10 Things for Brits to Know Before Hitting the U.S. Roadways

“Get your motor running, get out on the highway …” (Photo via AP)

In Los Angeles, you really can’t survive without wheels – even if you’re only here for a short time. In New York (and other cities with good public transport) it’s perhaps a little easier, but just watch a few commercials on TV and you’ll realize: Americans love their cars.

1. Paperwork, Please
Full U.K. licenses are valid for a year after arrival, but you’ll need to have had it for a least a year (and be over 21 or even 25) to hire a car. International Driving Permits (such as issued by the AA) are useful in tandem, though I only ever got blank stares when I produced it. As a resident, you’re probably going to have to make getting a state-issued license a priority.

2. Licensing Laws
Avoid a long wait and make an appointment at your local motor vehicle office (generically known as the DMV) for a temporary license (which lasts 60 days or more) while you prepare for the driving test. It’s also worth taking a lesson or two with a licensed instructor or a friend (I found left turns in big junctions terrifying!).

3. Testing Times
In California at least, the consensus among expats is that the driving test is easier than in the U.K. Arriving at the appointed time, you’ll undergo a vision test and a short multiple choice written test (buy your state’s driving handbook!) before you take to the road with the examiner in either an automatic or a “stick shift” (manual). Failing either part of the test isn’t a big issue though; re-takes can be arranged quickly.

4. Buy American?
GM, Ford and Chrysler fly the stars and stripes proudly, but ironically it’s often “foreign” (Japanese) cars like Honda and Toyota that get top marks. If you’re looking to buy there will be a car lot near you, but you can also check carmax.com. If buying a used car, make sure the seller gives you their “pink slip” or Certificate of Title (a proof of ownership listing the license plate number, year, model, vehicle ID number, last smog test etc).  

5. On The Right
Americans drive on the right, which means that the steering wheel is on the left. Thankfully, it only takes a little while to get used to this, though I still go to the “wrong” side of the car every now and then. Other changes include “Yield” instead of “Give Way”, a definite lack of roundabouts, separate lanes in the center of the road – in both directions – for turning left across traffic, and a “Stop” sign? It really means stop. On the plus side, there’s no heavy annual exam like the MOT; judging by some of the cars I have seen in L.A. it seems the only regular requirement is a smog check.  

6. Slow Down There!
One of the first things you notice is that speed limits are different – lower – than in the U.K. In California for example it’s 55 on two lane highways, while a new toll road in Texas has been mandated for an 85mph limit. Another big difference? The fact you can turn right at a red/stop light (unless otherwise indicated, and of course only if it’s safe). 

7. Gas
A topic that’s discussed almost as much as the weather is in England, it currently stands around about $4.12 here in California, though (Hawaii aside) most places are cheaper. Prices can vary from gas station to gas station, and they change frequently – especially during holidays or if the day of the week has a “y” in it.

8. Vegas, baby! Vegas!
The road trip is something that’s quintessentially American. Driving for hours – and even days – stopping only at remote truck stops, eating chewy beef jerky and chugging energy drinks is virtually a tradition. Why fly when it’s only 38 hours drive? The Easy Rider–era Route 66 across the country may have more or less gone, but a road trip is something you have to do. The four-hour impulsive trip taken from L.A. to Vegas by the guys in Swingers? Happens all the time.

9. Warning!
You’ll see that many restaurants and even bars offer free soft drinks to designated (sober) drivers, and DUI (Driving Under the Influence) is taken very seriously. Getting caught could mean arrest, license disqualification (and a subsequent rise in insurance), community service, a fine, even mandatory Traffic School. Moreover, in nearly all states it’s an offense to have an “open container” of alcohol in the car; even that corked bottle of wine you’re taking home from a dinner party is technically illegal, so put it in the trunk.

10. Parking
America is home to around 260m cars, and in many cities that means parking can be tough to find. Parking meters are probably going to be 15 minute increments in your life, so make sure you have always have quarters in the glove box, even if many meters today are credit card-friendly.

In cities like L.A. that have valet parking, giving your keys to a young chap in a waistcoat and having him park in exactly the same place you could park (if you were prepared to walk a block or two) is common at restaurants, hotels and events. There’s a fee for this of course, plus the obligatory tip – and the hope having a stranger in your car will turn out okay – and while some people always valet as a status thing, many utterly refuse to do it.

Do you drive in the U.S.?

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.
View all posts by James Bartlett.
  • gn

    1. If you talk to Americans about “hiring” a car, they will either give you a blank stare, or think you want a driver along with the car (for example a limo). It’s “renting” a car here.

    2. Passing the driving test, at least in California, is so easy it’s a joke.

    3. There are many “4-way stop” signs — i.e. intersections where every entrance has a stop sign. You must stop, make a mental note of any cars that have reached the intersection before you (from any direction) and let them go first.

    4. The speed limit is actually enforced here, unlike in the UK. Watch out for police cars hiding beside the side of the road, waiting for speeders or carpool cheaters. They also love to get you for failing to come to a complete stop at stop signs.

    5. Compared to the UK, drivers here (at least in Northern California) are less aggressive, but also generally less attentive. Watch out for cars failing to signal, exiting the freeway from the inside lane at the last minute, or pulling out onto a busy road oblivious to the traffic already on it.

    6. One of the best things about the US: latches on petrol/gas pumps so you don’t have to stand there holding the thing while you refuel. Why don’t they have them in the UK?

    • GeeBee

      Re: #4 – the speed limit is well enforced in the UK these days due to those damn camera thingies.
      “Is that box a…?” FLASH! “D’oh!”

    • Jacqueline O. Moleski

      Hire in Britain means “rent”. Hire in the US refers to a person (a mgr hires new employees). In the US you RENT a car(or any object/noun – apt, a movie, a carpet cleaner, etc). BUT it’s correct, you have to be over 25 or over 21 to rent a car. I remember, because I couldn’t rent one when I was in college.

  • Mark Smith

    We have two type of annual or biannual tests for cars in VA, as well as being required to pay for our tags (date stickers for the number plate) and personal property tax on the vehicle. Sometimes the US is just a money pit!!

  • CTMummy

    The most important rule of all:
    If a policeman stops you STAY IN THE CAR WITH YOUR HANDS VISIBLE ON THE WHEEL – they carry guns here for a reason (well they think it’s a reason)

    Best rule of all:
    You can turn right on a RED LIGHT – this makes life so much easier and according to Jeremy Clarkson, is the only good thing ever to come of American driving.

    The most annoying thing about American drivers:
    Although it is illegal to overtake (pass) on the inside in the US, nobody cares and they do it all the time, along with driving in the middle lane of the highway and travelling in the outside lane 2-3 mph faster than the inside lane. This drives me crazy, and you can’t flash your lights at the person in front like we do in Europe (road rage carries guns in the US).

    Bottom line about driving in the US:
    Don’t buy a powerful car even though when you arrive here you think gas is really cheap, because there’s no point; buy and automatic because there’s no place for the skillful driving of a nice manual gearbox; and get used to slow, what we call in Britain “Sunday Drivers”, because they’re everywhere.

    • gn

      It’s not illegal to pass on the right. It’s legal on any multi-lane street.

      Here’s the relevant section of the California code: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc21754.htm As far as I’m aware, it’s the same in other states.

    • J’nae Rae Spano

      I flash lights at people all the time that are going too slow. Road rage is more likely to happen if you cut people off, tailgate, or flip them off.

      It’s passing on the outside that is illegal, not the other way around.

      • Scott Madison

        Flashing lights is a signal that indicates that THAT person is having a road rage incident.

        • mashell

          I flash lights for 3 reasons:
          1. At oncoming traffic to let them know there is a cop shooting radar up ahead
          2. When traveling on highways to the person in front of me to please let me pass. This almost always works and rarely causes road rage
          3. To let the person in oncoming traffic know that their brights or highbeams are on and blinding me

          • Jacqueline O. Moleski

            4 — once a semi truck safely can pass you on an expressway (highway) blink your headlights. This let’s them know they can head over into your lane. Most nice, experienced truck drivers will then blink there lights to say “thanks” once they are over. This isn’t required of course, but it’s nice.

      • Jacqueline O. Moleski

        Nope — the outside lane is called the passing lane for a REASON. Technically, passing on the right is illegal – but it does happen all the time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/msowen1 Matt Owen

    Took my test in MN last January – easiest 10mins driving I’ve ever done. The test was done on a closed course – there wasn’t even another car on the course at the time!

    On using my British license, I was involved in an accident during my 2nd week here (December 2011). The police officer who interviewed me at the scene was very confused by my license and wanted to know if I could drive on it over here! :-) Hence the rush afterwards to get my US license – it’s makes it a lot easier in those situations. And Yes your British license is valid for 12 months, but once you become a Permanent resident, you may only have as a little as 30 days before your required to have a state license

    BTW: The accident was caused by an american being on the wrong side of the road! Ford F150 vs Ford Focus = lot’s of small bits of focus

  • Stacie Scattergood

    Totally disagree about lack of places to practice manual/stickshift driving–there are lots of winding roads–the 1 in California being a prime example, with gorgeous scenery. Also, many places offer an opportunity to road or drag race–just make sure the area you go to is licensed for it, and not straight out of “Grease”.
    If you drive from one state to another, make note that traffic laws can change–watch for signs that show speed limits (different from Oregon to CA, for example), right turn rules, yield across yellow rules–and the middle lane is often referred to as “the chicken lane” since that’s what it feels like when another car is hurtling towards you while you’re in it.

    • gn

      Yes. On the other hand, I would NOT recommend practising manual/stickshift driving in some parts of San Francisco. Being stuck in stop-go traffic going up incredibly steep hills like this one won’t do much for your clutch.

  • Lesley

    You missed out an important one, stop for school buses that have stopped to pick up/drop off kids. You know they have stopped because their stop signs are out and their red lights are flashing. Some states require that both sides of the highway (even a divided highway) have to stop, not just those cars behind the bus.

    • John H Harris

      It’s interesting that a lot of UK schools have bought US-built school buses. I visited southern Wales in 2007, and it was explained that “they’re built better than tanks”. Methinks Blue Bird or International would make a mint by building a few “mirror image” models for the UK/Japan/Australia market…

  • alfuso

    And things are a lot further away than they look. A British acquaintance, visiting Miami, thought he could take a day trip by car to DisneyWorld – a 5 or 6 hour drive, one way.

    • GeeBee

      Conversely the Mrs and I flew into Glasgow a couple of years ago and decided to drive the scenic route via Loch Lomond and Ft William to her mum’s in Inverness. We phoned and said we would be late. This was at 10am, and we rolled in just before 3pm to find nobody at home. Britain’s a lot smaller than it looks on the map!

      • Polly

        GeeBee, here’s a tip ….Next time don’t warn them you’re on your way. LOL

  • http://www.facebook.com/niamh17 Tracy O’Leary Robinson

    I love turning right on red its brilliant but i hate that when I put my indicators (blinkers?) on to go into the next lane the cars in the next lane always speed up to stop me doing so!!!! They NEVER give way to me which is the total opposite to what I was used to in the old country. Strangely outside the cars they are the nicest people I have ever met!

    • John H Harris

      That’s the latent NASCAR driver in all of us. You will get an occasional nice guy who will let you in, though that more often occurs at intersections.

    • http://twitter.com/MelanieGoddard Melanie Goddard

      Turn Signal (not blinkers). Blinkers are another name for Hazard Lights.

      • J’nae Rae Spano

        Funny, born and raised here in the US and turn singles are blinkers. Hazards are flashers. I suspect it’s a regional difference.

        • Josie

          Hazards are blinkers, flashers get arrested.

      • mashell

        They are blinkers in Texas and Louisiana. Lol!

    • gn

      What part of the US are you in?

  • John H Harris

    “On the right” is probably the best-known example of what a Welsh friend of mine (and fellow Trekkie) calls “Mirror Universe Moments”.

    Another, totally unconnected to driving, is about light switches.

    Over here, off is DOWN.

    • namelessanon

      Which is annoying in my house, because I’ve got 2 light switches for one light, and one of them will always be wrong. x’D

  • Surrey

    Be prepared for some terrible driving habits, and rude, insensitive drivers too. Many drivers don’t bother to indicate turns, either left or right; refuse to let you merge into traffic; expect you to always let them in, especially when they rush to the end of a closing lane, then don’t wave thanks; speed up on your right to then overtake into your lane with a hairsbreadth of room (!)… I could go on. Oh, then there are the folks on single lane, no-overtaking/passing roads, who drive under the speed limit, and drive you insane ….
    I’ve driven across the US, and lived in several states. Virginia seems to be one of the worst for all this :-(

    • namelessanon

      That happens in the UK as well. There’s practically no difference there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tylertlat Tyler Timmreck

    The speed thing really varies by state. I drive in Michigan where the highways have a speed limit of 70 M.P.H. but if you drive 80 M.P.H. on them you’re gonna be holding up traffic. At least one other state still has the 55 limit, and you Will be ticketed for going 56.

  • Catherine Amos

    Be aware that laws change from state to state and even city to city. If you’re driving across country, it’s a good idea to always wear a seat belt (you will get a ticket in Texas if you don’t), and keep your cell phone (mobile) out of sight. Some states allow talking on hands-free devices, but others will issue a ticket if you are observed using one in any manner.

    • Jacqueline O. Moleski

      Very good point. Some cities have outlawed talking on cell phones (mobiles) while driving such as Chicago. The best thing to do is contact the state tourism bureau of whatever state you will be visiting or living in. Get a state map (they are free, but you might have to pay postage if you need it mailed) the state map will point out all the local driving laws that very from general US driving laws. Remember in the US, technically there are no “national” laws on driving, everything to do with driving a car (driver’s license, car license, insurance, etc) is handled by the individual state. Yes, once you have a driver’s license from any state you can drive in any state, but watch for local changes. Oh, and in some states car insurance is MANDATORY – if you are caught without proof of insurance in the car – you’ll get a ticket and a fine.

  • Magpie123

    I’m from New Zealand and our terms and rules are very similar to the UK. One of the good things to remember here in the US when driving is, keep yourself (sitting on the left) next to the center of the road. That way it’s not so hard trying to figure it out when you’re turning left. Driving an automatic to start with makes everything so much easier, it’s one less thing you have to think about. Love the right hand turn on a red, like the four way stop thing too. I was lucky that the first 3 years here was spent in a smaller town where everyone was reasonably polite on the roads and there was less traffic to contend with. School buses here are so ugly, but in saying that, maybe it’s intentional…..someone’s tanklike comment on here now makes sense.

  • GeeBee

    IMPORTANT! Laws vary a lot, especially the “right turn on red” one. Some states have it, some don’t. NY doesn’t for instance, explained by Woody Allen as “We can’t have people making right turns on red, it would interfere with all the people going straight through on red”.
    By the way where you are allowed to do it, you MUST stop before going through. A “rolling stop” will get you a ticket.

    • gn

      I believe it’s only New York CITY where right turns are banned. The rest of New York State permits them.

  • George Berish

    Here in New England we have roundabouts. We call them rotaries. And we have center lanes for left hand turns.

  • MamaKin

    Oh, you’ll find the occasional roundabout in New Jersey – as well as left-turn lanes and the notorious jughandle, where one has to exit to the right in order to make a left. Also in NJ, passing in the right lane is deemed “unlawful”, which seems to mean “do it, but don’t get caught”. You’ll see it quite often because of drivers who will sit in the left and middle lanes driving under the speed limit.

    It is one of those states with varying speed limits, numerous hiding places for State Troopers on the highways, and the *worst* roads in America. You’ll pay a hefty fine for getting caught using your mobile without a hands-free setup, and be prepared to pay a toll to exit the Garden State, anywhere from one to 12 dollars in your personal vehicle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.hayden.5 Michael Hayden

    Important note — The drivers handbook for most states are available as a downloadable pdf from the state’s website. They will give you the basics of the rules for that state

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.hayden.5 Michael Hayden

    Review the map before you go to your destination (google is good for this). On most of the highways/freeways/motorways the exits will have numbers, as well as the name of the roadway that you will be exiting onto…… most of them. It is always good to know when you should be merging to the left or right as sometimes the other drivers will be reluctant to allow another vehicle to merge in front of them.

    • expatmum

      I would add (about driving on freeways) that they rarely put the name of the suburb or town you’re trying to get to, so as MH says, you really need to know the exit number and the name of the street. (At least in Chicago – you can drive straight past the burbs without ever realizing it.)
      You can also be happily driving along and come to a complete fork with no clear indication of where you should be driving. It might give the name of a city hundreds of miles away (like Memphis as you’re driving south out of Chicago). You need to know which freeways you’ll be taking for the whole of your journey, and if in doubt, stray straight.

    • Jacqueline O. Moleski

      Likewise, when driving cross-country (state-to-state or between major cities like Detroit & Chicago) on the Interstate expressway system ALWAYS know three things: 1. the highway number, 2. which direction you are going on the highway (N/S/E/W) 3. Major cities between where you are and where you are going. This may sound like a no brainer but expressway driving means “miles and miles of miles and miles” and it all looks the same. When you pull off to an easy off/on exit to get gas and/or food – you need to know all three to make sure you get back on the expressway going the way you want to go. The signs might just say “Detroit” and “Chicago” with no directions for example. Or, conversely, “94 East”/”94 West”. While driving cross-country the best place to stop to use the restroom (or loo) is a fast food restaurant – they are EVERYWHERE, the rest rooms are clean, and along major inter-states it’s expected; much safer and cleaner than gas stations.

  • JLo

    Here in IL you need to take a 20 question written test before you can get your license, which you need to have read the local DMV handbook for. You also can’t make appointments, you just roll up and wait your turn. The driving test is relatively easy, most local instructors will offer a test prep that covers the actual test route and maneuvers that will be on the test, mine included parking on a hill (lol, in Chicago!).

  • JLo

    Also, IL is rapidly increasing it’s use of roundabouts, and Wisconsin is full of them.

  • http://www.studioemmakaufmann.blogspot.com EmmaK

    Yes I do drive in the US. They have roundabouts in Baltimore where no one seems to know what they are doing and they are pretty scary I must say!

  • Haystack

    Speaking of gas, you may want to try and find out what the tax is on the gasoline. All states offer a “Regular” and a “Premium”, with a “Mid-Grade” in between. Gas is going to be higher in states with higher gas taxes (which I know is a no-brainer), like North Carolina. Most of our cars will run perfectly fine on regular gas. With gas at $4.12 in California, “Premium” is about the same price per gallon here in North Carolina. The drivers license test here in North Carolina is fairly easy. I’m a native and I whizzed through the “written” test (it was on a computer) but the road test was a different story. I took the road test in a Buick Skylark, which is a fairly long sedan, and it took me something like 3 or 4 times to pass. The first time I failed because the tester directed me to a very narrow road and he failed me because I allowed the front tires to leave the tarmac during the 3-point turn. The second time was because I used the mirrors to reverse the car instead of putting my right hand on the passenger side headrest and turning to look over my shoulder through the rear glass. After all this time, I can’t remember what I did, or didn’t, do the thrid time that failed me but it was some triffling little thing. So be prepared for that.

  • Jacqueline O. Moleski

    Please note — most of this article refers to CALIFORNIA – other states have other rules. Michigan for example simply doesn’t *have* a DMV (Licenses come from the Secretary of State’s office). Note also – though speed limits might seem low (55mph on divided highways, 70mph on expressways, 25-30 on city streets) “speeding” is common – keeping with traffic flow is the safest bet. Do NOT ever be the fastest or slowest car on the road – that way lies tickets (infractions) and even accidents. NEVER speed in a school zone – that way also lies tickets and it’s dangerous. ALWAYS stop for (red) traffic lights, stop signs, and flashing lights at train tracks. Be careful in deer season, an 80 lb animal hitting your car *can and does* cause a lot of damage. Deer are common throughout the Northern US.

  • http://www.wix.com/W_J_Thompson/razorsquares Bill Thompson

    Although it would seem that Mr Bartlett thinks there are but two cities in the U.S., there are actually several others between L.A. and New York. Visiting Brits might need to know that.