Last Updated on August 6, 2022
I was a delivery driver in the UK. I spent hours every week stuck in traffic, driving a manual (stick shift) vehicle, driving along country lanes, navigating roundabouts…I thought I had seen and experienced a lot when it comes to driving and was fairly confident in my abilities. That was until I moved to America. Here are some tips for driving in America and some of the differences between driving in America and the UK!
Driving in USA Tips
Drive on the right
As a tourist driving in USA you may experience some differences! Coming from the UK (or even Australia), the BIGGEST difference is that in the USA you drive on the RIGHT hand side of the road! Therefore the drivers seat and steering wheel are also on the ‘wrong’ side of the car! Adapting the the ‘other side of the road’ is fairly easy, my problem was remember which side of the car I had to get in to!
Driving In USA With A Foreign License
For the most part, if you’re driving in USA with a foreign license, which is in ENGLISH, you are good to go. If it’s written in foreign you’ll need an International Driving Permit (Disclosure: please check official rules regarding your country’s license before travelling). I have rented a car in the USA with a UK driving license multiple times and have never had a problem, just using the photo card was fine.
Even as a resident I was able to drive in Iowa for 30 days before I was expected to pass the Iowa driving test and use a local drivers license (different state seem to give different amounts of time). You need to have a Social Security Number before you can take the American driving test. You are expected to have you driving license on you whenever you are driving, I keep mine on a keychain WITH my car keys.
Driving an automatic car
The majority of cars in America are automatic which makes driving very easy, it’s like driving a go-kart! Without having a clutch, it eliminates the embarrassment of stalling at junctions (I stalled my camper van in Australia at a crossroads…) and I’m not going to lie, it turns you into a lazy driver.
Add cruise control to the mix and I’m just about ready to settle in and put my feet up on the dash (of course I wouldn’t do this, but my tour guide in Morocco thought this was an acceptable way to drive).
I find that sticking on cruise control to the correct speed limit then allows me to put my full attention on figuring out where I have to go, without having to worry about going over the speed limit. For the most part, unless you’re in a city, the roads are straight and empty, you can’t really go wrong. For example, living in East Iowa, I’m 3 hours from both Chicago IL and Des Moines IA, to get to both cities, I only have to make ONE turn in 3 hours.
Driving Rules in USA
If you do the speed limit, you’ll be the slowest on the road. Yep, if you do the speed limit, everyone will be over taking you. In the UK, trucks are limited to 56mph, so on a 70mph road, you fly by them. I still can’t get used to trucks over taking me! American trucks are so much bigger than their European counterparts!
Miami, Chicago and LA have drivers that are CRAY CRAY. There’ll be switching lanes, cutting in and driving at a million miles an hour. They have no concept of ‘tailgating’ (driving close to your bumper…not to be confused with ‘tailgating parties’) either.
70mph as a maximum speed barely exists. This is the standard dual carriageway speed in the UK. In the USA it’s usually 65mph. The motorways/Interstates will often change between 70mph and 65mph, sometimes dropping as low as 55mph. For the most part in the UK both sides of the road will be the same speed limit, in the USA it doesn’t seem to be unusual to have one side as 35mph and the other side 25mph.
The UK has a ‘National Speed Limit’ sign which for tourists driving in the UK, this isn’t very helpful, you’re expected to know the speed for dual carriageways or regular roads for the type of vehicle you are in. On the US Interstates there’ll often be multiple signs that say cars can do 70mph, trucks and buses are 65mph etc. So keep an eye out for the WORDS because the speed displayed may not affect you!
Exits on an Interstate can be on ANY lane.
Usually the exit is the lane that’s furthest away from the central reservation, the one right on the edge. Not in America. On a recent road trip to Wisconsin, the exit lanes were all over the shop. Some were on the edge like normal but then some were on the inside lane and a couple even came up in the CENTRE lane!!
At one point I knew the road I needed headed off to the right. In normal circumstances, you’d assume that driving on the right hand side of the road, the exit would be in the right lane. WRONG. It was the one on the far left and took me on a flyover that seemed to twist and turn for miles. I would have been so confused without a GPS.
Being a ‘slow’ (speed limit) driver I don’t want to cruise in the fast lane, but when that’s where the exit is there’s no choice but to annoy other road users. I saw SO MANY people cutting each other up. Sometimes there’d only be 1/4 mile to get from lane 1 to lane 4 and at 70mph in high traffic, it’s next to impossible.
Buying a GPS for driving in USA was the BEST investment I made as an expat.
Roundabouts, Junctions & Traffic Lights
Coming from what feels like roundabout capital of the world, I find it hilarious that people don’t know how a roundabout works. They are a fairly new and still uncommon concept in the USA. I’ve even seen people stop dead in the middle of roundabouts to let other cars pull out. So if you’re from the UK driving in USA you’ll already have an advantage!
Every time you come to a stop sign it’s like a puzzle solving challenge to work out if any other roads coming off the junction have them too. Some crossroads will have all way stops, some will only have 2 roads stop, I’ve seen one junction where 3 roads stop and the 4th can just carry on! At night, this is awful.
Stop signs aren’t lit up most of the time and it’s really hard to see who else has them. For the most part, the person that gets to the junction and comes to a COMPLETE STOP first, then gets to go first. Stop does indeed mean STOP.
Unless there’s a sign, you can turn right on a red traffic light. I still find this so weird but in reality it does keep the traffic moving. Some people will think it’s there right to turn right, even if there are cars coming, so be aware of this as sometimes people will just pull out in front of you even if they are SUPPOSE to be giving way to you.
Another thing I find weird both as a driving and a pedestrian, is that pedestrian crossings will often go ‘green’ at the same time as the traffic lights. The pedestrian gets the right of way but it does feel like you need eyes everywhere in these cases!
If a school bus is stopped on a regular 2-way road, you HAVE to stop regardless of whether you are on the opposite side of the road or are behind it. NEVER OVERTAKE A SCHOOL BUS. I feel that school buses don’t give kids road crossing knowledge, because cars are expected to stop, the kids simply jump off the bus and run across the road without even stopping to look and see if other traffic has actually stopped.
Police Cars etc
IF you happen to get pulled over by the Po, DON’T get out of the car and keep your hands on the wheel until instructed to get your license/documents etc. If you’re driving and see a cop car on the side of the road, if there’s a second lane, pull over into that lane. If you can’t pull over, you’re expected to slow down.
Different States will have different driving rules. For example, if I remember correctly, in California, you can’t have anything stuck to your front window, this includes GPS’s. They either need a beanbag mount on the dash or be attached to an air vent etc
Tips For Filling Up With ‘Gas’
Petrol = gas. Most cars in the USA use petrol, diesel is mainly only for trucks and not all ‘petrol stations’ will even have diesel on the pumps. The pumps colours are also different in the USA. Diesel is on the green handle and petrol is black…coming from the UK driving in USA, the colours are reversed so double and triple check you are filling up with the right product! The petrol octanes are lower in the USA too.
Paying for fuel
Nearly everyone will pay at the pump when filling up their car. Card payments are a common thing in the USA. However as a tourist driving in USA it can sometimes be a little tricky. Sometimes when paying at the pump with a card, you’ll have to enter a 5 digit billing ‘zip code’, which you wouldn’t have as a visitor, so you’ll have to go inside to pay. If paying with cash you may have to pay BEFORE you start pumping and then go back in the shop to get the change once you’ve filled up.
The nozzles still have the catches on here so you can go ‘hands free’ when filling up too. In the cold weather, people sit back in their car while it fills up! In the UK truck drivers that have huge tanks will have a gadget that holds the trigger open so they don’t have to stand and squeeze it, here it’s just standard!
Some small town gas stations will even fill the car up and even wash your window for you, because like I mentioned above, they fill it up hands free!
Driving Manners & Habits
‘Headlight flashing’ isn’t a thing here.
I was lost. I was in the fast lane, someone wanted to pull across in front of me, they had the indicator on so I flashed them out to say I’ll ‘slow’ down and let them out. Flash flash flash flash flash flash flash, still nothing. Turns out that it doesn’t exist here, only truck drivers do it. I’d have thought it would be common sense as to what it meant but apparently not.
I asked an American how you let someone know it’s safe to pull out to which they replied, you don’t, you just keep going, no one cares about being polite to other drivers. Friendly.
Drink Driving (Don’t do it)
The amount of people that think it’s fine to be on their phone while driving or drink drive is incredible…and awful. Even with some bars/restaurants and events offering free drinks to the designated driver, people can’t seem to hold themselves back from having a drink and then getting behind the wheel and it scares me.
I’d never want to be a passenger in this situation and especially at night it worries me how many people around me are driving and may not be in control. I’m being sensible but I could still be in danger by others that are irresponsible. The drinking culture seems to be massive in America.
This is ironic considering you can’t have an open container of alcohol in the car. It’s obvious that people will even drink and drive (or have passengers doing it), because when you come into a small town, there’ll be empty cans along the side of the road where people have disposed of them.
Using Phones while driving (don’t do it)
Loads of people constantly use their phones too. Maybe it’s due to cars being automatic, it makes it easier. If there was a gear stick and people needed to be changing gears all the time, they wouldn’t have a hand spare to be using a phone.
Annual Car Tests
MOTS don’t exist in the majority of the USA. There’s nothing unusual about people driving around in a car that’s only half there and may possibly feature in the Flintstones soon. Especially in the Midwest where they salt the roads like crazy during the winter, cars just rot away. I’ve noticed the rust spreading on my car just in the short time I’ve been living here! The common victim seems to be pick up trucks, the wheel arches and bucks will often be non existent.
In the UK, cars have to pass an annual ‘check up’. Things like lights, brakes, suspension parts etc are all checked to make sure they are in working condition. I kinda miss not having these safety checks. It’d be nice to know when parts are getting past their ‘sell by date’ without having to strip everything and look yourself.
Tips For Renting A Car In The USA With UK Driving License
As mentioned above, if you are renting a car in the USA with a UK driving license, you shouldn’t have any problems. Keep in mind that you’ll have to be over 25 to drive without facing a ‘young person’ surcharge.
Drop off fees
Depending on the type of trip you are taking, if you are doing a one way journey, such as Route 66, you’re likely to face a one way drop of fee surcharge. Some rentals also have a limit on the amount of mileage you can cover, go over this ‘allowance’ and you’ll have to pay extra.
Some Interstate routes have tolls. As a tourist driving in USA the easiest way to deal with this is to pay in cash at the booths. They can often be paid online or some rental companies will provide an ‘I-Pass’ type box where the tolls will be added straight onto the rental bill.
Unless you are in a Downtown hotel in a big city, you’ll find that a lot of motels and hotels have free parking for guests.
Returning rental cars can be stressful. Make sure you’ve filled the tank back up and have packed the majority of your luggage away as when you reach the drop off location you literally have to jump and the car and go!
USA Road Trips
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10 thoughts on “24 Driving in USA Tips For Overseas & International Visitors”
I have this to look forward to soon! Having lived & worked in London for nearly all the past decade I didn’t learn here in the UK as I always intended to move to America and figured there was little point learning to drive a manual on the left when I’ll be driving an automatic on the right side of the road (though the move to America has ended up taking 8 years longer than originally planned). Having read your blog, though, I do question my choice. At least the UK test is fairly rigorous; from what I hear of the driving test in many states, if you can drive 500 yards down the road without hitting anyone they give you a licence. Probably makes for a lot more inexperienced and incompetent drivers on the road, hence more general driving experience can only be a good thing. Ah well! Soon I shall be zooming around Texas in a massive tank like everyone else 😉
Haha! Did you see my post about passing a USA driving test? It only lasts for 20 minutes! Do you think you’ll have some lessons here then or just get taught by a ‘responsible adult’? You can read about my driving test experience in Iowa here: https://betweenenglandandiowa.com/2016/08/28/expat-life-passing-a-usa-driving-test/
Great perspective. What’s funny is every state you go into it is completely different. From how people drive, to stoplights on exit ramps. It’s almost like relearning the rules of the road each time. I agree with you about the automatic transmission making us all lazy. I miss my manual transmission but it’s impossible to find a company that makes them anymore. Unless I go back to a sports car but that just doesn’t work with two car seats.
Yes! Like in Iowa I’m yet to see 70mph, it’s all 55 or 60 but in Michigan it went up to 75!!! Wisconsin seems to have crazy drivers, you cross back into Iowa and everyone just seems to chill out!
I love you expat tales. You’ll have to travel to the Dakotas or Nebraska sometime. The speed limit can go up to 80 mph!
Thank you 🙂 Amazing!!! My husband thinks I’m crazy when I start having a small party at the sight of a 70mph sign, can you imagine how happy I’d be at 80?! It seems everyone else does 80 constantly but I’m a stickler for the rules!
I’m near Des Moines, Iowa and both I-80 and I-35 are 70mph. Head west. 🙂
Flashing lights to let people know they can merge in was common when I was growing up, though it seems much less so now.
And don’t get me started on idiots in roundabouts. I feel like I need to write an informational article for my local area!
I’m just stuck in the slow area that’s like 3 hours from an interstate!!
YES! Haha people should be made aware on how to drive around a roundabout!
hey I’m an expat brit living in maryland and i agree with everything you say!! the only other thing i would add is that nobody shouts obscenities at you out of the window like they do back home. I once had a truck driver flip me the bird but other than that… nothing. At home, it’s relatively common!
That’s very true actually! Now one really blows their horn when someone cuts them up either!