Learning to Drive

How-To Guide: Changing Car Gears

January 3, 2024

8 min read

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Leon McKenzie

Content Writer

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A car gearstick

If you're driving a manual car, you'll have a gearbox. Depending on the model of the car, this gearbox will have five to six gears. You will change gears when you need to start moving, increase speed and decrease speed. As you'll find out in your lessons, it's important that you know which gears are most appropriate for the situation you're in.

That's why, before looking at how you go about changing car gears, we're first going to walk you through the gears you'll be working with and when you need to use them.

First gear

Speed: 0 - 10mph

This is the gear you'll use when moving off from a stationary position. It's also handy for carrying out manoeuvres, moving at a slow pace in traffic and creeping slowly at junctions. You'll rarely have to stay in first gear for long on the road.

Second gear

Speed: 10 - 20mph

The next gear up from the first, second gear is used to build up speed quickly after moving off and for when you're driving at a relatively slow speed on a junction or a roundabout. It's also a good choice for moving off downhill and making left/right-hand turns.

Third gear

Speed: 20 - 30mph

Once the car begins to struggle with second gear, third gear will help you move up to a higher speed and maintain it. It's a go-to gear for town driving and on the approach to dual carriageways.

Fourth gear

Speed: 30 - 40mph

The fourth gear is used for driving on roads that require speeds higher than 30mph. You should only use it when you're sure there are no obvious hazards in front of you.

Fifth/sixth gear

Speed: 40+mph

Fifth and sixth gears are really only suitable for flat, open roads where you've got plenty of space to drive at a high speed, such as dual carriageways and motorways. When driving at these speeds, you'll need to be ready to slow down if necessary.

Reverse gear

As the name suggests, reverse gear is used for driving your car backwards. You'll use it when carrying out reversing manoeuvres, e.g., reversing into or out of a bay. It's also used for making readjustments when parking.

There are, of course, exceptions to the above rules. If you're driving downhill, for example, you'll want to pick a lower gear. This will help you avoid speeding down the hill. When you're travelling uphill, you'll also notice that you'll need to stay in lower gears for longer in order to get the power needed to get up the hill.

Changing up a gear

A driver with his right hand on the gear stick and his left on the steering wheel

1. Know when to change up

When you move off, you'll be in first gear. As you start to build up speed, however, you'll need to change up a gear in order to keep up. If you surpass a gear's maximum speed capacity, it starts to struggle.

Though you might be tempted to stare at the speedometer to keep track of your speed to see when you need to change gears, this could distract you from the road ahead. It's also unnecessary.

You'll know that you need to change up a gear when you start to hear the engine get louder. You might even have a car model that will indicate when you need to change up a gear.

As you build up your experience on the road, you'll become more adept at recognising these signs. So, don't worry if it takes you a while to figure out as a beginner.

2. Prepare

Before you even think about changing up a gear, you first need to make your observations. As you're going to be moving faster, you want to be sure that there are no obvious hazards up ahead.

You'll need to use your judgement skills here. If you're close to a set of traffic lights on amber, for example, moving up a gear might not be wise—you'll likely need to come to a stop.

If you're on a stretch of road with a junction ahead, you might assume that there's no point in changing up, as you'll be stopping shortly. However, if the engine is straining, you're going to need to change up in order to get to the junction.

3. Select the appropriate gear

Look at the road ahead to gauge which gear is best for the situation at hand. Make sure that your chosen gear matches the speed that you're travelling at—if you pick one that's too high, the engine will strain to keep up.

If you're a beginner, you might think that you need to change up gears in a sequential fashion. As you'll find out with your instructor, this isn't the case in real-life driving.

Instead, you can opt for block gear changes. What this means is that you can skip ahead a gear if need be. If you've already built up your speed quite a bit, you could switch from third gear to fifth.

Avoid staring at the gear lever for too long—you should be able to change gears with little more than a brief glance. Stare too long and you could end up distracting yourself from the road ahead.

4. Make your move

Now it's time for you to bring your foot slowly up from the accelerator pedal, then depress the clutch pedal fully. Once you've done this, you need to move the gear lever to your intended gear using your left hand.

When you do this, don't try to rush through it. If you do, you could end up selecting the wrong gear, which could lead to you stalling the car. The aim is to do it as smoothly as possible.

If you're struggling with changing car gears in a smooth fashion, try practising whilst stationary. Keep the engine off, depress the clutch pedal and then practise moving from gear to gear.

Finally, put your left hand back on the steering wheel and bring the clutch pedal back up whilst simultaneously pushing your foot down on the accelerator pedal. You can now continue on ahead.

Changing down a gear

Winding, cracked road between mountains

1. Know when to change down

Eventually, you're going to need to slow down when you're behind the wheel. As you start to brake, your overall speed decreases. To avoid stalling the car, you will need to change down gears to match the speed you're at.

You'll need to change down gears whenever there are changes to the speed limit, if there's a hazard up ahead and when you're on the approach to road types like junctions.

You might also need to change down a gear when you're going uphill. This is because higher gears don't have the power that lower gears have, which means that if you don't change down, you'll end up driving at a snail's pace.

2. Prepare

Before you attempt to change down a gear, you need to make your observations. As you're slowing down, you want to be sure that you're not being tailgated or closely followed by cyclists/pedestrians.

If you're intending to make a left turn, for example, make sure you quickly check your blindspot for any cyclists that might be coming up beside you—you don't want to collide with one as you slow down and turn.

Once you're sure it's safe, you should start to slow down your car by using the brake pedal in a progressive manner. You should never change down a gear without first using the brake to reduce your speed.

Using the brake pedal is also beneficial for warning the road users behind you that you intend to slow down. This gives them time to adjust their speed to match yours as well.

3. Select the appropriate gear

As with changing up a gear, you don't need to change down gears in sequential order, e.g., from fifth to fourth. You can do a block gear change to move down to a much lower gear in order to slow down more.

Make sure you pick the right gear for the road and traffic conditions you're facing. If you're making a turn, for example, it makes no sense to go from fourth to third—you'll need second gear to make sure you've got more control.

When you change gears, try not to move your eyes from the road ahead for too long. Though it can be tempting to triple-check that you're switching to the right gear, you don't want to get too distracted.

4. Make your move

Now that you've taken your foot off the accelerator pedal and used the brake pedal to slow down, it's time for you to change down to your selected lower gear.

Depress the clutch fully and if you still need to reduce speed, you can also press down on the brake pedal a touch. Then, using your left hand, move the gear lever to your chosen lower gear.

Try not to rush your gear change. Though it can seem like you're on a timer on the road, panicking will only lead to mistakes. Instead, take your time. If you accidentally pick the wrong gear, just depress the clutch again and switch gears.

Once that's sorted, you can put your left hand back on the steering wheel and bring up the clutch pedal. You can then choose to either brake some more, if your speed still needs reducing, or start to add gas with the accelerator pedal.


1. When should you change down a gear?

For the most part, you'll need to change down a gear when you're looking to reduce your speed, e.g., if there's a change to the speed limit, you've spotted a hazard ahead or you're on the approach to a junction. You might also need to change down to a lower gear when driving uphill, as the lower gears offer greater power.

2. When should you change up a gear?

You'll want to change up a gear once you've built up enough speed in the gear you're currently in—it gets to a point where the gear you're in won't be able to move the car faster. At this point, you'll move up. A key indication that you need to move up a gear is when you can start to hear your car engine strain in the gear it's in.

3. What gears should I use for what speed?

If you look at the section 'get to know the gears', you'll be able to get a brief overview. Alternatively, add a zero to each gear number and that will be its approximate maximum speed. So, second gear would be 20mph—telling you that you should use it when you're between the speed of 10mph and 20mph. Obviously, this is a very basic guideline.

4. Is it dangerous to change gears quickly?

It can be dangerous to change gears quickly if you're bringing your foot up off the clutch pedal too quickly, or pressing down on the accelerator pedal too hard. Balance is key here. You need to move through the gears smoothly—don't rush through it, otherwise, you could end up stalling or causing an accident.

5. What gear should I be in when going uphill?

If you've been driving in high gear, but are approaching a steep hill, your best bet is to change down to a lower gear. Though the higher gears give you higher speeds, they don't offer as much power—meaning, you could end up travelling at a snail's pace if you don't switch to a lower gear.

6. Can you skip gears while driving?

Yes! You don't have to change up or down a gear in sequence. If you're building up speed rapidly, for example, you can skip ahead a gear to a higher one. Similarly, if you're looking to rapidly decrease your speed, you can opt for a much lower gear. This is called block gear changing.

7. I'm struggling with the clutch pedal and gear changes. What should I do?

You can check out our handy articles on getting to grips with clutch control and our clutch control top tips. It might also help to speak to your instructor about it—they might be able to offer you some advice. (If you don't have an instructor, you should consider taking a few lessons.) If not, it might be worth thinking about switching to learning in an automatic car instead.

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