A car is following a winding road while driving in the right lane
There are a few things you need to know when navigating foreign streets.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / katiisoup

What You Need to Know About Driving in the UK vs the US

Getting Around Overseas

Renting a car is a great way to explore a country independently, allowing you to see small towns, villages and other places you probably wouldn’t be able to experience through public transportation or on a tour. You can do what you want, when you want through the freedom of the open road.

But driving in the U.K. vs the U.S. does differ, and thus getting into a car overseas and hitting the road does present some challenges.

If you’re planning a family road trip or hopping across the pond, there are different road rules to follow, sometimes different driving styles to grow accustomed to, and a different side of the road to drive on. All of this can be stressful and confusing, especially during the first few days when you’re still struggling with jet lag.

While things are more difficult for Americans driving in the U.K. for the first time due to the narrower roads and roundabouts, there are things Europeans need to know about driving in America for the first time as well, which is why we’ve got everyone covered.

Driving in the United States

The United States has a good system of streets and highways, however public transportation is lacking, unless you plan to stick to major cities such as New York and Chicago. In those places, you may be better off without a car.

Otherwise, due to the sheer size of the country, traveling by car is the best way to get around and see the sights of “real” America.

That said, U.K. drivers tend to have an easy time navigating the roads in the United States as there are plenty of wide lanes, simple road layouts, few roundabouts and lots of signs — all of which are in English.

You will need to get used to driving on the right-hand side of the road, but it doesn’t take long to make that adjustment. Driving near huge semi-trucks and monster-sized pickup trucks can be a little stressful, but before long you’ll be going with the flow like everyone else.

Here are some tips for Brits driving in America that’ll make the experience easier.

Review Road Rules

Your driving experience will be far less stressful if you familiarize yourself with the road rules before you go. Speed limits can vary greatly between states, so the best option is to pay close attention to signs and stick to the posted speed limit — in many places there will be police officers and state troopers checking your speed with mobile speed cameras.

You should also be aware that speed limits may be enforced differently depending on the state you’re driving in. For example, in California, it’s common to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit — in fact, if you don’t, you may find yourself among a lot of angry drivers.

But in other states, such as Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado, you might be pulled over for barely exceeding that posted speed limit. Your best bet is to stick to the speed limit and drive in the slow lane on the highway — the one furthest to the right — until you get more familiar with the lay of the land.

Some of the key differences in road rules include watching out for undertaking, arguably the biggest culture shock for U.K. drivers on roads in the United States. It’s common and legal, and local drivers don’t always indicate direction change, which means you’ll have to be extra cautious and watch those mirrors closely.

Unlike the United Kingdom, you can turn right when a traffic light is red, after coming to a full stop, as long as there is no oncoming traffic. When you come to a four-way intersection without lights, the car that arrived first has priority.

If you both reach it at the same time, the driver to the right goes first.

Driving on the Opposite Side

You’ll be driving on the right side of the road, so just remember to think “right.” The cars are also built so that the drivers sits on the left-hand side of the car instead of right, and changing gears is done with the opposite hand as well.

You can eliminate that by renting an automatic, which are commonly driven in the United States. Either way, when you first get in your car, take time to get familiar with where everything is and how it feels to drive.

You may even want to practice driving around in a parking lot first.

Keep in mind that left-turning traffic must cross oncoming traffic, and that traffic in traffic circles goes counterclockwise. As mentioned, because this is a new experience for you, it’s best to drive in the far right lane on the highway, or the “slow” lane, allowing fast drivers pass on your left.

Driving in Europe

Driving in Europe brings more challenges for drivers from the United States, as the road rules can vary significantly depending on the country, the roads tend to be much narrower and there are countless roundabouts to navigate. Here are some U.K. driving tips for visitors that will help you out.

Drive What the Locals Do

There’s a reason you’ll rarely see SUVs and other huge cars on the road in Europe. Most drive small cars, which makes it easier to negotiate tight parking spots and narrow streets.

You’ll save on gas too, which tends to be a lot pricier in Europe. The majority of vehicles have a manual transmission, which is your cheapest option, but be sure you’re comfortable driving one, or go with an automatic.

You’ll need to book well in advance to be sure one is available.

Review the Road Rules

It’s surprising how many people don’t take time to do this, but like Europeans driving in the U.S., it’s also imperative that you read up on the road rules of your destination before you go.

Again, while this varies significantly depending on the country, some key differences when driving in the U.K. from the U.S.A. are that you cannot turn right on a red light, and there’s a good chance you’ll need to leave your headlights on day or night.

In many places, honking your horn is illegal unless it’s a true emergency.

Get Maps

Your GPS may not always work, and in some cases, even numbered routes are little more than dirt roads. Anticipate some confusion, and review maps as much as you can before you travel.

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Roundabouts are scattered throughout continental Europe, where vehicles move counterclockwise, which means you can navigate them like you would at home. But in the British Isles, where traffic flows clockwise, it can be confusing.

Plus they require a snap decision about something you aren’t totally sure of: where to exit. Just remember, you can go around in a circle as long as you need to until you figure it out.

If it’s really complex, you’ll see a diagram that shows the layout and various exits.

Driving Lane

Outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland, you’ll drive on the right side of the road like you do at home, but if you’re driving in the British Isles, you’ll be on the left. Your steering wheel and gear shift will also be on the opposite side.

First, allow yourself plenty of time to get acclimated. If you can, rest up for a day or two to beat jag lag before getting behind the wheel, but at minimum, when you get into your rental car for the first time, calm your nerves and get familiar with where everything is in the vehicle.

There may not be a lot of space to practice if you’re at the airport, so you might want to ask the attendant if there is an area nearby, such as an airport hotel with a large parking lot, where you can practice a little first.

Once you’re ready to go, be sure you have your directions all sorted out so you can focus your attention on driving. Watch those side mirrors — if you get into a tight spot, pull them in.

And if you aren’t sure if you have enough room to get by, stop before proceeding.

Consider driving on the “wrong” side part of the adventure. Be safe, but laugh off the goofs as they’re bound to happen.

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