Driving in France can be a real pleasure: the road infrastructure is excellent and often provides vast, sweeping views of the countryside. You have the freedom to explore places that would otherwise remain inaccessible, since many roads have been built with the motorist in mind, to provide spectacular views of otherwise unreachable places. Also, as the country covers an area roughly twice that of Britain but with about the same population, traffic is rarely a problem except in a few large cities or during peak holiday weekends.
However, before setting off onto the French roads, it is vital to acquaint yourself with some basic principles concerning driving in France as well as the road network and administrative requirements.
The French road network
The French road network is composed of motorways (autoroutes known as “A”’ followed by the number), trunk roads (routes nationales known as “N” followed by the number) and local roads (routes départementales known as “D” followed by the number, which are maintained by local governments).
Most motorways are toll roads and entrances to them are marked as such with the word péage. These tolls are either a flat rate, paid as you enter the autoroute, or based on how far you drive. When you pay based on distance, you take a ticket as you join the autoroute and then, when you exit, you give the ticket to the attendant at the kiosk and your toll will be calculated (tip: don’t lose your ticket or you will pay the maximum toll).
Although the motorways may seem expensive, they are the only realistic way of covering large distances in a single day. However, if you have more time and don’t want to travel on autoroutes, one way to avoid them is to refer to the Bison Fûté map, (available at petrol stations), which shows many alternative routes (itinéraire bis) across the country.
It is important to note that except on motorways, the French do not attach such importance to road numbers as the British do. So the rule is to follow a destination rather than a number, otherwise it could become quite confusing, although with today’s technology and the aid of connected navigation systems the job of finding your way is so much easier.
Driving rules in France
The most important rule is: drive on the right!
If your car is right-hand drive, by law you must adjust the direction of your headlamp beams for driving on the right, either by using the stick-on adapters or by making an adjustment to the lights (available on modern cars). This applies especially if you drive by night, as UK headlights dip to the left, which means that they dip into the view of oncoming traffic when driving on the right.
If you are driving a foreign registered vehicle, a sticker showing the country of origin must be attached to the vehicle, even if this is already indicated on the registration plate.
One important rule you must be aware of is the infamous priorité à droite. Motorists coming onto the road you are on from the right have right of way. The exceptions are if the junction is marked by a stop sign, traffic light or solid white line, as well as at roundabouts, where cars to the left have the right-of-way. Be warned that there are places where you need to be extremely careful, especially in small villages and in the countryside, where traffic from minor roads may have right-of-way when joining a main road.
It is compulsory to wear a seatbelt front and rear. It is compulsory also for all children up to 10 years to travel in the back seat of a car with an attachment mechanism “adapted to their size, weight and age”. Only adults and children ages 10 or older may sit in the front passenger seat.
The use of mobile cellular telephones is strictly banned while driving, that includes the use of headsets, headphones or hands-free kits.
What you need to have with you
While driving in France, it is compulsory to have your valid driving licence, car registration papers (Carte grise) and insurance documents (these must be the original documents).
Drivers are also required to carry not only a warning triangle and also a fluorescent visibility vest, within easy reach inside the vehicle (not in the trunk). The theory being that if you breakdown in a dangerous place you should put your safety vest on before getting out of the car. If you fail to have these available, the standard fine is around €135. The triangle must conform to EU standards (European Directive 89/686/EEC), evidence for which is the stamp E 27 R and the high-visibility garment must conform to EU standards EN 471 or EN 1150.
Emission stickers are required in some of the larger cities, such as Paris, Lyon and Grenoble. The air quality certificates, known as Crit’Air vignettes, apply to all vehicles, including foreign vehicles, and can be obtained online.
Speed limits unless otherwise marked by signs, apply as follows:
- Autoroute:130 km/h and 110 km/h when raining;
- Dual carriageways or single lane roads separated by an island: 110 km/h and 100 km/h when raining;
- Regional roads: between 90 km/h and 80 km/h, speed reduced by 10Km when raining;
- Built up areas (towns and villages): 50 km/h;
- Whenever visibility is restrcited to less than 50 metres: 50 km/h.
Speed limits, as shown above, are implemented rigorously. Radar traps are frequent and anyone caught travelling at more than 25km/h above the speed limit can have their licence confiscated on the spot. In the past cars registered outside France generally avoided getting speeding tickets when flashed by a speed camera. Be warned that this is no longer the case, as new agreements between European police forces have been adopted, meaning that details of any car caught speeding can be sent through to the offending motorist in their country of residence.
Driving licence registration in France:
Visitors staying less than 90 days and carrying a valid EU driving licence may drive in France. For longer periods, by virtue of the EU regulations (Directive 80/1263/EEC), holders of driving licences (changing residence or place of work from one Member State to another) used to have to exchange their licence within one year. But this requirement was abolished on 1 July 1996 and since then, exchanging of EU driving licences is purely voluntary.
In the event of voluntary exchange (or loss or theft of the original licence), the Member State in which holders have taken up their normal residence will issue the person concerned with a Community model driving licence for the corresponding category(ies) without requiring that person to take a theoretical or practical test. Indeed, there is no Community driving licence, but since 1 July 1996, Member States have issued a “Community model” driving licence in order to make it easier to understand driving licences issued by individual Member States and to facilitate their mutual recognition.
Although it is not a requirement, an International Licence is recommended when driving in France, as it can facilitate contact with the authorities in the event of an accident or traffic violation. However, it is important to note that an international licence does not replace a driver’s licence. It merely accompanies it and acts as an official certificate of validity of the national licence as it is an internationally recognised document.
The Penalty Points Licence:
Please note that if a driving offence has been committed in France and points need to be deducted, a person resident in France using an EU or foreign licence will have to exchange it for a French one. The permis à points came into force on the 1st July 1992.
Basically, the French driving licence has a maximum of 12 points. However, new drivers have just 6 points when they receive their driving licence for the first time and this driving licence is credited with two additional points every year (up to 12 points after 3 years, provided that no offence against the Code de la Route regulations has been committed within this period). Each time a driving offence is committed, a certain number of points (between 1 and 6) can be withdrawn. However, if there are several offences committed simultaneously, a maximum of 8 points can be deducted.
The loss of all points on a driving licence automatically results in a six-month disqualification from driving any vehicle for which a licence is required (one year for repeat offences). In other words, the driver must wait six months (or one year for repeat offences) before having his licence back.
In order to recover his licence, the driver must retake the written theory test, following the 6-month ban. If it is not the first time his licence has been withdrawn, not only must he wait one year, but he must also retake both the theory and the practical driving test.
In this case, the new driving licence provided is a six-month probational licence, and as such only has 6 points (instead of 12) for a period of three years. At the end of the probation period, and on condition that no offence has been committed that has resulted in points being deducted, the number of points is then raised to the maximum of 12. A driver can find out how many points remain on the licence by visiting the prefecture (county hall) or by visiting the internet site Télépoints.
Good to know:
- It goes without saying that the best advice is not to drink at all if you are going to get behind the wheel. Be aware that the limit in France is lower than that in the UK, as a driver is considered to be driving under the influence of alcohol if his blood/alcohol level is equal to or exceeds 0.5 grams per litre (g/l)
Post-Brexit Update 2021:
- After Brexit, there are a few changes for British drivers hitting the road on French soil. Under the terms of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, British residents in France will need to change their British driving licence for a French one. The good news is that you have until December 31st, 2021, to do this. For more information, see this article on sister site FrenchEntrée
- Driving in France For UK Residents After BrexitBritish holidaymakers or second-home owners visiting France will be pleased to learn that you won’t need an International Driving Licence to be able to legally drive in France.
If you’re travelling by ferry or Eurotunnel and bringing your own car, you will once again be required to display a GB sticker on a UK registered car entering France, but most of the other guidelines set out in our Driving in France section remain the same. The biggest change is that British drivers in France will now be required to carry a Green Card insurance document, to prove your vehicle has the necessary insurance.
Speaking of insurance, be sure to check that your UK car insurance covers you overseas – many companies, including the RAC, have confirmed that they will continue to offer European insurance and breakdown cover.