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31 Tips For Driving In The UK

Driving in a different country for the first time can be daunting, but with the right tips, driving in the UK will be less intimidating.

Several itineraries I suggest on this website are best done with a car. A car is more flexible although you can get around most of the UK on public transport. 

As a Brit, most of my driving experience has been in the UK. However, after an epic 6-month, 22,000-mile road trip around the USA, I know a lot about the differences in driving between the US and the UK. 

So, here are all the crucial bits of information you need to know about driving in the UK as an American.

If you want to know even more about the rules of the road, get yourself a copy of the Highway Code – a compilation of all rules and guidelines that road users must follow in the UK.

Some of the most beautiful parts of the UK are hard to get to without a car

General Driving Rules

1. Drive On The Left

This is by far the most obvious difference – we drive on the left in the UK. You get used to this difference pretty quickly, especially as you will be on the right-hand side of the car.

It might be useful to put a sticky note somewhere that won’t obscure your field of vision to remind you – or if you have a passenger get them to keep an eye on your road position, especially after making a turn. 

2. Seatbelts

Wearing a seatbelt is a legal requirement, and police will stop you if they see you aren’t wearing one. The fine is up to £500, and as seatbelts significantly reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death in an accident, they are not inclined to accept excuses for not wearing one. 

3. Mobile Phone Usage

This is another one that police take seriously if they spot you with a phone or SatNav in your hand. This applies even if you are stopped at traffic lights or stopped in traffic. You must be safely parked before holding the device.

The only exception is if you are calling an emergency number and cannot safely stop the car. 

This offence carries both a fine and penalty points on your licence. Although penalty points may seem minor as a visitor to the UK, the DVLA (the body that issues driving licences in the UK) can create a record for you with those points noted. If you gain more points in future you may not be allowed to drive in the UK.  

You can use hands-free devices, but if you are putting in directions you must enter them before starting to drive. 

P.S. In this article, I’ve included photos taken in my car. My car has an inbuilt camera so I wasn’t using a phone to do this. Just to be clear!

4. Alcohol Limits

It should go without saying that drinking under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a terrible idea, and if you intend to drive you shouldn’t drink any alcohol.

In the UK the police don’t generally do field sobriety tests – they go straight to a breathalyser and you are likely to lose the ability to drive in the UK if you fail. You are not allowed to refuse to submit to a breath test – you will be arrested if you try. 

The limits in the UK are measured by micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath, and the limit is 35 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 22 in Scotland. 

5. Roundabouts

Roundabouts are very common in the UK. It’s not unusual for me to have days when I use more roundabouts in one day than I did in 6 months in the US. 

You can get everything from mini-roundabouts to 4-lane roundabouts, so it’s difficult to explain it all here. This Youtube video is the most comprehensive guide I have seen, so watch it before driving in the UK if you aren’t used to roundabouts.

6. Road Types – photos

M Roads

These motorways (M1, M4, M25 etc) are equivalent to the US interstates and freeways. There are the biggest roads in the UK with the most lanes and the highest speed limits. 

The M1 Motorway

A Roads

These roads are major routes but can be either single or dual carriageway. The lanes are generally slightly narrower than motorway lanes, and they have traffic lights and roundabouts on them which motorways don’t.

Dual carriageway A road

B Roads

These roads can also range from narrow single-track roads through to dual carriageways – the designation has more to do with being a secondary route. You would not typically use B roads for long distances as they aren’t generally the most direct route between towns and cities.

Single carriageway B Road

Dual Carriageways and Single Carriageways

Many drivers aren’t clear about the difference between a single and dual carriageway. Dual carriageways are roads with a separation between opposing lanes of traffic. This is often a small metal barrier, but can just be a grassy area. 

If the only separation between opposing directions of traffic is a painted line on the road, then it is a single-carriageway.

Single Track Roads

In rural areas, you may find single-track roads with passing places. It is particularly important on these roads to look further ahead and stop in a passing place when you see oncoming traffic, otherwise you may be forced to reverse. 

Cars drive both ways on this narrow single-track road in Scotland – look far ahead and watch for passing places!

7. Road Signs

The Highway Code website lists the road signs you should be aware of. Some are obvious – others less so.

Speed and distances are measured in miles.

8. Speed Limits – photo

Motorways and Dual Carriageways

On motorways and dual carriageways, the standard speed limit is 70mph. The limit won’t ever be higher than this, but it can be lower. If it is a lower limit there will be signs posted telling you what the limit is.

Single Carriageways

The national speed limit on single-carriageways is 60mph, unless a lower limit is posted. But use your judgment. There are many roads in rural areas that are technically 60mph, but it would be extremely irresponsible to drive at that speed with blind curves and narrow lanes. 

Locals who know the roads tend to drive closer to the 60mph limit, but don’t be put off by that. When you don’t know the road you should be more cautious.

There is nothing wrong with driving at 40mph on a road with a 60mph limit if you judge that it is an appropriate speed. 

You might technically be allowed to do 60mph on this road – but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea!

Restricted Roads

A restricted road is one in which there is “a system of street lighting furnished by means of lamps placed not more than 200 yards apart”. This essentially means roads in residential and commercial areas with street lamps. 

The standard speed limit on restricted roads is 30mph. It is becoming more common for areas to be designated as 20mph, especially near schools, but as that is a local limit rather than a national restriction you will see signs telling you that it is a 20mph zone.

A road like this is typically 30mph, but has been changed to 20mpg with signs

Local Roads In Wales

A controversial law was introduced in Wales in 2023, which changed the default speed on local roads from 30mph to 20mph. 

There has been enough protest and backlash that some routes will be reverting to 30mph in September 2024. If you are driving in Wales be on the lookout for speed signs. Don’t rely on your SatNav being up to date, and if in doubt stick to 20mph in built-up areas. 

9. Speed Cameras

You won’t often see police with radar guns catching people speeding. However static speed cameras are very common and can be found on all types of roads. 

Speed cameras are generally bright yellow and often easy to spot, but they are sometimes partially concealed behind trees and if you spot them too late it can be dangerous to brake to get under the limit in time. So keep to the speed limit at all times. 

Speed cameras are often bright yellow, but can be hidden behind trees and signs so don’t assume you’ll spot them

Some roads have ‘average speed limit’ cameras rather than cameras monitoring a very short stretch of road. You will see signs indicating there is an average speed check, but they don’t use the same cameras as the static ones. Average speed check cameras are usually much taller.  

10. Overtaking

Drive in the left-most lane, unless overtaking or approaching a junction that requires you to be in a different lane for your route.

You are not allowed to overtake on a solid white line. 

Undertaking is frowned upon, as is sitting in a right-hand lane when you are not overtaking anyone. 

Although undertaking isn’t specifically against the law, it can be considered an offence under the category of careless driving.

11. Red Light Cameras

These aren’t generally as easy to spot as speed cameras, but some red lights do have cameras to catch anyone going through when they shouldn’t. Remember that unlike the USA, turning on a red light is not allowed anywhere. 

Also, you may find that the amber phase of traffic lights is shorter in the UK than in the USA. In the UK it is generally 3 seconds but can be up to 6 seconds in the USA – if it is safe to stop, don’t take the risk that you’ll be able to get through on amber before it turns red. 

12. Road Exits

Unlike the USA, road exit numbers are completely unrelated to the distance travelled from the road’s origin. After passing Exit 1, whether the next exit is 1 mile away or 20 miles away, it will be Exit 2. 

13. Navigation

UK postcodes refer to a very small area. On average a postcode covers just 15 properties. This makes postcodes the most accurate and efficient way to input an address into your chosen device.

If you are visiting a rural attraction such as a stately home, check their website as they sometimes specify a different postcode to get you to the main entrance. 

14. Give Way Signs

Stop signs are rare in the UK. Instead, we have Give Way signs and road markings. These allow the primary road to keep flowing while cars leaving smaller roads must wait for a gap. 

Sometimes there are road signs, other times the requirement to give way is only marked by painted lines on the road. 

Give Way sign approaching a roundabout. Some small roads may only have the triangle and/or white dashed lines on the road to mark that you must give way.

15. Box Junctions – photo

At some junctions, you will see a painted box of yellow criss-crossed lines on the road. These are in place to prevent traffic blocking the junction. 

If you are going straight on, you must not enter them unless there is a space for you on the other side of the junction. Cameras cover some box junctions and you will get a fine if you stop on them – even if it’s just an inch of your back wheel on the box. 

If you are turning right and are just waiting for oncoming traffic to clear the junction before you make the turn, you can enter and stop on the box.

16. Toll Roads

There are a few toll roads around the UK. Most, but not all, of them are bridges and tunnels. The charges vary as do the payment methods. For some of them you pay using cash or card at a toll booth. Others work by registering your number plate.

If you cross a toll road without paying at a booth, make a note of where it was and pay online when you complete your journey.

You usually have 24 hours to pay the toll so you don’t need to panic about doing it immediately, but try to do it the next time you stop so you don’t forget. 

17. Petrol Stations

For most petrol stations in the UK (which also sell diesel), you fill up your car and then pay inside at the counter. The pump will be numbered – give the number to the cashier for them to charge you the correct amount.

Some petrol stations have a pay at pump system – you put your card into the pump machine and enter your PIN. You can then fill up your car, and once you put the pump back in the machine it will automatically deduct the amount you have bought from your card.

If you are driving in rural areas, keep your fuel tank at least half-full in case there isn’t a petrol station nearby.

On motorways and major A roads, you will see signs for Services. Services will generally include places to buy food and drinks, use the toilets and buy fuel.

Shops inside motorway services on the M1

Driving In Urban Areas

18. Parking

Car Parks

Some car parks work by recording your registration number as you enter the car park, and then you pay at a machine before you return to your can. You’ll enter the registration number and the machine will calculate how much you owe.

Others work using Pay&Display, so you estimate how long you need, pay for the ticket and then display it in your dashboard.

Check which method it is before you leave your car. 

Street Parking

You can’t park on double yellow lines at any time. On roads with single yellow lines, you’ll see signs on the road which tell you when the restricted hours are – you can only park on the street over single yellows outside of those restricted times. 

Park and Ride

This is a great scheme that operates in many cities around the UK. Outside the city there’ll be large car parks with low rates, with regular buses from the car park to the city centre.

When visiting cities check if they have a Park&Ride scheme as it is cheaper to park than in city centres and much easier to find a parking place. 

19. Bus/Taxi Lanes

Many cities have lanes dedicated to taxis, buses and bicycles. These make public transport more efficient but can catch drivers out as some have cameras to catch and fine cars in bus lanes.

Bus lanes will be marked with signs, and often with paint on the road as well. Some of these lanes are in operation 24/7, others are only during limited hours. 

20. Jaywalking and Pedestrian Prioritisation

In the United Kingdom it’s not illegal for pedestrians to cross roads at places that aren’t designated crossings. This does mean that sometimes a pedestrian will cross the road where you aren’t expecting it, so keep an eye out for pedestrians who look like they are about to step into the road. 

Road priority is generally given to users in order of vulnerability. If you are turning into a road and a pedestrian is crossing, they have the right of way. After a pedestrian, bicycles have the right of way, and then motor vehicles. 

Approaching a zebra crossing

21. Pedestrian Crossings – photo

There are 5 types of pedestrian crossings in the UK – zebra, pelican, puffin, toucan and pegasus. This sounds more complicated than it is – from a driver’s perspective you can think of these in two categories. 

Pelican, puffin, toucan and pegasus will all stop cars at a red light – so it doesn’t matter to you whether the crossing is a pegasus because it also allows horses to cross or a toucan because cyclists can cross with the pedestrians. 

Pelican crossings sometimes have a phase of flashing amber lights before turning green for cars. On a flashing amber light, you can set off as long as all pedestrians have reached the pavement. 

A zebra crossing doesn’t have traffic lights – if you see the white lines on the road start to zig-zag and black and white strips on the road ahead of you, keep an eye out for pedestrians approaching the crossing. They have the right of way and you MUST stop to allow them to cross. 

22. Cyclists

Cyclists are common in towns and cities. Watch out for them and ensure you leave enough space when going around them.

Also, check behind you when opening your car door to make sure there aren’t any cyclists about to pass the car when you are getting out of it. 

23. Speed Bumps

It’s common for residential roads to have speed bumps to keep cars at a lower speed. It’s important to slow down below the speed limit for these – going over them too fast can cause damage to your car, and it’s not always obvious how harsh the bump is.

There is a set near me that you can only go over at about 8mph to avoid getting a big jolt. 

24. Low Emissions Zones

Several cities now have low-emission zones to try and deal with the level of air pollution. Vehicles with emissions above a certain threshold may have to pay an additional cost to enter the city.

If you are in a city with these zones you’ll see signs saying either LEZ or ULEZ before you get into the the zone itself.

Your rental car will likely be new enough to conform to the standards and not have to pay the cost, but if the car looks quite old, it’s worth double-checking. 

25. Congestion Charge

This is specific to London – to drive in the city centre you have to pay a daily congestion charge. However, I strongly recommend that you do not drive in London at all.

There are lots of one-way narrow roads, roads that you can only enter at certain times of day, no entry zones and other restrictions.

SatNavs and GoogleMaps won’t always be up to date with the restrictions so it is easy to get them wrong.

I learned to drive in London, but I have never driven in the Congestion Charge Zone. It roughly corresponds to zone 1 of London’s public transport system which is an infinitely superior way of getting around the city centre. 

Hiring A Car

26. Manual vs Automatic Cars 

Most cars in the UK are still manual, although this is changing as hybrids and electric cars become more common. Unless you are used to driving a manual/stick shift, I recommend hiring an automatic car even if it is more expensive. 

I drive a manual in the UK and I would still choose an automatic in other countries – you have enough to think about already without having to shift gear with the wrong hand. 

Be careful when choosing your hire car – you need to specify that you want an automatic or you may end up with a manual. 

27. Fuel Types

Cars will either be petrol (known as gas in the US) or diesel. Make sure you know which type of fuel your hire car uses as filling up with the wrong type can be expensive.

PRO TIP: At petrol stations, the pumps in the UK are the opposite colours to the US. Make sure you read the fuel type on the pump and don’t just look at the colours. 

28. Fuel Cost

Most people from the US will find fuel to be significantly more expensive in the UK. It might be roughly similar if you are from a state with high taxes, but generally you’ll just have to accept paying more.

Fuel is sold by the litre so between the exchange rate and different units of measurement it’s a pain to work out the exact equivalent. 

And being a contrary nation, although fuel is sold by the litre, fuel economy is measured in miles per gallon. We’re just difficult like that. 

29. Insurance

A minimum of third-party insurance is a legal requirement in the UK. Check what type of insurance is included in your rental agreement and if it provides enough coverage for you. Your credit card or travel insurance may provide additional coverage, but check the policy to be certain what is covered.

The rules on insurance in the UK are strict. Cars that are not correctly insured are routinely towed by police, and you may also get a fine. 

You are not just insuring the car, but the driver for the car as well. For most insurance policies, if the car is insured but then someone not named on the policy drives the car, the insurance is invalid. 

If you are hiring a car and more than one person will be driving it, make sure the rental company is aware. 

A small blue car with a brown pony behind it and a grey pony beside it.
My Citroen C3, with New Forest ponies for scale!

30. Hire The Smallest Car You Can

Roads in the UK are typically much narrower than in the US. Smaller cars are easier to drive in rural areas, easier to park, have better mileage and will be cheaper to hire.

I have driven all over the UK in my little Citroen C3 with its not very powerful engine. I’ll admit it has struggled once or twice on very steep hills, but I’ve taken it on motorways, through the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District, rural country roads and city streets.

Even on very steep hills it’s been fine, I just had to drive it up in 1st gear a couple of times. 

Don’t hire a massive car – you don’t need it and it’ll make the whole experience more expensive and more stressful. Get something with a reasonable amount of power and not too big. 

31. Emergencies

The emergency number for the UK is 999 – you will reach a call centre that will send out police, fire and rescue or an ambulance as appropriate. 

Other numbers to keep in mind are 101 and 111. 101 is to contact the police when you need to report something but are not in immediate danger. 111 is the number to call if you need medical advice but it is not an emergency

If you have a breakdown on a motorway, try to make it to a layby on the left side of the road, and then get behind a barrier.

Some motorways are now ‘smart’ motorways, which means the hard shoulder can be used by traffic if the overhead signs indicate they are allowed. This means that stopping your car on the hard shoulder and standing near it isn’t always safe.

Try to make sure there is a physical barrier between you and the rest of the road. If you have a breakdown in a dangerous place – such as a live lane of a motorway, call 999. 

Conclusion

Driving in the UK for the first time as an American can be an intimidating prospect due to differences in rules and road layouts. But by now you have all the information you need to prepare for your journey.

A photo taken from inside a car, with a grey pony standing next to it.
Just for fun – these ponies in the New Forest loved my car!

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