|Currency||United States dollar (USD)|
|Population||323.9 million (2016)|
|Electricity||120±6 volt / 60±0 hertz (Type A, Type B)|
|Time zone||UTC−12:00 to UTC+12:00 and Samoa Time Zone, Atlantic Time Zone, Alaska Time Zone, Mountain Time Zone, Chamorro Time Zone|
|edit on Wikidata|
The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as the "USA," the "U.S.," the "United States," "America," or simply "the States." It has a land area of about 9.6 million km2 (about half the size of Russia and about the same size as China). It also has the world's third-largest population, with more than 320 million people. It includes densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast uninhabited areas of natural beauty. Representing the world's single largest economy with its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a "melting pot" of cultures from around the world.
Regarded as the most powerful and influential country in the world, it plays a dominant role in the world's cultural landscape, and is famous for its wide array of popular tourist destinations, ranging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago, to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and Alaska, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California.
The United States comprises 50 states, and the city of Washington, D.C., a federal district and the nation's capital. The country also has a few territories, including the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Below is a rough grouping of these states into regions, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:
|New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)
Home to gabled churches, rustic antiques, and steeped in American history, New England offers beaches, spectacular seafood, rugged mountains, frequent winter snows, and some of the nation's oldest cities, in a territory small enough to tour (hastily) in a week.
|Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C.)
Ranging from New York in the north to Washington, D.C., the Mid-Atlantic is home to some of the nation's most densely populated cities, historic sites, rolling mountains, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Lehigh Valley, and seaside resorts like the Long Island beaches and the Jersey Shore.
|South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia)
The South is celebrated for its hospitality, down-home cooking, and its blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass and country music traditions. This lush, largely subtropical region includes cool, verdant mountains, agricultural plantations, and vast cypress swamps.
Northern Florida is similar to the rest of the South, but this is not so in the resorts of Orlando, retirement communities, tropical Caribbean-influenced Miami, the Everglades, and 1,200 mi (1,900 km) of sandy beaches.
|Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin)
The Midwest is home to farmland, forests, picturesque towns, industrial cities, and the Great Lakes, the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world, forming the North Coast of the U.S. Known for their simplicity and hospitality, Midwesterners are a welcoming people.
The second biggest state is like a separate country (as, indeed, it once was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past. The terrain ranges from southeastern swamplands to the flat land and cotton farms of the South Plains to the sandy beaches of South Texas to the mountains and deserts of far West Texas.
|Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma)
Travel westward through these supposedly flat states, from the edge of the eastern forests through the prairies and onto the High Plains, an enormous expanse of steppes (shortgrass prairies) nearly as desolate as in the frontier days, but filled still with pockets of quirky and diverse history.
|Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, excellent skiing, deserts, and some large cities.
|Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture, as well as Native American remnants, this area is home to some of the nation's most spectacular natural attractions and some flourishing artistic communities. Although mostly empty, the region's deserts have some big cities.
Like the Southwest, California has a history under Spanish and Mexican rule and is heavily influenced by those civilizations, with a great import of Asian culture, especially cuisine. California offers world-class cities, deserts, rainforests, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches. Northern California (anchored by the San Francisco Bay Area) and Southern California (anchored by Los Angeles and also including Orange County, San Diego, et al.) are culturally distinct.
|Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)
The pleasantly mild Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits and cosmopolitan cities. The terrain ranges from spectacular rainforests to scenic mountains and volcanoes to beautiful coastlines to sage-covered steppes and deserts.
One fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features mountainous wilderness, including North America's tallest mountain, 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. is a federation of states, each with its own rights and powers (hence the name), with laws varying slightly from state to state.
The U.S. also administers a collection of non-state territories around the world, by far the largest of which is Puerto Rico. Other territories include the U.S. Virgin Islands, also in the Caribbean, and Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Wake Island and islands without permanent inhabitants such as the Midway Islands in Oceania. As these are, from a traveller's point of view, quite different from the 50 states, they are covered in separate articles. While there are legal categories for their relations to the U.S. mainland, they are mostly sui generis for each one and don't affect travellers all that much. Where it is relevant, those issues are handled in the individual articles on each territory.
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 national capital, filled with major museums and monuments, along with multicultural communities
- 2 Boston — best known for its colonial history, its passion for sports, and its university students
- 3 Chicago — heart of the Midwest and transportation hub of the nation, 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 — attracts sun-seeking northerners and home to a rich, vibrant, Latin-influenced, Caribbean culture
- 6 New Orleans — "The Big Easy" is the birthplace of Jazz, and is known for its quaint French Quarter and annual Mardi Gras celebration
- 7 New York City — the country's biggest city, home of the financial services and media industries, with world-class cuisine, arts, architecture, and shopping
- 8 San Francisco — the City by the Bay, featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant urban neighborhoods, and dramatic fog
- 9 Seattle — rich museums, monuments, and recreational opportunities, and five distinct climates within 200 miles (320 km), check out the Space Needle as well
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 the famous Giant Sequoia trees
The United States is not the America of television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with distinct regional identities. Due to the distances involved, travelling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
The contiguous United States or "Lower 48" (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, with much of the population living on these three coasts or along the Great Lakes, which are sometimes dubbed another "coast". Its only land borders — both quite long — are shared with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The U.S. also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba and the Bahamas.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three 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 and North Dakota as well as 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 glaciers retreating north at the end of the last Ice Age. The five lakes span hundreds of miles, bordering the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and their shores vary from pristine wilderness areas to industrial "rust belt" cities. They are the second-largest bodies of fresh water in the world, after the polar ice caps.
The overall climate is temperate, with notable exceptions. Alaska has Arctic tundra, while Hawaii, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are tropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West and Mediterranean along the California coast.
In the winter, the northern and mid-western major cities can see as much as 2 ft (0.61 m) 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 in (13,000 mm) 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 → Post-War
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 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 Appalachia was settled primarily by peoples from the England–Scotland border region. Britain's dominance in North America was established in 1763 after the global Seven Years' War. In part to finance the North American campaigns of the war, known as the French and Indian War, Britain imposed unpopular taxes and regulations on its colonists. This precipitated revolution in 1775 and on 4 July 1776, colonists from 13 colonies declared 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 continued to remain 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 country's area, and provided "Indian Territory" in what is now Oklahoma for the many Native American tribes from the east that were forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears of the 1830s.
Disagreements with British commerce policies arising from the Napoleonic Wars and Royal Navy impressment led to the War of 1812. There were over two years of dramatic action on land and sea that included an attempted invasion of Canada and the burning of the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C. The final stalemate saw virtually no changes of territory, but the war galvanized separate American and Canadian identities. The national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was conceived during the war. Western Native American tribes that had sided with the British suffered greatly as their territory was given to white settlers. This war was the last in which Native Americans acted as a major independent military force.
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 continental United States essentially assumed its modern outline. Native Americans were relegated to reservations and continued to be purged by treaty, military force, and disease from settlers on the Oregon Trail and other westward routes. (See also "Old West".)
Federal governance was light and the individual states were highly autonomous. By the 1850s, there was irreconcilable disparity between the industrialized and more urban Northern states, which had all outlawed slavery within three decades of the revolution, and the plantation-dependent rural South. 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 eventually took the form we know today in 1959, when the territories of Alaska and later, Hawaii were granted statehood, and became the final states to join the union.
In the late 19th and into the 20th century, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Russian Jews, and Irish refugees bolstered the continuing industrialization of the eastern cities by providing cheap labor. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty 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 as 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 being denied service at lunch counters, hotels, and many other establishments and facing discrimination in employment and housing. The civil rights movement vehemently, but largely peacefully, vied for equal rights. With Martin Luther King, Jr., a charismatic preacher, as its most visible leader, the movement came to a head in 1963 when 200,000–300,000 people flooded the capital to listen to him. 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. 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. has grown into one of the world's major centers of higher education, being home to some of the world's most prestigious universities, and attracting more international students than any other country.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has emerged as 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. Recent administrations 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 travellers. 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 continues to feel the negative effects several years on. Still the overall living standards in the US are among the highest in the world and the nation continues to be a leader in global politics and economics.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic. Its major constituents are the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.); it also has various island territories in the Caribbean and Pacific that are strongly – but often not fully – integrated into the union. Many of these territories are within the U.S. customs and immigration area and so for practical purposes can be considered part of the U.S. (see Travel to U.S. possessions).
The federal government derives its power from the 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 as well as head of state. He and his 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 Grand Old Party (GOP)) 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 indicates left- and right-leaning parties respectively, it is reversed in the U.S so that Republican is red and Democrat is 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 responsibility and that an individual determines his or her own success or failure, but there are many exceptions and that a nation as diverse as the United States has literally thousands of distinct cultural traditions. One will find Mississippi in the South to be very different culturally from Massachusetts in the North.
Religion is very important in the United States with 80% of people identifying with a religion. About 50% of Americans belong to a Christian Protestant church and another 20% 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 actions from taking place on Sunday, while some Jewish businesses close on Friday nights and Saturdays for the sabbath.
Overall, while the United States is less religious than many other nations, it is more religious than Canada and Northern Europe; however, this trend varies greatly by region, with the Pacific Northwest and New England being largely secular and the American South being extraordinarily Christian, particularly Evangelical. Differences in religiosity largely correlate with politics, too, so the Northeast, 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. 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 increasingly 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 recognized by the federal government; federal offices, banks, and post offices close on these days. Nearly all states and localities also observe these holidays, and a 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 often simply called "the holiday season." School and work vacations are commonly taken during this period, with people visiting family and friends. Airports, Interstates, bus stations, and train stations will be very crowded near the major holidays. If you must travel, allow extra time to check in and clear security. This is also a major gift giving season; most shopping malls and department stores will be crowded, especially on the day after Thanksgiving, the week before Christmas, and the day after Christmas.
In the list below, federal holidays are listed in bold italics.
- New Year's Day (1 January) — most non-retail businesses closed; parades; brunches and football parties.
- Martin Luther King Day (third Monday in January) — many government offices and banks closed; people volunteer in their communities; speeches, especially on African-American history and culture.
- Chinese New Year (January/February — varies based on the Chinese lunar calendar) — Chinese cultural celebration.
- Super Bowl Sunday (usu. first Sunday in February) — The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL American football league and the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, and electronics stores busy; big football-watching parties.
- Lincoln's Birthday (second Monday in February) - Holiday in several states; many stores have sales.
- (St.) Valentine's Day (14 February) — private celebration of romance and love. Most restaurants are crowded; finer restaurants may require reservations made well in advance.
- Presidents Day (third Monday in February; officially Washington's Birthday) — many government offices and banks closed; many stores have sales.
- St. Patrick's Day (17 March) — Irish-themed parades and parties. Expect bars to be crowded. They will often feature themed drink specials. The wearing of green clothes or accessories is common.
- Easter (a Sunday in March or April) — Christian religious observances. Depending on location, many fast-food restaurants may be closed, but sit-down restaurants are more likely to be open. Major retailers generally open; smaller shops may or may not close. This is assumed to be "Western Easter," unless otherwise stated.
- Passover (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days around Easter) — Jewish religious observances.
- Cinco de Mayo (5 May) — A minor holiday in most of Mexico often incorrectly assumed to be Mexican Independence Day, but nevertheless a major cultural celebration for Mexican-Americans. As with St. Patrick's Day, expect bars to be crowded, 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; finer restaurants may require reservations made well in advance.
- Memorial Day (last Monday in May) — most non-retail businesses closed; some patriotic observances; trips to beaches and parks; traditional beginning of summer tourism season.
- Father's Day (third Sunday in June) — Children and adults give gifts to their fathers. Many restaurants and sporting events are crowded, although not to the same extent as Mother's Day.
- Independence Day/Fourth of July (4 July) — most non-retail businesses closed; patriotic parades and concerts, cookouts and trips to beaches and parks, fireworks at dusk.
- Labor Day (first Monday in September) — most non-retail businesses closed; cookouts and trips to beaches and parks; many stores have sales; traditional ending of summer tourism season.
- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (varies based on the Jewish calendar, September or early October) — Jewish religious observances.
- Columbus Day (second Monday in October) — many government offices and banks closed; some stores have sales. Italian-themed parades in some cities. Columbus Day can be controversial, especially among Native Americans and Latinos, and is not as widely observed as it was in the past.
- Halloween (31 October) — Children dress up in costume and go trick-or-treating (knocking on other houses' doors to get candy and other treats). There are spooky attractions, such as haunted corn mazes, hayrides and costume parties. Some small family-owned shops and restaurants may close early in the evening.
- Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
- Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November) — Family dinners with roast turkey as the centerpiece; many people fly or drive to visit extended family. Some large retail stores open up in the evening for early holiday shopping. Airports in particular will be extremely crowded on the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving. Almost all businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants.
- 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 holiday.
- Hanukkah/Chanukah (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days usually in December) — Jewish religious observances, often culturally associated with Christmas.
- Christmas (25 December) — Families and close friends exchange gifts; Christian religious observances. Almost all businesses, grocery stores, and many restaurants closed the evening before and all day. 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. 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 reported in Fahrenheit only; 32° (with units unspecified) is freezing, not warm! Most cars' speedometers show both miles and kilometers per hour (good for trips to Canada and Mexico), and almost all packaged foods and other products are labeled in both systems. Outside of scientific work, medicine and the military, there is little day-to-day exposure to the metric system, so Americans will assume you understand the U.S. customary measures.
There is no government regulation of clothes or shoe sizes. There are ill-enforced informal standards, and the only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. Therefore, trial and error is required for each brand to determine what fits, because you cannot count on any two brands' sizes being equivalent. For shoes, trial and error will be required for each model, even within the same brand—even if different models are the same nominal size and width, they may differ slightly in actual length and/or width, and also may be built around a different foot shape.
The United States uses 120 V AC as the standard power supply, meaning that all electronic outlets are set to this power. While most Mexican and Canadian electronics are also compatible, anyone travelling with electronics that are set to 240 V or other standards should buy an adapter either before you travel or when you arrive. Adapters aren't expensive, and most any tech store will sell them.
The federal government of the U.S. sets foreign policy (including border control), while the states deal with tourism. As such, the federal government provides the best information about legal requirements for entry, while information about places to visit and see will be provided by the state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state entries. Highway rest stops at state borders, as well as major airports in a state, usually serve as Visitors' Centers and often offer travel and tourism information and material, almost all of which is also available online. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated "You Are Here" marker. Some also offer free paper roadmaps to take with you. If you call or write the state Commerce department, they can also mail you information.
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. Be aware that 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
- Pacific Time (UTC-8): Washington, northern Idaho, most of Oregon, California, Nevada
In addition to these, there are also three other time zones with major travel destinations:
- Alaska Time (UTC-9): Alaska, except the Aleutian Islands
- Hawaii-Aleutian Time (UTC-10): Hawaii the Aleutian Islands
- Atlantic Time (UTC-4): Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands
Most parts of the U.S. observe daylight saving time, but Hawaii and most of Arizona 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.
Many African-Americans and some other Americans also speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has somewhat different grammar and vocabulary than styles of American English usually regarded as standard. AAVE has had a great effect on more general American slang and colloquial language, in particular. Never assume that just because a person is black, s/he will speak AAVE, in particular because many more recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean and their descendants cannot speak it, and also be aware that many African-Americans can switch back and forth between AAVE and standard American English effortlessly. 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), it is best to assume that the average person has not advanced far beyond 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.
American English differs somewhat from the English spoken in other parts of the English speaking world. These differences are mostly minor, and primarily around minor spelling differences and pronunciation. See the article on English language varieties for a detailed discussion.
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.
French is the primary second language in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and among some African immigrants, but is not widespread elsewhere. In southern Florida, Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a separate language derived from French, although a substantial number also speak French.
Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, some products now have trilingual packaging in English, Spanish, and French for sale throughout the entire trade bloc, especially household cleaning products and small electric appliances. However, the vast majority of consumer products are labeled only in English, meaning that a rudimentary grasp of English is essential for shopping.
Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii and Hawaiian Pidgin, a mixture of English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Cantonese and several other languages, is also spoken by many people born in Hawaii. However, English is the most widely spoken language in Hawaii, and Japanese is also widely spoken there.
In the various Chinatowns in major cities, Cantonese and Mandarin are common. Smaller immigrant groups also sometimes form their own pockets of shared language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Chicago, for instance, is the city with the second largest ethnic Polish population in the world, behind Warsaw (although most Chicago-area Poles are American-born and speak only English). The Amish, who have lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio for generations, speak a dialect of German.
Some Native Americans speak their respective native languages, especially on reservations in the west. However, despite efforts to revive them, many Native American languages are endangered, and people who speak them as their first language are few and far between. Navajo speakers in Arizona and New Mexico are an exception to this, but even a clear majority among them speak and understand English too.
Bottom line: unless you're certain you'll be in an area populated by recent immigrants, traveling in the United States without a firm grasp of English is a significant challenge.
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. Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), and Bermudians (with British national (overseas) passports) do not require visas for entry into the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit for up to six months. 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 (must include ID card number), and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are considered to be U.S. nationals, and therefore do not require a passport to travel to or live in the United States (unless they are traveling from non-U.S. territories).
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.
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.
A criminal record will likely revoke any right to visa-free travel to the U.S. Although there are exceptions e.g. traffic violations, civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct), purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed), and offenses committed before the age of 16. Anyone with a criminal record, including Canadians and Bermudians, should seek advice from a U.S. embassy on whether they need to obtain a visa.
Visa Waiver Program requirements
The program is open only to travellers who are in the United States for tourism or business purposes. You cannot be coming to the U.S. for formal education, to get a job, or to conduct journalism; if you are, you must get an appropriate visa in advance no matter how short your trip to the U.S. may be.
The 90-day limit is not extendable. A short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean will not allow a fresh 90 days upon return to the U.S. An extended absence to the neighboring countries may reset the limit, particularly if your first trip to the U.S. was short. Take care if transiting through the U.S. on a trip around North America that exceeds 90 days.
Having a criminal record, having been refused entry, or having been denied a U.S. visa will make one ineligible to enter on the VWP. Those who fall in these categories should 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.
Travelers entering by air or sea should also have a return or onward ticket out of the United States. This requirement is not necessary for residents of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean. If traveling by land, there is a $7 fee when crossing the border. No fee is payable if you made a side trip to Canada or Mexico and are simply re-entering the U.S.
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 April 2012) for visas that are not issued on the basis of a petition and $190 for those that are; this fee is waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from $7–200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the U.S. to match the fees charged by other countries on U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country, and sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. When the U.S. rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that the person will not try to overstay. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are indeed genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
The embassy is closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of your home country so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travellers should start planning their trips way in advance, as the application process is known to take up to six months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department or with the United States consulate nearest you. If coming to the country with a car, be sure to have documents showing car insurance, rental agreements, driver's license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, and you have been denied a visa for whatever reason, including a lack of relevant documentation, you are ineligible for the program and must obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the U.S.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, depending on your nationality, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require 8 weeks for receiving an approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry; it only allows you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Your visa is generally not tied to your permitted length of stay; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow a stay of 10 years. On the other hand, you can enter the country on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Applying for an incorrect or inappropriate visa can cause serious problems, including possibly making you ineligible to ever receive any U.S. visa (especially in cases of fraud). Consider consulting a U.S. immigration attorney, especially if you want to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as journalism.
Travel to U.S. possessions
America's overseas possessions have slightly different rules. See each destination's article for details.
In brief, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states. However, Guam and the Northern Marianas apply the visa waiver program to a few additional countries.
American Samoa lies outside the federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements.
Arriving in the United States
Since May 2013, non-U.S. or Canadian citizens arriving by air no longer need to fill out a paper I-94 form. Instead, all travellers' records will be stored electronically by the Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), and can be accessed here, where visitors can print their records for immigration benefits. Two separate lanes are available: one for U.S. citizens, Canadian citizens and returning U.S. permanent residents; and another for all other travellers.
Visitors arriving by land are still required to fill in the I-94 paper form, and still need to surrender the portion attached to their passport once leaving the country.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will be questioned briefly at immigration. You must be ready to show the officers that your purpose is not to immigrate (unless you have an appropriate visa for that). Be ready as well to prove your stated motives for entering. For business, this can be an invitation letter from a company you are visiting, or the registration details of a conference you are attending. For tourists, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you or that you already paid for most of your travel arrangements (e.g. accommodations, intra-US transport, tours, meals). Proof of onward travel may be required.
If you don't fully comply with all that's required, e.g. no onward transport, you may be sent for further questioning. At this stage your possessions may be searched and your documents, letters or diaries may be read. If you are found to appear as a likely immigrant (e.g. if you're carrying employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, or pets) or if you are unable to convince the officers that you intend to abide by the terms of your stated entrance permission, you will be refused entry and deported. If your country participates in the Visa Waiver Program, if you are refused entry, you are ineligible for the program and must obtain a visa for every subsequent visit to the U.S.
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 traveler gets a receipt and goes to the designated CBP desk to continue the inspection process. This does not require prior registration or enrollment fees. U.S. and other selected nationals may be eligible to participate in the Global Entry program. Global Entry also allows selected passengers to use a designated kiosk for the inspection process. Unlike APC, Global Entry requires prior application, background checks, an interview, and a $100 fee, but allows the passenger to bypass intense questioning after going to a kiosk for up to 5 years. Canadian citizens and permanent residents may participate in a similar program known as NEXUS, which has a cheaper $50 application fee and also provides for expedited clearance and full Global Entry privileges, but requires you to be interviewed by both U.S. and Canadian immigration officers before approval.
As in most countries, customs officials are humorless about any kind of security threat; even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation, at best.
The officer who questions you on immigration matters can also question you on what you are bringing to the U.S.
Each household (i.e. family members living and traveling together) needs to complete one customs declaration form. U.S., Canadian or VWP nationals can do this electronically by using the kiosks located right before the CBP passport control desks. All other nationals must fill this out - flight crews provide this form or it can be downloaded here, printed, and brought along. Regardless of whether you have anything to declare, customs officers may still search or X-ray your bags. Most of the time, they won't. Anything more than a bag search is rare, so you won't likely encounter any ominous latex gloves.
Do not attempt to import items originating from countries 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 US–Cuban relations, the US has lifted sanctions against importation of these items for personal use (limits are the same as for tobacco and alcohol originating elsewhere).
The legality of agricultural products varies by the product.
- Meat: It is illegal to bring in fresh, cooked, or processed meat products, with a few limited exceptions for processed cattle, pork, bison, cervid (deer, elk, moose, caribou) and poultry products from Canada (proof of origin is required) and hunter-harvested game from Canada (hunting license/tag required; other requirements exist for carcasses of large animals). Canned meats are legal, except for those containing sheep or goat meat if they originate from a country where bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow disease") is present; Canada is currently under this restriction. Also, pork products from Mexico are banned except for small quantities of cooked pork in meals.
- Raw fruit or vegetables: Illegal, with a few exceptions for Canadian produce grown in season via land borders only.
- You may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread and most commercially prepackaged foods (biscuits, cheese, tea, coffee, etc.).
All food and plant items being brought into the country need to be declared, even if unrestricted! Much like in Australia and New Zealand, all incoming food and plant products must be physically examined by the United States Department of Agriculture - if necessary, you'll be directed to their inspection area after clearing customs. For straightforward, unrestricted items such as prepackaged non-meats, the inspection process rarely takes more than a minute. Failure to declare agricultural products can result in a fine or even prosecution if the USDA believes you're willfully attempting to import illegal food or plants. That said, first-time offenders are usually let off with a warning for unintentional omissions if the items are ultimately permissible.
Besides your personal effects, which will go home with you, you are allowed to import individual gifts with a value of $100 or less per item. If you're 21 years of age or older, you may also import limited quantities of tobacco and alcohol products duty-free:
- Up to 200 cigarettes (one carton) or fifty cigars or up to 2 kg of loose tobacco products such as snuff (or a proportional combination thereof.)
- Up to one liter of alcohol. Unlike some countries, the one liter restriction applies irrespective of strength: a fifth of Scotch at 40% ABV or a standard size (750 mL) bottle of wine at 14% ABV are both within the allowance, but a six-pack of 12 oz beer at 5% ABV is the equivalent of over 2 liters and over the duty-free allowance.
If you are over the alcohol exemption by a small amount (e.g. a six pack of beer or a second bottle of wine) most customs officers will let this slide for wine and beer if you've made a full and accurate declaration. Anything more than this, or any spirits over the limit will likely result in duty and tax being assessed, the amount of which depends in part on the state you're entering to and the country the goods are from (duty from Canada, for example is minimal owing in part to NAFTA). Customs officers do not show this leniency with tobacco products, expect to pay if you are even one cigarette over!
A reasonable quantity of perfume or cologne can also be imported provided the brand is not under a "Trademark Restriction in the United States". There is no restriction on the amount of money you can bring in or out of the U.S. However, if you are bringing in or out $10,000 or more (or its equivalent in foreign currency) per household (combined total among all family members travelling together), you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out; not declaring exposes you to a fine and possible seizure of that cash. 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.
You must pass through immigration and customs at your first point of entry, even if you have any onward domestic flights. Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will need to re-clear security before taking a connecting flight. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just beyond customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged for transfer your final destination. Some hubs, like New York City's JFK Airport, employ a more inconvenient system, whereby you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter. At airports with separate domestic and international terminals (such as Boston), you will have to head to another terminal and drop your bags there before heading to security.
These bag drop procedures apply only if your baggage has been checked through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not the case, you will have to proceed to the terminal of your next flight and check in as usual.
Leaving the United States
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control upon exit, especially for those 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 air or sea after mid-2013, and depart by air or sea do not need to do anything further.
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:
- arrived in the U.S. before mid-2013 through any means (when the paper I-94 card was still physically issued to foreigners): turnover 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 authorised 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 intend to leave for Canada or Mexico by land for a side trip and return within 30 days or the allowed time of your stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the U.S. provided that you do not yet return 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 that aliens go through to lack of any intentions of immigrating, working, or doing something else not authorized by the visa.
That said, try to avoid re-entering the U.S. a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't technically overstay, planning several U.S. visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as "immigrant intent" and may cause you grief.
The United States is home to some of the most popular airlines in the world. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and resultant fall in air traffic, the entire industry has seen consolidation on a grand scale and the U.S. is now home to some of the largest airlines in the world. Most visitors from outside Canada and Mexico arrive in the United States by plane. While many medium sized inland cities have an international airport, there are limited flights to most of these and most travelers find themselves entering the U.S. at one of the major entry points along the coasts. The international airports in Atlanta, New York City (Newark & JFK), Los Angeles, Chicago (O'Hare), San Francisco, and Miami are the six main points of entry to the United States by plane.
- From the east New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Miami are the primary entry points from Europe and other transatlantic points of departure. All the major east coast airports have service from a few key European cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, while not in the east, also have a good number of flights from major European cities.
- From the west Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu are the primary points of entry from Asia, Oceania and other transpacific points of departure. Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), and San Diego also have a few international flight options. Of course, if you arrive in Honolulu, you must take another flight to get to the mainland. Foreign airlines are not allowed to transport passengers to/from Hawaii or Alaska and the other 48 states (except for refueling and in-transit). Chicago, while not on the west coast, is still a major point of entry from Asia, offering non-stop flights from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, with a direct service from Singapore. Qantas serves Dallas/Fort Worth and Honolulu non stop from Sydney, in addition to their daily service to Los Angeles and San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne, and New York City from Sydney. New York City, while on the east coast, is also well-served by flights to East and Southeast Asia, with nonstop flights from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as direct services from Manila and Singapore. There are flights to Boston and Washington, D.C. from a few Asian destinations.
- From the north Chicago, New York City, Detroit and Minneapolis have a good number of flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. There are flights from Toronto to many Eastern and Midwestern cities; flights from Toronto to the United States are generally considered "domestic," as Toronto-Pearson Airport has U.S. border preclearance facilities (i.e., persons travelling to the United States clears U.S. immigration and customs in Toronto and arrives in the U.S. at a domestic terminal).
- From the south Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, New York City and Los Angeles are the primary entry points from Latin America and the Caribbean, but primarily South America. Also, Dallas, Atlanta, and Charlotte are major international waypoints. From Mexico, many major U.S. airports have non-stop service to Cancun, Guadalajara, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City, and from Los Angeles and Houston there are more non-stop service to additional Mexican cities.
- Direct air travel to/from Cuba is available on a limited chartered basis from Miami, only to those licensed or approved by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to trade with the "enemy" and tickets on these flights are only available through specific travel agents (mainly in Miami) who are licensed by OFAC to sell the tickets. In December 2014 President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro came to an agreement to normalize diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries ending 55 years of trade embargo. Plans are underway to implement normalization of relations and trade which may include direct flights from Miami and other cities in the U.S. to Cuba. The airlines still need to clarify the rules of implementation with their legal team, plan on the routing and apply for permission from both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Others may wait and see how this is implemented before they plan. See the Americans in Cuba article.
- From the other side of the world New Delhi, India has non-stop service to New York (via JFK and Newark airports) and to Chicago. Mumbai has non-stop flights to New York (JFK and Newark). From Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and United Arab Emirates you can also fly to New York (JFK). Qatar, and Saudi Arabian fly to Washington, DC, and South African Airways goes to New York (JFK) and Washington, DC (Dulles). Los Angeles and Houston both offer non-stop service to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Miami has service from Qatar.
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.
Customs and immigration are cleared at your first U.S. stop, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least three hours at your first U.S. stop. If luggage has been checked through to the final destination from the originating airport they STILL must be reclaimed at the first U.S. stop and passed through customs for inspection. After clearing customs & immigration there's usually a check-in desk or a conveyor belt beyond for passengers to re-check their bags before going out into the international arrivals area where the non-traveling public to greet & meet those coming back from a trip. All international arrivals must go through the security TSA screening to continue on the next flight.
Luggage allowance for flights to or from the U.S. usually operates on a piecewise system in addition to the weight system even for foreign carriers. This means that you are allowed a limited number of bags to check-in where each bag should not exceed certain linear dimensions (computed by adding the length, width and height of the bags). The exact allowances and restrictions on weight, linear dimension and number of baggage allowed are determined by the carrier you are flying with, your origin (if coming to the U.S.) or destination (if leaving) and the class of service you are traveling in.
When arriving once you have collected your luggage you can head toward the exit. Most airports have near the exit a wall of "courtesy phones" with the description and the prices of motels in the area. You can call these motels free of charge and ask for a room and a pick up shuttle will come to fetch you at the airport. It is very convenient and mostly free of charge (but you are supposed to tip the driver).
Security procedures for commercial flights departing from anywhere in the U.S. continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear and submit personal belongings to X-ray screening. Full body scans using millimeter wave or X-rays are becoming increasingly common, and are now standard for most U.S. airports. Refusal to submit to a full body scan is permitted, in favor of a pat-down, though you may have to wait a few minutes for an agent to be available to do the pat-down. Should you opt for a pat-down, the TSA agent will offer to do it in private, and you also have the right to demand that it be conducted by an officer of the same sex, but no clothing other than shoes and belts will normally be removed (you can ask the agent beforehand), although the agent will feel some private areas through your clothes. Random passengers may also be selected for additional screening. This may include an "enhanced pat-down." Do not assume that you are in any sort of trouble or that you are even suspected of causing trouble, simply because you are being subjected to these screenings.
If you wish to lock your checked baggage, the TSA requires you to use special locks that have the Travel Sentry TSA lock system. These locks can be opened by TSA officials using a master key should they wish to inspect the contents of your bag. If your lock is not one of the TSA-approved locks, the TSA will break it open and you will not be entitled to any compensation for the damage.
Passengers whose journeys originate in major Canadian airports and involve either U.S. or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing U.S. entry formalities (passport control and customs) at their Canadian port of exit. As far as most flights from Canada are concerned, they are treated similarly as U.S. domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their U.S. port of entry, rather than walk through a secluded corridor above or below, they walk into the departure gate where they see the display of restaurants and shops at the domestic terminal on their way to baggage claim. It is worth noting that most Canadian carriers are located in U.S. domestic terminals or concourses in most airports. As a result of this arrangement, some otherwise domestic airports (such as LaGuardia Airport in New York City), which lack customs and immigration facilities also serve international flights from Canadian airports with pre-clearance facilities.
Travellers on U.S.–Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific, and those from minor Canadian airports that do not have preclearance facilities, will still encounter traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their first U.S. stop; a Canadian transit visa may be required even if passengers are confined to a holding area for the entire transit time.
Some airports in Canada, including Vancouver International Airport, Terminal 1 of Toronto-Pearson Airport, and Montréal-Trudeau Airport generally do not require passengers in transit from abroad to pass through Canadian Customs and Immigration controls before going through U.S. preclearance formalities. However, even if you pass through these airports, make sure that your papers are in order to allow you to enter Canada: if you cannot travel to the U.S. on the same day you go through preclearance, if you are not cleared for entry to the United States, or if you and/or your luggage is not checked through by your airline to at least your first destination in the United States, you will need to report to Canada Customs; a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required. The arrangement does not apply in the reverse direction, meaning that you will have to pass through Canadian customs and immigration on your flight out.
Preclearance facilities are available at most major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, and Dublin and Shannon International Airports in Ireland, 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. Upon arrival at the U.S., they will arrive as if they were domestic passengers.
Traffic travels on the right hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico), except in the U.S. Virgin Islands, due to left-hand driving being common in the smaller Caribbean islands.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a $6 fee, in cash, at the point of entry. No fee is payable if you are simply re-entering and already have the Visa Waiver slip in your passport.
The U.S.–Canada and U.S.–Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders with millions of crossings daily. Average wait times are up to 30 minutes, but some of the most heavily traveled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1–2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the U.S. customs service website. The U.S.–Mexico border is lucrative for drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If there is suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience from border agents.
As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the U.S. uses customary units, bear in mind that after the border, road signs are published in miles and miles per hour. If you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico then be mindful that a speed limit of 55 mph in the U.S. is 88 km/h.
Greyhound offers substantial inexpensive cross-border service from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus U.S. also runs daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
One of the routes of the city bus system of Windsor, Ontario (the Tunnel Bus) takes passengers to Detroit; taking this bus (or a Greyhound bus) is necessary if you want to cross the border between Windsor and Detroit, as pedestrians or bicycles are not allowed on the cities' bridge or in the tunnel, or on the ferry.
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, Florida, and the 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.
Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades has two trips per day to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf once daily to New York City via Niagara Falls), and Montreal (Adirondack once daily 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.
Travellers from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at Pacific Central Station before they get on the train itself, just as they do for air travel. Be sure to allow enough time before departure to complete the necessary inspections.
From Mexico the nearest Amtrak stations are in San Diego (Pacific Surfliner with multiple departures from San Diego to San Luis Obispo) and in El Paso (Once daily Sunset Limited & Texas Eagle between Los Angeles and San Antonio. In San Antonio the Texas Eagle continues northwards towards Chicago and the Sunset Limited continues east to New Orleans). Trains do not cross the border into Mexico so passengers continue to the border on local public transportation or taxi. There are no onward trains south from the Mexican side of the border.
There are many border crossings in urban areas which can be crossed by pedestrians. Crossings such as those in or near Niagara Falls, Detroit, Tijuana, Nogales, and El Paso are popular for persons wishing to spend a day on the other side of the border. In some cases, this may be ideal for day-trippers, as crossing by car can be a much longer wait.
The size of the U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travellers. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialing 511 on your phone.
- See also: Air travel in the United States
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the U.S. is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 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 drive to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car.
Unlike in many other countries, the U.S. has never had a state-owned national airline. The American airline scheme has dramatically changed within the past 10 years because of bankruptcies and mergers. The largest airlines are the three remaining mainline legacy carriers (American Airlines, Delta, and United) and two of the country's low-cost carriers, Southwest and JetBlue. Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are legacy regional carriers, while smaller airlines Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, Virgin America, and Sun Country are trying to make inroads. There are also a number of 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 travellers 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. With that said, the borderline in fees and service between low-cost and mainline carriers are getting thinner. You can often fly mainline or regional carriers with a similar or even lower price to their no-frill counterparts, provided you do not buy anything beyond a seat, carry-on bags, and soft drinks. Low-cost carriers occasionally offer more amenities than mainline carriers, such as inflight entertainment for even a short-haul flight, or free checked baggage in the price of their tickets! Southwest Airlines, for instance, allows passengers to check in up to two pieces of bags in their base price.
Mainline carriers also offer first class for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall better service. Round trip fares can run over $1,000, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travellers. (Many travellers in first class get their seat as a free frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
Certain transcontinental services offered by American ("Flagship Service"), Delta ("BusinessElite Transcontinental"), JetBlue ("Mint"), and United ("BusinessFirst p.s."), where an international style Business Class (with lie-flat seating and upgraded dining) is available, American's Flagship service also offers the equivalent of International First Class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New York–JFK and Los Angeles/San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to U.S. Pacific Territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, etc.) typically feature international business class.
Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID.
There are limitations on liquids (including gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes) in carry-on baggage. Liquids must be in individual containers each 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. Liquids in excess of these limits will be confiscated. (Liquids in checked baggage are not restricted.) Medications (including saline solution for contact lenses) and infant and child nourishment (formula, breast milk, and juice for toddlers) are exempt but subject to additional testing; notify TSA agents if you are carrying these items, store them separately from your other liquids, and if possible clearly label them in advance.
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.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first-class commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first-class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.
Air charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one-time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft. 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 private car ownership, the passenger rail network in the United States is only a shadow of what it once was in the 1920s. While the United States continues to have the world's longest rail network, it is primarily used for freight transport these days. Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly just the Northeast where something approaching high speed rail is available), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce, slow and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (+1-800-USA-RAIL), provides service to many cities, offering exceptional sightseeing opportunities, but not particularly efficient inter-city travel, and is often just as expensive as a flight. In more urban locations, Amtrak can be very efficient and comfortable, but in rural areas delays are common. Plan ahead to ensure train travel between your destinations is available and/or convenient. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day U.S. Rail Pass for international travellers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of travelling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant "weekly specials". There is no dedicated high-speed rail network in the United States, and driving yourself will often be quicker than taking the train when travelling long distances.
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. Travellers 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 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.
Separate from Amtrak, many major cities offer very reliable commuter trains that carry passengers to and from the suburbs or other relatively close-by areas. Some commuter train stations have park and ride facilities where you can park your car to use the commuter train to get to a city's downtown core where traffic and parking problems complicate car use. Parking rates at the stations vary (some facilities may be operated by third parties). Some commuter train systems and services do not operate on weekends and holidays, so it's best to check the system's website to plan ahead. Buy tickets before you board the train as you will either face a substantially more expensive fare or a hefty fine.
America has the largest system of inland waterways of any country in the world. It is entirely possible to navigate around within the United States by boat. Your choices of watercraft range from self-propelled canoes and kayaks to elaborate houseboats and riverboat cruises.
Rivers and canals were key to developing the country, and traversing by boat gives you a unique perspective on the nation and some one of a kind scenery. Some examples of waterways open to recreational boating and/or scheduled cruises are:
- The New York State Canal System operates four canals comprising 524 mi (843 km) of waterway open for recreational and commercial use. The most famous of these canals is the Erie Canal, which starts around Albany and heads west to Buffalo. By navigating up the Hudson River from New York City, it is possible to go all the way to the Great Lakes and beyond via these waterways. Side trips to the Finger Lakes in Western New York or to Lake Champlain and Vermont are possible. Small watercraft, including canoes and kayaks, are welcome on these canals.
- The St. Lawrence Seaway is now the primary port of entry for large ships into North America. Recreational boaters are welcome, however, the Seaway is designed for very large craft and a minimum boat length of 6 m (20 ft) applies. The Seaway starts in eastern Canada and goes to the Great Lakes.
- The Mississippi River There are two channels of navigation from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. The Mississippi affords north-south access through the interior of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico and connects with all major interior waterways, including the Missouri and Ohio Rivers.
Each year, many 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.
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.
- See also: Driving in the United States
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car when travelling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region. Travelling the United States without a car can be difficult, though it is not impossible.
Generally speaking, American cities were built for the automobile, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. This applies even to very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, where public transport is very limited and having a car is the most practical way of getting around. (The exceptions are New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where having your own car is not only unnecessary, but discouraged.) In most medium-sized American cities, everything is very spread out and public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but if you're not at the airport, you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, making similar arrangements to return. While most Americans are happy to give driving directions, don't be surprised if many aren't familiar with the local public transport options available.
Renting a car usually costs $20-100/day for a basic sedan, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals. Most rental agencies have offices downtown in major cities and at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another (the ones that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental agency when making your reservations. Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or their own private vehicle insurance policy. Without appropriate loss/damage waiver cover, you could be liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident. Purchasing loss/damage waiver cover and supplemental liability insurance may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental, in some cases doubling the price of the rental.
Gas stations usually sell regional and national maps. Online maps with directions are available on several websites including MapQuest and Google Maps. Drivers can obtain directions by calling 1-800-Free411 (1-800-3733411), which will provide them via text message. GPS navigation systems can be purchased for around $100, and car rental agencies often rent GPS units for a small additional fee. Many smartphones are now bundled with GPS navigation software that offers turn-by-turn directions. Even states that ban the use of hand-held phones by drivers often allow the use of GPS features, as long as the driver enters no data when in motion (check local laws in the places you will be travelling).
The United States continues to use a system of "customary units" which resembles (but is not the same as) the UK's imperial measurement system. Road signs are in miles and miles per hour (1 mile is 1.61 km, or 1 km is 0.62 miles); fuel is sold in U.S. gallons (1 U.S. gallon is 3.78 L or 0.83 imperial gallons). Most American speedometers display both U.S./imperial (mph) and metric (km/h), or can be set to display either (see the owner's manual for how to convert the units). U.S.-manufactured vehicles are often driven into Canada or Mexico, which both post highway speeds in km/h. Traffic signs do not conform to international standards but, if you understand English, they should be self-explanatory.
The national road system consists of
- Interstate highways, which are controlled-access divided highways with no grade crossings,
- the older U.S. Numbered Highway System on surface streets which can go as small as one lane for each direction, and
- state routes.
All of them are generally well maintained by the respective states, but while the main Interstate 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 (see below) is very easy to achieve. 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).
Driving law is primarily a matter of state law and is enforced by state and local police. Fortunately, widespread adoption of provisions of the Uniform Vehicle Code, and federal regulation of traffic signs under the Highway Safety Act, means that most driving laws do not vary much from one state to the next. All states publish an official driver's handbook which summarizes state driving laws in plain English, with some states providing a Spanish version as well. These handbooks are usually available both on the Web and at many government offices. AAA publishes a AAA/CAA Digest of Motor Laws, which is now available online for free that covers especially a few difference of traffic rules applied by all U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
International visitors age 18 and older can usually drive on their foreign driver's license for up to a year, depending on state law. Licenses that are not in English must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation. Persons who will be in the United States for more than a year must obtain a driver's license from the state they are residing in, though exceptions may sometimes apply depending on the state they are in (e.g. some states waive this requirement for those on student visas). Written and practical driving tests are usually required, but they are sometimes waived for holders of some Canadian and European licenses.
Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left, same as in Canada and Mexico. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions. At all intersections, vehicles must stop behind the thick, white line painted across the road and cannot block crosswalks. Turning right at a red light (after coming to a complete stop and yielding to cross traffic) is legal in every state, though exceptions exist (such as New York City and where signage or signals explicitly prohibit it). You must stop your vehicle immediately when you hear a siren from the police, ambulance, or fire truck in order for them to pass.
Speed limits are variable depending on the area in which you are driving. Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in the sprawling residential suburban neighborhoods where the majority of Americans live. However, freeways around the central areas of big cities often become crowded with a lot of of "hurried" drivers, who will exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars at unsafe close distances (known as "tailgating"). Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Not exceeding the pace of other drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the reduced speed limits found while going through such towns are strictly enforced.
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, but not available everywhere. Service between nearby major cities is extremely frequent. Buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe and affordable. The main downside, though, is that the bus stations in some cities are located in rough neighbourhoods (e.g. Los Angeles).
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1-800-229-9424) and several affiliated brands such as BoltBus, Lucky Streak, NeOn, Cruceros USA and Valley Transit (in SE Texas) have the predominant share of American bus travel. 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. There are no reservations on Greyhound buses. Seating is generally on a first-come, first-served basis, except in some cities, where you can pay a $5 fee for priority seating.
Coach USA operates a variety of commuter routes, airport shuttles, casino shuttles and university connection services under different names including Megabus, their intercity brand to rival Greyhound. Megabus operates mainly in the midwest 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 from Los Angeles to San Francisco & to Las Vegas, and another route from San Francisco to Reno in the west, which are not connected to the other ones in the midwest & and the east coast.
The so-called Chinatown buses are small independent companies that provide curb-side departures for a standard walk-up cash fare often much lower than other operators' fares. These lines operate mainly in the northeast between Boston, New York, Philalphia, 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 the West Coast. 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 to as a far north as Chicago, to as far east as Atlanta and as far south as Mexico City. Connections from Texas hubs to the Midwest including Chicago, the Southeast and Mexico are offered by Tornado Bus, El Expreso, Omnibus Mexicanos and Groupo Senda. Service in and out of Florida is offered by the Chilean JetSet, Argentinian RedCoach, and Cuban-American La Cubana. In California and the Southwest operators include FuturaNet, Tufesa, InterCalifornias and El Paso-Los Angeles Limousines, which may have tickets starting from $1.
The next largest affiliation is Trailways which consist of 70 different independent franchisees, franchising the 'Trailways' brand together. Most only offer chartered bus services and do not offer regularly scheduled services on fixed routes. The major Trailways affiliates that offer regularly scheduled services are Trailways of New York, Martz Trailways, Susquehanna Trailways and Burlington Trailways
The Federal Highway Administration certifies all bus operators, though they have a hard time keeping wraps on the large amount of services. Curbside bus operators (Chinatown and Internet-based buses) are more dangerous than others, though still much safer than driving a private vehicle.
Other smaller Trailways affiliates and non-affiliated small companies offering bus services throughout the country. Some are operated by local government as public transportation while others are operated by private companies for profit with buses travelling within the same state or across state lines. See "By bus" under "Getting Around" and "Getting in" in a state article or "Getting in" in a city or town article as to what is available there.
By recreational vehicle (RV)
- Main article: Car Camping
Recreational vehicles – large, sometimes bus-sized vehicles that include sleeping and living quarters – are a distinctly American way to cruise the country. Some RVers love the convenience of being able to drive their home anywhere they like and enjoy the camaraderie that RV campgrounds offer. Other people dislike the hassles and maintenance issues that come with RVing. And don't even think about driving an RV into a huge metropolis such as New York. Still, if you want to drive extensively within the United States and are comfortable handling a big rig, renting an RV is an option you should consider.
The thrill and exhilaration of cross country travel are magnified when you go by motorcycle. Harley-Davidson is the preeminent American motorcycle brand and Harley operates a motorcycle rental program for those licensed and capable of handling a full weight motorcycle. In some parts of the country, you can also rent other types of motorcycles, such as sportbikes, touring bikes, and dual-sport bikes. For those inexperienced with motorcycles, Harley and other dealerships offer classes for beginners. Wearing a helmet, although not required in all states, is always a good idea. The practice of riding between lanes of slower cars, also known as "lane-sharing" or "lane-splitting," is illegal, except in California where it is tolerated and widespread. Solo motorcyclists can legally use "high-occupancy vehicle" or "carpool" lanes during their hours of operation.
American enthusiasm towards motorcycles has led to a motorcycling subculture. Motorcycle clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorcycle within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding clubs may or may not be organized around a specific brand of bikes and offer open membership to anyone interested in riding. Motorcycle rallies, such as the famous one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are huge gatherings of motorcyclists from around the country. Many motorcyclists are not affiliated with any club and opt to ride independently or with friends. In general, motorcycling is seen as a hobby, as opposed to a practical means of transportation; this means, for example, that most American motorcyclists prefer not to ride in inclement weather. However you choose to ride, and whatever brand of bike you prefer, motorcycling can be a thrilling way to see the country.
A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. are most covered by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) and if not on an Interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.
In many states Interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads and Texas only bans it on toll roads (and on free Interstates within the city of El Paso). Oregon only bans it in the Portland metro area. Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.
Hitchhiking has become much less popular due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media). International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable "thumbing a ride" if they had a good knowledge of the locale, 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 57 others. The Grand Canyon is possibly the world's most spectacular gorge; Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park are both home to the world's tallest living organisms; Glacier National Park is a great place to see huge sheets of ice; Canyonlands National Park could easily be mistaken for Mars; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park features abundant wildlife among beautifully forested mountains. And the national parks aren't just for sightseeing, either; each has plenty of outdoors activities as well.
Still, the National Parks are just the beginning. The National Park Service also operates National Monuments, National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, National Heritage Areas... the list goes on (and on). And each state has its own state parks that can be just as good as the federal versions. Most all of these destinations, federal or state, have an admission fee, but it all goes toward maintenance and operations of the parks, and the rewards are well worth it.
Those aren't your only options, though. Many of America's natural treasures can be seen without passing through admission gates. The world-famous Niagara Falls straddle the border between Canada and the U.S.; the American side lets you get right up next to the onrush and feel the power that has shaped the Niagara gorge. The "purple majesty" of the Rocky Mountains can be seen for hundreds of miles in any direction, while the placid coastal areas of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic have relaxed Americans for generations. And, although they are very different from each other, Hawaii and Alaska are perhaps the two most scenic states; they don't just have attractions—they are attractions.
Americans often have a misconception of their country as having little history. The U.S. does indeed have a tremendous wealth of historical attractions—more than enough to fill months of history-centric touring.
The prehistory of the continent can indeed be a little hard to uncover, as most of the Native American tribes did not build permanent settlements. But particularly in the West, you will find magnificent cliff dwellings at sites such as Mesa Verde 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 European colonists.
As the first part of the country to be colonized by Europeans, the eastern states of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have more than their fair share of sites from early American history. The first successful British colony on the continent was at Jamestown, Virginia, although the settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, may loom larger in the nation's mind.
In the 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.
Actually, a number of American cities have world-renowned skylines, perhaps none more so than the concrete canyons of Manhattan, part of New York City. There, a new World Trade Center tower has risen on a site adjacent to the fallen twin towers, and the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building still stand tall, as they have for almost a century. Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, can no longer claim the tallest building in the country, but it still has an awful lot of really tall buildings. Other skylines worth seeing include San Francisco (with the Golden Gate Bridge), Seattle (including the Space Needle), Miami, and Pittsburgh.
Some human constructions transcend skyline, though, and become iconic symbols in their own right. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan, the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, and even the fountains of the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas all draw visitors to their respective cities. Even the incredible Mount Rushmore, located far from any major city, still attracts two million visitors each year.
Museums and galleries
In the U.S., there's a museum for practically everything. From toys to priceless artifacts, from entertainment legends to dinosaur bones—nearly every city in the country has a museum worth visiting.
The highest concentrations of these museums are found in the largest cities, of course, but none compare to Washington, D.C., home to the Smithsonian Institution. With almost twenty independent museums, most of them located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian is the foremost curator of American history and achievement. The most popular of the Smithsonian museums are the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of Natural History, but any of the Smithsonian museums would be a great way to spend an afternoon—and they're all 100% free.
New York City also has an outstanding array of world-class museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History,the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
You could spend weeks exploring the cultural institutions just in D.C. and the Big Apple, but here's a small fraction of the other great museums you'd be missing:
- Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh
- Children's Museum of Indianapolis — Indianapolis, Indiana
- Exploratorium — San Francisco
- The Henry Ford — Dearborn, Michigan
- Hollywood Walk of Fame — Los Angeles
- Monterey Bay Aquarium — Monterey, California
- Museum of Science & Industry — Chicago
- Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — Springfield, Massachusetts
- National Aquarium in Baltimore — Baltimore, Maryland
- National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — Cooperstown, New York
- National Museum of Nuclear Science and History — Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Philadelphia Museum of Art — Philadelphia
- Pro Football Hall of Fame — Canton, Ohio
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum — Cleveland, Ohio
- San Diego Zoo — San Diego, California
- Strong National Museum of Play — Rochester, New York
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
- El Camino Real (The Royal Road) — a historic road linking the 21 Spanish missions of Alta California (modern day state of California) offering a fascinating look into California's history
- 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
- Route 66 — tour the iconic historic highway running from Chicago to Los Angeles
- Santa Fe Trail — a historic southwest settler route from Missouri to Santa Fe
- Touring Shaker country — takes you to one current and eight former Shaker religious communities in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwest regions of the United States
- U.S. Highway 1 — 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 has San Diego's Street Scene or South by Southwest in Austin. Classical music concerts are held year round and performed by semi-professional and professional symphonies. Many cities and regions have unique sounds. Nashville is known as Music City because of the large number of country artists that live in the city. It's home to the Grand Ole Opry, one of the most famous music venues in the country. Country music is popular throughout the U.S. but is particularly concentrated in the South and rural West. Seattle is the home of grunge rock. Many of the most popular bands are based 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, and to other well-regarded opera companies like the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
A quintessential American experience is the marching band festival. One can find these events almost every weekend between September and Thanksgiving throughout the country and again from March to June in California. Check local event listings and papers to find specifics. Also notable is the Bands of America Grand National Championship held every autumn in Indianapolis. Those looking to see the best of the best should acquire tickets to the "finals" performance, where the ten best bands of the festival compete for the championship. This event is now held at the Lucas Oil Stadium. Both "street" or parade marching bands as well as "field" or show bands are found at almost every high school and university in America.
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 leagues are:
- Baseball, often referred to as "America's pastime", is one of the most widely played sports in the country. Major League Baseball (MLB) has 30 teams (29 in the U.S. and 1 in Canada). The season lasts from April to September with playoff games held in October. With 30 teams playing 162 games per team per season and the cheapest seats usually $10-20, this is possibly the best sporting event for international 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 National Basketball Association (NBA) is the world's premier men's basketball league and has 30 teams (29 in the U.S. and one in Canada). The season runs from November to April, with playoffs in May–June. Its counterpart the Women's NBA (WNBA), which plays during the NBA offseason, is one of the most stable and popular women's team sports leagues in the world.
- The National Football League (NFL), with 32 teams (all in the contiguous USA) is the leading promoter of American football in the world. It has virtually nothing in common with the sport that many other countries call [association] football (Americans know that sport as soccer). It developed from rugby football (before that sport was divided into league and union) and still has some things in common with its cousin from England. It is extremely popular, and the day of the championship game, called the Super Bowl, is an unofficial national holiday. The season lasts from September to December, with playoffs in January ending with the Super Bowl in February. The Pro Bowl is often played Hawai‘i, and occasional games are or have been played in London, Mexico City and Toronto.
"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 National Hockey League (NHL) is the premier ice hockey league in the world, featuring 30 teams (23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada), with a new U.S. team to be added for the 2017–'18 season in Las Vegas. Slightly over 50% of players are Canadians, and another 25% Americans, but the league has players from many other parts of the world, mainly the Nordic countries (primarily Sweden and Finland), Russia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. It began in Northern markets, and has expanded to the other regions of the country. 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.
- Beginning as the original form of American motorsport in 1911 with the first Indianapolis 500, Indycar has since come to be the premier open-wheel racing series in North America. The competition in Indycar is known to be closer, faster, and far more dangerous than that of NASCAR. Unlike NASCAR which almost exclusively races on "oval" tracks, Indycar competes on a wide variety of tracks ranging from city streets, road courses, to ovals like the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana which plays host to a prestigious race, the Indianapolis 500, where speeds can reach up to a thrilling 240 miles per hour (385 km/h)! Indycar holds races all across the United States, and in Brazil and Canada, from March to October.
- Viewed by many as a "regional sport" confined to the more rural areas of the South, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has seemingly broken away from those misconceptions to become a major spectator sport across the country. While a majority of the tracks still reside in the Mid-Atlantic and South, NASCAR holds races all across the country, beginning with their marquee event, the Daytona 500, in mid-February and ending in late November.
- Major League Soccer (MLS), with 22 teams (19 in the U.S. and three in Canada) and expanding to either 23 or 24 in 2018 (with the new teams in the U.S.), is the latest attempt to kickstart American interest in soccer. While it may not be as popular with the media, MLS is still widely viewed and enjoyed, particularly by Hispanic communities, such that broadcasts of soccer matches typically feature Spanish commentary. Foreign travellers can find particularly vibrant and familiar fan experiences in several cities, notably Washington, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle. MLS has also been a preferred destination for top players from European leagues past their prime for quite some time, including players like Kaká, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and David Villa towards the end of their careers.
One feature of the United States sports landscape that is different from those of other nations is the extent to which sports are associated with educational institutions. In many regions, college sports (either local teams, or those of a large state university), especially in football and men's basketball, enjoy followings that rival or surpass those of major professional teams. (In fact, 8 of the 10 largest stadiums in the world — all seating more than 100,000 spectators — are for U.S. college football teams, and the country's largest arena designed specifically for basketball houses a college team.) The primary governing body for U.S. college sports is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which has over 1,000 member schools, including essentially all of the country's best-known colleges and universities. The college football season runs from roughly September 1 through mid-December, with postseason bowl games running into early January. The college basketball regular season begins in mid-November and ends in late February or early March, followed by conference tournaments and then national post-season tournaments that run through early April. The NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, popularly known as "March Madness" (an NCAA trademark), is especially widely followed even by casual sports fans. Rowing enthusiasts may wish to watch the Harvard–Yale Regatta, a 4 mi (6.4 km) long race held in Connecticut every year between the men's coxed eight rowing teams of naturally, Harvard University and Yale University.
The U.S. association of sports with education doesn't stop at colleges and universities. Many communities take great pride in their high school sports teams, and especially in smaller locales, those teams are a major part of local culture. During the school year (August to May), a high school game can be a great (and cheap) way to 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, where membership is strictly by invitation only and a very exclusive privilege. The Augusta National Golf Club is the home of the Masters, one of the world's most prestigious professional golf tournaments, 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:
- The PGA Tour is the leading men's tour in the world, although the European Tour is very close in level of competition if not in prize money. Tournaments are held throughout the U.S., plus stops in Canada and Mexico, as well as the Open Championship in the UK (one of the four "major championships").
- The LPGA Tour is unquestionably the world's top women's tour. Most tournaments (including three of its five major championships) are still held in the U.S., but the tour now has major championships in the UK and France, plus regular stops in the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and several Asian countries.
- Run by the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions involves golfers 50 and older. Generally, all PGA Tour stars, and many from other world tours, play here from age 50 to roughly 65, unless unable to for health reasons. One of this tour's five major championships is in the UK, and one regular event is in Canada; the rest of the tour takes place in the U.S.
The United States hosts many tennis tournaments in the ATP and WTA tours, with the US Open being the most prestigious among them, and 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
A few days prompt nation-wide celebrations:
- Memorial Day — commemorates the sacrifice made by America's war dead. It is not to be confused with Veterans Day (11 November) which commemorates the service of America's military veterans, both living and deceased. Observed on the last Monday in May, it is also the unofficial start of summer—expect heavy traffic in popular destinations, especially National Parks and Amusement Parks.
- Independence Day ("Fourth of July" or "July Fourth") — Celebrates America's independence from Great Britain. The day is usually marked by parades, festivals, concerts, outdoor cooking and grilling and firework displays. Almost every town puts on some sort of festivity to celebrate the day. Large cities often have multiple events. Washington, D.C. celebrates the day on the Mall with a parade and a fireworks display against the Washington Monument.
- Labor Day — The U.S. celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, rather than May 1. Labor Day marks the end of the summer social season. Some places, such as Cincinnati throw parties to celebrate the day.
Other major holidays like Thanksgiving Day (the 4th Thursday in November) are marked largely by private festivities, but they're not devoid of activities either. On Thanksgiving, New York City and Chicago host famously popular parades, Detroit and many other cities hold races, and many other smaller events fill the landscape, naturally including a recreation of the original Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Many towns and/or counties throw fairs to commemorate the establishment of a town or the county with rides, games, and other attractions. All 50 states have 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. In more urban areas, some national parks are centered around historic 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 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 traveler's cheques 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.
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 almost never seen in circulation; 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, silver or gold) coins exist but are uncommon. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters, and $1 and $5 bills, though some may also accept dollar coins; larger vending machines, such as for buses or postal stamps, may take $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 update 05 June 2017:
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 provide currency exchange services. Many currency exchange desks at major U.S. airports are operated by either Travelex or International Currency Exchange (ICE). 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.
Opening a bank account in the U.S. is a fairly straightforward process, and there are no restrictions on foreigners owning bank accounts in the U.S. The "big four" retail banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank. Other major banks include US Bank and PNC. Many parts of the country, such as Hawaii, are poorly served by the big retail banks and are dominated by local banks.
ATMs can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logos. They 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 Sheetz gas stations and government buildings such as courthouses) 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 (Jackson's, 7 Eleven, AM-PM, Shell, etc.) or a large discount store such as Walmart, Costco or Target. Stores almost never charge a fee for this service, although the bank that issued your card may.
Credit and debit cards
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card affiliates) are widely used and accepted. Nearly all large retailers will accept credit cards for transactions of all sizes, even as small as one or two dollars. However, some small businesses and independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $2 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.
The country's largest warehouse club, Costco, is a rare example of a retailer that does not accept both Visa and MasterCard. The only credit card it accepts, whether in-store or online, is Visa. Its main competitor, Sam's Club, was long an example as well, accepting only MasterCard and Discover, but now accepts all four major cards. Costco does accept all debit cards regardless of the network logo on the card.
JCB and China UnionPay 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.
When making large purchases, it is typical for U.S. retailers to ask to see some form of photo identification. Shops may also ask for photo identification for foreign-issued cards. In certain circumstances, credit/debit cards are the only means to perform a transaction. Hence if you do not have one, you can purchase a prepaid card or gift card with Visa, MasterCard or AmEx logo for yourself in a good number of stores but you may need to provide identification before the card is activated.
Transaction authorization is made by signing a paper sales slip or a computer pad, although many retailers will waive the signature requirement for small purchases. The U.S. is implementing the EMV "chip-and-PIN" credit card authorization system used overseas. However, don't expect to find many compatible card readers. Many retailers still 'swipe' cards and even where there is a chip reader, the retailer may block the slot where the chip portion should be inserted. Once the transition to the having 'chip' machines is complete, retailers will largely still require a signature on a paper slip or computer pad as opposed to using a PIN (as it's the "chip" technology that's being mandated).
Gas station pumps, selected public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Many gas station pumps and some automated vending machines that accept credit cards ask for the ZIP code (i.e., postal code) of the U.S. billing address for the card, which effectively prevents them from accepting foreign cards (they are unable to detect a foreign card and switch to PIN authentication). At gas stations, you can use a foreign-issued card by paying the station attendant inside. If you live in Canada and are using a card with the MasterCard logo, you can use it at all U.S. pumps that require a ZIP code prompt by entering the digits of your postal code (ignoring letters and spaces) and adding two zeroes to the end. When using a debit card, some stations will place a hold on your account for a specified amount (a notice will be present on the pump, typically $75) and then update the charge once you've filled up (but there is often a 1-2 day delay between removing the "hold" and updating the amount charged).
Major stores, restaurants, and online services offer their own gift cards to consumers for sale in their own stores or at other retailers. These cards are usually purchased to be given as gifts, and can only be used as payment at the company named on the card or on its website. Gift cards will not likely work in branches outside the U.S. but when you are outside the U.S., you may still be able to use the gift card to make purchases on a retailer's U.S. online store. Visa, Mastercard and American Express gift cards are also sold and can be used in a similar manner as most other regular debit and credit card within the US.
There is no nationwide general sales tax (such as VAT or GST), although nationwide taxes are levied on certain goods, notably motor fuels (gasoline and diesel). As a result, there is nothing to be refunded by customs agents upon your leaving the U.S.
Most states, on the other hand, have a retail sales tax between 3% and 10% (4–6% is typical). A few have no state sales tax, but allow local city governments and authorities to collect sales taxes. In some places both state and local sales taxes are levied. Most states also levy substantial sin taxes on liquor and cigarettes. Due to this wide variation in rates and what is taxable, taxes are almost never included in posted prices (exceptions: fuel, alcohol consumed on-premises, and food concession stands or food trucks). Instead they will be calculated when you come to pay; be prepared for the total to be higher than the price tags would indicate! In most states, groceries (but not supermarket ready-to-eat hot meals), and prescription drugs are usually exempt. A handful of states also exempt clothing (sometimes with a limit of $100-200 per item) and non-prescription drugs. However, almost any other retail transaction – including restaurant meals – will incur sales tax.
Many cities also impose sales taxes, and certain cities have tax zones near airports and business districts that are designed to exploit travellers. Thus, sales taxes can vary up to 2% in a matter of a few miles. That said, while sales taxes can be an annoyance, regional price variations will usually have more impact on a traveller's wallet than the savings from seeking out a low- or no-sales-tax destination.
Places for shopping
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, or long rows of small shops with shared parking lots, usually built along a high-capacity road. Large cities still maintain central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small. Most medium-sized suburban towns contain at least one shopping mall containing one or more department stores , restaurants and retail establishments. They also contain one or more strip corridors containing strip malls, auto dealerships, and office space.
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. While factory outlets have been a way for fashion labels to offload excess stock from previous seasons that have been superseded by newer designs, many brands now specifically make factory-outlet exclusive products that are of a lower quality than those sold in their regular stores.
American retailers tend to have some of the longest business hours in the world, with chains like Walmart and 7-Eleven often featuring stores open 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10AM to 9PM most days, and during the winter holiday season, may stay open as long as 8AM to 11PM. Discount stores, even if they do not stay open 24/7, tend to stay open longer than traditional department stores; if they close, they typically do so some time between 10PM and midnight. Most supermarkets are open late into the evening, usually until at least 9PM, and a significant number stay open 24/7. Sunday hours tend to be somewhat shorter; a small number of communities mandate late openings, early closings, or even complete closure on that day (sometimes depending on the type of retailer). The U.S. does not regulate the timing of sales promotions as in other countries. U.S. retailers often announce sales during all major holidays, and also in between to attract customers or jettison merchandise.
American retail stores are gigantic compared to retail stores in other countries, and are a shoppers' dream come true. As such, they typically offer a wide range of items. Department stores typically sell clothing, shoes, furniture, perfume and jewelry. Supermarkets sell produce, meats, fish, paper products, canned goods, milk, cigarettes; and (where allowed by state and local laws) alcoholic beverages (most often beer, and in many places wine and/or liquor). An increasing number of discount stores offer either a grocery section or a full supermarket; this is especially true for Walmart and Target stores. In poor neighborhoods or on freeways adjacent to gas stations, there are often convenience stores that offer a small range of cooked food, soda, sundries and cigarettes, albeit at higher prices than supermarkets.
The United States does not have large open-air markets open daily. Instead, urban and suburban cities have farmers markets where growers sell fruits and vegetables directly to consumers. These events are typically held once weekly and only during the late spring through the summer months, in a cordoned-off street or parking lot. Some farmers markets do run year-round and can be once or twice monthly during the winter months.
If you see a driveway or yard full of stuff on a Friday afternoon, Saturday and/or Sunday, it's likely a garage sale (or yard sale). On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling household items they no longer need. An estate sale is similar but larger, with nearly everything in the home being sold. Other similar sales can also be found in a church building or the church parking lot where members of the congregation bring together unwanted items from their homes to sell collectively (rummage sales). Funds from such sales tend to go towards their church or a mission or project they support. Check it out; one person's trash may just be your treasure. Along busy roads you may see A-frame signs or other poster boards posted along utility poles to direct traffic to the garage or estate sale location. Bargaining is expected and encouraged.
Flea markets (called "swap meets" in Western states) have dozens if not hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. They sometimes take place in convention centers, stadiums, old drive-in theaters, fairgrounds or in some large suburban parking lots. Some flea markets are highly specialized and aimed at collectors of a particular sort; others just sell all types of items. Again, bargaining is expected.
Thrift stores are retail stores run by charities such as Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul and by various local churches and charities that take in unwanted or un-needed household items as a donation and re-sell them to support projects they are engaged in. Other more expensive and valuable items such as antiques, coins, collectibles, jewelry, newer computer software & hardware, tools, etc., are separated out and sold separately on auction online, on their websites. Other thrift stores can be computer recyclers that take in only unwanted, obsolete and/or damaged computer equipment for recycling. They tend to test and/or refurbish anything that is not too obsolete (within 5-10 yrs old), but functional to offer them for sale at a fraction of what a new computer would cost.
Americans did not invent the auction but may well have perfected it. The fast-paced, sing-song cadence of a country auctioneer, selling anything from farm animals to estate furniture, is a special experience, even if you have no intention of buying. In big cities, head to the auction chambers of Christie's or Sotheby's, and watch paintings, antiques and works of art sold in a matter of minutes at prices that go into the millions.
Major U.S. retail chains
The largest fashion goods retailer in the world is Macy's, Inc., which operates over 800 Macy's midrange department stores across the country and a smaller number of upscale Bloomingdale's stores. Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Midrange stores include Kohl's, Sears, The Gap, and JCPenney, while the lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy. Department stores are normally found in suburban towns, often in shopping malls, though a few can be found in downtowns or smaller rural towns.
General discount stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart are ubiquitous. Many discount stores, in addition to selling clothing and sundries, have either a small grocery section or a full supermarket; in fact, Walmart is the country's largest grocer, and its largest retail chain. The three largest supermarket chains are Kroger (which owns Dillon's, Fry's, Bakers, Fred Meyer, and others), Safeway (including Albertsons & Haggen in the U.S.), and SuperValu, but they operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states. There are smaller regional supermarkets, such as Wegmans on the East Coast and H-E-B in Texas. A number of American suburbs have high-end markets such as Whole Foods that specialize in more expensive items such as organic produce. The dominant warehouse club chain is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam's Club (operated by Walmart). The three big pharmacy chains are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. Walgreens and Rite Aid have proposed to merge, and to sell roughly 1,000 stores to Fred's, a historically Southeastern chain that would become a national competitor with the purchase. Almost all discount stores and many supermarkets also contain a small pharmacy. Most urban and suburban towns have several supermarkets or pharmacies, and more often than not a Walmart or other “big box” retailer.
In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, which may compete with a number of smaller regional chains. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), electronics (Best Buy), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond).
The U.S. is generally considered expensive although the cost of living is typically lower than in many Western countries whose residents often come to the U.S. for shopping. Warranties may not be honored when serviced within the U.S. only.
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 Los Angeles are expensive, while prices go down in rural areas. Most U.S. cities have suburbs with good hotels that are often much more affordable than those in the city center. Thus, if you plan to rent a car and drive between several major cities on a single visit to the U.S., it is usually a better idea to stay at safe suburban hotels with free parking, as opposed to downtown hotels that charge exorbitant parking fees.
If you intend to visit any of the National Park Service sites, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, it is worth considering buying a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. This costs $80 and gives access to almost all of the federally administered parks and recreation areas for one year. Admission to many parks is at least $20 each. You can trade in receipts from individual entries for 14 days at the entrance to the parks to upgrade to an annual pass, if you find yourself cruising around and ending up visiting more parks than expected.
Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as AAA (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.
There are seasonal sales such as the Black Friday sale on the Friday after Thanksgiving, during which many shops further reduce the price on some of their items by as much as 50%.
Tipping is widely practiced in the United States service sector. Standards vary, but gratuities are always given to servers in restaurants and bars, to taxi drivers, parking valets, and bellstaff in hotels, and should be omitted only in extreme cases of bad service. 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.
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:
- Hairdressers, other personal services: 10–15%
- Bartenders: $1 per drink if inexpensive or 15–20% of total
- Bellhops: $1–2 per bag ($3–5 minimum regardless)
- Hotel doorman: $1 per bag (if they assist), $1 for calling a cab
- Shuttle bus drivers: $2–5
- Private car & limousine drivers: 15–20%
- Parking valet: $1–3 for retrieving your car (unless there's already a fee for parking)
- Housekeeping in hotels: $1–2 per day for long stays or $5 minimum for very short stays (optional)
- Food delivery (pizza, etc.): $2–5, 15–20% for larger orders
- Bicycle messengers: $3–5
- Tour guides/activity guides: $5–$10 if he or she was particularly funny or informative. Tips vary with the size of the group (tips are lower in large groups), the cost of the tour, etc., and it is often best to ask others in the group, or the guide himself, what a "good" tip would be.
- Taxis: Tips of 10–20% are expected in both yellow cabs as well as livery cabs. Always tip more for better service (for example, if the cabbie helps you with your bags or stroller). Leave a small tip if the service is lousy (for example, if the cabbie refuses to turn on the AC on a hot day). For livery cabs, if you hail the cab on the street and negotiate the fare in advance, then pay the negotiated amount plus an extra $1–2.
- Full-service restaurants: 15–20%. Many restaurants include a mandatory service charge for larger groups, in which case you do not need to tip an additional amount – check the bill.
The legal minimum wage for restaurant waitstaff and other tip-earners is quite low (just $2.13/hour before taxes -- the minimum for workers in most other industries is $7.25), with the expectation that tips bring them up to a "normal" minimum wage. Thus, in restaurants (and certain other professions) a tip is not just a way to say "thank you" for service, but is an essential part of a server's wages.
While it is expected for you to tip normally for adequate service, you are never obliged to tip if your service was truly awful. If you receive exceptionally poor or rude service and the manager does not correct the problem when you bring it to their attention, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all (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 slip will generally inform you whether a 15% gratuity has already been added.
Tipping is not expected at restaurants where patrons stand at a counter to place their order and receive their food (such as fast-food chains). Some such restaurants may have a "tip jar" by the cash register, which may be used wholly at the customer's discretion in appreciation of good service. Some tipping at a cafeteria or buffet is expected since the wait staff often clears the table for you and provides refills of drinks and such.
The rules for tipping concierge are much more 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). Tips can be a good way to get special treatment during a stay too: good-sized preemptive tips for restaurant reservations could lead to special preferential treatment at the restaurant, tips can make unusual or difficult requests happen when the concierge would otherwise demur, tips out-of-the-blue can lead to special service throughout your stay, etc. If you especially like the service you have received from an employee during a stay, consider passing them a larger tip ($5 or more) on the way out.
The majority of jobs not mentioned here are not customarily tipped, and would likely refuse them. Retail employees, or those in service positions which require high qualifications (such as doctors or dentists) are good examples. Never try to offer any kind of tip to a government employee of any kind, especially police officers; this could be construed as attempted bribery (a felony offense) and might cause serious legal problems.
Tipping managers and business owners is almost always inappropriate, unless you are the host of a large party, wedding, or event. Even then, be careful how you present the tip—it's best to offer a percent of the total bill to the person in charge (usually the head caterer) and to subtly thank them for sharing it with their staff.
Tipping can also be used as a savvy way to subtly bribe for preferential treatment in a way that's both legally and socially acceptable. This is especially true with hotel staff and with bartenders. Unusually large tips can also be a good strategy for securing preferential treatment in the future, if you plan to go to the same place often. Tipping well also makes you look rather good in front of friends, dates, and business partners (and the reverse is true for tipping poorly).
Buying electronics for export
A popular idea is to buy a hot new mobile phone in the U.S. to use on your home network. Unfortunately, there are several complications:
- Many phones are on the wrong frequencies for use outside the Americas. 850/1900 MHz is most common in the U.S.; various other frequencies are used, especially for UMTS and high-speed data (3G, 4G, LTE).
- Verizon, Sprint and some low-cost networks use CDMA, which few other countries support. CDMA does not require handsets support removable SIMs; it is incompatible with worldwide GSM (2G) and UMTS (3G) standards.
- U.S. carriers sell SIM-locked handsets. Access to a different network requires an unlock code which carriers release to existing customers for a fee only after an arbitrary minimum term of service. Third-party "unlock" codes are lawful, but their availability varies by model/manufacturer. A handful of specialist electronics shops provide unlocked, globally-usable handsets but these are a minority.
- Advertised prices misrepresent handsets as inexpensive or "free", with the real cost hidden in the monthly price of expensive post-paid plans. The true cash price to purchase a device outright is much higher, if it is offered at all. Carriers also brand handsets by adding logos and apps which can't be uninstalled, or remove functionality from the software.
Similar incompatibilities exist with many other popular electronic items. TVs don't match the international DVB standard used in other countries; DVDs and Blu-rays are region-coded and use the image size and frame rate of the U.S. TV system; digitally-tuned radios use the wrong channel spacing for other ITU regions. Even if the equipment works in your home country, there is likely to be no local warranty coverage. See electrical systems and mobile telephones for details.
The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. In addition to the usual array of independent restaurants, the U.S. possesses a singularly baffling array of fast food and casual chain restaurants; even if you think you know U.S. fast food from the chains' international outlets, the sheer variety domestically is immense.
Ethnic cuisine from other parts of the world is frequently adapted to American tastes and/or made with locally available ingredients. This is particularly true of Asian cuisines, especially Chinese (see below).
Many restaurants, especially those serving fast food or breakfast, do not serve alcohol, and many others may only serve beer and wine. Portions are generally huge, regardless of restaurant style, although this trend has moderated recently with increasingly health-conscious customers. Many restaurants offer several portion options, though it may not be immediately obvious. Ask when ordering if portion choices are available. Taking home "left overs" is very common and is a good way to get two meals for the price of one. Ask for a to-go box at the end of your meal if you have not cleared your plate.
In much of America, home-cooked food is substantially better than restaurant fare. This is particularly true in rural areas and small towns. If you have the opportunity to attend a carry-in dinner or pot luck, this is a chance not to be missed.
Types of restaurants
Large cities host many examples of every type of restaurant imaginable from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagant full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. Most medium-sized cities and suburbs will also field a decent selection. In the most "up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed. Check with the restaurant if in doubt.
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Subway and Burger King are ubiquitous, but the variety of this type of restaurant in the U.S. is astounding: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, barbecued meat, and ice cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; "soda" (often called "pop" in the Midwest through Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, or generically "coke" in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. Don't be surprised when you order a soda, are handed a paper cup and expected to fill it yourself from the soda fountain (refills are often free). The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good, especially in the daytime. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected but you must clear your table after your meal. A few restaurants, called "drive-ins", serve you directly in your car. Most fast food places offer "drive-through" 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.
Takeout food is very common in larger cities for meals that may take a little longer to prepare than in a fast-food place. Place an order by phone or online and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places 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 for delivery or takeout 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. The main national pizza chains are Pizza Hut (mostly dine-in restaurants that also offer takeout and delivery), Domino's (usually no dine-in), Papa John's (also no dine-in), and Little Caesars (mostly takeout only, with some locations also offering delivery). 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 (no waitstaff, no alcohol), but the meals tend to be fresher and healthier. The food takes a bit longer to prepare—and costs a few dollars more—than at fast food joints, but it's generally worth it. Notable examples include Chipotle (Tex-Mex), Noodles and Company, Panera Bread (bakery also featuring soup and sandwiches), Five Guys (burgers) and Freddies Burgers.
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, though they also appear in large cities and suburbs. They offer a wide variety of huge meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually busy for breakfast, in the morning, at the end of factory shifts, or after the bars close. Diner chains include Denny's, Norm's, and (in the South) Waffle House.
No compendium of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only encounter these places if you are taking an intercity auto or bus trip. They are found on the interstate highways and cater to truckers. There will be diesel fuel and separate parking for the "big rigs" and showers for the drivers who sleep in their cabs. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for "plain home cooking": hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous club sandwich or burger and fries—expect large portions! The three major chains are Pilot/Flying J, TA/Petro, and Love's. These generally have 24-hour restaurants, including "all you can eat" buffets and large breakfasts, often served in skillets. You are most likely to find such a restaurant at a TA or Petro (most truck stops also have national fast food outlets). Truckers know their eating: if there are plenty of trucks outside, it'll be good.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from diners and truck stops, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. Some specialize in a type of food (e.g. seafood) or a particular national cuisine, others have broader offerings. Some are well known only for breakfast, such as IHOP (originally International House of Pancakes) which serves it all day in addition to other meals. A few of the larger chains include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's. These restaurants tend to serve alcohol.
Some bars double as restaurants and serve food late. Bars, including their dining areas, may be off-limits to those under 21.
Soft drinks come with a liberal supply of ice. Asking for no ice is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. Water is usually served chilled and with ice, unless you request otherwise. It will typically not be carbonated; if you want carbonated water, ask for "sparkling water." Bottled water, still or sparkling, will cost at least $1–2. Sit-down restaurants will often bring free iced tap water, even before taking your drink order. At fast food restaurants, bottled water is assumed unless you specify "ice water" or "tap water". Coffee, tea and soft drinks are sometimes refilled at no extra charge, but you should ask if this is not explicitly stated.
Types of service
Many restaurants aren't open for breakfast. Those that are (mostly fast-food and diners), serve eggs, toast, pancakes, cereals, sausages, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11AM, but some, especially diners, will serve breakfast all day. As an alternative to a restaurant breakfast, one can grab breakfast food such as doughnuts, muffins, fruits, coffee, and packaged drinks at almost any gas station, coffee shop, or convenience store (such as 7-Eleven, Circle K or AM/PM).
Continental Breakfast is a term primarily used by hotels and motels to describe a cold breakfast offering of cereal, breads, muffins, fruit, etc. Milk, fruit juices, hot coffee and tea are the typical beverages. There is usually a toaster for your bread. This is a quick, cheap way of getting morning food.
Lunch can be a good way to get food from a restaurant whose dinners are out of your price range.
Dinner, the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9PM. Most restaurants will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a "to go box"). Making reservations in advance is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, "up-scale", or you are dining in a large group.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a single price, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Generally, buffets serve American or Chinese food.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch, served morning through early afternoon, with both breakfast and lunch items. There is often a buffet. Like most other meals, quality and price can vary by restaurant.
Types of food
Typical American food items that can be found at most restaurants or large gatherings include hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, ice cream, and pie. While many types of food are unchanged throughout the United States, there are a few distinct regional varieties of food. The most notable is in the South, where traditional local fare includes grits (ground maize porridge), collard greens (a boiled vegetable, often flavored with ham and a dash of vinegar), sweet iced tea, barbecue (not unique to this region, but best and most common here), catfish (served deep-fried with a breadcrumb coating), cornbread, okra, red beans, and gumbo (a stew of seafood or sausage, rice, okra, and sometimes tomatoes).
Barbecue, BBQ, or barbeque is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it's 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. The most distinct styles come from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. California and Maryland have a style that focuses on beef barbecued in an outdoor pit or brick oven. However, barbecue of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbecued meat can be served with a variety of sides, including chili, corn on the cob, coleslaw and potato salad. Barbecue restaurants are unpretentious and the best food is often found at very casual establishments. Expect plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbecue found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic. Ribs and chicken are almost always eaten with your fingers; tackle pork and brisket either with a fork or in a sandwich. Some Americans (though never Southerners) use "barbecue" as a synonym for "cookout": a party where the likes of chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs are grilled outdoors (rather than smoked). These can be fun, but they don't represent the American BBQ cuisine.
With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Laotian food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.
Italian food is perhaps the most pervasive of ethnic cuisines in America, though this food has often taken a different direction than Italian food in Italy. All but the smallest villages have at least one restaurant that specializes in pizza, and many also have pasta restaurants as well. While more authentic fare is certainly available in fancier restaurants, the pizza typically sold in the U.S. has diverged significantly from the Italian original, with New York and Chicago in particular having their own distinctive styles of pizza which are famous throughout the country and not found in Italy. There are also restaurants that specialize in German or French food, but in much smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the hot dog, which traces its origins to German sausages, has become a integral part of the American culinary landscape.
Chinese food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes. Authentic Chinese food can be found in restaurants in Chinatowns in addition to communities with large Chinese populations. Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai food have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation. Indian food outlets are available in most major U.S. cities and towns. In smaller towns, East Asian foods from Japan and Korea are usually served in Chinese restaurants, but in larger cities or in small towns with large Asian immigrant populations there are individual Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants.
Mexican, Hispanic and Tex-Mex food ares very popular, but again in localized versions. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy tomato salsa, sour cream, and an avocado-based dip called guacamole. Small authentic Mexican taquerias can be found easily in California and the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Middle Eastern and Greek foods are also becoming popular in the United States. The gyro (known as "doner kebab", "shawarma", "gyros" or "souvlaki" in Europe) is a popular Greek sandwich on a pita bread topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a yogurt-cucumber like tzatziki sauce. Hummus (a ground chickpea dip/spread) and baklava pastries are frequently found in supermarkets, along with an increasingly widespread and high-quality array of "pita" products.
America's Jewish community has undoubtedly left a lasting imprint on the culinary scene, with bagels and pastrami being widely popular among Americans. While the most famous shops are located in New York City, they are also widely available in large cities throughout the country.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarians are becoming more common in the U.S., so are the restaurants that cater to them. Most big cities and college towns will have vegetarian restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns you may need to check the menu at several restaurants before finding a vegetarian main course, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Wait staff can be helpful answering questions about meat content, but be very clear about your personal definition of vegetarian, as dishes with fish, chicken, egg, or even small quantities of beef or pork flavoring may be considered vegetarian. This is especially common with vegetable side dishes in the South. Meat-free breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs are readily available at diners. Vegans are also becoming more common, and many restaurants in larger cities will have vegan options available, and there is an increasing number of establishments being set up to specifically cater for vegans.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the U.S., as there has been a continuing trend in calorie consciousness since the 1970s. Even fast-food restaurants have "lite" specials, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on request.
Awareness of food allergies varies. Packaged products (e.g. in grocery stores) must be labeled if they contain milk, eggs, fish, crustacean 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 non-prepackaged food, even if it's served in a wrapper or container — which includes restaurants, kiosks, bakeries, and fresh food at grocery stores — usually has no obligation to label allergens (although laws vary by state). That said, quite a few restaurants do label allergens, and even pride themselves on catering to those with food allergies, but it's always your responsibility to protect yourself. Fast food and casual dining chain restaurants are often a safe bet for being knowledgeable about food allergies and having consistent ingredients and methods. At sit-down restaurants, inform your waiter (and possibly a manager or chef), ask questions, and if your waiter is unsure of anything then have them double-check or insist on speaking to a chef. A recent fad in gluten free food as a healthy diet choice (even for those who have no allergies or sensitivities) has led to a large selection of gluten-free foods being available, but as some of these are "fad" products, they may not be sufficiently gluten-free for people with celiac (coeliac) disease or wheat allergies.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer an almost infinite variety of packaged or processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, e.g. breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, and frozen dinners.
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 for snacks or even (nutritionally partial) meals for a budget no more than $5 a day.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are at cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, at crowded informal eateries and cafés where you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at, and at some inexpensive Chinese restaurants where staff will direct you to share a table. Striking up a conversation in this situation may or may not be welcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European-influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating is considered rude, as is loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. You should lay cloth napkins across your lap; you can do the same with paper napkins, or keep them on the table. Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a "doggy bag", implying that the leftovers are for your pet). If you want to do this, ask the server to get the remainder "to go"; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an "all-you-can-eat" buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional cost.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc.) are designed to be eaten by hand (so-called "finger food"); a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (french fries, barbecue ribs, chicken on the bone) even at moderately nice restaurants. If unsure, eating finger food with a fork and knife probably won't offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might, as it's considered "uncivilized" and rude.
When invited to a meal in a private home, 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 plastic 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 this gift, if it's food, to be served with the meal; the host has already selected the meal's components. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, 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, 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!
There is no nationwide ban on smoking, so whether you are allowed to smoke in a bar or restaurant or other public indoor space varies between, and even within, states. In most cases, it is banned. If there is a "No Smoking" sign, lighting up may get you ejected, fined, or even arrested, in addition to dirty looks.
Smoking has acquired a social stigma — even where it is permitted. You may want to ask the people around you whether they mind before lighting up. Many states have laws about smoking near public entrances: Keep an eye out for posted signs stating a minimum distance to the door although enforcement is not consistent. Typically, if you find an ash tray or a butt station, you are safe to smoke there.
As of 2017, some states have legalized recreational and/or medical use of cannabis. Still, federal law prohibits handling of cannabis, and transporting cannabis over state borders, even between states where cannabis is legal, is a federal crime. It is furthermore unclear how state law (or the jurisdiction of Indian Reservations) and federal law collide in terms of cannabis, in part due to the Obama administration's relatively hands-off approach that has kept the issue out of the courts. With the Trump administration, federal policy on states with legal cannabis might change drastically and test cases are likely to come before federal courts if that happens.
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 Western 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 if you're under 40 (or appear to be), you may be required to show a photo ID. Some retailers require IDs on all transactions, and some may not accept a foreign driver's license (except Canada and possibly Australia, since these licenses have barcodes that are scannable by U.S. ID scanners), so having your passport available when purchasing alcohol is strongly advised. In some states, people who are under 21 are not even allowed to be present in a bar or liquor store.
Alcohol sales are typically prohibited after 2AM, 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 banned. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny. A blood-alcohol level of 0.08% is considered "under the Influence" and many states consider a level of 0.05% as "impaired". If you're under 21, most states have limits of 0.00-0.02%. Foreigners will typically be deported, even well established permanent residents. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol anywhere in a car other than in the trunk; this can be heavily fined. Should you find yourself in a situation where you drank a bit more than you intended and are unsure if you should drive, taxi cabs are fairly prolific in medium to large cities, and ride-hailing apps have drivers even in small cities. Many automotive clubs offer hotlines to find a ride home.
Sales of raw milk for human consumption are illegal in some states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans the interstate sale or distribution of raw milk.
Beer and wine are the main non-distilled alcoholic drinks, with whiskey the main hard liquor (i.e. distilled drink). "Cider" without further qualification is just an unfiltered variety of apple juice. Hard cider is the alcoholic drink from fermented apples; although enthusiastically consumed two centuries ago, its popularity is only now resurging after decades of obscurity.
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 individual regional brewers, although a few are reaching national distribution. The big breweries have taken to producing similar beers, usually under brand names that are difficult to link to the parent company; beer connoisseurs will be unimpressed, but for the average consumer and bar these welcome additions provide a improved flavor balanced with mass appeal. Some bars and restaurants carry craft beers, while others don't, seemingly at random. Brew pubs combine microbrewery and bar and serve highly regarded beer that is made on the premises. Vermont offers the highest ratio of microbreweries per capita in the country followed by Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Maine, while Washington grows 77 percent of the total United States hop crop, a key ingredient in beer making.
Wine is available across the quality spectrum. American wines are labeled primarily by the grape variety. A rough guide to quality comes in the specificity of the labeling. Color alone ("Red", "white", and "rosé" or "pink") denotes the lowest echelon. Above this, regions are labeled by state (e.g. "California"), an area of a state (e.g. "Central Coast"), a county or other small region (e.g. "Willamette Valley"), or a specific vineyard (e.g. "Dry Creek Vineyard").
The cheapest wine tends to come in a plastic bag encased in a box. "Fortified wines", known as "bum wine", are the precise opposite of high-class European port, sherry or Madeira.
All 50 states practice some sort of winemaking, though 90% of America's wine—including its most highly regarded from the Napa Valley—are Californian. Wines from Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington state represent good value as they are less well known. Michigan, Colorado's Wine Country, and New York State's Finger Lakes produce German-style whites which have won international competitions. The Llano Estacado region of Texas is also notable for its wines.
Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in upscale restaurants, and are also sometimes served by the glass. The best Californian sparkling wines have been rated comparably to leading French champagnes but they are not commonly sold in supermarkets outside of California.
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 (made with mainly rye, a relative of wheat), malt (made with mainly barley) and bourbon (made with mainly corn, i.e. maize).
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes, from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
"Happy hour", a period usually lasting from 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5PM and 8PM, sees significant discounts on selected drinks. "Ladies' nights", during which women receive a discount, 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 (almost) around the world, some flavors are hardly known outside North America. Root Beer, for example, is a non-alcoholic beverage containing various roots with a strange flavor for those not accustomed to it. Sparkling water is not commonly consumed by Americans and rather seen as a "European" curiosity, but it is available in most stores. Tap water is potable, but due to its regionally varying and sometimes very notable chlorine content it is often avoided due to its taste. No matter what people might tell you, in most parts of the country, bottled water is no better than regular tap water. Tap water is almost always served for free. In most parts of the country other than the New York Metropolitan Area, you will generally get free refills of coffee or tea; in the South, you may get free refills of Coke, too. Americans like to put a lot of ice into their drinks, so unless you specifically ask for "no ice" (and sometimes even then) you will get a lot of ice with all your non-alcoholic drinks, including 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 (+1-800-466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30–70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels (+1-800-800-8000) provides reasonable accommodations throughout the country as well. Reservations are typically unnecessary, which is convenient since you don't have to arbitrarily interrupt a long road trip; you can simply drive until you're tired then find a room. However, some are used by adults looking to book a night for sex or illicit activities and many are located in undesirable areas.
Business or extended-stay hotels are increasingly available across the country. They can be found in smaller towns across the Midwest or in coastal urban areas. Generally they are more expensive than motels, but not as expensive as full-scale hotels, with prices around $70 to $170. While the hotels may appear to be the size of a motel, they may offer amenities from larger hotels. Examples include Marriott's Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inns, and Residence Inns; Hilton's Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express; Starwood's Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place.
Some extended-stay hotels are directed at business travelers or families on long-term stays (that are often relocating due to corporate decisions). These hotels often feature kitchens in most rooms, afternoon social events (generally by a pool), and serve continental breakfast. Such "suite" hotels are roughly equivalent to the serviced apartments seen in other countries, though the term "serviced apartments" is not generally used in American English.
Hotels are available in most cities and usually offer more services and amenities than motels. Rooms usually run about $80–300 per night, but very large, glamorous, and expensive hotels can be found in most major cities, offering luxury suites larger than some houses. Check-in and check-out times are almost always fall in the range of 11AM-noon and 2PM-4PM. 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.
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.
There are also youth hostels across the U.S. Most are affiliated with the American Youth Hostel organization (a Hostelling International member). Quality of hostels varies widely, but at $8–$24 per night, the prices are unbeatable. Despite the name, AYH membership is open to people of any age. Non-AYH hostels are also available, particularly in larger cities. Be aware that hostels are clustered in more touristy locations, do not assume that all mid sized towns will have a hostel.
Camping can also be a very affordable lodging option, especially with good weather. The downside of camping is that most campgrounds are outside urban regions, so it's not much of an option for trips to big cities. There is a huge network of National Parks (+1-800-365-2267), with most states and many counties having their own park systems, too. Most state and national campgrounds are of excellent quality, with beautiful natural environments. Expect to pay $7–$20 per car on entry. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has a chain of commercial campground franchises across the country, of significantly less charm than their public-sector equivalents, but with hookups for recreational vehicles and amenities such as laundromats. Countless independently owned private campgrounds vary in character.
Some unusual lodging options are available in specific areas or by prior arrangement. For example, you might enjoy staying on a houseboat in Lake Tahoe or the Erie Canal. Or stay in a treehouse in Oregon. More conventional lodging can be found at college or university dormitories, a few of which rent out rooms to travelers during the summertime. Finally, in many tourist areas, as well as big cities, one can rent a furnished house by the day.
- Main article: Studying abroad#United States
"College" is a catch-all term for all post-secondary undergraduate education In the U.S. Even if a student is going to attend a prestigious four-year university, she is still apt to say "I'm heading off to college in the fall."
Studying full-time in the United States is an excellent opportunity for young adults seeking an advanced education, a chance to see a foreign country, and a better understanding of the U.S. and its people. It can be done independently by applying directly to a college for admission, or through the "study abroad" or "foreign exchange" department of a college in your own country, usually for a single term or one year. (Either approach requires, at minimum, an F or J student visa.) The latter is usually easiest; the two institutions will handle much of the arrangements, and you don't have to make a commitment to four years living in a strange country. Be forewarned, however: many state universities and private colleges are located in small towns, hundreds of miles from any big urban centers. Don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota. The U.S. attracts more international students than any other country in the world and a lot of cultural diversity can be seen throughout its top universities.
Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States.
Any courses that contribute credits towards the awarding an academic degree will require you to obtain a student visa in advance regardless of how short your stay in the U.S. may be. However, short courses that do not count as academic credits may be undertaken on a tourist visa, or under the visa-waiver program. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories are considered to be U.S. nationals and may work unrestricted in the United States. Citizens of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed to live and work indefinitely in the United States with only a valid passport. For citizens of all other countries, including Canadians and Bermudians, unless you are a permanent resident of the United States (i.e. green card holder), you will need a work visa to be allowed to work in the United States. Paid work is not allowed on a B-1/B-2 visitor visa or the visa-waiver program. Volunteer work is allowed provided the position taken up is a legitimate volunteer position (i.e. it would ordinarily be done unpaid by a local). Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions.
Taxes and payments
Most employers deposit their employees' salaries directly into their bank accounts, so it is advisable to open a bank account as soon as you arrive in the U.S.
Once you have received work authorization, you will have to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) for your employer to report your wages to the government for tax purposes. You can start working before you receive your number in the mail, but you must provide your employer with a receipt from the Social Security Administration indicating that you have applied for one, and you will need to provide the number to your employer once you have received it. The American tax year runs from January 1 to December 31, and tax returns for the previous year are due on April 15 (or the next working day, if it falls on a weekend or public holiday) every year. Income tax in the United States is notoriously complicated, with taxpayers generally having to file separate federal, state and sometimes city income tax returns.
Provide your SSN to your bank once you obtain it, as your bank will need to use it to report any interest you accrue to the government for tax purposes. Similarly, your credit history is tied to your SSN in the U.S., so you will need it to apply for credit cards, loans, and the like. Do keep this number private, as it can easily be used for identity theft, if it falls into the wrong hands.
Work rights on student visas
Foreigners on F-1 student visas are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time, and full-time during school holidays on-campus in their respective institutions, but are generally banned from working off-campus unless they have applied for and received special permission in advance. Dependents of F-1 student visa holders (i.e. F-2 visa holders) are not allowed to work in the U.S. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) schemes allows F-1 student visa holders to work off-campus after completing a year of study at a U.S. institution, provided their job is related to their major field of study, though the application has to be filed with Immigration and approved before you commence work. The OPT scheme also allows foreigners who graduate from a U.S. institution with a bachelor's degree or higher to apply to stay on and work in the U.S. for up to 12 months on their student visa, provided their job is related to their major field of study. Graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) may extend their OPT by up to 24 months after the initial 12 months are up for a total of 36 months. The total time spent on OPT before and after graduation may not exceed 12 months (or 36 months for STEM graduates), and having spent 12 months or more on OPT or CPT before graduation will make you ineligible for post-graduation OPT.
It is better to arrange your work and work visa before you enter the United States. Young people who are full-time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J-1 "Exchange Visitor" visa which permits paid work as a nanny or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.
The H-1B visa allows a limited number of skilled and certain unskilled employees to temporarily work in the United States. It usually requires at least a bachelor's degree and is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The job you wish to apply for should be related to your degree. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, mathematics teachers, and computer science professionals. There is also the L-1 visa which allow individuals who are employees of multinational companies to be transferred to the U.S. office, provided you are employed in an executive or managerial position, or as a worker with "specialized knowledge". The O-1 and P-1 visas exist for performing artistes and sportspeople to perform their respective trades in the U.S., though in practice you will need to be of celebrity status for it to be approved. Individuals who hold a PhD in scientific or engineering fields may work for an educational institution in a research position on a J-1 visa for up to 5 years. Dependents of L-1 and J-1 visa holders may apply for permission to work in the U.S., while dependents of H-1B, O-1 and P-1 visa holders are not allowed to work in the U.S. under any circumstances. Before an employer can arrange any work visa, he must ensure that nobody within his locale is willing or qualified to do the job before considering you.
If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the U.S. and overseas often prey on people's desire to travel or work in the U.S. Keep in mind that visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary, so you should be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties, especially non-lawyers. If in doubt about properly applying for such visas then it is recommended to use a licensed immigration attorney.
No-one entering under the Visa Waiver Program is permitted to adjust their status for any reason. For detailed immigration rules related to working in the U.S., visit the web-site of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
As the H-1B, L-1, O-1 and P-1 visas are considered to be dual-intent visas, foreigners working on those visas may apply for permanent residency, which if granted, allows you to stay in the U.S. indefinitely and change jobs freely. On the other hand, the J-1 visa is a strict non-immigrant visa, meaning that applying for a green card could potentially be viewed as immigrant intent, and lead to you being deported from the U.S. for breaching your visa conditions. Applying for permanent residency will automatically make you ineligible to receive most non-immigrant visas in the future, the exception being visas that specifically allow for dual-intent.
The easiest way to obtain permanent residency is to be sponsored by your employer. You may also file an immigrant petition for yourself, though you will generally have to be exceptional, and demonstrate that granting you permanent residency is beneficial to the U.S. in order for it to be granted. Permanent residency can also be granted by being married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for at least 2 years. If you have a lot of money, permanent residency can also be obtained by investing at least $1,000,000 in a local business, provided your investment leads to the creation of at least 10 new jobs for U.S. citizens. Once you have been living in the U.S. as a permanent resident for 5 years (3 years if you are married to a U.S. citizen) or more, you are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Headline-grabbing major crimes unfortunately give the U.S. a reputation for crime, although few visitors experience any problems; common-sense precautions and staying alert are sufficient to avoid trouble. Crime is usually connected with gangs and drugs in the inner cities, and with heated disputes. Avoid those and you'll be fine. Urban tourist areas are heavily policed and are safe from all but petty crimes.
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.
Crime rates (including murder rates) are significantly higher in the US than in most of Europe, but lower than in most of the rest of the world. However, those rates are somewhat distorted by gang violence and other organized crime that is almost exclusively contained within certain impoverished neighborhoods and members of organized crime groups targeting one another - all things that are unlikely to affect the vast majority of travelers.
Illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and the authorities' heavy-handed treatment of them, make the Mexican border undesirable to visit. Official border crossings are safe to use.
American police are generally polite, professional, and honest. When in uniform, they are also more formal, cautious, and cold than police in, say, Latin America—especially in large cities. If stopped by traffic police, you should stay calm, be polite and cooperative, avoid making sudden movements, and state what you are doing if you need to reach for your purse or wallet to present your identification. It is particularly important for you to appear calm and cooperative if you are a non-white person, as people of color are much more likely to be subjected to police harassment and violence in the United States than white people. Turn on the inside car lights and keep your hands on the wheel to make it clear that you are not a threat; do not exit the vehicle unless told to do so. Generally the driver of the car should speak to the officer when they approach.
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. U.S. police culture categorically rejects bribes, and the mere suggestion would very likely result in your immediate arrest. If you need to pay a fine, don't try to pay the officer; he or she can direct you to the appropriate police station, courthouse, or government office. Most minor traffic infractions can be paid by mail. Increasingly fines can be paid online or over the phone within a matter of minutes of receiving the ticket, though often for a convenience fee of a few dollars. Instructions are often printed on the ticket.
There are three types of police you are most likely to encounter: state police/highway patrol units on state highways, deputy sheriffs employed by county governments in rural areas, and police officers employed by city or town governments in urban areas. 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 are generally found only in or near federal facilities, such as ports of entry, national parks, and government offices. If you encounter them elsewhere, it is usually because they are investigating specific allegations of federal crimes.
Dialing 9-1-1 at any telephone will reach the emergency services (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Any U.S. phone, regardless if it is "active" or not, must be able to dial 911 if it is connected to the network, and such calls are always free. Unless you are calling from a mobile or Internet-based phone, the operator should be able to locate you from the phone you are using even if you do not say anything. Modern cell phones will send a GPS fix of your location down to a few meters within a few seconds of dialing 911. Dialing 911 and leaving an open line will bring all 3 emergency services to your location in under 5 minutes in most populated areas. Response time may be longer in sparsely populated areas or along the Interstates.
On any GSM mobile phone (the standard technology in most of the world, especially in Europe), you can also dial 112, which is the standard emergency number for GSM networks worldwide. U.S. GSM carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and smaller regional operators) automatically redirect 112 calls to 911.
As in most countries, misuse of the emergency services number will result in, at the least, a call back from authorities; at most, arrest. If you reach 9-1-1 accidentally (for instance, if a misdial of the 011- international prefix gets a "9-1-1, what's your emergency?" response) stay on the line for long enough to explain to the dispatcher that you have reached a wrong number. Even then, an officer may still show up.
The United States Border Patrol works near both the Canadian and the Mexican borders, as well as in Southern coastal areas like the Florida Keys. They can verify immigration status and enforce immigration laws in the "border zones"—generally within 40 miles of Canada and 75 miles of Mexico (although the law allows for 100 miles from any border, including sea and the Great Lakes). Near Canada they tend to be unobtrusive and generally focus their work on long-distance buses and trains. In the South, systematic vehicle checkpoints or being stopped on the street with a friendly "Papers, please..." is much more likely. They tend not to target tourists specifically.
Foreigners are always required to carry their passports, visas, and landing cards (or Green Cards). Being found without them near the border could lead you to being detained until your status is verified, or possibly fined. If your documents are in order, you generally won't be questioned. In most states (Arizona is a notable exception), police and other local authorities are not allowed to question you about your immigration status or to ask to see your passport or visa unless you're arrested and charged with a crime, and then only for the purpose of connecting you with your embassy. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, some statistics have shown that Muslims or those who are assumed to be Muslims may be disproportionately targeted for additional screenings at airports despite claims that passengers are chosen at random. A minority of law enforcement agency officials may express a disposition towards racism or ethnocentricism.
The U.S. is a huge country with very varied geography, and parts of it are occasionally affected by natural disasters: hurricanes and tropical storms from June through November in the South (including Florida), blizzards (a specific and common type are "Nor'easters") in New England and the areas near the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains and Midwest, earthquakes in California and Alaska, floods in areas of the Midwest and wildfires in the late summer and early fall in Texas and on the West Coast, particularly California. See the regions in question for more details.
Because tornadoes are so common between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, this area has earned itself the colloquial name Tornado Alley. The San Andreas Fault is a tectonic plate boundary running through California, an area prone to earthquakes. Hawaii contains several active volcanoes, but they are not usually a threat to life and limb. The last high profile eruption in the mainland US 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. In most tornado-prone regions, a system of sirens will sound when a tornado warning is issued. If you hear the siren, seek shelter immediately. (For more information, see tornado safety.)
Gay and lesbian
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, but there are significant exceptions. It's generally not a problem to be open about your sexual orientation, though you may receive unwanted attention or remarks in some situations. Attitudes toward homosexuality vary widely even in regions with a reputation for tolerance or intolerance. Acceptance is most common in major cities throughout the country and smaller cities, suburbs and college towns especially around the Pacific Coast, the Northeast and Hawaii, with acceptance in these areas generally being on par with Western Europe. Homophobia and anti-gay violence may be encountered anywhere, especially in some suburban and rural areas of the Southeast and interior West, but the chances of this happening to you are low.
Gay-friendly destinations, where openly gay couples are common, include New York's Chelsea, Rochester in Western New York State, Chicago's Boystown, Seattle's Capitol Hill, San Francisco's Castro Street, Washington's Dupont Circle, Miami Beach's South Beach, Atlanta's Midtown and Los Angeles' West Hollywood. Even outside of gay neighborhoods, many major cities are gay-friendly, especially in the Northeast and the West Coast. An increasing number of resort areas are known as gay-friendly, including Fire Island, Key West, Asheville, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Rehoboth Beach, Saugatuck, outer Cape Cod and parts of Asbury Park. In other smaller cities, there are neighborhoods where gay people tend to congregate, and many have resource centers for LGBT people.
Legally speaking, homosexual relationships are treated the same as heterosexual relationships. If you're married to someone of the same sex, you may yet encounter some difficulties in more conservative areas of the country, but recent Supreme Court rulings have made it clear that no state or federal authority is allowed to treat your marriage differently from any other. Some states do still allow individual businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians; sexual orientation is not yet a protected category nationwide, the way race and gender are. Some businesses specifically advertise that they are LGBT-friendly by displaying symbols (typically a rainbow flag) on their storefront. A few large cities have alternative monthly or weekly publications which provide news and lists of venues or events specifically for the LGBT communities.
Men planning to engage in any sexual activity should be aware of the heightened risk of HIV and other infections in the United States. A gay American man is 44 times more likely to contract HIV than a heterosexual one, and 46 times more likely to contract syphilis. This risk grows greatly among men likely to engage in one-night stands and other higher-risk behavior. In a nation where 0.5% of the population are infected with HIV, unprotected sex is a very real risk. Precautions, including safer sex, are strongly advised during your stay. Most cities have affordable or free testing and treatment centers for STIs, though hours may be limited and waits may be long. Planned Parenthood clinics are often an affordable alternative. The lifelong repercussions of HIV or other STIs aren't covered by many insurance policies. Seeking health care elsewhere can be very pricey, as the U.S. medical system is private and largely operates on a for-profit basis.
In general U.S. drug laws can be pretty severe: even possession or transportation of small amounts can lead to prison or deportation and should be avoided by travelers. However, laws and attitudes concerning the most commonly available drug, marijuana, vary wildly from state to state. States like Louisiana and Florida impose large fines and lengthy prison sentences, while in other states marijuana use has been largely decriminalized. 18 states allow medical use of marijuana, where persons can obtain marijuana for medicinal use with a doctor's prescription and a "medical marijuana card". In some states, particularly cities on the West Coast, medical marijuana dispensaries are so commonplace that they seem almost ordinary. Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, California and Alaska 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. Under no circumstances should you transport marijuana or other drugs that are illegal under federal law across state lines, onto (some) Indian reservations, onto federal lands (such as federal office buildings, military bases, and post offices) or internationally as doing so is drug trafficking and could subject you to a lengthy prison term. Even if transporting on a direct flight or through the mail between places where marijuana is legal or tolerated such as between the U.S. and the Netherlands or between Washington state and Colorado, it is still illegal under U.S. federal law. In some countries trace amounts such as marijuana residue, poppy seeds, or legitimate drugs containing certain substances such as codeine that were purchased in the U.S. are subject to penalty under that country's drug laws. Even drugs such as marijuana that were consumed in the U.S prior to departure can be subject penalty if detected in your system on arrival to another country even if no drugs or paraphernalia for their use were found on your person or in your luggage.
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 bear in mind that:
- 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. Many states also have "concealed carry" laws which permit the possession of a concealed firearm in clothing or in a vehicle. Keep in mind that people with permits to carry a firearm, openly or concealed, are usually not criminals and not going to harm you.
- Hunting is popular in rural America. Use of marked trails should not be a risk, but if venturing off the beaten path try to inquire if and where any hunting may be afoot. If there is, wear bright colors (particularly "Blaze Orange") to be highly visible to the hunters. This includes putting a bright vest on any dogs you take too. If you wish to hunt, obtain the correct permits and review the local regulations.
- Target shooting is a popular sport. Many ranges welcome tourists and will have a variety of firearms available to rent and shoot at the range. Many implement a "two person minimum" rule and consider it unsafe to rent firearms to lone individuals.
- The legal carry 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. Generally speaking, the 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.
Compared to many European and Asian countries, the U.S. is, at least publicly, a racially tolerant country. The U.S. Constitution, coupled with both state and federal legislation and case 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, 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 rare 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 overall trend has been one of increased tolerance and acceptance.
Being a highly industrialized nation, the United States is largely free from most serious communicable diseases found in many developing nations; however, the HIV rate is higher than in Canada and Western Europe, with about a 0.5% infection rate in the overall population.
Two infectious diseases that are worth becoming educated about are rabies and Lyme disease. Human cases of rabies are quite rare in the United States, though the disease is more prevalent in eastern regions of the country. Rabies may be contracted from animal bites; if you are bitten by any mammal see a doctor as soon as possible – if you wait until you get symptoms of rabies, you are almost guaranteed to die (if you get the vaccine before symptoms occur then you have a very high chance of surviving). Bats and other small, wild animals are especially prone to carry the rabies virus. If you get bitten and even if it is "just a scratch" then go to a doctor as soon as possible.
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 mid-west region).
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) destination United States website.
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 can be very expensive. Most Americans have private health insurance. The largest state-run health program, Medicare, is mainly for the elderly. Medicaid is a largely similar program for the poor. Travelers should ensure their travel insurance is valid for the U.S. Given the high costs, some "world-wide" insurance specifically does not cover the U.S. 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. Many Americans receive health insurance coverage through their employers as part of their employee benefits. If you are planning to work in the US, check with your employer to see if such an arrangement is possible for you.
To the patient, America's public (20%), private profit-making (20%), and private non-profit-making (60%) hospitals are generally indistinguishable. Inner city public hospitals may be more crowded and less well maintained, but as a whole both costs and service levels are consistently high in all types. No hospital can refuse a life-threatening emergency case. Private hospitals may only stabilize such patients before sending them to a nearby public hospital, which will generally act as the regional center for 24-hour emergency treatment.
In a life-threatening emergency, call 911 to summon an ambulance to take you to the nearest hospital emergency room ("ER"), or in less urgent situations get to the hospital yourself and register at the ER's front desk. Ambulance fees typically range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and though they will never refuse to transport you in an emergency, the ambulance fees will be billed to you at a later date. Emergency rooms treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, even though their services are not free. Expect to pay at least $500 for a visit, plus the cost of any specific services or medications you are given. Avoid using ERs for non-emergency walk-in care; they are 3–4 times more expensive than other options and your non-urgent condition means you will have a wait of hours or maybe days. Most urban areas also have minor emergency centers (also called "urgent care", etc.) for 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 common across the country. They 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. Many county clinics offer primary health care services as well; however, these services are geared towards low-income residents and not foreign travelers. Planned Parenthood (1-800-230-7526) is a private agency with clinics and centers around the country providing birth control and other reproductive health services for both females and males.
Today, dress in the U.S. tends to be fairly casual. For everyday clothes, jeans and T-shirts are always acceptable, as are shorts when the weather is suitable. Sneakers (athletic shoes) are common; flip-flops and sandals are also popular in warm weather. In the winter seasons in northern states boots are commonly worn.
Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as yarmulkes, hijabs and burqas without comment.
At the workplace, business casual (slacks, understated collared shirts without a tie, and non-athletic shoes) is now the default at many companies. More traditional industries (e.g. finance, legal, and insurance) still require suits and ties. Other industries (e.g. computer software) are even more casual, allowing jeans and even shorts for everyday wear; as a business visitor, a safe choice would be business casual, or jeans and a collared shirt.
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.
Breastfeeding in public can be a touchy subject. While most mothers in the U.S. do breastfeed at home for at least a little while, a woman doing so in public, whether covered or not, can elicit complaints about indecent exposure, often from other mothers. All states/territories except Idaho and Puerto Rico have laws explicitly allowing women to breastfeed in public, and 29 states plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands also exempt breastfeeding from prosecution for public indecency or indecent exposure; some companies have also changed their policies in the last few years to allow and protect breastfeeding mothers. However, public attitudes vary, and a mother breastfeeding in public, particularly uncovered, may receive some unwanted stares and in rare cases negative comments.
The United States has a higher proportion of religious adherents than many Western nations, and visitors looking to attend services should have no problem locating a house of worship, even in small towns. A typical medium-sized American town or city probably has one or more Catholic parishes, several Protestant churches (the most common being Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal/Anglican), and other houses of worship depending on the demographics of the area (such as synagogues or mosques).
Most Christian churches in the United States practice an "open table", meaning they welcome you to participate in worship, and some or all rituals, even if you're not a member of their religious denomination. Some churches, and some entire denominations, welcome LGBT individuals.
Some churches also have after-church luncheon for free or at a cost. Visitors are always welcome to stay for lunch and fellowship as a way to meet locals.
News and media
Print media are not as ubiquitous as they were before the advent of the Internet, but print 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 a number of papers to choose from, each with its own editorial slant and biases, but all of generally high quality of reporting. (A few exceptions, known as "tabloids" after their most common printing format, exist; you can identify them by their exaggerated, sensational headlines.)
The national paper of record is The New York Times ($2.50 daily, $6 Sunday); although ostensibly a newspaper local to New York City, its coverage of national and international issues makes it daily reading just about anywhere in the country. For financial news, The Wall Street Journal (also based in NYC, $2) is similarly well-respected and widely read. For a more casual but still informative format, USA Today ($2) publishes five days a week; it's the most widely circulated print newspaper in the country. Many hotels offer free copies of either the local paper or USA Today; ask at the front desk. Other widely read papers include the Los Angeles Times (known for its West Coast coverage) and The Washington Post (with exemplary political reporting from the nation's capital). Newsmagazines like Time are published weekly and 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 & national news, syndicated shows, and in-house TV series. You'll rarely be traveling anywhere that you'd need to use an antenna, though; almost the entire country is wired for cable TV. That opens up a whole range of options for viewing, from CNN for news to The Weather Channel to ESPN for sports, along with countless entertainment channels. The channel numbers vary based on the cable provider and location, which is why most hotels provide a channel listing. Most cable systems also have a program guide available through the cable box.
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 and music stations are almost exclusively found on the FM band. The most popular radio music formats are Country, Top 40 (current hits), and Adult Contemporary (a blend of soft rock, easy listening, and the softer side of modern pop). Many rental cars come equipped with satellite radio from SiriusXM, which offers hundreds of channels of music, comedy, news, and sports, without the need to keep finding new stations as you drive across the country.
Given its size, the United States is a very diverse country, meaning that cultural norms can vary significantly from region to region, and it is difficult to generalize what could be offensive and what could not. For instance, while making homophobic statements 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.
- 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 an adult, once you're introduced to someone, you can usually call them by their first name; if someone gives only their first name when being introduced, you can call them that way. Calling someone by their last name is more formal, and with rare exceptions (e.g. sports teams) is always done with "Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss", or with a professional title (e.g., "Doctor [last name]" or "Professor [last name]" or "Officer [last name]"). Such professional titles can also be used alone without a name ("Doctor" [only for a medical doctor] or "Professor" or "Officer"), but not so with "waiter", "bus/taxi driver", "flight attendant", etc. (which are jobs, not titles). If you don't know someone's name, use "sir/ma'am/madam".
- If you're not certain, it's safer to be overly polite and use last names until you're told "Please, call me [first name]", than to be overly familiar by using someone's first name.
- Students should call teachers "Professor [last name]" or "Professor" (at college level), or "Dr. [last name]" or "Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss [last name]" depending on whether the teacher has a doctoral degree. "Instructor" and "teacher" are jobs, not titles, so you can talk about "my instructor" or "your teacher", but not call someone "Instructor" or "Teacher".
- There's no set way to address a college TA (teaching assistant); calling them "Professor" is totally inaccurate, and "teaching assistant" is not a title. Sticking with "Mr./Ms." is a safe option, although since TAs are fellow students, most will accept or prefer first names.
- At a homestay, call your homestay parents "Mr./Mrs. [last name]" (in this instance, you don't need to worry about using "Dr." in place of "Mr./Mrs."); that's what their children's friends would normally call them. Depending on the family, they may ask you to call them by their first names, or even to call them "mom" and "dad".
- 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.
- As a result of the country's history of racial discrimination and the modern push toward equality, Americans are exceptionally touchy about issues of race. If you have to reference race, Black or African-American, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American or American Indian, and White or Caucasian are acceptable terms.
- There are some racist tropes that have historically appeared in caricatures, and it would be best for you to avoid alluding to any of them in normal conversation. A lot of this is probably common sense, but there are a few that might not be obvious to some foreign visitors to the United States. 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. Similarly, not all Latinos are Mexican, speak Spanish and eat spicy food.
- 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.
- The Swastika symbol is considered to be very offensive in the U.S. owing to its association with anti-Semitism, Nazism and white supremacy. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain visitors should keep all Swastika symbols out of sight.
- Confederate symbols, especially the "Confederate flag" though widespread in the South are controversial in most of the country and increasingly associated with racism and negative stereotypes about the South
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. Historically, area codes used to be geographically defined, but nowadays, they are assigned more by population than location (within a state), so expect many codes in large cities, and only one or two for the entirety of a mostly rural state. Whether a number is a mobile or a landline (and sometimes even its location) often cannot be distinguished from its area code or number.
From a mobile phone, a domestic call is simple: always dial ten digits without the "1".
From a fixed line, you can usually dial a local number using ten digits. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco require eleven digits. Places where a new area code overlays another one require ten-digit dialing, whereas areas with only one area code usually allow seven digits. If a number is written or given without the area code, you can usually dial it like that locally, but dialing ten digits should also work. For long-distance and toll-free, always dial eleven digits.
Domestic calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, 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. (Voice over IP users may be able to circumvent this restriction by calling via a U.S.-based gateway.) The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges (e.g. "adult entertainment"). This is also true of local seven-digit numbers starting with 976 (or, in some localities, 970).
To dial abroad, the international access code is 011. ("+" will also work on a mobile phone.)
Canada, U.S. territories, Bermuda, and 17 Caribbean nations are part of the North American Numbering Plan, and have the same country code ("1") as the U.S. Calls made between these countries are dialed using only the full 11-digit number, but almost all are charged at international rates. Calls between the U.S. and its territories may be more expensive than calls within the contiguous 48 states and D.C., or even calls between the U.S. mainland and Canada (which 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
The once ubiquitous pay phone is now much harder to find. Likely locations include in or near stores and restaurants, shopping mall entrances and near bus stops. In large cities, they can be hard to find outside of transport stations and hotels. Most are coin operated (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept paper bills. Prices are normally $0.50 for the first three minutes, and $0.25 for each additional minute. An online directory of pay phones can be found at Pay Phone Directory. Calls to 9-1-1, to report an emergency, and to area codes 800, 888, 877, 866, 855, and 844 (which are toll-free) are free from pay phones. A few commercial toll-free numbers block inbound calls from U.S. payphones as these calls cost an extra $0.60 to the called party.
Telephone directories contain two listings (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 also be had (at an extra cost) by dialing 4-1-1 (for local numbers) or 1-[area code]-555-1212 (for other areas). If 4-1-1 doesn't work, try 555-1212, [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 Frontier in Connecticut and West Virginia, and FairPoint in northern New England) also provide directory information. Using the website of the company that operates in the region you are interested in yields the best results (e.g. AT&T for most of California, and Verizon for the Northeast)
Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. They are generally aimed at specific types of call (e.g. domestic, or to particular countries). Credit can 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 four largest mobile phone networks in the U.S. are AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile. These all have good coverage of practically all urban/suburban and many rural areas of the country, although each network has strong and weak areas.
There is no surcharge for calling to a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are charged the same as calls to land lines), and mobile phones don't pay surcharges when calling domestic long-distance. Instead, mobile phones themselves are charged for all usage, outgoing and incoming. In other words, a call to/from a mobile phone carries the same cost to that mobile phone, but it doesn't matter whether it's local, domestic long-distance, or toll-free. Credit packages from $25/month allow you to make hundreds of minutes' worth of calls. A failed call (or a "missed call") will be charged since you are billed from the moment you dial.
If you want to have a mobile phone in the U.S. while you travel, you have several options:
- Using your phone from home isn't as easy as in some other countries, because North America and the western half of South America use the 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies, instead of 900 and 1800 MHz used elsewhere. If you have a phone from the same region or a phone that's tri- or quad-band (which includes many modern phones), you should be fine; otherwise, this option won't work for you. You will also need to pay attention to whether your phone is GSM/UMTS (used by AT&T and T-Mobile; common in Europe) or CDMA (used by Verizon and Sprint).
- Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling through a U.S. network) is expensive, and will depend on the networks your home provider has contracts with, as well as your own provider's fees. Internet data plans are ubiquitous in the U.S., but the normally-high prices become exorbitant once roaming fees are added.
- Canadian cell phones may roam at C$1.50/minute or more, although plans vary; prepaid-cash users may not roam at all. A small fourth carrier, Freedom Mobile, is an exception: while it has a limited footprint using non-standard frequencies at home, it is relatively inexpensive for roaming; a C$39 plan (roughly C$45 prepaid after taxes) covers unlimited talk, international text, and 5GB of data in the U.S. with no speed restrictions on standard T-Mobile and AT&T cellular frequencies.
- Roaming is also an issue for Americans who live, work, or travel in areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders. Roaming on non-U.S. networks is equally expensive for Americans. If you're visiting, say, Detroit, there are certain places near the border where the signal from Windsor is stronger, which means that unless you turn roaming off, your phone will connect to the Canadian network. In turn, you'll find yourself with unexpected roaming charges for voice or data on a future bill.
- Buying a SIM card is a better way to use your personal phone; by installing the SIM card in your phone, you'll have a local U.S. telephone number prepaid with no contract, hundreds of minutes' worth of calls, and large amounts of data. The prices make it more economical for extended stays, but the convenience of cheap calls and data make this an attractive option for any visitor.
- Roaming service (using your home phone number by simply calling through a U.S. network) is expensive, and will depend on the networks your home provider has contracts with, as well as your own provider's fees. Internet data plans are ubiquitous in the U.S., but the normally-high prices become exorbitant once roaming fees are added.
- SIM cards are available for purchase at some electronics and convenience stores. You'll need to make sure that your phone is not SIM-locked and is compatible with the SIM card and the frequencies of the network. Read the terms carefully, as some plans are actually recurring monthly contracts rather than one-time prepaid plans.
- Providers who sell prepaid SIM cards include AT&T's GoPhone, Cricket (which is owned by AT&T), Straight Talk's Bring Your Own Phone and T-Mobile.
- Purchasing prepaid minutes and a basic mobile phone is your next best option. These can be found at some grocery stores, at most electronics, office supply, and convenience stores, and of course online. A basic phone (without Internet access) and 60–100 minutes of time can be purchased for under $50. In addition to minutes, some prepaid services charge a flat fee per month (e.g. $20/month), or a fee for days when the phone is actually used (e.g. $1.25/day). Prepaid, contract-free mobile phone service is available from many prepaid-only providers, such as Boost Mobile, Cricket, Straight Talk, TracFone, and Virgin Mobile USA, as well as limited offerings from the major carriers: AT&T's GoPhone, T-Mobile, and Verizon Prepaid Wireless.
- Renting a phone costs from around $3/day, and can be done at shops in most of the larger airports. Depending on how long you're staying and how much you plan on calling or using data, it may be cheaper or easier to use a prepaid SIM card or prepaid phone instead.
- Getting a phone contract, which is what most Americans do, is something only visitors planning to stay long-term should consider. Unless you've lived in the U.S. for several months, international visitors won't have a credit rating that is recognized by U.S. service providers and therefore aren't able to subscribe to these plans (although some providers will let you get one with a deposit, typically at least $500). Contracts typically require a 24-month commitment (cancellation fees can reach $300!) to a specific monthly rate plan, and in exchange they subsidize the cost of the phone (so basic phones are "free", and smartphones only "cost" $50–$200).
Addressing mail with a properly-formatted address will expedite its journey with the United States Postal Service (USPS, not to be confused with the abbreviation for private shipper UPS). Most important is the ZIP code (postal code); you can look up ZIP codes and correct address formats online. ZIP codes were originally 5 digits; later they gained a hyphen and 4 extra digits, which are recommended but still optional, and used more commonly by businesses than by individuals.
Addresses should be written in three to four lines like this, which is similar to the format used in Australia and Canada:
Name of recipient
House number and street name
(If needed) Suite or apartment or building number
City or town, two-letter state abbreviation, ZIP code
or, as an example:
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
149 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94105-3739
There are recommended abbreviations for state names and terms (e.g. street = ST, avenue = AVE); the USPS address and ZIP code search uses them automatically. The USPS also recommends that addresses be written using only upper case letters and no punctuation (except the hyphen in the ZIP code and hyphens and slashes in some house numbers), but automated sorting machines accept mixed-case lettering and even cursive writing just as easily.
First-class international airmail postcards and letters (up to one ounce/28.5 grams) cost $1.15. (The lower rate to Canada and Mexico has ended.) All locations with a ZIP code are considered domestic, including the 50 states, U.S. possessions, Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, and overseas military bases, ships (APO or FPO) and diplomatic posts (APO or DPO). Domestic postcards cost $0.34, and ordinary letters up to an ounce, $0.49. "Forever" stamps are available for the first ounce of both domestic and international postage, and protect against future increases. Mailing thick or rigid objects, or non-standard shapes increases the postage cost.
Poste Restante, the receiving of mail at a post office rather than a private address, is called "General Delivery." There is no charge for this service. You will need to show ID such as a passport to pick up your mail. You do not need to have mail addressed to a particular post office by its name--use only "General Delivery" in the second line. For example:
Seattle, WA 98101-9999
The last four digits of the ZIP code for General Delivery are always "9999". If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will allow General Delivery. For example, if you're staying in the Green Lake district of Seattle (a few miles north of downtown), you cannot receive your mail at the Green Lake Post Office, and must travel downtown to get it. However, if you're in an independent suburb just outside a large city having only one government post office you can have it sent there. Another option is to rent a post office box.
FedEx and UPS also have a "Hold for Pickup" option and have locations throughout larger cities in the U.S. Though usually more expensive, these may be a better option when receiving something important from abroad.
Given the ubiquity of private Internet access, Internet cafés are rare outside major cities and tourist areas. However, you do have some options, except perhaps in the most rural of areas. Accessible 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. Try to use only public networks. Using a private network (even one without a password), unless authorized to do so, is illegal (though enforcement is nearly non-existent), and it may also allow criminals to track your browsing and so defraud you. Even traffic on public networks may be logged.
A few less obvious 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. It may cost though.
- Paid Wi-Fi chains – give you access to numerous hotspots for a small charge, e.g. Boingo.
Mobile broadband via a USB modem is also an option. Service providers include Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile (which uses the Sprint network). Make sure to check a coverage map before you buy, each company has large areas with bad or no coverage. Also, these plans are subject to data limits which are easy to exceed unknowingly! Avoid watching videos over a mobile network.
Public PC terminals
Internet cafés can still be found in some larger cities (e.g. New York and Los Angeles). Airports and shopping malls offer Internet access terminals for 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 (formerly Kinkos) (+1-800-463-3339/+1-800-GOFEDEX; when prompted by the voice menu, say "FedEx Office" or press "64") is open 24 hr and is nationwide. Some are also commercial mail receiving agents (such as The UPS Store) and offer fax service.
- Smart hotels — have "business centers" replete with computers, printers, photocopies, and fax machines.
- 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.