34 Things I wish I knew before visiting the United States of America

Out of all the countries in the world, the USA is easily one of the most popular to travel to. There’s a good reason why most Americans don’t even have a passport; their country is massive and contains some of the most sought-after travel destinations within its borders. Some of the more popular destinations within the US include CaliforniaNew York, and Florida (for Miami), but there are so many unique places to visit in the US, that it can be hard to see past the obvious choices. From nature to culture, and landscapes to cityscapes, the US has somethingfor everyone. However, there are certainly some things you should know before visiting America that will definitely come in handy once you’re stateside. Below we detail some of the most beneficial tips to use when you travel in the USA

The US is big – 3.8 million square miles big

united states national parks

I know we all know this but a lot of people tend to forget it when traveling to the US. To put it into perspective, if you take a flight from New York, you’ll take less time to travel to Iceland than you would to take to reach Los Angeles. It’s also not surprising for people to take two-hour-long daily commutes.

Things to know before visiting America- Visa requirements

things to know before visiting america

Travelers from certain countries don’t need a visa to enter the US (for anytime less than 90 days, that is). However, this only applies to certain countries. If your country isn’t a part of the US’s Visa Waiver Program, then you’re going to need to get a visa. 

Obtaining a visa for travel to the US might be easy, or it might be difficult (it really depends on your country’s relationship with the US, politically speaking). Even if you don’t need a visa, you’re still going to need to apply/register with ESTA (which stands for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization) or obtain an e-visa.

Know your Esta

The VWP (Visa Waiver Program) allows nationals of several different countries to enter the US without a visa and stay up to 90 days. If your country is on this list, you don’t have to apply for a visa but you will need to obtain a US ESTA before visiting. Fortunately, ESTA is significantly easier to obtain compared to getting a US tourist visa. However, before applying, you should make sure you’re eligible. If you’re not sure, you can carry out an ESTA application check to know if you are qualified to apply for an ESTA.

Make sure your passport is valid

things to know before visiting america

Before you even buy your plane tickets, you should make sure that your passport is valid. According to US regulations, your passport must be valid for 6 months from the time you enter the country. Some countries are an exception and their residents need their passports to be valid only for the length of their stay but for other countries, this requirement is even stricter. To find out in which group your country belongs, check out your national government website to see which rules apply to your country’s residents.                        

Don’t forget that there are fifty states of America

 

Regional differences between different states are bigger than what you might think. People from different states have different accents, different words for the same thing, different cultures, different food, and drinks, etc. Alaska has the Northern Lights, Alabama has college football, California has Hollywood, Colorado has skiing, New York is always in a rush, Texas has guns, Montana has three times more cows than people…

So, it’s no surprise that…

State laws are different

brooklyn bridge

You don’t have to wear a seatbelt in New Hampshire but this will get you in trouble in any other state. You can probably get away with drinking in public in cities like Vegas and New Orleans, but this is punishable by law in most other states. Laws regarding motorbike helmets differ by state. In some states, marijuana is legal (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington), in others strictly prohibited (Louisiana). These differences lead to a lot of…

Regional stereotypes & things to know before visiting America

us regional stereotypes

Now, I never support stereotypes and generalizations, but in a country as vast as the US, you can learn a lot about the people in different parts of the country just by getting to know the typical state stereotypes people from other states have about them.

According to the rest of the US, the north-eastern states are crowded, cold, and very rich. The Midwestern states or “flyover country” are famed for their rural, sparsely-populated towns, friendly people, endless stretches of farmland, and a lot of corn. Most southern states are associated with hot weather, rednecks, racism, Country music, and some of the poorest regions in the country.

A lot of people associate the west coast with hot weather and beaches, multi-millionaires, liberals, deserts, and marijuana. However, this region actually has several different climate zones and you can go from snow-capped mountains to sunny beaches over very small distances. This topic probably deserves an article of its own, but for starters, knowing these common regional stereotypes should be a good foundation for learning more about US culture.

And just like most stereotypes aren’t true…

The most interesting places to visit oftentimes aren’t the ones you think

bryce canyon

Most people come to the US to visit New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, these places have a lot to offer, but if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I always advise people to get off the beaten track. And the US has a lot of amazing places off the beaten track. States and towns that you probably wouldn’t even think about visiting. Personally, my favorite part of the US is the northwest; it gets barely any international visitors but it’s home to spectacular parks, picturesque rivers, mesmerizing waterfalls, and rock formations that will make you feel like you’re on another planet.

This leads me to my next point… 

The most beautiful part of the US are the national parks

yellowstone national park bear

The national parks in the US cover more than 80 million acres of the country’s territory. So, it’s no surprise that it’s here where you’ll find some of the most amazing natural phenomena of our planet, including the highest point in North America (Mount McKinley), the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Death Valley), the largest sand dunes in the world (White Sands National), the longest cave system in the world (Mammoth Cave National Park), just to name a few.

I know all this sounds tempting and you can get cheap flights to anywhere in the US but…

You have to resist the urge not to try to see everything 

 

Let’s not forget that the US spans over a larger territory than all European countries combined. If you’re planning to get from East to West and see a lot of places along the way, you can get a serious overload if you don’t have at least a few months in your schedule. Sure, you can take a bunch of cheap flights, use hop on hop off buses, or city passes, but the best way to travel in the US is to focus on a region, travel deeper, and get to know as much as possible as that particular region.

Alternatively, if you still want to see a lot in a short period, there are some good tours, like G Adventures’ DC to NOLA tour (Washington D.C. to New Orleans) in 14 days.

Travel by train

train travel usa

You might have heard that public transport in the US isn’t as good as the one in Europe and even though this is kinda true, you’d be surprised how far can you go with Amtrak’s trains. Amtrak operates more than 30 train routes that cover more than 500 destinations across the United States. You can cover some long distances and see a lot of beautiful sights along the way. Even today, train travel is my favorite method of transport in the US but I’d only recommend you use it if you have an ample amount of time.

Another great way to explore the USA is…

Taking a road trip

usa road trip

The best way to get off the beaten track and explore on your own without being dependant on a tour’s schedule or bus/train networks is to rent a car. There’s always something majestic about taking a car and exploring the country’s most scenic and isolated roads and this is something that has even left a permanent mark on American culture through numerous movies like Into the Wild, Thelma, and Louis, and Rain Man, and evergreen music classics, such as Born to Be Wild, Life is a Highway, etc.

If you want to rent a car in the US, you can use this link to get up to 30% off on all car rentals in the country. However, keep in mind that…

You need to be at least 25 years old to rent a car in the US

This is one of the most important things you should know before visiting America if you’re planning to take a road trip. As strange as it sounds, rules are rules.

And speaking of rules…

You’ll need to show proof of age

As you probably know, the legal drinking age in the US is 21. This also means that in order to enter clubs, bars, pubs, and other places where alcohol is served, you will have to show proof of age. Also, a lot of places won’t accept your local driving license as proof. So, if you want to go clubbing, it’s probably a good idea to take your passport.

Get used to the US metric system

usa metric system

Distance is measured in yards and miles, height is measured in feet, food is measured in pounds and ounces, area is measured in acres, liquids are measured in gallons, etc. And even though, the metrification of the US has been introduced in the country’s legislation since the 18th century, people still keep using the old customary units, simply because there is no governmental or major social desire to implement further metrication.

So, before you go shopping, make sure to learn some basic customary units.

And talking about shopping, one of the most important things to know before visiting America is that…

You have to pay sale tax on every purchase

usa sales tax   

When you shop at the supermarket or anywhere else for that matter, the displayed prices don’t include sales tax. So, no, the shopkeeper isn’t trying to make money from you if they charge you $110 for a $100 purchase. And that’s not all. Most states have different sales tax policies and the same product from the same manufacturer can have a different price if purchased in two different states.

But this isn’t the only additional expense you have to make when shopping…

You also have to tip… Generously!

tipping in the usa

Even though, officially tipping is voluntary, unofficially tipping is a norm, especially in restaurants. In case you didn’t know, most servers (waiters) in the US earn an hourly wage way below the minimum wage and they actually make most of their money from tipping. 15% to 20% is the norm in restaurants unless the service you received was extremely bad. If everything was alright and you leave a tip lower than that, you better don’t come back to the same restaurant again.

Moreover, tipping isn’t only limited to restaurants. You should also tip bartenders, housekeepers, valets, doormen, concierge, and even shuttle and taxi drivers (unless a service charge is already included in the price).

“American food” isn’t really a thing

american food

Having in mind that most people came to the United States from different parts of the world, we can’t really talk about authentic American food. Except for places like New Orleans and some of the southern states that have a rich traditional cuisine. However, what makes the US a country with a fairly rich food scene is the fact that you can find anything, ranging from Ethiopian food, Indian street food, Asian and continental food, to Salvadorian and Central American delicacies.

One thing that’s very American when it comes to food is…

Supersize portions

world's biggest burger

You’ll find that portions are a lot larger than what you might expect in most restaurants. Additionally, most fast-food chains have “supersize” options. Have this in mind before dining out and placing an order.

You can’t smoke anywhere

smoking in the usa

Anti-smoking measures are becoming more strict in a lot of countries around the world but they’re extremely strict in the US when it comes to smoking. At the time of writing this post, 38 states have a state-wide policy against smoking in indoor spaces. Some states like California also have expanded this ban to public parks, beaches, and private residencies. If you’re smoking this is one of the most important things to know before visiting America. Make sure you’re familiar with the local laws before deciding to light one up.

You’re not in a Hollywood movie, so keep the slangs to yourself

Unlike what you see in most Hollywood movies, most Americans take speech very seriously and you’ll rarely hear people using slangs and/or words associated with certain races or ethnic groups. Don’t use phrases like “how are y’all”, the N-word, the G-word or other phrases you oftentimes hear in movies unless you hear a lot of people around you using it regularly.

For a bathroom or free Wi-Fi, head to Starbucks

starbucks free wifi

After a publicity fiasco where an African American was accused of trespassing while he was waiting for his friends without ordering anything. After this, Starbucks adopted a new policy that states that every customer is welcome to use all Starbucks spaces, including their bathrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase.

For cheap things, head to Walmart

walmart

To put it simply, Walmart is the place to buy anything you might need at the lowest price possible. And when I say anything, I mean anything. From groceries and home appliances to electronics and camping gear. Also, if you’re camping, Walmart allows free overnight parking for campers who can’t find another camping ground around. It’s not the most pleasant experience but it’s free.

Or use Amazon Lockers

If you can’t find what you’re looking for at Walmart or just don’t like Walmart, the next best option is Amazon. You can always have what you’re looking for shipped to an Amazon Locker. The lockers accept deliveries and returns alike and are available in hundreds of places around the country.

Plastic over Paper 

Debit and credit cards are the preferred method of payment in most places. Additionally, most cards issued in the US are not chip-and-pin (don’t require the customer to add the PIN when making a transaction). This makes the whole shopping process a lot more simple and it’s no surprise that most Americans prefer plastic over paper. If you still want to use cash, make sure to withdraw money at “No-Fee ATMs”. Some ATMs will charge a fee for using them in addition to the fee charged by your bank.   

A hospital visit costs a fortune

If you’re not familiar with the confusing, complex, and ridiculously expensive health system, this is one of the most important things you should know before visiting America. If God forbid something happens to you, a trip to the hospital will cost a lot, even if it’s for a simple examination. That’s why travel insurance is a must when traveling to the US. Personally, I recommend you choose World Nomads. Sure, they might be more expensive than most average travel insurance providers but they will have your back no matter what happens, unlike some other travel insurance providers that offer cheap packages but don’t provide coverage for a lot of emergencies.

Always keep it moving

grand central station

Typically, if you’re not moving with the flow, it’s customary to stay aside. For example, if you’re on an escalator or walking slower on the sidewalk, stick to the right side. People who are in a hurry tend to pass you on from your left side. Have this in mind. There’s no quicker way to piss off an American than slowing them down in their attempts to get to their final destination.

Or if there is such a thing, it would definitely be…

Touching or invading personal space

new york central crowded

Americans don’t like it when strangers invade their personal space, or God forbid touch them. And nothing can change an interaction with a stranger to the worse more than doing any of these two things. Don’t assume people hug and kiss like in your hometown. Don’t practice these things unless you know someone personally and feel close enough to do that.

Another thing most Americans don’t like is…

Silence

From my personal experience, most Americans are obsessed with keeping a conversation flowing even if it’s just small talk and most of them start behaving awkwardly when there’s a silence longer than 3 seconds. That’s why a lot of people use filters like ‘uh’, ‘so’, ‘yea’, etc. However, there are some instances in which it’s better to shut up. For example when…

Joking with terrorism

Do. Not. Ever. Joke. About. Terrorism. Americans are extremely sensitive when it comes to this.

Another thing they’re sensitive about is…

Football

american football

Coming from Europe, there’s only one ‘football’ for me but most Americans disagree. Don’t try to show how superior our football is. Americans will never understand. You’ll only waste your time and get into a few unnecessary arguments. Even the most tolerant people turn into a Cowboys fan when feeling cornered.

Yes, there are a lot of guns 

gun shopPhoto by Idawriter CC by 3.0

A lot of people who visit the US for the first time find this hard to believe. I was also one of them. During my stay in Minot, a small town in North Dakota, I saw two gun shops conveniently located next to a restaurant and a furniture shop. A lot of people in the US own guns and gun crime is very real in a lot of cities. However, don’t worry; the chances of actually seeing a person with a gun on the street are very rare.

Finally, here are a couple of more things to know before visiting America, about transiting and getting out of airports upon arrival to be more specific.

Know the rules when it comes to transit

us airport transit

Technically, there’s no such thing as transit in America. All passengers have to disembark through immigration, customs, and double luggage check. So, even if you are only transiting or taking a connecting domestic flight, allow 2-3 hours to complete all procedures. Whenever possible, book your tickets with one airline, so that they are aware that you’re transiting.

Book your airport transfer

new york traffic

Cars are the way to go in the US. Most households own cars and hence, public transport facilities aren’t great. Unfortunately, this includes getting from the airport to the city and vice versa. The best and cheapest way to commute between the airport and the city you’re currently in is to book an airport transfer. You can save up to 15% on most airports around the country by using this special offer by Shuttle Finder.

Helpful resources for visiting the US

Looking for cheap flights to the US? Use this speciall offer by Air France to save up to 20% on all flights to the US.

If you’re searching for great accommodation deals, use this Booking special offer to save big on all bookings around the country.

Are you planning to visit a lot of galeries, museums, and other popular tourist sights? Get a City Pass and save up to 44% when visiting the most famous tourist attractions.

If you want to get off the beaten track and get to some of these places, you’ll probably need to rent a car. Use this special offer to get up to 30% off on all car rentals in the country. 

Do you think you’ll need airport parking at some point of your trip? Use this offer to save up to 15%.

If you’re collect points and miles, there’s a way to earn more rewards while you travel by transfering points from different airlines. Just check out points.com. You’ll thank me later.

And last but not least, don’t forget about travel insurance. Personally, my choice is always World Nomads.

Did you ever visit the US? Did you like this list of things to know before visiting America? Do you think we forgot to mention something important? Let us know in the comments!

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27 thoughts on “34 Things I wish I knew before visiting the United States of America”

  1. Its always good to do research if doing a long trip to a new country and I was glad I did when I visit the States for the first time. So glad I rented a car out there instead of thinking of using public transport. Apart from major city subway systems, I am not impressed with long distance train or coach travel. And the advice about the visas is good, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of the staff at border control. I have seen so many arguments at passport control from visitors who are going to the USA. Great tips here.

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  2. These are all great comments. I love that how big the states are is the first. I think people forget that it takes a few hours to drive out of California let alone drive across the country. Or bicycle across like I did haha.

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  3. I have to agree that the best part of the US is the national parks, I visited over 10 on my last trip to the USA. The portion sizes are huge and I normally find if I eat out, that I just take the leftovers and its a meal for the next day. I found it quite easy to move from big city to big city by greyhound buses, but outside of this I needed to hire a car and most small cities, their buses stop running around 5pm which is crazy!! Can’t wait for my next trip back there though to explore more of the parks

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    • This. In the US, for the most part, you are expected to take the remainder of the meal with you. It’s the opposite of the stigma lots of european countries have with ‘doggy bag’ culture. If you leave a ton of food behind in the US, you will be viewed as wasteful.

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  4. As a frequent visitor to the US, there are plenty of things I didn’t know here. The laws in different states are interesting, especially about the helmets! And I always go to Starbucks for the free WiFi!

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  5. I take for granted the large open space between places of interest but the drive time can be a bit much. Unfortunately, there is no way around it, you really do need a car. Tipping in the US is out of control, everyone expects a tip at this point. “Texas has guns” it’s always interesting to read what people outside of the US say about it. But it’s true, Texas does have guns… and amazing BBQ. Best advice you gave is to keep moving or get out of the way and watch personal space. For a country with a lot of conveniences we are always in a rush and always behind. We are also suspicious of people who invade our space. And many of us have no problem telling you to move, likely why Americans are viewed as rude. You had me laughing through most of this information but it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves right?

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  6. As Canadians, we probably take it for granted how easy it is to visit the USA. Canada too is huge so we have some appreciation for how long it takes to travel around. We also found that state taxes vary. So we saved our shopping for lower or no sales tax states. There are so many great road trips. And some good train routes. But trains still not as good as Europe. But better than Canada. Super sized portions are an issue for us. When we travel in the U.S. we HAM it (half a meal) – that is, we share an appetizer and then a main. That is usually more than enough for us. A great look at things that Americans don’t think twice about.

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    • Great to hear that Linda. For me, the food portion was a big problem too unfortunately I had no one to share the meals with.

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  7. As an American (who blogs about the US!) this was interesting to read, you made a lot of great points! There is SO much more to our country than New York and LA. The National Parks are where its at, and the small towns are some of the best ways to really get a feel for true Americana.

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  8. Doing some research before visiting a foreign country is always a good idea. Especially in the States, where, as you pointed out, laws may differ from state to state. Also good tip about using Starbucks for wi-fi breaks 🙂

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  9. Visiting the US is always been a dream for many travelers. We know how beautiful the country could be with all places and attractions it could offer us. But it could be a little tricky to visit the country because of the visa restriction you need to go through and I think that adds more challenge in your plan in visiting the USA.

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  10. I have not been to USA and I am planning my visit this year. This post is so so helpful. I have heard that the national parks are the best. Road trips are beautiful. And of course 50 states are too many, laws and rules are meant to be different. The most famous places are not actually the most beautiful ones. I learned a lot from this pots. Thanks a lot.

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  11. I too agree that there are so many things about USA that even if you visit one part some are still new to us. I have seen that all states have different rules and to visit from one place to another takes lot of time. USA is really huge and 50 big states means a lot. Every state is known uniquely for some of their features. It is sad that there is not much developed public transport and we have to rely on self-driving or renting a cab.

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  12. As an American, this was very interesting to read (I live in Nebraska – so I’m right in the center of the states). I didn’t realize how differently we did things until I spent time in Europe. Definitely agree with visiting other places besides LA and NY – they’re cool to experience, but they’re just another big city, and you’ll find more interesting culture in lesser known areas. You summed the USA up really well – I’m sure this is very helpful for visitors. Great post!

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  13. Really an interesting blog to read. Got to know a lot after reading this. There is so much to explore in US & this information will be really helpful for all the travelers before planning a trip to this country.

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