I’ve heard it said a few times that the UK is like the U.S., but on “opposite day.” No statement could be truer when it comes to driving.
As a Briton, born and bred with newly minted U.S. citizenship (after years of toil), I am blessed with the experiences of driving in these different lands united by a common tongue. If only the two countries were united by common road laws!
Like British actors mastering American accents, it seems easier for Brits to adapt to driving in the U.S. and harder for Americans to adapt to driving in the UK (as well as harder to adopt British accents!)
Considering this hardship, I’ve compiled an American guide to driving in the UK. So, if you’re planning a trip to Old Blighty and intend to drive there, don’t leave without reading these things to know as an American driving in the United Kingdom. Take it from someone who knows!
What We Cover
- Essential Tips for Tourists Driving in the UK
- 1. Tips for Renting Cars in the UK
- 2. Automatic vs Manual Transmission
- 3. When In Rome, Drive What The Romans Drive
- 4. Drive On The Left Of The Road And On The Right Of The Car
- 5. Overtake, But Never Undertake
- 6. The Roads Be Different…
- 7. UK Road Signs, Road Markings, Crossings, and Traffic Lights
- 8. Here We Go Round The Roundabout!
- 9. Speed Limits and Speed Cameras
- 10. Parking, Toll Roads, and Congestion Charges
- 11. Keep An Eye On Your Petrol
- 12. Get Maps and a SatNav (GPS), and Don’t Touch Your Phone!
- 13. ALWAYS Wear a Seatbelt and DON’T Drink and Drive
- 14. Special Rules For Driving With Kids
- 15. Police and Emergency Services
- 16. (Most) Brits Drive Fast, but Not Furious
- 17. No Road Rage! That Horn is for Signaling!
- 18. Don’t They Speak English in England?!
- Summary Information for Driving in the UK
Essential Tips for Tourists Driving in the UK
1. Tips for Renting Cars in the UK
Does an American driving license work in the UK? Yes! American driving requirements in the UK are minimal. When renting a car in the UK, you’ll typically need to provide your passport and driver’s license at the rental car office.
You need to be at least 17 years old and have a legal license to drive in the UK, but most renterships won’t rent out cars to anyone under 21. You don’t need an international driver’s permit, but having one isn’t a terrible idea – I only say this because of Brexit.
Among the reasons behind this voluntary foot-shooting was to minimize paperwork and bureaucracy. However, a defining feature of Brexit in practice is the increase in paperwork and bureaucracy, and the rentership in question might require a little extra proof that you can drive safely.
Insurance is a must. This isn’t just my normal tirade of “it’s better to have and not need than need and not have.” You need car insurance to drive in the UK, even if it’s a rental.
Luckily, you can sort out insurance through the rental car company. Know that any insurance will be pricy, although it is possible to get discounts depending on your credit card or bank.
Plus, you should have travel insurance in case of any accidents as well. We recommend using VisitorsCoverage as you can compare multiple insurance policies in one place and get a custom-tailored plan for your needs.
It is also possible that your current rental car insurance policy has a transfer clause for driving in the UK, but these are rare. It’s still worth checking before you go.
2. Automatic vs Manual Transmission
Driving a manual car in the UK as a tourist can be complicated because we’re spoiled in the States with automatic transmissions! The vast majority of cars in the UK have a manual transmission.
Although there is an ongoing shift towards automatic transmissions in the UK, most cars are still stick-shifts, and automatic cars are scarcer and more expensive to buy or rent.
If you’re not familiar with a stick shift or are more comfortable with an automatic, suck up the extra cost and pay for the automatic transmission. This is not the place to learn how to drive a stick. It is WILDLY different from driving an automatic.
Even if you are comfortable with a stick, don’t get cocky because you’re still riding on the other side of the road. There’s going to be enough difference about driving here that’ll need your full attention.
See related: Fascinating United Kingdom Nicknames to Know
3. When In Rome, Drive What The Romans Drive
You’ll notice that most people in the UK drive smaller hatchbacks and sedans instead of SUVs and minivans. It’s much better to drive a smaller car in the UK than it is to drive a giant, honking SUV for a few reasons:
- Better gas mileage – gas is expensive in Europe
- Easier to maneuver through tight city streets and winding narrow roads
- Easier to park on the many narrow streets
- Potentially cheaper parking, insurance, and rental fees
4. Drive On The Left Of The Road And On The Right Of The Car
The British are in that select minority of nations that drive on the LEFT SIDE of the road. If you are an American driving in Britain, DO NOT GET THIS WRONG. You must ensure you are in the correct lane before accessing any road. It doesn’t matter if it is a small side street or not.
Recent instances of forgetful Americans driving in England have increased the percentage of fatal accidents, giving Britons an increased distrust of American drivers. Be bloody careful.
So why do they drive on the left? Catholicism! In medieval Europe, where literal interpretations of the Bible were the only sources of wisdom and knowledge, it was deemed that left-handedness (or at least left-hand dominance) was a sign of satanic evil.
This is where we get the word SINISTER from (sinister is Latin for left and all Bibles were written in Latin). This meant that virtually everyone in Europe was right-hand dominant, affecting everything, particularly warfare and combat.
Whether you were a militia levy, yeoman, or a knight, your weapon would be in your right hand. Striking someone down with your left hand would be killing in Lucifer’s name.
Yup. Concerning combat on horseback and jousting in tournaments, the typical course of action was to charge your opponent and either skewer them with your lance, slash them with the sword, or cave their heads or ribcages in with a mace – which would always be in your right hand.
How do you ensure that your right hand can whack your opponent? By riding on the left, because that was FAR easier than allowing left-handed people to be left-handed!
For whatever reason, this tradition is stuck in the British Isles, and it doesn’t just mean that people drive on the left side of the road. It means people drive from the RIGHT side of the car!
Yup, the driver’s seat in a British car is on the right, meaning you change gears and use the parking break with your left hand. Again, even if you are comfortable driving a stick, remember certain things in the cabin are reversed from American cars.
One thing about manual cars in the UK that is the same is the pedal layout, with the accelerator on the right and the brake on the left. Only in your manual British car will a third pedal – the clutch!
See related: Best insurance deals for travelers to the UK
5. Overtake, But Never Undertake
Overtaking is done on the right, and ensure you are in a spot where you can safely and legally overtake someone before you go for it. Never try to overtake on the left. Known as an undertaking, this can be met with a hefty fine.
6. The Roads Be Different…
As well as remembering to drive on the left, you also have to remember that the roads themselves are different – the biggest difference you will notice immediately is that ALL roads are much thinner in the UK.
While we get a lot of variety in roads across the U.S., it’s not the same as in the UK. Why? For the simple fact, it’s smaller.
Journeys are shorter, and the differences between a motorway, a dual carriageway, a single carriageway, and one of the many tiny, winding rural roads wide enough for one vehicle are huge – and because of short journeys, the likelihood of hitting each of these road types in ONE journey is huge too.
If you can safely drive in America, you should be fine with most roads in the UK, but watch out for when driving in rural areas.
Many roads in rural areas are wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, meaning that you may have to stop or reverse a bit to let someone through. Frequently, they will have blind corners, slopes, and tall hedgerows on either side, making it difficult to see what’s ahead.
These rural roads tend to have the poorest maintenance, and many of them have what is referred to as a National Speed Limit (marked with a white sign with a thick, black bar running diagonally through it).
This means the speed limit is up to 60mph, and locals will frequently bomb through these thin, winding roads at 60mph. You don’t have to go that fast, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
Tight streets aren’t restricted to the countryside either, as most of Britain’s older cities, towns, villages, and hamlets will have pretty skinny roads around the center of town.
See related: Best United Kingdom Beaches to Visit (Ranked!)
7. UK Road Signs, Road Markings, Crossings, and Traffic Lights
Did you know that the United Kingdom was the first nation to pioneer standardized road signs? Well, now you do, and judging by the number of them you’ll find along highways and byways, it’s clear the British are quite fond of them!
Many UK traffic signs are similar enough to U.S. ones for you to make an educated guess as to what they mean, but you should definitely take the time to study them before you start driving and obey all posted speed limits and road signs.
The same goes for road markings. Most center road markings will be the same as in the U.S. and follow the same rules, but they will be painted white instead of yellow.
From there, the similarities end, as again, the British are overly fond of gratuitous (and sometimes confusing) road markings. The last time I was there, I’d forgotten what it was like to drive in the UK and felt I was landing on an aircraft carrier any time I took a spin.
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with what these markings mean from the UK’s Highway Code. Luckily, traffic light rules are identical in the U.S. and UK.
Unfortunately, the pedestrian crossings that many of these traffic lights govern are different. Again, the UK has many types of pedestrian crossings on lane roads.
All have different layouts and sub-rules, but they all follow the main principle that the pedestrian has the right of way whenever a pedestrian steps into the road. In any case, study the highway code to get familiar with these crossings.
8. Here We Go Round The Roundabout!
Frequently referred to as “traffic circles” here in the U.S. (I actually got into a debate with U.S. chum who said roundabouts and traffic circles were their entities, but whatever), roundabouts are everywhere, as they are used in place of the 4-way intersections common to the U.S.
They seem to scare the bejeezus out of most Americans driving in the UK, as it’s easy to end up on the wrong side of the road driving right at oncoming traffic. Still, roundabouts are safe, pretty easy to get the hang of and ensure that traffic is more or less constantly flowing rather than waiting.
You’ll always enter a roundabout from the left of the roundabout, and you’ll always turn left to exit a roundabout. There are at least 4 “exits” on every roundabout:
- 1st exit = the first left at the mouth of a roundabout
- 2nd exit = essentially going straight across a roundabout (not literally, of course)
- 3rd exit = the road on your right, perpendicular to your entry point
- 4th exit = going back down the road you started on (if there are no other exits)
Much larger roundabouts will have more than four exits and several lanes and might be managed by traffic lights, too. Again, the Highway Code (rules 184-190) is your best reference for how to tackle roundabouts, but here are a few hot tips that helped me when I was learning to drive:
- On 1st and 2nd exits, say in the left lane, but watch for traffic on your right.
- On multilane roundabouts, exit on the outside lane.
- Signal your every maneuver, e.g., for the 3rd exit, signal right as you go round the roundabout, and then signal left when you’re turning off.
- NEVER drive over a roundabout, even mini-roundabouts.
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9. Speed Limits and Speed Cameras
Car speeds and road speed limits are measured and signposted in miles per hour, NOT kilometers per hour. Why? Hell, if I know, seeing as Brits measure virtually everything else in the metric system.
The UK speed limits differ depending on the road. On motorways (M roads like the M1 or M25), the speed limit is 70mph and will be marked with the National Speed Limit signpost. Anywhere else outside of a motorway that you see this signpost, the limit is 60mph.
Outside of these areas, the speed limits will be regularly signposted. As a rule of thumb, the speed limit in urban areas is 30 mph unless signposted otherwise.
While there are fewer traffic cops in the UK and no such thing as state troopers (thank goodness), plenty of speed cameras (aka piggy banks) can and WILL catch you out if you are speeding.
Even if everyone is going 80mph on the motorway, don’t be tempted to join in. Just move to the slow lane (furthest left lane) and feel comfortable that you won’t get a ticket.
10. Parking, Toll Roads, and Congestion Charges
There is a finite amount of free parking in the United Kingdom. Most convenient parking spots are restricted to supermarkets and certain streets at certain times of the day.
Always keep a stash of pound coins in your car for your inevitable parking struggles. You can pay for parking on your phone in certain towns and cities.
Be warned: in certain cities, only certain parked cars are allowed in an area. Certain areas can come down to distinguishing between a hatchback and a station wagon. It’s infuriating.
Speaking of parking in towns (and infuriating things), there are certain zones in a few major cities (most notably London) where you must pay a congestion charge to drive around the city.
You can do this at certain retailers, but it’s easiest on the phone – make sure you do it BEFORE you enter the city, and if you are using a phone, park up before using it.
This isn’t something you can get around, sadly. If you drive around in London without paying the congestion charge, you will be found out and ticketed, as though by some malevolent magic. If traversing London, it’s almost always better to use cabs and London’s superb public transport.
There are a few toll roads in the UK to be aware of. These tolls are typically paid at booths at the start of the toll zone but can also be paid via phone.
11. Keep An Eye On Your Petrol
It’s a good thing European cars get such good mileage because gas stations are far more sparsely distributed in the UK. Fuel is also much more expensive in Europe and sold by the liter, not by gallon.
Also, take note of the pumps. Each handle is color-coded for the type of fuel. There will typically be three pumps: 2 for petrol (gas) and 1 for diesel.
You’ll have to keep your hand on the pump when filling, as there are no toggles to keep the lever pressed for you while you fill.
Do note that most rental cars in the UK are diesel, which gets very good mileage, but if you put gas in them, you’ll break the engine. Make sure you know which sort of fuel your rental car runs on!
See related: Fun Facts About London
Roadmaps are handy for finding your way around, as is a SatNav (short for Satellite Navigation), which is what the Brits call a GPS.
Don’t rely on your phone for directions with Google Maps (have your co-pilot do that) as they struggle with pathfinding some of the more narrow city streets and rural streets, plus your data or cell coverage might also have trouble in rural areas.
Not only that, British road law is crazy strict when it comes to cell phone use. Technically, you can only TOUCH your phone in your car when the engine is off.
13. ALWAYS Wear a Seatbelt and DON’T Drink and Drive
These should be obvious, but if you are in a car and the engine is on, you must wear a seatbelt. There is one seatbelt per occupant, and the driver must ensure everyone is belted. British police are very strict about this, and the fines are hefty.
There are exceptions for this, but only if you are a cab driver (I know, it’s weird) and have a medical exemption, which you must prove.
Also, there is a national loathing of drunk drivers. Don’t do it; not only is it illegal, stupid, selfish, and irresponsible, the fine will ruin you, your license will likely be confiscated, and you will be loathed nationally.
14. Special Rules For Driving With Kids
Children under 12 years old or under 135cm tall (4’4″) must use a child car seat. They can use a regular seat and seatbelt if they are over 12 or 135cm (whichever happens first). Be warned: the UK only allows car seats approved by the EU. So yeah, Brexit worked.
See related: Best Castles in London You Need to See
15. Police and Emergency Services
Do your best to safely make way for any police, ambulances, fire engines, or doctors and organ/blood transfusion couriers (denoted by green flashing lights) coming up behind you.
If you are told to pull over by police, do so immediately and follow all instructions. They will typically ask you for your license, proof of the car rental, and the MOT certificate – a government certificate of the vehicle’s roadworthiness that should be in the glove compartment.
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16. (Most) Brits Drive Fast, but Not Furious
Is it safe to drive in the UK as an American? Yes! A recent study has found that Britons are the safest drivers in Europe!
This may be an unpopular opinion, but after driving in both the UK and the U.S., it’s clear to me, at least, that Brits are generally the more competent and courteous when it comes to driving. That said, they drive MUCH faster on much skinnier roads. Try not to be intimidated by it, and don’t feel like you have to match the speed limits.
Also, watch out for the dreaded “White Van Man.” The White Van Man is a delivery driver, self-employed contractor, or courier who drives very fast and aggressively in his white van, typically a white Ford Transit. They are real and they are the devil.
17. No Road Rage! That Horn is for Signaling!
Road rage incidents are severely prosecuted in the UK. Even honking your horn inappropriately can constitute a fine. The only time to use your car horn is to alert someone to your presence, which is super handy on those winding countryside roads.
See related: Charming Villages in England to Visit
18. Don’t They Speak English in England?!
Yes, but they don’t necessarily speak English in Wales! If you’re driving from England to Wales, you will notice that many road signs and markings are written in Welsh. Don’t panic! There should be a corresponding sign or marking in English next to it.
Similar things are starting to happen in Scotland. To promote Scottish identity, the anti-UK Scots government has started implementing roadsigns in Scots Gaelic. However, this measure is starting to lose steam.
Summary Information for Driving in the UK
|30 mph (urban areas), 60 mph (single carriageways), 70 mph (dual carriageways/motorways)
|Different from US road signs
|Common in the UK, may be confusing for Americans
|Americans can drive in the UK for up to 12 months with a valid US driver’s license, after which they must obtain a UK license
|Required by law, can be expensive for non-UK residents
|Sold by the liter, petrol (gasoline) is more expensive in the UK
|May be difficult to find in busy areas, pay attention to parking signs and regulations
|Some roads and bridges have tolls, be aware of payment methods
|Available at most airports and major cities, book in advance
|Available in most cities, including buses, trains, and the London Underground
|Recommended for navigation, but be aware of differences in UK and US addresses
|Follow local customs, be polite and patient on the road