Driving in New Zealand - NZ Holiday Planner

Road signs in NZ

Renting a car and taking off is one of the best ways to travel around New Zealand. We offer a selection of tried and tested New Zealand self-drive itineraries to help you get the best from your holiday or one of our expert holiday planners can put together a tailored itinerary just for you. Our roads are stunningly scenic. The volume of traffic is low and you can explore at your own pace.

While New Zealand is relativity small, roads can be narrow and hilly. There can be loose gravel, and it’s not uncommon to see sheep or cattle meandering across winding country roads.

Even if you have driven in other countries and are confident driver, it’s important to understand the rules for driving in New Zealand before you get behind the wheel. You need to take special care if you’re used to driving in the city, as most of New Zealand’s best scenery is on open country roads.

We drive on the left-hand side of the road here. Never drive if you are feeling tired, or you have just arrived on a long-haul flight.

Driving Tips New Zealand

International Driving Licence

To drive in New Zealand you must have a current driver’s licence from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP). If you are here longer than 12 months you are legally required to convert to a New Zealand licence. This applies to each visit to New Zealand.

All drivers must carry their licence or IDP at all times when driving. You will only be able to drive the same types of vehicles you are licensed to drive in your home country. The common legal age to rent a car in New Zealand is 21 years old. If your licence is not in English, you will need to bring an English translation with you, or obtain an International Driving Permit.

Do I need car insurance?

Unlike some other countries, it is not a legal requirement to have car insurance to drive in New Zealand. However, we would strongly recommend that you do get at least third party insurance. And remember, even if you are insured by your rental car company, the excess on those policies can be, well, excessive.

When hiring a car in New Zealand most reputable rental car companies will have a comprehensive motor vehicle Insurance including third party and public liability included in their daily rate, this rate should also include unlimited kilometres, Government taxes and free automobile association New Zealand membership and roadside assistance. 

An Accident Damage Excess (ADE) applies to nearly all car rental agreements in New Zealand. This excess can be reduced and is strongly advised (This is your option) at the time of rental by purchasing Accident Excess Reduction (AER). This is a contract between you and the rental company. Accident Damage Excesses differ from company to company and it is certainly recommended you read these carefully.

Benefits of using a GPS

A Global Positioning System (GPS) is a great addition to your New Zealand travel experience. The major plus of a GPS is that it eliminates a big source of travel stress – getting lost.  Based on real time global satellites, you begin by typing in the destination address using a touch screen. Alternatively you can search for locations such as the airport, the closest petrol station when you’re low on fuel or a point of interest, for example a chemist or supermarket.

Once you have entered your destination, the device attaches to your car windscreen and you are free to follow voice over instructions – ensuring you don’t have to look away from the road while driving. The display screen also gives a map view, showing your real time location (as a blue dot on the screen) and providing up-to-the-minute estimated travel times. You are free to select the shortest route and if you miss a turn, the GPS automatically re-routes you to your destination. All these features reduce the stress of driving in unknown places, and are especially useful when driving in a new city or town.

Although many Smart phones now feature built in GPS, the smaller screen, lower volume and reliance on patchy internet coverage in remote locations can be a disadvantage. Stand alone GPS has more consistent performance, and won’t be affected by receiving a phone call. 

For peace of mind and to reduce disagreements over directions and maps, a GPS is designed to save you time and ease your journey. More and more, the GPS is a must-have for your kiwi adventure.

Calculating the true driving time

Driving in New Zealand is NOTHING like driving in most other countries.There are the obvious differences if you are from the US, like the steering wheel being on the right and the blinker and windshield wipers reversed. But the real difference comes when you look at a map and say, "look it is only 80 km (49 mi) between Thames and Whitianga, it should take us only 45 minutes to get there." WRONG! There are few "interstate" highways (called motorways here) in NZ. The rest of the country is one lane each way. That means slowing down to go through the numerous towns, getting stuck behind logging or cattle trucks doing 60km (37 mi) and other unforeseen delays that do not show-up on maps.

NZ Road Trip

Points of difference

We want to keep you safe on our roads. Take time to look at these points of difference. These are the key points that have tripped drivers up recently.  

We drive on the left: This can be a challenge to remember especially when pulling out into traffic or at night.  Get in to the habit of checking yourself before you use the accelerator.

Stop signs: In New Zealand this means complete stop, rather than a rolling stop.  They are in spots that are known to be hazardous.

Hilly (elevated), narrow or windy roads: We have a lot of surprising roads, and they are often through the most scenic of routes.  The key is to stay on your own side of the road and reduce your speed. Factor a longer journey in to your travel times. Tourist routes have lots of rest areas to stop safely so take advantage of these and take regular breaks. 

Railway crossings: Red flashing lights means a train is coming, so stop until the lights have stopped flashing. Other crossings only have a ‘Railway Crossing’ sign. You need to stop, look both ways and only cross the track if there are no trains approaching. About half of our railway crossings are not automated.

Gravel roads: We have a good number of roads with loose gravel in back country areas off the main routes. These can be tricky and your car may not behave as you expect. Also clouds of dusty dirt will cover your car and surrounding paddocks. Take it easy, reduce your speed considerably and watch your cornering. Most importantly if you have an accident on a gravel road, there is a 99.9% chance you will not be insured!

Main and back roads:  You will be sharing the road with farm vehicles, milk collection trucks and stock vehicles.  Many are professional drivers going about their business. It takes a time to get the big trucks up to speed, and space to make a turn so please, give them room.  Also watch out for people on biking holidays. They are to be admired for their effort (especially in a northwest wind).

Stock movements:  It’s quite fun watching a farmer move sheep and cattle over road ways, and we reckon you have to experience it. Don’t sound your horn or rev the engine. Drive slowly and steadily, and you’ll be through in no time.

Carry your driver licence: If your licence is not in English, you must carry a translation from an approved translator. Always carry your driver license.

Drink driving: Alcohol has a different effect on everyone but it is advisable to not drink any alcohol when you will be driving. The blood alcohol limit in New Zealand is 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. This is about two standard drinks for a man or one for a woman.

Texting while driving: Using a mobile phone while driving is illegal.

Seatbelts: You and your passengers must wear a seatbelt if one is fitted in the seat you’re using.

Drive for the conditions:

  • If you are in a city, the following times are worth avoiding:
    • workers will be travelling between 8-9am and 4.30 – 6pm.
    • Kids go to school 8.30-9am and home 2.45-3.15pm, so watch out for littlies.
  • Tune the radio into weather reports before you leave, so you don’t get caught out.
  • Exposed places can get very windy at times. If you are travelling in a campervan on a windy day, consider waiting until it eases up a bit.
  • In winter, rural roads can get icy and it’s not always visible.  If you don’t have to travel at the crack of dawn, it’s worth delaying until the sun warms the road. If you have to travel, reduce your speed, avoid sudden braking or direction changes, and allow greater following distances.
  • If you’re driving in the South Island in winter, spring or late autumn, snow is possible. So, ensure that you’re carrying chains (and know how to fit them) if a cold snap has been forecast.


Driving distance and time

North Island:  




South Island:   

Auckland to:
Kilometers / Miles      
Driving Time:    
Picton to:
Kilometers / Miles     
Driving Time:   
Napier422km / 262mi06hr 35mins Christchurch336km / 209mi05hr
Paihia240km / 149mi04hr 15mins Milford Sound1108km / 689mi18hr 25mins
Rotorua233km / 145mi03hr 35mins Mount Cook666km / 414mi09hr 45mins
Waitomo200km / 124mi03hr 10mins Nelson109km / 68mi02hr 10mins
Wellington658km / 409mi09hr 15mins Queenstown822km / 511mi13hr 20mins
Waitomo Cave to:  
Kilometers / Miles
Driving Time:
Nelson to:
Kilometers / Miles
Driving Time:
Auckland200km / 124mi03hr 10mins Christchurch423km / 263mi06hr 15mins
Napier306km / 190mi05hr 05mins Milford Sound1146km / 712mi18hr 35mins
Paihia 439km / 273mi07hr 25mins Mount Cook775km / 469mi10hr 30mins
Rotorua166km / 103mi02hr 45mins Picton109km / 68mi02hr 10mins
Wellington473km / 294mi07hr 10mins Queenstown693km / 431mi12hr 45mins
Rotorua to:
Kilometers / Miles
Driving Time:
Christchurch to:
Kilometers / Miles
Driving Time:
Auckland233km / 145mi03hr 35mins Milford Sound722km / 480mi10hr 40mins
Napier 224km / 139mi03hr 50mins Mount Cook331km / 206mi04hr 55mins
Paihia475km / 295mi07hr 50mins Nelson423km / 263mi06hr 15mins
Waitomo166km / 103mi02hr 45mins Picton336km / 209mi05hr
Wellington460km / 286mi06hr 30mins Queenstown486km / 302mi07hr 15mins
Napier to: 
Kilometers / Miles
Driving Time:
Mount Cook to: 
Kilometers / Miles
Driving time:
Auckland422km / 262mi06hr 25mins Christchurch331km / 206mi04hr 55mins
Paihia661km/ 411mi09hr 50mins Milford Sound550km / 342mi08hr 55mins
Rotorua224km / 136mi03hr 50mins Nelson755km / 469mi10hr 30mins
Waitomo306km / 190mi05hr 05mins Picton666km / 414mi09hr 45mins
Wellington323km / 201mi 04hr 50mins Queenstown262km / 163mi03hr 50mins
Wellington to: 
Kilometers/ Miles
Driving time:
Queenstown to:
Kilometers / Miles
Driving time:
Auckland 658km / 409mi09hr 15mins Christchurch486km / 302mi07hr 15mins
Napier323km / 201 mi04hr 50mins Milford Sound291km / 181mi05hr 05mins
Paihia898km / 558mi13hr 30mins Mount Cook262km / 163mi03hr 50mins
Rotorua460km/ 286mi06hr 30mins Nelson693km / 431mi12hr 45mins
Waitomo473km / 294mi07hr 10mins Picton822km / 511mi13hr 20mins


Test yourself before you leave

About to set off on your New Zealand driving adventure? You must understand New Zealand’s road rules, signs and driving laws and before you set off.

Test: Take a Tourist/Visitor Test to learn about New Zealand's road rules

Info: Further Driving Safe in NZ information. 

Other driving related reading... 

Driving in New Zealand? Essential Road Code rules you need to know
How to plan the perfect New Zealand Self-drive Holiday


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