What to Know Before Driving a Car in New Zealand

by Jackie
Published: Updated:
A red car driving along a road in New Zealand

You’ve booked your trip to New Zealand and are considering driving a car (or campervan) around the country. 

Depending on your comfort level, you’re either scared out of your mind about driving a car in a foreign country or excited about this opportunity! 

After visiting New Zealand twice and using a rental car, we say go for it! It’s one of the best ways to travel around this country. 

Whether you’re exploring New Zealand’s North or South Island on a road trip, driving a car is doable and easy to do. New Zealand’s roads are well-maintained and paved, so you don’t need to worry about getting stuck in a pothole. 

In this post, we’re sharing what to know about driving a car in New Zealand and helpful tips. We want your experience to be as stress-free as possible.

*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and make a purchase, we receive a small commission. There is no additional cost to you. Appreciate the support.

Do You Need to Drive a Car in New Zealand?

Before we answer this question, here are some things to consider: 

  1. Do you have experience driving a car?
  2. How many people will join this NZ trip? Is the passenger able to drive the car? 
  3. Can you drive long distances such as over 2 hours? 

If you satisfy any of the questions above, then driving a car is for you! 

If not, it’s not necessary to have a car when traveling around New Zealand. 

If you plan to stay in one city, then you can utilize public transportation such as buses, ride-hailing, and taxis.

If the plan is to travel to multiple cities without driving a car, consider taking a multi-day or day tour. With the tour options, everything is conveniently organized for you from the transportation, meals, and accommodations. 

Many day tours depart from major cities, such as Auckland. Check out this 2-Day Tour from Auckland. 

What We Did

We enjoyed having a rental car to travel around NZ for more flexibility with our schedule. It was more economical for us to share a rental car than to rely on public transportation. Plus, we love having a car to store our luggage and bags when we stopped by local attractions.

A Hobbit hole with a yellow door, red chair, and a garden at Hobbiton Movie Set

You’ll want to have a car in NZ so you can visit pretty places such as the Hobbiton Movie Set.

Is Driving in New Zealand Easy?

Driving in New Zealand is doable and can be done! All you need is a bit of patience and practice to get used to how the roads work. It’s okay to start slowly and work your way up with the speed. 

TIP: Review the free New Zealand online driving test so you know the rules of the road and are familiar with the road signs. You can take the test a few times. 

Some things to know about driving:

  • Everyone drive on the left side of the road with the driver’s seat on the right side. It’s very tricky to switch your brain to the other side of the road especially when we’re used to driving in the U.S. 
Justin Huynh, Life Of Doing, drives a Toyota car in New Zealand

Driving on the right side of the car in New Zealand is tricky at first but doable after some practice.

  • The car windshield wiper and signal lever are switched. We wiped the windshield at least 5 times an hour thinking that it was the turn signal. Let’s say that our windshield was very clean by the end of the trip. 
  • Luckily, the brakes and the accelerator are the same and not switched! 
  • The speed is in kilometers per hour (kph). Not miles per hour (mph). 
  • The speed limit isn’t too fast – 100 kph (62 mph) for roads in the countryside and 50 kph (31 mph) in major towns and cities. Please check the signs as you drive along the roads for any changes. 
  • Driving in the major cities will be more congested and crowded. Take your time and don’t panic!
  • If you’re driving a campervan, you’ll need to be aware of your vehicle’s height to make sure that you can pass any bridges and tunnels.

Do You Need an International Driver’s License?

You need a valid driver’s license in English and have your license for at least a year. 

You can also get an International Driver’s License, but it’s not required. If you plan to drive in other countries, the International Driver’s License will be helpful. If you’re based in the U.S, you can get one from AAA offices. 

If your current license is not in English, you need to have it translated to English or have the International Driver’s License. 

The minimum age to rent a car in NZ is 21 years old, yet those under 25 may get charged an extra surcharge. 

Where to Rent the Car in New Zealand

The easiest way to rent a car is from the International Airport. New Zealand has five international airports – 2 on North Island (Auckland and Wellington) and 3 on South Island (Queenstown, Christchurch, and Dunedin). 

The rental car company will be located either at the airport or at an off-site location close to the airport. If you’re renting the car off-site or after normal hours, check with the car rental agency to see if they provide a shuttle. The airport has phones that provide complimentary calls to car rental agencies.

Which Rental Car Company Should You Use?

There are many car rental agencies to consider, such as Avis, Budget, Europcar, Ezi Car, Hertz, and Thrifty. Smaller rental companies are also available. 

It’s recommended to compare the car models, car year, and the pricing between companies as they may vary. You’ll also need to choose between a manual or automatic transmission

You can get an idea of the pricing and car availability by using the Kayak aggregator. 

TIP: It’s highly recommended to book your reservation 1-2 months in advance, especially during the peak travel season. 

Our Recommendation: Go Rentals

We used Go Rentals on our North and South Island road trips. It’s a smaller, budget-friendly rental company that offers good service and pricing. We found them through research and heard people sharing positive reviews about the company. 

The process to pick up the car at the car rental place went smoothly. Everything was communicated over email so there were no surprises with billing and where to pick up. 

On both trips, we had to go off-site to pick up the car as we arrived after midnight. The hotels provided a shuttle. In Auckland (North Island), we picked up the car at Sudima Auckland Airport Hotel. In Christchurch (South Island), we also picked up the car at Sudima Christchurch Airport Hotel

It is possible to have different pick-up and drop-off locations. It’s easy to arrange ahead of time. Just needed to pay a one-way fee.

As mentioned earlier, we had a pick-up at Christchurch Airport and a drop-off location at Queenstown Airport. We returned the car at Queenstown during the off-hours hours (before 5:00am), so we parked the car at the off-site location, dropped the key in the overnight mailbox, and walked to the airport. 

If you want to use Go Rentals, check out the deals on Facebook as there are promotion codes.

Do You Need a GPS?

It’s helpful to have a GPS or some way to get driving directions. 

Renting a GPS through a car rental agency is not necessary unless you prefer to visually see where you’re going on a device. 

As long as you have a charged cell phone and a New Zealand SIM card or an international data plan, then you’re good to go! 

TIP #1: If you have a passenger in the car, encourage them to also help guide directions.

TIP #2: You’ll need to download offline maps if you go to places that have no reception such as national parks and Milford Sound. 

New Zealand Road Trip: Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

National Parks such as Mount Cook does not have any cell phone reception if you’re using maps or GPS.

Our Recommendation for International Data Plan (For U.S. Travelers): Google Project Fi

We used our cell phones as we have Google Project Fi phone coverage. Google Project Fi has data for over 200+ countries (either free or $10/GB). It’s our go-to cell phone plan for traveling as we’ve used it since 2016. 

Using Google Project Fi and Google Maps was perfect for our trip. In some places, the cell phone service dropped so we followed the road signs to get to our destination. 

If you’re in the U.S. and looking to change your phone provider, consider Google Project Fi. 

Sign up and get a $20 credit. 

Do You Need Rental Car Collision Coverage or Car Insurance? 

It depends on your comfort level and your driving skills. 

Check with your car agency on what gets covered with the collision coverage and car insurance and the cost. It will be an added cost to your New Zealand trip. 

If you decide to get it, you will have peace of mind in case something happens with the vehicle. 

TIP: Use a credit card that has rental car collision coverage. Read the benefits and what you need to do in case you need to file a claim.

For our trips, we declined the car rental’s collision coverage from Go Rentals. Instead, we used our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card (U.S. credit card) which has car rental collision coverage and reimburses for the cost of damage. Learn more here.

There are several documents needed for reimbursement such as photos, rental invoice, car damage invoice, etc. The credit card benefits team will either reimburse directly to you or will pay directly to the rental car company (depending on the situation). 

For our first trip to North Island, we didn’t have any issues with the car. 

For the second trip to South Island, a rock hit the windshield so there was a minor chip. After receiving the email from Go Rentals and seeing the charge of $60 NZD ($44.32) on the credit card bill, we filed a claim through Chase Sapphire Reserve Benefits Portal and received the reimbursement a week after filing.

Parking in New Zealand

Parking is easy to find around the cities and towns. There is free street parking and paid parking lots. Check the signs on the time limit. 

Just remember that the driver’s seat is on the right side, so you’ll need to parallel park from the left side of the car. It’s a bit tricky to do if you’re used to the driver’s seat on the left side. 

If it’s too hard, feel free to move to another spot that doesn’t require parallel parking. It’s totally fine and understandable!

Buy Gas Often.

We suggest that you fill up your gas tank every morning before you start your drive and as necessary throughout the day. 

New Zealand’s attractions and towns are spread apart so it can be miles until you reach the next gas station. We wouldn’t want you to get stranded on your trip. 

The process for buying gas is different than what we’re used to in the U.S. At the gas station, you must fill up your tank first and then go to the convenience store/check-out station to pay for the gas. There is so much trust in this process! 

Watch the Road Conditions on Your New Zealand Drive.

Whether you’re driving during the summertime or wintertime, watch your surroundings and be careful. There may be animal crossings such as cows and sheep (check out if there are signs), car accidents, or anything that appears. 

If you see a drastic change in the weather, please stay out of danger. Flash floods can occur so you don’t want to be in a sticky situation. 

Driving in New Zealand during the wintertime is doable. Just go slowly when it rains or if the roads are icy or snowy. You may want to avoid these areas if you don’t have the proper tires.

A red, white, and black give way sign along the road in New Zealand

Stay alert with these New Zealand road signs.

Other Helpful New Zealand Driving Tips

  • New Zealand has many beautiful spots along the road. Feel free to pull over to the side and then take your photos. Do not block the roads and cause any accidents for other drivers. 
  • If there are more aggressive drivers, please let them pass you on the road. It’s perfectly okay! 
  • Take breaks from driving as needed. Luckily, New Zealand has small towns to check out every 1-2 hours so you can stop to explore and take a break.
  • Make sure that you allow plenty of driving time when going from city to city. Don’t rush on the roads.
Hundred of sheep eating grass in South Island New Zealand.

We stopped over to the side of the road to see these adorable sheep.

Final Thoughts

We hope that this post has calmed any nervousness about driving a car in New Zealand. Take advantage of New Zealand’s generosity by allowing tourists to drive vehicles! 

Enjoy your time exploring! 

Need inspiration on where to go in New Zealand? Check out our posts below: 

Save this post to your New Zealand Pinterest board.

A red car driving along a road in New Zealand

Featured photo & pin #1 photo credit: brians101 via Depositphotos.com

You may also like


Britt August 3, 2022 - 11:46 pm

The windshield wiper vs turning signal change would definitely throw me off! That’s good to know – although I’m not sure that it’s going to prevent me from making that mistake several times when we do make the trip hahaha

Jackie August 5, 2022 - 10:39 am

Hi Britt. It took Justin about a day or two to get used to the windshield wiper and turn signal switch. Haha. Hope you get a chance to visit New Zealand in the future.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Please accept or opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy