11 Things You Absolutely Need To Know About Driving In France

11 things you must know about driving in France

Driving in France is pretty straightforward; however, there are a few things that can confuse newcomers and first-time drivers in France. Here are 11 practical things I wish I knew. 

Driving in France

France is a vast country with excellent public transportation and an extensive train line that zigzags the entire country.

However, sometimes, the places you want to visit are only accessible by car, which means you’ll need to understand some basic driving rules, how French roads work, and subtle nuances about driving that may differ from your home country.

Whether you’re newly arrived in France or planning to visit France and drive a rental car, here are the little things to know that will make driving around on French motorways and streets a lot less stressful.

1. There are 3 major French Roads in France: Get to know them

France is a vast country with an array of roads, from dinky one-lane country roads to high-speed French motorways.

The three main types of roads you should familiarize yourself with are:

  1. Autoroutes
  2. National Roads
  3. Department Roads

All three are easily recognizable because each one has a clever lettering and number system to help you tell them apart.

A= Autoroute: French motorway

This is the sign for autoroute / highway in France

The quickest, most convenient way to get around in France is usually on a French autoroute, known in English-speaking countries as a highway, motorway or freeway, depending on where you’re from.

Most autoroutes in France are toll roads (“Péage”) and are easily identified by the letter A followed by a number depending on the region.

For example, A1 is the autoroute around Paris.

The ’40s are near the Alps, and the ’60s are in the south near Bordeaux and Toulouse region.

(see number 3 below explaining tolls in more depth).

Autoroutes in France map

D= Department roads:

If you’re not in a hurry and want to take a more scenic route, department roads are the way to go.

Department roads have fewer lanes and lower speed limits than autoroutes, so don’t choose this type of road if you need to get somewhere fast.

D roads are a great way to discover new towns along the way and get a view of the vast landscape of France because they often take you through cities and villages.

Departmental Road signs are recognized by the prefix “D” followed by a black number with a yellow background, for example, D45, D34.

french-road-types, National, department and autoroutes

N= National roads “Route Nationale”:

Before autoroutes, the Routes Nationales was the highest road classification in France.

Since National roads are trunk roads or trunk highways and are typically the shortest route between major centres such as ports, cities and airports, it’s usually the recommended route for freight traffic.

National road signs are marked with the prefix “N” followed by a number usually in white lettering and red background, for example, N7.

2. French Roads: Speed limits by road type

speed limit on roads in France are variable depending on the weather and type of road

The roads in France have a variable speed limit that changes depending on the type of road and the weather conditions.

  • Autoroutes: 130km/h (80 mph).
  • When raining, the speed limit is reduced to 110km/h
  • 4 lane expressways: Usually 110 km/h.
  • When raining, the speed limit is reduced to 100km/h.
  • 2 & 3 lane roads: As of July 2018, the speed limit was reduced to 80km/h (56mph).
  • When raining, the speed limit should be reduced to 70km/h.

3. Toll Roads In France

french-toll-roads can get expensive

As I mentioned earlier, the fastest way to get around in France is usually the autoroutes which start with the letter “A.” However, driving on autoroutes comes with a price because over 75% of all autoroutes in France have a toll fee.

You’ll know a toll booth is coming up when you see a blue sign with the words ” Péage” written in white lettering. “Péage” is the word for toll.

COST of tolls in France:

Various companies own autoroutes across France, so you’ll usually pay more than one toll to get across France, and the price you pay depends on the distance driven and the type of vehicle.

We drove from the south of France to Paris on one of our road trips which cost us about 100 Euros in tolls round trip.

The trip should have taken 8 hours but took us 10 hours since we made several stops along the way.

PAYMENT accepted at tolls:

signs used at tollbooths for autoroutes in France

It’s really embarrassing to enter a toll lane that only accepts cash when you want to pay with a credit card, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the French road signs above the toll lanes, which indicate the type of payment accepted in that lane.

NOTE: Sometimes, foreign credit cards don’t work at toll booths, so make sure you have some cash on hand to pay for tolls just in case your credit card fails.

4. FRENCH TOLL CALCULATOR: How To Calculate or avoid French toll charges

autoroute.fr-site to help you avoid or calculate toll fees on the autoroute in France

If you plan on taking the autoroute, sometimes it’s helpful to know how much French toll road fees will cost beforehand.

You can calculate estimated tolls by visiting the site autoroutes.fr, where you enter your start and endpoint to get an estimate of toll road fees one way.

The site will also estimate how long the journey should take and how much gas will cost you. 

If you want to avoid or minimize toll road fees or take a more scenic route, the site can help you build a driving route using mainly D & N roads (Department and National Roads) which are toll-free.

(see screenshot below of an example itinerary from Montpellier to Paris).

autoroutes toll calculation

5. How To Find A Rest Stop, Restrooms, Food and Gas on the autoroute

aire-de-peypin-rest-stop-france

One of the benefits of taking autoroutes rather than the scenic toll-free departmental roads are the REST STOPS at regular intervals along the way.

On average, there is one rest area every 15 km with clean restrooms and picnic benches. Many rest areas also have restaurants, and some have gas stations.

To find a rest stop on French autoroutes, keep your eyes peeled for signs with the word “Aire De (some name)” on blue signs with white lettering.

The French word Aire means “area,” and each rest area has a unique name.

For example, the sign in the photo above indicates that the rest area called “Aire de Peypin,” is an 8km drive and has a gas station.

6.  Three things you legally must always have with you in your car when driving in France

3 things you must legally always carry in your car when you drive in France

French law states, when driving in France, you must carry certain things in your car at all times. Source: French service website.

– French Breathalyzer:

Since July of 2012, all drivers must have a breathalyzer (L’éthylotest) on their car.

You can buy a single-use breathalyzer for around 1€ to 3€ Euros in a pharmacy, Tabac shop or in some supermarkets.

In France, the tolerated blood alcohol level is very low, 0.5 mg. per ml, which means one drink can put you over the alcohol limit.

– Warning Triangle:

Since 2008, the law in France states that drivers must carry an approved warning triangle (Un triangle de présignalisationé) with the mark E 27R.

If you have car trouble or need to stop on a public road, such as changing a flat tire, you must place the triangle 30 meters behind your car to give oncoming cars enough warning.

You must also put your hazard lights on. The fine is 375 Euros if you don’t comply.

– A Reflective Security Vest :

French law also states that you must have an approved reflective vest (un gilet de sécurité réfléchssant) in your car, which you must wear if you need to stop on the side of the road. The fine is 375 Euros if you don’t comply.

7. Forget about 4 way Stops: Learn how to manoeuvre a French roundabout, aka traffic circle

Traffic circle rules for yielding

Some tourists who drive in France complain about traffic circles, but after you get used to them, you’ll love them and find they’re pretty easy to manoeuvre. For now, here are the 3 basic rules you need to know.

  1. YIELD: Yield to traffic already in the circle. If you time it correctly, you don’t need to ever stop at a traffic circle. Just slow down to yield, then enter and exit.
  2. EXITING: When exiting a roundabout, put on your blinker to signal so that cars trying to enter the roundabout know you’re exiting and can enter safely rather than waiting to see if you exit or stay in the roundabout.
  3. MISSED YOUR EXIT: In a four-way stop, if you make a wrong turn, you have to do a series of turns around the block to get back, but with a roundabout, you simply stay in the roundabout and come around again to the correct exit. Huge time saver.

flow of traffic in a traffic circle

If you want to learn more, here is a site with a more detailed explanation about roundabouts.

8. French Stoplights are not where you expect them to be

traffic-light-location-france

If you’re from North America, you’re accustomed to looking across the intersection to see the red light. However, in France, the red light is on the same side of the street, which can be confusing for first-time drivers in France.

For example, if you’re the first person at a stoplight, the stoplight will be located on your left or right, usually near eye level and close enough so that you can reach out and touch the light if you want.

9. Bring a GPS enabled device

French roadtrip: Bring a gps enabled device

This is more of a recommendation rather than a requirement, but I highly recommend getting a GPS device of some sort, especially if you’re taking road trips. Here are my top five reasons.

  1. It gives you the flexibility to go to new places and stops without the fear of getting lost.
  2. Know where you are in an instant.
  3. Take detours or get lost, and the GPS auto-corrects your route to your destination on the fly.
  4. Calculates your total drive time for you almost to the minute.
  5. Has voice navigation that tells you of upcoming turns, exits, stops etc. Handy if travelling alone or want to avoid constantly looking at a map. Or your co-pilot gets car sick and passes out like I usually do and become utterly useless in helping navigate.

Tip: If you don’t have internet, you can always download a map on your device and use it to navigate offline.

Bring a GPS-enabled tablet. The bigger screen makes it easier to see the map.

10. French cars are usually stick shifts (manual), not automatic

Most cars in France are stick shift: manual so you should learn to drive one

If you can’t drive a stick shift and need to rent an automatic, you should call the car rental company ahead of time to see if they’ll have one available.

Some companies even charge extra for automatic cars.

11. Do You Have The Right Driving License To Drive In France?

French drivers permit license to drive in France

According to the official website of France, if you have an EU driving licence or driver’s permit from another country, you’re allowed to drive in France as long as the following conditions are met.

  • Your drivers’ license must be valid.
  • Your driver’s license must have been issued by the country where you normally reside. 
  • Your drivers’ license must be written in French or be accompanied by an official translation. ( we managed to get around without an official translation, knock on wood).

TIP: Although not required, it’s highly recommended that you get an international driving permit which can help expedite encounters with authorities in the event of an accident or traffic infraction. If you plan on staying in France for over a year, you’re supposed to apply for a French driver’s permit.

Bon Voyage!! Did you check the type of gas your car takes?

One last thing about cars in France.

Most are diesel (at the time of this writing) which is called “Gazole.” Unleaded is called “sans plomb.”

France plans on ending the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040 as part of an ambitious plan to meet its targets under the Paris climate accord. 

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

 

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  1. Hi Annie;
    I recently emailed you. I ii..am a US Citizen…I recently purchased a village home in S. France…I know that I can exchange my Illinois Drivers license for a French one..just wondering..if I do so, can I then use the French License back in the states? do you know?? thanks so much for your useful site…

    elizabeth

    1. Hello Elizabeth,

      This is an interesting question… I looked into this at the DMV of Illinois (assuming that is where you will return to the US to Drive) and found information for foreign nationals who want to drive in the US which you are not. However if you are residing in France than i wonder if you would qualify under their same guidelines. Basically you should be able to drive up to a year on your foreign drivers license. Exchanging a Foreign License
      A few states have agreements that allow citizens of certain countries to exchange their foreign license for a state one. The grace period in which a driver must exchange their license varies depending on the state, but is generally between 30 and 60 days. You may be able to exchange your French drivers license for a US one. Each state determines its own minimum residency requirements and process for exchanging a foreign license. Although many states waive a portion of the tests required (vision, practical driving and written knowledge), some still require one or more of these to be taken when exchanging a foreign license.

      You should check with the licensing department in your state of residence:

      I know some people who claime their drivers license is lost. That way they have two copies. They then exchange one license for the Foreign license and keep their US one. Whether you do this is up to you because i am sure that the DMV does not want you to do this.

      I think the best thing for you to do is just go down to the DMV and ask in person and to have them provide you with the rules in writing. The last thing you want is someone quoting something to you that they think is true but not true.

      Hope that helps
      Annie

  2. Fantastic post,very well explained with images!!My husband and I are planning for summer trip.i think france could be great place to explore.I would defintely make him read this post.

  3. Annie, considering I also work part time as an interpreter I’m always in traffic court. Looking at traffic issues from the French point of view is so foreign and interesting to me. Great job explaining this!

  4. Great to see you back blogging Annie.

    I loved reading this too to hear your voice – particularly that you say things like ‘Traffic circle’ and ‘blinkers’. Between your way of saying things, my way, the global way, the American way, the Canadian way, the French way… it’s all very amusing.

    Or maybe I’m just easily amused.

    I think when you talk about taking a comfort break you should cut to the indian guy giving the toilet instructions.

    In any case, knowing France as I do (we’ve done several road trips through Europe majoring in France for obvious reasons – the last one being a 5 week hol taking in 7 countries last summer), I know that this is a great practical guide for anyone who is considering a road trip.

  5. Great post!
    In the near future we plan to go on the tour in Europe and although we are not Americans, we’ve found here some useful tips for us.

    Thank you.

    1. Glad you found it useful. I think the most confusing things to us were figuring out the signs and symbols. It just takes a little time to learn them and its totally worth it…

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