What it’s Like for an American to Drive in New Zealand

American driving in New Zealand graphic.Imagine that you have flown over 13 hours to the other side of the world and are in this new, foreign land. You’re ready to explore and see everything New Zealand has to offer. You want to discover the geysers in the north and the fiords in the south.

But however will you get around?

On a tight schedule with an unlimited budget? Plane. Want to see the country in a unique setting? Train. Can sit for hours upon hours without needing a toilet nearby? Bus. Found yourself on a one-year visa with the freedom to go wherever and whenever you please? Car.

But there is one problem–they drive on the left in New Zealand.

As an American, who has driven nearly 10 years (I cannot believe this) on the right side of the road, initially the idea was daunting. What if I end up on the other side of the road? What if..this? What if…that? But I refused to let those pestering thoughts stop me from being able to see this country. After all, I have already come this far.

I should mention that the previous year was spent in Korea, and I had not been behind the wheel since I left the States in 2012. Which meant that my first time back behind the wheel was going to be driving on the opposite side of the road.

No, not scary at all.

Kiwi road sign in New Zealand.

I made sure to read and reread before test driving one of the first cars we looked at. Fortunately the majority of the driving rules are the same as they are in the States.

Road signs are easy enough to identify. One unique sign you’d only find in New Zealand, however, is the kiwi bird sign. Speed limit signs are in kilometers per hours instead of mph. So don’t get all Fast and Furious on New Zealand roads when you see 100 on the speed limit sign.

If you’re in an urban area, it’s likely to be 50kph/30mph and if you’re on the highway (or what they call here the motorway), it should be 100kph/60mph, unless otherwise noted. You also may see a Speed Limit Derestriction sign, which is circular with a black diagonal line. This means that you follow the motorway speed limit of 100kph, but to use at your discretion.

In the end, we bought ourselves a (really old) car. I managed to get the hang of it quicker than I thought. [It should be noted that my knowledge of driving on the left is restricted to an automatic car.]

The main thing I still have to constantly remind myself (and to much of Daniel’s annoyance) is to stay on the left. Everything I learned about driving back in America is, well, now the opposite.

For instance, if I need to pass a car, then it’s done on the right. If I need to make a right turn at a light, the turning lane will be on my right side. If I’m at a red light wanting to turn left, I have to wait until it turns green since turning left on red is not allowed. (I actually really like this last rule.)

A scenic road to Mount Taranaki in New Zealand.

There’s also an abundance of roundabouts. In the States, roundabouts are far and few between. And if there is one, it’s likely to cause a lot of confusion.

For instance, in my hometown of Clearwater, Florida the city decided to put a massive fountain in the center of the roundabout. Unfortunately it was the apparent cause of many accidents (not because the average age of drivers is 75 there) and has since been taken out. 

In New Zealand, roundabouts seem to be at every corner. But practice makes perfect and I’ve nearly mastered it (Daniel may think otherwise). When coming to a stop at a roundabout, always look to your right. If there is a car to your right, you must give way to that driver. A good rule of thumb to remember is that if the car could hit your driver side door, they have the right away. If you’re wanting to turn right at the roundabout, put your right turn signal on. If you’re wanting to turn left, put your left turn signal on. If you’re going straight through the roundabout, a left turn signal before exiting will suffice.

Sounds easy enough, right? Except if you are an American and you’re used to the turn signals being on the left side of the car. I still find myself about to put my turn signal on and end up putting the windshield (windscreen) wipers on instead.

A sure sign that I’m a foreigner.

I should make a brief mention about pedestrians. Unlike in the States, people actually walk outside. If you see two bright orange circles (can sometimes be a blinking light), you’re about to come up to a crosswalk or zebra crossing. Start to slow down and get ready to stop. The pedestrian has the right away and you must stop for the pedestrian.

One land bridge road sign in New Zealand.

One other difference are the one-lane bridges. Apparently these are more common in the south island, but we have run into a couple in the north island. There will be two types of signs. If you see a big black arrow pointing down on a white circle, you must give way to the cars coming the other direction. A big white arrow pointing up on a blue rectangle indicates that drivers must give way to you. Ugh, so confusing.

Lastly and most importantly: you cannot use your cell phone while driving. (You should be concentrating on the road anyway.)

If you’re an American, driving in New Zealand is easier than you think. All you need is an up-to-date driver’s license from your country, be prepared for the winding roads, and have your camera ready to stop at every lookout point to get an amazing view of the country.

Have you ever driven in a foreign country? Share with me your experience. 

Photos by , , and . All published under a license.


  1. says

    I can empathise with this :)

    I love driving, so I was determined I wouldn’t do anything differently when I moved to Canada from Australia. Driving on the other side of the road was surprisingly not as daunting as I expected, but you know what DID through me? FOUR WAY STOPS. I still have a brain fart occasionally when I reach one of them. Australia is like a busy New Zealand, so we just have lights and roundabouts, so these four stop signs were a really foreign concept to me!

    You know what did help? I always remind myself no matter where I am in the road when I’m driving, my body should be as close to the centre of the road as possible. I think I learnt that off a movie about a New Zealander in America!

    • Jamie says

      Four way stops can be so confusing, especially if you all come to the intersection at the same time! It seems like New Zealand has replaced a lot of stop signs with Give Way signs, which I’m still trying to understand. I often slow down to get ready to stop and realize I don’t need to!

  2. says

    Haha, my friend and I were in America and he accidentally drove down the road the wrong way (it was like 3am just outside of Los Angeles)… sad thing is we didn’t realise until we were facing a stop sign the wrong way and noticed all the ‘oncoming’ traffic. Whoops!

  3. says

    Yeah, in some ways I think it’s easier to go from southern hemisphere to north. We were the most worried about roundabouts and figuring those out, but you just don’t have em in the US! I literally do not think we came across a single one in our entire east to west road trip.

    • Anxious Travelers says

      I think roundabouts are a Commonwealth thing. You find them pretty much everywhere in England (and so they’ve migrated to New Zealand). In America they’re far too patriotic to take on an English way of doing things!

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