Driving in France is surely the best way to see the largest country in Western Europe. Whether you see yourself driving along a glamorous corniche road on the French Riviera, navigating snowy mountain passes in the Alps, or pulling into a road-side picnic area and working through a baguette and a Camembert, France offers a unique and diverse driving experience.
If it’s your first time hiring a car in the country, there are a few differences you should be aware of. This guide will tell you all you need to know before setting off in your hire car in France.
Roads in France
Most places are well connected and the privately-owned autoroutes are tolled and therefore generally less busy than our motorways. So take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Here’s an overview of the roads in France:
The majority of autoroutes are tolled and privately-owned. Autoroutes are numbered with the prefix A (e.g. A23). The road signs illustrating direction and distance are blue with white writing, and the road number written in white in a red box on the sign.
These roads are usually dual carriageways. As they are not tolled, people often choose to drive on them instead of taking the autoroute, so they tend to be busier than you might expect. The road signs are green with white writing and they are numbered with an ‘N’ prefix (e.g. N84), with white writing in a red box.
These roads are managed by France’s ‘départments’. For the purposes of driving, they are all but identical to Routes Nationales, except they are differentiated by a ‘D’ prefix, or sometimes RD (e.g. D12 or RD34), in black writing on a yellow background.
Routes Communales usually connect rural areas. They are single lane and the signs are white with black text, and the roads are numbered with a ‘C’ prefix (e.g. C340)
A couple of other pointers to watch out for:
- The word péage on a sign indicates there’s a toll ahead
- The word bis on a sign indicates a ‘holiday’ road – this will get you to a destination via a more scenic route
How to drive in France
Regardless of where and when you plan to go driving in France, it's best to ensure that you're fully prepared and have checked your hire car over.
The south of France will be a lot busier and very hot in summer, so expect traffic jams - and ideally hire a car with working air conditioning! The bigger cities, and especially Paris, often have narrow streets, so if you’re hiring a car, you might be glad of something smaller. Or, if you’re driving in the Alps or Pyrenees in winter, making sure your vehicle has a set of snow chains in the boot could help you out of a tricky situation.
France driving rules
- You must carry in-car safety equipment which your car hire company should provide you with
- It is illegal to use any kind of speed camera warning system, so if your GPS includes one automatically, you must turn this off
- Children under 10 cannot sit in the front seat, unless the car doesn’t have any rear seating
- The use of mobile phones by the driver is prohibited unless being used completely hands free (no headsets or headphones)
- If you require eye glasses for driving, be sure to keep a spare pair in the car as this is a legal requirement in France
- Carry your driving licence and passport at all times
- Depending on the car rental company, you must be at least 21 or 25 years old
What side of the road does France drive on?
The French drive on the right side of the road, like most European countries. If you’re hiring a car and haven’t driven on the right before you will have to get used to the steering wheel being on the left-hand side of the vehicle. Start out driving defensively until you get used to it.
Who has the right of way in France?
Since you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road, cars generally overtake on the left. But, if there are multiple lanes you can overtake on the right of a slower lane. You can only overtake moving trams on the right, unless you are on a one-way street.
In most cases, cars entering the flow of traffic must stop and give priority to those coming from the right. However, there are still some (mainly rural) areas where ‘priorité à droit’ still exists, which basically means priority is given to cars entering the flow of traffic. Watch out for white triangles with a red border with a black cross in the middle.
Otherwise, cars travelling downhill on narrow routes must give way to those ascending.
What is the speed limit in France?
Road speed limits in France are set in kilometres per hour. There are many speed cameras (known as radars) across the country and fines are steep, so stick to the limits. Also, the speed limit changes depending on the weather, so in rain, snow or poor visibility, drop to the lower limit.
Speed limits in France:
|Road type||Normal conditions||Rain or snow||Visibility less than 50 metres|
|Urban autoroutes or Route National/ Départmentale||110km/h||100km/h||50km/h|
|Built up areas||50km/h||50km/h||50km/h|
Driving hazards in France
In recent years, some regions of France have suffered from flash flooding. Watch out for the weather forecast where you’re going and plan alternate routes.
In August, roads in the south tend to get clogged up, so bring a few spare bottles of water in case you get caught in a longer jam.
In mountainous areas, you will encounter a lot of tight bends and winding roads. Drive defensively and watch out for oncoming traffic.
Should anything go wrong, call 112 for emergencies, and 15 for an ambulance. For more minor issues, speak to your car hire firm.
Crit'Air Emissions Sticker Requirements in France
France has recently introduced a new scheme to reduce pollution in certain urban zones. In these areas, vehicles are required to display a sticker indicating how much pollution they produce.
There are six categories of sticker, which are colour-coded according to how much vehicles pollute. These stickers range from the Crit'Air 1 (cleanest), for electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, to the Crit'Air 6 (for the most polluting vehicles). You can use the French Environment Ministry's online tool to check which sticker your vehicle will need.
Which areas of France require Crit'Air stickers?
It's important that if you are driving in the following cities you bear the following rules in mind. If you are caught without a sticker at a time during which one is required, you could be fined €68 on the spot.
Crit'Air stickers currently apply to the following French cities (as of June 2018):
|Paris||During weekdays (apart from at night)|
|Lyon||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
|Grenoble||Only applies to commercial vehicles|
|Lille||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
|Strasbourg||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
|Toulouse||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
|Chambery||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
|Marseille||Stickers are only required when pollution reaches a certain level|
Keep up-to-date with these regulations at the Urban Access Regulations in Europe website.
How can I buy a Crit'Air sticker?
Crit'Air stickers can be bought for €3.11 plus postage from the French Environment Ministry's website. At present, this is the only legitimate online vendor of Crit'Air stickers.
More tips for driving in France
Planning your route
France’s road signs and numbering system can get confusing, with various regional and national authorities taking responsibility for different sections of the route and categorising them differently (you might be on an N road which switches to a D road with no obvious change). Instead, follow signs for your destination. For longer trips, it’s worth looking at a map beforehand and working out what the major towns en route will be.
Roundabouts can be different
There are some slightly different roundabout rules – in most cases, traffic already on the roundabout has the priority.
Prepare for tricky parking
When parking in big cities, beware that space is tight. Paris has a reputation for almost impossibly tight parking on its narrow streets. If you do manage the feat of parking your car in these spaces, fold in your wing mirrors.
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