Driving a Car in France

Despite the extensive options for public transport traveling by car can still be a more convenient way to travel to your destination. It gives you the convenience of traveling when and where you want to without having to worry about set schedules. This page sets out some tips for both hiring and driving a car in France.

Overall I have found both renting and driving a car to be quite straight forward. Coming from Australia the biggest thing to get used to was driving on the right hand side of the road. Road laws are mostly similar to other countries I have driven in, althoug there are a few things to be mindful of.

When we hired cars up to around 2016, there was no one way fee for returning a vehicle to a different location within France. Unfortunately, now you need to pay a fee to pick up the car in one location and return. We have noticed also since the pandemic, that car hire is getting more and more expensive. This might fall again over the next few years but it may not. I have noticed also that the full excess insurance cover is quite expensive and is around €20 – €25 per day. I usually purchase excess cover through a third-party provider which is significantly cheaper.

Driving in France

Driving a car in France

France drives on the right-hand side of the road as does the rest of Europe and cars are left-hand drive. Those coming from countries with right-hand drive cars will need to adjust to this and be extra vigilant. French drivers for the most part are courteous and aware of what is going on around them. Speed limits are adhered to and there are speed cameras and mobile speed checks around the country. All drivers must be 18 or over to drive on French roads and this applies to visitors as well, even if they hold a full driver’s license in their own country. The limit for driving with blood alcohol is 0.05% which is the same as Australia and New Zealand but less than the UK, Canada, and the USA which are all 0.08%.

The road network

There are three levels of road in France that you will encounter. The first of these is the Autoroutes, designated by the letter “A” and blue signage. Speed limits on these roads are 130km, or 110km when it is wet, and the majority of them are toll roads or “peage” in French. Many of these roads have three lanes with the left-hand lane for overtaking only and are generally quite busy especially as you get closer to larger urban areas.

The second road type is the N road which crosses broad portions of the country. These types of roads are free and are a mix of dual and single carriageways. Speed limits on the dual carriageway sections are 110km while on the single carriageway 90 km but also drops to 80 km in some sections. Like the autoroutes, the speed limits in the rain decrease to 100km on the dual carriageway and 80km on other sections.

The third road type is the “D” roads or Departmental roads. These are the smallest road type and are local to a particular area. They can range from a single carriageway to a small single lane. Speed limits on these roads are typically 80km outside built-up areas.

Being a country with 67 million people the roads can be very busy in holiday periods. We have witnessed tailbacks up to 15km long as cars queue to get through toll booths. Thankfully we were traveling in the other direction. During the week you will see lots of trucks on the roads but they are banned from the network on weekends and public holidays.

Do I need an international drivers permit?

There is lots of conflicting information on the web around the need for an international driver’s permit (IDP) in France. If you plan to be driving a car in France then our recommendation would be to get one. The general consensus is that while you don’t necessarily need an IDP to hire a car, it is a requirement to drive a car on French roads for foreign nationals. The IDP is not a license within its own right and you must always carry your driver’s license as well whilst driving.

The cost of the IDP is not significant and can be done online. Once issued it is valid for a period of 12 months. Below are details for each country on where to get them.

Australia – can be obtained online through this website. The cost is AU$42 plus postage.

Canada – must be completed in person and costs CA$25. It is done through the Canadian Automobile Association.

Ireland – part of the EU and as such not required.

New Zealand – the process is completed online through this site. The cost is NZ$38 plus postage.

United Kingdom – completed in person at any post office. The cost is £5.50.

United States of America – completed in person or via mail through the American Automobile Association or the American Automobile Touring Alliance. The cost is US$20.

Road signs and markings

There are many similarities with other countries in terms of markings and signage for the road network. Most can be worked out despite the language. There is a great list of road signs and their meanings you will find here. It provides an explanation of many of the things you will encounter on the road.

If you do plan to be driving a car in France then one rule to be mindful of is the “Priorité à driote”. Literally, this translates to priority from the right. This rule means that you have to give way to cars entering your road from your right, even when you are on the larger road. You will encounter this in smaller villages and rural areas. This rule confuses many visitors to France and you will find a useful article here to help you better understand it.

Col d'Aubisque road panorama, cycling in the Pyrenees

Autoroute toll booths

Traveling on the autoroutes means negotiating the toll booths that you will encounter periodically. Typically you will go through a gate at the beginning of the road and take a ticket. This is all done automatically and there are no manned booths and no payment at this point. Once you exit that section of road or get to the end of that particular section, you then go through a second booth where you pay based on the distance you have traveled. To get an estimate of a toll for a particular route you can enter your start and endpoints on this website.

There are three ways of paying the toll being electronic tag, credit card, or cash. As a visitor, you generally won’t have a vehicle with a tag so credit card and cash will be your options. The booths are marked for the types of payment they accept. Booths that accept electronic tags only are marked with a “t” for télépéage so stay clear of them. Booths marked with a green arrow accept all payment types and are a safe bet. You will also see booths marked with a credit card symbol that accept card only. We discovered the hard way that international credit cards may not work in booths so it is safest to have cash available to pay until you know your card does in fact work and stick to the lanes with the green arrow.

Car hire

All the major car hire companies operate in France and there are plenty of options available. Two websites that compare prices across all hire companies are autoeurope.com and rentalcars.com which means you don’t have to go to multiple sites to get the best price.

Drivers must be 21 or over to hire a car and hold a valid driver’s license. All major airports have car rental desks as do some of the larger train stations and ferry ports. Vehicles can be returned to other European countries but will you be charged a fee to do so. Returns within France attract no additional fees making one-way hires feasible.

Like many things booking well in advance ensures you get the best prices and the vehicle you need. In busy holiday periods, you may find less of a choice in the models available. Online is generally cheaper than approaching a desk directly, even for a last-minute hire.

Car leasing

An alternative to hiring a car in France is leasing a car which can prove cheaper, especially for longer periods. The scheme is endorsed by the French government and was started to promote tourism in the country and help car companies have a supply of near-new, but second hand, vehicles to sell. In France, you can lease a brand new Peugeot, Renault, or Citroen vehicle for your trip. The rental includes pick up and return of the vehicle at specific destinations within France. Vehicles can be returned outside France for an additional fee. The cost of the rental includes full comprehensive insurance across Europe which is a major benefit over traditional car hire and there are no charges for additional drivers. Drivers 18 years and older are able to drive these vehicles, whereas car hire companies will only rent to persons over the age of 21.

If you choose this option be careful about the model you select because once selected you cannot change it within a certain time period. If, for example, you arrive and see that the car is not big enough to fit your bikes in, there are no options to change it. The vehicle will only have 10-15 liters of fuel in it when you pick it up, meaning you will need to visit a service station sooner rather than later.

Australian travelers can visit udrive.com.au which provides pricing on all three brands in one spot. All nationalities can access the Renault site here, the Citroen site here, and the Peugeot site here.