From iconic cities and friendly people to diverse landscapes and below average airport security, there is no place in the world like The United States of America. It’s no wonder the U.S.A. is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. However, the U.S. and its culture can be a bit intimidating for a first-time visitor, so to help ease the culture shock, here are a few things you’ll want to know about the “land of the free” before your trip!
1. Don’t Forget Your U.S. VISA
It’s crucial for every traveler to know the requirements needed to enter the USA, because accidentally applying for the wrong U.S. tourist visa, or showing up without the proper documents will result in entry being declined.
Certain travelers may qualify for a 90 day visa waiver, known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This travel authorization is processed through the US Visa Waiver Program which permits you to travel to the U.S. without a visa! To get the ESTA you’ll need to be a citizen of a member country (most European countries, Australia and Japan fall under this category) traveling to the U.S. on business or for pleasure for 90 days or less, have a valid passport, and an approved ESTA application.
The application is pretty easy, it takes about 20 minutes to fill out online and costs only $14 USD. Once approved, your ESTA is valid for 2 years and you can travel to the U.S. as many times as you please. However, each visit must be no more than 90 days. It’s important to note the 90 days starts once you touch down on U.S. soil. It does not stop or reset if you cross the border to neighboring countries like Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. So keep this in mind when planning your trip as you do not want to pay overstay fees or end up getting deported!
If you plan to stay for more than 90 days, or you are not a citizen of a member country you must apply for the appropriate U.S. visa. Check this website for more information.
2. Don’t Visit the U.S. Without Travel Insurance
Healthcare costs in the U.S. are outrageously expensive and every year thousands of U.S. citizens file for bankruptcy due to medical debt. A ride in an ambulance can set you back over $2,700 while the actual visit to an Emergency Room can cost anywhere from $200-$3,000 depending on your medical condition. In extreme cases, charges could be as high as $20,000! It’s imperative to purchase travel insurance before traveling to the U.S. You don’t want to be caught in a predicament where you have to choose between going to the hospital or sticking it out when you are sick! Save yourself the headache and the money and invest in travel insurance. We use and recommend SafetyWing.
3. Tipping Is Expected
Tipping is technically voluntary but, because minimum wage for wait staff is even lower than normal, it is expected that they will make up the difference in tips. Therefore, tipping is pretty much mandatory or rather, an unofficial rule!. A 15 to 20% tip is customary when eating out. Before giving a tip, be sure to check that the tip wasn’t already included in the bill, especially if you’re dining with a party of 6 or more people. Note, that tipping goes beyond just eating at restaurants, and you should expect to tip bartenders ($1-2 per drink), hotel housekeeping ($3-5 per night), taxi drivers (10-15%), and even Bellman ($1-2 per bag). It’s a good idea to add tips to your spending budgeting when planning your trip to the U.S.A.!
4. Prices Are Not What They Seem
When it comes to prices, Americans have this magic trick where price tags have one price but when it’s rang up at the cashier, POOF it has another more expensive price. This trick is called, sales tax. Most price tags exclude sales tax so be prepared to pay more than you initially expect! Sales tax is usually between 6% to 10% extra and varies from state to state as well as from city to city.
5. There is More to the U.S. Than N.Y.C.
With so many movies based in New York City., L.A., and Miami, I can see why people would think these iconic cities are all the U.S. has to offer. But boy is that wrong! The U.S. is one of the largest countries in the world, and is very diverse in its landscape, people, and even climate. The country spans six time zones, and the distance from New York City to San Francisco is farther than from Lisbon to Moscow!
With that being said, don’t attempt to see too much in one visit. I would recommend sticking to one region, like the Northeast where you can visit N.Y.C., Boston, and Washington D.C. or the West Coast where you can discover L.A., San Francisco, and Las Vegas all in one go! This way you can truly see and explore a place and not simply rush from state to state just so you can say, “I’ve been there.”
6. Explore Some National Parks
The U.S.’s national parks are some of the most beautiful in the world. You should definitely visit one, if not two, during you trip. From the Grand Canyon to the Smoky Mountains, you can discover diverse parks filled with breathtaking scenery, pristine lakes, and interesting wildlife. With 59 national parks covering over 80 million acres across the states, you might consider taking an entire trip dedicated just to exploring them as they are one of America’s true treasures and shouldn’t be missed!
7. Every State Is Like It’s Own Little Country
Whether it’s the landscape, climate, food, slang, personalities, or even the style of clothing, you’ll notice that things change from state to state! For example, folks from New York City are known for always being in a rush, and the city itself is known as the fashion capital of the U.S. while California. folks are more laid back and prefer flip flops, shorts, and tank tops. Even the laws are different from state to state. For example, in Texas anyone can buy a gun without a license while in California you need a special license in order to purchase a gun. Smoking marijuana is another example, in Massachusetts it’s legal but in Louisiana it’s against the law. So, just because something is allowed in one state, doesn’t mean you should assume it’s okay in another!
8. To Hell With the Metric System
The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that said “to hell with the awesome metric system, let’s confuse the world by measuring things in miles, inches, feet, and yards rather than in meters.” Americans also weigh things in pounds, drink liquid in pints and gallons, and measure the temperature in Fahrenheit rather than in Celsius. To top it all off, Americans also write the date as MM/DD/YYYY (month first) rather than DD/MM/YYYY. We love being different, even if it’s just for the sake of being different.
9. Don’t Rely on Public Transportation
Outside of big metropolitan cities like N.Y.C. and Washington D.C., public transportation is virtually non existent, and that which does exist leaves much to be desired. The U.S. has a strong car culture so, your best bet for getting around is by renting a car, it will save you time as well as give you the freedom to move at your own pace. It’s worth it. Note also, that most cars in the U.S. are automatics and manual transmission are hard to come by. For the best car rental rates in the U.S. check out Rentalcars.com.
10. Airport Security is a Big Deal in the US
Besides car travel, flying is one of the best ways to see the country! However it can be not only time consuming, but also rather trying.. The U.S. takes security very seriously, so be prepared to wait in ridiculously long lines, to take off your belt, jacket and shoes, go through a metal detector which is so sophisticated it needs a second metal detector to double check what it missed, as well as possibly be pulled aside for a random search. You’ll also notice a lot of dogs around the airport, they’ll sniff you and your bags and are there to check for drugs and explosives.
To help make the airport security process as painless as possible, here are a few tips:
- Arrive to the airport 3 hours ahead of your flight, 2 hours ahead may be cutting it too close!
- Visit the TSA Website so see the rules and regulations for going through airport security.
- Dress in a way which allows you to quickly take off things like your shoes and belts. Also wear as little metal as possible, like jewelry or watches.
- Always keep your travel documents and passport within reach as you will be asked for it multiple time throughout the process.
- Pack to unpack: Pack all your TSA approved toiletries in one quart size ziplock and your laptop/electronics somewhere that’s easily accessible.
11. The USA’s Unofficial Motto Is “Go Big or Go Home”
Americans like it big. Cars are big, people are big (not all of us), houses are big, supermarkets are gigantic, America itself is big! If it ain’t big it ain’t American. And, as the fast food capital of the world, you can expect food to be served in portion sizes: large, larger, and supersized! Be prepared to put on some weight!
12. For Emergencies Call 911
If for whatever reason you are in trouble and need help, pick up a phone and dial 911. Regardless of the kind of emergency: a fire, robbery, or an illness, 911 will send the right assistance your way. And remember only call this number in case of an emergency as calling 911 for any purpose other than to report an emergency may result in criminal penalties such as a fine or jail time.
13. Americans are Typically Very Friendly
Generally speaking, Americans are very friendly, especial in the south. Gotta love that southern hospitality. We smile, laugh out loud hysterically, ask you how you’re doing (even if we don’t care about the answer), and don’t mind having small talk with a complete stranger. Hey, we even hate being called madam, sir or any other formal title, just call us by our first names. We’re cool like that. We love talking about our country, helping others all while learning about someplace new so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation, after all it’s the people which make America, America.
From the beaches in Miami and deserts in Arizona, to the sinful fun in Las Vegas and wonderful jazz music in New Orleans, the U.S. is truly an exciting place. And now that you are equipped with all the essential info you need to know before heading off on your first trip to America, you are ready to explore this beautiful country!
Nancy Plummer says
If you are driving, particularly in the Western US make sure you are aware of your surroundings! There are many, many isolated places where cell phones don’t work. There are many areas where weather conditions can change drastically very quickly. If you are unsure of the road that GPS wants you to take, turn around and ask at the nearest restaurant/gas station. Please. America is amazingly vast, and off of the freeways, GPS is not always accurate.