Driving is the best way to explore the UK.
Trains might be the fastest option, but rail fares are expensive without booking far in advance. This means careful planning weeks ahead and ruins the spontaneous travel experience many people prefer.
Driving a car gives you more freedom. You can access the many random but fun attractions you’ll notice along the way to each city. You can also experience driving through miles and miles of some of the most gorgeous countryside in the world.
Is it easy for tourists to drive in the UK? The short answer is “yes”, but there are some things you need to know.
In this travel guide, you’ll find useful information about driving in the UK for foreigners. I’ll answer most of the common questions below, but if you need more information, please leave a comment.
Can tourists drive a car in the UK?
Yes, as long as you have a valid driving license from another country. To rent a car, you’ll also need to have had your driving license for at least 12 months.
You can drive with a foreign license for up to a year. If you plan on staying longer, you’ll need to get a UK driving license.
You don’t need an International Driving Permit, though getting one might be a good idea as they are usually cheap.
Renting a car in the UK
Renting a car gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore the UK on your own terms.
I use Discover Cars to check for the best rates and options from different car rental companies. Select where you want to pick up and drop off, and choose from a wide range of vehicles.
Is driving in the UK left or right?
The UK is one of the smaller percentages of countries where you drive on the left.
If you’re used to driving on the right, you might think this is a problem, but don’t worry. Many people adapt quickly and find switching sides quite easy.
The key is to take your first journey carefully. You could even practice a bit in the parking lot.
Is driving in the UK difficult?
It depends on where you’re from.
If you’re used to the long straight roads of the USA, the bendy roads of the UK might require a bit more concentration.
However, the UK is small, and trips between cities will be much shorter than you’re used to.
UK roads are some of the safest in Europe. One reason is the driving exam is especially difficult. This means you shouldn’t have much trouble with other drivers on the road.
In addition, the roads are well-planned with lots of clear signs.
Traffic circles, or “roundabouts” as they’re known in the UK, are common. They are much safer than 4-way crossings but might be a bit confusing if you haven’t used them much.
Check out the UK’s highway code for clear instructions.
Do you need an international license to drive in the UK?
No, you only need a valid driving license from another country. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not necessary.
An IDP is needed in some other countries, and they are pretty cheap, so getting one might be a good idea.
The minimum driving age in the UK is 17, but car rental companies have different age limits.
Usually, this is 23, but some companies might go down to 21 years old for smaller cars. If you are under 25, expect to pay an extra daily fee.
Basic driving rules
Here are some basic driving rules you must follow in the United Kingdom:
- Drive on the left! – take time to get used to this.
- No cell phones – don’t touch your phone unless stopped and parked. Yes, even if you’re only changing a song or your navigation. Use voice controls.
- Seat belts – Everyone must wear them. Children under 12 years old or shorter than 135cm need to use a car seat.
- Alcohol – In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. In Scotland, it is lower, at 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. Police can stop you anytime and breathalyze you if they think you’ve been drinking.
- Valid driving license from another country (older than a year if you want to rent a car)
- Proof of ID (passport)
- Proof of address – if you’re living in the UK. This could be a letter from your bank or similar.
- Return flight ticket – if you’re living outside the UK.
What to do if you get stopped by the police?
In the UK, the police can stop you for any reason. They’ll follow behind you and flash their lights if they want you to stop. It’s important to choose a safe place to pull over.
They’ll probably ask to see your license, so have it ready. Having other documents, such as your rental agreement and insurance certificate close at hand might be a good idea too.
Most police in the UK don’t carry guns, so don’t expect tense interactions like you might see in the USA.
What to do if you have an accident in the UK?
UK roads are incredibly safe, but accidents do happen.
If you find yourself in a fender-bender, it’s important to stop as soon as it’s safe to do so, switch your engine off, and turn on your hazard lights.
If anyone is injured, you need to call the police. Otherwise, as long as the road is clear, you need to exchange details: names, addresses, and car registration numbers.
Check the London police website for more detailed information.
Road types and speed limits in the UK
Speed limits in the UK are usually displayed clearly on every road. Otherwise, there are some general rules depending on the type of road.
For cars, the maximum speeds are:
- Built-up areas – inside towns and cities or places with street lights. 30mp/h, sometimes 20mp/h if a school is nearby.
- Single lane road – 60mp/h
- Dual lane road – 70mp/h
- Motorway – 70mp/h
For driving other vehicles, the driving rules might be different.
These are the maximum speed limits, but you might have to drive slower depending on road conditions.
Parking in the UK
In downtown areas of busy cities, usually, you’ll have to find a parking lot (car park).
Cities in the UK are pretty congested, and driving into these busy areas might be a bad idea. You’ll spend a long time in traffic, and the parking fees can be expensive.
I recommend looking for parking areas on the outskirts of cities and using public transport to get to the center. Look for park-and-ride car parks that make this easier.
If you can park on the street, never park on double-yellow lines, and always check nearby signs for the parking rules.
Toll roads and bridges
Toll roads are rare in the UK, but you might find one unavoidable depending on your route.
Usually, they’ll be plenty of signs to alert you of an upcoming toll road. Prices are only around £1-2 pounds.
UK Car insurance
Your rental car will come with basic insurance included in the price. This means you won’t have to pay the full cost if you damage the vehicle.
This basic insurance will come with an ‘excess’ charge. This is the money you’ll have to pay towards a repair if the worst happens. This can sometimes be £2-3 thousand.
If you are worried about this, you can get Excess Reimbursement Insurance (ERI). This means you can claim back the excess charge payment. You get this from an outside insurance company. Search online to find the best rates. Expect to pay £10-20 a week.
You can also pay for extra insurance from your car-hire company, so you don’t have to pay an excess charge.
In the UK, it’s not called gas. It’s called petrol. Look out for petrol stations when you’re running low. If your car uses diesel, you’ll also find this at a petrol station.
As petrol attendants are rare in the UK, expect to use the pumps yourself.
Fuel is expensive in the UK. Generally, petrol stations attached to supermarkets are the cheapest.
Electric vehicles and charging points
The UK’s infrastructure for electric vehicles is still work-in-progress.
Choosing to rent an electric car might be a good idea due to the high fuel costs, but you’ll have to be more careful about your journeys.
Use an app, such as zap-map, to find public charging stations for the route you plan to take. Take notice of your car’s range. In less populated areas, you’ll have to plan where to charge your car in advance.
Choosing the best car for your trip in the UK
- Automatic/manual – Most people in the UK drive with manual gearboxes, and these are the most available cars. Automatic cars are still available–but expect them to be more expensive to hire.
- Petrol / Diesel / Electric – Diesel cars are cheaper to run but more expensive to hire. A diesel car could be more affordable overall if you plan to travel many miles. The same applies to electric cars, but you’ll also have to consider public charging point availability. As discussed above, if you plan on visiting more remote areas, you’ll need an electric car with a high range, as charging points are rare.