Updated July 20, 2020.
It’s Travel Tip Tuesday! I was recently brainstorming about what to write in the coming weeks when it hit me: I have no posts about what to expect as a visitor in the United States! It’s something I always try to research before I visit a new place, and I’ve been writing “What to Know Before You Go” posts for every place I’ve visited in the last year and a half and then some, so I thought it was high time to give visitors and newcomers to my home country a few notes on what to expect when they come to the United States for the first time.
You probably already know we use the U.S. dollar, or USD, but here are a few other things to note about money in the United States.
- Bring your cards. There are some places in America where cash is not accepted–they prefer credit or debit cards!
- But have some cash with you, too. There are very few places that accept only cash, but if you plan to go to farmers’ markets or very small restaurants and shops in small towns, you might need to pay with cash. You can always get cash out of an ATM, any time of day or night!
- Tipping is optional but necessary, and should be 15-20% minimum. Tipping is a big deal in the United States, especially for waitstaff. With the exception of a few states, restaurant servers are only making $2.13, even though minimum wage is $7.25 (and higher in some states). Why? Because tips more than make up for the rest. I realize that in Europe, Australia, and many other areas of the world, the tip or service charge is already included in the price, but that is not the case in America. My friends from other countries are so excited about the low cost of food at restaurants in America, and then appalled when they find out they are expected to tip. Please tip your server!
- Coins: The size of U.S. coins are not an indication of how much they are worth. Sorry, I know that’s confusing! Here is a guide:
More here: Travel and Your Money
The United States is BIG! If you’re planning to visit more than one city or state, you will very likely want to rent a car or fly between them. The public transportation systems do not connect the whole country, and some major cities have little to no public transportation system at all! If you are staying in one city, you will probably do just fine without a car, but more than likely, you will want a car when you come to America. Here are a few other things to note:
- Drive on the right. If you are from the British Isles, Japan, Singapore, or another country where you drive on the left, no worries! You will get used to driving on the right in no time.
- Right turn on red. You may take a right at any intersection with a red light as long as no one is coming, unless there is a sign that states “No Turn on Red.”
- Coast to Coast is about 3,000 miles. You won’t be able to drive across it in a day, or even a few days!
- We use Imperial measurements, not the Metric system. So do Liberia and Myanmar, and I’ve heard Brits and Irish acquaintances give me directions in miles instead of kilometers as though it were second nature as well. But for those fully immersed in the metric system:
- 1 mile: 0.6 kilometer
- 1 yard: just under 1 meter
- 55 miles per hour (mph): 88.5 kilometers per hour (km/h)
- If you need more conversions, download the Convert app!
- Keep at least 1-3 car lengths between you and the vehicle in front of you. Americans get very annoyed if you follow closer than that and it is considered “tailgating.”
- Purchase the rental car’s insurance if your policy at home will not cover your rental car abroad. You are required to have car insurance in the United States, but many car owners’ policies will cover them in the case of a rental car as well, so it is sold separately.
Essential Info: How to Plan a Road Trip
and The Ultimate Great American Road Trip
Food and Drink
It’s no secret: Americans love to eat! Eating at an American restaurant is a little different than restaurants in much of the rest of the world. Foods will be big and often over-the-top with toppings and special additions. You can linger if you like, but you won’t be expected to dine over the course of two or three hours as is the custom in some other countries. And please read the note in the “Money Matters” section about tipping!
- FREE water and FREE refills. Get ready for this, folks: with the exception of California, which is in a major drought, you will be given water at any restaurant for free. You can have as much as you want! You will have to pay for your first soft drink, tea, etc., but then you will be given free refills unless otherwise noted.
- Ice is included. Want ice with that? No? Too bad! Ice will come with almost any drink. Exceptions are hot drinks and most alcoholic beverages. This is very different from Europe where it’s been my experience that you’ll be hard-pressed to find ice in any beverage, even in summer!
- All-American foods to try: Many foods in America will have origins elsewhere, but there are some foods that are distinctly American. Some popular American foods are specific to a region of the United States, so be sure to try them when you visit!
- Hamburgers and cheeseburgers (you will literally find these almost anywhere, even in many upscale restaurants)
- Hotdogs, corndogs, peanuts, and cracker jacks (try these at a baseball game!)
- Apple pie (get it a la mode!)
- Key lime pie (famous in Florida, especially the Florida Keys)
- Barbecue (many regions, even within the same state, claim theirs is best! Try the local barbecue wherever you go, but especially in Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Missouri)
- Pizza (New York, and Chicago are both convinced theirs is the absolute best)
- Popcorn (famous at the movies, but also available as street food in many flavors)
- Meatloaf (all-American comfort food, often served with ketchup on top)
What should you eat in America?
Checkout this List of Great American Food!
Unless you’re driving from Canada or Mexico, or if you’re coming from an island via a cruise ship, you will be flying into an international airport in the United States. After 9/11, air travel became much more secure and many more rules and regulations were added, but that is generally true all over the world. Here is what to expect no matter which airport you fly into!
- Fill out your customs form. You will be given a blue customs form on your flight to the United States, so make sure you fill it out completely, on both sides.
- Customs and passport control first. No matter where you fly into, if you’re coming from abroad, you will have to pass through customs and passport control first and foremost. You may have to wait in line an hour or more, but be glad you won’t have to do this when flying between states!
Find everything you need on my Air Travel Page!
Good to Know
There are just some things that are good to know, but you may not expect them if it’s your first time in the United States.
- In an emergency, pick up any phone and dial 911.
- Temperatures are in Fahrenheit. Similarly to speed and distance mentioned in the “Driving” section above, we also use Fahrenheit instead of Celsius or Centigrade. Here is a quick, general guide:
- Temperatures between about 65 to about 80 degrees are considered comfortably warm;
- Temperatures between 50 to 64 are considered chilly, and you will need a jacket;
- Temperatures between 33 and 50 degrees is cold, so you will want layers or a heavier jacket;
- Freezing is 32 degrees, which is 0 degrees Celsius!
- The official language is English. Some areas in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California also have large Spanish-speaking populations because of their proximity to Spanish-speaking countries.
- Every region has its own accent and dialect. If English is not your first language, you may not notice it at first, but the more you listen to people from different regions of the United States speak, the more you will start to hear the differences!
- The climate varies. If you’re in Florida, you’ll get comfortable weather and very rarely will you ever see snow. If you’re in Minnesota, you’ll get snow anywhere from October until April, and temperatures will stay below freezing for long stretches of time in the winter, but the summers will be mild with lovely outdoor activities to enjoy. Check the weather at all your destinations before you pack!
- People are friendly. A friend of mine moved to Tennessee from Qatar over 20 years ago, and when I asked her what was most surprising when she moved, she said the people in America were so friendly! People will smile at you even if they don’t know you. While the American South is well known for this and for “Southern hospitality,” it holds true for people everywhere in America. Smile back! It’ll be great! She said, “Even when I couldn’t speak English, people were really nice.”
- The “first floor” is the one you walk into. When I travel to Europe, I almost always forget that the floor I walk into is “zero floor,” and the “first floor” is one floor up! When you come to America, remember that the first floor you walk into will almost always be the “first floor,” and the next floor up is the second floor.
- There are FREE public restrooms! It’s true! Pretty much any city you visit will have public restrooms. No paying to use the facilities, no paying for toilet paper or bringing your own (but check before you sit down to make sure the stall is not out of toilet paper!). This is something I wish other countries would adopt, and I am always grateful for it when traveling around my home country! Not sure where it is? Step into a restaurant, shop, or the city’s visitor center and ask–those friendly Americans will tell you where the closest public restroom is located.
- Respect lines. Waiting your turn in line is very important to Americans. We learn to wait in lines from the time we are very small, and when you try to pass someone in line (or “cut the line”), you will have some very upset Americans right behind you.
- Personal space. Americans are used to wide open spaces, and if you’re standing too close to us, we get very uncomfortable! Stay about an arm’s length away from the people around you when possible. It’s not always possible in large cities or on public transportation, but generally, Americans do not like to be touching anyone around them unless they are actually together.
In the United States, we have federal laws that every state must follow, as well as state laws that an individual state itself enforces. There are also local laws that counties or cities have in place. This might sound scary, but never fear! There are some big ones you may want to take note of, but in general, don’t worry!
- Drinking age is 21. Sorry, even if your country’s legal drinking age is 16 or 18 or there is no minimum drinking age, you will not be allowed to purchase alcohol of any kind, anywhere.
- Smoking age is 18. If your identification shows you’re younger than 18 years old, you will not be allowed to buy cigarettes.
- Smoking is not allowed inside. This does not apply everywhere, but many states now have laws in place that will not allow anyone to smoke inside or within 25 feet of a doorway. A notable exception is Las Vegas, Nevada, but if you are a smoker, research your location’s smoking laws before you visit.
Below are some useful words to know in American English. If you’re not sure what some of these words are, type them (or copy and paste them) into Google Translate for the meaning in your language!
- Football: This is not the same as “futbol,” which in America is called “soccer!” Click here for everything you need to know about American football. If you’re here between August and January, try to go to a football game!
- Bathroom, restroom, or toilet: This is where you go to use the toilet. These terms are interchangeable; if you ask for the “WC” or “Water closet,” you may get a funny look unless the person you’re asking has traveled outside the United States!
- Vacation: Most countries around the world refer to vacation as a “holiday,” but for Americans, we generally think of holidays as actual days—Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc. So you may get a funny look if you mention that you’re “on holiday,” since most Americans would say they’re “on vacation.”
- “Hi,” “Hello,” “Hey”: These are friendly greetings! People may also wave to you as they say these words.
- Please: This is polite to say before or after asking a question.
- Thank you: This is the thing to say when someone helps you or answers a question for you.
- How much?
- A “buck”: this is another term for a “dollar”
When you’re planning your visit, sometimes it’s good to know when the national holidays occur. These are also called “federal holidays,” “bank holidays,” “school holidays,” etc., and you may find larger crowds in your travels around these days. Just so you know, here are the major U.S. holidays when banks, federal buildings, and sometimes schools are closed:
- New Year’s Day: January 1
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Third Monday in January
- Presidents’ Day: Third Monday in February
- Memorial Day: Last Monday in May
- Independence Day: Fourth of July
- Labor Day: First Monday in September
- Columbus Day: Second Monday in October
- Veteran’s Day: November 11
- Thanksgiving Day: Fourth Thursday in November
- Christmas Day: December 25
I hope this post is very helpful for your visit to the United States! Have more questions? Ask me below!
And don’t forget to check out my United States Page for everything you need to know and more!
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5 thoughts on “What to Know Before You Visit the USA”
This was a really good post! If a European really wanted to see five or six countries in a day, they could drive through them. In the United States, a day may or may not get them across one!
USA is a varied and wonderful place.
Thanks! It was a fun post to write!
Great information – thanks Whitney! It was really interesting to read this post Whitney as we understand quite a bit about travelling in the US and Canada. One thing that people travelling through the US may need to know about is the ESTA visa You need this if you are travelling from one country to another and going via USA even if you are only in transit while your plane refuels or on a layover where you are not planning to leave the airport. You can get an ESTA if your country is part of the Visa Waiver programme. Also make sure that your passport’s expiry date is no less than 6 months before it’s expiry date or there could be complications. One advantage of having this as well would be that if you faced a significant delay somewhere in the US, you would be able to leave the airport and explore 🙂
Great information! I had heard of ESTA but I never knew what it was! There are a million more things to know, as I realized while struggling to write this post. It was harder than I anticipated, but I’m glad you liked it!