United Kingdom Driving Guide 2021
The U.K.'s diverse and bustling cities, grandiose coastline, and idyllic countryside should be on your list of places to visit. Get an International Driving Permit to enjoy it to its fullest.
January 21, 2021
Great Britain is a must-see on any traveler’s list of places to visit. The sheer number of places to go in this incredibly diverse destination is incredible, and driving in the country is the best way to get to see them, especially those off the beaten path. Besides large cities, like London, you can visit stunning rural areas that are typically best accessible to visitors by car.
Renting a vehicle can get you to places that most visitors don’t get a chance to see, and you’ll be able to experience more of the country and its culture than you would if you relied just on public transportation. While the public transport system in the UK is excellent, renting a car and driving is definitely something to consider because you’ll be able to experience so much more!
The United Kingdom is more than just England. It includes Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is actually just England, Scotland, and Wales, each of which is considered its own country. Northern Ireland may be described as a region, province, or country, depending on who you talk to, but for the purposes of driving around the British Isles, it is included in the United Kingdom.
Now, to drive in the UK may make you feel a bit nervous since it is not your home territory. Your country has its own rules for driving, and you’re likely used to them as a driver. Never fear, however. The UK is pretty straightforward in its driving requirements, and you’ll benefit from learning the requirements of how to drive there as a visitor before you leave for your trip. These tips can help you get from point A to point B with little trouble.
Visiting the UK
As a visitor to the UK, you’ll be one of the many people around the world who have visited there recently. In fact, the country received 4.1 million visits to the UK by people who live outside the UK in August 2019 alone. In that same month, this group spent £3.1 billion when they visited, which was 13 percent more than in the same month the previous year. In 2018, overseas visitors to the UK spent £22.9 billion, and a forecasted £25.9 billion will be spent by visitors in 2019. The UK is such a popular tourist destination that it is projected that, in 2020, the amount will climb to £26.6 billion. If you look back at 2010, the amount of money spent in the UK by overseas visitors was just £16.9 billion.
If you travel to the UK as an overseas visitor in 2020, your trip will make up one of an estimated 39.7 million overseas visits to the UK, up from 29.8 million in 2010. At the time of writing, there is some potential changes to this number due to how Brexit unfolds, but the rise in popularity of the UK over the last about ten years is undeniable, and it is definitely a place to visit if you get the opportunity to do so.
Where will you go when you get to the UK? The UK is definitely more than just a visit to see Big Ben or the Tower of London. You can get lost for days just seeing what London alone has to offer, but the UK offers plenty more to see beyond the capital by car. For example, you could travel up to Edinburgh in Scotland to see the Royal Yacht Britannica, which was commissioned to be built by King George VI just two days before he passed away. You can also visit the ancient Roman baths in Bath, which were built around natural hot springs in the first century AD. You might also like to see the Cheddar Gorge and Caves in Somerset, which is a three mile-long underground formation, or the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Monmouthshire in South Wales.
Do You Need an International Driving Permit if You Plan to Drive in the UK?
In many countries, you need an International Driving Permit if you plan to drive around the country in a rental or borrowed car on vacation. However, for the UK, the rules are different than they are for many such countries. This can save you the headache and the money of having to get an International Driving Permit. However, remember that you should get one if you plan to go to a country outside the UK on your travels that requires one. Get one a week or two before you go on your trip so that you get the longest amount of time to use it before it expires.
If you intend to drive in England, Wales, and Scotland, and you’re a visitor, according to the UK government, “you can drive any small vehicle (e.g. car or motorcycle) listed on your full and valid licence for 12 months from when you last entered Great Britain.” This true for people who passed their driving tests outside of these areas: Northern Ireland, the European Union, the European Economic Area, Jersey, Guernsey, or the Isle of Man.
For Northern Ireland, you can drive vehicles that weigh up to 3.5 tons and with up to eight passenger seats for a period of up to 12 months from the date you enter Northern Ireland. The rules for driving larger vehicles are different for both Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, so be sure to check government websites if this is applicable to you. If you have a community license from a member state of the European Economic Area, “you can drive any vehicle provided your licence is valid and it shows the suitable full entitlement for the vehicle you wish to drive,” according to the government website of Northern Ireland. You must also meet Northern Ireland’s minimum age requirements, which are that you be 17 years old for cars and motorcycles and 18 for medium-sized vehicles, and 24 for large trucks and buses.
If you passed your test in Jersey, Guernsey, or the Isle of Man, you can also drive any small vehicle, as listed previously. Should you have passed your driving test in Northern Ireland, the European Union, or the European Economic Area, “[y]ou can drive any type of vehicle listed on you full and valid licence.” Now, if you’re studying in Great Britain, there are different rules to follow as you will be staying in the country a long time. Check with the UK government for particulars for your situation and length of stay.
Now, if you’re looking for truck driving jobs in the UK, you will need to do some further research into whether your US driving license in the UK for trucks is valid. If you want any type of driving job in the UK, you will need to ensure you follow the law about your specific type of license.
What if You’re Planning to Drive Outside the UK?
Now, if you’re planning to travel outside the UK with a rental car, you might need an international driving permit. Many countries require you to have an international driver’s permit, which is relatively simple to get online. It’s also great because it serves as a valid form of identification in many countries as it has your name, picture, and driver information in 12 languages. If you have a valid driver’s license from any country, you can apply online with a copy of your current driver’s license and a passport-sized photo.
So if you plan to cross into mainland Europe or to another country in Europe, like Ireland or Iceland, check out their driver’s license requirements before you leave the UK. You also want to be sure that you can take your rental vehicle outside the UK. There may be restrictions or charges for driving in certain countries once you leave the UK.
Renting a Car in the UK
As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in United Kingdom are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.
Renting a car is definitely a smart move if you want to get the most out of your visit to the UK. You should plan well ahead of your departure date to get the best price and vehicle for your trip. By planning ahead, you avoid last-minute confusion and overspending on services you don’t need and fees you would not have to pay if you had more time to review the car rental process.
What is the driving age in the UK?
Be aware that, although the minimum age for driving in the UK is 17, most car rental companies will require drivers to be over 21, and if you’re under 25, you’ll likely have to pay extra fees. If you are 21 or under, use public transportation and safe private car hire services to explore the UK.
You definitely want to check with a few rental car companies before you choose one as they don’t have the same prices, and they may each offer promotions. If you’re using an all-encompassing holiday provider, you might get a discount. If you are a member of a driving association, like AAA, then you may also get a price break
Before you sign anything, make sure that you are familiar with all the charges that you might face when you rent the car. For example, there are rules about how much gas to bring the car back with to the rental agency, additional insurance rules and fees, fees for driving on certain toll roads and highways, and some cities have special permits required for driving in certain areas that you may need to pay for.
As far as the fuel charges go, think about your unique situation: you might find that it’s cheaper and easier to just pay the refueling fee because your flight leaves early in the morning to go home, and you don’t want to mess with trying to refuel the vehicle before you turn it back in. It may also be much cheaper to do so given that gas in the UK is much more expensive in Europe than it is, say, in the US, and the rental agency may have better prices worked out with fuel companies.
Ask the rental agency about all of the charges that are possible, and read the documentation thoroughly because you don’t want any charges showing up on your credit card bill later on when you get home that you didn’t expect. Additionally, you should bring your own GPS because if the rental company has to give you one, then you’ll have to pay high fee.
If you’re thinking about driving a US car in the UK, there are different rules you need to follow for the import of your car and registration. Unless you’re planning to become a resident of the UK, getting or renting a car in the UK will probably be cheaper and easier.
Speed Limits in the UK
Road signs in the UK use the imperial system, and you’ll have to know that 1 mile is equal to 1.61 kilometers and that one yard is 0.91 meters if you’re from a country that uses the metric system. To make things easier for you, just learn the speed limits for different types of vehicles and roads. You’re not likely to find any speed limit signs unless the speed limit is different than the usual speed limit for that type of road.
- For vehicles that weigh less than 3.05 tons, you can drive 30 mph (48 kmph) in built-up areas, 60 mph (96 kmph) on undivided highways, 70 mph (112 kmph) on divided highways, 20 mph (32 kmph) near schools or pedestrians, and 50 mph (80 kmph) on roads with many sharp curves.
- For vehicles that weigh more than 3.05 tons, you can only go 50 mph (80 kmph) on undivided highways and 60 mph (96 kmph) on divided highways. The other speed limits remain the same.
Typically, you’ll have a margin of 10 percent and two miles per hour before you’ll get a speeding ticket, but police officers in individual areas can use their discretion. So you could get a ticket for going more than one mile per hour over the limit. You might get a verbal warning, have to attend a speed awareness course (which costs money), or you may get a speeding ticket and a £100 fine. If you face prosecution because you were driving too fast, you may have to go to court and pay £1,000 in fines (£2,500 if you were speeding on the highway), and you could be disqualified from driving.
Make sure you drive at a reasonable speed but don’t go too slowly, either. If an officer believes that you’re driving too slowly, you may have to pay a fine.
UK Road Signs?
An American driving in the UK may have trouble recognizing signs in the UK as they are different. You’ll likely recognize many road signs in the UK, but here are some that are specific to the UK.
- • Give way – This triangular-shaped sign means to yield to traffic on a major road.
- • A red circle with a picture of a car and motorcycle means that no motor vehicles can drive on that road.
- • A red-outlined triangle with a T-junction in the middle means that vehicles coming from the right have priority.
- • A “Reduce Speed Now” sign is sometimes placed below some signs, and it is rectangular in shape, with white lettering on a red background.
- • A sign with a bus, bike, and taxi and a dotted diagonal line mean there is a with-flow bus lane ahead that bicycles and taxis can also utilize.
- • A sign with a picture with a car with two people in it with “2+” on the car with hours and days listed below it means that it is a lane just for high-occupancy vehicles. You’ll also see a sign that describes the types of vehicles permitted to use the HOV lanes.
- • A blue sign with diagonal white lines on it indicates the number of markers at the exit from a highway. Each bar means 100 yards to the exit. At the exit, you may also see a service area sign that indicates the service operator’s name.
- • There are three signs of white arrows on blue images representing roadways and lanes that show how the traffic pattern is supposed to proceed to join the main traffic flow.
- • If you need a hospital, you’ll see a red rectangle with white lettering with a capital “H” and then “A&E,” which indicates an emergency room.
- • A brown sign with white lettering of a lowercase “i” and “Tourist Information” indicates that you’re near a tourist information point.
- • There are certain signs that indicate lanes and flows of bus and cycle traffic. For example, a bus and bicycle the same lane with a white, vertical lane marker separating them from an empty lane indicates a with-flow bus and cycle lane. You may also see two arrows pointing up in one lane and a bus with an arrow pointing down in another lane. This is a contra-flow bus lane. A bicycle on the left side of a sign with a vertical, white rectangle separated from an empty lane indicates a with-flow bicycle lane.
- • A blue circle with two white arrows pointing diagonally down in opposite directions indicates that vehicles can go on either side of the road to reach the same destination.
- • As far as parking signs go, a set of double yellow rectangles indicates you cannot wait at any time in that space. A single yellow line indicates that you can stop temporarily. If there is a sign above the single yellow line that gives a time frame, say, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. you cannot wait during the times that are shown on the sign.
- "• Road markings that you should be aware of include a thinner white in line painted on the road that indicates a stop line at traffic signals or police control. A thicker white line is painted on the road at stop signs. If you see a single, dashed line on the road, give way to traffic from the right when you approach a roundabout. If there are double, white, dashed lines on the road, yield to traffic on major roads, and you may also see this at small roundabouts. If there is a set of thick white, dashed lines on the road, yield to traffic coming from the right at a small roundabout.
Types of Roads in the UK?
Non-primary roads are classified as “A” or “B” in the UK. These are close to primary routes and can provide a different way to get where you’re going without having to drive on highways. These routes may be faster than highways. The signs are white with black lettering. “C” and “D” roads are very small and are not typically shown on national maps. They are in very rural areas or are shorter in distance in less rural areas. They may be single-track roads, so be aware that you may need to share the road with oncoming traffic on these types of roads.
Primary roads are also classified as “A” and “B”,” and they are smaller or slower roads that may be two or four lanes. The signs are green with white lettering. B-roads are typically regional and connect areas that are not as populated.
Highways, or motorways, have signs that are blue with white text. They are titled with an “M” at the beginning or end, such as M6 or A6 (M). You’ll see signs for junctions and exits a mile beforehand, and there are several signs until the exit. You can drive for free on highways except for a small area north of Birmingham on the M6.
Motorways are the largest roads in the UK, and they are typically the fastest. They may be up to four lanes of traffic in each direction, but three lanes are more common. Some motorways are just two lanes in each direction. You won’t have to deal with traffic lights or roundabouts on motorways. To get on and off motorways, pay attention to the blue and white signs.
Details for Driving in London
If you plan to use your own rented car in London during your trip, be aware that you should register your license plate online on the Transport for London government website before you enter the city center Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. As of the time of writing, the charge is £11.50 per day per vehicle. You’ll see a sign that says “Congestion charging Central Zone” with a large red circle in the middle of the text with a white “C.”
• A single, continuous, yellow line means that stopping is allowed, and parking is permitted on certain days at certain times. A double, continuous, yellow line means that stopping is allowed, but parking is not.
If you drive to the east side of London, there is a toll at the Dartford Crossing, and you can pay it online beforehand or within 24 hours after you cross, and the fee is £2.50 per vehicle.
If you are going to park in London, you need to know about the street markings to know where you can park. Parking fines start at £60 in the U.K., so it’s a good idea to become familiar with these rules.
- A single, continuous, yellow line means that stopping is allowed, and parking is permitted on certain days at certain times. A double, continuous, yellow line means that stopping is allowed, but parking is not.
- A single, continuous, red line means that stopping and parking are allowed at specific times on particular days. A double, continuous, red line means that neither parking nor stopping are allowed at any time.
- A single, broken, white line bordering the area indicates that stopping is allowed, and that parking is allowed at certain times and on specific days with “pay and display.” Parking is free at other times.
- You can leave your car parked outside the congestion charge zone and close to tube stations in seven parking lots around the city. Purchase an Oyster card (a rechargeable card that permits you to travel on public transportation in London for discounted prices) or the London Travelcard (a paper ticket that you can use on all public transport in the city that is good for one, two, three, or seven days) to get where you want to go.
UK Driving Laws
Don’t think that the driving law in the UK is the same as in your country. Driving rules in the UK may be different than your country, so pay attention to the most important ones.
- Driving under the influence in the UK is illegal. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t drive your vehicle if you have been drinking, but be aware that the blood alcohol content is 80 micrograms per 100 milliliters of breath in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is just 50 micrograms per 100 milliliters of breath in Scotland. You can face a fine of £5,175 if you drive while inebriated, also lose your UK license if you happen to have one.
- You cannot use a mobile phone while you drive in the U.K. If you do, you may have to pay a fee of £90, but you can use one to call for emergency help.
- Here are two emergency numbers to know when driving: 999 and 112.
- If you need to use your phone, you can do so legally when you have safely parked the vehicle, and you can use hands-free phones while you drive. However, the police can still stop you if they think that you are at all distracted.
- Would you like to avoid a £440 fine? Simply wear your seat belt! If you’re putting the car in reverse, you don’t have to have your seat belt on. If the vehicle you’re in does not have a seat belt, then it’s not required to wear one. This might be the situation if you find yourself driving a classic vehicle that never had seat belts, to begin with. You cannot drive in these vehicles with children under three years of age, and older children must sit in the back seat.
- You will need a “Certificate of Exemption from Compulsory Seat Belt Wearing” in the car with you if you have a medical reason not to wear one. Taxi drivers also don’t have to wear a seat belt, but you have to wear one if you ride anywhere in a taxi.
WHAT WILL I DO WHEN I AM STOPPED BY A POLICE?
If you are stopped by the police, know that they can stop you and search you and the vehicle, depending on the situation. An officer has to be in uniform when they stop and question you if they are police community support officers. Know, however, that a police officer can also stop you if they are not wearing their uniform, but they have to show you their warrant card. Rules in Scotland regarding being stopped by police are different than in the rest of the UK. For more information on how to handle a police stop in Scotland, visit this site.
In general, it’s important to cooperate with whatever an officer is asking you to do. They may ask you your name, what you’re doing, and where you are going. You’re not obligated to answer any questions, and they can’t search or arrest you in most parts of the U.K. if they don’t otherwise suspect you. Let the officer know if you don’t speak English and need an interpreter.
ROAD ETIQUETTE IN UK
The rules and unspoken or unwritten expectations for driving vary from country to country. You may find driving in the UK very different than it is in your own country. To be able to drive well in the UK, you need to know what some of the expectations are for driving there. If you want to make a positive impression on the people sharing the road with in the UK, follow these tips.
First, remember that you drive on the left side of the road in the UK. If you’re from a country like the U.S., where driving on the right is the norm, then this is essential to keep in mind at all times as forgetting can cause a bad accident.
It is also important to note there is no “fast lane.” Stay in the furthest left lane at all times unless you’re passing someone. Use your turn signal to indicate you intend to change lanes.
Additionally, let one car in front of you at junctions and exits where you can. Also, don’t use your horn unless someone is driving dangerously. Longhorn sounds are considered aggressive. Don’t use your horn in built-up areas between 11:30 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., as this is the law.
Avoid trying to go from one lane and then to jump back into another at the last minute. People will purposely not let you in, and you’ll be blocked deliberately. You can say, “Thank you” to people who help you by flashing your lights a few times. You can also use your hazard lights for this and to express “you’re welcome” or “go ahead.”
Let emergency vehicles pass you, and don’t stop until you find a place to get out of the way safely. Don’t stop in the middle of the road just to let them around you, as this could be very dangerous.
The roads in the U.K. can be narrow, so yield to cars going uphill. Additionally, give cars in front of your space, and avoid following too closely.
If you’ve driven in mainland Europe, you’ll notice that roads in the UK are typically much busier because there are almost 35 million vehicles on the road.
When you are turning at a junction or about to rejoin traffic, say, after going to the gas station, avoid trying to drive on the right. Again, keep in mind that driving on the left is the way it’s done in the UK. Stop at junctions that have a solid, white line on the road, and yield to traffic on the main road when you come from a junction that has dashed white lines on the road.
If you’re from a country with few roundabouts, such as the U.S., remember that they are very common in Britain and it is quite safe if you follow certain rules. First, know that traffic flows clockwise at roundabouts, and you should yield to traffic coming from your right unless signs, road markings, or traffic signals indicate otherwise. Also, look for lane markings and signs that show you what lane you should be in for your exit. Use your turn signal to show you will move left after you have passed the exit before the one you will use. Finally, pay attention to other drivers in the roundabout, those entering, and leave plenty of space around your vehicle.
No one wants to have an accident while they are driving on holiday or to witness one, but, if you do, follow these rules.
You must stop if anyone is hurt, if there is damage to someone’s property or vehicle, or if an animal (horse, cow, donkey, mule, sheep, pig, goat, or dog) is hurt. Stay at the scene, and give your vehicle registration number, insurance details, your name and address, and those of the owner of the vehicle if you don’t own it to those involved in the accident.
You should report the accident to a police station or an officer within 24 hours if you don’t exchange details at the scene of the accident. If you don’t have your insurance information with you, you’ll have seven days to take it to the police station where you report the accident. You can’t report the accident by phone or have someone else do it for you.
The AA, the U.K.’s largest driving organization suggests that you get information on the following at the scene of an accident:
- Scene – date, time, location, weather conditions, traffic conditions, road markings and signs or signals.
- Vehicles – make, model, registration number, colour, condition, estimated speed, direction, use of lights or indicators, number of passengers.
- People – contact details, description and distinguishing features of driver(s), contact details of passengers, pedestrians or other witnesses, details of any police officers involved.
- Damage – description of the damage to vehicles or property, and any injuries to people involved.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR CAR BREAKS DOWN
When you’re in another country, having your vehicle break down can be even more upsetting than they would be in your own country because you may not know the language or who to get in touch with. You should contact your national breakdown service provider to make sure that your policy includes trips to the U.K.
If you experience a vehicle breakdown, move your vehicle off the road if you can. Turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers, and this is especially important if your vehicle is causing a traffic block. Move to the hard shoulder, as far left as you can. Leave the sidelights on, and turn on the hazard lights.
Get out on the left side of the car, and have all passengers do likewise. Wait on the other side of a barrier away from the roadway and shoulder. If there is no hard shoulder, go to an emergency refuge area, motorway service area, or get off at the next exit. Call 999 or 112 if you have to stop in the middle of a busy lane after putting your hazard lights on. Don’t try to get out of your vehicle unless you’re in the left lane, and it’s safe to do so.
Also, make sure to call your rental car agency to report the breakdown. There should be a customer service number or a number specifically for breakdowns in the documentation for your vehicle. Consider putting these numbers directly into your mobile phone or writing them down and keeping the paper with the numbers in the car when you get your rental car so you’ll have them handy and ready to use quickly in the case of an emergency or breakdown.
Consider having some emergency items in the car, such as a phone charger, extra battery for the phone, food, water, a blanket, and outerwear for bad weather. Check with your rental company to see if there is a reflective vest, reflective road cones/markers, and/or a first aid kit as well. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on these items, but having them handy can be very helpful, especially if you’re planning to drive a long way in the UK.
ENJOY UK WITH THESE TIPS
If you have been hesitant about driving in the UK on vacation, reconsider. It’s actually quite simple. Remember to pay attention to the documentation of your car rental company, to give yourself plenty of time to rent your vehicle, and to study the rules and expected etiquette of the country. Get an International Driving Permit if you plan to travel outside the UK, and make sure your rental company will allow you to take the vehicle out of the country. Stay to the left, follow the rules, and you’ll have an excellent holiday while seeing some of the most picturesque UK scenery from the comfort of your own vehicle.