Driving in the USA: top tips

Ford Mustang
16 Aug, 2018 11:20am Martin Saarinen

Before planning that American road trip or fly-drive holiday, check out our guide to driving in the US

Some think that the only compulsory requirement for driving in America is V8 motor, but they would be so very wrong. Driving stateside is remarkably different to driving in the UK, or anywhere in Europe for that matter, which is why we have gathered all the tips and advice you need to successfully navigate the States highways.

Aside from anything else, driving in the US can be a necessity rather than a luxury thanks to a lack of public trains and buses, but that isn’t a bad thing. Gems such as the Pacific Coastal Highway and Route 66 make driving a hire car quite the adventure. Add to that the allure of American car culture (as seen on TV no less) and it's no wonder tourists from all over the world leap at the chance to try US roads.

International driving permit: do i need one?

One area the States really excels is the choice of hire cars. You can get behind the wheel of family-friendly minivans, muscle cars, picks-ups and full-fat RVs – there really is something for everyone. With it’s wide-open highways and urban ‘blocks’, it shouldn’t matter how big a car you hire, making progress is pretty straightforward – especially compared to some European road networks.

There are some elements of US driving that take some getting used to though, including driving on the right. You’ll also need to get used to undertaking on the freeways, and going wheel-to-wheel with the massive pick-up trucks so loved by the locals, as well as knowing and understanding rules of the road that – for example – allow you to ‘turn on red’ at traffic lights.

So whether you’re planning a route across the US, or just want to say you’ve spent a day in a convertible muscle car on your US holiday, before you start hunting down those US rental car companies, scroll down to read our tips and advice on all the paperwork, rules of the road and knowledge you need to have fun and stay safe – and legal – on your US road trip.

Read on for our detailed guide to the documents, equipment and road etiquette you need to drive legally and confidently in the USA. 

Which documents do I need to drive in the US?

You’ll be glad to hear that you can rent a car in the US with your UK licence. The US has an agreement with the UK whereby a full and valid UK driver’s licence permits vehicle rental in the States, you will have to have held your licence for over a year.

In most cases you have to be above 21 but some companies will insist that you’re 25 before handing you the keys to a rental car. A passport and visa are obvious requirements to enter the country, and will be needed to rent a car as well.

Tips for renting a car in the US

Wherever you will be driving, you’re most likely to spend at least some of the time on the motorway. Motorways, or interstates, extend for miles without a kink in the wide open spaces of America, which is why we recommend getting a car with enough oomph to make the journey smooth and comfortable. Anything with a 2.0 litre diesel or petrol will do just fine but smaller cars that work so well on European roads might not cut the mustard.

What do I need to carry in my car when driving in the USA?

US laws do not necessitate reflective jackets, but your car must come with warning triangles that can be placed by the roadside. 

Most US states have banned using a phone while driving, but even if there are no specific laws prohibiting it, we recommend you using a hands free system at all timers when driving.

Radar detectors are also allowed in most states, though areas near military bases will have specific laws banning their use. Washington D.C. is one of the states prohibiting the use of radar detectors, but the fixed location speed camera alerts on your sat-nav are unlikely set the highway patrol after you.

You must carry a proof of insurance and ownership of the vehicle at all times. If the vehicle is a rental, you will be provided with all the necessary documents to carry.

Checklist for driving in the USA

  • Full and valid driver’s licence
  • Proof of Insurance
  • Passport/national ID
  • Warning triangles 

What is the alcohol limit for driving in the US?

There is no US law that requires you to carry a breathalyser, but the country is cracking down on drink driving. Each state has its own blood alcohol limit, and the most common level we found was 0.08 per cent, the same as in England and Wales.

US highway toll fees and petrol prices

The US has road tolls that you should be aware of. Tolls are often placed before entering cities and usually charge a standard fee. For example, entering New York will cost $14.00, or $9.75 during off peak hours.

If UK fuel prices give you nightmares you will be sleeping soundly while visiting the US. Petrol and diesel priced at around 40p per litre means you can afford to rent that big V8 muscle car for the week and not worry about turning off the air-con.

Driving in the USA: insurance and breakdown cover

Since you’re likely to be renting a car in the US, we suggest you spend a little extra on insurance and breakdown cover. You’ll be driving on unfamiliar roads and the premiums the hire companies ask are usually quite reasonable.

Driving in the USA: top tips

Watch out for undertaking

Undertaking is perhaps the biggest culture shock for UK motorists on US roads. Undertaking is not illegal, and is exercised on most motorways. US drivers aren’t particularly fond of indicating for direction change, either, which will make you watch your mirrors even more closely.

Right turns at red lights

You’re also allowed to turn right when a traffic light is red, provided that there is no oncoming traffic.

Take your turn at the crossroads

If you come to a four-way intersection without lights, the car that arrived first has priority and then the next. This will take some getting used to, so when approaching intersections slow down and keep an eye out on who’s arrived to the stop mark when. 

What are your top tips for driving in the US? let us know in the comments section below...

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