France is one of the most popular destinations for tourists in the world, let alone Western Europe. Fortunately, the country has a very good road system that accommodates all the visitors, with more road coverage than any other country in the European Union.
France has a total of 965,916 kilometers (600,192 miles) of local, secondary, main roads, and motorways. While many travelers like using local public transportation and the fast trains the country offers, others prefer renting a vehicle to move around with a bit more freedom and mobility.
Adults 18 and above can drive in France. Driver's licenses issued in one of the European Economic Area (EEA) states are valid indefinitely, while licenses from outside of Europe are acceptable for up to one year in France. Bring passports for all people in the car, car insurance documents, the car's registration certificate, and your M.O.T. certificate (for cars over three years old, proving the vehicle meets environmental and road safety standards).
Check with your insurance company regarding whether you will be fully covered while driving in France, and bring their phone number with you. When you rent a car, insurance should be included; make sure you and anyone planning to drive the car is properly insured.
In France, it is required to carry breathalyzers in your car, although the law isn’t enforced and there is no penalty for drivers caught without a breathalyzer. If you have an accident, by law you and all passengers must put on a high-visibility vest before exiting the car.
Checklist for Driving in France
- Driver's license (required)
- Proof of insurance (required)
- Breathalyzer (required)
- Safety vest (required)
Rules of the Road
- Following signs: Look for destination signs rather than road numbers if you can. As there are so many authorities involved in road management, the road you are on can change from an ‘N’ road to a ‘D’ road without warning, and also change its number.
- Developed areas: Give way to traffic coming from the right (priorité à droite) even when it's unclear (such as at complicated intersections without signs). Do not use a horn unless it is an emergency.
- Handling roundabouts: Drive with caution. If you see the signs Vous n’avez pas la priorité or Cédez le passage you must yield to the traffic already on the roundabout which has priority. If there are no signs, traffic entering the roundabout has priority.
- Gas stations: Use a map app to find the station closest to you, and pay by the liter in euros. Many cars require diesel fuel versus gasoline (petrol). Avoid buying fuel which is a type of red diesel sold to farmers.
- Cell phones: The only phone legal to use while driving is completely hands-free and doesn't require a headphone. If you are caught using a mobile phone while driving, you are liable to an on-the-spot fine, and penalty points if you have a French driving license.
- Children and car seats: Children under 13 must be in car seats or wearing seat belts appropriate for their age and height. Babies and infants about a year old or under should always be positioned in rear-facing car seats.
- Seat belts: They must be worn all the time by both adults and children in the front and back seats. Rear passengers can only travel without seat belts in the back of older cars in which they are not fitted.
- Alcohol: France has strict laws—the permitted alcohol blood level for drivers is very low, at 0.02 percent blood alcohol content. Penalties including imprisonment can be serious for drivers pulled over. French gendarmes (police) can stop you randomly to check your papers and carry out the test for alcohol.
- In case of an emergency: Dial 15 from a French mobile phone if the accident is serious—for the ambulance service (Service d'Aide Médical d'Urgence, Medical Emergency Aid Service). On a non-French phone, call 112. Mention your exact location and the circumstance of the incident. Call 18 for the French fire brigade (les pompiers), also trained to deal with medical emergencies. They are often the first to arrive in case of road injuries, and in rural areas, they will probably arrive the fastest and provide an ambulance service.
Roads in France are diverse, with everything from major highways to single-lane roads in the rural areas. Get familiar with the different types of roads so you'll feel comfortable on your journey.
- A roads (as in A6) are motorways, called autoroutes in France.
- N roads are national strategic truck routes.
- D roads are departmental (county) roads. They range from busy local routes and former national routes now downgraded (make sure you have an up-to-date map with the new road numbers) to tiny country lanes.
- France also displays a European road number. French numbers are in white on a red background; European numbers are white on a green background.
- The word péage at the bottom of the sign indicates a toll road ahead.
- You may see direction signs with the word Bis. These are holiday routes along less crowded roads. So if you see Bis Strasbourg, this is an alternative route avoiding main roads. They will probably be slower, but there will be less truck traffic, and you may avoid traffic jams.
Using Highways (Autoroutes)
There are tolls on nearly all motorways (called autoroutes) in France. The only exceptions to this are where the autoroute has been created from an already existing road, and around major towns and cities.
You take a ticket as you enter the motorway from a machine, and pay when you exit the motorway. At some motorway péages, there will be no person at the booth. Many autoroute exit machines accept credit and debit cards. If you're paying by cash, check the ticket you pick up at the entrance to the motorway, as some will have the price at various exits printed on the ticket.
If you don't want to pay by credit card (which is more expensive once you've taken charges and exchange rates into consideration) make sure you have change. When you get to the exit, put your card into the machine, and it will tell you how much to pay. If you're paying by cash and only have notes, the machine will give you change. It will also have a button for a receipt (a reçu) if you need one.
If you regularly drive in France or are taking a long journey, Sanef France has extended the Liber-t automated French tolls payment service to U.K. motorists. Go on to the U.K. Sanef site to enroll. You can then pass through the gates with the sign of a large orange ‘t’ on a black background. If you’re alone and in a right-hand drive car, it does save you from either leaning over or getting out to pay the toll and holding up what might be a queue of irate drivers in a hurry. It will cost you a little more in upfront fees, but it may be worth it.
Busy Times on French Roads
The busiest time of the year is the summer, which runs from around July 14 when the schools start their summer holidays to around September 4 (when the schools open). Other school holidays when you can expect more traffic on the roads include the last week of February and the first week of March, Easter, and from the end of April to the second week of May.
Public holidays when the roads are busy include April 1, May 1, May 8, May 9, May 20, July 14, August 15, November 1, November 11, December 25, and January 1.
If You Are in a Road Accident in France
If your car is immobilized on the road or partly on the road due to a breakdown or an accident, you must set up a red warning triangle at a suitable distance behind the vehicle, so approaching traffic will know there is a hazard.
You will be asked to fill in a constat amiable (friendly declaration) by the driver of any French car involved. If you can, call your insurance company at once on your mobile phone. They may be able to put you in contact with a local French insurance representative. If there are any injuries involved, even if it is not your fault, you must stay with the car until the police arrive.
Renting a Car
There are car rental companies all over the country, in major and small cities and at airports. All the big names have a presence in France. If you're planning a longer stay, then consider the very good-value Renault Eurodrive Buy-Back Car Leasing Scheme. Most cars are stick shift, so specify if you would like an automatic transmissions car.