Driving in the United Kingdom for American Visitors

| June 14, 2024
Driving in the United Kingdom for American Visitors

The United Kingdom has been (and continues to be) a favourite holiday destination for American visitors. Sharing a common language makes communication easy and a favorable exchange rate between the dollar and pound is often an added bonus.

However, there is one difficulty that not just Americans but many foreign nationals will face when travelling throughout the UK, and that is driving. For an American driver, this can be off-putting, as the idea of steering a car with the wheel on the wrong side of the vehicle and driving on the “wrong side” of the road goes against experience and the accepted norm.

The United Kingdom is not one country but four. Three of these countries (England, Scotland, and Wales) are neighbouring countries on the island of Britain, while the fourth (Northern Ireland) is on the island of Ireland and must be reached by air or sea.

Small by comparison with America (the United States is forty times larger), the UK is well served by buses, coaches and trains but touring by car is still the preferred option for many overseas visitors. This is no doubt due to the freedom offered by traveling in a car as many popular tourist destinations and sights are in remote areas and some can be rather difficult to reach by public transport.

For visitors who prefer remote historical monuments, medieval castles and ruins, windswept moors, lakes, and mountains, a self-drive holiday is the best method of seeing as much as possible in a short space of time. Fortunately, most of the UK boasts an excellent system of roads on which most areas can be reached without too much stress and effort.

Rules of the Road

Before attempting to take a car on British roads it must be fully understood that the steering column is located on the right side of the car and all driving must be done on the left side of the road. It is important to embed these facts into the brain or potential disaster awaits. Not only will driving on the wrong side of the road incur the wrath of other motorists and the police but it can have fatal consequences.

The rules of the road, though similar to those in the United States, are basic but some differences that may lead to confusion include the differing speed limits that apply:

  • Cities and towns: 30 miles per hour (mph) (50 km/h)
  • Country roads: 40 to 50 mph (65 to 80 km/h)
  • Single-lane motorways: 60 mph (95 km/h)
  • Double-lane (or more) motorway: 70 mph (110 km/h)

As is the case in most European countries, safety is a major concern and the authorities strongly enforce all regulations regarding the wearing of seat belts and the use of children’s safety seats. Here are the most important rules:

  • Drivers and all passengers over the age of fourteen must wear an individual seat belt
  • Children must be secured in an approved type of safety seat suited to the child’s age
  • Talking on a phone while driving is forbidden by law
  • If driving a motorcycle (regardless of size or power), a helmet must be worn

Parking in the larger towns and cities is a particular issue for motorists in the UK as spaces are in short supply. Taking a chance on parking illegally (even for the briefest of times) is a recipe for disaster, as there is no shortage of parking wardens and officials who are only too willing to ticket or clamp an unsuspecting out-of-town visitor. Cars should only be parked in officially designated areas such as car parks or at parking meters and the parking ticket should be clearly displayed on the dashboard of the car.

Avoiding Problems

Getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road should start to feel natural after just a few hours. After this there are a few simple rules that should be followed in order to avoid any major problems. Most of these are plain common sense, along with a touch of observation:

  • Always take time to become familiar with the steering and controls of the car
  • Always stay within the posted speed limits
  • Never drink (or take drugs) and drive
  • Be aware of other cars making a U-Turn (this is allowed on some roads)
  • Be patient on country roads and allow for animals or slow-moving machinery
  • Use fog lights (or dimmed headlights) in foggy or murky conditions

American drivers should also be aware that British road signs can be different to those found in the United States and many signs are painted on the road surface rather than on a signpost as is common in America.

Another thing to be aware of is that most cars in the UK run on petrol or diesel. Petrol, or gasoline, is sold as Four Star (leaded) at red pumps in garages (gas stations) while unleaded is dispensed by green pumps. LPG (liquid petroleum gas) is also widely available across the UK, and a growing number of electric charging points continue to be built, although these are still not abundant.

Car Rentals

The minimum age for drivers in the UK is seventeen (sometimes higher in some regions) but a valid U.S. driver’s license is acceptable regardless of age. A European driver’s license is not necessary, although this is preferable to one issued by an American state.

This will need to be shown when renting a car and insurance is a mandatory requirement. There is no upper age limit although very senior citizens may need to produce a doctor’s letter confirming their ability to drive.

There is a vast number of car rental companies throughout the four UK countries although, as expected, most are located in the bigger towns and cities. Almost every type of car is available for hire, ranging from small, compact (economy) to larger, luxury vehicles.

Most rental cars will be petrol or diesel driven although the range of hybrid and electric vehicles continues to grow. For those American drivers used to driving an automatic vehicle there is a limited amount of these cars also available for rental but these are usually slightly more expensive than other types.

Rental cars can be pre-booked and collected at the airport of arrival with the rental company usually operating a shuttle service to the parking lot. However, some companies may add a surcharge for airport collection and this should always be checked in the leasing documentation.

Payment for rental cars and the associated insurance is almost exclusively done using a credit card with the full cost of the rental being deducted at the outset and any refunds made at the end of the rental period. Any refund due will usually be paid by check made out to the client and this may take a number of weeks to be sent by mail.

All car rentals come with mandatory insurance coverage. This is a basic insurance package and covers:

  • Collision Damage Waiver
  • Third-party Liability
  • Theft Protection

This should be sufficient for most eventualities, but additional insurance can be taken out if necessary.

The Irish Question

Because the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland which shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, many American visitors also wish to visit the Republic and the North of Ireland but can a car rental be taken over the border into what is essentially a foreign country?

Taking a rental car by sea from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland will usually be acceptable, but vehicles being taken over the border into the Republic of Ireland will likely be an issue. Car rental companies in Northern Ireland will generally allow their vehicles to be taken into the Republic of Ireland, although they will generally add an additional cost for the privilege.

While many companies are reluctant to allow their customers to take their cars out of England, Scotland and Wales this is not always the case and plans for such an excursion should be discussed with the company representative at the time of booking. It should also be noted that the additional expense involved in taking a car from Britain to the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland could be excessive and it may be cheaper to rent a different car upon arrival in the chosen destination.