Driving in England as an American: An Open Apology to UK Drivers

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As an American study abroad student, you never think you’ll eventually drive in the UK. It’s not even remotely on your list of things to worry or care about, and you happily spend your semester darting in and out of traffic because you forgot to look the right way. Even after I had lived in the UK for awhile, I was adamant that you would never catch me driving here.

…of course, as life would have it, my boyfriend eventually found a great flat in a perfect location that required me to drive to the train station and suddenly my worst fear had come true.

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I’m not a nervous driver in America, and I grew up in Florida where you can get your license when you’re basically just out of the womb, so I’d been driving for years. I knew how to operate a car and that green meant go and not to turn the radio up too loud so you don’t get distracted and die in a fiery wreck (thanks, mom).

But driving in the UK? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? IS THIS A JOKE?. Not only are you driving on the other side of the road, but have you seen UK roads? I can hardly fit myself through some of these single track roads after a big breakfast, much less while driving a giant hunk of metal.

The UK was also laid out far before cars were invented, which means that many roads feel like a cross between a rollercoaster and a narrow escape from certain death. And do not even get me started on the more complicated roundabouts. Why do bad things happen to good people?

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The Magic Roundabout, Swindon

I decided to stick with driving an automatic, despite the fact that the vast majority of Brits drive manual cars. I wasn’t prepared to learn a manual and learn to drive on the other side at the same time, though plenty of people make the switch successfully.

The first step was to buy a used car because I couldn’t practice without one. Once that was sorted, I enlisted the help of my boyfriend who had been driving here for almost a decade. Unfortunately, while I love him and am very thankful for his risking his life to teach me, I was too much of a nervous wreck for it to go smoothly. Our conversations in the car usually went something like this:

Me: “Oh my god, oh my god. I’m so nervous.”
Him: “You’re doing fine. Just don’t get so far to the left.”
Me: “STOP SHOUTING AT ME!”
Him: “I’m not shouting at you. OH MY GOD, WHY ARE YOU DRIVING ME INTO A BUSH?!”
Me, almost crying: “I CAN’T DO THIS, MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!”
Him: “PULL OVER, I’M DRIVING!”
Me, now actually crying: “I HATE THIS. I’M MOVING BACK TO AMERICA!”

Eventually I learned to be less of a lunatic and got the hang of it, though I drove slower than any self-respecting grandma and was often passed by walkers.

After about six months of driving on my own, it was time to prepare to take the UK Driving test, as you can only drive up to one year on an American license.

The UK driving test is similar to what I would imagine getting a PhD in driving would be like. The process involves ordering your provisional license online, taking the Driving Theory test, and then taking the practical driving test.

To make a long, panic-filled, story short, I ended up taking 2 sets of 2 hour lessons with a qualified driving instructor and passed my test on the first try.  The first question I had to answer was “Show me how to honk your horn,” so I think she heard my accent and decided to take pity on me.

On that note, if you somehow find yourself in my shoes and have to tackle the UK driving test as a foreigner, I’ve made a list of some things to keep in mind.

                    Top 5 Tips on Getting your UK Driver’s License as a Foreigner

1. Apply for your provisional license after 6 months of living in the UK (the minimum amount of time you need to wait). You must send off your Passport to the DVLA (also terrifying! This whole process is fraught with danger!), and then they have to send you back your license before you can book any tests. Mine came back pretty quickly, but always best to be prepared.

2. Start slowly. If you have the time to practice, don’t just hop in the car and take it on a road trip the first time you drive here. Plenty of people do, I’m sure, but it’s extremely disorienting at first to drive on the other side and your perception will be off.

3. Take driving lessons. Most of my friends in America, including myself, were taught to drive by our parents and had no other help. This isn’t the norm in the UK, and as someone who is learning new rules of the road, it’s almost a guarantee that you will need at least a few lessons to pass.

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4. Book your driving test as far away from a main city as possible. You can take your UK driving test at any center in England, Wales, or Scotland, and some of them have MUCH higher pass rates than others. There are websites that will show you the pass rates, and while you shouldn’t use that as a crutch, it’s obviously going to be a more difficult test in busier conditions or closer to a city. Some remote areas in Scotland have over 70% pass rates because you don’t really have any ‘hazards’ besides a sheep or two, so if you’re really struggling, there’s that!

5. Enjoy your freedom. I was so scared to learn to drive in the UK for years, and after I finally was forced into it, I am so glad I did. Especially as an expat, you find that sometimes you feel as if you are dependent on everyone else to help you get by or guide you and it can lead to a feeling of being ‘stuck’ or helpless. As soon as I learned to drive, the town that we lived in became ‘mine’ and I began to explore and branch out a bit more. Even having the freedom to go to the grocery store on my own and do the shopping was huge. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you.

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