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The United States of America (USA), commonly referred to as the United States (U.S.) or America, is a federal republic composed of ‹See TfD›50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions.Forty-eight of the fifty states and the federal district are contiguous and located in North America between Canada and Mexico. The state of Alaska is in the far northwestern corner of North America, with a land border to the east with Canada and separated by the Bering Strait from Russia. The state of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific. The territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Nine time zones are covered. The geography, climate and wildlife of the country are extremely diverse.
At 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km2) and with over 324 million people, the United States is the world's fourth-largest country by total area (and fourth-largest by land area) and the third-most populous. It is one of the world's most ethnically diverse and multiculturalnations, and is home to the world's largest immigrant population. Urbanization climbed to over 80% in 2010 and leads to growing megaregions. The country's capital is Washington, D.C. and its largest city is New York City; the other major metropolitan areas, all with around five million or more inhabitants, are Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami, and Atlanta.
Paleo-Indians migrated from Asia to the North American mainland at least 15,000 years ago. European colonizationbegan in the 16th century. The United States emerged from 13 British coloniesalong the East Coast. Numerous disputes between Great Britain and the colonies in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War led to the American Revolution, which began in 1775. On July 4, 1776, as the colonies were fighting Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War, delegates from the 13 colonies unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The war ended in 1783 with recognition of the independence of the United States by Great Britain, and was the first successful war of independence against a European colonial empire. The current constitution was adopted in 1788, after the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, were felt to have provided inadequate federal powers. The first ten amendments, collectively named the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791 and designed to guarantee many fundamental civil liberties.
The United States embarked on a vigorous expansion across North America throughout the 19th century, displacing American Indian tribes, acquiring new territories, and gradually admitting new states until it spanned the continent by 1848. During the second half of the 19th century, the American Civil War led to the end of legal slavery in the country. By the end of that century, the United States extended into the Pacific Ocean, and its economy, driven in large part by the Industrial Revolution, began to soar. The Spanish–American War and World War I confirmed the country's status as a global military power. The United States emerged from World War II as a global superpower, the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only country to use them in warfare, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It is a founding member of the Organization of American States (UAS) and various other Pan-American and international organisations. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as the world's sole superpower.
The United States is a highly developed country, with the world's largest economy by nominal GDP. It ranks highly in several measures of socioeconomic performance, including average wage, human development, per capita GDP, and productivity per person. While the U.S. economy is considered post-industrial, characterized by the dominance of services and knowledge economy, the manufacturing sector remains the second-largest in the world. Though its population is only 4.4% of the world total, the United States accounts for nearly a quarter of world GDP and almost a third of global military spending, making it the world's foremost military and economic power. The United States is a prominent political and cultural force internationally, and a leader in scientific research and technological innovations.
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, traveling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
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.
The federal government derives its power from the 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 both state and federal levels since the end of the Civil War: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Since the 1960s the Republican party has become generally the more right-wing or "conservative" party whereas the Democratic party is usually the more left-wing or "liberal" of the two parties. While smaller political parties exist, the winner-take-all electoral system means that they rarely succeed at any level.
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. Only 20% of people in the United States identify with no religion, which is very low in comparison to other Western nations. Roughly one-quarter of Americans are Roman Catholic, and one-half of them are Protestant, with Protestantism being further broken down into mainline, Evangelical and Pentecostal sects. There are much smaller numbers of Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and a host of other religions. Because of many Americans' strong religious belief, 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 and West Coast 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.
Units of measure
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 degrees (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 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 Visitor's 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.
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 mountain 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.
The Gulf of Mexico is to the southeast of Texas, to the south of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's Panhandle, and constitutes the West Coast of Florida.
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 freshwater 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 Mediterraneanalong the California coast.
In the winter, the northern and mid-western major cities can see as much as 2 feet (61 cm) of snowfall in one day, with cold temperatures. Summers are humid, but mild. Temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) sometimes invade the Midwest and Great Plains. Some areas in the northern plains can experience cold temperatures of −30 °F (−34 °C) during the winter. Temperatures below 0 °F (−18 °C) sometimes reach as far south as Oklahoma.
The climate of the South also varies. In the summer, it is hot and humid, but from October through April the weather can range from 60 °F (15 °C) to short cold spells of 20 °F (−7 °C) or so.
The Great Plains and Midwestern states also experience tornadoes from the late spring to early fall, earlier in the south and later in the north. States along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico may experience hurricanes between June and November. These intense and dangerous storms frequently miss the U.S. mainland, but evacuations are often ordered and should be heeded.
The Rockies are cold and snowy. Some parts of the Rockies see over 500 inches (1,200 cm) of snow in a season. Even during the summer, temperatures are cool in the mountains, and snow can fall nearly year-round. It is dangerous to go up in the mountains unprepared in the winter and the roads through them can get very icy.
The deserts of the Southwest are hot and dry during the summer, with temperatures often exceeding 100 °F (38 °C). Thunderstorms can be expected in the southwest frequently from July through September. Winters are mild, and snow is unusual. Average annual precipitation is low, usually less than 10 inches (25 cm).
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 (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.
|Race/Ethnicity (2015 ACS estimates)|
|Some other race||4.8%|
|American Indian and Alaska Native||0.8%|
|Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander||0.2%|
|Hispanic/Latino (of any race)||17.6%|
|Non-Hispanic/Latino (of any race)||82.4%|
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the country's population to be 323,425,550 as of April 25, 2016, and to be adding 1 person (net gain) every 13 seconds, or about 6,646 people per day. The U.S. population almost quadrupled during the 20th century, from about 76 million in 1900. The third most populous nation in the world, after China and India, the United States is the only major industrialized nation in which large population increases are projected. In the 1800s the average woman had 7.04 children, by the 1900s this number had decreased to 3.56. Since the early 1970s the birth rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 with 1.86 children per woman in 2014. Foreign born immigration has caused the US population to continue its rapid increase with the foreign born population doubling from almost 20 million in 1990 to over 40 million in 2010, representing one third of the population increase. The foreign born population reached 45 million in 2015.
The United States has a birth rate of 13 per 1,000, which is 5 births below the world average. Its population growth rate is positive at 0.7%, higher than that of many developed nations. In fiscal year 2012, over one million immigrants (most of whom entered through family reunification) were granted legal residence. Mexico has been the leading source of new residents since the 1965 Immigration Act. China, India, and the Philippines have been in the top four sending countries every year since the 1990s. As of 2012, approximately 11.4 million residents are illegal immigrants. As of 2015, 47% of all immigrants are Hispanic, 26% are Asian, 18% are white and 8% are black. The percentage of immigrants who are Asian is increasing while the percentage who are Hispanic is decreasing.
According to a survey conducted by the Williams Institute, nine million Americans, or roughly 3.4% of the adult population identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. A 2012 Gallup poll also concluded that 3.5% of adult Americans identified as LGBT. The highest percentage came from the District of Columbia (10%), while the lowest state was North Dakota at 1.7%. In a 2013 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 96.6% of Americans identify as straight, while 1.6% identify as gay or lesbian, and 0.7% identify as being bisexual.
In 2010, the U.S. population included an estimated 5.2 million people with some American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry (2.9 million exclusively of such ancestry) and 1.2 million with some native Hawaiian or Pacific island ancestry (0.5 million exclusively). The census counted more than 19 million people of "Some Other Race" who were "unable to identify with any" of its five official race categories in 2010, over 18.5 million (97%) of whom are of Hispanic ethnicity.
The population growth of Hispanic and Latino Americans (the terms are officially interchangeable) is a major demographic trend. The 50.5 million Americans of Hispanic descent are identified as sharing a distinct "ethnicity" by the Census Bureau; 64% of Hispanic Americans are of Mexican descent. Between 2000 and 2010, the country's Hispanic population increased 43% while the non-Hispanic population rose just 4.9%.Much of this growth is from immigration; in 2007, 12.6% of the U.S. population was foreign-born, with 54% of that figure born in Latin America.
About 82% of Americans live in urban areas(including suburbs);about half of those reside in cities with populations over 50,000. The US has numerous clusters of cities known as megaregions, the largest being the Great Lakes Megalopolis followed by the Northeast Megalopolis and Southern California. In 2008, 273 incorporated municipalities had populations over 100,000, nine cities had more than one million residents, and four global cities had over two million (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston). There are 52 metropolitan areas with populations greater than one million. Of the 50 fastest-growing metro areas, 47 are in the West or South. The metro areas of San Bernardino, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and Phoenix all grew by more than a million people between 2000 and 2008.
|Affiliation||% of U.S. population|
|Nothing in particular||15.8|
|Don't know or refused answer||0.6|
The First Amendmentof the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion and forbids Congress from passing laws respecting its establishment. Christianity is by far the most common religion practiced in the U.S., but other religions are followed, too. In a 2013 survey, 56% of Americans said that religion played a "very important role in their lives", a far higher figure than that of any other wealthy nation. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans said that they attended church weekly or almost weekly; the figures ranged from a low of 23% in Vermont to a high of 63% in Mississippi.
As with other Western countries, the U.S. is becoming less religious. Irreligion is growing rapidly among Americans under 30. Polls show that overall American confidence in organized religion has been declining since the mid to late 1980s, and that younger Americans in particular are becoming increasingly irreligious. According to a 2012 study, Protestant share of U.S. population dropped to 48%, thus ending its status as religious category of the majority for the first time. Americans with no religion have 1.7 children compared to 2.2 among Christians. The unaffiliated are less likely to get married with 37% marrying compared to 52% of Christians.
According to a 2014 survey, 70.6% of adults identified themselves as Christian, Protestant denominations accounted for 46.5%, while Roman Catholicism, at 20.8%, was the largest individual denomination. The total reporting non-Christian religions in 2014 was 5.9%. Other religions include Judaism (1.9%), Islam (0.9%), Buddhism (0.7%), Hinduism (0.7%). The survey also reported that 22.8% of Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist or simply having no religion, up from 8.2% in 1990. There are also Unitarian Universalist, Baha'i, Sikh, Jain, Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, Druid, Native American, Wiccan, humanist and deist communities.
Protestantism is the largest Christian religious grouping in the United States. Baptists collectively form the largest branch of Protestantism, and the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest individual Protestant denomination. About 26% of Americans identify as Evangelical Protestants, while 15% are Mainline and 7% belong to a traditionally Black church. Roman Catholicism in the United States has its origin in the Spanish and Frenchcolonization of the Americas, and later grew because of Irish, Italian, Polish, German and Hispanic immigration. Rhode Island has the highest percentage of Catholics with 40 percent of the total population. Lutheranism in the U.S. has its origin in immigration from Northern Europe and Germany. North and South Dakota are the only states in which a plurality of the population is Lutheran. Presbyterianism was introduced in North America by Scottish and Ulster Scots immigrants. Although it has spread across the United States, it is heavily concentrated on the East Coast. Dutch Reformed congregations were founded first in New Amsterdam (New York City) before spreading westward. Utah is the only state where Mormonism is the religion of the majority of the population. The Mormon Corridor also extends to parts of Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.
The Bible Belt is an informal term for a region in the Southern United States in which socially conservative Evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is generally higher than the nation's average. By contrast, religion plays the least important role in New England and in the Western United States.
|Nominal GDP||$18.45 trillion (Q2 2016)|
|Real GDP growth||1.4% (Q2 2016)|
|CPI inflation||1.1% (August 2016)|
|Employment-to-population ratio||59.7% (August 2016)|
|Unemployment||4.9% (August 2016)|
|Labor force participation rate||62.8% (August 2016)|
|Total public debt||$19.808 trillion (October 25, 2016)|
|Household net worth||$89.063 trillion (Q2 2016)|
The United States has a capitalistmixed economy which is fueled by abundant natural resources and high productivity. According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. GDP of $16.8 trillion constitutes 24% of the gross world product at market exchange rates and over 19% of the gross world product at purchasing power parity (PPP).
The US's nominal GDP is estimated to be $17.528 trillion as of 2014 From 1983 to 2008, U.S. real compounded annual GDP growth was 3.3%, compared to a 2.3% weighted average for the rest of the G7. The country ranks ninth in the world in nominal GDP per capitaand sixth in GDP per capita at PPP. The U.S. dollar is the world's primary reserve currency.
The United States is the largest importer of goods and second-largest exporter, though exports per capitaare relatively low. In 2010, the total U.S. trade deficit was $635 billion. Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, and Germany are its top trading partners. In 2010, oil was the largest import commodity, while transportation equipment was the country's largest export. Japan is the largest foreign holder of U.S. public debt. The largest holder of the U.S. debt are American entities, including federal government accounts and the Federal Reserve, who hold the majority of the debt.
In 2009, the private sector was estimated to constitute 86.4% of the economy, with federal government activity accounting for 4.3% and state and local government activity (including federal transfers) the remaining 9.3%. The number of employees at all levels of government outnumber those in manufacturing by 1.7 to 1. While its economy has reached a postindustrial level of development and its service sector constitutes 67.8% of GDP, the United States remains an industrial power. The leading business field by gross business receipts is wholesale and retail trade; by net income it is manufacturing. In the franchising business model, McDonald's and Subway are the two most recognized brands in the world. Coca-Cola is the most recognized soft drink company in the world.
Chemical products are the leading manufacturing field. The United States is the largest producer of oil in the world, as well as its second-largest importer. It is the world's number one producer of electrical and nuclear energy, as well as liquid natural gas, sulfur, phosphates, and salt. The National Mining Association provides data pertaining to coal and minerals that include beryllium, copper, lead, magnesium, zinc, titanium and others.
Agriculture accounts for just under 1% of GDP, yet the United States is the world's top producer of corn and soybeans. The National Agricultural Statistics Service maintains agricultural statistics for products that include peanuts, oats, rye, wheat, rice, cotton, corn, barley, hay, sunflowers, and oilseeds. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides livestock statistics regarding beef, poultry, pork, and dairy products. The country is the primary developer and grower of genetically modified food, representing half of the world's biotech crops.
Consumer spending comprises 68% of the U.S. economy in 2015. In August 2010, the American labor force consisted of 154.1 million people. With 21.2 million people, government is the leading field of employment. The largest private employment sector is health care and social assistance, with 16.4 million people. About 12% of workers are unionized, compared to 30% in Western Europe. The World Bank ranks the United States first in the ease of hiring and firing workers. The United States is ranked among the top three in the Global Competitiveness Report as well. It has a smaller welfare stateand redistributes less income through government action than European nations tend to.
The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation and is one of just a few countries in the world without paid family leave as a legal right, with the others being Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Liberia. However, 74% of full-time American workers get paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although only 24% of part-time workers get the same benefits. While federal law currently does not require sick leave, it's a common benefit for government workers and full-time employees at corporations. In 2009, the United States had the third-highest workforce productivity per person in the world, behind Luxembourg and Norway. It was fourth in productivity per hour, behind those two countries and the Netherlands.
The 2008–2012 global recession significantly affected the United States, with output still below potential according to the Congressional Budget Office. It brought high unemployment (which has been decreasing but remains above pre-recession levels), along with low consumer confidence, the continuing decline in home values and increase in foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, an escalating federal debt crisis, inflation, and rising petroleum and food prices. There remains a record proportion of long-term unemployed, continued decreasing household income, and tax and federal budget increases.
Income, poverty and wealth
Americans have the highest average household and employee income among OECD nations, and in 2007 had the second-highest median household income. According to the Census Bureau, median household income was $53,657 in 2014. Despite accounting for only 4.4% of the global population, Americans collectively possess 41.6% of the world's total wealth, and Americans make up roughly half of the world's population of millionaires. The Global Food Security Index ranked the U.S. number one for food affordability and overall food security in March 2013. Americans on average have over twice as much living space per dwelling and per person as European Unionresidents, and more than every EU nation. For 2013 the United Nations Development Programme ranked the United States 5th among 187 countries in its Human Development Index and 28th in its inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).
There has been a widening gap between productivity and median incomes since the 1970s. However, the gap between total compensation and productivity is not as wide because of increased employee benefits such as health insurance. While inflation-adjusted ("real") household income had been increasing almost every year from 1947 to 1999, it has since been flat on balance and has even decreased recently. According to Congressional Research Service, during this same period, immigration to the United Statesincreased, while the lower 90% of tax filers incomes became stagnant, and eventually decreasing since 2000. The rise in the share of total annual income received by the top 1 percent, which has more than doubled from 9 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2011, has significantly affected income inequality, leaving the United States with one of the widest income distributions among OECD nations. The post-recession income gains have been very uneven, with the top 1 percent capturing 95 percent of the income gains from 2009 to 2012. The extent and relevance of income inequality is a matter of debate.
|in 2013 dollars||1998||2013||change|
|Bottom 20% of incomes||$8,300||$6,100||-26.5%|
|2nd lowest 20% of incomes||$47,400||$22,400||-52.7%|
|Middle 20% of incomes||$76,300||$61,700||-19.1%|
Wealth, like income and taxes, is highly concentrated; the richest 10% of the adult population possess 72% of the country's household wealth, while the bottom half claim only 2%. Between June 2007 and November 2008 the global recession led to falling asset prices around the world. Assets owned by Americans lost about a quarter of their value. Since peaking in the second quarter of 2007, household wealth was down $14 trillion, but has since increased $14 trillion over 2006 levels. At the end of 2014, household debt amounted to $11.8 trillion, down from $13.8 trillion at the end of 2008.
There were about 578,424 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons in the U.S. in January 2014, with almost two-thirds staying in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. In 2011 16.7 million children lived in food-insecure households, about 35% more than 2007 levels, though only 1.1% of U.S. children, or 845,000, saw reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns at some point during the year, and most cases were not chronic. According to a 2014 report by the Census Bureau, one in five young adults lives in poverty today, up from one in seven in 1980.
Transportation - Get In
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) and Miami are the five 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 traveling 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. As of December 2014 Presidents Obama and Raul Castro came to an agreement to normalize diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries ending 55 some 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.
- 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 Emiratesyou 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.
Travelers on U.S.–Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific, as well as 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. Also note that 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 ShannonInternational Airports in Ireland.
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 multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
Bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from U.S. customs officials than car or train passengers.
Prior to World War II, most travelers and immigrants to the United States from foreign countries entered by boat. Today, this is not the case, as most enter by plane.
Entering the U.S. by sea, other than on a registered cruise ship, may be difficult. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles and the surrounding area, Florida, and the Eastern coastal states.
Some passenger ferries exist between Canada and the U.S., 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 both less expensive and faster than the train.
Travelers from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at Pacific Central Station before they get on the train itself, just as they do for air travel. Be sure to allow enough time 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.
Transportation - Get Around
The size of the U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. 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.
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 six 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, Dynamic International Airways 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 travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be expensive. 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. But ironically, low-cost carriers can occasionally include 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 a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travelers. (Most travelers 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, CNMI, 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.
If arriving from international destinations 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; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily fill the rest of their time with general aviation. 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.
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 1920's, and 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 travelers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of traveling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant "weekly specials". Travellers from Europe and East Asia may like to note that 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. Travelers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and that "bigness" is particularly evident in many of the scenic areas. For those with ample time, though, train travel offers an unparalleled view of the U.S., without the trouble and long-term discomfort of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying. 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 specific 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, so it pays to book early if you plan on using the long-distance trains. Booking early also results in generally lower fares for all trains since they tend to increase as trains become fuller. On the other hand, 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. Since most Americans use a car for suburban travel, some commuter train stations have park and ride facilities where you can park your car for the day to use the commuter train to get to a city's downtown core where it may be more difficult to use a car due to traffic and parking concerns. Parking rates at the commuter train 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 miles 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 meters 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 first time and beginning boaters successfully navigate these waterways. Do remember that 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 immediately obey. 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.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car when traveling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region. Traveling 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 anywhere from $20 to $100 per day for a basic sedan, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals. Most rental agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices 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 traveling).
Unlike most of the world, the United States continues to use the imperial measurement system, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, and fuel is sold in gallons. Most American cars generally display both the imperial and metric system because they are manufactured for Canada and Mexico's market as well, but if your car's speedometer doesn't display both, make sure you know the relevant conversion (1 mile is about 1.6 km) and read the owner's manual to see how to convert the units. Traffic signs do not conform to international standards as well, but if you understand English, they should be self-explanatory.
The national road system consists of Interstates, which are controlled access divided highways with no grade crossings, the older U.S. highway systems that 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 former 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 traveling 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. If you have the time, a classic American road trip with a rented car (see below) is very easy to achieve. Just keep in mind that 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 multiple drivers and minimal stops will take at least five days (four and a half 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. 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 (eg. 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 you are driving at. 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 significant proportion 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, and while not available everywhere, there are at least three daily routes in every state. Service between nearby major cities is extremely frequent (e.g. as of July 2012 there are 82 daily buses, by seven operators, on an off-peak weekday each way between Boston-New York, an average of nearly one every 10 minutes during daytime hours). Many patrons use bus travel when other modes aren't readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. The disadvantaged and elderly may use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or unaffordable for some. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe and affordable.
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 travelers who purchase their tickets 7–14 days in advance of their travel date. Greyhound buses typically runs 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. All seating is on a first come, first served basis, with the exception of select 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 as well as connections to Montreal and Toronto in Canada. They also have 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.
There are numerous 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 traveling 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)
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.
Visa & Passport
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 the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau may enter, reside, study, and work in the U.S. indefinitely with only a valid passport.
Citizens of 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 travelling 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 (VWP) requirements
The program is open only to travelers 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 previously refused entry, or having previously 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 visa waiver program 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.
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 as well as 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.
Keep in mind that 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, travelers 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, note that having been denied a visa for whatever reason, including a lack of relevant documentation will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to 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 travelers 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 travelers.
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, note that being refused entry will result in you being ineligible for the program and having to 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 previously 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 Entryrequires prior application, background check, 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 US 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 travelling 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 need to fill this out manually - 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 (currently Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan), they will be confiscated by customs if discovered - unlabeled cigars in particular are assumed to be from Cuba, and will also be taken away. It is also against the law to bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables (with a few exceptions for Canadian produce grown in season via land borders only) but 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 non-Cuban cigars or up to 2kg 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 (750ml) 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. Cheques, 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 JFK, 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 traveling 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 originally entered the U.S. on a single-entry visa, or the visa you initially entered the U.S. with has expired. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to ultimately 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 comprises 50 states, as well as 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, as well as 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 miles 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, and excellent skiing as well as 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 miles south west of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise.
Politically, 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 motley 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 traveler'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 travelers 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.
- Washington, D.C. — the national capital, filled with major museums and monuments, along with multicultural communities
- Boston — best known for its colonial history, its passion for sports, and its university students
- Chicago — heart of the Midwest and transportation hub of the nation, with massive skyscrapers and other architectural gems
- 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.
- Miami — attracts sun-seeking northerners and home to a rich, vibrant, Latin-influenced, Caribbean culture
- New Orleans — "The Big Easy" is the birthplace of Jazz, and is known for its quaint French Quarter and annual Mardi Gras celebration
- New York City — the country's biggest city, home of the financial services and media industries, with world-class cuisine, arts, architecture, and shopping
- San Francisco — the City by the Bay, featuring the Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant urban neighborhoods, and dramatic fog
- 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.
- Denali National Park — a remote national park featuring North America's highest peak
- Grand Canyon — the world's longest and most visited canyon
- Mesa Verde National Park — well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings
- Mount Rushmore — the iconic memorial of four former presidents carved into a cliff face
- Niagara Falls — the massive waterfalls straddling the border with Canada
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park — national park in the southern Appalachians
- Walt Disney World — the most popular vacation resort destination in the world
- Yellowstone National Park — the first national park in the U.S., and home of the Old Faithful geyser
- Yosemite National Park — home of El Capitan and the famous Giant Sequoia trees
Accommodation & Hotels
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.
In many rural areas, especially on the coasts and in New England, bed and breakfast(B&B) lodging can be found. Usually in converted houses or buildings with less than a dozen units, B&Bs feature a more home-like lodging experience, with free breakfast served (of varying quality and complexity). Bed and breakfasts range from about $50 to $200 per night, with some places being much steeper. They can be a nice break from the impersonality of chain hotels and motels. Unlike Europe, most American bed and breakfasts are unmarked; one must make a reservation beforehand and receive directions there.
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.
Things to see
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 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. 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 parksthat 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, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings. 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 eighteenth 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) is 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 — traveling along the east coast from Maine to Florida.
Things to do
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. Boston, for instance, occasionally puts on free concerts in the Public Park. 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 out of 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 at one time or another. No trip to New York would be complete without catching at least one musical on Broadway. Alternatively, for those who prefer classical music, the United States is also home to one of the world's premier opera companies, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Other well-regarded opera companies include the San Francisco Opera in San Francisco and the Lyric Opera of Chicago in Chicago.
In addition to traditional music concerts, 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:
- MLB. Major League Baseball is very popular and the sport of baseball is often referred to as "America's pastime" (being one of the most widely played in the country). The league 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 travelers to watch. There are also several hundred minor league teams scattered across the U.S.; while quality of the games are lower, prices are cheaper (even free in a few leagues).
- NBA. The National Basketball Association 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.
- NFL. The National Football League, with 32 teams (all in the contiguous USA if you don't count the odd London (UK) or Toronto game or the pro-bowl in Hawaii), is the leading promoter of American football in the world, a sport which 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. Season lasts from September to December, with playoffs in January ending with the Super Bowl in February.
|"Hockey" vs "Ice hockey"|
In most English-speaking countries, "hockey" is used for a game played on grass and "ice hockey" for the one on ice. In North American usage, however, the former is called "field hockey", while "hockey" alone almost always means "ice hockey" (or, rarely, roller hockey).
- NHL. The National Hockey League is the premier ice hockey league in the world, featuring 30 teams (23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada). 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. Originally in Northern markets, recent expansions have each major region covered with an NHL team. The season runs from October to April, followed by playoffs that culminate in the Stanley Cup Finals in June.
- INDYCAR. 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! INDYCAR holds races all across the United States, as well as Brazil and Canada, from March to October.
- NASCAR. 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 over recent years 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.
- MLS. Major League Soccer, currently with 20 teams (17 in the U.S. and three in Canada) and expanding to 22 in 2017 and at least 23 in 2018 (with all of the new teams in the U.S.), is the latest attempt to kick start American interest in soccer. While it may not be as popular with the media, MLS is still widely viewed and enjoyed. Foreign travelers can find particularly vibrant and familiar fan experiences in several cities, notably Washington, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle. MLS is also emerging as a preferred destination for top players from European leagues past their prime towards the end of their careers, with current examples including Didier Drogba, Kaká, and David Villa.
One rare feature of the United States sports landscape, as compared to that of other nations, is the extent to which sports are associated with educational institutions. In many regions of the country, 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-mile 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 arguably 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:
- PGA Tour. 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 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").
- LPGA Tour. 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.
- PGA Tour Champions. Run by the PGA Tour, this circuit 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.
Festivals and fairs
A few days prompt nation-wide celebrations:
- Memorial Day — commemorates the ultimate 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. 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 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. Originally these were 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 your favorite 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 twenty-one "National Scenic Trails" and "National Historic Trails" as well as over 1,000 shorter "National Recreation Trails" for a total length of over 50,000 miles. While all are open to hiking, most are also open to mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping and some are even open for ATVs and cars.
Money & Shopping
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. Most establishments very close to the Canadian border accept Canadian currency, though usually at poor exchange rates; some larger stores might accept Canadian currency as far out as 100 miles (160 km) from the border. The Mexican peso can also be used (again at poor exchange rates) in border towns like El Paso and Laredo, but rarely beyond the immediate vicinity.
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
Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports. Some banks can 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 fess 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 to $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 $2–5, but can legally charge up to $10 minimum) for credit card use, as such transactions cost them around $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 four big U.S. credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, and Discover.
Only a few high-end boutique stores in major cities also have window stickers for foreign cards like JCB and China UnionPay. However, both JCB and China UnionPay have alliances with Discover, so they can be used at any retailer that accepts Discover cards.
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 in the process of 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).
Each major commercial establishment (e.g. store, restaurant, online service) with a statewide, regional, nationwide or online presence offers its own gift card available to consumers for use at any of its branches nationwide or its online store. Despite the word "gift" in gift card, you can actually purchase and use these cards for yourself. A gift card for a certain establishment can be purchased at any of the establishment's branches. Supermarkets and pharmacies also have a variety of gift cards from different stores, restaurants and other services. Once these are purchased by you or given to you by friends, you can use a particular store or restaurant's gift card at any of its branches nationwide or online store for any amount. In case funds in the gift card are insufficient, you can use other payment methods to pay for the balance (e.g. cash, credit card, or a 2nd gift card particular to the establishment). The gift card also has instructions on how to check your remaining balance online. 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 US-facing 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, with the latter sometimes based on districts drawn in such a way as to ensure high revenue (e.g., a special tax in the airport area). 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 and a variety of other "necessities" (such as clothing) are usually exempt, but 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 travelers. 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 traveler'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 as well as 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 as well as 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, 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.
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 (although it did not pioneer the concept) 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 rates not competitive with supermarkets.
Unlike many other countries, 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 full of stuff on a Friday afternoon, Saturday and/or Sunday, it's likely a garage sale. On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling no longer needed household items in their driveway, garage, or yard. Estate sales are similar to garage sales only they're selling everything left behind by someone who had recently passed away or someone who's making a long distance move, perhaps out of the country, and need to liquidate everything. Therefore, estate sales tend to offer more items than garage sales. 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 into one location to sell collectively. Funds from such sales tend to go towards their church (such as for capital improvements) 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 it for a profit to pay the overhead in operating the store and for their (charity) projects they are engaged in. Other more expensive and valuable items such as antiquities, coins, collectibles, jewelry, newer computer software & hardware, tools, etc. are separated out and sold separately on auction online, on their websites. Other thrift store 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 to obsolete (within 5-10 yrs old), but functional to offer them for sale at a fraction of what a new computer would cost from a big box store.
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
According to Deloitte, the largest fashion goods retailer in both the U.S. and the entire world is Macy's, Inc., which operates over 800 Macy's midrange department stores in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam, plus 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, as well as being its largest retail chain. The three largest supermarket chains are Kroger (also encompassing Dillon's, Fry's, Bakers and Fred Meyer, among others), Safeway (including Albertsons & Haggen in the U.S.), and SuperValu, but they operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states (for example, Vons and Ralphs in California, Fred Meyer in Oregon and Cub in Minnesota). 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; the latter two are in the process of merging. In addition to these, almost all discount stores and many supermarkets also contain a small pharmacy. Most urban and suburban towns contain several supermarkets or pharmacies, and more often than not a Walmart or other “big box” retailer.
A special note on pharmacies in discount stores and supermarkets: Generally, discount stores will group many items sold at pharmacies—over-the-counter medications, dental care products, cosmetics, hair care supplies, soap, first aid supplies, and the like—in one section of the store near the pharmacy counter. This is not always the case in supermarkets, though that is steadily changing toward the discount-store model. (Walmart uses this model both in its discount stores and its supermarket-only Walmart Markets.)
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).
Unless you live in Australia, Canada, Europe or Japan, the U.S. is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. Many Europeans come to the U.S. for shopping (especially electronics). While prices in the U.S. are lower than in many European countries, keep in mind that you will be charged taxes/tariffs on goods purchased abroad. Additionally, electronics may not be compatible with standards when you return (electrical, DVD region, etc.). As such, the savings you may find shopping in the U.S. may easily be negated upon your return. Furthermore, your U.S.-bought item may not be eligible for warranty service in your home country.
A bare bones budget for camping, hostels, and cooking your food 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 and enjoy lower crime rates. 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. Additionally, if you have generous friends from the U.S. who will give gift cards to you for some reason, the cards can help you defray some of the costs.
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 the purchase of 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. Considering the price of admission to many parks is at least $20 each, if you visit more than a few of them, the pass will be the cheaper solution. 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 (formerly 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.
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 more rarely may be verbally scolded or abused by staff for "stiffing" them, even though such behavior on the part of the staff is considered clearly inappropriate.
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 (optional)
- 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.
It is important to keep in mind that the legal minimum wage for restaurant waitstaff and other tip-earners is quite low (just $2.13/hour before taxes), 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.
Remember that 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 work for you, if you are savvy. While it is usually presented as an expected part of payment, it can also be a subtle (and acceptable) bribe for preferential treatment. 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.
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 now 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 (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.
The largest cities will have one or more fine dining establishments, the quality of which can vary from "overpriced" to "exquisite". Some will have a dress code; if jackets or ties are required, they will sometimes be made available to borrow.
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 do (mostly fast-food and diners), serve eggs, toast, pancakes, cereals, 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, flat, rate, 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, note that 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.
Mexican/Hispanic/Tex-Mex food is very popular, but again in a localized version. 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 taqueriascan 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 pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, e.g. breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, frozen dinner, etc.
In the largest cities, "corner stores" abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety of snacks, drinks, and prepackaged 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 fee.
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 traveler. 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 carry-in or potluck 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 own 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.
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.
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. Recently, some retailers have begun the policy of requiring IDs on all transactions. Some retailers may not accept a foreign driver's license (except from 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 2 AM, 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. 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 in 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. Some bars and restaurants carry microbrews, while others don't, seemingly at random. Brew pubscombine 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.
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 or some other financial incentive, 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 one of the widest varieties of soft drinks (carbonated high-sugar alcohol free drinks as opposed to "hard" alcoholic drinks) and the most famous brands originate 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 flavoring roots; while the flavor is strange to most Europeans not accustomed to it, it is one of the first things Americans tend to miss when abroad for longer periods of time. 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 bottled water is usually not in any way better than regular tap water apart from the chlorine issue mentioned above. In restaurants in some parts of the country such as the South but not others, you will often get at least one if not unlimited refills of your desired soft drink, and tap water is almost always served for free, if you ask for it. 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.
Festivals & Events
|Always gotta be different|
The U.S. celebrates Labor Day in September (rather than on May 1 as in most countries, in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair of 1886). 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 officially recognized by the federal government; federal offices, banks, and post offices close on these days. Nearly all states and localities also observe these holidays, as well as a handful of their own. If a federal holiday falls on a weekend, the observance will normally be shifted to the nearest weekday.
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. 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. 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.
- 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.
All U.S. embassies are closed on the federal holidays in addition to the holidays of the host country.
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, and 844 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 sixty cents 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 the U.S. (as well as Canada and many Latin American countries) uses the 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies, instead of 900 and 1800 MHz used elsewhere. If you have 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 $1.50/minute or more, although plans vary; prepaid-cash users may not roam at all. A small fourth carrier, Wind Mobile, is an exception: While it has a limited footprint using non-standard frequencies at home, it is relatively inexpensive for roaming; a $39 plan (roughly $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:
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500-0001
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, $0.47. "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 very 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 and log your Internet use.
You may also consider:
- Public libraries — have PCs with broadband for public use (although in some areas you may need a library card). Check with the information desk for more information.
- 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 that you can use at a cost.
- 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 (at least as far as books go) and they may also have a computer or two for public use.
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 immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean or 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 as well as 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, as well as 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 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, or 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 is home to many cultures and a wide variety of ethnic groups, traditions, and values. Aside from the Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Native Alaskan populations, nearly all Americans or their ancestors settled or immigrated within the past five centuries. Mainstream American culture is a Western culturelargely derived from the traditions of European immigrants with influences from many other sources, such as traditions brought by slaves from Africa. More recent immigration from Asia and especially Latin America has added to a cultural mix that has been described as both a homogenizing melting pot, and a heterogeneous salad bowl in which immigrants and their descendants retain distinctive cultural characteristics.
Core American culture was established by Protestant British colonists and shaped by the frontier settlement process, with the traits derived passed down to descendants and transmitted to immigrants through assimilation. Americans have traditionally been characterized by a strong work ethic, competitiveness, and individualism, as well as a unifying belief in an "American creed" emphasizing liberty, equality, private property, democracy, rule of law, and a preference for limited government. Americans are extremely charitable by global standards. According to a 2006 British study, Americans gave 1.67% of GDP to charity, more than any other nation studied, more than twice the second place British figure of 0.73%, and around twelve times the French figure of 0.14%.
The American Dream, or the perception that Americans enjoy high social mobility, plays a key role in attracting immigrants. Whether this perception is realistic has been a topic of debate. While mainstream culture holds that the United States is a classless society, scholars identify significant differences between the country's social classes, affecting socialization, language, and values. Americans' self-images, social viewpoints, and cultural expectations are associated with their occupations to an unusually close degree. While Americans tend greatly to value socioeconomic achievement, being ordinary or average is generally seen as a positive attribute.
Mainstream American cuisine is similar to that in other Western countries. Wheat is the primary cereal grain with about three-quarters of grain products made of wheat flour and many dishes use indigenous ingredients, such as turkey, venison, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash, and maple syrup which were consumed by Native Americans and early European settlers. These home grown foods are part of a shared national menu on one of America's most popular holidays; Thanksgiving, when some Americans make traditional foods to celebrate the occasion.
Characteristic dishes such as apple pie, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs derive from the recipes of various immigrants. French fries, Mexican dishes such as burritos and tacos, and pasta dishes freely adapted from Italian sources are widely consumed. Americans drink three times as much coffee as tea. Marketing by U.S. industries is largely responsible for making orange juice and milk ubiquitous breakfast beverages.
American eating habits owe a great deal to that of their British culinary roots with some variations. Although American lands could grow newer vegetables England could not, most colonists would not eat these new foods until accepted by Europeans. Over time American foods changed to a point that food critic, John L. Hess stated in 1972: "Our founding fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and intelligence".
The American fast food industry, the world's largest, pioneered the drive-through format in the 1940s. Fast food consumption has sparked health concerns. During the 1980s and 1990s, Americans' caloric intake rose 24%; frequent dining at fast food outlets is associated with what public health officials call the American "obesity epidemic". Highly sweetened soft drinks are widely popular, and sugared beverages account for nine percent of American caloric intake.
Literature, philosophy, and the arts
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, American art and literature took most of its cues from Europe. Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau established a distinctive American literary voice by the middle of the 19th century. Mark Twain and poet Walt Whitman were major figures in the century's second half; Emily Dickinson, virtually unknown during her lifetime, is now recognized as an essential American poet. A work seen as capturing fundamental aspects of the national experience and character—such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick(1851), Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)— may be dubbed the "Great American Novel".
Eleven U.S. citizens have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, most recently Toni Morrison in 1993. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are often named among the most influential writers of the 20th century. Popular literary genres such as the Western and hardboiled crime fiction developed in the United States. The Beat Generation writers opened up new literary approaches, as have postmodernist authors such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.
The transcendentalists, led by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, established the first major American philosophical movement. After the Civil War, Charles Sanders Peirce and then William James and John Dewey were leaders in the development of pragmatism. In the 20th century, the work of W. V. O. Quine and Richard Rorty, and later Noam Chomsky, brought analytic philosophy to the fore of American philosophical academia. John Rawls and Robert Nozick led a revival of political philosophy. Cornel West and Judith Butler have led a continental tradition in American philosophical academia. Chicago school economists like Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan, and Thomas Sowell have affected various fields in social and political philosophy.
In the visual arts, the Hudson River School was a mid-19th-century movement in the tradition of European naturalism. The realist paintings of Thomas Eakins are now widely celebrated. The 1913 Armory Show in New York City, an exhibition of European modernist art, shocked the public and transformed the U.S. art scene. Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and others experimented with new, individualistic styles. Major artistic movements such as the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein developed largely in the United States. The tide of modernism and then postmodernism has brought fame to American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry.
One of the first major promoters of American theaterwas impresario P. T. Barnum, who began operating a lower Manhattan entertainment complex in 1841. The team of Harrigan and Hart produced a series of popular musical comedies in New York starting in the late 1870s. In the 20th century, the modern musical form emerged on Broadway; the songs of musical theater composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim have become pop standards. Playwright Eugene O'Neill won the Nobel literature prize in 1936; other acclaimed U.S. dramatists include multiple Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and August Wilson.
Though little known at the time, Charles Ives's work of the 1910s established him as the first major U.S. composer in the classical tradition, while experimentalists such as Henry Cowelland John Cage created a distinctive American approach to classical composition. Aaron Copland and George Gershwin developed a new synthesis of popular and classical music. Choreographers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham helped create modern dance, while George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were leaders in 20th-century ballet. Americans have long been important in the modern artistic medium of photography, with major photographers including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Ansel Adams.
The rhythmic and lyrical styles of African-American music have deeply influenced American music at large, distinguishing it from European traditions. Elements from folk idioms such as the blues and what is now known as old-time music were adopted and transformed into popular genres with global audiences. Jazz was developed by innovators such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington early in the 20th century. Country music developed in the 1920s, and rhythm and blues in the 1940s.
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were among the mid-1950s pioneers of rock and roll. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan emerged from the folk revival to become one of America's most celebrated songwriters and James Brown led the development of funk. More recent American creations include hip hop and house music. American pop stars such as Presley, Michael Jackson, and Madonna have become global celebrities, as have contemporary musical artists such as Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé as well as hip hop artists Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye West. Rock bands such as Metallica, the Eagles, and Aerosmith are among the highest grossing in worldwide sales.
Hollywood, a northern district of Los Angeles, California, is one of the leaders in motion picture production. The world's first commercial motion picture exhibition was given in New York City in 1894, using Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope. The next year saw the first commercial screening of a projected film, also in New York, and the United States was in the forefront of sound film's development in the following decades. Since the early 20th century, the U.S. film industry has largely been based in and around Hollywood, although in the 21st century an increasing number of films are not made there, and film companies have been subject to the forces of globalization.
Director D. W. Griffith, American's top filmmaker during the silent film period, was central to the development of film grammar, and producer/entrepreneur Walt Disney was a leader in both animated film and movie merchandising. Directors such as John Ford redefined the image of the American Old West and history, and, like others such as John Huston, broadened the possibilities of cinema with location shooting, with great influence on subsequent directors. The industry enjoyed its golden years, in what is commonly referred to as the "Golden Age of Hollywood", from the early sound period until the early 1960s,with screen actors such as John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe becoming iconic figures. In the 1970s, film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppolaand Robert Altman were a vital component in what became known as "New Hollywood" or the "Hollywood Renaissance", grittier films influenced by French and Italian realist pictures of the post-war period. Since, directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron have gained renown for their blockbuster films, often characterized by high production costs, and in return, high earnings at the box office, with Cameron's Avatar (2009) earning more than $2 billion.
Notable films topping the American Film Institute's AFI 100 list include Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), which is frequently cited as the greatest film of all time,Casablanca (1942), The Godfather (1972), Gone with the Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia(1962), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Graduate (1967), On the Waterfront (1954), Schindler's List (1993), Singin' in the Rain (1952), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, have been held annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929, and the Golden Globe Awards have been held annually since January 1944.
American football is by several measures the most popular spectator sport; the National Football League (NFL) has the highest average attendance of any sports league in the world, and the Super Bowl is watched by millions globally. Baseball has been regarded as the U.S. national sport since the late 19th century, with Major League Baseball (MLB) being the top league. Basketball and ice hockey are the country's next two leading professional team sports, with the top leagues being the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL). These four major sports, when played professionally, each occupy a season at different, but overlapping, times of the year. College footballand basketball attract large audiences. In soccer, the country hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the men's national soccer team qualified for ten World Cups and the women's team has won the FIFA Women's World Cup three times; Major League Soccer is the sport's highest league in the United States. The market for professional sports in the United States is roughly $69 billion, roughly 50% larger than that of all of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa combined.
Eight Olympic Games have taken place in the United States. As of 2014, the United States has won 2,400 medals at the Summer Olympic Games, more than any other country, and 281 in the Winter Olympic Games, the second most behind Norway. While most major U.S. sports have evolved out of European practices, basketball, volleyball, skateboarding, and snowboarding are American inventions, some of which have become popular in other countries. Lacrosse and surfing arose from Native American and Native Hawaiian activities that predate Western contact. The most watched individual sports are golf and auto racing, particularly NASCAR. The men's Volleyball national team has won three gold medals at the Olympic Games, one FIVB World Championship, two FIVB Volleyball World Cup, and one FIVB World League.
The four major broadcasters in the U.S. are the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Fox. The four major broadcast television networks are all commercial entities. Cable television offers hundreds of channels catering to a variety of niches. Americans listen to radio programming, also largely commercial, on average just over two-and-a-half hours a day.
In 1998, the number of U.S. commercial radio stations had grown to 4,793 AM stations and 5,662 FM stations. In addition, there are 1,460 public radio stations. Most of these stations are run by universities and public authorities for educational purposes and are financed by public or private funds, subscriptions and corporate underwriting. Much public-radio broadcasting is supplied by NPR (formerly National Public Radio). NPR was incorporated in February 1970 under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967; its television counterpart, PBS, was also created by the same legislation. (NPR and PBS are operated separately from each other.) As of September 30, 2014, there are 15,433 licensed full-power radio stations in the US according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Well-known newspapers are The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Although the cost of publishing has increased over the years, the price of newspapers has generally remained low, forcing newspapers to rely more on advertising revenue and on articles provided by a major wire service, such as the Associated Press or Reuters, for their national and world coverage. With very few exceptions, all the newspapers in the U.S. are privately owned, either by large chains such as Gannett or McClatchy, which own dozens or even hundreds of newspapers; by small chains that own a handful of papers; or in a situation that is increasingly rare, by individuals or families. Major cities often have "alternative weeklies" to complement the mainstream daily papers, for example, New York City's The Village Voice or Los Angeles' LA Weekly, to name two of the best-known. Major cities may also support a local business journal, trade papers relating to local industries, and papers for local ethnic and social groups. Early versions of the American newspaper comic strip and the American comic book began appearing in the 19th century. In 1938, Superman, the comic book superhero of DC Comics, developed into an American icon. Aside from web portals and search engines, the most popular websites are Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Yahoo.com, eBay, Amazon and Twitter.
More than 800 publications are produced in Spanish, the second most widely spoken mother tongue behind English.
Indigenous and European contact
The first inhabitants of North America migrated from Siberia by way of the Bering land bridge and arrived at least 15,000 years ago, though increasing evidence suggests an even earlier arrival. Some, such as the pre-Columbian Mississippian culture, developed advanced agriculture, grand architecture, and state-level societies. After the Spanish conquistadors made the first contacts, the native population declined for various reasons, primarily from diseases such as smallpox and measles. Violence was not a significant factor in the overall decline among Native Americans, though conflict among themselves and with Europeans affected specific tribes and various colonial settlements. In the Hawaiian Islands, the earliest indigenous inhabitants arrived around 1 AD from Polynesia. Europeans under the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.
In the early days of colonization, many European settlers were subject to food shortages, disease, and attacks from Native Americans. Native Americans were also often at war with neighboring tribes and allied with Europeans in their colonial wars. At the same time, however, many natives and settlers came to depend on each other. Settlers traded for food and animal pelts, natives for guns, ammunition and other European wares. Natives taught many settlers where, when and how to cultivate corn, beans and squash. European missionaries and others felt it was important to "civilize" the Native Americans and urged them to adopt European agricultural techniques and lifestyles.
After Spain sent Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492, other explorers followed. The Spanish set up small settlements in New Mexico and Florida. France had several small settlements along the Mississippi River. Successful English settlementon the eastern coast of North America began with the Virginia Colony in 1607 at Jamestown and the Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony in 1620. Early experiments in communal living failed until the introduction of private farm holdings. Many settlers were dissenting Christian groups who came seeking religious freedom. The continent's first elected legislative assembly, Virginia's House of Burgesses created in 1619, and the Mayflower Compact, signed by the Pilgrims before disembarking, established precedents for the pattern of representative self-government and constitutionalism that would develop throughout the American colonies.
Most settlers in every colony were small farmers, but other industries developed within a few decades as varied as the settlements. Cash crops included tobacco, rice and wheat. Extraction industries grew up in furs, fishing and lumber. Manufacturers produced rum and ships, and by the late colonial period Americans were producing one-seventh of the world's iron supply. Cities eventually dotted the coast to support local economies and serve as trade hubs. English colonists were supplemented by waves of Scotch-Irish and other groups. As coastal land grew more expensive freed indentured servants pushed further west.
Slave cultivation of cash crops began with the Spanish in the 1500s, and was adopted by the English, but life expectancy was much higher in North America because of less disease and better food and treatment, leading to a rapid increase in the numbers of slaves. Colonial society was largely divided over the religious and moral implications of slavery and colonies passed acts for and against the practice. But by the turn of the 18th century, African slaves were replacing indentured servants for cash crop labor, especially in southern regions.
With the British colonization of Georgia in 1732, the 13 colonies that would become the United States of America were established. All had local governments with elections open to most free men, with a growing devotion to the ancient rights of Englishmen and a sense of self-government stimulating support for republicanism. With extremely high birth rates, low death rates, and steady settlement, the colonial population grew rapidly. Relatively small Native American populations were eclipsed. The Christian revivalist movement of the 1730s and 1740s known as the Great Awakening fueled interest in both religion and religious liberty.
During the Seven Years' War (also known as the French and Indian War), British forces seized Canada from the French, but the francophone population remained politically isolated from the southern colonies. Excluding the Native Americans, who were being conquered and displaced, those 13 colonies had a population of over 2.1 million in 1770, about one-third that of Britain. Despite continuing new arrivals, the rate of natural increase was such that by the 1770s only a small minority of Americans had been born overseas. The colonies' distance from Britain had allowed the development of self-government, but their success motivated monarchs to periodically seek to reassert royal authority.
Independence and expansion (1776–1865)
The American Revolutionary War was the first successful colonial war of independence against a European power. Americans had developed an ideology of "republicanism" asserting that government rested on the will of the people as expressed in their local legislatures. They demanded their rights as Englishmen and "no taxation without representation". The British insisted on administering the empire through Parliament, and the conflict escalated into war.
Following the passage of the Lee Resolution, on July 2, 1776, which was the actual vote for independence, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independenceon July 4, which proclaimed, in a long preamble, that humanity is created equal in their unalienable rights and that those rights were not being protected by Great Britain, and declared, in the words of the resolution, that the Thirteen Colonies were independent states and had no allegiance to the British crown in the United States. The fourth day of July is celebrated annually as Independence Day. In 1777, the Articles of Confederation established a weak government that operated until 1789.
Britain recognized the independence of the United States following their defeat at Yorktown. In the peace treaty of 1783, American sovereignty was recognized from the Atlantic coast west to the Mississippi River. Nationalists led the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 in writing the United States Constitution, ratified in state conventions in 1788. The federal government was reorganized into three branches, on the principle of creating salutary checks and balances, in 1789. George Washington, who had led the revolutionary army to victory, was the first president elected under the new constitution. The Bill of Rights, forbidding federal restriction of personal freedoms and guaranteeing a range of legal protections, was adopted in 1791.
Although the federal government criminalized the international slave trade in 1808, after 1820, cultivation of the highly profitable cotton crop exploded in the Deep South, and along with it, the slave population. The Second Great Awakening, especially 1800-1840, converted millions to evangelical Protestantism. In the North, it energized multiple social reform movements, including abolitionism; in the South, Methodists and Baptists proselytized among slave populations.
Americans' eagerness to expand westward prompted a long series of American Indian Wars. The Louisiana Purchase of French-claimed territory in 1803 almost doubled the nation's area. The War of 1812, declared against Britain over various grievances and fought to a draw, strengthened U.S. nationalism. A series of military incursions into Florida led Spain to cede it and other Gulf Coast territory in 1819. Expansion was aided by steam power, when steamboats began traveling along America's large water systems, which were connected by new canals, such as the Erie and the I&M; then, even faster railroads began their stretch across the nation's land.
From 1820 to 1850, Jacksonian democracy began a set of reforms which included wider white male suffrage; it led to the rise of the Second Party System of Democrats and Whigs as the dominant parties from 1828 to 1854. The Trail of Tears in the 1830s exemplified the Indian removal policy that resettled Indians into the west on Indian reservations. The U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845 during a period of expansionist Manifest destiny. The 1846 Oregon Treaty with Britain led to U.S. control of the present-day American Northwest. Victory in the Mexican–American War resulted in the 1848 Mexican Cession of California and much of the present-day American Southwest.
The California Gold Rush of 1848–49 spurred western migration and the creation of additional western states. After the American Civil War, new transcontinental railwaysmade relocation easier for settlers, expanded internal trade and increased conflicts with Native Americans. Over a half-century, the loss of the American bison (sometimes called "buffalo") was an existential blow to many Plains Indians cultures. In 1869, a new Peace Policy sought to protect Native-Americans from abuses, avoid further war, and secure their eventual U.S. citizenship, although conflicts, including several of the largest Indian Wars, continued throughout the West into the 1900s.
Civil War and Reconstruction Era
Differences of opinion and social order between northern and southern states in early United States society, particularly regarding Black slavery, ultimately led to the American Civil War. Initially, states entering the Union alternated between slave and free states, keeping a sectional balance in the Senate, while free states outstripped slave states in population and in the House of Representatives. But with additional western territory and more free-soil states, tensions between slave and free states mounted with arguments over federalism and disposition of the territories, whether and how to expand or restrict slavery.
With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the first president from the largely anti-slavery Republican Party, conventions in thirteen slave states ultimately declared secession and formed the Confederate States of America, while the federal government maintained that secession was illegal. The ensuing war was at first for Union, then after 1863 as casualties mounted and Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation, a second war aim became abolition of slavery. The war remains the deadliest military conflict in American history, resulting in the deaths of approximately 618,000 soldiers as well as many civilians.
Following the Union victory in 1865, three amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution: the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment provided citizenship to the nearly four million African Americans who had been slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment ensured that they had the right to vote. The war and its resolution led to a substantial increase in federal power aimed at reintegrating and rebuilding the Southern states while ensuring the rights of the newly freed slaves.
Southern white conservatives, calling themselves "Redeemers" took control after the end of Reconstruction. By the 1890-1910 period Jim Crow laws disenfranchised most blacks and some poor whites. Especially in the South and the West blacks, Indians, Chinese and Hispanics faced systemic discrimination, including racial segregation and occasional vigilante violence.
In the North, urbanization and an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe supplied a surplus of labor for the country's industrialization and transformed its culture. National infrastructure including telegraph and transcontinental railroads spurred economic growth and greater settlement and development of the American Old West. The later invention of electric light and the telephone would also affect communication and urban life.
The end of the Indian Wars further expanded acreage under mechanical cultivation, increasing surpluses for international markets. Mainland expansion was completed by the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. In 1893, pro-American elements in Hawaii overthrew the monarchy and formed the Republic of Hawaii, which the U.S. annexed in 1898. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were ceded by Spain in the same year, following the Spanish–American War.
Rapid economic development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered the rise of many prominent industrialists. Tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie led the nation's progess in railroad, petroleum, and steel industries. Banking became a major part of the economy, with J.P. Morgan playing a notable role. Edison and Tesla undertook the widespread distribution of electricity to industry, homes, and for street lightiing. Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry. The American economy boomed, becoming the world's largest, and the United States achieved great power status. These dramatic changes were accompanied by social unrest and the rise of populist, socialist, and anarchist movements. This period eventually ended with the advent of the Progressive Era, which saw significant reforms in many societal areas, including women's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, regulation of consumer goods, greater antitrust measures to ensure competition and attention to worker conditions.
World War I, Great Depression, and World War II
The United States remained neutral from the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, until 1917 when it joined the war as an "associated power", alongside the formal Allies of World War I, helping to turn the tide against the Central Powers. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson took a leading diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference and advocated strongly for the U.S. to join the League of Nations. However, the Senate refused to approve this, and did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles that established the League of Nations.
In 1920, the women's rights movement won passage of a constitutional amendmentgranting women's suffrage. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of radio for mass communication and the invention of early television. The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. After his election as president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, which included the establishment of the Social Security system. The Great Migration of millions of African Americans out of the American South began before World War I and extended through the 1960s;whereas the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s impoverished many farming communities and spurred a new wave of western migration.
At first effectively neutral during World War II while Germany conquered much of continental Europe, the United States began supplying material to the Allies in March 1941 through the Lend-Lease program. On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to join the Allies against the Axis powers. During the war, the United States was referred as one of the "Four Policemen" of Allies power who met to plan the postwar world, along with Britain, the Soviet Union and China. Though the nation lost more than 400,000 soldiers, it emerged relatively undamaged from the war with even greater economic and military influence.
The United States played a leading role in the Bretton Woods and Yalta conferences with the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other Allies, which signed agreements on new international financial institutions and Europe's postwar reorganization. As an Allied victory was won in Europe, a 1945 international conference held in San Francisco produced the United Nations Charter, which became active after the war. The United States developed the first nuclear weapons and used them on Japan; the Japanese surrendered on September 2, ending World War II.
Cold War and civil rights era
After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union jockeyed for power during what became known as the Cold War, driven by an ideological divide between capitalism and communism and, according to the school of geopolitics, a divide between the maritime Atlantic and the continental Eurasian camps. They dominated the military affairs of Europe, with the U.S. and its NATO allies on one side and the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies on the other. The U.S. developed a policy of containmenttowards the expansion of communist influence. While the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in proxy wars and developed powerful nuclear arsenals, the two countries avoided direct military conflict.
The U.S. often opposed Third World movements that it viewed as Soviet-sponsored. American troops fought communist Chinese and North Korean forces in the Korean War of 1950–53. The Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite and its 1961 launch of the first manned spaceflight initiated a "Space Race" in which the United States became the first nation to land a man on the moon in 1969. A proxy war in Southeast Asia eventually evolved into full American participation, as the Vietnam War.
At home, the U.S. experienced sustained economic expansion and a rapid growth of its population and middle class. Construction of an Interstate Highway System transformed the nation's infrastructure over the following decades. Millions moved from farms and inner cities to large suburban housing developments. In 1959 Hawaii became the 50th and last U.S. state added to the country. The growing Civil Rights Movement used nonviolence to confront segregation and discrimination, with Martin Luther King Jr.becoming a prominent leader and figurehead. A combination of court decisions and legislation, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, sought to end racial discrimination. Meanwhile, a counterculture movement grew which was fueled by opposition to the Vietnam war, black nationalism, and the sexual revolution. The launch of a "War on Poverty" expanded entitlements and welfare spending.
The 1970s and early 1980s saw the onset of stagflation. After his election in 1980, President Ronald Reagan responded to economic stagnation with free-market oriented reforms. Following the collapse of détente, he abandoned "containment" and initiated the more aggressive "rollback" strategy towards the USSR. After a surge in female labor participation over the previous decade, by 1985 the majority of women aged 16 and over were employed.
The late 1980s brought a "thaw" in relations with the USSR, and its collapse in 1991 finally ended the Cold War. This brought about unipolaritywith the U.S. unchallenged as the world's dominant superpower. The concept of Pax Americana, which had appeared in the post-World War II period, gained wide popularity as a term for the post-Cold War new world order.
After the Cold War, the 1990s saw the longest economic expansion in modern U.S. history, ending in 2001.Originating in U.S. defense networks, the Internet spread to international academic networks, and then to the public in the 1990s, greatly affecting the global economy, society, and culture. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly 3,000 people. In response, the United States launched the War on Terror, which included war in Afghanistan and the 2003–11 Iraq War.
Beginning in 1994, the U.S. entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA), linking 450 million people producing $17 trillion worth of goods and services. The goal of the agreement was to eliminate trade and investment barriers among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico by January 1, 2008. Trade among the three partners has soared since NAFTA went into force.
Barack Obama, the first African American and multiracial president, was elected in 2008 amid the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.
Things to know
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.
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, while others (e.g. computer software) are even more casual, allowing jeans and even shorts.
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.
Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as yarmulkes, hijabs and burqas without comment.
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 of them also have after church luncheon for free or at a cost and you 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 (noted 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-funded public broadcasting). 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, due to the lower sound fidelity; 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 shake hands when meeting someone or being introduced, though handshaking is often skipped in less formal situations. Some people prefer to fist-bump; you can tell depending on whether someone offers you their open hand or closed fist, but mistakes in this situation are no big deal at all. Kissing on the cheeks in greeting is rare and usually done only between close friends and family.
- 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 any more should warrant a forewarning when possible.
- 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 Native American 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
Also see the section on tipping, and the section on smoking.
Stay safe / healthy
Headline-grabbing major crimes and slightly unfavorable statistics give the United States a reputation for crime. However, 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 very easy to avoid.
Urban areas tend to have homeless people who may aggressively ask for money. If you feel harassed, say "No" firmly and walk away.
Illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and the authorities' heavy-handed treatment of them, make the Mexican border undesirable to visit. Official border crossings are safe to use.
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 Englandand the areas near the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, tornadoes mostly in the Great Plainsand 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.
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, 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 currently 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 and Alaska allow limited recreational use of marijuana, as does the District of Columbia, although the status of legalization there is currently 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, post offices etc) 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 traveled specifically for hunting or sporting shooting, orthey 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 currently 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/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. That said, the Constitution also guarantees freedom of speech, and so it's still possible to hear racist remarks even in very public fora.
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 (including at the present time, in 2016), 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 (in all of medical history there are only a handful of documented cases of patients with rabies surviving it after symptoms had already developed, but if you get the vaccine before symptoms occur, you have a very high chance of surviving without any harm). Bats and other small, wild animals are especially prone to carry the rabies virus. If you get bitten, especially if you can't identify the animal and even if it is "just a scratch", 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).
These diseases are extraordinarily rare and the medical system of the United States is very much capable of handling any of these when necessary.
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 destination United States website.
Due to the high amount of travel to and from the U.S. and the fact that diaspora communities from almost every country in the world have some presence in the U.S., 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, that had a few cases in the U.S. Usually those cases are treated and isolated before they spread and you are unlikely to ever be affected by them.
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 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.