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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in the United States Of America

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013


With around 250 million motor vehicles and the world’s greatest number of vehicles per capita, private road travel dominates. The car is king in the USA. There are plenty of excellent roads and miles and miles of empty land in some areas. However, Los Angeles is one of the most congested cities in the world, with other US cities not far behind. Unfortunately, many US cities have poorly-developed public transport and are not designed for cyclists or pedestrians. In this type of city, using a car may be your only option.

You may be able to drive with only the driving licence from your country for some time. In some states, you will also need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive. Note that since the US does not issue IDPs, you will have to obtain one before you arrive. In many states, you will also need to take out car insurance before you are able to own or register a vehicle. This will be expensive unless you bring a copy of your driving record with you. The record needs to be certified, and, if necessary, professionally translated.

There are several classes of road, the highest of which is the Interstate Highway, such as the I-66 between Chicago and Los Angeles (the well-known ‘Route 66’). Though no road tax is payable, toll roads exist in some areas. Make sure you are carrying some cash because tollbooths do not accept card payments.

Speed limits vary between urban and rural areas and between states, so you will need to on the lookout for limit changes. There is no national speed limit. Driving in the USA is on the right-hand side of the road, as it is in most countries. The maximum legal blood-alcohol content in the USA is 0.08% in the majority of states.

Public Transport

Public transport in US cities has been run down for decades. In some cities, such as New York and Chicago, investment and passenger use have increased since the low point of the 1970s, leading to a better service, but generally services are patchy. Public transport is greatly underused and contributes a very small percentage to the total amount of trips people make.


Train travel in the US, like other forms of public transport, is rather limited in its usefulness. For commuter services and short journeys between major cities, trains are often quicker than cars, considering the traffic jams. But high-speed rail barely exists in the USA. This leads to long-distance services taking much more time than flying while also being less frequent and nearly as expensive.

The largest railway company is Amtrak, which is government-subsidised and best known for running long-distance journeys. If you do not want to drive, to go on a memorable trip in which you actually see America while you are there, the railway is the best option. Taking a train between East and West coasts will take just under three days and cost around US$220, quicker but slightly more expensive than a coach.

Underground railways in the US are called Subways. There are extensive Subway networks in all major US cities.

Buses and Coaches

City buses exist, but in many cities they run infrequently. The typical short-trip bus fare is US$1-US$2. You will generally need to tender the exact fare as change is not given.

Coaches are reasonably frequent between US cities, and, as they now often include in-seat activities, are losing their reputation for being a rather dull way of travelling. Travelling from coast to coast will cost around US$200 and take less than three days. For such long-distance travelling, you would be wise to book in advance, as tickets may sell out quickly.


The Continental USA is vast, so if you are travelling long-distance, flying is the quickest option. It is also the pretty much the only option between the 48 Continental states and Alaska or Hawaii.

There are more than 50 major airports in the USA, and many more minor ones, offering flights from even moderately-sized towns. There are also more than 100 airlines, including American, Delta, United and US Airways. Thanks to the considerably heightened airport and airline security, flying is also a safe way to travel.



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