If you’re a foreigner and want to drive in France, congrats! You’re in for a fun time. Seriously though, driving in France isn’t that different from driving in the U.S., but there are some subtle (and not so subtle) differences that you should take note of to avoid an accident and major frustration. Here’s a quick list of what you need to know about driving in France.
Driving in France tips for tourists
Who can drive in France?
The national driving age is 18 years old and citizens of the European Union and EEA driving licences are valid in France. Your national license is all you need. Short-term visitors (up to 90 days) from non-EU countries, including the USA, Australia and Canada, can legally drive in France with their national license, but it’s always a good idea to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) with a translation of your license before coming to France. In reality, I’ve never been asked for this but check with your car rental company before coming to France, especially if you’ll be crossing the border into other countries where it might be needed for the most up-to-date info.
Keep in mind if you’re in France for more than 90 days, your foreign license is only good for a year. If you plan on staying in France for more than a year and driving, get your French license squared away before your visa/carte de sejour expires. Technically it’s illegal to drive with a foreign license after that 1-year period is up. A few U.S. states have a simple exchange program and others require you to pass the French written and road tests. All that info is here.
Getting a French license is expensive.
Unlike in the U.S., getting a French license is insanely expensive. There are obligatory driving lessons for newbies (driving schools make great money around here and there are so many of them) that cost upwards of 40 euros/hour (you’re required to take them). YIKES! It’s not uncommon to spend over 1,000 euros on getting your license if you’re planning on driving in France. Bright side? You never have to renew it and it is good for life. Tom’s dad’s license picture is from when he was 18. No joke.
There are traffic circles everywhere.
Traffic circles in France are called rond-points — French roundabouts — and they are used more often than traffic lights where roads intersect. There are big ones and little ones but the rules are the same. Instead of stopping, traffic keeps flowing and you circle around a fun little traffic circle. Be sure to learn the rules. Don’t cut people off and USE YOUR SIGNAL.
Parallel parking is normal and little bumper taps are common.
If the guy behind you is wedged into his parallel spot, be aware that he might jockey himself out of the space by hitting your bumper to rearrange things instead of inching back and forth 100 times. Little dings and bumps are pretty normal here and I feel like this is worse in Paris. Little “taps” might send an American who’s crazy about his car into a tailspin.
Be aware of priorité à droite (yield to those on the right).
If you’re going to be driving in France, pay attention to this one. There’s a rule that might catch you by surprise called priorité à droite (does not exist in the U.S.) and can get you into trouble if you’re not careful. It means that you have to yield to those on the right. So if you’re driving down a road and have the right of way, but there’s a street that is perpendicular to yours (makes a T) on the right, you have to STOP to let that car on your right cut out in front of you. If you just keep on driving assuming you have the right of way (which makes logical sense) like in the U.S., get ready for a few honks and curses to be thrown your way, or at worst, an accident. There’s a YouTube video (in French) which makes it more clear here.
Most cars are manual transmission.
If you don’t drive stick, it’s either time to learn or pay up. If you’re renting a car with an automatic transmission, it’ll cost you significantly more than a manual. I’d say 1 in 50 cars here are automatic (if that), so learn to drive a manual transmission if you plan on driving in France. It’s really not difficult at all.
Toll plazas do NOT accept American credit or debit cards unless they have a chip.
I learned this lesson the hard way when driving in France. Keep in mind that tolls can be quite expensive, like 30 euros or more for a 4-hour trip depending on where you’re going. There’s a handy French toll calculator here along with a map of French toll roads. If you don’t have cash or a card that works when it’s time to pay, an employee will have to come out an manually bill you, but it’ll be embarrassing and you’ll have people honking and yelling behind you (especially if you’re on French toll roads in the summer). To avoid this, either have cash on you or have a card with a chip when on French toll roads. Same goes for gas stations. Which brings me to…
Gas is expensive.
Right now, diesel in my area is 1.28 and regular unleaded fuel is closer to 1.50 per LITER. You can do the math there but you’ll see that filling up your tank is a costly endeavor. Like almost $7/gallon costly (depending on exchange rate).
The French love maneuvering around.
An American would pull front first into a space, but not so in France. Maybe it’s because the cars are smaller or maybe they just like to be annoying and hold up a line of traffic, but the French love to parallel park and do K-turns in the middle of the road and back into spaces they could have easily pulled right into head first.
Roads are narrower than suburbia USA.
The cars are also smaller in France but still, don’t drive like you own the road and make sure you’re not over the line (if there is one). Be prepared to pull up on sidewalks if a street is particularly narrow. You’ll get used to the width of French roads and cars passing close enough to you to touch. Just make sure you’re paying attention and don’t ding your side-view mirror.
But really, the only major issue with driving in France is that pesky priorité a droite. That’s the only thing that could catch you by surprise and get you into an accident. It’s easy to adapt to everything else.