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Know Before You Go: Travelling to America for the First Time

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So you’re thinking of travelling to America for the first time? Great news! 

From applying for your ESTA and figuring out state laws to understanding money and American etiquette, this list of thirty things to know before going to America is a must read!

Know Before You Go: Planning Your Trip To America

1. Check when hurricane season and tornado season are before booking your trip

Destinations on the south east coast such as Florida are at risk of hurricanes at certain times of the year. This is known as the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November.

Likewise, April through June is a peak time for tornadoes to strike places like Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.

So keep both of these freak weather seasons in mind when planning your own USA trip.

USA Storm

2. Check the ‘six month club’ passport validity rules

Travellers from some countries are required to have a passport that is valid for six months beyond their intended stay in the US.

You can check whether this applies to you here [last updated in 2017].

3. You’ll need to apply for an ESTA before travelling to the USA

ESTA stands for ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation’ and is a Visa Waiver Program. 

This enables travellers from certain countries to travel freely throughout the US (up to 90 consecutive days per trip) without having to apply for a traditional visa. For instance, if you’re travelling to the USA from the UK, then an ESTA is for you.

Although authorisation is usually granted within a few hours, it’s recommended to apply for a US ESTA well before your trip in case of any delays. This is the most important thing to do before travelling to the USA!

4. Know the rules about connecting flights

If you’re catching an international flight that has a US connection, which is most common with trips to Canada or South America, then you’ll still need to clear US customs and immigration just as you would if you were staying in America.

This means fulfilling the visa or ESTA visa requirements, even if you’re only staying in an American airport for a couple of hours between connecting flights, so make sure you allow for a 2-3 hour layover (as a minimum).

Venice Canals, Los Angeles

Know Before You Go: Packing & Border Control

5. You’ll need to pack a Type A adapter

American plug sockets are Type A and Type B (with the latter also fitting Type A sockets). 

We always prefer packing a universal adapter like this one so that we know it’ll work wherever we end up going.

6. Use a TSA-approved lock

Did you know that TSA agents in America are permitted to break locks on your luggage if they suspect something is amiss? A note will be placed inside your bag to tell you if this has happened to you.

To avoid having to replace your lock, you can use TSA-approved locks, which can be opened by any TSA agent with a master key.

7. Always check in online beforehand if you can

Okay so this isn’t a tip specifically for the US but it’s useful to know if you’re new to travelling by air. 

Airlines across the world frequently overbook flights, so that if a passenger doesn’t show up or cancels at the last minute, then the plane will always fly full.

If you’ve checked in online in advance then you won’t be bumped from the flight unless the airline calls for volunteers (and you put your hand up).

There’s a useful TripAdvisor post that goes into this in more detail here.

Clouds from the plane

8. Customs and border control are taken very seriously

Particularly since 9/11, the US takes customs and border control very seriously.

Never try to be smart with border control in your answers to their questions or joke with the TSA agents (unless they’ve already cracked a joke with you first, which is rare).

You’ll be asked all sorts of questions like how long you’re staying for, where you’re staying, is your trip for business or leisure, what work are you doing if it is a business trip and possibly more.

Just answer them honestly and succinctly and you should be stamped through without a problem – providing you’ve sorted your ESTA or visa of course!

Know Before You Go: USA Laws

9. State laws differ across the fifty states

Something you’ll notice a lot when reading the rest of these top things to know before travelling to America for the first time is that each state operates differently – just like individual countries do!

Each US state is a sovereign entity in its own right, so are granted the power to create state laws and regulate them according to their own needs, to be used alongside federal laws.

Examples of when state laws differ are in the cases of gun control, same-sex marriage and abortion.

New York in the rain

10. The legal drinking age is 21

You can vote, smoke and enlist in the military at the age of 18 but you have to be over 21 in order to drink. 

As strange as it sounds, this is a universal law across all US states – and they’re very strict about it, so take your ID everywhere you go!

11. The legal gambling age is sometimes 18 and sometimes 21… and sometimes another number entirely

To gamble in Las Vegas, you have to be 21. Head to Idaho or Rhode Island and you can go to a casino at the age of 18. And then there’s Alabama who calls for you to be 19 before you can legally gamble. Confused yet? Us too.

12. Take note of smoking bans and where they’re in effect

Smoking bans are in effect across a number of US states but – as usual – laws differ from state to state. 

Some states don’t regulate smoking at all, others have banned smoking in certain areas and not others, while other states have banned smoking from nearly everywhere (even in outdoor areas).

Check out this guide to find out where you can – and can’t – light up.

Los Angeles Sunset

Know Before You Go: Money & Shopping

13. Tipping is expected… for almost everything

Hailing a taxi or Uber? You should tip. Grabbing a coffee to go from a cafe? You should probably tip. Ordering food in a restaurant? You should definitely tip.

In the UK, we’re accustomed to only tipping when we’ve had particularly great service. But in the US, they’re accustomed to tipping. Fullstop.

I remember during my first trip to America that I was surprised there was a tip jar in the takeout section of The Cheesecake Factory. All my server was doing was taking a slice of cake from the display and boxing it up for me, but my American friends were aghast and embarrassed when I “forgot” to add to the tip jar. Since then, I now tip for most things when visiting the US.

14. Always be prepared to pay more than you think

Prices shown in shops and restaurants are excluding tax so you should always expect to pay more than you initially think.

US sales tax is a BEAST to get your head around too as each state has its own individual sales tax rate – and some states like Oregon don’t have a state tax at all!

As a general rule of thumb, you should expect to pay at least 10% more at the till.

15. Credit cards are king pretty much everywhere

America is big on using credit cards pretty much everywhere; there are even some places that flat out refuse to take cash!

So make like Trump and get the flashiest travel credit card you can find!

Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles

16. ATMs usually charge for cash withdrawals

Another reason why credit cards are king in America is because most ATMs – even ones at banks – charge you to take money out. 

We found the average price to be about $3 per withdrawal, which is just crazy!

If needed, some gas stations have ATMs inside that don’t charge – look for ‘No Fee ATM’ signs in a cashier window.

17. America doesn’t have chip and PIN everywhere yet either

While the US has recently started to roll out a chip and PIN system across the country, it’s not yet used or accepted by all stores. And don’t even think about trying to use your contactless credit card!

Instead, the chip and sign or swipe and sign methods are used. And sometimes, especially since the announcement in April 2018 from a number of big-name credit card companies, you won’t be asked to sign at all – just insert or swipe and go.

18. Walmart, Target and CVS Pharmacy sell everything you need

Although America is BIG on shopping, if you’re struggling to find something then the chances are high that a Walmart, Target or CVS Pharmacy will have it. So head to one of these stores first and hope for the best!

19. Food portions are HUGE so you’ll probably want to share

Unless you’re used to large portions, you’ll feel your eyes pop out of your head when receiving food from restaurants or takeaways in America.

Scott and I almost always share now wherever we go within the US as we know we won’t finish our meals and don’t want to add to the food wastage issue over there. Plus it’s cheaper as one $15 or $20 plate of food is more than enough for us both!

20. Healthcare and hospital visits aren’t free… nope, not even for tourists!

Americans have to pay for their own healthcare and hospital visits, either with insurance or cash – and this is no different for tourists.

And it doesn’t come cheap either!

A single trip to the emergency room for a few stitches and some antibiotics can cost hundreds of dollars.

So – whatever you do – make sure you buy travel insurance before you book your trip, so that you’re covered for every eventuality, whether flights are cancelled or delayed, your baggage is lost, or worse, you need to see a doctor during your trip.

Know Before You Go: Culture & Etiquette

21. Avoid talking about politics during your visit

Just like Brexit is a touchy subject within the UK at the moment (and for the foreseeable future), politics is very much the same within America.

Despite Trump winning against Hilary Clinton in 2016, ‘swing states’ like Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania essentially decided the vote – but it was still close-run!

We’d stay clear of discussing politics during your visit as you will find it hard to work out who is a Trump supporter, who isn’t and who has changed their minds since he came into power.

22. Watch out for tourist scams in large cities

From having your photo taken with superheroes to unofficial taxis and “free” gifts, there are various tourist scams to watch out for (particularly in large cities).

Just do a quick search online before your trip for “CITY + SCAMS” (e.g. New York Scams) so that you’re prepared for what you might see during your trip.

New York At Night

23. Expect to see a lot of poverty and homeless people

While hoards of homeless people frequent large cities, you should expect to also see a big difference in poverty levels between big cities on the coasts and small non-coastal towns (for example).

If you’re not used to seeing homeless people or rundown houses, then it may be a bit of a culture shock for you. So just be prepared for that!

24. Americans measure things differently

Did you know that a section of the United States Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to “fix the standard of weights and measures”? 

This was the start of Americans not using the metric system that was adopted by Britain at the time.

Instead, Americans use US customary units, which means distances are measured in inches, feet, yards and miles; weights and cooking ingredients are measured in pounds, fluid ounces, quarts, cups and gallons; and temperatures are measured in degrees Fahrenheit, not Celsius.

25. Americans also expect you to BE ON TIME!

Americans are big fans of things happening on time, so if you’ve agreed to meet someone at 2pm, that doesn’t mean 2.05 or 2.10pm unless you’ve called ahead first to apologise for being late.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

Know Before You Go: Top USA Destinations

26. America spans six different time zones from east to west

At 3.8 million square miles in size and with a population of over 327 million people, the USA is one of the world’s largest countries.

It’s impossible to see all the top sights on one trip unless you’re travelling full-time or on a gap year – or several gap years!

There are also six different time zones in effect from east to west, which include:

  • Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time (HST) 
  • Alaska Standard Time (AKST)
  • Pacific Standard Time (PST)
  • Mountain Standard Time (MST)
  • Central Standard Time (CST)
  • Eastern Standard Time (EST)

27. Hawaii and Alaska are US states… despite being far away 

Over 500 miles of Canadian soil separates Alaska from Washington. While Hawaii is over 2,400 miles away from its closest state, California. 

BUT! Both destinations are still US states in their own right, so are subject to ESTA visa requirements and state laws just like any other state.


28. There’s more to the US than LA, New York and San Francisco

When travelling to America for the first time, you shouldn’t feel like you’ve “seen” America until you’ve travelled through small and medium-sized towns as well. 

Top places outside of the well-known city hubs include Nashville, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. This is where you’ll find true American hometowns and a more local feel.

29. Escape the city and #getoutside

America is a large country and full of incredible outdoor spaces and stunning National Parks. In fact, there are 58 of them in total!

Some of the most well known parks include Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, while lesser known ones that are just as beautiful include Great Basin in Nevada and the Volcano National Park in Hawaii.

Wherever you decide to go to escape the city, you’re sure to discover a world of incredible natural beauty throughout America!

Yellowstone National Park

30. Road trips are a popular pastime

Despite America’s size, a popular pastime for locals and tourists alike are road trips.

Perhaps one of the most popular USA road trips is the Pacific Coast Highway in California, which covers some 590 miles and links the popular cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco. If you love beaches, surfing and Mexican food, then this road trip will be perfect for you!

Another popular road trip in America is Utah’s All-American Road along Scenic Byway 12, which will find you passing desert-like landscapes, mountains, canyons, red rock towers, pine forests, numerous state parks and breathtaking vistas throughout the 119 miles.

Just remember that an American road trip like one of these demands quite a lot of your time and energy, so don’t rush it!

Did you find this list of things to know before going to America useful? Is there anything else you want to know about ESTAs, etiquette, eateries, etc? Just let us know in the comments below…

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Justine Jenkins

Justine is one half of the married couple behind the Wanderers of the World travel blog. She lives in Bristol, UK and has travelled extensively within Europe and beyond since 2013. After her trips, she shares detailed travel itineraries, helpful travel guides and inspiring blog posts about the places she's been to. When she's not travelling overseas, you'll find her joining her husband, Scott on various day trips, weekend getaways and walks within the UK, which she also writes about on Wanderers of the World. Aside from travelling and writing, she also loves reading, crafting and learning about nature.

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