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Driving in New Zealand: A guide for first timers

Coming across sheep on the roads is just one thing you'll need to be aware of when driving in New Zealand.

Booking a New Zealand car hire and taking it for a road trip around the beautiful country is a bucket-list essential for many who have heard about the stunning scenery, unique culture and friendly locals.

Yet there are a few things anyone looking to head away on a car rental adventure in the country will need to know.

Who can drive in New Zealand?

If you hold a current, valid driving permit in your home country, then you shouldn’t have any issues driving in New Zealand.

You’ll need an overseas licence, which you may be able to obtain from your country of origin, or you can apply for one through the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).

If this licence is not in English, you will need to acquire an accurate translation from an approved translator. You can find a translator also through the NZTZ website.

If you have received a disqualification or suspension in New Zealand before, you will not be able to drive there.

Another requirement is that you can only use your international drivers’ permit if you have entered New Zealand less than 12 months ago. You can use it for a maximum of 12 months, but for a trip any longer than that period you will need to apply for a New Zealand driver licence.

Are the laws or road rules different?

For many visitors, the biggest difference will be that New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road. If you think this might be an issue for you, spend some time driving on quieter roads to build up your confidence and get used to using controls from the right side of the car.

The law requires you to wear a seat belt at all times, and you must always carry your licence when driving.

Like most countries, it is illegal in New Zealand to use your cell phone while driving, unless you can use the device completely hands-free.

Suburban areas usually have speed limits of 50km/h, while open roads are up to 100km/h.

New Zealand has recently changed its laws about the give way rules, which will benefit most overseas visitors. Left turning traffic now has the right of way.

Are the roads themselves different?

One thing you may notice is that there are very few multi-laned highways in New Zealand. In fact, out of the main cities (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) there are very few highways or motorways at all.

Roads in the country are known for being steep and windy, often with just a small barrier between the road and a cliff face. If you are not used to this sort of driving, or prefer to take it easy, make sure you pull over in a safe place – there are often slow driver lanes and bays – to let others pass you.

Ski field access roads and cold areas can have ice and/or snow on the road, so if you are heading to New Zealand in winter and think you might encounter this hazard, remember to talk to your car rental company about hiring a four-wheel-drive option, and make sure you have a set of chains in the boot.

Underestimating the driving time between places in New Zealand is a common mistake many visitors make, as the country can seem so small on a map. However, as there are often no highways between towns, and the roads are occasionally windy or hilly, you will need to give yourself ample time to get from place to place.

Another anomaly you may come across while driving in New Zealand is the possibility of coming across a herd of cows or flock of sheep on the road. This is not uncommon in rural areas. In this case, stay calm – the animals will not hurt you! The most important thing to remember is not to sound your horn as this can frighten the animals. Simply slow down to a crawling speed and move forward slowly until they move out of your way, or stop completely. There will be a farmer nearby who can instruct you further if you are unsure.

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