Driving through New Zealand’s spectacular natural environment is an experience you won’t soon forget. Whether you drive along the coast, through the bush, alongside forests, or through awe-inspiring mountain ranges: driving in New Zealand is dictated by how nature shapes its roads.
As the nation is so sparsely populated, there is virtually no congestion on the roads, except during commuter rush hour in major cities such as Auckland and Christchurch. The government is rightfully proud of its well-structured road system, which makes driving in New Zealand both convenient and safe.
Due to its size and especially the long distances between larger cities, driving in New Zealand is almost inevitable, and gives you the necessary flexibility when you move about the country, be it for business or pleasure.
Due to the country’s vast and multi-faceted terrain, driving in New Zealand requires skill and knowledge. New Zealand has motorways and highways that crisscross the country. Motorways are better developed and meet the criteria of westernized freeways, while highways are roads linking cities that are open to any and all vehicles. Most highways in New Zealand consist of a single lane for each direction.
Be aware of some hazards you can come across when driving in New Zealand, particularly on highways and rural roads. The distances you need to travel when driving in New Zealand can be deceiving. What may seem like a short trip from one city to another may end up taking longer than expected due to narrow and unpaved roads, or unpleasant weather conditions, among other things. Do not take curves too fast or use excessive speed during inclement weather conditions, because loss of control is the top cause of fatal accidents on New Zealand’s roads.
The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) takes road safety very seriously and gives up-to-date information on highway and road conditions for people driving in New Zealand. The government also gives propositions for alternative ways to travel, such as by bike, foot, train or carpool, as well as suggestions for buying fuel-efficient cars.
One effort to reduce traffic congestion and carbon dioxide emissions was the construction of the Northern Busway for commuters in the Auckland metropolitan area. As a result, travel times of one hour by car during rush hour were reduced to half an hour by bus.
On the North Island, beware of logging trucks, snow and ice, unmarked railway crossings, and ‘slips’ (small mud/rock avalanches after rainfall). Be cautious when passing on narrow roads, as head-on collisions are frequent, especially around Auckland, on State Highway 2 between Napier and Hastings and on Centennial Highway north of Wellington.
On the South Island, watch out for snow and ice, washouts and slips, frequent single lane bridges including several shared with trains, and the narrow Homer Tunnel at the entrance to Milford Sound. In general, always be wary of livestock, as flocks of sheep may be herded along the roads and herds of cattle occasionally need to cross roads to reach the next pasture.
In order to drive in New Zealand, you either need an international driving permit issued by your country of origin, or a valid driver’s license including an approved English translation, if the license is not in English itself. You may drive with said licenses for a period of up to 12 months before you need to apply for a New Zealand license. If you are caught driving without one of the three options above, you have to pay a fine anywhere between 400 NZD and 1000 NZD.
Depending on which country issued your current driver’s license, you may need to take a written and driving test in order to receive a New Zealand license. A number of countries are exempt from this requirement.
If your New Zealand license is your first, the process is a bit lengthier than what you might expect. The first step, a learner’s permit, requires you to take a road rules theory test, for which you can practice online and for free. After holding a learner’s license for six months, you can get your restricted license by resubmitting proof of identity, taking an eyesight exam, and passing a driving test. After 18 months on your restricted license and proving you are fit for driving in New Zealand by passing another practical exam, you will receive your full license.
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