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 of 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 road E75 takes 15 hours.
In Helsinki, roads and streets are congested in rush hours, many streets are one-way, making navigation difficult, and parking is scarce and expensive. 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.
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 source.
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. 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.
If you opt to buy a car in Finland, make sure it has all annual taxes paid and check when its next annual inspection is due. All cars must pass emissions testing and precise tests of brakes etc.
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 open also in practice, with customs stations on the Norwegian border for those wanting to declare some goods.
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 Sweden there are car ferries from the Stockholm region to Åland, Turku 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. In the north 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, some connections to Åland, and possibly one to Hanko. There are also car ferries from Germany to Helsinki.
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.
The border to Russia is regulated, with eight border crossings for cars (and one for trains) along the 1,340-km-long border. The southernmost four are open around the clock, the four further north only in daytime. The border crossings from Russia are at Vaalimaa/Torfyanovka near Hamina on E18 from Saint Petersburg via Vyborg, Nuijamaa/Brusnichnoye (Lappeenranta), 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 is also a cruise ferry from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki.
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 (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 most 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) aren't nearly always paved, especially in sparsely populated areas.
The European routes (such as E8, E12, E18 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.
Vehicle and gearEdit
By motor home or camper vanEdit
Most campgrounds cater to motor homes as well as caravans, or camping with tents. Some have small cabins for rent.
There are rest stops on major and some minor roads.
As for most EU countries, driving is rather expensive in Finland, with petrol/gasoline around €1.50 a litre, and diesel 10–20 cents or so below. Prices are shown very visibly on high poles at petrol stations.
Renting a car 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.
There are no toll roads in Finland.
Parking is expensive in the centres of big cities, sometimes only payable by card or app.
A new law on traffic came into force from June 2020. Some traffic signs and road markings changed (nominally; it will take a long time until they are physically changed), 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 anymore (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).
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. 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.
- 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 certain hours only. 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. 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 lines are covered with snow.
- Using seat belts is mandatory. Children of less than 135 cm must use appropriate devices (except when "temporary" travelling in the car, such as in taxis).
- Mobile phones may not be used without hands-free equipment while driving. Other distractions are treated alike.
Speed limits default to 50 km/h (31 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, use your judgement. Often you need to be a rally driver to keep that speed, 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.
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 US$204,000!
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.
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 Helsinki–Rovaniemi 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.
Few petrol stations offer service, other than many having a shop and café with food. Filling is 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), always remember to bring some money for fuel. Automated fuel pumps in Finland in rare occasions do not accept foreign visa/credit cards, but you can pay with euro notes. 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. 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.
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.
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 anymore unless circumstances require them. Unless you know what driving in winter conditions with summer tyres means, you should not try getting away with summer tyres in winter. 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.
The legal definition on winter tyres is based on tread depth, but 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.
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 the zero degree mark (°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. 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 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 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:
- 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.
While Finland has a low crime rate, car burglaries are not unheard of, especially in cities. Avoid leaving valuables in the car.