Driving in Finland: some tips for American drivers

26. March 2016 Visiting Finland 0

Anyone who has traveled outside of the United States a lot knows that driving in a foreign country can range from very easy to dangerously difficult. Finland falls squarely into the very easy end of the range, but there are some sticking points that I would like to discuss that I believe can help Americans who have just started driving in Finland or are about to. To begin, Americans can drive in Finland for up to two years without needing any special paperwork or a Finnish drivers license. So that makes it quite easy to rent a car and visit the country. However, I do recommend that before you start driving in Finland you take a look at Finnish roads signs. Let’s jump right into some things about driving in Finland that may be an issue for Americans.

#1: Lane Lines

Road lines

In Finland most lane lines separating the lanes of traffic are white. Just like the United States a solid line means do not pass and a dotted line means you can pass with caution. No issue there. However, on nearly all roads the lines are only white; both the line separating the lanes of traffic and the edge line marking breakdown lane or the edge of the road. See the Google Street View picture above. This is different than most roads in the United States where center lines dividing traffic traveling in different directions are yellow and lines separating lanes going in the same direction are white. There are some places in Finland, normally close to city centers, where yellow is used on the center line, but white is much more common. If you are not careful you may think that a two-way road is a one-way road with two lanes. Of course oncoming traffic can quickly change your perspective, but roads in Finland are not crowded and you could drive for a long time without seeing another vehicle. So really pay attention to street signs, and how many lanes there are. Since most roads in Finland are two-way country roads it is pretty safe to assume that if you are not in a city or on a highway the road is two-way.

#2: Snowy Roads and No Salt

Snowy Roads

Of course winter driving had to work its way into this discussion, because, well, we are talking about Finland. I grew up in the northern United States and came to Finland very experienced at driving in wintery conditions, but somethings are different here and which you will need to consider while driving between December and April. A few years ago, Finland stopped using salt on all but the biggest roads in an effort to cut down on the salt entering the country’s aquafer. I have heard that salt entering the water was a very real concern and it is easy to image how decades of salting could affect Finland tens of thousands of lakes, etc. So in most cases you will be driving on roads that are not completely clear of snow or ice and this is not just because Finland doesn’t use much salt. When the weather drops well below 0F, salt stops working anyway and temperatures that low are common in Finland. So since salt is off the table for most roads and cold weather can render it useless anyway gravel and sand are used a lot. This means that roads are slippery most of the winter, especially in the country side.

So, what is one to do about it? My recommendation is to put good studded winter tires on your car if you are planning on driving a lot. Most people in Finland do and I think it is best to follow the locals on this. One thing to note though is that studded tires are better on ice and worse on snow that friction tires, so adjust your driving accordingly. Lastly, always test the roads by braking once in a while to see how slippery they are. Finns are good drivers and you won’t have to worry about them driving badly in snow. They have done it their whole life and the upside to the winter roads here is that Finland produces many great rally car drivers.

#3: Traffic Lights

Traffic Lights in FinlandTraffic lights in Finland are basically the same as in the United States with two exceptions. First, I find them to be much smaller than at home. They have a saying in Finland that everything is bigger in America and maybe that is true, at least for traffic lights. I think it follows that smaller traffic lights mean they are not as visible, but that could just be me. Second, the center yellow light is used both when the light is about to turn red AND when it is about to turn green. I like this a lot, because it lets you know when you should get ready to move. Personally, I hate it when people take forever to realize that a red light has turned to green. I think the yellow light before the green light helps alert those drivers who apparently have all of the time in the world to sit around.

#4: Some Confusing or Unfamiliar Road Signs

Let’s start with some signs that are very important and totally foreign to American drivers. First up, the “built up area” signs.

Built up area road signThe two signs above are on every road entering and leaving a built up area, normally a town center of city. The first sign, means that you are coming into a built up area and the second sign that you are leave one. When you see the built-up area sign it also means that the speed limit is automatically set at 50 k/h unless otherwise marked. When you see the end of built-up area sign it means that the speed limit returns to normal or as marked. This can be hard to get used to for Americans. Our eyes are trained to look for specific speed limit signs of a certain shape, color, and text. The fact this the above signs don’t have a speed limit number on them can make them easy to ignore if you are not careful. They are very important though and you do not want to get a speeding ticket in Finland as it could set you back quite a bit in cash. See my post about speeding tickets in Finland for more on that.

Next we have the confusing no standing/parking signs.

Parking Signs in Finland

These two signs caught me off guard many times in Finland. They are normally posted at the corners of streets in cities or towns. When I see these two signs my brain tells me, “stop” and “do no enter” Do not enter signwhen in fact the signs have much more benign meanings. The one on the left simply means you cannot park or leave your car standing on the side of the road where the sign is posted. The one on the right is a simple do not park sign and is again specific to the side of the road it is on. So when you see these two signs feel free to drive on that street, just make sure of the parking rules if you are planning on parking. Just as an FYI, the do no enter/no entry sign in Finland is the same as in the United States as shown.

#5: Bus and Tramway Lanes

Public Transit Lanes

If you will be driving a lot in Finland’s cities, you should be aware of the bus and tramway lanes. Although in some place you can drive on them, I recommend that you just stay out of the tramway lanes whenever possible. The bus or public transportation lanes are designated for public transportation, including taxis. As a rule, you are not supposed to drive in these lanes unless you need to get into them to make a turn. It is pretty straight forward. Don’t use the public transportation lanes until you need to turn. Of course be sure to give yourself time to get over. As was mentioned above, snow and ice can often be on the roads and this may cover the markings on the lane that would otherwise let you know that it is public transportation lane.  However, these lanes are also marked by signs. See above.

#6: Cyclists

In cities is can sometimes appear that more people are riding bicycles than are driving cars and cyclist in Finland ride aggressively. They are so common that they assume drivers are looking for them and are following traffic rules. Because of this it is very important that you always be watching for cyclists. If you hit someone, it is almost certainly going to be your fault when the police arrive. Just like in the United States the place you are most likely to encounter a cyclist is at an intersection or crosswalk. If they have the right of way (for example, if they have a walk light at a crosswalk) it appears to me that they always assume you will stop as of course you should. I used to cycle to work in Washington, DC and it was a very different situation. Drivers were crazy and cyclists were for the most part cautious about being hit, if not always safe. In Finland cyclists are very sure that drivers won’t hit them. So just be aware and alert, they are everywhere.

#7: School Children

In the same way that you should be on the lookout for cyclists, be on the lookout for school children. In Finland children are not picked up for school by school busses in the same way they are in the United States. They normally, walk to school, take a public bus, or in some cases are driven by taxi if the person lives quite far from the school, but it all depends on age and distance. The Finnish school system is a topic for another post, but what is important is that you will have tons of children of all ages walking to and from school every day. Children are not known for always having a keen sense of their surroundings so drivers must be careful to watch for children, especially at crossings. To make matters worse, the time of day that children leave for and return to school coincides with a time when Finland is dark during the winter in the mornings and evenings. Recently a lot has been done to make sure that children are not hit, including all children wearing reflectors, but you as the driver must be watching for them. This phenomenon is something that we simply do not have in the United States and can be surprising are first. Despite all of this, I think it is great that kids walk everywhere in Finland alone, because it is good exercise and it shows how safe the country is for children.


Compared to driving in many countries, driving in Finland is safe and easy. The roads are in good condition and the rules make sense. Even better most Finns follow the traffic rules religiously (a lesson for us all). For Americans, we can adjust very quickly to driving in Finland if we pay attention to the few things that are different. Drive safe and enjoy Finland!



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