Driving in New Zealand? Essential Road Rules You Need to Know

Mountain Road New Zealand
A keep left road sign shown on a New Zealand road

It’s essential to know the road rules to keep safe when driving. When visiting New Zealand on holiday or on business, hiring a car or motorhome, you’ll need to be familiar with how our Road Code differs from the driving rules in your country.

If you are planning a New Zealand self-drive holiday vacation, we recommend you read this article and partake on the various online 'Test Before You Leave' programme's - It pays to be prepared.

Essential rules

We drive on the left using right-hand drive vehicles and, if you are not overtaking, stay in the left-hand lane on motorways.You can drive on your own driver’s licence for up to 12 months after arriving, and you must keep your licence with your when you are driving. Everyone must wear a seatbelt and children up to age 7 must be in an approved child seat.

You must not talk on a hand-held phone while driving, compose or read SMS messages, or access services on your phone that require you to hold the phone. NZ uses kilometres per hour for speed and kilometres for distances. The important speed limits are:

100km/h – default open road and motorway speed limit
80km/h or 70km/h - where road conditions are considered high crash zones the open road limit has been reduced.
50km/h – default urban speed limit (i.e. in towns and cities)
40km/h – speed limit around schools during marked times
30km/h – speed limit through roadworks
20km/h – speed limit past a stationary school bus that’s picking up or dropping off children; limit at accident sites

Jet lag and tiredness can affect your driving. Swap drivers if you feel tired, and don’t get distracted by the scenery. It’s best to stop to take photos. Indicate for at least three seconds and then pull well off the road.

Road Sign National Park

Intersections and lane use

We drive clockwise around roundabouts (turning circles) and give way to the right.

At T-intersections, vehicles on the top of the T have right-of-way over vehicles on the bottom of the T. The complete intersection rules are here.

If you want to turn right from a through road into a side road you must give way to drivers coming towards you who are passing through or turning left.

You are allowed to overtake on the left on multi-lane roads.

You are not allowed a free turn on a red light (unlike, for example, in the USA).

It is an offence to obstruct traffic. If you have a queue of vehicles following you because you are driving well below the speed limit, you must periodically pull over to let them past.


Clearways are areas where parking is restricted during certain hours. A dashed yellow line next to the kerb means no parking at all.

Grand roadside view of Mt Tongariro


Many of the signs follow international conventions, and if not, are common sense, but many of the place names can be difficult to read at a glance if you are not used to them. We suggest that you know the route number of the road you should be on (e.g. SH5) as well as look for the names.

Motorways don’t exist outside of the main centres, and the roads can be narrow and windy, so allow extra time to stop and take in the sights. Expect to average of 70-80km/h on a 100km/h road. The team at First Light Travel hopes you have a fantastic stay in New Zealand, and that your driving is safe and easy. You can book and plan your self-drive holiday through First Light Travel. Let us help you have a fantastic trip to New Zealand with one of our recommended self-drive itineraries.

Most beautiful road in the world - drive to Mount Cook

There are several free resources to help you on your way:

  • Quiz: This free Road Code quiz is in four languages (Chinese, German, English and Spanish)
  • Languages: Tourism New Zealand provides an overview of driving in other languages (including Korean, Japanese, French, Portuguese and Bahasa). 
  • Video: This video explains driving in rural areas of the South Island.Test yourself before you leave.
  • Test: Take a Tourist/Visitor Test to learn about New Zealand's road rules
  • Info: Further Driving Safe in NZ information. 


Other related reading... 

The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip - A Self Drive Itinerary

Best New Zealand Itinerary for a Honeymoon

Getting of the the beaten track with a Self-drive holiday in New Zealand

Travelling Safely in New Zealand

How to plan the perfect New Zealand Self-drive Holiday

The facts on Driving in New Zealand - what you require & what you need to know

Since 2001 we’ve been helping visitors plan their dream New Zealand holiday. We aim to make visiting our beautiful land effortless. Let our expert holiday planners put together an itinerary for you, no obligation FREE of charge, or get some friendly advice on what small group tour would suit - Just follow the link and answer a few brief questions.  


Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor
: 16 Dec 2017 (Last updated: 23 Sep 2021)

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