How to Drive in the United States
Driving in the United States is one of the best experiences you can have in this gigantic country.
Everything you can visit is impressive, from road tripping California’s West Coast, making the mythical road trip on Route 66, or crossing to Canada by car to visiting big cities and national parks that will take your breath away.
As you know, it’s our favorite way to get to see a country, especially one as big and varied as the US.
In the United States, driving is effortless, and the highways are large, very well maintained, and pretty clear signage.
Although you come from a country where you drive on the left, you will have to be more attentive than those who regularly drive on the right.
In today’s post, we share our driving experience in the United States, tips, driving rules, car rental, and other recommendations for first-time travelers or those curious about it.
Tips for Driving in the United States
These tips for driving around the United States are helpful for everyone traveling to the United States and driving a vehicle.
Tips don’t have a particular order, so consider the whole post or check the index to go to the points you are interested in most.
As in any country, there are basic driving rules that you have to consider.
- Driving on the right side of the road
- You cannot drive with a rate of more than 0.08% blood alcohol in most states. In some, the limit is 0.05%. Fines vary depending on the state.
- It is mandatory to stop at STOPS.
- It is mandatory to stop when you see a school bus with the turn signal and a STOP signal.
- It is mandatory to wear a seat belt.
- It is mandatory to respect speed limits (there are many mobile radars)
- It cannot be parked in places for the disabled (unless authorized), in areas with red or yellow lines, bus stops, or water outlets for firefighters.
- If traveling with infants or toddlers, you must carry a safety chair.
State and Federal Laws
One of the things you have to keep in mind in America is state laws and federal laws. The first are those of each state and can be different, and the second is the laws that apply equally throughout the country.
Most traffic laws are determined at the state level so that they can vary from state to state. As a result, you’ll see the speed limits, driving age, or amount of alcohol you may have in your blood change.
Age to Drive in the United States
The age at which you can legally drive in the United States varies by state. But it’s between the age of 16 and 18.
Car rental companies typically rent for over 21s and charge a fee to people under 25.
Speed Limits in the United States
Speed limits change depending on the state. So when you cross into a different state, you can see the new speed limit or if you need to turn on your lights at the border. But usually, the speed limits are as follows:
- Maximum interstate speed in rural areas is 70 mph, with 45mph minimum speed.
- On 4-lane roads, the limit is 65mph, and on the rest, it is 55mph.
- In school zones, the maximum speed is 15mph. Pay special attention in urban areas.
There are fewer radars on American roads than on European roads, but many police officers have radars in their vehicles.
Police radar measure speed in both ways, i.e., if you get a police car from the front that has a radar on a two-way road, they can fine you. I’m telling you from experience.
We were fined for speeding on a two-way road, and I think the only car we crossed was the police car.
We got a $200 fine, which we had to pay at a post office obviously before leaving the country.
Traffic lights in America are like in the rest of the world, and you have red, yellow, and green.
The difference with quite a few European countries is that the traffic light is usually found after the crossing, but you have to stop before the intersection.
Another thing is that in red, most of the time, you can turn right. Although first, you have to make a short stop and ensure it is safe to ride.
Another thing a little different is how to enter the highways; in many of them, you will find a traffic light for each lane, which is authorizing alternatively to each lane to get into the incorporation.
Something handy, by the way, and well thought out, as always don’t skip it!
Renting a Car in the United States
If you plan to rent a car (or any other vehicle), it is essential to read the rental company’s terms and conditions in the United States. Please note that contracts may vary from company to company.
In these contracts, you will see the requirements related to your rental vehicle’s insurance, the license requirements of driving, and whether or not you are allowed to cross the border outside the United States.
So if you plan to go to Mexico or Canada with your rental car, you have to have it agreed with the car rental agency to be covered if something unexpected happens.
If you have a valid driver’s license in your home country, you can rent a car in the United States. But car rental companies may incur additional charges if you are under 25 years old and may not rent under 21 years old.
If you’re under 25 years old, you’ll have a limitation on the car models you can rent.
Only declared drivers could drive a rental car. Declaring a second driver usually has an additional cost per day. In any incident, the insurance only covers if the driver is declared in the contract.
Crossing the border:
You can only cross the border with Canada or Mexico if you have contracted it. To cross into Canada, you must have the ETA or the corresponding visa.
You will be asked for a credit card to pay, and many companies make a lock on your card for a fixed amount, which covers in case of an accident.
Return the car to a different office
You usually have an extra charge that will vary depending on the state and the rental company. The cheapest thing is to return the car to the same office.
You can take out insurance at the rental company itself, or you can take it out on your own. But it would be best if you were insured; although not in all states, it is mandatory.
Refueling or Fuel Policies:
As we will pick up, the fuel or refueling policies are how we should return the gas tank from our rental car. The most common fuel policies are Full/Full and Full/empty.
- Full/full: this means you’ll pick up the car with the tank full of gas and return it full.
- Full/empty: This means you will pick up the car with the full tank, and you can return it with the deposit however you want. With this option, you will have to pay the filling plus an additional supplement the day you pick up the car.
Most cars in the United States are automatic, so it will be standard for your rental car to be automatic as well.
Some tips for driving an automatic car:
The automatic car has only two pedals: throttle and brake. With no clutch, it’s normal for your instinct to get you on the brake pedal when you want to reduce or change gears.
To keep this from happening, try to leave your left foot on the footrest and forget about it until you need to break.
The gear lever positions (are 4):
- P: Parking
- N: Neutral or deadlock
- D: Drive or position to drive and move forward
- R: Reverse
- S: Sport, some models have the option of a more sporty ride.
In some models, the P position is connected by pressing a button, and it is also necessary to step on the brake to start the vehicle or move to a moving position, either forward or reverse.
International License is not mandatory, but some rental companies may ask you to have your license in English or at least Latin characters and have a photograph.
If, for example, your driver’s license is in Chinese or Arabic, you need an international license.
Extra tip: never return your rental car late because they can charge you an extra day.
Types of roads in the US
- Interstate highway: these are the main arteries that connect the country. They are like Spanish or UK motorways. They are roads where you go faster, and there are no junctions or traffic lights.
- State highways: State roads typically have a lower speed, and the state determines the speed limit.
- Numbered highways: US Routes or US Highways were the first interstates until they were replaced in the 1950s. You will see junctions and traffic lights on these roads and recognize them by their characteristic signal, white number on black background.
- Scenic byways are routes maintained by the state and cross National Parks, forests, or other areas of interest and usually have special signage.
- Freeways: These are interstates, which are close to urban areas and have no tolls.
Stop Sign and Junctions
Besides the obvious, the stop signals indicate traffic priority, which indicates that you have to stop.
If you reach a junction with 4 stops, the first one that arrives takes preference over the others. And what do they do? Because they all stop and then start on arrival order.
So when you get to a junction and see on the right, front and left cars also arrive, you have to stop and pay attention to the one who has come before you.
If two vehicles arrive at once, the one on the right has priority.
In all cases, please pay attention; it is better to be careful and be a beep and not be the “smart one” and have an accident.
In Nantes (France), where I live, they would solve it with one or two roundabouts at the same junction (something that is a little chaotic), but in the United States, they put four stops on, and people respect it.
Passing, Who Has the Priority?
Some of the things that get weirder when it comes to driving in America:
- Whoever reaches a junction first has to stop and has priority over others.
- You can turn right with the red light, but you must stop short before turning.
- On multi-lane roads, drivers can overtake in any of the lanes. But be careful and use the blinking lights.
- It is custom to give way in the incorporations.
- Pedestrians are only allowed to cross on specially designated pedestrian crossings.
The Safety Distance
The safety distance is taken quite seriously, so don’t stick to the car in front of you.
The slow car will be thrown to the right as soon as possible.
If the road is two-way, they tell you when you can overtake with the turn signal.
Turn Right With Red Light
One of the most unusual things about Europe is that in the United States, you can turn right with the red light unless there is a signal to tell you otherwise.
Sometimes only in the right lane is allowed to make this turn. But always have to make a short stop before turning, as if there is a STOP signal, and turn only if it is safe to do so.
If you stop in the right lane in red and don’t turn, there are chances that the other drivers will remind you with the horn.
What Side of the Road does America Drive on?
On American roads, you drive on the right of the road. Rental cars have the steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle.
VAO Bus Lanes (High Occupancy)
In the highway network, you can find lanes that they call “fast” or high occupancy.
They are distinguished with a double line and only allow you to go out or enter them at particular points. But they are not bounded by any removers.
My first instinct, get in, with a continuous line or not. But, don’t do it; there’s the subject of traffic much more controlled than it looks, and by some nonsense, you can get into trouble.
You will also see that they are very respectful of traffic rules with very few exceptions.
The Number of Interstate Exits
The number of highway exits in the United States is based on miles traveled along the interstate. So, for example, if you pass exit number 120 and the next exit is 20 miles away, the exit number will be 140.
On the Spanish highways, it is so, which makes sense, but for example, in the United Kingdom, France, or Germany, the exits are in order and have no relation to the miles or kilometers traveled.
Fuel “Gas” / Gasoline Price (Gallon and Liter)
Most cars in the United States run on petrol; they call it “gas.” Diesel is used by trucks and large vehicles.
When renting your car, make sure you know what fuel it carries or if it has any special requirements, such as Premium fuel.
Gas is the cheapest fuel, and you’re going to find it at every gas station. Prices change depending on the state and are indicated by gallons. One gallon is 4.55 liters.
The average price so far in 2021 has been:
- 1 gallon: $2.75 (€2.28)
- 1 liter: $0.73 (€0.60)
If you stop by gas stations in Native American territory, the price is usually lower.
There are 24-hour credit card gas stations or gas stations with staff that usually close at night.
Some gas stations come at a price if you pay in cash, and another one is a little more expensive if you pay by card.
In some states, such as Oregon, self-service is not allowed, and you have to expect to be served by a gas station employee.
Drinking Alcohol and Driving in the USA
The blood alcohol limit in most states is 0.08%; in some, it is 0.05%.
It is best not to drink and drive, as fines can be significant. In some states, you may be fined even if you’re under the limit and if you have a passenger under 21 years old positive for alcohol.
In most states, it is mandatory to have car insurance. There are two types of insurance: liability insurance and collision/damage insurance.
- Liability insurance covers damage to third parties and their property in the event of an accident.
- Collision and damage insurance covers you and damage to your vehicle.
Civil liability insurance is mandatory in almost all states, and collision and damage insurance is optional.
I recommend you take out car insurance regardless of the state you visit.
You have to follow specific rules when you cross a school bus. However, you will easily recognize them to the typical yellow buses.
All vehicles have to stop when you see a school bus picking up or leaving passengers. When the bus stops, you will see a great stop sign in red lights on the vast majority of buses.
All vehicles have to stop (unless you go on a separate road) and wait for the bus to finish picking up or dropping off passengers.
As always, these rules can vary between states, but they apply, stop, and wait for the bus to start again in most states.
Using Your Phone While Driving
As in almost everywhere, you can’t talk or use your phone and drive simultaneously. It’s dangerous for you and the other vehicles around you.
Of course, you can be fined if you’re seen using your phone and driving. But this is America, and every state has its own rules.
There are states where you cannot manipulate your phone while driving; in others, it is only forbidden to use the internet or send texts, and there are no restrictions.
My recommendation is don’t use the phone while driving; it’s safer.
Driving with Children in the USA
If you’re traveling with children in the United States, you’re going to have to pay attention to some other rules and those mentioned above.
- Chairs and seat belt: In most states, you will need a unique chair for a baby or child, depending on height and age. In some states, it is regulated, the place and position where the chair is placed. It is best to ask at the car rental office because you must order a chair or lifter for children when you rent your vehicle.
- Smoking in the car: most car rental companies prohibit smoking in vehicle. But some states are banning smoking in the car in the presence of a minor.
What to do if the Police Stop You?
If they stop you, you have to stay inside the vehicle, your hands always on the steering wheel and the seat belt fastened.
Don’t make a single strange move inside the car; lower the window carefully; if it’s night, turn on the car’s interior lights and wait for the policeman to come near you.
If you don’t speak English, have a couple of phrases written on cardboard “I’m from China, “I don’t speak English,” give you the car papers and see what happens.
We were stopped for speeding on the road from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas. The policeman came head-on with a radar measuring speed both ways. He turned behind us like on the films, put the lights on, and fined us.
Even though he fined us, he was pretty kind to us; he told us that that road was dangerous at that time (sunset), and that’s why he had such a low-speed limit. Nothing, we were fined for our safety.
That’s why my recommendation is that you respect the speed limits, I know it’s easy to get off the American roads, we were charged a $200 fine, and I think it was on our third day of travel.
With that, we learned for the rest of that trip and the following.
Is it Easy to Drive in the United States?
From my point of view, driving in America is easy. The roads are wide, well-signposted, and in good condition.
They have some rules to follow as crossing with four stops or by the time a school bus gets off and up passengers, but in general terms, it is a “friendly” country for drivers.
Can Foreigners Drive in the US?
You can drive with a European license: yes, you can drive with your European driver’s license in the United States.
You do not need to obtain an international driver’s license for trips less than 90 days. But if your driver’s license isn’t in English, you’ll probably need it to rent a car.
It is best to consult it when the rental car.
Can you drive in the USA with a UK Licence: Yes, you can drive with your UK driving license in the United States.
It is not necessary to obtain an international driving license for less than 90-day trips.
Can you drive in the USA with an Australian Licence: Yes, you can drive with your UK driving license in the United States.
It is not necessary to obtain an international driving license for less than 90-day trips. It is best to check it at the time of rental.
Note: Likely, you won’t be able to rent a car with a provisional driver’s license.
Plan Your Trip to the United States
- Car rental
- Rent an RV for your trip
- Travel insurance with COVID-19 coverage
- Tips and documentation needed to travel to the USA
- Route 66 Planning and Budgeting
- 5 days in New York
- Road Trip West Coast United States
Have you traveled and driven through the United States? What recommendations would you give to a future traveler?
Disclosure: Some of the links on this post are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Last Updated on 14 March, 2023 by Veronica
This is such a well laid out blog, Veronica!
It’s fully of amazing Information which is super helpful and very easy to read and gather everything you need!
I’m from the UK and I’m currently in the US now, so It has taken a little getting used to with the slightly different laws and how it varies, but I’m getting there!