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How to hire a car in the USA

Carlton Boyce / 31 October 2019

Do you need a permit to hire a car in the USA? Can you hire a manual car in the USA? We answer some of your more common questions about hiring a car fro your American roadtrip.

A row of American flags adorning American cars to represent hiring a car in America

The United States has, for the most part, an enviably customer-focused car hire business. This is partly down to the country’s natural entrepreneurial spirit, partly because Americans are among the friendliest folk on the planet, and partly because the car rental business is so fiercely competitive nowadays that it has to be so. This combination makes the process of hiring a car almost a pleasure over there because they are so very nice about it.

And make no mistake, hiring a car when you are ‘Stateside is essential because no country on earth caters for the motorist better than America. Aside from some peculiarities around the process of driving in America, you’ll find that the roads are wide and straight, and the whole retail experience seems to be designed to minimize the need for consumers to walk anywhere. I mean, they even have drive through cash machines…

Will my driving licence cover me for hiring a car in America?

Despite what you might think, your usual driving licence isn’t enough to drive and hire a car in America. While many of us have driven and hired cars out there with nothing but our credit card-sized UK licence, strictly speaking you need an International Driving Permit 1949.

The application process is straightforward but must be done in person by visiting an issuing Post Office. You’ll need to take your normal driving licence along, plus a signed passport-sized photograph along with another form of identification such as a passport.

Not all Post Offices can issue them. To find your nearest issuing post office you can do a search here: Just remember to refine your search by ticking the ‘International Driving Permit’ box in the ‘Driving’ section.

How should I pay for my USA hire car?

Almost everyone will insist that you pay for your hire car with a credit card. They do so because this enables them to charge you for any damage you might cause to the car, along with any previously agreed extras such as a late-return fee.

Paying this way also gives you some additional consumer protection too, something you might like to bear in mind if the local rent-a-wreck outfit asks for cash…

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How old do I need to be to hire a car in the US?

Most hire companies will only insure a hire car if every driver is at least 21 years old, and if it is a high-performance or expensive model then some will only do so for those aged 25-and-over.

You might need to bear this in mind if you are travelling with your children and would like them to be able take their turn behind the wheel. (Tip: you should. American beer and whiskey can be wonderful, and it’s nice to be able to have a couple with your lunch in the knowledge that someone else will be driving afterwards…)

Engine size and power

While you might be happy driving a small car with a tiny engine here in the United Kingdom, you are going to feel seriously under-powered driving the same sort of vehicle in the United States.

That’s not macho posturing, simply a pragmatic response to the size and speed of the traffic over there; I remember vividly driving a woefully under-powered convertible over there a few years ago. Joining the freeway was something of a lottery, and I was dangerously exposed on a few occasions as it simply wouldn’t accelerate as quickly as I needed it to. I couldn’t exchange it, so was forced to use the side roads as a safety measure, which might have been picturesque but added hours to every journey.

So, if it doubt, go big. Petrol is cheap, and you can always offset the extra carbon emissions if that’s important to you. In fact, why not go the whole hog and hire a V8-powered pickup? They’re ridiculously over-the-top and all the more glorious for it.

Costs to consider when hiring a car

Yankee idiosyncrasies

Speaking of which, the sort of small, diesel-powered hatchbacks that form the backbone of British motoring are rare over there, especially if you are planning to leave the major metropolitan areas to venture into the backwoods.

The full-size SUV and pickup is still king out in the boonies, so you might like to emulate the locals by hiring one. They’ll be cheap, and while they won’t be the most economical option, fuel is cheap and nothing beats the rumble of a V8 engine with a spot of Country and Western on the radio.

It also means it is harder to spot that you’re a tourist rather than a local, which is always helpful when you’re navigating unfamiliar roads.

But, most importantly, they’ve also got masses of headroom and widely spaced pedals, so there will be plenty of space for you to wear your newly purchased cowboy hat and boots while you’re driving…

Automatic, not manual

And there will almost certainly only two pedals because Americans aren’t fans of the manual gearbox, preferring to let their car take the strain of changing gear.

So, it’s an odds-on certainty that your American rental car will have an automatic, rather than a manual, gearbox.

If you aren’t used to driving an automatic, then we’ve put together this handy guide to help.

Driving abroad tips


The whole rent-a-wreck concept was invented in America. The idea is simple: your hire car will be an older, sometimes quite scruffy model, rather than one fresh from the showroom floor.

It’s a brilliantly simple idea and you can often pick up a (very) used rental car for next-to-nothing if you’re prepared to ignore the dents, rust, and questionable colour of the exhaust smoke.

Of course, if you’re traversing the entire country then you’ll want something big and comfortable and new, but if you are pottering around a city then a rent-a-wreck might be a very cheap way of getting mobile.

After all, if it’s been to the moon and back, what is the likelihood of it breaking down on your watch?

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Classic Cars

Your ‘Murican road trip will be better experienced from behind the wheel of a classic car, preferably one with a drop-top that allows you to enjoy the wide-open skies and hot summer sun.

For romantics like us, nothing beats lashings of chrome and a bench seat to snuggle up on but please do take into account that a classic car won’t have the sort of safety and convenience equipment that you’ll find in even the most basic new car.

It’s reliability will almost certainly be sub-par too; even the best-maintained old cars are prone to throwing a hissy fit, so you’ll need to accept that sometimes a classic car likes to take a short break at the side of the road, too…

Dozens of companies are vying for your classic car business and Google will throw up those that are based in the area you are visiting. It won’t be cheap either, so you might like to hire something more practical and reliable for mile-munching, and then hire something beautiful and wildly impractical to tool around in when you get there.

Classic road trips

Taking of romance, there are far too many classic American road trips to list them all here but some of the classics like Route 66 are still worth doing, although they will be busy if you use them during the usual tourist seasons.

Many Americans fly even short distances and while it’s tempting to do the same because flights are so cheap, there is a real joy to be had from driving rather than flying. I drove from New York to Virginia via Asbury Park a few years ago to make a pilgrimage to Bruce Springsteen’s home town. It took an extra couple of days but was a great way to see bits of America that I would otherwise have missed.

I also intend to drive through Yellowstone National Park at some point, cross the Mexican border, and take a Jeep to Utah to experience some of the off-road trails they have there.

You can do the same; roadside motels are cheap, as are the mom ‘n’ pop diners, and fuel. Taking a road trip might be a slower way of seeing the country than flying, but it needn’t necessarily be a more expensive one.

How to plan a road trip

Drive-in movies

Finally, if you hire a car in America then you simply have to go to a drive-in movie. Nothing, but nothing, sums up the car culture there better than cuddling up on the bench seat of a classic car or pickup while eating hamburgers, drinking root beer, and kissing the one you love.

Of course, you probably won’t end up seeing much of the film but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.