The Comprehensive Guide to Cars in the US for Expats

Have you ever wondered how many cars there are in the US? Or what are the most popular car brands and models among Americans? Or why are cars so important for personal mobility in this vast country? If you are an expat living in the US, you might have asked yourself these questions. You might also have other questions about cars in the US, such as how to buy or rent a car, drive a car, and maintain a car. In this article, we will answer these questions and more. We will provide useful information and tips on cars in the US that will help you make informed decisions and enjoy your life as an expat.

(before we start: there are about 275 million personal and commercial vehicles in the US.)

The article is long so feel free to click to the section of interest to you, using the table of content below.

Table of Contents

1. How to buy or rent a car

If you want to buy or rent a car in the US, there are some things you should know before you make your decision. Buying or renting a car has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on your needs, budget, and preferences. Here are some tips on how to buy or rent a car in the US:

Buying a car

Buying a car means that you own it and can use it as long as you want. However, buying a car also means paying for its purchase price, taxes, insurance, registration fees, maintenance costs, and depreciation. To buy a car in the US, you need enough money or a good credit score if you want to finance it. Generally, here are the steps to follow:

  • Look for cars and obtain several offers from different dealerships or private sellers. You can use online platforms like or, or Kelly Blue Book to compare the prices and features of different cars.
  • Test drive the cars that interest you and check their condition carefully. You can also hire an independent mechanic to inspect them for hidden problems if you buy a second-hand car.
  • Ask for a Carfax report (aka vehicle history report) if it is an old car.
  • Negotiate the price with the seller and try to get the best deal possible. Car prices (both old and new) are no longer at an elevated level during the pandemic so shop around.
  • The above online tools can give you a good idea about the fair market value of the card.
  • Pay attention to sales tax because, with a high-value item (like a car), sales tax can amount to a few thousands dollar easily. Buying from a lower-tax location is an option but requires more research.
  • Sign the purchase contract and pay for the car. You can pay with cash, check, credit card, or loan.
  • Make sure you read and understand all the terms and conditions of the contract before signing it.
  • Register your car with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) within a certain period of time (usually 30 days). You will need to provide proof of ownership (title), proof of insurance (policy), proof of identity (driver’s license), proof of address (utility bill), and payment for registration fees.
    • If you buy from a dealership, they can likely do all of this for you.

If you decide to lease the car vs. buy it, the above steps generally apply too with some deviations.

Buying vs. Leasing a car for expat in the US

  • Buying a car means that you own it outright and build equity in the vehicle with monthly payments (if you finance the purchase). Leasing a car means that you rent it for a specific and limited time period. The period is up to you and it can be one year, two years.
  • Benefits of buying usually include no mileage restrictions, more customization options, lower long-term costs, and more flexibility to sell or trade in.
  • The benefits of leasing usually include a lower up-front cost, lower monthly payments compared to buying, no resale hassle, and more options to drive newer models.
  • Drawbacks of buying usually include higher initial costs, higher monthly payments compared to leasing, depreciation risk, and maintenance costs.
  • Drawbacks of leasing usually include mileage limits, wear-and-tear charges, early termination fees, and no ownership at the end of the lease.

The choice between buying and leasing depends on your personal preferences, budget, driving habits, credit score, tax situation, and future plans. For expats who recently relocated to the US, leasing may be more appealing if they want to drive a new car without committing to long-term ownership or paying high upfront fees. However, leasing may also be more challenging if they have no credit history or need to drive long distances.

Renting a car

Renting a car means you pay a fee to use it for a limited time (usually days or weeks). However, renting a car also means that you don’t own it and have to return it at the end of your rental period. To rent a car in the US, you need:

  • A valid driver’s license from your home country or an international driving permit if your license is not in English
  • A valid credit card with enough funds to cover your rental fee and a security deposit. Try not to use a debit card because for many car rental companies, if you want to use debit card, they will need to check your credit score using a hard pull. And the security deposit with a debit card can be higher than a credit card.
  • A reservation with a reputable rental company like or Avis,, or National car rental. You also need to follow these steps:
    • Choose your pick-up and drop-off locations, dates, times, and vehicle type on their website
    • Compare prices and features of different rental options and select one that suits your needs
    • Confirm your reservation online or by phone
    • Pick up your rental car at your chosen location after showing your driver’s license, credit card, and reservation confirmation
    • Return your rental car at your chosen location before the deadline
  • If you have a Costco membership, you can leverage the Costco car rental portal and get a much lower price for Enterprise or Avis rentals, etc.
  • Consider the insurance package carefully. If you don’t mind reading the fine print, and you have a US-issued credit card, then I recommend checking the insurance coverage from your credit card first. It may be cheaper than car insurance from car rental companies.
  • You can also check your personal auto insurance policy to understand their coverage for rental cars.

2. Driving a car in the US

If you have a valid license from your home country, you can use it to rent a car in the US for short-term visits. However, if you plan to stay longer than three months, you will need to apply for a driver’s license in your state of residence. Check your state DMV for the exact requirement. For example, all California residents need to have a valid California driving license to operate a motor vehicle. And this is how California DMV defines resident.

  • Depending on your state, you may also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). You should contact the motor vehicle department of your state to find out the ID requirements.
  • Here are tips on how to secure your US driving license as an expat.

Driving in the US can be different from driving in your home country. You will need to drive on the right side of the road, use miles instead of kilometers, follow different speed limits and traffic signs, etc.

You should study and pass the written knowledge and road skills tests before getting your license.

You should also pay attention to other drivers on the road and practice defensive driving.
Getting car insurance is mandatory in most states as it can protect you from financial losses in case of an accident. You should compare different insurance companies and policies to find the best deal for your needs. Even if you have been driving in your home country for a long time, you are a new driver to the US insurance companies, so be prepared to pay a higher monthly insurance premium. If you share with them your home country driving license to demonstrate that you are an experienced driver, they may be able to apply certain discounts.
You should also be aware of other US driving aspects, such as parking rules, toll roads, gas stations, etc. Parking can be expensive and scarce in some cities, so you may want to use public transport or ride-sharing services instead. Toll roads are common in some states and require a fee. In California for example, you can pay toll roads electronically.

Gas stations are widely available but prices vary depending on location and demand. You should check online for gas prices before filling up your tank. Costco Gas is often cheaper than other stations. Or use the Gas Buddy App to check the prices.

Electric charging stations are getting more popular, so just search on Google Map if you use an EV.

3. How to maintain a car in the US

Proper car maintenance can help you avoid costly repairs and keep your car running smoothly for years to come.

Following the manufacturer’s guidelines

One of the most important things you can do to keep your car in good shape is to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for maintenance. For example, most car manufacturers recommend changing your oil every 7,500 miles or six months (whichever comes first). Regular oil changes help lubricate your engine and prevent wear and tear. You should also get your tires rotated every 6,000 to 8,000 miles to ensure even wear on all four tires.

Checking tire pressure and other basics

Another key aspect of car maintenance is checking your tire pressure regularly. Underinflated or overinflated tires can affect fuel economy, handling, braking, and safety. You can use a tire pressure gauge or go to a local gas station that offers tire air pressure services to check your tire pressure. If your car has a tire pressure gauge built in, that is even better.

You should also regularly check and replace your air filter to keep your engine running efficiently.

Cleaning and maintaining your engine

Keeping your engine clean is critical for ensuring your car runs smoothly and prevents damage. One way to keep your engine clean is by changing your oil regularly. You should also check your spark plugs periodically and replace them if they are worn out or damaged. Finally, you should clean your engine by removing any dirt, debris, or grease that might accumulate on it. You can use a degreaser or engine cleaner to do this.

Maintaining your car’s interior

Maintaining your car’s interior is also important for keeping it in good shape. You should regularly vacuum your car’s interior to remove dust, dirt, and debris. Wiping down surfaces with a damp cloth can help remove any grime or stains. You can also use seat covers and floor mats to protect your upholstery and floors from wear and tear.

Battery and tire maintenance

Keeping your battery and tires in good shape is critical for ensuring your car is safe and reliable. You should check your battery terminals for corrosion or loose connections regularly and clean them with a wire brush or baking soda solution if needed. You should also get your tires rotated and balanced every 6,000 to 8,000 miles to ensure even wear on all four tires. Finally, you should periodically check your tire tread depth to ensure your tires are not worn down.

Of course, you can always come to the maintenance shop and get all of the above done at regular intervals.

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In conclusion, owning a car in the US can be a great way to experience the freedom and mobility that this country has to offer. Whether you decide to buy, rent or lease a car, drive on the open roads, or maintain your car properly, there are a few things you need to keep in mind as an expat. By following the tips and guidelines discussed in this article, you can ensure that your car is in good condition, and you are driving safely and legally. So, get behind the wheel, hit the road, and enjoy the journey ahead!

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