Driving yourself is an excellent way to visit France. It gives you the flexibility to see small villages at your own pace, to get out into the lovely French countryside, and to linger at far-off vineyards and restaurants. Visitors miss so much of France if they never leave the cities. Driving is the best way to avoid crowds and to have the most authentic experience. Following Covid-19 it is also a more comfortable way for many people to tour.
If you plan to drive, here are a few things to know before setting off on your French road trip. Familiarizing yourself with these rules will help you to have a comfortable, safe, and fun visit.
To drive in France you must have a valid drivers license in your home country. Short-term visitors from the USA, Canada, or Australia may drive with their national license provided that they have an international driver’s permit or a notarized French translation to accompany it. American visitors can get theirs quickly and inexpensively with the American Automobile Association. Licenses from other EU countries are valid in France.
Cars in Europe are smaller than many North Americas are used to. If you have lots of luggage, are traveling with 3 or more adults, or feel more comfortable in a larger vehicle, know that SUVs and large cars are available for rental. With that said, a standard-size rental may be a better match. They’re easier to drive on France’s narrower roads and to park in the smaller parking spaces.
In Europe a majority of cars have manual transmissions. If you prefer to drive an automatic book early in order to ensure availability.
Drive on the right
In France, traffic is on the right-hand side of the road. This is just like in the United States and the majority of the European Union. Be aware of this when visiting from a country where the left-hand side is the norm.
Priorité à droit
A unfamiliar rule for many visitors to France is the priorité à droit. When there is a triangular sign with a black cross, you must give way to people emerging from your right. This is true even when you are on a major road and the other vehicle is emerging from a smaller one. It can be a confusing and potentially dangerous rule. If you are unsure, slow down and always be prepared to give way. You are most likely to encounter this in smaller villages.
Roundabouts or traffic circles are very common in France. They may feel uncomfortable to visitors from places where they are less common. Unless otherwise marked, traffic already within the roundabout has the right of way and you should yield when you enter. In some cases, you may see solid white lines on the ground or traffic signals indicating that you should yield in incoming traffic. Unusually, at Paris’s Arc de Triomphe the norm is to yield to traffic entering into the roundabout.
Sharing the Road
Roads in France are more narrow than those in the United States and often lack shoulders, so be aware of other road users. Pedestrians at crosswalks always have the right of way. If you pass cyclists you are required to leave a distance them at least 1 meter (3.2 feet) in urban areas and 1.5 meters (5 feet) outside of urban areas. In some parts of France, it is permitted for motorcycles to travel between lanes on the highway. This may be unfamiliar to drivers from elsewhere, so do not be surprised if you see it. It is particularly common during traffic jams.
Speeds are in kilometers per hour. The speed limit is not always posted, so it is important to remember the following guidelines:
- On paid highways, the speed limit is 130km/h (81mph) and drops to 110km/h (68mph) in rainy weather.
- On highways, the speed limit is 110km/h (68mph) and drops to 100km/h (62mph) in rainy weather.
- On single-lane two-way country roads, the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph). Note that this was reduced from 90km/h in 2018, so you may still see the old number in guidebooks or online.
- Within cities, the speed limit is generally 50 km/h (31mph). In areas with crosswalks or heavy pedestrian traffic, it is reduced to 30 km/h (18mph).
Note that if you see a round sign with a black slash through it means that the previous speed limit exception is over and you should return to the normal speed. For example, you may come across this on a highway while traveling at 130km/h. A section of the road could drop to 110km/h. Once you see the sign the speed returns to 130km/h.
Speed limit enforcement
Speed cameras are common in France. Some are permanent, while others may be a police officer temporarily stationed with a mobile unit. It is far more common to receive your fine by mail rather than being immediately pulled over by the police. Often there is a sign that warns when you are entering a section with a radar. If you are caught speeding or committing another infraction, the fines will likely be sent the rental car agency and then passed onto you.
Tolls on highways in France can be expensive, so be sure to factor them into your budget. See current prices here (link is in French).
Generally, count on paying around 10€ per 100 km traveled. Stop for a paper ticket when you reach a paid section. When you exit that section stop again to insert that ticket and payment into the machine. Payment is with a credit card or cash. Pay attention to the markings above each lane. They indicate what methods of payment are accepted. A green arrow indicates that all payment methods are accepted. You may also see credit card or cash-only lanes.
Note: the yellow or orange “t” symbol indicates that the lane is only for holders of the liber-t electronic payment pass.
Depending on your route, it can be more relaxing to take a train across large distances. You can almost always rent a car when you arrive at the train station.
Please drive responsibly. We do not recommend that drivers drink any alcohol. If you are interested in a wine tour, let our travel experts know. They will help arrange a chauffeur and guide so that you can visit and sample wine safely.
Note that the limit in France is a 0.05% BAC. While this is in line with the norm in many countries, it is notably less than the 0.08% common in the US and Canada. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can result in fines, license suspension, and even imprisonment.
In the event of an accident, reach emergency services by dialing 112. This number is standard in Europe and an operator will transfer you to the relevant emergency services. People who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may contact 114 by sms or fax.
Alternatively you can directly dial 15 for an ambulance, 17 for the police, and 18 for the firefighters.
Setting off on your adventure
Keep these rules in mind and you’ll have a wonderful time visiting France. Many of our visitors love having a car to themselves. It opens up rural, authentic, and more far-flung experiences. This liberty means you can sleep in quaint villages, enjoy hikes in nature, or visit artisanal food producers. The Loire, Normandy, Provence, and Corsica are particularly magical with your own transport. Speak with your local France expert for ideas or get inspired with these self-drive itineraries.
More information on driving in France
For the purposes of this article we have only covered the basics. If you would like additional information about driving in France here are two great resources:
- Driving information from the French Government
- See here for a comprehensive look at French road signs.