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 Paris, 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. 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, make sure you've covered all your legal bases by bringing 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.
- 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, even if a student driver is accompanied by a supervising adult.
- A valid passport for the driver and all passengers traveling in the car.
- Proof of valid car insurance must be kept in the car. 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.
- 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, as French laws are relatively strict on this point. If you are involved in a car accident and 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. Rental companies will usually provide these, but 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 taillights are required in case one or more burn out after dark.
- If you wear glasses, you must keep a spare pair 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
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 will be easy as pie. Familiarize yourself with the following rules of the road before you attempt to drive.
- Seat belts and car seats: The driver and all passengers in the car must wear seat belts. Additionally, children under the age of 13 must either ride in car seats or wear seat belts appropriate for their age and height, and babies and infants under or around a year old should always ride in rear-facing car seats. It's the driver's responsibility to ensure all passengers wear proper seat belts.
- Children: Kids 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 seat belts.
- 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 to use your low beams (dipped headlights) during both day and night hours when driving outside of developed areas, including 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: Don't take any unnecessary risks—always give way to vehicles approaching from the right, even when it'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).
- Speed limits: All speeds are shown in kilometers, so we recommend using a good conversion calculator and getting used to that mode of measuring and judging distances. In built-up areas and cities, speed limits are generally up to 31 miles an hour/50 kilometers, and most highways and freeways nearby Paris usually have a minimum speed of 80 kilometers 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 kilometers/hour on all roads.
- Roundabouts: These traffic circles can be confusing and difficult to use, so 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 known for aggressive drivers, so avoid when possible. When driving on traffic circles in France, the rule is that those already on the circle have the right of way, and the circles proceed clockwise.
- The Parisian ring road/highway: Paris is surrounded by an enormous circular highway known locally as la Périphérique. Most drivers visiting Paris will not be able to avoid it, but it's notoriously stressful and busy, so follow advice on how to safely navigate and keep an eye on the speed limit of 70 km/hour or 45 miles an hour. 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.
- Carpool lanes and exit lanes: These are generally on the far-left on all Parisian highways, including the ring road. Exit lanes for those are on the far right. Avoid driving in the right lane unless your exit is soon.
- Cell phones: 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 app to find the one closest to you. You can also note gas stations open during late-night hours in and around the city.
- 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 mean having to pass through some toll roads, and fees can be expensive. Major debit and credit cards are generally accepted as payment. Calculate your estimated payment for 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 and look for them at busy intersections. 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.
- 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.
Parking in Paris
One of the reasons why many people avoid driving in central Paris is that parking is 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, except 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, while some charge based on a flat half-day or full-day fee. For an easier trip, familiarize yourself with parking in the French capital, including a guide to curb colors, street parking rates and hours, and typical parking signs.
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 prefer 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, but if you have a lot of belongings or prefer to be flexible on your timing and whereabouts, you might want to drive)
- You are staying in a remote suburb of Paris