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Driving in Finland

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

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.

Prepare[edit]

From February 2018, driving licences of all countries for ordinary cars are officially accepted in Finland. The only requirement is that the licence is in a European language or you have an official translation of it to Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, English or French. This applies to driving licences similar to Finnish classes A and B, for heavy duty vehicles like buses or lorries only some licences are accepted.

If you are going to drive in winter conditions you should check that you and your car can handle them. Winter tyres are compulsory from December to February; expect the odd snowfall or freezing night October-April even in the south. Snow in the south in September and 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: the deadline is the same day as the car's first date of use unless the registration form says 00.00.xx in first date of use. In that case, which is common only for very old cars, the inspection date is determined by the last number of the license plate. All cars must pass emissions testing and precise tests of brakes etc.

Get in[edit]

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 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 quarantaine.

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, 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.

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, Kelloselkä (Salla, from Kandalaksha) and Raja-Jooseppi/Lotta (Inari, from Murmansk). There is also a cruise ferry from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki.

Roads[edit]

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

Main roads hold the same standards as in Western Europe in general. 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 roads are undivided 2-lane roads.

All highways (numbered 1–99) are paved, as are most regional roads (numbered 100–999), while local roads (with four numbers or no numbers at all) aren't nearly always paved, especially in sparsely populated areas.

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.

Costs[edit]

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 showed very visibly on high poles at petrol stations.

There are no toll roads in Finland.

Car rental is expensive, with rates generally upwards of €80/day, although rates go down for longer rentals.

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

Rules[edit]

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

  • Headlights or DRLs are mandatory even during daylight. Most choose to use headlights at all times. New cars usually come with headlight- and DRL-related automatics which do not always work properly. This is especially true in the Finnish winter – without visually verifying the lights around your car you could be driving without any tail lights in a blizzard with vehicles approaching you from the behind in highway speeds.
  • 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 an inverted triangle). 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 always illegal. Instead, 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, cars turning to that direction have guaranteed right of way (i.e. 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 8 AM to 4 PM. These are common in parking spaces, but some lanes may be reserved for e.g. bus traffic during certain hours only. If the numbers for Saturdays and Sundays are absent, the sign 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, if a pedestrian intends to cross the road – and when another car has stopped, regardless of whether or not there is a pedestrian, in a similar manner as if there were a stop sign. 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 by 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.
Default speed limits, as signed at the border

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.

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 $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.

Cope[edit]

National road 192 in Masku covered by ice and snow

Winter driving can be somewhat risky, especially for drivers unused to cold weather conditions. Winter tyres are mandatory from 1 December through the end of February and studded tyres allowed from November 1st to after Easter, and "when circumstances require", with a liberal interpretation. While traction tires or mud+snow (M+S) tires fulfill the legal requirement, most cars are actually equipped with proper steel-studded tyres, which allow more dynamic driving and shorter braking distances on frozen surfaces. The most dangerous weather is in fact around the zero degree mark (°C), 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.

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.

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 24h), 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.

As elsewhere in EU ethanol is added to the petrol, 10% to 95-octan and 5% to 98-octan petrol. Some (old) engines do not like high ethanol content.

Stay safe[edit]

Finnish driving culture is not too hazardous and driving is generally quite safe.

Animal collisions with deer, moose and reindeer are a main risk factor in Finland, particularly at dawn and dusk. Collisions with moose (frequently lethal) are common countrywide, deer (mostly survivable) cause numerous collisions in the southern and south-western parts of the country, and semi-domesticated reindeer are a common cause of accidents in Lapland. Bear collisions happen sometimes 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.

Winter driving can be difficult in Finland, especially when snow falls, and the plough vehicles need to clear the roads. Also watch out for invisible black ice, humidity freezing on the road surface under some circumstances.

Itineraries[edit]

See also[edit]

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