Nevertheless, we recommended that you follow the law in this matter as in all others.
Rules of the Road in Paris
Driving rules and regulations in France may not be dramatically different from the ones you're used to back home, but that doesn't mean you should assume using the roads there will be easy as pie. Familiarize yourself with the following rules of the road before you attempt to drive.
- Seat belts and carseats: The driver and all passengers in the car must wear seat belts. Additionally, children under the age of 13 must either ride in carseats or wear seatbelts appropriate for their age and height. Babies and infants under or around a year old should always ride in rear-facing carseats. It's the driver's responsibility to ensure all passengers wear proper seatbelts.
- Children under 13 are not permitted to ride in the front passenger seat unless all available back seats are either occupied by younger children or are not fitted with appropriate seatbelts.
- Alcohol blood levels: In France, the permitted alcohol blood level for drivers is extremely low, at 0.02 percent. We recommend that you do not take the wheel at all if you have consumed even a single drink. Penalties, including fines and even imprisonment, can be serious for drivers pulled over with alcohol levels above permitted levels.
- Using low-beam and headlights: It's recommended that you use your lowbeams (dipped headlights) during both day and night hours when driving outside of built-up areas. This includes country roads and areas with few lights. You should never use your high beams when there's oncoming traffic or when following another vehicle closely; failing to dip/lower them in these situations can result in fines and penalties.
- Giving way to right-hand traffic: It is still customary to give way to traffic coming from the right in France, even in cases where that's not made very clear (such as at complex intersections without signs). You should always give way to traffic from the right in car garages, at intersections where you see a triangle-shaped sign with a red border and marked by a black "X", or in places where you see a sign just ahead reading Vous n'avez pas la priorité (you do not have the priority). When in doubt, don't take any unnecessary risks, and give way to vehicles approaching from the right.
- Speed limits: All speeds are shown in kilometers, so we recommend using a good conversion calculator and getting used to thinking that mode of measuring and judging distances. In built-up areas and cities, speed limits are generally up to 31 miles an hour/50 km. On most highways and freeways nearby Paris, there's generally a minimum speed of 80km when using the overtaking/passing lane. When visibility or road conditions are poor (i.e. heavy fog, flooding rains, or snow), the speed limit is automatically reduced to 50 km/hour on all roads.
- Roundabouts/traffic circles: These can be confusing and difficult to use; take extreme caution when driving on these. The traffic circles at the Arc de Triomphe (at the far end of the Champs-Elysées and at the Place de la Concorde are particularly notorious for aggressive drivers; avoid when possible. When driving on traffic circles in Paris and France, the rule is that those already on the circle have the right of way. The circles proceed clockwise.
- Carpool lanes and exit lanes: These are generally on the far-left on all Parisian highways, including the ring road (see below). Exit lanes for those are on the far right. Avoid driving in the right lane unless your exit is soon.
- The Parisian ring road/highway (périphérique): Paris is surrounded by an enormous circular highway known locally as la Périphérique. Most drivers traveling into or out of Paris will not be able to avoid it, but it's notoriously stressful and busy. It is composed of four lanes, with the exit lane to the far right. You must give way to cars merging onto this circular highway from the right. The current speed limit on the circular road is 70 km/hour or 45 miles an hour. See this page for full advice on how to safely and sanely navigate this oh-so-Parisian highway.
- Cell phones: Cellular and mobile phones as well as other electronic devices may not be used by drivers while the car is in motion. Hands-free devices are not permitted, either. Fines can be issued on the spot for breaking this rule.
- Gas/fuel stations: There are many gas stations around the périphérique (ring road), but fewer in central Paris. Use Google Maps or another map app to find the one closest to you. You can also see this page for a list of gas stations open during late-night hours in and around Paris.
- Toll roads: You won't generally have to pay tolls when driving in and nearby Paris exclusively. But traveling to or from other French cities will certainly mean having to pass through some toll roads, and fees can be rather expensive. Major debit and credit cards are generally accepted as payment. See this page to calculate how much you may have to pay on a given trip.
- Horns and lights: Don't use your car horn to express frustration; it should only be used to warn other drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists of a hazard. The same is true of flashing your headlights: use these to warn others only.
- Watching out for cyclists and pedestrians: Make sure to give cyclists and pedestrians plenty of space. They don't always follow traffic laws, and in central Paris, it's essential to watch for them zipping between lanes and cutting in front of traffic even when they don't have the right of way. Watch out for both cyclists and pedestrians at busy intersections, and give them plenty of space when moving past them.
- In case of an emergency: If you are in a traffic accident or require emergency assistance, dial 15 (on a French cell) or 112 from a non-French phone. You must remain in place until the police arrive if you are in a car accident that involves another car and/or any injuries. Also make sure to take down the names and vehicle registration numbers of any other people and cars involved in an accident, however minor.
- For still more information in English on French traffic laws and regulations, see this page.
Parking in Paris
One of the reasons why most people avoid driving in central Paris is that parking is notoriously difficult to find. In most neighborhoods, available spots are often already taken on the street, and when they are available, you'll have to pay to use them, excepting during certain hours.
Luckily, there are also numerous underground garages in the city, easily identifiable by "P" signs against blue backgrounds. To pay for parking in an underground garage, take a ticket from the automated machine when you enter. You will have to pay (with cash or debit card) when you exit the lot. Most of these garages charge on an hourly basis; some charge based on a flat half-day or full-day fee.
You can see a map of parking garages in popular tourist areas and busy shopping districts around the city here.
For more on parking in the French capital, including a guide to curb colors, current street parking rates and hours, typical parking signs and what they mean, see this page at the Paris tourist office website.
Should You Rent a Car in Paris?
While many tourists will find it more convenient to simply rely on local public transportation and France's speedy, reliable trains, others will need to consider renting a vehicle to get around. A few times when you should consider renting a car in Paris:
- Your or your fellow travelers have limited mobility
- You plan to take multiple day trips outside the city (the rail system can take you to several places you might want to visit, but if you have a lot of belongings or prefer to be flexible on your timing and your whereabouts, you might want to drive)
- You are staying in a remote suburb of Paris
See our full advice on whether it's worth the time and money to rent a car in Paris.