The United States can be an intimidating place for a first-time visitor, and American culture (and Americans themselves) can be frightening for the uninitiated. I am a local from the mysterious land of Los Angeles, here to dispel some of these myths and give you the information you need to make an American holiday a pleasant reality. As a result, here are 10 things to know before visiting the USA:
#1. The United States is BIG and it is diverse
Flying from my home in Southern California to New York is a roughly 5.5 hour flight. Boston to Miami is 3 hours. And, since most major cities and tourist sights are along the coasts, it means that a tourist really has to choose a region to see. To say that one is going to see the United States in two weeks, or even two months, is just fooling yourself. (This doesn’t even count Alaska and Hawaii.)
Furthermore, as far away as places like Dallas and Seattle are from each other geographically, they are also incredibly far apart when it comes to personality. The Pacific Northwest is known for having a hippy vibe, while Texas and much of the South are fairly conservative and Christian. Northeasterners are seen as being pushy and always in a hurry (indeed, you might get yelled at for walking too slowly along a sidewalk in New York City), while Los Angeles is relatively laid back and a place where everyone is running late.
Climate, too, is diverse. Asking what the weather is in the United States is pretty useless. On a given day in October, it might be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix and snowing in Detroit.
#2. Speaking of the weather, Americans measure things differently
We use Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, and we don’t understand the Celsius scale is just one of the many things to know before visiting the USA. In fact, many Americans may never have heard of it. (Blame our public education.) We also don’t use the metric system, and look down on those who do. So, while it may not make sense to anyone, remember that in the USA, 32 degrees is freezing and water boils at 212. There are 12 inches in a foot and 5280 feet in a mile. We weigh things in pounds, drink liquid in pints and gallons, and think that a system where things are measured in units of 10 is confusing.
There was actually a political movement to adopt the metric system in the USA and in 1975, the Metric Conversion Act was passed. However, the effort was repealed in 1982 after making zero headway. We are stubborn in liking our obscure and ridiculous measurements.
#3. Don’t talk about politics
This one is key right now. American politics are as vicious and divisive as at any point since the Civil War. Few people outspokenly identify as centrist, and most people will harshly judge those who vote differently than they do. I am a fairly moderate person, having voted for members of both major parties in the past, and even I find myself including a memo on my online dating profiles that those who voted for Donald Trump should seek love elsewhere.
Trying to speak to Americans about politics these days is inviting a session of yelling, cursing, and incoherent party-line buzz phrases. I say this very sadly, but the days of having reasonable political discourse in this country have passed, at least for now. For your own safety (many Americans in the South own guns and carry them concealed) and sanity (we are a stubborn breed and don’t use the fun insults the more civilized folks in the UK will), just avoid speaking about American politics while here. If you want to talk about the politics of your own country, feel free, but as with the metric system, most Americans simply won’t understand.
#4. Laws are different throughout America
In the United States there are federal laws, state laws, and local laws, and they can be different. This can range from things like speed limits when driving (remember we speed in miles per hour) to your ability to cross a street despite the sign telling you it isn’t your turn (ok in New York, and a huge fine in Los Angeles). You can look these up before coming, ask a local, ask your hotel, or just follow the flow.
#5. Learn useful phrases in English
This one is probably preaching to the choir since I am writing in English and you are reading it, but very few Americans speak another language, and basic functions like ordering at a restaurant or asking for directions will need to be done in English only. You may get dirty looks from some Americans for speaking another language, as well. Don’t mind them. They are ignorant fools. But they still might have guns.
Foreign language education in the United States is poor at best. Most Americans take Spanish or French in high school (grades 9-12), but quickly forget it all after graduation.
#6. There isn’t such a thing as “American” food
One of the best qualities about the United States is that most people here came from somewhere else. As a result, if you want Indian food or Ethiopian food or Salvadorian food, we have it and it’s probably authentically made by those who came from those countries. However, if you want food that is truly American, you are probably looking at a burger, unless you are in one of the few places with its own regional cuisine. New Orleans Creole food, for instance, is unique and amazing, and much of the South also has come truly incredible food. To me, the best thing about eating in the USA is the ability to try so many different cultural cuisines in one place. Explore!
#7. Tipping is expected
When you do go out for a meal, tips are typically not included in your bill, but are expected and are part of the way your server will make his/her ends meet financially. A normal tip for adequate service is 15%, and you can adjust up or down as needed.
Tipping is also expected when taking a taxi (10% tends to be a decent amount), retrieving your car from the valet ($1-2 in cash will do), or when your hotel porter moves your luggage to your room (again, a dollar or two will suffice). Tipping bartenders seems to run around $1 per drink.
#8. Get out of the cities and explore nature
The majority of tourists who visit the United States will visit cities, and rightfully so. However, there is a TON of natural beauty in the USA for you to see, especially in the western portion of the country. Specifically, explore the National Parks system. If there are any near where you are going to be, they are all worth a visit! A few can even be worth completely planning a trip around: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and more.
#9. Security at the borders and airports is a big deal
As with most of the world, Americans are – naturally – concerned about terrorism and the wrong kind of people coming into the country. Your airline might ask you additional questions before you are permitted to board, and upon arrival you may be screened carefully by the agents of Customs and Border Patrol. Don’t argue with them; just be cooperative and things will be fine. If something goes wrong, ask for an attorney, or to speak with your embassy.
If you are taking a domestic flight within the USA, give yourself some time to get through security. You will need to remove your shoes, belt, jacket, and take electronics out of your bag. Don’t try to sneak something through that you shouldn’t, as it is taken very seriously.
#10. Don’t make fun of America or Americans
In this, we have a double-standard. As Americans, we say derogatory things about our country, our government, and our fellow citizens regularly. However, most Americans will get VERY defensive when people from other places do so. As with speaking about politics, just make sure you know your audience before engaging in things like this, or avoid it entirely.
The United States is truly an incredible place to visit. From the beaches of Southern California or Florida to the mountains of Colorado to the bright lights of New York City or Las Vegas, there is something here for everyone. Americans also are a fairly nice lot, with the understanding that many simply don’t understand what is outside of their immediate comfort area. I hope that you will make a trip here, and that these tips help!
Do you agree with these 10 things to know before visiting the USA? Have you been to the USA? What did you love/dislike about it?
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