What to Know Before Visiting the United States
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
“Wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. I am not me anymore. At least I’m not the same me I was.” – Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, “Motorcycle Diaries”
Independence: July 4, 1776
Capital city: Washington D.C.
Area: 3,796,742 mi2 (9,833,520 km2)
National Language: English
Currency: United States Dollar (USD)
Drive on the: Right
WHERE IN THE WORLD
The United States covers nearly three million square miles (7.6 million square kilometers) of the North American continent, and is one of the largest countries in the world by total area. The country is bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, and touches the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes.
Given its size, the U.S. includes most climate types — tropical, desert, oceanic, alpine, subarctic, and Mediterranean. And its land is just as varied, featuring mountains, lakes, deserts, coasts, forests, beaches, marshland, valleys, and plains, among others.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The United States is huge, so it’s important to plan ahead and be choosy about which states and cities you plan to visit. Each region — and state — is different, so it’s important that you know what kind of trip you’re looking for before you book your flights and accommodation. For example, if you want that big-city atmosphere, head to New York City, but if you’re chasing snow, you’d be better off in Alaska. To learn more about each region, check out our U.S. travel guides of the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, the West, and major cities.
While each state might have its own unique eccentricities, each also has its own laws. If you plan to visit a certain state and are unsure of a particular law, research it ahead of time. Laws tend to be similar throughout the states, but not exactly the same. Better safe than sorry!
Unfortunately, unless you’re traveling to one of the major U.S. cities (New York City, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., or San Francisco — to name a few), you probably won’t find an efficient public transportation system. The U.S. thrives on a car culture, which is how most get around on a daily basis. If you decide to drive, there are a few key things to keep in mind. First, it’s rare to come across roundabouts in the U.S. Adhere to the traffic lights at intersections instead. It’s also good to note that there are certain highway driving rules — the further left you go, the faster the lane. So, if you’re planning to take it slow, stay to the right (which is always a good rule of thumb, since America drives on the right side of the road).
When taking advantage of the varied cuisine across the U.S., remember that the waitstaff at restaurants are not paid as well as in other countries around the world. For that reason, it’s customary to tip at least 15 percent of your total bill when you eat out. If you receive exceptional service, increase that number. For groups of six or more, a gratuity charge may be added to your check, which doesn’t require that you leave an additional tip.
You’ll be able to use credit cards around the country, but be aware that there is sales tax on almost everything (except in certain states). This means that the advertised cost will not be the final amount you pay. So, if something is priced at one dollar, you’ll actually pay around $1.07 with sales tax (though the actual tax percentage varies from state to state).
The United States is one of three countries around the world that doesn’t use the metric system for measurement. Instead of kilometers, meters, kilograms, and grams, the U.S. uses miles, feet, pounds, and ounces. The U.S. also measures temperature according to fahrenheit instead of celsius.
In the U.S., there are some prevailing cultural norms to follow. First, keep in mind that while many Americans may speak negatively about their home country, it’s not uncommon for those same citizens to get very defensive if you speak negatively about the U.S. Americans can be very prideful.
Americans also tend to keep their distance from one another — they like their personal space, and will find it odd if you stand too close to them. If you ever need to get in a line for something, don’t cut in front of anyone. There are also laws against smoking in public places — while there isn’t a federal law that restricts the practice, check state laws before you light up.
When in the United States, take advantage of one of the nation’s treasures — its 58 National Parks. Covering 84 million acres of land across the country, the national parks are as varied and unique as the U.S. itself. While it’s easy to stick to the main players (Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Great Smoky Mountains), don’t overlook some of the lesser-known parks, where you’ll find less crowds, cheaper (or no) entrance fees, and equally stunning landscapes.
Visiting the U.S. can be challenging, even for domestic travelers. So plan ahead and check out our handy guides to the major U.S. cities, journeys inspired by classic American books, U.S. locations from your favorite movies, National Parks swaps, the most bizarre landmarks in the U.S., the most interesting national monuments, and the colors of the United States for inspiration while planning your journey to the United States.