Feeling the wind whip through your hair while speeding along Route 66 in a convertible is living the American dream, is it not? Americans are a car-loving people, from Henry Ford’s famous Model T in the 1920s to the imported luxury vehicles of the 2000s, cars are an integral part of American culture. Novels were even written about driving in the United States; Jack Kerouac’s famous On the Road depicts the trend of mobility in the 1950s and the search for freedom. In fact, driving in the United States was even seen as the equivalent of freedom: if you did not have a car, you were stuck.
Nowadays, the desire to drive from the Atlantic coast clear across the country to sunny California has lost its appeal, as flying has become more popular than driving. However, driving in the United States is still essential; the use of the car is still very high and most middle-class families have at least one vehicle per adult.
It is a bare necessity to have a car in the US because even if you do not actually plan on driving across the country, you will find it difficult to maneuver around your new home city/town without a car unless you live in a large city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Since America is the new suburbia, many residential communities materialize outside of urban areas, again making driving necessary. Similarly, shopping centers for food or clothing are rarely located within walking distance of residential or business areas.
It is not uncommon for Americans to commute more than an hour to work each morning and back in the evening. It is also completely normal for Americans to “vacation” by driving on the highway through New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine on the East Coast to see the fall foliage. It should thus come as no surprise that the USA has a very well-structured roadway system with a total of 6.5 million kilometers, making it the country with the most roads in the entire world.
Have you decided you do want to own a car during your time abroad in the United States? Then see our guide on buying a car in the US for information on what to consider and look out for.
Due to the long history of cars and driving in the United States, the country has a very detailed and well-established system of roads. You have the famous interstate system, freeways or highways (the term varies by region) which may require the payment of tolls, US federal highways, state routes, and rural roads. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not use the metric system. Therefore distances, speed limits, etc., are measured in miles per hour (mph). Try to keep this in mind while driving in the United States.
Since America is such a large country, distances are perceived differently. For example, a European from Portugal may consider it an endless journey to drive from Porto to Faro (550 km), while to an American that is not even the entire length of the state of Florida (ca. 720 km). Consequently, highways cater to people driving long distances with many rest stops along the way offering not only toilets and gas stations, but also picnic areas, restaurants, and hotels. The American Automobile Association (AAA), better known as “triple A”, is a good club to become a member of for expats driving in the United States. It provides roadside assistance, hands out free road and city maps, and usually has good offers for staying in hotels along highways. With your AAA membership card you can even get great restaurant, event, or travel deals.
Further information on road conditions, traffic regulations, automobile clubs, and many more topics can be found in our guide on traffic in the US.
We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.