Driving tests

Renting a car and driving in New Zealand

Driving knowledge

Almost all rental car agencies will give you some information about driving in New Zealand. There should be a booklet called What’s Different About Driving in New Zealand, and perhaps some ‘keep left’ reminder stickers either on the windscreen or dashboard. You must familiarise yourself with the road rules in New Zealand as there are many different rules. The closest country in terms of rules is Australia; drivers from other countries will find road markings and signage is different. Take these holiday driving quizzes to check your knowledge, and read this guide.

tourist sign chevron

Know what our road signs look like and you’ll be able to follow them more easily to cool destinations

Getting a licence translation

New Zealand allows anyone with a full drivers licence to drive here for up to 12 months using that licence, i.e. you don’t have to change your driver licence to a New Zealand one unless you are here non-stop for more than 12 months. However, if your driver licence is not in English then you need to get an authorised translation into English or have an international driving permit (IDP). If you don’t do that before you arrive in New Zealand you can usually get it done within 24 hours in most main centres, i.e. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, plus large towns, simply by going to an approved translator.

Watch out for unmarked speed cameras like this

Watch out for unmarked speed cameras like this

And watch out for slim speed cameras like this which aren’t easy to see

Hiring a car

Hiring a car is straightforward: you can choose the car before you get here by booking online (this is the most reliable way as during peak seasons many rental car agencies are booked solid), you can take your chances at the airport hire car companies, or you can travel into the city and search for a better-priced car rental firm (the airport rental companies are usually more expensive because they are more convenient and have expenses with offices and parking at the airport).

Check with your rental car company whether you must bring the car back to the same place that you picked it up from. This is especially important if you are travelling from the North Island to the South Island and using the ferry. Agencies will either:

  1. Insist you bring the car back
  2. Have you drop your car one side of the ferry, take the ferry over as a passenger then pick up another car on the other side (e.g. Auckland to Wellington, then Picton to Christchurch)
  3. Allow you to drop the car in a main centre such as Christchurch (if you’re travelling south) or if you are travelling to the North Island either Wellington or Auckland.

Bear in mind that for the agency to get the car back to the originating island on the ferry is expensive so they may charge you for this.

Some agencies specialise in relocating rental cars. You may also be able to get a cheap deal for taking a car from Christchurch to Auckland over 4-5 days.

a yellow line in the centre of the road means no overtaking

A yellow line in the centre of the road means no overtaking

Car crime

If you like going to remote places then it’s best to get a more modern rental car with a way of hiding its content, i.e. get a sedan, or a hatchback with a cargo blind. If all your belongings are on show to thieves, your car is at risk of being targeted and broken into.

Particular trouble areas include places like Kerosene Creek in Rotorua where the car park is hidden from the main road, and many of the car parks for walks in the Waitakere Ranges in Auckland as they are not always busy, but this can happen anywhere.

Coastal roads can be narrow, winding and have a cliff on one side and the sea on another, with no barrier!

Coastal roads can be narrow, winding and have a cliff on one side and the sea on another, with no barrier!

Insurance

If you have travel insurance then you may not need to take the expensive waiver that the insurance company offers. If you have no insurance, it’s advisable to take the insurance as even a minor accident can cost thousands of dollars.

Fuel

There can sometimes be 200km or more between fuel stations if you are travelling some of the more remote areas of New Zealand. Keep your fuel topped up. Fuel is cheaper in urban areas, sometimes by 30c per litre over remote petrol stations! When you return the car, make sure it’s full otherwise you’ll be charged for the fill plus a penalty.

The legal blood alcohol limit for driving in NZ is 0.05, but check your rental agreement as it might prohibit alcohol completely

The legal blood alcohol limit for driving in NZ is 0.05, but check your rental agreement as it might prohibit alcohol completely

Driving safely

Don’t try driving a long distance immediately off the airplane; you will be jetlagged and tired and you are much more likely to have an accident.

Be aware of New Zealand’s speed limits which are low (100km/h) on most motorways, but 80km/h in some motorway zones. Also, take extra care on rural roads as they can be full of sharp turns and narrow sections. Don’t expect to have motorways or dual carriageways in anything but major towns and cities. The Drivesafe website has more information.

Livestock crossing the road is common in rural New Zealand

Livestock crossing the road is common in rural New Zealand

Fines and car seizures

Due to a high number of tourist crashes (particularly in the South Island), locals are very vigilant about reporting erratic, inconsiderate or dangerous driving. One report will see you fined if the police have evidence; multiple reports will likely see your rental car contract cancelled. Because rental car companies share information between themselves about forced cancellations like this, you might find it hard to get another rental car and will have to continue your journey using public transport.

driver training

Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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