Driving in the Nordic countries
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Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union. Outside the major cities, driving is usually the most practical way to get around. Traffic is safe, speed is modest and most roads have little traffic. Drivers should allow plenty of time for the drive and for frequent sightseeing stops. Long distances, particularly in the south-north direction, means that driving takes time. A drive along the full extent of national road 4 (E75) takes 15 hours.

Most places in the Finnish countryside are easiest to reach by car.

In Helsinki, roads and streets are congested in rush hours, many streets are one-way, making navigation difficult, and parking is scarce and expensive. In addition, don't count on all lanes being available, but cut off by frequent road, tram track and public utility works, and building renovations where the adjacent lane is blocked. Not perhaps to the degree of major cities elsewhere, but enough that your main worry should be how to get rid of your car. Most families here don't have one, instead relying on public transport when not walking.

Also in and between other major cities, the public transport is mostly adequate, and there may be problems with congestion and parking, although not as severe as in Helsinki.

PrepareEdit

See also: Driving in Europe

From February 2018, driving licences from abroad are generally accepted in Finland. EU/EEA licences are valid as such. Most other licences are valid for tourists driving motorcycles or normal cars (Finnish class A and B, not heavy-duty vehicles like buses or lorries) given they are in a Latin script or translated into Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, English, German or French by a reliable party. Minimum driving age is 18.

If you are going to drive in winter conditions you should check that you and your car can handle them. Winter tyres are compulsory November–March when road conditions require them. Studded winter tyres are allowed (for normal cars, not heavy vehicles) November–March and "when circumstances require", with a liberal interpretation, such as in soon being en route to wintry Lapland. Expect the odd snowfall or freezing night October–April even in the south. Snow in the south in September or May is unlikely, but has happened. If you come in early autumn or late spring, you might just decide to leave the car parked if there is snow or black ice, but do that decision beforehand, so that you are not tempted to drive anyway without preparation. And make sure you note if there have been low temperatures in the night, or might be when you have to catch your plane.

Foreign-registered cars can be used in Finland for a limited time – registering it locally involves paying a substantial tax to equalize the price to Finnish levels. They need either an EU registration plate or a nationality sticker.

If you opt to buy a car in Finland, make sure it has all annual taxes paid, check when its next formal inspection is due (emissions, brakes, lights, general condition etc.) and buy the compulsory insurance.

Those travelling by motorbike, moped, snowmobile or similar, including passengers, are required to wear helmets. Bikers are generally required to wear one also, but violating that rule is mostly ignored by the police. For motorised vehicles counted as bikes, such as some electric mopeds, enforcement may be stricter.

Get inEdit

 
Boarding the ferry in Stockholm

As Finland, Estonia, Germany, Norway and Sweden are part of the Schengen area, the borders between these countries are in theory open. The ferries, however, impose passport or ID checks, to avoid liabilities for people from outside EU/EEA without right to enter, and the customs sometimes have checks. The land borders to Sweden and Norway are usually open also in practice, with customs stations on the Norwegian border for those wanting to declare some goods. In COVID-19 times passing is more controlled and mostly allowed only in the day.

Those travelling with pets should check requirements. There are a few serious diseases that border authorities do their best to keep at bay, and you don't want your pet to be put in quarantine.

From Schengen countriesEdit

From Sweden there are car ferries from the Stockholm region to Åland, Turku, Hanko and Helsinki and from Umeå to Vaasa. In the north the border is along the river Tornionjoki and its tributaries, with several bridges.

The ferries from Sweden are useful also when coming from Norway, by E18 from central and southern Norway via the Stockholm region, and by E12 (the Blue Highway) from Mo i Rana via Umeå. E10 is useful when coming from the Lofoten area (change roads at Överkalix, Morjärv or Töre to get to Finland). From Troms and Finnmark there are border crossings at Kilpisjärvi (useful from Tromsø), Kivilompolo (near Hetta, when coming via Kautokeino), Karigasniemi (via Karasjok), Utsjoki, Nuorgam (via Tana bru) and Näätämö (from Kirkenes).

From Estonia there is massive ferry traffic between Tallinn and Helsinki and some connections to Åland (on the Estonia-Sweden ferries). There are also car ferries from Germany to Helsinki.

FerriesEdit

The ferries from Umeå and Tallinn to Vaasa and Helsinki are mostly day services, to Turku you can choose between day and night ferries, while the ferries from Stockholm to Helsinki leave in the afternoon and arrive late in the morning. The ones from Germany travel one or two nights. Most of the services are on cruise ferries with shopping and entertainment on board, while a few from Kapellskär in the Stockholm region and the ones from Germany are more quiet ordinary ropax ferries, with main focus on lorries, trailers and drivers, but also some facilities for families.

From RussiaEdit

The border to Russia is regulated, with nine border crossings for cars (and one for trains) along the 1,340-km-long border. The southernmost five used to be open around the clock, the four further north only in daytime, check opening hours; the Russian war on Ukraine may affect the crossings. The border crossings from Russia are at Vaalimaa/Torfyanovka near Hamina on E18 from Saint Petersburg via Vyborg, Nuijamaa/Brusnichnoye (Lappeenranta), Imatra/Svetogorsk (Enso), Niirala (Tohmajärvi, near Joensuu), Vartius (Kuhmo, from Kostomuksha), Kuusamo (from northern Russian Karelia), Kelloselkä (Salla, from Kandalaksha) and Raja-Jooseppi/Lotta (Inari, from Murmansk). There may also be a cruise ferry from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki.

RoadsEdit

 
Highway 5, a typical two-lane road. Junction and coach stop on the right-hand side.

Main roads hold the same standards as in Western Europe in general. The first part of major highways raying out from Helsinki are motorways/freeways/expressways (divided, controlled access, with four or more lanes), as are some highways around bigger cities (e.g. Highway 4 north and south of Oulu) and in practice all of E18 along the south coast, but otherwise also highways are usually undivided 2-lane roads.

All highways (numbered 1–99) are paved, as are most regional roads (numbered 100–999), while local roads (with seldom used four-digit numbers or no numbers at all) may be gravel, especially in sparsely populated areas. There may be problems with washboarding and potholes on the local roads, but they should still be drivable with any car. The smallest roads on the other hand, such as the last kilometres to a private cottage, can be in any condition: perfectly paved, gravel, or stony and potholed ones requiring high clearance. In winter many roads for forestry, cottages and hiking destinations may be unmaintained and covered in deep snow.

The European routes (E4, E8, E12, E18, E45, E63 and E75) are signposted as such, but also by their national road numbers like other roads. Addresses use the name of the road, which for the main roads often is signposted only in urban areas. The national numbers of main national roads are well-known, the European numbers less so, the names mainly known by locals (and may be used for other roads in other municipalities).

Main roads are usually fairly well maintained. Lower classed roads may to some extent suffer from cracks and potholes, and warnings about irregularities in the pavement of these roads are seldom posted. A major reason for these is frost heaving and therefore these issues are more prevalent in the spring when snow and ice melts and their effects during the winter is revealed. Sometimes the damage gets repaired in the summer, but not always.

Fintraffic maintains info on road conditions. Incidents are described in Finnish only, but road conditions along main roads are colour coded. The service includes camera footage on highways and some information also on minor roads, such as whether ice roads are open. The information is given on best effort basis, some of it may be susceptible to disruption and should not be relied on.

RulesEdit

A new law on traffic came into force in June 2020. Some traffic signs and road markings changed (nominally; different markings will be changed in 2–10 years), as well as some rules. The differences are minor from a foreigners' viewpoint, but don't trust advice that might not have gotten updated, and don't get upset or confused if you have been told something that is not true any more (e.g. winter tyres are obligatory only when the conditions require them, regardless of dates – conditions however require them most of the time they were mandatory, except perhaps on major roads in the south).

Åland has its own traffic laws. Winter tyres are compulsory December–February and parking on the left side of a bidirectional road is not allowed. The other differences should not cause problems. Speed limits are 50, 70 or 90 km/h.

 
Paid parking M–F 08:00–17:00 and Sa 10:00–15:00, parking is free in nights and on Sundays.

Traffic drives on the right. A few unusual or unobvious rules to be aware of:

  • Headlights or DRLs are mandatory even during daylight.
  • Always give way to the right, unless signed otherwise. The concept of minor road refers only to exits from parking lots and similar, so this applies even to smaller roads on your right. Almost all intersections are explicitly signposted with yield signs (either the stop sign or a give way sign). Usually only highways are explicitly marked with priority signs, so most roads with priority go unmarked; instead, watch for the back of the yield sign on the other road.
  • Turning right on red in traffic lights is illegal unless explicitly allowed; this means a separate lane with a yield sign – the unlit green arrow you may see in Germany for example is not used. Intersections may have two sets of traffic lights, one with regular circular lights and the other displaying arrows instead. If a green arrow is lit, also the pedestrian crossing has a red light.
  • White lights are used at railway crossings instead of green. White arrows are for buses and trams only.
  • Signs use the following shorthand: white or black numbers are for Mondays to Fridays, white/black numbers in parentheses for Saturdays and red numbers for Sundays and holidays; "8–16" in white/black means weekdays 08:00 to 16:00. These are common in parking spaces, but also used e.g. when some lanes are reserved for bus traffic during rush hours. If the numbers for Saturdays and Sundays are absent, the sign (or an additional panel, as in the case of parking meters) does not apply on weekends at all.
  • Trams always have the right of way. You may encounter these in Helsinki, and since August 2021 in Tampere. Collisions do a "surprising amount of damage". Don't get into arguments with a vehicle that can't change direction and weighs as much as a small battle tank.
  • Vehicles are required by law to stop at zebra crossings, when a pedestrian intends to cross the road – and when another car has stopped, regardless of whether or not you can see any pedestrian, similarly as if there were a stop sign, and to slow down enough to be able to stop in case. Most pedestrians "intend" to cross the road only when there is a sufficiently large gap in the traffic. Being polite and stopping anyway can create a dangerous situation, when the car behind on the next lane does not recognize the pedestrian and goes by without stopping. Watch the mirrors and be ready to blow the horn.
  • Circular traffic can be rather complex. For example, in one spot, two new lanes are created while the outer lane is suddenly forced to exit. This creates a difficult situation, when the lanes are covered with snow. Luckily this problem is confined to a couple of bigger (and older) intersections in cities.
  • Using seat belts is mandatory. Children of less than 135 cm must use appropriate devices (the requirement is waived for taxis, except for children under 3 years of age).
  • Mobile phones may not be used without hands-free equipment while driving. If the police thinks anything you do is distracting you from the traffic, they may fine you.
 
Default speed limits, as signed at the border

Speed limits default to 50 km/h (30 mph) in towns and villages – note the "town" signs – 80 km/h (50 mph) on country roads and 120 km/h (75 mph) on motorways, but 40 or 30 km/h zones are common in cities, 60 km/h (37 mph) common near villages and 100 km/h (62 mph) the most common speed limit on motorways. From around mid-October to April, speed limits on motorways are lowered to 100 km/h and most 100 km/h limits are lowered to 80 km/h. In many places, such as built-up areas, major junctions, road construction sites or even for no apparent reason (often a village or school not seen from the road), lower speed limits are posted. Speed cameras of different kinds are a fairly common occurrence.

Where minor roads default to 80 km/h or, especially, when that speed limit is told explicitly with an additional sign saying yleisrajoitus or allmän begränsning ("general limit") – use your judgement. Often you need to be a rally driver in a rally car to keep that speed on these roads characterized by curves, potholes and/or lack of pavement, while you never know what is behind the next turn. On highways the traffic usually flows speeding a few km/h (most drivers know the exact leeway given by the police). As anywhere, if a queue is forming after you, stop at a suitable place to allow them passing. Using the shoulder, marked with an unbroken line, is usually not allowed. Likewise, an unbroken (double) centre line may not be crossed for overtaking. If it is broken on your side overtaking is allowed, as long as you can return to your side in time.

Advisory speed limits (square signs with blue background) are sometimes used at dangerous bends and similar and should be taken very seriously: ignoring them will likely have you off the road. Sometimes they can be found where risk for elk or deer is exceptionally severe, in combination with the warning sign. Since 2020 there are also blue round signs giving a minimum speed to be maintained in normal conditions, in practice mostly forbidding slow vehicles.

Finnish fines for endangerment of traffic (such as speeding 20 km/h over the limit) are based on income, so don't ignore the risk even if you have high incomes: a Nokia VP who'd cashed in some stock options the previous year was once hit for €200,000!

Software for GPS navigators that warns of fixed safety cameras is legal and installed by default in many mobile phones. Warning signs before fixed cameras (usually at the start of the supervised road) are required by law. Radar detectors, however, are illegal and are often confiscated by customs.

A blood alcohol level of over 0.05 % is considered drunk driving and 0.12 % as aggravated drunk driving, so think twice before drinking that second beer. Finnish police strictly enforce this by random roadblocks and sobriety tests. The sobriety test is done with a handheld breath alcohol tester and there is no practical way to refuse it.

CopeEdit

VR's overnight car carrier trains are popular for skipping the long slog from Helsinki up to Lapland and getting a good night's sleep instead: a HelsinkiRovaniemi trip (one way) with car and cabin for 1–3 people starts from €215. The loading sites are Helsinki (Pasila), Tampere, Turku, Oulu, Rovaniemi, Kemijärvi and Kolari. Only some of the trains take cars, and only some combinations of departure and destination station are possible. The cars must usually be ready to be loaded an hour or so before departure. Usually you drive your car aboard yourself. The biggest cars do not fit, know your dimensions and check!

If you are going to rent a car in some of the more sparsely populated regions you should probably reserve a car in advance. The offerings may be very limited and the rental firm may have nobody there unless they know you are coming.

Most camping grounds cater to motor homes as well as caravans, and camping with tents. Some have small cabins for rent.

There are rest stops on major and some minor roads.

Space on ferries vary. Coming to Finland by ferry in summer with a motorhome or caravan, book in time. Road ferries should be no major problem, although some passages have queues of several hours in the worst times, such as before and after Midsummer. On the other archipelago ferries, there is often space only for a few cars, you might want to call in advance to hear whether a reservation is recommended, or whether there are some specific times you should avoid.

CostsEdit

As for most EU countries, driving is rather expensive in Finland, with petrol/gasoline around €1.50 a litre (rising above €2 in 2022, i.e. €7.6/US gallon), and diesel normally 10–20 cents or so below. Prices are shown very visibly on high poles at petrol stations.

There are no toll roads in Finland.

Parking is expensive in the centres of big cities, sometimes only payable by card or app.

Car hireEdit

Car hire is expensive, so visitors should consider for how many days and what part of the trip a car is needed; rates are generally upwards of €80/day, although rates go down for longer rentals. A compact car with a moderate engine is often much cheaper than a heavy SUV with a big engine. There is no need for a big 4-wheel drive as driving off-road is not allowed without permission.

As always, check the fine print if you are going to use minor country roads or ice roads. For cabins off the beaten track, some cars may not have enough clearance.

There are a few companies that offer car hire by app or web. Some require a drivers licence they can check automatically, in practice probably a Finnish one. As these do not check cars between rentals, make sure to take photos before using the car (24rent requires saving them 30 days). They may also require your cleaning the car, checking oil, air pressure etc. and filling up consumables, whether included in the price or not.

  • 24 Rental Network (24go, 24rent, gonow). In the major cities. Cars can be picked up and dropped off in select public car parks 24 hr/daily. Pay by hour or minute, no multi-day rentals without specific agreement. Different terms at 24Go and 24Rent. 24go: by minute, €30/hr driving, €6/hr while parked.
  • Aimo Park. Electric cars for short-time hire (max 2 days or by agreement). Finnish driving licence required; to register, use "Aimosharing2022" as "join code". Terms and conditions are in Finnish only, but check them, there are some odd clauses, such as about locking the car and charging it. Filling up and similar service has to be done by the customer as needed in paid hire time. Availability of a reserved car is not guaranteed, nor that it is in usable condition, such as charged. €6/30 min; €84/24 hr.
  • GoMore. GoMore’s platform offers private car owners the opportunity to rent cars safely to other members who have signed up for the service.
  • Camptoo. On the Camptoo service platform, ordinary owners of caravans and motorhomes rent their vehicle to tourists when it would otherwise be unused for a longer period of time.

The app based firms are mainly for locals - in addition to these the global rental companies you can find all over the world are present at least in Helsinki. As you probably want a car for several days, the ordinary car renting firms probably offer better prices and a wider range of options. Additionally, having somebody to talk to is an advantage.

FuelEdit

 
A Neste petrol station

Few petrol stations offer service, other than many having a shop and café with food. Filling is (except at some Shell stations) self-service, using a credit or debit card or banknotes, but if the station is staffed it might also be possible to fill up first and then pay indoors at the cashier. If you are driving at night when the petrol stations are closed (they usually close at 21:00 – though big stations, especially along major highways, may be open 24 hr daily), always remember to bring some banknotes for fuel, just in case. Cash payments are phased out, you should be fine with credit cards in almost all cases. In the sparsely-populated areas of the country, distances of 50 km and more between filling stations are not unheard of, so don't gamble unnecessarily with those last litres of fuel.

Standard fuel in Finland are 95 octane petrol (gasoline; Finnish: bensiini, Swedish: bensin), diesel, and E85, an ethanol fuel blend of 85% ethanol and 15% petrol. Prices for petrol and diesel are high due to taxation, higher than average in Europe (but cheaper than in Norway). 98 octane petrol is also available on some filling stations. As elsewhere in EU ethanol (etanoli/etanol) is added to the petrol, 10% to 95-octan and 5% to 98-octan petrol. Some (old) engines do not like high ethanol content.

Natural gas (maakaasu/naturgas) is available at 34 stations, and there are public charging stations (latauspiste) for electric cars in most of the country.

Stay safeEdit

See also: Winter driving, Animal collisions

Finnish driving culture is not too hazardous and driving is generally quite safe, although moderate speeding is common on highways. Fatality rates have been steadily falling for decades. Regulations are strictly enforced (notably drinking, speeding and risky overtaking) and speed limits are modest to maintain safe traffic. Speed limits on bigger roads are fine-tuned to conditions, so there is always a reason for the chosen speed limit and this is one of the key reasons for the safe traffic in Finland.

Be careful at railway crossings on remote countryside roads: not all of them have barriers and lights, but there may still be a train approaching behind the wood in 140 kilometres per hour (90 mph).

WinterEdit

 
National road 192 in Masku covered by ice and snow. The evergreen spruces have lost their colour in the haze.

Driving a car in winter conditions may be a real challenge without proper training and experience. The golden rule for driving on snow, ice and slush: don't rush. Braking distance increases dramatically, increase distance to the car in front of you from the standard 3 seconds to a 5–6 seconds or more. Inexperienced drivers should drive very carefully until they get used to the conditions and the car.

Winter tyres are not mandatory any more unless circumstances require them – but they will be required most of the winter, at least on some roads. Other cars will have winter tyres when needed, so you mostly cannot keep a slower speed to compensate for lack of traction, which means you will be off the road in minutes if you encounter slush, snow or ice. Keep your car parked instead of ending up in a ditch.

The change was made because streets and major roads in southern Finland may be dry and good for much of the winter. Locals with two cars can share the one with winter tyres when needed, those not changing on their only car will take the bus instead – but you probably don't have the luxury of just leaving your car to wait for the spring.

Proper Nordic winter tyres are much better than "mud+snow" (M+S) tyres, as they stay soft enough also in cold weather. Most cars use steel-studded tyres, which allow more dynamic driving and shorter braking distances on smooth icy surfaces, while non-studded winter tyres fare equally well in snow. The tread depth must be at least 3.0 mm on normal cars (more for heavy vehicles).

Having winter tyres does not mean you can drive as in summer, they just give you a sporting chance to stay on the road in highway speeds when you unexpectedly hit black ice or built-up snow between lanes, or otherwise start to slide. The most important advice for such situations is: don't try to brake or turn! You have to gain control first.

The most dangerous weather is around freezing (0 °C, 32°F), when slippery but near-invisible black ice forms on the roads, and on the first day of the cold season, which can catch drivers by surprise. Slush and snow, such as "ridges" between lanes, are also a danger. Finnish cars often come equipped with an engine block heater (lohkolämmitin) used to preheat the engine and possibly the interior of the car beforehand, and many parking places have electric outlets to feed them (ask before using them, as there may be specific rules). Liikenneturva, the Finnish road safety agency, maintains a "Tips for difficult road conditions" page in English. Always bring enough clothes and food, always calculate plenty of time. Be prepared to cancel or postpone trips in winter.

Animal collisionsEdit

 
Two hazards; reindeer on an icy highway

Animal collisions with deer, moose and reindeer are a main risk factor in Finland, particularly at dawn and dusk. The biggest roads normally have fences against wild animals, but there are gaps, and the smaller roads do not. Collisions with moose (frequently lethal) are common countrywide, deer (mostly survivable) cause numerous collisions in the southern and south-western parts of the country. In Lapland you will also have to watch out for semi-domesticated reindeer. They usually travel in herds. Always slow down until all of them have passed as they may suddenly regroup in front of the car. Reindeer will choose themselves where to leave the road, following the road to the next level place at the roadside and then disappear into the wilderness. Bear collisions sometimes happen in eastern parts of the country, and boar collisions in the south.

Try to pass the rear end of the animal to let it escape forward. Call the emergency service (112) to report accidents even if you are OK, as the animal may be injured (the police will call local hunters or reindeer handlers to track it). If you hit a bear or boar, avoid getting out of the car, as it may attack.

Be extra careful to wild animals on the roads under these circumstances:

  • Sunrise/sunset.
  • Springtime (as moose reject last year's calves and give birth to new ones).
  • Moose hunting season in early October.
  • Edge of forests.
  • Bridges across streams.

In some cases there are fences along part of the road and then the fences stop for the purpose of letting the animals pass. In such cases and in other places where wild animals are often seen there are normally warning signs.

These animals are mostly moving at dusk and dawn. While driving along lakes be especially observant as animals go for drinks at the lakes. Also, if driving in the hunting season, the wild animals might be scared by hunting parties and move around more than usual.

CrimeEdit

While Finland has a low crime rate, car burglaries are not unheard of, especially in cities. Avoid leaving valuables in the car.

ItinerariesEdit

See alsoEdit

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