The UK and the USA have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. Indeed, the writer George Bernard Shaw is thought to have once said that, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” (though some sources attribute that to Oscar Wilde instead). However, when it comes to driving State-side, there are some notable and important differences to be aware of as a British expatriate.
Due to the vastness of the country, most expatriates in the United States will have a car and use it for both commuting and leisure purposes. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the UK, there are country-wide differences too, with each individual state having the power to set their own laws.
If you’re moving to the USA, this guide covers driving licences, and driving rules and regulations.
In order to drive in the USA in the short term, you simply need to have a full UK driving licence. In some states, you are also required to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). If you have an old-style paper driving licence, you will also need another form of photographic ID, such as a passport, and an IDP. It is sometimes worth applying for an IDP regardless of the state you’re driving in, as it may be requested by an insurer if you’re making a claim after a road accident, for example, or if you want to rent a car. IDPs must be obtained before travel, in the UK prior to moving.
For those moving long term, you will need to apply for a US driving licence. You can only drive on your UK driving licence for up to 90 days. There is currently no reciprocity agreement with the UK when it comes to driving licences, like there are with other countries (including Canada, Germany and France). This means that you may have to apply for a licence as if you were a new driver, in your new state of residence. This involves an application, theoretical test and practical test. Proof of residence and visa will be required too. Once a licence has been obtained, it is then valid in all states of the USA. However, it remains your responsibility to know the different laws of any state you are likely to drive through.
There are some differences in driving regulations between the UK and the USA. Once again, these laws can change between states. Therefore, if you are likely to be crossing state lines on a journey, be sure to research any relevant state laws before setting off. This can include things like speed limits, parking restrictions and turning priorities. Speed camera detectors are illegal in the USA, and possession (even if not being used) can result in a fine.
The biggest noticeable difference between the physical layout of roads in the UK and the USA is the way that junctions are formatted. While here in the UK there are plenty of roundabouts to facilitate turnings, most American junctions are four-way intersections, usually controlled by lights. When you’re on a highway, it’s not that easy to correct a missed turn-off and it can be quite a distance between junctions.
Another important point to bear in mind is that in the USA, undertaking is not only legal, but commonly practised. Be aware of traffic on either side before making any lane switches. Also, be prepared for cars to switch multiple lanes at speed when a junction approaches, particularly from the car pool lane for vehicles with multiple occupants, which is furthest from the junctions.
In most states, drivers are allowed to turn right on a red light, unless there is any specific guidance or signalling saying otherwise. There is also no ‘get ready’ amber signal; just a fast switch from red to green.
Again, this is not a hard-and-fast rule; notably, if you’re moving to New York City, there is no right turn on a red light. Also in New York, there are road signs limiting left turns into certain roads during particular times, and there are heavy fines for blocking an intersection. One of many reasons, perhaps, why most New York residents opt not to drive in the city and use the efficient Subway services instead.
While it’s not a requirement of driving in the USA, it is imperative that you have comprehensive health cover. In the event of an accident on the roads, the right health cover is essential to prevent unnecessary admin and high costs to get treatment.
It is also widely recommended by other expats that drivers should also have highly comprehensive driving cover, which is particularly important due to the compensation culture. You should carry all of your insurance documents with you in your car, along with your driving licence, proof of residency/visa and IDP, at all times.
You may be considering shipping your own car to the USA. There are a number of hurdles and red tape to get through, due to restrictions on imported vehicles to the US. You will need to comply with the Customs and Border Protection, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation requirements and standards. For many, it is simply easier and cheaper to buy a new car in the USA. However, if you do want to ship a car, it is recommended to use the services of a qualified and experienced moving service that understands the correct protocol and logistics.