Freeway vs. Highway: Can You Tell the Difference?

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
Life is a highway — or wait, is it a freeway? James ONeil / Getty Images

Highways and freeways can both be designed with multiple lanes, entrance and exit ramps and limited traffic control to reduce congestion and improve driver safety. However, some small highway vs. freeway distinctions place them in separate categories.


Freeways Have Higher Speed Limits

The main difference between a highway and a freeway is that freeways allow a higher speed limit to accommodate faster, uninterrupted travel for traffic flowing between one city and the next. However, you may also find freeway connections for commuters living in suburbs surrounding major cities.

In either scenario, the name of the game is speed and efficiency. For instance, speed limits for a typical three-lane freeway in the United States can range between 65 and 80 mph (105 to 129 km/h), while a highway will only allow vehicles to travel 55 MPH (89 km/h).


Highways in rural areas and smaller two-lane roads may even post lower speed limits, depending on road conditions, frequency of at-grade intersections for cross traffic or sharp curves and steep inclines. (And no, highways weren't designed as emergency runways.)

Highways Have Traffic Signals

Besides speed and the general number of lanes, another main difference between a highway and a freeway is their overall design. Just look at any road map, and you'll quickly notice that freeways are more linear to allow streamlined traffic control in two opposing directions between urban areas.

Most state highways (which follow a specific highway naming convention) are designed to promote crisscrossed travel routes where other roads merge into highways at limited access points controlled by traffic lights, stop signs or roundabout intersections.


Not all highways will have these intersections with smaller roadways, but there must be some form of traffic control with signage or stop lights to reduce hazards any time a public road bisects fast-moving traffic.

Fun fact: One French city tried to implement solar panel highways, but the technology needs some major improvements before it's ready for practical adoption.


What Is a Controlled-access Highway?

Control-access highways are not like other highways but are instead the umbrella term for all high-speed traffic systems with controlled areas. These roadways can include state-to-state routes (interstates), freeways and expressways that provide controlled access for vehicles to merge and exit using ramps and rest areas typically connected to the far-right lane.

Off-ramps post slower speeds, while on-ramps are often equipped with a transitional merge lane that allows drivers to catch up with traffic flow without hindering faster vehicles. Once merging vehicles have matched these higher speed limits, they can safely switch lanes to the middle lane.


It is recommended to only use the farthest-left lanes to pass slower vehicles, and to pull off to the right of highways and freeways only during emergencies.

With all this in mind, it's easy to understand the confusion when pinpointing the difference between a highway and a freeway because many terms will change based on region.