Driving in France

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.

Driving in France isn’t drastically different to the driving in the UK. Nonetheless, 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

Roads in France are maintained to a simliar standard to those in the UK (although the motorways are arguably maintained to a higher standard). Most places are well connected and the privately-owned autoroutes are tolled and therefore generally less busy than our motorways. Apart from the main cities, you’ll find traffic isn’t as dense as in Britain, so take your time and enjoy the scenery.

Here’s an overview of the roads in France:

Autoroutes

The equivalent of the UK’s motorways, 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.

Routes Nationales

These are equivalent to the UK’s A roads and 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 on an A road back home. 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.

Routes Départmentales

These roads are managed by France’s ‘départments’ (similar to counties in the UK). 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

Equivalent to the UK’s B roads, 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:

How to drive in France

Driving in France won’t feel worlds away from your experience in the UK, other than the obvious fact that you’ll be driving on the right (see below). 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 aircon! 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

France’s driving rules are not dissimilar to the UK’s, but there are some important differences to be aware of:

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 typeNormal conditionsRain or snowVisibility less than 50 metres
Autoroutes 130km/h 110km/h 50km/h
Urban autoroutes or Route National/ Départmentale 110km/h 100km/h 50km/h
Other roads 80km/h 70km/h 50km/h
Built up areas 50km/h 50km/h 50km/h

For more information visit France's tourism website and the European Commission’s Going Abroad page. 

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.

More tips for driving in France

More information about driving in France

The Foreign Office is a valuable source of information to learn about travel in France in general, while Drive France is a useful and regularly updated blog written by a British expat living there.  

Last but not least, you are legally required to take out insurance when hiring a car in France. Your car hire firm will offer insurance, but these often come with high excesses. Even if they do offer excess waiver policies, these can often be an expensive add-on, compared to if you buy before you go. Learn about our UK & Europe Car Hire Excess Insurance to find out how you can save money on car hire insurance in France.

Bon voyage!