How the Crit’Air Scheme Affects UK Drivers

If you’re planning on driving to France, whether for business or a well-deserved holiday, then there’s something new you need to consider when you’re planning your journey. 

Developed by the French Ministry of the Environment to reduce the environmental impact of cars in French cities, all road vehicles in France must legally display a vignette that displays the vehicle’s emission standard or face an on-the-spot fine. 

So, if you’re thinking about avoiding the plane for your summer holiday, here’s what you need to know. 

What is the Crit’Air Scheme?

The Crit’Air scheme is France’s response to the poor air quality in more populated areas like larger towns and cities. Under the new legislation, certain road vehicles can be denied entry to certain areas either permanently, only on certain days, or temporarily to avoid air pollution reaching dangerous levels. 

As part of the scheme, every road vehicle in France must legally display a Crit’Air vignette, or clean air sticker, that identifies the level of emissions generated by that vehicle if they’re planning to enter a restricted zone. 

Drivers of low emission vehicles are permitted entry to certain areas and preferential parking, while high-emissions vehicles are subject to restrictions. So, good news if you’re looking to drive your new hybrid vehicle to Paris – but less so if you’re driving a diesel-guzzling SUV for a family getaway. 

Crit’air Categories

Each Crit’Air vignette is colour-coded depending on that vehicle’s emission levels. The categories are as follows:

  • Green: Crit’Air E, for zero-emission electric and hybrid vehicles
  • Purple: Crit’Air 1, for low emission gas and rechargeable hybrid vehicles
  • Yellow: Crit’Air 2, for Euro 5 and 6 vehicles
  • Orange: Crit’Air 3, for Euro 4 vehicles
  • Burgundy: Crit’Air 4, for Euro 3 vehicles
  • Dark Grey: Crit’Air 5, for Euro 2 vehicles

You can check which Euro emissions category your vehicle belongs to here.

Crit’Air Scheme Restrictions

Under the Crit’Air scheme, there are two main types of low-emission zones defined by the French government. These are:

  • Permanent Low Emission Zones, or ZCRs
  • Temporary Emergency Low Emission Zones, or ZPAs. 

In these areas, all road vehicles must legally display a Crit’Air vignette, regardless of if they’re permitted to be there or not. Not displaying a vignette will risk landing you a fine. 

Permanent Low Emission Zones (ZCR)

In a Permanent Low Emission Zone, your access will be restricted depending on your Crit’Air level. These restrictions are usually between certain hours and/or on certain days, which will depend on the restricted area. 

As of 2019, ZCRs currently cover Paris, Strasbourg, and Grenoble, all with different levels of restrictions. 

Paris ZCR

Paris has two ZCRs, with the restrictions in Central Paris being the strictest across France. 

Introduced in 2015, the Central Paris ZCR covers the area within the Boulevard Périphérique ring-road. Only vehicles at Crit’Air levels E-3 are permitted in the city between 8 am-8 pm, Monday-Friday. 

In the Greater Paris ZCR, which covers the area within the A86 outer ring road, only road vehicles at Crit’Air levels E-4 are permitted in participating areas between 8 am-8 pm Monday-Friday. However, it’s expected that in 2021, the Greater Paris ZCR will impose the same restrictions as the Central Paris restricted zone. 

Both of the Paris ZCRs are also located within the Paris Temporary Emergency Low Emission Zone, or ZPA. This means that local government can impose stricter restrictions on road vehicles if air pollution reaches dangerously high levels. 

As of 2019, any diesel road vehicles made earlier than 2006 are prohibited from entering Paris between 8 am-8 pm Monday-Friday. 

Grenoble ZCR

The Grenoble ZCR was established in 2017 and, unlike in Paris, covers the vast majority of the city with 24/7 restrictions. 

However, the Grenoble ZCR only restricts light commercial vehicles and trucks, with only Crit’Air levels E-4 being permitted to enter the city. While this doesn’t cover private vehicles yet, there’s every chance it could be extended in the future. 

Strasbourg ZCR

The Strasbourg ZCR also only restricts light commercial vehicles and trucks, and again only allows Crit’Air levels E-4 within the city. N3 vehicles and above are not permitted in the city at all. From 2022, Strasbourg will extend this restriction to only allow road vehicles if they’re at Crit’Air level E-4. 

Temporary Emergency Low Emission Zones (ZPA)

If air pollution reaches dangerous levels, an area covered by a ZPA can impose temporary restrictions to prevent certain vehicles from driving or parking within it. As of 2019, there are 28 areas of France covered by a ZPA, including:

It’s entirely possible that new areas will introduce emergency low-emission zones, so we recommend checking your route before you travel and plan for any detours if necessary. 

Crit’Air Vignettes

To enter restricted traffic zones covered by the Crit’Air scheme, all eligible road vehicles must have a Crit’Air vignette affixed to the right-hand side of their windscreen, and it must be clearly visible at all times. 

However, not all road vehicles are eligible. If your car is registered before January 1997, or your motorbike or scooter before June 2000, you don’t need a Crit’Air vignette – but you also can’t drive in any ZCR or ZPA with active restrictions. 

Buses and trucks registered before 2001 are also restricted, too, so bear that in mind if you’ve converted a bus into a holiday camper. 

Crit’Air vignettes are valid for the lifetime of the vehicle and are linked to the vehicle, not the driver. So, if you’re planning to drive more than one vehicle to or within France, you’ll need a vignette for each vehicle. 

How to Order a Crit’Air Vignette

You can order a Crit’Air vignette on the official French government website. To apply for one, you’ll need to know your car’s European Emissions Standard, and a scanned copy of your vehicle’s V5C registration form in JPEG, PDF, or PNG format. 

Make sure to apply for a Crit’Air vignette at least six weeks before you plan on driving to France so it has plenty of time to arrive. If you’re planning on driving through a ZCR or ZPA, make sure to affix your Crit’Air vignette ahead of time. 

If you’re ordering a Crit’Air vignette from the UK, it’ll cost €3.11 plus postage. From within France, it’ll cost €3.62 with postage. Third-party sellers will often charge between €20-30, so make sure you’re ordering from the official French government website. 

What Happens if You Don’t Have a Crit’Air Vignette?

If you don’t affix a Crit’Air vignette to your vehicle, or drive in a restricted zone when your Crit’Air level is prohibited, then you could face an on the spot fine of between €63-135. It’s understood that French police are often more lenient with foreign drivers who don’t have a vignette attached, but you will be encouraged to obtain one as soon as possible. Regardless, this can change at any time, particularly as the Crit’Air scheme has been part of French law since 2017. 

Do Disabled Drivers Need a Crit’Air Vignette?

If you’re disabled and have a parking permit for disabled persons or a mobility inclusion card, then you still need a Crit’Air vignette for your vehicle. However, your vehicle will not be subject to the usual traffic restrictions. You should be prepared to show these documents if you’re challenged in a restricted zone. 

How Does the Crit’Air Scheme Affect UK Drivers?

So, what does this all mean for UK drivers heading over to France? Here are the key changes you’ll need to make to your planning and journey, regardless of if you’re travelling for business or pleasure. 

Plan Your Journey at Least Two Months Before Travelling

Given that it can take up to six weeks between applying for a Crit’Air vignette and receiving it, you should plan your journey at least two months ahead of your departure date. 

This might sound excessive if you’re not planning to travel to cities with permanent restrictions like Paris, Strasbourg, or Grenoble, but you should know whether you might have to drive through a ZPA before you travel. If there’s any chance you’ll need to drive through a ZPA, then we recommend applying for a vignette, unless your vehicle’s exempt. 

Given that a ZPA can impose temporary restrictions at any time, buying a vignette for a few euro is significantly cheaper than the on the spot fines you face if you’re caught out. And, with them lasting the lifetime of the vehicle, they’re extremely cheap if you’re planning to drive to France more than once. 

City Breaks May No Longer Be Possible For Drivers of Older Vehicles

Unless you’ve got a new electric, hybrid, or low emission petrol vehicle, you won’t be able to drive to Paris for a city break. While you’ve still got the option of flying or taking the Eurostar, this might be bad news for people looking to cut down the cost of their break or split their holiday between the city and smaller French towns. 

If you’ve got a diesel vehicle, an older vehicle, or a less efficient petrol vehicle, then you’ll have to factor in the price of flights or other alternative transportation in your Paris break. However, the public transport system in Paris is comparable to London, so you’ll still be able to enjoy a city break even without your own vehicle. 

It’s also worth noting that, as the scheme progresses, it’s entirely possible that more cities, towns, and provinces in France will begin to adopt both permanent and temporary restriction zones. 

But, Low and Zero-Emission Vehicles Can Have a More Enjoyable City Break

With almost all cars bar low and zero-emission vehicles prohibited from the centre of Paris, and with many more cities set to follow their example, owners of these more environmentally friendly vehicles can enjoy extra privileges during their city break. 

With the number of cars in the centre of the city restricted, drivers of modern eco-friendly vehicles can enjoy reduced traffic and easier access to parking spaces, giving you more freedom to explore the city without the need for public transport. 

You’ll Need to Double-Check Your Rental Car

If you’re planning to rent a car to drive to or within France, you’ll need to check that the rental company you’re using has a valid Crit’Air vignette for your chosen car. It’s the responsibility of the rental office to purchase a Crit’Air vignette for their vehicle, not yours, as you won’t have access to that vehicle’s documentation. 

Given that you’ll face a fine if you’re caught without a Crit’Air vignette, and vehicle rental offices will charge a hefty administrative fee for any penalty charges, UK drivers can find themselves out of pocket through no fault of their own. 

With that in mind, you should make the rental firm aware as soon as possible that you plan to drive within a ZCR or ZPA, and that you expect the car you have to have all the legal cover to do so. You should also make it clear that you won’t be held responsible for any fines if the car does not come with a Crit’Air vignette despite the advanced notice. As with purchasing a Crit’Air vignette for yourself, we recommend that you make your chosen rental firm aware of your need for one at least six weeks before your pickup date. 

Plan Your Motorhome Trip Carefully

Driving to France in your motorhome can be a great way to go on holiday on a budget, but motorhome owners also need to be aware that they are subject to Crit’Air restrictions. While you might not be planning on going into the city in your motorhome, you’ll still need a Crit’Air vignette, and you’ll need to pay close attention to when restrictions come into force if you’re using any major ring roads. 

Similarly, if you’re planning on driving through a ZPA, you’ll likely need to plan a backup route in case restrictions are enforced and you can’t follow your original plan. We recommend downloading the Green Zones app so if any part of your journey is covered by restrictions you can take a detour before landing a fine. 

How the Crit’Air Scheme Affects UK Drivers: In Summary

When you’re planning to drive to France from the UK, you need to make sure you order a Crit’Air vignette at least six weeks before your planned departure date, taking care to only order one from the official French government website. Each vignette is colour-coded based on your vehicle’s Euro Emission Status, and the colour will tell you where and when you’re allowed to drive within restricted zones. 

There are two main types of restricted zones you need to be aware of – ZCRs, or permanently restricted zones, and ZPAs, or temporarily restricted zones. In ZCRs, vehicles of certain CritAir levels will be permanently restricted from entering that zone on certain days or during certain time windows. In ZPAs, restrictions can be imposed at any time depending on the current air pollution levels. 

Paris is the most notable restricted zone, with almost every vehicle except low and zero-emissions vehicles being prohibited from entering between 8 am – 8 pm Monday-Friday. Other cities have their own restrictions, and it’s likely that as the scheme progresses, more cities will become ZCRs. 

Other larger towns and cities are covered by ZPAs, so even if you’re not planning to drive and stay in any of France’s major cities, you need to be aware that restrictions may be imposed on some parts of your planned route at any time. If you’re driving an older vehicle or one at a higher Crit’Air level, you should be prepared to take an alternative route if restrictions are imposed. 

It’s a legal requirement for nearly every vehicle to have a Crit’Air vignette while driving in France, regardless of if you’re planning to drive through a restricted zone. If you don’t have a Crit’Air vignette, or you’re caught driving through a restricted area when your vehicle isn’t permitted, you’re at risk of an on the spot fine of up to €135. 

Some vehicles are exempt from this, however. If you have a car registered before 1997 or a motorbike or scooter registered before 2000, you don’t need to display a vignette. However, you also can’t drive an exempt vehicle through any zone covered by Crit’Air restrictions. 

If you’re a disabled driver, and you either have a disabled parking pass or a mobility inclusion pass, you still need a vignette, but you can drive regardless of restrictions. You will, however, be required to display these documents if challenged. 

None of this is to say that UK drivers should stop driving to and within France, but rather if that’s your intention, you need to be aware of the Crit’Air scheme and how that will affect your journey and holiday plans. To learn more about the Crit’Air scheme and how the changes will affect you, visit the official French government website for more information