Driving in New Zealand

How to drive in New Zealand
Updated 2023-02-12 11:02

Driving in New Zealand may sound easy, but once you factor in different road rules and the varying terrains and driving conditions, it can be daunting for some expats. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Using your existing driver's license in New Zealand

If you are a visitor to New Zealand and have a current driver's license from your home country, you can use this license to drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months. This applies to both manual and automatic vehicles.

However, if your driver's license is not in English, you will need to carry an English translation or an International Driving Permit (IDP) with you when you are driving. An IDP is a translation of your driver's license into nine languages, including English. It is recognized in many countries as a valid form of identification for driving purposes.

If you plan to stay in New Zealand for longer than 12 months, you will need to apply for a New Zealand driver's license. This may involve passing a theory test and a practical driving test. Depending on what country you are from and what license you hold, you may be able to convert your license into a New Zealand license without taking a test.

Good to know:

You are legally required to have a copy of your license on you at all times - if you don't, you risk a fine of anything from NZ$400 - $1000.

Converting your driver's license in New Zealand

If you have a valid overseas driver's license, you may be able to convert it to a New Zealand driver's license. You can also convert the classes on your overseas license to the equivalent classes for your New Zealand license.

To be considered valid, your overseas driver's license must not be suspended, disqualified, or revoked in the country of issue and must be either current or expired within the past 12 months. If you plan to settle in New Zealand, it is a good idea to consider converting your overseas driver's license to a New Zealand driver's license

To convert to a New Zealand driver's license, you must apply at a specialist overseas conversion site. During the application process, you will need to fill out an application form, provide evidence of your identity, prove that your eyesight meets the required standard, possibly provide a medical certificate, present your overseas driver's license and any required translations, provide evidence of validity (if applicable), have your photo and signature taken, pay the application fee, and provide high-quality, color photocopies of all original documents.

You may also need to pass theory and practical tests, which will incur additional fees.

Exempt and non-exempt countries

Citizens from certain countries are able to convert their licenses without having to take a theory or practical test. This is because the road rules in the below countries are considered similar enough to those in New Zealand.

Exempt countries include Australia, France, Japan, South Korea, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Hong Kong, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Finland, Italy, South Africa, and the United States of America.

If you are from a country not on this list, you will be required to take a theory and a practical test.

What it costs to convert your driver's license in New Zealand:

  • Overseas conversion application fee: $52.10
  • Theory test fee: $45.70
  • Practical test fee: $59.90

New Zealand roads and conditions

The first thing to be aware of when driving in New Zealand is that you will be driving on the left side of the road. Make sure you stay in your lane, especially when you are driving down winding roads. Some roads can be narrow, windy, steep, and even partially washed away in bad weather. Weather in New Zealand is rarely mild, often quite extreme. There are rarely light showers; more often, there are heavy downpours, although usually short. Be prepared for constantly changing weather conditions while driving.

There are next to no motorways outside of Auckland and Wellington, so be prepared for roads with only one lane in each direction - two maximum in busier areas. Travel can be slower thanks to all these factors, so always allow for some extra time for every journey.

It is a legal requirement for all passengers to wear their seatbelts. If you are over 15, you are responsible for your own seatbelt. This means that if the car is pulled over, you will receive a fine for failing to wear your seatbelt, not the driver. Using mobile phones whilst driving is illegal as well.

Before you arrive in New Zealand, check out the AA's Visitor Driver Training Programme to make sure you are prepared for the driving conditions and rules in New Zealand.

Road safety in New Zealand

New Zealand has a relatively good record when it comes to road safety. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), New Zealand had a relatively low number of road traffic deaths per 100,000 population in 2020, ranking 49th out of 180 countries.

In New Zealand, the Land Transport Act 1998 sets out a range of rules and regulations governing driving and road use, including speed limits, alcohol limits, and rules for passing other vehicles.

Drink driving in New Zealand

In New Zealand, it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. This is known as the legal alcohol limit for drivers. It is also illegal to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, regardless of the specific BAC level.

There are different alcohol limits for different categories of drivers. The legal alcohol limit for drivers who hold a full driver's license is 0.08, while the legal limit for drivers who hold a learner or restricted license is lower, at 0.00. This means that drivers with a learner or restricted license are not allowed to have any alcohol in their system while driving.

It is important to note that the legal alcohol limit is not a safe alcohol limit. The risk of a traffic accident increases significantly at any level of alcohol impairment, and it is generally safest to avoid drinking alcohol before driving.

In New Zealand, police have the authority to conduct roadside breath tests to check for alcohol impairment. If a driver is found to be over the legal alcohol limit or is impaired by alcohol or drugs, they can be charged with a criminal offense and may face fines, imprisonment, or the loss of their driver's license.

Getting a vehicle in New Zealand

The minimum age to hire a car in New Zealand is 21. For short trips, hiring a car is a great option. If you want to save money, look into hiring a campervan, and pay for both vehicle and accommodation costs in one.

If you're in New Zealand longer-term or moving here permanently, then you may want to consider buying a car. Keep in mind, however, that your car has to meet certain standards and has to pass its WOF (Warrant of Fitness) every year or six months, depending on the age of the car. In addition to this, you must pay registration fees.

Websites like TradeMe and Facebook Marketplace are excellent sources for used vehicles – especially if you are after something for a shorter period or something rough and ready for a road trip. Buying a car from a private seller in New Zealand is common. If you go this route, make sure the vehicle has a current WOF, as this usually means it is in reasonable condition. You can also have a used vehicle assessed by a mechanic. Other options include dealerships and used car lots.

In New Zealand, both manual and automatic transmission vehicles are popular and are used by drivers throughout the country, although there is a general trend toward a preference for automatic vehicles, especially with younger drivers. However, when hiring or buying a car, you are likely to encounter both options.

Car insurance in New Zealand

There are different types of car insurance available in New Zealand, including third-party, third-party fire and theft, and comprehensive coverage.

Third-party insurance is the minimum level of coverage required by law in New Zealand. It covers damage to other people's property and injuries to other people but does not cover damage to your own vehicle or injuries to you or your passengers.

Third-party fire and theft insurance provides the same coverage as third-party insurance but also covers damage to your own vehicle due to fire or theft.

Comprehensive insurance is the most comprehensive type of car insurance available in New Zealand. It covers damage to other people's property and injuries to other people, as well as damage to your own vehicle and injuries to you and your passengers.

In New Zealand, car insurance is not mandatory for vehicles that are not registered or are not being used on public roads. However, if you plan to drive a vehicle on public roads, it is important to have the appropriate level of insurance coverage to protect yourself and others in the event of a traffic accident or other covered event.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.