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Tips for driving in the USA as a tourist!

2023, California USA

Amit and Aditi with the sweet BMW 4 series convertible
Grand Canyon

Driving is a whole lot of fun in the USA. Prepare to be enchanted by the USA's splendid roads and awe-inspiring vistas. However, if you are driving in the USA or internationally for the first time, it can be a little unnerving.

But don't let the pressure get to you. From navigating scenic highways to discovering hidden gems off the beaten path, the road trip experience in the USA is one of the best in the world. So, rev up your engines and get ready to conquer the open roads of the USA!

Now you can understand that while planning our trip to the USA, we were sure about one thing; it must be a road trip. Although I had some experience driving overseas (France and Thailand), I was still stressed about this one as it was a two-week long vacation and 4500 km of driving (Our first really long road trip overseas).

I did my research online to prepare for anything that could happen. I looked at videos of other people driving in the USA, searched through roadside assistance options by car rental companies, and read long insurance policies; heck, I even devoured the whole 'California's driver's guide' on my flight.

I do get carried away sometimes.

The good news is that I have a treasure chest of golden information to help you prepare for your first drive in the USA. Read on for all the essential tips for driving in the USA before taking the wheel on American roads.

We have split this into three sections:

Things to do before you go.


Let's start with the most important thing - Your driver's license. You can drive in the USA as a tourist using your driver's license if it is in English, else you'll need an International Driver's Permit (but do check for country-specific requirements). I rented a car from Sixt at San Francisco, Airport using my Indian driver's license. However, I recommend carrying an IDP just in case your renter requires one. And, of course you'll need your passport if you are a tourist.

Driving rules

Rules in the USA are a little different compared to Europe and a lot compared to India. Ensure you are well-read and informed about their traffic laws before travelling. If you have time and like reading, I recommend studying California's Driver's Handbook (available here). It is available in several languages and is pretty easy to understand. But if you don't like reading a lot, like me, then fret not, as I'll share the most important rules for driving in the USA.

Right-Hand traffic

Traffic in the USA drives on the right-hand side of the road. It means your steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the vehicle. Adapting to the new driving landscape is challenging if you come from a country like India, where traffic drives on the left. A good hack is to think in terms of the driver side and passenger side instead of left and right. The driver's side of the vehicle should always be towards the centre of the road. You don't have to worry about shifting gears as most cars have automatic transmissions. And don't worry, it doesn't take too long for your brain to figure it out.

Plan routes

This is essential to avoid hassles on the road. Study the routes you will cover and plan pitstops or stays in advance. Ensure you have Google Maps on your smartphone. You'll feel more confident on the road if you know where you are going.


If you are a tourist, you may be confused about how to get fuel in the USA. I couldn't find any information online, so I had to do it the old-fashioned way; ask a generous man for help.

Fortunately, I can spell it all out for you now.

  • First, you go to a gas station (no-brainer) and pull up your car next to a filling station.

  • Uncap the fuel lid. You'll find a little sticker there with the fuel grade specification that you need to use.

  • In the USA, you usually find three gasoline or petrol grades - 87, 89 and 91.

  • Once you know what fuel to use, insert your credit/forex card into the machine and authorise the payment.

  • Once done, pick up the nozzle, push the button for the fuel (one of 87, 89 or 91 grade) and insert the nozzle into your fuel tank.

  • Put the nozzle back after refuelling. You'll be charged the final amount at this point.

And you are all set to go.

The chic town of Livermore
The chic town of Livermore

The next section includes the rules you should follow while driving in the USA.

Right of way

This concept may be new for some. Most Western countries follow the "Right of way" concept on the road to improve road safety. It regulates the movement of vehicles in conflicting situations, establishing who has the Right of Way (ROW) to go first while the others wait. For instance, pedestrians always have the right of way on road crossings, and you must stop to give way to pedestrians. Similarly, ongoing traffic has the right of way over a vehicle trying to get on the road. Be mindful of who has the "right of way" on the road.

Lane driving

Most of you are likely familiar with this one. I recommend staying on the middle or right lanes as you adjust to driving in the USA. The leftmost lane is the fastest. Around metropolitan areas, the leftmost lane is also a carpool lane that you can only use if you have two or more people in the car. You'll find the signs everywhere.

Right turn on Red lights

You can make a right turn on a red light in the USA unless there are signs saying "No right on RED". You'll find such signs at busy intersections in the cities. However, in most of the USA, you can freely make a right turn at a red light. Also, be mindful of the right of way of the oncoming traffic before making a right. New York restricts the right turn on a red light, so remember to check the rules for the state you are driving in.

4-way intersection

A unique thing I discovered while driving in the USA is their free 4-way intersection road design. It essentially is an open 4-way intersection with 'Stop' signs and no traffic lights at all. The general rule is that everyone stops at the intersection and the vehicle arriving first has the right of way. For someone used to driving in the chaos of Indian roads, this rule seems bizarre. Fortunately, it works. I did not face any problems making my way across such intersections in the US. Just remember the rule.

Road signs

Here are a few useful resources to learn about common road signs; wiki link with illustrations and California's Driver's Handbook. The most important one is the "Stop" sign. Always stop at a 'Stop Sign' to look for oncoming traffic and move once it's safe.

Speed limit enforcement

This again gripped my curiosity as I saw a sign saying, "Speed limit enforced by Aircraft". I was confused, as you may be, but they do enforce it with an aircraft flying over your head that measures your speed. I know it sounds gimmicky and I doubt the accuracy of such measurements. The point is, if you are on an empty country road, don't think of speeding cause someone up there may be watching.

Pro-tip: During our trip, we found most highways to have a speed limit of 65 mph and sometimes ranging from 55 to 75 mph. If you use navigation apps like Google Maps or Waze, you'll be able to see the speed limit on your navigation screen as well.

(Bonus for Indian readers)

Lane markings

If you are obsessed with driving like I am, then you deserve a satisfying reward for making it this far. The roads are thoughtfully designed to help drivers in all ways possible. For instance, as a lane converts into an exit lane on a highway, the distance between lane markings decreases till it becomes a solid line. White lines signify lane barriers for traffic going in the same direction. Similarly, the solid yellow line in the middle signifies a lane barrier for traffic going in opposite directions and must not be crossed. However, if it turns into a broken line, you can move to the opposite lane to overtake it. If there is a solid yellow line with a broken white line on your side, it means you can cross to the other lane for overtaking, however, the traffic on the other side cannot move to your lane. All too nerdy, but great road safety rules that I hope will soon become the norm in India as well.

Hope you have gained some insights into traffic rules and regulations in the USA.

I have tried to condense my driving experience into some Do's and Don'ts below.

  1. Rent an extravagant car because the USA has some of the best rental fleets in the world. If you want to drive a Mustang or a BMW convertible, go for it.

  2. Download directions on Google Maps before going on a road trip. There's a high chance of poor or no network on the road or in remote areas. Offline directions will ease your journey.

  3. Ensure you get full insurance coverage (including third-party liability coverage) and roadside assistance while renting a car. It's better to be safe than sorry.

  4. Pay attention to road signs as you navigate through city traffic. Trust me, missing an exit is a mood killer.

  5. Check the blindspots while switching lanes. Your car may also come equipped with detection sensors that warn you if there is something in your blind spot.

  6. Carry reusable bottles. You can fill them up at most retail stores or public places. Additionally, you can get a crate of water bottles from a supermarket if you plan to be on the road for a long (consider avoiding plastic bottles as much as possible).

  7. Lastly, enjoy the never-ending scenery because the views are breathtaking. Remember to take it all in.

  1. Never speed. Getting pulled over while you are on vacation can be a buzz kill.

  2. Don't drive aggressively. Be mindful of the traffic around you and stay calm in all situations. Remember to leave that aggression at home.

  3. Don't forget to record a video of your rental car before starting your journey. I have heard stories of rental companies slapping damage charges after the return.

  4. Don't forget that the USA has multiple time zones. Adjust your travel plans accordingly.

  5. Don't forget to add some buffer to your travel time. You will be making frequent pitstops to admire the natural beauty.

  6. Don't park in front of a fire hydrant. You may have to pay hefty fines if you do so because they take fire safety VERY seriously.

  7. Don't leave valuables in your car. Break-ins are very common in the US.

As we roll to a stop, we wish you the best of journeys. Remember that the highways will be there, waiting to serve your next adventure. Keep driving, keep dreaming, and keep making memories that will fuel your wanderlust for a lifetime.

Happy Travels!


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