What you need to know about driving in France

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France, travel

driving-france If you’re a foreigner and want to drive in France, congrats! You’re in for a fun time. Seriously though, driving in France isn’t that different from driving in the U.S., but there are some subtle (and not so subtle) differences that you should take note of to avoid an accident and major frustration. Here’s a quick list of what you need to know about driving in France.

GO!

Driving in France

     

Your foreign license is only good for a year.

If you plan on staying in France for more than a year and driving, get your French license squared away before your visa/carte de sejour expires. Technically it’s illegal to drive with a foreign license after that 1-year period is up. A few U.S. states have a simple exchange program and others require you to pass the French written and road tests. All that info is here.

Getting a French license is expensive.

Unlike in the U.S., getting a French license is insanely expensive. There are obligatory driving lessons for newbies (driving schools make great money around here and there are so many of them) that cost upwards of 40 euros/hour (you’re required to take them). YIKES! It’s not uncommon to spend over 1,000 euros on getting your license. Bright side? You never have to renew it and it is good for life. Tom’s dad’s license picture is from when he was 18. No joke.

There are traffic circles everywhere.

Traffic circles in France are called rond-points and they are used more often than traffic lights where roads intersect. There are big ones and little ones but the rules are the same. Instead of stopping, traffic keeps flowing and you circle around a fun little traffic circle. Unless you’re one of the morons who doesn’t know the rules. Learn the rules. Don’t cut people off and USE YOUR SIGNAL.

The French don’t mind bumping into your car like it’s totally normal.

If the guy behind you is wedged into his parallel spot, be aware that he might jockey himself out of the space by hitting your bumper to rearrange things instead of inching back and forth 100 times. Little dings and bumps are pretty normal here and I feel like this is worse in Paris. Little “taps” might send an American who’s crazy about his car into a tailspin whereas in France, you just smile and wave with a half-assed sorry and bonne journée.  

There’s this asinine rule called priorité à droite (yield to those on the right)

If you’re going to be driving in France, pay attention to this one. There’s a rule that makes no sense (even to the French) called priorité à droite (does not exist in the U.S.) and can get you into trouble if you’re not careful. It means that you have to yield to those on the right. So if you’re driving down a road and have the right of way, but there’s a street that is perpendicular to yours (makes a T) on the right, you have to STOP to let that car on your right cut out in front of you. If you just keep on driving assuming you have the right of way (which makes logical sense) like in the U.S., get ready for a few honks and curses to be thrown your way, or at worst, an accident. There’s a YouTube video (in French) which makes it more clear here.

Most cars are manual transmission.

If you don’t drive stick, it’s either time to learn or pay up. If you’re renting a car with an automatic transmission, it’ll cost you significantly more than a manual. I’d say 1 in 50 cars here are automatic (if that), so learn to drive a manual transmission if you plan on driving in France. It’s really not difficult at all.

Toll plazas do NOT accept American credit or debit cards unless they have a chip.

Learned that the hard way. So either have cash on you or have a card with a chip. Same goes for gas stations. Which brings me to…

Gas is expensive.

Right now, diesel in my area is 1.28 and regular unleaded fuel is closer to 1.50 per LITER. You can do the math there but you’ll see that filling up your tank is a costly endeavor. Like almost $7/gallon costly (depending on exchange rate).

The French love maneuvering around.

An American would pull front first into a space, but not so in France. Maybe it’s because the cars are smaller or maybe they just like to be annoying and hold up a line of traffic, but the French love to parallel park and do K-turns in the middle of the road and back into spaces they could have easily pulled right into head first.

Roads are narrower than suburbia USA.

The cars are also smaller in France but still, don’t drive like you own the road and make sure you’re not over the line (if there is one). Be prepared to pull up on sidewalks if a street is particularly narrow. You’ll get used to the width of French roads and cars passing close enough to you to touch. Just make sure you’re paying attention and don’t ding your side-view mirror.  

But really, the only major issue with driving in France is that pesky priorite a droite. That’s the only thing that could catch you by surprise and get you into an accident.

Bonne route!

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Comments (25)

  • Punaiz

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    Hello,
    Priorité à droite is a decision by French “sécurité routière” to put drivers in the status of feeling of un security.
    Principle being that the more the driver feel secure, the most awful the accident is in the end. So in creating unsecure feeling, French authorities believe it will reduce the causlties (even in adding in low physical consequence accidents).
    If the method is efficient or not is an ugly and old debate.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Interesting backstory about it. All we can do is follow the rules so I’m always stopping for people on my right (even when they have a stop sign haha). I even stop for ants crossing the road on the right because I’m that paranoid about it.

      Reply

  • Terry

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    Hi Diane,
    Interesting blog about driving. A couple updates. Since last Aug, new French licenses expire after 15 yrs, and are laminated cards with a chip, just like the new titre de sejour.

    I had to take the written & practical tests last Nov, because Georgia does not have reciprocal privileges with France. I went with a national driving school called EDF. Total cost was about 750 euros. 50e for the initial dossier, 50e for the written test and about 10 hrs of driving prep at 65e/hr. Normally the driving prep is only 25e/hr — if you’re fluent in French. However, since I wanted my instruction in English, I had to go with private lessons.

    As for priority a droit, it’s important to know the priority signs, which were hammered into us in the classroom lectures. But the concept is really not that weird. The same concept is used in aviation and boating: planes and boats that are on your right have priority, and if you’re on the left – you have to avoid them.

    Bon Chance!

    Terry

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks for the updates and glad you got your French license. And happy to know the new licenses are actual cards, not raggedy old things w/the same picture from when you were 18 lol. France is advancing!

      10 hours of prep and you already had your license in Georgia?? Or you were new to driving? Eeek. That’s a major expense.

      I’ll never be cool with priorite a droite. Makes no sense to me for cars. If you have the right of way, you have the right of way. But I’ve learned to look out for it. 😉

      Reply

      • Terry

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        Yes, most of the lessons were how to correctly drive the roundabouts and how to correctly drive a 5 speed. I was self-taught on the 5 speed, which didn’t meet the instructor’s level of professional driving. Pretty frustrating, but, I felt very well prepared!

        Reply

  • Marianne

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    Thanks so much for posting this! I’m moving to France in a couple weeks do do an au pair program and I will be required to drive the children to and from school. This post was very helpful to me!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      You’re welcome. Best of luck to you in France. You’ll have a blast!

      Reply

    • Diane

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      You’re very welcome, have a great weekend!

      Reply

  • Axelle

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    Hi diane, i’m french and i just love the way you see us ! It.s always very interesting to see how forign people see us. Very instructive.
    Most of all, i feel, into your words, rhat you like us as well. 🙂
    Thank you and keep on writing. Even on our defaults, you’re doing this very well 🙂

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks for your kind words, Axelle. And of course I love the French — I married one, after all. 😉

      Reply

  • Sophie

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    The priority to the right rule applies in all countries who have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic and drive on the right. It even applies in the USA, only there, most intersections are controlled with stop signs or traffic lights. I’d say it’s the single most important rule to remember when driving almost anywhere in Europe.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, extremely important for Europe driving. Car rental companies should make everyone aware of that when they pick up their keys because I had no clue about it until Tom told me. And even now I have to force myself to give the other guy the right of way.

      Reply

  • k_sam

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    Here’s a small tip that could save foreigners attempting the French test a lot of money – if you already have a license in another country, you don’t need to do the mandatory 20h of driving. I passed my test in Bretagne and it cost 350€ total, including driving school enrollment, the cost of the two exams, administrative fees and 3h of driving lessons (just to be sure I wasn’t making any major mistakes). I also passed my test on an automatic car.

    And for those who don’t speak French very well, all préfectures have to have a session for foreigners once a month I believe. You have longer to take the test and you are allowed to bring a state-approved interpreter with you to translate the questions (at your cost).

    Unfortunately for the toll roads, it’s mainly just the toll booths in the Loire Valley that don’t accept foreign cards. Many of the other ones elsewhere in France will take non-chip & pin cards. But like you said, it’s hard to know beforehand, so it’s best to have some cash on you just in case!

    For the gas stations, I always advise my American co-workers to fill up during the day at gas stations where there are actual attendants because that allows them to pay with their foreign cards. Trying to fill up at night or after-hours though is almost impossible.

    Lastly, I also rent automatic cars for work a few times a month with National/Enterprise. As long as it’s a larger city (like Nantes or Angers), they always have automatics if you book a few weeks in advance, and the cost isn’t really any more than a similarly priced manual. The other companies will definitely charge you through the nose though!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Awesome, thanks so much for your tips! I will have to keep an eye out at toll booths not in my region. Last time I went to Paris, I tried my card just for fun and the toll plaza there didn’t take it but I’ll have to try just to see, maybe it’s a new improvement. Thanks again!

      Reply

    • Terry

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      K-Sam — did the automatic you took the driving test in have dual controls? From what I could determine from the prefecture (Maine et Loire), the cars for the driving exams needed dual controls — and the only place to get one of them was with a driving scholl.

      Reply

  • Wesley Travels

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    Great tips, I was just looking for this. Many thanks!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      You’re welcome, glad you found them helpful. Others have added tips in the comments too, lots of good stuff there as well!

      Reply

  • Catherine

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    This is great information Diane!… I’m just beginning to *think* about driving in France (ugh),… with the long drives we’ll be doing, I need to get started on my French license. p.s. I’m with you on the priorite a droite issue!

    Reply

  • Michel

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    Hi Diane.
    I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m reading it for 2 hours now! Love it!
    As I just come back from the US (“back” because I’m French), I noticed some diffrences in driving that your readers should know:
    – there’s not such thing as “turn right on red” in France. It simply not allowed
    – the trafic signs are at the beginning of the intersection, not in the middle. That is where you must stop
    – on highways, you must pass others cars on the left, even if they are on the middle line of a three lines highway
    – beware of the motorcycles! In the cities and even on highways when there is a tarfic jam, they drive between the lines. This is highly dangerous, even when you’re used to it because you don’t always expecting it. Have a good look and use your signal
    – if you get a license with an automatic car, you’ll be only able to drive an automatic car. It means you won’t have the right to drive your friend’s car.
    But depite all this, it’s not so difficult to drive in France. At least, we drive right ^^

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thank you! Happy to have you here!

      Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks for the helpful tips, Michel. All very good points! Yes, the no right turn on red is a big one. Being from the state of New Jersey where it’s legal unless otherwise noted, I made a right on red in Angers after I arrived in France (and wrote a post about it) and learned that one the hard way. But lucky I wasn’t ticketed. Thanks again

      Reply

  • J-R

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    I reading some of your posts. But at last, I can say that : you report what we see. Ok, it’s your experience of France. But, before writing, maybe you should asking about, or do some research.
    Like for the Gym club, or how to drive, etc. It maybe strange, but the world it’s not ruled by USA way of life.
    Exemple : you didn’t mentioned that 20hours of driving lesson is an obligation, but all driving school inclued that in the basic subscription. Over 20h you’ll pay something like 40€/h. For my part, I never paid for extra lesson, even when I get my mortocycle licence.

    Reply

  • Katrin

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    Hi Diane,

    I just found your blog and I really like it! I too am an expat, originally from California but living in the Paris vicinity for the past 15 years. I actually just became a dual citizen! Anyway, I totally feel you on the driving thing. I had to go and pass the French driving exam last year and it was torture (wrote three posts about it on my blog :-)). I got 100%, which is a frigging miracle, but I can’t say I ENJOY driving. Manual transmission sucks, roundabouts (I call them “death circles”) suck, priorité à droite REALLY sucks… Ah well, maybe one day I’ll get used to all of these things and will find pleasure in driving. Or not.
    Katrin recently posted…Deliver meMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hello! Congrats on becoming a citizen and for passing your exam with flying colors! No easy feat! And driving in Paris, I’m getting nightmares just thinking about it. I popped over to your blog and realized it looked familiar. I found an old comment of mine from 2014 on a post about your neighbors. Great stuff!

      Reply

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