Some of the differences between other countries and the United States of America
Travel to the United States
AMERICA OR UNITED STATES?
Many people consider the terms United States and America interchangeable. America is a continent, comprising the countries of Canada, the United States of America, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, etc. If you are traveling to a country in America other than the United States, you should refer to the United States itself.
Most residents of the United States refer to themselves as Americans and to their country as America. Some other countries also refer to United States residents as Americans. This is incorrect. "American" does not denote a country of residence or citizenship. America is an entire continent of countries, like Asia, Africa or Europe. You should instead use the terms "United States," "U.S.," "United States of America," or "U.S.A."
Most cities and states in the United States do not provide good public transportation. It will take a long time, and many transfers, to travel significant distances by bus or rail. Cities with decent, reliable public transportation include New York City, Boston, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco. For the most part, however, you should expect to drive yourself around the country.
If the highway/freeway system intimidates you, drive instead on local streets. But just remember that many people are able to drive on the highways and freeways. It may seem daunting, but you'll soon grow accustomed to it. And all of America drives on the right-hand side of the road, from Canada to Argentina.
We do have light rail systems in many major cities, like Los Angeles. But their routes do not cover everywhere. You will be restricted on where you can go if you rely on these light rail systems. And for safety reasons, it's better to use these during the day and avoid them at night.
We also have trains which cross our country if you're looking for a more scenic mode of transportation. Just be aware that it takes many days to cross the country by rail, whereas a commercial airplane only takes 6 hours to fly from New York City to Los Angeles.
KILOMETERS VERSUS MILES
In the United States we still use miles to measure long distances. Don't worry though, if you drive a vehicle here the speedometer will be in miles per hour (mph), so you won't need to convert the speed limit (also posted in mph) in order to know your current speed. When I drive abroad, I don't concern myself with converting kilometers to miles since everything is in kilometers.
Most people in the United States dress comfortably. T-shirts, shorts, blue jeans, tennis shoes/sneakers, and flip flops. Americans love cotton. Casual dress is preferred. Even at formal events you will often find blue jeans. In many cities and towns, a stylish person would stand out. It's recommended to dress comfortably, but modest. Don't expose too much of your chest or groin areas.
Portions - Restaurants typically serve large portions of food here, sometimes enough food on a single plate for up to 4 people. We also tend to serve large portions of meat. If you are not that hungry, consider ordering one meal and asking for additional plates to share the meal with others at your table. Americans also often ask for a box or bag to take any additional food home with them. We refer to this as a doggie bag or a to-go box.
Busy - Many busy restaurants will serve you quickly and expect you to eat quickly, pay, and leave. This is because they want to increase sales by seating others at your table as soon as possible. A rapid turnover of customers increases profits. Please be aware of this and try to accommodate a busy restaurant by eating and finishing your meal so others may be seated as soon as possible. When your check or bill is brought to your table, you are expected to pay and leave.
Tips - Our food servers at full service restaurants (where they come to your table to take your food order) expect tips, usually between 10 to 20 percent of the total bill. They should be very friendly and attentive. This is to demonstrate their desire to serve you well. You should expect them to come to your table multiple times asking you if everything is okay. The more attentive they are, the larger the tip they usually receive. Exceptional service may receive a tip as large as 25 percent or more of the total bill.
SMOKING AND DRINKING
Many indoor and outdoor places in the United States do not allow you to smoke cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, etc. Please ask if there is a designated smoking area before you smoke.
Likewise, many cities and states do not allow you to consume alcohol in public places. You must stay within designated restaurant or bar/pub areas when drinking.
IS IT RUDE?
What is considered rude in the United States? While this may differ based on region and neighborhood, there are some general guidelines.
Eating - Chewing with your mouth open, talking with food in your mouth, or making loud sounds while eating (slurping, smacking, etc.) are considered rude to those around you. Keep your mouth closed when eating and talk only when your mouth is empty.
Talking - Conversation noise levels vary a lot in the United States. But in general, try not to talk so loud that others can hear your conversation. This is especially true in places like museums, movie theaters, libraries, restaurants, and public transportation. Loud talk, or yelling, is definitely considered rude. If others are noticing you or looking at you while you are talking, you are probably talking too loud.
Personal space - This one is important. In the United States, people like space. They do not like to be crowded or touching other people in public places. A minimal acceptable distance would be 1 meter (3 feet), but 2 meters (6 feet) is usually preferable. If the person you are near looks uncomfortable, move further away from them.
Greetings - The most polite way to greet someone is with "Hello" or with a more casual "Hi." Use either of these greetings before you ask a question. You may also want to include "excuse me." And it is customary to thank someone after they have talked with you with "thank you." Here is an example of an appropriate conversation:
Visitor: "Hello. Excuse me, do you know where the museum of art is?"
Local: "Yes, it's just two blocks straight ahead."
Visitor: "Okay, thank you."
Local: "You're welcome" or a more casual "Sure, no problem."
The crown jewel of the United States is definitely our national parks system. In 1872, Yellowstone became our first official national park. Today, there are over 60 national parks and over 400 national park sites, such as national monuments and national historic sites.
Most national parks reside in the West, with California, Alaska, and Utah hosting the most national parks. Here are some great national parks (in no particular order) to visit if you're coming to the United States for your first time:
1. Yosemite National Park - California
2. Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming
3. Redwood National & State Parks - California
4. Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah
5. Olympic National Park - Washington
6. Mount Rainier National Park - Washington
7. Zion National Park - Utah
8. Glacier National Park - Montana
9. Everglades National Park - Florida
10. Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee/North Carolina
GUNS AND CRIME
You may often hear about mass shootings, guns, and crime in the United States. Due to factors such as our Second Amendment and gun lobbyists, we do have a disparate amount of homicides for an industrialized country. Although the chances of being in the same place at the same time of a shooting are about the same as getting struck by lightning, there are some simple precautions you can take:
Avoid high crime neighborhoods
Avoid walking alone at night out of public view
Remember our FBI's guidelines - Run, hide, fight (Warning: graphic content)
If you're unsure which neighborhoods are high in crime, reports like CrimeMapping.com in Los Angeles can help. And never be afraid to ask a local as well. Over 330 million people live safely in the United States each day. While gun violence does exist, most people are perfectly safe.
USEFUL TERMINOLOGY FOR TRAVELERS
ATM - automated teller machine, an electronic bank kiosk where you can withdraw U.S. currency, usually in $20 increments.
Freeway - a fast speed highway system which has no tolls or payments. There are on-ramps (entering the freeway) and off-ramps (exiting the freeway) which you must utilize, and which vary slightly by region.
Toll road - a highway in which you must stop at a booth to pay a toll or fee. Sometimes the toll booths are in the middle of the highway, other times they can be found at the off-ramps (see Freeway definition above).
Subway - a light rail system, known as a metro or tube in other countries, which interconnects multiple destinations within a city.
Rush hour/traffic - the time in the morning and afternoon when most people are driving to and from work. This is usually between 07:00 to 09:00 am in the morning, and 4:00 (16:00) to 7:00 (19:00) pm in the afternoon or evening. Avoid driving in larger cities during this time, if you are able. You will likely become trapped in traffic - many cars moving at very slow speeds, or not moving at all.
Layover - a location in which you transfer from one airplane flight to another. For example, if you are traveling from New York to Denver, and then Denver to Las Vegas, your layover would be in Denver between New York and Las Vegas. New York > Denver (layover) > Las Vegas
Rental/rental car - the automobile you wish to hire or use to drive yourself around a city, state, or around the country. If you intend to drive through a state or around the country, ensure you have unlimited mileage when reserving, or booking, your vehicle.
Carry-on - baggage or luggage which is small enough to take to your seat when boarding an airplane. This baggage is stowed, or stored, above your seat and under the seat in front of you.
USEFUL LINKS FOR TRAVELERS
Do you need a visa to enter the United States? Use our Department of State's convenient visa wizard to determine if you need a visa.
Do you speak a foreign language and need translation services for English? We utilize Google Translate for all of our language translation. You can even download an entire language on to your smartphone to use offline.
There are many airline flight searches online. The ones I hear about most often are Kayak, Cheapoair, Momondo, and Skyscanner. I personally use Kayak, but always purchase my airline tickets directly from the airline company once I've discovered the best price. For national travel throughout the United States, we usually fly on Southwest airlines, which does not appear on any of the search websites mentioned above.
As mentioned previously, you can utilize Amtrak for train travel across the United States. Just be aware that the United States is a very large country, and train travel can take many days. There are no bullet, or fast or speed, trains operating within the United States. But if you have the time, it is definitely a great way to see the country.