the USA ►
- Life in
- Tourism & Places
A learner's guide to
discovering the United States
life is dependent on the automobile
tips and rules for the USA - and car hire
for driving in the USA varies from state to state, varying from 16 to
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.
: 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
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 in the USA vary from state to state, but the limits
depend on the classification and/or type of
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
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
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
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.
: 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
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
: 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
in Australia, Canada and most of the European
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
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
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.
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.
USA is a big country. While towns and cities are fairly close
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
Freeways, Interstates, highways and other roads
The 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
Another US highway that has been immortalized in song is Highway 61
(by Bob Dylan and others) , the Mississippi
or the Blues
, from New Orleans up to the Canadian border. Many
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
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
such as the sections around San Francisco, this US highway, like most
others, has a single carriageway for most of its length. The
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
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
Apart from these federal highways, each state has its own intra-state
routes. Most of the time, these state
just bear a number, and the name and/or logo of the state on their
signboards; in some states, like Connecticut and
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
is clearly signposted on American roads, though often there is less
– sometimes a lot less – advance warning, notably
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
It is also useful to remember that
Interstate traffic signs are white letters on a green background, as in
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
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
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
There are also dozens of smaller car
operators in the USA, and it's always good to shop around, unless you
have your favorite brand.
Just one word
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
Background to modern America
people, places and
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
today's USA. Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and
exercises. Linguapress 2023.
For California, discover About-California.com
, a short