Driving in France vs driving in the U.S.

This is a guide for Americans driving in France. Find out the major differences between driving in the U.S. and driving in France. Use this guide to learn the most important driving rules and regulations in France to stay safe on the road.

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Is it hard to drive in France as an American?

There are many rules in common between driving in the U.S. and driving in France. For starters, French and Americans drive on the same side of the road. One of the most important difference is learning the right-of-way in France. Let’s dive into details.

Right-of-way rules in France

Forget about the rule “Who’s first go first” and replace it with “Who’s on my right go first”. In France, when there is no traffic sign, a car entering the roadway from the right has priority, unless you’re driving on a priority road, indicated by this traffic sign.

traffic sign for a priority road
This traffic sign indicates a priority road in France

Americans driving in France should get familiar with these traffic signs to understand who has the right-of-way.

Priority to the right

Upcoming intersection with priority to the cars coming from the right.

Priority at next intersection

At the upcoming intersection, you have priority over traffic coming from the right and the left.

The Stop sign and the Yield sign are similar to the ones in the U.S.

French Stop sign
French Yield sign

Stop signs and priority

Intersections with 4 stop signs are pretty rare these days in France because many stop signs have been replaced with roundabouts. At a stop sign, the priority always goes to the car coming from the right. The right-of-way is not based on which car arrived first.

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Complete stop at a stop sign

Drivers are supposed to come to a full halt in front of the white line at a stop sign in France. A “California stop” is illegal because the car wheels need to completely stop turning during a few seconds.

A rolling stop is the most common infraction in France. It’s a category 4 infraction and it’s punishable by 4 points withdrawal along with a €135 fine.

Speed limits in France

When visibility is less than 50 meters (54 yards), speed limits in France are reduced to 50km/h (30mph) on any type of road. Regular speed limits in France are as follow.

Type of roadsDry weatherRain
freeway130km/h (80mph)110km/h (68mph)
2-way 2-lane road with median110km/h (68mph)100km/h (62mph)
2-lane road (same way)90km/h (56mph)80km/h (50mph)
2-way road no median80km/h (50mph)80km/h (50mph)
urban areas50km/h (30mph)50km/h (30mph)
Speed limits in France

If you’re on a probationary driver’s license, speed limits are as follow.

Type of roadsDry weatherRain
freeway110km/h (68mph)100km/h (62mph)
2-way 2-lane road with median100km/h (62mph)100km/h (62mph)
2-lane road (same way)80km/h (50mph)80km/h (50mph)
2-way road no median80km/h (50mph)80km/h (50mph)
urban areas50km/h (30mph)50km/h (30mph)
Speed limits in France for drivers on a probationary license

Speed limits are displayed in kilometers per hour (km/h) because France uses the metric system. If you’re not familiar with the metric system or to learn how to convert metric units into U.S. metrics, read French measurements.

Traffic lights location

At intersections, traffic lights are located before the intersection, not on the other side of the crossing road. In narrow streets, traffic lights might be difficult to see because you’re very close to the intersection and they’re located on the right side of your car rather than in front.

In France, traffic lights are located before the intersection at crossroads.

Turn signals

In France, drivers are expected to master turn signal usage. It’s an important part of the skills required to take the French driving test. Use your blinkers before:

  • passing 
  • entering/exiting a parking spot
  • making a turn
  • entering/exiting a roundabout

Not using turn signal correctly is a category 2 infraction that costs 3 points on your driver’s license along with a €35 fine. Read French driver’s license to learn more about the French driving point system.

Is jaywalking illegal in France?

Pedestrians in France always have priority over vehicles, even when they are crossing outside crosswalks. Jaywalking enforcement is not a thing in France and many people do cross outside crosswalks or when their light is red.

Driving in France and police checks

French police don’t need probable cause to stop a vehicle. Police can conduct random checks and administer breath alcohol tests. Unlike in the United States, police cars don’t tail you until you stop the vehicle. They don’t perform field sobriety tests either (no need to practice counting backwards from 10,000 in French).

You have to show the following documents when you’re stopped by the French police.

  • driver’s license. Your U.S. driver’s license is valid during your first year in France. For more details, read US driver’s license in France.
  • car insurance certificate
  • car registration

If you don’t have one of the mandatory documents on you, you are fined with a category 1 traffic violation. You have 5 days to get to a police station (gendarmerie or commissariat) and present the missing document or else the fine increases.

Carpool lanes

There are very few carpool lanes in France but there are many bus lanes in urban areas. In some areas, bikes are allowed to ride on bus lanes.

Narrow uphill roads

On narrow uphill roads where only one car can pass, the car going uphill has priority, unless the vehicle going down is a heavy vehicle such as a bus, a truck or a tractor.

Road narrowing

Road narrowing is a concept that I’ve never seen in the United States but which is becoming frequent in France. You’re driving on a 2-way double lane that suddenly becomes much narrower, to the point that you have to slow down almost to a halt. The double lane can also just become a single lane with a sign indicating which way has priority.

The first time I encountered a road narrowing in France was in a village in the mountains and they used big flower pots to obstruct the road so only one car could go at once. I just couldn’t believe this was done on purpose.

Road narrowing techniques are extremely effective in terms of speed reduction but they are very dangerous if you’re not paying attention.

No right turn on red

You cannot make a turn on red unless there’s a blinking arrow. You must yield to pedestrians and cars and go in the direction pointed by the arrow.

Solid white line

A solid white line in France is the equivalent of the U.S. double yellow line and you can’t cross it. No passing!

Roundabouts

France is the country of roundabouts. You can go through as many as 4 or 5 roundabouts in a row.

There are 2 types of roundabouts in France: “rond-points” and “sens giratoires”, the latter being the most frequent type.

Most French people (wrongly) use the word rond-point to talk about both types of roundabouts.

From a driving standpoint, rond-points and sens giratoires are very different.

Rond-point roundabouts

On rond-points, people in the roundabout must yield to traffic coming from their right, meaning vehicles entering the roundabout. You can tell you’re on a rond-point rather than a sens giratoire because there’s no traffic sign.

The most famous rond-point in France is probably rond-point de l’Étoile in Paris.

Sens giratoire roundabouts

Drivers engaged on a sens giratoire roundabout have priority over vehicles entering the roundabout. Every entrance of a sens giratoire has a yield road sign.

When you plan on exiting the roundabout on the right or left, use your turn signal to let people know what your plan is. Once you’re on the roundabout, turn on your right turn signal just before exiting the roundabout.

People making a left turn after the roundabout should use the innermost lane whereas drivers heading right or straight should stay on the outermost lane. People making a U-turn should also use the innermost lane.

I disliked roundabouts at first but now I appreciate how efficient they are, especially when traffic is light and you don’t have to stop.

Bike lane going the opposite way

In urban areas in France, some one-way streets allow bikes to drive the “wrong” way.

In such streets, you might face a bike coming your way. Rue Thiers in Grenoble is one of these streets. Notice how narrow the street is.

Just imagine one bike going your way on your right and another bike driving towards you on your left. I’m not sure who decided on these street rules but it makes for an interesting drive.

French freeways

As an American driving in France, you might be surprised that French direction signs do not mention North, South, East and West directions. Drivers must know the major city names to find their way.

On freeways, the minimum speed allowed under normal weather conditions on the further left lane is 80km/h (50mph).

Toll booth in France

At the toll booth, lanes marked “t” require an electronic transmitter. You can purchase an Ulys e-toll transmitter for as little as €2 a month. Use the lanes with the green arrow to pay with credit card or cash.

No passing on the right in France

Slower traffic must keep right in France and you can only pass another vehicle on the left.

One exception is when a vehicle is about to make a left turn and has its left turn light on. In that situation, you can pass the vehicle on the right to go straight ahead.

Blood alcohol content legal limits in France

Blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit is 0.05% (0.5g/l) in France compared to 0.08% (0.8g/l) in the United States. If you’re driving on a probationary driver’s license, the legal limit is 0.02%.

Radars

In France, speed radars are frequent and come in all sorts of shapes.

Radar detectors are illegal in France. French police use detectors for radar detectors (!) to track down illegal use of radar detectors. Using a radar detector is punished by 6 points withdrawal on your driver’s license and a €1,500 fine. Read French driver’s license if you’re not familiar with the French point system.

If you get caught by a speed radar while driving a rental car, the rental agency will add the fine to your bill as the ticket is mailed very quickly.

Using your phone while driving in France

This may come as a surprise to Americans driving in France but using phone hands-free headsets is illegal in France.

The only way you can legally use a phone while driving in France is by using the car bluetooth sound system. Make sure you park in a parking spot (not on the side of the road!) and turn off the engine before reaching for your phone.

Being caught holding your phone while driving will cost you €135 and the loss of 3 points on your driver’s license.

Any type of headphones or bluetooth device are forbidden while driving in France.

Pollution restrictions

The air quality certificate for driving in France is called Crit’Air.

When pollution levels are elevated during summer, French departments sometimes set up restrictions on which vehicles are allowed to drive, based on their Crit’Air score. You can check current restrictions in your department on the Laboratoire Central de Surveillance de la Qualité de l’Air (air quality surveillance lab) website.

Driving with children

Under French law, children under 10 must sit in the back in a car seat or booster adapted to their body height and weight.

Traffic signs for directions

Traffic signs indicating a direction are often shaped like an arrow and their color indicates their type of itinerary.

  • blue – directions to big cities using freeways
  • green – directions to big cities via regular roads
  • white – directions to local places
  • yellow – temporary itineraries during work construction or detours.
  • brown – directions for tourist places

Yellow traffic signs

Yellow signs don’t convey a warning message like in the U.S. but they’re used instead for temporary signs such as construction work or detours.

US: Orange color for temporary signs
France: Yellow color for temporary signs

Kilometers versus miles

France uses the metric system to measure everything, including distances and liquids. This means that French people calculate distances in kilometers instead of miles and they fill up their tank with liters of fuel rather than gallons.

French traffic roads show distances in kilometers.
Distances are displayed in kilometers in France.

I hope this article made your driving in France safer. Now, take a look at the most common French traffic signs side-by-side with their American counterparts in French road signs.

Nathalie Nahmani

About Nathalie Nahmani

Nathalie is the creator of ma French Life. She moved back to France after living in Los Angeles for 20 years. She writes practical articles to help expats in France. Nathalie lives with her family in the French Alps near Grenoble.

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