Visitors and Non-Residents
Visitors and non-residents can, with few exceptions, drive with their national Driver’s License in United States. An international driver’s license (IDL) is not always required, but it is highly recommended that you carry one. Your IDL is an unofficial translation of your Driver’s License and you must get it in your home country before you get to the United States.
In general, you can drive in the United States as long as your driver’s license is valid. If you become a resident you must convert your license to a state license, and you must pass the knowledge test, vision test, and the driving test. If you take employment, is sent here by a foreign employer, or stay more than a few months in the same state, you must check the state rules.
Basic Rules of the Road
Moving to United States or just planning to visit? This post outlines the basic rules of the road when on the road in the US. However, like most things in the US, road rules vary slightly from state to state. In general, however, the following apply:
You always drive on the right-hand side of the road – This is standardized across all states in the US. If you are used to drive on the left-hand side, take special care when moving out of intersections/roundabouts.
Making left turns at a junction (intersection in US) – Always pass in front of a car that is coming from the opposite direction and turning left. Never make the turn from behind the car.
You may find green-arrow signals for left-hand turn lanes at intersection. This arrow means that oncoming traffic is stopped by a red light. This is known as a protected turn.
Making right turns against a red light – While uncommon in many other countries, turning against a red light is allowed in United States. You must come to a complete stop and make sure there is no sign that prohibits turning. You may then turn right if the way is clear. In most states, you may also turn left from a one-way street onto another one-way street. Turning against a red arrow is usually not allowed (but may be allowed in some states (see this post: Red arrows).
Right Turn and Exit Only lanes – Some lanes are signposted as ‘RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT’ or ‘EXIT ONLY’. If you are in these lanes, you must turn in the direction indicated. In case you have found yourself in these lanes by mistake, continue through, unless it is legal and safe to change lanes.
Keep an eye out for varying rear indicator lights – The only common thing about turn signals on American-made cars is that they blink. They are available in various colors, yellow, orange, and more. Sometimes they might be difficult to see or distinguish from brake or rear lights, hence more reason to keep focused on the road ahead.
Hand signals – Hand signals are uncommon and necessary only in case your turn signals and brake light fails or may be hard to see. The standardized hand signals in United States may differ from your home country:
- RIGHT TURN: arm upward.
- LEFT TURN: arm horizontal.
- STOP/SLOW: hand and arm downward.
Use horns sparingly – The use of your horn may be prohibited in various districts and should only be used to prevent accidents.
Stop for School Buses – Whenever you approach a stopped school bus with flashing red lights from behind, you must stop! Not stopping for a school bus is a serious offense in all states. If you approach a stopped school bus from the other direction, you must always stop if you are on the same carriageway/roadway. If the highway is divided by a barrier, you should proceed with caution. Rules vary slightly between the states.
Mind the signs – Some common shapes and colors include:
- Red and Octagonal: ‘STOP’ signs. You must stop completely before pulling out.
- Red and white inverted triangle: ‘YIELD’ (give way). Though you’re not required to stop, you must give way to the other traffic.
- Yellow pennant-shaped: ‘NO-PASSING ZONE’. Placed on the left side and marks the beginning of a no-passing zone.
- Yellow circular-shaped: ‘RAILROAD CROSSING’. The only sign that is circular in US.
- Yellow diamond-shaped: ‘GENERAL WARNING’. Warning signs are usually yellow and diamond shaped.
- Orange diamond-shaped: ‘WORK ZONE WARNING’. Warning signs in work zones are always orange.
Mind the lane markings – Some common road markings include:
- Yellow Lines: They mark the separation of traffic lanes that are moving in opposite directions
- White Lines: They mark the separation of traffic lanes that are moving in same direction.
- Broken Lines: They indicate that changing lanes or passing is allowed.
- Solid White Lines: They mark where changing lanes is discouraged or prohibited.
- Solid Yellow Lines: They mark no-passing zones. If the solid line is on your side, do not pass. If there is a broken yellow line on your side, passing is allowed. Two solid yellow lines mean that passing is prohibited in both directions.
You may also find two-way left turn lanes on some roads. Such lanes are marked with broken and solid yellow lines on both sides. Center lanes must be entered before making a left turn from either direction. They cannot be used as passing lanes.
Mind the Traffic Signals – These may cause some confusion:
- Yellow flashing signal: This signal has the same meaning as a ‘YIELD’ (give way) sign
- Red flashing signal: This signal has the same meaning as a ‘STOP’ sign.
How to Prepare for Your Visit
Taking a practice permit test on this site might be a good idea. You will see permit test questions and answers that equals the driving test in USA. The include questions about road signs, road markings, signals and some basic rules. Just ignore questions on permit test that deals with specific license rules, points on a driving record, and similar. Permit test answers will help you learn and be better prepared without reading a complete driver’s manual.