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.