Driving Guide

United Kingdom Driving Guide

Get an International Driving Permit to enjoy the UK's diverse and bustling cities, grandiose coastline, and idyllic countryside to its fullest.

2023-12-01 · 9min read

The United Kingdom is a must-visit destination for enthusiasts of royalty and history. But the appeal doesn't stop there! With its array of UNESCO heritage sites, majestic castles, and rich museums, the UK offers a wealth of activities suitable for all interests.

The best way to experience the diverse landscapes and cultural offerings of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is undoubtedly by car. That's why we've put together this guide, designed to help you get acquainted with and effortlessly navigate the varied terrains of the United Kingdom.

What’s the best way to travel the UK? By car, of course! How else can you witness the splendor of the Lake District or Brecon Beacons? But wait, before we go off on a tangent about our favorite places, we’d like to focus on driving. Driving in the UK is a little different than the USA (as well as most other parts of the world) and you should probably know a few things before getting behind the wheel.

Darah and Garrett, a couple who loves traveling, share in their post, Tips for Americans (Or First Timers) Driving in the UK, published on their website, Where Food Takes Us.

International Driving Permit FAQs

Do I Need an International Driving Permit to Drive in the UK?

If you're planning to drive in the UK during your vacation, you're in luck. Unlike many other countries, the UK doesn't require an International Driving Permit (IDP) for most foreign drivers.

This means you can skip the extra step and expense of obtaining an IDP as long as you're only driving in the UK.

Am I Eligible to Drive Different Vehicle Types in the UK?

In the UK, if you're a visitor with a valid driving license, you can drive small vehicles (like cars or motorcycles) for 12 months from your entry into Great Britain. This applies to licenses obtained outside of Northern Ireland, the EU, the EEA, Jersey, Guernsey, or the Isle of Man.

For Northern Ireland, the rules slightly differ. You can drive vehicles up to 3.5 tons with up to eight passenger seats for 12 months from your date of entry. Larger vehicle regulations vary, so it's important to check the specific requirements on government websites.

If you hold a community license from an EEA member state, you can drive any vehicle as long as your license is valid and you meet the age requirements.

Do I Need an IDP to Drive Outside the UK?

Should your journey extend beyond the UK, an IDP might be necessary. Check each country's driving license requirements before traveling to European countries like Ireland or Iceland. Also, verify with your rental agency any restrictions or additional fees for driving their vehicle outside the UK.

This permit is easy to obtain online via the International Drivers Association website, which serves as a multi-language ID in many countries.

To apply, you’ll need a valid driver’s license and a passport-sized photo and select the package that suits your needs.

Car Rental Process in the UK

Renting a car in the UK is relatively easy, especially if you're familiar with the process in the US. Ensure you have your driver’s license, International Driving Permit (IDP), and a payment card. You'll find many of the same rental companies you're used to, such as Avis, Hertz, and Budget, particularly at airports.

To fully enjoy your UK trip, renting a car is a wise decision. It's advisable to arrange your car rental well before your departure date. Early planning helps secure the best rates and the ideal vehicle for your needs. It also prevents last-minute hassles and unnecessary expenses on services or fees that could be avoided with more thorough preparation.

Age Criteria for Car Rentals

In the UK, the minimum legal driving age is 17, but car rental companies typically require drivers to be over 21. Drivers under 25 often face additional fees. For those 21 and under, consider using public transportation or private car hire services to explore the UK.

Familiarize Yourself with Potential Charges

Before committing to a rental car, it's crucial to understand all the potential fees you might incur. This includes policies on fuel levels for car return, additional insurance fees, toll road charges, and possible permits required for driving in specific city areas.

It is vital you are fully insured to drive your car in the UK. The minimum cover is third party, which means that if you are in an accident, your insurance will cover any damage you cause to another person, vehicle or property.

Comprehensive motor insurance will cover third party costs but also damage to your vehicle.

Consider Car Insurance

To ensure safety while driving in the UK, it's advisable to obtain car insurance. The extent of coverage can be tailored to your preferences, with the understanding that more comprehensive insurance options will generally come at a higher cost.

Fuel Charge Considerations

Evaluate your situation to decide if paying a refueling fee is more cost-effective, especially if you have an early flight or prefer not to refuel the car yourself. Fuel prices in the UK can be higher compared to other places like the US, and rental agencies might offer better fuel rates.

Know About All Possible Fees

Ask the rental agency about all possible charges and read the rental agreement thoroughly to avoid unexpected costs on your credit card after your trip. Consider bringing your own GPS to avoid additional rental fees for such devices.

Importing a Car from the US

If you're considering bringing a US car to the UK, be aware that the rules for importing and registering your car differ. Often, renting a car in the UK is more cost-effective unless you plan to reside there.

It is essential to secure insurance for your vehicle before operating it on roads in the UK. Additionally, in the event of damage, reconstruction, or modification to your vehicle, verify its eligibility for registration in the UK before initiating the import process.

Shop Around for the Best Deals

Compare prices and promotions from different rental companies before making a decision. Discounts may be available if you’re booking through a comprehensive holiday provider or are a member of a driving association like the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Driving Rules in the United Kingdom

UK driving laws may differ significantly from those in your home country. Familiarizing yourself with the key rules is essential to ensure a safe and legal driving experience.

Driving Orientation

In the United Kingdom, the driving orientation is on the left side of the road. This means that drivers must keep to the left lane and overtake on the right. Also, the driver's seat and controls in vehicles are on the right side.

This left-hand driving system is different from many other countries, particularly those in mainland Europe and North America, where the standard is to drive on the right side of the road.

Driving Under the Influence

Driving under the influence is strictly illegal in the UK. The legal blood alcohol limit is 80 micrograms per 100 milliliters of breath in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and only 50 micrograms in Scotland. Violating this law can result in a hefty fine of £5,175 and potential loss of a UK driving license.

Mobile Phone Usage

Using a mobile phone while driving is prohibited, with fines up to £90. However, you can use a phone in emergencies. Safe, parked usage and hands-free devices are permitted, but be cautious, as police can intervene if you appear distracted.

Seat Belt Laws

Wearing a seat belt is mandatory, and not doing so could lead to a £440 fine. Exceptions include reversing and driving a classic vehicle without seat belts. Children under three cannot be in such vehicles, and older children should sit in the back.

If you have a medical exemption, carry a “Certificate of Exemption from Compulsory Seat Belt Wearing.” Taxi drivers are exempt from wearing seat belts, but passengers must wear them.

Emergency Contact Numbers

In case of an emergency while driving, the numbers to remember are 999 and 112.

Speed Limits

UK road signs use the imperial system. If you're accustomed to the metric system, remember that 1 mile equals 1.61 kilometers, and 1 yard equals 0.91 meters. Familiarize yourself with standard speed limits for various road types and vehicle weights, as specific speed limit signs are uncommon unless the limit deviates from the norm.

Speed Limits Based on Vehicle Weight

  • Vehicles Under 3.05 Tons:
    • 30 mph (48 kph) in built-up areas
    • 60 mph (96 kph) on single carriageways
    • 70 mph (112 kph) on dual carriageways and motorways
    • 20 mph (32 kph) near schools or pedestrian zones
    • 50 mph (80 kph) on winding roads
  • Vehicles Over 3.05 Tons:
    • 50 mph (80 kph) on single carriageways
    • 60 mph (96 kph) on dual carriageways and motorways

Speeding Penalties

You typically have a margin of 10% plus 2 mph before you risk getting a speeding ticket, but police discretion varies. Exceeding the limit by even 1 mph can result in a ticket.

Penalties range from verbal warnings to speed awareness courses, fines (usually £100), and prosecution for severe violations, potentially resulting in fines up to £1,000 or £2,500 on motorways and possible disqualification from driving.

Drive at a reasonable pace, but avoid driving too slowly to prevent fines for impeding traffic flow.

Understanding Unique UK Road Signs

For Americans driving in the UK, some road signs might seem unfamiliar. Key signs include:

  • Give Way: A triangular sign indicating the need to yield to traffic on major roads.
  • No Motor Vehicles: A red circle with a car and motorcycle icon.
  • Priority at T-Junctions: A red-outlined triangle with a T-junction symbol shows right-hand traffic has priority.
  • Speed Reduction: “Reduce Speed Now” signs in rectangular shapes with red backgrounds.
  • Bus, Bike, and Taxi Lanes: Signs indicating lanes shared by buses, bicycles, and taxis.
  • High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes: Signs for lanes designated for vehicles with two or more occupants.
  • Highway Exit Markers: Blue signs with diagonal white lines indicating distance to exits.
  • Hospital Indicators: Red rectangles with "H" and "A&E" for emergency rooms.
  • Tourist Information: Brown signs with a lowercase "i" for tourist points.

Other Signs to Remember in the UK

  • Signs indicating shared or separate lanes for buses and bicycles.
  • Contra-flow bus lanes and with-flow bicycle lanes are marked for appropriate traffic flow.
  • Yellow and red lines indicate various parking and stopping restrictions.
  • Pay and display rules are indicated with broken white lines.

Types of Roads in the UK

  • Non-Primary Roads (A and B): These offer alternate routes to highways and might be quicker. Look for white signs with black lettering.
  • Primary Roads (A and B): Smaller roads, often two to four lanes, marked with green signs.
  • Highways/Motorways: Major roads with blue signs labeled with "M" (e.g., M6). Note that most motorways are free, except for specific areas like north of Birmingham on the M6.


Motorways, being the largest roads, typically have up to four lanes. Traffic lights and roundabouts are absent, and navigation relies on blue and white signs.

Things to Consider When Driving in London

When driving in London, remember the following to avoid violations and penalties:

Congestion Charges and Toll Roads

  • In central London, register your vehicle for congestion charges on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • The Dartford Crossing east of London has a toll fee that is payable online.

Parking in London

  • Understand street markings for parking, with fines starting at £60.
  • Look for single or double yellow and red lines indicating various parking rules.
  • Consider parking outside the congestion charge zone and using public transport with an Oyster card or London Travelcard.

Road Etiquette in the United Kingdom

Road etiquette plays a pivotal role in ensuring safe and efficient traffic flow in the United Kingdom. With a strong emphasis on courteous behavior, drivers adhere to established norms, contributing to a harmonious and secure driving experience on UK roads.

Police Stops

If stopped by the police, they may conduct a search of you and your vehicle, depending on the situation. Police community support officers must be in uniform to stop and question you, whereas regular officers should display their warrant cards if not in uniform.

Note that Scotland has different rules for police stops. Cooperating with the officers and providing basic information if asked is vital, but remember, you're not obliged to answer all questions unless there's adequate suspicion of wrongdoing. If you don't speak English, request an interpreter.

Driving Culture in the UK

Driving in the UK involves specific practices that may differ from your home country. Key points include:

  • Drive on the Left: Always remember to drive on the left side of the road.
  • Lane Usage: There's no designated "fast lane." Stay in the leftmost lane unless overtaking.
  • Using the Horn: Use the horn sparingly and only in emergencies. Avoid using it in built-up areas at night.
  • Junctions and Merging: Allow space for one car at a time at junctions and exits. Avoid lane hopping.
  • Emergency Vehicles: Give way to emergency vehicles safely.
  • Road Conditions: Be mindful of narrow roads and yield to uphill traffic. Keep a safe distance from the car ahead.

Remember, UK roads can be busier than those in mainland Europe.

Roundabouts are common in the UK. Remember:

  • Traffic Flow: Traffic moves clockwise, and you should yield to the right.
  • Lane Selection and Signals: Choose the correct lane for your exit and signal appropriately.

Handling Car Accidents

In case of an accident:

  • Duty to Stop: You must stop if there's injury, damage, or an animal is involved.
  • Exchange Details: Provide details at the scene or report the accident within 24 hours.
  • Gather Information: Include details about the scene, vehicles, people involved, and damage.

What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down

In case of a breakdown:

  • Safety Measures: If possible, move the vehicle off the road and use hazard lights.
  • Positioning: Exit the vehicle from the left and wait safely away from traffic.
  • Emergency Contacts: Call 999 or 112 in emergencies.
  • Rental Agency Notification: Inform your rental car agency of the breakdown.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Carry essentials like a phone charger, food, water, and safety gear.

Consider these guidelines for a safer and more compliant driving experience in the UK.

Exploring the Best of the United Kingdom

Each region in the United Kingdom encapsulates a unique aspect of the UK's heritage and natural beauty. Timing your visit right can enhance your experience, whether you're seeking cultural festivities, quiet exploration, or outdoor adventures.

Here's a guide to some of the top places to visit in the UK, along with the best times to enjoy them:


Best Time to Visit: Spring (March to May) or Autumn (September to November)

The capital city, London, is a bustling metropolis known for landmarks like the Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, and the Tower of London. Spring brings pleasant weather and blooming parks, while autumn sees fewer tourists and mild temperatures.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Best Time to Visit: Late Spring (May to June) or Early Fall (September)

Scotland's capital is famous for the Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, and its rich literary history. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August is a highlight, but for a less crowded experience, late spring and early fall are ideal.

Lake District, England

Best Time to Visit: Summer (June to August)

Known for its stunning lakes, mountains, and literary connections, the Lake District is perfect for nature lovers and hikers. Summer offers the best weather for outdoor activities.

Bath, England

Best Time to Visit: Late Spring (May to June) or Early Fall (September to October)

Renowned for its Roman-built baths, Bath is a city steeped in history and natural hot springs. The weather in late spring and early fall is ideal for exploring the city comfortably.

Snowdonia, Wales

Best Time to Visit: Summer (June to August)

For adventure enthusiasts, Snowdonia's rugged landscapes and the highest mountain in Wales are must-visits. Summer provides the most favorable conditions for hiking and outdoor exploration.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Best Time to Visit: Late Spring (May to June) or Early Fall (September)

Belfast, known for the Titanic Belfast museum and the Giant's Causeway nearby, has a rich industrial heritage. Visiting in the shoulder seasons ensures pleasant weather and fewer crowds.

Cornwall, England

Best Time to Visit: Summer (June to August)

Cornwall offers picturesque beaches, rugged cliffs, and quaint fishing villages. Summer is the best time for beach activities and exploring the coastal paths.

Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Best Time to Visit: Spring (April to June)

The birthplace of William Shakespeare, this town is a haven for literature buffs. Spring sees the town in full bloom, making it a delightful time for visits.

York, England

Best Time to Visit: Early Summer (May to June) or Early Fall (September)

York is famous for its historic walls, York Minster, and medieval streets. The mild weather of early summer or fall is perfect for exploring its rich heritage.

The Cotswolds

Best Time to Visit: Late Spring (May to June) or Early Fall (September to October)

Known for its charming villages and rolling hills, the Cotswolds represent the quintessential English countryside. Visiting outside of the peak summer months offers a more tranquil experience.

Discover the United Kingdom's Charm with an IDP

Exploring the United Kingdom offers more than just its grand castles – it's also an opportunity for an unforgettable road trip! Be sure to acquire an International Driving Permit, enabling you to fully appreciate the picturesque landscapes, from Scotland's breathtaking North Coast 500 to the rugged beauty of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way!

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