How To Use A Drive Through Car Wash

Chloe Murphy 5 minutes Published: 15/02/2022

When you don’t have the time or patience for handwashing, drive through car washes are an easy alternative.

They’re simple to use, faster than a hand wash, and usually cost just a few pounds.

But if you’ve never used one before, car washes can seem a little intimidating.

In this quick guide to using a drive through car wash, we run through exactly how to use it, the pros and cons, and also how to use the handheld washers.

When you get to grips with the car wash, see our post “how often should I wash my car?”

How to use the drive through car wash

On the face of it, figuring out how to wash a car shouldn’t be too difficult. But hand washing at home involves a lot more than a bucket and sponge. 

If you don’t have the money for a professional detail, using a drive through car wash could be a reasonable middle ground.

Luckily, using a car wash couldn’t be more simple!

1. Find a local car wash

Nowadays you should be able to find a petrol station with an automatic car wash fairly easily. You might find stand alone car wash businesses near showrooms, or even located in shopping centre car parks to get it cleaned while you shop. Try to find one with soft-touch brushes to limit any abrasion on your clear coat. 

2. Work out the payment method

Most car washes will be self-service, accepting cash or card via a machine. If none are available, you’ll normally have to go inside the garage or find a cashier to pay. 

From either the cashier or machine, you should then be able to select the type of car wash. Drive through washes typically offer a number of services, ranging from a simple wash to additions like tyre and wheel cleaning, undercarriage rust proofing, and spray-on waxing. 

Though the latter seems like it’ll save time and effort, a proper hand wax protects your car much better. You can even check out our top tips for how to wax a car, and how often you should wax your car.

4. Prepare to enter the car wash

We know it’s obvious, but before heading through the car wash your entire car needs to be shut. Any open windows or slightly ajar doors could lead to a soaked interior, and potentially passengers.  

If you have dogs or young children in the car, it’s a good idea to lock the doors and windows to prevent them from being accidentally opened during the car wash.

You’ll also want to turn off any automatic wipers. Wipers that turn on automatically when water is detected could interfere with the car wash’s brushes, and damage both your wipers and the car wash.

5. Enter the car wash

Automatic car washes usually have some kind of indicator of where your car should be positioned. This could be a track system that your front tyres should be stopped against, or there will be sign posting to indicate where your car needs to be. Some systems will have lighting to let you know that your car is properly positioned.

Once correctly positioned, place your car into neutral (for manual cars), or park (for automatic cars). If indicated to do so, turn off your car’s engine. 

6. Wait for the cleaning to begin

When the car wash starts, you may feel your car begin to move or shake slightly. You don’t need to do anything, just sit back and wait for your car to be cleaned.

If you do begin to feel any water enter the car, double check your doors and windows and close/roll them shut if needed. 

7. Exit the car wash

When the car wash finishes you should be notified by a light or signal to let you know it’s safe to exit.

Drive out carefully if you’re using one beside a garage or petrol station, as other cars could be blocking the exit or driving across.

How to use the self service car wash

Using a self service car wash is a great alternative to a drive through car wash. It’s especially ideal if you enjoy the satisfaction of cleaning your car yourself, but don’t want to invest in the cloths and products required. 

It’s also great for those days that you spend hours cleaning, just to end up with bird poop on your car at the end. Self service car washes mean you don’t have to go through an entire automatic car wash, and you can selectively clean where you need to.

So, how do you use it?

1. Park your car adjacent to the self-service cleaner - There should be an area marked out to use for this, just be sure to leave enough space around the outside of the car to use the attachments. 

2. Find the spray wand and check you have enough space - You want your car to be close enough that the wand reaches all the way around, but far away enough that you won’t get soaked.

3. Select the spray setting - There’s typically a wash, shampoo/soap, and rinse setting.

4. Insert money into the self-service machine - Once you’ve chosen the setting, entering money into the machine will give you a certain amount of time to wash. This may be indicated on the machine, or there will be a timer once you’ve entered your money. The spray wand usually starts immediately, so be prepared and point the wand away from yourself. 

5. Begin washing your car - With spray wands, it works similar to a pressure washer. It’s ideal to keep a 3-5 feet distance from your car to avoid damaging the paintwork, but you can also test on a small area first. 

Start with the wash setting (working from top to bottom) to remove any larger debris, then shampoo/soap to deep clean the dirt, and finally rinse to remove any soapy residue. 

Though the self-service will give a decent finish on your paintwork, to get the best result for your car’s glass, check out our posts on how to clean car windows and how to clean your car windscreen.

Automatic car wash vs hand wash

There are a bunch of benefits to both automatic car washing and hand washing. With one offering convenience and the other greater precision, how do you choose between them? 

Pros and cons of drive through car washing


  • Quick and convenient

  • No need to invest in cloths or products

  • Saves time and money


  • More abrasive on paintwork than handwashing

  • Less detailed finish

Pros and cons of hand washing


  • Gentler on paintwork

  • Precise and thorough clean

  • Saves money long term


  • Time consuming

  • Requires materials to wash (unless using self service wash)

Good news - you can!

You can read more about how to wash an electric car in our blog post.


If you decide a drive through car wash isn’t for you, washing your car by hand doesn’t have to be daunting. We’re here to guide you all the way, covering everything from cleaning your car headlights to cleaning your alloy wheels.

Whatever method you decide on to get that gleaming exterior, be sure to have the inside matching with our guide to cleaning your car interior.