United States of America
WARNING: Several US cities are currently enforcing a curfew. Breaking curfew risks citation and arrest.
There are currently ongoing protests in most major and some smaller cities in the United States following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The protests have increased police presence and occasionally Army National Guard deployments. If you attend a protest, take proper measures to ensure your safety.
Also, take extreme caution of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the United States recommends all international travelers to stay in isolation for 2 weeks. Some individual States also have this as a requirement. Getting the virus might trap you in the country for an indefinite period of time and your hospital bill might be very high. If you must travel to the United States, practice social distancing, carry hand sanitizer, wear a mask, don’t go to large gatherings and always wear a mask out in public.)
|Government||Federal Presidential Constitutional Republic|
|Population||331,002,651 (2020 estimate) White 69.7% Black 24.5% Hispanic 42.20% Asian 17.9% Other 12.1%|
|Language|| English (de facto),
Spanish, French, Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Carolinian ,Cherokee and many other indigenous languages are recognized at State and Territorial levels
|Religion||Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 estimate)|
|Electricity||120V, 60Hz (Type “A” plug)|
|Internet TLD||.us, .edu, .gov, .mil (most sites use .com, .net, .org)|
|Time Zone||UTC -4 to UTC -10|
|Emergencies||dial 911 or access emergency services through Operator “0”|
The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as “the USA”, “the U.S.”, “the United States”, “the United States of America”, “the States”, or simply “America”. Home to the world’s third-largest population, with over 318 million people, it includes both densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast, uninhabited natural areas.
With its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a “melting pot” of cultures from around the world and plays a dominant role in the world’s cultural landscape. It’s home to a wide array of popular tourist destinations, ranging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and Alaska, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida and Hawaii and the deserts of Arizona.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” — Mark Twain. The Innocents Abroad
The United States cannot be defined solely by television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with several distinct regional identities. Due to the vast distances involved, traveling between regions often means crossing through many different landscapes, climates, and even time zones. Such travel can often be time-consuming and expensive but is often very rewarding.
The contiguous United States or the “Lower 48” (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) is bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the population living on the two coasts. Its land borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The US also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba, and the Bahamas. If counting the Insular Areas and Minor Outlying Islands, the United Kingdom, Samoa, and Haiti would also share maritime borders.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Eastern Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three mountain ranges and are covered with a diversity of flora and fauna, a thick canopy of dense vegetation. They offer spectacular sightseeing and excellent camping spots. The loess lands of the southern Mid-West and the Limestone cliffs and mountains of the south add beauty to the region, with lush vegetation coating the surfaces of cliff faces that border rivers, and mist shrouding beautiful green mountains and gorges. The Appalachian Mts highest elevation is at 6,684 ft above sea level. These mountain ranges are smaller then the Rockies.
The Rockies are, on average, the tallest in North America, extending from BC, Canada to New Mexico, with many areas protected as national parks. They offer hiking, camping, skiing, and sightseeing opportunities, as well as desert and subtropical getaways in the southern lowlands of the region. The combined Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are the youngest. The Sierras extend across the “backbone” of California, with sites such as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park; the Sierras transition at their northern end into the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country. The Rockies Mountain highest elevation is 14,440 thousand ft above sea level.
The Great Lakes define much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. More inland seas than lakes, they were formed by the pressure of glaciers retreating north at the end of the last Ice Age. The five lakes span hundreds of miles, bordering the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and their shores vary from pristine wilderness areas to industrial “rust belt” cities. They are the second-largest bodies of freshwater in the world, after the polar ice caps.
The western portions of the USA are rugged and contain arid landscapes, complete with wind-shaped desert sand dunes like White Sands, New Mexico. In California, Death Valley is the lowest spot on the USA mainland (282 feet below sea level) and is one of the hottest places on Earth. Natural areas include vast areas of desert untouched by humans. Camping and hiking through the majestic landscapes of the Southwest is a big vacation draw for many Americans.
Florida is very low-lying, with long white sand beaches lining both sides of the state. The tropical climate enables many exotic (both native and non-native) plants and animals to flourish. The Florida Everglades are a pristine “river of grass,” made up of tropical jungles and savanna are home to 20-foot alligators and crocodiles, among many other creatures.
The USA contains every biome on earth. The USA has something for everyone; tropical jungles, subtropical and temperate savannas, searing deserts, Mediterranean-like coast lines, frozen mountain peaks, coniferous forests, steamy subtropical river systems, and more.
Time zones in USA
The United States Has a total of six time zones.
Eastern Time Zone
- EST UTC-5:00
- EDT UTC-4:00
States that observes Eastern time only
Connecticut Delaware Georgia Maine Maryland Massachusetts New Hampshire New Jersey New York North Carolina Ohio Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina Vermont Virginia West Virginia
States that split between eastern and central: Florida Tennessee Indiana Michigan Kentucky
Central Time Zone
- CST UTC-6:00
- CDT UTC-5:00
States that Observes Central Time Only
Alabama Arkansas Illinois Iowa Louisiana Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Wisconsin
States that Observes Central and Mountain Time Kansas Nebraska North Dakota South Dakota Oklahoma Texas
Mountain Time Zone
- MST UTC-7:00
- MDT UTC- 6:00
States that Observes Mountain Time and Pacific Time
- When DST is not active all of Arizona will observe MST same as Colorado. Arizona will be an hour ahead of California.
- When DST is active the Navajo Nation will observe MDT same as Colorado. The rest of Arizona will observe Pacific Daylight Time same as California.
Idaho Nevada Oregon
States that Observes Mountain Time Only
Colorado Montana New Mexico Utah Wyoming
Pacific Time Zone
- PST UTC-8:00
- PDT UTC-7:00
States that observe Pacific Time California Washington State
Alaska Time Zone
- AKST UTC-9:00
- AKDT UTC-8:00
Alaska- Part of Alaska observes Pacific Time
Hawaiian Time Zone
- HST UTC-10:00
- HDT UTC-9:00
The climate of the continental United States varies considerably across the country due to differences in latitude and various geographic features.
The Southern and South Central portions of the country contain a variety of humid subtropical climates, for which the northernmost terminus is around the Ohio river and environs. This area of the United States has long, hot, humid summers and mild to cool winters on average. The Entire eastern half of the United States often succumbs to very hot weather during the summer with high humidity. In the southern portions of the southern states, a number of tropical-transitional climates are found, with Florida and southern Texas hosting a variety of tropical climates. The Midwest region hosts a variety of climates, from humid subtropical in the southern regions, to a warm temperate regime in the central portions, and a humid continental regimes in the more northerly areas of the region. The entire region is susceptible to extensive amount of very hot, humid weather, and more northerly regions of the Midwest often succumb to bitterly cold temperatures in the winter.
The Plains states range from humid subtropical in swathes of Kansas and Oklahoma, to warm temperate in most of Nebraska and areas of South Dakota, to a rather harsh humid continental climate in parts of South Dakota and much of North Dakota. All border semi-arid and near desert climates that often get searingly hot and alternate between dry and humid for much of the year
The west is largely very hot with mostly mild winters, until you get to the northern mountain regions, where, primarily due to elevation, a variety of colder highland climates exist. Most of the region consists of extremely hot or warm arid climates, with very mild to cool winters. This is an extremely rugged, mountainous region. The west coast contains a variety of hot Mediterranean climates, as well as cooler subtypes of this climate, and an oceanic maritime climate in the northwestern regions. The west coast also contains a variety of subtropical and tropical transitional climes. Parts of Arizona and New Mexico have a monsoon season which lasts from June to September. Frequent training thunderstorms often occur in this area during the summer, which can result in flooding. Dust storms can also occur, caused by downdrafts of a decaying thunderstorm.
Florida contains a variety of tropical climates, with frequent thunderstorms and very high humidity. The climate nears the humid subtropical regime of the rest of the United States the further north in the state you travel. The humid subtropical climate regime is the predominant climate regime of the United States.
The Great Plains are notorious for their tornado season, which lasts from March to June. These severe weather outbreaks can also cause very large hail, damaging winds, and flooding. Severe weather in the Great Plains is often forecast days in advance by meteorologists and reported by local news stations via TV and social media.
Hawaii has a variety of tropical climates.
Central and northern Alaska features subarctic and arctic climates with short mild summers and long very cold winters.
The least variation of climate in the continental United States occurs during the summer, when much of the nation is warm to hot, with average highs from 80/90 F (27-32°C) weather, often reaching 100 F for many days at a time throughout many regions of the country. Desert valleys in the Western United States often see the highest temperatures in the nation, along with many days and sometimes weeks of very dry weather. San Francisco and coastal Washington have the coolest summers in the Western United States excluding alpine regions of eastern California and Colorado. The greatest difference in climate from region to region occurs during the winter season, which is mainly December to February, when temperatures can range from below 0 degrees (-18°C) in the Northern Great Plains, to a much milder 75 (24°C) in the southern regions of the country. Long stretches of below freezing temperatures are common during the winter season across the Northern Midwest and Northern Northeast, getting milder as you travel south, therefore, travelers should prepare to dress accordingly: American weather can be violent and unpredictable.
What is now the United States was initially populated by indigenous peoples who migrated from northeast Asia. Today, their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Although Native Americans are often portrayed as having lived a mundane and primitive lifestyle which consisted of day to day survival, the truth is that prior to European contact, the continent was densely populated by many sophisticated societies. For example, the Cherokee are descended from the Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape, while the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. As was the case in other nations in the Americas, the primitive existence attributed to Native Americans was generally the result of mass die-offs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox which spread like wildfire in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the time most Native American tribes directly encountered Europeans, they were a post-apocalyptic people.
During the late 16th and 17th centuries, multiple European nations began colonizing the North American continent. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of present day continental United States. Of those early settlements, it was the original British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts that formed the cultural, political, legal and economic core of what is now the United States.
Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants, known as Puritans, who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Its neighbor to the southwest, Rhode Island, was founded by refugees from the religious fanatics of Massachusetts. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland.
Virginia, on the other hand, became the most dominant of the southern colonies. Because of a longer growing season, these colonies had richer agricultural prospects, specifically cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate in large plantations. Slavery became an important part of the economy in the South, a fact that would cause tremendous upheaval in the years to come.
By the early 18th century, the United Kingdom had established a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On July 4th, 1776, colonists from the Thirteen Colonies, frustrated with excessive taxation and micromanagement by London and encouraged by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from the UK and established a new sovereign nation, the United States of America. The resulting American Revolutionary War culminated in the surrender of 7,000 British troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. This forced the British government to initiate peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, by which the victorious Americans assumed control of all British land south of the Great Lakes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. British loyalists, known as Tories, fled north of the Great Lakes into Canada, which remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown and would not become fully independent until 1982.
Although the Thirteen Colonies had united during the war in support of the common objective of getting rid of British tyranny, most colonists’ loyalties at the end of the war lay with their respective colonial governments. In turn, the young country’s first attempt at establishing a national government under the Articles of Confederation was a disastrous failure. The Articles tried too hard to protect the colonies from each other by making the national government so weak it could not do anything.
In 1787, a convention of major political leaders (the Founding Fathers of the United States) drafted a new national Constitution in Philadelphia. After ratification by a supermajority of the states, the new Constitution went into effect in 1791 and enabled the establishment of the strong federal government that has governed the United States ever since. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the Revolutionary War, was elected as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By the turn of the 19th century, a national capital had been established in Washington, D.C..
As American and European settlers pushed farther west, past the Appalachians, the federal government began organizing new territories and then admitting them as new states. This was enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare and disease. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee tribe was forcibly relocated from the Southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma, which was known as “Indian Territory” until the early 20th century. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought French-owned territory extending from the Mississippi River to parts of the present-day Western United States under American control, effectively doubling the country’s land area.
The United States fought the War of 1812 with Britain as a reaction to British impressment of American sailors, as well as to attempt to capture parts of Canada. Though dramatic battles were fought, including one that ended with the British Army burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., the war ended in a virtual stalemate. Territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, with the United States acquiring more and more of their territory for white settlers.
Florida was purchased in 1813 from Spain after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a short-lived independent republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 resulted in acquisition of the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. After 1850, the borders of the continental United States reached the rough outlines it still has today. Many Native Americans were relegated to reservations by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases transmitted by large numbers of settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail and other routes.
Tensions between the US and the British government administering Canada continued to persist because the border west of the Great Lakes was ill-defined. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 failed to adequately address the complex geography of the region; the boundary dispute remained unsettled until 1871.
Meanwhile, by the late 1850s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The rapidly industrializing North, where slavery had been outlawed several decades before, favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. In 1861, the Southern states, fearing domination by the North and the Republican President Nominee Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Union and formed the breakaway Confederate States of America. These events sparked the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict on American soil, with over 200,000 killed in combat and a overall death toll exceeding 600,000. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, thereby cementing the federal government’s authority over the states. The federal government then launched a complex process of rehabilitation and re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.
The United States purchased Alaska [AK] from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898 after a brief revolution fomented by American settlers. After decisively defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States gained its first “colonial” territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (granted independence shortly after World War II), Puerto Rico and Guam (which remain American dependencies today). During this “imperialist” phase of US history, the US also assisted Panama in obtaining independence from Colombia, as the need for a Panama Canal had become palpably clear to the US during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the new country of Panama promptly granted the United States control over a swath of territory known as the Canal Zone. The US constructed the Panama Canal in 1914 and retained control over the Canal Zone until 1979.
In the eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country’s growing industrialization. Many African-Americans fled rural poverty in the South for industrial jobs in the North, in what is now known as the Great Migration. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads was laid across the country, accelerating development.
With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power by helping to defeat Germany and the Central Powers. However after the war, despite strong support from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States refused to join the newly-formed League of Nations, which substantially hindered that body’s effectiveness in preventing future conflicts.
Real wealth grew rapidly in the postwar period. During the Roaring Twenties, stock speculation created an immense “bubble” which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to a period of economic havoc in the 1930s known as the Great Depression. The Depression was brutal and devastating, with unemployment rising to 25%. On the other hand, it helped forge a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in its next conflict. President Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid in 1932 as a result of his ineffective response to the Depression. The victor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“FDR”) pledged himself to a “New Deal” for the American people, which came in the form of a variety of aggressive economic recovery programs. While historians still debate the effectiveness of the various New Deal programs in terms of whether they fulfilled their stated objectives, it is generally undisputed that the New Deal greatly expanded the size and role of the US federal government.
In December 1941, the Empire of Japan surprise attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II, a war which had already been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia since 1937. Joining the Allied Powers, the United States helped to defeat the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan. By the end of World War II, with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, the United States had firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world; it was then responsible for nearly half of the world’s industrial production. The newly developed atomic bomb, whose power was demonstrated in two bombings of Japan in 1945, made the United States the only force capable of challenging the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
After World War II, America experienced an economic resurgence and growing affluence on a scale not seen since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the racism traditionally espoused in various explicit and implicit forms by the European-American majority against the country’s African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American, and other minority populations had become impossible to ignore. While the US was attempting to spread democracy and the rule of law abroad to counter the Soviet Union’s support of authoritarian Communist governments, it found itself having to confront its own abysmal failure to provide the benefits of democracy and the rule of law to all of its own citizens. However, in the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which eliminated some institutional discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women’s movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in gender roles and perceptions in US society, including to a limited extent views on homosexuality and bisexuality. The more organized present-era US ‘gay rights’ movement first emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s.
During the same period, in the final quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent a slow but inexorable transition from an economy based on a mixture of heavy industry and labor-intensive agriculture, to an economy primarily based on advanced technology (the “high-tech” industry), retail, professional services, and other service industries, as well as a highly mechanized, automated agricultural industry.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, millions of US manufacturing jobs fell victim to outsourcing. In a phenomenon since labeled “global labor arbitrage,” revolutionary improvements in transportation, communications, and logistics technologies made it possible to relocate manufacturing of most goods to foreign factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. The outsourcing revolution was devastating to many cities, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, whose economies were overly dependent upon manufacturing, and resulted in a group of hollowed-out, depressed cities now known as the Rust Belt.
The United States also assumed and continues to maintain a position of global leadership in military and aerospace technology through the development of a powerful “military-industrial complex”, although as of the turn of the 21st century, its leadership is increasingly being challenged by the European Union and China. US federal investments in military technology also paid off handsomely in the form of the most advanced information technology sector in the world, which is primarily centered on the area of Northern California known as Silicon Valley. US energy firms, especially those based in petroleum and natural gas, have also become global giants, as they expanded worldwide to feed the country’s thirst for cheap energy.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population from rural towns and urban cores to the suburbs. These population shifts, along with a changing economic climate, contributed heavily to Urban decay from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The postwar rise of a prosperous middle class able to afford cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline in turn led to the rise of the American car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, became the most comprehensive freeway system in the world, at over 47,000 miles in length. It was surpassed by China only in 2011, although the US is believed to still have a larger freeway system when non-federal-aid highways are also included.
In the late 20th century, the US was also a leader in the development and deployment of the modern passenger jetliner. This culminated in the development of the popular Boeing 737 and 747 jetliners; the 737 is still the world’s most popular airliner today. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn devastated US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, with the consent of the railroads, who were eager to focus their operations on carrying freight, Congress nationalized their passenger rail operations to form the government-owned corporation now known as Amtrak.
During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers were the first to pioneer many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including self-service supermarkets, inventory bar codes to ease the tedium of accurately tallying purchases, “big box” chain stores, factory outlet stores, warehouse club stores, and modern shopping centers. American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, books, and art, all combined to establish the United States as the cultural center of the world. American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, thanks to generous assistance from the federal government in the form of the GI Bill, followed by massive research and development investments by the military-industrial complex, and later, the Higher Education Act. Today, US universities are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the District of Columbia (Washington DC), 16 territories, and numerous Indian Reservations. The federal government derives its power from the Constitution of the United States, the oldest written constitution in the world in continuous use. Although federal law supersedes state law in the event of an express or implied conflict (known in legal jargon as “federal preemption”), each state is considered to be a separate sovereign, maintains its own constitution and government, and retains considerable autonomy within the federation. State citizens enjoy the power to vote for federal representatives, federal senators, and the federal President. The United States has two major political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, that dominate American politics at all levels. Due to the winner-take-all electoral system, smaller “third parties” as they are known to Americans are rarely competitive in any elections at any level, and the Democrats and Republicans have won every single presidential election since 1848. The Republican and Democratic dominant leads to a heavily criticized and frequently corrupt system where necessary change is too-often subject to deadlock and bi-partisan point scoring.
Americans value their rights to political expression strongly, and politics are fiercely debated in American society. In fact, there are many popular web sites and cable channels devoted primarily to political opinion programming. American politics are very complex and change quickly. For example, gay people were not allowed to marry in any US state as recently as 2003, whereas gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states since 2015. Many Americans hold and passionately defend strong opinions on a wide range of political issues, many Americans, especially older Americans, are loyal to one party, and political debates often become heated and lead to insults, vulgarities, and personal attacks being exchanged. For these reasons, unless you are intimately familiar with American politics or already know and agree with the political views of the person you are talking to, you are best off not talking about politics at all!
American elections are frequent and lengthy, especially the presidential election. Presidential elections in the United States last nearly two years, so there is a 50% chance that you will be visiting the United States in the midst of one. The November election is preceded by a six-month period from January to June wherein all 50 states, 5 overseas territories, and D.C. each vote one-by-one twice; one time to select the Republican nominee, and the other to select the Democratic nominee. One of these two nominees will be elected President in November. The current president is Donald Trump. He was elected in November 2016 and sworn in on January 2017. Federal elections for Congressional positions take place every two years in November.
Compared to Western European Democracies, there are an extraordinary number of elected positions in the United States. On a single election day, there might be simultaneous elections for dozens of positions. Typically, the average American would be voting for school board members, city councilmen, mayors, deputy mayors, governors, state representatives, state senators, congressmen, senators, the president, and a number of other positions, such as tax assessor or coroner.
The President of the United States is elected indirectly every four years and serves as the head of government and head of state. Each state is allocated electoral votes, and whichever candidate gets the most votes in a state get all of that state’s electoral votes. Though rare, this means that a candidate can win the “electoral vote” and thus the presidency while gaining fewer popular votes than his opponent. Most recently, this happened in the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections.
The Congress is bicameral; the lower House of Representatives has seats assigned to the states proportionally, while the upper house, the Senate, comprises exactly two seats per state.
By way of contrast, the District of Columbia and the overseas territories have limited federal representation, as they can only elect “delegates” to the federal House of Representatives who cannot participate in votes by the Committee of the Whole on the House floor. (D.C. does, however, get three electoral votes with respect to the election of the federal President.) Because they lack state sovereignty, the governments of D.C. and the territories exist at the mercy of the federal government, which theoretically could dissolve them at any time.
The laws and legal systems of the U.S. will be complicated at best to understand and follow. State and territorial laws can vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, meaning that the US actually consists of at least 54 separate legal systems with regard to any area of law not within the purview of federal law. State and territorial laws are quite uniform in some areas (e.g., contracts for sales of goods) and extremely divergent in others (e.g., “real estate,” the American term for immovable property). If this was not confusing enough, sovereign Native American tribes are allowed to operate their own legal systems separate from both federal and state law. What’s more, the U.S. federal government practices the use of Federal Enclaves. Which are pieces of land or properties owned by the Federal government under a agreement of the state or territory. A example are U.S. national forests. As Federal owned land and property, most state and territorial laws do not apply. Examples are state and territorial anti-discrimination, minimum wage, and criminal laws. While state and territorial laws such as juvenile delinquency, restraining order laws still apply.
The federal government consists of the President of the United States and his administration acting as the executive branch, the United States Congress acting as the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts acting as the judicial branch. State government structures are organized similarly, with governors, legislatures, and judiciaries.
The United States, as with many countries, has a significant urban/rural divide in culture, politics, economics, and law. Given the country’s vast size, it is not unexpected that there will be a divergence in these social aspects. In recent decades, rural areas have experienced a substantial amount of population loss due to a combination of factors including automation in agriculture, lack of economic opportunity, and cultural shift. Simultaneously, many all-but-abandoned cities, especially on the east and west coasts and in Colorado, Texas, and Chicago, have seen revitalization on a generational scale. These changes have sharpened divergences in worldview among the electorate and also created discussion in urban centers about whether or not gentrification is a good or a bad thing (noting that such gentrification often comes with a strong racial component). It is all to say that any attempt at understanding America’s state of affairs should take these phenomena into consideration.
The United States is made up of many diverse ethnic groups and its culture varies greatly across the vast area of the country and even within cities – a city like New York will have dozens, if not hundreds, of different ethnicities represented within a neighborhood. Despite this difference, there exists a strong sense of national identity and certain predominant cultural traits. Generally, Americans tend to believe strongly in personal responsibility and that an individual determines his or her own success or failure, but it is important to note that there are many exceptions and that a nation as diverse as the United States has literally thousands of distinct cultural traditions. One will find South Carolina in the South to be different culturally from New Hampshire in New England.
The United States has a number of holidays — official and/or cultural — of which the traveller should be aware. Note that holidays observed on Mondays or Fridays are usually treated as weekend-long events. (A weekend consists of a Saturday and a Sunday.) Federal holidays — i.e., holidays observed by the federal government, state and local government and banks — are indicated in bold italics. If a federal holiday with a fixed calendar date (such as Independence Day) falls on a weekend, federal and most state and local government offices will be closed on the nearest non-weekend day. Since the early 1970s, several federal holidays, including Memorial Day and Labor Day, have been observed on a certain Monday rather than on a fixed date for the express purpose of giving federal employees three-day weekends. Foreign embassies & consulates in the U.S. also observe the same federal holidays (in bold italics) in addition to the official holidays of their respective countries. The private sector (besides banks) are usually open for business on most holidays with people working except New Years, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas when a vast number of non-retail businesses do close or open partial hours in observance.
Due to the number of major holidays in close proximity to each other, many Americans refer to the period between Thanksgiving in late November and New Year’s Day as simply “the holidays.” School and work vacations are commonly taken during this periods:
- New Year’s Day (1 January) — most non-retail businesses closed; parades; brunches and football parties.
- Martin Luther King Day (third Monday in January) — many government offices and banks closed; speeches, especially on African-American history and culture.
- Chinese New Year (January/February — varies based on the Chinese lunar calendar) — Chinese cultural celebration. Airfare within the U.S. may be reasonable at this time of the year but if planning to fly from the U.S. to China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and anywhere in that part of the world the seats may be limited and fares higher so plan accordingly.
- Super Bowl Sunday (usually the first Sunday in February) — The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL (National Football League) American football league and the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, restaurants and electronics stores are very busy; big football-watching parties everywhere. Those with the extra money to burn DO travel to the host city where the Super Bowl is happening to attend the game live. This makes travel to that city even more hectic with a limited availability of airline seats, hotel rooms, rental cars and parking spaces at much higher than usual prices. The host city varies annually so plan accordingly if planning to be in the host city on Super Bowl Sunday.
- Valentine’s Day (14 February) — private celebration of romance and love. Most restaurants are crowded; finer restaurants may require reservations made well in advance.
- Presidents Day (third Monday in February; officially Washington’s Birthday) — many government offices and banks closed; many stores have sales.
- St. Patrick’s Day (17 March) — Irish-themed parades and parties. Expect bars to be crowded. They will often feature themed drink specials. The wearing of green or a green accessory is common.
- Easter (a Sunday in March or April) — Christian religious observances. Depending on location, many restaurants, including franchised outlets of major national chains, may close. Major retailers generally open; smaller shops may or may not close.
- Passover (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days around Easter) — Jewish religious observance.
- Cinco de Mayo (5 May) — A minor holiday in most of Mexico often incorrectly assumed to be Mexican independence day which is really September the 16th, but nevertheless a major cultural celebration for Mexican-Americans. As with St. Patrick’s Day, expect bars to be crowded, frequently with themed drink specials.
- Memorial Day (last Monday in May) — most non-retail businesses closed; some patriotic observances; trips to beaches and parks; beginning of the traditional beginning of summer tourism season which means jacked up summer prices for rooms and airfare to some places.
- Independence Day / Fourth of July (4 July) — most non-retail businesses closed; airports and highways crowded; patriotic parades and concerts, cookouts and trips to beaches and parks, fireworks at dusk.
- Labor Day (first Monday in September) — most non-retail businesses closed; cookouts and trips to beaches and parks; many stores have sales; last day of the traditional ending of summer tourism season which means a better time to plan for travel to or within the U.S. in many places.
- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (varies based on the Jewish calendar, September or early October) — Jewish religious observances.
- Columbus Day (second Monday in October) — many government offices and banks closed; some stores have sales. Columbus Day can be controversial, especially among Native Americans, and is not as widely observed as it was in the past.
- Halloween (31 October) — trick-or-treating, parades, and costume parties.
- Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
- Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November, date varies annually) — almost all businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants; family dinners. Airports and highways are very crowded the days before and after, but are frequently “empty” on the day itself. The next day, known as “Black Friday,” major Christmas shopping traditionally begins. Many non-retail employees are given Friday off or take it as a holiday. If planning to fly within the U.S. during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday and the weekend after plan accordingly as the airfares are higher than normal.
- Hanukkah / Chanukah (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days usually in December) — Jewish religious observance, often culturally associated with Christmas.
- Christmas Eve (24 December)the evening or day before Christmas Day. The mythical character Santa Claus comes during that night to deliver presents.
- Christmas (25 December) — almost all businesses, grocery stores, and many restaurants closed the evening before and all day. Similar to Thanksgiving, airports and highways are very crowded the days before and after, but are frequently “empty” on the day itself. Families and close friends exchange gifts; Christian religious observances. If planning to fly within the U.S. and internationally around the Christmas holiday and the week between Christmas and New Years Day, plan accordingly as the airfares are higher than normal. flying on Christmas Day can be cheap compared to other days.
- Kwanzaa (26 December-1 January) — African-American cultural observance culminating in gift giving and the feast of Ya Imani, with focus on the values of Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Co-operative_economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.
- New Year’s Eve (31 December) — many restaurants and bars open late; lots of parties, especially in big cities.
From a foreign traveller’s point of view, there are two major services affected by federal holidays: visas and mail.
First, if you are a foreigner who needs to apply for a US visa, it is important to note the federal holidays marked in bold italics. All US embassies worldwide close on those days, in addition to the official holidays of the host country and are unable to process applications on those days.
Second, United States Postal Service retail counters are closed on federal holidays, and in high-crime areas, the entire post office stays closed. Self-service kiosks at post offices in relatively safe areas with 24/7 lobby access remain operational through holidays. However, mail deposited at a post office or in a mailbox will not be processed until after the holiday is over.
Other federal services like national parks and airport security operate 365 days a year regardless of federal holidays.
Many state governments also observe official holidays of their own which are not observed in other states or by the federal government.
Units of measure
The United States is the only industrialized country that has still not adopted metric units of measure in daily life (it still uses the customary English units that were in use prior to the revolution, similar to the later British imperial system, but typically with smaller units as one of the major differences), except for scientific, engineering, medical, and military applications.
All road signs and speed limits are posted in miles and miles per hour respectively. Automotive fuel is priced and sold per gallon, which is 128 fluid ounces, 80% of the size of an Imperial/UK gallon. Other capacities of liquid products are normally quoted and sold per gallon, quart, or ounce (although liters are often indicated and sometimes exclusively used, as with some soda, wine, and other liquor products). Temperatures are reported in Fahrenheit only; 32 degrees (with units unspecified) is the temperature at which water freezes (equivalent to 0 degrees Celsius). The good news is that most cars on the road in the US have both mph and km/h marked on their speedometers (good for trips to Canada and Mexico), and almost all groceries and household items sold in stores are labeled in both systems. The vast majority of Americans, though, have little day-to-day exposure to the metric system (apart from having studied it a little in school) and will assume some understanding of customary measures.
In addition, the US government does not regulate apparel or shoe sizes. Although there are informal standard sizes, they are not strictly enforced. The only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. If you plan to shop for apparel or shoes, you will have to do some trial-and-error for each brand to determine what fits, because you cannot rely on any brand’s sizes as equivalent to another’s. Please note that, as the average body size of Americans tends to be larger than that of those living in other countries, a concept known as vanity sizing (the labeling of larger garments with smaller sizes) exists in many clothing retailers, especially those aimed at women. It is very possible for people with smaller body types to have some difficulty finding suitably sized clothing.
For more information: Electrical systems
Electricity in the United States is provided to consumers in the form of 120V, 60Hz alternating current, through wall outlets that take NEMA 1 or NEMA 5 plugs. (NEMA stands for National Electrical Manufacturers Association.) NEMA 1 plugs have two flat, blunt blades (don’t worry, they’re not sharp), one of which may or may not be polarized (slightly larger than the other), to ensure that the hot and neutral blades are inserted correctly for devices for which that matters. NEMA 5 plugs add a round grounding pin below the blades. All US buildings constructed or renovated after the early 1960s are required to have three-hole outlets that accept the two blades and one pin of NEMA 5 plugs, as well as both polarized and unpolarized NEMA 1 two-blade plugs. The US Virgin Islands uses a slightly lower voltage of 110V. American Samoa uses US plugs, the German Schuko plug, and the Australian standard plug.
All of North America, nearly all of the Caribbean and Central America, Venezuela, and Taiwan follow US standards for electricity and plugs. If you are arriving from outside of those areas, you will need to verify whether your electrical devices are compatible with US electricity and plugs. Japan uses the same plugs as the US, but has a unique standard of 100V with frequency of either 50 or 60Hz depending on region. Most of the rest of the world uses 220-230V at 50Hz, for the simple reason that they began large-scale electrification at much later dates than the US and after wire insulation technology had significantly advanced. This meant they could select a higher voltage and lower frequency, which required less conductor material (meaning less use of expensive metals) but at the expense of more insulation and larger, more heavily insulated plugs. Colombia’s voltage is 110V and Ecuador’s 120-127V but the frequency is the same as the US.
Most consumer electronics, computers, and shavers are already designed as “dual voltage” devices capable of accepting voltages from 110V up to 230V and between 50-60Hz. For those devices, a plug adapter is sufficient. Purchase your adapter at home before you depart. Most US stores carry adapters designed to adapt NEMA plugs to other countries’ outlets, not the other way around.
The differences in voltage and frequency are most frequently an issue for travellers with hair long enough to require the use of a hair dryer for proper hair care. Foreign visitors regularly find their hair dryers to be starved for power in the US; conversely, Americans’ hair dryers are regularly burned out and destroyed by high voltages overseas. Apart from doing without or waiting an annoying long time to dry one’s hair, the solutions are to either
- buy a high-wattage transformer capable of stepping up 120V to 220V
- buy a hair dryer with a switch that allows it to be switched between 110 and 220V
- buy a cheap US hair dryer for use during your trip; or
- book hotels that cater to international travellers and place hair dryers in the rooms for this reason.
For more information
The US federal government sets foreign policy, while the states deal with tourism. As such, the federal government provides the best information about legal requirements for entry, while information about places to visit and see is best provided by state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state articles. At state borders, highway rest stops sometimes feature visitor centers and often offer travel and tourism information and materials, almost all of which is also available on-line or can be requested in advance by mail. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated “You Are Here” marker. Some also offer free paper road maps to take with you.
Note that government tourism bureaus and their Web sites tend to be rather indiscriminate in their recommendations, since for political reasons they cannot be seen as overly favorable towards any particular area within their jurisdiction.
The United States is composed of 50 states, various overseas territories, as well as the city of Washington, D.C., a federal district and the nation’s capital. Below is a rough grouping of these states into regions, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:
| New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)
Home to gabled churches, rustic antiques, and steeped in American history, New England offers beaches, spectacular seafood, rugged mountains, frequent winter snows, beautiful fall foliage, and some of the nation’s oldest cities and towns, in a territory small enough to tour (hastily) in a week. Gilded age mansions, fishing towns, and gothic university campuses adorn the south of the region, whereas the north is dotted with vast mountain wilderness, ski resorts, and cute cabin retreats. The small town environments have managed to maintain a large degree of autonomy for centuries.
| Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia)
Ranging from New York in the north to Washington, D.C., the Mid-Atlantic is home to some of the nation’s most densely populated cities, as well as historic sites, limestone and karst features, montane forest, the New Jersey Pine Barrens and swamps, the Lehigh Valley, the Adirondack and Catskill mountains (in which lie the Finger Lakes, a popular vacation destination and viticultural region), an array of floristically beautiful marshland, the Hogwartsian splendor of West Point Academy amidst the Hudson Highlands, Niagara Falls, and seaside resorts like the Long Island beaches and the Jersey Shore boardwalk, as well as the Victorian quaintness of Cape May and the mobster-haven of days past and current gambling mecca, Atlantic City. Bridging New England and the steamy South, the Mid-Atlantic includes some of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world, as well as small enclaves of American history and natural beauty, including lush river passes, hills, and mountains for activities like hiking and white water rafting. The climate is humid subtropical, albeit with cooler winters than in the south.
| South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia)
The South is celebrated for its hospitality, down-home cooking and its blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music traditions. The region is known for it’s turbulent civil war history, and is marked by a number of modern and older, colonial cities and towns, including music mecca Nashville, the bluegrass region and bourbon country around Lexington, the bohemian mountain city of Asheville, and the slow moving, garden-full coastal city of Savannah, among many others. A distinct literature, accents, Afro-European heritage, and religiosity help distinguish Southerners as well. This lush, largely subtropical region includes cool, verdant mountains, waterfalls, giant cave systems, mist-shrouded karst and limestone features, alligators, tropical microclimates, temperate and subtropical forests, ring-tailed cats, southern flying squirrels, possums, snakes, and armadillos, canebrake bamboo forests, agricultural landscapes of cotton, rice, tobacco and sugarcane, vast cypress swamps, old plantation homes, and long, white sand, palm tree studded beaches.
Florida, hosting a variety of tropical climates, is a vacationers paradise, and a popular destination for celebrities, retirees, and spring breakers alike. Here, you’ll find resort destinations, stately homes, blue spring waters, and giant theme parks in the central portion, and white sand beaches on both coasts. Southern Florida and Caribbean-influenced Miami and Key West is home to tropical rainforests and savannas, barrier islands, and warm sandy beaches, while northern Florida is much like the rest of the south, with old, colonial Spanish St. Augustine being a cultural centerpiece of the region. An extremely popular tourist attraction, Florida includes some of the nicest attractions that the United States has to offer and is conveniently located in the Caribbean, facilitating travel to exotic islands. Florida’s collection of tropical jungles, old military forts, space age history and launch sites, blue waters, old and new cities, coral reefs, and exotic wildlife are sure to excite any vacationer.
| Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin)
The Midwest is home to farmland, forests, picturesque towns, the Ozark mountains, industrial cities, and the Great Lakes, the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world, and the defining geographic feature of the region, forming the North Coast of the US. The Great Lakes allow for a plethora of gorgeous sand beaches and coastal towns, some of which look quite Caribbean come summertime. Midwesterners are known for their straight-forwardness and hospitality – taking much from the numerous central European and Scandinavian heritages of the region, they are an earthy, fun-loving, and hard-working people. The cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Detroit all offer unique cultural opportunities, along with some stunning architecture. Picture-perfect Galena is also worth the trip. Explore soft dune fields along vast blue lakes, art-deco cityscapes and lively college towns, the Amana colonies, Native American burial mounds, caves shrouded in dense vegetation, natural getaways full of interesting rock formations, forested highland regions, and waterfalls, and enjoy the many hours of fun to be had in boats on lakes and rivers the region over. The southern portion, with its subtropical fertile loess-lands full of jungle-y cypress swamps, riverside cliff faces, unique wildlife, and close cultural association with the South, is distinct from the northern portion, with its harsher continental climes, hilly terrain, coniferous-forested lake islands, big game, and close cultural relationship with adjacent Canada.
The second biggest state in the nation is like a separate country (and in fact, briefly was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past (with notable German and Czech influences in the northern and Hill Country regions). The state is also a nexus of Southwestern and Southern cultures. The state has a number of notable cities, including San Antonio, with it’s picturesque river walk and old Mexican history, Dallas and Houston, both broad shouldered, sprawling metropolises with gleaming skylines, and Austin, a quirky alternative haven with a countercultural streak. The terrain ranges from southeastern subtropical jungles, sinkholes, and savannas, to the cattle-ranching, ruggedly hilly and river canyon-marked South Plains, to the sandy beaches, tropical flora, and Mexican flavor of South Texas, to the forested mountains, canyons, and hot deserts of West Texas. Explore a mangrove forest, climb a rugged mountain while glaring at alien flora and fauna, unearth Native American artifacts, descend slowly down a river amidst soaring canyon walls, taste the fine wines of the Llano Estacado, familiarize yourself with the medieval character of the Spanish missions (including the Alamo), sample sumptuous Texas barbecue or Tex-Mex cuisine, or lay back on a sun-soaked beach.
| Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma)
Travel westward through this large expanse of steppe and savanna biology, from the edge of the eastern forests, the bordering metropolis of Kansas City, and the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, through the prairies and onto the High Plains, an enormous expanse of steppes (short grass prairies) running all the way west to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, nearly as desolate as in the frontier days. Explore the lunar-like badlands, get comfortable in a wild-west town in the middle of the Black Hills mountain range, behold mountain-side cliff carvings such as Mount Rushmore and Sitting Bull, climb the otherworldly red mesas of Oklahoma, gaze at the bizarre chalk and sandstone formations from Kansas to Nebraska, discover oddities such as grass covered and bright orange sand dunes, chase after animals such as rattlesnakes, coyotes, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope, or witness some of the wildest, most dangerous, and most beautiful weather spectacles in the world on a storm chasing tour. The region has down home barbecue, old cattle towns, Native American culture and casinos, as well as a landscape that ranges from surprisingly rugged and breath-takingly harsh, to relaxingly placid and genteel.
| Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, and excellent snow skiing as well as deserts, subtropical lowlands, continental highlands, regions of Mediterranean chaparral, wine country, world-class national parks, opportunities to spot megafauna, and some large cities, including the Marijuana and craft-brew haven of Denver, and the luxury options available in glitzy Aspen, among many other famous ski towns and resort areas. The region offers a number of cultural experiences, most notably, the world famous Telluride and Sundance film festivals. This is one of the highest altitude regions on earth, situated atop the vast Colorado plateau. Tourist cities include some of the nicest amenities for hundreds of miles, and some parts of the Rockies are virtually untouched by man – but you can still find villages and towns in all sorts of styles, including old west, native, colonial Spanish, and mountain Swiss. Hot springs, hanging lakes, geysers and geothermal features, glaciers, ancient Native American cliff palaces, red deserts, huge sand dunes, canyons, warmer getaway destinations, these mountain states have it all.
| Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture, this area is home to some of the nation’s most spectacular natural attractions and some flourishing artistic communities. Although mostly empty, the region’s hot deserts have some of the nation’s largest cities built to embrace the harsh environment, such as Phoenix and college town Tucson, as well as ski-resort Flagstaff, and Sedona, a gorgeous spiritual retreat amidst the red rocks. Las Vegas is a giant resort city home to gambling and shows. Additionally, a strong Native American influence can be felt throughout as this region includes many large reservations and sovereign territorial lands. The food of the region is spicy, and the region is notable for Chile growing in New Mexico. Utah has a number of fascinating sites and cities as the world center of the Mormon religion, giving rise to some palatial cathedrals. The alien landscape of the southwest looks as if it were mars, the creatures that inhabit this region, large and small, are vicious and fascinating, and with endless amounts of soaring canyons, meteor craters, canyon-side cliff dwellings, salt flats and a giant salt lake, white gypsum sand dunes, calderas, extinct volcanoes, ghost towns, lush desert oases, and giant mountains to explore, this region is sure to entertain for days.
Like the Southwest, California has a history under Spanish and Mexican rule and is heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture in addition to massive immigration from around the world. An outdoorsy, health-oriented culture defines the Californian lifestyle. California offers world-class cities, towns rife with Italianate and Mediterranean style architecture, deserts, rainforests, the rugged Channel Islands, world-famous vineyards, including the storied wine country of Sonoma and Napa Valley, geothermal features, picturesque Mediterranean coastlines, pinnacles, chemical lakes, snowy mountains, salt flats, beautiful beaches, and the tallest forests in the world. Northern California (above the San Francisco Bay Area) and Southern California (below the San Francisco Bay Area) are culturally distinct, with Northern California taking cues from the Pacific Northwest, and Southern California taking cultural elements from adjacent Mexico.
| Pacific Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Oregon)
The Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits as well as cosmopolitan cities, including cutting-edge Seattle, a technology hub with a famously vibrant music scene. The terrain ranges from spectacular temperate rain forests, to scenic mountains and volcanoes, to fjords, to Mediterranean-type beaches and coastline, and to sage-covered steppes and deserts replete with psychedelic landscapes of colored badlands and painted hills. The Pacific Northwest prides itself on it’s social progressivism and environmentalism, and the region is rife with opportunities to live out more alternative lifestyles. In minutes, you can travel from a high-tech metropolis to a thick forest or a mountaintop.
One-fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features desolate wilderness consisting of giant mountains (some of the largest in the world), old Russian heritage, river basins, arctic sand dunes, tundra, massive glaciers, landscapes of ice caves and massive snow. The state has a rich and diverse tapestry of native cultures including Yupik, Inupiat, Tlingit and others. Around 15% of the residents are of native origin.
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 miles south west of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise, as a haven for surfers, U.S. military personnel, volcanologists, and geologists. The state has a notable Asian population that exerts significant influence over the culture of the islands. With beautiful cliffs, canyons, volcanoes, jungles, waterfalls, and beaches with multicolored sand, its definitely a place to unwind, attend a Luau, or join the youthful hula dancers and longboarders in their recreational pursuits. The indigenous Polynesian population are known for being accommodating and fun-loving.
Politically, the US is a federation of states, each with its own rights and powers (hence the name). The US also administers a motley collection of non-state territories around the world, the largest of which are Puerto Rico (which has the special status of a “commonwealth”) and the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean plus American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (also has special status of a “commonwealth”) in Oceania, along with many others.
The United States has over 10,000 incorporated cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of a few major cities that are the most popular. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
- Atlanta – The modern city of the “new south”, Atlanta has powerful Civil War and civil rights-era history to learn from. It was the host city of the 1996 Summer Olympics, and is home to a vibrant art and music scene, particularly as the current epicenter of the world famous hip-hop music culture, and the former home of a vibrant alternative rock music scene.
- Boston – best known for its colonial history and quaint architecture, its passion for sports, it’s old Irish and Italian heritages, and its university students.
- Charleston – an old colonial city on the South Carolina coast best known for it’s history of slavery and piracy. Known for it’s colorful architecture, it’s strong military tradition, old forts, low country cuisine, and a number of gorgeous old estates and plantation homes.
- Chicago – the country’s third largest city (though still known as “the Second City”), heart of the Midwest and transportation hub of the nation, with massive, ornate early skyscrapers and other architectural gems abutting one of the vast blue great lakes.
- Honolulu – capital city of the state of Hawaii, located on the island of Oahu, this glitzy city on an island has a royal palace within it, and is a popular resort destination with warm sandy beaches, high-end shopping opportunities, nearby tropical rainforests, mountains, and clear blue waters.
- Las Vegas – gambling resort city in the Nevada desert, home to over half of the top 20 biggest hotels in the world; popular for its casinos, shows and extravagant nightlife, as well as it’s surrounding desert wildlife and topography, consisting of red rocks and a palm-tree oasis. The extravagant display of neon is reason alone to check out this monument to sin – the city is nicknamed sin city, after all.
- Los Angeles – the country’s second largest city, home of the film industry, musicians, artists, and surfers, with beautiful mild weather, great natural beauty from mountains to beaches, and endless stretches of boardwalks, skate parks, world-famous shopping districts, and chaparral.
- Miami – attracts sun-seeking northerners, and home to a rich, vibrant, Latin-influenced culture, situated adjacent to tropical wilderness and white sand beaches. Known for it’s distinct Floribbean cuisine and many world-famous nightclubs.
- New Orleans – “The Big Easy” is the birthplace of Jazz, and is known for its quaint French Quarter, delicious Cajun and Creole food, humid subtropical gardens and natural landscape, and a raucous annual Mardi Gras carnival. Having a distinctly Caribbean character, New Orleans is the center of a distinct Afro-European creole culture.
- New York City – the country’s largest city, as well as one of the world’s premiere cities, often described as the capital of the world, home of the financial services and media industries, with world-class cuisine, arts, architecture, and shopping.
- San Francisco – the City by the Bay, featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant urban neighborhoods, unique Victorian buildings, tall cliffs, LGBT culture, strong Chinese heritage, and dramatic fog. Known as the birthplace of 1960s counterculture, it was the home of the hippie subculture, and a vibrant psychedelic rock music scene.
- Washington, D.C. – the current national capital, filled with major museums and monuments, epic neo-classical architecture, along with multi-cultural communities and historic neighborhoods and suburban main streets.
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities:
There is no airside transit without US entry between international flights. All travelers must disembark and proceed through immigration and customs inspection to enter the United States at first port entry, even if you’re only staying for the two to four hours needed to transit between flights. This is most relevant if you’re transiting between Asia or Europe to/from Latin America. Therefore, all travelers must be able to enter the United States on the Visa Waiver Program (or other visa exemption) or obtain a visitor’s (B1 or B2) or transit (C1) visa. See below.
Law and bureaucracy
The US federal government has five separate agencies with jurisdiction over visitors.
The most important one from a visitor’s perspective is Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a bureau of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The CBP’s Office of Field Operations operates 20 Field Operations offices which supervise immigration and customs inspection stations at over 320 ports of entry. All travelers entering the United States must undergo immigration and customs inspection to ensure lawful entry. All US citizens and nationals and visitors who can qualify for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) (as explained further below) generally encounter only CBP officers.
If you cannot enter the US through the VWP, you must visit a US Embassy or Consulate to apply for and obtain a visa, which will require a short visa interview with a US consular officer.
If you attempt to unlawfully cross a US land border at any other point besides a port of entry, you may encounter the U.S. Border Patrol, which is also part of CBP.
If you attempt to unlawfully come ashore in the US from a body of water at any other point besides a port of entry, you may encounter the U.S. Coast Guard, which is normally part of DHS (but can operate as part of the Department of Defense in wartime).
Finally, if you unlawfully enter the US, commit a severe crime in the US, or overstay your visa, you will likely encounter officers from the division of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), another DHS bureau. ICE operates a system of immigration detention facilities. Strict compliance with US law during your stay is strongly recommended.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program, as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), Bermudians, Cayman, and Turks and Caicos Islanders (with British Overseas Territories passports) generally do not require advance visas for entry into the United States. However, the requirements for Guam, the Marianas Islands, and American Samoa are different and are listed below.
For Canadians and Bermudians, the entry period is normally for a maximum of six months. However, entry may still be refused on the basis of a criminal record. Those who have criminal records should seek out a US embassy for advice on whether they need a visa.
For travelers under the Visa Waiver Program, the entry period is strictly limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below).
As of November 2019, the countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the US Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas to the States, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, but a valid police certificate may be required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry, whether by land, sea, or air, requires a valid visa. However, Bahamaian citizens are not exempted from visa requirements for traveling to American Samoa.
Persons holding a passport from the Cayman Islands, if they intend to travel directly to the US from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure. If traveling by air or cruise ship, a police certificate will be needed to travel to the States, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands. This is the same for holders of British Virgin Islands or Turks and Caicos Islands passports. However, passport holders of the British Virgin Islands do not need a police certificate to travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands as only a passport will be needed.
Visa Waiver Program requirements
Travel under the Visa Waiver Program is limited to transit, tourism, or business purposes only; neither study, employment, nor journalism is permitted under the VWP. The 90-day limit cannot be extended nor will travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean reset the 90-day limit. Take care if transiting through the US on a trip exceeding 90 days to Canada and/or Mexico.
Travelers entering the US under the VWP and arriving by air or sea must apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval on-line before travel, preferably 72 hours before travel. An ESTA approval is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier) and costs $14 (payable by credit card). If granted, it allows the traveler to commence their journey to the US but (as with any visa or entry permit) it does not guarantee entry.
Entry under the Visa Waiver Program by air or sea also requires that you are using a signatory carrier. It is a fairly safe assumption that commercial scheduled services to the US will be fine, but if you are on a chartered flight or vessel you should check the status of the carrier, as you may require a visa.
Travelers entering by air or sea must also have a return/onward ticket out of the United States. If the return/onward ticket terminates in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or any Caribbean island, the traveler must be a legal resident of that country/territory. If travelling by land, there is a $7.00 fee when crossing the border.
A criminal record, including arrests, will generally make a potential traveler ineligible for visa-free travel with the following exceptions:
- Traffic violations
- Civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct)
- A single conviction for possession of marijuana
- Purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed)
- Offenses committed before the age of 16.
The ESTA application contains a questionnaire, which if answered truthfully will direct you to apply to a visa if you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program for reasons of criminal history, etc. If you have any concerns, complete the ESTA application well in advance of your departure to allow time to apply for a visa if directed to do so.
Effective as of 2016, any person who is a citizen of both a VWP country and of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or North Korea or a citizen of a VWP country and who has visited any of those seven countries since March 2011 is ineligible to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
There are disadvantages and restrictions to entering under the Visa Waiver Program. Under normal circumstances, these include the following:
- you can’t apply to extend your authorized stay
- you can’t apply to change your status
Obtaining a visa
Common US Visa/Residence Statuses
For the rest of the world, or for those who don’t fit the profile of a Visa Waiver Program entry (e.g., need to stay more than 90 days) the visa application fee is a non-refundable $160 (as of April 2012) for visas that are not issued on the basis of a petition (ex. business, tourist, transit, student, and journalist) and $190 for those that are (employment). This fee is sometimes waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Under US law, all persons requesting entry as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants (that is, trying to permanently migrate) until they overcome that presumption by presenting evidence of “binding ties” to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. To obtain a visa, face-to-face interviews at the nearest US embassy or consulate are required for nearly all nationalities. When the US rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant did not show enough binding ties to his or her home country to convince the consular officer that they will not try to overstay their visa. Since waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months, you must start researching how to obtain a visa well in advance of your planned departure date. If you do not live close to a US consulate, you will need to set aside a day (or two) to travel to the closest consulate for the visa interview.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing a non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require eight weeks to receive approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
Note that a visa does not guarantee entry into the US. It only authorizes you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Be sure you apply for the right visa for your visit. Applying for the incorrect/inappropriate visa may lead to serious legal problems, as well as a possible indefinite bar from obtaining any US visa.
Travel to US territories
The territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. Although, the COFA nations aren’t considered part of the U.S. and are independent countries, the U.S. maintains and exersises some extent of jurisdiction over the countries so the countries are somewhat US possessions, which is why they are included here as US possessions.
Guam-Northern Mariana Islands
Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands allow entry, by air only, for an additional group of foreign nationals under the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program: Brunei, Malaysia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan (only on non-stop flights from Taiwan), and Hong Kong. Citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, and the United Kingdom are also allowed entry under the Guam-CNMI VWP and may enter either under that or the federal VWP. Entrance under the Guam-CNMI VWP requires a valid, machine-readable passport and evidence of a return airfare, and is limited to a 45-day stay in Guam and the CNMI only. Residents of Hong Kong must present a valid HK permanent identity card and are allowed entry with either a Hong Kong S.A.R. passport or British National (Overseas) passport. Residents of Taiwan must present a valid R.O.C. National Identification Card in addition to an R.O.C. passport. Citizens of Russia are eligible for parole (essentially the same as visa-free travel) to enter the Northern Marianas Islands only. Because of differences in entry requirements, a full immigration check is done when traveling between Guam and the CNMI as well as on flights to the rest of the US (currently, only Guam-Hawaii flights).
Despite not being part of the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, citizens of Russia can enter both territories Guam-CNMI visa-free under the waiver program, as long as they are in possession of a machine-readable passport, a completed Form I-736 (Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Information form) and Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) and a non-refundable and non-transferable return ticket.
Citizens of China will need a visa to enter Guam, but not one to enter the Northern Mariana Islands. Citizens will need to be in possession of a machine-readable passport, completed Form I-736 (Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Information form) and Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) may enter the CNMI only visa-free for up to 45 days (travel to Guam still requires applying for a visa in advance).
US and American Samoan citizens must have a passport as proof of citizenship for entry to Guam and the CNMI. However, US and American Samoan citizens can live, work, and travel freely in both territories.
American Samoa lies outside federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements, which even apply to US citizens. Entry is allowed for 30 days (extendable to 60 days) for tourism with a valid passport and proof of onward travel or local employment. Nationals from the following countries can visit American Samoa for tourist purposes only visa-free for up to 30 days; Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom. However, a entry permit will be issued upon arrival. Entry requirements are somewhat different for Americans with US citizenship. US citizens are required to have only a six month valid passport, a entry ticket, and a exit ticket. US citizens can live, work, and travel freely for a unlimited time in American Samoa.
Puerto Rico-US Virgin Islands
Both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands choose to follow the Mainland US entry requirements. As with the Mainland, any non-US citizen who is eligible may enter under the Visa Waiver Program. American and American Samoan citizens don’t need a passport nor visa to travel to both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Only some form of government ID (example; a driver’s license) is needed for proof of citizenship. Any US and American Samoan citizen can live, work and travel freely for a unlimited time in both territories.
US citizens and citizens of countries under the federal Visa Waiver Program plus Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed visa-free entry. And can reside and work anywhere in the United States for a unlimited time. All other foreign nationals must contact the American Samoa Attorney General’s office to obtain a visa at (684) 633-4163.
US Minor Outlying Islands
All foreign, US and American Samoan citizens must have special travel permits to travel to all uninhabited territories that make up the US Minor Outlying Islands.
Arriving in the United States
Before arrival, if you are not a Canadian or Bermudian, you will receive either a white I-94 (if entering with a visa) or green I-94W (if entering on a visa waiver) form to complete. For visitors travelling under the Visa Waiver Program arriving by air, the I-94W has now been replaced by the electronic ESTA system; therefore the form is not required. Again, remember that the ESTA approval is in essence, a permit to travel – not a guarantee of entry, hence there is no need to produce a copy of it at passport control – had there been any problems you would have been denied boarding at your origin airport, however most travelers tend to keep a copy of it in their possession anyway, just in case.
I-94 forms are now used primarily at land ports of entry. As October 2013, the I-94 paper form is now optional for virtually all visitors arriving by common carrier at air and sea ports of entry. CBP now has arrangements in place to electronically receive manifest information directly from all major common carriers. From the manifests, CBP’s computers create and maintain electronic I-94 records for all passengers who are foreign visitors. CBP operates a Web site where visitors may view their own electronic I-94 record while they are still in the United States.
When you reach a CBP immigration checkpoint, you will undergo a short interview if you are not a citizen or resident of the United States. A CBP officer will attempt to determine if the purpose of your visit is valid. Usually, the determination of admissibility is made in a minute or less.
Otherwise, you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. At that stage the CBP officers will likely search your possessions, and may read any documents, letters or diaries found in your possession. Do not bring anything that could imply you intend to permanently immigrate or otherwise violate the terms of your visa. For example, you should not be carrying work-related or sales materials if you are entering on a tourist visa. If you are unable to convince the CBP officers that you will abide by the terms of your visa (or VWP ESTA authorization if applicable), it can be cancelled on the spot, and you will be denied entry.
Like immigration,customs and law enforcement officials everywhere, CBP officials take all security threats seriously.Making any joke could result in a lenghty interrogation, prison sentence or turned back to your country of origin.
For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying for the first night. This should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. is not sufficient; you must provide the street name and number.
Once you are admitted, the departure portion of your I-94 or I-94W will be stapled to your passport (if you were required to fill it out). Keep it safe as you will need to give it CBP upon departure from the US. In the alternative, even if you weren’t required to fill out a I-94, the CBP officer will place an admission stamp in your passport which shows that you were admitted to the United States under a certain class and until a certain date.
For most travellers entering on visitor status (B1 or B2), you will normally be granted permission to stay for up to six months. Travellers entering under the VWP will receive permission to remain for 90 days only. If you enter under a student (F) or exchange visitor (J) status, your permitted duration of stay will normally be indicated as D/S, which means “permitted to remain provided status as a student/exchange visitor is maintained”.
As of November 29th, 2016, citizens of the People’s Republic of China who hold a valid 10-year U.S. visa for tourism or business purposes must register with EVUS before traveling to the United States. As the name indicates, the EVUS enrollment is meant to be used to update details of a 10-year B1 or B2, or B1/B2 visa before traveling to the U.S.
All travelers entering the US (including US citizens, nationals, and permanent residents) must fill out the Customs Declaration form, CBP Form 6059B, a blue-colored form in the shape of a tall narrow rectangle. It used to be distributed on the plane, but some airlines now hand it out at check-in for flights to the US. Many airports now have electronic kiosks that have replaced the physical Customs Declaration form. You still must answer the same questions as you would on the traditional form, but instead the machine will print out a receipt that you will present along with your passport to the customs agent.
If you are traveling with family members, then only one form per family is required to be filled out. Normally, the head of the family is responsible for ensuring the declaration is accurate.
The Customs Declaration form asks you to declare whether you are bringing with you a variety of heavily regulated items, such as more than USD10,000 in cash. In addition, you must list on the back side all goods that you are permanently bringing into the US and leaving there (such as foreign gifts for US-based friends and family). The Form 6059B is notorious for not having enough space on the back, so ask for and fill out multiple forms if you have many items to declare.
After you are admitted into the US and retrieve your bags from the baggage claim, you will proceed to the secondary inspection area (the customs checkpoint), regardless of whether your journey terminates at this airport or if you are transiting onward via another flight. Hand your customs declaration to the officer. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it.
Sometimes, the officer may ask you a few routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to an adjacent X-ray machine to have your bags inspected or may refer you for a manual hand search of your bags. Any search more intrusive than a bag search is rare and is usually indicated only if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity.
Note that you can’t bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables, but you may bring cooked non-meat packaged foods, such as bread, cookies, and other baked goods. See APHIS for details. The US Customs process is straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the US. One rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the US has imposed economic sanctions such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK) and Syria.
The US territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and the US Virgin Islands are all outside federal customs jurisdiction. Each imposes their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the US requires a customs inspection. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for US citizens returning from these destinations.
As noted above, all inbound citizens, nationals, and visitors must pass through immigration and customs at their first point of entry, regardless of whether they have onward connections to other destinations inside or outside the US or not. Many major airports have special arrangements for travellers with connecting flights such as a bag drop, check-in counter or security checkpoint just for the use of connecting passengers (you will need to re-clear security because you had access to your bags while passing through customs) upon coming out from customs inspection. Some airports do not, meaning that you will need to proceed to the main check-in desks with other departing passengers.
If you managed to get into the United States visa-free or not, if you plan on visiting rural Nevada, be careful on where you are. There is a closed city in Nevada called Mercury which the town was involved in nuclear testing programs by the U.S. government, something it no longer conducts. This city, like many other closed cities, is closed off to the public, including foreigners. You will need special permission from the U.S. government in order to enter the town. Attempting to enter without the permission will get you arrested.
Leaving the United States (and re-entering from Canada or Mexico)
Unlike most countries, the US does not provide formal passport control checkpoints for those exiting the country. This used to be a big problem for many tourists who left by air or sea, but is not a major issue any more. Since CBP now receives manifests automatically from all major common carriers, CBP can automatically update their electronic I-94 records to show you timely departed from the United States as long as you leave on a common carrier (like a major airline).
Otherwise, if you are leaving the US for the last time on a particular trip (e.g., not returning from Canada or Mexico), it is ultimately your responsibility to turnover the departure record of your I-94 or I-94(W) to CBP at the Canadian or Mexican borders if leaving by land.
Most visitors from outside Canada and Mexico arrive in the United States by plane. While many medium-sized inland cities have an international airport, there are limited flights to most of them. Most travellers enter the US at one of the major entry points along the coasts:
- From the east: New York City, Newark NJ, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Miami are the primary entry points from Europe and other transatlantic points of departure. All the major East Coast airports have service from a few key European cities. Other cities, such as Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, while not on the east also have a good number of flights from major European cities flying over northern Greenland and the Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean. US immigration and customs can be completed prior to boarding in Shannon and Dublin airports in Ireland.
- From the west: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Anchorage and Honolulu are the primary points of entry from Asia and other transpacific points of departure. with Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, D.C. having a few international flight options. Of course, if you arrive in Honolulu, you must take another flight to get to the mainland. Foreign airlines are not allowed to transport passengers to/from Hawaii or Alaska and the other 48 states (except for refueling and in-transit). They may allow a stopover in Hawaii for free or for an extra cost to passengers traveling onward from the United States. If you are flying into the West Coast to transit to another destination, San Francisco International Airport has a free frequent SkyTrain linking terminals and relatively short security lines, in comparison to Los Angeles where you will be exposed to the weather catching a shuttle bus or walking between terminals and will have to put up with huge security lines. Qantas serves Dallas/Fort Worth non stop from Sydney, in addition to their daily service to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and San Francisco from Sydney. Air New Zealand also serves Houston from Auckland as well as Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
- From the north: Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis feature many flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. Most major US airports receive nonstop flights from most major cities in Canada while others closer to the Canadian border also have direct buses by various companies to/from the nearest Canadian city north of the border (such as Vancouver-Seattle; Toronto-Buffalo; Detroit-Windsor, etc.). In most major Canadian airports, U.S immigration and/or formalities are completed and approved PRIOR to boarding a U.S. bound flight thus arriving into the U.S. as ‘domestic’ flight.
- From the south: Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas are the primary entry points from Latin America, primarily South and Central America and the Caribbean. Also Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and Charlotte are major international waypoints. Most major US airports receive nonstop flights from most major cities in Mexico. There are very limited number of direct flights available between the ‘west’ (China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, etc) and and ‘south’ (Central & South America) which can requires a transfer or stopover in the United States. Most travelers traveling between Asia-Pacific and Central and South American destinations usually transfer flights in Los Angeles. Others may arrive into Los Angeles and continue across to Dallas, Houston, or Miami and continue south from there (vice versa) depending on the destinations and the airlines used. From the “east” and “other side of the world” they may arrive in Chicago, Houston, New York, or Miami to make connections for south bound flights).
- From Cuba: Miami is the the primary entry/exit points from/to Cuba. Scheduled flights are now available on a limited basis from major east coast hubs of US airlines (NYC, DC, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami). US citizens require special permission from OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) to use these flights and to spend money Cuba. Citizens of other nations have no special requirements applied to them to take these scheduled flights. As of December 17, 2014 Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced moves to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries as well as to loosen trade and travel restrictions. Implementation plans are underway to normalize trade & travel in the coming months or years and this section is subject to change as the airlines plan regular flights between the US and Cuba and to apply for approval to fly the routes from authorities on both sides of the Florida Strait.
- From the other side of the world: New Delhi, India has non-stop service to New York (via JFK and Newark airports), Chicago, and San Francisco. Mumbai has non-stop flights to New York (JFK and Newark). From Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and United Arab Emirates you can also fly to New York (JFK). Qatar, and Saudi Arabian fly to Washington, D.C., and South African Airways goes to New York (JFK) and Washington, DC (Dulles). Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston both offer non-stop service to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Luggage allowance for flights to or from the US usually operates on a piecewise system in addition to the weight system even for foreign carriers. This means that you are allowed a limited number of bags to check-in where each bag should not exceed certain linear dimensions (computed by adding the length, width and height of the bags). The exact allowances and restrictions on weight, linear dimension and number of baggage allowed are determined by the carrier you are flying with, your origin (if coming to the US) or destination (if leaving the US) and the class of service you are traveling in.
International flights bound for the United States tend to feature extremely strict security. Besides going through a regular security search to enter the departure area of the airport terminal, it was standard up until 2015 at many airports to have an additional layer of security around waiting areas for gates for US-bound flights with a secondary security checkpoint of its own. While that kind of security is no longer seen at many airports, all airlines with US-bound flights continue to carefully inspect all documents at time of boarding. Passengers may be selected for the Secondary Security Screening Selection (or “SSSS”), which randomly selects passengers on inbound flights to the US (although it is applied to internal flights also) for additional security screening. Passengers are typically stopped at the jetway prior to boarding, and their carry on bags are hand searched, portable electronic devices must be charged and powered on for inspection, and shoes/socks will be swabbed. The first sign that this may happen to you is that an electronic boarding pass will be denied, or you will be referred to an agent if you use a self check-in machine at the airport. If the letters “SSSS” are printed on your boarding card when you eventually get it, then it means you have been selected – so be prepared for the additional screening.
Within the US, airport security procedures continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear (coats and jackets) and submit those items along with all personal belongings to X-ray screening. Laptops and large cameras must be removed from bags and scanned separately.
Full body scanning x-ray machines are now in use at many US airports, which are capable of detecting many non-metallic threats. Because of early problems with displaying far too much detail at security checkpoints to the embarrassment of travelers, the scanners were subsequently modified so that a fully detailed image is displayed only at a remote analysis center. The off-site screener marks rectangles on a generic diagram corresponding to any portions of a traveler’s body that look unusual. Only that marked-up diagram is displayed at the checkpoint, thereby enabling TSA officers to focus any necessary pat-down on those areas. If there is nothing suspicious on the scan, the off-site screener sends an “OK” message authorizing the traveler to proceed.
The full body scanners are optional and passengers have the legal right to “opt out” and request a manual search instead. Furthermore, passengers may also be randomly selected for additional screening, such as an “enhanced pat-down.” Do not assume that you are in any sort of trouble or that you are even suspected of causing trouble, simply because you are being subjected to these further screenings.
Passengers whose journeys originate in major Canadian airports and involve either US or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing US entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port-of-exit. As far as most flights from Canada are concerned, they are treated similarly as US domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their US port-of-entry, rather than walk through a secluded corridor, they can see the display of restaurants and shops at the domestic terminal on their way to baggage claim. It is worth noting that most Canadian carriers are located in US domestic terminals.
Take note that passengers on US-Canadian flights operated by foreign air carriers will still see traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their US port-of-entry; a Canadian transit visa may be required even if passengers are confined to a holding area for the entire transit time.
Some airports in Canada, including Vancouver International Airport, Terminal 1 of Toronto-Pearson Airport, and Montréal-Trudeau Airport generally do not require passengers in transit from abroad to pass through Canadian Customs and Immigration controls before going through US pre-clearance formalities. However, even if you pass through these airports, make sure that your papers are in order to allow you to enter Canada. If you cannot travel to the US on the same day you go through pre-clearance, if you are not cleared for entry to the United States, or if you and/or your luggage is not checked through by your airline to at least your first destination in the United States, you will need to report to Canada Customs, and in that event, a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required.
Pre-clearance facilities are available at most major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, Dublin and Shannon International Airports in Ireland, and Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via either Dublin or Shannon, Ireland can take advantage of US passport control and customs pre-clearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the US, they will arrive as domestic passengers and can transfer immediately to domestic flights.
All persons wishing to enter the United States by land must possess a valid passport; NEXUS, FAST, or passport card; Laser Visa; or an “enhanced driver’s license” (issued by certain US states and Canadian provinces)
Traffic travels on the right-hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico), except in the US Virgin Islands, due to left-hand driving being common in the smaller Caribbean islands.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a $6.00 fee, in cash, at the point of entry. No fee is payable if you are simply re-entering and already have the Visa Waiver slip in your passport.
The US-Canada and US-Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders in the world, with millions of crossings daily. Average wait times are up to 30 minutes, but some of the most heavily traveled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1-2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the US customs service website. The US-Mexico border is vulnerable to high levels of drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If anything about you appears suspicious, you and your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience or sympathy from border agents.
As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the US uses customary units, bear in mind that after the border, road signs are published in miles and miles per hour. Therefore, if you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico, be mindful that a speed limit of 55mph in the US is 88km/h.
Greyhound offers many inexpensive cross-border services from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus US also runs multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
Be warned that bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from US customs officials than car or train passengers.
Onward travel to:
Entering the U.S. by sea, other than on a registered cruise ship, may be difficult. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles and the surrounding area, Florida, and the Eastern coastal states.
Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.
Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades has two trips per day to Seattle and Portland), Toronto (Maple Leaf has a daily trip to New York City), and Montreal (Adirondack has a daily trip to New York City) into the US. Note that cross border rail service is more expensive and less quick than the buses, which are more frequent and serve a larger range of US destinations from both Canada and Mexico.
On international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are conducted at the border.
Those travelling from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at the Union Pacific Station before they get on the train itself. Be sure to allow enough time before departure to complete the necessary inspections.
Amtrak does NOT offer cross border trains to/from Mexico nor are there any other onward passenger trains going south from the U.S./Mexican border. Therefore the nearest train stations to the Mexican border are in San Diego (Pacific Surfliner) and El Paso (Sunset Limited & Texas Eagle). From either train station take local transportation (light rail in San Diego or bus or taxi in El Paso) to get to the actual border crossing.
There are many border crossings in urban areas which can be crossed by pedestrians. Crossings such as those in or near Niagara Falls, Detroit, Tijuana, Nogales, and El Paso are popular for persons wishing to spend a day on the other side of the border. In some cases, this may be ideal for day-trippers, as crossing by car can be a much longer wait.
The size of the US and the distance between some major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers over long distances. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
Be Aware: In general, outside of the downtown areas of big cities (especially New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco), public transport in the U.S. is not as commonly used, developed, nor reliable as in many European and Asian countries. Due to cheap fuel prices, endless available parking spaces, cheap auto insurance, very cheap car prices and large distances to travel, Americans prefer to drive their own car rather than opt for public transport.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the US is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and five hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the three or four days necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the US are served by one or two airports; many small towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car.
Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices to destinations outside of the big cities can be very expensive.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
- Mainline or legacy carriers – Due to numerous bankruptcies and acquisitions, there are only three major and two minor legacy carriers left: Delta Air Lines (Northwest Airlines has merged with Delta), United Airlines (Continental has merged with United), and American Airlines (US Airways has merged with American); plus Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. These carriers used to be “full-service”, although because of their chronic financial distress, they are increasingly taking after overseas carriers like Ryanair and transitioning into “no-frills” carriers. On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat (with very limited recline), 1 or 2 carry-on bags, and soft drinks. In-flight entertainment on mainline carriers’ older aircrafts is generally limited to drop-down LCD screens that show the same programs to all economy passengers. Newer domestic jetliners have LCD screens which provide more shows and movies you can watch and flight attendants can show the safety video on the screens. Smaller planes which serve regional flights does not have a in flight entertainment.. Some flights to/from Hawaii or Alaska still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight.
Mainline carriers also offer first class service which features a larger seat which can recline farther, free food and drinks, a fully interactive personal entertainment system, and generally better service. Round-trip fares can run over a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travelers. (Most travelers in first class get their seat as a complimentary frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available. Note that on certain premium transcontinental services between New York City and Los Angeles/San Francisco offered by American (“Flagship Service“) and United (“United p.s.“), first class and business class services are comparable to equivalent international offerings with gourmet meals and lie-flat seats. The same is true of some flights between the East Coast and Hawaii.
- Regional airlines come in three varieties.
- Regional subsidiaries operate under an umbrella brand such as “American Eagle”,”United Express” and Delta Connections. and run small regional jets or turboprops to locales where it is not economically or technically feasible to run a full-sized jet. These flights are booked through their parent’s reservation system (e.g., Delta Connection through Delta), either as a stand-alone flight or connecting to a mainline itinerary, and any miles earned are recorded in the parent’s frequent flier account system. Their operations are supposed to be seamlessly integrated (at least in theory) with their parent brands with respect to things like check-ins, boarding passes, and checked baggage. On-board service is very basic for all classes.
They flourished in the early 1990s when the financially distressed mainline airlines began specializing in running only very large jetliners on lucrative long-distance routes. Their regional allies, specializing in operating smaller planes, would run feeder routes into the parent’s hubs that would enable passengers from small towns to connect to the parent’s long-distance routes; conversely, the regional airlines would enable passengers coming off the parent’s long-distance routes to easily connect to outlying small towns rather than exiting at a hub airport and completing the rest of the journey by car, bus, or train. Regional airlines tend to have a mediocre safety record. They often hire desperate pilots who are eager to break into a career in commercial aviation but for whatever reason could not qualify for or did not want to earn their flight hours in the US military. Regional pilots thus tend to work for low pay and long hours in the hope of building sufficient flight experience to apply for and get a decent-paying job as the pilot of a full-size jetliner with the regional subsidiary’s parent legacy airline. As a result, there have been a number of crashes or near-misses blamed upon low-paid, overworked regional pilots. They are operated by SkyWest; Mesa Air Group; Republic; and Express Jet as United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle/Envoy, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, and/or US Airways Express. They operate one or several brands of the bigger ‘legacy’ parent(s) at the same time. Reservations and ticketing with the “regional (commuter) carriers” are handled through the “legacy” parent carriers instead of these airlines themselves.
- Independent regional airlines are not affiliated with a mainline carrier. They are usually found in more out of the way places, as well as near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, etc.). The ones operating on their own names and not affiliated with the bigger carriers (as named above) are: Cape Air, Great Lakes Aviation, SeaPort, Silver Airways and Vision.
- Commuter airlines primarily serve the business travel market, with 10-30 seat turboprop planes. If you can work with their schedules and choice of airports (usually private aviation airports and municipal airfields) – their consistent fares can be a bargain compared even to low cost carriers. Additionally, since fares are the same whether you buy a month in advance or the day of, tickets are also flexible with no cancellation or change fees.
- Low-cost carriers have grown rapidly in the U.S. since the early 1990s. The most famous of these is the ubiquitous Southwest Airlines, a favorite of leisure and business travelers alike; while Frontier, Spirit; Allegiant and others (including the big mainline carriers and hybrid carriers) have been growing into formidable competitors. Amenities vary greatly by carrier. On one end, Southwest is the only airline in the United States that lets passengers check two bags free of charge. They have done away with some of the formality of air travel; they do not take reservations from travel agents (all reservations are through their Web site or call center), and they have no assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers).
At the other end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats for as low as $9.00, but charges fees for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, buying a ticket online (if you want to avoid that fee, you have to buy at the counter), advance seat assignments, checking-in at the airport, printing out documents at the airport, on-board refreshments, etc. European visitors familiar with Ryanair will find Spirit’s fee-for-everything business model to be strikingly similar.
Southwest and Allegiant serve destinations nationwide, although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O’Hare International Airport, Houston Hobby instead of the Houston Bush Intercontinental or Dallas Love Field instead of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Sun Country focus on “vacation destinations” like Florida, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, etc.
- Hybrid carriers offer more amenities than low-cost airlines but with fares lower than the legacies. The most famous of these is JetBlue Airways which has an extensive network covering primarily major airports, one free checked bag, 34 inches between seats (very generous for an American airline) and free satellite TV (DirectTV) in every seat.
A relative newcomer is the trendy brainchild of Sir Richard Branson: Virgin America which offers a relatively low-priced First Class option, as well as mood lighting, relatively comfortable seats, and interactive in-flight entertainment in all classes in its aircraft.
The FAA has been cracking down on non-disclosed fees for a while, so the good news is that most of the prices that you immediately see when searching for flights already include all taxes and other mandatory fees applicable to all passengers. This is true whether you directly check the carrier’s website or an online travel agency like Orbitz. Unlike carriers in other foreign countries, most US carriers do not explicitly impose a fuel surcharge. However, carriers charge for extra services, especially mainline/legacy ones. Here is a run down of services that may incur additional fees, as well as strategies for avoiding them if they aren’t a service you need or want. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:
- Checking in with an agent: A few airlines are charging an additional fee ($3-10) for checking in with an actual human being, and Spirit Airlines also charges you for using the airport kiosk instead of checking in online. Unless you need to check in with an agent (eg, if you have specialized equipment that qualifies for a baggage fee waiver) you should check in online and print your boarding pass at home to save time and avoid additional charges. Some airlines will let you use your iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry as a boarding pass, either by showing an e-mail with a barcode to security and the gate agent, or through a specialized app, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
- Checked baggage: Though prices vary by airline, you’re generally looking at between $25 and $35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Bags that are oversized or overweight will easily double or triple these fees.
- You’re allowed to carry on one small suitcase or garment bag and one personal item (like a briefcase, backpack, or purse) free of charge. If you can get everything in your carry-ons, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Due to ongoing security restrictions, liquids, gels, shaving creams, and similar items must be under 3.4oz (100mL) and must be removed and presented to security inside a transparent resealable plastic bag for separate examination. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can never be placed in your carry-on, and will be confiscated on the spot if discovered.
- + Ultra low cost carrier Spirit Airlines charges $20-35 per bag for carry-ons, depending on whether you’re a member of their fare club and whether you pay online or at the airport, in many cases it’s actually cheaper to check these bags instead of carrying on. As of 2015, no other airline charges for carry-on baggage.
- Members of frequent flier rewards programs who have “elite” status may typically check 1 or more bags free of charge, or may receive other perks such as additional weight allowances. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
- Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount on some carriers.
- Discount carriers JetBlue and Southwest allow all passengers one and two checked bags free of charge, respectively.
- Due to these fees, another popular alternative is to ship luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service, although this does take some extra planning and preparation.
- You’re allowed to carry on one small suitcase or garment bag and one personal item (like a briefcase, backpack, or purse) free of charge. If you can get everything in your carry-ons, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Due to ongoing security restrictions, liquids, gels, shaving creams, and similar items must be under 3.4oz (100mL) and must be removed and presented to security inside a transparent resealable plastic bag for separate examination. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can never be placed in your carry-on, and will be confiscated on the spot if discovered.
- Curbside check in: $2-10 on top of any bag or check-in fees, plus a tip is usually expected.
- Extra legroom seats: the cost depends on the length of the trip but expect to pay anything from 5 to 15% of the standard economy class fare. This is bookable at the time you purchase your ticket. Those in higher tiers can get this at no extra cost.
- Food: Most airlines offer some small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, cookies) free of charge on all flights. On flights longer than 1.5–2 hours, a buy-on-board option may be offered where you can purchase prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and occasionally hot food at inflated prices. Many legacy airlines used to include in the base ticket price at least one hot meal service for all classes on domestic flights over four hours in length, but due to their financial distress, dramatically cut back on the quality of in-flight meals in the 1980s (which led to an epidemic of jokes in that era about “airline food”) and eventually stopped including it altogether by the mid-1990s. Since then, most domestic passengers who did not have the time to stop for a real meal before arriving at the airport usually eat at a post-security airport restaurant before boarding their plane. Flights from the East Coast to Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Pacific territories (which can be over eight hours in length) and intercontinental flights still feature traditional meal service.
- All airlines allow you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages on board. All except the smallest airports have an array of fast food and quick serve options in the terminal — but you can’t bring liquids through the security checkpoint (and some airports do not allow food either), so don’t purchase anything until after you’ve cleared security. While airside food outlets will inevitably be more expensive than what’s available before security or off-airport, it still costs much less and likely has a larger selection than what’s available on board. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, regulate airport food vendors and limit how much air-side restaurants can markup.
- Drinks: Beverage service is one thing the airline industry hasn’t done away with, and even the shortest regional jet flights still feature complimentary coffee, tea, water, juice and soda – an exception is ultra low fare carrier Spirit, who charges for anything other than water. If you’d like something stronger, you can pay $5–7 to pick among a decent selection of beer, two or three varieties of wine, and a couple of basic cocktails that can be mixed easily and quickly (e.g. gin and tonic).
- In-flight entertainment: Most US carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. Delta, JetBlue, Virgin America, and some of United’s fleet offer free satellite TV in every seat, as well as movies on demand for purchase for $3-8. American has overhead screens showing movies and sitcom episodes on most longer routes, while U.S. Airways and Southwest do not have in flight entertainment of any kind.
- In-flight WiFi: Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight WiFi on nearly all their domestic fleets – American, U.S. Airways and United offer it on select flights. Prices range from $5-20, depending on the airline, length of flight, and device (tablets and smartphones get a discount as they use less data) but the Internet connection is good for almost the entire flight (at least until told by crew to switch-off your devices). Daily and monthly passes are also available for less than $50/month. Most airlines do not offer power ports in economy, so be sure you’re charged up or have extra batteries for your device. Mobile phones are usually permitted to be operated in-flight as long as they have been set to flight mode (which effectively shuts-off the mobile phone signal from your provider) before being airborne.
- Pillows and blankets are disappearing rapidly. Some airlines don’t have them at all; some will charge you for them (but you get to keep after you pay); and one or two offer them for free (but you have to ask for them). Red-eye and long (>5 hour) flights are more likely to have free pillows and blankets. As always, check with your airline, and bring your own from home if you think you’ll need them.
- Lounge passes: Each mainline carrier operates a network of lounges, such as Alaska Airline’s “Board Rooms” and Delta’s “Sky Clubs” – offering a quieter space to relax or work in, business amenities such as free WiFi, fax services and conference rooms, as well as complimentary finger foods, soft drinks, beer and wine. Frequent flyers buy annual memberships to these lounges, but any passenger can buy a day pass during check in or at the club itself, usually around $50, although sometimes less if you buy online. Only you can decide if the fee is worthwhile, but if you’re in the upper elite tiers of an airline alliance (One World Sapphire or Emerald, Star Alliance Gold or SkyTeam Elite Plus) you may have access to these lounges for free with your frequent flyer card. For members in the highest tiers, this privilege may be extended to a travelling companion. Additionally international Business and First Class passengers can also access these lounges for free.
- First class upgrades: Delta, United, and US Airways sell upgrades on a first come-first served basis at check-in if first class has open seats. This is one to actually consider, especially if you’re checking bags – “day of” upgrades can sometimes be as low as $50 each way, less than the cost of two bag fees. You’d may be paying less to check your bags and additionally getting priority security screening, boarding and baggage handling, along with a larger seat and free refreshments on board.
Most mainline carriers feature “cashless cabins” meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or MasterCard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on-board, although flight attendants may not be able break large bills – hence the traditional request “exact change is appreciated.” If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents, lounge access and boarding.
Ironically, America’s discount airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America sometimes have more amenities than the legacy carriers, and for many people may be a much better experience. Jet Blue offers over 45 channels of satellite television, non-alcoholic beverages and real snacks for free on every flight; Virgin America also has satellite TV, in addition to on demand dining (even in economy). On Jet Blue your first checked bag is free ($35 for a second bag), and Southwest is the only U.S. carrier to still offer two checked bags per passenger free of charge. Virgin America charges for checked bags, but their fees are considerably lower than the legacies.
Security at US airports is known to be onerous, especially during busy holiday travel periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Ensure the amount of liquids you bring does not exceed the prescribed limit and is properly placed in the prescribed containers. Currently those limits are referred to as ‘311’ – 3 ounces or less liquid bottles placed in one single, transparent, resealable plastic bag that is 1 quart (1 litre) or less in size. Please note that you can take as many of the little “travel size” 3-ounce (100 ml) bottles that you can cram into that single bag. The little bottles of shampoo and conditioner provided in the rooms at most decent hotels are perfect for this. Many pharmacies, as well as Wal-Mart, Target, and most major grocery stores have a section for “trial or travel size” bottles of personal care liquids that fall under the three-ounce limit.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4,000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first class commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.
Air Charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not to concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
See also: Rail travel in the United States
Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly near and between the big cities of the Northeast), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL), provides service to many cities, offering exceptional sightseeing opportunities, but not particularly efficient inter-city travel, and is often just as expensive as a flight. In more urban locations, Amtrak can be very efficient and comfortable, but in rural areas delays are common. Plan ahead to ensure train travel between your destinations is available and/or convenient. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day U.S. Rail Pass for international travelers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of travelling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant “weekly specials”.
Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Amtrak offers many routes that traverse some of America’s most beautiful areas. Travelers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and the “bigness” is particularly evident in many of the scenic areas. For those with ample time, though, train travel offers an unparalleled view of the U.S., without the trouble and long-term discomfort of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying.
Trains running on the Washington D.C. to Boston Northeast Corridor (Acela Express and the Regional) and the Philadelphia to Harrisburg Keystone Corridor (Keystone Service and Pennsylvanian) generally run on time or very close to it. These two rail lines are electrified and owned by Amtrak or other commuter railways and are passenger only. Outside these two areas, Amtrak operates on freight lines and as a result must share track with freight trains hosted by host railroads. This means you have about as good a chance of a delay as not. While these delays are usually brief (trains make up time en route), have a contingency plan for being at least three hours late when travelling Amtrak. In fact, six hour or longer delays, especially on long-distance routes, are not uncommon, either.
If you miss an Amtrak connection because your first train is late, Amtrak will book you onto the next available train (or in rare cases a bus) to your final destination. If your destination is on the Northeast Corridor, this isn’t a big deal (departures are every hour) but in other parts of the country the next train may not be until tomorrow. If your reservations involved sleeper accommodations (Amtrak’s First Class on their long-distance overnight trains) on either your late-arriving train or your missed connection, you will get a hotel voucher for the unplanned overnight stay. For coach class passengers in the same situation, you will not get a hotel voucher; your unplanned lodging arrangements and cost will be your responsibility. However, after your travel is completed, Amtrak’s Customer Service will commonly offer travel vouchers of $100 or more off future Amtrak travel to inconvenienced passengers. This is true for all classes of service.
If you plan to board an Amtrak train at a location other than the train’s initial place of departure, it’s usually a good idea to call ahead before you leave for the station to see if the train is running on time.
A major Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans is the Acela Express line, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. It stops in New York City, New Haven, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. Acela Express is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower because many track sections have curves too tight to be safely traversed at more than 90mph). The Acela Express features comfortable first class intercity service, but can be quite expensive. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from the center of some of the major Northeastern cities to their respective airports, trains can sometimes be more convenient than air travel. There are also frequent but much slower regional trains covering the same stations along the Northeast Corridor for lower fares.
During usual American vacation times, some long-distance trains (outside the Northeast) can sell out weeks or even months in advance, so it pays to book early if you plan on using the long-distance trains. Booking early also results in generally lower fares for all trains since they tend to increase as trains become fuller. On the other hand, same-day reservations are usually easy, and depending on the rules of the fare you purchased, you can change travel plans on the day itself without fees.
One major scenic long-distance train route, the California Zephyr, runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip takes around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, things that you just cannot see if you fly. Many of the sights on this route are simply inaccessible to cars. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.
Amtrak’s single most popular long-distance train is the Chicago-Seattle/Portland “Empire Builder” train via Milwaukee, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Fargo, Minot, Glacier National Park, Whitefish, and Spokane. In the 2007 fiscal year, this train alone carried over 503,000 passengers.
Passengers travelling long distances on Amtrak may reserve a seat in coach (Economy class) or pay extra for an upgrade to a private sleeping compartment (there are no shared rooms), which also includes all meals in the dining car. Amtrak trains in the West feature a lounge car with floor to ceiling windows, which are perfect for sightseeing.
Bradt’s USA by Rail book (ISBN 9781841623894) is a guide to all Amtrak routes, with maps, station details and other practical advice.
Separate from Amtrak, many major cities offer very reliable commuter trains that carry passengers to and from the suburbs or other relatively close-by areas. Since most Americans use a car for suburban travel, some commuter train stations have park and ride facilities where you can park your car for the day to use the commuter train to get to a city’s downtown core where it may be more difficult to use a car due to traffic and parking concerns. Parking rates at the commuter train stations vary due (some facilities may be operated by third parties). Some commuter train systems and services though do not operate on weekends and holidays so it’s best to check the system’s website to plan ahead. Please don’t forget to buy tickets before you board the train as some systems will have a substantial mark-up on the tickets sold on-board while others won’t sell tickets on-board and will subject you to a hefty fine instead.
Some cities also have subway and light rail systems for local travel within a city.
America has the largest system of inland waterways of any country in the world. It is entirely possible to navigate around within the United States by boat. Your choices of watercraft range from self-propelled canoes and kayaks to elaborate houseboats and riverboat cruises.
Rivers and canals were key to developing the country, and traversing by boat gives you a unique perspective on the nation and some one of a kind scenery. Some examples of waterways open to recreational boating and/or scheduled cruises are:
- The Erie Canal System of New York State operates four canal systems consisting of 524 miles of waterway open for recreational and commercial use. The most famous of these canals is the Erie Canal, which starts around Albany and heads west to Buffalo. By navigating up the Hudson River from New York City, it’s possible to go all the way to the Great Lakes and beyond via these waterways. Side trips to the Finger Lakes in Western New York or to Lake Champlain and Vermont are possible. Small watercraft, including canoes and kayaks, are welcome on these canals.
- International Charter Group . Yacht charter and sailing, one of the worlds largest acht charter companies, can take care of all charter requirements, from bareboat to crewed in Hawaii. Operating from nine offices worldwide (USA, Spain, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Caribbean, Honk Kong and Dubai).
- The St. Lawrence Seaway is now the primary port of entry for large ships into North America. Recreational boaters are welcome, however, the Seaway is designed for very large craft and a minimum boat length of 6m applies. The Seaway starts in eastern Canada and goes to the Great Lakes.
- The Mississippi River There are two channels of navigation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. The Mississippi affords north-south access through the interior of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico and connects with all major interior waterways, including the Missouri River.
Each year, many first time and beginning boaters successfully navigate these waterways. Do remember that any kind of boating requires some preparation and planning. In general, the Coast Guard, Canal and Seaway authorities go out of their way to help recreational boaters. They will also at times give instructions which you are expected to immediately obey. For example, small craft may be asked to give way to larger craft on canals, and weather conditions may require you to stop or change your route.
Several coastal cities, including San Francisco, Seattle and New York City, operate ferry services between local destinations. Some islands, such as Catalina Island or Nantucket are only accessible by ferry.
America’s love affair with the automobile is legendary and most Americans use a car when moving within their city, and when travelling to nearby cities in their state or region. However, many Americans can and do travel between the vast regions of their country by auto – often going through different time zones, landscapes, and climates. In the winter months (Dec though March) millions of American nomads travel south to the warm desert and subtropical climates in everything from cars to motor homes (called “RV’s”).
Generally speaking, the older American cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Philadelphia are best to see using public transport or even on foot (at least within their downtown cores). However, the newer sunbelt cities (normally in the West and South) are built for the automobile, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. This applies even to very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, where public transport is very limited and having a car is the most practical way of getting around. In the smaller American cities, everything is very spread out and public transport thin. Taxis are often available, but if you’re not at the airport, you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, making similar arrangements to return. Taxis are typically an expensive option to use. While most Americans are happy to give driving directions, don’t be surprised if many aren’t familiar with the local public transport options available.
Gas stations usually sell regional and national maps. Online maps with directions are available on several websites including MapQuest and Google Maps. Drivers can obtain directions by calling 1-800-Free411, which will provide them via text message. GPS navigation systems can be purchased for around $100, and car rental agencies often rent GPS units for a small additional fee. Many smartphones are now bundled with GPS navigation software that offers turn-by-turn directions. Your mobile phone provider may charge you for data use, since mobile phone GPS navigation is best used with an Internet connection. Several GPS navigation apps can now support “offline maps” features where you can download maps in advance, but without Internet access, the navigation app will not have access to real-time traffic data and may direct you to drive right into the middle of a severe traffic jam. Even states that ban the use of hand-held phones by drivers often allow the use of GPS features, as long as the driver enters no data when in motion (check local laws in the places you will be travelling).
Unlike most of the rest of the world, the United States continues to use a system of measurement based on the old British imperial system for the most part, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, but fuel is sold in gallons smaller than those used in the UK. If driving a car from Canada or Mexico, make sure you know the conversions from metric to imperial units. In the case of Canadian cars, you should check your owner’s manual to see if your speedometer and odometer can be switched from metric to imperial (and back), and if so, how to do so, and make the switch at the border stop. Most cars sold in the US and Canada today can be readily switched between the two sets of units. The vast majority of cars in the United States (and Canada, for that matter) are equipped with automatic transmission – manual (stick shift) cars are very much the exception to the rule and are generally only found on sports cars, so bear that in mind if you do rent a car.
Great American Road Trip
A romantic appeal is attached to the idea of long-distance car travel; many Americans will tell you that you can’t see the “real” America except by car. Given the dearth of public transportation in most American cities, the loss of time travelling between cities by car rather than flying can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country’s major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are in rugged landscapes and environments, and are almost impossible to get to without an automobile. If you have the time, a classic American road trip with a rented car (see below) is very easy to achieve and quite an adventure. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many hours, days, or even a week behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use. Some roads go though hazardous environments (hot deserts, dense forests and jungles, harsh steppes and savannas, marshy/wet areas, geothermal areas, rugged mountains,) and through areas with dangerous wildlife (Bobcats, Pumas, Jaguars, constrictors, Pronghorn, poisonous snakes, alligators, Coyotes, bears…etc) and weather (the U.S. can be struck by any manner of disasters, from tornadoes, dust storms, and hurricanes, to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis,) so be aware of the environment through which you are travelling.
See also: Interstate Highway System
The United States is covered with the largest and most modern highway system in the world. Interstates are always freeways—that is, controlled access divided highways with no at-grade crossings, the equivalent of what Europeans call a “motorway”. These roads connect all of the major population centers, and they make it easy to cover long distances—or get to the other side of a large city—quickly. These highways cross the entire US mainland from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through several time zones, landscapes, and climates.
Most of these highways have modern and safe state run “Rest Areas” or “Service Plaza” areas. These rest stops normally offer restrooms, vending machines, and phone service. Service Plazas (more likely found on toll roads) may offer fuel, restaurant(s), and simple vehicle repair. Many of these rest stops also offer tourist information and picnic areas. Additional commercial traveler services tend to congregate on the local roads just off popular interstate highway exits. Sometimes you’ll find a truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travelers. Signs on the highway will indicate the services available at upcoming exits, including gas, food, lodging, and camping, so you can choose a stopping point as you’re driving.
Note that in some eastern states, Interstates are called expressways or just highways. Western states as well as US federal law defines expressways as limited access divided highways with reduced at-grade crossings (meaning that you can and will see occasional cross-traffic on western expressways), while freeways are defined as divided highways with full access control and no at-grade crossings. Many eastern states do not follow the same distinction.
Primary Interstates have one- or two-digit numbers, with odd ones running north-south (e.g. I-5) and even ones running east-west (e.g. I-80). Three-digit interstate numbers designate shorter, secondary routes. An odd first digit signifies a “spur” into or away from a city; an even first digit signifies a “loop” around a large city. The second two digits remain the same as the primary Interstate that travels nearby (e.g., I-495 is a loop that connects to I-95).
The vast majority of interstates do not charge tolls. However, the Departments of Transportation of Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania operate long-distance, limited-access toll roads called Turnpikes. Tolls are also frequently levied for crossing notably large bridges or tunnels, and some states are even turning to requiring tolls on Federal Interstate highways to defray their maintenance costs (West Virginia is most notable for this). While the majority of entrances and exits for the Turnpike systems of these states collect tolls in cash, states are increasingly turning to electronic tolling by outfitting vehicles with small RFID transponders, or, more recently, photographic recording and recognition of the vehicle’s license plate. If you plan on driving in a state that offers toll roads, it is worthwhile to ask your rental car agency about the electronic tolling options available to you, as paying tolls in cash is becoming incrementally more difficult as electronic options and open-road tolling (paying tolls electronically without having to stop), on Florida’s Turnpike in particular, are rapidly becoming more widely accepted. Nearly all rental car agencies that operate in Florida offer some form of prepaid tolling plan. Credit cards and travelers’ checks are usually not accepted by state-operated toll plazas, but there are some exceptions (for example, the Ohio Turnpike accepts most major credit cards).
Speed limits on Interstate Highways can vary from state to state, and also according to geography (for example, slower on mountain passes and within cities than on long straight rural sections). Posted speed limits can range from as low as 45 miles per hour (70km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85mph (135km/h) in certain rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they’ll be between 65 and 70mph (105–113km/h) on the east coast and 65 to 75mph (105-120km/h) out west. The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly and frequently posted on Interstates.
American drivers often drive a bit over the posted speed limit, especially on Interstates (5 to 10mph (8–15km/h)). Driving more than 10mph over the posted speed limit greatly increases the chance of receiving a speeding ticket; 15mph or more over the limit when observed by law enforcement will usually earn you a ticket or, depending on the state, result in a license suspension. Driving too slow can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than all other cars. Highway Patrol officers are usually most concerned with the fastest drivers, so ensuring you are slower than the fastest speeders is one way to avoid their attention. If you are pulled over, be respectful, address the officer as “Officer,” and express heartfelt regret at your excessive speed. You may or may not get a ticket, but remain in your car while the officer process your information. The officer will approach the car and you should roll down your window to speak. The officer will ask to see your drivers license and car registration. Such traffic stops are often routine and low key.
Many Interstate Highways, particularly around and through very large cities, will segregate the far left-hand lane or lanes and reserve them for high-occupancy use. These lanes are clearly signed, marked with white diamonds down the center of the lane, have double-white lines on the right, and are limited to vehicles with two or more occupants. High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, called HOV lanes or carpool lanes, are designed to ease congestion on Interstate freeways around large population centers during the very start and very end of the business day, also known colloquially as Rush Hour. At least 22 U.S. cities have HOV lanes, of which about half enforce them only during rush hour and half enforce them 24 hours. If you do not see specific hours posted for HOV lanes, assume the HOV lane restrictions are in effect at all times.
Off the Interstates
A secondary system of federal highways is the US Highway system. On road signs, US highways are identified by a black on white shield symbol with the route number in the center. Unlike the Interstates, which are always built to freeway standard, US Highways vary greatly in size and quality. Some US Highways going through or near major population areas have been upgraded to the same standard as Interstates, and as such may be divided with multiple lanes in each direction on some sections with grade separation, but they are often not dual carriageways, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. In some states they may be three-lane roads with a center “turning lane” which can only be entered if turning left across the opposing traffic. US Highways, which generally pre-date the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers as local streets (with a local name or number) at slower speeds. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to US Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the cities and towns. If you don’t mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians, US Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights.
State Highways, are as the name suggests, local roads which connect towns and cities within an individual state. On road signs state highways are identified by a symbol whose appearance is peculiar to the state (for example a white “keystone” denotes Pennsylvania, an upturned green shield denotes California, a yellow square is Wyoming and so on) with the route number in the middle. On maps and GPS navigation systems state highways are given the notation XX-YYY where XX is the alphabetic state code and YYY is the route number. These routes are usually single carriageway roads, but are wider near major cities and towns.
Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and US Highways (despite the names), but each one also maintains its own system of State Highways (or State Routes) that form the bulk of the inter-community road network. State Highways are usually undivided but may occasionally be freeways; you can generally count on them being well maintained (and plowed in the winter) and that following one will get you to some form of civilization sooner rather than later.
In most states west of the Mississippi River, the term “freeway” means a divided highway with full access control with maximum speed limits up to 75-80mph (120-128km/h) in Utah and western Texas, while the term “expressway” means a divided highway with partial access control. Expressways in western states can and do have occasional at-grade intersections with cross-traffic (that is, travelling perpendicular to mainline traffic approaching at speeds with speed limits set between 40-65mph (64-104km/h)). Only freeways in those states are guaranteed to have no cross-traffic at grade. In most states east of the Mississippi River, the term expressway always means full access control and the term freeway is either a synonym or is not used.
As with the rest of North America, Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left. The sole exception is the U.S. Virgin Islands, which continues to drive on the left-hand side, with mostly left-hand vehicles. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic.
Right turn on red after coming to a complete stop is legal (unless a sign prohibits it) in the majority of US states and cities. The most notable exception is New York City, where right turn on red is illegal unless a sign expressly allows it.
Red lights and stop signs are always strictly enforced at all hours in virtually all US jurisdictions, along with traffic lights and lane lines. There is zero tolerance for many traffic manoeuvres often seen elsewhere in many countries around the world. Jumping the green, running a red, driving the wrong way on one-way streets, straddling lanes (especially in a car or truck), or swerving across the double yellow line into opposing traffic on major urban roadways to pass slower (but still moving) traffic will all result in an expensive ticket.
Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in the sprawling residential suburban neighborhoods where the majority of Americans live. However, freeways around the central areas of big cities often become crowded with a significant proportion of “hurried” drivers — who will exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars at unsafe close distances (known as “tailgating”). Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Not exceeding the pace of other drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the reduced speed limits often posted for traffic going through such towns are strictly enforced.
Another issue in many locations is drivers who linger in left lanes of multi-lane divided highways — that is, who refuse to move to the right for traffic attempting to pass. While this is seen as extremely discourteous and often dangerous, it is not illegal in most US jurisdictions unless the driver is travelling well below the speed limit. (This differs, for example, from Germany, where failing to move right to make way for passing drivers and passing on the right are very serious violations and strictly enforced.) One state that has attempted to address this issue is Georgia, which passed a law in March 2014 making it a violation to fail to move to the right for a passing vehicle, even if the driver being passed is exceeding the posted speed limit.
Driving law is primarily a matter of state law and is enforced by state and local police. Fortunately, widespread adoption of provisions of the Uniform Vehicle Code, and federal regulation of traffic signs under the Highway Safety Act, means that most driving laws do not vary much from one state to the next. All states publish an official driver’s handbook which summarizes state driving laws in plain English. These handbooks are usually available both on the Web and at many government offices.
AAA publishes a AAA/CAA Digest of Motor Laws, which is now available online for free. The Digest contains comprehensive summaries in plain English of all major driving laws that typically vary between states. The Digest’s coverage includes all US states and all Canadian provinces.
International visitors aged 18 and older can usually drive on their foreign driver’s license for up to a year, depending on state law. Licenses that are not in English must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation. Persons who will be in the United States for more than a year must obtain a driver’s license from the state they are residing in. Written and practical driving tests are required, but they are usually waived for holders of valid Canadian, Mexican, and some European licenses.
Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English words. Drivers who can read English will find most signs self-explanatory. (Progress toward adopting signs with internationally understood symbols is extremely slow; don’t count on seeing any.) Distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles per hour (mph), without these units specified. Some areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders may feature road signs with distances in both miles and kilometers.
Police patrol cars can be marked units or unmarked units. The make model color and livery depends on state,county,city and town. Most police cars in the US are black and white however it can vary between each area. All police vehicles are equipped with red and or blue lighting and a siren. Many police vehicles in the United States are American brand (Ford, Chevrolet, etc). If you see the lights or hear the siren, pull to the right-hand shoulder of the road to let them by. If the patrol car is directly behind you, it’s your car the officer is targeting; in that case, pull over as soon as it is practical for you to do so safely, even if this means driving some extra distance. It is extremely important that you pull off the road as soon as you are able. Use your turn signals or your hazard lights to show the officer you are complying. The officer will request to see your drivers license, the registration for the vehicle, and your proof of insurance coverage, and/or rental car documentation. Many traffic stops are recorded by a video camera in the officer’s patrol car, as well as a lapel microphone on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.
There’s a chance of coming across a police interior border checkpoint when driving on the highway. The permanent ones are in the states bordering Mexico. But there’s a random chance of encountering temporary ones in any state. The purpose is to help prevent illegal immigration. As with crossing into the U.S. from neighboring countries, police will require you to show proof of identification and will check your vehicle for any possible illegal immigrant(s) or other illegals federal or state wise.
Generally, you must be 25 or older to rent a car without restrictions or special charges. Rental car agencies in some states may be able to rent a vehicle to drivers as young as 21, but may impose a hefty surcharge. The states of New York and Michigan have laws forcing rental car agencies to rent to drivers as young as 18.
Virtually every car from every rental agency in the U.S. runs on unleaded gasoline and has an automatic transmission. Renting a car usually costs anywhere from $20 and $100 per day for a basic sedan, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals.
Major car rental agencies found in nearly all cities are Alamo +1 877 222-9075; Atlanticchoice +1 800 756 3930; Avis +1 800 230 4898; Budget (+1 800 527 0700); Dollar  (+1 800 800 4000); Enterprise Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz  (+1 800 230 4898); National  (+1 877 222 9058); and Thrifty  (+1 800 847 4389).
European car rental giant Sixt +1 888 749-8227 has been expanding into the US in recent years, and is found in a handful of states, but is absent from important states like Hawaii and Illinois. For several years, European car rental company Europcar was allied with National, but in 2013 switched its US alliance partner to Advantage Rent A Car.
There are no large national discount car rental agencies, but in each city there is usually at least one. Some discount car rental companies which operate only in particular regions are Advantage Rent A Car  (now owned by Hertz and expanding across the country), E-Z Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 277 5171) and Fox Rent A Car . The Internet or the Yellow Pages are the easiest ways to find them. Another well-known discount chain is Rent-A-Wreck  (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices.
Most rental car agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another (the ones that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
One factor that will strongly influence the price of your car rental will be location. Sometimes renting a car at an airport or near-airport location will cost three or four times as much as renting the same car from the same company at a location far from the airport (but your cost calculations must incorporate the additional time and money it will take to reach the distant off-airport location). In other areas, the airport location may be cheaper. Online travel websites such as Orbitz or Expedia can be useful for comparing prices and making reservations.
Rental agencies accept a valid driver’s license from your country, which must be presented with an International Drivers Permit if your license needs to be translated. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest club in the United States is the American Automobile Association  (+1-800-391-4AAA), known as “Triple A”. A yearly membership runs about $60. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don’t drive. Note that some non-U.S. automobile clubs have affiliate relationships with AAA, allowing members of the non-U.S. club to take full advantage of AAA road service and discount programs. Among these clubs are the Canadian Automobile Association, The Automobile Association in the UK, and ADAC in Germany.
Alternatively, Better World Club  (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA, but with often more timely service. It is a more eco-friendly choice as 1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs. .
The prices shown on rental car Web sites vary dramatically based upon whether the renter is a US resident or not. There are several reasons for this.
On the one hand, US residents are charged less because the rental car companies know that most Americans are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or the insurance policy on their primary personal vehicle at home, and most American personal auto policies extend coverage to rental cars. Without appropriate loss damage waiver cover, you could be personally liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident, and without appropriate liability insurance, you could face serious criminal or civil liability if you are later held to be at fault by a court of law for an accident which caused serious personal injury or death. Purchasing loss damage waiver cover, and both required and supplemental liability insurance may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental, in some cases doubling the price of the rental.
On the other hand, the rental car industry is well aware that many visitors are from countries which aren’t as wealthy as the US, and that some countries also have strict driver licensing and testing schemes that sharply reduce the likelihood of licensed drivers getting into accidents abroad. Thus, they try to optimize pricing separately for such visitors. If you identify your country of origin or book through Web sites customized to your own local market, you may be given a quote which includes loss damage waiver and both required and supplemental liability insurance for considerably less. Many travel insurance policies include cover for some rental car damage – check your policy against the rental terms and conditions.
Gasoline (“gas”) is sold by the gallon. Most gas stations are self service which means you pump your own gas. New Jersey,Oregon counties with more than 40,000 residents the town of Weymouth MA and Huntington NY also prohibit self service. The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The US octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of U.S. gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe. In most states, gas stations offer a choice of three levels of octane: 87 (regular), 89 (midgrade or plus), and 91 (premium). Unless you are renting a luxury vehicle, your vehicle will likely require only 87 regular.
One octane-related detail to watch for—at higher elevations in the mountain west, regular unleaded is often rated at 85 or 86 octane. This practice began when car engines had carburetors, and lower octane helped those cars run smoothly at altitude. Using 85 or 86 octane in a modern, fuel-injected vehicle rated for 87 octane or higher for prolonged periods may cause engine damage.
Visitors from countries where self-service is illegal may feel intimidated by the idea of pumping their own gas, but should not be. US self-service gas pumps have clear directions printed on them and are easy to use. The pump will automatically stop when it senses gas backing up into the nozzle (thus indicating the tank is full). When you finish, replace the nozzle in its slot on the pump, reinsert and turn the gas cap until it begins to make clicking noises, and then close the gas cap access door.
Nevertheless, most self-service gas stations will have staff on-hand to pump gas for you if you need assistance. Simply honk your horn quickly a couple of times, or ask for assistance inside the office or adjoining convenience store.
Diesel is not as common, due to heavier federal taxes on it. But it is still widely used and available at most stations, especially those catering to truckers. Untaxed “offroad diesel”, sold in rural areas for agricultural use, is dyed red and should not be used in cars, as there are heavy fines if you’re caught.
Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide and some increases in gas taxes, the American consumer-voter’s attachment to his automobile, combined with abundant domestic oil reserves and relatively low taxes on gasoline, has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season. As of December 2014, current prices are averaging near $2.27/gallon (equivalent to $0.59/L) for regular and $3.16/gallon for diesel ($0.83/L). Fuel prices in the United States tend to change every season.
Gas prices vary dramatically from state, territory, and federal district based on a number of variables, primarily state sales tax rates (which are invariably included in the advertised price) and anti-pollution requirements. The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, Illinois, and New York. The lowest prices are generally found in the south US. Prices can also vary by city, town, village, and rural area.
The only truly nationwide gas station chains are Shell and Mobil. Other large chains have achieved almost nationwide coverage but are notably absent from at least one region, like Chevron, Texaco, Exxon, Valero, and Conoco.
Many gas stations have adjoining “mini-marts” or convenience stores where snacks, soda, coffee, and cigarettes are sold, and may or may not offer public bathroom access. In some states, you can also purchase beer. Larger chain stations may also be attached to an “express” version of a fast food chain (McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, etc).
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread and, while not available everywhere, there are at least three daily routes in every state. Service between nearby major cities is extremely frequent (e.g. as of July 2012 there are 82 daily buses, by seven operators, on an off-peak weekday each way between Boston and New York, an average of nearly one every 10 minutes during daytime hours). Many patrons use bus travel when other modes aren’t readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. The disadvantaged and elderly may use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or not affordable for some. It’s commonly considered a “lower class” way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe, affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (First Group) +1 800-229-9424 and several subsidiaries and affiliated partners (Neon (Toronto & New York); Cruceros USA (US states of Arizona & California and Mexican states of Baja Califronia Norte & Sonora); Valley Transit (Rio Grande valley in southern Texas); Autobuses Americanos (US states of Colorado, New Mexico & Texas and the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas), and Greyhound Canada) have the predominant share of American bus travel. Steep discounts are available to travelers who purchase their tickets 7-14 days in advance of their travel date. Their North American Discovery Pass allows unlimited travel for ranges of 4 to 60 days, but you might want to try riding one or two buses first before locking yourself in to an exclusively-bus American journey. Greyhound buses typically runs in 5-7 hour segments, at which time all passengers must get off the bus so it can be serviced, even if it’s the middle of the night. Continuing passengers are boarded before those just getting on. There are no reservations on Greyhound buses. All seating is on a first come, first served basis, with the exception of select cities, where you can pay a $5 fee for priority seating. Greyhound buses are being refurbished with more comfortable seating, wireless Internet, and other improvements.
Stagecoach Group owns & operates Coach USA and Megabus. They offer inexpensive daily bus service departing from curbside bus stops in various parts of the country: the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida and as far west as California and Nebraska (and to Canada) from several hub cities.
Trailways is another provider of intercity bus service. They are not a single company, but a group of individual companies franchised to form a network. Trailways used to have many more routes until most of them were bought by Greyhound in 1987. Today it is still possible to travel to many places by Trailways, but some companies are isolated from the system and you must connect through Greyhound while other Trailways companies operate mainly as a chartered bus and do not offer scheduled services. They do serve many places that Greyhound doesn’t and ally with Greyhound against other competitors.
So called Chinatown buses also provide curb-side departures for a standard walk-up cash fare often much lower than other operators’ fares. These lines operate through the East Coast down with some further out destinations in the Midwest, the South, and along as along the West Coast. GoToBus.com is the largest online booking agent for these smaller “Chinatown” bus companies. Please note that most Internet-based and Chinatown buses only go to large cities, skipping the smaller towns that many bus travelers ride to. A number of these smaller “Chinatown” companies had also been shut down by the government due to safety violations.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Connections within Texas or from Texas to the Midwest (all the way to Chicago), the Southeast, and/or Mexico are offered by:
Service in and out of Florida to the southeast and with some continuing up along the eastern seaboard to New York & Pennsylvania (I-95 corridor). They are offered by:
In Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and/or western Texas and the northwestern Mexican states of Baja California Norte, Chihuahua, Durando and Sonora include:
Onward travel further south of the border can also be booked with Grupo Estrella Blanca through Greyhound as well.
There are numerous other independent operators, many of which are also affiliated with Greyhound or Amtrak through partnership agreements while others are unaffiliated. The below are some of the other independent carriers:
- Catch-a-Ride Connects Boston directly with NYC outer boros (Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx)
- BoltBus competes with Megabus & Chinatown buses on major routes in the Northeast (Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia-NY-Boston); California (Los Angeles – SF Bay Area and Los Angeles-Las Vegas); and the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-Eugene, OR).
- Concord Coach Lines (Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire)
- Dartmouth Coaches (Hanover, NH; New York & Boston)
- Tripper Bus Daily routes between New York City and the Washington D.C.area suburbs (Arlington, VA & Bethesda, MD stops)
- 7Bus New York & upper Long Island (formerly a Bolt Bus route)
- Indian Trails (Travels from Michigan to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana)
- Jefferson Lines Midwestern states of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas & Wisconsin.
- Michigan Flyer & Indian Trails Primarily in Michigan.
- Peter Pan & Bonanza Northeastern states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, & Rhode Island.
- Vamoose New York, Maryland, Virginia
- Eastern New York, Maryland, Virginia
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates and certifies all interstate bus operators. FMCSA is notorious for being overworked and underfunded, which means they have a hard time properly regulating the numerous bus operators around the country. The newer curbside bus operators (as in the Chinatown and Internet-based buses) are more dangerous than traditional terminal-based operators like Greyhound, though buses in general are still far safer than driving a private vehicle.
Otherwise see the entries for individual U.S. states and/or cities for additional independent companies and transit agencies (operated by local government (local council))
- Rural (and even urban) casinos may also offer scheduled shuttle buses between their casinos and nearby cities and towns as a way to draw more customers. Even if you don’t gamble you can still take their shuttle bus from ‘City A’ to the casino where you transfer to another bus to ‘City B’ for free or for a fare. Check their respective sites.
- There are also long distance bus and shuttle services from the airports to various places outside the principal city that airport serves. Same thing from between university towns and the nearest major cities where the majority of the students are from. The university shuttles operate on limited schedules revolving around the university schedules when students go home to their parents on Friday afternoons for the weekend, during the Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year Break and Spring Break and return to the college town on Sunday afternoons/evenings or at the end of the break period.
- In most locations from small towns up to large cites, there are bus systems run by the local government that provide service either along a fixed route, as a deviation from the route or door-to-door. Bus companies are either publicly funded as local public transportation or independently owned & operated companies serving rural and urban areas locally and/or across long distances between cities & towns. In some rural areas these can be the only thing available to get there and around with limited or no Greyhound or Amtrak services. See the article(s) on a specific city, town or state as to what’s there.
- In Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico there are NO Greyhound, Megabus/Coach USA, Chinatown, Boltbus, Trailways and Amtrak services as there are in the Lower 48 or the Mainland. See the respective articles as to what’s available there.
By recreational vehicle (RV)
Main article: Car Camping
Recreational vehicles – large, sometimes bus sized vehicles that include sleeping and living quarters – are a distinctly American way to cruise the country. Some RVers love the convenience of being able to drive their home anywhere they like and enjoy the camaraderie that RV campgrounds offer. Other people dislike the hassles and maintenance issues that come with RVing. And don’t even think about driving an RV into a huge metropolis such as New York. Still, if you want to drive extensively within the United States and are comfortable handling a big rig, renting an RV is an option you should consider.
The thrill and exhilaration of cross country travel are magnified when you go by motorcycle. Harley-Davidson is the preeminent American motorcycle brand and Harley operates a motorcycle rental program for those licensed and capable of handling a full weight motorcycle. In some parts of the country, you can also rent other types of motorcycles, such as sportbikes, touring bikes, and dual-sport bikes. For those inexperienced with motorcycles, Harley and other dealerships offer classes for beginners. Wearing a helmet, although not required in all states, is always a good idea. The practice of riding between lanes of slower cars, also known as “lane-sharing” or “lane-splitting,” is illegal, except in California where it is tolerated and widespread. Solo motorcyclists can legally use “high-occupancy vehicle” or “carpool” lanes during their hours of operation.
American enthusiasm towards motorcycles has led to a motorcycling subculture. Motorcycle clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorcycle within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding clubs may or may not be organized around a specific brand of bikes and offer open membership to anyone interested in riding. Motorcycle rallies, such as the famous one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are huge gatherings of motorcyclists from around the country. Many motorcyclists are not affiliated with any club and opt to ride independently or with friends. In general, motorcycling is seen as a hobby, as opposed to a practical means of transportation; this means, for example, that most American motorcyclists prefer not to ride in inclement weather. However you choose to ride, and whatever brand of bike you prefer, motorcycling can be a thrilling way to see the country.
A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. are most covered by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) and if not on an Interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.
In many states Interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads and Texas only bans it on toll roads — and on free Interstates within the city of El Paso. Oregon only bans it in the Portland metro area. Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.
Hitchhiking has become much less popular due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media). International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable “thumbing a ride” if they had a good knowledge of the locale.
Craigslist  has a rideshare section that sometimes proves useful for arranging rides in advance. If you are open with your destination it’s almost always possible to find a ride on C.L. going somewhere within the U.S.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialing 511 on your phone.
“Two countries divided by a common language”
Users of British and Commonwealth English will find quite a few terms which differ in US English:
Please see our English language varieties article for more words that differ.
Most Americans speak English. In many areas, (parts of the South, New England, inner cities, and in the upper Midwest), you’ll find some distinctive regional accents and dialects. Nowhere should this pose any problem to a visitor, as Americans often admire foreign accents and most will approximate the standard accent to help you understand them, or try to speak your language if they can. Only 18.5% of American students study a foreign language in primary or secondary school.
Thus, visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. The US does not have an official language at the federal (national) level (most states have English as their official language). A growing number of popular tourist sites have signs in other languages, but only English is certain to be available at any given location. There is a wide variety of accents across the U.S., where certain words are spoken or pronounced differently.
Due primarily to immigration from Latin America, the United States has the third-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Spanish is a second language in some of the United States, especially California, Florida, Texas, and New York. Many of these areas have Spanish-language radio and television stations, with local, national and Mexican programs.
Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico and about 13% of residents on the mainland, most of whom live in the West or South. Spanish speakers in the United States are primarily Puerto Ricans, or first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America. As a result, the Spanish spoken is almost invariably a Latin American or Puerto Rican dialect. In some areas, a good handle on Spanish can make communication easier. Because many immigrants take service-industry jobs for substandard pay, employees at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other such establishments in the West and South are more likely to understand, speak, and translate Spanish. About 13% of primary and secondary students in the United States study Spanish, and may be able to understand basic phrases.
French is the primary second language in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and among West African immigrants, but is not widespread elsewhere. In southern Florida, Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a separate language derived from French, as their second language, although a substantial number also speak French.
Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), some products now have trilingual packaging in English, Spanish, and French for sale throughout the entire trade bloc, especially household cleaning products and small electric appliances. In areas with large numbers of Spanish speakers, the major discount stores like Walmart and Target have internal directional signage in their stores in both Spanish and English. However, the vast majority of consumer products are labeled only in English, and most upscale department stores and boutiques have signage only in English, meaning that a rudimentary grasp of English is essential for shopping.
Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii but is rarely spoken. Japanese is widely spoken. In the various Chinatowns in major cities, Cantonese and Mandarin are common. Smaller immigrant groups also sometimes form their own pockets of shared language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Chicago, for instance, is the city with the second largest ethnic Polish population in the world, behind Warsaw. The Amish, who have lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio for generations, speak a dialect of German.
Some Native Americans speak their respective native languages, especially on reservations in the West. However, despite efforts to revive them, many Native American languages are endangered, and people who speak them as their first language are few and far between. Navajo speakers in Arizona and New Mexico are an exception to this, but even a clear majority among them speak and understand English too.
Bottom line: unless you’re certain you’ll be traveling in an area populated with recent immigrants, don’t expect to get by in the United States without some English.
American Sign Language, or ASL is the dominant sign language in the United States. When events are interpreted, they will be interpreted in ASL. Users of French Sign Language and other related languages may find ASL intelligible, as they share much vocabulary, but users of British Sign Language or Auslan will not. Closed-captioning on television is widespread, but far from ubiquitous. Many theaters offer FM loops or other assistive listening devices, but captioning and interpreters are rarer.
For the blind, many signs and displays include Braille transcriptions of the printed English. Larger restaurant chains, museums, and parks may offer Braille menus and guidebooks, but you’ll likely have to ask for them.
The United States is extraordinarily diverse in its array of attractions. You will never run out of things to see; even if you think you’ve exhausted what one place has to offer, the next destination is only a road trip away.
The Great American Road Trip (see above) is the most traditional way to see a variety of sights; just hop in the car and cruise down the Interstates, stopping at the convenient roadside hotels and restaurants as necessary, and stopping at every interesting tourist trap along the way, until you reach your destination.
Heartbreakingly beautiful scenery, history that reads like a screenplay, entertainment options that can last you for days, and some of the world’s greatest architecture—no matter what your pleasure, you can find it almost anywhere you look in the United States.
Because the country is so big, it is impossible to truly see it all in one trip. Even the longest available coast-to-coast escorted tour packages (approximately 20 to 45 days in length) only cover about half of the Lower 48 states and do not include Alaska, Hawaii, or the inhabited territories (i.e., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam), all of which are also fine tourist destinations in their own right. Thus, as with any large country, you need to do extensive research and prioritize regions and destinations.
From the spectacular glaciers of Alaska to the steamy and lush, weathered peaks of Appalachia; from the otherworldly desertscapes of the Southwest to the vast waters of the Great Lakes and the perpetually warm jungles of the south; few other countries have as wide a variety of natural scenery as the United States does. Note though, that place names that include the word “falls” don’t always have a waterfall. Sometimes, “falls” refers to “rapids” instead.
America’s National Parks are a great place to start. Yellowstone National Park was the first true National Park in the world, and it remains one of the most famous, but there are 57 others. The Grand Canyon is possibly the world’s most spectacular gorge; Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park are both home to the world’s largest living organisms, the Giant Sequoia; Redwood National park has the tallest, the Coast Redwood; Glacier National Park is home to majestic glacier-carved mountains; Canyonlands National Park could easily be mistaken for Mars; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park features abundant wildlife among beautiful, verdant waterfalls and mountains. And the national parks aren’t just for sightseeing, either; each has plenty of outdoors activities as well.
Still, the National Parks are just the beginning. The National Park Service also operates National Monuments, National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, National Heritage Areas… the list goes on (and on). And each state has its own state parks that can be just as good as the federal versions. Most all of these destinations, federal or state, have an admission fee, but it all goes toward maintenance and operations of the parks, and the rewards are well worth it.
Those aren’t your only options, though. Many of America’s natural treasures can be seen without passing through admission gates. The world-famous Niagara Falls straddle the border between Canada and the U.S.; the American side lets you get right up next to the onrush and feel the power that has shaped the Niagara gorge. The “purple majesty” of the Rocky Mountains can be seen for hundreds of miles in any direction, while the placid coastal areas of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic have relaxed Americans for generations. The lush, humid forests of the east, the white sand beaches, the limestone mountains of the south, the red extraterrestrial landscapes of the west…it’s a country that has something for everyone.
Americans often have a misconception of their country as having little history. The US does indeed have a tremendous wealth of historical attractions—more than enough to fill months of history-centric touring.
The prehistory of the continent can be a little hard to uncover, as many pre-contact sites in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the country have been covered by other structures or farmland. But particularly in the West, you will find magnificent cliff dwellings at sites such as Mesa Verde, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings. In the Midwest, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is worth a visit. The Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. is another great place to start learning about America’s culture before the arrival of European colonists.
As the first part of the country to be colonized by Europeans, the eastern states of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have more than their fair share of sites from early American history. The first successful British colony on the continent was at Jamestown, Virginia, although the settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, may loom larger in the nation’s mind.
In the eighteenth century, major centers of commerce developed in Philadelphia and Boston, and as the colonies grew in size, wealth, and self-confidence, relations with Great Britain became strained, culminating in the Boston Tea Party and the ensuing Revolutionary War…
Monuments and architecture
Americans have never shied away from heroic feats of engineering, and many of them are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital, has more monuments and statuary than you could see in a day, but do be sure to visit the Washington Monument (the world’s tallest obelisk), the stately Lincoln Memorial, and the incredibly moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The city’s architecture is also an attraction—the Capitol Building and the White House are two of the most iconic buildings in the country and often serve to represent the whole nation to the world.
Actually, a number of American cities have world-renowned skylines, perhaps none more so than the concrete canyons of Manhattan, part of New York City. The site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers remains a gaping wound in Manhattan’s vista, however America’s tallest building, the new 1 World Trade Center, now stands adjacent to the site of the former towers. Also, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building stand tall, as they have for almost a century. Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, is home to the country’s single tallest building, the (former) Sears Tower, and an awful lot of other really tall buildings. Other skylines worth seeing include San Francisco (with the Golden Gate Bridge), Seattle (including the Space Needle), Miami, and Pittsburgh.
Some human constructions transcend skyline, though, and become iconic symbols in their own right. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan, the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, and even the fountains of the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas all draw visitors to their respective cities. Even the incredible Mount Rushmore, located far from any major city, still attracts two million visitors each year.
Museums and galleries
In the US, there’s a museum for practically everything. From toys to priceless artifacts, from entertainment legends to dinosaur bones—nearly every city in the country has a museum worth visiting.
The highest concentrations of these museums are found in the largest cities, of course, but none compare to Washington, D.C., home to the Smithsonian Institution. With almost twenty independent museums, most of them located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian is the foremost curator of American history and achievement. The most popular of the Smithsonian museums are the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History, but any of the Smithsonian museums would be a great way to spend an afternoon—and they’re all 100% free.
New York City also has an outstanding array of world-class museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History,the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
You could spend weeks exploring the cultural institutions just in D.C. and the Big Apple, but here’s a small fraction of the other great museums you’d be missing:
- American Visionary Art Museum — Baltimore, Maryland
- Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Children’s Museum of Indianapolis — Indianapolis, Indiana
- Exploratorium — San Francisco, California
- Hollywood Walk of Fame — Los Angeles, California
- Monterey Bay Aquarium — Monterey, California
- Museum of Science & Industry — Chicago
- Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — Springfield, Massachusetts
- National Aquarium in Baltimore — Baltimore, Maryland
- National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — Cooperstown, New York
- Pro Football Hall of Fame — Canton, Ohio
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum — Cleveland, Ohio
- San Diego Zoo — San Diego, California
- Strong National Museum of Play — Rochester, New York
Here is a handful of itineraries spanning regions across the United States:
- Appalachian Trail — a foot trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine
- Braddock Expedition — traces the French-Indian War route of British General Edward Braddock (and a younger George Washington) from Alexandria, Virginia through Cumberland, Maryland to the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh.
- The Jazz Track — a nation-wide tour of the most important clubs in jazz history and in jazz performance today
- Lewis and Clark Trail — retrace the northwest route of the great American explorers along the Missouri River
- Route 66 — tour the iconic historic highway running from Chicago to Los Angeles
- Santa Fe Trail — a historic southwest settler route from Missouri to Santa Fe
- Touring Shaker country — takes you to one current and eight former Shaker religious communities in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwest regions of the United States.
- U.S. Highway 1 — traveling along the east coast from Maine to Florida.
- Riding the Empire Builder Train from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest
- Music — Mid-size to large cities often draw big ticket concerts, especially in large outdoor amphitheaters. Small towns sometimes host concerts in parks with local or older bands. Other options include music festivals such has San Diego’s Street Scene or South by Southwest in Austin. Classical music concerts are held year round and performed by semi-professional and professional symphonies. Boston, for instance, occasionally puts on free concerts in the Public Park. Many cities and regions have unique sounds. Nashville is known as Music City because of the large number of country artists that live in the city. It’s home to the Grand Ole Opry, one of the most famous music venues in the country. Country music is popular nationwide but is particularly concentrated in the South and rural West. Seattle is the home of grunge rock. Many of the most popular bands are based out of Los Angeles due to the large entertainment presence and concentration of record companies.
- Marching Band — In addition to traditional music concerts, a quintessential American experience is the marching band festival. One can find these events almost every weekend between September and Thanksgiving throughout the country and again from March to June in California. Check local event listings and papers to find specifics. Also notable is the Bands of America Grand National Championship held every autumn in Indianapolis. Those looking to see the best of the best should acquire tickets to the “finals” performance, where the twelve best bands of the festival compete for the championship. This event is now held at the Lucas Oil Stadium. Both “street” or parade marching bands as well as “field” or show bands are found at almost every high school and university in America.
- Professional sports — The United States has a professional league for virtually every sport, including pillow fighting. However, perhaps because at the national level the only major world team sport that the USA regularly wins at is basketball, many of the most popular leagues are:
- MLB  — Major League Baseball is very popular and the sport of baseball is often referred to as “America’s pastime” (due to the game having been invented in the U.S., and being one of the most widely played sports in the country). The league has 30 teams (29 in the U.S. and 1 in Canada). Season lasts from April to September with playoff games held in October. With 30 teams playing 162 games per team per season and the cheapest seats usually $10-20, this is possibly the best sporting event for international travelers to watch.
- NBA  — The National Basketball Association is the world’s premier men’s basketball league and has 30 teams (29 in the U.S. and one in Canada). Season runs October to April, with playoffs in May-June.
- NFL  — The National Football League, with 32 teams, is the leading promoter of American football in the world, a sport which has almost nothing in common with the sports that most other countries call football (Americans know those sports as soccer and rugby). The day of the championship game, called the Super Bowl, is an unofficial national holiday, with many fans hosting or attending parties, or venturing out to bars to watch the game(and then even perhaps missing work the next day to recover!). Season lasts from September to December, with playoffs in January ending with the Super Bowl in February. TV advertisements leading to and on the day of the Super Bowl tend to be comical and creative.
- NHL  — The premier league for ice hockey in the world, featuring 30 teams (23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada). A slight majority of players are Canadians, but the league has players from many other parts of the world, mainly the United States, the Nordic countries (primarily Sweden and Finland), Russia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Originally in Northern markets, recent expansions have each major region covered with a NHL team. The season runs from October to April, followed by playoffs that culminate in the Stanley Cup Finals in June.
- INDYCAR  — Beginning as the original form of American motorsport in 1911 with the first Indianapolis 500. INDYCAR has since come to be the premier open-wheel racing series in North America. The competition in INDYCAR is known to be closer, faster, and far more dangerous than that of NASCAR. Unlike NASCAR which almost races exclusively on “oval” tracks, INDYCAR competes on a wide variety of tracks ranging from city streets, road courses, to ovals like the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana which plays host to the most famous and prestigious race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, where speeds can reach up to a thrilling 240 miles per hour! INDYCAR holds races all across the United States, as well as Brazil and Canada, from March to October.
- NASCAR  — Viewed by many as a “regional sport” confined to the more rural areas of the South, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has seemingly broken away from those misconceptions over recent years to become a major spectator sport across the country. While a majority of the tracks still reside in the Mid-Atlantic and South, NASCAR holds races all across the country, beginning with their marquee event, the Daytona 500, in mid-February and ending in late November.
- MLS  — Major League Soccer, currently with 19 teams (16 in the U.S. and three in Canada), is the latest attempt to kick start American interest in soccer. While it may not be as popular with the media, MLS is still widely viewed and enjoyed, and is indeed gaining a greater degree of popularity int he U.S. Foreign travelers can find particularly vibrant and familiar fan experiences in several cities, notably Washington, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Columbus and especially Portland and Seattle.
- College sports — One rare feature of the United States sports landscape, as compared to that of other nations, is the extent to which sports are associated with educational institutions. In many regions of the country, local college or university teams, especially in football and men’s basketball, enjoy followings that rival or surpass those of major professional teams. The main governing body for U.S. college sports is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) , which has over 1,000 member schools, including essentially all of the country’s best-known colleges and universities. The college football season runs from roughly September 1 through mid-December, with postseason bowl games running into early January. The basketball regular season begins in mid-November and ends in late February or early March, followed by conference tournaments and then national postseason tournaments that run through early April. The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, popularly known as “March Madness” (an NCAA trademark), is especially widely followed even by casual sports fans.
- High school sports — Many communities take great pride in their local high school teams, and especially in smaller communities, games are a large part of local culture. If your trip is during the school year (generally late August to late May), a high school game can be a great (and cheap) opportunity to get a major dose of the local culture. The most widely followed sports at this level are generally football and boys’ basketball, with ice hockey also having a major presence in certain regions, mainly New England and the upper Midwest. Other sports, such as baseball, girls’ basketball, volleyball (almost exclusively a girls’ sport in most parts of the U.S.), and wrestling have significant pockets of popularity. In some states, a particular high school sport enjoys a special cultural place. Examples include football in Texas, basketball in Indiana, hockey in Minnesota, and wrestling in Iowa. Admissions fees vary, but usually range from free to not more than $10 (football games sometimes allow free admission past half-time).
- Festivals and Fairs — A few days prompt nation-wide celebrations. They include Memorial Day, Independence Day (a.k.a. Fourth of July), and Labor Day. Other major holidays like Thanksgiving Day are marked by private festivities. Many towns and/or counties throw fairs, to commemorate the establishment of a town or the county with rides, games, and other attractions.
- Memorial Day — commemorates the ultimate sacrifice made by America’s war dead. It is not to be confused with Veterans Day (11th November) which commemorates the service of America’s military veterans, both living and deceased. It is the also the unofficial start of summer — expect heavy traffic in popular destinations, especially National Parks and amusement parks.
- Independence Day — Celebrates America’s independence from Britain. The day is usually marked by parades, festivals, concerts, outdoor cooking and grilling and firework displays. Almost every town puts on some sort of festivity to celebrate the day. Large cities often have multiple events. Washington, D.C. celebrates the day on the Mall with a parade and a fireworks display against the Washington Monument.
- Labor Day — The US celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, rather than May 1st. Labor Day marks the end of the summer social season. Some places, such as Cincinnati, throw parties to celebrate the day.
- National Parks. There are numerous national parks throughout the United States, especially the vast interior, which offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy your favorite outdoor activities, including Recreational shooting, ATV riding, hiking, bird watching, prospecting, and horseback riding. In more urban areas, some national parks are centered around historic landmarks.
- National Trails System is a group of twenty-one ‘National Scenic Trails’ and ‘National Historic Trails’ as well as over 1,000 shorter ‘National Recreation Trails’ for a total length of over 50,000 miles. While all are open to hiking, most are also open to mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping and some are even open for ATVs and cars.
Official currency is the United States dollar ($), divided into 100 cents (¢). Conversion rates vary daily and are available online. The dollar is colloquially known as the buck (a reference to when buck skins were used as a median of exchange in areas far from the coastal mints) so 5 bucks means $5. Foreign currencies are almost never accepted, although some major hotel chains may accept travelers’ checks in other currencies. Canadian currency is sometimes accepted at larger stores within 100 miles of the border, but discounted for the exchange rate. (This is more of an issue nowadays with a weak Canadian dollar.) Watch for stores that really want Canadian shoppers and will accept at par. Often, a few Canadian coins (especially pennies) won’t be noticed, and do show up in circulation with American coins as they are the same size (but different metal contents and weight). Now that the Mexican peso has stabilized, it is somewhat accepted in a limited number of locations at border towns (El Paso, San Diego, Laredo, etc), but you’re better off exchanging your pesos in Mexico, and using US dollars instead, to ensure the best exchange rate.
Common American bills are for $1, $5, $10, $20, while the $50 and $100 bills are less common, and the $2 bill is usually only available by special request at a bank. All bills are the same size. All bills are made of a paper blend of cotton and linen; no polymer bills have been released. All $1, $2, and the older $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are greenish on one side and printed with black and green ink in the other. Newer versions of the $5 (purple), $10 (orange), $20 (green & orange), $50 (pink) and $100 (blue) bills incorporate different gradations of color in the paper and additional colors of ink. As designs are updated every 5-10 years to make it more difficult to counterfeit, you will currently find up to three different designs of some bills in circulation. Almost all vending machines accept $1 bills and a few accept $5 bills; acceptance of larger bills ($50 and $100) by small restaurants and stores is less common because they may not have enough change available. No US banknotes have been demonetized in the last 80 years and older series of bills are valid. In the unlucky event that your dollars get damaged or torn, U.S. banks will replace the notes for free if enough of the security features are still legible. Note that $2 bills are uncommon and often considered a novelty or a collector’s item, or sometimes even a fun gift.
The standard coins are the penny (1¢, copper color), the chunky nickel (5¢, silver color), the tiny dime (10¢, silver color) and the quarter or quarter dollar (25¢, silver color). None of these coins display the numeral of their value, so it is important to recognize the names of each. The size doesn’t necessarily correspond to their relative value: the dime is the smallest coin, followed by the penny, nickel, and quarter. However, the four standard coins have had stable designs, at least on their obverses. The same American presidents have graced the front of the penny, nickel, dime, and quarter since 1909, 1938, 1946, and 1932 respectively. They also have had the same respective diameters and thicknesses since before the 20th century, so it is possible and common to receive coins decades old in change. The Half dollar (50¢, silver) and dollar ($1, silver or gold colored) coins exist but are uncommon in general circulation. No American coins have been devalued or demonetized, although changes in design and composition have driven virtually all examples of non-current types from circulation and coin tills.
Coin-operated machines universally accept nickels, dimes, and quarters. Pennies will not be accepted at unmanned vending machines or parking meters, but will be accepted at self-scan checkout machines at supermarkets. Most machines that accept coins will accept dollar coins, although this may not be stated on the machine since the dollar coin is not often used. Machines that accept coins will not accept half dollars, unless specifically marked that they will. Coin-operated machines may or may not accept similarly sized and valued foreign coins (i.e., Canadian coins) depending on the sensitivity and internal settings of the machine.
Currency exchange and banking
Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports, however, many banks can also provide currency exchange services. Note that exchange rates are mediocre at airports and downright terrible at currency exchange centers in the suburbs. It is easiest to exchange major currencies like the euro, the UK pound, the Japanese yen, the Mexican peso, and the Canadian dollar. Visitors in possession of other currencies will find less places willing to accept them, or if at all, at less optimal rates. Major foreign exchange services at airports are provided by either Travelex or ICE Plc (International Currency Exchange)
The Big Four U.S. retail banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, all of which have branches and ATMs in most major cities in the Lower 48 states. Because interstate bank branching was legalized only in 1994, many parts of the U.S. (like Hawaii, Alaska, and the territories) are poorly served by the big retail banks and are dominated by local banks. A few international banks have made inroads into the U.S. like HSBC, BBVA, and Rabobank, but because the country is so big, they are still relative newcomers and interstate banking laws are so restrictive, their branch networks are relatively limited.
Most automated teller machines (ATMs) can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logos; note, however, that many ATMs charge fees of about $3 for use with cards issued by other banks (often waived for cards issued outside of the U.S., but banks in one’s home country may charge their own fees). Smaller ATMs found in restaurants etc. often charge higher fees (up to $5). Some ATMs (such as those at Sheetz gas stations and government buildings such as courthouses) have no fee. Another option is withdrawing cash (usually up to $40 over the cost of your goods) when making a debit-card purchase at a large discount store such as Walmart or Target, or at many supermarkets. Stores almost never charge a fee for this service, though the bank that issued your card may.
Unless your debit / credit card is U.S issued, expect to incur foreign transaction fees from your bank.
Most bank ATMs support at least one language (usually Spanish) in addition to English. ATMs operated by the Big Four banks tend to support many more languages, especially in urban areas.
If you are from a country or territory with the US dollar as a official currency, you will not need to worry about understanding prices and currency transferring. Also if you are from Bermuda, Panama, or Bahamas, the official currency(ies) of the mentioned countries and territories have fixed exchange rates to the US Dollar. Meaning what price is said in the U.S. will be understood with your country’s/territory’s official currency. Example; $125 US Dollars will equal $125 Bermudian dollars, but you will still have to exchange currencies.
Credit and debit cards
Major credit cards Visa and MasterCard were both launched in the U.S., so it makes sense that today, Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card counterparts/affiliates) are widely used and accepted throughout all 50 states and all inhabited territories. Nearly all large retailers will accept credit cards for transactions of all sizes, even as small as one or two dollars. However, some small businesses and independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $2-5, but can legally charge up to $10 minimum) for credit card use, as such transactions cost them around 30 to 50 cents (this practice is also common at bars when opening a tab). Almost all sit-down restaurants, hotels, and shops will accept credit and debit cards; those that do not post a sign saying “CASH ONLY.” Other cards such as American Express and Discover are also accepted by most retailers, but not as widely. Many retailers have a window sticker or counter sign showing the logos of the four big U.S. credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, and Discover. However, major retailers might accept only cash or debit cards for payment of prepaid/gift cards/transportation passes. It is also possible to find vending machines which accept credit cards.
Historically, logos for foreign cards like JCB and China UnionPay were very hard to find outside of high-end luxury boutiques, although both JCB and China UnionPay have longstanding alliances with Discover and can be used anywhere that takes Discover cards. In 2012, many U.S. stores, including Walmart, added JCB and China UnionPay logos to attract Asian tourists.
When making large purchases, it is typical for U.S. retailers to ask to see some form of photo identification. Shops may also ask for photo identification for foreign issued cards. In certain circumstances, credit/debit cards are the only means to perform a transaction. Hence if you do not have one, you can purchase a prepaid card or gift card with Visa/Mastercard or Amex logo for yourself in a good number of stores but you may need to provide identification before the card is activated.
Transaction authorization is made by signing a paper sales slip or a computer pad, although many retailers will waive the signature requirement for small purchases. The US has not yet implemented the EMV “chip-and-PIN” credit card authorization system used overseas, due to the high cost of upgrading point-of-sale systems and an ongoing dispute among retailers, banks, and credit card firms over who should bear that expense. Between August 2011 and June 2012, the four big credit card networks initially announced target dates in spring 2013 for EMV implementation among their US retailers. The vast majority of retailers failed to meet that deadline. The latest targets for EMV implementation are in 2015 for most retailers, and 2017 for gas stations, although it is still unclear whether those deadlines can be met.
Gas station pumps, selected public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Many gas station pumps and some automated vending machines that accept credit cards ask for the ZIP code (i.e., postal code) of the U.S. billing address for the card, which effectively prevents them from accepting foreign cards (they are unable to detect a foreign card and switch to PIN authentication). However, inputting the digits only of a UK Post Code of the UK billing address, or the digits only of the postal code of the Canadian billing address (in both cases, ignore spaces and letters), and adding on as many zeros as necessary to make five digits works often enough to be worth trying and does no harm. Since July 2013, this trick is guaranteed to work for Canadians who use cards with the MasterCard logo at gas stations that require a ZIP code prompt. At gas stations you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside.
In many big tourist cities, watch out for merchants trying to convert your USD purchase to your home currency when using your foreign debit / credit card. This is known as dynamic currency conversion and the exchange rate, at the point of sale, is NEVER in your favor; regardless of what you are told by the merchant. Always opt to be charged in USD. You can also avoid this by buying a prepaid debit card as long as you ensure there is sufficient funds in the card.
Each major commercial establishment (e.g. store, restaurant, online service) with a statewide, regional, nationwide or online presence makes its own gift card available to consumers for use at any of its establishments nationwide or its online store. In spite of the word “gift” in gift card, you can actually purchase and use these cards for yourself; however, they are most commonly given to others as gifts. This is a more polite way to give someone money as a gift, and is a standard gift for someone whom you don’t know very well. A gift card for a certain establishment can be purchased at any of the establishment’s branches. Supermarkets and pharmacies also have a variety of gift cards from different stores, restaurants and other services. Once these are purchased by you or given to you by friends, you can use a particular store or restaurant’s gift card at any of its branches nationwide or online store for any amount. In case funds in the gift card are insufficient, you can use other payment methods to pay for the balance (like cash, credit card, a 2nd gift card particular to the establishment). VISA, MasterCard and American Express gift cards work very similarly to their credit/debit card counterparts. The gift card also has instructions on how to check your remaining balance online. Take note that the gift cards are unlikely to be accepted in the establishment’s branches outside the U.S. though when you return home you can still use any remaining amount in the gift card in the establishment’s online store. Also keep in mind that some gift cards expire, which makes the money on them worthless so always double check if there is one and how long you have to use the gift card.
There is no nationwide sales tax (such as VAT or GST), the only exception being motor fuels like gasoline and diesel. As a result, state and/or local taxes (see below) on major purchases cannot be refunded by customs agents upon leaving the United States.
However, most states have a sales tax, ranging from 2.9% to nearly 10% of the retail price; 4-6% is typical. Certain counties and even cities have their own sales taxes, which are added to the total tax. Sales tax is almost never included in posted prices (except for gasoline/diesel, and in most states, alcoholic beverages consumed on-premises), but instead will be calculated and added to the total when you pay. Most grocery items and a variety of other “necessities” are usually exempt, but almost any other retail transaction – including restaurant meals, excepting most items ordered for takeout – will have sales tax added to the total. The price displayed is rarely the final price you pay.
Delaware, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax. Alaska has no statewide sales tax, but allows local governments to collect sales taxes. Montana also has no state-wide sales tax, but a few local governments (mostly in tourism-dominated towns) are allowed to collect sales taxes. Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not collect sales tax on clothes. In Massachusetts, clothing is exempt from any sales tax if the item costs no more than $175 (and sales tax is collected only on the amount over $175); in New York, clothing is exempt from state sales tax statewide and local sales tax in some locations (most notably New York City) if the item costs less than $110. At least two states, Louisiana and Texas, will refund sales tax on purchases made by international travelers taken out of the state.
Regional price variations, indirect hotel and business taxes, etc, will usually have more impact on a traveler’s wallet than the savings of seeking out a low-sales-tax or no-sales-tax destination. Many cities also impose sales taxes, and certain cities have tax zones near airports and business districts that are designed to exploit travelers. Thus, sales taxes can vary up to 2% in a matter of a few miles.
However, even accounting for the burden of sales taxes, US retail prices still tend to be much lower than in many other countries. With one exception, the US has not implemented any form of value-added tax, where each segment in the supply chain is required to charge tax on the value it adds towards the final product. Rather, US sales taxes are charged only by the retailer at the time of the sale of the final product to the consumer. The sole exception is the state of Hawaii, which charges a general excise tax that is worse than a value-added tax; it is levied on the entire price of products at every segment of the supply chain, rather than just the value added.
If you are coming to the U.S. from a higher-taxed jurisdiction in search of bargains on luxury goods, note that it is much more difficult to find most of the internationally renowned brands of luxury goods in the no-sales-tax states, as such brands have traditionally positioned their boutique stores in the largest and wealthiest states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida (all of which have sales taxes). Even if you can find a particular luxury brand in a no-sales-tax state, it will likely be only one of multiple brands carried by a local luxury retailer, meaning their inventory will not be able to match the depth of a boutique dedicated solely to that brand.
Places for shopping
Shopping malls and shopping centers. America is the birthplace of the modern enclosed “shopping mall” as well as the open-air “shopping center”. Most large high-end malls are operated by nationwide mall operators like Westfield, Simon, or General Growth Properties. In addition, American suburbs have miles and miles of small strip malls, or long rows of small shops with shared parking lots, usually built along a high-capacity road. Large cities still maintain central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small.
Outlet centers. The U.S. pioneered the factory outlet store, and in turn, the outlet center, a shopping mall consisting primarily of such stores. Outlet centers are found along major Interstate highways outside of most American cities. Simon Premium Outlets is the largest chain of outlet centers in the U.S.
Major retailers. American retailers tend to have some of the longest business hours in the world, with chains like Walmart often featuring stores open 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10 AM to 9 PM most days, and during the winter holiday season, may stay open as long as 8 AM to 11 PM. The U.S. does not regulate the timing of sales promotions as in other countries. U.S. retailers often announce sales during all major holidays, and also in between for any reason or no reason at all. American retail stores are gigantic compared to retail stores in other countries, and are a shoppers’ dream come true.
Travelers should be aware that bargaining is generally not practiced at established stores, though it is welcome at other sales venues (see below). While asking for a price reduction due to an item defect is generally acceptable, retail sales personnel often do not have the authority to change prices and may see attempting to haggle as rude or or even threatening. If you want to ask for a discount, be polite and accept whatever answer you are given. If you don’t, you may be asked to leave.
Garage sales. On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling no longer needed household items in their driveway, garage, or yard. If you see a driveway full of stuff on a Saturday, it’s likely a garage sale. Check it out; one person’s trash may just be your treasure. Bargaining is expected and encouraged.
Flea markets. Flea markets (called “swap meets” in Western states) have dozens if not hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. Some flea markets are highly specialized and aimed at collectors of a particular sort; others just sell all types of items. Again, bargaining is expected.
Auctions. Americans did not invent the auction but may well have perfected it. The fast paced, sing-song cadence of a country auctioneer, selling anything from farm animals to estate furniture, is a special experience, even if you have no intention of buying. In big cities, head to the auction chambers of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and watch paintings, antiques and works of art sold in a matter of minutes at prices that go into the millions.
Major U.S. retail chains
According to Deloitte, the largest fashion goods retailer in both the U.S. and the entire world is Macy’s, Inc., which operates just over 720 Macy’s midrange department stores in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam, plus 7 Macy’s Backstage discount stores, 38 upscale Bloomingdale’s stores, 16 Bloomingdale’s Outlet stores, and 98 Bluemercury cosmetics stores. In other words, nearly every mall you visit will have a Macy’s.
Unfortunately, not all of them are all worth visiting. Most Macy’s stores, especially in smaller cities and middle-class suburbs, tend to heavily feature midrange brands. Most brands featured in those stores are private brands (that is, the brand concept was created by and is exclusive to Macy’s itself, and most of them are not associated with a famous fashion designer). Over time, Macy’s, like other U.S. department stores, has shifted its product mix in favor of its own private brands over outside designer brands. Obviously, if it owns the brand, it captures more of the profits. Therefore, shopping at most Macy’s stores makes sense only if you are actually a fan of Macy’s private brands.
However, in the largest U.S. cities, Macy’s operates high-end regional flagship stores which feature many internationally renowned upscale designer brands, and some of those stores have visitor centers catering to international tourists. In general, you should save your time and money for Macy’s regional flagship stores or its gigantic original flagship store in New York City.
Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Other upscale department stores that operate coast-to-coast include Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Barney’s New York, but they are found only in the wealthiest cities.
Besides Macy’s, other midrange nationwide chains include Kohl’s, Sears, and JCPenney. The lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy.
Discount stores, supermarkets, and warehouse clubs
General discount stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart are ubiquitous, as well as Walmart Supercenters and SuperTargets which are similar to hypermarkets overseas. (Kmart’s hypermarket equivalents are called Super Kmarts, but they are extremely rare.) Many discount stores have either a small grocery section or a full supermarket; in fact, Walmart is the country’s largest seller of groceries, as well as its largest retail chain.
The two largest supermarket chains are Kroger and Albertsons, but both operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states. For example, in the nation’s second largest city, Los Angeles, Kroger operates Ralphs and Food4Less, while Albertsons operates Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions, and neither operates any stores under their own names. And neither chain operates in the nation’s largest city, New York City, where the supermarket business is severely fragmented among a huge number of regional chains. The dominant warehouse club chain in the U.S. is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam’s Club (operated by Walmart).
In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, each of which competes with numerous regional chains and local stores. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), toys (Toys “R” Us), housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and electronics (Best Buy). Both of the last two compete against several almost national chains that technically operate “coast-to-coast” but are notably absent from certain regions. For example, Circle K does not operate in the Mid-Atlantic states and New York City metro and Fry’s Electronics is absent from most of the East Coast except Atlanta.
Some areas of retail have two nationwide chains. The two big sporting goods chains are Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The two big office stationery chains are Office Depot (which has absorbed OfficeMax), and Staples.
In others, there are still three nationwide chains. The three big pharmacy chains are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid—although virtually all Walmart, Target, and Kmart stores also have pharmacies, as do many supermarkets.
Even if a discount store or supermarket is open 24/7, its pharmacy counter will almost never keep that schedule—it will usually have a morning-to-evening schedule and close overnight. This is only an issue if you need to fill a prescription or purchase a decongestant containing pseudoephedrine (in the latter case, pharmacists are required to record sales because it can be used to illegally make the highly addictive drug methamphetamine).
Unlike most countries, many nonprescription OTC drugs (like analgesics and cold/flu remedies) are stocked on shelves in the publicly accessible section of the pharmacy, and that section normally remains often to the public even when the pharmacy counter is closed. Generally, such items can be paid for at any checkout location.
U.S. pharmacies traditionally use the mortar-and-pestle as their symbol, not the green cross used by some European pharmacists (which in the U.S. is the symbol of medical marijuana). However, many U.S. pharmacies are now marked simply by the word “pharmacy” as part of their logo. U.S. pharmacies are far larger than their counterparts overseas because in the 1950s, they began selling soft drinks, packaged foods, and general merchandise to compete against the small discount stores (“dime stores”) that were then widespread, and eventually displaced them altogether. Thus, if you don’t see any supermarkets close to your hotel, try a pharmacy if you need to stock up on soft drinks and snacks.
Unless you live in Australia, Canada, Western Europe, or Japan, the United States is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. Many foreign visitors come to the United States for shopping (especially electronics, designer apparel, and accessories). While retail prices in the United States for luxury goods are lower than in many countries (as a result of low or nonexistent sales tax), and selection and quality are generally much better (due to the superior bargaining power of the gigantic U.S. retail chains), keep in mind that you could be charged taxes/tariffs on goods purchased abroad. That said, it’s easy to go through the “green lane” at many airports and avoid paying any tax.
Additionally, electronics may not be compatible with standards when you return, such as DVD region. That problem is easily avoided by using a “region-free” DVD/Blu-Ray player or by viewing the movies on a computer, where region codes are easy to evade. Your U.S.-bought item may not be eligible for warranty service in your home country.
If you have generous friends from the U.S. who will give gift cards to you for some reason, the cards can sometimes help you defray some costs.
A barebones budget for camping, hostels, and cooking your food could be $30-50/day, and you can double that if you stay at motels and eat at cheap cafes. Add on a rental car and hotel accommodation and you’ll be looking at $150/day and up.
There are regional variations too: large cities like New York and Los Angeles are expensive, while prices are usually lower in the suburbs and countryside.
If you intend to visit any of the National Parks Service sites, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, it is worth considering the purchase of a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass . This costs $80 and gives access to almost all of the federally administered parks and recreation areas for one year. Considering the price of admission to many parks is at least $20 each, if you visit more than a few of them, the pass will be the cheaper solution. You can trade in receipts from individual entries for 14 days at the entrance to the parks to upgrade to an annual pass, if you find yourself cruising around and ending up visiting more parks than expected.
Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association, now generally referred to as “Triple-A”). If you’re a member, or are a member of a club affiliated with AAA (such as the Canadian Automobile Association, The Automobile Association in the UK, or ADAC in Germany), it’s worth asking at check-in. In addition, many hotels may offer senior discounts. The criteria for most is 62 (some set at 65) or older. Rates can be the same, greater, or less than AAA. Be prepared to show ID at check-in for age verification.
Tipping in America is optional but is widely used and expected. While Americans themselves often debate correct levels and exactly who deserves to be tipped, generally accepted standard rates are:
- Hairdressers, other personal services: 15-20%
- Bartenders: $1 per drink if inexpensive or 15-20% of total
- Bellhops: $2-3 per bag ($3-5 minimum regardless)
- Hotel doorman: $2 per bag (if they assist), $1 for calling a cab
- Shuttle bus drivers: $3-5
- Private car & limousine drivers: 15-20%
- Parking valet: $3-7 for retrieving your car
- Housekeeping in hotels: $4-5 per day for long stays or $5 minimum for very short stays
- Food delivery (pizza, etc.): $2-5, 15-20% for larger orders
- Tour guides / activity guides $5-$10 if he or she was particularly funny or informative.
- Taxis: Tips of 10-20% are expected in both yellow cabs as well as livery cabs. A simple way of computing the tip is to add 10% of the fare and round up from there. Thus, if the meter reads $6.20, you pay $7 and if the meter reads $6.50, you pay $8. Always tip more for better service (for example, if the cabbie helps you with your bags or stroller). Leave a small tip if the service is lousy (for example, if the cabbie refuses to turn on the air conditioning on a hot day). For livery cabs, tip 10-20% depending on the quality of the service, but you don’t need to tip at all if you hail the cab on the street and negotiate the fare in advance (leave an extra dollar or two anyway!).
- Full-service restaurants: 15-20%. Many restaurants include a mandatory service charge for larger groups, in which case you do not need to tip an additional amount – however, tipping on top of the service charge is always welcomed by waiters especially if two waiters work on one large group and they are splitting the service charge between them. But tipping on top of the service charge is only optional and could be done if the service was particularly spectacular.
It is important to keep in mind that the legal minimum wage for restaurant waitstaff and other tip-earners is lower than minimum wage in many states, with the expectation that tips bring them up to a more “normal” wage. Thus, in restaurants (and certain other professions) a tip is not just a way to say “thank you” for service, but an essential part of a server’s wages. In some states (including all states on the West Coast), it is required that employers to pay tipped employees full state minimum wage before tips and taxes. Often times servers in these states will be making $12-$15 per hour before tips, but it is still expected that you tip them as much as you would in any other state.
Remember that while it is expected for you to tip normally for adequate service, you are not obliged to tip if your service was truly awful. If you receive exceptionally poor or rude service and the manager does not correct the problem when you bring it to their attention (and do bring the matter to their attention first), a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all. If you do decide not to leave a tip, don’t be surprised if the restaurant’s manager follows you out of the restaurant to ask you about the reasons for your dissatisfaction. Not leaving a tip is exceptionally rare, and something that will definitely be noticed and will definitely be looked down upon.
If paying your bill by cash, leave a cash tip on the table when you leave (there is no need to hand it over personally or wait until it’s collected), or if paying by credit card you can add it directly to the charge slip when you sign it. Look carefully, as the slip will generally inform you whether a 15% gratuity has already been added.
Tipping is not expected at restaurants where patrons stand at a counter to place their order and receive their food (such as fast-food chains). Some such restaurants may have a “tip jar” by the cash register, which may be used wholly at the customer’s discretion in appreciation of good service. Some tipping at a cafeteria or buffet is expected since the wait staff often clears the table for you and provides refills of drinks and such. 10% is generally considered appropriate in this case.
The majority of jobs not mentioned here are not customarily tipped, and would likely refuse them. Retail employees or those in service positions which require high qualifications (such as doctors or dentists) are good examples. Never try to offer any kind of tip to a government employee of any kind, especially police officers; this could be construed as attempted bribery (a felony offense) and might cause serious legal problems.
Comics and cartoons
The United States is known worldwide for its comics and cartoon culture, especially in superheroes and supervillans such as Superman and Joker. The U.S. is also famous for its Comic Cons (Comic Conventions) as they are known for being huge and for the variety of products other than comics which now make up a minority of many such events. However, there do exist smaller, more localized “comic book conventions” that focus exclusively on comic books and their artists/writers. Visitors to the U.S. must be aware that it can be very difficult to find non-English cartoon DVDs and mangas. Although Spanish and French speakers will have less trouble as many DVDs nowadays have French and Spanish languages as optional choices as subtitles. Due to Japanese anime and manga being the second most popular animation products in the U.S.(after American animation and comics), it is possible to find imported anime and manga products in Japanese only. But they are usually found online or in special shops catering only to Japanese products. Due to the possibility of censorship, the localized products may or may not be presented exactly as they are in Japan. In some cases, the only option may be the localized and edited English language version. As with almost everywhere else in the western hemisphere, all DVDs are in formatted in NTSC.
While foreigners often conjure up images of hamburgers and hotdogs, there is no “traditional” American food and what is seen as traditional will vary widely depending on which region you are in. Many types of food found in the United States have foreign influence, but differ significantly from the cuisine of the country that it is marketed as. Therefore, the food that you find at a “Chinese” or a “Mexican” restaurant will often be very different from traditional Chinese or Mexican cuisine.
The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York or Chicago, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. One thing that a traveler from Europe or Latin America will notice is that many restaurants do not serve alcohol, or may only serve beer and wine. Some restaurants, especially in larger cities, implement a BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze) policy, in other words, you are invited to bring your own alcoholic beverages. Another is the sheer number and variety of fast food and chain restaurants. Most open early in the morning and stay open late at night; many are open 24 hours a day. A third remarkable fact is the size of the portions generally served by US restaurants. Although the trend has moderated in recent years, portions have grown surprisingly large over the past two or three decades.
Types of restaurants
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese and Mexican food, fish, chicken, barbecued meat, and ice cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; “soda” (often called “pop” in the Midwest through Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, or generically “coke” in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. Don’t be surprised when you order a soda, are handed a paper cup and expected to fill it yourself from the machine (refills are often free). Tea and coffee are also beverage options at nearly all American restaurants. You’ll find that most Americans prefer to drink their tea iced.
Americans tend to love their beverages ice cold so you can expect to see some fellow patrons filling their cups two-thirds with ice and then adding what would seem to be a tiny amount of the actual beverage, but this varies from person to person. Conversely, if the drink is filled for you at the counter, it is considered perfectly acceptable to request less ice, or even no ice depending on your preference.
The quality of the food varies, but in general it will be cheap, reliable, and fairly tasty (in a mass-market sort of way – connoisseurs and “foodies” generally avoid these places like the plague), but the menu will be somewhat limited, and aside from a couple token healthy options, generally high in fat, carbs, and salt. The restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected but you must clear your own table after your meal. Failure to do so is considered very rude, both by fellow customers and by the restaurant employees who will be assigned that task in your stead.
Take-out food is very common in larger cities, for food that may take a little longer to prepare than a fast-food place can accommodate. Place an order by phone (or, at an increasing number of establishments, online or using an app) and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver; in fact, in some cities, it will be easier to have pizza or Chinese food delivered than to find a sit-down restaurant. Pizza delivery is especially ubiquitous in the US; almost any town of 5,000 or more people will have at least one establishment offering delivery. The main national pizza chains are Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Little Caesars. Most Pizza Huts are dine-in restaurants that also offer carry-out and delivery. Domino’s and Papa John’s are delivery and carry-out only. Most Little Caesars locations are carry-out only, though some now offer delivery as well. Especially in larger cities, local pizza places compete successfully against the big national chains, and many of them offer delivery. Be aware that tipping delivery personnel is considered customary, particularly as many of them deliver using their own vehicles at their own expense. There is no set percentage, but it is in addition to any delivery charge that the establishment may assess.
Fast-Casual is a fairly recent new genre of restaurants that grew in popularity during the 2000’s. They are places that are usually around $5-7 for a meal and involve a little bit of waiting as food is prepared fresh (although much less waiting than sit-down restaurants). They tend to be somewhat healthier than most typical fast food chains and offer distinct menus. Notable fast-casuals include: Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Noodles and Company, Panera Bread, Five Guys (a hamburger chain), and Freddies Burgers.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from fast food, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. They may specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or a particular nationality, though some serve a large variety of foods. Some are well-known for the breakfast meal alone, such as the International House of Pancakes  (IHOP) which serves breakfast all day in addition to other meals. A few of the larger chain restaurants include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s, to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.
Very large cities in America are like large cities anywhere, and one may select from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagantly expensive full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes. In “up-scale” restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed, but you should check first if there is any doubt. This usually only happens at the most expensive of restaurants.
The diner is a typically American, popular kind of restaurant. They are usually individually run, 24-hour establishments found along the major roadways, but also in large cities and suburban areas. They offer a huge variety of large-portion meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually very popular among the locals for breakfast, in the morning or after the bars. Diner chains include Denny’s, Norm’s, and (in the South) Waffle House, but there are many non-chain diners. Local, non-chain diners are particularly common along the east coast in New York, New Jersey, and Eastern Pennsylvania.
No compendium of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only encounter these places if you are taking an intercity auto or bus trip. They are located on interstate highways and they cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel, areas for parking “big rigs”, and shower facilities for truckers who sleep in their cabs. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for “plain home cooking”: hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous burger and fries — expect large portion sizes!. In recent years the concept of the chain establishment has been adopted by truck stops as well, and two of the most ubiquitous of these, Flying J Travel Plazas and Petro Stopping Centers, have 24-hour restaurants at most of their installations, including “all you can eat” buffets. A general gauge of how good the food is at a given truck-stop is to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.
The most recent newcomer to the American dining scene is the food truck. Food trucks are just what they sound like – trucks, buses or vans that have been converted into mobile restaurants. The quality of the food served ranges to greasy, poor-quality stuff served at construction sites to high-end operations serving gourmet, restaurant quality food (at surprisingly affordable prices) run by renowned chefs. Food trucks are common in large cities (especially on the West Coast), tend to set up shop where large groups of hungry people typically congregate (e.g. office parks and central business districts during lunch hours, and bars/clubs during evening hours. Most trucks are open for business during afternoon and evening hours Monday through Thursday, afternoon, evening and late night hours on Fridays, and late night hours on Saturdays. These trucks frequently use social media such as Twitter to announce to their followers where they’ll be setting up on any given day.
Some bars double as restaurants open late at night but may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo ID, and this may include the dining area.
American restaurants serve soft drinks with a liberal supply of ice to keep them cold (and fill the glass). Asking for little or no ice in your drink is perfectly acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. If you ask for water, it will usually be chilled and served with ice, unless you request otherwise. Unlike most other countries, if you ask for “water,” it will be still unless you specifically ask for “carbonated” or “sparkling” water. At bars and restaurants, water is served from the tap and is, therefore, almost always free of charge. In many (if not most) restaurants, soft drinks, tea, and coffee will be refilled for you at no extra charge, but you should ask if this is not explicitly stated.
Types of service
Many restaurants aren’t open for breakfast. Those that do (mostly fast-food and diners), serve eggs, toast, pancakes, cereals, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11 AM, but some, especially diners, will serve breakfast all day. As an alternative to a restaurant breakfast, one can grab breakfast food such as doughnuts, muffins, fruits, coffee, and packaged drinks at almost any gas station or convenience store. Coffee shops (of which Starbucks is the most well-known) are popular for breakfast; although they offer pastries and other items, most people frequent them for a morning dose of caffeine. Some chains, like Dunkin’ Donuts or Einstein Brothers Bagels, are sometimes liked more for their coffee than their actual food.
Continental Breakfast is a term primarily used by hotels and motels to describe a cold breakfast offering of cereal, breads, muffins, fruit, etc. Milk, fruit juices, hot coffee and tea are the typical beverages. There is usually a toaster for your bread. This is a quick, cheap (usually free) way of getting morning food.
Lunch is usually eaten around the noon hour and can be a good way to get food from a restaurant whose dinners are out of your price range.
Dinner, the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9pm. Many restaurants serve portions well in excess of what can normally be eaten in one sitting, and will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a “to go box”). Do not feel the need to finish what you have been served. Making reservations in advance is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, “up-scale”, or you are dining in a large group.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a single, flat, rate, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Generally, buffets serve American or Chinese-American cuisine.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch, served morning through early afternoon, with both breakfast and lunch items. There is often a buffet. Like most other meals, quality and price can vary by restaurant.
Types of food
While many types of food are unchanged throughout the United States, there are a few distinct regional varieties of food. The most notable is in the South, where traditional local fare includes grits (ground maize porridge), collard greens (a boiled vegetable, often flavored with ham and a dash of vinegar), sweet iced tea, barbecue (not unique to this region, but best and most common here), catfish (served deep-fried with a breadcrumb coating), cornbread, okra, and gumbo (a stew of seafood or sausage, rice, okra, and sometimes tomatoes).
Barbecue, BBQ, or barbeque is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it’s beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder slowly wood smoked for hours. Ribs are served as as a whole- or half-rack or cut into individual ribs, brisket is usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded (“pulled pork”) or chopped (“chopped pork”). Sauce of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. Various parts of the U.S. have unique styles of barbecue. Generally, the best barbecue is found in the South, with the most distinct styles coming from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. However, barbecue of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbecue restaurants differ from many other restaurants in that the best food is often found at very casual establishments. A typical barbecue restaurant may have plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and serve sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbecue found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic. Ribs and chicken are always eaten with your fingers; pork and brisket are either eaten with a fork or put into a sandwich. Note that the further one gets from the South, the more likely that “barbecue” refers to food cooked on a grill with no smoking, such as hamburgers or hot dogs.
With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Laotian food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.
Chinese food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes – by default, a “Chinese” restaurant will serve a menu only vaguely related to authentic Chinese food, usually meat in sugary sauce with rice and noodles, often in an all-you-can-eat buffet setting. Authentic Chinese food can be found in restaurants in Chinatowns in addition to communities with large Chinese populations. Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai food have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation. Indian food outlets are available in most major U.S. cities and towns.
Mexican/Hispanic/Tex-Mex food is very popular, but again in a localized version. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy tomato salsa, sour cream, and an avocado-based dip called guacamole. Small authentic Mexican taquerias can be found easily in the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Italian food is perhaps the only cuisine that rivals Mexican for widespread popularity. All manners of pasta can be found here, and American-styled pizzas (typically a thick crust topped with tomato sauce and cheese, in addition to other meats and vegetables) are a popular choice for social events and casual dining. Italian restaurants can be found almost everywhere, and even non-specialty restaurants and grocery stores can provide you with basic pasta meals.
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods are also becoming popular in the United States. The gyro is a popular Greek sandwich which is similar to the Turkish Doner is made of sliced processed lamb on a pita bread topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a yogurt-cucumber sauce. Hummus (a ground chickpea dip/spread) and baklava pastries are frequently found in supermarkets, along with an increasingly widespread and high-quality array of “pita” products.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarians are becoming more common in the U.S., so are the restaurants that cater to them. Most big cities and college towns will have vegetarian restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian and vegan dishes. In smaller towns, you may need to check the menu at several restaurants before finding a vegetarian main course, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Wait staff can be helpful answering questions about meat content, but be very clear about your personal definition of vegetarian, as dishes with fish, chicken, egg, or even small quantities of beef or pork flavoring may be considered vegetarian. This is especially common with vegetable side dishes in the South. Meat-free breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs are readily available at diners.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the U.S., as there has been a continuing trend in calorie consciousness since the 1970s. Even fast-food restaurants have “lite” specials, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on request.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer an almost infinite variety of pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, e.g. breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, etc.
In the largest cities, “corner stores” abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety snacks, drinks, and prepackaged foods. Unlike most convenience stores, their products are sold at relatively low prices (especially by urban standards) and can provide for snacks or even (nutritionally partial) meals for a budget no more than $5 a day.
Seafood is abundant on the coasts, with freshwater and saltwater varieties of fish and shellfish (although finding squid, octopus, and jellyfish will require a bit of effort). The Northeast is famed for its Maine lobsters, and the Southeast has a variety of shrimp and conch. Most of the seafood in Florida is served spicy, as influenced by the Caribbean taste. Seafood dining on the west is equally abundant, and Alaskan salmon is served in high quantity through the Pacific Northwest. The state of Maryland is famous for its Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, which are usually steamed live in a pot with a spicy seasoning. There is a bit of a learning curve to eating Maryland crabs, though any server or local, for that matter, in a crabhouse will gladly give you a lesson. It is not recommended to wear a plastic bib or napkin when eating Maryland crabs or Maine lobster. You will be instantly pegged as a tourist.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer and expect this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, and at crowded informal eateries and cafes you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they’re sitting at. Striking up a conversation in this situation may or may not be welcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating are considered rude, as is loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. You should lay cloth napkins across your lap; you can do the same with paper napkins, or keep them on the table. Offense isn’t taken if you don’t finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a “doggy bag”, implying that the leftovers are for your pet). If you want to do this, ask the server to get the remainder “to go”; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an “all-you-can-eat” buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional fee. If you are eating with a group, it is very rude to leave before everyone else is ready to go, even if you came separately. Cleaning your plate is a sign that you enjoyed your meal, and doesn’t imply that the host didn’t serve enough or should bring more.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc) are designed to be eaten by hand (so-called “finger food”); a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (french fries, barbecue, chicken on the bone) even at moderately nice restaurants. If unsure, eating finger food with a fork and knife probably won’t offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might, as it’s considered “uncivilized” and rude.
When invited to a meal in a private home it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.
An exception is the potluck meal, where each guest (or group/family) must bring a food dish to share with everyone; these shared dishes make up the entire meal. Usually dishes are grouped (e.g., salads, main dishes or casseroles, side dishes, desserts); you should ask the host if they want you to bring something in particular. Ideal dishes for a potluck should be served from a large pot, dish, or bowl, and would be spooned or forked on to diners’ plates—hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and spoonable side dishes. Make sure to bring enough that if you and your family had to eat only that dish, they would be full, in order to ensure that there is enough food for everyone.
Smoking policy is set at the state and local levels, so it varies widely from place to place. A majority of states and a number of cities ban smoking in restaurants and bars by law, and many other restaurants and bars do the same by their own policy. Some states (like New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, and California) have banned any smoking indoors, while some still allow designated smoking areas. Check local information, and ask before lighting up; if a sign says “No Smoking,” it means it. Breaking the ban may get you ejected, fined, or even arrested – and lots of dirty looks. Native American reservations are sovereign (independent) land and indoor smoking may be allowed on tribal lands even if you’re in a state with an indoor smoking ban. In recent decades, smoking has acquired something of a social stigma (more so than in Europe)—even where smoking is permitted, be sure to ask your dining companions if they mind. With the increasing popularity of eCigarette devices, it is important to note that some establishments ask that you do not use them indoors (and in some locations, such as California, they are banned via the same laws that ban smoking).
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In some rural areas, alcohol is mostly served in restaurants rather than dedicated drinking establishments, but in urban settings you will find numerous bars and nightclubs where food is either nonexistent or rudimentary. In very large cities, of course, drinking places run the gamut from tough local “shot and a beer” bars to upscale “martini bars”.
American tradition splits alcoholic drinks into hard liquor and others. Americans drink a wide array of hard liquors, partially divided by region, but for non-distilled spirits almost exclusively drink beer and wine. Other fermented fruit and grain beverages are known, and sold, but not consumed in great quantities; most fruit drinks are soft (meaning ‘non-alcoholic’, not ‘low alcohol volume’). ‘Cider’ without further qualifiers is a spiced apple juice, and ‘hard cider’ is a relatively little-consumed alcoholic beverage in spite of the U.S. having been one of its most enthusiastic consumers a mere two centuries ago. Be prepared to specify that you mean a liquor or cocktail in shops not specifically dedicated to alcohol.
Beer is in many ways the ‘default’ alcoholic beverage in the U.S., but gone are the days when it was priced cheaply and bought without high expectations for quality. In the last 25 years, America has seen a boom in craft brews, and cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Boston are becoming renowned among beer lovers. The various idioms for alcohol consumption frequently and sometimes presumptively refer to beer. While most American beer drinkers prefer light lagers – until the 1990s this was the only kind commonly sold – a wide variety of beers are now available all over the U.S. It is not too unusual to find a bar serving 100 or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and “draft” (served fresh in a cup), though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen “on tap” (available on “draft”). Microbreweries – some of which have grown to be moderately large and/or purchased by one of the major breweries – make every kind of beer in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Nowadays all but the most basic taverns usually have one or more local beers on tap, and these are generally more full of character than the big national brands, which have a reputation for being generic. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand. These beers are also typically considered superior to the big national brands.
Wine in the U.S. is also a contrast between low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. Unlike in Europe, American wines are labeled primarily by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, Riesling, etc.). The simple categories ‘red’, ‘white’, and ‘rosé’ or ‘pink’ are also used, but disdained as sole qualifiers by oenophiles. All but the cheapest wines are usually also labeled by region, which can be a state (“California”), an area of a state (“Central Coast”), a county or other small region (“Willamette Valley”), or a specific vineyard (“Dry Creek Vineyard”). (As a general rule, the narrower the region, the higher quality the wine is likely to be.)
Cheap cask wines are usually sold in a box supporting a plastic bag; bottled wines are almost universally priced as semi-luxury items, with the exception of ‘fortified wines’, which are the stereotypical American answer for low-price-per-milliliter-alcohol ‘rotgut’.
All 50 U.S. states now support winemaking, with varying levels of success and respect. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. The most prestigious American wine region is California’s Napa Valley, although the state also has a number of other wine-producing areas, which may provide better value for your money because they are less famous. Wines from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the state of Washington have been improving greatly in recent years, and can be bargains since they are not yet as well known as California wines. Michigan, Colorado’s Wine Country, and New York State’s Finger Lakes region have recently been producing German-style whites which have won international competitions. In recent years, the Llano Estacado region of Texas has become regionally renowned for its wines. The Northern Virginia area, specifically Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William counties are also becoming well known for both their flavor, and organized wine tasting tours, supplemented by the scenery seen on the drives between locations.
Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in up-scale restaurants, but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. The best California sparkling wines have come out ahead of some famous brand French champagnes in recent expert blind tastings. They are comparatively difficult to find in ‘supermarkets’ and some non-alcoholic sparkling grape juices are marketed under that name.
The wines served in most bars in America are unremarkable, but wine bars are becoming more common in urban areas. Only the most expensive restaurants have extensive wine lists, and even in more modest restaurants wine tends to be expensive, even if the wine is mediocre. Many Americans, especially in the more affluent and cosmopolitan areas of the country, consider themselves knowledgeable about wine, and if you come from a wine producing country, your country’s wines may be a good topic of conversation.
Hard alcohol is usually drunk with mixers, but also served “on the rocks” (with ice) or “straight up” (un-mixed, with no ice) on request. Their increasing popularity has caused a long term trend toward drinking light-colored and more “mixable” liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that many older drinkers favor. However this is not an exclusive trend and many Americans still enjoy whiskey and bourbon.
It was formerly wholly inappropriate to drink hard liquor before 5PM (the end of the conventional workday), even on weekends. A relic of this custom is “happy hour”, a period lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5PM and 8PM, during which a significant discount is offered on selected drinks. Happy hour and closing time are the only presumptive customs in American bars, although ‘ladies night’, during which women receive a discount or some other financial incentive, is increasingly common.
Although laws regulating alcohol sales, consumption, and possession vary somewhat by state and county, the drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. except in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands(where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you’re under 30 you should definitely be prepared to show photo ID when buying alcohol in a store or entering a bar (which often refuse admittance to “minors” under 21). In some states, people who are under 21 are not even allowed to be present in bars or liquor stores. A foreign passport or other credible ID will probably be accepted, but many waiters have never seen one, and it may not even be legally valid for buying alcohol in some places. As a driver’s license is the most ubiquitous form of ID in the U.S. and have a magnetic strip for verification purposes, some supermarkets have begun requiring them to purchase alcohol. In such cases, it is the cash register not the cashier which prevents such purchases. It’s worth noting that most American ID’s have the date of birth laid out as month/day/year, while frequently other countries ID’s use year/month/day or day/month/year which may cause further confusion. Using false identification to misrepresent your age is a criminal offense in all 50 states, and while most alcohol vendors will simply refuse to sell or take a blatantly fake ID away, a few also call the police which may result in prosecution.
Most states (currently 45 of them) and Washington D.C. have found and use loupes in the federal law to allow underage drinking, example; in some states like Delaware and Mississippi, underage drinking is legal on private, non-alcohol premises(including private properties not open to the public). As long as he/she is accompanied by the physical presence of a parent or legal guardian who is over the age of 21 and has the approval to consume alcohol, but this varies. In states like Hawaii and Tennessee, Underage consumption of alcohol is allowed for religious purposes. Some states require that the alcohol must be provided by an official religious representative and/or limit the type of alcohol allowed. In states like Texas and Wisconsin, underage consumption of alcohol is allowed on alcohol-selling premises, such as a restaurant or bar, as long as the legal guardian gives the minor the alcohol and is in the presence of the legal guardian. This again varies. In states like Colorado and Nevada, underage consumption of alcohol is allowed for medical purposes. Again this varies. Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia have no exceptions to underage alcohol consumption laws.
Selling alcohol is typically prohibited after a certain hour, usually 2 AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. In Indiana, sales of any type of alcoholic beverage is banned statewide on Sunday, However, bars are still open and serve alcoholic beverages. Several “dry counties” – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas. Some Indian reservations(especially the Navajo Nation) doesn’t allow any alcohol on their territory.
Most towns ban drinking in public (other than in bars and restaurants of course), with varying degrees of enforcement. Even in towns which allow public drinking, a visible bottle (rather than one in a small bag, which is so commonly used for it as to be synonymous with public drinking) is either illegal or justifies police attention. All communities have some sort of ban on “drunk and disorderly” behavior, some quite stringent, and as a rule intoxication is an aggravating rather than exculpating factor in all but the most and least severe offenses. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% considered “Under the Influence” and many states considering 0.05% “Impaired” – in Washington D.C. it’s illegal to drive with any amount of alcohol in your system. If you’re under 21, however, most states define a DUI from 0.00-0.02%. Drunk driving checkpoints are fairly common during major “party” events, and although privacy advocates have carved out exceptions, if a police officer asks a driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test or perform a test of sobriety, you generally may not refuse (and in certain states such as New York it is a crime in itself). DUI (“driving under the influence”), OUI (“operating under the influence”) and DWI (“driving while intoxicated”) are typically punished quite harshly, and as a foreign national it will typically mean the end of your time in the United States – even permanent residents have had their Green Cards revoked and were subsequently deported for DUI. In many jurisdictions catching and enforcing DUIs is the main job of patrolling police; it is watched for zealously and treated severely. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol anywhere in the car other than in the trunk. Some states have “open bottle” laws which can levy huge fines for an open container in a vehicle, sometimes several hundred dollars per container.
If you’re going out to drink with others; always assign at least one person as the designated driver of an automobile. Likewise, you can also arrange a taxi to take you back to your residence. Either way, it is way better than getting a ride in the back of a police car with a DUI on your record.
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes, from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city. Many nightclubs in America have a large area or “dance floor” where people often congregate and dance to the music played by the DJ, although in some areas of the deep south, people also dance to music played by live bands as well. A lot of nightclubs also have multi colored ceiling mounted music lights to brighten up the dance atmosphere. Mostly, a lot of couples and groups go to nightclubs, though singles also go there as well. However, if you go as a single person to a nightclub, remember that, in the United States of America, it is etiquette for the ladies to ask the guys to dance with them.
|WARNING: Nightclubs that play a lot of hip-hop/rap music or have rap/hip-hop as their primary genre of music are common hangouts for violent gangs and often become scenes of shootings, fights/brawls, and illegal drugs and are best avoided.|
Until 1977, the only U.S. state with legalized gambling was Nevada. The state has allowed games of chance since the 1930s, creating such resort cities as Las Vegas and Reno in the process. Dubbed “Sin City,” Las Vegas in particular has evolved into an end-destination adult playground, offering many other after-hours activities such as amusement parks, night clubs, strip clubs, shows, bars and four star restaurants. Gambling has since spread outside of Nevada to a plethora of U.S. cities like Atlantic City, New Jersey and Biloxi, Mississippi, as well as to riverboats, offshore cruises and Indian reservations throughout the continental United States. Some states have tolerated card rooms for many years, which have since rebranded themselves as “casinos” (notwithstanding their lack of slot machines) to compete for business against true casinos in New Jersey, Nevada, and Indian reservations.
State lotteries and “scratch games” are another, popular form of legalized gambling. However, online gaming and wagering on sports across state lines both remain illegal throughout the U.S.
Daily rates for hotel rooms vary widely across the United States. Based on the average daily hotel room rate as of 2012, New York City and Honolulu were the most expensive cities for a hotel stay in the U.S. 
Virtually all hotels at check-in will ask for the name of the guest who made the reservation, then demand from that person some kind of photo identification (a passport or driver’s license is normally sufficient) and a credit card to cover incidental charges. If you do not have a valid credit card, some hotels will demand a cash deposit instead. Upon check-in, a hotel front desk clerk will almost always issue you a keycard with a magnetic stripe for access to your room, although an increasing number have switched to RFID keycards, which are tapped instead of swiped.
By far the most common form of lodging in rural United States and along many Interstates is the motel. Providing inexpensive rooms to automotive travelers, most motels are clean and reasonable with a limited array of amenities: telephone, TV, bed, bathroom. Motel 6  (+1 800 466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels  (+1 800 800-8000) provides reasonable accommodations throughout the country as well. Reservations are typically unnecessary, which is convenient since you don’t have to arbitrarily interrupt a long road trip; you can simply drive until you’re tired then find a room. However, some are used by adults looking to book a night for sex or illicit activities and many are located in undesirable areas.
Business hotels are increasingly available across the country. Generally they are more expensive than motels, but not as expensive as full-scale hotels, with prices around $70 to $170. While the hotels may appear to be the size of a motel, they may offer amenities typically associated with larger hotels. Examples include Marriott International’s Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Aloft, and Four Points by Sheraton; Hilton’s Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn’s Holiday Inn Express; and Hyatt Place.
Another option are extended-stay hotels directed at business travelers or families on long-term stays (that are often relocating due to corporate decisions). These hotels often feature full kitchens in most rooms, afternoon social events (generally by a pool), and serve continental breakfast. Such “suite” hotels are roughly equivalent to the serviced apartments seen in other countries, though the term “serviced apartments” is not generally used in American English. Examples include Marriott’s ExecuStay, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites; Extended StayAmerica; Homestead Studio Suites; Homewood Suites by Hilton; and Hyatt House.
Hotels are available in most cities and usually offer more services and amenities than motels. Rooms usually run about $80-$300 per night, but very large, glamorous, and expensive hotels can be found in most major cities, offering luxury suites larger than some houses. Check-out and check-in times almost always fall in the range of 11am-noon and 2pm-4pm respectively. Examples of major hotel chains include Marriott, Renaissance by Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, DoubleTree by Hilton, Sheraton, Radisson, and Wyndham. Examples of upscale hotels include St. Regis, Fairmont, Waldorf Astoria, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental and Ritz Carlton.
Note that many US cities now have “edge cities” in their suburbs which feature high-quality upscale hotels aimed at affluent business travelers. These hotels often feature all the amenities of their downtown/CBD cousins (and more), but at less exorbitant prices.
In many rural areas, especially on the coasts and in New England, bed and breakfast (B&B) lodging can be found. Usually in converted houses or buildings with less than a dozen units, B&Bs feature a more home-like lodging experience, with complimentary breakfast served (of varying quality and complexity). Bed and breakfasts range from about $50 to $200 per night, with some places being much steeper. They can be a nice break from the impersonal chain hotels and motels. Unlike Europe, most American bed and breakfasts are unmarked; one must make a reservation beforehand and receive directions there.
The two best-known hotel guides covering the US are the AAA (formerly American Automobile Association; typically pronounced “Triple-A”) TourBooks, available to members and affiliated auto clubs worldwide at local AAA offices; and the Mobil Travel Guide, available at bookstores. There are several websites booking hotels online; be aware that many of these sites add a small commission to the room rate, so it may be cheaper to book directly through the hotel. On the other hand, some hotels charge more for “drop-in” business than reserved rooms or rooms acquired through agents and brokers, so it’s worth checking both.
Camping can also be a very affordable lodging option, especially with good weather. The downside of camping is that most campgrounds are outside urban regions, so it’s not much of an option for trips to big cities. There is a huge network of National Parks  (+1 800 365-2267), with most states and many counties having their own park systems, too. Most state and national campgrounds are of excellent quality, with beautiful natural environments. Expect to pay $7-$20 per car on entry. Kampgrounds of America  (KOA) has a chain of commercial campground franchises across the country, of significantly less charm than their public-sector equivalents, but with hookups for recreational vehicles and amenities such as laundromats. Countless independently owned private campgrounds vary in character.
For more long-term stays there are room rental options posted online such as in Craigslist which can be an afford solution for a cheap bed to crash with a bundled, flat priced rent.
|WARNING: Craigslist rentals are not well monitored and have a higher risk of being dangerous or fraudulent.|
Some unusual lodging options are available in specific areas or by prior arrangement. For example, you might enjoy staying on a houseboat in Lake Tahoe or the Erie Canal. Or stay in a treehouse in Oregon. More conventional lodging can be found at college or university dormitories, a few of which rent out rooms to travelers during the summertime. Finally, in many tourist areas, as well as big cities, one can rent a furnished house by the day.
Short courses may be undertaken on a tourist visa. Community colleges typically offer college-credit courses on an open-admissions basis; anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent and the required tuition payment can generally enroll. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.
Studying full-time in the United States is an excellent opportunity for young adults seeking an advanced education, a chance to see a foreign country, and a better understanding of the U.S. and its people. It can be done independently by applying directly to a college for admission, or through the “study abroad” or “foreign exchange” department of a college in your own country, usually for a single term or one year. (Either approach requires, at minimum, an F or J student visa.) The latter is usually easiest; the two institutions will handle much of the arrangements, and you don’t have to make a commitment to four years living in a strange country. Be forewarned, however: many state universities and private colleges are located in small towns, hundreds of miles from any big urban centers. They go out of their way to recruit lucrative international students unfamiliar with U.S. geography. Don’t expect to spend your weekends in New York or Los Angeles if your college is in North Dakota unless it is part of the academic activities in your school/course. Furthermore, U.S. higher education institutions are distributed along a wide spectrum in terms of prestige, quality, and of course, cost. Outside of an elite group of about 20 to 40 internationally renowned universities, most U.S. colleges and universities aren’t that well-known outside of their home state, let alone their home city.
The common requirements to study at a higher education level will include your admissions essay (also known as the statement of purpose or personal statement), transcript of records, recommendation/reference letters, language tests (TOEFL is most widely accepted but it can be waived if your previous school primarily used English as a medium of instruction), standardized achievement tests (SAT or ACT for undergraduate, GMAT for graduate business schools, GRE for most other graduate programs), degree certificates. As the TOEFL, SAT, GMAT or GRE are administered by the New Jersey-based ETS, you can sit the exam in your home country well beforehand and arrange for your scores to be directly sent to the school you are applying to. You may need to present these documents including your acceptance letter when applying for a student visa.
The types of schools vary dramatically. (In conversation, Americans tend to use the terms “school” and “college” inclusively: any college or university might be referred to as “school”, and a university might be called “college”.) State university systems are partially subsidized by state governments, and may have many campuses spread around the state, with hundreds of thousands of students. Private colleges are generally smaller (hundreds or a few thousand students), with a larger percentage of their students living on campus; some are affiliated with churches and may be more religious in character. Community colleges are well subsidized, and very inexpensive, but are poorly known, with varying quality. Other kinds of colleges focus on teaching specific job skills, education for working adults, and providing inexpensive college-level education to local residents. Although nearly all colleges are open to students regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. many were originally established for a particular group (e.g. African-Americans, women, members of a particular religion) and may still attract primarily students from that group. Several private colleges remain female-only, there are a few male-only private colleges, and private religious colleges may expect students to practice the school’s faith.
Colleges are funded by “tuition” charged to the student, which is often quite expensive, very commonly reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. The most selective colleges (and hence, often the most desirable) run up to $40,000-50,000 per year, including both tuition and “room & board” in that price. Most US citizens and eligible non-citizens receive substantial financial assistance from the federal government in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to most non-residents. Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country. They may be eligible for privately-funded “scholarships” intended to provide educational opportunities for various kinds of students. Some U.S. banks offer loans to foreign students, which usually require a citizen to guarantee that they’ll be repaid. Contact the Financial Aid Office of any college you are interested in attending for more information about the sources of aid available.
Almost all US colleges and universities operate web sites (in the .edu domain) with information for prospective students and other visitors.
Work in America is best arranged long before you enter the United States. Young people who are full time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J1 “Exchange Visitor” visa which permits paid work as au pairs or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.
The H-1B visa allows a limited number of skilled and certain unskilled employees to temporarily work in the United States. It usually requires a bachelor’s degree and is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The job you wish to apply for should be related to your degree. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, math teachers, and computer science professionals. The H1-B cap was filled the day applications started this year, although proposed immigration changes would increase the cap. On the other hand, there is the more permanent employment-based immigrant visa which has similar requirements to the H-1B visa. An employment-based green card is significantly harder to obtain than an H1B, because the employer needs to first go through a tedious labor certification process, and assuming USCIS approves the petition, lengthy backlogs may occur (depending on nationality).
Paid work is generally not allowed on a B1/B2 visitor visa. Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country for at least some time. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of working in dangerous conditions without much relief from the law. Note that “paid work” includes receiving any sort of compensation or thing of value in exchange for your labor including “volunteering” in exchange for lodging.
If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the US Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the US and overseas often prey on people’s desire to travel or work here. Keep in mind that while visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary, be wary of and verify any “advice” offered by third parties, especially non-lawyers. If in doubt about properly applying for such visas, it is best to get a licensed immigration attorney.
Keep in mind that anyone entering under the Visa Waiver Program cannot adjust their status for any reason.
Federal Minimum Wage is currently at $7.25 an hour. However, most states, the Federal District of Columbia, and all territories have their own set minimum wage. These are almost all higher than this federal minimum and wage floors can also be set even at county or municipal level (city, town or village). For example; minimum wage in the State of California is currently $10.50 an hour, but the City of San Francisco is currently $14.00 an hour, the highest in the U.S., and Seattle is scheduled to eclipse the country by 2022, gradually increasing to $15.00 an hour. While in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), the lowest in the nation because federal labor laws don’t apply to the N.M.I. Minimum wage for tips is $2.13 an hour, again, this varies by state, territory, and municipality. Georgia and Wyoming have a minimum wage for at home workers is $5.15 an hour and some states such as Oklahoma allows a $2 minimum wage for certain workers under small businesses with less than 10 employees and $150,0000 or less in profits. But most are lower than federal minimum wage and others are at the same rate as the minimum wage set by the State, Federal District, or municipality.Note:Minimum wage doesn’t often include health insurance coverage. And be aware of the property of which you are working on as it could be a Federal enclave, and a state’s minimum wage law will not apply to the Federal enclave. Also note that overtime pay which is extra applies to most workers although it also has many exemptions so do your research.
Bribery and other corrupt practices are illegal and most Americans will at best pass on your offer and at worst report it to the police and be offended.
|WARNING: Due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Foreign Nationals traveling to the US from Mainland China, South Korea, and Italy will be denied entry into the United States. American citizens that traveled to those countries will be flown into select airports and quarantined for 14 days.
The US Government has issued a Level 4 Do not Travel to multiple countries due to the coronavirus outbreak, including:
American movies, television shows, and music videos often give foreigners the impression that the US is filled with extremely high levels of violent crime. While there are some locations in the United States with high crime rates, most violent crime is heavily concentrated in certain inner city neighborhoods (most of which are specifically identified in the relevant city-specific articles in this travel guide), or poor outlying areas. Few visitors to the US experience any sort of crime. If you experience anything unsafe, you may call the emergency number 911.
Much crime is gang- or drug-related in inner city regions or poor areas located along the US-Mexican border. It mostly occurs in areas that are of little interest to visitors, however, it can and does also occur in high tourist areas of certain cities. You can all but ensure that you won’t experience crime by taking common-sense precautions and staying alert to your surroundings. Locations frequented by tourists and visitors (National Mall in Washington DC, and Manhattan in NYC) often have a police presence and are quite safe for all but the most minor petty crimes (eg: pickpocketing).
Like other regions of the world, many American urban areas have populations of homeless people, some of whom are drug-addicted and/or mentally ill. In certain cities, aggressive panhandling is a concern. If you feel you are being harassed, say NO firmly and walk away and/or call the police.
Note that security has increased along the US–Mexico border due to increased illegal immigration and drug-related crime. Only cross the country’s borders at official ports of entry.
|WARNING: Protests against police brutality have erupted in many locations across the United States. Though the vast majority begin peacefully, many protests have become dangerous, usually due to attempts by Law Enforcement to forcibly disperse the crowd. The police will and counter-protesters may have firearms and there have been several shooting incidents. Tear gas is deployed frequently. Many protesters have left with injuries ranging from mild to severe, and some have died. Additionally, in certain places like Portland, unidentified law enforcement officials have been reported taking away protesters in denial of due process. It is highly suggested that you stay away from large protests unless you are well prepared to participate in them.|
Despite the sometimes negative coverage that law enforcement receives in the U.S. media, you will find that the vast majority of American law enforcement personnel are very professional, and take their responsibility to serve and protect the public very seriously. There is no reason to hesitate to engage law enforcement if needed during your travel in the U.S.
If stopped by the police while driving, the driver is expected to stay in the car and wait for the police officer to come to the driver or passenger window. Turn on your interior car lights if it is dark, and keep your hands on the wheel so they remain visible. Do not attempt to exit the vehicle unless told to do so. It is expected for the driver to roll down the window the officer is at. When stopped you should stay calm, be polite and cooperative, and avoid making sudden movements. If you need to reach for your purse, wallet, or glove compartment of your car to present your identification, state what you are doing and wait for permission to do so. Often police will ask you to keep your hands out of your pockets and in view while speaking to them. This is in no way meant to be offensive but is for their peace of mind and your safety. American police are always armed on duty and will respond with force if they believe you present an immediate threat to them or to the public. Do not act aggressively or angrily, as that can and will make a police officer suspicious at worst, or at best will make the officer disinclined towards leniency. Some officers have racial prejudices, and you do not want to be on the wrong side of one that does, as officers that abuse their power very often see few–if any–consequences for their actions so long as they can make a case that you were deemed to be a threat, which is very easy for them to do under the present American justice system. Patrol stops typically result in a written citation for a driving offense, or sometimes a simple verbal warning if the offense was minor, as long as you remain appropriately cooperative. If they ask to search your vehicle, you may have the right to refuse it. Be aware that the odor of illegal substances is considered probable cause for a search under the laws of most U.S. states. Always be polite and calm, and if you believe you are being treated unfairly, ask the officer if you can speak with a supervisor.
If you are being detained, unlike in many other nations, in the U.S. an individual arrested or detained for an alleged crime is entitled to the services of an attorney, even if you are unable to afford one, in which case one will be appointed for you. All States directly employ licensed attorneys as ‘public defenders’ precisely for this purpose. Additionally, law enforcement in most cases may not detain a person for more than 24 hours without formally charging (arraigning) that person with a crime. This is true even if you are not a citizen or legal resident of the U.S.
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. While bribery may be expected in other countries, the opposite is true in the US; bribery is actually a crime for which one can and will be arrested and detained. Foreigners are seldom given the benefit of the doubt if they are from a country where bribery is common. Even a vague gesture that could be interpreted as an attempt at bribery will offend the officer. If you need to pay a fine, the officer can direct you to the appropriate police station, courthouse, or government office. Most minor traffic infractions can be paid by mail. Don’t even think about paying a fine directly to the officer who cited you, since that will probably be interpreted as a bribe. An exception to this rule is found in Montana, where fines can be paid to the officer by cash, check, or even a credit or debit card. There are a few places though where police corruption tends to be more common of an issue, such as Chicago or Detroit. If you do pay a bribe in one of those cities, be aware it may be a sting operation, as those cities are aware about the high amounts of dishonesty and are trying to lower it every chance they get.
People with disabilities are generally treated with respect and kindness in the US. Asking someone what their disability is, how they got it, etc is considered rude. Only close friends should really ask. Shaming or mocking those with disabilities is not acceptable. Service dogs are often used for those not only with physical disabilities, but also invisible mental or social disabilities, such as anxiety or seizure disorders. On-duty service dogs almost always have vests or other garments identifying them as such. Petting these dogs, distracting them, or taking photos of them without permission is frowned upon. You are expected to ignore these dogs unless told otherwise. If you must ask the person questions, do so without distracting the animal. They are working dogs, not necessarily pets.
Texting and driving
Distracted driving is a major problem in the United States, but despite the high dangers, Texting and driving is not considered illegal under federal law. But each state, territory, and Washington D.C. has laws on distracted driving. In some states, if you kill someone while texting and driving, you can get charged, and punished for murder. According to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, no state, territory, nor Washington D.C. except Illinois bans all uses of cellphone while driving. So when driving or crossing the street, it’s best to be aware of distracted driving.
911 Emergency services
During any emergency, dialing 911 (pronounced “nine-one-one”) on any telephone will connect you to a dispatcher for the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc). Calls to 911 are free from pay phones and any mobile phone capable of connecting to any local carrier. Give the facts, and the dispatchers will send help. With a landline, the 911 operator can almost certainly trace your line instantly and pinpoint the exact structure you are calling from. When it comes to mobile phones, virtually all mobile phones have incorporated Enhanced 911 (or E-911) that will send a GPS location during the call that the operator can direct units to that location even if the caller is incapacitated. There may be cases where you may be connected to the regional office for the state police or highway patrol, which will then have to transfer you to the appropriate local agency once they talk to you and determine what you need. There are also cases where the complete opposite will occur where you will be transferred from a local office to a regional office if the location is under a different jurisdiction (ex. a state highway). Regardless, it is important to always give your location and a reference when calling 911, as well as answer to the best of your ability all questions that you are asked.
If you are staying in one area, it may be helpful to have the phone numbers for the local emergency services so as to get through directly to the local dispatch. Moreover, in most locations, 911 calls are recorded and are open public records, while the conversation with the local emergency dispatchers cannot be accessed by the public. Remember that if you dial emergency dispatchers directly instead of through 911, the operator may not be able to trace your location.
If you speak a language other than English or Spanish, it is not likely that the dispatcher you reach will be able to understand. Stay on the line and the dispatcher will open up a conference call with a translator who can help. Language barriers are not a reason to forgo calling 911 in the United States. In any case, your location can be determined and some type of help, often a police officer, will be sent to you to determine the problem.
All US carriers automatically redirect 112 calls (the standard emergency number for GSM devices) to 911 and all 911 calls will go through even if it must connect to a different carrier or your service has been suspended.
As with most countries, misuse of the emergency services number will result in, at the very least, a call back from authorities; if particularly egregious, you will be heavily fined or even arrested. With that being said, if you end up pocket dialing 911, which has become more common, do not just hang up. Explain to the dispatcher that you have called accidentally and are not dealing with an emergency, so that someone is not sent to deal with the situation. Dispatchers are aware that these mistakes happen.
You may encounter the United States Border Patrol if you’re transiting through or visiting cities geographically close to Canada (such as Detroit) or Mexico (San Diego) as well as in Southern coastal areas (Florida Keys). Border Patrol has the authority to verify immigration status and enforce immigration laws in places designated as “border zones” — generally within 40 miles of Canada and 75-100 miles of Mexico (although the law allows for 100 miles from any border, including international bodies of water like the seas and Great Lakes; this includes the entirety of some states and the majority of population centers). Border patrol is visible near Canada, though less so than on the southern border, (with guards primarily checking domestic long distance buses, Amtrak trains and their associated terminals, and rarely air travelers on arrival or departure). On the border with Mexico and in Southern coastal areas, systematic vehicle checkpoints or being pulled over by Border Patrol for a document check is much more common.
Foreign nationals are legally required to have a passport, visa, and I-94(W) entry record (or Green Card) in their possession at all times. Consequences for not having them during a document check may be severe; you may be delayed or detained until your status can be verified. Long-term visa holders and permanent residents have been fined, or in extreme cases had their visas canceled for being found without their documents. If your documents are in order, you generally won’t be questioned. Even US citizens are increasingly being advised to carry proof of citizenship, or at the very least identification of some kind, in areas under Border Patrol jurisdiction.
Border Patrol does not have much of a presence outside the border zones; its inland counterpart, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, generally doesn’t target tourists unless it suspects them of trying to work during their tourist visits. In most states, police and other local authorities cannot question you about your immigration status or ask to see passports or visas unless you’re arrested and charged with a crime, and then only for the purpose of connecting you with a representative from your country’s embassy or diplomatic mission.
The U.S. is a huge country with varied geography, and parts of it are occasionally affected by natural disasters: hurricanes in June through November in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal states, including Florida, extreme heat throughout the country, blizzards and extreme cold in the far north, large and violent tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains, the Mid-West, and the South, floods in areas all over the United States, wildfires in the late summer and early fall in the west, dust storms in any arid areas, and tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions in the west, as well as large thunderstorms throughout the country. See the regions in question for more details.
Because tornadoes are so common between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, this area has earned itself the colloquial name Tornado Alley. The west of the country sits along the pacific ring of fire, and as a result, is an area very prone to tectonic and geothermal disasters.
Gay and lesbian
Homosexuality is legal between consenting adults in all states as of 2003, and same-sex marriage was legalized in all states in 2015. Some states and cities have anti-discrimination codes, including public accommodations in hotels, restaurants and transportation and some states don’t have it. Some Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality, but there are many significant exceptions. In a lot of regions of the US it is emphatically discouraged to open about one’s sexual orientation and you will receive unwanted attention, remarks, threats, violent attacks, be physically attacked with police unsympathetic to your need for help or complicit, and be refused service. A significant amount of this occurs in Texas, Wyoming, the Midwest and the South. Attitudes toward homosexuality vary widely in regions with a reputation for tolerance. Tolerance is in some major cities throughout the country specifically around the Pacific Coast, some parts of the Northeast and Hawaii. Gay-friendly destinations include New York‘s Chelsea, Rochester in Western New York State, Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Chicago‘s Boystown, Seattle‘s Capitol Hill, San Francisco‘s Castro Street, Washington‘s Dupont Circle, Miami Beach‘s South Beach, Atlanta‘s Midtown and Los Angeles‘ West Hollywood. Massachusetts is sometimes tolerant depending on whether or not you are in a strongly religious area, which many areas of Massachusetts are. An increasing number of resort areas are known as gay-friendly, including Fire Island, Key West, Asheville, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Rehoboth Beach, Saugatuck, and parts of Asbury Park. In a few smaller cities, there are neighborhoods where gay people tend to congregate and have resource centers for LGBT people. Some gay-friendly businesses like to advertise themselves as such with a rainbow flag or a small pink triangle or three-vertical-striped sticker in the window. Men planning to engage in any sex, should be aware the heightened risk of HIV and other infections in the United States. A gay American man is 44 times more likely to contract HIV than a heterosexual one, and 46 times more likely to contract syphilis. This risk grows greatly among men likely to engage in one-night stands and other higher-risk behavior. In a nation where 0.5% of the population are HIV-positive, unprotected sex is a very real risk. Precautions, including safer sex, are strongly advised during your stay. Most cities have affordable or free testing and treatment centers for STIs at least for gay men, though hours may be limited and waits may be long. Lesbians and trans face the same risk. The life-long repercussions of HIV or other STIs aren’t covered by healthcare providers and seeking health care elsewhere can be very pricey.
Street drugs, including but not limited to cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, are illegal under federal law throughout the US.
Marijuana use is more widely accepted than other drugs. Although a few states have passed laws legalizing the medical and recreational use of marijuana, this will not protect any foreign citizen caught in possession. Outside of drug-using circles, most Americans frown upon illicit drug use regardless of quantity. This is especially true in more conservative jurisdictions. And travelers would be wise to avoid using such substances in the United States, even in the jurisdictions that allow it. Penalties can be very severe, and can include mandatory minimum jail terms for possession of personal quantities in some states. Also, ANY drug possession near a school, however slight the quantity, will land you a heavy jail term. Attempting to bring any quantity into the US posses a serious risk of being arrested for “trafficking”.
Notable exceptions to the precautions above are the states of Alaska, California, Colorado,Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) and several recognized Indian Reservations, which have all recently legalized recreational use of marijuana. According to these new local laws, you can possess up to 1 ounce (8 ounces in Oregon, 2.5 ounces in the city of Portland, Maine, 2.5 ounces in Michigan and 2 ounces in Washington D.C.) of marijuana from a licensed seller and use it personally if you are over 21 years old. Indian Reservations have recently been allowed by the Federal government to regulate cannabis on their recognized reservation, so laws within the reservation vary widely, and can be different from state laws. Example; while cannabis is legal in the state of Washington, the Yakima Nation (an Indian reservation in Washington State) declares cannabis illegal on their land. So by default, both federal and laws of the Indian Reservation apply. However, use on public streets or inside public buildings is illegal, so if you do use it, use it in private. Law enforcement usually ignores marijuana use on private property (i.e., inside someone’s home), but caution should be exercised as police can arrest you for marijuana use in states where it is not legal, and drug crimes can carry surprisingly stiff sentences and will result in deportation for foreigners.
The federal government of the United States still considers marijuana illegal, so the use is still illegal in territory under direct federal government jurisdiction within states where marijuana use has been legalized such as the Lewis-McChord Military Reservation in Washington state, and all National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands under federal jurisdition. Likewise, mailing of marijuana from Washington state to Colorado through the US Postal Service or bringing in some ‘BC Bud’ from British Columbia to Washington state is still illegal. The future of these laws is uncertain, but for now, they stand (with the exceptions in recognized Indian Reservations and federal territory).
Marijuana possession and use is still illegal everywhere else, so do NOT under any circumstances bring marijuana into any U.S. jurisdiction where it is illegal, nor across adjacent international borders. This includes any Indian Reservation that deems it illegal on their land as you will risk facing criminal charges if you are caught with it. Depending on which country of your residence or you’re traveling to after leaving the U.S., you may face criminal charges in your home country (or a third country) if found in possession of cannabis (or even in very small amounts) on arrival from the U.S. or having it in your urine or through other means of testing for drug use from a person’s body, even if it was completely consumed in the U.S. prior to departure. The US reports crimes to other countries even ones who enforce the death penalty for drug offences so keep that in mind.
Do not bring cannabis or any other federally illegal drug onto any Federal enclave, as federal drug laws are heavily enforced.
Most travelers to the US will not encounter overt racism, but latent racism still exists. Certain towns and cities have “no-go” areas for certain ethnicities, where hostility can be felt, although tourists are unlikely to travel to such localities and even unlikelier to face actual harm. There is an extremely small chance of running into someone who is a member of a supremacist group such as, the Ku Klux Klan or other “Neo-Nazi” or various other hate groups. Symbols like swastikas and other Nazi imagery are legal in the US, and may be found in tattoo art among members. However, they usually cover these up in public to avoid drawing hostility from others. For the most part, racist hate groups tend to prefer to be reclusive due to the mainstream unpopularity of their views. Most such groups choose to inhabit remote, rural, isolated areas (some of which may be crudely constructed compounds) that are difficult for outsiders to come upon incidentally. Occasionally, they may appear in public just to exercise their “free speech rights”, even if they don’t intend to commit any violent or obviously illegal acts. There are individual racists in both metropolitan areas and rural areas who don’t cover their hate tattoos and will fight if provoked, but other than that they keep to themselves and present no threat as long as you don’t mess with them, their family, or their property.
Islam is generally less prevalent in the United States than in many other Western countries This fact, along with well-publicized terrorist attacks performed by such extremist groups as ISIS and al-Qaeda, means some Americans harbor resentment towards Muslims and Islam, particularly in rural and suburban areas. However, this is not necessarily a majority view, especially in larger cities. Additionally, Muslims are generally not discriminated against on a personal level, and hate crimes are very rare. However, Muslims should use special caution and consideration when traveling in public at night, while wearing traditional or religious apparel, or while in areas outside of large cities. States in the Midwest and South have seen an upswing with regard to violence against Islam in their respective communities. Discretion within or avoidance of these regions is strongly recommended for practitioners of the Islamic faith.
Although the USA has always been a safe and welcoming place for Jewish residents and visitors and anti-Semitic hate crimes are extremely rare, anti-Semitism has been on the increase over the past two decades and observant Jews should exercise special caution and consideration when traveling in public while wearing traditional or religious apparel, particularly in majority Black areas, majority Muslim areas, and areas where extreme left or right-wing views are common. There have been several high-profile attacks on Jews, including recent synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego. If you ever feel like you’re in danger call 911 immediately.
Some cities don’t allow minors below a certain age to wander alone after a certain hour at night, unless accompanied by a legal guardian. Similar rules may apply to driving.
It is illegal to hunt, kill, or keep any of a bald eagle’s feathers. Keeping its feathers will result in a $100,000 fine for each feather you possess. As well as a year in prison, repeated offenses will change your sentence. However, Indian reservations are somewhat excluded from the possession of bald eagle feathers. But you must have a certification of tribal membership and the appropriate registration license to possess one. If not, federal law applies. The U.S. has one of the highest populations of venomous snakes (32), and a high number of potentially dangerous animals compared to many other countries. Please exhibit caution in any wilder areas of the country (even suburban areas.). Animal fighting and abuse is illegal.
Prostitution is not prohibited by Federal law. States, Territories, and the Federal District are allowed to make their own laws. Even so, prostitution remains illegal in all areas except at licensed brothels in rural Nevada counties. Prostitution remains illegal in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, and street-walking prostitutes are always illegal. Elsewhere in the US, tolerance and enforcement of prostitution laws vary considerably, but be aware that police routinely engage in “sting” operations in which an officer may pose as a prostitute to catch and arrest persons offering to pay for sex. This is not considered entrapment by US laws since the arrested person was consciously intending to commit an illegal act.
Legal ownership of firearms is supported by the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, most (but not all) of the fifty states have similar wording in their state constitutions. Because of this, the U.S. has become a major destination for “Gun tourism”, and currently the largest destination.
Many Americans (but certainly not all) own a firearm, and firearm ownership is legal in all jurisdictions with varying degrees of restriction by State, Territory, and Federal District. Legally carried firearms can range from hunting rifles and shotguns to revolvers and semi-automatic handguns.
Non-immigrant aliens that are in the country for fewer than 180 days cannot possess a firearm or ammunition, unless they came here specifically for hunting or sporting purposes, or they have a valid hunting license from the state they are visiting. Passport + Visa + State Issued Hunting License = firearm possession / use. Entry in a recognized shooting competition can substitute for the hunting license. Anything else is strictly illegal.
The vast majority of Americans are non-violent except in self defense; they are responsible with their firearms and use/carry them appropriately and within the limits of the law. All States have laws regarding self defense which allow a person to use force, up to and including deadly force, in defense of themselves or others when in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death. This right to self-defense, including armed force, extends to protection of one’s home, and, in some states, to other types of personal property.
Your chances of a firearm-related injury in the U.S.A. are very low, but please keep the following in mind:
- Concealed carry: All fifty states and Washington DC have “concealed carry” laws which enable people with the appropriate license to possess a concealed (and loaded) handgun on their person.
- Open carry: Many states also allow people to “open carry” a handgun. Seeing a person with an openly carried handgun or a (poorly) concealed handgun is only a cause for concern if the person’s behavior is otherwise non-law abiding. The vast majority of Americans who carry firearms (either concealed or openly) do so within the limits of the law. While so called ‘open carry’ may seem highly unusual to individuals from nations without a gun culture, the general attitude among those who open carry is that criminals do not carry openly.
- When approaching a stranger’s house or apartment, especially at night, make special effort to stand within the view of the door’s peephole or in the light, so you can clearly be seen from the inside.
- Hunting is a popular sport in rural America. In general, while hiking, travel on marked trails – this will not put you in any danger, but if venturing off the beaten path, it is a good idea to inquire if any hunting is currently afoot and where. If there is hunting in the area, wear bright colors (particularly “Blaze Orange”) to differentiate yourself from terrain and prey. If you have a dog with you, you should also put a blaze orange vest on it as well. If you wish to hunt you will need to obtain a hunting license (usually available at outdoors stores among other places) and should review local regulations.
- Property owners may defend their homes with firearms during a burglary or home invasion. If in rural areas, it is common courtesy not to cross land posted as private property.
- Shooting is a popular recreational activity in America that many tourists wish to participate in. Many shooting ranges are more than happy to accommodate tourists and will have a variety of firearms available to rent and shoot at the range. However, due to the laws restricting non-immigrant aliens from possessing firearms, you will most likely need to be accompanied by a US citizen who satisfies the local requirements for firearm possession.
- Certain U.S states have restrictions or prohibitions on semi-automatic firearms that are designated as “assault weapons” by law. This includes the semi-automatic-only versions of several military assault rifles, including the AR-15, AK-47, FN-FAL, and Uzi. In some states, illegal possession is considered a felony, with heavy fines.
- Legally owned civilian machine guns/assault rifles do exist in the US, however they are all antiques (pre-1986), very expensive, and part of high end private gun collections. Thus their criminal use is essentially non-existent. Individual states and jurisdictions may further have restrictions on who can posses or use these weapons. Certain gun ranges that posses special demonstration licences may allow civilians to shoot machine guns at their ranges, albeit it’s very costly with the amount of ammunition having a large markup.
If you come from a country where firearm ownership is heavily restricted, discouraged or prohibited, there is a possibility that your American host will offer to take you shooting. On a shooting trip, your host will most likely explain basic firearm safety and quiz you on it before allowing you to handle their guns. They may also watch you closely and point out any accidental safety violations. This is all done out of gun safety concerns, and should never be interpreted as impertinent or disrespectful.
Laws about self defense vary between states and depending on the situation can allow for very loose or very strict definitions of what calls for it. California or New York are examples of states where it requires more immediate danger to be allowed. Attitudes taken in the South, Texas, and Rocky Mountains (United States of America), even tresspasers are seen as dangerous on private property and may be shot if seen as a threat. All States do allow for deadly force from citizens and police officers if they are in fear of their life. Read up on the policies before coming to know what the laws your State have on defending yourself.
Incidents of mass shootings happen, but account for a small percentage of homicide deaths in the country. The likelihood of you being a victim of such an incident is low. However, the international human rights organization Amnesty International issued a travel warning to potential travelers to the United States to “exercise extreme caution when traveling throughout the country due to rampant gun violence, which has become so prevalent in the United States that it amounts to a human rights crisis” within the country.
The average American takes a bath or shower at least once per day, and expects others to do the same. Excessive body odor is frowned upon, as is excessive use of perfumes and colognes.
American men either shave their faces daily, or if they grow beards and/or mustaches, keep them neatly trimmed. American women shave their legs if walking around in shorts or high-cut skirts that expose bare skin. Most also shave their underarms and some shave their arms.
Bad breath (halitosis) is also frowned upon. Americans are taught from a young age to brush and floss their teeth twice daily.
NOTE: The CDC has identified the territories of American Samoa, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, as well as parts of Miami in the state of Florida and Houston and South Texas as an affected area of the Zika outbreak. Pregnant women are advised to be cautious as the virus can lead to birth defects. Adults affected by the virus experience fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes) typically lasting a week. You can learn more by visiting the official CDC website.
Being a highly industrialized nation, the United States is largely free from most serious communicable diseases found in many developing nations; however, the HIV rate is higher than in Canada and Western Europe, with about a 0.5% infection rate in the overall population. This is due to Americans being more likely to have multiple partners at younger ages (down to 12 years of age,) than residents of Canada or Western Europe.
Two diseases that, while rare, are worth becoming educated about are rabies and Lyme disease. Rabies is more prevalent in eastern regions of the country and may be contracted from animal bites; if you are bitten by any mammal see a doctor quickly—do not wait for symptoms. Lyme disease is spread via the deer tick, which are prevalent in the woodlands and open fields of many rural areas. When venturing into the outdoors, it is a good idea to apply an insect repellent onto exposed skin surfaces that is effective against deer ticks.
Other diseases that are endemic within the United States, but are of far less concern, include Hantaviral Pulmonary Syndrome (found in western regions), Dengue fever (in areas from the southern Mid-West down to the Gulf and Hawaii,) Chikungunya (almost all regions,) Bubonic Plague (Pacific Northwest,) Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (mostly in the Rocky Mountain region), West Nile Virus (all regions)and Eastern/Western Equine Encephalitis (particularly in the mid-west region).
All of the above listed diseases are extraordinarily rare and the medical system of the United States is very much capable of handling any of these when necessary.
For the latest in traveler’s health information pertaining to the United States, including advisories and recommendations, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Health care in America is arguably the best but among the most expensive in the world. The vast majority of working Americans have health insurance for themselves and their family, for those who don’t the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare by Americans) enacted by President Barack Obama in 2010 helped to alleviate the problem. Americans generally use private health insurance, paid either by their employer or out of their own pocket; some risk paying high hospital bills themselves, or depend on government subsidized health plans. If you are at least 65, then your medical coverage is covered through the national Medicare system. As a traveler you should have travel insurance or you will potentially face very high costs if you need medical care. Have a professional versed in American health insurance handle your travel insurance if you are not familiar with the system. A serious medical emergency that could cost you a few thousand USD in your home country will easily bankrupt the average traveler for life in the US.
Most metropolitan areas will have a mix of public and private hospitals, and in turn, US private hospitals can be either non-profit or for-profit. Public hospitals located in wealthy suburbs can be as good as private ones, but in poorer inner-city areas, public hospitals are usually overcrowded and run-down and should be avoided by tourists. However, many public hospitals are also the Level I regional trauma centers for their respective metro areas (i.e., they guarantee 24-hour on-site availability of all major types of medical specialists), which means that you will be taken there if critically injured.
In a life-threatening emergency, call 911 to summon an ambulance to take you to the nearest hospital emergency room (“ER”), or in less urgent situations get to the hospital yourself and register at the ER’s front desk. Emergency rooms will treat patients without regard to their ability to pay, but you will still be presented with a bill for all care. Note: if you use an ambulance to get to a hospital you will have to pay extra for that. Do not use ERs for non-emergency walk-in care. Not only can this be 3-4 times more expensive than other options, but you will often wait many hours (or days) before being treated, as the staff will give priority to patients with urgent needs. In most areas, the charge for an emergency room visit starts around $500, in addition to any specific services or medications you may require. Most urban areas have minor emergency centers (also called “urgent care”, etc.) for medical situations where a fully equipped emergency room would be excessive, such as superficial lacerations. However, their hours may be limited, and few are open overnight.
Walk-in clinics are another place for travelers to find routine medical care, letting patients see a doctor or nurse-practitioner without an appointment (but often with a bit of a wait). They are typically very up-front about fees, and always accept credit cards. To find one, check the yellow pages under “Clinics”, or call a major hospital and ask. Make sure to tell the clerk you will be paying “out of pocket”; if they assume an insurance company will be paying for it, they may order tests that are not medically essential and in some cases bill for services that aren’t actually provided.
Dentists are readily available throughout the United States (again, see the yellow pages). Dental offices are accustomed to explaining fees over the phone, and most will accept credit cards. Be prepared to pay for all services up front as this is a common requirement for most dental practices.
Please note the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to by Americans as Obamacare (named after the U.S. President Barack Obama who started the idea) is a law that requires everyone to have affordable health insurance to avoid paying a hefty price on their medical bills. It took effect March 1, 2014. It is however, not applicable to U.S. visitors so if you get sick you have to pay full price for medical bills.
Most counties and cities have a government-supported clinic offering free or low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; call the Health Department for the county you are in for more details. Many county clinics offer primary health care services as well, however these services are geared towards low-income residents and not foreign travelers.
The full-time restroom attendants often seen in certain European countries are extremely rare in the US. Some facilities may be pristine, such as in upscale shopping malls, fine restaurants, or commercial office buildings. Others will be shockingly unkempt, such as at many gas stations and bars. Public universities and big box retail stores will have a medium level of cleanliness. Nearly all public buildings are required to have restrooms accessible to the disabled. Many restrooms increasingly offer baby changing stations in both the men’s and women’s restrooms (especially in shopping centers and restaurants). A few places offer a separate, third “family” restroom which is single-occupancy but spacious. For little children who need to be monitored or assisted, it’s generally acceptable for them to use the restroom of the parent they’re with (little girls can go with dad to the men’s room, and vice versa). The other way around (dad going to the ladies’ room) is usually not okay. North Carolina had a law that transgender people use the bathrooms that match their biological sex, but it was repealed in March of 2017, a year after having been passed.
Tap water is generally chlorinated and may also include fluorine. Nevertheless, some Americans use filter pitchers (common brands for both include Brita and Pur). Although tap water is not dangerous, some Americans prefer to filter (and sometimes boil) tap water before drinking. It has more to do with taste than actual safety.
Ice in restaurants is typically made with ice machines. Water is always served for free in restaurants.
Truly isolated rural areas or sources in condemned buildings may be suspect water sources-use your best judgement-but this is exceptionally rare.
While tap water in most urban and suburban areas is safe to drink, many Americans are more comfortable drinking either filtered or bottled water. This should not be seen as a sign that the water is unsafe, rather that some prefer to always have portable bottled water on hand. You can carry a reusable water bottle (heavy plastic or metal) and refill with water from public drinking fountains, some of which are even now filtered for taste, or have a vertical spout to make dispensing water directly into a bottle easier.
These considerations, of course, bar natural disasters or other disturbances to the water supply system. Again, use your best judgement. After an earthquake or a tornado or the like you can check with the local authority, and they will have maps zoned out where unsafe water may be found. Many cities water municipal properties with ‘greywater’ (reclaimed or otherwise not-processed) water, and there will be signs stating that the water is unsafe to drink from the sprayers. This should not be a huge problem, as parks tend to have drinking water fountains if you find yourself in a desperate situation.
In hot states such as Arizona and New Mexico, all businesses must provide tap water upon request.
News media in the U.S. is almost entirely privately-owned and profit-driven, and so conforms itself to its consumers and advertisers. The result is a wide range of information and opinion, some of it focused entirely on political ideology or special interests, with others attempting to be broad and impartial to appeal to a wide audience. As a very general rule (there are always exceptions) radio news has right-wing opinions, while print and cable news has a left-wing inclination. Other publications or channels will offer a range of right, center, and left opinions, but this is relatively uncommon. In recent years (the last few decades), traditional media has been challenged by the rise of independent media on both sides of the aisle. In particular, left-wing ideologies have become most pronounced on YouTube and certain National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates, while right-wing ideologies have found space in radio (especially rural stations) and certain cable channels (such as Fox News or CNBC).
The five most important newspapers are as follows:
- Los Angeles Times – the second-largest metropolitan newspaper in circulation in the United States in 2008 and the fourth most widely distributed newspaper in the country. Center-left stance on news pages, left-wing stance on editorial pages.
- The New York Times – the largest local metropolitan newspaper in the United States and third-largest newspaper overall, behind The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. It is the national newspaper of record and is generally considered to be the most prestigious newspaper in the United States. It also takes a ;eft-wing stance on news pages and a radical/extreme left-wing stance on editorial pages.
- The Wall Street Journal – primarily covers American economic and international business topics, and financial news and issues. Its name derives from Wall Street, located in New York City, which is the heart of the financial district; it has been printed continuously since its inception on July 8, 1889, by Charles Dow, Edward Jones, and Charles Bergstresser. The newspaper has won the Pulitzer Prize thirty-four times. Mixed political stance—center-right on editorial pages, center-left on news pages.
- USA Today  – known for synthesizing news down to easy-to-read-and-comprehend stories. In the main edition seen in the US and some Canadian cities, each edition consists of four sections: News (the oft-labeled “front page” section), Money, Sports, and Life. On Fridays, two Life sections are included: the regular Life for entertainment (subtitled Weekend; section E), which features television, a DVD column, film reviews and trends, and a travel supplement called Destinations & Diversions (section D). Centrist stance. Often found at many hotels (for which they either charge a “newspaper fee” or bundle it into a larger “resort fee”).
- The Washington Post – well-known for its coverage of national politics, especially major scandals like the Watergate scandal. Typically associated with establishment Democrats and the “status quo”. Center-left stance.
Most good newsstands (especially at major airports) always carry the NYT, the WSJ, and USA Today, as well as one or more local newspapers. In addition, they may also carry either the LA Times or the Washington Post (depending on whether they sit west or east of the Mississippi River). Local newspapers can generally be found at sidewalk vending machines in the cities they cover, together with USA Today. Starbucks Coffee shops and other coffee houses often also carry newspapers.
Cable News Channels
- Cable News Network (CNN) – broadcasts, primarily, from studios in Atlanta. Delivers the latest breaking news and information on the latest top stories, weather, business, entertainment, politics, and more. Center-left stance.
- Fox News Channel – broadcasts from studios in New York City. Presents a variety of programming with up to 17 hours of live programming per day. Audio simulcasts of the channel are aired on XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. More right-wing stance.
- MSNBC – broadcasts, primarily, from studios in New York City. Features news, information, and political opinion programming. More left-wing stance.
Today, dress in the US tends to be fairly casual. For everyday clothes, jeans and T-shirts are generally acceptable, as are shorts when the weather is suitable. Sneakers (athletic shoes) are common; flip-flops, tank tops, and sandals are also popular in warm weather.
At the workplace, business casual (slacks, understated collared shirts without a tie, and non-athletic shoes) is now the default at many companies; more traditional industries (e.g. finance, legal, and insurance) still require suits and ties, while others (e.g. computer software) are even more casual, allowing jeans and even shorts.
When dressing up for nice restaurants or upscale entertainment, a pair of nice slacks, a collared shirt, and dress shoes will work almost everywhere. Ties for men are rarely necessary, but jackets are occasionally required for very upscale restaurants in big cities.
At the beach or pool, men prefer loose bathing trunks or boardshorts, and women wear bikinis or one-piece swimsuits. Nude bathing is allowed at certain private beaches or resorts; female toplessness is legal in most states. Many establishments, such as water parks, will enforce rules on improper swimwear; for example, insufficient covering of the intimate parts or offensive language. Staff members may ask you to either change into swimwear more appropriate or be escorted out of the park (typically without a refund).
Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as hijab, yarmulke, and burqa without comment. However, do be aware that in places of heightened security such as banks, municipal buildings, and so on, wearing clothing which covers the face may be regarded as suspicious behavior. If you do this, use additional caution and calmly explain if confronted.
The number one rule of respect among Americans is that it must be earned by your actions and integrity. Being honest, polite, and open-minded will win you much more respect than your age, wealth, or level of education.
Americans in general are passionate, curious conversationalists that tend to be very open, even about issues that would normally be seen as shockingly private in many parts of the world.
Americans are indirect in a way that seems superficial or rude in some parts of the world, especially where direct communication is the norm, and it can be difficult to know what to expect from them and what they’re actually saying. Do not be perplexed by this as this is simply a part of culture.
- It’s important to exercise a degree of diplomatic communication. Openly conveying your criticisms to someone, unless you know them very well, will be met with offence.
- It’s normal for an American to constantly compliment you for anything, regardless of sincerity. If you feel the compliment was insincere, smile and move along.
- Americans tend to be direct with individuals they openly view negatively. This is one of many reasons why there does tend to be a great degree of political bashing in the news, and why the American corporate world is seen as “shoe-stepping”. Do not try and take this personally as it is not a reflection of you, but rather the person that has an issue with you.
Most Americans place a high value on personal hygiene. Adults are expected to wear deodorant and to brush their teeth.
- While Americans have a reputation overseas for being loud, speaking loudly in some places–especially indoors and on public transportation–is generally viewed as inappropriate. This includes playing music, videos, etc out loud. Some more conservative areas are populated by people who may become rude if you speak loudly in a foreign language.
- Many areas of America have different accents such as Midwestern, Southern, West Coast and the New York accent. Unless you come from the areas mentioned above, mocking or trying to copy their accents as a foreigner is rude and disrespectful especially in the more conservative south of the country. In rural areas it is definitely taboo to joke or badmouth their accents.
- Some Americans will show great courtesy to elders, women, priests, military veterans, teachers, and so on, but this is purely a matter of personal preference, and behaving as though you expect superior treatment will guarantee the opposite.
- When Americans refer specifically to “lower class,” “middle class” or “upper class” people, they are referring strictly to economic status, not social status. Disrespecting someone because they have less money than you is widely regarded as terrible behavior. This is also partially why sharing one’s salary is taboo in the United States.
- Some Americans find foreign culture and language fascinating and you will likely be bombarded with questions about your home. Questions such as these are nearly always meant in a friendly and inquisitive manner. If you are asked a question that you are not comfortable answering, it is not unreasonable to say that you would prefer not to talk about the topic; more often than not, people will be understanding.
- Americans often identify with the countries of their ancestry, even if they themselves and several generations of their immediate ancestors were born in the US. For example, an American of Irish descent may tell you they are Irish if asked their ancestry. This self-labeling is understood and considered correct in the American context, and it would be considered rude to challenge this.
- Asking “what are you?” or “where is your family from?” is generally interpreted as asking where your ancestors came from before arrival in the US. You should not interpret such a comment as lack of attachment to the US. Indeed, it can be interpreted as just the opposite: all Americans are assumed to be of immigrant roots and the United States is seen as fundamentally different from other countries, so Americanness is seen as different different and not mutually exclusive with other heritage.
- Americans value and respect personal space. With the exception of handshakes, Americans in general do not like to be touched by members outside of their family or circle of friends, and will respond negatively if poked, pushed, or grabbed by a stranger. Unlike many cultures, Americans do not perform cheek kissing as a way of greeting strangers, and if they do cheek kissing at all, it is only with family members or perhaps close friends.
- Smoking indoors is heavily frowned upon and is illegal in most public buildings. If you’re in a private home and want to smoke, politely excuse yourself and go outside.
- When visiting an American’s home, it is generally not expected that you bring a gift. Gift-giving is typically limited to birthdays and certain religious holidays. However, if invited over for dinner or an evening party, bringing a bottle of wine is often appreciated. In all gift-giving occasions, it is considered crass and unthoughtful to give cash. Gifts of flowers outside of a vase are exclusively considered to be displays of romantic affection – gifts of flowers in a vase are an appropriate platonic “thank you”. If you are staying in an American home for more than a few minutes, especially if you are walking onto a carpeted area, it is polite to ask the host if you should remove your shoes.
- Adults should avoid speaking directly to children they don’t know. American children are taught to be wary of strangers and also many American adults are wary of pedophiles who are highly despised in the United States; molestation of children is a serious crime that is severely punished. If you have something you’d like to say to a child, address the adult he or she is with. If the child looks lost, call the police and monitor from a distance, and only intervene if the child is in immediate danger.
- Videotaping in any indoor public-use place is highly frowned upon in the United States of America and can rather easily result in expulsion from the premises, even without warning. Places that prohibit or restrict videotaping by visitors include shopping malls, stores, restaurants, museums, arcades, movie theaters, nightclubs, bars, taverns, and stadiums. This is sometimes for security reasons as criminals in the U.S. often videotape and/or look around public places to gain familiarity before they commit a criminal act in the area, but is also mostly for privacy reasons as in America, indoor places that are used by the public are considered private property. Additionally, cameras (both still and motion picture) are prohibited at strip clubs and clothing-optional facilities, and taking pictures and/or videos inside strip clubs and clothing-optional facilities is illegal under Federal law and grounds for arrest. Videotaping is usually permitted at most outdoor locations and amusement parks, but is highly restricted and oftentimes prohibited on rides, especially at chain parks like Six Flags and Cedar Fair. Different stadiums, and even different events at the same stadium can have different photo policies. It is always best to ask about the photo and video policy to determine acceptability. Additionally, even when in places where photographing and/or video taping is allowed, use spatial awareness and try not to block sidewalks, invade others’ personal space, etc.
- Public display of affection, including hugging, gets various types of reactions depending on the region it occurs in. Generally, in the northern tier states (especially within northern states such as Alaska, Montana, Illinois, New York, and such), public displays of affection, including hugging, are seen as tacky and inconsiderate. Also, many schools and work places prohibit public display of affection. Public display of affection is generally more permitted and open in the South, especially in deep southern states (Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, and such) where even waitresses in fact occasionally hug their customers.
- In the U.S., LGBT topics are a heated topic with some strongly approving and some strongly disapproving. It is a topic best not discussed especially in some states where it can be dangerous to give a positive view of it.
- In regard to pets, many Americans value their pet as a family member. It would not be a good idea to make a rude comment about somebody’s dog or cat. Such remarks will often be greeted with hostility and could lead to an altercation.
- The United States has been through several waves of feminism since the 19th century and has been influenced by feminism more than any other country in the world. Respect should be given equally to both genders. The issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault is a very serious matter in the United States for both man and women, as sexual assault and harassment are a problem for both genders.
- Address an American woman by her given name. The titles ‘Miss'(or ‘Missus’, if the woman is obviously married) and ‘Ma’am’ are also acceptable, if you are unsure of the woman’s name. If you are not sure whether or not it would be appropriate to address a woman by her given name, it is usually acceptable to use ‘Miss,’ ‘Missus,’ or ‘Ma’am’; if the woman would prefer you to use her name, she’ll generally just say so.
- There are Native American reservations scattered throughout the country, particularly in the Upper Midwest and the Southwest. Many of these reservations are home to sites that are sacred to the tribe, and certain places may be off-limits to outsiders. If you enter a reservation’s territory, please be sure to respect the land. They also have unique legal status allowing them to regulate themselves. Laws and customs may be different in these regions.
Things to avoid
- Many Americans are openly critical of their government and its policies (political debate being a national pastime), but the US is a very large country with all types of people, and some may be offended to hear any criticism from foreign visitors. Most Americans will change the subject or excuse themselves from the conversation if they think you are being inappropriate. If this happens, do not pursue the offending topic further. As a general rule, don’t discuss political issues with people unless you’re well acquainted with them or if they’ve asked for your opinion.
- Do not insult or speak badly of the country. Although it is legal to criticise the country, many Americans would not appreciate your feedback unless you’re well acquainted with them. Some Americans aren’t tolerant of criticism of their country, and if theirs is spoken about negatively, it could either result in violence or some harsh words.
- The Bald Eagle is the national animal, and is beloved by many Americans and is a sacred animal in many Indian reservations. Respect national wildlife.
- Do not desecrate the national flag or inappropriately use it. Americans in general are proud of their national symbols and would be incredibly offended.
- Do not mock or insult the national anthem. Americans in general are proud of their national symbols and would be incredibly offended.
- In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Confederate symbols and imagery are becoming increasingly frowned upon. It is advisable to avoid discussing the Confederacy, or at least portraying it in a positive light. It is also advisable to avoid wearing any articles of clothing displaying the Confederate battle flag (including those related to the popular TV show The Dukes of Hazzard).
- Pride in the American military is very strong, and at many sporting events and institutions, military members often receive recognition. Americans are free to respectfully disagree with military policy, but questioning the honor and integrity of American soldiers themselves is usually unacceptable. As an outsider you should do neither unless you know the person very well. To that end, people, especially the more educated, will typically make a distinction between the military-industrial complex (a system existing in many countries other than the United States) and the actual personnel of the military. It is somewhat widely understood that the United States government operates its military without taking the preferences of its citizens into consideration and that the United States, for better or worse, is a military superpower. However, soldiers will typically be seen as simply “following orders”.
- Given the variety of religions practiced throughout the States, you should expect to be surrounded by many who disagree with your beliefs, though most are tolerant of such differences. Bear in mind that the freedom of religion is regarded as an inalienable right in the U.S., and tends to be guarded jealously. Nearly every religious faith practiced in the world is represented in the U.S., with very little religious violence to show for it. While you’re unlikely to offend an American by politely asking about their religion or offering to explain your own, aggressive disparaging remarks of other faiths will not earn you any respect, and at worst you will cause grave offense to that person which may lead to a confrontation. You may also be invited to a church or other religious place of worship by someone you meet as a gesture of good will and to invite you to explore their faith. If you are interested, follow along and be respectful regardless if you agree with their beliefs. If you disagree, politely decline but do not be rude or talk badly about their faith, or again you may cause great offense and cause a confrontation.
- Nazism and other Fascist ideologies are viewed negatively by pretty much everyone. Holocaust denial is not tolerated in the United States (particularly because many of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany during World War 2 were discovered and documented first-hand by American soldiers as well as the fact that many survivors settled in the USA after the war; the latter passed on their stories with them.)
- As a result of the country’s extensive history of racial discrimination, coupled with the country’s push toward racial equality, Americans are exceptionally sensitive about issues of race. If you must reference race at all (it’s preferred that you avoid it, if at all possible), Black or African-American (the term Negro is considered very outdated and the other N word is seen as racist, discriminatory and will close doors for you if used), Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, and White or Caucasian are generally acceptable terms. It is also not uncommon to hear the phrase People of color used in reference to non-White/Caucasian people in general.
- Jokes at the expense of a specific race, ethnic group, etc. are generally not tolerated. Such jokes are often considered a sign of bigotry and most Americans will not find them humorous, even if they are not a member of the offended group.
- Note also that when Americans use the term “Asian” by itself to refer to people, they are often specifically referring to East Asians and not to people from South Asia. In most parts of the US, East Asian communities are larger and more established than South Asian communities. (Note that this usage is exactly opposite that of British English, in which “Asian” by itself refers exclusively to South Asians, and East Asians are usually called “Oriental” which is considered incredibly offensive in America.)
- Some ethnic groups, such as African Americans, have been widely stereotyped as speaking with a certain cadence or dialect. It is increasingly being viewed unfavorably to comment that a person does not sound or talk like a member of his race or ethnic group. You should never remark that a non-White person sounds White when they talk. Such a remark would probably be taken as an offense, especially if you mean it in a complementary way as it suggests that you view the default “proper” way of speaking as that of White Americans. In a similar vein, telling a non-White person that they speak English very well can be seen as rude, as it implies the assumption that they are not a native speaker, not from the States, etc.
U.S. telephone numbers are governed by the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) and are invariably written in one of these formats:
- (XXX) YYY-ZZZZ
The numbers YYY-ZZZZ make up the local part of the telephone number (specifically, the telephone exchange number and line number). You must dial all seven digits even if the YYY portion is the same as the line you are calling from. The numbers XXX denote the area code. Densely populated areas often have several area codes (e.g. the six area codes within the borders of New York City), while some sparsely-populated states will have one or two codes for the entire state (e.g. Montana).
Ordinarily, if the number you are dialing is within the same area code as the one for the line you are dialing from, dial YYY-ZZZZ; otherwise, dial 1-XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. However, many metropolitan areas, and even some entire states (such as Maryland and West Virginia) have implemented 10-digit dialing, where all local calls must be dialed as XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. (In such areas, you must still dial “1” to distinguish long-distance calls.) Mobile phones are much simpler and can be dialed with all 10 digits regardless of whether the call is local or long distance.
You may occasionally see phone numbers for business which spell out words, such as “1-800-FLOWERS”. Almost all phones have letters written on each number (“2” is “ABC”, “3” is “DEF”, etc.) which you use to dial the number; for example, “FLOWERS” becomes “356-9377”. This is a legacy of the old alphabet letter codes which were previously used for telephone exchanges. In the case of mobile phones, most feature phones (i.e., not smartphones) have the letters printed along with the numbers. As for smartphones, most touchscreen phones have virtual phone keypads that display the corresponding letters along with the numbers. Smartphones without touchscreens, such as some older BlackBerry devices, often allow you to enter letters as part of a phone number. In either case, entering “1-800-FLOWERS” and pressing the send button should connect you to that business.
Long-distance calls are calls to lines outside the “local calling area” of the line from which you are dialing. The long-distance prefix (in some countries called the “trunk” prefix) in the U.S. is “1”, so a long-distance call should be dialed 1-XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. As with local calls, dialing incorrectly will result in an automated message informing you how to properly dial the number. Mobile phones typically do not require you to dial “1” for long-distance.
Canada and certain Caribbean islands also participate in the NANP. This means they can be dialed using “1” as if they were in the U.S., although the call will be billed at international rates. As a general rule, calls to Canada are more expensive than U.S. domestic calls, but cheaper than calls to other countries. Calls to other locations require using the international access code (“011”) followed by the country code of the destination number. For example, a call from the United States to the British Museum in London would be dialed as 011-44-20-7323-8000.
At some locations with internal phone systems (e.g. businesses and hotels), you will need to dial an access code (usually “9” or “8”) to reach an outside line before dialing the number as usual.
Numbers with the area code 800, 888, 877, 866, or 855 are toll free within the U.S, meaning that the cost of the call is paid by the recipient. Outside the country, dial 880, 881, 882, and 883 respectively, but these aren’t toll free. The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges applied to the call (e.g. “adult entertainment”). This is also true of “local” seven-digit phone numbers starting with 976.
Most visitor areas and some restaurants and bars have directories with two listings of telephone numbers (often split into two books): the white pages, for an alphabetical listing; and the yellow pages, an advertising-filled listing of business and service establishments by category (e.g. “Taxicabs”). Directory information can also be obtained by dialing 411 (for local numbers) or 1-area code-555-1212 (for other areas). If 411 doesn’t work locally, try 555-1212 or 1-555-1212. Directory information is normally an extra cost call. As an alternative, directory information is available for free via 1-800-Free411, which is ad-supported. Information directories are also available online at each regional telephone company’s web site (most often AT&T, Verizon, or CenturyLink; also Frontier in West Virginia and FairPoint in northern New England), as well as www.free411.com. Although each claims to have all the local phone numbers of the others, using the site of the region you are searching for yields the best results (i.e. AT&T for most of California, Verizon for the Northeast, etc.) Many residential land-line phones and all mobile phones are unlisted.
Historically, pay phones were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States, and commonplace in other places such as gas stations. After 2000, cell phone usage soared and pay phone usage collapsed, so the regional landline telecom monopolies exited the pay phone business. The small companies that took over the legacy pay phones have ripped out most of them and increased prices on the ones that remain. Today, prices are typically 50 cents for the first three minutes, and a quarter for each additional minute. You will probably have to enter a store or restaurant to find one, though some are against the outer wall of such businesses, usually in front, or near bus stops. Most pay phones are coin operated (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept paper bills. An online directory of pay phones can be found at Pay Phone Directory . Dialing 9-1-1 to report an emergency is still a free call on pay phones, it’s just a matter of locating one to use.
Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. Most calling cards have specific destinations in mind (domestic calls, calls to particular countries), so make sure you get the right card. Some cards may be refilled by phoning a number and giving your Visa/MasterCard number, but often operators refuse foreign cards for this purpose. Moreover, calls may cost more if a payphone or toll-free number is used or if a mobile number is dialed or if more calls are made (rather than few but longer calls).
Another option is using a virtual number service. That way you can avoid paying for roaming.
American mobile phone services (known as cell phones regardless of the technology used) are not very compatible with those offered abroad. While GSM has been gaining in popularity, the US uses the unusual 1900 and 850MHz frequencies; check with your operator or mobile phone dealer to see if your phone is a tri-band or quad-band model that will work here. Roaming fees for foreign mobiles are high and text messages may not always work due to compatibility issues between networks.
Depending on the length of your trip and the amount of calling you plan on doing, it may be less expensive to obtain an American mobile phone. If you are arriving and departing from the same city, consider that most larger airports will have a boutique that rents mobile phones (rates start around $3/day). Alternatively, prepaid phones and top-up cards can be purchased at mobile phone boutiques and at many discount, electronics, office supply and convenience stores. A very basic mobile handset and credit for an hour or two’s worth of calls can be had for under $40, though be aware that international calling will, if it is in fact available, use up those credits much more quickly than a domestic call. It is possible to purchase a prepaid SIM card for an unlocked mobile, although these are not nearly as common in the United States as in other countries so you will probably have to purchase it from a GSM provider’s boutique. The four major national carriers are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, which operate boutiques in most, if not all, metropolitan areas and offer pre-paid service. Historically, the AT&T and T-Mobile networks have used GSM, while Verizon and Sprint have used the different CDMA standard (whose phones did not use SIM cards). Verizon, however, is discontinuing their CDMA network and allowing GSM only devices to use their network. Today, all four carriers are quickly migrating to the newer LTE standard (which uses SIM cards), and most Verizon and Sprint phones support LTE, CDMA, and GSM. Other providers of mobile phone service include TracFone, Boost Mobile, Simple Mobile, and various regional operators. To work out whether a regional operator might work better (as their deals are more flexible over their local areas of service) OpenSignal provide independent US coverage maps.
Unlike in many countries, there is no surcharge for dialing a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are charged the same as calls to land lines outside your geographic area), but on the other hand mobile phone users are charged for incoming and outgoing calls and SMS (you won’t be able to contact someone who does not have sufficient balance to receive phone calls). Numbers that are toll-free from land lines, however, are not free when dialed from a mobile phone. Packages as low as $25/month are available to allow you to make hundreds of minutes worth of calls. Take note that a failed attempt at making a call (or a “missed call”) will be deducted from your balance since you are charged from the moment you dial.
The US has moved away from contracts and it is more common to pay your phone through an installment plan or lease the device. Most postpaid plans offer unlimited calling, SMS, and data, but limit the speed of certain content or add extra features if you pay more. With the removal of contracts, the phone can be purchased either upfront, through an interest-free installment plan for a 24 month period, or leased with certain conditions. Instead of paying a fee to leave, the remaining balance on the phone is charged.
Conversely, if you are only going to be in the US for a short period (eg a week or less), some carriers (most notably T-Mobile) offer a plan that allows unlimited calling, texting, and data for $2-3 per day. This will not include international calling, however.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) operates a gigantic network of post offices and mailboxes throughout the country. Postal services are very reliable and prompt – mail and packages will generally arrive at any destination in the country within a week. Post sent to local address or other cities in the same region will arrive within a few days. The bright blue metal mailboxes of the USPS are a ubiquitous sight in rural and urban settings, indoors and outdoors, in every U.S. state and territory. They are normally serviced once, twice or even thrice a day, Monday through Saturday. Pickup times are always listed on a label on the box. In suburban areas, it is common to see mailboxes located on a drive-through lane outside of a post office.
Each post office has different hours, but most are open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Saturday. In high crime areas, post offices are completely closed to the public when not open. In low crime areas, the lobby is divided into two areas. The retail counter area is closed after hours, but the rest of the lobby can be open 24/7 (or may only be open longer hours like 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and normally includes access to Post Office Boxes as well as at least one Self-Service Kiosk (SSK). The SSK is an easy-to-use self-service touchscreen kiosk that accepts credit cards. It can weigh packages and print out a variety of different types of postage and labels.
In general, the addressee’s section of the piece of mail should appear as follows:
(name of recipient)
(street address, which contains the house number and street name)
(apartment, suite or room number if any)
(city or town), (two digit state abbreviation) (ZIP code)
John & Jane Doe
555 Main St
Houston, TX 77002-0001
To send items to any destination within the U.S. by post, the most important item in the addressee’s section of the mailpiece is the ZIP code (postal code).
The importance of the ZIP code arises from the Postal Service’s highly automated process for handling mail. USPS personnel dump all newly received mailpieces into a scanning machine that runs optical character recognition on the destination address and then sprays or prints a Intelligent Mail Barcode corresponding to the ZIP+4 code. The Intelligent Mail Barcode is then scanned by high-speed automatic sorting machines at each step in the system, in order to route the mailpiece into the bag or tray of the letter carrier whose route includes that ZIP+4 code. Thus, if the ZIP+4 code and Intelligent Mail Barcode are incorrect, the error will not be detected until the mailpiece gets to the wrong letter carrier. The USPS requires a particular combination of house number and street name to be unique within the same city, but does not require a street name to be unique across an entire metropolitan area. Since there are often many cities in a single metropolitan area that have streets with the same name, writing the correct ZIP code is essential to prompt delivery of your mailpiece.
When you do not know of or are unsure of the correct ZIP code, visit USPS.com, the website of the USPS. It enables users to look up ZIP codes by city and by street address. Entering a full street address may return a ZIP code (first 5 digits) and ZIP+4 (next 4 digits) to a total of 9 digits. The ZIP (first 5 digits) usually encompasses a greater area such as a section of a city, an entire town or across an expansive (rural) area encompassing several small towns. University campuses, large hospitals, governmental agencies, military bases, sections of the U.S. military or a single large building may have their own unique ZIP code and any mail sent to that particular ZIP code goes to that institution’s internal mail room for onward delivery. Depending upon the complexity of a particular place, the unique ZIP+4 code (next for 4 digits) may correspond to anything from a segment along a letter carrier’s route to the entire route (which may cover an entire small town); a group of apartments, offices or storefronts in a single address; an office within a specific building (which is often the case in big cities); or a department, office, mail stop or a building on an university campus or some large entity with its own unique zip code.
The “+4” portion of the ZIP code is optional. For nearly all addresses, as long as the written address in its entirety corresponds to an actual and unique address, the OCR machine will be able to link it to that address, quickly identify the correct “+4” portion, and print the correct Intelligent Mail Barcode. But the ZIP code (the first 5 digits) is always necessary. In some areas, the same ZIP code may be used for multiple towns (for example, 19401 applies to Norristown and East Norriton, Pennsylvania), but a street name may occur multiple times in the ZIP code (there are two Montgomery Avenues in 19401, one in Norristown, the other in East Norriton), so be sure to use the correct town and use the ZIP+4, if possible.
First class (airmail) postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $1.20 internationally including to Canada and Mexico. It is no longer necessary to mark “AIR MAIL” on items going overseas as everything is now sent abroad on airplane by default. All addresses with a USPS ZIP code are considered “domestic”, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, U.S. military bases abroad (identified with an ‘APO’ or ‘FPO’ address), U.S. Navy ships at sea (usually ‘FPO’ addresses)  and U.S. diplomatic missions abroad (‘DPO’ addresses). Domestic postcards are sent for $0.35 (Jan. 2018) while a letter in an envelope weighing within 1 oz is mailed for $0.55. If you put a solid object like a coin or a key in an envelope, you’ll pay a surcharge. 
“Forever” stamps are always valid for the first ounce for all first-class domestic mail items, with no surcharge after a price increase. (For all other kinds of price increases and historically for first-class domestic mail price increases, the USPS sells one and two-cent stamps which must be added to cover the difference between the face value of stamps sold before an increase and the current rate.) However, Forever stamps are not valid for international use.
If for whatever reason you have stamps that don’t add up to the correct exact amount, you can try overpaying by adding one more stamp. The USPS stamp canceling machines are intelligent enough to recognize that fact and allow the mail piece through.
Due to sagging demand, the USPS has taken away the vending machines through which one could formerly purchase a variety of pre-printed stamp booklets in post office lobbies. The SSKs as initially deployed could regularly dispense at least one type of pre-printed stamp booklet year-round, but that feature has been withdrawn as well. The USPS will still make stamp booklets available sometimes through the SSKs, but only on an intermittent and seasonal basis.
Therefore, at this time, the only always-available method for buying postage at a post office when the retail counter is closed is to use the SSK in the lobby to print bar-coded postage labels. However, besides post office retail counters, stamp booklets are also available from many retailers, including pharmacies, supermarkets, and certain banks.
Receiving mail via General Delivery
You can receive mail sent both domestically and from abroad by having it addressed to you as “General Delivery.” In other countries, this is often called Poste Restante. There is no charge for this service. You just go to the main post office, wait in line, and they will give you your mail after showing ID such as a passport.
The last four digits of the ZIP (postal) Code for General Delivery is always ‘9999’. If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will have the General Delivery service. This means, for example, if you’re staying in the Green Lake district of Seattle (a few miles north of downtown), you cannot receive your mail at the Green Lake Post Office, and must travel downtown to get it. On the other hand, if you’re completely outside of the city of Seattle, and in a smaller town with only one post office, you can have it sent there.
The two largest private courier services, UPS and FedEx, also have a “Hold for Pickup” option. Both can hold a package at the nearest depot, while FedEx can also hold packages at FedEx Office locations.
Most Americans have Internet access, mostly in their homes and offices. Internet cafes, therefore, are not common outside of major metropolitan, tourist and resort areas. However, you almost always have several options for Internet access, except perhaps in the most remote, rural areas.
If you bring your own computer or tablet: