I’ve heard it said a few times that the UK is like the US, but on opposite day. No statement could be truer when it comes to driving. As a Briton, born and bred, with newly minted US citizenship (after years of toil, thankyouverymuchimmigrationservices) I am blessed with the experiences of driving in both of these different lands, that are united by a common tongue. If only the two countries were united by common road laws!
Like British actors mastering American accents, it seems to be easier for Brits to adapt to driving in the US, and harder for Americans to adapt to driving in the UK (as well as harder to adopt British accents!)
With this hardship in mind, I’ve compiled an American guide to driving in the UK. So if you’re planning on 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 UK from someone who knows!
Table of Contents
- 1. Tips for Renting Cars in the UK.
- 2. Automatic vs Manual Gearboxes.
- 3. When in Rome, drive what the Romans drive.
- 4. Drive on the LEFT side of the road in the RIGHT side 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, er, gas.
- 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. Driving with kids.
- 15. Police and Emergency Services.
- 16. (Most) Brits Drive Fast, but not Furious
- 17. No Road Rage! That Horn is for Signalling!
- 18. Don’t they speak English in England?!
1. Tips for Renting Cars in the UK.
Does an American driving license work in the UK? Yes! American driving records in the UK and American driving requirements in the UK are minimal. When renting a car in the UK, you’ll typically need to provide your passport along with your drivers license at the rentership.
How old do you need to be to drive in the UK? 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 drivers 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 beuracracy, however a definfing feature of Brexit in practice is the increase of paperwork and beuracracy, 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 rentership, but know that any insurance will be pricy, although it is possible to get discounts depending on your credit card or bank.
It is also possible that your current 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 Gearboxes.
Driving in the UK as an American can be complicated from the getgo, because we’re spoiled with automatic transmissions! The vast majority of cars in the UK have a manual gearbox.
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. This is not the place for you to learn how to drive stick, it is WILDLY differnet from driving an automatic.
Even if you are comfortable with stick, don’t get cocky, because you’re still riding on the other side of the road, and there’s going to be enough different about driving here that’ll need your full attention.
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3. When in Rome, drive what the Romans drive.
You’ll notice that most people in the UK drive smaller hatchbacks and saloons instead of SUVs and minivans, which is the reverse in the US.
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 rural roads
- Easier to park on the many narrow streets
- Potentially cheaper parking, insurance, and rental fees
4. Drive on the LEFT side of the road in the RIGHT side of the car.
The British are in that select minority of nations that drives on the LEFT SIDE of the road. If you are an American driving in Britain, DO NOT GET THIS WRONG.
Recent instances of forgetful Americans driving in England have increased the percent accidents cause wrong side, 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) – BEAR WITH ME.
This meant that virtually everyone in Europe was right hand dominant, and this affected everything, particularly warfare and combat.
Whether you were a militia levy, yeoman, or a knight, your weapon would be in your right hand, because striking someone down with your left hand would be killing in Lucifer’s name.
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 obviously FAR easier than allowing left-handed people to be left-handed!
For whatever reasons, this tradition 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 stick, remember, certain things in the cabin are reversed from American cars.
One thing that is the same is the pedal layout, accelerator on the left, brake on the right, only in your manual British car their will be a third pedal after the brake – the clutch!
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5. Overtake, but never Undertake.
Overtaking is done on the right and make sure 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 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 US, it’s not to the same degree as the UK. Why? For the simple fact it’s smaller.
Journeys are shorter, and the differences between a motorway, to a dual carriage way, to a single carriage way, to 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 do watch out for when driving in rural areas.
A lot of 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 be the ones with the poorest maintainenace 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 that the speed limit is anywhere 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 restriced 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.
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7. UK Road Signs, Road Markings, Crossings and Traffic Lights.
Did you know that the UK was the first nation to pioneer standardized road signs? Well now you do, and judging by the number of them along highways and byways, it’s clear the British are quite fond of them!
Many UK traffic signs are similar enough to US 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 of the center road markings will be the same as in the US, and follow the same rules, but they are painted white instead of yellow.
From there the similarities end, as again, the British are overly fond of gratuitous, confusing road markings. The last time I was there I’d forgotten what it was like and felt I was landing on an aircraft carrier any time I took a spin.
It’s a really good idea to familiarize yourself with what these markings mean from the UK’s Highway Code.
Luckily, rules regarding traffic lights are pretty much identical in the US and UK, unfortunately the pedestrian crossings that many of these traffic lights govern are not the same.
Again, the UK has a plethora of different types of pedestrian crossings. All have different layouts and sub-rules, but they all follow the main principle that whenever a pedestrian steps into the road, the pedestrian has right of way. 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 US (I actually got into a debate with US chum who said roundabouts and traffic circles were their own entitites, but whatever) roundabaouts are everywhere, as they are used in place of the 4-way intersections common to the US.
They seem to scare the bejeezus out of most Americans, but honestly 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
- 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 4 exits, 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, keep left, 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 limit differs 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 limit will be regularly signposted. As a rule of thumb, the speed limit in urban areas is 30mph, unless signposted otherwise.
PRO TIP: A larger speed limit sign tells you that the speed limit is changing to that speed, a smaller one is essentially a reminder of the spped limit on that current stretch of road.
While there are fewer traffic cops in the UK and no such thing as state troopers, there’s plenty of speed cameras (aka piggy banks) that 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) and feel comfortable in the fact you won’t get a ticket.
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10. Parking, Toll Roads, and Congestion Charges.
There is a finite amount of free parking in the UK, most of the convenient spots it being restricted to supermarkets and certain streets at certain times of day. Always keep a stash of pound coins in your car for the inevitable parking struggles you’ll face. In certain towns and cities, you can pay for parking on your phone.
Be warned; in certain cities only certain vehicles can park in certain areas, and this can come down to the difference between a hatchback or a stationwagon. It’s infuriating.
Speaking of parking in towns (and things that are infurating), there are certain zones in a few major cities (most notably London) that you will have to pay a congestion charge just to drive around the city. You can do this at certain retailers, but it’s easiesst on the phone – just 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, its almost always better to use the cabs and/or the 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, er, gas.
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 the gallon.
Also take note of the pumps. Each handle is color coded for the type of fuel. There will typically be 3 pumps; 2 for petrol (gas) and 1 for diesel. When filling, you’ll have to keep your hand on the pump, 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 get very good mileage, but if you put gas in them, you’ll break the engine. Make sure you know which sort of fuel your car runs on!
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For finding your way around, roadmaps are handy, as is a SatNav (short for Satellite Navigation), which is what the Brits call a GPS. Don’t rely on your phone for directions as they do struggle with pathfinding some of the more narrow city streets, rural streets, and your data or cell coverage might also have trouble in rural areas.
Not only that, British road law is crazy strict when it somes to cell phone use. Technically, you’re only allowed to TOUCH your phone in your car when the vehicle’s 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. Obviosuly it is one seatbelt per occupant and it is the driver’s responsibility to 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 if you have a medical exemption, which you will have to prove.
Also there is a national loathing of drink drivers. Don’t do it; not only is it illegal, stupid, selfish, and irresponsible, the fine will ruin you, your license likely will be confiscated, and you will be loathed on a national level.
14. Driving with kids.
If you’re bringin kids, you might have to invest in child car seats. The rules are infuritating, but they must be followed.
Children under 12 years old or under 135cm tall (4’4″) must use a child car seat. If they are over 12 or 135cm (whichever happens first), they can use a regular seat and seatbelt.
Be warned; the UK only allows car seats approved by the EU. So yeah, Brexit clearly worked.
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15. Police and Emergency Services.
Do your best to safely make way for any police, ambulances, fire engines, or doctors (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 rental and the MOT certificate – this is 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 US, it’s clear to me Brits are generally the more competent and curtious 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.
Also, watch out for the dreaded White Van Man. White Van Man is a delivery driver, or courier, that will drive very fast and very 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 Signalling!
Road rage incidents are severly prosecuted in the UK. Even honking your horn innapropriately can constitute a fine.
The only time to use your car horn is to alert someone to your presence, which is super handy in those winding countryside roads.
18. Don’t they speak English in England?!
Yes smartass, but they don’t necessarily speak English in Wales! If you’re driving from England to Wales, you will notice that many of the 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.
This measure is starting to lose steam however, as it was recently pointed out that there are more residents in Scotland that speak exclusively Polish than there are those who only speak Scots Gaelic.
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