United States of America
|Currency||U.S. dollar (USD)|
|Population||309,365,931 (April 2010 est.)|
|Electricity||120V / 60Hz|
|Time zone||UTC -4 to UTC -10|
The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as the "USA," the "U.S.," the "United States," "America," or simply "the States." It has a land area of about 9.6 million km2 (about half the size of Russia and about the same size as China). It also has the world's third-largest population, with more than 310 million people. It includes densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast uninhabited areas of natural beauty. Representing the world's single largest economy with its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a "melting pot" of cultures from around the world.
Regarded as the most powerful and influential country in the world, it plays a dominant role in the world's cultural landscape, and is famous for its 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, Hawaii and Southern California.
The United States comprises 50 states, as well as the city of Washington, D.C., a federal district and the nation's capital. The country also has a few territories, including the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. 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, and some of the nation's oldest cities, in a territory small enough to tour (hastily) in a week.
|Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C.)
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, rolling mountains, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Lehigh Valley, and seaside resorts like the Long Island beaches and the Jersey Shore.
|South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia)
The South is celebrated for its hospitality, down-home cooking, and its blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass and country music traditions. This lush, largely subtropical region includes cool, verdant mountains, agricultural plantations, and vast cypress swamps.
Northern Florida is similar to the rest of the South, but this is not so in the resorts of Orlando, retirement communities, tropical Caribbean-influenced Miami, the Everglades, and 1,200 miles of sandy beaches.
|Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin)
The Midwest is home to farmland, forests, picturesque towns, industrial cities, and the Great Lakes, the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world, forming the North Coast of the U.S. Known for their simplicity and hospitality, Midwesterners are a welcoming people.
The second biggest state is like a separate country (as, indeed, it once was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past. The terrain ranges from southeastern swamplands to the cattle-ranching South Plains to the sandy beaches of South Texas to the mountains and deserts of West Texas.
|Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma)
Travel westward through these supposedly flat states, from the edge of the eastern forests through the prairies and onto the High Plains, an enormous expanse of steppes (shortgrass prairies) nearly as desolate as in the frontier days, but filled still with pockets of quirky and diverse history.
|Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, and excellent skiing as well as deserts, and some large cities.
|Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture, as well as Native American remnants, 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 deserts have some big cities.
Like the Southwest, California has a history under Spanish and Mexican rule and is heavily influenced by those civilizations, with a great import of Asian culture, especially cuisine. California offers world-class cities, deserts, rainforests, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches. Northern California (anchored by the San Francisco Bay Area) and Southern California (anchored by Los Angeles and also including Orange County, San Diego, et al.) are culturally distinct.
|Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)
The pleasantly mild Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits and cosmopolitan cities. The terrain ranges from spectacular rainforests to scenic mountains and volcanoes to beautiful coastlines to sage-covered steppes and deserts.
One fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features mountainous wilderness, including North America's tallest mountain, Mount McKinley, and Native Alaskan culture unseen elsewhere in the United States.
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 miles south west of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise.
Politically, the U.S. is a federation of states, each with its own rights and powers (hence the name), with laws varying slightly from state to state.
The U.S. also administers a motley collection of non-state territories around the world, by far the largest of which is Puerto Rico (which has the special status of a "commonwealth"). Other territories include the U.S. Virgin Islands, also in the Caribbean, and Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Wake Island and islands without permanent inhabitants such as the Midway Islands in Oceania. As these are, from a traveller's point of view, quite different from the 50 states, they are covered in separate articles.
The United States has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of nine of the most notable. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
- Washington, D.C. — the national capital, filled with major museums and monuments, along with multicultural communities
- Boston — best known for its colonial history, its passion for sports, and its university students
- Chicago — heart of the Midwest and transportation hub of the nation, with massive skyscrapers and other architectural gems
- Los Angeles — home of the film industry, musical artists, and surfers, with beautiful mild weather, great natural beauty from mountains to beaches, and endless stretches of freeways.
- Miami — attracts sun-seeking northerners and home to a rich, vibrant, Latin-influenced, Caribbean culture
- New Orleans — "The Big Easy" is the birthplace of Jazz, and is known for its quaint French Quarter and annual Mardi Gras celebration
- New York City — the country's biggest city, 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, and dramatic fog
- Seattle — rich museums, monuments, and recreational opportunities, and five distinct climates within 200 miles (320 km)
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities.
- Denali National Park — a remote national park featuring North America's highest peak
- Grand Canyon — the world's longest and most visited canyon
- Mesa Verde National Park — well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings
- Mount Rushmore — the iconic memorial of four former presidents carved into a cliff face
- Niagara Falls — the massive waterfalls straddling the border with Canada
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park — national park in the southern Appalachians
- Walt Disney World — the most popular vacation resort destination in the world
- Yellowstone National Park — the first national park in the U.S., and home of the Old Faithful geyser
- Yosemite National Park — home of El Capitan and the famous Giant Sequoia trees
The United States is not the America of television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with distinct regional identities. Due to the distances involved, traveling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
The contiguous United States or "Lower 48" (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and Gulf of Mexico to the south, with much of the population living on these three coasts. Its only land borders — both quite long — are shared with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The U.S. also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba, and the Bahamas.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from 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 offer spectacular sightseeing and excellent camping spots. The Rockies are, on average, the highest in North America, extending from Alaska to New Mexico, with many areas protected as national parks. They offer hiking, camping, skiing, and sightseeing opportunities. 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, then give way to the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.
The Great Lakes define much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. More fresh water 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 overall climate is temperate, with notable exceptions. Alaska has Arctic tundra, while Hawaii, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are tropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West and Mediterranean along the California coast.
In the winter, the northern and mid-western major cities can see as much as 2 feet (61 cm) of snowfall in one day, with cold temperatures. Summers are humid, but mild. Temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) sometimes invade the Midwest and Great Plains. Some areas in the northern plains can experience cold temperatures of −30 °F (−34 °C) during the winter. Temperatures below 0 °F (−18 °C) sometimes reach as far south as Oklahoma.
The climate of the South also varies. In the summer, it is hot and humid, but from October through April the weather can range from 60 °F (15 °C) to short cold spells of 20 °F (−7 °C) or so.
The Great Plains and Midwestern states also experience tornadoes from the late spring to early fall, earlier in the south and later in the north. States along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico may experience hurricanes between June and November. These intense and dangerous storms frequently miss the U.S. mainland, but evacuations are often ordered and should be heeded.
The Rockies are cold and snowy. Some parts of the Rockies see over 500 inches (1,200 cm) of snow in a season. Even during the summer, temperatures are cool in the mountains, and snow can fall nearly year-round. It is dangerous to go up in the mountains unprepared in the winter and the roads through them can get very icy.
The deserts of the Southwest are hot and dry during the summer, with temperatures often exceeding 100 °F (38 °C). Thunderstorms can be expected in the southwest frequently from July through September. Winters are mild, and snow is unusual. Average annual precipitation is low, usually less than 10 inches (25 cm).
Cool and damp weather is common much of the year in the coastal northwest (Oregon and Washington west of the Cascade Range, and the northern part of California west of the Coast Ranges/Cascades). Summers (July through September) are usually quite dry with low humidity, though, making it the ideal climate for outdoor activities. Rain is most frequent in winter, snow is rare, especially along the coast, and extreme temperatures are uncommon. Rain falls almost exclusively from late fall through early spring along the coast. East of the Cascades, the northwest is considerably drier. Much of the inland northwest is either semi-arid or desert, especially in Oregon.
Northeastern and Upper Southern cities are known for summers with temperatures reaching into the 90s (32 °C) or more, with extremely high humidity, usually over 80%. This can be a drastic change from the Southwest. High humidity means that the temperature can feel hotter than actual readings. The Northeast also experiences snow, and at least once every few years there will be a dumping of the white stuff in enormous quantities.
Native Americans, or American Indians, arrived 13,500 to 16,000 years ago from migrating northeast Asian peoples. Old stereotypes of their primitiveness misrepresent the wide variety of sophisticated societies that existed before the first arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century. For example, the Mississippian cultures built huge mounds and large towns that covered the Southeast, and the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. These societies were decimated by Old-World diseases such as smallpox and pushed west by warfare and encroaching European settlers; their diminished numbers led to further marginalization, although today their cultures continue to endure and contribute to the American experience.
European colonization began in the 16th and 17th centuries. England, Spain, and France gained large holdings; the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia also established outposts. The first English colonies, founded in Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620), formed the kernel of what is now known as the United States of America.
In the North, Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants—Puritans—who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland. The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania became the North's cosmopolitan center.
Longer growing seasons in the Southern colonies, which remained dominated by Virginia, gave them richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. As in Latin America and the Caribbean, indentured servants and later African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate large plantations. Slavery was initially legal in both North and South, but its greater importance to the South's economy would eventually cause tremendous upheaval.
By the early 18th century, Great Britain had colonized the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. Britain's dominance in North America was established in 1763 after the global Seven Years' War. In part to finance the North American campaigns of the war, known as the French and Indian War, Britain imposed unpopular taxes and regulations on its colonists. This precipitated revolution in 1775 and on 4 July 1776, colonists from 13 colonies declared full independence. The Revolutionary War lasted until 1783, when the new United States of America formally took control of all British land between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River.
Wrangling over the formation of a national government lasted until 1787 when a constitution was agreed upon. Its Enlightenment-era ideas about individual liberty have since inspired the founding decrees of many states. George Washington, the General in chief of the revolutionary army, was elected the first president. By the turn of the 19th century, the newly-built Washington, D.C. was established as the national capital.
New states were created as white settlers moved west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The Native American populations were duly displaced and further harrowed by war and disease. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase of French lands to the west of the Mississippi effectively doubled the country's area, and provided "Indian Territory" in what is now Oklahoma for the many Native American tribes from the east that were forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears of the 1830s.
Disagreements with British commerce policies arising from the Napoleonic Wars and Royal Navy impressment led to the War of 1812. There were over two years of dramatic action on land and sea that included an attempted invasion of Canada and the burning of the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, DC. The final stalemate saw virtually no changes of territory, but the war galvanized separate American and Canadian identities. The national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was conceived during the war. Western Native American tribes that had sided with the British suffered greatly as their territory was given to white settlers.
After the war, industry and infrastructure were expanded greatly, particularly in the Northeast. Roads and canals came first and helped people spread inland. In 1825, the Erie Canal connected the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. By the 1860s, railroads and telegraph lines connected the east and west coasts via the industrial hub of Chicago in the Midwest. In the early 19th century, a series of religious revivals, the Second Great Awakening, led to various reform movements that strove for goals such as temperance, the abolition of slavery, and women's suffrage.
U.S. expansion south and west chipped away at Spanish and Mexican territory. Spain sold Florida in 1813 after American military intervention; and an 1836 rebellion by American settlers in Mexican Texas founded an independent republic which was absorbed into the Union ten years later. This sparked the Mexican–American War in which Mexico lost what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and the continental United States essentially assumed its modern outline. Native Americans were relegated to reservations and continued to be purged by treaty, military force, and disease from settlers on the Oregon Trail and other westward routes.
Federal governance was light and the individual states were highly autonomous. By the 1850s, there was irreconcilable disparity between the industrialized and more urban Northern states, which had all outlawed slavery within three decades of the revolution, and the plantation-dependent rural South. The North wanted to impose a national ban on the expansion of slavery, while the Southern states sought to expand slavery into new territories. Abolitionists operated an Underground Railroad leading fugitive slaves in the northern states to freedom in Canada. In 1861, eleven Southern states, fearful of marginalization and the avowedly anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, broke from the Union and formed an independent Confederate States of America. The ensuing American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict on American soil and killed hundreds of thousands. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, firmly cementing the federal government's authority over the states. Slavery was abolished nationwide and the Confederate states were re-admitted into the Union during a period of Reconstruction. The former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.
Russia sold its tenuously held Alaskan territory in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898. The United States' decisive victory over Spain in the 1898 Spanish–American War gained it 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).
In the late 19th and into the 20th century, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Russian Jews, and Irish refugees bolstered the continuing industrialization of the eastern cities by providing cheap labor. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty for industrial jobs in the North. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to newly opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was given to anyone who would develop it.
The United States' entrance into World War I in 1917 marked the start of an era it would ultimately dominate politically. However, soon after the victory the U.S. eschewed international involvement and refused to join the nascent League of Nations, effectively crippling the organization. Real wealth grew rapidly and the Roaring 20s saw stock speculation that created an immense "bubble" which burst in 1929, leading to the global economic havoc of the Great Depression. The resulting privation fostered a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in the coming conflict. It also ushered in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his "New Deal", a series of government programs that constructed thousands of buildings and bridges across the country while creating the basis of the American welfare state.
In 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a Hawaiian naval base, plunging the United States into World War II alongside British, Soviet, and Chinese allies. The U.S. developed atomic bombs and dropped them twice on Japan in 1945, abruptly ending the war. By the end of the war, the United States had firmly established itself as the world's dominant economic power, responsible for nearly half of global industrial production. The subsequent nuclear-armed Cold War saw the United States and the Soviet Union jostle for power while courting their own mutually assured destruction.
For the century after the Civil War, blacks, though ostensibly equal citizens under the post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution, suffered through strong social and economic, political, and social discrimination and state-sanctioned segregation, especially in the South. A movement fighting for full civil rights for black Americans gained strength following World War II, when returning black veterans who fought against racism abroad came home to find they were still being denied service at lunch counters, hotels, and many other establishments and facing discrimination in employment and housing. The civil rights movement vehemently, but largely peacefully, vied for equal rights. With Martin Luther King, Jr., a charismatic preacher, as its most visible leader, the movement came to a head in 1963 when 200,000–300,000 people flooded the capital to listen to him. A revived women's movement in the 1960s also led to wide-ranging changes in American society.
Postwar America was characterized by affluence and industrialization. People left agriculture and moved to the cities to become part of an increasingly technology-based economy. American car culture emerged in the 1950s and was supported by the construction of a comprehensive Interstate Highway System. The American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, arguably established the United States as the cultural center of the world. The U.S. has also grown into one of the world's major centers of higher education, being home to some of the world's most prestigious universities, and attracting more international students than any other country in the world.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic. Its major constituents are the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.); it also has various island territories in the Caribbean and Pacific that are strongly – but often not fully – integrated into the union. Many of these territories are within the U.S. customs and immigration area and so for practical purposes can be considered part of the U.S. (See Travel to U.S. possessions).
The federal government derives its power from the Constitution, which is the oldest written constitution in continuous use. Within the overarching federal laws, each state maintains its own constitution, government and laws, and so retains considerable autonomy within the federation. State laws can vary in their details but are, for the most part, fairly uniform from state to state.
The President is elected every four years and is the head of the federal government as well as head of state. His administration forms the executive branch. The bicameral Congress (comprising the lower House of Representatives and the upper Senate) constitutes the legislative branch. The Supreme Court tops the judicial branch. State governments are organized similarly, with governors, legislatures, and judiciaries.
Two major political parties have dominated at both state and federal levels since the end of the Civil War: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. While smaller political parties exist, the winner-take-all electoral system means that they rarely succeed at any level.
The United States is made up of many diverse ethnic groups and the 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 there are many exceptions and that a nation as diverse as the United States has literally thousands of distinct cultural traditions. One will find Mississippi in the South to be very different culturally from Massachusetts in the North.
Religion is very important in the United States. Only 20% of people in the United States identify with no religion, which is very low in comparison to other Western nations. Roughly one-quarter of Americans are Roman Catholic, and one-half of them are Protestant, with Protestantism being further broken down into mainline, Evangelical and Pentecostal sects. There are much smaller numbers of Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and a host of other religions. Because of many Americans' strong religious belief, many businesses and institutions are closed on Sundays, and a number of areas in the South and Midwest forbid certain actions from taking place on Sunday, while some Jewish businesses close on Friday nights and Saturdays for the sabbath.
Overall, while the United States is less religious than many other nations, it is more religious than Canada and Northern Europe; however, this trend varies greatly by region, with the Pacific Northwest and New England being largely secular and the American South being extraordinarily Christian, particularly Evangelical. Differences in religiosity largely correlate with politics, too, so the Northeast and West Coast are generally liberal and Democratic; most of the South and heavily Mormon states like Utah, Idaho and Wyoming are very conservative and Republican; and much of the rest of the country (e.g., several Midwestern, Southwestern/Rocky Mountain, and Southern coastal states) is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
There are no nationwide, mandatory public holidays. Federal holidays are the most centrally coordinated holidays, but they are only officially recognized by the federal government; federal offices, banks, and post offices close on these days. Nearly all states and localities also observe these holidays, as well as a handful of their own. If a federal holiday falls on a weekend, the observance will normally be shifted to the nearest weekday.
The time between Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and January 1 has such a high concentration of major holidays that it is often simply called "the holiday season." School and work vacations are commonly taken during this period, with people visiting family and friends. Airports, bus stations, and train stations will be very crowded near the major holidays. If you must travel, allow extra time to check in and clear security. This is also a major gift giving season; most shopping malls and department stores will be crowded, especially on the day after Thanksgiving, the week before Christmas, and the day after Christmas.
In the list below, federal holidays are listed in bold italics.
- 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; people volunteer in their communities; speeches, especially on African-American history and culture.
- Chinese New Year (January/February — varies based on the Chinese lunar calendar) — Chinese cultural celebration.
- Super Bowl Sunday (usu. first Sunday in February) — The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL American football league and the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, and electronics stores busy; big football-watching parties.
- Lincoln's Birthday (second Monday in February) - Holiday in several states; many stores have sales.
- (St.) 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 clothes or accessories 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 observances.
- Cinco de Mayo (5 May) — A minor holiday in most of Mexico often incorrectly assumed to be Mexican Independence Day, 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.
- Mother's Day (second Sunday in May) — Children and adults give gifts to their mothers. Most restaurants are crowded; finer restaurants may require reservations made well in advance.
- Memorial Day (last Monday in May) — most non-retail businesses closed; some patriotic observances; trips to beaches and parks; traditional beginning of summer tourism season.
- Father's Day (third Sunday in June) — Children and adults give gifts to their fathers. Many restaurants and sporting events are crowded, although not to the same extent as Mother's Day.
- Independence Day / Fourth of July (4 July) — most non-retail businesses closed; 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; traditional ending of summer tourism season.
- 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. Italian-themed parades in some cities. Columbus Day can be controversial, especially among Native Americans and Latinos, and is not as widely observed as it was in the past.
- Halloween (31 October) — Children dress up in costume and go trick-or-treating (knocking on other houses' doors to get candy and other treats). There are spooky attractions, such as haunted corn mazes, hayrides and costume parties. Some small family-owned shops and restaurants may close early in the evening.
- Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
- Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November) — Family dinners; many people fly or drive to visit extended family. Airports in particular will be extremely crowded on the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving. Almost all businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants. 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.
- Hanukkah / Chanukah (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days usually in December) — Jewish religious observances, often culturally associated with Christmas.
- Christmas (25 December) — Families and close friends exchange gifts; Christian religious observances. Almost all businesses, grocery stores, and many restaurants closed the evening before and all day.
- Kwanzaa (26 December – 1 January) — African-American cultural observances.
- New Year's Eve (31 December) — many restaurants and bars open late; lots of parties, especially in big cities.
All U.S. embassies are closed on the federal holidays in addition to the holidays of the host country.
Units of measure
- See also: Metric and Imperial equivalents
The United States is the only industrialized country that eschews the metric system. Instead it uses "customary units" (feet, miles, gallons, pounds, etc.), which are largely derived from the English units of the 18th century, and are sometimes different from the imperial units that occasionally linger in Britain. Road distances are given in miles and speed limits in miles per hour. Gasoline and other liquids are usually sold per gallon, quart, or ounce (a U.S. gallon is 3.78 liters, so a U.S. quart [a quarter gallon] is slightly less than a liter). Beverages such as soda are sometimes sold by the liter and other times sold by the fluid ounce, with just under 34 ounces to a liter. Temperatures are reported in Fahrenheit only; 32 degrees (with units unspecified) is freezing, not warm! Most cars' speedometers show both miles and kilometers per hour (good for trips to Canada and Mexico), and almost all packaged foods and other products are labeled in both systems. Outside of scientific work, medicine and the military, there is little day-to-day exposure to the metric system, so Americans will assume you understand the U.S. customary measures.
There is no government regulation of clothes or shoe sizes. There are ill-enforced informal standards, and the only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. Therefore, trial and error is required for each brand to determine what fits, because you cannot count on any two brands' sizes being equivalent. For shoes, trial and error will be required for each model, even within the same brand—even if different models are the same nominal size and width, they may differ slightly in actual length and/or width, and also may be built around a different foot shape.
The federal government of the U.S. 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 will be provided by the state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state entries. Highway rest stops at state borders, as well as major airports in a state, usually serve as Visitor's Centers and often offer travel and tourism information and material, almost all of which is also available online. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated "You Are Here" marker. Some also offer free paper roadmaps to take with you. If you call or write the state Commerce department, they can also mail you information.
The United States has exceptionally onerous and complicated visa requirements. Read up carefully before your visit, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and consult the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.
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), and Bermudians (with British national (overseas) passports) do not require visas for entry into the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit for up to six months.
The Visa Waiver Program permits visa-free stays of up to 90 days; it applies to citizens of 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, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are considered to be U.S. citizens, and therefore do not require a passport to travel to (unless they are travelling from non-U.S. territories) and live in the United States.
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas, but a valid police certificate may be required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Cayman Islands citizens, if they intend to travel directly to the U.S. from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure.
A criminal record will likely revoke any right to visa-free travel to the U.S. Although there are exceptions e.g. traffic violations, civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct), purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed), and offenses committed before the age of 16. Anyone with a criminal record, including Canadians and Bermudians should seek advice from a U.S. embassy on whether they need to obtain a visa.
Visa Waiver Program requirements
The program is open only to travelers who are in the United States for tourism or business purposes. You cannot be coming to the U.S. for formal education, to get a job, or to conduct journalism; if you are, you must get an appropriate visa in advance no matter how short your trip to the U.S. may be.
The 90-day limit is not extendable. A short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean will not allow a fresh 90 days upon return to the U.S. An extended absence to the neighboring countries may reset the limit, particularly if your first trip to the U.S. was short. Take care if transiting through the U.S. on a trip around North America that exceeds 90 days.
Having a criminal record, having been previously refused entry, or having previously been denied a US visa will make one ineligible to enter on the Visa Waiver Program. Those who fall in these categories should apply for a US visa instead.
Entry under the visa waiver program requires the completion of an online form and a payment of $14, preferably 72 hours before arrival. The form is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA approval covers multiple trips and is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier).
All passports must be machine-readable. Passports issued after 26 October 2005 need digital photographs embedded on them, and passports issued after 26 October 2006 must be biometric. While not generally a problem, some countries, e.g. France, have issued passports that do not meet these specifications. Travelers with such obsolete passports will either need to replace them, or apply for a visa.
Entry under the Visa Waiver Program by air or sea requires travel with a signatory carrier. Any commercial scheduled services to the U.S. 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. Flying your own personal aircraft, or sailing your own personal yacht to the U.S. will require you to obtain a tourist visa in advance.
Travelers entering by air or sea should also have a return or onward ticket out of the United States. This requirement is not necessary for residents of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean. If traveling by land, there is a $7 fee when crossing the border.
Entry under the visa waiver program does not allow you to change your immigration status, and if you are denied entry, the decision can't be appealed and you will immediately be placed on the first flight out.
Obtaining a visa
U.S. Visa/Residence Status Overview
For the rest of the world, 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 and $190 for those that are; this fee is waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from $7–200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the U.S. to match the fees charged by other countries on U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. When the U.S. rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that the person will not try to overstay. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are indeed genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
Keep in mind that the embassy is closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of your home country so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travelers should start planning their trips way in advance, as the application process is known to take up to six months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department or with the United States consulate nearest you. If coming to the country with a car, be sure to have documents showing car insurance, rental agreements, driver's license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, note that having been denied a visa for whatever reason, including a lack of relevant documentation will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the US.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require 8 weeks for receiving an approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry; it only allows you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Your visa is generally not tied to your permitted length of stay; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow a stay of 10 years. On the other hand, you can enter the country on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Applying for an incorrect or inappropriate visa can cause serious problems, including possibly making you ineligible to ever receive any U.S. visa (especially in cases of fraud). Consider consulting a U.S. immigration attorney, especially if you want to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as journalism.
Travel to U.S. possessions
America's overseas possessions have slightly different rules. See each destination's article for details.
In brief, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. However, Guam and the Northern Marianas apply the visa waiver program to a few additional countries.
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements.
Arriving in the United States
Starting May 2013, progressively introduced in international airports, arriving non-immigrant visitors by air or by sea are not required to fill in the paper I-94 form. Instead, all travellers records will be stored electronically by the Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), and can be accessed at , where visitors can print their records for immigration benefits. More information is available on this website.
Visitors arriving by land are still required to fill in the I-94 paper form, and still need to surrender the portion attached to their passport once leaving the country.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will be questioned briefly at immigration. Be prepared to prove your stated motives for entering. Proof of onward travel may be required. For business, this can be an invitation letter from a company you are visiting, or the registration details of a conference you are attending. For tourists, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you.
If you don't fully comply with all that's required, e.g. no onward transport, you may be sent for further questioning. At this stage your possessions may be searched and your documents, letters or diaries may be read. If you are found to appear as a likely immigrant (e.g. if you're carrying employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, or pets) or if you are unable to convince the officers that you intend to abide by the terms of your stated entrance permission, you will be refused entry and deported. If your country participates in the Visa-Waiver Program, note that being refused entry will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the US.
Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken.
As in most countries, customs officials are humorless about any kind of security threat; even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation, at best.
The landing card will need to state the address of your first night's accommodation, which should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. is not sufficient; the street name and number are needed. If it is a hotel, have a reservation under your name. If it is a private address, make sure that you are expected, as officials may phone your host to see if they're expecting anyone. Try to have contact details (especially a phone number where they can be reached immediately), and save any text messages or emails in which your hosts mention inviting you to stay at their residence.
A customs form is handed out to all travelers; however, only one form is required per family. Hand your customs declaration to the customs officer, not immigration. Regardless of whether you have anything to declare, customs officers may still search or X-ray your bags. Most of the time, they won't. Anything more than a bag search is rare, so you won't likely encounter any ominous latex gloves.
Do not attempt to import items originating from countries that the US has imposed economic sanctions (currently Cuba, Iran, Syria and Myanmar), they will be confiscated by customs if discovered - unlabeled cigars in particular are assumed to be from Cuba, and will also be taken away. It is also against the law to bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables (with a few exceptions for Canadian produce grown in season via land borders only) but you may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread and most commercially prepackaged foods (biscuits, cheese, tea, coffee, etc...) . All food and plant items being brought into the country need to be declared, even if unrestricted! Much like in Australia and New Zealand, all incoming food and plant products must be physically examined by the United States Department of Agriculture - if necessary, you'll be directed to their inspection area after clearing customs. For straightforward, unrestricted items such as prepackaged non-meats, the inspection process rarely takes more than a minute. Failure to declare agricultural products can result in a fine or even prosecution if the USDA believes you're willfully attempting to import illegal food or plants. That said, first time offenders are usually let off with a warning for unintentional omissions if the items are ultimately permissible.
Besides your personal effects, which will go home with you, you are allowed to import individual gifts with a value of $100 or less per item. If you're 21 years of age or older, you may also import limited quantities of tobacco and alcohol products duty-free:
- Up to 200 cigarettes (one carton) or fifty non-Cuban cigars or up to 2kg of loose tobacco products such as snuff (or a proportional combination thereof.)
- Up to one liter of alcohol. Unlike some countries, the one liter restriction applies irrespective of strength: a fifth of Scotch at 40% ABV or a standard size (750ml) bottle of wine at 14% ABV are both within the allowance, but a six pack of 12 oz beer at 5% ABV is the equivalent of over 2 liters and over the duty-free allowance.
If you are over the alcohol exemption by a small amount (e.g. a six pack of beer or a second bottle of wine) most customs officers will let this slide for wine and beer if you've made a full and accurate declaration. Anything more than this, or any spirits over the limit will likely result in duty and tax being assessed, the amount of which depends in part on the state you're entering to and the country the goods are from (duty from Canada, for example is minimal owing in part to NAFTA). Customs officers do not show this leniency with tobacco products, expect to pay if you are even one cigarette over!
A reasonable quantity of perfume or cologne can also be imported provided the brand is not under a "Trademark Restriction in the United States". There is no restriction on the amount of money you can bring in or out of the US. However, if you are bringing in or out $10,000 or more (or its equivalent in foreign currency) per family (combined total among all family members travelling together), you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out; not declaring exposes you to a fine and possible seizure of that cash.
The U.S. possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and U.S. Virgin Islands are outside the federal customs jurisdiction and each have their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the U.S. requires a customs check. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for U.S. citizens returning from these destinations.
You must pass through immigration and customs at your first point of entry, regardless of whether you have any onward domestic flights. Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will need to re-clear security before taking a connecting flight. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just beyond customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged for transfer your final destination. Some hubs, like JFK, employ a more inconvenient system, whereby you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter. At airports with separate domestic and international terminals (such as Boston), you will have to head to another terminal and drop your bags there before heading to security.
These bag drop procedures apply only if your baggage has been checked through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not the case, you will have to proceed to the terminal of your next flight and check in as usual.
Leaving the United States
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control upon exit, especially for those traveling by air or sea. As such, if you are leaving the U.S. for the last time on a particular trip (i.e. not returning from Canada or Mexico), it is your responsibility to surrender your landing card at check-in, or the Canadian or Mexican border officer. If you don't, contact U.S. officials about how to return it and update your departure records to avoid any future entry hassles. If you leave by a commercial carrier, your departure will also be verified with the airline or shipping company. Hence no further action should be needed from you; nonetheless on future visits consider bringing the necessary documents to prove you left legally. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has information about what to do if your slip is not collected.
If you intend to leave for Canada or Mexico by land for a side trip and return within 30 days or the allowed time of your stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the U.S. provided that you do not yet return the I-94 or I-94 card before you proceed to Canada or Mexico. This can also be done even if you originally entered the U.S. on a single-entry visa. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to ultimately leave the U.S. won't be extended by just leaving for somewhere else in North America. If you return the I-94 while on the side trip, you will have to apply all over again to enter the U.S. (which means a new visa for single-entry visa holders) and be subject to the usual questioning that alien go through to lack of any intentions of immigrating, working, or doing something else not authorized by the visa.
That said, try to avoid re-entering the U.S. a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't technically overstay, planning several U.S. visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as "immigrant intent" and may cause you grief.
The United States is home to some of the most popular airlines in the world. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and resultant fall in air traffic, the entire industry has seen consolidation on a grand scale and the US is now home to some of the largest airlines in the world. 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 these and most travelers find themselves entering the U.S. at one of the major entry points along the coasts. The international airports in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami are the four main points of entry to the United States by plane.
- From the east New York City, Chicago, 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. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, while not in the east, also have a good number of flights from major European cities.
- From the west Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Honolulu are the primary points of entry from Asia and other transpacific points of departure. Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), and San Diego also have 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). Chicago, while not on the west coast, is still a major point of entry from Asia, offering non-stop flights from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, with direct service from Bangkok and Singapore. Qantas serves Dallas/Fort Worth non stop from Sydney, in addition to their daily service to Los Angeles and San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne.
- From the north Chicago, New York City, Detroit and Minneapolis have a good number of flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. There are flights from Toronto to many Eastern and Midwestern cities.
- From the south Miami, Houston and Los Angeles are the primary entry points from Latin America, primarily South America. Also, Dallas, Atlanta, and Charlotte are major international waypoints. From Mexico, many major U.S. airports have non-stop service to Mexico City or Cancun, and Los Angeles and Houston have non-stop service to many other many Mexican cities.
- From the other side of the world New Delhi, India has non-stop service to New York (via JFK and Newark airports) and to Chicago. 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, DC, and South African Airways goes to New York (JFK) and Washington, DC (Dulles). Los Angeles and Houston both offer non-stop service to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The U.S. requires full entry formalities even for international transit. If you normally need a visa to visit the U.S. and can't avoid a transit, you will need a C-1 transit visa.
Customs and immigration are cleared at your first U.S. stop, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least three hours at your first U.S. stop.
Luggage allowance for flights to or from the U.S. 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 U.S.) or destination (if leaving) and the class of service you are traveling in.
When arriving once you have collected your luggage you can head toward the exit. Most airports have near the exit a wall of "courtesy phones" with the description and the prices of motels in the area. You can call these motels free of charge and ask for a room and a pick up shuttle will come to fetch you at the airport. It is very convenient and mostly free of charge (but you are supposed to tip the driver).
Security procedures for commercial flights departing from anywhere in the U.S. continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear and submit personal belongings to X-ray screening. Random passengers may now be selected for additional screening. This may include an "enhanced pat-down," or you may be required to submit to a full-body X-ray. 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 screenings.
If you wish to lock your checked baggage, the TSA requires you to use special locks that have the Travel Sentry TSA lock system. These locks can be opened by TSA officials using a master key should they wish to inspect the contents of your bag. If your lock is not one of the TSA-approved locks, the TSA will break it open and you will not be entitled to any compensation for the damage.
Passengers whose journeys originate in major Canadian airports and involve either U.S. or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing U.S. 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 U.S. domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their U.S. 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 U.S. domestic terminals.
Travelers on U.S.–Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific will still encounter traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their first U.S. stop; 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 U.S. preclearance 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 U.S. on the same day you go through preclearance, 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; a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required.
Preclearance 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, and Dublin and Shannon International Airports in Ireland.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via either Dublin or Shannon, Ireland can take advantage of U.S. passport control and customs preclearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the U.S., they will arrive as if they were domestic passengers.
Traffic travels on the right hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico), except in the U.S. 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 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 U.S.–Canada and U.S.–Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders 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 U.S. customs service website. The U.S.–Mexico border is lucrative for drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If there is suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience from border agents.
As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the U.S. uses customary units, bear in mind that after the border, road signs are published in miles and miles per hour. If you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico then be mindful that a speed limit of 55 mph in the U.S. is 88 km/h.
Greyhound offers substantial inexpensive cross-border service from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus U.S. also runs multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
Bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from U.S. customs officials than car or train passengers.
Prior to World War II, most travelers and immigrants to the United States from foreign countries entered by boat. Today, this is not the case; as most enter by plane.
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), Toronto (Maple Leaf once daily to New York City), and Montreal (Adirondack once daily to New York City).
On international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are conducted at the border; this takes significantly more time than it would on a bus, which means the bus is often both less expensive and faster than the train.
Travelers from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at Pacific Central Station before they get on the train itself, just as they do for air travel. Be sure to allow enough time before departure to complete the necessary inspections.
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 U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialing 511 on your phone.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the U.S. is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the days necessary for land transportation. Most large cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many smaller 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 there can be expensive.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
- Mainline or legacy carriers – Due to bankruptcies and mergers, there are only three major and two minor legacy carriers left. Each of these airlines has hubs in several U.S. cities, meaning most of the airlines' flights originate or terminate from those cities:
- Delta Air Lines: hubs in Atlanta, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, New York and Memphis.
- United Airlines: hubs in Chicago, Houston, Newark, Denver, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
- American Airlines: hubs in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington DC.
- Alaska Airlines: hubs in Seattle, Anchorage, Los Angeles, and Portland. Service focused primarily in Alaska and the West Coast.
- Hawaiian Airlines: hubs in Honolulu and Maui. Service primarily between the Hawaiian Islands, and between the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast.
- These carriers used to be full service, although are increasingly taking after carriers like Ryanair and becoming "no-frills". On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat, one or two carry-on bags, and soft drinks. 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 for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall 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 free 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. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
- Certain transcontinental services offered by American ("Flagship Service"), Delta ("BusinessElite Transcontinental"), JetBlue ("Mint"), and United ("BusinessFirst p.s."), where an international style Business Class (with lie-flat seating and upgraded dining) is available, American's Flagship service also offers the equivalent of International First Class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New York JFK and Los Angeles/ San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to US Pacific Territories (Guam, CMNI, etc...) typically feature international business class.
- Regional airlines come in three varieties:
- Regional subsidiaries operate under an umbrella such as "American Eagle" or "United Express" 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 (e.g. Delta Connection through Delta), either by themselves or connecting to a mainline itinerary. On-board service is very basic.
- There are also Independent regional airlines which are not affiliated with a mainline carrier, these are usually found in more out of the way places, as well as near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, etc...)
- 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.
- More than a hundred small towns, each seventy miles or more from a major hub, receive an Essential Air Service federal subsidy for two scheduled flights daily to any one major city. Intended to prevent cities from losing service to deregulation, these regional flights typically run with small aircraft which seat 9 to 35 passengers.
- Low-cost carriers have grown over the past decade. The most famous of these is ubiquitous Southwest Airlines, favorite of leisure and business travelers alike, with Frontier, Spirit, and others becoming 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, and have done away with some of the formality of air travel – with no travel agents (all reservations are through their website or call center), assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers.) At the other side of the Spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats as low as $9, but charges for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, advance seat assignments, checking in at the airport, on board refreshments, etc....
- Southwest, Frontier and Spirit serve destinations nationwide, although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O'Hare International Airport.
- Other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Sun Country focus on "vacation destinations" (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 in every seat. A relative newcomer is the trendy brainchild of Sir Richard Branson: Virgin America which also offers a low-priced (comparatively anyway) First Class option.
Quoted prices, both from airlines themselves and from consolidators, generally include all taxes and other mandatory fees, and there is no fuel surcharge. However, extra services tend to incur extra fees. The main ones are listed here, along with strategies for avoiding them. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:
- Checking in with an agent — In today's age of online and kiosk check-in, most air travelers have no need to see a counter agent, apart from bag drop. Hence some airlines charge $3–10 to check in with an actual human being, although this fee will be waived if there is a legitimate reason preventing you from using other options (for example, unaccompanied minors). Spirit Airlines also charges for using a kiosk at the airport rather than checking in online. Some airlines accept emailed boarding passes displayed on smart phones, obviating the need to print them, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
- Checked baggage — Expect to pay $25–35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Particularly large or heavy bags can easily double or triple these fees. Shop around, as some discount carriers give a free baggage allowance; e.g. JetBlue (one bag) and Southwest (two bags).
- Each passenger's cost-free cabin baggage allowance is generally one small suitcase or garment bag and one item such as a briefcase, backpack, or purse. If you can get all your belongings into your cabin baggage, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Spirit Airlines charges $20–35 per carry-on bag, making it often cheaper to check in these bags. Don't forget the standard security restrictions regarding cabin baggage: liquids and gels must be in containers under 3.4 ounces (100 mL) and be presented to security inside a transparent zip-lock bag. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can not be carried in cabin baggage.
- Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount.
- Frequent flier rewards programs may give a limited free baggage allowance and additional weight allowances. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
- Shipping luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service can work out cheaper than checking in bags.
- Seat selection - Unless you're flying on a full fare ticket or have elite status in an airline's frequent flyer program, there may be a fee to select seats toward the front of the economy cabin. Airlines have different names for this: on American it's called "Main Cabin ExtrAA", Delta advertises it "Economy Comfort", JetBlue's "Even More Legroom", and United's "EconomyPlus" - you'll typically get 3-4" of additional legroom and a slightly better position in the boarding queue for earlier access to the overhead bins but usually no other benefits (although Delta offers free alcoholic beverages and on-demand movies to transcontinental and international Economy Comfort passengers). If there are no free economy seats remaining, you may be assigned a premium seat at check-in for free, although this is not guaranteed.
- Curbside check in — $2–10 on top of any baggage or check-in fees, plus a tip is usually expected.
- Food — Small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, cookies) are generally free on all flights. On flights longer than 1.5–2 hours, prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and occasionally hot food at may be available to buy at inflated prices. Flights from the east coast to Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Pacific territories (which can be over 8 hours each way) generally 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). Airside food will inevitably be more expensive than that before security but will be far cheaper and better 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 — Free coffee, tea, water, juice and soda remain standard on all flights. Spirit Airlines, however, is an exception and charges for anything other than water. Alcoholic drinks cost $5–7.
- In-flight entertainment — Most U.S. carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. Delta and JetBlue offer free seatback satellite TV to all passengers, United charges $6 in coach to watch TV. Delta, JetBlue, and United also offer on-demand movies on flights with satellite TV, typically at a cost of $4-$8 each unless the flight leaves US airspace (where satellite reception is unavailable), then they're free. Some airlines (American, Southwest, and select Delta and United aircraft without personal screens) offer streaming entertainment to your laptop, smartphone or tablet via the aircraft's wifi system. Expect a selection of older movies (new releases cannot be offered on streaming services due to licensing costs) and TV episodes on demand, American is charging for streaming, other carriers are not at this time.
- In-flight Wi-Fi — Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight Wi-Fi on nearly all their domestic fleets – American 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 wi-fi, fax services and conference rooms, as well as free 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 traveling 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 to 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 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. JetBlue offers more than 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 JetBlue 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 U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID. Ensure that any liquids are held in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 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 concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two advance notice so that they can fetch border officials to meet the tiny private plane from exotic and foreign Brockville, and you've provided just the excuse they needed to add "International Airport" to their names.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly just 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 traveling, 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's routes 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 that "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), the Philadelphia to Harrisburg Keystone Corridor (Keystone Service and Pennsylvanian) along with a handful of short-haul routes in Southern California generally run on time or very close to it. The Northeast and Keystone Corridors are electrified and owned by Amtrak or other commuter railways and are passenger only, the routes around LA are subsidized by the State of California so that Amtrak trains have priority during the daytime (with freight having priority during the overnight hours). Outside these areas, Amtrak operates on freight lines and as a result must share track with a host railroad; this means you have about as good a chance of a delay as not. Delays are usually brief (trains make up time en route) but have a contingency plan for being at least four hours late when traveling Amtrak, and leave lots of extra time (preferably a day or more) if you're connecting from Amtrak to another mode of travel such as a flight. Eight-hour or longer delays, especially on long-distance routes, while not frequent are not unheard of.
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 for several days. 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 themselves 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. This line is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). 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. The Northeast Regional covers the same route but is slightly slower and makes a few more stops along the way. Regional trains also continue into Virginia, albeit with a diesel locomotive as the line south of Washington is not electrified. Acela was introduced specifically to compete with the airlines with fares to match, so $300-$350 for a roundtrip between New York City and Boston is not unheard of (and First Class will easily double that). Increasingly the Northeast Regional is starting to price similarly to the airlines as well, roundtrips less than $275-$300 are almost unheard of. Unless you have your heart set on seeing the Northeast by rail in the Northeast, a long distance bus (see below) may be a better value. It takes roughly the same amount of time and even the discount bus lines (e.g. Bolt and MegaBus) have similar amenities to Amtrak such as reserved seating and wifi. Depending on how far in advance you book, bus fares between major Northeast cities can be as low as $1 and more typically $15-$25 each way.
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 FY2007, this train alone carried over 503,000 passengers.
Amtrak also provides reasonably speedy daily round trips between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and several daily trips between Seattle and Eugene, Oregon on the Amtrak Cascades line.
Passengers traveling 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.
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. Buy tickets before you board the train as you will either face a substantially more expensive fare or a hefty fine.
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 New York State Canal System operates four canals comprising 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 is 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.
- 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 6 meters 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 and Ohio Rivers.
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.
- See also: Driving in the USA
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car when traveling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region.
Generally speaking, American cities were 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. (The exceptions are New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where having your own car is not only unnecessary, but discouraged.) In most medium-sized American cities, everything is very spread out and public transportation 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. 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. 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 traveling).
Unlike most of the world, the United States continues to use the imperial measurement system, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, and fuel is sold in gallons. If driving a car from Canada or Mexico, make sure you know the relevant conversion (1 mile is about 1.6 km). Also, if you're planning to cross into the U.S. by car, read the owner's manual to see how to convert the speedometer from metric to U.S. units—almost all modern cars have speedometers that can display either set of units on demand (changing the speedometer will also change the odometer).
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 scarcity of public transportation in most American cities, the loss of time traveling 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 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. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many long days behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use. A "coast-to-coast" trip with multiple drivers and minimal stops will take at least five days (four and a half if you have strong bladders).
The United States is covered with a convenient system of Interstate highways. Interstates are always expressways (or "freeways")—that is, controlled access divided highways with no 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.
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, but several eastern states operate cross-state Interstate toll roads called Turnpikes (or the Thruway in New York). Other states have also started to implement tolls to defray their maintenance costs. While the majority of these tolls can still be paid in cash (no credit cards or traveler's checks), states are increasingly turning to electronic tolling. Ask your rental car agency or auto club about the tolling options available to you.
Speed limits on the 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 (70 km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85 miles per hour (135 km/h) in rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they'll be between 65 and 75 mph (105–120 km/h). The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly posted on interstates.
American drivers often drive 5 to 10 miles per hour (8–16 km/h) over the posted speed limit; driving slower than the speed limit can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than 5 mph (8 km/h) over the speed limit, and be sure that some other cars are always passing you; avoid being the fastest or the slowest vehicle. It is customary for the slowest traffic to keep to the right while faster traffic passes on the left. If you are pulled over by police for speeding, the excuse "Everyone else is speeding too" will not help. 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 will nearly always get a ticket, but it never hurts to express regret as maybe you will get lucky and only receive a warning.
Many U.S. 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 which white diamonds down the center of the lane, typically have double-white lines on the right, and are limited to vehicles with multiple occupants (usually two, sometimes three). High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, called HOV 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. Enforcement of these High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes typically coincides with rush-hour, from 7AM to 9AM, and again from 4PM to 6PM on weekdays. Driving in an HOV lane as the sole occupant of a vehicle during these times can result in a traffic citation and fine. Note that motorcycles are allowed to use HOV lanes in all states, even with only one rider.
Commercial rest areas were prohibited on the U.S. Interstate Highway system by the federal government. As a result, the vast majority of stopping points are state-operated rest areas with public toilets, parking, tourist information, vending machines, and a small picnic area. While there are no restaurants, gas stations, or other stores, some rest areas are equipped with vending machines. (A notable exception are tolled, limited-access highways such as Florida's Turnpike, where exiting would force you to pay a toll; service plazas with both food and gas are found on these highways every 20–40 miles [30–60 km] or so.) Commercial traveler services tend to congregate on the local roads just off popular interstate exits, even if the exit is miles from the nearest population center. Sometimes you'll find a truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travelers; Truck stops provide several services all in one building, with a "greasy-spoon"-style restaurant, gas station, general store, and even hot showers. 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.
Off the Interstates
A secondary system of federal highways is the U.S. Highway system. U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections, but they are often surface roads, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. U.S. Highways, which generally predate the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. 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, U.S. Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights.
Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and U.S. 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 surface roads 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.
Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left, same as in Canada and Mexico. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions. At all intersections, vehicles must stop behind the thick, white line painted across the road and cannot block crosswalks. Turning right at a red light (after coming to a complete stop and yielding to cross traffic) is legal in every state, though exceptions exist (such as New York City and where signage or signals explicitly prohibit it).
In some urban areas, onramps to freeways may have a special traffic signal, with only red and green lights, which is used during periods of high traffic. At such signals, the light will turn green for a few seconds to allow one vehicle at a time (unless signs instruct otherwise) down the ramp to merge with freeway traffic. At some intersections, traffic lights aren't needed at certain times of the day when there is little traffic (especially at night) and the traffic light becomes either a pulsating red light—which is treated like a stop sign—or a pulsating yellow light which simply indicates caution (there is no need to slow or stop). In some areas, all-way stop signs are marked with these flashing red lights, one in each direction.
There are three ways of indicating how a left turn can be made. Some intersections will have a traffic light with red, yellow, & green left arrows; in this case, treat the signal as you would any other. Many intersections have a 5-light traffic signal, with red, yellow, & green circles and yellow & green left arrows. When a green left arrow is displayed, even if the red circle is simultaneously lit, traffic has the right of way to turn left without the need to yield to oncoming traffic. When just the green circle is lit on a 5-light traffic signal, traffic turning left must yield to oncoming traffic. A few states use a pulsating yellow, left arrow to indicate that left-turning traffic must yield to oncoming traffic. When an intersection just has the simple red, yellow, & green traffic signal, traffic turning left must yield to oncoming traffic when the light is green.
The American highway rainbow
While the states establish their own traffic laws, and are each responsible for the maintenance and signage along their roads, the federal government does provide certain standards for highway signage and markings. This means signage will be very consistent from state-to-state, with minor (sometimes regional) variations.
In particular, the color and design of highway signage is very well standardized. Here are the common sign colors you'll encounter along America's highways:
In many cities, curbs are painted to reflect the ability to park at a particular location. The colors used and the meaning of the colors used varies from city to city. In general, red (and sometimes yellow) means "no parking" and blue designates handicapped parking only (with appropriate license plate or placard). In California, yellow curbs designate loading only (goods/cargo), white designates passenger pickup or dropoff, and green indicates there is a time limit for parking (look at signs for time limit). Elsewhere, the meaning of curb colors varies. Always follow parking signs and, if you are uncertain whether parking is allowed at a particular spot, it's best to park elsewhere than receive a parking ticket or even have your vehicle towed and impounded (which will result in a large fee to retrieve). A parked vehicle should never block a crosswalk, fire hydrant, or the entrance to a driveway/alley.
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 found while going through such towns are strictly enforced.
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 U.S states and all Canadian provinces.
International visitors age 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.
Traffic cameras are becoming common in some metropolitan areas and will issue automated traffic citations. Most traffic cameras are positioned at intersections and the most commonly issued citations are not coming to a complete stop when turning right on a red light, not stopping behind the stop line (thick, white line across the road before the crosswalk), and driving through a red light. As of July 2013, 519 communities across 25 states & D.C. use cameras at intersections for red light infractions and 129 jurisdictions across 13 states & D.C. use cameras to catch speeding.
Police patrol cars vary in make, model, color, and livery from state to state and even town to town, but all are equipped with red and blue flashing lights and a siren. 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. 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. Most traffic stops are recorded by a video camera in the trooper's patrol car, as well as a lapel mike on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.
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. The major rental agencies are Enterprise Rent-A-Car (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz (+1 800 230 4898); Avis (+1 800 230 4898); Thrifty Car Rental; and Dollar Rent A Car. There are no large national discount car rental agencies but in each city there is usually at least one. A couple discount car rental companies, usually restricted to areas of the country, are Advantage Rent A Car, 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. One widespread chain is Rent-A-Wreck (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices. Most rental 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.
Renting a car at an airport location can sometimes cost 3 times as much as renting the same car (from the same company) at a downtown location, but in other areas, the airport location will be cheaper. On-line travel websites such as Orbitz or Expedia can be useful to compare the best prices and make 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 AAA (+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. Alternatively, Better World Club (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs). Some non-U.S. automobile clubs have affiliate relationships with AAA that allow their members to use AAA services. These include the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), The Automobile Association in the UK, and ADAC in Germany.
Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or their own private vehicle insurance policy. Without appropriate loss/damage waiver cover, you could be liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident. Purchasing loss/damage waiver cover 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. If you visit the car rental website and identify your country of origin, you may be given a quote which includes the loss/damage waiver and 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, at stations that are primarily self-service (you must pump your own gas) with the exception of those in New Jersey and Oregon (where self-service is illegal). The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The U.S. 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. If you are driving in the Rocky Mountains area, you may encounter stations that offer gas at lower octane ratings, most commonly 85 octane. This is suitable for use by 87-octane vehicles at high elevations, but if you're heading for lower elevations, be sure to fill up with 87 octane.
Diesel is not as common, but 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 May 2014, current prices are averaging near $3.65/gallon (equivalent to $0.97/liter) for regular and $3.95/gallon for diesel ($1.05/liter).
Gas prices vary dramatically from state to state based on a number of variables, primarily state sales tax rates (which are invariably included in the advertised price). The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, Illinois, and New York. The lowest are generally found in the south central U.S. A good rule of thumb to find cheaper gas is to venture away from the highway and city centers. There are numerous mobile apps written that will display the cheapest fuel prices within a set range.
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-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 unaffordable for some. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe, affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800-229-9424) and several affiliated partners 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. 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.
Internet-based buses are becoming very widespread. Megabus offers inexpensive daily bus service across the country in several disconnected regions:
- The East Coast (also includes destinations as far west as Cleveland and Pittsburgh as well as Toronto and Montreal in Canada) hubs in New York City and Washington D.C.
- Midwest hub in Chicago.
- South hubs in Dallas and New Orleans.
- California (also includes Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada) hub in Los Angeles.
BoltBus competes with Megabus on major routes in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. With the exception of Boston (where all long distance buses are required by law to use the main South Station bus terminal) discount buses usually depart from either outside train stations or at curbside locations to keep costs down. The lowest fares are available by purchasing online several weeks before you travel but Bolt and Megabus both offer cash fares to walk-up passengers on a space available basis.
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 and South, along as along the West Coast. GoToBus.com is the largest online booking agent for these buses.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Connections from Texas hubs to the Midwest including Chicago, the Southeast and Mexico are offered Mexican(-American) companies Tornado Bus, El Expreso, El Conejo, Omnibus Mexicanos and Groupo Senda. Service in and out of Florida is offered by the Chilean JetSet, Argentinian RedCoach, and Cuban-American La Cubana. In California and the Southwest operators include FuturaNet and Crucero, which have tickets starting from $1.
There are numerous other local operators, many of which are also affiliated with Greyhound or Amtrak. The next largest affiliation is Trailways.
The Federal Highway Administration certifies all bus operators, though they have a hard time keeping wraps on the large amount of services. Curbside bus operators (Chinatown and Internet based buses) are more dangerous than others, though still much safer than driving a private vehicle.
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.
"Two countries divided by a common language"
Speakers of British English will find many terms which differ in American English. Here are a few:
See the article American and British English for more words that differ across both versions.
Almost all Americans speak English. They generally use a standard accent (native to the Midwest), popularized in the 20th century by radio, TV and movies. In many areas, especially the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, and in the upper Midwest, you'll find 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.
Even so, visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. While many Americans study a foreign language in school, few advance past the basics. The end result is that many Americans know only a few words at best of a foreign language, even if they studied that language in school. A growing number of popular tourist sites have signs in other languages, but only English is certain to be available at any given location.
American English differs somewhat from the English spoken in other parts of the English speaking world. These differences are mostly minor, and primarily around minor spelling differences as well as pronunciation. See the article on English language varieties for a detailed discussion.
Due primarily to immigration from Latin America, the United States has the fifth-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Spanish is the primary second language in many parts of the United States such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, and the metropolitan areas of Chicago and New York City. Many of these areas have Spanish-language radio and television stations, with local, national and Mexican programs. Many of the larger financial institutions and offices of the federal government also provide services in Spanish.
Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico and a large minority of residents on the mainland, particularly in the western states. 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. Although it's rare to be in areas where no one speaks English, a good handle on Spanish can make communication easier in some areas.
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, 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. However, the vast majority of consumer products are labeled only in English, meaning that a rudimentary grasp of English is essential for shopping.
Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii, although English is the most widely spoken language and Japanese is also widely spoken there. 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 (although most Chicago-area Poles are American-born and speak only English). 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 in an area populated with recent immigrants, traveling in the United States without a firm grasp of English is a significant challenge.
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 Japanese Sign Language, 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.
Indescribably 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.
From the spectacular glaciers of Alaska to the wooded, weathered peaks of Appalachia; from the otherworldly desertscapes of the Southwest to the vast waters of the Great Lakes; few other countries have as wide a variety of natural scenery as the United States does.
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 tallest living organisms; Glacier National Park is a great place to see huge sheets of ice; Canyonlands National Park could easily be mistaken for Mars; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park features abundant wildlife among beautifully forested 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. And, although they are very different from each other, Hawaii and Alaska are perhaps the two most scenic states; they don't just have attractions—they are attractions.
Americans often have a misconception of their country as having little history. The U.S. 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 indeed be a little hard to uncover, as most of the Native American tribes did not build permanent settlements. But particularly in the West, you will find magnificent cliff dwellings at sites such as Mesa Verde, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings. 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. There, a new World Trade Center tower has risen on a site adjacent to the fallen twin towers, and the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building still stand tall, as they have for almost a century. Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, can no longer claim the tallest building in the country, but it still has an awful lot of 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 U.S., 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:
- Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh
- Children's Museum of Indianapolis — Indianapolis, Indiana
- Exploratorium — San Francisco
- Hollywood Walk of Fame — Los Angeles
- 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
- Philadelphia Museum of Art — Philadelphia
- 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
- The Henry Ford — Detroit, Michigan
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.
- 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 throughout the U.S. 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.
- Theatre - America is considered to be the spiritual home of musical theatre, and many of the world's most famous musicals have had a run on Broadway in New York at one time or another. No trip to the East Coast of the United States will be complete without catching at least one musical at Broadway. Alternatively, for those who prefer classical music, the United States is also home to one of the world's premier opera companies, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Other well-regarded opera companies include the San Francisco Opera in San Francisco and the Lyric Opera of Chicago in Chicago.
- 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 ten 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. A few 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" (being one of the most widely played 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. There are also several hundred minor league teams scattered across the U.S.; while quality of the games are lower, prices are cheaper (even free in a few leagues). See Baseball in the United States for more information.
- 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 November 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 virtually nothing in common with the sport that most other countries call football (Americans know that sport as soccer). It is extremely popular, and the day of the championship game, called the Super Bowl, is an unofficial national holiday. Season lasts from September to December, with playoffs in January ending with the Super Bowl in February.
"Hockey" vs "Ice hockey"
In most English-speaking countries, "hockey" is used for a game played on grass and "ice hockey" for the one on ice. In North American usage, however, the former is called "field hockey", while "hockey" alone almost always means "ice hockey" (or, rarely, roller hockey).
- NHL. The premier ice hockey league 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 a prestigious race, 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, now with 19 teams (16 in the U.S. and three in Canada) and adding two more U.S. teams in 2015, 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. Foreign travelers can find particularly vibrant and familiar fan experiences in several cities, notably Washington, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, 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 primary 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 post-season 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 — The U.S. association with sports and education isn't limited to colleges and universities. Many communities take great pride in their high school sports teams, and especially in smaller locales, high school sports are a major part of local culture. During the school year (August to May), a high school game can be a great (and cheap) way to get a major dose of local culture. The most popular sports are usually football and boys' basketball (and to a lesser extent girls' basketball), plus hockey in New England and the upper Midwest. In some areas, a particular high school sport enjoys an elevated cultural place. Examples include football in Texas, basketball in Indiana, hockey in Minnesota, and wrestling in Iowa.
- Golf - The United States is home to many of the world's most famous golf courses. The most famous is arguably the Augusta National Golf Club, where membership is a very exclusive privilege. The Augusta National Golf Club is the home of the Masters, one of the world's most prestigious professional golf tournaments. Golf is popular both as a participation and spectator sport, and the U.S. supports several major professional tours:
- PGA Tour. The leading men's tour in the world, although the European Tour is very close in level of competition if not in prize money. Tournaments held throughout the U.S., plus stops in Canada and Mexico, as well as The Open Championship in the UK (one of the four "major championships").
- LPGA Tour. Unquestionably the world's top women's tour. Most tournaments (including three of its five major championships) are still held in the U.S., but the tour now has major championships in the UK and France, plus regular stops in the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and several Asian countries.
- Champions Tour. Run by the PGA Tour, this circuit involves golfers 50 and older. Generally, all PGA Tour stars, and many from other world tours, play here once they reach 50, unless unable to for health reasons. One of this tour's five major championships is in the UK, and two regular events are in Canada; the rest of the tour takes place in the U.S.
- 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 (11 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 Great 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 U.S. celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, rather than May 1. 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.
The official U.S. currency is the United States dollar ($), divided into 100 cents (¢). The dollar is colloquially known as the buck so 5 bucks means $5. Foreign currencies are almost never accepted. Some major hotel chains may accept traveler's cheques in other currencies. The Canadian dollar can generally be used close to the border; it is sometimes accepted at larger stores up to 100 miles from the border. The Mexican peso can also be used in border towns (El Paso, Laredo, etc.), but you'll get better rates by exchanging it before leaving Mexico.
Common American bills are for $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100, with $2 bills practically never seen in circulation. The $100 and sometimes $50 bills are too valuable for small transactions, and may be refused. All the bills are the same size. All $1 and $2 bills and older $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are greenish and printed with black and green ink. Newer versions of the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are slightly more colorful. Banknotes never expire and several designs of each note can circulate together. However, some retailers may refuse older bills in higher denominations ($100, $50, and maybe $20) which lack the anti-counterfeiting features (watermarks, security ribbon, microprinting) that staff are trained to look for.
The standard coins are the penny (1¢, copper color), the chunky nickel (5¢, silver color), the tiny dime (10¢, silver color) and the ridged-edge quarter (25¢, silver color). These coins only have their values written in words, not figures, e.g. "quarter dollar", rather than "25¢". The 10¢ coin is labeled "one dime", not "ten cents". When it comes to value, size doesn't matter: the dime is the smallest coin, followed by the penny, nickel, and quarter. Half dollar (50¢, silver) and dollar ($1, silver or gold) coins exist but are uncommon. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters, and dollar bills, though vending machines may also accept dollar coins; larger vending machines, such as for buses or postal stamps, may take $5, $10, and even $20 bills. Canadian coins are sized similarly, but machines usually reject them. Humans generally won't notice (or care about) a few small Canadian coins (particularly pennies, but also nickels, dimes, and even quarters) mixed with American, at least not in the northern parts of the country.
Currency exchange and banking
Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports. Some banks can provide currency exchange services.
Opening a bank account in the US is a fairly straightforward process, and there are no restrictions on foreigners owning bank accounts in the US. The largest retail banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank. Many parts of the country, such as Hawaii, are poorly served by the big retail banks and are dominated by local banks.
ATMs can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logos. They generally charge about $2.50 to cards issued by other banks, though this is often waived for cards issued outside the U.S. Smaller ATMs 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.
Credit and debit cards
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card affiliates) are widely used and accepted. 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 $0.30–0.50 (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, 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.
Only a few high-end boutique stores in major cities also have window stickers for foreign cards like JCB and China UnionPay. However, both JCB and China UnionPay have alliances with Discover, so they can be used at any retailer that accepts Discover cards.
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 U.S. is in the process of implementing the EMV "chip-and-PIN" credit card authorization system used overseas. The deadline for financial institutions to convert to using only EMV chip cards is October 2015. Since chip-and-PIN card readers were virtually non-existent in early 2014 and most financial institutions don't plan to begin replacing existing cards until late 2014/early 2015, don't expect to find many compatible card readers until the 2015 deadline draws near. After October 2015, retailers may still require a signature on a paper slip or computer pad as opposed to using a PIN (as it's the "chip" technology that's being mandated).
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). At gas stations, you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside. If you live in Canada and are using a card with the MasterCard logo, you can use it at all U.S. pumps that require a ZIP code prompt by entering the digits of your postal code (ignoring letters and spaces) and adding two zeroes to the end. When using a debit card, some stations will place a hold on your account for a specified amount (a notice will be present on the pump, typically $75) and then update the charge once you've filled up (but there is often a 1-2 day delay between removing the "hold" and updating the amount charged).
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. 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). The gift card also has instructions on how to check your remaining balance online. Gift cards will not likely work in branches outside the U.S.
There is no nationwide sales tax (such as VAT or GST), although nationwide taxes are levied on certain goods, notably motor fuels (gasoline and diesel). As a result, state or local taxes cannot be refunded by customs agents upon your leaving the U.S.
Most states have a retail sales tax of roughly 3–10% (4–6% is typical). A few have no state sales tax, but allow local city governments to collect sales taxes. Most states also levy substantial sin taxes on liquor or cigarettes. Taxes are almost never included in posted prices (except for those on gasoline/diesel, and in most states, alcoholic beverages consumed on-premises). Instead it will calculated when you come to pay. Groceries and a variety of other "necessities" are usually exempt, but almost any other retail transaction – including restaurant meals – will incur sales tax.
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, U.S. retail prices still tend to be much lower than in many other countries. The U.S. 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, U.S. sales taxes are charged only by the retailer at the time of the sale of the final product to the consumer.
Internationally renowned luxury brands are hard to find in the no-sales-tax states. Their boutiques are traditionally found in the largest and wealthiest states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida (all of which have sales taxes). However, a limited range of their wares may be found in local luxury retailers in the no-sales-tax states.
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". 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. Most medium-sized suburban towns contain at least one shopping mall containing one or more department stores as well as restaurants and retail establishments. They also contain one or more strip corridors containing strip malls, auto dealerships, and office space.
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.
Major retailers. American retailers tend to have some of the longest business hours in the world, with chains like Walmart and 7-Eleven often featuring stores open 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10AM to 9PM most days, and during the winter holiday season, may stay open as long as 8AM to 11PM. Most supermarkets are open late into the evening, usually until at least 9PM. 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 to attract customers or jettison merchandise. American retail stores are gigantic compared to retail stores in other countries, and are a shoppers' dream come true. As such, they typically offer a wide range of items. Department stores typically sell clothing, shoes, furniture, perfume and jewelry. Supermarkets sell produce, meats, fish, paper products, canned goods, milk, liquor and cigarettes. In poor neighborhoods or on freeways adjacent to gas stations, there are often convenience stores that offer a small range of cooked food, soda, sundries and cigarettes, albeit at rates not competitive with supermarkets.
Farmer's markets. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have large open-air markets open daily. Instead, urban and suburban cities have farmer's markets where growers sell fruits and vegetables directly to consumers. These events are typically held once weekly and take place in a cordoned-off street or parking lot.
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. They sometimes take place in convention centers, but usually take place in large suburban parking lots. 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 over 800 Macy's midrange department stores in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam, plus a smaller number of upscale Bloomingdale's stores. Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Midrange stores include Kohl's, Sears, The Gap, and JCPenney, while the lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy. Department stores are normally found in suburban towns, often in shopping malls, though a few can be found in downtowns or smaller rural towns.
General discount stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart are ubiquitous. Many discount stores, in addition to selling clothing and sundries, have either a small grocery section or a full supermarket; in fact, Walmart is the country's largest grocer, as well as being its largest retail chain. The three largest supermarket chains are Kroger, Safeway, and SuperValu, but they operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states (for example, Vons and Ralphs in California, and Cub in Minnesota). There are smaller regional supermarkets such as the A&P on the East Coast and Albertsons in the Rocky Mountain States. A number of American suburbs have high-end markets such as Whole Foods that sell more expensive items such as wine and organic produce. The dominant warehouse club chain is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam's Club (operated by Walmart). The three big pharmacy chains are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, though almost all discount stores and many supermarkets also contain a small pharmacy. Most urban and suburban towns contain several supermarkets or pharmacies, and more often than not a Walmart or other “big box” retailer.
A special note on pharmacies in discount stores and supermarkets: Generally, discount stores will group many items sold at pharmacies—over-the-counter medications, dental care products, cosmetics, hair care supplies, soap, first aid supplies, and the like—in one section of the store near the pharmacy counter. This is not the case in many supermarkets; these items are often split among two or more areas of the store. (Walmart uses the discount-store pharmacy model both in its discount stores and its supermarket-only Walmart Markets.)
In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, which may compete with a number of smaller regional chains. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), electronics (Best Buy), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond).
Unless you live in Australia, Canada, Europe or Japan, the U.S. is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. Many Europeans come to the U.S. for shopping (especially electronics). While prices in the U.S. are lower than in many European countries, keep in mind that you will be charged taxes/tariffs on goods purchased abroad. Additionally, electronics may not be compatible with standards when you return (electrical, DVD region, etc.). As such, the savings you may find shopping in the U.S. may easily be negated upon your return. Furthermore, your U.S.-bought item may not be eligible for warranty service in your home country.
A bare bones 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 cafés. 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 go down in rural areas. Most U.S. cities have suburbs with good hotels that are often much more affordable than those in the city center and enjoy lower crime rates. Thus, if you plan to rent a car and drive between several major cities on a single visit to the U.S., it is usually a better idea to stay at safe suburban hotels with free parking, as opposed to downtown hotels that charge exorbitant parking fees. Additionally, if you have generous friends from the U.S. who will give gift cards to you for some reason, the cards can help you defray some of the costs.
If you intend to visit any of the National Park 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). 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.
Tipping in America 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: 10–15%
- Bartenders: $1 per drink if inexpensive or 15–20% of total
- Bellhops: $1–2 per bag ($3–5 minimum regardless)
- Hotel doorman: $1 per bag (if they assist), $1 for calling a cab
- Shuttle bus drivers: $2–5 (optional)
- Private car & limousine drivers: 15–20%
- Parking valet: $1–3 for retrieving your car (unless there's already a fee for parking)
- Housekeeping in hotels: $1–2 per day for long stays or $5 minimum for very short stays (optional)
- Food delivery (pizza, etc.): $2–5, 15–20% for larger orders
- Bicycle messengers: $3–5
- 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 AC on a hot day). For livery cabs, if you hail the cab on the street and negotiate the fare in advance, then pay the negotiated amount plus an extra $1–2.
- 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 – check the bill.
It is important to keep in mind that the legal minimum wage for restaurant waitstaff and other tip-earners is quite low (just $2.13/hour before taxes), with the expectation that tips bring them up to a "normal" minimum wage. Thus, in restaurants (and certain other professions) a tip is not just a way to say "thank you" for service, but is an essential part of a server's wages.
Remember that while it is expected for you to tip normally for adequate service, you are never 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, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all.
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.
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.
Buying electronics for export
A popular idea is to buy a hot new mobile phone in the U.S. to use on your home network. Unfortunately, there are several complications:
- Most phones sold by US carriers are SIM-locked to prevent the use of a SIM card for a different network. Service providers release unlock codes only to existing customers for a fee after some arbitrary minimum term of service. Use of third-party "unlock" codes is lawful but availability varies between handset models and manufacturers.
- Many phones are on the wrong frequencies for use outside the Americas. 850/1900 MHz is most common in the US but various other frequencies are in use, especially for UMTS and high-speed data (3G, 4G, LTE).
- Verizon, Sprint and many low-cost networks use CDMA, which is rarely used outside the US and some parts of Asia. CDMA is incompatible with GSM (a commonly-deployed standard worldwide, used by AT&T, T-Mobile, and a couple low-cost networks) and does not require handsets support removable SIMs.
- Many advertised prices are based on a two-year contract; handsets are represented as inexpensive or even "free", with the real cost hidden in the monthly cost of an expensive post-paid plan. Purchasing the handset outright, up-front for cash either isn't an option or carries a higher price tag. Carriers often brand handsets with their logos and apps (which can't be uninstalled) or modify software to remove functionality.
A limited selection of unlocked phones may be found in some small electronics shops, a few Best Buy stores in major tourist destinations (like New York City or Orlando) and a handful of retailers online. As phone makers may make several physically and visually identical models of the same phone with different, incompatible standards or frequencies, there is a risk that what looks compatible actually supports a different system.
Similar incompatibilities exist with many other popular electronic items. TV's don't match the international DVB standard used in other countries, DVDs are region-coded or use the image size and frame rate of the US TV system, digitally-tuned radios use the wrong channel spacing for other ITU regions.
The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. In addition to the usual array of independent restaurants, the U.S. possesses a singularly baffling array of fast food and casual chain restaurants; even if you think you know U.S. fast food from the chains' international outlets, the sheer variety domestically is immense.
Ethnic cuisine from other parts of the world is frequently adapted to American tastes and/or made with locally available ingredients. This is particularly true of Asian cuisines, especially Chinese (see below).
Many restaurants, especially those serving fast food or breakfast, do not serve alcohol, and many others may only serve beer and wine. Portions are generally huge, regardless of restaurant style, although this trend has moderated recently with increasingly health-conscious customers. Many restaurants now offer several portion options, though it may not be immediately obvious. Ask when ordering if portion choices are available. Taking home "left overs" is very common and is a good way to get two meals for the price of one. Ask for a to-go box at the end of your meal if you have not cleared your plate.
In much of America, home-cooked food is substantially better than restaurant fare. This is particularly true in rural areas and small towns. If you have the opportunity to attend a carry-in dinner or pot luck, this is a chance not to be missed.
There is no nationwide ban on smoking, so whether you are allowed to smoke in a bar or restaurant or other public indoor space varies between, and even within, states. In most cases, it is banned. If there is a "No Smoking" sign, lighting up may get you ejected, fined, or even arrested, in addition to dirty looks.
Smoking has acquired a social stigma—even where it is permitted. You may want to ask the people around you whether they mind before lighting up. Many states have laws about smoking near public entrances, keep an eye out for posted signs stating a minimum distance to the door although enforcement is not consistent. Typically if you find an ash tray or a butt station, you are safe to smoke there.
Types of restaurants
Large cities host many examples of every type of restaurant imaginable from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagant full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. Most medium sized cities and suburbs will also field a decent selection. In the most "up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed. Check with the restaurant if in doubt.
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Subway and Burger King are ubiquitous, but the variety of this type of restaurant in the U.S. is astounding: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried 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 soda fountain (refills are often free). The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good, especially in the daytime. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected but you must clear your table after your meal. A few restaurants, called "drive-ins", serve you directly in your car.
Takeout food is very common in larger cities for meals that may take a little longer to prepare than in a fast-food place. Place an order by phone or online and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver; in some cities, it is easier to have pizza or Chinese food delivered than to find a sit-down restaurant. Pizza delivery is especially ubiquitous in the U.S.; towns as small as 5,000 typically have at least one establishment offering delivery, and often more than one. The main national pizza chains are Pizza Hut (mostly dine-in restaurants that also offer takeout and delivery), Domino's (no dine-in), Papa John's (also no dine-in), and Little Caesars (mostly takeout only, with some locations also offering delivery). Local pizza places often compete successfully against the big national chains, and many such restaurants also offer takeout and delivery.
Fast-Casual restaurants offer a fast-food dining style (no waitstaff, no alcohol), but the meals tend to be fresher and healthier. The food takes a bit longer to prepare—and costs a few dollars more—than at fast food joints, but it's generally worth it. Notable examples include Chipotle (Tex-Mex), Noodles and Company, Panera Bread (soup and sandwiches), Five Guys (burgers) and Freddies Burgers.
Diners are typically American and have remained popular since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. They are usually individually run, open 24-hours and found on major roads, though they also appear in large cities and suburbs. They offer a wide variety of huge meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually busy for breakfast, in the morning or after the bars close. Diner chains include Denny's, Norm's, and (in the South) Waffle House.
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 found on the interstate highways and cater to truckers. There will be diesel fuel and separate parking for the "big rigs" and showers for the drivers 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 portions! The three major chains are Pilot/Flying J, TA/Petro, and Love's. These generally have 24-hour restaurants, including "all you can eat" buffets and large breakfasts, often served in skillets. You are most likely to find such a restaurant at a TA or Petro (most truck stops also have national fast food outlets). Truckers know their eating: if there are plenty of trucks outside, it'll be good.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from diners and truck stops, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. Some specialize in a type of food (e.g. seafood) or a particular national cuisine, others have broader offerings. Some are well known only for breakfast, such as the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) which serves it all day in addition to other meals. A few of the larger chains include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's. These restaurants tend to serve alcohol.
The largest cities will have one or more fine dining establishments, the quality of which can vary from "overpriced" to "exquisite". Some will have a dress code; if jackets or ties are required, they will sometimes be made available to borrow.
Some bars double as restaurants and serve food late. Bars, including their dining areas, may be off-limits to those under 21.
Soft drinks come with a liberal supply of ice. Asking for no ice is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. Water is usually served chilled and with ice, unless you request otherwise. It will typically not be carbonated; if you want carbonated water, ask for "sparkling water." Bottled water, still or sparkling, will cost at least $1–2. Sit-down restaurants will often bring free iced tap water, even before taking your drink order. At fast food restaurants, bottled water is assumed unless you specify "ice water" or "tap water". Coffee, tea and soft drinks are sometimes refilled 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 11AM, 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, coffee shop, or convenience store (such as 7-Eleven, Circle K or AM/PM).
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 way of getting morning food.
Lunch 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. Most restaurants will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a "to go box"). 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 food.
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
Typical American food items that can be found at most restaurants or large gatherings include hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, ice cream, and pie. 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, red beans, 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 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"). Sauces of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. There are also unique regional styles of barbecue, with the best generally found in the South. The most distinct styles come from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. California and Maryland have a style that focuses on beef barbecued in an outdoor pit or brick oven. However, barbecue of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbecued meat can be served with a variety of sides, including chili, corn on the cob, coleslaw and potato salad. Barbecue restaurants are unpretentious and the best food is often found at very casual establishments. Expect plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and 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 almost always eaten with your fingers; tackle pork and brisket either with a fork or in a sandwich. Some Americans (though never Southerners) use "barbecue" as a synonym for "cookout": a party where the likes of chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs are grilled outdoors (rather than smoked). These can be fun, but they don't represent the American BBQ cuisine.
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.
Italian food is perhaps the most pervasive of ethnic cuisines in America, though this food has often taken a different direction than Italian food in Italy. All but the smallest villages have at least one restaurant that specializes in pizza, and many also have pasta restaurants as well. There are also restaurants that specialize in German or French food, but in much smaller numbers.
Chinese food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes. 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 California and the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Middle Eastern and Greek foods are also becoming popular in the United States. The gyro (known as "doner kebab" or "shawarma" in Europe) is a popular Greek sandwich 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 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, frozen dinner, etc.
In the largest cities, "corner stores" abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety of 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.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, at crowded informal eateries and cafés you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at, and at some inexpensive Chinese restaurants where staff will direct you to share a table. 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 is 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.
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, wine or beer, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host may refuse, 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. If you do not know your hosts very well, it may be best to avoid alcohol in certain situations, as many Americans drink alcohol very infrequently or not at all. This teetotaling is found particularly in the Bible Belt (the South and parts of the Midwest), and the Mormon Belt (Utah and to a lesser extent Idaho, Wyoming, and Arizona): Mormons, some Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are forbidden by their religions to drink alcohol at all.
An exception is the carry-in or 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. These types of meals typically offer a wide assortment of well-prepared foods and may be the very best way to experience authentic American cuisine.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In the cities, you can find everything from tough local "shot and a beer" bars to upscale "martini bars"; urban bars and nightclubs will often serve only simple food, or none at all. In the suburbs, alcohol is mainly served in restaurants rather than bars. And in rural areas, the line between "bar" and "restaurant" is often blurred to the point of meaninglessness; with few establishments nearby, locals go to the same place for both meals and nightlife. A few states have dry counties, places where it is illegal to sell alcohol for local consumption; these are mostly in rural areas.
The drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. except in most of the outlying territories (where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you're under 30 be prepared to show photo ID. Some retailers may not accept a foreign driver's license (except from Canada) so having your passport available when purchasing alcohol is strongly advised. In some states, people who are under 21 are not even allowed to be present in a bar or liquor store.
Alcohol sales are typically prohibited after 2AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. 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.
Most towns ban drinking in the open with varying degrees of enforcement. Even if it is allowed, a visible bottle (rather than one in a small bag) is either illegal or justifies police attention. Being "drunk and disorderly" is banned. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny. A blood-alcohol level of 0.08% is considered "under the Influence" and many states consider a level of 0.05% as "impaired". If you're under 21, most states have limits of 0.00-0.02%. Foreigners will typically be deported, even well established permanent residents. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol anywhere in a car other than in the trunk; this can be heavily fined. Should you find yourself in a situation where you drank a bit more than you intended and are unsure if you should drive, taxi cabs are fairly prolific in medium to large cities. Many automotive clubs offer hotlines to find a ride home.
Sales of raw milk for human consumption are illegal in some states and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans the interstate sale or distribution of raw milk.
Beer and wine are the main non-distilled alcoholic drinks, with whiskey the main hard liquor (i.e. distilled drink). "Cider" without further qualification is just an unfiltered variety of apple juice. "Hard cider" is the alcoholic drink from fermented apples; it is generally unpopular despite Americans having been its most enthusiastic consumers two centuries ago.
Beer constitutes approximately half the alcohol consumed in the U.S. Nationally known light lagers (which are cheap and mediocre) remain most prevalent, despite the emergence of other types of beer in the 1990s. Microbreweries, which specialize in small-batch, high-quality beers made by traditional methods, add much-needed variety. Microbrews are often inventive and experimental; some are excellent examples of classic beer styles, while others push the limits and develop new, unique flavors. Most are individual regional brewers, although a few are reaching national distribution. Some bars and restaurants carry microbrews, while others don't, seemingly at random. Brew pubs combine microbrewery and bar and serve highly regarded beer that is made on the premises. Vermont offers the highest ratio of microbreweries per capita in the country followed by Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Maine, while Washington grows 77 percent of the total United States hop crop, a key ingredient in beer making.
Wine is available across the quality spectrum. American wines are labeled primarily by the grape variety. A rough guide to quality comes in the specificity of the labeling. Color alone ("Red", "white", and "rosé" or "pink") denotes the lowest echelon. Above this, regions are labeled by state (e.g. "California"), an area of a state (e.g. "Central Coast"), a county or other small region (e.g. "Willamette Valley"), or a specific vineyard (e.g. "Dry Creek Vineyard").
The cheapest wine tends to come in a plastic bag encased in a box. "Fortified wines", known as "bum wine", are the precise opposite of high-class European port, sherry or Madeira.
All 50 states practice some sort of winemaking, though 90% of America's wine—including its most highly regarded from the Napa Valley—are Californian. Wines from Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington state represent good value as they are less well known. Michigan, Colorado's Wine Country, and New York State's Finger Lakes produce German-style whites which have won international competitions. The Llano Estacado region of Texas is also notable for its wines.
Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in upscale restaurants, and are also sometimes served by the glass. The best Californian sparkling wines have been rated comparably to leading French champagnes but they are not commonly sold in supermarkets outside of California.
Most bars, except urbane wine bars, serve unremarkable wine. Wine is taken quite seriously by some restaurants, but as with all other alcoholic drinks in restaurants, expect to pay up to four times the liquor store price for a bottle.
Hard alcohol (i.e. spirits) is usually drunk with mixers, but it is also served "on the rocks" (with ice) or "straight up" (unmixed, with no ice, also called "neat"). Whiskey, the traditional choice, remains popular despite the increased popularity of vodka and other clear spirits. Whiskey is distilled from many different grains. The main types are rye (made with mainly rye, a relative of wheat), malt (made with mainly barley) and bourbon (made with mainly corn, i.e. maize).
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. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
"Happy hour", a period usually lasting from 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5PM and 8PM, sees significant discounts on selected drinks. "Ladies' nights", during which women receive a discount or some other financial incentive, are increasingly common.
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. State lotteries and "scratch games" are another, popular form of legalized gambling. However, online gaming and wagering on sports across state lines remains illegal in the U.S.
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 or extended-stay hotels are increasingly available across the country. They can be found in smaller towns across the Midwest or in coastal urban areas. 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 from larger hotels. Examples include Marriott's Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inns, and Residence Inns; Hilton's Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express; Starwood's Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place.
Some extended-stay hotels are directed at business travelers or families on long-term stays (that are often relocating due to corporate decisions). These hotels often feature 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.
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-in and check-out times are almost always fall in the range of 11AM-noon and 2PM-4PM. Many U.S. 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 free 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 impersonality of 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 U.S. 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.
There are also youth hostels across the U.S. Most are affiliated with the American Youth Hostel organization (a Hostelling International member). Quality of hostels varies widely, but at $8–$24 per night, the prices are unbeatable. Despite the name, AYH membership is open to people of any age. Non-AYH hostels are also available, particularly in larger cities. Be aware that hostels are clustered in more touristy locations, do not assume that all mid sized towns will have a hostel.
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.
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.
- Main article: Studying abroad#United States
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. Don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota. The U.S. attracts more international students than any other country in the world and a lot of cultural diversity can be seen throughout its top universities.
Note that unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States.
Any courses that contribute credits towards the awarding an academic degree will require you to obtain a student visa in advance regardless of how short your stay in the US may be. However, short courses that do not count as academic credits may be undertaken on a tourist visa, or under the visa-waiver program. 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.
It is better to arrange your work and work visa 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 a nanny 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. Once you have received work authorization, you will have to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) for your employer to report your wages to the government for tax purposes. You can start working before you receive your number in the mail, but you must provide your employer with a receipt from the Social Security Administration indicating that you have applied for one.
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 tertiary 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, mathematics teachers, and computer science professionals. On the other hand, there is the more permanent employment-based immigrant visa which has similar requirements to the H-1B visa. Before an employer can arrange any work visa, he must ensure that nobody within his locale is willing or qualified to do the job before considering you.
Unless you are a permanent resident of the United States (i.e. green card holder), as a foreigner, you will need a work visa to be allowed to work in the United States. Paid work is not allowed on a B1/B2 visitor visa or the visa-waiver program, though volunteer work is allowed. Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions. Foreigners on F1 student visas are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week on-campus in their respective institutions, but are generally banned from working off-campus unless they have applied for and received special permission in advance. Note that the above restrictions apply to Canadians and Bermudians as well. The only exceptions to this rule are citizens of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, who are allowed to live and work in the United States indefinitely with only a valid passport. Citizens of U.S. Overseas Territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands are considered to be U.S. citizens and, therefore, may work unrestricted in the United States.
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 U.S. Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the U.S. and overseas often prey on people's desire to travel or work in the U.S. Keep in mind that visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary, so you should be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties, especially non-lawyers. If in doubt about properly applying for such visas then it is recommended to use a licensed immigration attorney.
Keep in mind that anyone entering under the Visa Waiver Program is not permitted to adjust their status for any reason. For detailed immigration rules related to working in the US, visit the web-site of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Headline-grabbing major crimes and slightly unfavorable statistics give the United States a reputation for crime. However, few visitors experience any problems; common-sense precautions and staying alert are sufficient to avoid trouble. Crime is usually connected with gangs and drugs in the inner cities, and with heated disputes. Avoid those and you'll be fine. Urban tourist areas are heavily policed and are safe from all but petty crimes.
Urban areas tend to have homeless people who may aggressively ask for money. If you feel harassed, say "No" firmly and walk away.
Illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and the authorities' heavy-handed treatment of them, make the Mexican border undesirable to visit. Official border crossings are safe to use.
American police are generally polite, professional, and honest. When in uniform, they are also more formal, cautious, and cold than police in, say, Latin America—especially in large cities. If stopped by traffic police, you should stay calm, be polite and cooperative, avoid making sudden movements, and state what you are doing if you need to reach for your purse or wallet to present your identification. Turn on the inside car lights and keep your hands on the wheel to make it clear that you are not a threat; do not exit the vehicle unless told to do so.
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. U.S. police culture categorically rejects bribes, and the mere suggestion would very likely result in your immediate arrest. If you need to pay a fine, don't try to pay the officer; he or she can direct you to the appropriate police station, courthouse, or government office. Most minor traffic infractions can be paid by mail. Increasingly fines can be paid online or over the phone within a matter of minutes of receiving the ticket, though often for a convenience fee of a few dollars. Instructions are often printed on the ticket.
There are three types of police you are most likely to encounter: state police/highway patrol units on state highways, deputy sheriffs employed by county governments in rural areas, and police officers employed by city or town governments in urban areas. Some transit agencies in major cities have their own transit police departments separate from city or county law enforcement. Federal law enforcement officers are generally found only in or near federal facilities, such as ports of entry. If you encounter them elsewhere, it is usually because they are investigating specific allegations of federal crimes.
Dialing 9-1-1 at any telephone will reach the emergency services (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Any U.S. phone, regardless if it is "active" or not, must be able to dial 911 if it is connected to the network, and such calls are always free. Unless you are calling from a mobile or Internet-based phone, the operator should be able to locate you from the phone you are using even if you do not say anything. Modern cell phones will send a GPS fix of your location down to a few meters within a few seconds of dialing 911. Dialing 911 and leaving an open line will bring all 3 emergency services to your location in under 5 minutes in most populated areas. Response time may be longer in sparsely populated areas or along the Interstates.
On any GSM mobile phone (the standard technology in most of the world, especially in Europe), you can also dial 112, which is the standard emergency number for GSM networks worldwide. U.S. GSM carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and smaller regional operators) automatically redirect 112 calls to 911.
As in most countries, misuse of the emergency services number will result in, at the least, a call back from authorities; at most, arrest. If you reach 9-1-1 accidentally (for instance, if a misdial of the 011- international prefix gets a "9-1-1, what's your emergency?" response) stay on the line for long enough to explain to the dispatcher that you have reached a wrong number.
The United States Border Patrol works near both the Canadian and the Mexican borders, as well as in Southern coastal areas like the Florida Keys. They can verify immigration status and enforce immigration laws in the "border zones"—generally within 40 miles of Canada and 75 miles of Mexico (although the law allows for 100 miles from any border, including sea and the Great Lakes). Near Canada they tend to be unobtrusive and generally focus their work on long-distance buses and trains. In the South, systematic vehicle checkpoints or being stopped on the street with a friendly "Papers, please..." is much more likely. They tend not to target tourists specifically.
Foreigners are always required to carry their passports, visas, and landing cards (or Green Cards). Being found without them near the border could lead you to being detained until your status is verified, or possibly fined. If your documents are in order, you generally won't be questioned. In most states (Arizona is a notable exception), police and other local authorities are not allowed to question you about your immigration status or to ask to see your passport or visa unless you're arrested and charged with a crime, and then only for the purpose of connecting you with your embassy. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, some statistics have shown that Muslims or those who are assumed to be Muslims may be disproportionately targeted for additional screenings at airports in spite of claims that passengers are chosen at random.
The U.S. is a huge country with very varied geography, and parts of it are occasionally affected by natural disasters: hurricanes and tropical storms from June through November in the South (including Florida), blizzards (a specific and common type are "Nor'easters") in New England and the areas near the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains and Midwest, earthquakes in California and Alaska, floods in areas of the Midwest and wildfires in the late summer and early fall in Texas and on the West Coast, particularly California. 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 San Andreas Fault is a tectonic plate boundary running through California, an area prone to earthquakes.
In the case of a natural disaster, local, state or federal authorities can issue a warning over the Emergency Alert System. It has a very distinctive electronic screeching followed by a sound similar to a dial tone prior to any message. It will override AM/FM radio broadcasts as well as TV systems. Smartphones sold since about 2011 will often receive the alert as well in the form of a message based on the current location of the phone (depending on the phone's settings, this may include a loud alert tone). In most tornado-prone regions, a system of sirens will sound when a tornado warning is issued. If you hear the siren, seek shelter immediately. (For more information, see tornado safety.)
Gay and lesbian
Homosexual relations are legal. Many states and cities (even those considered to be more conservative or that do not recognize same-sex marriage) have anti-discrimination codes protecting sexual orientation, including public accommodations in hotels, restaurants and transport.
The major legal controversy concerns whether same-sex marriage should be recognized or not. Marriage laws vary from state to state; currently 15 states and the District of Columbia allow and recognize same-sex marriages, while a handful others provide some benefits without calling them "marriages". In these states, foreign marriages will likely be recognized. The federal government, due to a 2013 court case, now also recognizes same-sex marriages including foreign marriages.
In general, the US is a safe destination for gay and lesbian travellers, though as a whole, homosexuality is somewhat not as well accepted as in Australia, Canada or Western Europe. Most Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality, but there are significant exceptions. It's generally not a problem to be open about your sexual orientation, though you may receive unwanted attention or remarks in some situations. Attitudes toward homosexuality vary widely even in regions with a reputation for tolerance or intolerance. Acceptance is most common in major cities throughout the country and smaller cities, suburbs and college towns especially around the Pacific Coast, the Northeast and Hawaii, with acceptance in these areas generally being on par with Western Europe. Homophobia and anti-gay violence may be encountered anywhere, especially in some suburban and rural areas of the Southeast and interior West, but the chances of this happening to you are low.
Gay-friendly destinations, where openly gay couples are common, include New York's Chelsea, Rochester in Western New York State, 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. Even outside of gay neighborhoods, many major cities are gay-friendly, especially in the Northeast and the West Coast. 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 other smaller cities, there are neighborhoods where gay people tend to congregate, many have resource centers for LGBT people.
Some businesses specifically advertise that they are LGBT-friendly by displaying symbols (typically a rainbow flag) on their storefront.
Men planning to engage in any sexual activity should be aware of 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 infected with HIV, 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, though hours may be limited and waits may be long. Planned Parenthood clinics are often an affordable alternative. The lifelong repercussions of HIV or other STIs aren't covered by many insurance policies. Seeking health care elsewhere can be very pricey, as the U.S. medical system is private and largely operates on a for-profit basis.
In general U.S. drug laws can be pretty severe: even possession or transportation of small amounts can lead to prison or deportation and should be avoided by travelers. However, laws and attitudes concerning the most commonly available drug, marijuana, vary wildly from state to state. States like Louisiana and Florida impose large fines and lengthy prison sentences, while in other states marijuana use has been largely decriminalized. 18 states currently allow medical use of marijuana, where persons can obtain marijuana for medicinal use with a doctor's prescription and a "medical marijuana card". In some states, particularly cities on the West Coast, medical marijuana dispensaries are so commonplace that they seem almost ordinary. Colorado and Washington state allow limited recreational use of marijuana. Under no circumstances should you transport marijuana or other drugs that are illegal under federal law across state lines, as doing so is drug trafficking and could subject you to a lengthy prison term.
Prostitution is illegal except at licensed brothels in rural Nevada. Tolerance varies considerably between states. Police officers occasionally pose as prostitutes to catch and arrest anyone offering to pay for sex.
It's true: the US has a strong gun culture, and many (but by no means all) Americans own a firearm. Possession of firearms is regulated by individual states, and while these regulations (obtaining necessary permits, the kinds of arms permitted) vary greatly from state to state and, sometimes, from city to city within the same state, the US is generally considered to be a place with lenient attitudes towards firearm ownership, especially compared to Europe and Asia.
Non-immigrant aliens present in America for fewer than 180 days cannot possess a firearm or ammunition, unless they traveled specifically for hunting or sporting shooting, or they have a valid hunting license from the state they are shooting in. Entry in a recognized shooting competition also qualifies. Anything else is strictly illegal.
Your chances of getting shot are very low, but bear in mind that:
- In a city, a civilian with an openly visible firearm is much more of a concern than one in the country. However, many states permit "open carry", and while uncommon in cities, you may encounter somebody with a holstered firearm. Many states also have "concealed carry", laws which permit the possession of a concealed firearm in clothing or in a vehicle. Keep in mind that people with permits to carry a firearm, openly or concealed, are usually not criminals and not going to harm you.
- Hunting is popular in rural America. Use of marked trails should not be a risk, but if venturing off the beaten path try to inquire if and where any hunting may currently be afoot. If there is, wear bright colors (particularly "Blaze Orange") to be highly visible to the hunters. This includes putting a bright vest on any dogs you take too. If you wish to hunt, obtain the correct permits and review the local regulations.
- Target shooting is a popular sport. Many ranges welcome tourists and will have a variety of firearms available to rent and shoot at the range. Many implement a "two person minimum" rule and consider it unsafe to rent firearms to lone individuals.
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.
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), 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).
These 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 destination United States website
American health care is generally first-class but can be very expensive. Most Americans have private health insurance. The largest state-run health program, Medicare, is mainly for the elderly. Medicaid is a largely similar program for the poor. Travelers should ensure their travel insurance is valid for the U.S. Given the high costs, some "world-wide" insurance specifically does not cover the US. Long-term visitors to the US (e.g. Work or Student visa holders) are generally required to take up private health insurance as part of their visa conditions.
To the patient, America's public (20%), private profit-making (20%), and private non-profit-making (60%) hospitals are generally indistinguishable. Inner city public hospitals may be more crowded and less well maintained, but as a whole both costs and service levels are consistently high in all types. No hospital can refuse a life-threatening emergency case. Private hospitals may only stabilize such patients before sending them to a nearby public hospital, which will generally act as the regional center for 24 hr emergency treatment.
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. Ambulance fees typically range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and though they will never refuse to transport you in an emergency, the ambulance fees will be billed to you at a later date. Emergency rooms treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, even though their services are not free. Expect to pay at least $500 for a visit, plus the cost of any specific services or medications you are given. Avoid using ERs for non-emergency walk-in care; they are 3–4 times more expensive than other options and your non-urgent condition means you will have a wait of hours or maybe days. Most urban areas also have minor emergency centers (also called "urgent care", etc.) for situations where a full emergency room is not necessary (e.g. superficial lacerations). Their hours may be limited; few are open at night.
Walk-in clinics can provide routine medical care; to find one, check the yellow pages (see By phone below) under "Clinics", or call a major hospital and ask. 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. Make sure the clerk knows you will be paying "out of pocket"; if they assume an insurance company is paying, they may inflate the bill with unnecessary extras.
Dentists are common across the country. They are accustomed to explaining fees over the phone, and most will accept credit cards.
Government-supported clinics offering free or low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases are widespread. Local Health Departments will provide 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. Planned Parenthood (1-800-230-7526) is a private agency with clinics and centers around the country providing birth control and other reproductive health services for both females and males.
Today, dress in the U.S. tends to be fairly casual. For everyday clothes, jeans and T-shirts are always acceptable, as are shorts when the weather is suitable. Sneakers (athletic shoes) are common; flip-flops and sandals are also popular in warm weather. In the winter seasons in northern states boots are commonly worn.
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 (such restaurants will almost always have jackets to lend).
At the beach or pool, men prefer loose bathing trunks or boardshorts, and women wear bikinis or one-piece swimsuits. Nude bathing is not generally acceptable and is usually illegal except at certain private beaches or resorts; even women going topless is not usually accepted by most people, and is also illegal in some states.
Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as hijab, yarmulke, and burqa without comment.
The United States has a higher proportion of religious adherents than many western nations, and visitors looking to attend services should have no problem locating a house of worship, even in small towns. A typical medium-sized American town or city probably has one or more Catholic parishes, several Protestant churches (the most common being Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal/Anglican), and other houses of worship depending on the demographics of the area (such as synagogues or mosques).
Most Christian churches in the United States practice an "open table", meaning they welcome you to participate in worship, and some or all rituals, even if you're not a member of their religious denomination. Some churches, and some entire denominations, welcome LGBT individuals.
News and media
Every major city, and many small ones, have a daily newspaper covering local news and often some national news. Major metropolitan areas will usually have a number of papers to choose from, each with its own editorial slant and biases, but all of generally high quality of reporting. (A few exceptions, known as "tabloids" after their most common printing format, exist; you can identify them by their exaggerated, sensational headlines.)
The national paper of record is actually The New York Times ($2.50 daily, $6 Sunday); although ostensibly a newspaper local to New York City, its coverage of national and international issues makes it daily reading just about anywhere in the country. For financial news, The Wall Street Journal (also based in NYC, $2) is similarly well-respected and widely read. For a more casual but still informative format, USA Today ($2) publishes five days a week; it's the most widely circulated print newspaper in the country. Many hotels offer free copies of either the local paper or USA Today; ask at the front desk. Other widely read papers include the Los Angeles Times (noted for its West Coast coverage) and The Washington Post (with exemplary political reporting from the nation's capital).
Major metropolitan areas also have a full suite of broadcast television stations; small cities might have only two or three local stations, especially if they're within broadcast range of a larger city. The major broadcast networks are ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS (taxpayer-funded public broadcasting). You'll rarely be traveling anywhere that you'd need to use an antenna, though; almost the entire country is wired for cable TV. That opens up a whole range of options for viewing, from CNN for news to The Weather Channel to ESPN for sports, along with countless entertainment channels. The channel numbers vary based on the cable provider and location, which is why most hotels provide a channel listing. Most cable systems also have a program guide available through the cable box.
- It is polite to shake hands when meeting someone or being introduced, though handshaking is often skipped in less formal situations. Kissing on the cheeks in greeting is rare and usually done only between close friends and family.
- Unless it is really crowded, leave about an arm's length of personal space between yourself and others.
- Punctuality is valued: being five minutes late is not usually a problem, but any more should warrant a forewarning when possible.
- As a result of the country's history of racial discrimination and the modern push toward equality, Americans are exceptionally touchy about issues of race. If you have to reference race, Black or African-American, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American or American Indian, and White or Caucasian are acceptable terms.
- There are Native American reservations scattered throughout the country. Many of these reservations are home to sites that are sacred to the tribe, and certain places may be off-limits to all but tribe members. If you enter a reservation, respect its land and people.
- The Swastika symbol is considered to be very offensive in the US. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain visitors should be sure to keep all Swastikas for religious purposes out of sight.
The country code for the U.S. is +1. The long-distance prefix (trunk code) is also "1", so U.S. telephone numbers are frequently written as an eleven-digit number: "1-nnn-nnn-nnnn". The rest of the telephone number consists of ten digits: a three-digit area code, and a seven-digit number. Area codes are assigned by population, not geography, so expect many codes in large cities and only one or two for the entirety of a mainly rural state. Whether a number is a mobile or a landline (and sometimes even its location) often cannot be distinguished from its area code or number.
From a mobile phone, a domestic call is simple: always dial ten digits without the "1".
From a fixed line, you can usually dial a local number using ten digits. New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago require eleven digits. Places where a new area code overlays another one require ten-digit dialing, whereas areas with only one area code usually allow seven digits. If a number is written or given without the area code, you can usually dial it like that locally, but dialing ten digits should also work. For long-distance and toll-free, always dial eleven digits.
Domestic calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, and 844 are toll-free. They must be dialed using the full 11-digit pattern. With few exceptions (such as Canada or, rarely, Mexico) these are not reachable from abroad. (Voice over IP users may be able to circumvent this restriction by calling via a US-based gateway.) The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges (e.g. "adult entertainment"). This is also true of local seven-digit numbers starting with 976 (or, in some localities, 970).
To dial abroad, the international access code is 011 ("+" will also work on a mobile phone).
Canada, U.S. territories, Bermuda, and 17 Caribbean nations are part of the North American Numbering Plan, and have the same country code ("1") as the U.S. Calls made between these countries are dialed using only the full 11-digit number, but almost all are charged at international rates. Calls between the U.S. and its territories may be more expensive than calls within the contiguous 48 states and D.C., or even calls between the U.S. mainland and Canada (which typically are charged at a higher rate than domestic calls, but lower than other international calls). Alaska and Hawaii may carry a surcharge even for domestic calls, depending on the carrier and rate plan.
Phones and directories
The once ubiquitous pay phone is now much harder to find. Likely locations include in or near stores and restaurants, shopping mall entrances and near bus stops. In large cities, they can be hard to find outside of transport stations and hotels. Most are coin operated (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept paper bills. Prices are normally $0.50 for the first three minutes, and $0.25 for each additional minute. An online directory of pay phones can be found at Pay Phone Directory.
Telephone directories contain two listings (often split into two books): the white pages lists number alphabetically, and the yellow pages list businesses by category (e.g. "Taxicabs"). Many residential land-line phones and all mobile phones are unlisted. Directory assistance can also be had (at an extra cost) by dialing 4-1-1 (for local numbers) or 1-area code-555-1212 (for other areas). If 4-1-1 doesn't work, try 555-1212, areacode-555-1212 or 1-areacode-555-1212. Free directory information (with advertisements) is available: dial 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-3733-411) or browse free411.com or 411.info. Regional telephone companies' web sites (most often AT&T, Verizon, or CenturyLink; also Frontier in West Virginia and FairPoint in northern New England) also provide directory information. Using the website of the company that operates in the region you are interested in yields the best results (e.g. AT&T for most of California, and Verizon for the Northeast)
Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. They are generally aimed at specific types of call (e.g. domestic, or to particular countries). Credit can be often replenished over the phone using a credit or debit card, but foreign bank cards may be refused. Card calls from payphones via toll-free numbers printed on the cards may be more expensive. There may also be effective charges per connection as well as per minute; some cards also carry hidden weekly or monthly charges which deplete their value.
The four largest mobile phone networks in the U.S. are AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile. These all have good coverage of practically all urban/suburban and many rural areas of the country, although each network has strong and weak areas. Smaller networks tend to have poor coverage outside of large metropolitan areas.
There is no surcharge for calling to a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are charged the same as calls to land lines), and mobile phones don't pay surcharges when calling domestic long-distance. Instead, mobile phones themselves are charged for all usage, outgoing and incoming. In other words, a call to/from a mobile phone carries the same cost to that mobile phone, but it doesn't matter whether it's local, domestic long-distance, or toll-free. Credit packages from $25/month allow you to make hundreds of minutes' worth of calls. A failed call (or a "missed call") will be charged since you are billed from the moment you dial.
If you want to have a mobile phone in the U.S. while you travel, you have several options:
- Using your phone from home isn't as easy as in some other countries, because the U.S. (as well as Canada and many Latin American countries) uses the 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies, instead of 900 and 1800 MHz used elsewhere. If you have a phone that's tri- or quad-band (which includes many modern phones), you should be fine; otherwise, this option won't work for you. You will also need to pay attention to whether your phone is GSM/UMTS (used by AT&T and T-Mobile; common in Europe) or CDMA (used by Verizon and Sprint).
- Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling through a U.S. network) is expensive, and will depend on the networks your home provider has contracts with, as well as your own provider's fees. Internet data plans are ubiquitous in the U.S., but the normally-high prices become exorbitant once roaming fees are added.
- Canadian cell phones may roam at $1.50/minute or more, although plans vary; prepaid-cash users may not roam at all. A small fourth carrier Wind Mobile is an exception; while it has a limited footprint using non-standard frequencies at home, it is relatively inexpensive for roaming; a $39 plan (roughly $45 prepaid after taxes) covers unlimited talk, international text, and 5GB of data in the US with no speed restrictions on standard T-Mobile and AT&T cellular frequencies.
- Roaming is also an issue for Americans who live, work, or travel in areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders. Roaming on non-U.S.networks is equally expensive for Americans. If you're visiting, say, Detroit, there are certain places near the border where the signal from Windsor is stronger, which means that unless you turn roaming off, your phone will connect to the Canadian network. In turn, you'll find yourself with unexpected roaming charges for voice or data on a future bill.
- Buying a SIM card is a better way to use your personal phone; by installing the SIM card in your phone, you'll have a local U.S. telephone number prepaid with no contract, hundreds of minutes' worth of calls, and large amounts of data. The prices make it more economical for extended stays, but the convenience of cheap calls and data make this an attractive option for any visitor.
- SIM cards are available for purchase at some electronics and convenience stores. You'll need to make sure that your phone is not SIM-locked and is compatible with the SIM card and the frequencies of the network. Read the terms carefully, as some plans are actually recurring monthly contracts rather than one-time prepaid plans.
- Providers who sell prepaid SIM cards include Straight Talk's Bring Your Own Phone and T-Mobile.
- Purchasing prepaid minutes and a basic mobile phone is your next best option. These can be found at some grocery stores, at most electronics, office supply, and convenience stores, and of course online. A basic phone (without Internet access) and 60–100 minutes of time can be purchased for under $50. In addition to minutes, some prepaid services charge a flat fee per month (e.g. $20/month), or a fee for days when the phone is actually used (e.g. $1.25/day). Prepaid, contract-free mobile phone service is available from many prepaid-only providers, such as Boost Mobile, Cricket, Straight Talk, TracFone, and Virgin Mobile USA, as well as limited offerings from the major carriers: AT&T's GoPhone, T-Mobile, and Verizon Prepaid Wireless.
- Renting a phone costs from around $3/day, and can be done at shops in most of the larger airports. Depending on how long you're staying and how much you plan on calling or using data, it may be cheaper or easier to use a prepaid SIM card or prepaid phone instead.
- Getting a phone contract, which is what most Americans do, is something only visitors planning to stay long-term should consider. Unless you've lived in the U.S. for several months, international visitors won't have a credit rating that is recognized by U.S. service providers and therefore aren't able to subscribe to these plans (although some providers will let you get one with a deposit, typically at least $500). Contracts typically require a 24-month commitment (cancellation fees can reach $300!) to a specific monthly rate plan, and in exchange they subsidize the cost of the phone (so basic phones are "free", and smartphones only "cost" $50–$200).
Addressing mail with a properly-formatted address will expedite its journey with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). (Not to be confused with the abbreviation for private shipper UPS.) Most important is the ZIP code (postal code); you can look up ZIP codes and correct address formats online. ZIP codes were originally 5 digits; later they gained a hyphen and 4 extra digits, which are recommended but still optional, and used more commonly by businesses than by individuals.
Addresses should be written in three (sometimes four) lines like this:
Name of recipient
House number and street name
City or town, two-letter state abbreviation, ZIP code
or, as an example:
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500-0001
There are recommended abbreviations for state names and terms (e.g. street = ST, avenue = AVE); the USPS address and ZIP code search uses them automatically. The USPS also recommends that addresses be written using only upper case letters and no punctuation (except the hyphen in the ZIP code and hyphens and slashes in some house numbers), but automated sorting machines accept mixed-case lettering and even cursive writing just as easily.
First-class international airmail postcards and letters (up to one ounce/28.5 grams) cost $1.15. (The lower rate to Canada and Mexico has ended.) All locations with a ZIP code are considered domestic, including the 50 states, U.S. possessions, Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, and overseas military bases and ships (APO/FPO). Domestic postcards cost $0.34, and ordinary letters up to an ounce, $0.49. "Forever" stamps are available for the first ounce of both domestic and international postage, and protect against future increases. Mailing thick or rigid objects, or non-standard shapes increases the postage cost.
Poste Restante, the receiving of mail at a post office rather than a private address, is called "General Delivery." There is no charge for this service. You will need to show ID such as a passport to pick up your mail. You do not need to have mail addressed to a particular post office by its name--use only "GENERAL DELIVERY" in the second line. For example:
Seattle, WA 98101-9999
The last four digits of the ZIP code for General Delivery are always "9999". If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will allow General Delivery. 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. However, if you're in an independent suburb just outside a large city having only one government post office you can have it sent there. Another option is to rent a post office box.
FedEx and UPS also have a "Hold for Pickup" option and have locations throughout larger cities in the U.S. Though usually more expensive, these may be a better option when receiving something important from abroad.
Given the ubiquity of private Internet access, Internet cafés are rare outside major cities and tourist areas. However, you do have some options, except perhaps in the most rural of areas. Accessible WiFi networks, however, are common.
The most generally useful WiFi spots are in coffee shops, fast-food chains, and bookshops, though you may need to buy something first. Some cities also provide free WiFi across their downtown areas. Try to use only public networks. Using a private network (even one without a password), unless authorized to do so, is illegal (though enforcement is nearly non-existent), and it may also allow criminals to track your browsing and so defraud you. Even traffic on public networks may be logged.
A few less obvious WiFi spots may be found in:
- Public libraries – Free Wi-Fi is almost always available, although you may need to get a log-in from the information desk. The network may even be accessible 24/7, so even if the library is closed you may be able to sit outside and surf.
- Starbucks — all locations of the Starbucks coffee chain offer free Wi-Fi, as well as electrical outlets for your laptop.
- Hotels – chain hotels usually have it in the rooms and the communal areas; smaller independent hotels vary. An overpriced option at high-end hotels, but included standard at most economy limited service chains.
- Colleges and universities – may have networks in their libraries and student centers that are open to non-students. Ask around.
- Airports – even smaller regional ones offer Wi-Fi. It may cost though.
- Paid WiFi chains – give you access to numerous hotspots for a small charge, e.g. Boingo.
Mobile broadband via a USB modem is also an option. Service providers include Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile (which uses the Sprint network). Make sure to check a coverage map before you buy, each company has large areas with bad or no coverage. Also, these plans are subject to data limits which are easy to exceed unknowingly! Avoid watching videos over a mobile network.
Public PC terminals
Internet cafés can still be found in some larger cities (e.g. New York and Los Angeles). Airports and shopping malls offer Internet access terminals for very quick use, although these are generally disappearing. Access typically costs $1 for 1–2 minutes of web time. Any public computer will likely block access to undesirable websites and log your Internet use.
You may also consider:
- Public libraries — have PCs with broadband for public use. You will need to register with the library to get log in information, and may (rarely) need to pay a small fee.
- Photocopy shops — will have computers available for public use (at a cost). E.g. FedEx Office (+1 800 463 3339/+1 800 GOFEDEX; when prompted by the voice menu, say "FedEx Office" or press "64") is open 24 hr and is nationwide. Some are also commercial mail receiving agents (such as The UPS Store) and offer fax service.
- Smart hotels — have "business centers" replete with computers, printers, photocopies, and fax machines that you can use at a cost.
- Electronics stores — the computers on display are often connected to the Internet. A quick email will be tolerated with a smile, six hours of Warcraft won't. The Apple Store is particularly generous and will allow browsing without intent to buy; however, some websites, such as Facebook, are blocked.
- University libraries — while private universities may restrict entry to their students and faculty, public university libraries are generally required by law to be open to the public (at least as far as books go) and they may also have a computer or two for public use.