Driving in the USA

Getting in the car and cruising America's endless highways is a dream come true for many USA lovers! But before you go, take a few minutes to check our guide, which will give you an overview of driving in the USA.

The road system in the USA

The United States of America is known as a nation of drivers. Therefore, you will find a wide network of highways and interstates that cover the entire country. Basically, three different types of roads can be distinguished: interstate highways, federal highways, and state or provincial highways.

Note, however, that there is a risk of confusion: the term "highway" does not necessarily describe an interstate highway.

It is used for roads of all types and says nothing about the condition of a road. Let's take a closer look at the three types of roads:

Interstate Highways

Interstate highways in the USA are the major interregional connections that run across the entire country, usually from east to west or from north to south. They can be roughly compared to the "Autobahn" in Europe. Most of the expansion of the interstate highway system took place in the 1950s on the initiative of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Today, the network of interstate highways covers a length of about 78,000 km. However, it is not developed equally everywhere. In the eastern part of the USA, for example, you will find a much denser network than in the midwest and west.

On interstate highways, you don't have to deal with traffic lights or intersections, which means you can get from A to B pretty quickly. Despite the higher speed, safety is statistically twice as high on interstates compared to other roads.

You can recognize Interstate Highways by the abbreviation "I" in combination with a number, e.g., I-10. The signs with the road designations for interstates are red-blue with white lettering. In 2018, about one-quarter of all motorized traffic in the US traveled on interstate highways.

Federal Highways

Federal highways are classified one level below interstates but are still considered to be freeways. Federal highways also run across the entire territory of the USA, regardless of state borders. Unlike interstate highways, however, they can also cross cities and townships and aren’t free of intersections and traffic lights.

The abbreviation "US" plus a number, such as US-40, tells you that you are on a federal highway. The sign is white with black lettering and a black frame.

The most popular federal highway in America is the former US-66, better known as Route 66.

State and provincial highways

State and provincial highways are subordinate roads that may also pass through towns and villages. Road signs, construction, and condition of these roads are the responsibility of the states, resulting in large regional differences.

State and Provincial Highways also include roads in rural areas, such as County Roads, Ranch Roads, or Farm Roads, some of which are not entirely sealed.

The road sign of state and provincial highways shows a black square with a white circle.

The most famous state highway in America is the California State Route 1, also called Highway 1. It runs along the US west coast from Mendocino County in northern California to Orange County south of Los Angeles.

Did you know?

  • In densely populated areas, highways sometimes have six lanes in one direction.
  • Don't be surprised if someone overtakes you to the right: this is allowed in many US states!
  • You should also keep a close eye on your neighboring lanes because Americans like to switch lanes without indicating.
  • If you are in the far left or far right lane, be aware that the entire lane may become the next exit. This is indicated by the words "This lane must exit" or "Exit only."

Driving USA: rules & restrictions

When driving on America's highways and country roads, there are a few rules you must follow to avoid getting into trouble unnecessarily:

Speed limits on US highways

Interstate highways generally allow the highest speeds, but again, they are set by each state individually. You can typically expect lower speeds in the northeastern US and the coastal states. However, in the states further inland, west of the Mississippi River, you can usually hit the gas pedal harder.

Speed limits usually vary between 105 and 130 km/h. However, in New York City and the District of Columbia, the speed limit is only 80 km/h. Sections with speed limits of 130 km/h can be found, for example, on interstate highways I-10 and I-20 in western Texas, on I-80 in Nevada, and on sections of the highways I-15, I-70, I-80, and I-84 in Utah.

Of course, speed limits on interstate highways can be much lower if they are particularly dangerous to travel on.

Seat belt obligation

In the USA, seat belts are compulsory every time you drive. The only exception is the state of New Hampshire. Here, you have the option of using a seat belt, but you don't have to.

Children must ride in a child seat appropriate to their age and size until they are eight years old or weigh more than 36 kg.

ESTA – visa-free to the USA

With an ESTA, you can stay 90 days visa-free in the USA. Apply online now!

Driving under the influence of alcohol

When it comes to drinking and driving, the US authorities have no mercy. As an immigrant, you can even lose your resident permit if you get caught.

Due to the federal system of the USA, each state determines individually what the upper limit is. The lowest limit in the country is 0.05% in Utah. However, most states apply an upper limit of 0.08%.

Drivers under 21 years of age are an exception, as the legal limit is lower for them: it varies between 0.00% and 0.02%. Stricter rules also apply to commercial drivers. They must not exceed a limit of 0.04%.

Moreover, alcohol must never be transported openly in the car but should be kept in the trunk. Having a drunk passenger could also attract negative attention during a police control, even if the driver is sober.

Driver's license in the USA

If you want to move to the United States and drive a car, you will need an American driver's license. To receive one, you must file an application in the state where you are permanently residing. The authority responsible for issuing the driver's license is called the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Each US state has its own DMV and its own regulations for issuing the driver's license or taking the driving test!

Minimum age for the US driver's license

The minimum age for a US driver's license varies from state to state: a fully valid driver's license, also called a "full license" or "unrestricted license," is issued from the age of 16 to 18.

However, beginner drivers can gain driving experience beforehand with a probationary license. The "learner's permit" or "restricted license" can be obtained by young people between the ages of 14 and 16.

For the driver's license test, all states also have their own specifications, but as a rule, it consists of a vision test, a theoretical test, and a practical test.

Exchanging a driver's license as an immigrant

In most cases, the driver's license from the home country remains valid for a while. Exactly how long depends on the agreement that your home country has concluded with the USA.

When this transition period comes to an end, at the latest, a driver's license must be exchanged. Again, there are different guidelines for this in each US state.

Did you know?
In the USA, a driver's license is not only essential for driving a vehicle but is also recognized as proof of identity and is advantageous in many situations (e.g., when dealing with authorities or in banking affairs). Therefore, it is recommended for immigrants to apply for an American driver's license as soon as possible.

Driving on vacation in the USA

In most US states, foreign driver's licenses are accepted. However, there are some states where you must also present an international driver's license before renting a car.

You should therefore check the website of the Department of Motor Vehicles of the state you intend to visit in advance to find out whether such a requirement exists. If necessary, you can apply for an international driver's license before your travels at the local motor vehicle authority in your home country.

If you want to book a rental car during your stay in the USA, you must always specify an age limit. For insurance reasons, many American car rental companies only rent to drivers over 25 years of age. But do not worry: there are certain providers who make exceptions, but only against a cost surcharge. Often, this additional fee is only debited when the rental car is picked up. It is, therefore, best to calculate such extra costs before the journey.

More USA facts

Looking for more practical tips on living in the US? Be sure to check out our guides on US citizenship and American health insurance!


wikipedia.org, cu-camper.com, travelandleisure.com, adac.de, usa.gov