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MOTORWAY

What you need to know about driving on France’s motorways

Here's a guide to driving on French autoroutes, from foreign drivers who know a thing or two about it.

What you need to know about driving on France's motorways
All photos: AFP
France's motorways are generally excellent, but that doesn't mean using them is simple. Here's a guide from foreigners who use the motorways a lot. 
 
1. They're not free!
 
They may be called “freeways” in English but don't be deceived by the name, they're certainly not free of charge in France. 
 
Seasoned autoroute user Maximilian Loherstorfer advises first time users to plan ahead for the many toll booths (péages). 
 
“I drive from Germany to Poitiers (in central western France) pretty often, and it costs me something like €60 plus gas,” he tells The Local.
 
“To avoid any bad surprises, I'd advise people to visit autoroutes.fr for information on toll prices.”
 
Indeed, with some roads costing €8 for as little as 20 kilometres (we're looking at you A14) then it's best to know what you're in for. 
 
 
2. Use well known bank cards (or cash) at the tolls
 
If you have a card from a well-known bank, or indeed cash, you will be fine at the toll booths, although some bank cards can cause problems. 
 
Readers told us of problems with Amex, for example. 
 
And be warned that some foreign banks will charge for transactions, so a long trip can really hit your wallet hard. 
 
“If you pay by UK bank card you will incur a fee for every transaction, so its better to go via the coin booths,” says Julie Down. 
 
Tony Warwick said: “I would extol the virtues of a Sanef Toll Tag.
 
They are utterly brilliant (and discount the toll charges slightly).
 
“The biggest advantage is that you don't stop, or take a ticket – hence avoiding the Right Hand drive / Left Hand ticket machine contortions.
 
“Sanef Tags can be bought and set up in UK, mine has worked without any problems in regular use over last 18 months.”
 
 
3. Avoid the autoroutes at peak holiday time
 
“It can be a nightmare, especially around Paris,” says Loherstorfer. 
 
And he's right! When it's holiday season, roads are typically clogged in both directions at most big cities or on motorways towards the coast or the mountains.
 
It's best to leave VERY early in the morning if you absolutely have to drive, and be sure to check in with traffic website Bison Futé before taking off. 
 
Or you might be stuck in tailbacks like the one pictured below. You've been warned.
 
 
4. Stick to the speed limit
 
Several readers pointed out that there are lots of speed cameras in use on France's autoroutes, so it's best to keep to the speed limit (it's there for your safety after all). 
 
The upper speed limit is typically 130km/hr (or 110km/hr in wet weather), although many will typically go a little faster.  When autoroutes are wide open and empty it's easy to cruise past the speed limit without noticing, so beware.
 
Slip roads leading off motorways also have strict speed limits that should be observed, for safety if nothing else.
 
And it's not just the speed cameras that are out to get you, says Tony Wileman. 
 
“Be conscious you can be timed between the tolls and if you've been excessively speeding they'll know this and you could be reported and or fined,” he says.
 
Speeding motorists are a real problem in France, with “risky behaviour” said to be a key problem in France's 3,500 road death toll in 2015.  
 
In February last year France rolled out 5,000 dummy speed cameras in the hope of tricking motorists into driving more safely. 
 
 
5. The cars don't always merge at autoroute entry points
 
Foreign drivers should be aware that it's not always a straight-forward merge to get onto the autoroute in France. 
 
“Joining the motorway is different, they won't just let you on,” says autoroute regular Julie Down. 
 
“In some cases you will have to stop as you would at a give way sign here.”
 
6. Invest in a good Sat-Nav
 
You'd be surprised just how handy the Sat-Navs are these days, not just for finding the way, but for finding the cheapest way. 
 
“There may be parallel roads that won't cost, so plan your journey accordingly,” says Julie Down. 
 
Indeed, there are loads of pages on the internet about how to drive around France and avoiding the toll booths, like this one
 
Photo: SeppVei/WikiCommons
 
7. Buy your petrol beforehand
 
Petrol isn't cheap along the autoroutes, so plan in advance. 
 
“It's better to fill up your tank at a supermarket before you leave,” advises Loherstorfer. 
 
Indeed, there are around 4,500 petrol stations around the country, so you have plenty of choice if you're looking to economize. 
 
Here's a link to our story about the best apps for finding fuel in France. 
 
 
 
8. Take regular breaks (and you will enjoy them)
 
There's typically a high standard of service stations at the rest breaks across France (aires d'autoroute), which can be found every 15 kilometres or so. 

They often include clean bathrooms, plenty of shops, restaurants, and even playgrounds for the kids. 
 
“I always enjoy driving on the French freeway knowing that I'll be able to find some good food, a decent spot for changing the baby's nappy, or just relaxing,” says regular motorway user Maximilian Loherstorfer.
 
Just remember that these rest stops can get very busy in peak times, so plan accordingly.  
 
In France it's recommended that motorists take a 15 minute break every 2 hours. 
 
9. Beware of tailgating and other bad driving habits
 
The French are not known for being the most easygoing drivers, especially on motorways.
 
When The Local asked readers to point out the most annoying habits of French drivers, tailgating (or driving up your rear) was the clear number one. You can expect to be flashed at (with car lights) and beeped until you move lane.
 
Mike Walker on Twitter said that France's tailgaters “infuriate” him. He says that “you can sometimes see a line of cars that almost appear to be conjoined”.
 
And be careful because tailgaters can appear within a split second and take you by surprise.
 
Best thing to do of course is gently move over.
 
Beware of undertakers too. Not the folk who drive hearses, but the ones who overtake from the inside. Then there are the drivers swerving in and of lanes or off the autoroute at the last minute. Beware of them too. In fact just be aware.
 
And in traffic jams keep an eye in your mirrors for motorbikers and scooter drivers weaving their way through the standstill.
 
Drive safely!
 
10. You can't cycle on them
 
Although it may be tempting, given that they are often quite and offer the quickest route to get between cities, do not venture onto an autoroute with a bike.
 
It is against the law, as one Russian cyclist found out when she was fined €22 when French police finally caught up with her as she tried to pay at a motorway toll station.
 

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LIVING IN FRANCE

Reader question: Can I buy or sell a car in France if I have a foreign driving licence?

You can drive in France for a certain amount of time with some foreign driving licences. But can you buy or sell a car with one and what other documents do you need?

Reader question: Can I buy or sell a car in France if I have a foreign driving licence?

Let’s start with the good news: a driving licence is not among the list of official documents needed to buy or sell a car in France – just to drive one.

But it’s likely that are asked to provide one when you buy a car.

In that case does what happens if you have a foreign rather than French licence?

We know by reading certain Facebook posts that this question often arises and some people have reported that they were wrongly asked for their French driving licence when buying a car and told that a UK licence, for example, wasn’t acceptable. 

Not having a French driver’s licence should not stop you from being able to buy a car in France.

Kim Cranstoun who runs the Facebook group ‘Applying for a French Driving Licence’ told The Local: “It’s a dealer issue, they have it fixed in their mind that you have to have a French licence mainly because they don’t understand the new agreement and the last thing they read was a UK licence was only valid until the end of 2021.

“As long as you have a valid UK licence you can purchase a car in France. Anyone going into a dealer with a valid UK licence should carry a copy of the agreement,” she said.

Interestingly a driving licence is not on the list of official documents you need to buy a car (see below) but dealer’s will often ask for it if they take charge of registering the car.

What does the seller need?

The seller is responsible for providing the car registration document, called the certificat d’immatriculation and known informally as the Carte Grise.

You must sign a certificat de cession (transfer certificate) along with the buyer, and then declare the sale on the ANTS website within 15 days. 

You should then receive a code de cession (transfer code) which you must also send to the buyer so they can register the vehicle in their name.

If the vehicle is second-hand and more than four-years old, the seller should also provide a recent roadworthiness certificate, proving that the vehicle has passed a contrôle technique (similar to an MoT in the UK), in the past six months.

What does the buyer need?

When you buy a car, you must sign a certificat de cession (transfer certificate) along with the previous owner, who has to declare the sale on the ANTS website within 15 days. 

The seller should then receive a code de cession (transfer code) which they must send you because you will need this to register the vehicle in your name. There is a fee, which usually falls to the buyer to pay for transferring a vehicle registration – which varies depending on the region, type of car, and its CO2 emissions. 

The previous certificat d’immatriculation (registration certificate – aka carte grise) needs to be struck through, and completed with the date of the sale and the seller’s signature.

You will then need to register the car in your name, which can be done online. You have one month to do this, otherwise you risk a fine of up to €750. 

If you are purchasing the car through a dealer, this transfer of registration will be done at the time of the purchase. Be aware, a dealer may ask for your driving licence as part of the process, but – as long as you hold a valid licence, whether it is French or not, you will still be able to go through with your purchase.

In fact, you can ask any certified garage to apply for the carte grise on your behalf, which could save on time and hassle, even if you didn’t buy the car from them.

When applying for a carte grise you will need to submit proof that the vehicle has undergone a contrôle technique (vehicle safety check) within the previous six months if the car is at least four years old.

To register the vehicle, you need the following official documents:

  • Identification (passport or identity card)

  • Proof of residence (typically a utility bill or rental receipt, less than six months old).

  • A copy of the Certificat d’immatriculation/Carte Grise with the appropriate section filled in.

  • The contrôle technique (CT) certificate, if required.

Buying a car with a loan

If you have the funds to buy the vehicle outright, you’ll have no problems – simply hand over the cheque at the appropriate time. It may be harder, however, to access financing for your vehicle if you’re not permanently resident in France.

Driving your new vehicle

If you plan to drive your car away that day, you will also be asked for a copy of a valid insurance certificate for the vehicle – in France, the vehicle is insured rather than the driver. 

Most car insurance companies will provide a provisional certificate to allow you to drive your new purchase. You will then need to finalise details and provide them with a copy of the Carte Grise when it arrives.

Driving licence

If you live permanently in France, sooner or later you may need to swap your driving licence for a French one – but where you learned to drive in the first place could dictate whether you have to take a French driving test. We cover that in depth here – including what’s changed for Britons in France after Brexit.

You can buy some vehicles – known as voitures sans permis – and drive them on some French roads without having a driving licence. Anyone born after 1988 must, however, hold a Brevet de sécurité routière, which has a 15-year limit, and the vehicles are speed limited and can only travel on certain routes.

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