The United States of America is a vast country in North America 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 330 million people (in 2020). 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 canyonlands of the Southwest, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California.
The United States comprises 50 states and the nation's capital city of Washington, D.C., which for the purposes of Wikivoyage are grouped into the following regions:
|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 to Washington, D.C., the Mid-Atlantic is home to some of the nation's most densely populated cities, historic sites, rolling mountains and seaside resorts.
|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, 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 mi (1,900 km) of sandy beaches.
|Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin)|
A region of simple and hospitable people, farmland, forests, picturesque towns, industrial cities and the Great Lakes — the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world, which forms the North Coast of the U.S.
The second biggest state is like a separate country (and indeed once was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past. The terrain is quite varied, with swamplands in the southeast, flat land and cotton farms in the South Plains, sandy beaches in South Texas and mountains and deserts in far West Texas.
|Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma)|
A former Wild West frontier land often described as "flatter than a pancake," this region used to consist of endless grasslands. Much of it is now one huge farm after another, with occasional towns, but the remaining prairies are still vast and somewhat desolate.
|Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)|
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, excellent skiing, deserts, and some large cities.
|Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah)|
Heavily influenced by Spanish, Mexican and Native American cultures, this area is home to some of the nation's most spectacular natural attractions and flourishing artistic communities. Although mostly empty, the region's deserts contain some big cities.
Like the Southwest, California is heavily influenced by its former Spanish and Mexican rulers, and also by Asian culture and cuisine. California offers world-famous cities, deserts, rainforests, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches.
|Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)|
The pleasantly mild Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits and cosmopolitan cities. The terrain features spectacular rainforests, scenic mountains and volcanoes, beautiful coastlines and 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, Denali, and Native Alaskan culture unseen elsewhere in the United States.
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 mi (3,700 km) southwest of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise.
The U.S. also administers a collection of non-state territories around the world, principally in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Oceania (Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and various uninhabited islands and island groups). As these are quite different from the 50 states from a traveler's point of view, they are covered in separate articles. See American colonialism for destinations where you can learn about current and former U.S. overseas territories.
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.
- 1 Washington, D.C. — the nation's capital, filled with major museums and monuments
- 2 Boston — best known for its colonial history, its passion for sports, and its universities
- 3 Chicago — heart of the Midwest, transportation hub of the nation, and the world's largest commodities trading hub, with massive skyscrapers and other architectural gems
- 4 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
- 5 Miami — this city with a vibrant Latin-influenced Caribbean culture attracts sun-seeking Northerners
- 6 New Orleans — "The Big Easy", the birthplace of jazz, is known for its quaint French Quarter, distinctive cuisine and annual Mardi Gras celebration
- 7 New York City — the country's biggest city, home to Wall Street, big media and advertising, world-class cuisine, arts, architecture, and shopping
- 8 San Francisco — the City by the Bay, featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant urban neighborhoods, dramatic fog and high technology
- 9 Seattle — rich museums, monuments, recreation and the Space Needle
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities.
- 1 Denali National Park — a remote national park featuring North America's highest peak, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley)
- 2 Grand Canyon — the world's longest and most visited canyon
- 3 Great Smoky Mountains National Park — national park in the southern Appalachians
- 4 Mesa Verde National Park — well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings
- 5 Mount Rushmore — the iconic memorial of four former presidents carved into a cliff face
- 6 Niagara Falls — the massive waterfalls straddling the border with Canada
- 7 Walt Disney World — the most popular vacation resort destination in the world
- 8 Yellowstone National Park — the first national park in the U.S., and home of the Old Faithful geyser
- 9 Yosemite National Park — home of El Capitan, Half Dome, and famous Giant Sequoia trees
|Currency||United States dollar (USD)|
|Population||331.4 million (2020)|
|Electricity||120±6 volt / 60 hertz (NEMA 1-15, NEMA 5-15)|
|Time zone||UTC−12:00 to UTC+12:00 and Central Time Zone, Alaska Time Zone, Mountain Time Zone|
|edit on Wikidata|
The United States (also known as the "USA," the "U.S.," or just "America") is not the America of television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with distinct cultural and regional identities. Due to the distances involved, traveling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
The contiguous United States or "Lower 48" refers to the territory excluding Alaska and Hawaii. Much of the population lives on the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf of Mexico coasts or along the Great Lakes. Its only land borders — both quite long — are shared with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The continental United States are the 48 contiguous states, D.C. and Alaska, but exclude Hawaii.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Canada to Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three 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 designated as national parks that 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.
In the center of the country is the Great Plains, which includes the entirety of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and portions of the surrounding states. This region is characterized by long stretches of flat land, and areas of gentle rolling hills. It consists largely of farmland and prairie.
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 retreating glaciers 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.
Although much of the U.S. has a temperate climate, there is also a wide variety from Arctic tundra in Alaska to the tropical weather in Hawaii and South Florida. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into desert in the Far West and Mediterranean along the California coast.
In the winter, major cities in the North and Midwest can see as much as 2 ft (60 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 (16 °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 (1,300 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 in (250 mm).
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 °F (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.
|United States historical travel topics:|
Indigenous nations → Pre-Civil War → Civil War → Old West → Industrialization → Postwar
Native Americans, or American Indians, arrived 13,500 to 16,000 years ago from migrating northeast Asian peoples crossing the Bering Strait into Alaska, and represented a wide variety of sophisticated societies that existed before the first arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century. The Mississippian cultures built huge settlements across 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 were pushed west by warfare and encroaching European settlers. Their diminished numbers led to further marginalization, although today their cultures endure and continue to 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.
In the North, Massachusetts was 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, convicts and later African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate large plantations. Slavery was practiced in both North and South, but its greater importance to the South's economy eventually caused tremendous upheaval.
By the early 18th century, Great Britain had colonized the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. The last major British migration to the territory that would become the United States took place in middle decades of that century when the Appalachia region was settled. In 1763, British dominance in North America was established 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 independence. The Revolutionary War lasted until 1783, when the new United States of America gained sovereignty over all British land between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River. Those still loyal to the British mostly fled north to what is today Canada, which remained under British rule.
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 displaced and further harrowed by war and disease. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase of French lands to the west of the Mississippi (charted by the Lewis and Clark expedition) effectively doubled the size of the nation, 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.
Further 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 invasion of Canada and the burning of the White House and public buildings in Washington, D.C. Virtually no changes of territory resulted from the war, but the war galvanized separate American and Canadian identities. The national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was conceived during this 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; see American Industry Tour. Roads and canals came first and helped people spread inland. In 1825, the Erie Canal connected the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. By the late 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 contiguous 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. (See also "Old West".)
Federal governance was light and the 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. Many in 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 of people. 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 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). The boundaries of the United States took the form we know today in 1959, when the territories of Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood.
In the late 19th and into the 20th century, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Russian Jews and Irish bolstered the continuing industrialization of the eastern cities by providing cheap labor. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty and racism 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 in which it would become a world power. 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 in the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense financial "bubble". It 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His "New Deal" was 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 on the side of the Allied Powers — see World War II in Europe and the Pacific War. 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. During the ensuing Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union jostled for power while courting their own mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons. Although war between the two superpowers never occurred, both sides were indirectly involved in covert operations and military endeavors through various proxy states that continue to (often negatively) affect the view people have of the United States and its role in global politics.
For the century after the Civil War, black people, though ostensibly equal citizens under the post–Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution, suffered through strong social, economic, and political 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 heavily discriminated against. 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. The landmark Civil Rights Act that was passed in 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, although such discrimination does still exist, mostly in less blatant forms. It would not be until the election of Barack Obama 44 years later in 2008 that the country would have its first African-American president. 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. These trends also led to the rise of suburbia and a decline in public transportation and rail travel, making touring the United States without a car particularly difficult to this day. They also resulted in white flight to the suburbs in many American cities, leaving many black people behind in blighted inner city neighborhoods. The American consumer culture, Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music established the United States as a cultural superpower in the world. The U.S. grew into one of the world's major centers of higher education, and is now home to many of the world's most prestigious universities, attracting more international students than any other country.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the world's sole superpower, and while its hegemony is increasingly being challenged by a resurgent China and Russia, it continues to play the dominant military, economic, political, and cultural role in world affairs. Hopes that after the fall of America's chief rival, expensive and sometimes disastrous wars (such as the Vietnam War) were a thing of the past sadly haven't proven true. Administrations since the end of the Cold War have all had to deal in one form or other with what they call the threat of "rogue states", terrorism, and a rapidly changing global political landscape. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are still very much an open wound and influence the political debate to this day, with heightened security measures at airports being just one way in which terrorism (or the fear of it) has affected travelers. Economically, the "Great Recession", triggered in 2007 by the collapse of the housing market bubble, came to an end in 2009, but the average American has continued to feel the negative effects for many years on.
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.
The federal government derives its power from the U.S. 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 and head of state. The President and their administration form the executive branch. The bicameral Congress (comprising the lower House of Representatives and the upper Senate) is also popularly elected, and 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 state and federal levels since the end of the Civil War: the Republican Party (often referred to as the GOP, short for "Grand Old Party") and the Democratic Party. Since the 1960s the Republican Party has become generally the more right-wing or "conservative" party whereas the Democratic Party is usually the more left-wing or "liberal" of the two parties. While smaller political parties exist, the winner-take-all electoral system means that they rarely succeed at any level. Although in much of the world red and blue indicate left- and right-leaning parties respectively, they are reversed in the U.S. so that Republicans are red and Democrats are blue.
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 freedom and responsibility, and that an individual determines his or her own success or failure, but there are many exceptions. You will find Mississippi in the South to be very different culturally from Massachusetts in the North.
Religion is very important in the United States with 80% of people identifying with having a religious affiliation. Current estimates are that 49% of Americans belong to a Christian Protestant church and another 23% are Roman Catholic. 5% of Americans belong to non-Christian religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Many businesses and institutions are closed on Sundays, and a number of areas in the South and Midwest forbid certain activities to take place on Sundays, while some Jewish businesses close on Friday nights and Saturdays for the Sabbath.
Although constitutionally a secular state, the United States is in practice more religious than other Western countries such as Australia, Canada and most European countries. However, this trend varies greatly by region, with the West Coast and Northeast being largely secular and the American South being heavily Evangelical Christian. Differences in religiosity often correlate with politics, so the Northeast, West Coast, Hawaii and Chicago metropolitan area are generally progressive 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. However, even this can be misleading, as many conservative states have college towns and major cities that are very liberal, while liberal states often have rural areas that are very conservative. A trend of the last few decades is one of increasing geographic political polarization. Most Americans now live in counties where their political inclination has a majority of 20% or greater and cities are - on the whole - becoming more and more liberal while rural areas are becoming more and more conservative with the middle ground disappearing.
Always gotta be different
Whereas most countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1 to commemorate the Haymarket affair of 1886, the U.S. chose to celebrate it in September, due to fear that a May celebration would encourage similar Haymarket-style protests and energize the radical left.
November 11, which is Remembrance Day in Europe and Canada, has been expanded to celebrate all veterans of the U.S. armed forces; Memorial Day serves the purpose of recognizing war dead.
There are no nationwide, mandatory public holidays. Federal holidays are the most centrally coordinated holidays, but they are only mandatory for the federal government and banks. All federal government offices, post offices and banks close on federal holidays, but private businesses may choose whether or not to observe them.
Nearly all states and localities observe the federal holidays; most also observe an additional handful of their own. If a federal holiday falls on a weekend, the observance will be shifted to the nearest weekday (either Friday or Monday), with closures similar to Presidents Day in February. The festivities and major retail closings will occur on the annual date, even if it's the weekend.
The time between Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and January 1 has such a high concentration of major holidays that it is commonly called "the holiday season." Many people take vacations during this period, with people visiting family and friends. Airports, interstate highways, 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.
As in most other countries where alcohol is legal, be careful on the roads at and around major holidays, such as New Year's, Memorial Day, or Independence Day, as there are more drunk drivers on the roads then.
In the list below, federal holidays are listed in bold italics. In addition to federal holidays, the following list includes holidays that may inconvenience travelers, and nationwide celebrations of other events that may be of interest to travelers:
- 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 or Lunar New Year (January/February — varies based on the lunar calendar) — Chinese-, Korean- and Vietnamese-Americans hold cultural celebrations.
- Super Bowl Sunday (usually the first Sunday in February) — This annual championship game of the National Football League (NFL) is the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, and electronics stores busy; big football-watching parties.
- (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 or Washington's Birthday (third Monday in February) — 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.
- Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) — Christian (especially Catholic) religious observances. Some restaurants and shops close. The governments of some states with large Catholic populations (e.g. New Jersey) observe the holiday and close government offices on this day.
- Easter (a Sunday in March or April) — Christian religious observances. Many fast-food restaurants are closed, but sit-down restaurants are more likely to be open. 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. Many American Jews invite non-Jews to their Seder on one of the first two nights. Expect very heavy traffic on Seder afternoons and evenings in areas with large Jewish populations such as the New York Metro Area and South Florida.
- Cinco de Mayo (5 May) — A minor holiday in Mexico that celebrates the 1862 Battle of Puebla against the French, but a major cultural celebration for Mexican-Americans. Expect bars to be crowded, even in places without large Mexican-American communities.
- Mother's Day (second Sunday in May) — Children and adults give gifts to their mothers. Most restaurants are crowded, especially for brunch and lunch; 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.
- Juneteenth National Independence Day (19 June) — Added as a new federal holiday in 2021 after being recognized in states and cities for many years, Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African-Americans who had been enslaved in the United States. It was on this date in 1865 when slaves in Texas were told that they were free, while officially informed about President Lincoln’s executive order of 22 September 1862 (also known as the Emancipation Proclamation).
- 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, often continuing well into the night. Almost every town puts on some sort of festivity to celebrate the day.
- 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. In some places, Columbus Day has been renamed as Indigenous People's Day, with celebrations of tribal cultures occurring. Other places have opted to refer to the day as Italian Heritage Day, in some instances celebrated in conjunction with Indigenous People's Day.
- 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. Adults get in on the action too: boozy Halloween parties and bar-hopping in costume is common.
- Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
- Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November) — Family dinners with roast turkey as the centerpiece; many people fly or drive to visit extended family. New York City and Chicago host parades, Detroit and many other cities hold races. Many other smaller events fill the landscape, including a recreation of the original Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Airports are extremely crowded on the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving. Most businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants.
- Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving) — Major Christmas shopping traditionally begins, most stores have sales and many open in the very early morning (with a few now opening on Thanksgiving night). Most non-retail employees are given Friday off or take it as a vacation.
- 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. Some government offices close at noon on the 24th, with everything closed on the 25th. However, many Chinese and Jewish businesses remain open.
- 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. Some government offices close at noon.
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 (1 mile is 1.61 km, or 1 km is 0.62 miles). One of the more confusing things is that an "ounce" can be either a measure of weight or (as a "fluid ounce") a measure of volume. The U.S. fluid ounce is also slightly larger than its imperial counterpart, while U.S. gallons, quarts and pints are smaller than their counterparts. Gasoline and other liquids are usually sold per gallon, quart, or fluid 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 usually reported in Fahrenheit only; 32° is actually 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 science, 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 formal regulation of clothes or shoe sizes, and the only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. For shoe sizes some trial and error will be needed for each model.
Taking into consideration even the small territories in the Pacific Ocean (some of which cannot be easily accessed) the U.S. spans eleven time zones. Just four time zones are used in the contiguous 48 states, with an additional two covering Alaska and Hawaii. Time zone borders do not always correspond to state borders.
- Eastern Time (UTC-5): Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Michigan except extreme northwestern counties, Indiana except the southwest and northwest corners, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Delaware, eastern Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida except western part of panhandle.
- Central Time (UTC-6): Wisconsin, Illinois, the southwest and northwest corners of Indiana, western Kentucky, western and middle Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, north and east North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, middle and eastern Nebraska, most of Kansas, Oklahoma, most of Texas, part of western Florida(panhandle).
- Mountain Time (UTC-7): southwest North Dakota, western South Dakota, western Nebraska, a sliver of Kansas, Montana, a sliver of Oregon, southern Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, a corner of Texas, West Wendover, Nevada
- Pacific Time (UTC-8): Washington, northern Idaho, most of Oregon, California, Nevada except West Wendover
- Alaska Time (UTC-9): Alaska, except the Aleutian Islands
- Hawaii-Aleutian Time (UTC-10): Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands
Most parts of the U.S. observe Daylight Saving Time; Hawaii and Arizona (except the Navajo Nation) do not.
"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 English language varieties for more words that differ across both versions.
Almost all Americans speak English. Most Americans speak in accents that are recognizably similar to one another and to one traditionally associated with the Midwest, which was popularized in the 20th century by American radio, TV and movies. Although many Americans can discern differences between quite a few accents, the ones most likely to be heard as distinctive by foreign visitors include those commonly spoken in the South and Texas, the Boston area, the New York City area, the upper Midwest and Hawaii.
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 and pronunciation differences. One important difference, though, is that dates are always written MM/DD/YYYY or MM/DD. See the article on English language varieties for a detailed discussion.
Many African-Americans and some other Americans also speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has somewhat different grammar and vocabulary from styles of American English usually regarded as standard. Nearly all African-Americans can switch back and forth between AAVE and standard American English effortlessly. Generally, if you are not African-American, you should not try to speak AAVE, even if it's spoken to you; it would be considered odd and possibly offensive. Spanglish — an admixture of Spanish and English — is similarly commonplace in many areas with large Hispanic populations, and code-switching between Spanglish and standard American English is similarly commonplace.
Visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. While many Americans study a foreign language in school (overwhelmingly Spanish followed by French), few progress past the basics. Popular tourist sites often have signs and information available in other languages. Americans have a long history of immigration and are very accommodating towards foreign accents, and will sometimes take the effort to help you by speaking in a more standard accent. Major cities often have groups of foreign language learners who meet up regularly to practice their language skills, and these can be a good way to meet locals if you speak the language in question. Meetup.com is the most popular web-site listing many of these groups, though other less well-known web-sites also exist.
Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico and a large minority of residents on the mainland (with the fifth-largest Spanish speaking population in the world). Spanish speakers in the United States are often Puerto Ricans or first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America. As a result, the Spanish spoken is almost invariably a Latin American dialect. 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. Most publications from the federal government, and those of some state and municipal governments are available in Spanish. Many establishments and government offices in major commercial and tourist areas have Spanish-speaking staff on duty, and it is possible with some difficulty to get by in the major cities and main tourist attractions speaking only Spanish.
You may encounter other languages in some regions, like Hawaiian, French, American Indian languages (Navajo being the most commonly spoken one), Yiddish, and Pennsylvania Dutch. These are covered in regional articles.
American Sign Language (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 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. Travellers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial. Since 2019, visitors to the US have also been required to fully document mobile phone numbers, e-mail addresses and on-line identities they've used in the past five years, during the application process.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), as well as Canadians and Bermudians do not require visas for entry into the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit for up to six months. Permanent residents of Canada are not eligible for visa-free entry, unless they are also citizens of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program, or one of the separate provisions for a few other countries.
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 (passport must include ID card number), and the United Kingdom (must have right of abode in the UK, Channel Islands or Isle of Man).
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau may enter, reside, study, and work in the U.S. indefinitely with only a valid passport.
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 that was issued within the last six months is required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Citizens of the Turks and Caicos Islands may enter the U.S. without a visa only if they are travelling on a direct flight from there, but a valid police certificate issued within the last six months is required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter from any other country 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 valid police certificate that was issued within the last three months is required for those over the age of 13. Attempting to enter from any other country will require you to have a valid visa.
With only a few exceptions — traffic violations, civil infractions (e.g. 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 — a criminal record will likely revoke any right to visa-free travel to the U.S. 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 travellers who are in the United States for tourism or business purposes. You cannot come 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 refused entry, or having been denied a U.S. visa will make you ineligible to enter on the VWP; you will have to apply for a U.S. visa instead.
Entry under the VWP by air or sea 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). This requirement is waived if entering by land.
All passports must be biometric. If your passport is an older one that was issued before biometric passports were available, you will need to obtain a new passport to travel to the U.S. on the VWP.
Entry under the VWP 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.
Travellers 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.
Entry under the VWP 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 October 2018) 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.
Additionally, Chinese (PRC) citizens (that is, anyone travelling to the US on a PRC passport) must enroll in the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS) for travel into the United States on any 10-year B-type visa. The enrollment is valid for two years (or until passport/visa expiry, whichever comes first) before it needs to be updated again.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the U.S. as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country, and sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. Applicants also need to demonstrate that they are genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews 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.
Embassies are closed on U.S. holidays and on holidays of the host country, so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. You should start planning your trip far in advance, as the application process is known to take up to six months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the U.S. State Department or with the nearest U.S. consulate.
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.
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, while the U.S. Virgin Islands also allows visa-free entry to citizens of the British Virgin Islands.
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements.
Arriving in the United States
On arrival, you will be questioned briefly at immigration to determine if you are admissible and your purpose of entry and circumstances match your visa class or ESTA conditions. If you are unable to convince immigration officers that you intend to abide by the terms of your visa or ESTA or they discover you are inadmissible for whatever reason (e.g. unspent previous immigration violations, criminal records flagged up on CBP database), you may be refused entry and deported.
Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. Entry will be denied if either of these procedures is refused.
At selected airports, Canadian and VWP nationals may be able to use automated passport control (APC) kiosks to record their passport and biometric details. Household members traveling together can do this at once. VWP nationals need to have ESTA clearance, and have entered the U.S. at least once since 2008. If successful, the traveller gets a receipt and goes to the designated CBP desk to continue the inspection process. Canadians and other selected nationals may be eligible to participate in various trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry and NEXUS, which allow pre-approved passengers to use a designated kiosk for the inspection process. Unlike APC, these programs require prior application, background checks, an interview, and an application fee, but allows the passenger to bypass intense questioning and skip the lines at immigration for up to 5 years.
Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, if you have consumed marijuana or invested in the marijuana industry, you can be banned from entering the United States. This is true even if marijuana is legal in the jurisdictions you consumed it in and even if it's also legal in the state(s) you're planning to visit. Border officials don't usually ask about marijuana, but if they see a reason to ask, they might. Even a single copy of "High Times" magazine or anything similar is enough to draw suspicion. If you admit to having used marijuana (or any other drug illegal under U.S. federal law) or invested in the industry, or if you are caught lying about it, you can be turned back and banned for life from entering the country. To appeal the ban, you have to apply for a $585 waiver.
Each household (i.e. family members living and traveling together) needs to complete one customs declaration form. Travellers eligible for APC, as well as Global Entry and NEXUS members, can do this electronically using the respective kiosks and need not fill up the paper form. Those eligible for Mobile Passport Control (U.S. citizens and some Canadian citizens) also do not need to fill out the form, provided they have completed the app's questions and have a QR code ready to go. Detailed and up-to-date information on prohibited and restricted items can be found at the relevant government website.
Do not attempt to import items originating from countries against which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions (Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan); they will be confiscated by customs if discovered. An exception to this rule is cigars and alcoholic beverages (mainly rum) originating from Cuba. With the ongoing thaw in U.S.–Cuban relations, the U.S. has lifted sanctions against importation of these items for personal use (limits are the same as for tobacco and alcohol originating elsewhere).
The United States has very strict biosecurity laws, and imposes restrictions on the types of food that may be brought into the country. In general, fresh food may not be brought into the country, though some types of processed, commercially packaged food may be allowed, depending on the country of origin. Check with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for more details. All food and plant items being brought into the country must declared and inspected by customs, even if permitted. Failure to declare agricultural products can result in a fine, or in serious cases even prosecution.
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 up to 50 cigars, or up to 2 kg of loose tobacco products such as snuff, or a proportional combination thereof.
- Up to 1 liter of alcohol. Unlike some countries, the one-liter restriction applies irrespective of strength: a fifth of Scotch at 40% ABV or a standard 750 mL bottle of wine at 14% ABV are both within the allowance, but a six-pack of 12-ounce beers at 5% ABV is almost 2 liters and is 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 hard 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!
Note that when leaving from certain airports with pre-clearance, there may be duty-free shops in the pre-clearance area, past the point at which Customs can inspect them and assess any applicable duties upon arrival into the US. To cover this "loophole", there is a dollar value limit imposed on the amount of purchases one is allowed to make in these shops (at YVR pre-clearance as of late 2019 this limit was $800), which is still far higher than the per-item limits listed above.
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 into or out of the U.S. However, if you are travelling with $10,000 or more (or its equivalent in foreign currency) per household, 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. Checks, bonds and other financial instruments must also be declared. ATM/Debit cards linked to non-U.S. bank accounts carrying the said amount do not need to be declared (although your bank may impose some withdrawal restrictions and fees to access this money in the U.S.).
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.
Leaving the United States
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control upon exit, especially for those travelling by air or sea. As such, your airline or shipping company will document your departure and report it to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The CBP then updates your immigration record. Aliens who arrived in the U.S. by commercial air or sea vessels after mid-2013, and depart by commercial air or sea vessels do not need to do anything further (except depart on time of course).
If you fall into one of the following categories, you may need to take further action to actively prove that you left the U.S. on time:
- last arrived in the U.S. before mid-2013 through any means (when the paper I-94 card was still physically issued to foreigners): turn over the I-94 card to the airline staff at check-in, or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer if departing by land
- arrived in the U.S. via land or private vehicles (paper I-94 cards are still issued here): turnover the I-94 card to the airline staff at check-in, or to the Canadian or Mexican immigration officer if departing by land
- left the U.S. via land or private vehicles: save any evidence that you were outside the U.S. before your authorized stay expired
In any case, 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 take a side trip to Canada or Mexico by land 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 any issued I-94 card before you proceed to Canada or Mexico. This can also be done even if you entered the U.S. on a single-entry visa, or the visa you entered the U.S. with has expired. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to 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.
Try to avoid re-entering the U.S. a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't overstay your visa, several U.S. visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as intent to immigrate.
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 Atlanta (ATL IATA), New York City (EWR IATA & JFK IATA; for all airports, NYC IATA), Los Angeles (LAX IATA), Chicago (ORD IATA; for all airports, CHI IATA), San Francisco (SFO IATA), Seattle (SEA IATA), Miami (MIA IATA) and Houston (IAH IATA) are the main points of entry to the United States by plane.
In general, major cities on the east coast have the best connections to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East, while major cities on the west coast have the best connections to East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania. Most sizeable cities would be served by at least one flight to a major Canadian city, while New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston generally provide the best connections to Latin America. Direct air travel from Cuba was restored to Miami after a 55-year embargo was relaxed in 2014, but some restrictions continue to apply; see the Americans in Cuba article.
The "big three" carriers, United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, are among the largest airlines in the world, and operate flights from various cities around the globe into their respective hubs. Other smaller U.S.-based airlines also fly internationally, though options are usually limited to destinations within the Americas. Most major European and East Asian airlines also fly from their respective countries into several of the major hubs, with British Airways in particular having one of the most comprehensive networks into U.S. cities from their hub in London Heathrow.
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 at least a C-1 transit visa. If you are transferring to a domestic flight, you must go through customs and immigration at your first U.S. stop; make sure you allow ample time to make any transfers. This means collecting your bags at your port of entry and rechecking them in at designated drop-off points again. You will also need to go through a full security check before boarding your onward flight (see next section).
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. The shuttles are usually free of charge, but you should tip the driver.
Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time (at least 15 minutes, sometimes more than 1 hour) and pack as lightly as possible. Security is handled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Adults must show approved photo ID (a passport is sufficient).
When connecting from an international flight, all passengers must go through security screening to continue on the onward flight, after clearing immigration and customs inspections. That means all liquids and prohibited items (per TSA rules) that were purchased in a Duty Free shop or allowed through as carry on from a foreign airport must re-packed into checked luggage after coming out of the customs area and before re-checking luggage. In most airports there is a check-in desk outside or conveyor belt outside of customs for transiting passengers to re-check their luggage. Items cannot be re-packed or re-arranged before customs inspections in the luggage reclaim area.
There are limitations on liquids (including gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes) in carry-on baggage. 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. Medications (including saline solution for contact lenses) and infant and child nourishment are exempt but subject to additional testing; notify TSA agents if you are carrying these items, store them separately from your other liquids, and clearly label them in advance.
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 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 begin in airports with pre-clearance facilities will usually be able to clear U.S. entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their port of exit. Upon arrival, these flights are treated the same as U.S. domestic flights. Furthermore, those with an onward connection to a domestic flight in the same terminal can simply proceed to that connecting flight without claiming their bags or clearing security, meaning that liquids and otherwise TSA-prohibited items purchased in the originating airport can be carried through.
- From Canada
Passengers whose journeys begin or connect in major Canadian airports and involve either U.S. or Canadian carriers will usually be able to clear U.S. entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port of exit. These flights are treated the same as U.S. domestic flights, and most Canadian carriers are located in U.S. domestic terminals or concourses in most airports. Some airports (such as LaGuardia Airport in New York City) that don't have customs and immigration facilities receive pre-cleared flights from Canada.
Travelers on U.S.–Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Cathay Pacific, and those from minor Canadian airports that do not have preclearance facilities will still encounter full 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 must report to Canada Customs; a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required. This arrangement does not apply in the reverse direction, meaning that you must pass through Canadian customs and immigration on your flight out.
- From other countries
Preclearance facilities are available at Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport, Dublin and Shannon International Airports in Ireland, and Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
Passengers on British Airways flights from London to New York City transiting via either Dublin or Shannon, Ireland, can take advantage of U.S. passport control and customs preclearance at Dublin or Shannon.
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 busiest crossings encounter 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.
Foreigners entering by land are required to pay a $6 fee when crossing the border. No fee is payable if you made a side trip to Canada or Mexico and are simply re-entering the U.S.
Greyhound offers inexpensive cross-border service from Canada and Mexico. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo, have hourly service. Megabus U.S. also runs 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.
Entry by sea is not very common today. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles, or Florida and other Eastern coastal states. Some passenger ferries from Canada exist, mostly between British Columbia and Washington State or Alaska.
Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.
The ferries between British Columbia and Washington state are treated as land border crossings rather than sea entry points. This means that while ESTA is not required for VWP visitors, visitors entering the U.S. this way will be required to pay the $6 entry fee levied at land border crossings.
Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf to New York City via Niagara Falls), and Montreal (Adirondack to New York City via Albany).
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 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 for inspections.
From Mexico the nearest Amtrak stations are in San Diego, Yuma, Del Rio and El Paso. Amtrak trains do not cross the border into Mexico so passengers continue to the border by local public transportation or by taxi from the Amtrak station. There are no passenger trains to the border from anywhere in Mexico.
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 long-distance travel for short-term travellers. If you have time, or are travelling a short distance, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialing 511 on your phone.
- See also: Flying in the United States
The quickest and often the most convenient method of long-distance intercity travel in the U.S. is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 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 travel by bus, train, or car to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and travel by ground to your destination.
The largest airlines are American Airlines, Delta, and United and two of the country's low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue. Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are large regional carriers, while smaller airlines Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and Sun Country are trying to make inroads. There are also smaller regional airlines that are subsidiaries of the mainline carriers and can be booked through their parents.
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 is almost no difference in fees and service between "low-cost" and "mainline" carriers anymore. Low-cost carriers occasionally offer more amenities than mainline carriers, such as inflight entertainment for even a short-haul flight, or free checked baggage. Southwest Airlines, for instance, allows passengers to check in up to two pieces of bags in their base price.
By private plane
- See also: General aviation
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. General aviation is the most practical way to reach the outer boroughs of Alaska.
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. 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
Due to the popularity of flying and cars, the passenger rail network in the United States is a shadow of what it was a century ago. While the United States still has the world's longest rail network, it is primarily used for freight transport these days. Except for certain corridors (mostly in the Northeast where a second cousin of high speed rail is available), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce, slow, unreliable, and expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak ☏ , provides service to many cities, and is often more expensive than 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 convenient. There is no dedicated high-speed rail network in the United States apart from Acela (which travels between Boston and Washington, D.C. via New York City), and driving yourself will often be quicker than taking the train when traveling long distances.
Amtrak has promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day USA Rail Pass now available to both US and foreign residents. 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.. Some of the most scenic routes include the California Zephyr that runs between Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area of California to Chicago and the Empire Builder that goes from Chicago to Seattle or Portland. Both offer a lounge car with floor-to-ceiling windows and double decker cars.
During usual American vacation times, some long-distance trains (outside the Northeast) can sell out weeks or even months in advance. Booking early also results in generally lower fares for all trains. 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.
Many major cities offer very reliable commuter trains that carry passengers in from the suburbs or other relatively close-by areas. Some commuter train stations have park-and-ride facilities for the commuter train to get to a city's downtown core where traffic and parking problems complicate car use. Some commuter train systems and services do not operate on weekends and holidays, and even those that do often have greatly reduced frequencies, 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.
Several large cities also operate subway or light rail service for local travel within the city or metro area.
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 (including the famous Erie Canal) comprising 524 mi (843 km) of waterway open for recreational and commercial use. See New York state for details.
- 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 m (20 ft) applies. The Seaway starts in eastern Canada and goes to the Great Lakes.
- The Mississippi River 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 beginning boaters successfully navigate these waterways. 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 obey immediately. 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.
Regular ferries exist to a variety of destinations along the coasts. In the northwest of the country, you can travel with the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System from Bellingham (Washington) all the way along Alaska's southern coast to Dutch Harbor-Unalaska. As a bonus you get to enjoy beautiful mountain and archipelago scenery. Moreover, much of off-the-beaten-path-Alaska is just accessible by boat. There is no commercial passenger service between the continental U.S. and Hawaii.
- See also: Driving in the United States
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, so travelling the United States without a car can be difficult. Most American cities have developed with automobiles in mind, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. There are only a few major cities where using public transportation is preferable to driving: New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. Other very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami have limited public transport options, and the options only get worse in smaller cities. Taxis and ride-hailing services are often available, but they can get expensive and taxis (especially) can be hard to find outside of airports. 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.
The main Interstate Highway system generally links only the major towns of every state. The U.S. highway and state routes can lead you to many interesting off-the-beaten-path sights, if you don't mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians. Most sections of the roads are free to use, but there are some which levy fees.
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 travelling between cities by car rather than flying can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country's major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to get to without an automobile or on a bus tour. If you have the time, a classic American road trip with a rented car is very easy to achieve. (You may have to shop around a bit for a one-way rental. Pay attention to how many miles they allow you to put on the vehicle, since you probably want to make detours for sightseeing.) 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 more than one driver and few stops will take at least 5 days (4½ if you have strong bladders).
Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles, the same as Canada and Mexico. Driving law is primarily a matter of state law and is enforced by state and local police. While there are some minor variations state-to-state, the rules of the road are fairly consistent across the country.
Foreign 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.
Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in residential neighborhoods. However, downtown surface streets and big-city expressways often become crowded with a lot of "hurried" drivers, who will exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars at unsafe close distances ("tailgating"). Speed limit enforcement is unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Keeping pace with other drivers will usually avoid trouble. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the lower speed limits within these towns are strictly enforced.
Intercity bus travel is widespread, but not available everywhere. Service between nearby major cities is frequent, and often connects many smaller towns with regional cities. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe and affordable. However, bus stations in some cities are located in rough neighborhoods (e.g. Los Angeles).
Greyhound Bus Lines (☏ ) and several affiliated lines such as Bolt Bus have the predominant share of American bus travel in 45 states. Discounts are available to travellers who purchase their tickets 7–14 days in advance of their travel date. Greyhound buses typically run 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. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, except in some cities, where you can pay a $5 fee for priority seating.
Megabus, Greyhound's biggest competitor, operates mainly in 30 states in the Midwestern and the eastern half of the country between the hub cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC and several other cities surrounding and between the hubs. It also offers connections to Montreal and Toronto in Canada. It also has a couple of routes in the west, which are not connected to those in the Midwest and the East Coast.
Chinatown buses are small independent companies that provide curb-side departures for a cheap standard cash fare. These lines operate mainly in the northeast between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Baltimore. Some continue further out to destinations in the Midwest and the South from the northeast. Others operate between California, Nevada and Arizona. See the relevant city guides and GoToBus.com for more information.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Many are affiliate brands or subsidiaries of Mexican bus companies offering cross-border services beyond the border areas as far north as Chicago, as far east as Atlanta, and as far south as Mexico City. See Long-distance bus travel in the U.S.
Various smaller companies offer bus services throughout the country. A number of them are grouped under the Trailways brand, which you'll often find sharing space with Greyhound.
All but the smallest towns have some sort of local bus service, but it will often be limited compared to cities of a similar size in other countries. In general in the U.S., local buses don't stop at every stop. In some cities they'll stop if they see someone waiting at the bus stop, but in others you may have to give a little wave to let them know you want to get on. If you're on the bus and want to get off at the next stop, there's usually a button for you to push or a string to pull to signal the driver.
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. The specifics of the law vary from state to state, but in general, hitchhiking itself is legal throughout the majority of the country, though generally not on Interstate highways (where pedestrians are normally prohibited) or while standing within traffic lanes (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road). If you plan to hitchhike, best practice is to thumb rides at entrance ramps, or (better yet) highway rest areas.
However, due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media), hitchhiking in the U.S. is much less common than it used to be. 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, and American drivers also practice caution for the same reasons.
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 going somewhere in the country, with payment often being sharing the fuel costs.
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, and to see North American wildlife. Yellowstone National Park was the first true national park in the world, and it remains one of the most famous, but there are 60 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.
The U.S. has 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 and Bandelier, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings (Petroglyph National Park has some of the best rock art in the country, and it is located only 17 km outside of Albuquerque). 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 Europeans colonists.
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. The eastern states of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have more than their fair share of sites from early American history as they make up what are known as the 13 Original Colonies.
In the 18th 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.
There are a large number of historic sites related to the American Civil War, the most destructive conflict on American soil.
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.
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 there are also many other cities with world class museums such as Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Boston. Many universities also operate small museums that have interesting exhibits and are often free to enter, while those interested in specific sports or topics will often be able to find museums even in some small towns that suit their tastes.
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
- Interstate 5 — the primary interstate highway along the west coast from the Mexican border with California to the Canadian border with Washington state, passing through the major west coast cities and the capitals of three states
- 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
- Oregon Trail — the mid-19th century path taken by western settlers from Missouri to Oregon
- Pacific Crest Trail — one of the original National Scenic Trails; travels along the west coast from Mexico to Canada
- Pony Express National Historic Trail — commemorates the mail service route through the Old West, between St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California
- 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
- Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail — follows the route of the forced westward migration of many American Indian tribes in the 1830s
- U.S. Highway 1 — travelling along the east coast from Maine to Florida
Arts and 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 as 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. Many cities and regions have unique sounds. Country music is popular throughout the U.S. but is particularly concentrated in the South and rural West. Nashville is known as "Music City" because of the large number of country artists who live in the city. It's home to the Grand Ole Opry, the most famous country music venue in the nation, and numerous other live music venues. African-Americans in the South gave rise to jazz and the blues, with numerous music scenes and venues in cities nationwide. Many of the most popular mainstream bands are based in Los Angeles due to the large entertainment presence and concentration of record companies.
America is considered to be the spiritual home of musical theater, and many of the world's most famous musicals have had a run on Broadway in New York City at one time or another. No trip to New York would be complete without catching at least one musical on Broadway. The United States is also home to one of the world's premier opera companies, the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A quintessential American experience is the marching band festival. You 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. To see the best of the best, get tickets to the "finals" performance, where the ten best bands of the festival compete for the championship. Both "street" or parade marching bands as well as "field" or show bands are found at almost every high school and university in America.
The United States has a professional league for virtually every sport, including pillow fighting. America's passion for sports is rivaled hardly anywhere in the world, with the leagues with the world's highest attendance both per game (NFL) and total (MLB) and other leagues that are the best and most popular in their respective sport. Watching a game is a good way to meet and interact with the locals. A few of the most popular sports are:
- Baseball, often referred to as "America's pastime", is one of the most widely played sports in the country. The U.S. is home to 29 of the 30 MLB (Major League Baseball) teams (The other is the Toronto Blue Jays). The season lasts from April to September with playoff games held in October, with the championship games known as the World Series. With each team playing 162 games per team per season and the cheapest seats usually $10-20, this is possibly the best sporting event for international travellers to watch. There are also several hundred minor league teams scattered across the U.S.; while quality of the games is lower, prices are cheaper (even free in a few leagues).
- The U.S. is home to 29 of the 30 NBA (National Basketball Association) teams, and the world's premier men's basketball league. The season runs from November to April, with playoffs in May–June. Its counterpart the WNBA (Women's NBA), which plays during the NBA offseason, is one of the most stable and popular women's team sports leagues in the world.
- The NFL (National Football League), with 32 teams (all in the contiguous U.S.) is the leading promoter of American football in the world. It has virtually nothing in common with association football (Americans know that sport as soccer). It developed from rugby football, and still has some things in common with its cousin from England. It is extremely popular, and the day of the championship game, the Super Bowl, is an unofficial national holiday and perennially the most watched event in American sports. Most games are on Sundays, and watching games in the stands or on TV on Sunday is an important tradition for many Americans. The 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).
- The NHL (National Hockey League) is the premier ice hockey league in the world. 24 of its 31 teams are in the U.S., with another U.S. team to be added in 2021. Slightly under 50% of players are Canadians, another 25% Americans, and the rest come from many other parts of the world, mainly northern and eastern Europe. The season runs from October to April, followed by playoffs that culminate in the Stanley Cup Finals in June, the titular cup of which is the oldest professional sports trophy in North America.
- Auto racing draws big crowds all over the country, with hundreds of thousands attending the marquee events—the Indianapolis 500 for the open-wheel IndyCar series, and the Daytona 500 for the NASCAR stock car circuit. IndyCar racing is closer, faster, and arguably far more dangerous than that of NASCAR. NASCAR almost exclusively races on oval tracks, while IndyCar competes on a wide variety of tracks including city streets. Both sports' seasons run from late winter through mid-fall, with races almost every week. There is also the United States Grand Prix, a race on the Formula One calendar that is usually held in Austin, Texas every year.
- As of the 2020 season, MLS (Major League Soccer) has 26 teams—23 in the U.S. plus three in Canada—with four more U.S. teams to be added by 2022. While it may not be as popular with the media, MLS is still widely viewed and enjoyed (particularly by Hispanic communities), and is a preferred destination for top players from European leagues who are past their prime. The season does not coincide with soccer in most other countries: the regular season runs March to October, with MLS Cup playoffs from October to December. The women's equivalent is the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), which has 9 teams, all in the US, with another US-based team confirmed to be joining in 2021 and plans to expand to 12 or 14 teams in the early 2020s.
One unique feature of the American sports landscape is the extent to which sports are associated with educational institutions. In many regions, especially the South and Midwest, college sports enjoy followings that rival or surpass those of major professional teams, especially football and men's basketball. (In fact, 8 of the 10 largest non-motorsports stadiums in the world — all seating more than 100,000 spectators — are for U.S. college football teams, and the country's three largest basketball arenas house college teams.) The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has over 1,000 member schools, including almost all of the country's best-known colleges and universities. The college football and college basketball seasons roughly coincide with their professional counterparts; the NCAA Division I men's basketball playoff tournament, "March Madness", is especially widely followed even by casual sports fans. Rowing enthusiasts may wish to watch the Harvard–Yale Regatta, a 4-mile-long (6.4 km) race held in Connecticut every year modeled after The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, between the men's coxed eight rowing teams.
Many communities also take great pride in their high school sports teams, and especially in smaller locales, those teams are a major part of local culture. From August to May, a high school game can be a great (and cheap) way to meet locals and discover the area in a way many visitors never experience. 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 position. Examples include football in Texas, basketball in Indiana, hockey in Minnesota, and wrestling in Iowa.
The United States is home to many of the world's most famous golf courses. The most famous is the Augusta National Golf Club, which is the home of the Masters, one of the world's most prestigious professional golf tournaments, and also one of the four majors in men's golf. The U.S. is also home to 2 of the other 3 majors in men's golf, namely the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, which rotate between different golf courses in the U.S. every year. Golf is popular both as a participation and spectator sport, and the U.S. supports several major professional tours. See also Golf#United States of America.
The United States hosts many tennis tournaments in the ATP and WTA tours, with the US Open being the most prestigious among them. It is regarded as one of the four Grand Slams. The US Open is held every year from late August to Early September at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
The rodeo celebrates the traditions of the Old West, especially in Texas and the Great Plains. A subset of rodeo, bull riding, enjoys a moderate degree of popularity as a standalone event, with the main circuit being Professional Bull Riders.
Festivals and fairs
Many towns and/or counties throw fairs to commemorate the establishment of a town or the county with rides, games, and other attractions. Almost every state has one or more state fairs. These began as competitions and shows to promote agriculture and livestock; now they include industrial product exhibitions, concerts, and carnival rides and games.
There are numerous national parks throughout the United States, especially the vast interior, which offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities, including Recreational shooting, ATV riding, hiking, bird watching, prospecting, and horseback riding. National parks are the crown jewels of the much larger National Park System, which also includes historic and cultural landmarks.
- National Trails System is a group of 21 "National Scenic Trails" and "National Historic Trails", and over 1,000 shorter "National Recreation Trails" for a total length of over 50,000 mi (80,000 km). While all are open to hiking, most are also open to mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping and some are open for ATVs and cars.
The United States is the birthplace of the modern amusement park, and to this day, amusement parks form an integral part of American childhood and teenage culture. The first-ever permanent amusement park was built on Coney Island in New York City, and while not as glamorous as some of the newer ones, is still home to a famous historic wooden roller coaster and numerous other attractions.
The Los Angeles and Orlando areas in particular are home to numerous well-regarded amusement parks, with giants Universal and Disney operating parks in both locations. Another chain of amusement parks that is well-regarded locally, though not so well-known internationally, is Six Flags, which has multiple locations throughout the country, and is particularly known for its innovative roller coasters and other thrill rides. Other chains include the marine-themed SeaWorld, which is known for its marine mammal shows, and Cedar Fair.
The official U.S. currency is the United States dollar ($), divided into 100 cents (¢, but often written as decimal dollars). Foreign currencies are almost never accepted, though some major hotel chains may accept traveller's checks in other currencies. Establishments close to the Canadian border accept Canadian currency, though usually at poor exchange rates. The Mexican peso can also be used (again at poor exchange rates) in border towns like El Paso and Laredo. Japanese yen is sometimes accepted in Hawaii.
The dollar is sometimes colloquially known as a buck, so "5 bucks" means $5. Common American banknotes (or bills) are the $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. The $2 bill is still produced but rarely seen in circulation and is occasionally refused as payment; bills beyond $100 haven't been produced since the 1960s and are removed from circulation when found. The $100 and sometimes $50 bills are too valuable for small transactions, and may be refused. All $1 and $2 bills and older bills of the other denominations are greenish and printed with black and green ink (thus the nickname "greenbacks"). Newer versions of the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are slightly more colorful. All the bills are the same size. Banknotes never expire and several designs of each note can circulate together, but older designs that lack modern anti-counterfeiting features may (rarely) be refused by some retailers.
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: "one cent", "five cents", "one dime", and "quarter dollar". 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, gold or silver; not to be confused with the quarter) coins exist but are uncommon. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, quarters, and $1 bills, though some may also accept dollar coins. Larger vending machines, such as for buses or postal stamps, may take $5, $10, or even $20 bills. Though Canadian coins are sized similarly, machines usually reject them. Humans, on the other hand, generally won't notice (or care about) a few small Canadian coins mixed with American, particularly in the northern parts of the country. As with most currency, coins are generally not exchangeable abroad and UNICEF provides donation boxes at airports to let you dispose of them for a good cause before flying abroad.
Currency exchange and banking
Exchange rates for U.S. dollars
As of 04 January 2021:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports. Some banks also provide currency exchange services, though you may sometimes be required to call in advance. Due to the high overhead of exchange rates and transaction fees, it is often better to acquire U.S. dollars in your home country before travel; rates at currency exchange desks in airports, tourist areas and shopping areas in particular are often terrible.
ATMs can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logos. They usually dispense bills in $20 denominations and generally charge about $2-4 to cards issued by other banks. Smaller ATMs in restaurants, petrol stations, etc., often charge higher fees (up to $5). These fees are in addition to your card issuer's own fees. Some ATMs, such as those at courthouses or other government buildings, have no fee. As with anywhere else in the world, there is a risk of card skimmers installed on these machines that can steal your credit card details.
Another option is withdrawing cash (usually up to $40 or $60 over the cost of your goods) when making a debit card purchase at a supermarket, convenience store, or a large discount store such as Walmart. Stores almost never charge for this service (though it may be contingent on signing up for the store's loyalty program, which is also usually free); however, the bank that issued your card may impose a fee.
Opening a bank account in the U.S. is a fairly straightforward process, and there are no restrictions on foreigners having them.
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 $1 or $2. However, some small businesses and independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $2 or $5, but sometimes $10) for credit card use, as such transactions cost them $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 credit cards they accept.
JCB, UnionPay (China) and RuPay (India) have alliances with Discover, so they can be used at any retailer that accepts Discover cards even if the store does not display the logo on its window.
Shops may also ask for photo identification for foreign-issued cards. When making large purchases, it is typical for U.S. retailers to ask to see some form of photo identification. Sometimes, credit/debit cards are the only means to perform a transaction. If you do not have one, you can purchase a prepaid card or gift card with Visa, MasterCard or AmEx logo from a variety of stores. Some reloadable cards require identification to be submitted before they can be used; to avoid this issue, stick to one-time-load gift cards, which never require this.
In most cases, 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. In some stores though, especially supermarkets, convenience stores, transport vending machines, and pharmacies, you may be asked "debit" or "credit". If you have a VISA or MasterCard debit card, choosing "credit" will do the same thing to your account as a "debit" transaction (i.e. deduct funds from you account) but will prompt you to sign the charge slip. Choosing "debit" meanwhile asks for a PIN (the same PIN you use to access your account on a cash machine). The U.S. is implementing the EMV "chip-and-PIN" credit card authorization system used overseas. Cards and devices (e.g. iPhones and Apple Watches with Apple Pay) issued abroad with contactless or near-field communication (NFC) capabilities may not work in some merchants where NFC/contactless is used; in such cases, swipe or 'chip-and-pin' will be used.
Gas station pumps, some public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Many of these 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 have a Canadian MasterCard or American Express card, you can use it at all pumps that require a ZIP code 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).
There is no federal sales tax (such as VAT or GST), so you cannot claim a tax refund when you leave the U.S.
Most states have a retail sales tax between 3% and 10%, as do some cities. The goods that are taxed and those that are exempt (often groceries, and pharmaceuticals) vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Restaurant meals are usually taxed.
Taxes are usually not included in posted prices but are added to your bill, so be prepared for the total to be higher than the listed prices would indicate!
Some cities have tax zones near airports and business districts that are designed to exploit travellers — sales taxes can vary up to 2% in a matter of a few miles. Regional price variations, however, will usually have more impact on a traveller's wallet than the savings from seeking out a low- or no-sales-tax destination. Some municipalities, such as New York City, also impose a hotel tax on accommodation, which is levied on top of the sales tax.
Places for shopping
See also Shopping in the United States
America is the birthplace of the modern enclosed shopping mall and the open-air shopping center. In addition, American suburbs have miles and miles of small strip malls — long rows of small shops with shared parking lots. Large cities have central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small. American retail stores, especially in suburban areas, are gigantic compared to retail stores in many other countries, and have some of the longest business hours in the world, with many chains open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10AM to 9PM most days, and in November and December, may stay open as long as 8AM to 11PM. Discount stores tend to stay open as late as 10PM or midnight, or may be open 24 hours a day. Most supermarkets are open late into the evening, usually until at least 9PM, and many stay open 24/7. Sunday hours tend to be somewhat shorter, or the stores may close.
The U.S. pioneered the factory outlet store, in which branded goods are sold for bargain prices, 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.
If you see a driveway or yard full of stuff on a summer weekend, it's likely a garage sale (or yard sale), where families sell household items they no longer need. Churches often hold rummage sales, with proceeds generally going to their church or a mission or project they support.
Flea markets (called "swap meets" in Western states) have vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. Bargaining is expected.
Thrift stores are retail stores run by churches, charities, and not-for-profit organizations that take in unwanted or un-needed household items as a donation and re-sell them to support projects they are engaged in.
The U.S. is generally considered expensive although the cost of living is typically lower than in many other Western countries, whose residents often come to the U.S. to shop.
A bare-bones budget 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 San Francisco are expensive, while prices go down in rural areas. Most U.S. cities have suburbs with good hotels that are often much cheaper than those in the city center. 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, rather than downtown hotels that charge exorbitant parking fees.
If you intend to visit any United States National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, it is worth considering buying a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which gives you access to almost all of the federal parks and recreation areas for one year.
Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as AAA (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. Many chain motels/hotels also have frequent customer plans that offer loyalty discounts.
Tipping is widely practiced in the United States. Standards vary, but gratuities are always given to servers in restaurants and bars, taxi drivers, parking valets, and bellstaff in hotels. The salaries made in these professions, and even their taxes, take into account that they will be tipped, so it really is inappropriate to leave them out.
Thinking about Tipping
Tipping in many countries is very rare or often not done at all, and unthinkable to some visitors. It is, however, an essential part of your trip to the United States, and you will upset people greatly by refusing to tip or tipping too little, as doing so deprives servers of what is often the main component of their income. A good way to approach this is to treat all prices in a restaurant or other service as having a 20% tax and adjust accordingly — i.e. that $40 meal actually costs $48.
Tipping in the United States is so common and expected in some cases that in many service establishments, such as hair salons and restaurants, customers who did not tip are often asked to pay a tip, or in rare cases verbally scolded by staff for "stiffing" them.
While Americans themselves often debate correct levels and exactly who deserves to be tipped, generally accepted standard rates are:
- Taxis — 10–20%. 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.
- Shuttle bus drivers — $2–5
- Private car & limousine drivers — 15–20%
- Parking valet — $1–3 for retrieving your car (unless there's already a fee for parking)
- Tour guides/activity guides — Between $5 and $10 depending on the size of the group (tips are lower in large groups), the cost of the tour, how funny/informative the guide was.
- Full-service restaurants — 15–20%; tip higher (~20%) in higher-cost cities like New York and San Francisco. 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.
- Food delivery (pizza, etc.) — $2–5, 15–20% for larger orders
- Bartenders — $1 per drink if inexpensive or 15–20% of total
- Housekeeping in hotels — $1–2 per day for long stays or $5 minimum for very short stays
- Porter, skycap, bellhop, hotel doorman — $1–2 per bag if they assist ($3–5 minimum), $1 for hailing a taxi or calling a cab
- Hairdressers, masseuses, other personal services — 10–15%
- Bicycle messengers — $3–5
The legal minimum wage for restaurant waitstaff and other tip-earners is quite low (just $2.13/hour before taxes in some states where minimums for other workers are $7.25 or more). Therefore, tipping for this service is regarded as even more essential. 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 (which may be construed as a forgotten tip).
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 bill will generally inform you whether a gratuity or "service charge" has already been added, in which case you do not need to leave an additional tip; this is especially common with large groups.
The rules for tipping at fast-food places are different and a bit more complicated. The key thing to remember is that tipping is associated with table service. The procedure at fast-food restaurants and when ordering takeout (even from what is otherwise a sit-down restaurant) is inherently self-service, therefore tipping is not necessary. Some eateries, mostly in the fast-casual sector, have a "tip jar" at the checkout station, but tipping in that scenario is purely optional, and you wouldn't be expected to contribute much more than the coins you're handed back as change. At cafeterias and buffets, a small tip is expected since staff often clear the table for you and provide refills of drinks and such.
The rules for tipping concierges are also arcane. For most services — asking for maps, information, tours, etc. — a tip is not expected. But for things above and beyond like special, unusual, time-consuming requests, if you receive a lot of attention while others are waiting, or even just for an exceptionally high level of service, tips should generally be large, usually starting at $5 (a $1 tip would be insulting).
Tipping well can make you look good in front of your American friends, dates and business partners, and could even earn you preferential treatment from staff, with the reverse also being true for tipping poorly.
- Main article: American cuisine
American cuisine is far more than the bland McDonald's/Coca-Cola monolith that international stereotypes make it out to be. It's as diverse as the American people themselves, sporting regional variations between different parts of the country and incorporating localized versions of ethnic dishes from around the world. Each region's cuisine developed based on their immigrant heritage and availability of ingredients at hand.
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 independent restaurants, the U.S. possesses a singularly baffling array of fast food and casual chain restaurants; the sheer variety domestically is immense.
Many restaurants, especially those serving fast food or breakfast, do not serve alcohol, and many others may only serve beer and wine. Portions are often huge, regardless of restaurant style. Many restaurants offer several portion options: ask when ordering if choices are available. Taking home "leftovers" 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.
In much of America, home-cooked food is as good as or substantially better than typical restaurant fare. This is particularly true in rural areas and small towns. If you have the opportunity to attend a potluck or carry-in dinner, this is a chance not to be missed.
Places to eat
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 upscale restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties have become more relaxed. Check with the restaurant if in doubt.
Takeout food is common in larger cities. Place an order by phone or online and then go to the restaurant to pick it up. Many places also offer delivery; in some cities, it is easier to have pizza or Chinese food delivered than to find a sit-down restaurant. Pizza and Chinese are especially ubiquitous in the U.S.; towns as small as 5,000 typically have at least one pizza shop and one Chinese takeout/delivery restaurant, and often more than one. Hardcore pizza fans will usually prefer local pizza places to the big national chains; many such restaurants also offer takeout and delivery.
Fast-casual restaurants offer a fast-food dining style (i.e. no table service), 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. Some fast-casual places even serve alcohol.
Diners are quintessentially American and have remained popular since their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. They are usually individually run, open 24-hours and found on major roads, in large cities or in suburbs. They offer a wide variety of huge meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert.
Truck stops are also an American experience. You will only encounter these places if you are traveling between cities. They are found on the interstate highways and cater to truckers. 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 club sandwich or burger and fries, served in large portions, often 24 hours a day. "All you can eat" buffets and large breakfasts abound. Truckers know their eating: if there are plenty of trucks outside, it'll be tasty, but not healthy.
Chain sit-down restaurants have a more predictable level of quality and price than local diners and truck stops, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer a wide variety of packaged or processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, including breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, and frozen meals.
In the largest cities, corner stores abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety of snacks, drinks, and packaged foods. Unlike most convenience stores, their products are sold at relatively low prices (especially by urban standards) and can provide snacks or even simple meals for a budget no more than $5 a day.
Types of food
Popular American food items 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 (most notably in the South).
Fast food restaurants are ubiquitous, but the variety of this type of restaurant in the U.S. is astounding: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, barbecue, TexMex, and ice cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; 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. A few restaurants, called drive-ins, serve you directly in your car. Most fast food places offer drive-thru service, allowing you to place an order from the establishment's menu posted on the side of a dedicated auto lane, and then paying for it and having it handed to you (packaged to go) at a separate side window before driving to your next destination.
At its best, barbecue (often abbreviated "BBQ") is pork or beef ribs, beef brisket, 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 shoulder can be shredded ("pulled") or chopped. 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. 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 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 are not to be confused with the above.
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 — and they're even beginning to cross-pollinate into fusion restaurants, with menus that are a mix of two or more different types of cuisine.
Italian food is perhaps the most pervasive of ethnic cuisines in America, almost to the point where its "foreign-ness" is debatable. While more authentic fare is certainly available in fancier restaurants, Italian food in the U.S. has often taken a different direction than that of Italy itself, especially in terms of pizza, which in the United States is available in a myriad of homegrown styles that are famous regionally and sometimes nationwide, but unknown in Italy. There are also restaurants that specialize in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines (with feta cheese and hummus fairly widespread on supermarket counters), and in somewhat smaller numbers also German and French restaurants.
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, with dedicated restaurants in larger towns. Indian and Korean restaurants are also present.
Also very popular is Latin-American cuisine, especially Mexican, which for many years came almost exclusively in the form of Tex-Mex cuisine: a homegrown hybrid originally developed in Texas but based on an Americanized interpretation of the cuisine of Northern Mexico. Nonetheless, the small authentic Mexican taquerias that were once limited mostly to California and the Southwest have now spread throughout the country. You'll also find Cuban food in South Florida and Puerto Rican and Dominican restaurants in Northeastern coastal cities, both generally serving a more authentic and less Americanized product.
The Jewish community has given a great deal to the culinary scene. While full-fledged Kosher delis are a dying breed that are nowadays mostly relegated to New York City and other places with exceptionally large Jewish populations, some specialties like bagels and pastrami have entered the culinary mainstream and are now enjoyed nationwide by Americans of all types. Most American Jewish cuisine (like most American Jews) is of Ashkenazi origin; Sephardi and Mizrahi food is largely unknown in the U.S.
Restaurants catering to vegetarians are becoming more common in the U.S. Most big cities and college towns will have restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns you may have more of a challenge. Waitstaff can answer questions about menu items, but may consider dishes with beef or pork flavoring, fish, chicken, or egg to be 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. Vegan restaurants (and vegan options at other restaurants) are increasingly appearing, especially in large cities.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the U.S. Even fast-food restaurants tend to have a few healthier options on the menu, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on request.
Awareness of food allergies varies. Packaged food must be labeled if it contains milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, or soy. Packaged food must also list its ingredients, although this can include non-specific items like "spices", "seasonings", or "added color". But there is usually no obligation to label allergens in unpackaged food, e.g. in restaurants, bakeries, and fresh food at grocery stores (but laws vary by state). Some restaurants do label allergens, and cater to those with food allergies. Fast food and casual-dining chain restaurants are often a safer bet for people with food allergies as they have consistent ingredients and methods. At sit-down restaurants, inform your waiter, ask questions, and if your waiter is unsure of anything then have them double-check or insist on speaking to a chef. A large selection of gluten-free foods are available, but like other allergens, the labeling laws (must contain less than 20 ppm gluten) apply to packaged food but not restaurants.
People on religious diets should not have any problems finding what they need in the major cities. Most major cities have at least one halal and kosher butcher, and there are often restaurants serving those respective communities too. The Halal Guys is a uniquely American chain of halal restaurants that operates branches in many major cities. However, such food is often not available at all in small towns and rural areas.
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 include cafeteria-style eateries with long tables and crowded informal eateries and cafés where you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at. Striking up a conversation in this situation may or may not be welcome.
Table manners, though varied, are typically European-influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating are considered rude, as is loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. You should lay cloth napkins across your lap; you can do the same with paper napkins or keep them on the table.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc.) are designed to be eaten by hand; a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (French fries, bacon, barbecue ribs, and many appetizers) even at moderately nice restaurants. If unsure, eating so-called "finger foods" with a fork and knife probably won't offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might.
Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal; 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 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 cost.
When invited to a meal in a private home, you might ask if you can contribute something to the meal, such as a dessert, a side dish, wine or beer, or for an outdoor cookout, something useful like ice or disposable cups or plates. The host will often decline, especially since you're a traveller. If you aren't asked to contribute to the meal, it is considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host (often called a hostess gift). A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. You should not expect your gift, if it's food, to be served with the meal; the host has already selected the meal's components. Gifts of cash or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.
An exception is the potluck or carry-in meal, where each guest (or group/family) brings 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, hors d'oeuvres, 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 are usually served buffet style—hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and bite-sized foods. 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—and your foreign specialty might just be the star attraction!
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. If your vacation goal is tobacco-focused, then you may want to consider states with weak regulation and a history of tobacco production, such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, or Virginia, or looking for a tobacconist's convention in Las Vegas. (If you're looking for a smoke-free vacation, try California, Utah, and Washington state.)
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.
As of 2018, some states have legalized recreational and/or medical use of cannabis. In states where cannabis/medical marijuana is legal, a green cross – similar to the logo of the Red Cross, and confusingly similar to the signs for normal pharmacies in other countries – represents a business that sells medical marijuana. Sales in some areas may be limited to local residents or to people with particular medical conditions. Additionally, federal law prohibits handling of cannabis, and transporting cannabis into the country or across state borders, even between states where cannabis is legal, is a crime. It is furthermore unclear how state law (or the jurisdiction of Indian reservations) and federal law collide in terms of cannabis.
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.
Some 21-year-olds trying to use a foreign ID to purchase alcohol may be confounded by an unexpected problem: the date is often in the wrong order!
In most of the world, a birthdate of 12 January 1996 would be written 12-1-1996, using day-month-year order. But the U.S. invariably uses month-day-year order, in which those numbers would be taken to mean December 1, almost a full year later! Unless your ID specifically states that it uses day-month-year format, or uses [English] names for the month as some passports do, it's likely that your ID won't be accepted, as the employee would otherwise be taking you at your word that you're of age to drink. If you want to avoid the problem, get an alternative ID that shows your birthdate in an unambiguous format.
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 always carry a valid picture ID in case you are carded. Generally accepted forms of ID are a U.S. driver's license, state ID or passport. Some bars and retailers require IDs on all transactions, and some may not accept a foreign driver's license (except possibly Canada), so having your passport available when purchasing alcohol is strongly advised. In some states, people who are under 21 cannot even legally enter a bar or liquor store — and even where the law allows it, individual bars might still choose not to admit minors.
Alcohol sales are typically prohibited after 2AM, though there are some cities where bars are open later or even all night. 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 illegal. 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%. American police keep a sharp eye out for drunken drivers (especially on holiday weekends), and have an array of tools at their disposal that can quickly determine if you are under the influence. If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, you will almost certainly be arrested. 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, and ride-hailing apps have drivers even in small cities. Many automotive clubs offer hotlines to find a ride home. If you're in a restaurant or bar, just ask the bartender or the serving staff for help.
Beer and wine are the main non-distilled alcoholic drinks, with whiskey the main hard liquor (i.e. distilled drink). Hard cider is the alcoholic drink from fermented apples; although enthusiastically consumed two centuries ago, its popularity is only now resurging after decades of obscurity. "Cider" without further qualification is just an unfiltered variety of apple juice, though in the context of a bar, the word is understood to refer to the alcoholic beverage.
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 since the 1990s. Microbreweries, which specialize in small-batch, high-quality beers made by traditional methods, add much-needed variety. Microbrews, also called "craft beers", 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 only available locally, but quite a few have reached regional or even national distribution. Some bars and restaurants serve craft beers, while others don't, seemingly at random. Most stores (even convenience stores) carry at least a few, and many have a wide selection. Brew pubs combine microbrewery and bar and serve highly regarded beer that is made on the premises.
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—is 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.
Sparkling cider is usually a non-alcoholic drink that comes in the shape of a champagne bottle and can be flavored. Hard ciders are those that contain alcohol in them.
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" (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, 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, 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.
The United States has a wide variety of soft drinks with some of the most famous brands originating here. While Pepsi and Coca-Cola are sold around the world, some flavors are hardly known outside North America. Sparkling water, once seen as a European curiosity, has become increasingly popular as a healthier alternative to sugary soft drinks and is now available in most stores. Tap water is usually served for free at restaurants, and in most parts of the country other than the New York City area, you will generally get free refills of coffee, tea, and (somewhat less often) soft drinks. Americans like to put a lot of ice into their drinks, so unless you specifically request otherwise, expect any non-alcoholic drink you order in a restaurant (including water) to contain a large quantity of ice cubes. When ordering water at fast food restaurants, bottled water may be assumed if you don't specify tap water.
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 (☏ ) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30–70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels (☏ ) provide 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. Often they will also light up their sign outside to tell if there is vacancy, in which case you can simply walk in if they have one. 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.
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 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, respectively. Some hotels in the U.S. will not take people under the age of 21 if not checking in with older adults. 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. A minority of hotels are dog-friendly, with even fewer allowing other types of pets; either way you'll likely need to pay a surcharge and a refundable damage deposit. Amenities such as wi-fi and breakfast are usually free in mid-range hotels, but often not available at all in the cheapest motels, and only available for exorbitant prices in luxury hotels.
In many rural areas bed and breakfast (B&B) lodging can be found that are usually in converted houses. B&Bs feature a more home-like lodging experience, with free breakfast served. Bed and breakfasts range from about $50 to $200 per night and can be a nice break from the impersonality of chain hotels and motels. Unlike Europe, most American bed and breakfasts are unmarked.
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.
Youth hostels haven't really taken off in the U.S., but they exist across the country. Some 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. Hostels are clustered in more touristy locations: do not assume that all mid-sized cities will have a hostel, and even very big cities may only have one or two.
Camping can also be an affordable lodging option, especially with good weather. The downside 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 (☏ ), 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, you can rent a furnished house by the day.
- Main article: Studying in the United States
- See also: Touring prestigious and notable universities in the U.S.
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. 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. The U.S. is home to many of the world's most prestigious universities and attracts more international students than any other country in the world, and a lot of cultural diversity can be seen throughout its top universities.
- Main article: Working in the United States
The United States, as the biggest economy in the world, entices foreigners with employment opportunities across the full range of skill levels and economic sectors. Like other countries, though, the U.S. has adopted immigration and visa laws designed to give preference to U.S. residents. Make sure you understand what legal barriers you face to getting a job in the U.S. Do not attempt to work illegally in the U.S., as you could potentially be subject to arrest, deportation, and a ban on re-entry. Illegal workers also run the risk of unsafe work conditions.
Headline-grabbing major crimes give the U.S. a reputation for crime, but few visitors experience any problems; common-sense precautions and staying alert are generally sufficient to avoid trouble. Violent crime is usually connected with gangs and drugs in specific neighborhoods, 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.
Rural crime in America tends to be very rare and very local, occurring primarily in very poor, troubled communities which are easy to avoid. 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.
There has been a reported increase in mass shootings and white nationalist terrorism since 2016, albeit against the backdrop of a declining number of homicide deaths overall. While these occur in random locations that are nearly impossible to predict, as a tourist, your chances of encountering one are slim.
The police are generally polite, professional, and honest. The police will however draw and use their weapons much faster and with more deadly force than police forces in other Western countries. When in uniform, they are more formal, cautious, cold and sometimes aggressive than police in, say, Europe or Latin America—especially in large cities. If stopped by police, do not feel scared or anxious. 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. It is particularly important for you to appear calm and cooperative if you are a person of color, since non-white people are much more likely to be subjected to police harassment.
If you have been pulled over by a police officer, turn on your car's lights and keep your hands on the wheel; do not exit the vehicle unless told to do so.
Do not offer bribes to a police officer under any circumstances. U.S. police culture categorically rejects bribes, and even the mere suggestion can 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. Unlike in much of the world, fines are not tied to income and can be rather steep as many towns and counties—controversially—rely on them as a major source of revenue. You should thus be especially careful to comply with the less obvious rules.
There are three types of police you are most likely to encounter: state police or highway patrol units on major highways, rural areas and/or state government offices, deputy sheriffs employed by county governments in rural areas, and police officers employed by city or town governments in urban areas. There are also smaller police departments, like transit or airport police which patrol public transportation, and university or campus police which patrol universities. Federal law enforcement officers, such as FBI agents, are generally found only in or near federal facilities, such as ports of entry, national parks, and federal government offices. If you encounter them elsewhere, it is usually because they are investigating specific allegations of federal crimes.
Dialing 911 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.
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. Near the southern border, 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 despite 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 and along the East Coast, blizzards in New England, near the Great Lakes, and in the Rocky Mountains, tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains and Midwest, earthquakes on the West Coast and in Alaska, floods in areas of the Midwest and Texas and wildfires in the late summer and early fall in the western half, particularly California and the Southwest. See the linked topics and the regions in question for details.
Because tornadoes are so common between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, this area has earned itself the colloquial name Tornado Alley. 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.
Hawaii contains several active volcanoes, but they are not usually a threat to life and limb. The last high profile eruption in the mainland U.S. was that of Mount Saint Helens in 1980.
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 an alert message based on the current location of the phone (depending on the phone's settings, this may include a loud alert tone).
Coast Guard weather is broadcast continuously on VHF marine radio for seafarers; a separate system (seven frequencies around 161 MHz) provides conditions ashore. Special "weather radios" are able to monitor the frequency, even in standby mode, and sound the alarm if deadly storms (such as tornadoes or hurricanes) are brewing.
Gay and lesbian
In general, the U.S. is a safe destination for gay and lesbian travelers, though as a whole, homosexuality is not quite as well accepted as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada or Western Europe. Most Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality, and anti-gay violence is very uncommon (though not totally unheard of), but you may receive unwanted attention or remarks in some situations or regions. In general, acceptance of homosexuality is most widespread (to a degree generally on par with Western Europe) in larger cities, college towns, in the Northeast and along the West Coast. However, this is just a general rule of thumb: you'll find homophobes (and, conversely, LGBT-accepting folks) in all corners of the country.
The rainbow flag or gay pride flag is widely known even outside the gay community, and is commonly used by both individuals and businesses to signal that they (as individuals) are LGBT themselves or tolerant thereof, or that they (as businesses) are LGBT-owned and/or welcoming to LGBT customers. Other symbols (such as the pink triangle, or specific flags for bisexual or transgender people) exist but are much less widely recognized.
Gay-friendly destinations include New York's Chelsea, Austin, Chicago's Boystown, Seattle's Capitol Hill, San Francisco's Castro Street, Washington's Dupont Circle, Miami Beach's South Beach, Atlanta's Midtown, Los Angeles' West Hollywood and New Orleans. An increasing number of resort areas, too, are gay-friendly, including Fire Island, Key West, Asheville, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Rehoboth Beach, Saugatuck, and Asbury Park. Even leaving aside major tourist destinations, most cities have specific neighborhoods where gay people tend to congregate, and many have resource centers for LGBT people.
If you're married to someone of the same sex, you may encounter some difficulties in more conservative areas of the country, but Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that no municipal, state or federal authority is allowed to treat same-sex relationships differently from opposite-sex ones, and employers are also not allowed to discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In most jurisdictions, individual businesses remain free to refuse service to gays and lesbians; fewer than twenty states list sexual orientation as a protected category (like race and gender) and fewer still extend these protections to transgender persons. While transgender persons are not prohibited from travel, some have reported undue scrutiny at airport security checkpoints. A few large cities have enacted local anti-discrimination ordinances, and many places have alternative monthly or weekly publications providing LGBT-relevant news and event listings. National LGBT publications include Out magazine and The Advocate.
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 using protection, 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. Seeking healthcare elsewhere can be very pricey.
In general, U.S. drug laws can be pretty severe: even possession or transportation of small amounts can lead to prison or deportation. 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 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. Many states also allow limited recreational use of marijuana, as does the District of Columbia, although the status of legalization there is in doubt due to the District's unique Federal status.
In 2020, Oregon became the first U.S. state both to decriminalize the use of hard drugs and to fully legalize the use of psilocybin (so-called "magic mushrooms"). Additionally, some more liberal-minded cities (e.g. Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor) have decriminalized hard drugs by municipal law.
However, both marijuana and hard drugs remain illegal under federal law. Under no circumstances should they be transported across state lines (even when it's legal on both sides of the border), onto Indian reservations, onto federal lands or properties (such as federal office buildings, military bases, and post offices), onto flights or across international borders (including Canada, where marijuana is legal). Doing so is considered drug trafficking and subject to the aforementioned harsh penalties. Airports such as Denver International increasingly have "cannabis amnesty boxes" pre, and sometimes bizarrely post security, where one can get rid of any cannabis products without facing a penalty.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. is generally considered to be a place with lenient attitudes towards firearm ownership, especially compared to Europe and Asia.
Although U.S. citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to own and carry firearms, non-immigrant aliens present in America for fewer than 180 days cannot legally possess a firearm or ammunition, unless they travelled specifically for hunting or sport 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.
Warning: People who have renounced U.S. citizenship are not allowed to possess firearms or ammunition, even for sporting purposes.
Your chances of getting shot are very low, but:
- In a city, a civilian with an openly visible firearm is generally a rare sight, and thus potentially more of a concern than one in the country. Nonetheless, since many states do permit "open carry", you may encounter somebody with a holstered firearm. Police officers, even detectives who wear civilian clothes on duty, will almost always carry firearms. 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. Though if you witness somebody brandishing a gun, dial 911, as brandishing a firearm is a crime in many states.
- Hunting is popular in rural America. Use of marked trails is generally safe, but if you plan to venture off the beaten path, find out where any hunting may be afoot. If so, everyone in your party (including your dog!) should wear bright colors, particularly "Blaze Orange", to be highly visible to the hunters. The timing and length of hunting seasons, and any applicable permits and regulations, vary between states—see respective state government websites for more information. Hunting is not normally allowed in national or state parks, but is permitted in some national forests.
- 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.
- The legal carrying of firearms for protection by individuals hiking, exploring or camping in the wilderness is on the rise due to a small number of highly publicized incidents along well-known hiking trails. This is a controversial issue in the hiking/camping community, with strong arguments on both sides. The proponents argue that legal possession of a firearm does not increase the level of danger for bystanders: those who carry may very well have military or police backgrounds and be more than willing to assist others in an emergency.
- Private property is more strongly protected in the U.S., both in law and in custom, than it is in many other parts of the world. In some areas, it is legal for owners to shoot people in defense of their property. While such incidents are rare, don't risk it - make sure you avoid taking shortcuts across land that might be privately owned, even if unfenced. In all cases, it's considered to be trespassing, which is a crime. If you are in an urgent situation where you have to seek refuge on someone's property, be sure to appropriately notify the owner, or you risk being mistaken for a trespasser.
Mass shootings occasionally make headlines in the U.S., but in such a huge country the risk to any individual is very low. It is extremely unlikely to happen to you on your visit. If you would like to prepare for this remote possibility anyway, see this section.
The U.S. is, at least publicly, a racially tolerant country. The U.S. Constitution, coupled with both state and federal law, prohibits racial discrimination in a range of public spheres such as employment, university admissions and receiving services from retail businesses. However, the Constitution also guarantees freedom of speech to a greater degree than in most other Western democracies, so it is unfortunately possible to encounter racist comments (both blatant and subtle) in public forums.
Still, most Americans are, or at least profess to be, tolerant of other races, and it is uncommon to face open aggression from random people solely as a result of one's race. The country goes through occasional periods of increased animosity toward racial minorities or immigrants, but the longer-term trend has been one of increasing tolerance and acceptance.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a spike in racist incidents targeting people of East Asian descent, with some East Asians having become victims of hate crimes including assaults.
Tap water is potable, but sometimes avoided due to the taste imparted by the chlorine used to purify it. It's of good quality in many places, including New York City; however, it tastes bad in certain low-rainfall areas, such as Santa Barbara, so you might prefer to drink bottled water or seltzer in those places. Bottled water is near ubiquitous and available for a variety of prices. Quality tends to be high and the chemical difference between a 50 cent bottle of water and a 5 dollar bottle of water is oftentimes negligible. Lead plumbing is still a problem in some places, as became evident in the high profile case of Flint, Michigan, but hotels and public water dispensers are unlikely to be affected.
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.
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 (CDC) website for health information for travellers to the United States.
There are two infectious diseases that are worth becoming educated about:
- Human cases of rabies are quite rare in the United States, though the disease is more prevalent in eastern regions of the country. Rabies is usually contracted from animal bites or saliva. If you are bitten by any mammal, even if it's "just a scratch", see a doctor as soon as possible. If you wait until you get symptoms of rabies, you are almost certain to die; if you get the vaccine before symptoms occur, you have a high chance of surviving. Bats and other small, wild animals are especially prone to carry the rabies virus. If you happen to find a bat in the room (particularly upon waking up, or in the room of an unattended child), call or see a doctor since there may have been an unnoticed bite. Avoid other wild mammals like raccoons, skunks, and foxes, even if they seem tame and approachable.
- Lyme disease is spread via the deer tick, which is prevalent in the woodlands and open fields of many rural areas. There have been cases of Lyme disease in every state, but the great majority have been reported in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic states and Great Lakes states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. 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. Should you get flu-like symptoms after hiking through wooded areas, make sure to get tested for Lyme disease, as it is often confused with other diseases, and early treatment is usually quite effective.
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 Midwest).
Due to the high amount of travel and the fact that diaspora communities from almost every country in the world have some presence here., the U.S. is somewhat more likely than other places to have "imported" cases of pandemics, as seen in the case of the Ebola epidemic of 2014. Again this is unlikely to be of concern to you.
American health care is generally first-class, but very expensive. Make sure that your travel insurance is valid for the U.S. Given the high costs, some "world-wide" insurance specifically does not cover the U.S. But if you can afford it, the U.S. is by far the world's leading nation in medical research, and you have at your disposal the most cutting edge treatments that are often not available anywhere else. Long-term visitors to the U.S. (e.g., work or student visa holders) are generally required to take up private health insurance as part of their visa conditions. If you are planning to work in the U.S., check with your employer to see if health insurance is provided as part of your employee benefits.
To the patient, America's public (20%), private for-profit (20%), and private not-for-profit (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-hour emergency treatment.
In a life-threatening emergency, dial 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 conditions that don't require a visit to the emergency room (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 accustomed to explaining fees over the phone, and most will accept credit cards. Health insurance typically does not provide dental coverage; you will need to take up separate dental insurance for that.
Government-supported clinics offering free or low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases are widespread. Local Health Departments will provide more details. 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.
Note the difference between a red cross and a green cross: in the United States, anything medically related will have a red cross, whereas medical marijuana dispensaries will have a green cross.
Christian visitors looking to attend religious 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, Methodist and Episcopal/Anglican), and possibly other houses of worship depending on the demographics of the area (such as synagogues or mosques).
Most 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.
Some churches also have after-church luncheon for free or at a nominal cost. Visitors are always welcome to stay for lunch and fellowship as a way to meet locals.
News and media
The United States has a free and vibrant press industry, with a wide array of news outlets covering the gamut in terms of focus, factual accuracy and political biases.
Though it's not as ubiquitous as before the advent of the Internet, print media isn't dead yet. Just about every mid-sized city (and many small ones) has a daily newspaper covering local news and often some national news. Major metropolitan areas will usually have more than one paper to choose from. With a few exceptions (mostly tabloids like the New York Post and New York Daily News), most papers provide reasonably balanced coverage of hard news, with their political biases manifesting themselves only in their editorial or opinion sections.
The national paper of record is The New York Times ($2.50 daily, $6 Sunday); 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) is published 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 (known for its West Coast coverage) and The Washington Post (with exemplary political reporting from the nation's capital). Time and Newsweek are newsmagazines published weekly that offer more in-depth feature coverage.
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-subsidized public broadcasting); each has local stations in each market that broadcast local and national news, syndicated shows, and in-house TV series. Almost the entire country is wired for cable TV, with hundreds of channels running the gamut from news to sports to entertainment.
Broadcast radio is a much more fragmented market than television; major cities have dozens of stations on both AM and FM bands. The AM band is mostly used for talk formats; music stations are almost exclusively found on the FM band. Many rental cars come equipped with satellite radio from SiriusXM, which offers hundreds of channels of music, comedy, news, talk, and sports, without the need to keep finding new stations as you drive across the country.
Cultural norms vary significantly from region to region within the U.S. For example, while stating opposition to homosexuality would be very offensive in a liberal area like New York City, the opposite could be true in a strongly Evangelical rural town in the South. Generally speaking, social etiquette tends to be more formal in the Northeast and the South, more casual on the West Coast, and somewhere between those two extremes in the Midwest.
- It is polite to firmly shake hands when meeting someone or being introduced, and when concluding a business meeting or departing for a long time, though handshaking is often skipped in less formal situations. In casual situations, some people may offer a fist bump, a more complicated handshake or even a hug. Just follow along; mistakes in those situations are no big deal at all. Kissing on the cheeks in greeting is rare and usually done only between close friends and family. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people may prefer a touch-free greeting, or an elbow tap.
- As an adult, once you're introduced to someone, you can usually call them by their first name. Calling someone by their last name is more formal, and with rare exceptions is always done with "Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss", or with a professional title with the last name (e.g., "Doctor", "Professor" or "Officer). Such professional titles can also be used alone without a name ("Doctor" [for a medical doctor], "Professor" or "Officer"). If you don't know someone's name, use "sir/ma'am". If you're still not certain, it's safer to be overly polite and use last names. Many people will soon respond with "Please, call me [first name]". Alternatively, you can ask someone how they would like to be addressed.
- 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 if you will be any later, try to call ahead in order to give a warning.
- Americans often draw a strong distinction between their work and personal life. As a general rule, it is inappropriate to ask people more than superficial details about their family and other aspects of their personal life.
- 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, Pacific Islander, and White or Caucasian are acceptable terms.
- There are some racist tropes and terms that have historically appeared in caricatures, and it is best to avoid alluding to any of them in normal conversation; a few of them might not be obvious to foreigners. For example, African-Americans have been caricatured in print and film countless times eating fried chicken and watermelon, so tread carefully when asking an African-American where to get these.
- Do not tell jokes about race or ethnicity; some of these may be told casually in many other countries, but they are very likely to cause offense in the U.S.
- Avoid showing or talking about Confederate symbols, especially Confederate flags or the song "Dixie". Although regarded by some as an integral part of Southern identity, these are controversial throughout most of the country and increasingly associated with white supremacy, racism and other negative stereotypes about the South.
- The Swastika symbol is very offensive in the U.S. You should avoid displaying the symbol, even if yours is from an innocent context.
- Gender and sexuality are sensitive issues and best avoided as conversation topics with people you don't know well. As with race, jokes about these are very likely to offend and best avoided.
- There are Indian 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.
- Gun control is a very polarizing and sensitive issue. Visitors (particularly to rural areas, which tend toward vehement opposition to any legal restrictions on firearm ownership whatsoever) should tread very lightly on this topic if it cannot be avoided.
- Americans are very polarized in their political beliefs, and political allegiance can take precedence over reason and civility.
- Attitudes towards breastfeeding in public vary. Laws permit it (except in Idaho and Puerto Rico) and it is exempted from prosecution for public indecency or indecent exposure in many states. Still, whether covered or not, it elicit unwanted stares, negative comments or complaints about indecent exposure. Some businesses allow and protect breastfeeding mothers.
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.
In general, dress code is a bit more formal in the metropolises of the East Coast, and in the South (where "Southern style" is a surviving concept), and more relaxed the further west you go. See also Working in the United States.
Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as yarmulkes, hijabs and burqas without comment.
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.
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. There can be many area codes in large cities, and only one or two for the entirety of a mostly rural state. The area code does not indicate whether a number is a mobile or a landline. Also, many Americans do not change their numbers when they move, so the area code of their mobile number may not match landlines in the region.
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, Chicago and San Francisco require eleven digits. Regions with only one area code usually allow seven digits although those regions will require you to dial 10 digits due to the implementation of 988 as a new phone number for a crisis line starting October 24, 2021. If a number is written or given without the area code, you can usually dial it like that locally, but dialing ten digits also works. Starting October 24, 2021, you will be required to dial the area code in addition to the number, otherwise your call cannot go forward. For long-distance and toll-free, always dial eleven digits. When in doubt should you only have a phone number without the area code, ask for the area code whenever possible.
Domestic calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, 844 and 833 are toll-free. From a fixed line, 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. (VoIP and Skype users may be able to circumvent this restriction by calling via a U.S.-based gateway.)
To dial abroad from the U.S., the international access code is 011. On a mobile phone, "+" will also work.
Canada, U.S. territories, Bermuda, and 17 Caribbean nations are part of the North American Numbering Plan, and have the same +1 country code as the U.S. Calls made between these countries are dialed using only the full 11-digit number, without the "011" or "+" access code, 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 are typically 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
Pay phones can be hard to find. Likely locations include in or near stores and restaurants, shopping mall entrances and near bus stops. Most are coin operated (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept banknotes. 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. Calls to 911 (to report an emergency) and to toll-free area codes (800, 888, 877, 866, 855, 844 and 833) are free from pay phones. A few commercial toll-free numbers block inbound calls from U.S. payphones.
Telephone directories are often split into two books: the white pages list phone numbers alphabetically by last name, 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 be had (at an extra cost) by dialing 411 (for local numbers) or 1-[area code]-555-1212 (for other areas). If 411 doesn't work, try 555-1212, [area code]-555-1212 or 1-[area code]-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 provide directory information. Using the website of the company that operates in the region you are interested in yields the best results.
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 often be 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 three largest mobile phone networks in the U.S. are AT&T, Verizon Wireless, 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.
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 is possible if it's compatible. All operators use the same 4G LTE standard that is used internationally, although the North American frequency band plan is different than that in the rest of the world, so make sure your phone supports the right frequencies. Bands 2 and 4 are the bare minimum and will get you coverage in the cities but don't reach outside them. Band 12 will get you some rural coverage from AT&T and T-Mobile, while Verizon uses band 13 for its rural coverage. For 5G phones, due to the fragmented nature of the 5G band plan, don't expect a 5G phone purchased from outside North America to receive 5G signal in the US. 2G GSM and CDMA as well as 3G UMTS are being phased out across major carriers and will be unavailable by some time in 2022, although US carriers are already disallowing activation of new devices that don't support US LTE frequencies and Voice over LTE, or VoLTE.
- Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling through a U.S. network) can be expensive, and will depend on the networks your home provider has contracts with, as well as your own provider's fees. While some providers now provide US roaming inclusive or have a special roaming bundle, others will still charge very expensive per-use rates.
- Canadian postpaid phones generally roam at a fixed rate of C$9 per day, although plans vary; prepaid-cash users may not roam at all. Freedom Mobile offers good pricing.
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. In addition, some prepaid providers even offer reasonably priced roaming in Mexico and Canada for visitors continuing to those countries; this can be especially helpful in the case of Canada as mobile phone service is far more expensive there.
SIM cards are available for purchase at most electronics stores, as well as some "big-box" retailers including Wal-Mart and Target. 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 recurring monthly contracts rather than one-time prepaid plans.
Providers who sell prepaid SIM cards include AT&T's GoPhone, Cricket (which is owned by AT&T), Straight Talk's Bring Your Own Phone and T-Mobile. Note that AT&T and Cricket are starting to reject activation on some phones purchased from outside the US even if they physically support the network. Additionally, while Verizon also sells prepaid SIMs, their service is not compatible with as many internationally-purchased phones as T-Mobile or AT&T; check on their website to see if they will allow your device to be activated on their network before you buy.
- Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling through a U.S. network) can be expensive, and will depend on the networks your home provider has contracts with, as well as your own provider's fees. While some providers now provide US roaming inclusive or have a special roaming bundle, others will still charge very expensive per-use rates.
- 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 low-end smartphone with some amount of talk time, texts, and data preloaded can be purchased for around $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, and TracFone, as well as limited offerings from the major carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Prepaid. These phones are subsidized and SIM-locked, and each provider has different policies regarding unlocking for future use, so keep that in mind if you plan on keeping the phone long-term.
- 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 may make sense if you are planning to stay longer. Unless you've lived in the U.S. for several months, you won't have a credit rating that is recognized by major U.S. service providers and won't be able to subscribe to these plans (although some providers will let you get one with a deposit, typically at least $500). In addition, while major providers have abolished the traditional 24-month contract (replacing it with device financing plans instead), they will generally charge $30 or so as an initial activation fee. However, some smaller postpaid providers that don't have device financing facilities are receptive to people new to the US or only temporarily in the country, and don't charge activation fees. Google Fi, Ting, and US Mobile are some examples. You can purchase a starter kit containing a SIM for the first two at most of the same stores that sell true prepaid SIMs, complete activation online (on your phone from the store's WiFi if you want to walk out the door with functioning service), and be ready to go. You can also set up service online and have the SIM delivered to a US address of your choosing.
When purchasing local service, there are a couple of cautionary notes if traveling outside of the lower 48 and Hawaii.
- T-Mobile does not have a network of their own in Alaska and instead relies on domestic roaming on local provider GCI. This domestic roaming is not available to prepaid customers. Even for postpaid customers it is limited to 200 MB per month. If you are starting in the lower 48 and Hawaii and continuing to Alaska, purchase service from an AT&T or Verizon-based provider. If starting from Alaska and continuing to the lower 48, there is also the option of purchasing a prepaid plan from GCI that includes unlimited usage in the lower 48 and Hawaii for $50/month.
- Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are covered by a slightly different set of providers. T-Mobile has their own network there, and while AT&T has sold off its network there to a local company, they have a domestic roaming arrangement that allows AT&T users to continue using those networks at no additional charge. Verizon also relies on separate local providers there, but charges prepaid customers an additional $5 daily for this domestic roaming arrangement, so if your US travel plans include either of those territories, it's advised to go with AT&T or T-Mobile.
- The Pacific territories (Guam, CNMI, American Samoa) have their own providers and no US mainland carrier offers native coverage there. Prepaid plans from the mainland will typically not include coverage in these areas, so plan on having to get separate local SIMs in these places once you arrive.
Addressing mail with a properly-formatted address will expedite its journey with the United States Postal Service (USPS, not to be confused with the private shipper UPS). The ZIP code (postal code) is important, and you can look up ZIP codes and correct address formats online. A 5-digit ZIP code identifies a main post office; a 4-digit extension (recommended but optional) may narrow this to one business or an individual building. Addresses should be written in three to four lines with the name of recipient, house number and street name, suite or apartment or building number, city or town, two-letter state abbreviation, ZIP code, e.g.:
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
149 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94105-3739
First-class international airmail postcards and letters (up to one ounce/28.5 grams) cost $1.30. All locations with a ZIP code are considered domestic, including the 50 states, U.S. possessions, Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, Palau and overseas military bases, ships (APO or FPO) and diplomatic posts (APO or DPO). Domestic postcards cost $0.40 (small), $0.58 (large), and ordinary letters up to an ounce, $0.58 (2021). "Forever" stamps are available for the first ounce of 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 must show ID such as a passport to pick up your mail. Post offices will usually hold mail for up to 30 days. If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will allow General Delivery.
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 Wi-Fi networks, however, are common.
The most generally useful Wi-Fi spots are in coffee shops, fast-food chains, and bookshops, though you may need to buy something first. Some cities also provide free Wi-Fi across their downtown areas.
A few less obvious Wi-Fi 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.
- 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. Some have networks accessible throughout campus, even outdoors.
- Airports – even smaller regional ones offer Wi-Fi. Most no longer charge, although you may still occasionally find one that does. Airport lounges typically provide unlimited free Wi-Fi.
- Paid Wi-Fi chains – give you access to numerous hotspots for a small charge, e.g. Boingo.
Mobile broadband via a Wi-Fi hotspot device is also an option, with many major providers offering prepaid data-only plans. 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, although competition has made them larger and thus harder to accidentally go over. AT&T, Cricket, and T-Mobile all offer 100 GB for $50 a month, while Verizon offers significantly less (30 GB for $60) but still has wider coverage than the other two in the most rural areas.
Public PC terminals
Internet cafés can still be found in some larger cities. Airports and shopping malls offer Internet access terminals for 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.
You may also consider:
- Public libraries — have PCs with broadband for public use, but you may need a library card. Some libraries give out free internet cards that have no book-lending privileges for out-of-area visitors.
- Photocopy shops — will have computers available for public use (at a cost), e.g. FedEx Office (☏ ; 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.
- Hotels — all but the most spartan have "business centers" with computers, printers, and sometimes also photocopiers and fax machines.
- 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 and they may also have a computer or two for public use.