New Zealand travel tips
For an overview of what you need to know before arriving in New Zealand, this page is a good place to start. We’ve tried to keep it relatively brief, linking to more detailed content and official sources where we think it’s important that you have the most up to date information.
Best time to visit
When we first arrived in New Zealand in 2013, we were more than a little naive as we explored the country. We never considered things like seasonal weather or peak visitor months. Now, several years later and with numerous North and South Island adventures under our belt, we’re a little older and wiser and have our favourite times of the year to travel based on what we enjoy doing.
While the ‘best’ time of year to visit comes down to your expectations and what you’re hoping to get from your visit, we personally do most of our exploring in what’s referred to as the shoulder seasons, from September to November and March to May. Read our best time to visit New Zealand guide to find out why.
Biosecurity on arrival
Being an island nation, New Zealand has not been exposed to many of the diseases and pests that occur elsewhere in the world. Unsurprisingly, we’d like to keep it that way, which means that on arriving at one of our international airports, you and your baggage may be sniffed (by a dog, not a human) to ensure that you’re not bringing in any restricted goods like fresh food and plants. We’re even quite particular about muddy boots and other outdoor gear that might carry pests.
While some products can be brought into the country as long as they’re sealed or dried (or dead), it’s always best to check on the Ministry for Primary Industries website beforehand to see if it’s permitted.
Oh, and one final tip, if you are carrying anything that could be deemed prohibited or restricted, in both hand and checked luggage, make sure that you declare it on your passenger arrival card before landing. Failure to do so could result in an instant fine.
Located at the bottom of the North Island, Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand. It’s a pretty harbour city with a thriving cultural scene and a compact downtown area which makes it perfect for exploring on foot.
But, with a population of around 217,000, Wellington is not New Zealand’s largest city. That honour goes to Auckland, also located on the North Island, it has a population of around 1.7 million – that’s one third of New Zealand’s total population. Since we’re on the subject, you might also be interested in this list of the largest cities in New Zealand by population.
On the South Island, Christchurch is the largest city with a population of just over 392,000. This vibrant city is a gateway to the many adventure activities that the region has to offer.
If you’d like to read more about New Zealand’s different regions and cities and what they have to offer the adventure traveller, check out our top places to visit guide.
The New Zealand Dollar, referred to as NZD or sometimes NZ$, is the official currency. Bank notes are issued in the following denominations: $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Coins are issued in the following denominations: 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, $1 and $2.
You’ll notice that there are no coins smaller than 10 cents so cash rounding / Swedish rounding is applied when retailers play their pricing games like $19.99 – in other words, you won’t get 1c change from a $20 note.
On the subject of notes, while it’s handy to have some cash on you, it’s far more common here in New Zealand to use cards for payment, even for small amounts. Visa and MasterCard is widely supported here and other cards like American Express to a lesser degree.
If you do use your credit or debit card in New Zealand, just bear in mind your card provider’s foreign exchange rates and international transaction fees. You may find that getting a prepaid travel card could be a cheaper option.
When paying for things in shops, you will see references to EFTPOS. That stands for Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale which is essentially a long way of saying ‘yes, you can pay by card’.
Driving in New Zealand
Probably the most important thing you need to know about driving in New Zealand is that we drive on the left hand side of the road. Rental vehicles are generally quite good at having arrows and other signs on the dashboard to remind you of this but if you have any doubt, as a driver, always remember to keep the centreline on your right hand side.
Road conditions in New Zealand can be quite variable, from modern, multi-lane motorways near major cities to narrow twisting roads and steep mountain passes. There is also a significant amount of unsealed/gravel road, particularly as you venture into more remote areas where you’re also likely to encounter livestock and farmers who don’t seem to be in any particular hurry to be anywhere.
Other hazards that you may not be used to include single lane bridges and unprotected railway crossings. The following video will give you a good idea of these and other hazards you might encounter as well as what you can generally expect when driving in New Zealand.
You will of course need a valid driver’s license and if you have a current license from your home country, you can legally drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months. Your licence does however have to be in English or accompanied by an authorised translation. You can read more about New Zealand driver license requirements and road rules here on the New Zealand Transport Agency website.
Also worth mentioning is that there are currently three toll roads in New Zealand, one north of Auckland and two near Tauranga. You can find out more about these roads in our NZTA toll roads guide.
If you’re thinking of bringing your drone to New Zealand to capture some of our amazing scenery from above, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the increasingly strict rules around flying a drone in New Zealand.
A few years ago it was a free for all but now, with the increasing number of drones, particularly around popular tourist areas, authorities are starting to crack down. The reality is that much of what you’re likely to want to film will be on Department of Conservation (DOC) managed land which means you’re legally required to apply and pay for a concession before you fly.
There are also rules and regulations which apply to much of the public land controlled by local district councils and to make things more difficult, the rules can vary from council to council. The bottom line is that unless you’re filming for a specific planned purpose, it almost isn’t worth it.
Yes, you could take a chance and fly without the necessary consent and hope that you don’t get caught but is it worth the fine if you do get caught? And yes, there are more and more cases of pilots being fined here in New Zealand – it does happen.
After all of that, if you’re still thinking about bringing your drone to New Zealand and want to do some more research, a good place to start is this FAQs page on AirShare.
Electricity? Yes, we’ve got some and on the whole, the national grid is very reliable. New Zealand currently generates around 80% of its electricity through renewable sources like hydro and geothermal. If you visit places like Wellington and Raglan, you’ll also spot some large wind farms. And we don’t do nuclear so no chance of a meltdown here.
New Zealand’s electricity supply runs at 230/240 volts and we use three prong plugs with angled live and neutral. If you’re travelling from Australia or some Asian countries, you won’t need a plug adaptor. From countries like the UK, US and others, you will. Bear in mind that your appliance also needs to be rated to work at up to 240 volts. Most hotels and motels will also provide 110 volt ac sockets but these are only rated for small appliances like electric razors.
Unless you live in Australia (hello neighbour), the truth is that you’re going to spend quite a long time flying to New Zealand. There’s no escaping the fact that we’re far away from anywhere, particularly if you’re flying from the UK or anywhere in Europe where even the quickest flights will take you around 24 hours or more.
Our handy Guide to flights and direct flight times to New Zealand is a good place to start as you consider flights. In it we share tips on researching and booking flights and list average flight times to New Zealand from popular countries and cities.
Food & Drink
Whether you’re a serious foodie or simply enjoy a good feed, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to food and drink in New Zealand. Pastoral farming is a major industry and New Zealand is highly regarded for its beef, lamb and venison. It should come as no surprise then that kiwis like their meat, whether it’s in the form of a pie (mmmm… steak & cheese), a sausage or a thick juicy steak on the barbecue.
And don’t be put off if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, there’s ample to choose from, particularly in the cities although you might find your choices a little more limited as you head out into the country. That said, we had our best vegetarian pizza ever at Nikau Cave Cafe, and that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Being an island nation, seafood also plays an important part in New Zealand’s food culture. From oysters in Bluff to crayfish in Kaikoura, whitebait fritters on the West Coast and fresh trout from the lakes. Or you can simply enjoy a good old fashioned fish & chips with snapper, gurnard, tarakihi and hoki being popular catches. Oh, and let’s not forget about fresh, plump green-lipped mussels.
Of course, no visit to New Zealand would be complete without experiencing a traditional Māori Hāngī where wrapped parcels of meat and vegetables are slow cooked on hot rocks buried underground.
Finally, let’s not forget New Zealand’s range of internationally acclaimed wines or our ever-growing selection of craft beers. With names like Epic Hop Zombie, ParrotDog Bitter Bitch and Panhead Supercharger, you know you’re in for a treat.
Feeling hungry and thirsty yet?
These days, no New Zealand travel guide is complete without mentioning Freedom camping. Freedom camping is essentially camping overnight for free on public land that isn’t a recognised camping ground or holiday park, paid or otherwise. Freedom camping has always been popular with kiwis, but if you have this dream of touring around New Zealand in a cheap car or van and parking up for the night wherever you find a nice spot, you’re going to be disappointed.
The increasing number of visitors freedom camping in New Zealand is starting to have a negative impact, particularly in tourist hotspots and areas where local councils are struggling to keep up with the demand for facilities. So much so, that freedom camping has become quite a controversial subject with many locals complaining to authorities.
What this means is that tighter rules and regulations are being implemented and, from personal experience, we can tell you that they are being enforced. If you are still thinking of freedom camping and want to find out more about the rules on how and where you can camp, this official government page is a good place to start.
New Zealand has three official languages, English, Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. English is the predominant language, spoken by over 95% of the population. As you explore New Zealand, you’ll discover areas where the Māori language is more widely spoken, the far North and Tairawhiti for example, but you’ll find that almost all Māori also speak English.
Don’t speak English? We assume that Google Translate hasn’t mangled our words too much, but New Zealand has a diverse immigrant population so don’t be surprised if you encounter a host of different languages from around the world.
Phone & Internet Access
Prior to moving to New Zealand, we lived in the United Kingdom for 10 years where we were used to 100Mbps internet speeds and unlimited data plans. So imagine our surprise when we arrived here to find that fibre was something you got from breakfast cereal and 80GB data plans were considered huge.
Fortunately, internet access has improved significantly over the last few years which has made the internet more accessible to visitors but don’t expect speedy connections unless you’re willing to pay at least something.
Free Wi-Fi networks can be found in the major cities and in some cafes and restaurant chains. You’ll also get free Wi-Fi if you check into most hotels or holiday parks but in some cases that will be quite limited e.g. 250MB free per day after which you need to buy more data.
4G on a pre-pay plan is also an option from one of New Zealand’s three network providers, 2degrees, Spark and Vodafone, assuming of course that you have a mobile phone that is unlocked from your home network provider. That said, 4G coverage can be a little hit and miss the more you head into the countryside.
You’re reading this so chances are you’re like most people who do their travel research online. But once you’re in a country, it’s nice to speak to real people in person who can offer help and local advice.
There are currently over 80 i-SITE visitor information centres throughout New Zealand. You will find them at our main airports, in major cities and in popular towns and the staff will be able to help you with local information on transport, accommodation and activities. They can also help you with bookings nationwide.
i-SITE offices are typically quite central and can also serve as pick up/drop off points for national bus and coach services as well as local tour operators.
To find your nearest office, just search i-SITE online and look out for the logo if you’re nearby.
Visas & Immigration
As you would expect when visiting any foreign country, you will need a valid passport to enter New Zealand and it will need to be valid for at least three months beyond your intended departure date.
That’s the relatively straightforward part. What’s not so straightforward is knowing whether or not you actually need to apply for a visa before you travel, and if you do, what visa applies based on how long you intend to stay and what you intend on doing while in the country.
Fortunately, New Zealand Immigration has a really handy online tool that will help you find and compare visas based on just a few simple questions. If you’re unsure about New Zealand visa requirements, this tool is a good place to start.
No New Zealand travel guide would be complete without mentioning the weather. If you haven’t already heard it, at some point in your visit you will hear somebody use the phrase “Four seasons in one day”. That should give you some idea of what to expect when it comes to our weather. We cover the seasons and weather in some detail in our article Choosing the best time to visit New Zealand but you may also be interested to know which part of New Zealand has the best weather.