A guide to driving and parking in France
For drivers in France, here's a guide to French road rules, importing a car, and whether you need to exchange your foreign driver's licence for a French one.
If you plan on driving in France, the good news is that France recognises driving licences issued by a large number of countries. But France has strict road laws and rigorous driving instruction, even if you see driving habits that suggest otherwise. Before you drive in France, it's important to learn the road rules and French driving licence regulations to help you steer clear of trouble.
France has made significant strides in improving road safety in past years, partly through an increase in speed-trap radars and in the use of alcohol testing on the roads and even inside bars and nightclubs. But while the highways are definitely safer for car drivers, statistics have shown teenagers, anyone on two wheels, and pedestrians should take care.
This guide answers some FAQs about driving, owning and parking a car in France:
- Driving licences
- Importing a car
- Car registration, taxes and vehicle inspections
- Driving rules and speed limits
- Traffic offences
- Car insurance and breakdowns
- Renting, sharing or buying a car in Germany.
Who can drive in France?
You can drive in France using your foreign driving licence for to 12 months. If your licence is not from the EU or is in a language other than French, you will also need an official translation of your licence or an international driving licence/permit (which provides a French translation).
You must be 18 years or older and have a valid driving licence to drive a car in France. This means that younger drivers who hold a licence in their home country will not be able to drive in France. Minimum ages to drive a scooter or motor bike varies according to the size of the bike – you can drive a moped (cyclomoteur) under 50cc from the age of 14.
If you are only staying in France for up to six months, you can bring your own car into France. If you are staying longer you will have to register the car in France.
Foreign driving licences in France: who needs a French driver's licence?
If you’re from the European Union (EU), or European Economic Area (EEA – EU plus Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein), you can use your own driving licence to drive in France indefinitely.
Everyone else can use their own licence for one year after arrival (accompanied by a translation/international driving permit if it’s not in French) and then must get a French driver's licence. Depending on your nationality, it may be possible to simply exchange your foreign licence for a French licence; if your country doesn't have an agreement with France, you may need to pass a theory and/or a practical driving test. See what conditions apply to you in Expatica's guide to foreign driving licences in France.
Importing a car from abroad
If you want to bring your own car to France from the EU, you don’t have to pay duty as long as the car is at least six months old, has at least 6,000km on the clock and you’ve already paid VAT on the car in your home country. If you want to import a new car you must be able to prove you’ve paid tax in the country of origin and that the car is registered – and may be charged tax in France.
If you want to bring your own car to France from outside the EU, you won’t pay duty so long as the car has belonged to you for at least six months, you have been resident outside the EU for at least 12 months, and all taxes and customs have already been paid in your home country.
In both cases, you’ll need to take the original registration documents and receipt of sale to the Centre des Impots.
Car registration and maintenance in France
If you will only be living in France for up to six months, you can use a car registered in your home country. During this time you must be in the car as a passenger if the car is driven by anyone else other than family or friends visiting you in France. If you are driving a foreign registered vehicle, it must have a sticker showing the country of origin, even if this is indicated on the registration plate.
If you are staying in France long-term, you have 30 days after officially registering your stay to register your car and pay French vehicle registration tax.
To obtain and maintain your car registration (carte grise), your car may first need to be inspected to check that it conforms to French road standards and be given a Certificate de Conformite or Attestation RTI (Reception à Titre Isolé). Go to your nearest DREAL (Directions Régionales de l’Environnement, de l’Aménagement et du Logement) office to organise this.
If the car is more than four years old it will also have to pass a contrôle technique, which is an inspection of roadworthiness (similar to the UK’s MOT). A roadworthiness certificate from your home country will not suffice; your car must pass the French test. This is carried out in specially licensed centres and must be renewed every two years, or if you sell the car.
Once you have your Certificate de Conformite/Attestation RTI and the car has passed the contrôle technique (if appropriate), you can apply to your Préfecture or Sous-Préfecture to get your car registration: the Certificat d'immatriculation (previously known as the carte grise or grey card). You’ll also need proof of ID and residency in France, your foreign registration certificate, and customs documentation. Fees vary according to the size of your car’s engine. Once you have been sent your new registration documents you get new French number plates (plaques d'immatriculation) made and fitted.
You must carry the car registration and driver's licence with you when driving. The French police are entitled to stop and request your identification and car papers at any time. You are also required to keep your car papers on your person when you leave the car; if it's stolen with the registration in the glove box, you may have trouble with your insurance claim. The vignette assurance, proof of insurance, must be displayed on your window shield.
Road and car taxes in France
There is no road tax in France for private vehicles but when you use motorways and some tunnels and bridges you have to pay tolls. Depending on your car, you may be subject to pay an emissions tax.
Road rules in France
French road regulations are similar to those in the rest of Europe, with a few notable exceptions. One includes the infamous priorité à droite, which gives the right of way to motorists joining your forward direction from the right (except if the intersection is restricted by a stop sign, traffic light or solid white line). The exception, of course, are the roundabouts, ronds points, where cars to your left have the right-of-way.
Other road rules include:
- Drive on the right hand side of the road.
- In rural areas, it is very important to be aware of the priorité à droite as it is not uncommon for traffic on minor roads to have the right-of-way when joining main streets and French motorists can be aggressive in protecting their right-of-way.
- Right turns on a red light are not allowed in any circumstances; some intersections, however, will free right-hand turn traffic with a yellow or green blinking arrow. If in doubt, wait for the green light.
- Traffic signals are usually located on the right-hand side, on the pavement instead of overhead in the middle. Solid white lines demarcating an intersection indicate a stop, even in the absence of a stop sign.
- You are required by law to carry an unused and in-date self-test breathalyser kit conforming to French safety NF standards.
- You must carry a reflective triangle and vest in the car in case of breakdowns or other car emergencies.
- All passengers in a car must wear safety belts, even in the rear seat. Children under the age of 10 must sit in the backseat unless this is impossible, as in a two-seater vehicle. Children must sit in the correct car seat until they are physically big enough to use a regular seat belt.
- Listening to music on headphones or talking on a mobile phone while driving, even with a hands-free headset, is illegal. The only type of mobile phone that can be used is both hands and head-phone free.
- Drink-drive limits are strict: 50mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (half the limit tolerated in the UK). The limit was reduced in July 2015 to 0.02 percent for novice drivers with less than three years of driving experience.
- It is illegal to use the car horn in a French city except in case of imminent collision.
- Don’t eat or drink while you’re driving.
Click here for a list of all the French road signs and what they mean.
General speed limits in France
There are different speed limits for dry and wet weather. Dry weather: urban areas 50km/h; outside urban areas 90km/h; dual carriageways and non-toll motorways 110 km/h; toll motorways 130 km/h. Wet weather: urban areas 50 km/h; outside urban 80km/h; dual carriageways and non-toll motorways 100 km/h and toll motorways 110 km/h. Drivers with less than two year’s experience follow the lower limits. Note: urban speed limits start at the town sign.
As well as fixed speed-trap radars there are many unmarked police cars carrying speed detection cameras in France, even on minor roads.
Carrying a radar-detection device in your car can be punished with a fine and automatic confiscation. If your satnav has this feature, disable the alerts.
On the spot fines or deposits can be heavy and cars can be confiscated for some speeding offences.
Parking your car in France
City street parking is almost always regulated by parking metres, horodateurs, which are increasingly (and in Paris, totally) operated by a specific credit card, available at most tabacs. Pay spaces are usually, but not always, indicated by the word payant on the street or on a sign.
The French word for parking is stationnement; ‘parking’ in French means ‘car park’. Parking regulations in France vary from place to place, the day of the week and time of day and can be very specific, so make sure you read the parking signs carefully. For example, stationnement alterné semi-mensuel means that parking is allowed on one side of the road for the first half of the month and the other side of the road for the second half. Côté du Stationnement – Jours Pairs/Impairs’ (even/odd) means parking is allowed only on alternate days.
Parking may be forbidden at certain times, for example, for street cleaning, and at all times on red routes (axe rouge), in front of fire hydrants and where you see the sign Stationnement interdit or Stationnement gênant. You can’t usually park for more than 24 hours in the same parking space unless it is specifically long-term parking.
Look for blue zones (zone bleu) – blue markings on the road – which mean you can park free for specified times as long as you display a parking disk (disque de contrôle/stationnement) on your windscreen. You can buy them at tabacs, garages, police stations and some shops.
If you see a parking sign marked horodateur or Stationnement payant, you’ll need to buy a ticket from a nearby machine. Place the ticket face up on the street side of the dashboard so that parking attendants can confirm the timestamp.
In theory, you can only legally park in the direction of traffic for that side of the street, although you may see parked cars headed the wrong direction.
In cities there may be resident parking permits available or reduced parking on meters within their neighbourhood at reduced rates. Check with your town hall, mairie, for details.
You can pre-book parking in Paris online through ParkingsdeParis.
Car rental and car sharing in France
You must usually be 18 years old to hire a car in France, although some companies require drivers to be 21 or older and have held a full driving licence for at least a year. All the usual car hire companies operate in France. To find a car rental company look under Location voiture in the PagesJaunes (Yellow pages)
Buying a car in France
Most French people drive French-made cars, and if you’re thinking of buying a car in France you might consider doing the same: French cars are good quality, relatively cheap to buy and you can have them services or repaired anywhere in France – most towns have Peugeot-Citroën and Renault dealers.
Road support and car insurance in France
Third party insurance or Responsabilité Civile – where you are liable for damage or injury you cause to another person – is compulsory in France, even if the car is not being driven on the roads. Your insurer will give you an insurance card and insurance coupon (vignette assurance) which you must display in the bottom, right hand corner of your windscreen.
For foreigners who don't yet have a French licence, many insurance companies will issue you a policy with a non-EU driving license. But beware: if you have an accident and the company verifies later that you were driving with an invalid license, you may be liable for damages.
Breakdown and recovery
You can take out a breakdown/recovery policy to cover you in France. You can’t use your own breakdown organisation on a French motorway though. ASFA, the French motorways companies association, operates a 24-hour breakdown service on motorways. Call 112 for the emergency services (there are orange emergency telephones situated approximately every 2km along the route if you don’t have a mobile phone) and the police or the official breakdown/recovery company will tow you to a safe area where you can meet your own breakdown company. Charges for this service are fixed by the government.
Tips for driving in France
- Instead of indicating a road's number (D-76) or direction (East, West, etcetera), road signs usually simply point you to the next community on a given route. You will often seen signs indicating a chain of cities leading from the next village through to the next major city or cities; when reading a map, always look for the name of the next major community on your itinerary as well as road numbers. This takes some getting used to but is actually quite logical; you can easily navigate from Marseille to Lille without ever looking at a map.
- The motorways, indicated by signs with blue backgrounds, are almost exclusively toll-roads. In most cases, you'll pay by the kilometre; you pick up a ticket before getting on and pay (in cash or debit card) at the péage when you exit.
- On the highway, the French are trained to stay in the right-hand lane except when passing.
- A turn-indicator light to French drivers is not a request but indicates an immediate manoeuvre.
- Drivers are supposed to use the right turn-indicator to signal leaving a roundabout (although this rule is routinely ignored).
- Service-public: information on driving licences, vehicle registrations, traffic regulations and offences.
- Route finding services include Mappy and ViaMichelin.
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Updated 2008; September 2015.
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