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Tips for US or European Drivers Wanting to Drive a Car in Australia

We’ve found that driving cars in Australia and the United States is actually very similar, however, we’ve come across a few important tips to share with American, European or other international travellers heading to Australia, intending to drive a car here … safely.

Stay Left. The Biggest Difference for International Drivers.

Each year, a handful of foreign drivers are seriously or fatally injured by momentarily forgetting to stay left when driving in Australia, particularly on more isolated and windy roads.

A simple tip is to always make sure you, as driver sitting on the right hand side, are:

  • always situated closest to the middle of the road, and
  • you have oncoming traffic passing on your driver’s side.

The steering wheel in Australia is located on the right hand side of the car, so the gear stick and other instruments will feel reversed if you come from the United States or a country where the steering wheel is on the left hand side. This will take some getting used to, though most Australian cars have automatic transmission versus manual (or stick shift) gears.

Practice driving on the left hand side with this hazard perception test provided by the South Australian government.

Also, many rental car companies now offer stickers or cards with diagrams setting out basic driving positions for Australian roads, that you can keep your Australian vehicle as a constant reminder.

Specific road tips and laws for each State and Territory in Australia.

Use of Foreign Licences

As an international visitor, you are able to drive in Australia with your foreign licence for three months, so long as that licence is in English. If your licence is not in English, you will need to attain an International Drivers Permit (IDP) from your home country to use in Australia. If your foreign licence does not have a photo, carry a formal photo identification with you such as a passport.

If you intend to drive longer than 3 months in Australia, you will need to attain a Drivers licence from the State in which you intend to do most of your driving.

Strict Rules and Potential to Lose Driving Privileges

Australian society has become accustomed to, and generally support, strict driving rules. This has been the result of high road tolls and injuries caused on Australian roads due to speed or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Consequently, Australia has strict traffic rules with significant penalities. As a temporary driver in Australia, you will be subject to the same traffic penalties as local Australians, including on the spot fines, and the potential to lose your temporary driving priviliges through the accumulation of demerit points or a single material violation.

Demerit points. In all states and territories, accumulating 12 or more demerit points over 3 years will result in the suspension of the driver’s license. A foreign driving using a temporary foreign license will be subject to the same demerit point framework. The level of demerit points required for a foreign driver to have their temporary driving privileges revoked can vary by state and territory, so be advised to check with the road and transport department of the state or territory you will be driving in the most to understand exact limits. As a rule, obey the local rules and don’t put yourself at risk of this occurring.

Immediate suspension of license. In addition to losing a license due to the accumulation of demerit points, a driver can also lose their license due to a single dangerous driving act. Examples include being recorded at 40 km/hour or more over the speed limit, or having a blood alcohol level greater than 0.1 (or double the legal limit).

An important fact to note: having your license suspended in one state or territory will transfer to all states and territories in Australia.

Strict Seat Belt Requirements

Australia is very strict on the use of seat belts. In addition, strict laws apply to ensure children up to 7 years of age are restrained with the right safety harnesses and capsules. Learn more about child restraint requirements.

The onus is on the driver to make sure both driver and passengers always have a seat belt or restraint in place while travelling in a moving vehicle. The penalties for not doing so are on the spot fines for driver and passengers not wearing seat belts. Australian drivers can also receive up to 5 demerit points and equivalent penalties and this could be applied to an International drivers licence.

Strict Mobile or Cell Phone Use

In Australia, a cell is called a mobile phone. Australia has strict rules preventing the use of mobile phone while driving. It is illegal in all Australian states and territories to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. This includes: talking, texting, playing games, taking photos / videos and using any other function on your mobile phone. This also applies when your vehicle is stationary but not parked e.g. when your stopped at traffic lights or a stop sign. Breaking this law will typically result in an on the spot fine and incur 3 demerit points. Learn more about mobile phone laws in Australia.

Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

Australia has strict policing for drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The blood alcohol limit is 0.05% throughout Australia, with zero limits for learners and drivers with provisional licences ("P" plates) in some states.

Police often set up random alcohol and drug testing, which in Australia are colloquially known as “Booze buses”. They’ll will cordon off a section of road and perform random breathalyser tests and can also use mouth swabs to test for the presence of drugs in the system.

If a driver in Australia is caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it is considered a criminal offence and will likely result in a fine and a period of driving suspension. The degree of punishment will be determined by a court and have reference to the proven blood alcohol or drug reading, and circumstances. In addition, refusing a random breath test is also an offence and similar penalties can apply.

Obligations in the Event of an Accident

In Australia, if a motor vehicle accident results in either material injury or death to any person involved in the accident, it must be reported to the police. To do so, you can call the Australian emergency number 000 (which is the equivalent of 911 in the United States).

As a driver, you are legally obliged to stop and provide assistance to anyone injured in the accident. Failure to do so will result in prosecution with the potential for severe penalties including jail time.

Strict Enforcement of Speed Limits

Australia is very strict on speed limits. Unlike some countries like the United States or Germany, drivers are not encouraged to go with the flow of traffic if it results in speeding. If you or a group of cars are detected speeding you will face a fine and potential loss of licence depending on how far you are over the designated speed limit.

Hidden and fixed cameras are often used in Australia, as well as aerial cameras and manual speed cameras by highway patrolmen.

It is important to note that Australia uses the metric system, so all speeding signs are in kilometres per hour, not miles per hour.

Speed limits are usually clearly marked on sign posts in kilometres per hour, particularly when there is a change. The typical default in most built up urban areas is 50km/hour. Also be mindful of school zone areas which will be signposted and reduce the speed limit to 40km/hour during the designated school times (typically weekdays: 8am to 9.30am and 2.30pm to 4pm). You may also come across cross walk attendants giving right of way to children and adults crossing at designated cross walks or traffic lights near a school. Also, some states like South Australia may designate a lower speed limit of 25km / hour, with other states potentially having slightly higher limits if on a major road with higher speed limits.

For major roads outside city areas and major freeways, speed limits vary. In Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, the default speed limit is 100km/hour. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110km/h and in the Northern Territory it can be up to 130km/h on major highways.

Some roads in Victoria and New South Wales will have higher speed limits of 110 km / hour which will be clearly signposted.

Pass on the Right, Stay Left

When driving on multi-lane roads, highways and freeways in Australia, always keep left unless overtaking. Fines can apply for cars violating this rule in most states.

If you are travelling with 2 or more people, many major freeways will have a designated Commuter lane you are able to use.

Be aware that in major capital cities there may also be a bus or taxi lane that will be clearly marked and regular cars are not permitted to drive in.

Traffic signals and Roundabouts

Traffic signals are generally the same in other countries like the United States. A key difference is it is illegal to turn left on a red traffic signal.

In most states it is also illegal to do a U-turn at a traffic signal unless otherwise signed.

Australia does not have 4 way stop signs, but does often use roundabouts or 2 way stop signs at intersections with no traffic lights.

For roundabouts, give way to cars coming from the right. If there are two or more lanes, lines and directions should be clearly marked, but as a rule take the left lane for left, or the right lane for right, and either lane to go straight.

At 2 way stops signs, you must come to a complete stop and give way to any oncoming traffic.

Pedestrians always have the right of way.

Toll Roads

Toll roads are generally found in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Many major motorways, tunnels and bridges in Australia require payment of tolls. Some tolls can be paid in cash at the time, where others such as Melbourne will require either a prepaid pass or to call and pay within a short time after using the road.

Melbourne and Sydney allow you to purchase in advance an electronically transponder that can be used over a period of time for a modest cost and increased convenience.

These toll roads typically take photos of each vehicles number plate, and then allow a day or so for you to make good on any payment you are required to make. Failure to do so will result in a fine.

Some motorways, bridges, and tunnels in or near Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney require payment of tolls. In some cases (especially in Melbourne and Sydney), some tolls can only be paid electronically with a transponder fitted inside the car – not in cash.

Learn more about Australian toll roads.

Outer Roads (and the Outback)

Australia has an area in land mass similar to continental United States, with a population of only around 22.5 million people. The major cities and urban concentrations are predominantly in the South East to South West of Australia and hug the coastlines.

If you go on longer trips outside of the major urban areas, be mindful that you may face a range of dangers you may not be used to confronting in your home country.

Plan ahead and be mindful of the following:

  • Isolation and lack of facilities. Travel prepared by including additional water, food, and an extra source of fuel.
  • Long drives, particularly at night may cause fatigue. Take advantage of truck stops and revival points (often serving coffee) or simply pull over to take a nap, if you feel slightly drowsy.
  • Be vigilant for Australian wildlife, particularly at night as many of Australian native animals are nocturnal. Kangaroos, wallabies, emus, koalas and some bird life are more active early in the morning and in the evening when the temperature cools.
  • On outer roads, you may encounter multi-trailer trucks (or “Road Trains”). Make sure you give a Road Train plenty of room, and if overtaking take extra precaution and judgement given the extra length required of the overtaking.
  • Ideally avoid travelling at night, and if you do, be particularly vigilant, make sure you are fully alert, and reduce your speed.

Outer roads will typically have speed limits of between 90 km / hour and 110 km / hour, but as high as 130 km / hour in the Northern Territory. Despite these limits, you should be conservative and use your judgement to drive at a speed you are comfortable with given the surroundings.

Some outer roads may even be dirt or low quality, so adjust your speed accordingly and be cautious about driving into isolated areas without adequate water, supplies and planning.

Learn more about some of the most dangerous roads in Australia.

Fuelling Up Your Car, at a Service Station (a “Servo”)

In Australia, there are Service Stations, or colloquially “Servos” where cars fill up with either Petrol, Diesel or Liquefied Natural Gas. Services Stations, also known as Petrol Stations, are the equivalent of a Gas Station in the United States.

Most Australian cars run off Unleaded Petrol (ULP), but some European cars, 4WDs and others may run off Diesel, and smaller minority of cars have been converted to Liquefied Natural Gas.

Service Stations are all self-service. You will need to fill your car up with fuel, and then go into the Service Station to pay in person. This is unlike the United States gas station where you are able to pay at the bowser (gas pump) with a credit card.

Be aware that Australia is a large land mass, and on isolated roads, you may not always have convenient access to a Service Station, particularly late at night. On longer trips, be conservative and fuel your car early to avoid running out of fuel in an isolated position.

In Western Australia, the state government provides a fuel watch service to monitor cheapest fuel by regions in Western Australia.