Driving in the UK

Car travelling in Peak District, Derby, UK

Anders Blomqvist / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Whether you're driving through the Lakes District of England, Scotland's Isle of Skye, Wales' Snowdonia National Park, London, or underneath Northern Ireland's famous Dark Hedges, a road trip in any part of the United Kingdom offers plenty of opportunity for scenic adventures and lush vistas. However, before you pick up the keys and hit the road, there are some things every traveler should know about driving in the UK.

Driving Requirements

If you have a valid driver's license from your home country, you are allowed to drive in the UK for up to 12 months without a UK license. The minimum age to rent a car in the UK is varies by car rental company; some will allow drivers as young as 17 and others require drivers to be 21 or 23. Drivers under 25 will also be charged an extra fee per day.

Checklist for Driving in the UK

  • Valid driver's license (required)
  • International Driving Permit (recommended)
  • Passport or ID card (required)
  • A European accident statement, which can be obtained from your car insurance company (required)
  • Accident and breakdown insurance (required)
  • Certificate of insurance (required)

Rules of the Road

As you drive around the UK, keep some basic driving rules in mind, and know that the UK uses miles per hour, so there's no need to convert to kilometers.

  • Driving on the left side of the road: In the UK, you should take some time to get used to driving on the left side of the road before you get going. If you're uncomfortable driving for the first time in a busy area, take a train to your first out of town destination and rent your car there to adjust to driving along quieter, emptier roads. This will help you build up your confidence before driving in a big city or on a busy highway.
  • Speed limits: On highways, the speed limit is usually 70 miles per hour (mph), but on country roads, it slows down to 40 or 50 mph. And once you enter a village, a city center, or a built-up residential area, the speed limit is never more than 30 mph and may be posted for 20 mph or less. Speed cameras are found all over the UK, especially in town centers, so mind these limits.
  • U-turns: Drivers are allowed to execute a U-turn or 3-point-turn on any UK road where it can be safely done, and it is not expressly forbidden. Don't be surprised if you see a driver hold up four lanes of traffic to make a U-turn. You'll know when U-turns are not permitted if you see a sign with an upside-down "U" crossed out with a red line.
  • Road signs: Road signs in the UK are fairly uniform to international standards with triangle-shaped signs for warnings and stop signs that look exactly the same as stop signs in the U.S. Just in case you run into any truly indecipherable signs on your trip, it's a good idea to brush up on the UK's more obscure road signs.
  • Seat belts: It is illegal not to wear a seatbelt in the UK, and if you are caught you could be fined up to 500 pounds.
  • Children and car seats: Children under 12 years old or shorter than 4 feet 5 inches (135 centimeters) must be fitted in a car seat.
  • Cell phones: It is illegal to use your cellphone while you are driving in the UK, and you could face heavy fines if caught. There are some exceptions if you are using hands-free features.
  • Alcohol: The legal blood alcohol limit in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, which is equivalent to 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC). Scotland has tighter restrictions with a limit of 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or a 0.05 percent BAC.
  • Toll roads: In all of the United Kingdom, you will only find 23 toll roads, most of which are in England. There are no toll roads in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and there is only one toll road in Wales, on the Cleddau Bridge. Even in England, the majority of tolls will only be found on bridge crossings. The price of a toll might change depending on the time of day or the kind of vehicle you're driving.
  • Right of way: In the UK, there will be yield signs if you are required to give way to an oncoming vehicle. On small country roads, called single-track roads, you should pull over on the left at a passing place if you see another car coming, especially if that car is driving uphill and you are driving downhill.
  • Gas stations: Also known as petrol stations, gas stations in the UK are self-service, and fuel is sold by the liter. Before you fill up, make sure you know what kind of gas your car needs and that you are reading the labels correctly before you start pumping.
  • Street parking: You'll often see cars parked on what looks like the wrong side of the street, facing oncoming traffic, which is legal to do in the UK.
  • In case of emergency: If you need to reach emergency services in the UK for any reason, you can dial 112 or 999 to connect to an emergency operator whether you are in Northern Ireland or Britain.

Should You Rent a Car?

It's possible to take a tour of the UK using trains and public transportation alone, but having a car makes it easier to reach far-off villages, natural wonders, and historic landmarks. Additionally, it's the best way to see the countryside and leaves the most room for exploration. However, if you just plan on taking a tour of the large cities, you probably don't need a car and will find it easier to manage by train.

Weather and Road Conditions

While the United Kingdom is famously rainy, it hardly ever snows. With an average of 133 days of rain per year, you can expect to do some driving in the rain. Most of the time it will be light, but if you do encounter heavy pours of flash flooding, drive carefully and consider pulling over and waiting it out.

If you have to get a move on, turn on your headlights, and leave plenty of space for the car in front of you. If you begin to aquaplane when your tires lose their grip on the road in a way that it becomes impossible to stop, don't slam on the break. Instead, take your foot off the gas pedal and allow the car to slow down by itself.

Automatic vs. Manual Transmission

When renting a car in the UK, make sure to ask for an automatic transmission if you are not comfortable driving a stick shift. UK drivers usually learn to drive a manual transmission car first, and most rental cars are manual. Unless you ask for an automatic when you book your car, you may end up with a stick shift you can't drive.

An even better idea to save yourself some money, take a lesson or two in a standard shift car before your trip. Renting cars with standard transmissions is almost always the cheaper option.

Parking Fees

Most villages now have paid parking lots to prevent congestion on the narrow, old streets and lanes. The cost is minimal. For 40 to 50 pence an hour, you get a paper parking slip to display on your dashboard. You can park on streets with single yellow lines after parking restrictions are lifted, usually after 6 p.m. but often later in busy town centers and cities.

British Car Vocabulary

Although the United Kingdom and the United States share English as a common language, there are still many differences in vernacular between the two languages—especially when it comes to cars. If you run into car trouble, keep in mind these basic British variations of American terms.

  • Highway: Motorway
  • Gas: Petrol
  • Hood: Bonnet
  • Windshield: Windscreen
  • Tire: Tyre
  • Trunk: Boot
  • Fender: Wing
  • Turn signals: Indicators
  • Transmission: Gearbox
  • Muffler: Silencer
  • Parking lot: Car Park
  • Curb: Kerb
  • Pedestrian crossing: Zebra Crossing
  • Traffic jam: Tailback
  • Truck: Lorry
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