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Driving in the USA

A guide for visitors and tourists 

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A guide to discovering the United States

Index : General driving tips Freeways and other highways Car hire

Driving tips and rules for the USA - and car hire

      • The minimum age for driving in the USA varies from state to state, varying from 16 to 18.
        Important note: Car hire firms have their own rules about minimum ages, and most major rental companies, like Hertz or Alamo, have a minimum age of 21. However this does not apply in some states,  notably in New York and Michigan where car hire firms must by law rent cars to anyone aged 18 and up.  
          • Drivers license :  Tourists aged 18 and up can drive anywhere in the USA for up to three months, as long as they are on a short stay B1 / B2 visa or registered with ESTA and in possession of a valid national drivers license. In most states, including New York and California,  your national drivers license is sufficient, but this is not always the case. In some states including Georgia, South Carolina and Connecticut, you must also have an IDP (International Drivers Permit)
               For tourists not entering under the ESTA program or with a B1/B2 visa, an  IDP (International Drivers Permit) is also highly recommended, and required in some states or when the national license is not in English..
            • Speed limits : Speed limits in the USA vary from state to state, but the limits depend on the classification and/or type of road.....
              On rural freeways - on interstates, limits generally vary between 65 and 70 mph (= 105 to 113 km/h),  on other rural divided highways they may be a bit lower (frequently 55 -65 mph  (= 90 to 105 km/h)
              On urban freeways - Speed limits  are generally less.
              On undivided rural roads, speed limits vary widely depending on the state and the road conditions, and are generally between 45 and 65 mph ( 72 and 105 km/h)
              In built-up areas, limits vary considerably from state to state, but are most commonly between 25 and 40 mph (40 to  64 km/h).
              The states with the lowest speed limits are in the Northeast, and  included Massachussetts, New York and Vermont.
              The state with the highest speed limit is Texas where the limit on some freeways is 85 mph (almost 150 km/h).
              In all circumstances, speed limits are clearly indicated beside the highway, and the essential principle is to look out for them and observe the limits indicated.
  • Seatbelts : Seatbelt laws vary from state to state, but drivers and front seat adult passengers must wear a seatbelt throughout the USA, with one exception: New Hampshire. The wearing of seatbelts is not obligatory in this state.
       The best guidance is for all passengers of any age to wear a seatbelt at all times, as is required in many states including California, DC and New York. 
  • Mobile phones :The use of hand-held mobile phones for voice communication is banned in 16 states: New York, California, Hawaii, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, Rhode Island, Washington, and West Virginia .
  • Text messages : Text messaging while driving is banned in 47 states . Only in Montana, Mississippi and Alaska have no restrictions on text messaging while driving.
  • Drinking and driving : There is a national blood alcohol content (BAC) limit throughout the USA, meaning that it  is illegal to drive with more than 0.08% of alcohol in the blood – about the same as the maximum  levels permitted in Australia, Canada and most of the European Union.
American life is dependent on the automobile, and with the exception of tourists coming to the USA solely to visit a city or a single location that is accessible by public transport or plane, having a car is essential.
    Cars can be hired at all US airports ( see below) , and generally there is a good choice of mainstream and budget car rental  companies to choose from. Visitors are strongly recommended to book their rental vehicle well in advance, and to do so online. This is particularly important if renting from one of the cut-price rental companies that may store their rental vehicles some way from the airport
  Visitors from Europe will find that "gas" prices in the USA are cheap, though not as cheap as in the past. On the other hand, distances are often much longer, notably out west, meaning that the cost of getting around may not be much less, given the extra mileage.

Electric vehicles

The USA pioneered the use of e-vehicles, and e-vehicle sales reached 7.9% of the total car market in the USA in late 2023. Most car hire companies offer e-vehicles as well as traditional gas-powered cars, but not in all locations. If hiring an e-vehicle, it's very advisable to check out distances and recharging points first.


The USA is a big country. While towns and cities  are fairly close to each other along the east coast and along the west coast, in most of the USA between the Appalachians and the Rockies, it's a different story.

► See also: Six of the greatest road trips in the USA

Freeways, Interstates,  highways and other roads

i-80The word "freeway" can refer to any divided highway (dual carriageway) with limited access. The most important freeways are the "Interstates", the federal  network of motorways that connects all American cities. The main ones run either east to west (even-numbered routes, such as the coast-to-coast I-80, from New Jersey to San Francisco) or north-south (odd numbered routes such as I-55, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans).  Three-digit interstate numbers, such as I-280, are used for ring roads, spurs off main interstates, and other connecting roads.
     In all there are almost 80,000 km of Interstates in the USA, of which only about 8% have  tolls, the rest being free.

Toll roads in the USA ( interstates and other roads)

Tolls are used either for bridges or on roads known as Turnpikes, which are particularly common in the northeast, and they were built before the Interstate plan was introduced in 1952. The most-tolled interstates in the USA are the I-90 and I-95, which both run through New York state. The I-95 runs up the Atlantic coast from Florida to Maine, and has 17 tolled sections. Many of these are bridges, but longer tolled sections include the New Jersey Turnpike (188 km)  and the Maine Turnpike.  There is a flat-fee toll of $8 on the Maine Turnpike. The I-90 is the only main east-west Interstate with long toll sections, notably the New York State Thruway, the Ohio Turnpike and the Massachussetts Turnpike. West of the Mississippi the I-90 is toll-free.
    Toll barriers are progressively disappearing,  replaced by electronic tolling systems, such as EZ-pass (prounouced easy-pass) . Many car rental firms will offer an EZ-pass as a paid option in areas such as New York where there are lots of tolls. However there is no single  USA-wide toll payment device or app, and if you need to use toll roads, then check what toll payment solution is proposed by your car rental company. The other solution is to avoid the toll roads altogether. There are almost always alternatives. For California toll roads, see thetollroads.com
Route 66
US Highway 66

As well as the Interstates, there are also  280,000 kms of US federal highways, the most famous of these being US66, aka "Route 66", linking Chicago to L.A. Yet not much of the old US 66 remains as a US highway today, having been downgraded as its purpose as "the best way to travel west" has been passed on to the Interstates. (► read more on Route 66) Another US highway that has been immortalized in song is Highway 61 (by Bob Dylan and others) , the Mississippi Highway or the Blues Highway, from New Orleans up to the Canadian border. Many sections of this historic route have now bee downgraded.  Route 62, US Highway 62, is another long-distance trail popular for road trips, running from Niagara Falls in the north to the Mexican border at El Paso.
    Another much recognized US Highway is Highway 101 – the road that crosses the famous Golden Gate Bridge (toll) as it leaves San Francisco. US 101 runs north from the edge of Los Angeles as far as Seattle.  While parts of this route are divided highway, such as the sections around San Francisco, this US highway, like most others, has a single carriageway for most of its length.  The 800 kms from Eureka, California,  to Raymond, Washington, hug the coastline, offering a spectacular coastal drive... as long as you don't mind a lot of bends.
    Many US highways offer miles and miles of relatively traffic-free driving, specially to the west of the Mississippl – for example the east-west and relatively recent  (1990s) US 400, from Granada Colorado, via Dodge City, to Joplin, in Kansas. One of those with probably the least traffic is the generally remote US191, which runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, via several Indian reservations and both Arches and Yellowstone National Parks. Parts of the US 191 are very remote indeed, notably through eastern Utah.

New York state highway    Apart from these federal highways, each state has its own intra-state routes. Most of the time, these state highways just bear a number, and the name and/or logo of the state on their signboards; in some states, like  Connecticut and Massachussetts, just the number is shown, black on a white background. In others they are more distinctive, for instance white numbers on a green background in California,  or black on yellow with a small logo in Wyoming.


Everything is clearly signposted on American roads, though often there is less – sometimes a lot less – advance warning, notably for turn-offs.
Apart from Interstates that are always designated with the letter I, as in I-60, most other roads are just designated with a number. To know if you are on a US highway or a State highway, just look at the shape of road number panel, as in the illustrations on this page.
    It is also useful to remember that Interstate traffic signs are white letters on a green background, as in Switzerland, not on a blue background as in most of western Europe.

Car hire in the USA

There is a wide choice of car hire companies in the USA, the biggest among them being Enterprise (a group that also includes Alamo and National), Avis and Hertz; their cars can usually be picked up at any commercial airport in the USA, and they usually offer (at a price) the option to drop the vehicle off at a different location.  Check out the options available at any site using the Holiday Autos car rental comparer.
    Other companies that may appeal to those with less of a budget to spend are  U-Save and Rent-a-Wreck – but these have less outlets and do not usually offer the option of dropping the vehicle off at a different location. Rent-a-Wreck has been going since 1968, when it was set up in California as an "alternative" model to the sleek majors. Despite the name, you won't rent a wreck... just not a first-hand latest model.
    There are also dozens of smaller car hire operators in the USA, and it's always good to shop around, unless you have your favorite brand.
    Just one word of warning; first time visitors should be aware that almost all cars in the US, including almost all hire cars, have automatic transmission. If you've never driven an automatic, it's best not to wait until your arrival in the hire car parking lot at the airport, when you're zonked out after an 8 - 12 hour transatlantic flight, for your first experience... specially if it's raining. Either look for a rental car with manual transmission (they do exist), or else get someone to let you try out an automatic before you leave.
    The same goes for hiring an electric vehicle. these are available in most popular locations, but best not to get your first experience using a hire car. Also, before opting for an EV, check out the availability of recharging points on the roads you plan to drive on., and the hotels / RV parks / campgrounds you plan to stay in.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises. Linguapress 2023.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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