driving in france

A guide to driving in France

I’m a big believer in public transportation for its convenience, eco-friendliness, and cost. Thus, I consider there to be very few reasons to ever drive around in Europe. However, when you’re going from Prague to Paris and you want to bring your dog, that’s a pretty good reason. That being said, I wholeheartedly discourage you from driving in France if you can help it. But if you absolutely must, here are some tips.

Highway tolls in France

Unlike many of its neighbors, who either have no highway tolls or use the vignette sticker system, France has actual toll booths that you have to stop at and pay throughout its extensive highway system. In fact, few long-distance highways are free, so if you’re going almost anywhere in France, you’ll almost certainly pay a toll at some point. Depending on how much you’re driving, you might spend anywhere from €10-50 per toll.

How to use the tolls

Tolls can be paid in advance by subscription to Telepeage Liber-t so you can just drive through the toll, but this is not really a feasible option if you’re only there on holiday. The lanes designated for the prepaid tolls have a lowercase T on them, so you’ll want to avoid those or you’ll get fined for not paying the fare.

You will instead need to take any other lanes, most of which are automated and take cards. Not all of them accept euros, however, so if you want to pay cash, you’ll want to drive to the lanes that have  a picture of euro notes and coins. At some tolls, you’ll be required to take a ticket instead of pay. That’s because the amount you pay will depend on how far you drive on the highway. So when you get off at an exit or get to the end of the toll road, you’ll insert your ticket and it will calculate how much you owe.

Speed limits in France

driving in france

If you’re driving from Germany, where there are no speed limits, you’re going to want to start paying attention as soon as you cross the border into France. That’s because highways are controlled automatically by speed cameras, and if you’re driving even 5% above the speed limit, you’ll get a surprise ticket in the mail after you return from your trip.

Generally speaking, highways have a speed limit of 130 km/h, unless it’s raining, and then it’s 110 km/h. Dual carriageways (separated by some median) have a speed limit of 110 km/h. Roads outside of urban areas range in limit between 80 and 90 km/h. And urban areas typically have a speed limit of 50 km/h. However, there may be construction or some other incident restricting speed temporarily.

Drinking and driving laws in France

Obviously, I wouldn’t ever endorse drinking and driving. But… France has a lot of wine and a lot of champagne, and visiting remote vineyards and wineries is actually one of the more reasonable reasons to drive in France. So it’s important for you to know that French drinking and driving laws are pretty strict. Not zero tolerance strict, but still almost nothing.

The legal blood alcohol content (BAC) in France is 0.5 grams per liter (.05%). If you’re caught with a BAC between .05% and .08%, you could be fined up to €135. If you exceed that, like in the US, you could face jailtime or a fine of over €4000.

So if you have more than one small glass of wine every hour, you would probably be above the legal limit. That means that even one wine tasting is already pushing you over the limit. I suggest that if you’re doing some wine tourism in France, you have a designated driver or the driver has plenty of time to sober up after drinking.

The Crit’Air Clean Air sticker

In 2017, France rolled out a requirement to restrict emissions and improve air quality in popular cities through the Crit’Air sticker. These identify your specific vehicle’s emissions according to the EU emissions standards. There are 6 categories, but only the first 3 sticker categories are allowed free entry into major cities like Paris, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Nice, etc. In addition to permanent low-emission zones like Paris, cities can enact temporary low-emissions zones. In sum, the sticker is a must, unless you’re only driving in the middle of nowhere in France.

How to get a Crit’Air sticker

To get the Crit’Air sticker, you must register your vehicle online in advance and pay a small fee of about €5. This is a process that can take a couple of weeks. You submit all your documentation online which includes a copy of the vehicle registration, and they mail you the sticker. So theoretically, you should apply for the sticker in advance of your trip.

Important: the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion is the only official site purchase this sticker. All other websites are probably overcharging you or giving you a fake sticker.

Like us, I’m sure many of you are probably wondering how the hell you’re supposed to get a Crit-Air sticker if you’re renting a car. If you’re renting a car in France, the car will probably already have the sticker. If you’re renting a car in an adjacent country and driving to France, the car rental company may be able to arrange it for you in advance. If you’re renting a car from two countries over like we did, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own.

Luckily, there’s a solution. About 24 hours after you submit your application for the Crit’Air sticker, you get a (second) email confirmation with a receipt that includes a temporary sticker that you can display on your car. So you can apply after you get your rental but before you enter France. To be honest, we got to France about 18 hours short of having that temporary sticker and nothing happened. Ridiculously, you will just get a useless sticker in the mail a few days after returning from France that you can immediately throw away since the car you registered is not yours.

If you choose not to get the sticker and risk it, the fine for not having a sticker is €68.

Driving in Paris

If you are making the horrible mistake of driving into Paris, I suggest you get ready for thunderdome driving. Unlike many of the European drivers you’ll encounter on the highways who carefully respect the rules of the road, Parisians don’t give a single fuck about speed limits, lanes, or safety. I don’t even like to get in a cab in Paris, much less behind the wheel. And I don’t recommend it.

driving in france

In addition to the highways getting into Paris being a tangled mess, the insane roundabouts in city center are absolutely not worth whatever benefit you think you’re getting from driving in Paris. I suggest instead getting within an hour of the city and taking the high-speed Thalys from somewhere more normal. Then you’d also save yourself the hell of parking in Paris.

Parking in Paris

Most hotels in Paris don’t have parking available, since most people would be crazy to drive there. So you’ll have to rely on the city’s long-term parking garages. Street parking typically has a limit so you can’t just leave your car on the street for the duration of your stay. Underground garages are all over the city, but not all of them offer overnight parking. You’ll also save money by parking at some of the less central arrondissements. For example, parking in the 7th arrondissement costs €43,20 for 24 hours. But if you park in Levallois-Perret, it’s less than half that.

Depending on how long you plan to stay in Paris with a car, you may want to book a long-term parking package for 7 or 14 days. This will also allow you to drive in and out of the garage without having to pay each time. However, be sure you know how the long-term parking works at the garage of your choice. Some garages require you to prebook long-term parking online according to your license plate number. If you just go into the garage and take a ticket, you may end up paying the hourly or daily rate, which may be three or four times as much.

If you’re in doubt, stay the hell out of Paris with a car.

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