What Are the Differences Between a Highway, Freeway, and Interstate?

Millions of Americans wake up every morning to drive on the freeway to get to work, but in fact, they might not actually be doing that. It’s entirely possible that they’re driving on a highway, an interstate, or a bunch of other different possible types of roads. While most people will use these terms interchangeably, there are actually small differences between them. 

What is an interstate? 

While a lot of people will refer to driving on the interstate as the same thing as driving on the highway, that’s not technically the case. According to Ponder Weasel, the interstate actually refers to the Interstate Highway System that had its origins in 1921 but only fully took off in the ’50s. The purpose of the Interstate Highway System is, like its named implied, to connect states together with a series of highways. 

The Interstate Highway System is massive, and it might be what most folks think of when they talk about highways, freeways, or interstates, but the Interstate Highway System doesn’t actually cover all roads of that nature.

That’s because, like Ponder Weasel wrote, there are actually differences between the interstate and highways. The interstate is composed of highways, but not all highways are a part of the interstate. 

What is a highway?

A highway, on the other hand, actually has a very loose definition, according to Ponder Weasel. A highway is simply a public road that could have restricted access and it also could have tolls. Restricted access means that only cars and other similar motor vehicles are allowed on the road, and it also means that the only way a car or motor vehicle can access or exit the road is by an on or off ramp.

As such, there are many highways in the U.S., and many states have their own highways as well. Some of these highways will connect with the Interstate Highway System, but many will not.

For example, a highway that isn’t part of the interstate could be a highway that doesn’t restrict access. Such a highway would allow cars to easily exit the highway and drive into a parking lot of a store or a driveway of a home. 

Due to that, there are legal differences between highways and interstates. Since highways don’t have to be restricted access, there’s a lower speed limit on highways compared to the interstate. On highways, the speed limit is typically 55 MPH, while on the interstate, it can go up to higher speeds around 75 MPH. 

What is a freeway?

Cars stuck in traffic on a highway
Traffic fills the 110 freeway during rush hour | David McNew/Newsmakers

Freeway is typically seen as a term that folks on the western side of the country use to refer to highways or interstates, but there’s actually a small difference between freeways and the rest. Like its name implied, a freeway is a restricted-access highway that’s supposed to be free. 

Since highways can both restrict access and include toll booths, a freeway is a highway that restricts access but doesn’t include any toll booths. Furthermore, freeways are very similar to the Interstate Highway System, but, like Ponder Weasel wrote, there are small differences between the two as well. 

For instance, while many freeways are part of the Interstate Highway System, like highways, not all freeways are a part of that system. Additionally, freeways tend to connect big cities together, while the Interstate Highway System obviously connects the states together.

On top of that, while much of the Interstate Highway System is toll-free, there are parts that do include toll roads, and as such, they aren’t freeways. 

Regardless of these small differences, however, most Americans can comfortably refer to the freeway as the highway or the interstate, and most people will understand what they’re talking about.