Welcome back, tourists: 15 things that might surprise you about New Zealand

With borders now open to travelers from visa-waiver countries, tourists can finally make that dream trip to New Zealand a reality.

But those who are visiting Aotearoa for the first time may be in for a few surprises. To ensure you have the best possible experience, we’ve highlighted some of the main things you should expect.

* Hey tourists, welcome back to New Zealand: Here’s what you need to know about us now
* New Zealand, sometimes you forget how great you really are
* New Zealand took its time to reopen, but my favorite country is still closed

Tourists love the lupins at Lake Tekapo, but you might be surprised to find we consider them a pest.


Tourists love the lupins at Lake Tekapo, but you might be surprised to find we consider them a pest.

Customs is really strict

You first interaction with a Kiwi will most likely be with one of our customs officers. Any image you had of us being relaxed and easygoing will quickly be dispelled with their stern inquiries as to whether you are smuggling an apple in your suitcase.

It might seem over the top, but we’re an isolated island nation with flora and fauna you won’t find anywhere else – and even the smallest foreign seed or bug could put all of it at risk. That’s why bringing in any sort of food, animal or plant products is strictly regulated. Don’t be surprised if your hiking boots are seized for a deep clean, either.

And if you do bring in some forbidden fruit? Expect to be hit with a $400 fine on the spot. More serious offenders can be found up to $100,000 and face five years in prison. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

But Kiwis are otherwise quite friendly

We love a chat. It’s perfectly normal for a stranger to try to strike up a conversation with you at the checkout, in the lift (elevator), or on public transport.

When out on a walk, it’s practically weaselly to smile and nod a “hello” at anyone you pass. If you’re heading downhill and pass someone huffing and puffing their way uphill, some light encouragement will always be appreciated (“not too far to go now!”).

Need a last-minute place to stay? No worries – our best friend’s sister’s boss has a bach you can use. But be warned, they’ll expect you to repay the favor when they’re passing through your home country on their post-retirement tour of Europe in 10 years’ time (you’ll also find we have surprisingly long memories).

You'll remain friends with a Kiwi for life (or at least until they've had the chance to crash on your couch).


You’ll remain friends with a Kiwi for life (or at least until they’ve had the chance to crash on your couch).

We are also pretty polite

Be sure to always bellow “thank you, driver” as you exit out the back door of the bus. When using a zebra crossing, you’re also expected to do a little hand lift of acknowledgment to any cars who stop for you.

It can be hard to tell if we disagree with you, but if we say “yeah, nah…”, the “nah” bit is usually what we really mean.

But sometimes we can be overly casual

One of our more controversial collective traits is that we love going barefoot. Freedom footers can be found everywhere; hitting the streets, strolling around the shops, padding along the supermarket aisles.

You might be appalled the first time you see it, but by the end of your trip you’ll have seen so many of them that you won’t even blink at yet another Kiwi baring their soles.

We have two official languages

And believe it or not, English isn’t one of them. While English is the most widely spoken language in Aotearoa New Zealand, our official languages ​​are Māori and New Zealand Sign Language.

Many Kiwis are trying hard to use more Māori words and phrases in everyday life, so you’ll frequently hear greetings like “kia ora” (hello) and “mōrena” (good morning). You’ll also hear Māori place names used, like Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) or Ōtautahi (Christchurch).

You can also expect to hear Samoan, Mandarin and Hindi, which round out our top five most commonly spoken languages ​​after English and Māori.

Do your best to pronounce Māori place names correctly – though we'll forgive you for struggling with this one.


Do your best to pronounce Māori place names correctly – though we’ll forgive you for struggling with this one.

“Eftpos” means paying by card

If you’re paying for something at a shop and the cashier asks you “Eftpos?”, don’t be confused – it’s just our quaint way of asking you if you’d like to pay by card. It stands for “electronic funds transfer at point of sale”.

We’re not using cash so much these days, so you might find some places are card-only. But it always pays to carry a few gold coins (that’s $1 or $2) in your pocket, in case you stumble across a sausage sizzle (a fundraising event where you can buy a barbecued sausage on a slice of bread for a couple of dollars) .

You really don’t have to tip

Some cafes might have tip jars, but tips aren’t at all expected. Fancier restaurants might try their luck with an “add a tip?” function on the Eftpos (see above) machine, but no one actually uses it. Even the server will probably say something along the lines of, “oh, just press clear to get rid of that”.

But if you do want to tip, it will still be greatly appreciated.

Tipping is purely voluntary in New Zealand (and most Kiwis don't bother doing it).

Kevin Stuff/Stuff

Tipping is purely voluntary in New Zealand (and most Kiwis don’t bother doing it).

You can drink the tap water

In most areas of New Zealand, you can drink the water straight out of the tap. This usually also means you don’t have to pay for water at restaurants, unless they’re really bougie – but if they serve alcohol, they’re legally required to supply free water.

Sadly, the water quality doesn’t extend to our streams and rivers. Even if they look pristine, giardia and E.coli are common in untreated water sources, and can make you really sick. So if you’re on a hike, you’ll need to purify water by boiling it or using special tablets.

It’s really expensive

At this point we’re pretty much the Switzerland of the southern hemisphere. Everything will probably cost more than you expect – especially food. When eating out, you’ll be lucky to find a “cheap eat” under $20, and if you plan on cooking to save yourself some coin, you’re in for a nasty shock at the checkout – even though dairy is our biggest export earner, a 1kg block of cheese will still cost you close to $20.

When shopping, you’ll likely pay more for certain brands than you would at home. Brands considered budget or high street in other parts of the world tend to have premium price tags in New Zealand.

Be prepared to shell out the cash (even if you do it by Eftpos) on a trip to New Zealand.


Be prepared to shell out the cash (even if you do it by Eftpos) on a trip to New Zealand.

But if you have an accident, treatment is free

If you get injured while in New Zealand, in most cases you’ll be covered by our no-fault scheme known as Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). It will pay for your medical bills, even if you don’t have travel insurance – so if you have an accident, you can call 111 (our emergency number) or head straight to the emergency room without having to worry about the cost.

You should still get travel insurance though, because ACC has limitations and doesn’t cover general illness, disrupted travel plans or emergency travel to get you home.

NZ is a lot bigger than you might think

A lot of visitors make the mistake of thinking New Zealand is a small country because of our population, but size wise, we actually cover more area than the UK, across three main islands (and no, these aren’t connected by bridges).

The quickest and easiest way to get between cities is taking a flight – from Auckland to Wellington takes about an hour, and Auckland to Christchurch takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Again, you might be surprised at the steep price of a domestic flight.

If you’re driving, be warned that many of our roads – even those considered state highways – are really windy, narrow, or hilly (and sometimes all of these things at once). So be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to travel (and stock up on Sea Legs if you suffer from motion sickness).

The more scenic the road, the more sick it will make you feel.


The more scenic the road, the more sick it will make you feel.

And possibly a lot colder than you might think

Yes, we’re an island in the South Pacific, but we’re also one of the last stops before Antarctica. So if you thought you’d be spending most of your trip in a bikini, you might want to reconsider your outfit choices.

In summer, 30C is considered a very hot day, but most places will be pretty chuffed if they hit the 20s. Some parts of the country are warmer than others, but the only place with an actual subtropical climate is Northland.

In winter, snow to sea level is possible in parts of the South Island. Snow in the cities is quite rare, but on the occasions when they do get a decent amount, you’ll find they’re not built for it – no one attempts to drive and schools are usually closed for the day.

No matter the time of year, prepare for four seasons in one day – it might start out fine, but by the end of it you could be walking home in heavy rain and gale-force winds. Kiwis are obsessed with checking the forecast for this reason.

Despite the cool temperatures, you must always wear sunblock. The sun here is brutal, even on cloudy days, and we have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

New Zealand might not always have the best beach weather, but you should always wear sunblock.


New Zealand might not always have the best beach weather, but you should always wear sunblock.

You’re never far from water

New Zealand has about 15,000km of coastline. Even our most “inland” point is just over an hour’s drive from the sea – with plenty of lakes and rivers along the way – so it’s no wonder learning to swim is considered an essential skill here.

While beautiful, our beaches have hidden dangers. You need to be wary of rips, narrow currents of water which can sweep you out to sea. Stick to patrolled beaches and always swim between the flags that the lifeguards have put out, as that will be the safest spot.

Don’t just dive into a river or swimming hole without carefully checking it first, either – it may be deeper, shallower or faster-moving than you think.

Swim between the flags to avoid getting into trouble.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Swim between the flags to avoid getting into trouble.

We consider lots of things you love pests

Speaking of lakes, if your trip to New Zealand was inspired by a photo of the stunning Lake Tekapo, then you might find it looks a little different in real life.

Tourists love the picture-perfect pink and purple lupins that bloom along its shores, but to us, the flowers are an invasive weed that is damaging to the environment. In recent years, efforts have been made to remove them – and tourism boards avoid promoting photos that feature them.

Other things we consider pests include possums (they really aren’t that cute), rabbits and hedgehogs (who do you think we are, Beatrix Potter?) and even wild horses (specifically, the Kaimanawa horses).

You probably won’t see a kiwi

It’s our national bird and an icon of New Zealand, but unless you visit a wildlife reserve or take a special tour of a sanctuary, you’re unlikely to see one.

There are thought to be fewer than 70,000 kiwi left in New Zealand – and therefore the world. They’re also nocturnal, which makes it hard to see them in the wild.

And no, a Kiwiburger at McDonald’s is not made of kiwi meat, it’s a beef patty.

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