Things to Know About New Zealand: A Guide to the Practical and Quirky

There is a whole list of things I was wondering about New Zealand before I arrived. Mostly the practical stuff like the time difference, climate, currency, etc. Then there are all the little quirky things I’ve learned since I’ve arrived that I wasn’t wondering about at all.

Here’s a breakdown of all useful and quirky things to know about New Zealand.

Practical Things to Know About New Zealand

Time Difference

There are 2 time zones. New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) and Chatham Standard Time (CHAST).

New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) is GMT+13. So, if you are on the East Coast of the United States, the time in NZ will be 18 hours ahead. Example: 10:30 AM on Monday in Boston, MA = 4:30 AM on Tuesday in Wellington, NZ.

For a couple weeks in March/April, when the US ends Daylight Savings earlier than anyone else, New Zealand is ahead by one less hour. It goes back to the regular 18 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST) when Daylight Savings ends in NZ on the first Sunday of April.

Chatham Standard Time is +45 minutes. How difficult must that be to figure out?

Traveler Tip: Use the World Clock on your smartphone to easily keep track of the best times to Facetime (or Skype, WhatsApp, or Google Hangout) with friends and family at home. Add your home time zone and your current time zone, plus any other time zones where people you know live.

things to know about new zealand // new zealand currency // new zealand banknotes // new zealand coins

And Kiwi’s say US money looks like Monopoly money.

Currency

The currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD). Bank notes come in an array of colors and feel like they are made with plastic. Denominations include $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 banknotes and $1, $2, 10c, 20c, and 50c coins.

The exchange rate for the United States Dollar (USD) is currently about 1 USD = 1.4 NZD. This is a pretty good deal for visitors from the US! For every US Dollar you bring, you will gain 40c.

It’s pretty easy to quickly do the math in your head when you want to estimate how much an item would cost in USD. What I do is subtract $4 for every $10 in the total. For example, a $20 NZD visit to the movies is $12 USD. Or a $50 NZD grocery store bill will be around $30 USD.

Traveler Tip: Get up to the minute rates using the XE Currency Exchange app on your smartphone. See other useful travel apps, websites, and services that I use and recommend on my Travel Resources Page.

Sun Safety

Sun safety is no joke on this side of the world. So, be prepared to slather yourself with 50+ SPF sunscreen on a daily basis. Typical burn time in New Zealand is about 10 minutes. That is, you can be in the sun for up to 10 minutes without protection before you begin to burn.

During my first week here I got a blister on my cheek just under my eye, and I was wearing sunscreen. It was painful, oozed clear liquid just like any other blister, and took about a month to fully heal. I switched from the natural ingredient sunscreen I was using to a more standard type and haven’t burned at all since.

The reason why you can so easily burn here is because of a hole in the atmosphere’s ozone layer. Just like the Earth has different layers, so does our atmosphere. Ozone, located in the Earth’s stratosphere, absorbs ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but it is able to sneak in through this hole.

Biosecurity at Customs

New Zealand is an island nation that remains isolated from many plant and animal species of the world. As a visitor, it’s your responsibility to prevent introducing foreign species to the environment. Customs takes this very seriously, and fines upwards of $400 will be issued if you bring certain items through customs, even accidentally.

You must declare any food items, plants or seeds, anything made of wood or by bees, animals or animal parts (like feathers), traditional and herbal medicines, equipment used for outdoor activities or sports (hiking boots), and seashells.

Amnesty bins are located in the halls between arrival gates and customs. This gives you the opportunity to dispose of anything that may get you fined. I declared everything that I thought was even remotely questionable, like my chapstick made from bee wax and three boxes of macaroni and cheese. Turns out everything I had was acceptable and I got through customs free of fines.

Read more about biosecurity, here.

Driving and Traffic

New Zealanders drive on the opposite side of the road than we do in the US. So, be extra careful when crossing the street. Incoming traffic will be on your left side in New Zealand. You’re used to paying attention to traffic coming on your right side, whether you realize it or not. This is a habit I didn’t know I had until I got here. I have been slowly making the transition to looking left when I want to cross the street.

Walking traffic also follows this rule. When walking on a city sidewalk or in a mall, walk on the left side or expect people to charge right at you until you move out of their way.

Also unlike in the US, pedestrians do not have the right of way. It is not a law to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians. You’ll see that only a few cars will actually stop for you, and you’ll be surprised when it happens. As a New Englander, following pedestrian rules and only crossing when the little green guy tells me to was a difficult habit to learn.

Other Practical Things to Know About New Zealand

  • Drinking water straight from the tap is totally safe. Unless you’re on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and they will warn to you drink bottled water.
  • There is no native (wild) creature that can kill you anywhere in NZ. No bears, no mountain lions, no venomous snakes. Aside from a couple of spiders brought over from Australia, you’re safe in NZ.
  • The internet is generally slow and limited in most public places.
  • Debit/credit cards are accepted at almost all shops, convenience stores, and restaurants.

Quirky Things to Know About New Zealand

There is really nothing alarmingly different here, just small quirks that differ from what I’m accustomed to in the US.

things to know about new zealand // convenience store dairy // wellington new zealand

A Dairy is a convenience store. Wellington, New Zealand.

American Products Everywhere

Our products are everywhere here. What I found especially surprising, though, was the number of American restaurants. If you’re craving McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, or Dominoes don’t worry, New Zealand has you covered.

I made the mistake of assuming a guy wearing a Red Sox hat was from somewhere in New England. I didn’t actually talk to him, but most likely he was just a Kiwi wearing a hat of a popular American team. There is even a store in Auckland specializing in new and vintage American sports clothing.

Another surprising and notable item I found here was Burt’s Bees products. That’s a really specific brand and shipping it all the way here really drives the price up. A bottle of Peach & Willow Bark Deep Pore Scrub was going for $24.99 NZD or $17.46 USD. That’s DOUBLE what I expect to pay in the US. New Zealanders, is it really worth it?!

Human vs Sheep Populations

This is a thing here. About 4.7 million people make up the entire human population of New Zealand. For comparison, New Zealand has roughly the same area as the state of Colorado with about 140K square miles. SIDENOTE: Colorado still has more people than NZ by almost a million.

I can’t find a current exact figure but there are considerably more sheep than humans here. One number I’ve heard is 5 sheep to every human. Another is 16 sheep to every human. I’m not sure which one is correct but I know that sheep are everywhere. So are cows, with a total that recently surpassed that of sheep.

Kiwis love their wool and red meat.

things to know about new zealand // electricity in new zealand

Electrical outlets in New Zealand have an individual on/off switch.

Electrical Outlets

Not only are the plugs a different shape, but each outlet has its own on/off switch. After you plug something in, you have to turn the outlet on in order to use electricity. And all switches, including light switches, need to be flipped DOWN to be turned on. In the US, we mostly flip light switches UP.

Seasons

Since New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, seasons are the opposite of the US. Landing here in January, I arrived during the peak of New Zealand summer. This is just general knowledge (I hope) and not the quirky thing.

The thing I find quirky about seasons in New Zealand, and what breaks my little geography-loving heart, is Kiwis seem to just generalize them into groups of months with no regard to the specific dates of the equinox or solstices. Summer = December, January, February. Autumn = March, April, May.

Daylight hours slowly begin to lengthen or shorten on these specific dates, signifying the beginning of a new season. Although, here in NZ autumn “began” as soon as that calendar switched over to March. Nevermind the almost 3 weeks until the equinox – a day of equal day and night, which occurs in spring and autumn.

Variety of Products

There isn’t a whole lot of it. The number of brands is limited here to 2 or 3 for any type of product. Think about the size of the cereal isle at your local grocery store. Different types line the aisle from beginning to end, right? At least five different brands make the same kind of cereal. The cereal section in New Zealand is about 1/4 of the length cutting variety down just as much. Plus, sugary cereals are mostly non-existent.

Man, I miss Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Fruity Pebbles.

things to know about new zealand // practical things to know about new zealand // slang in new zealand

In other words: an escalator, elevator, and parking garage. Christchurch, New Zealand.

Slang

So much slang. Do we have this much slang in the US?? Some notable words include ‘mozzies’ (mosquitos), ‘Maccas’ (McDonald’s), and ‘sunnies’ (sunglasses). Basically, shortened and cuter versions of the real word. I’ve also heard many people say ‘chuck’ (as in to add to or toss), ‘heaps’ (a lot), and ‘chur’ (thank you).

Then there are completely different words for things. Such as ‘jandles’ (flip flops), ‘flannel’ (face cloth), or ‘Dairy’ (convenience store). Don’t mix up jelly and jam because you just might get Jello to put on your toast. Also, a ‘duvet’ includes the whole blanket, not just the part that you put a comforter in. I learned that the hard way at a hostel!

I was very thrown off for the first month or so when greeted at a store with “Are you alright?” It is meant as “How are you?” but made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Lastly, instead of saying “You’re welcome” they say “It’s alright.”

Even More Quirky Things to Know About New Zealand

  • Restaurants have much smaller portions. They don’t really do “doggy bags.”
  • When you want to order take-out from a restaurant, ask for ‘take-away.’
  • Egg yolks are orange (the color they actually should be) instead of yellow.
  • Soft drinks aren’t as carbonated. Even in a can or bottle.
  • There are exactly 237 types of “butter spread” to choose from.
  • It is rare to find a place serving drip coffee and no one has a coffee maker. It’s all either espresso or instant.
  • People wear fanny packs around their necks. Young, old, Kiwi or German – I’ve seen everyone doing this. Confession: I even started doing it.
  • Fish & Chips shops almost always carry Chinese meals. ???

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve been to New Zealand, add your own practical tips or quirky differences you noticed in the comments! 

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A guide to the practical things to know about New Zealand if you plan to travel here. Plus some quirky things I've learned after living here for two months.

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  1. This is too funny, Brittany! Not only was I entertained, but I learned a lot. I’ve never been to New Zealand, so while some of things make sense (like needing to wear sunscreen and things being expensive) others I would’ve never guessed (like the cereal and the butter!). I hope you’re having a wonderful experience!

  2. Loved this!! I lived in Australia for a year and traveled in New Zealand for a week and definitely experienced all of these! Australia was much the same too. The slang especially! I’m used to a lot of them because my husband is British and a lot of the words overlap, but the extent of the slang is crazy! Haha

  3. This is so interesting to read. I’ve been in New Zealand now for 2 months as well and almost all of the things you’ve pointed out are considered normal at home in the UK (other than the word jandals). So weird isn’t it how countries can be so different yet still have a really similar lifestyle. Loved the post though! Inspired me to think about what the differences are between here and home! I find it strange that all the music here seems to be 10 years behind and you have to go up to the register to pay at a restaurant.

  4. Hehe, so they have 237 kinds of butter but barely any types of cereal and other things? That’s pretty funny! I’ve always wanted to vizit NZ and really can’t wait to go there. It’s high on my list. I love hearing and seeing all these little differences and quirks when going to new places!

    • 237 types of “butter spread” or margarine. I guess 237 is a high estimate, but it seems excessive whatever the number. Especially in comparison to the lack of variety everywhere else!

  5. “You alright?” confused the hell out of me when I lived in England, lol. That was their way of saying hello. I never knew if I was supposed to answer 😛

  6. This is a really good guide! Not sure when we are going to travel to New Zeeland (is on our list, with a van), but will come back here to read it again before!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it helpful. A vehicle is definitely something I wish I had planned for while in New Zealand. Getting around and being able to see all those beautiful hidden spots would be so much easier. Let me know when you go so I can live vicariously through your van adventures!