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USA banner.jpg

Mount Rushmore
Location
United States in its region.svg
Flag
Flag of the United States.svg
Quick Facts
Capital Washington, DC
Government Federal presidential constitutional republic
Currency US dollar
Area 9,826,675km²
water: 664,709km²
land: 9,161,966km²
Population 319,309,000(2014 estimate)
Language English is the most commonly spoken language
Spanish, Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Carolinian ,Cherokee and many other indigenous languages are recognized at State and Territorial levels
Religion Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 estimate)
Electricity 120V, 60Hz (Type "A" plug)
Country code +1
Internet TLD .us, .edu, .gov, .mil (most sites use .com, .net, .org)
Time Zone UTC -4 to UTC -10
Emergencies dial 911
Map of the mainland US, insular areas and Minor Outlying Islands.

The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as the "USA", the "US", the "United States", "America", or simply "the States". Home to the world's third-largest population, with over 318 million people, it includes both densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast, uninhabited and naturally beautiful areas.

With its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a "melting pot" of cultures from around the world and plays a dominant role in the world's cultural landscape. It's famous for its wide array of popular tourist destinations, ranging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago, to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and Alaska, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California.

Understand[edit]

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." — Mark Twain

The United States is not the America of television and the movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with several distinct regional identities. Due to the vast distances involved, travelling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive, but often very rewarding.

Geography[edit]

The contiguous United States (called CONUS by US military personnel) or the "Lower 48" (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the population living on the two coasts. Its land borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The US also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba, and the Bahamas. If counting the Insular Areas and Minor Outlying Islands, the United Kingdom, Samoa, and Haiti would also share maritime borders.

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 protected as national parks. They 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; the Sierras transition at their northern end into the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.

The Great Lakes define much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. More 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 southwestern portions of the USA in eastern California, Arizona, Nevada, and much of southern New Mexico are rugged and very arid landscapes, complete with wind-shaped desert sand dunes like White Sands New Mexico. Death Valley (282 feet below sea level) is the lowest spot on the USA mainland and one of the hottest areas on Earth. Natural areas include vast areas of desert untouched by humans. Camping and hiking through the majestic landscapes of the Southwest is a big vacation draw for many Americans.

Florida is very low-lying, with long white sand beaches lining both sides of the state. The mild subtropical climate allows many exotic (both native and non-native) plants and animals to flourish. The Florida Everglades are a pristine "river of grass" that is home to 20-foot alligators among other creatures.

Climate[edit]

The overall climate is temperate in much of the northern and central regions, with the deep southern areas along the Gulf Coast and Florida being subtropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West, while much of California is Mediterranean, and arid desert in its southwestern areas. Hawaii is tropical, and South Florida is semi-tropical.

The least difference in climate from region to region in the USA occurs in summer - when much of the USA has warm to hot summers. Areas of the Southwestern deserts (California, Arizona, and Nevada) often see the highest summer temperatures of 100 to 115°F (38-46°C) on many days with long periods of rainless weather. Much the rest of the USA sees high temperatures from 70 to 90°F (21-32°C). Only areas along the upper Pacific Coast (in Oregon and Washington) have summer highs below 70°F (21°C). The greatest difference in climate from region to region occurs from December through March - when temperatures can range fridge in the far northern areas (Minnesota, North Dakota...etc) to warm to hot in the deep subtropical portions (Florida, Arizona...etc). Some areas in the northern Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota) have highs only in the 20s Fahrenheit (-5°C) in January, while areas in the deep south along the Gulf Coast, the Southwestern Deserts, and Florida have highs in the 60s and 70s °F (15-26°C).

History[edit]

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

What is now the United States was initially populated by indigenous peoples who migrated from northeast Asia. Today, their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Although Native Americans are often portrayed as having lived a singular, usually primitive lifestyle, the truth is that prior to European contact, the continent was densely populated by many sophisticated societies. The Cherokee, for example, are descended from the overarching Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape, while the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. As was the case in other nations in the Americas, the primitive existence attributed to Native Americans was generally the result of mass die-offs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox which spread like wildfire ahead of the early European explorers. That is, by the time most Native American tribes directly encountered Europeans, they were a post-apocalyptic people.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, multiple European nations began colonizing the North American continent. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of what would become the USA. Of those early settlements, it was the original British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts that formed the cultural, political, legal and economic core of what is now known as the United States of America.

Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants—Puritans—who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Its neighbor to the southwest, Rhode Island, was founded by refugees from the religious fanatics of Massachusetts. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland.

Virginia, on the other hand, became the most dominant of the southern colonies. Because of a longer growing season, these colonies had richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate large plantations. Slavery became an important part of the economy in the South, a fact that would cause tremendous upheaval in the years to come.

By the early 18th century, the United Kingdom had established a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On 4 July 1776, colonists from the Thirteen Colonies, frustrated with excessive taxation and micromanagement by London and encouraged by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from the UK and established a new sovereign nation, the United States of America. The resulting American Revolutionary War culminated in the surrender of 7,000 British troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. This forced the British government to initiate peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, by which the victorious Americans assumed control of all British land south of the Great Lakes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. British loyalists, known as Tories, fled north of the Great Lakes into Canada, which remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown and would not become fully independent until 1982.

Although the Thirteen Colonies had united during the war in support of the common objective of getting rid of British tyranny, most colonists' loyalties at the end of the war lay with their respective colonial governments. In turn, the young country's first attempt at establishing a national government under the Articles of Confederation was a disastrous failure. The Articles tried too hard to protect the colonies from each other by making the national government so weak it could not do anything.

In 1787, a convention of major political leaders (the Founding Fathers of the United States) drafted a new national Constitution in Philadelphia. After ratification by a supermajority of the states, the new Constitution went into effect in 1791 and enabled the establishment of the strong federal government that has governed the United States ever since. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the Revolutionary War, was elected as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By the turn of the 19th century, a national capital had been established in Washington, D.C..

As American and European settlers pushed farther west, past the Appalachians, the federal government began organizing new territories and then admitting them as new states. This was enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare and disease. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee tribe in what is now the southeastern United States was forcibly relocated to lands in present-day Oklahoma, which was known as "Indian Territory" until the early 20th century. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought French-owned territory extending from the Mississippi River to parts of the present-day American West under American control, effectively doubling the country's land area.

The United States fought the War of 1812 with Britain as a reaction to British impressment of American sailors, as well as to attempt to capture parts of Canada. Though dramatic battles were fought, including one that ended with the British Army burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., the war ended in a virtual stalemate. Territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, with the United States acquiring more and more of their territory for white settlers.

Florida was purchased in 1813 from Spain after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a short-lived independent republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 resulted in acquisition of the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. After 1850, the borders of the continental United States reached the rough outlines it still has today. Many Native Americans were relegated to reservations by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases transmitted by large numbers of settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail and other routes.

Tensions between the US and the British government administering Canada continued to persist because the border west of the Great Lakes was ill-defined. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 failed to adequately address the complex geography of the region; the boundary dispute remained unsettled until 1871.

Meanwhile, by the late 1850s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The rapidly industrializing North, where slavery had been outlawed several decades before, favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. In 1861, the Southern states, fearing domination by the North and the Republican President Nominee Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Union and formed the breakaway Confederate States of America. These events sparked the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict on American soil, with over 200,000 killed in combat and a overall death toll exceeding 600,000. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, thereby cementing the federal government's authority over the states. The federal government then launched a complex process of rehabilitation and re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898 after a brief revolution fomented by American settlers. After decisively defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States gained its first "colonial" territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (granted independence shortly after World War II), Puerto Rico and Guam (which remain American dependencies today). During this "imperialist" phase of US history, the US also assisted Panama in obtaining independence from Colombia, as the need for a Panama Canal had become palpably clear to the US during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the new country of Panama promptly granted the United States control over a swath of territory known as the Canal Zone. The US constructed the Panama Canal in 1914 and retained control over the Canal Zone until 1979.

In the eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country's growing industrialization. Many African-Americans fled rural poverty in the South for industrial jobs in the North, in what is now known as the Great Migration. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads was laid across the country, accelerating development.

With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power by helping to defeat Germany and the Central Powers. However after the war, despite strong support from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States refused to join the newly-formed League of Nations, which substantially hindered that body's effectiveness in preventing future conflicts.

Real wealth grew rapidly in the postwar period. During the Roaring Twenties, stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to a period of economic havoc in the 1930s known as the Great Depression. The Depression was brutal and devastating, with unemployment rising to 25%. On the other hand, it helped forge a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in its next conflict. President Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid in 1932 as a result of his ineffective response to the Depression. The victor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ("FDR") pledged himself to a "New Deal" for the American people, which came in the form of a variety of aggressive economic recovery programs. While historians still debate the effectiveness of the various New Deal programs in terms of whether they fulfilled their stated objectives, it is generally undisputed that the New Deal greatly expanded the size and role of the US federal government.

In December 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, thus plunging the United States into World War II, which had already been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia since 1937. In alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the United States helped to defeat the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan. By the end of World War II, with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, the United States had firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world; it was then responsible for nearly half of the world's industrial production. The newly developed atomic bomb, whose power was demonstrated in two bombings of Japan in 1945, made the United States the only force capable of challenging the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.

After World War II, America experienced an economic resurgence and growing affluence on a scale not seen since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the racism traditionally espoused in various explicit and implicit forms by the European-American majority against the country's African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American and other minority populations had become impossible to ignore. While the US was attempting to spread democracy and the rule of law abroad to counter the Soviet Union's support of authoritarian Communist governments, it found itself having to confront its own abysmal failure to provide the benefits of democracy and the rule of law to all its citizens. Thus, in the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which ultimately eliminated most of the institutional discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women's movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in gender roles and perceptions in US society, including to a limited extent views on homosexuality and bisexuality. The more organized present-era US 'gay rights' movement first emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s.

During the same period, in the final quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent a slow but inexorable transition from an economy based on a mixture of heavy industry and labor-intensive agriculture, to an economy primarily based on advanced technology (the "high-tech" industry), retail, professional services, and other service industries, as well as a highly mechanized, automated agricultural industry.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, millions of US manufacturing jobs fell victim to outsourcing. In a phenomenon since labeled "global labor arbitrage," revolutionary improvements in transportation, communications, and logistics technologies made it possible to relocate manufacturing of most goods to foreign factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. The outsourcing revolution was devastating to many cities, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, whose economies were overly dependent upon manufacturing, and resulted in a group of hollowed-out, depressed cities now known as the Rust Belt.

The United States also assumed and continues to maintain a position of global leadership in military and aerospace technology through the development of a powerful "military-industrial complex", although as of the turn of the 21st century, its leadership is increasingly being challenged by the European Union and China. US federal investments in military technology also paid off handsomely in the form of the most advanced information technology sector in the world, which is primarily centered on the area of Northern California known as Silicon Valley. US energy firms, especially those based in petroleum and natural gas, have also become global giants, as they expanded worldwide to feed the country's thirst for cheap energy.

The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population from rural towns and urban cores to the suburbs. These population shifts, along with a changing economic climate, contributed heavily to Urban decay from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The postwar rise of a prosperous middle class able to afford cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline in turn led to the rise of the American car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, became the most comprehensive freeway system in the world, at over 47,000 miles in length. It was surpassed by China only in 2011, although the US is believed to still have a larger freeway system when non-federal-aid highways are also included.

In the late 20th century, the US was also a leader in the development and deployment of the modern passenger jetliner. This culminated in the development of the popular Boeing 737 and 747 jetliners; the 737 is still the world's most popular airliner today. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn devastated US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, with the consent of the railroads, who were eager to focus their operations on carrying freight, Congress nationalized their passenger rail operations to form the government-owned corporation now known as Amtrak.

During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers were the first to pioneer many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including self-service supermarkets, inventory bar codes to ease the tedium of accurately tallying purchases, "big box" chain stores, factory outlet stores, warehouse club stores, and modern shopping centers. American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, books, and art, all combined to establish the United States as the cultural center of the world. American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, thanks to generous assistance from the federal government in the form of the GI Bill, followed by massive research and development investments by the military-industrial complex, and later, the Higher Education Act. Today, US universities are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.

Government and politics[edit]

The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the District of Columbia (Washington DC), 16 terriories, and numerous Indian Reservations. The federal government derives its power from the Constitution of the United States, the oldest written constitution in the world in continuous use. Although federal law supersedes state law in the event of an express or implied conflict (known in legal jargon as "federal preemption"), each state is considered to be a separate sovereign, maintains its own constitution and government, and retains considerable autonomy within the federation. State citizens enjoy the power to vote for federal representatives, federal senators, and the federal President.

By way of contrast, the District of Columbia and the overseas territories have limited federal representation, as they can only elect "delegates" to the federal House of Representatives who cannot participate in votes by the Committee of the Whole on the House floor. (D.C. does, however, get three electoral votes with respect to the election of the federal President.) Because they lack state sovereignty, the governments of D.C. and the territories exist at the mercy of the federal government, which theoretically could dissolve them at any time.

State and territorial laws can vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, meaning that the US actually consists of at least 54 separate legal systems with regard to any area of law not within the purview of federal law. State and territorial laws are quite uniform in some areas (e.g., contracts for sales of goods) and extremely divergent in others (e.g., "real estate," the American term for immovable property). If this was not confusing enough, sovereign Native American tribes are allowed to operate their own legal systems separate from both federal and state law.

The federal government consists of the President of the United States and his administration acting as the executive branch, the United States Congress acting as the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts acting as the judicial branch. State government structures are organized similarly, with governors, legislatures, and judiciaries.

The President of the United States is elected indirectly every four years by the people via an electoral college, and serves as both head of government and head of state. The Congress is bicameral; the lower House of Representatives has seats assigned to the states proportionally, while the upper house, the Senate, comprises exactly two seats per state.

The United States has two major political parties at both the federal and state levels, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Their dominance over the American political landscape has remained largely unchallenged since the end of the American Civil War and leads to a heavily criticized and frequently corrupt system of "pork-barrel politics" where necessary change is too-often subject to deadlock and bi-partisan point scoring. While smaller political parties exist, the American winner-take-all electoral system means that they are rarely competitive in elections at any level.

Americans value their rights to political expression strongly, and politics are fiercely debated in American society. In fact, there are many popular web sites and cable channels devoted primarily to political opinion programming. American politics are very complex and change quickly. For example, gay people were not allowed to marry in any US state as recently as 2003, whereas now, 17 states allow gay marriage, while over 20 states have passed amendments to their state constitutions explicitly outlawing gay marriage. Many Americans hold and passionately defend strong opinions on a wide range of political issues, many Americans, especially older Americans, are loyal to one party, and political debates often become heated and lead to insults, vulgarities, and personal attacks being exchanged. For these reasons, unless you are intimately familiar with American politics or already know and agree with the political views of the person you are talking to, you are best off not talking about politics at all.

Culture[edit]

The South's famous Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

The United States is made up of many diverse ethnic groups and its 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 it is important to note that 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.

Holidays[edit]

The United States has a number of holidays — official and/or cultural — of which the traveller should be aware of. Note that holidays observed on Mondays or Fridays are usually treated as weekend-long events. (A weekend consists of a Saturday and a Sunday.) Federal holidays — i.e., holidays observed by the federal government, state and local government and banks — are indicated in bold italics. If a federal holiday with a fixed calendar date (such as Independence Day) falls on a weekend, federal and most state and local government offices will be closed on the nearest non-weekend day. Since the early 1970s, several federal holidays, including Memorial Day and Labor Day, have been observed on a certain Monday rather than on a fixed date for the express purpose of giving federal employees three-day weekends. Foreign embassies & consulates in the U.S. also observe the same federal holidays (in bold italics) in addition to the official holidays of their respective countries. The private sector (besides banks) are usually open for business on most holidays with people working except New Years, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas when a vast number of non-retail businesses do close or open partial hours in observance.

Due to the number of major holidays in close proximity to each other, many Americans refer to the period between Thanksgiving in late November and New Year's Day as simply "the holidays." School and work vacations are commonly taken during this periods:

  • New Year's Day (1 January) — most non-retail businesses closed; parades; brunches and football parties.
  • Super Bowl Sunday (usually the first Sunday in February) — The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL (National Football League) American football league and the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, restaurants and electronics stores are very busy; big football-watching parties everywhere. Those with the extra money to burn DO travel to the host city where the Super Bowl is happening to attend the game live. This makes travel to that city even more hectic with a limited availability of airline seats, hotel rooms, rental cars and parking spaces at much higher than usual prices. The host city varies annually so plan accordingly if planning to be in the host city on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • (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 or a green accessory is common.
  • Easter (a Sunday in March or April) — Christian religious observances. Depending on location, many restaurants, including franchised outlets of major national chains, may close. Major retailers generally open; smaller shops may or may not close.
  • Passover (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days around Easter) — Jewish religious observance.
  • Memorial Day (last Monday in May) — most non-retail businesses closed; some patriotic observances; trips to beaches and parks; beginning of the traditional beginning of summer tourism season which means jacked up summer prices for rooms and airfare to some places.
  • Independence Day / Fourth of July (4 July) — most non-retail businesses closed; airports and highways crowded; 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; last day of the traditional ending of summer tourism season which means a better time to plan for travel to or within the U.S. in many places.
  • 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. Columbus Day can be controversial, especially among Native Americans, and is not as widely observed as it was in the past.
  • Halloween (31 October) — trick-or-treating, parades, and costume parties.
  • Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
  • Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November, date varies annually) — almost all businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants; family dinners. Airports and highways are very crowded. The next day, known as "Black Friday," major Christmas shopping traditionally begins. Many non-retail employees are given Friday off or take it as a holiday. If planning to fly within the U.S. during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday and the weekend after plan accordingly as the airfares are jacked up.
  • Hanukkah / Chanukah (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days usually in December) — Jewish religious observance, often culturally associated with Christmas.
  • Christmas (25 December) — almost all businesses, grocery stores, and many restaurants closed the evening before and all day. Airports and highways are crowded. Families and close friends exchange gifts; Christian religious observances. If planning to fly within the U.S. and internationally around the Christmas holiday and the week between Christmas and New Years Day plan accordingly as the airfares are jacked up.
  • New Year's Eve (31 December) — many restaurants and bars open late; lots of parties, especially in big cities.

From a foreign traveler's point of view, there are two major services affected by federal holidays: visas and mail.

First, if you are a foreigner who needs to apply for a US visa, it is important to note the federal holidays marked in bold italics. All US embassies worldwide close on those days, in addition to the official holidays of the host country and are unable to process applications on those days.

Second, United States Postal Service retail counters are closed on federal holidays, and in high-crime areas, the entire post office stays closed. Self-service kiosks at post offices in relatively safe areas with 24/7 lobby access remain operational through holidays. However, mail deposited at a post office or in a mailbox will not be processed until after the holiday is over.

Other federal services like national parks and airport security operate 365 days a year regardless of federal holidays.

Many state governments also observe official holidays of their own which are not observed in other states or by the federal government.

Units of measure[edit]

The United States is the only industrialized country that has still not adopted metric units of measure in daily life (it still uses the customary English units that were in use prior to the revolution, similar to the later British imperial system, but typically with smaller units as one of the major differences), except for scientific, engineering, and military applications.

All road signs and speed limits are posted in miles and miles per hour respectively. Automotive fuel is priced and sold per gallon. Other capacities of liquid products are normally quoted and sold per gallon, quart, or ounce (although liters are often indicated and sometimes exclusively used, as with some soda, wine, and other liquor products). Temperatures are reported in Fahrenheit only; 32 degrees (with units unspecified) is freezing (equivalent to 0 degrees Celsius). The good news is that most cars on the road in the US have both mph and km/h marked on their speedometers (good for trips to Canada and Mexico), and almost all groceries and household items sold in stores are labeled in both systems. The vast majority of Americans, though, have little day-to-day exposure to the metric system (apart from having studied it a little in school) and will assume some understanding of customary measures.

In addition, the US government does not regulate apparel or shoe sizes. Although there are informal standard sizes, they are not strictly enforced. The only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. If you plan to shop for apparel or shoes, you will have to do some trial-and-error for each brand to determine what fits, because you cannot rely on any brand's sizes as equivalent to another's. Please note that, as the average body size of Americans tends to be larger than that of those living in other countries, a concept known as vanity sizing (the labeling of larger garments with smaller sizes) exists in many clothing retailers, especially those aimed at women. It is very possible for people with smaller body types to have some difficulty finding suitably sized clothing.

Electricity[edit]

For more information: Electrical systems

Electricity in the United States is provided to consumers in the form of 120V, 60Hz alternating current, through wall outlets that take NEMA 1 or NEMA 5 plugs. (NEMA stands for National Electrical Manufacturers Association.) NEMA 1 plugs have two flat, blunt blades (don't worry, they're not sharp), one of which may or may not be polarized (slightly larger than the other), to ensure that the hot and neutral blades are inserted correctly for devices for which that matters. NEMA 5 plugs add a round grounding pin below the blades. All US buildings constructed or renovated after the early 1960s are required to have three-hole outlets that accept the two blades and one pin of NEMA 5 plugs, as well as both polarized and unpolarized NEMA 1 two-blade plugs. The US Virgin Islands uses a slightly lower voltage of 110V. American Samoa uses US plugs, the German Schuko plug, and the Australian standard plug.

All of North America, nearly all of the Caribbean and Central America, Venezuela, and Taiwan follow US standards for electricity and plugs. If you are arriving from outside of those areas, you will need to verify whether your electrical devices are compatible with US electricity and plugs. Japan uses the same plugs as the US, but has a unique standard of 100V with frequency of either 50 or 60Hz depending on region. Most of the rest of the world uses 220-230V at 50Hz, for the simple reason that they began large-scale electrification at much later dates than the US and after wire insulation technology had significantly advanced. This meant they could select a higher voltage and lower frequency, which required less conductor material (meaning less use of expensive metals) but at the expense of more insulation and larger, more heavily insulated plugs. Colombia's voltage is 110V and Ecuador's 120-127V but the frequency is the same as the US.

Most consumer electronics, computers, and shavers are already designed as "dual voltage" devices capable of accepting voltages from 110V up to 230V and between 50-60Hz. For those devices, a plug adapter is sufficient. Purchase your adapter at home before you depart. Most US stores carry adapters designed to adapt NEMA plugs to other countries' outlets, not the other way around.

The differences in voltage and frequency are most frequently an issue for travellers with hair long enough to require the use of a hair dryer for proper hair care. Foreign visitors regularly find their hair dryers to be starved for power in the US; conversely, Americans' hair dryers are regularly burned out and destroyed by high voltages overseas. Apart from doing without or waiting an annoying long time to dry one's hair, the solutions are to either

  1. buy a high-wattage transformer capable of stepping up 120V to 220V
  2. buy a hair dryer with a switch that allows it to be switched between 110 and 220V
  3. buy a cheap US hair dryer for use during your trip; or
  4. book hotels that cater to international travellers and place hair dryers in the rooms for this reason.

For more information[edit]

The US federal government sets foreign policy, 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 is best provided by state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state articles. At state borders, highway rest stops sometimes feature visitor centers and often offer travel and tourism information and materials, almost all of which is also available on-line or can be requested in advance by mail. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated "You Are Here" marker. Some also offer free paper road maps to take with you.

Note that government tourism bureaus and their Web sites tend to be rather indiscriminate in their recommendations, since for political reasons they cannot be seen as overly favorable towards any particular area within their jurisdiction.

Regions[edit]

The United States is composed of 50 states, various overseas territories, as well as the city of Washington, D.C., a federal district and the nation's capital. Below is a rough grouping of these states into regions, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:

Map of the USA
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. The small town environments have managed to maintain a large degree of autonomy for centuries.
Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
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. Bridging New England and the South, the Mid-Atlantic includes some of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world as well as small enclaves of American history.
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, and country music traditions. A distinct literature, accents, and religiosity help distinguish Southerners as well. This lush, largely subtropical region includes cool, verdant mountains, agricultural plantations, vast cypress swamps, and long white sand beaches.
Florida
Northern Florida is similar to the rest of the South, but is not so in the resorts of Orlando, retirement communities, tropical Caribbean-influenced Miami, the Everglades, and 1,200 miles of sandy beaches. An extremely popular tourist attraction, Florida includes some of the nicest attractions that the United States has to offer and is conveniently located in the Caribbean, facilitating travel to exotic islands.
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 US. Midwesterners are known for their simplicity and hospitality.
Texas
The second biggest state in the nation is like a separate country (and in fact, once was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past. The state is also a nexus of Southwestern and Southern cultures. The terrain ranges from southeastern swamplands to the cattle-ranching South Plains to the sandy beaches of South Texas to the mountains and deserts of 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 (short grass prairies) nearly as desolate as in the frontier days. You can enjoy serenity and a beautiful expanse that's impossible on the coasts.
Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, and excellent snow skiing as well as deserts, and some large cities. Tourist cities include some of the nicest amenities for hundreds of miles and some parts of the Rockies are virtually untouched by man.
Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture, 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 of the nation's largest cities. Additionally, a strong Native American influence can be felt throughout as this region includes many large reservations and sovereign territorial lands.
California
Like the Southwest, California has a history under Spanish and Mexican rule and is heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture in addition to massive immigration from around the world. California offers world-class cities, deserts, rainforests, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches. Northern California (around the San Francisco Bay Area) and Southern California (around Los Angeles) are culturally distinct.
Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)
The Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits as well as cosmopolitan cities. The terrain ranges from spectacular temperate rain forests to scenic mountains and volcanoes to beautiful coastlines to sage-covered steppes and deserts. In minutes, you can travel from a high-tech metropolis to a thick forest or a mountaintop.
Alaska
One-fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features mountainous wilderness. The state has a rich and diverse tapestry of native cultures including Yupik, Inupiat, Tlingit and others. Around 15% of the residents are of native origin.
Hawaii
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 miles south west of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise. The indigenous Polynesian population are known for being accommodating and fun-loving.

Politically, the US is a federation of states, each with its own rights and powers (hence the name). The US also administers a motley collection of non-state territories around the world, the largest of which are Puerto Rico (which has the special status of a "commonwealth") and the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean plus American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (also has special status of a "commonwealth") in Oceania.

Cities[edit]

White House south façade, Washington, DC

The United States has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of just ten of the most notable. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.

  • Boston - best known for its colonial history, its passion for sports, and its university students
  • Chicago - the country's third largest city (though still known as "the Second City"), heart of the Midwest and transportation hub of the nation, with massive skyscrapers and other architectural gems
  • Las Vegas - gambling city in the Nevada desert, home to over half of the top 20 biggest hotels in the world; popular for its casinos, shows and extravagant nightlife
  • Los Angeles - the country's second largest city, home of the film industry, musicians, artists, and surfers, with beautiful mild weather, great natural beauty from mountains to beaches, and endless stretches of freeways, traffic, and smog
  • 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 largest 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 (321km)
  • Washington, D.C. - the national capital, filled with major museums and monuments, along with multi-cultural communities

Other destinations[edit]

These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities:

Get in[edit]

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 US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Travellers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.

There is no airside transit without US entry between international flights. All travellers must disembark and proceed through immigration and customs inspection to enter the United States at first port entry, even if you're only staying for the two to four hours needed to transit between flights. This is most relevant if you're transiting between Asia or Europe to/from Latin America. Therefore, all travellers must be able to enter the United States on the Visa Waiver Program (or other visa exemption) or obtain a visitor's (B1 or B2) or transit (C1) visa. See below.

Law and bureaucracy[edit]

The US federal government has five separate agencies with jurisdiction over visitors.

The most important one from a visitor's perspective is Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a bureau of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The CBP's Office of Field Operations operates 20 Field Operations offices which supervise immigration and customs inspection stations at over 320 ports of entry. All travellers entering the United States must undergo immigration and customs inspection to ensure lawful entry. All US citizens and nationals and visitors who can qualify for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) (as explained further below) generally encounter only CBP officers.

If you cannot enter the US through the VWP, you must visit a US Embassy or Consulate in your home country to apply for and obtain a visa, which will often require a short visa interview with a US consular officer. US Embassies and Consulates are operated by the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the US Department of State.

If you attempt to unlawfully cross a US land border at any other point besides a port of entry, you may encounter the U.S. Border Patrol, which is also part of CBP.

If you attempt to unlawfully come ashore in the US from a body of water at any other point besides a port of entry, you may encounter the U.S. Coast Guard, which is normally part of DHS (but can operate as part of the Department of Defense in wartime).

Finally, if you unlawfully enter the US, commit a severe crime in the US, or overstay your visa, you will likely encounter officers from the division of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), another DHS bureau. ICE operates a gigantic system of immigration detention facilities. Strict compliance with US law during your stay is strongly recommended. ICE is frequently criticized by human rights organizations like Amnesty International for ongoing problems with substandard healthcare and human rights violations.

Planning and pre-arrival documentation[edit]

Visa-free entry[edit]

Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program, as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), Bermudians, Caymanian, and Turks and Caicos Islanders (with British Overseas Territories passports) do not require advance visas for entry into the United States.

For Canadians and Bermudians, the entry period is normally for a maximum of six months. However, entry may still be refused on the basis of a criminal record. Those who have criminal records should seek out a US embassy for advice on whether they need a visa.

For travellers under the Visa Waiver Program, the entry period is strictly limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below).

As of March 2014, the countries under the Visa Waiver Program are 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 and the United Kingdom.

Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau may enter, reside, study, and work in the US indefinitely with only a valid passport.

Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the US Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas, but a valid police certificate may be required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.

Persons holding a passport from the Cayman Islands, if they intend to travel directly to the US from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure.

Visa Waiver Program requirements[edit]

Travel under the Visa Waiver Program is limited to tourism or business purposes only; neither employment nor journalism is permitted with a Visa Waiver. The 90-day limit cannot be extended nor will travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean reset the 90-day limit. Take care if transiting through the US on a trip exceeding 90 days to Canada and/or Mexico.

Travellers entering the US through the Visa Waiver program must apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval on-line before their flights, preferably 72 hours before travel. An ESTA approval is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier) and costs $14.

Entry under the Visa Waiver program by air or sea also requires that you are using a signatory carrier. It is a fairly safe assumption that commercial scheduled services to the US 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.

Travellers entering by air or sea must also have a return/onward ticket out of the United States. If the return/onward ticket terminates in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or any Caribbean island, the traveller must be a legal resident of that country/territory. If travelling by land, there is a $7.00 fee when crossing the border. Before VWP travellers commence their journeys, they must apply electronically for authorization to travel (ESTA) through the ESTA website. If approved, it allows the traveller to commence his journey to the US but (as with any visa or entry permit) it does not guarantee entry.

A criminal record will generally make a potential traveller ineligible for visa-free travel with the following exceptions:

  • Traffic violations
  • Civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct)
  • A single conviction for possession of marijuana
  • Purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed)
  • Offenses committed before the age of 16.

The ESTA application contains a questionnaire, which if answered truthfully will direct you to apply to a visa if you are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program for reasons of criminal history, etc. If you have any concerns, complete the ESTA application well in advance of your departure to allow time to apply for a visa if directed to do so.

There are disadvantages and restrictions to entering under the Visa Waiver Program. Under normal circumstances, these include the following:

  • you can't apply to extend your authorized stay
  • you can't apply to change your status from visitor to another.

Obtaining a visa[edit]

Common US Visa/Residence Statuses

  • B1: Business visitor
  • B2: Tourist (also includes persons visiting family or friends)
  • C1: Transit
  • F/M: Student
  • H/L: Employment
  • I: Journalism/Media
  • J1: Exchange program
  • K: Prospective spouse
  • TN: NAFTA employees from Canada or Mexico
  • WB: Visa Waiver Program, Business; not extendable past 90 days
  • WT: Visa Waiver Program, Tourist; not extendable past 90 days

For the rest of the world, or for those who don't fit the profile of a Visa Waiver Program entry (e.g., need to stay more than 90 days) 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 sometimes waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.

Under US law, all persons requesting entry as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants (that is, trying to permanently migrate) until they overcome that presumption by presenting evidence of "binding ties" to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. To obtain a visa, face-to-face interviews at the nearest US embassy or consulate are required for nearly all nationalities. When the US rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant did not show enough binding ties to his or her home country to convince the consular officer that they will not try to overstay their visa. Since waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months, you must start researching how to obtain a visa well in advance of your planned departure date. If you do not live close to a US consulate, you will need to set aside a day (or two) to travel to the closest consulate for the visa interview.

For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing a non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require eight weeks to receive approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.

Note that a visa does not guarantee entry into the US. It only authorizes you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. And make sure you apply for the right visa for your visit. Applying for the incorrect/inappropriate visa may lead to serious legal problems, as well as a possible indefinite bar from obtaining any US visa.

Statue of Liberty, New York City

Travel to US possessions[edit]

The territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states.

Guam-Northern Mariana Islands[edit]

However, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands allow entry, by air only, for an additional group of foreign nationals under the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program: Brunei, Malaysia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan (only on non-stop flights from Taiwan), and Hong Kong. Citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, and the United Kingdom are also allowed entry under the Guam-CNMI VWP and may enter under it of the federal VWP. Entrance under the Guam-CNMI VWP requires a valid, machine-readable passport and evidence of a return airfare, and is limited to a 45-day stay in Guam and the CNMI only. Residents of Hong Kong must present a valid HK permanent identity card and are allowed entry with either a Hong Kong S.A.R. passport or British National (Overseas) passport. Residents of Taiwan must present a valid R.O.C. National Identification Card in addition to an R.O.C. passport. Citizens of Russia are eligible for parole (essentially the same as visa-free travel) to enter the Northern Marianas Islands only. Because of differences in entry requirements, a full immigration check is done when traveling between Guam and the CNMI as well as on flights to the rest of the US (currently, only Guam-Hawaii flights).

Despite not being part of the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, citizens of Russia can enter both territories Guam-CNMI visa-free under the waiver program, as long as they are in possession of a machine-readable passport, a completed Form I-736 (Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Information form) and Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) and a non-refundable and non-transferable return ticket.

US and American Samoan citizens must have a passport as proof of citizenship for entry to Guam and the CNMI. However, US and American Samoan citizens can live, work, and travel freely in both territories.

American Samoa[edit]

American Samoa lies outside federal immigration jurisdiction and has separate entry requirements, which even apply to US citizens. Entry is allowed for 30 days (extendable to 60 days) for tourism with a valid passport and proof of onward travel or local employment. Nationals from the fallowing countries can visit American Samoa for tourist purposes only visa-free for up to 30 days; Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom. However, a entry permit will be issued upon arrival. Entry requirements are somewhat different for Americans with US citizenship. US citizens are required to have only a six month valid passport, a entry ticket, and a exit ticket. US citizens can live, work, and travel freely for a unlimited time in American Samoa.

Puerto Rico-US Virgin Islands[edit]

Both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands choose to follow the Maindland US entry reqirements. As with the Mainland, any non-US citizen must follow the Visa Waiver Program. American and American Samoan citizens don't need a passport nor visa to travel to both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Only some form of government ID(example; a driver's license) is needed for proof of citizenship. Any US and American Samoan citizen can live, work and travel freely for a unlimited time in both territories.

COFA nations[edit]

US citizens and citizens of countries under the federal Visa Waiver Program plus Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed visa-free entry. And can reside and work anywhere in the United States for a unlimited time. All other foreign nationals must contact the American Samoa Attorney General's office to obtain a visa at (684) 633-4163.

US Minor Outlying Islands[edit]

All foreign, US and American Samoan citizens must have special travel permits to travel to all uninhabited territories that make up the US Minor Outlying Islands.

Arriving in the United States[edit]

Before arrival, if you are not a Canadian or Bermudian, you will receive either a white I-94 (if entering with a visa) or green I-94W (if entering on a visa waiver) form to complete. For visitors travelling under the Visa Waiver Program arriving by air, the I-94W has now been replaced by the electronic ESTA system; therefore the form is not required. While there is no official requirement to produce the printout of your ESTA authorization upon arrival at US passport control, many travellers carry it with them nonetheless merely for peace of mind, "just in case" there are issues - although the whole point of the ESTA system in the first place was to automate the process!

I-94 forms are now used primarily at land ports of entry. As October 2013, the I-94 paper form is now optional for virtually all visitors arriving by common carrier at air and sea ports of entry. CBP now has arrangements in place to electronically receive manifest information directly from all major common carriers. From the manifests, CBP's computers create and maintain electronic I-94 records for all passengers who are foreign visitors. CBP operates a Web site where visitors may view their own electronic I-94 record while they are still in the United States.

When you reach a CBP immigration checkpoint, you will undergo a short interview if you are not a citizen or resident of the United States. A CBP officer will attempt to determine if the purpose of your visit is valid. Usually, the determination of admissibility is made in a minute or less.

Otherwise, you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. At that stage the CBP officers will likely search your possessions, and may read any documents, letters or diaries found in your possession. Do not bring anything that could imply you intend to permanently immigrate or otherwise violate the terms of your visa. For example, you should not be carrying work-related or sales materials if you are entering on a tourist visa. If you are unable to convince the CBP officers that you will abide by the terms of your visa (or VWP ESTA authorization if applicable), it can be cancelled on the spot, and you will be denied entry.

Like immigration and customs officials everywhere, CBP 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, and summary expulsion at worst.

For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying for the first night. This should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. is not sufficient; you must provide the street name and number.

Once you are admitted, the departure portion of your I-94 or I-94W will be stapled to your passport (if you were required to fill it out). Keep it safe as you will need to give it CBP upon departure from the US. In the alternative, even if you weren't required to fill out a I-94, the CBP officer will place an "alien admission stamp" in your passport which shows that you were granted admission to the United States.

At customs[edit]

All travellers entering the US (including US citizens, nationals, and permanent residents) must fill out the Customs Declaration form, CBP Form 6059B, a blue-colored form in the shape of a tall narrow rectangle. It used to be distributed on the plane, but some airlines now hand it out at check-in for flights to the US.

If you are travelling with family members, then only one form per family is required to be filled out. Normally, the head of the family is responsible for ensuring the declaration is accurate.

The Customs Declaration form asks you to declare whether you are bringing with you a variety of heavily regulated items, such as more than USD10,000 in cash. In addition, you must list on the back side all goods that you are permanently bringing into the US and leaving there (such as foreign gifts for US-based friends and family). The Form 6059B is notorious for not having enough space on the back, so ask for and fill out multiple forms if you have many items to declare.

After you are admitted into the US and retrieve your bags from the baggage claim, you will proceed to the secondary inspection area (the customs checkpoint), regardless of whether your journey terminates at this airport or if you are transiting onward via another flight. Hand your customs declaration to the officer. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it.

Sometimes, the officer may ask you a few routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to an adjacent X-ray machine to have your bags inspected or may refer you for a manual hand search of your bags. Any search more intrusive than a bag search is rare and is usually indicated only if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity.

Note that you can't bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables, but you may bring cooked non-meat packaged foods, such as bread, cookies, and other baked goods. See APHIS for details. The US Customs process is straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the US. One rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the US has imposed economic sanctions such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK) and Syria.

The US possessions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and the US Virgin Islands are all outside federal customs jurisdiction. Each imposes their own separate requirements. Travel between these regions and the rest of the US requires a customs inspection. There are some differences (mostly larger) in duty exemptions for US citizens returning from these destinations.

After customs[edit]

As noted above, all inbound citizens, nationals, and visitors must pass through immigration and customs at their first point of entry, regardless of whether they have onward connections to other destinations inside or outside the US or not. Many major airports have special arrangements for travellers with connecting flights such as a bag drop, check-in counter or security checkpoint just for the use of connecting passengers (you will need to re-clear security because you had access to your bags while passing through customs) upon coming out from customs inspection. Some airports do not, meaning that you will need to proceed to the main check-in desks with other departing passengers.

Leaving the United States (and re-entering from Canada or Mexico)[edit]

Travel Warning

Thinking of Overstaying or Violating Status?: Make sure you leave before the authorized period of stay indicated in your I-94 form (not your visa) expires. If you overstay the period granted at passport control or violate your terms of entry (e.g., work while present as a visitor), this will automatically invalidate your visa and you'll no longer have a valid immigration status. In addition, overstaying your authorized stay or violating the conditions will make it extremely difficult to re-enter the United States for any purpose, and this may, in some cases, bar you from re-entry for at least three years, if not permanently. If you entered under the Visa Waiver Program but overstayed, you will need a visa for all future visits. Even if you did not technically overstay each of your visits, if officers suspect or detect a pattern with your previous visits/travel history that suggests you are in fact spending more time in the US than your home country (e.g. you leave the US only to return there a few weeks later), you may also face severe questioning the next time you arrive.


Unlike most countries, the US does not provide formal passport control checkpoints for those exiting the country. This used to be a big problem for many tourists who left by air or sea, but is not a major issue any more. Since CBP now receives manifests automatically from all major common carriers, CBP can automatically update their electronic I-94 records to show you timely departed from the United States as long as you leave on a common carrier (like a major airline).

Otherwise, if you are leaving the US for the last time on a particular trip (e.g., not returning from Canada or Mexico), it is ultimately your responsibility to turnover the departure record of your I-94 or I-94(W) to CBP at the Canadian or Mexican borders if leaving by land.

By plane[edit]

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 them. Most travellers enter the US at one of the major entry points along the coasts:

  • From the east: New York City, Newark, 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. Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, while not on the east also have a good number of flights from major European cities flying over northern Greenland and the Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean. US immigration and customs can be completed prior to boarding in Shannon and Dublin airports in Ireland.
  • From the west: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Honolulu are the primary points of entry from Asia and other transpacific points of departure. with Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, D.C. having 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). They may allow a stopover in Hawaii for free or for an extra cost to passengers travelling onwards from the United States. If you are flying into the West Coast to transit to another destination, San Fransisco International Airport has a free frequent SkyTrain linking terminals and relatively short security lines, in comparison to Los Angeles where you will be exposed to the weather catching a shuttle bus or walking between terminals and will have to put up with huge security lines. Qantas serves Dallas/Fort Worth non stop from Sydney, in addition to their daily service to Los Angeles from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
  • From the north: Detroit and Minneapolis feature many flights from major Asian and Canadian cities. Most major US airports receive nonstop flights from most major cities in Canada while others closer to the Canadian border also have direct buses by various companies to/from the nearest Canadian city north of the border (such as Vancouver-Seattle; Toronto-Buffalo; Detroit-Windsor, etc.). In most major Canadian airports, U.S immigration and/or formalities are completed and approved PRIOR to boarding a U.S. bound flight thus arriving into the U.S. as 'domestic' flight.
  • From the south: Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas are the primary entry points from Latin America, primarily South and Central America and the Caribbean. Also Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and Charlotte are major international waypoints. Most major US airports receive nonstop flights from most major cities in Mexico. There are very limited number of direct flights available between the 'west' (China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, etc) and and 'south' (Central & South America) which can requires a transfer or stopover in the United States. Most travellers travelling between Asia-Pacific and Central and South American destinations usually transfer flights in Los Angeles. Others may arrive into Los Angeles and continue across to Dallas, Houston, or Miami and continue south from there (vice versa) depending on the destinations and the airlines used. From the "east" and "other side of the world" they may arrive in Chicago, Houston, New York, or Miami to make connections for south bound flights).
  • From Cuba: Miami is the the primary entry/exit points from/to Cuba. Due to the ongoing strict embargo against Cuba, flights are available on a chartered basis through specialized travel agents authorized to sell tickets by OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) and only to those with an OFAC license to spend money in Cuba. As of December 17, 2014 Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced moves to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries as well as to loosen trade and travel restrictions. Implementation plans are underway to normalize trade & travel in the coming months or years and this section is subject to change as the airlines plan regular flights between the US and Cuba and to apply for approval to fly the routes from authorities on both sides of the Florida Strait.

Luggage allowance for flights to or from the US 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 US) or destination (if leaving the US) and the class of service you are travelling in.

Airport security[edit]

International flights bound for the United States tend to feature extremely strict security. Besides going through a regular security search to enter the departure area of the airport terminal, it is now standard to have an additional secure area surrounding gates for US-bound flights, where your documents will be carefully checked again and your carry-on bags may be subjected to a hand search. Because these additional measures can be time consuming, you should try to check in and arrive at the gate well in advance of the relevant deadlines set by your airline.

Within the US, airport security procedures continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear (coats and jackets) and submit those items along with all personal belongings to X-ray screening. Laptops and large cameras must be removed from bags and scanned separately.

Full body scanning x-ray machines are now in use at many US airports, which are capable of detecting many non-metallic threats. Because of early problems with displaying far too much detail at security checkpoints to the embarrassment of travellers, the scanners were subsequently modified so that a fully detailed image is displayed only at a remote analysis center. The off-site screener marks rectangles on a generic diagram corresponding to any portions of a traveller's body that look unusual. Only that marked-up diagram is displayed at the checkpoint, thereby enabling TSA officers to focus any necessary pat-down on those areas. If there is nothing suspicious on the scan, the off-site screener sends an "OK" message authorizing the traveller to proceed.

The full body scanners are optional and passengers have the legal right to "opt out" and request a manual search instead. Furthermore, passengers may also be randomly selected for additional screening, such as 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 further screenings.

Pre-clearance[edit]

Passengers whose journeys originate in major Canadian airports and involve either US or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing US 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 US domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their US port-of-entry, rather than walk through a secluded corridor, they can 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 US domestic terminals.

Take note that passengers on US-Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific will still see traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their US port-of-entry; 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 US pre-clearance 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 US on the same day you go through pre-clearance, 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, and in that event, a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required.

Pre-clearance 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 Shannon International 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 US passport control and customs pre-clearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the US, they will arrive as domestic passengers and can transfer immediately to domestic flights.

By car[edit]

Travel Warning
Visa Restrictions:

All persons wishing to enter the United States by land must possess a valid passport; NEXUS, FAST, or passport card; Laser Visa; or an "enhanced driver's license" (issued by certain US states and Canadian provinces)


Traffic travels on the right-hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico), except in the US 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 $6.00 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 US-Canada and US-Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders in the world, with millions of crossings daily. Average wait times are up to 30 minutes, but some of the most heavily travelled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1-2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the US customs service website. The US-Mexico border is vulnerable to high levels of drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If anything about you appears suspicious, you and your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience or sympathy from border agents.

As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the US uses customary units, bear in mind that after the border, road signs are published in miles and miles per hour. Therefore, if you are driving a car from Canada or Mexico, be mindful that a speed limit of 55mph in the US is 88km/h.

By bus[edit]

Greyhound offers many inexpensive cross-border services from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus US also runs multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.

Be warned that bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from US customs officials than car or train passengers.

Onward travel to:

By boat[edit]

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 (from Victoria & Sidney, BC) or Alaska (from Prince Rupert).

Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.

By train[edit]

Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades has two trips per day to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf has a daily trip to New York City), and Montreal (Adirondack has a daily trip to New York City) into the US. Note that cross border rail service is more expensive and less quick than the buses, which are more frequent and serve a larger range of US destinations from both Canada and Mexico.

On international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are conducted at the border.

Those travelling from Vancouver clear U.S. immigration and customs at the Union Pacific Station before they get on the train itself. Be sure to allow enough time before departure to complete the necessary inspections.

Amtrak does NOT offer cross border trains to/from Mexico nor are there any other onward passenger trains going south from the U.S./Mexican border. Therefore the nearest train stations to the Mexican border are in San Diego (Pacific Surfliner) and El Paso (Sunset Limited & Texas Eagle). From either train station take local transportation (light rail in S Diego or bus or taxi in El Paso) to get to the actual border crossing.

By foot[edit]

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.

Get around[edit]

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California

The size of the US and the distance between some major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers over long distances. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.

Be Aware: In general, outside of the down town areas of big cities (especially New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco), public transport in the U.S. is not as commonly used, developed, nor reliable as in many European and Asian countries. Due to cheap fuel prices, endless available parking spaces, cheap auto insurance, very cheap car prices and large distances to travel, Americans prefer to drive their own car rather than opt for public transport.

By plane[edit]

The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the US is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and five hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the three or four days necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the US are served by one or two airports; many small 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.

Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travellers 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 to destinations outside of the big cities can be very expensive.

Service types[edit]

There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:

  • Mainline or legacy carriers - Due to numerous bankruptcies and acquisitions, there are only four major (soon three) and two minor legacy carriers left: Delta Air Lines (which includes Northwest Airlines), United Airlines (Continental has merged with United), American Airlines, and U.S. Airways (soon to be merged); plus Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. American and US Airways announced a merger in February 2013; when finalized, the merged company will operate under the more established American name. These carriers used to be "full-service", although because of their chronic financial distress, they are increasingly taking after overseas carriers like Ryanair and transitioning into "no-frills" carriers. On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat (with very limited recline), 1 or 2 carry-on bags, and soft drinks. In-flight entertainment on mainline carriers' ageing domestic planes is generally limited to drop-down LCD screens that show the same programs to all passengers. Some flights to/from Hawaii or Alaska still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight.
Mainline carriers also offer first class service which features a larger seat which can recline farther, free food and drinks, a fully interactive personal entertainment system, and generally 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 travellers. (Most travellers in first class get their seat as a complimentary 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.
Note that on certain premium transcontinental services between New York City and Los Angeles/ San Francisco offered by American ("Flagship Service") and United ("United p.s."), first class and business class services are comparable to equivalent international offerings with gourmet meals and lie-flat seats. The same is true of some flights between the East Coast and Hawaii.
  • Regional airlines come in three varieties.
  • Regional subsidiaries operate under an umbrella brand such as "American Eagle" or "United Express" and run small regional jets or turboprops to locales where it is not economically or technically feasible to run a full-sized jet. These flights are booked through their parent's reservation system (e.g., Delta Connection through Delta), either as a stand-alone flight or connecting to a mainline itinerary, and any miles earned are recorded in the parent's frequent flier account system. Their operations are supposed to be seamlessly integrated (at least in theory) with their parent brands with respect to things like check-ins, boarding passes, and checked baggage. On-board service is very basic for all classes.
They flourished in the early 1990s when the financially distressed mainline airlines began specializing in running only very large jetliners on lucrative long-distance routes. Their regional allies, specializing in operating smaller planes, would run feeder routes into the parent's hubs that would enable passengers from small towns to connect to the parent's long-distance routes; conversely, the regional airlines would enable passengers coming off the parent's long-distance routes to easily connect to outlying small towns rather than exiting at a hub airport and completing the rest of the journey by car, bus, or train.
Regional airlines tend to have a mediocre safety record. They often hire desperate pilots who are eager to break into a career in commercial aviation but for whatever reason could not qualify for or did not want to earn their flight hours in the US military. Regional pilots thus tend to work for low pay and long hours in the hope of building sufficient flight experience to apply for and get a decent-paying job as the pilot of a full-size jetliner with the regional subsidiary's parent legacy airline. As a result, there have been a number of crashes or near-misses blamed upon low-paid, overworked regional pilots.
They are operated by SkyWest; Mesa Air Group; Republic; and Express Jet as United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle/Envoy, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, and/or US Airways Express. They operate one or several brands of the bigger 'legacy' parent(s) at the same time. Reservations and ticketing with the "regional (commuter) carriers" are handled through the "legacy" parent carriers instead of these airlines themselves.
  • Independent regional airlines are not affiliated with a mainline carrier. They are usually found in more out of the way places, as well as near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, etc.). The ones operating on their own names and not affiliated with the bigger carriers (as named above) are: Cape Air, Great Lakes Aviation, SeaPort, Silver Airways and Vision.
  • Commuter airlines primarily serve the business travel market, with 10-30 seat turboprop planes. If you can work with their schedules and choice of airports (usually private aviation airports and municipal airfields) - their consistent fares can be a bargain compared even to low cost carriers. Additionally, since fares are the same whether you buy a month in advance or the day of, tickets are also flexible with no cancellation or change fees.
  • Low-cost carriers have grown rapidly in the U.S. since the early 1990s. The most famous of these is the ubiquitous Southwest Airlines, a favorite of leisure and business travelers alike; while Frontier, Spirit; Allegiant and others (including the big mainline carriers and hybrid carriers) have been growing into formidable competitors. Amenities vary greatly by carrier. On one end, Southwest is the only airline in the United States that lets passengers check two bags free of charge. They have done away with some of the formality of air travel; they do not take reservations from travel agents (all reservations are through their Web site or call center), and they have no assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers).

At the other end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats for as low as $9.00, but charges fees for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, buying a ticket online (if you want to avoid that fee, you have to buy at the counter), advance seat assignments, checking-in at the airport, printing out documents at the airport, on-board refreshments, etc. European visitors familiar with Ryanair will find Spirit's fee-for-everything business model to be strikingly similar.

Southwest and Allegiant serve destinations nationwide, although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O'Hare International Airport, Houston Hobby instead of the Houston Bush Intercontinental or Dallas Love Field instead of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant, AirTran (merging with Southwest) and Sun Country focus on "vacation destinations" like Florida, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, etc.
  • Hybrid carriers offer more amenities than low-cost airlines but with fares lower than the legacies. The most famous of these is JetBlue Airways which has an extensive network covering primarily major airports, one free checked bag, 34 inches between seats (very generous for an American airline) and free satellite TV (DirectTV) in every seat.

A relative newcomer is the trendy brainchild of Sir Richard Branson: Virgin America which offers a relatively low-priced First Class option, as well as mood lighting, relatively comfortable seats, and interactive in-flight entertainment in all classes in its aircraft.

Fees[edit]

The FAA has been cracking down on non-disclosed fees for a while, so the good news is that most of the prices that you immediately see when searching for flights already include all taxes and other mandatory fees applicable to all passengers. This is true whether you directly check the carrier's website or an online travel agency like Orbitz. Unlike carriers in other foreign countries, most US carriers do not explicitly impose a fuel surcharge. However, carriers charge for extra services, especially mainline/legacy ones. Here is a run down of services that may incur additional fees, as well as strategies for avoiding them if they aren't a service you need or want. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:

  • Checking in with an agent: A few airlines are charging an additional fee ($3-10) for checking in with an actual human being, and Spirit Airlines also charges you for using the airport kiosk instead of checking in online. Unless you need to check in with an agent (eg, if you have specialized equipment that qualifies for a baggage fee waiver) you should check in online and print your boarding pass at home to save time and avoid additional charges. Some airlines will let you use your iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry as a boarding pass, either by showing an e-mail with a barcode to security and the gate agent, or through a specialized app, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
  • Checked baggage: Though prices vary by airline, you're generally looking at between $25 and $35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Bags that are oversized or overweight will easily double or triple these fees.
    • You're allowed to carry on one small suitcase or garment bag and one personal item (like a briefcase, backpack, or purse) free of charge. If you can get everything in your carry-ons, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Due to ongoing security restrictions, liquids, gels, shaving creams, and similar items must be under 3.4oz (100mL) and must be removed and presented to security inside a transparent resealable plastic bag for separate examination. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can never be placed in your carry-on, and will be confiscated on the spot if discovered.
      • + Ultra low cost carrier Spirit Airlines charges $20-35 per bag for carry-ons, depending on whether you're a member of their fare club and whether you pay online or at the airport, in many cases it's actually cheaper to check these bags instead of carrying on. As of 2011, no other airline charges for carry-on baggage.
    • Members of frequent flier rewards programs who have "elite" status may typically check 1 or more bags free of charge, or may receive other perks such as additional weight allowances. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
    • Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount on some carriers.
    • Discount carriers JetBlue and Southwest allow all passengers one and two checked bags free of charge, respectively.
    • Due to these fees, another popular alternative is to ship luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service, although this does take some extra planning and preparation.
  • Curbside check in: $2-10 on top of any bag or check-in fees, plus a tip is usually expected.
  • Extra legroom seats: the cost depends on the length of the trip but expect to pay anything from 5 to 15% of the standard economy class fare. This is bookable at the time you purchase your ticket. Those in higher tiers can get this at no extra cost.
  • Food: Most airlines offer some small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, cookies) free of charge on all flights. On flights longer than 1.5–2 hours, a buy-on-board option may be offered where you can purchase prepackaged sandwiches, snacks, and occasionally hot food at inflated prices. Many legacy airlines used to include in the base ticket price at least one hot meal service for all classes on domestic flights over four hours in length, but due to their financial distress, dramatically cut back on the quality of in-flight meals in the 1980s (which led to an epidemic of jokes in that era about "airline food") and eventually stopped including it altogether by the mid-1990s. Since then, most domestic passengers who did not have the time to stop for a real meal before arriving at the airport usually eat at a post-security airport restaurant before boarding their plane. Flights from the East Coast to Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Pacific territories (which can be over eight hours in length) and intercontinental flights still feature traditional meal service.
    • All airlines allow you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages on board. All except the smallest airports have an array of fast food and quick serve options in the terminal — but you can't bring liquids through the security checkpoint (and some airports do not allow food either), so don't purchase anything until after you've cleared security. While airside food outlets will inevitably be more expensive than what's available before security or off-airport, it still costs much less and likely has a larger selection than what's available on board. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, regulate airport food vendors and limit how much air-side restaurants can markup.
  • Drinks: Beverage service is one thing the airline industry hasn't done away with, and even the shortest regional jet flights still feature complimentary coffee, tea, water, juice and soda - an exception is ultra low fare carrier Spirit, who charges for anything other than water. If you'd like something stronger, you can pay $5–7 to pick among a decent selection of beer, two or three varieties of wine, and a couple of basic cocktails that can be mixed easily and quickly (e.g. gin and tonic).
  • In-flight entertainment: Most US carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. Delta, JetBlue, Virgin America, and some of United's fleet offer free satellite TV in every seat, as well as movies on demand for purchase for $3-8. American has overhead screens showing movies and sitcom episodes on most longer routes, while U.S. Airways and Southwest do not have in flight entertainment of any kind.
  • In-flight Wi-Fi: Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight Wi-Fi on nearly all their domestic fleets - American, U.S. Airways and United offer it on select flights. Prices range from $5-20, depending on the airline, length of flight, and device (tablets and smartphones get a discount as they use less data) but the Internet connection is good for almost the entire flight (at least until told by crew to switch-off your devices). Daily and monthly passes are also available for less than $50/month. Most airlines do not offer power ports in economy, so be sure you're charged up or have extra batteries for your device. Mobile phones are usually permitted to be operated in-flight as long as they have been set to flight mode (which effectively shuts-off the mobile phone signal from your provider) before being airborne.
  • Pillows and blankets are disappearing rapidly. Some airlines don't have them at all; some will charge you for them (but you get to keep after you pay); and one or two offer them for free (but you have to ask for them). Red-eye and long (>5 hour) flights are more likely to have free pillows and blankets. As always, check with your airline, and bring your own from home if you think you'll need them.
  • Lounge passes: Each mainline carrier operates a network of lounges, such as Alaska Airline's "Board Rooms" and Delta's "Sky Clubs" - offering a quieter space to relax or work in, business amenities such as free Wi-Fi, fax services and conference rooms, as well as complimentary finger foods, soft drinks, beer and wine. Frequent flyers buy annual memberships to these lounges, but any passenger can buy a day pass during check in or at the club itself, usually around $50, although sometimes less if you buy online. Only you can decide if the fee is worthwhile, but if you're in the upper elite tiers of an airline alliance (One World Sapphire or Emerald, Star Alliance Gold or SkyTeam Elite Plus) you may have access to these lounges for free with your frequent flyer card. For members in the highest tiers, this privilege may be extended to a travelling companion. Additionally international Business and First Class passengers can also access these lounges for free.
  • First class upgrades: Delta, United, and US Airways sell upgrades on a first come-first served basis at check-in if first class has open seats. This is one to actually consider, especially if you're checking bags - "day of" upgrades can sometimes be as low as $50 each way, less than the cost of two bag fees. You'd may be paying less to check your bags and additionally getting priority security screening, boarding and baggage handling, along with a larger seat and free refreshments on board.

Most mainline carriers feature "cashless cabins" meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or MasterCard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on-board, although flight attendants may not be able break large bills - hence the traditional request "exact change is appreciated." If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents, lounge access and boarding.

Ironically, America's discount airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America sometimes have more amenities than the legacy carriers, and for many people may be a much better experience. Jet Blue offers over 45 channels of satellite television, non-alcoholic beverages and real snacks for free on every flight; Virgin America also has satellite TV, in addition to on demand dining (even in economy). On Jet Blue your first checked bag is free ($35 for a second bag), and Southwest is the only U.S. carrier to still offer two checked bags per passenger free of charge. Virgin America charges for checked bags, but their fees are considerably lower than the legacies.

See Cheap airline travel in North America.

Security concerns[edit]

Security at US airports is known to be onerous, especially during busy holiday travel periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Ensure the amount of liquids you bring does not exceed the prescribed limit and is properly placed in the prescribed containers. Currently those limits are referred to as '311' - 3 ounces or less liquid bottles placed in one single, transparent, resealable plastic bag that is 1 quart (1 litre) or less in size. Please note that you can take as many of the little "travel size" 3-ounce (100 ml) bottles that you can cram into that single bag. The little bottles of shampoo and conditioner provided in the rooms at most decent hotels are perfect for this. Many pharmacies, as well as Wal-Mart, Target, and most major grocery stores have a section for "trial or travel size" bottles of personal care liquids that fall under the three-ounce limit.

By private plane[edit]

The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4,000 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 to concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.

By train[edit]

See also: Rail travel in the United States

Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly near and between the big cities of the the Northeast), passenger trains in the United States can be surprisingly scarce 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 travellers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of travelling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant "weekly specials".

Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Amtrak offers many routes that traverse some of America's most beautiful areas. Travellers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and the "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.

Trains running on the Washington D.C. to Boston Northeast Corridor (Acela Express and the Regional) and the Philadelphia to Harrisburg Keystone Corridor (Keystone Service and Pennsylvanian) generally run on time or very close to it. These two rail lines are electrified and owned by Amtrak or other commuter railways and are passenger only. Outside these two areas, Amtrak operates on freight lines and as a result must share track with freight trains hosted by host railroads. This means you have about as good a chance of a delay as not. While these delays are usually brief (trains make up time en route), have a contingency plan for being at least three hours late when travelling Amtrak. In fact, six hour or longer delays, especially on long-distance routes, are not uncommon, either.

If you miss an Amtrak connection because your first train is late, Amtrak will book you onto the next available train (or in rare cases a bus) to your final destination. If your destination is on the Northeast Corridor, this isn't a big deal (departures are every hour) but in other parts of the country the next train may not be until tomorrow. If your reservations involved sleeper accommodations (Amtrak's First Class on their long-distance overnight trains) on either your late-arriving train or your missed connection, you will get a hotel voucher for the unplanned overnight stay. For coach class passengers in the same situation, you will not get a hotel voucher; your unplanned lodging arrangements and cost will be your responsibility. However, after your travel is completed, Amtrak's Customer Service will commonly offer travel vouchers of $100 or more off future Amtrak travel to inconvenienced passengers. This is true for all classes of service.

If you plan to board an Amtrak train at a location other than the train's initial place of departure, it's usually a good idea to call ahead before you leave for the station to see if the train is running on time.

A major Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans is the Acela Express line, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. It stops in New York City, New Haven, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. Acela Express is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower because many track sections have curves too tight to be safely traversed at more than 90mph). The Acela Express features comfortable first class intercity service, but can be quite expensive. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from the center of some of the major Northeastern cities to their respective airports, trains can sometimes be more convenient than air travel. There are also frequent but much slower regional trains covering the same stations along the Northeast Corridor for lower fares.

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.

One major scenic long-distance train route, the California Zephyr, runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip takes around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, things that you just cannot see if you fly. Many of the sights on this route are simply inaccessible to cars. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.

Amtrak's single most popular long-distance train is the Chicago-Seattle/Portland "Empire Builder" train via Milwaukee, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Fargo, Minot, Glacier National Park, Whitefish, and Spokane. In the 2007 fiscal year, this train alone carried over 503,000 passengers.

Amtrak also provides reasonably speedy daily round trips between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada and several daily trips between Seattle and Eugene, Oregon on the Amtrak Cascades line.

Passengers travelling long distances on Amtrak may reserve a seat in coach (Economy class) or pay extra for an upgrade to a private sleeping compartment (there are no shared rooms), which also includes all meals in the dining car. Amtrak trains in the West feature a lounge car with floor to ceiling windows, which are perfect for sightseeing.

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 due (some facilities may be operated by third parties). Some commuter train systems and services though do not operate on weekends and holidays so it's best to check the system's website to plan ahead. Please don't forget to buy tickets before you board the train as some systems will have a substantial mark-up on the tickets sold on-board while others won't sell tickets on-board and will subject you to a hefty fine instead.

Bradt's USA by Rail book (ISBN 9781841623894) is a guide to all Amtrak routes, with maps, station details and other practical advice.

By boat[edit]

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 Erie Canal System of New York State operates four canal systems consisting of 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's 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 6m 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 River.

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.

By car[edit]

The United States (and Canada) have some of the world's youngest driving ages for cars. However, the legal driving age actually varies between 14 and 21. Alaska, Arkansas, Guam, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming set the youngest driving age as 14. If you plan on living in the US, be aware of four separate type of licenses for different purposes: Hardship License for Minors, Learner's Permit, Restricted License, and unrestricted license.

America's love affair with the automobile is legendary and most Americans use a car when moving within their city, and when travelling to nearby cities in their state or region. However, many Americans can and do travel between the vast regions of their country by auto - often going through different time zones, landscapes, and climates. In the winter months (Dec though March) millions of American nomads travel south to the warm desert and subtropical climates in everything from cars to motor homes (called "RV's").

Generally speaking, the older American cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Philadelphia are best to see using public transport or even on foot (at least within their downtown cores). However, the newer sunbelt cities (normally in the West and South) are 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. In the smaller American cities, everything is very spread out and public transport 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. Taxis are typically a expensive option to use. 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.

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, 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 (your mobile phone provider may charge you for data use since mobile phone GPS is best used with an internet connections). 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 travelling).

Unlike most of the rest of the world, the United States continues to use a system of measurement based on the old British imperial system for the most part, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, but fuel is sold in gallons smaller than those used in the UK. If driving a car from Canada or Mexico, make sure you know the conversions from metric to imperial units. In the case of Canadian cars, you should check your owner's manual to see if your speedometer and odometer can be switched from metric to imperial (and back), and if so, how to do so, and make the switch at the border stop. Most cars sold in the US and Canada today can be readily switched between the two sets of units. The vast majority of cars in the United States (and Canada, for that matter) are equipped with automatic transmission - manual (stick shift) cars are very much the exception to the rule and are generally only found on sports cars, so bear that in mind if you do rent a car.

Great American Road Trip[edit]

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 dearth of public transportation in most American cities, the loss of time travelling 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 in rugged landscapes and environments, and 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 and quite an adventure. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many hours, days, or even a week behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use. Some roads go though hazardous environments (hot deserts, rugged mountains,) and through areas with dangerous wildlife (Bobcats, poisonous snakes, alligators, bears...etc) so be aware of the environment you are travelling through.

Interstate System[edit]

See also: Interstate Highway System

There's always a road going your way. The United States exclusively uses miles rather than kilometres!

The United States is covered with the largest and most modern highway system in the world. Interstates are always freeways—that is, controlled access divided highways with no at-grade crossings, the equivalent of what Europeans call a "motorway". These roads connect all of the major population centers, and they make it easy to cover long distances—or get to the other side of a large city—quickly. These highways cross the entire US mainland from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through several time zones, landscapes, and even climates.

Most of these highways have modern and safe state run "Rest Areas" or "Service Plaza" areas. These rest stops normally offer restrooms, vending machines, and phone service. Service Plazas (more likely found on toll roads) may offer fuel, restaurant(s), and simple vehicle repair. Many of these rest stops also offer tourist information and picnic areas. Additional commercial traveller services tend to congregate on the local roads just off popular interstate highway exits. Sometimes you'll find a truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travellers. Signs on the highway will indicate the services available at upcoming exits, including gas, food, lodging, and camping, so you can choose a stopping point as you're driving.

Note that in some eastern states, Interstates are called expressways or just highways. Western states as well as US federal law defines expressways as limited access divided highways with reduced at-grade crossings (meaning that you can and will see occasional cross-traffic on western expressways), while freeways are defined as divided highways with full access control and no at-grade crossings. Many eastern states do not follow the same distinction.

Primary Interstates have one- or two-digit numbers, with odd ones running north-south (e.g. I-5) and even ones running east-west (e.g. I-80). Three-digit interstate numbers designate shorter, secondary routes. An odd first digit signifies a "spur" into or away from a city; an even first digit signifies a "loop" around a large city. The second two digits remain the same as the primary Interstate that travels nearby (e.g., I-495 is a loop that connects to I-95).

The vast majority of interstates do not charge tolls. However, the Departments of Transportation of Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania operate long-distance, limited-access toll roads called Turnpikes. Tolls are also frequently levied for crossing notably large bridges or tunnels, and some states are even turning to requiring tolls on Federal Interstate highways to defray their maintenance costs (West Virginia is most notable for this). While the majority of entrances and exits for the Turnpike systems of these states collect tolls in cash, states are increasingly turning to electronic tolling by outfitting vehicles with small RFID transponders, or, more recently, photographic recording and recognition of the vehicle's license plate. If you plan on driving in a state that offers toll roads, it is worthwhile to ask your rental car agency about the electronic tolling options available to you, as paying tolls in cash is becoming incrementally more difficult as electronic options and open-road tolling (paying tolls electronically without having to stop), on Florida's Turnpike in particular, are rapidly becoming more widely accepted. Nearly all rental car agencies that operate in Florida offer some form of prepaid tolling plan. Credit cards and travelers' checks are not accepted by state-operated toll plazas.

Speed limits on Interstate Highways can vary from state to state, and also according to geography (for example, slower on mountain passes and within cities than on long straight rural sections). Posted speed limits can range from as low as 45 miles per hour (70km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85mph (135km/h) in rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they'll be between 65 and 75mph (105–120km/h). The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly posted on Interstates.

American drivers often drive a bit over the posted speed limit (5 to 10mph (8–15km/h). Driving more than 10mph over the posted speed limit greatly increases the chance of receiving a speeding ticket; 15mph or more over the limit when observed by law enforcement will usually earn you a ticket. Driving too slow can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than all other cars. Highway Patrol officers are usually most concerned with the fastest drivers, so ensuring you are slower than the fastest speeders is one way to avoid their attention. If you are pulled over, be respectful, address the officer as "Officer," and express heartfelt regret at your excessive speed. You may or may not get a ticket, but remain in your car while the officer process your information. The officer will approach the car and you should roll down your window to speak. The officer will ask to see your drivers license and car registration. Such traffic stops are often routine and low key.

Many Interstate Highways, particularly around and through very large cities, will segregate the far left-hand lane or lanes and reserve them for high-occupancy use. These lanes are clearly signed, marked with white diamonds down the center of the lane, have double-white lines on the right, and are limited to vehicles with two or more occupants. High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, called HOV lanes or carpool lanes, are designed to ease congestion on Interstate freeways around large population centers during the very start and very end of the business day, also known colloquially as Rush Hour. At least 22 U.S. cities have HOV lanes, of which about half enforce them only during rush hour and half enforce them 24 hours. If you do not see specific hours posted for HOV lanes, assume the HOV lane restrictions are in effect at all times.

Off the Interstates[edit]

A secondary system of federal highways is the US Highway system. US Highways may be divided with multiple lanes in each direction on some sections, but they are often not dual carriageways, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. US Highways, which generally pre-date the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers as local streets (with a local name or number) at slower speeds. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to US Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the cities and towns. If you don't mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians, US Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights.

Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and US Highways (despite the names), but each one also maintains its own system of State Highways (or State Routes) that form the bulk of the inter-community road network. State Highways are usually undivided but may occasionally be freeways; you can generally count on them being well maintained (and plowed in the winter) and that following one will get you to some form of civilization sooner rather than later.

In most states west of the Mississippi River, the term "freeway" means a divided highway with full access control with maximum speed limits up to 75-80mph (120-128km/h) in Utah and western Texas, while the term "expressway" means a divided highway with partial access control. Expressways in western states can and do have occasional at-grade intersections with cross-traffic (that is, travelling perpendicular to mainline traffic approaching at speeds with speed limits set between 40-65mph (64-104km/h)). Only freeways in those states are guaranteed to have no cross-traffic at grade. In most states east of the Mississippi River, the term expressway always means full access control and the term freeway is either a synonym or is not used.

Driving laws[edit]

As with the rest of North America except for most former British Empire colonies, Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left. The exception to this is the U.S. Virgin Islands which continues to drive on the left-hand side with mostly left-hand vehicles. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Right turn on red after coming to a complete stop is legal (unless a sign prohibits it) in some states and cities (New York City is a notable exception to this rule). Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all US jurisdictions. Traffic lights and lane lines are strictly enforced, and there is zero tolerance for many traffic manoeuvres often seen elsewhere in many countries around the world. Jumping the green, running a red, straddling lanes (especially in a car or truck) or swerving across the double yellow line into opposing traffic on major urban roadways to pass slower, but still moving, traffic will all result in an expensive ticket.

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.

Another issue in many locations is drivers who linger in left lanes of divided highways — ie, refuse to move to the right for traffic attempting to pass. While this is seen as extremely discourteous and often dangerous, it is not a violation in most locations unless the driver is travelling well below the speed limit. (This differs, for example, from Germany, where failing to move right to make way for passing drivers and passing on the right are very serious violations and strictly enforced.) One state attempting to address this issue is Georgia, which passed a law in March 2014 making it a violation to fail to move to the right for a passing vehicle, even if the driver being passed is exceeding the posted speed limit.

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. The Digest contains comprehensive summaries in plain English of all major driving laws that typically vary between states. The Digest's coverage includes all US states and all Canadian provinces.

International visitors aged 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. Written and practical driving tests are required, but they are usually waived for holders of valid Canadian, Mexican, and some European licenses.

Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English words. Drivers who can read English will find most signs self-explanatory. (Progress toward adopting signs with internationally understood symbols is extremely slow; don't count on seeing any.) Distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles per hour (mph), without these units specified. Some areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders may feature road signs with distances in both miles and kilometres.

Police patrol cars vary in make, model, color, and livery from state to state and even town to town, but all are equipped with red and/or blue flashing lights and a siren. Many police vehicles in the United States are American brand (Ford, Chevrolet, etc). If you see the lights or hear the siren, pull to the right-hand shoulder of the road to let them by. If the patrol car is directly behind you, it's your car the officer is targeting; in that case, pull over as soon as it is practical for you to do so safely, even if this means driving some extra distance. It is extremely important that you pull off the road as soon as you are able. Use your turn signals or your hazard lights to show the officer you are complying. The officer will request to see your drivers license, the registration for the vehicle, and your proof of insurance coverage, and/or rental car documentation. Many traffic stops are recorded by a video camera in the officer's patrol car, as well as a lapel microphone on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.

There's a chance of comming to a police interior border checkpoint when driving on the highway. The periminant one are in the states bordering Mexico. But there's a random chance of encountering one in any state and they are the temporary ones. The puropes is to help prevent illegal immigration. As with crossing into the U.S. from neighboring countries, police will reqire you to show proof of identification and will check your vehicle for any possible illegal immigrant(s) or other illegal stuff federal or state wise.

Car rental[edit]

Generally, you must be 25 or older to rent a car without restrictions or special charges. Rental car agencies in some states may be able to rent a vehicle to drivers as young as 21, but may impose a hefty surcharge. The states of New York and Michigan have laws forcing rental car agencies to rent to drivers as young as 18.

Virtually every car from every rental agency in the U.S. runs on unleaded gasoline and has an automatic transmission. Renting a car usually costs anywhere from $20 and $100 per day for a basic sedan, depending on the type of car and location, with some discounts for week-long rentals.

Major car rental agencies found in nearly all cities are Alamo ☎ +1 877 222-9075; Avis ☎ +1 800 230 4898; Budget (+1 800 527 0700); Dollar [1] (+1 800 800 4000); Enterprise Rent-A-Car [2] (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz [3] (+1 800 230 4898); National [4] (+1 877 222 9058); and Thrifty [5] (+1 800 847 4389).

European car rental giant Sixt ☎ +1 888 749-8227 has been expanding into the US in recent years, but is found only in a handful of states and is notably absent from important states like California, Hawaii, and Illinois. For several years, European car rental company Europcar was allied with National, but in 2013 switched its US alliance partner to Advantage Rent A Car.

There are no large national discount car rental agencies, but in each city there is usually at least one. Some discount car rental companies which operate only in particular regions are Advantage Rent A Car [6] (now owned by Hertz and expanding across the country), E-Z Rent-A-Car [7] (+1 800 277 5171) and Fox Rent A Car [8]. The Internet or the Yellow Pages are the easiest ways to find them. Another well-known discount chain is Rent-A-Wreck [9] (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices.

Most rental car 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.

One factor that will strongly influence the price of your car rental will be location. Sometimes renting a car at an airport or near-airport location will cost three or four times as much as renting the same car from the same company at a location far from the airport (but your cost calculations must incorporate the additional time and money it will take to reach the distant off-airport location). In other areas, the airport location may be cheaper. Online travel websites such as Orbitz or Expedia can be useful for comparing prices and making reservations.

Rental agencies accept a valid driver's license from your country, which must be presented with an International Drivers Permit if your license needs to be translated. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest club in the United States is the American Automobile Association [10] (+1-800-391-4AAA), known as "Triple A". A yearly membership runs about $60. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don't drive. Note that some non-U.S. automobile clubs have affiliate relationships with AAA, allowing members of the non-U.S. club to take full advantage of AAA road service and discount programs. Among these clubs are the Canadian Automobile Association, The Automobile Association in the UK, and ADAC in Germany.

Alternatively, Better World Club [11] (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA, but with often more timely service. It is a more eco-friendly choice as 1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs. .

Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or the insurance policy on their primary personal vehicle at home. 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. If you visit the car rental website and identify your country of origin, you may be given a quote which includes the loss/damage waiver and liability insurance for considerably less. Many travel insurance policies include cover for some rental car damage - check your policy against the rental terms and conditions.

Fuel[edit]

Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon, at stations that are primarily self-service (you must pump your own gas) with the exception of those in New Jersey and Oregon (where self-service is illegal). The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The US octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of U.S. gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe. In most states, gas stations offer a choice of three levels of octane: 87 (regular), 89 (midgrade or plus), and 91 (premium). Unless you are renting a luxury vehicle, your vehicle will likely require only 87 regular.

One octane-related detail to watch for—at higher elevations in the mountain west, regular unleaded is often rated at 85 or 86 octane. This practice began when car engines had carburetors, and lower octane helped those cars run smoothly at altitude. Using 85 or 86 octane in a modern, fuel-injected vehicle rated for 87 octane or higher for prolonged periods may cause engine damage.

Visitors from countries where self-service is illegal may feel intimidated by the idea of pumping their own gas, but should not be. US self-service gas pumps have clear directions printed on them and are easy to use. The pump will automatically stop when it senses gas backing up into the nozzle (thus indicating the tank is full). When you finish, replace the nozzle in its slot on the pump, reinsert and turn the gas cap until it begins to make clicking noises, and then close the gas cap access door.

Nevertheless, most self-service gas stations will have staff on-hand to pump gas for you if you need assistance. Simply honk your horn quickly a couple of times, or ask for assistance inside the office or adjoining convenience store.

Diesel is not as common, due to heavier federal taxes on it. But it is still widely used and available at most stations, especially those catering to truckers. Untaxed "offroad diesel", sold in rural areas for agricultural use, is dyed red and should not be used in cars, as there are heavy fines if you're caught.

Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide and some increases in gas taxes, the American consumer-voter's attachment to his automobile, combined with abundant domestic oil reserves and relatively low taxes on gasoline, has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season. As of December 2014, current prices are averaging near $2.27/gallon (equivalent to $0.59/L) for regular and $3.16/gallon for diesel ($0.83/L). Fuel prices in the United States tend to change every season.

Gas prices vary dramatically from state, territory, and federal district based on a number of variables, primarily state sales tax rates (which are invariably included in the advertised price) and anti-pollution requirements. The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, Illinois, and New York. The lowest prices are generally found in the south central US and also South Carolina. Prices can also vary by city, town, village, and rural area.

The only truly nationwide gas station chains are Shell and Mobil. Other large chains have achieved almost nationwide coverage but are notably absent from at least one region, like Chevron, Texaco, Exxon, Valero, and Conoco.

Many gas stations have adjoining "mini-marts" or convenience stores where snacks, soda, coffee, and cigarettes are sold, and may or may not offer public bathroom access. In some states, you can also purchase beer. Larger chain stations may also be attached to an "express" version of a fast food chain (McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, etc).

By bus[edit]

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 and 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, affordable.

Greyhound Bus Lines (First Group) ☎ +1 800-229-9424 and several subsidiaries and affiliated partners (Neon (Toronto & New York); Cruceros USA (US states of Arizona & California and Mexican states of Baja Califronia Norte & Sonora); Valley Transit (Rio Grande valley in southern Texas); Autobus Americanos (US states of Colorado, New Mexico & Texas and the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipus), and Greyhound Canada) have the predominant share of American bus travel. Steep discounts are available to travellers who purchase their tickets 7-14 days in advance of their travel date. Their North American Discovery Pass allows unlimited travel for ranges of 4 to 60 days, but you might want to try riding one or two buses first before locking yourself in to an exclusively-bus American journey. 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. Greyhound buses are being refurbished with more comfortable seating, wireless Internet, and other improvements.

Stagecoach Group owns & operates Coach USA and Megabus. They offer inexpensive daily bus service departing from curbside bus stops in various parts of the country: the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida and as far west as California and Nebraska (and to Canada) from several hub cities.

Trailways is another provider of intercity bus service. They are not a single company, but a group of individual companies franchised to form a network. Trailways used to have many more routes until most of them were bought by Greyhound in 1987. Today it is still possible to travel to many places by Trailways, but some companies are isolated from the system and you must connect through Greyhound while other Trailways companies operate mainly as a chartered bus and do not offer scheduled services. They do serve many places that Greyhound doesn't and ally with Greyhound against other competitors.

So called Chinatown buses also provide curb-side departures for a standard walk-up cash fare often much lower than other operators' fares. These lines operate through the East Coast down with some further out destinations in the Midwest, the South, and along as along the West Coast. GoToBus.com is the largest online booking agent for these smaller "Chinatown" bus companies. Please note that most Internet-based and Chinatown buses only go to large cities, skipping the smaller towns that many bus travellers ride to. A number of these smaller "Chinatown" companies had also been shut down by the government due to safety violations.

Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Connections within Texas or from Texas to the Midwest (all the way to Chicago), the Southeast, and/or Mexico are offered by:

Service in and out of Florida to the southeast and with some continuing up along the eastern seaboard to New York & Pennsylvania (I-95 corridor). They are offered by:

In Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and/or western Texas and the northwestern Mexican states of Baja California Norte, Chihuahua, Durando and Sonora include:

Onward travel further south of the border can also be booked with Grupo Estrella Blanca through Greyhound as well.

There are numerous other independent operators, many of which are also affiliated with Greyhound or Amtrak through partnership agreements while others are unaffiliated. The below are some of the other independent carriers:

  • BoltBus competes with Megabus & Chinatown buses on major routes in the Northeast (Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia-NY-Boston); California (Los Angeles - SF Bay Area and Los Angeles-Las Vegas); and the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-Eugene, OR).
  • Concord Coach Lines (Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire)
  • Dartmouth Coaches (Hanover, NH; New York & Boston)
  • Tripper Bus Daily routes between New York City and the Washington D.C.area suburbs (Arlington, VA & Bethesda, MD stops)
  • 7Bus New York & upper Long Island (formerly a Bolt Bus route)
  • Indian Trails (Travels from Michigan to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana)
  • Jefferson Lines Midwestern states of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas & Wisconsin.
  • Michigan Flyer & Indian Trails Primarily in Michigan.
  • Peter Pan & Bonanza Northeastern states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, & Rhode Island.
  • Vamoose New York, Maryland, Virginia

Otherwise see the entries for individual U.S. states and/or cities for additional independent companies and transit agencies (operated by local government (local council))

  • Rural (and even urban) casinos may also offer scheduled shuttle buses between their casinos and nearby cities and towns as a way to draw more customers. Even if you don't gamble you can still take their shuttle bus from 'City A' to the casino where you transfer to another bus to 'City B' for free or for a fare. Check their respective sites.
  • There are also long distance bus and shuttle services from the airports to various places outside the principal city that airport serves. Same thing from between university towns and the nearest major cities where the majority of the students are from. The university shuttles operate on limited schedules revolving around the university schedules when students go home to their parents on Friday afternoons for the weekend, during the Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year Break and Spring Break and return to the college town on Sunday afternoons/evenings or at the end of the break period.
  • In various localities there are additional bus companies that are either publicly funded as local public transportation or independently owned & operated companies serving rural and urban areas locally and/or across long distances between cities & towns. In some rural areas these can be the only thing available to get there and around with limited or no Greyhound or Amtrak services. See the article(s) on a specific city, town or state as to what's there.
  • In Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico there are NO Greyhound, Megabus/Coach USA, Chinatown, Boltbus, Trailways and Amtrak services as there are in the Lower 48 or the Mainland. See the respective articles as to what's available there.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates and certifies all interstate bus operators. FMCSA is notorious for being overworked and underfunded, which means they have a hard time properly regulating the numerous bus operators around the country. The newer curbside bus operators (as in the Chinatown and Internet-based buses) are more dangerous than traditional terminal-based operators like Greyhound, though buses in general are still far safer than driving a private vehicle.

By recreational vehicle (RV)[edit]

Main article: Car Camping

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.

By motorcycle[edit]

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.

By thumb[edit]

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri in the Midwest

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.

Craigslist [12] 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 on C.L. going somewhere within the U.S.

5-1-1[edit]

Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialling 511 on your phone.

Talk[edit]

"Two countries divided by a common language"

Users of British and Commonwealth English will find quite a few terms which differ in US English:

  • chips - crisps
  • cookies - biscuits
  • diaper - nappy
  • elevator - lift
  • expressway or freeway - motorway
  • flashlight - torch
  • fries - chips
  • gasoline - petrol
  • line - queue
  • liquor store - off licence/off sales
  • movie theatre - cinema
  • pants - trousers
  • restroom/bathroom/lavatory - toilet/loo
  • round-trip ticket - return ticket
  • to-go (in ordering food) - take-away
  • trash/garbage - refuse/rubbish

Please see our English language varieties article for more words that differ.


Most Americans speak English. In many areas, (parts of the South Texas, New England, and in the upper Midwest), you'll find some distinctive regional accents and dialects. Nowhere should this pose any problem to a visitor, as Americans often admire foreign accents and most will approximate the standard accent to help you understand them, or try to speak your language if they can.

Even so, visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. Because of this, the US does not have an official language at federal (national) level (most states have English as their official language). A growing number of popular tourist sites have signs in other languages, but only English is certain to be available at any given location. There is a wide accent barrier across the U.S., where certain words are spoken or pronounced differently.

Due primarily to immigration from Latin America, the United States has the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Spanish is the primary second language in almost all of the United States, especially California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, and the metropolitan areas of the Midwest and East Coast. Many of these areas have Spanish-language radio and television stations, with local, national and Mexican programs.

Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico and a large minority of residents on the mainland, particularly in the western states. Spanish speakers in the United States are primarily Puerto Ricans, or first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America. As a result, the Spanish spoken is almost invariably a Latin American or Puerto Rican dialect. Although areas where no one speaks English are extremely rare, a good handle on Spanish can make communication easier in some places. Americans are generally taught Spanish in schools from an early age, and therefore many can understand basic phrases while a small but significant population of non-immigrant Americans speaks Spanish fluently. Because many immigrants take service-industry jobs for substandard pay, employees at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other such establishments can generally be counted on to understand, speak, and translate Spanish.

French is the primary second language in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and among West African immigrants, but is not widespread elsewhere. In southern Florida, Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a separate language derived from French, as their second language, although a substantial number also speak French.

Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 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. In areas with large numbers of Spanish speakers, the major discount stores like Walmart and Target have internal directional signage in their stores in both Spanish and English. However, the vast majority of consumer products are labeled only in English, and most upscale department stores and boutiques have signage only in English, meaning that a rudimentary grasp of English is essential for shopping.

Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii but is rarely spoken. Japanese is widely spoken. 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. 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 traveling in an area populated with recent immigrants, don't expect to get by in the United States without some English or Spanish, if you will travel in the southern half of the country.

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 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.

See[edit][add listing]

Portland Head Lighthouse, Portland, Maine, in New England

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 (see above) 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.

Natural scenery[edit]

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 largest living organisms, the Giant Sequoia; Redwood National park has the tallest, the Coast Redwood; Glacier National Park is home to majestic glacier-carved mountains; 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 parks that 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.

Historical attractions[edit]

Americans often have a misconception of their country as having little history. The US 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 be a little hard to uncover, as many pre-contact sites in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the country have been covered by other structures or farmland. But particularly in the West, you will find magnificent cliff dwellings at sites such as Mesa Verde, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings. In the Midwest, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is worth a visit. 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...

Monuments and architecture[edit]

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 moreso than the concrete canyons of Manhattan, part of New York City. The site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers remains a gaping wound in Manhattan's vista, however America's tallest building, the new 1 World Trade Center, now stands adjacent to the site of the former towers. Also, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building stand tall, as they have for almost a century. Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, is home to the country's single tallest building, the (former) Sears Tower, and an awful lot of other 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[edit]

In the US, 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:

  • American Visionary Art Museum — Baltimore, Maryland
  • Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Children's Museum of Indianapolis — Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Exploratorium — San Francisco, California
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame — Los Angeles, California
  • 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
  • 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

Itineraries[edit]

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.
  • 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
  • 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.

Do[edit][add listing]

  • 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 nationwide 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.
  • Marching Band — 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 twelve 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.
Baseball in Daytona Beach, Florida
  • Professional sports — The United States has a professional league for virtually every sport, including pillow fighting. However, perhaps because at the national level the only major world team sport that the USA regularly wins at is basketball, many of the most popular leagues are:
    • MLB [13] — 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). 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.
    • NBA [14] — 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). Season runs November to April, with playoffs in May-June.
    • NFL [15] — The National Football League, with 32 teams, is the leading promoter of American football in the world, a sport which has virtually nothing in common with the sports that most other countries call football (Americans know those sports as soccer and rugby). 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. TV advertisements leading to and on the day of the Super Bowl tend to be comical and creative.
    • NHL [16] — The premier league for ice hockey in the world, featuring 30 teams (23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada). A slight majority of players are Canadians, but the league has players from many other parts of the world, mainly the United States, 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 a NHL team. The season runs from October to April, followed by playoffs that culminate in the Stanley Cup Finals in June.
    • INDYCAR [17] — 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 races exclusively 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 the most famous and prestigious race in the world, 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 [18] — 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 [19] — Major League Soccer, currently with 19 teams (16 in the U.S. and three in Canada), 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, and especially Portland and Seattle.
  • College sports — 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, local college or university teams, especially in football and men's basketball, enjoy followings that rival or surpass those of major professional teams. The main governing body for U.S. college sports is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) [20], 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 basketball regular season begins in mid-November and ends in late February or early March, followed by conference tournaments and then national postseason 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.
  • High school sports — Many communities take great pride in their local high school teams, and especially in smaller communities, games are a large part of local culture. If your trip is during the school year (generally late August to late May), a high school game can be a great (and cheap) opportunity to get a major dose of the local culture. The most widely followed sports at this level are generally football and boys' basketball, with ice hockey also having a major presence in certain regions, mainly New England and the upper Midwest. Other sports, such as baseball, girls' basketball, volleyball (almost exclusively a girls' sport in most parts of the U.S.), and wrestling have significant pockets of popularity. In some states, a particular high school sport enjoys a special cultural place. Examples include football in Texas, basketball in Indiana, hockey in Minnesota, and wrestling in Iowa.
  • Festivals and Fairs — A few days prompt nation-wide celebrations. They include Memorial Day, Independence Day (a.k.a. Fourth of July), and Labor Day. Other major holidays like Thanksgiving Day are marked by private festivities. Many towns and/or counties throw fairs, to commemorate the establishment of a town or the county with rides, games, and other attractions.
    • Memorial Day — commemorates the ultimate sacrifice made by America's war dead. It is not to be confused with Veterans Day (11th November) which commemorates the service of America's military veterans, both living and deceased. It is the also the unofficial start of summer — expect heavy traffic in popular destinations, especially National Parks and amusement parks.
    • Independence Day — Celebrates America's independence from 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 US celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, rather than May 1st. Labor Day marks the end of the summer social season. Some places, such as Cincinnati, throw parties to celebrate the day.
  • National Parks. 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.

Buy[edit][add listing]

Money[edit]

Official currency is the United States dollar ($), divided into 100 cents (¢). Conversion rates vary daily and are available online. The dollar is colloquially known as the buck so 5 bucks means $5. Foreign currencies are almost never accepted, although some major hotel chains may accept travellers' cheques in other currencies. Canadian currency is sometimes accepted at larger stores within 100 miles of the border, but discounted for the exchange rate. (This is more of an issue nowadays with a weak Canadian dollar.) Watch for stores that really want Canadian shoppers and will accept at par. Often, a few Canadian coins (especially pennies) won't be noticed, and do show up in circulation with American coins as they are the same size (but different metal contents and weight). Now that the Mexican peso has stabilized, it is somewhat accepted in a limited number of locations at border towns (El Paso, San Diego, Laredo, etc), but you're better off exchanging your pesos in Mexico, and using US dollars instead, to ensure the best exchange rate.

Common American bills are for $1, $5, $10, $20, while the $2, $50 and $100 bills are less common. All bills are the same size. All $1, $2, and the older $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills are greenish on one side and printed with black and green ink in the other. Newer versions of the $5 (purple), $10 (orange), $20 (green & orange), $50 (pink) and $100 (blue) bills incorporate different gradations of color in the paper and additional colors of ink. As designs are updated every 5-10 years to make it more difficult to counterfeit, you will currently find up to three different designs of some bills in circulation. Almost all vending machines accept $1 bills and a few accept $5 bills; acceptance of larger bills ($50 and $100) by small restaurants and stores is less common. No US banknotes have been demonetised in the last 80 years. You may even find some vending machines accepting debit/credit cards.

The standard coins are the penny (1¢, copper color), the chunky nickel (5¢, silver color), the tiny dime (10¢, silver color) and the quarter or quarter dollar (25¢, silver color). None of these coins display the numeral of their value, so it is important to recognize the names of each. The size doesn't necessarily correspond to their relative value: the dime is the smallest coin, followed by the penny, nickel, and quarter. Half dollar (50¢, silver) and dollar ($1, silver or gold coloured) coins exist but are uncommon in general circulation. Coins haven't been devalued or demonetised, but some may be worth more because of the real silver content (40 - 90% silver) or due to demand in the coin collectors' market. 'Quarters' (25¢) and 'dimes' (10¢) dated before 1965 are 90% real silver and can appear more white in color. 'Half dollars' (50¢) dated before 1971 are also made of real silver at 40% dated 1965 through 1970 and at 90% dated 1964 and earlier. Most have been removed from circulation due to their higher intrinsic value (due to higher silver prices) above legal tender face value and less common but they can still be found in circulation from time to time. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters and they may not accept the real silver coins dated before 1965 due to their different weight from the current debased coins (copper core in a nickel clad). Coins dated in the 1940s or earlier, some with a different or similar design or appearance than the current coins are still found in circulation and may be worth more as a collector's item.

Currency exchange and banking[edit]

Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports, however, many banks can also provide currency exchange services. Note that exchange rates are mediocre at airports and downright terrible at currency exchange centers in the suburbs. It is easiest to exchange major currencies like the euro, the UK pound, the Japanese yen, the Mexican peso, and the Canadian dollar. Visitors in possession of other currencies will find less places willing to accept them, or if at all, at less optimal rates. Major foreign exchange services at airports are provided by either Travelex or ICE Plc (International Currency Exchange)

The Big Four U.S. retail banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, all of which have branches and ATMs in most major cities in the Lower 48 states. Because interstate bank branching was legalized only in 1994, many parts of the U.S. (like Hawaii, Alaska, and the territories) are poorly served by the big retail banks and are dominated by local banks. A few international banks have made inroads into the U.S. like HSBC, BBVA, and Rabobank, but because the country is so big, they are still relative newcomers and interstate banking laws are so restrictive, their branch networks are relatively limited.

Most automated teller machines (ATMs) can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logos; note, however, that many ATMs charge fees of about $3 for use with cards issued by other banks (often waived for cards issued outside of the U.S., but banks in one's home country may charge their own fees). Smaller ATMs found in restaurants etc. often charge higher fees (up to $5). Some ATMs (such as those at Sheetz gas stations and government buildings such as courthouses) have no fee. Another option is withdrawing cash (usually up to $40 over the cost of your goods) when making a debit-card purchase at a large discount store such as Walmart or Target, or at many supermarkets. Stores almost never charge a fee for this service, though the bank that issued your card may.

Unless your debit / credit card is U.S issued, expect to incur foreign transaction fees from your bank.

Most bank ATMs support at least one language (usually Spanish) in addition to English. ATMs operated by the Big Four banks tend to support many more languages, especially in urban areas.

Credit and debit cards[edit]

Major credit cards Visa and MasterCard were both launched in the U.S., so it makes sense that today, Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card counterparts/affiliates) are widely used and accepted throughout all 50 states and all inhabited territories. 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 30 to 50 cents (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 by most retailers, 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. However, major retailers might accept only cash or debit cards for payment of prepaid/gift cards/transportation passes.

Historically, logos for foreign cards like JCB and China UnionPay were very hard to find outside of high-end luxury boutiques, although both JCB and China UnionPay have longstanding alliances with Discover and can be used anywhere that takes Discover cards. In 2012, many U.S. stores, including Walmart, added JCB and China UnionPay logos to attract Asian tourists.

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 US has not yet implemented the EMV "chip-and-PIN" credit card authorization system used overseas, due to the high cost of upgrading point-of-sale systems and an ongoing dispute among retailers, banks, and credit card firms over who should bear that expense. Between August 2011 and June 2012, the four big credit card networks initially announced target dates in spring 2013 for EMV implementation among their US retailers. The vast majority of retailers failed to meet that deadline. The latest targets for EMV implementation are in 2015 for most retailers, and 2017 for gas stations, although it is still unclear whether those deadlines can be met.

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). However, inputting the digits only of a UK Post Code of the UK billing address, or the digits only of the postal code of the Canadian billing address (in both cases, ignore spaces and letters), and adding on as many zeros as necessary to make five digits works often enough to be worth trying and does no harm. Since July 2013, this trick is guaranteed to work for Canadians who use cards with the MasterCard logo at gas stations that require a ZIP code prompt. At gas stations you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside.

In many big tourist cities, watch out for merchants trying to convert your USD purchase to your home currency when using your foreign debit / credit card. This is known as dynamic currency conversion and the exchange rate, at the point of sale, is NEVER in your favor; regardless of what you are told by the merchant. Always opt to be charged in USD. You can also avoid this by buying a prepaid debit card as long as you ensure there is sufficient funds in the card.

Gift cards[edit]

Each major commercial establishment (e.g. store, restaurant, online service) with a statewide, regional, nationwide or online presence makes its own gift card available to consumers for use at any of its establishments nationwide or its online store. In spite of the word "gift" in gift card, you can actually purchase and use these cards for yourself; however, they are most commonly given to others as gifts. This is a more polite way to give someone money as a gift, and is a standard gift for someone whom you don't know very well. 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 (like cash, credit card, a 2nd gift card particular to the establishment). VISA, MasterCard and American Express gift cards work very similarly to their credit/debit card counterparts. The gift card also has instructions on how to check your remaining balance online. Take note that the gift cards are unlikely to be accepted in the establishment's branches outside the U.S. though when you return home you can still use any remaining amount in the gift card in the establishment's online store.

Sales tax[edit]

There is no nationwide sales tax (such as VAT or GST), the only exception being motor fuels like gasoline and diesel. As a result, state and/or local taxes (see below) on major purchases cannot be refunded by customs agents upon leaving the United States.

However, most states have a sales tax, ranging from 2.9% to nearly 10% of the retail price; 4-6% is typical. Sales tax is almost never included in posted prices (except for gasoline/diesel, and in most states, alcoholic beverages consumed on-premises), but instead will be calculated and added to the total when you pay. Groceries and a variety of other "necessities" are usually exempt, but almost any other retail transaction – including restaurant meals – will have sales tax added to the total. The price displayed is rarely the final price you pay.

Delaware, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax. Alaska has no statewide sales tax, but allows local governments to collect sales taxes. Montana also has no state-wide sales tax, but a few local governments (mostly in tourism-dominated towns) are allowed to collect sales taxes. Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not collect sales tax on clothes. In Massachusetts, clothing is exempt from any sales tax if the item costs no more than $175 (and sales tax is collected only on the amount over $175); in New York, clothing is exempt from state sales tax statewide and local sales tax in some locations (most notably New York City) if the item costs less than $110. At least two states, Louisiana and Texas, will refund sales tax on purchases made by international travellers taken out of the state.

Regional price variations, indirect hotel and business taxes, etc, will usually have more impact on a traveller's wallet than the savings of seeking out a low-sales-tax or no-sales-tax destination. Many cities also impose sales taxes, and certain cities have tax zones near airports and business districts that are designed to exploit travellers. Thus, sales taxes can vary up to 2% in a matter of a few miles.

However, even accounting for the burden of sales taxes, US retail prices still tend to be much lower than in many other countries. With one exception, the US has not implemented any form of value-added tax, where each segment in the supply chain is required to charge tax on the value it adds towards the final product. Rather, US sales taxes are charged only by the retailer at the time of the sale of the final product to the consumer. This is one reason for why Americans find everything to be so expensive when they visit other countries. The sole exception is the state of Hawaii, which charges a general excise tax that is worse than a value-added tax; it is levied on the entire price of products at every segment of the supply chain, rather than just the value added.

If you are coming to the U.S. from a higher-taxed jurisdiction in search of bargains on luxury goods, note that it is much more difficult to find most of the internationally renowned brands of luxury goods in the no-sales-tax states, as such brands have traditionally positioned their boutique stores in the largest and wealthiest states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida (all of which have sales taxes). Even if you can find a particular luxury brand in a no-sales-tax state, it will likely be only one of multiple brands carried by a local luxury retailer, meaning their inventory will not be able to match the depth of a boutique dedicated solely to that brand.

Places for shopping[edit]

Shopping malls and shopping centers. America is the birthplace of the modern enclosed "shopping mall" as well as the open-air "shopping center". Most large high-end malls are operated by nationwide mall operators like Westfield, Simon, or General Growth Properties. 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.

Outlet centers. 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. Simon Premium Outlets is the largest chain of outlet centers in the U.S.

Major retailers. American retailers tend to have some of the longest business hours in the world, with chains like Walmart often featuring stores open 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10 AM to 9 PM most days, and during the winter holiday season, may stay open as long as 8 AM to 11 PM. 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 for any reason or no reason at all. American retail stores are gigantic compared to retail stores in other countries, and are a shoppers' dream come true.

Travelers should be aware that bargaining is generally not practiced at established stores, though it is welcome at other sales venues (see below). While asking for a price reduction due to an item defect is generally acceptable, retail sales personnel often do not have the authority to change prices and may see attempting to haggle as rude or or even threatening. If you want to ask for a discount, be polite and accept whatever answer you are given. If you don't, you may be asked to leave.

Garage sales. On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling no longer needed household items in their driveway, garage, or yard. If you see a driveway full of stuff on a Saturday, it's likely a garage sale. Check it out; one person's trash may just be your treasure. Bargaining is expected and encouraged.

Flea markets. Flea markets (called "swap meets" in Western states) have dozens if not hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. 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.

Auctions. 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[edit]

Department stores[edit]

According to Deloitte, the largest fashion goods retailer in both the U.S. and the entire world is Macy's, Inc., which operates just under 800 Macy's midrange department stores in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam, plus a smaller number of upscale Bloomingdale's stores. In other words, nearly every mall you visit will have a Macy's.

Unfortunately, not all of them are all worth visiting. Most Macy's stores, especially in smaller cities and middle-class suburbs, tend to heavily feature midrange brands. Most brands featured in those stores are private brands (that is, the brand concept was created by and is exclusive to Macy's itself, and most of them are not associated with a famous fashion designer). Over time, Macy's, along with most other U.S. department stores, has shifted its product mix in favor of its own private brands over outside designer brands. Obviously, if it owns the brand, it captures more of the profits. Therefore, shopping at most Macy's stores makes sense only if you are actually a fan of Macy's private brands (some of which are currently available overseas in select department stores).

However, in the largest U.S. cities, Macy's operates high-end regional flagship stores which feature many internationally renowned upscale designer brands, and some of those stores have visitor centers catering to international tourists. In general, you should save your time and money for Macy's regional flagship stores or its gigantic original flagship store in New York City.

Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Other upscale department stores that operate coast-to-coast include Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Barney's New York, but they are found only in the wealthiest cities.

Besides Macy's, other midrange nationwide chains include Kohl's, Sears, and JCPenney. The lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy.

Discount stores, supermarkets, and warehouse clubs[edit]

General discount stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart are ubiquitous, as well as Walmart Supercenters and SuperTargets which are similar to hypermarkets overseas. (Kmart's hypermarket equivalents are called Super Kmarts, but they are extremely rare.) Many discount stores have either a small grocery section or a full supermarket; in fact, Walmart is the country's largest seller of groceries, as well as its largest retail chain.

The two largest supermarket chains are Kroger and Safeway (the latter is in the process of being bought by Albertsons), but both operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states. For example, in the nation's second largest city, Los Angeles, Kroger operates Ralphs and Food4Less, while Safeway operates Vons and Pavilions, and neither operates any stores under their own names. And neither chain operates in the nation's largest city, New York City, where the supermarket business is severely fragmented among a huge number of regional chains. The dominant warehouse club chain in the U.S. is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam's Club (operated by Walmart).

Other chains[edit]

In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, each of which competes with numerous regional chains and local stores. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), toys (Toys "R" Us), convenience stores (7-Eleven), electronics (Best Buy), and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond). Each of the last three also competes against several almost national chains that technically operate "coast-to-coast" but are notably absent from certain regions. For example, Circle K does not operate in the Mid-Atlantic states and New York City metro; Fry's Electronics is absent from most of the East Coast except Atlanta; and Anna's Linens does not operate in New England or the New York City metro.

Some areas of retail have two nationwide chains. The two big sporting goods chains are Sports Authority and Dick's Sporting Goods.

Other areas of retail have stabilized around three big nationwide chains. For example, the three big office stationery chains are Office Depot, OfficeMax, and Staples (although Office Depot and OfficeMax have merged and are now one company). The three big pharmacy chains are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid—although virtually all Walmart, Target, and Kmart stores also have pharmacies, as do many supermarkets.

Keep in mind that even if a discount store or supermarket is open 24/7, its pharmacy will almost never keep that schedule—it will usually have a morning-to-evening schedule and close overnight. This is only an issue if you need to fill a prescription or purchase a decongestant containing pseudoephedrine (in the latter case, pharmacists are required to record sales because it can be used to illegally make the highly addictive drug methamphetamine). Almost all other items sold in the pharmacy section can be paid for at any checkout location.

U.S. pharmacies traditionally use the mortar-and-pestle as their symbol, not the green cross used by some European pharmacists (which in the U.S. is the symbol of medical marijuana). However, many U.S. pharmacies are now marked simply by the word "pharmacy" as part of their logo. U.S. pharmacies are much larger than their counterparts overseas because in the 1950s, they began selling soft drinks, packaged foods, and general merchandise to compete against the small discount stores ("dime stores") that were then widespread, and eventually displaced them altogether. Thus, upon entering the U.S. and reaching your hotel, if you don't see any supermarkets close by, try a pharmacy if you need to stock up on soft drinks and snacks.

One interesting aspect of most U.S. malls is the lack of dedicated bookstores, as most U.S. consumers now order books online and use brick-and-mortar retailers only for impulse purchases. Barnes & Noble may still be found as an anchor tenant at some enclosed malls, but is more frequently found in outdoor power centers or strip malls.

Costs[edit]

Bald Eagles in Homer, Alaska

Unless you live in Australia, Canada, Western Europe, or Japan, the United States is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. Many foreign visitors come to the United States for shopping (especially electronics, designer apparel, and accessories). While retail prices in the United States for luxury goods are lower than in many countries (as a result of low or nonexistent sales tax), and selection and quality are generally much better (due to the superior bargaining power of the gigantic U.S. retail chains), keep in mind that you could be charged taxes/tariffs on goods purchased abroad. That said, it's easy to go through the "green lane" at many airports and avoid paying any tax.

Additionally, electronics may not be compatible with standards when you return, such as DVD region. That problem is easily avoided by using a "region-free" DVD/Blu-Ray player or by viewing the movies on a computer, where region codes are easy to evade. Your U.S.-bought item may not be eligible for warranty service in your home country.

If you have generous friends from the U.S. who will give gift cards to you for some reason, the cards can sometimes help you defray some costs.

A barebones 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 cafes. 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 are usually lower in the suburbs and countryside.

If you intend to visit any of the National Parks 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 [21]. 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.[22]

Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association, now generally referred to as "Triple-A"). 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. In addition, many hotels may offer senior discounts. The criteria for most is 62 (some set at 65) or older. Rates can be the same, greater, or less than AAA. Be prepared to show ID at check-in for age verification.

Tipping[edit]

Tipping in America is widely used and expected. 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
  • 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.
  • Taxis: Tips of 10-20% are expected in both yellow cabs as well as livery cabs. A simple way of computing the tip is to add 10% of the fare and round up from there. Thus, if the meter reads $6.20, you pay $7 and if the meter reads $6.50, you pay $8. 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 air conditioning on a hot day). For livery cabs, tip 10-20% depending on the quality of the service, but you don't need to tip at all if you hail the cab on the street and negotiate the fare in advance (leave an extra dollar or two anyway!).
  • 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 - however, tipping on top of the service charge is always welcomed by waiters especially if two waiters work on one large group and they are splitting the service charge between them. But tipping on top of the service charge is only optional and could be done if the service was particularly spectacular.

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 more "normal" wage. Thus, in restaurants (and certain other professions) a tip is not just a way to say "thank you" for service, but 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 (and do bring the matter to their attention first), a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all. If you do decide not to leave a tip, don't be surprised if the restaurant's manager follows you out of the restaurant to ask you about the reasons for your dissatisfaction. Not leaving a tip is exceptionally rare, and something that will definitely be noticed.

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 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.

Comics and cartoons[edit]

The United States is known worldwide for it's comics and cartoon culture, especially in superheros and supervillans such as Superman and Joker. The U.S. is also famous for its Comic Cons(Comic Conventions) as they are known for being huge and for the variety of products other than comics. Visitors to the U.S. must be aware that it can be very difficult to find non-english cartoon dvds and mangas. Although Spanish and French speakers will have less trouble as many dvds nowadays have French and Spanish languages as optional choices as subtitles. Due to Japanese anime and manga being the second most popular animation products in the U.S.(after American animation and comics), it is possible to find imported anime and manga products in Japanese only. But they are usualy found online or in special shops catering only to Japanese products. As with almost everywhere else in the western hemisphere, all dvds are in formated in NTSC. Anyone living outside a NTSC region may not be able to play the dvds in your country, unless you use a universal dvd player. Anyone from Japan will have a easier time playing NTSC dvds as Japan uses a nearly identical format(NTSC-J). Be Aware, some content that you attempt to bring back to your home country may be illegal. Especially if its pornographic of contains any illegal or sensitive paraphernalia, such as depticitons of the Muhammad prohpet in some countries. A good example would be bringing content to Canada, Canadian guards can confiscate nazi products before entering Canada, if attempting to display hatred. Or Canadian guards can arrest you for being in possession of ficitional child pornography from the U.S. as Canada has a zero-tolorance policy against it.

Video and PC games[edit]

Video games are huge business in the United States and by far, the largest in the world. Fortunately, the US is one of the many countries in the western hemisphere that uses the NTSC region code. So American consoles will work in other coutries with the code. But of course, many games are avaliable only in English and unlike dvds and blu-rays, subtitles in other languages aren't avaliable. Be aware that the bringing the games to another country may be illegal, because American games aren't government censored in terms of the content on them. A good expample is Manhunt and Manhunt 2, both are banned in many countries worldwide. It isn't illegal to import a video game from another country. By far the most popular places to buy video games is GameStop and Wal-Mart.

Eat[edit][add listing]

Berries from Santa Monica's farmer's market

The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York or Chicago, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. One thing that a traveler from Europe or Latin America will notice is that many restaurants do not serve alcohol, or may only serve beer and wine. Some restaurants, especially in larger cities, implement a BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze) policy, in other words, you are invited to bring your own alcoholic beverages. Another is the sheer number and variety of fast food and chain restaurants. Most open early in the morning and stay open late at night; many are open 24 hours a day. A third remarkable fact is the size of the portions generally served by US restaurants. Although the trend has moderated in recent years, portions have grown surprisingly large over the past two or three decades.

Types of restaurants[edit]

In-n-Out burger

Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese and Mexican food, fish, 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 machine (refills are often free).

Americans tend to love their soft drinks ice cold so you can expect to see some fellow patrons filling their cups two-thirds with ice and then adding what would seem to be a tiny amount of the actual beverage, but this varies from person to person.

The quality of the food varies, but in general it will be cheap, reliable, and fairly tasty (in a mass-market sort of way - connoisseurs and "foodies" generally avoid these places like the plague), but the menu will be somewhat limited, and aside from a couple token healthy options, generally high in fat, carbs, and salt. 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.

Take-out food is very common in larger cities, for food that may take a little longer to prepare than a fast-food place can accommodate. Place an order by phone (or, at an increasing number of establishments, on the Web) and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver; in fact, in some cities, it will be easier to have pizza or Chinese food delivered than to find a sit-down restaurant. Pizza delivery is especially ubiquitous in the US; almost any town of 5,000 or more people will have at least one establishment offering delivery. The main national pizza chains are Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and Little Caesars. Most Pizza Huts are dine-in restaurants that also offer carry-out and delivery. Domino's and Papa John's are delivery and carry-out only. Most Little Caesars locations are carry-out only, though some now offer delivery as well. Especially in larger cities, local pizza places compete successfully against the big national chains, and many of them offer delivery.

Chipotle has become a staple in America's fast casual scene

Fast-Casual is a fairly recent new genre of restaurants that grew in popularity during the 2000's. They are places that are usually around $5-7 for a meal and involve a little bit of waiting as food is prepared fresh (although much less waiting than sit-down restaurants). They tend to be a bit healthier than most typical fast food chains and offer distinct menus. Notable fast-casuals include: Chipotle, Moe's Southwest Grill, Noodles and Company, Panera Bread, Five Guys (a hamburger chain), and Freddies Burgers.

Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from fast food, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. They may specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or a particular nationality, though some serve a large variety of foods. Some are well-known for the breakfast meal alone, such as the International House of Pancakes [23] (IHOP) which serves breakfast all day in addition to other meals. A few of the larger chain restaurants include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's, to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.

Very large cities in America are like large cities anywhere, and one may select from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagantly expensive full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes. In "up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed, but you should check first if there is any doubt. This usually only happens at the most expensive of restaurants.

The diner is a typically American, popular kind of restaurant. They are usually individually run, 24-hour establishments found along the major roadways, but also in large cities and suburban areas. They offer a huge variety of large-portion meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually very popular among the locals for breakfast, in the morning or after the bars. Diner chains include Denny's, Norm's, and (in the South) Waffle House, but there are many non-chain diners.

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 located on interstate highways and they cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel, areas for parking "big rigs", and shower facilities for truckers 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 burger and fries -- expect large portion sizes!. In recent years the concept of the chain establishment has been adopted by truck stops as well, and two of the most ubiquitous of these, Flying J Travel Plazas and Petro Stopping Centers, have 24-hour restaurants at most of their installations, including "all you can eat" buffets. A general gauge of how good the food is at a given truck-stop is to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.

Typical food truck setup

Jump to: navigation, search The most recent newcomer to the American dining scene is the food truck. Food trucks are just what they sound like - trucks, buses or vans that have been converted into mobile restaurants. The quality of the food served ranges to greasy, poor-quality stuff served at construction sites to high-end operations serving gourmet, restaurant quality food (at surprisingly affordable prices) run by renowned chefs. Food trucks are common in large cities (especially on the West Coast), tend to set up shop where large groups of hungry people typically congregate (e.g. office parks and central business districts during lunch hours, and bars/clubs during evening hours. Most trucks are open for business during afternoon and evening hours Monday through Thursday, afternoon, evening and late night hours on Fridays, and late night hours on Saturdays. These trucks frequently use social media such as Twitter to announce to their followers where they'll be setting up on any given day.

Some bars double as restaurants open late at night but may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo ID, and this may include the dining area.

American restaurants serve soft drinks with a liberal supply of ice to keep them cold (and fill the glass). Asking for no ice in your drink is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. If you ask for water, it will usually be chilled and served with ice, unless you request otherwise. Water will not be carbonated as may be typical in parts of Europe. If desired, "sparkling water" is the term for carbonated water. In many restaurants, soft drinks and tea will be refilled for you at no extra charge, but you should ask if this is not explicitly stated.

Types of service[edit]

Breakfast pastry shop

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 11 AM, 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 or convenience store. Coffee shops (of which Starbucks is the most well-known) are popular for breakfast; although they offer pastries and other items, most people frequent them for a morning dose of caffeine. Some chains, like Dunkin' Donuts or Einstein Brothers Bagels, are sometimes liked more for their coffee than their actual food.

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 (usually free) 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.

Typical brunch plate

Dinner, the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9pm. Many restaurants serve portions well in excess of what can normally be eaten in one sitting, and will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a "to go box"). Do not feel the need to finish what you have been served. 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-American cuisine.

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[edit]

Ribs with coleslaw, corn bread, and beans.

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, 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 beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder slowly wood smoked for hours. Ribs are served as as a whole- or half-rack or cut into individual ribs, brisket is usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded ("pulled pork") or chopped ("chopped pork"). Sauce of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. Various parts of the U.S. have unique styles of barbecue. Generally, the best barbecue is found in the South, with the most distinct styles coming from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. However, barbecue of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbecue restaurants differ from many other restaurants in that the best food is often found at very casual establishments. A typical barbecue restaurant may have plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and serve 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 always eaten with your fingers; pork and brisket are either eaten with a fork or put into a sandwich. Note that the further one gets from the South, the more likely that "barbecue" refers to food cooked on a grill with no smoking, such as hamburgers or hot dogs.

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.

Chinese dumplings

Chinese food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes - by default, a "Chinese" restaurant will serve a menu only vaguely related to authentic Chinese food, usually meat in sugary sauce with rice and noodles, often in an all-you-can-eat buffet setting. 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 taquerias can be found easily in the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.

Italian food is perhaps the only cuisine that rivals Mexican for widespread popularity. All manners of pasta can be found here, and American-styled pizzas (typically a thick crust topped with tomato sauce and cheese, in addition to other meats and vegetables) are a popular choice for social events and casual dining. Italian restaurants can be found almost everywhere, and even non-specialty restaurants and grocery stores can provide you with basic pasta meals.

Gyros

Middle Eastern and Greek foods are also becoming popular in the United States. The gyro (known as "doner kebab" or "schawarma" in Europe) is a popular Greek sandwich of sliced processed lamb on a pita bread topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a yogurt-cucumber 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.

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 flavouring 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.

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.

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, etc.

In the largest cities, "corner stores" abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety 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.

Lobster tail

Seafood is abundant on the coasts, with freshwater and saltwater varieties of fish and shellfish (although finding squid, octopus, and jellyfish will require a bit of effort). The Northeast is famed for its Maine lobsters, and the Southeast has a variety of shrimp and conch. Most of the seafood in Florida is served spicy, as influenced by the Carribean taste. Seafood dining on the west is equally abundant, and Alaskan salmon is served in high quantity through the Pacific Northwest. The state of Maryland is famous for its Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, which are usually steamed live in a pot with a spicy seasoning. There is a bit of a learning curve to eating Maryland crabs, though any server or local, for that matter, in a crabhouse will gladly give you a lesson. It is not recommended to wear a plastic bib or napkin when eating Maryland crabs or Maine lobster. You will be instantly pegged as a tourist.

Etiquette[edit]

It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer and expect this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, and at crowded informal eateries and cafes you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at. 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 are 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. If you are eating with a group, it is very rude to leave before everyone else is ready to go, even if you came separately. Cleaning your plate is a sign that you enjoyed your meal, and doesn't imply that the host didn't serve enough or should bring more.

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, 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 it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.

An exception is the potluck meal, where each guest (or group/family) must bring 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 would be spooned or forked on to diners' plates—hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and spoonable side dishes.

Smoking[edit]

Smoking policy is set at the state and local levels, so it varies widely from place to place. A majority of states and a number of cities ban smoking in restaurants and bars by law, and many other restaurants and bars do the same by their own policy. Some states (like New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, and California) have banned any smoking indoors, while some still allow designated smoking areas. Check local information, and ask before lighting up; if a sign says "No Smoking," it means it. Breaking the ban may get you ejected, fined, or even arrested - and lots of dirty looks. Native American reservations are sovereign (independent) land and indoor smoking may be allowed on tribal lands even if you're in a state with an indoor smoking ban. In recent decades, smoking has acquired something of a social stigma (more so than in Europe)—even where smoking is permitted, be sure to ask your dining companions if they mind. With the increasing popularity of eCigarette devices, it is important to note that some establishments ask that you do not use them indoors. Although these devices simply produce an odorless, or even pleasant smelling, vapor, there is a somewhat common fear that they are unsafe and that others, especially in bars, may mistakenly assume that smoking is allowed indoors.

Drink[edit][add listing]

Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In some rural areas, alcohol is mostly served in restaurants rather than dedicated drinking establishments, but in urban settings you will find numerous bars and nightclubs where food is either nonexistent or rudimentary. In very large cities, of course, drinking places run the gamut from tough local "shot and a beer" bars to upscale "martini bars".

American tradition splits alcoholic drinks into hard liquor and others. Americans drink a wide array of hard liquors, partially divided by region, but for non-distilled spirits almost exclusively drink beer and wine. Other fermented fruit and grain beverages are known, and sold, but not consumed in great quantities; most fruit drinks are soft (meaning 'non-alcoholic', not 'low alcohol volume'). 'Cider' without further qualifiers is a spiced apple juice, and 'hard cider' is a relatively little-consumed alcoholic beverage in spite of the U.S. having been one of its most enthusiastic consumers a mere two centuries ago. Be prepared to specify that you mean a liquor or cocktail in shops not specifically dedicated to alcohol.

Beer is in many ways the 'default' alcoholic beverage in the U.S., but gone are the days when it was priced cheaply and bought without high expectations for quality. In the last 20 years, America has seen a boom in craft brews, and cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston are becoming renowned among beer lovers. The various idioms for alcohol consumption frequently and sometimes presumptively refer to beer. While most American beer drinkers prefer light lagers – until the 1990s this was the only kind commonly sold – a wide variety of beers are now available all over the U.S. It is not too unusual to find a bar serving 100 or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and "draft" (served fresh in a cup), though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen "on tap" (available on "draft"). Microbreweries – some of which have grown to be moderately large and/or purchased by one of the major breweries – make every kind of beer in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Nowadays all but the most basic taverns usually have one or more local beers on tap, and these are generally more full of character than the big national brands, which have a reputation for being generic. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand. These beers are also typically considered superior to the big national brands.

Vineyards in Palisade, Colorado

Wine in the U.S. is also a contrast between low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. Unlike in Europe, American wines are labeled primarily by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, Riesling, etc.). The simple categories 'red', 'white', and 'rosé' or 'pink' are also used, but disdained as sole qualifiers by oenophiles. All but the cheapest wines are usually also labeled by region, which can be a state ("California"), an area of a state ("Central Coast"), a county or other small region ("Willamette Valley"), or a specific vineyard ("Dry Creek Vineyard"). (As a general rule, the narrower the region, the higher quality the wine is likely to be.)

Cheap cask wines are usually sold in a box supporting a plastic bag; bottled wines are almost universally priced as semi-luxury items, with the exception of 'fortified wines', which are the stereotypical American answer for low-price-per-milliliter-alcohol 'rotgut'.

All 50 U.S. states now support winemaking, with varying levels of success and respect. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. The most prestigious American wine region is California's Napa Valley, although the state also has a number of other wine-producing areas, which may provide better value for your money because they are less famous. Wines from Oregon's Willamette Valley and the state of Washington have been improving greatly in recent years, and can be bargains since they are not yet as well known as California wines. Michigan, Colorado's Wine Country, and New York State's Finger Lakes region have recently been producing German-style whites which have won international competitions. In recent years, the Llano Estacado region of Texas has become regionally renowned for its wines. The Northern Virginia area, specifically Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William counties are also becoming well known for both their flavor, and organized wine tasting tours, supplemented by the scenery seen on the drives between locations.

Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in up-scale restaurants, but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. The best California sparkling wines have come out ahead of some famous brand French champagnes in recent expert blind tastings. They are comparatively difficult to find in 'supermarkets' and some non-alcoholic sparkling grape juices are marketed under that name.

The wines served in most bars in America are unremarkable, but wine bars are becoming more common in urban areas. Only the most expensive restaurants have extensive wine lists, and even in more modest restaurants wine tends to be expensive, even if the wine is mediocre. Many Americans, especially in the more affluent and cosmopolitan areas of the country, consider themselves knowledgeable about wine, and if you come from a wine producing country, your country's wines may be a good topic of conversation.

America's native spirit — bourbon, straight up

Hard alcohol is usually drunk with mixers, but also served "on the rocks" (with ice) or "straight up" (un-mixed, with no ice) on request. Their increasing popularity has caused a long term trend toward drinking light-colored and more "mixable" liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that many older drinkers favor. However this is not an exclusive trend and many Americans still enjoy whiskey and bourbon.

It was formerly wholly inappropriate to drink hard liquor before 5PM (the end of the conventional workday), even on weekends. A relic of this custom is "happy hour", a period lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5PM and 8PM, during which a significant discount is offered on selected drinks. Happy hour and closing time are the only presumptive customs in American bars, although 'ladies night', during which women receive a discount or some other financial incentive, is increasingly common.

Although laws regulating alcohol sales, consumption, and possession vary somewhat by state and county, the drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. except in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands(where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you're under 30 you should definitely be prepared to show photo ID when buying alcohol in a store or entering a bar (which often refuse admittance to "minors" under 21). In some states, people who are under 21 are not even allowed to be present in bars or liquor stores. A foreign passport or other credible ID will probably be accepted, but many waiters have never seen one, and it may not even be legally valid for buying alcohol in some places. As a driver's license is the most ubiquitous form of ID in the U.S. and have a magnetic strip for verification purposes, some supermarkets have begun requiring them to purchase alcohol. In such cases, it is the cash register not the cashier which prevents such purchases. It's worth noting that most American ID's have the date of birth laid out as month/day/year, while frequently other countries ID's use year/month/day or day/month/year which may cause further confusion. Using false identification to misrepresent your age is a criminal offense in all 50 states, and while most alcohol vendors will simply refuse to sell or take a blatantly fake ID away, a few also call the police which may result in prosecution.

Most states (currently 45 of them) and Washington D.C. have found and use loupes in the federal law to allow underage drinking, example; in some states like Delaware and Mississippi, underage drinking is legal on private, non-alcohol premises(including private properties not open to the public). As long as he/she is accompanied by the physical presence of a parent or legal guardian who is over the age of 21 and has the approval to consume alcohol, but this varies. In states like Hawaii and Tennessee, Underage consumption of alcohol is allowed for religious purposes. Some states require that the alcohol must be provided by an official religious representative and/or limit the type of alcohol allowed. In states like Texas and Wisconsin, underage consumption of alcohol is allowed on alcohol-selling premises, such as a restaurant or bar, as long as the legal guardian gives the minor the alcohol and is in the presence of the legal guardian. This again varies. In states like Colorado and Nevada, underage consumption of alcohol is allowed for medical purposes. Again this varies. Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia have no exceptions to underage alcohol consumption laws.

Selling alcohol is typically prohibited after a certain hour, usually 2 AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. In Indiana, sales of any type of alcoholic beverage is banned statewide on Sunday, However, bars are still open and serve alcoholic beverages. 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. Some Indian reservations(especially the Navajo Nation) doesn't allow any alcohol on their territory.

Most towns ban drinking in public (other than in bars and restaurants of course), with varying degrees of enforcement. Even in towns which allow public drinking, a visible bottle (rather than one in a small bag, which is so commonly used for it as to be synonymous with public drinking) is either illegal or justifies police attention. All communities have some sort of ban on "drunk and disorderly" behavior, some quite stringent, and as a rule intoxication is an aggravating rather than exculpating factor in all but the most and least severe offenses. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% considered "Under the Influence" and many states considering 0.05% "Impaired" - in Washington D.C. it's illegal to drive with any amount of alcohol in your system. If you're under 21, however, most states define a DUI from 0.00-0.02%. Drunk driving checkpoints are fairly common during major "party" events, and although privacy advocates have carved out exceptions, if a police officer asks a driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test or perform a test of sobriety, you generally may not refuse (and in certain states such as New York it is a crime in itself). DUI ("driving under the influence"), OUI ("operating under the influence") and DWI ("driving while intoxicated") are typically punished quite harshly, and as a foreign national it will typically mean the end of your time in the United States - even permanent residents have had their Green Cards revoked and were subsequently deported for DUI. In many jurisdictions catching and enforcing DUIs is the main job of patrolling police; it is watched for zealously and treated severely. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol anywhere in the car other than in the trunk. Some states have "open bottle" laws which can levy huge fines for an open container in a vehicle, sometimes several hundred dollars per container.

If you're going out to drink with others; always assign at least one person as the designated driver of an automobile. Likewise, you can also arrange a taxi to take you back to your residence. Either way, it is way better than getting a ride in the back of a police car with a DUI on your record.

Nightlife[edit]

The bright lights of Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada

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.

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 throughout the continental United States. Some states have tolerated card rooms for many years, which have since rebranded themselves as "casinos" (notwithstanding their lack of slot machines) to compete for business against true casinos in New Jersey, Nevada, 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 both remain illegal throughout the U.S.

Sleep[edit][add listing]

Classic 1950s motel in Seligman, Arizona, along Route 66

Daily rates for hotel rooms vary widely across the United States. Based on the average daily hotel room rate as of 2012, New York City and Honolulu were the most expensive cities for a hotel stay in the U.S. [24]

Virtually all hotels at check-in will ask for the name of the guest who made the reservation, then demand from that person some kind of photo identification (a passport or driver's license is normally sufficient) and a credit card to cover incidental charges. If you do not have a valid credit card, some hotels will demand a cash deposit instead. Upon check-in, a hotel front desk clerk will almost always issue you a keycard with a magnetic stripe for access to your room, although an increasing number have switched to RFID keycards, which are tapped instead of swiped.

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 [25] (+1 800 466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels [26] (+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 hotels are increasingly available across the country. 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 typically associated with larger hotels. Examples include Marriott International's Courtyard by Marriott and Fairfield Inn; Hilton's Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express; Starwood's Aloft and Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place.

Another option are extended-stay hotels directed at business travelers or families on long-term stays (that are often relocating due to corporate decisions). These hotels often feature full 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. Examples include Marriott’s ExecuStay, Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites; Extended StayAmerica; Homestead Studio Suites; Homewood Suites by Hilton; and Summerfield Suites by Hyatt.

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-out and check-in times almost always fall in the range of 11am-noon and 2pm-4pm respectively. Examples of major hotel chains include Marriott, Renaissance by Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, DoubleTree by Hilton, Sheraton, Radisson, and Wyndham. Examples of upscale hotels include St. Regis, Fairmont, Waldorf Astoria, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental and Ritz Carlton.

Note that many US 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 complimentary 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 US 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 [27] 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 [28] (+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 [29] (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.

Learn[edit]

Short courses may be undertaken on a tourist visa. Community colleges typically offer college-credit courses on an open-admissions basis; anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent and the required tuition payment can generally enroll. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.

Studying full-time in the United States is an excellent opportunity for young adults seeking an advanced education, a chance to see a foreign country, and a better understanding of the U.S. and its people. It can be done independently by applying directly to a college for admission, or through the "study abroad" or "foreign exchange" department of a college in your own country, usually for a single term or one year. (Either approach requires, at minimum, an F or J student visa.) The latter is usually easiest; the two institutions will handle much of the arrangements, and you don't have to make a commitment to four years living in a strange country. Be forewarned, however: many state universities and private colleges are located in small towns, hundreds of miles from any big urban centers. They go out of their way to recruit lucrative international students unfamiliar with U.S. geography. Don't expect to spend your weekends in New York or Los Angeles if your college is in North Dakota unless it is part of the academic activities in your school/course. Furthermore, U.S. higher education institutions are distributed along a wide spectrum in terms of prestige and quality. Outside of an elite group of about 20 to 40 internationally renowned universities, most U.S. colleges and universities aren't that well-known outside of their home state, let alone their home city.

The common requirements to study at a higher education level will include your admissions essay (also known as the statement of purpose or personal statement), transcript of records, recommendation/reference letters, language tests (TOEFL is most widely accepted but it can be waived if your previous school primarily used English as a medium of instruction), standardised achievement tests (SAT for undergraduate, GMAT for graduate business schools, GRE for most other graduate programs), degree certificates. As the TOEFL, SAT, GMAT or GRE are administered by the New Jersey-based ETS, you can sit the exam in your home country well beforehand and arrange for your scores to be directly sent to the school you are applying to. You may need to present these documents including your acceptance letter when applying for a student visa.

The types of schools vary dramatically. (In conversation, Americans tend to use the terms "school" and "college" inclusively: any college or university might be referred to as "school", and a university might be called "college".) State university systems are partially subsidized by state governments, and may have many campuses spread around the state, with hundreds of thousands of students. Private colleges are generally smaller (hundreds or a few thousand students), with a larger percentage of their students living on campus; some are affiliated with churches and may be more religious in character. Other kinds of colleges focus on teaching specific job skills, education for working adults, and providing inexpensive college-level education to local residents. Although nearly all colleges are open to students regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. many were originally established for a particular group (e.g. African-Americans, women, members of a particular religion) and may still attract primarily students from that group. Several private colleges remain female-only, there are a few male-only private colleges, and private religious colleges may expect students to practise the school's faith.

Colleges are funded by "tuition" charged to the student, which is often quite expensive, very commonly reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. The most selective colleges (and hence, often the most desirable) run up to $40,000-50,000 per year, including both tuition and "room & board" in that price. Most US citizens and eligible non-citizens receive substantial financial assistance from the federal government in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to most non-residents. Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country. They may be eligible for privately-funded "scholarships" intended to provide educational opportunities for various kinds of students. Some U.S. banks offer loans to foreign students, which usually require a citizen to guarantee that they'll be repaid. Contact the Financial Aid Office of any college you are interested in attending for more information about the sources of aid available.

Almost all US colleges and universities operate web sites (in the .edu domain) with information for prospective students and other visitors.

Work[edit]

Work in America is best arranged long before you enter the United States. Young people who are full time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J1 "Exchange Visitor" visa which permits paid work as au pairs or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.

The H-1B visa allows a limited number of skilled and certain unskilled employees to temporarily work in the United States. It usually requires a bachelor's degree and is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The job you wish to apply for should be related to your degree. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, math teachers, and computer science professionals. The H1-B cap was filled the day applications started this year, although proposed immigration changes would increase the cap. On the other hand, there is the more permanent employment-based immigrant visa which has similar requirements to the H-1B visa. An employment-based green card is significantly harder to obtain than an H1B, because the employer needs to first go through a tedious labor certification process, and assuming USCIS approves the petition, lengthy backlogs may occur (depending on nationality).

Paid work is generally not allowed on a B1/B2 visitor visa. Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country for at least some time. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of working in dangerous conditions without much relief from the law. Note that "paid work" includes receiving any sort of compensation or thing of value in exchange for your labor including "volunteering" in exchange for lodging.

If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the US Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the US and overseas often prey on people's desire to travel or work here. Keep in mind that while visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary, be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties, especially non-lawyers. If in doubt about properly applying for such visas, it is best to get a licensed immigration attorney.

Keep in mind that anyone entering under the Visa Waiver Program cannot adjust their status for any reason.

Minimum Wage[edit]

Federal Minimum Wage is currently at $7.25 an hour. However, most states, the Federal District of Columbia, and all territories have their own set minimum wage These are all higher than this federal minimum and wage floors can also be set even at county or municipal level (city, town or village). For example; minimum wage in the State of California is currently $9.00 an hour, but the City of San Francisco is currently $10.74 an hour, the highest in the U.S., and Seattle is scheduled to eclipse the country by 2022, gradually increasing to $15.00 an hour. While in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), the minimum wage is $5.50 an hour, the lowest in the nation because federal labor laws don't apply to the N.M.I. Minimum wage for tips is $2.13 an hour, again, this varies by state, territory, and municipality. But most are lower than federal minimum wage and others are at the same rate as the minimum wage set by the State, Federal District, or municipality.

Minimum wage doesn't often include health insurance coverage.

Stay safe[edit]

Crime[edit]

American movies and television shows often give foreigners the inaccurate impression that the US is ravaged by an extremely high level of violent crime. While there are some locations in the United States with high crime rates, most violent crime is heavily concentrated in certain inner city neighborhoods (most of which are specifically identified in the relevant city-specific articles in this travel guide), or poor outlaying areas. Few visitors to the US experience any sort of crime.

Much crime is gang- or drug-related in inner city regions or poor areas located along the US-Mexican border. It almost always occurs in areas that are of little interest to visitors. You can all but ensure that you won't experience crime by taking common-sense precautions and staying alert to your surroundings. Locations frequented by tourists and visitors (National Mall in Washington DC, and Manhattan in NYC) often have a police presence and are quite safe for all but the most minor petty crimes (eg: pickpocketing).

Like other regions of the world, many American urban areas have populations of homeless people, some of whom are drug-addicted and/or mentally ill. In certain cities, aggressive panhandling is a concern. If you feel you are being harassed, say NO firmly and walk away and/or call the police.

Note that security has increased along the United States–Mexico border due to increased illegal immigration and drug-related crime. Only cross the country's borders at official ports of entry.

Police[edit]

Though the local and international media generally portrays them as symbols of stereotypical American ignorance, American police are generally polite, well-paid, and honest; though on-duty officers are almost universally standoffish and cautious, they almost always enjoy assisting and serving the public.

If stopped by the police, you should stay calm, be polite and cooperative, and avoid making sudden movements. If you need to reach for your purse or wallet to present your identification, state what you are doing and wait for permission do do so. Often police will ask you to keep your hands out of your pockets while speaking to them. This is in no way meant to be offensive, but is for their peace of mind, and your safety. American police are always armed on duty, and will respond with force if they feel you present an immediate threat.

If you are stopped by a patrol car, turn on your inside car lights and keep your hands on the wheel so they remain visible. Do not exit the vehicle unless told to do so. If you follow the officer's instructions, you will probably not be arrested (unless you have actually committed a crime or resemble someone who recently committed one in the immediate vicinity). Instead, patrol stops typically result in a citation for a driving offense, or sometimes a simple verbal warning if the offense was minor, and you are appropriately cooperative.

While police in the Southern states have a reputation for being more harsh and arbitrary than their northern counterparts due to their historic role in enforcing racial segregation, today there is no reason to expect them to act differently from any other police officers.

Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. Police officers take large amounts of pride in their work and therefore steadfastly refuse to take bribes. While bribery may be expected in other countries, the stark opposite is true in the US; bribery is actually a crime for which one can and will be arrested and detained. Foreigners are seldom given the benefit of the doubt, even if they are from a country where bribery is common. Even a vague gesture that could be interpreted as an attempt at bribery will offend the officer. If you need to pay a fine, the officer can direct you to the appropriate police station, courthouse, or government office. Most minor traffic infractions can be paid by mail. Don't even think about paying a fine directly to the officer who issued it, since this will probably be interpreted as a bribe. An exception to this rule is found in Montana, where fines can be paid to the officer by cash, check, or even a credit or debit card.

Texting and driving[edit]

Distracted driving is a major problem in the United States, but despite the high dangers, Texting and driving is not considered illegal under federal law. But each state, territory, and Washington D.C. has laws on distracted driving. According to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, no state, territory, nor Washington D.C. bans all uses of cellphone while driving. So when driving or crossing the street, it's best to be aware of distracted driving.

911 Emergency services[edit]

During any emergency, dialing 911 (pronounced "nine-one-one") on any telephone will connect you to a dispatcher for the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc). Calls to 911 are free from pay phones and any mobile phone capable of connecting to any local carrier. Give the facts. The dispatchers will send help. Unless you are calling from a mobile phone, the 911 operator can almost certainly trace your line instantly and pinpoint the exact structure you are calling from.

With mobile phones it is more difficult; in some states, you may be connected to the regional office for the state police or highway patrol, which will then have to transfer you to the appropriate local agency once they talk to you and determine what you need. In recent years, many mobile phones have incorporated GPS devices that will display the user's precise geographical location to the 911 operator (known as Enhanced 911 or E-911), so that the operator can direct units to that location even if the caller is incapacitated.

If you are staying in one area, it may be helpful to have the phone numbers for the local emergency services so as to get through directly to the local dispatch. Moreover, in most locations, 911 calls are recorded and are open, public records, while the conversation with the local emergency dispatchers cannot be accessed by the public. Remember that if you dial emergency dispatchers directly instead of through 911, the operator may not be able to trace your location.

Note also that if you have a 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. All US GSM carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and smaller regional operators) automatically redirect 112 calls to 911.

As with most countries, misuse of the emergency services number will result in, at the very least, a call back from authorities; if particularly egregious, you will be heavily fined or even arrested.

Border Patrol[edit]

You may encounter the United States Border Patrol if you're transiting through or visiting cities geographically close to Canada (such as Detroit) or Mexico (San Diego) as well as in Southern coastal areas (Florida Keys). Border Patrol has the authority to verify immigration status and enforce immigration laws in places designated as "border zones" — generally within 40 miles of Canada and 75-100 miles of Mexico (although the law allows for 100 miles from any border, including international bodies of water like the seas and Great Lakes; this includes the entirety of some states and the majority of population centers). Border patrol is visible near Canada, though less so than on the southern boarder, (with guards primarily checking domestic long distance buses, Amtrak trains and their associated terminals, and rarely air travellers on arrival or departure). On the border with Mexico and in Southern coastal areas, systematic vehicle checkpoints or being pulled over by Border Patrol for a document check is much more common.

Foreign nationals are legally required to have passport, visa, and I-94(W) entry record (or Green Card) in their possession at all times. Consequences for not having them during a document check may be severe; you may be delayed or detained until your status can be verified. Long-term visa holders and permanent residents have been fined, or in extreme cases had their visas canceled for being found without their documents. If your documents are in order, you generally won't be questioned. Even US citizens are increasingly being advised to carry proof of citizenship, or at the very least identification of some kind, in areas under Border Patrol jurisdiction.

Border Patrol does not have much of a presence outside the border zones; its inland counterpart, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, generally doesn't target tourists unless it suspects them of trying to work during their tourist visits. In most states, police and other local authorities cannot question you about your immigration status or ask to see passports or visas unless you're arrested and charged with a crime, and then only for the purpose of connecting you with a representative from your country's embassy or diplomatic mission.

Natural disasters[edit]

The U.S. is a huge country with very varied geography, and parts of it are occasionally affected by natural disasters: hurricanes in June through November in the South including Florida, blizzards (sometimes called "Noreasters") in New England and the areas near the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains region, earthquakes in California and Alaska, floods in areas of the Midwestern United States 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.

Gay and lesbian[edit]

Homosexuality is legal between consenting adults. Many states and cities have anti-discrimination codes, including public accommodations in hotels, restaurants and transport. Several states have legalized same sex marriage or civil unions and these are recognized at the federal level.

In general, 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 one's 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.

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, Houston's Montrose, 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, many have resource centers for LGBTQ people.

Some gay-friendly businesses like to advertise themselves as such with a rainbow flag or a small pink triangle or three-vertical-striped sticker in the window. Of course, chances are you'll also be welcome at any other public establishment.

Men planning to engage in any sex, should be aware 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 at least for gay men, though hours may be limited and waits may be long. Planned parenthood [30] is often an affordable alternative. The life-long repercussions of HIV or other STIs aren't covered. Seeking health care elsewhere can be very pricey.

Illicit drugs[edit]

Street drugs, including marijuana, are illegal under federal law throughout the US.

Marijuana use is more widely accepted than other drugs (particularly on the West Coast), but generally not to the degree that it is in Canada or Western European countries. Although a few states have passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana, this will not protect any foreign citizen caught in possession. Outside of drug-using circles, most Americans frown upon illicit drug use regardless of quantity. This is especially true in more conservative jurisdictions (Such as Texas or Utah). And travellers would be wise to avoid using such substances in the United States, even in the liberal jurisdictions that allow it. Penalties can be very severe, and can include mandatory minimum jail terms for possession of personal quantities in some states. Also, ANY drug possession near a school, however slight the quantity, will land you a heavy jail term. Attempting to bring any quantity into the US posses a serious risk of being arrested for "trafficking". Drug trafficking is definitely not worth getting in trouble for as it can result in the death penalty, even though no one has never been executed drug trafficking.

Notable exceptions to the precautions above are the states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington; the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.), the cities of Portland and South Portland in Maine, and several recognized Indian Reservations, which have both recently legalized recreational use of marijuana. According to these new local laws, you can possess up to 1 ounce (2.5 ounces in Portland and 2 ounces in Washington D.C.) of marijuana from a licensed seller and use it personally if you are over 21 years old. Indian Reservations have recently been allowed by the Federal government to regulate cannabis on their recognized reservation, so laws within the reservation vary widely, and can be different from state laws. Example; while cannabis is legal in the state of Washington, the Yakima Nation (an Indian reservation in Washington State) declares cannabis illegal on their land. So by default, both federal and laws of the Indian Reservation apply. However, use on public streets or inside public buildings is illegal, so if you do use it, use it in private. The federal government of the United States still considers marijuana illegal, so the use is still illegal in territory under direct federal government jurisdiction within states where marijuana use has legalized such as the Lewis-McChord Military Reservation in Washington state or mailing of marijuana from Washington state to Colorado through the US Postal Service or bringing in some 'BC Bud' from British Columbia to Washington state. The future of these laws is uncertain, but for now, they stand (with the exceptions in recognized Indian Reservations and federal territory). Marijuana possession and use is still illegal in the states surrounding Colorado, Oregon and Washington, so do NOT under any circumstances bring marijuana outside of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington (the state), nor from any other U.S. jurisdiction that legalizes marijuana nor across adjacent international borders. This includes outside the city limits of Portland, Maine and South Portland, Maine (if you're not prescribed) and any Indian Reservation that deems it illegal on their land as you will risk facing criminal charges if you are caught with it. Depending on which country of your residence or you're traveling to after leaving the U.S., you may face criminal charges in your home country (or a third country) if found in possession of cannabis (or even in very small amounts) on arrival from the U.S. or having it in your urine or through other means of testing for drug use from a person's body, even if it was completely consumed in the U.S. prior to departure.

Racism[edit]

Some travellers to the US will not encounter any form of racism. However, free speech is protected in the United States, so, as such, racist speech is still legal to a large extent (racial discrimination and hate crimes are illegal). So you may come across familiar hate signs when travelling across the US. There is a chance of running into someone who is a member of a supremacist group such as, the Ku Klux Klan, New Black Panther Party, or various "Neo Nazi" or "Aryan" identity groups. Symbols like swastikas and other Nazi imagery are legal in the US. and may be found in tattoo art amongst members. However, they usually cover these up in public to avoid drawing hostility from others. For the most part, racist hate groups tend to prefer reclusiveness due to the mainstream unpopularity of their views. Most such groups choose to inhabit remote, rural, isolated areas (some of which may be crudely constructed compounds) that are difficult for outsiders to come upon incidentally. Occasionally, they may appear in public just to exercise their "free speech rights", even if they don't intend to commit any violent or obviously illegal acts. If you come across any racist, just walk away from them. It isn't worth starting a fight with them.

Islam[edit]

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the general view of Muslims was quite negative, but most people's views have softened somewhat in the last decade. Since Americans value freedom of religion and the vast majority do not condone the open expression of bigotry, the country is generally considered safe for those of the Islamic faith. If you are a Muslim, especially a woman who wears a hijab or a burqa, and are in an area without a high Muslim population, people may stare at you, but the reaction is often due to surprise or curiosity rather than hostility. Most people will simply say nothing and allow you to continue on your way. In rural areas (especially in the southern United States) you may encounter verbal harassment, but actual anti-Muslim violence rarely occurs. Large cities tend to have large Muslim communities, and locals will be more used to encountering them. Be aware that failure to provide a service (such as refusal to serve you at a restaurant) due to your faith is considered religious discrimination and is illegal nationwide, as is religious discrimination in the workplace. If you feel you have been discriminated against, the best response is to write down all relevant information and report the incident to the United States Department of Justice, which handles discrimination complaints.

Curfew[edit]

Some cities don't allow minors below a certain age to wander alone, unless accompanied by a legal guardian.

Animals[edit]

It is illegal to hunt, kill, and even illegal to keep any of a bald eagle's feathers. Keeping its feathers will result in a $100,000 fine for each feather you possess. As well as a year in prison, repeated offences will change your sentence. However, Indian reservations are somewhat excluded from the possession of bald eagle feathers. But you must have a certification of tribal membership and the appropriate registration license to possess one. If not, federal law applies.

Prostitution[edit]

Prostitution is not prohibited by Federal law. States, Territories, and the Federal District are allowed to make their own laws. Even so, prostitution remains illegal in all areas except at licensed brothels in rural Nevada counties. Prostitution remains illegal in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, and street-walking prostitutes are always illegal. Elsewhere in the US, tolerance and enforcement of prostitution laws vary considerably, but be aware that police routinely engage in "sting" operations in which an officer may pose as a prostitute to catch and arrest persons offering to pay for sex. This is not considered entrapment by US laws since the arrested person was consciously intending to commit an illegal act.

Firearms[edit]

One of the things the U.S. is known for is its lax attitude towards guns. Because of this, the U.S. has become a major destination for "Gun tourism", and currently the largest destination. Many Americans own a firearm of some sort, and firearm ownership is legal in all jurisdictions with varying degrees of restriction by State, Territory, and Federal District. Legally carried firearms can range from hunting rifles and shotguns to revolvers and semi-automatic handguns.

Non-immigrant aliens that are in the country for fewer than 180 days cannot possess a firearm or ammunition, unless they came here specifically for hunting or sporting purposes, or they have a valid hunting license from the state they are visiting. Passport + Visa + State Issued Hunting License = firearm possession / use. Entry in a recognized shooting competition can substitute for the hunting license. Anything else is strictly illegal.

The vast majority of Americans are non-violent except in self defense; they are responsible with their firearms and use/carry them appropriately and within the limits of the law. All States have laws regarding self defense which allow a person to use force, up to and including deadly force, in defense of themselves or others when in reasonable fear of seriously bodily injury or death. This right to self-defense extends to protection of one's home, and, in some states, to other types of personal property.

Your chances of a firearm-related injury in the U.S.A. are very low, but please keep the following in mind:

  • All fifty states and Washington DC have "concealed carry" laws which enable people with the appropriate permit to possess a concealed (and loaded) handgun on their person. Many states also allow people to "open carry" a handgun. Seeing a person with an openly carried handgun or a (poorly) concealed handgun is only a cause for concern if the person appears to be dressed like a thug. In rural areas and in more respectable areas of a city, those who carry firearms (either concealed or openly) do so within the limits of the law.
  • It is never worth getting into a street fight or a bar fight if such a thing can be avoided. Many states in the USA now allow licensed concealed carry holders to carry their pistols into establishments [such as bars] that serve alcohol on the premises, so long as the individual with the pistol refrains from consuming any alcohol. If you get drunk and wind up attacking somebody or threatening somebody with a pool stick, a chair, a glass bottle, a knife, or any sort of weapon, you open yourself to the possibility of somebody using a pistol against you in self-defense, aside from the fact that you open yourself to being arrested and charged with numerous felonies [which could carry years in prison]. Always know your limits and drink responsibly. Do not drink to the point where you become prone to violent or reckless behavior. If you are at a reputable and clean establishment in a decent/safe neighborhood you will generally find that bar fights are extremely uncommon while in other bars that are known to get "rough" there may be bouncers [unarmed security who will forcibly eject you if you become disruptive/menacing] and in some bars [particularly those in dangerous areas] there may be armed security or the bar-tender/owner may be carrying a weapon. Use common-sense, if a misunderstanding occurs, politely but firmly apologize, back away from the situation, and avoid escalation. If somebody asks you to "step outside" or "go out back" or "let's take this into the parking lot" decline, tell him that you do not want any trouble, and if he persists in challenging you, speak with the bar-tender or a bouncer, or phone the police if he persists or tries to follow you, but do not go outside with him.
  • When approaching a stranger's house or apartment, especially at night, make special effort to stand within the view of the door's peephole or in the light, so you can clearly be seen from the inside.
  • Hunting is a popular sport in rural America. In general travel on marked trails will not put you in any danger, but if venturing off the beaten path it is a good idea to inquire if any hunting is currently afoot and where, and if so to wear bright colors (particularly "Blaze Orange") to differentiate yourself from terrain and prey. If you have a dog with you, you should also put a blaze orange vest on it as well. If you wish to hunt you will need to obtain a hunting license (usually available at outdoors stores among other places) and should review local regulations.
  • Property owners may defend their homes with firearms during a burglary or home invasion. If in rural areas, it is common courtesy not to cross land posted as private property.
  • Shooting is a popular recreational activity in America that many tourists wish to participate in. Many shooting ranges are more than happy to accommodate tourists and will have a variety of firearms available to rent and shoot at the range. However, due to the laws restricting non-immigrant aliens from possessing firearms, you will most likely need to be accompanied by a US citizen who satisfies the local requirements for firearm possession.

If you come from a country where firearm ownership is discouraged or prohibited, there is a good chance that your American host will offer to take you shooting. On a shooting trip, your host will most likely explain basic firearm safety and quiz you on it before allowing you to handle their guns. They may also watch you closely and point out any accidental safety violations. This is all done out of gun safety concerns, and should never be interpreted as impertinent or disrespectful.

Stay healthy[edit]

Personal hygiene[edit]

The average American takes a bath or shower at least once per day, and expects others to do the same. Excessive body odor is frowned upon, as is excessive use of perfumes and colognes.

American men either shave their faces daily, or if they grow beards and/or mustaches, keep them neatly trimmed. American women shave their legs if walking around in shorts or high-cut skirts that expose bare skin. Most also shave their underarms and some shave their arms.

Bad breath (halitosis) is also frowned upon. Americans are taught from a young age to brush and floss their teeth twice daily. Many do not consistently observe this, but most people do brush their teeth at least once a day to avoid leaving the house with "morning breath" from plaque growth overnight.

Disease[edit]

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 diseases that, while rare, are worth becoming educated about are rabies and Lyme disease. Rabies is more prevalent in eastern regions of the country and may be contracted from animal bites; if you are bitten by any mammal see a doctor quickly—do not wait for symptoms. Lyme disease is spread via the deer tick, which are prevalent in the woodlands and open fields of many rural areas. 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.

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).

All of the above listed 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

Health care[edit]

American health care is the best in the world, but also the most expensive in the world. Millions of working Americans struggle to pay their medical bill, even though the Affordable Care Act (commonly called "Obamacare" by Americans) enacted by President Barack Obama in 2010 was supposed to alleviate the problem. The same drug sold in the United States can cost up to 5 or 6 times the price of other countries. Americans generally use private health insurance, paid either by their employer or out of their own pocket; some risk paying high hospital bills themselves, or depend on government subsidized health plans. As a traveler you should have travel insurance or you will potentially face very high costs if you need medical care.

Most metropolitan areas will have a mix of public and private hospitals, and in turn, US private hospitals can be either non-profit or for-profit. Public hospitals located in wealthy suburbs can be as good as private ones, but in poorer inner-city areas, public hospitals are usually overcrowded and run-down and should be avoided by tourists. However, many public hospitals are also the Level I regional trauma centers for their respective metro areas (i.e., they guarantee 24-hour on-site availability of all major types of medical specialists), which means that you will be taken there if critically injured.

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. Emergency rooms will treat patients without regard to their ability to pay, but you will still be presented with a bill for all care. Do not use ERs for non-emergency walk-in care. Not only can this be 3-4 times more expensive than other options, but you will often wait many hours (or days) before being treated, as the staff will give priority to patients with urgent needs. In most areas, the charge for an emergency room visit starts around $500, in addition to any specific services or medications you may require. Most urban areas have minor emergency centers (also called "urgent care", etc.) for medical situations where a fully equipped emergency room would be excessive, such as superficial lacerations. However, their hours may be limited, and few are open overnight.

Walk-in clinics are another place for travelers to find routine medical care, letting 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. To find one, check the yellow pages under "Clinics", or call a major hospital and ask. Make sure to tell the clerk you will be paying "out of pocket"; if they assume an insurance company will be paying for it, they may order tests that are not medically essential and in some cases bill for services that aren't actually provided.

Dentists are readily available throughout the United States (again, see the yellow pages). Dental offices are accustomed to explaining fees over the phone, and most will accept credit cards. Be prepared to pay for all services up front as this is a common requirement for most dental practices.

Please note the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to by Americans as Obamacare (named after the U.S. President Barack Obama who started the idea) is a law that requires everyone to have affordable health insurance to avoid paying a hefty price on their medical bills. It took effect March 1, 2014. It is however, not applicable to U.S. visitors so if you get sick you have to pay full price for medical bills.

Most counties and cities have a government-supported clinic offering free or low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; call the Health Department for the county you are in for 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 [31] (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.

Restrooms/toilets[edit]

On average, most American public restrooms/bathrooms/lavatories are not as clean or pleasant as equivalent public toilets in Europe. The full-time restroom attendants often seen in certain European countries are extremely rare in the US. Some facilities may be pristine, such as in upscale shopping malls, fine restaurants, or commercial office buildings. Others will be shockingly unkempt, such as at many gas stations and bars. Public universities and big box retail stores will have a medium level of cleanliness. Some toilet stalls offer disposable toilet seat covers, but those are far from universal. When using a toilet in a public restroom, it is advisable to wipe the seat with toilet paper before (for your own comfort) and after (to avoid leaving a mess) using it. Oftentimes, women in public restrooms will refuse to actually sit on the toilet and, as a result, leave a pool of urine. This is not something in which you'd like to sit.

Nearly all public buildings are required to have restrooms accessible to the disabled. Many restrooms increasingly offer baby changing stations in both the men's and women's restrooms (especially in shopping centers and restaurants). A few places offer a separate, third "family" restroom which is single-occupancy but spacious.

For little children who need to be monitored or assisted, it's generally acceptable for them to use the restroom of the parent they're with (little girls can go with dad to the men's room, and vice versa). The other way around (dad going to the ladies' room) is usually not okay.

Water[edit]

Tap water is generally chlorinated and may also include fluorine. Nevertheless, Americans are increasingly using filters on their faucets. Also in use are filter pitchers (common brands for both include Brita and Pur). So, although tap water is not dangerous, Americans prefer to filter (and sometimes boil) tap water before drinking. It probably has more to do with taste than actual safety. Filters can also be purchased that add minerals to your filtered water as American tap water is generally high in chlorine but lacking in mineral content, hence the bland, sometimes chemical taste.

Ice in restaurants is typically made with ice machines. Water served in restaurants (always free unless you ask for bottled) is tap water, though not necessarily filtered, and is often served with a slice of lemon to cover the chlorine taste. Isolated rural areas may be suspect as water sources may be wells. While tap water in most urban and suburban areas is generally safe to drink, given a choice, Americans are more comfortable drinking either filtered or bottled water.

Cope[edit]

News[edit]

News media in the U.S. is almost entirely privately-owned and profit-driven, and so conforms itself to its consumers and advertisers. The result is a wide range of information and opinion, some of it focused entirely on political ideology or special interests, with others attempting to be broad and impartial to appeal to a wide audience. As a very general rule (there are always exceptions) radio news has right-wing opinions, while print and cable news has a left-wing inclination. Occasionally, a single publication or station will offer a range of right, center, and left opinions, but this is relatively uncommon.

Besides politics and local affairs, the most emphasized news stories are those sensationalized for dramatic effect - scandals, crimes, and international incidents, symbolized by the notorious catchphrase, "If it bleeds, it leads." However, the American media is (usually) sensitive to issues of gender and racial equality, so that the majority of mainstream publications are careful to avoid the kinds of egregiously sexist or racist articles still found in certain developing countries.

Newspapers[edit]

The five most important newspapers are as follows:

  • Los Angeles Times - the second-largest metropolitan newspaper in circulation in the United States in 2008 and the fourth most widely distributed newspaper in the country. Center-left stance on news pages, left-wing stance on editorial pages.
  • The New York Times - the largest local metropolitan newspaper in the United States and third-largest newspaper overall, behind The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. It is the national newspaper of record and is generally considered to be the most prestigious newspaper in the United States. Would be regarded as centre-right politically in most other countries of the world, but in the US it is regarded as having a left-wing stance.
  • The Wall Street Journal - primarily covers American economic and international business topics, and financial news and issues. Its name derives from Wall Street, located in New York City, which is the heart of the financial district; it has been printed continuously since its inception on July 8, 1889, by Charles Dow, Edward Jones, and Charles Bergstresser. The newspaper has won the Pulitzer Prize thirty-four times. Mixed political stance—center-right on editorial pages, center-left on news pages.
  • USA Today [32] - known for synthesizing news down to easy-to-read-and-comprehend stories. In the main edition seen in the US and some Canadian cities, each edition consists of four sections: News (the oft-labeled "front page" section), Money, Sports, and Life. On Fridays, two Life sections are included: the regular Life for entertainment (subtitled Weekend; section E), which features television, a DVD column, film reviews and trends, and a travel supplement called Destinations & Diversions (section D). Centrist stance. Often found at many hotels (for which they either charge a "newspaper fee" or bundle it into a larger "resort fee").
  • The Washington Post - well-known for its coverage of national politics, especially major scandals like the Watergate scandal. Center-left stance.

Most good newsstands and bookstores (especially at major airports) always carry the NYT, the WSJ, and USA Today, as well as one or more local newspapers. In addition, they may also carry either the LA Times or the Washington Post (depending on whether they sit west or east of the Mississippi River).

Cable News Channels[edit]

  • Al Jazeera America - broadcasts from studios in New York City. Presents live programming at all hours, including half-hour news bulletins at two or three in the morning when the other cable networks are running pre-recorded bulletins from tape.
  • Cable News Network (CNN) - broadcasts, primarily, from studios in Atlanta. Delivers the latest breaking news and information on the latest top stories, weather, business, entertainment, politics, and more. In most countries the the content would be regarded as right wing, but in America it has been labeled as having a center to left stance.
  • Fox News Channel - broadcasts from studios in New York City. Presents a variety of programming with up to 17 hours of live programming per day. Audio simulcasts of the channel are aired on XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. Right-wing stance.
  • MSNBC - broadcasts, primarily, from studios in New York City. Features news, information, and political opinion programming. Left-wing stance.
  • RT America - broadcasts from studios in Washington, DC. Funded by the government of Russia as a state propaganda organ and tend to have an anti-American stance.

Dress[edit]

Today, dress in the US tends to be fairly casual. For everyday clothes, jeans and T-shirts are generally acceptable, as are shorts when the weather is suitable. Sneakers (athletic shoes) are common; flip-flops and sandals are also popular in warm weather.

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 almost always will have courtesy jackets on offer if you forget).

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. Many establishments, such as water parks, will enforce rules on improper swimwear; for example, insufficient covering of the intimate parts or offensive language. Staff members may ask you to either change into swimwear more appropriate or be escorted out of the park (typically without a refund).

Generally, Americans accept religious attire such as hijab, yarmulke, and burqa without comment. However, do be aware that in places of heightened security such as banks, municipal buildings, and so on, wearing clothing which covers the face may be regarded as suspicious behavior and is generally unadvisable.

Respect[edit]

  • The number one rule of respect among Americans is that it must be earned by your actions and integrity. Being honest, polite, and open-minded will win you much more respect than your age, wealth, or level of education.
    • Some Americans will show great courtesy to elders, women, priests, military veterans, teachers, and so on, but this is purely a matter of personal preference, and behaving as though you expect superior treatment will guarantee the opposite.
    • When Americans refer specifically to "lower class," "middle class" or "upper class" people, they are referring strictly to economic status, not social status. Disrespecting someone because they have less money than you is widely regarded as terrible behavior.
  • Americans generally find foreign culture and language fascinating and you will likely be bombarded with questions about your home. Questions such as these are nearly always meant in a friendly and inquisitive manner.
  • Americans value their right to free expression, and may encourage visitors to voice their feelings and opinions, but some topics are best treated with care and respect:
    • Many Americans are openly critical of their government and its policies, but disparaging remarks about the U.S. military or foreign policy are rarely welcome from outsiders. Americans in general tend to have a higher level of reverence for their military than those in other Western democracies. Veneration and honoring of the military is common in public life, particularly at sporting events and in the form of clothing and apparel. In addition, there are several holidays in honor of the military including Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day. Americans are free to respectfully disagree with military policy, but questioning the honor, integrity or behavior of American soldiers themselves is usually unacceptable. As an outsider you should do neither. In general, Americans are very patriotic about their country.
    • Given the variety of religions practiced throughout the States, you should expect to be surrounded by many who disagree with your beliefs, though most are tolerant of such differences. While you're unlikely to offend an American by politely asking about their religion or offering to explain your own, aggressive proselytizing or disparaging remarks of other faiths will not earn you any respect.
    • Americans have historically tended to view communist and socialist theories and politics quite negatively. This is largely a result of the principles of democracy and self-determination on which the US was founded, and also of the decades long Cold War in which it was engaged with the former Soviet Union. Note, also, that many Americans have a rather nebulous conception of socialism, frequently colored by their own political beliefs.
    • However, Marxist, Leninist, or any other kind of Communist or Socialist Leftist political opinions have their fair share of followers nowadays in the US. Leftists are generally found in the states where the Democratic Party is predominant, but can also be found in even the most conservative towns. Generally, though, one should not mention these views unless their host does so first, or perhaps has them on display via a T-shirt, bumper sticker, etc.
    • Nazism and other Fascist ideologies are also viewed negatively. Any references to the Holocaust being a fake will receive strong criticisms from both conservatives and liberals. To note, Americans have a high support for the Jewish people as they were victims of a mass genocide during the Second World War. Americans also support having a strong alliance with Israel than any other Western nation.
  • Understand that Americans value directness and self-confidence, particularly in public/professional life. To make a good impression, you will want to greet someone you've never met before with direct eye contact, a firm handshake and a smile. If you come from a country such as Japan, where directness is usually considered uncomfortable, rude and/or disrespectful, these aspects of interaction may take some getting used to, but can go long way in determining how positively or negatively you're perceived.
  • Americans are generally very casual, friendly and chatty people. It is common for a store cashier to ask you how your day is, or for a stranger at a bus stop to ask you how it's going. In the workplace, most people refer to each other by their first name, even when addressing a superior. In general, you can exercise this practice without worry. However, when first being introduced to a superior, be sure to use "Mr" or "Ms" and the family name, only switching to the first name if the person has given you explicit permission to do so.
  • Unless it is really crowded, leave about an arm's length of personal space between yourself and others.
  • As a result of the country's extensive history of racial discrimination, coupled with the country's push toward racial equality, Americans are exceptionally sensitive about issues of race. If you must reference race, Black or African-American, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American or American Indian, and White or Caucasian are acceptable terms.
    • Note also that when Americans use the term "Asian" by itself to refer to people, they are often specifically referring to East Asians (including Southeast Asians), and not to people from South Asia. In most parts of the US, East Asian communities are larger and more established than South Asian communities. (Note that this usage is exactly opposite that of British English, in which "Asian" by itself refers exclusively to South Asians, and East Asians are usually called "Oriental" which is considered offensive in America.)
  • Smoking indoors is heavily frowned upon and is illegal in most public buildings. If you're in a private home and want to smoke, politely excuse yourself and go outside.
  • Adults should not approach or speak directly to children they don't know. American children in urban areas are taught to be wary of strangers. If you have something you'd like to say to a child, address the adult he or she is with.
  • Videotaping in any indoor public-use place varies widely in acceptability the United States of America and can rather easily result in ejection from the premises, even without warning. Places that prohibit or restrict videotaping by visitors include shopping malls, stores, restaurants, museums, arcades, movie theaters, nightclubs, bars, taverns, and stadiums. Additionally, cameras (both still and motion picture) are generally prohibited at strip clubs and clothing-optional facilities. Videotaping is usually permitted at most amusement parks, but may be restricted on rides, especially at chain parks like Six Flags and Cedar Fair. Different stadiums, and even different events at the same stadium can have different photo policies. It is always best to ask about the photo and video policy to determine acceptability.
  • Public display of affection, including hugging, gets various types of reactions depending on the region it occurs in. Generally, in the northern tier states (especially within the Frost Belt area, and other states such as Idaho, Alaska, Montana, Colorado, and such), public display of affection is seen as taboo for the community. Also, many schools and work places prohibit public display of affection. Public display of affection, including hugging, is generally more permitted and open in the southern states, especially within the Gulf Coast/Bible belt area. It even occurs, especially in deep southern states (Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, and such) that waitresses do occasionally hug their customers.
  • There are Native American reservations scattered throughout the country, particularly in the Upper Midwest and the Southwest. Many of these reservations are home to sites that are sacred to the tribe, and certain places may be off-limits to outsiders. If you enter a reservation's territory, please be sure to respect the land. They also have unique legal status allowing them to regulate themselves. Laws and customs may be different in these regions.
    • The Bald Eagle is the national animal, and is beloved by many Americans and is a sacred animal in many Indian reservations. Respect national wildlife.

Also see the section on tipping, and the section on smoking.

  • The United States has been through several waves of feminism since the mid 20th century and has been influenced by feminism more than any other country in the world. Many countries, of course, have a custom of reverence towards older women or women of higher status but males should be careful in how they address or interact with any American adult females, younger or older, regardless of their apparent status. The issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault is a very serious matter in the United States.
    • Avoid slang terms that you might hear Americans use for women ("babe", "broad", "chick") and to be safe, avoid any equivalents in your language. It is just best to simply address an American woman by her given name. A majority of American women consider men who use such terms as disrespectful. Catcalls and whistles, which may be traditionally considered harmless in your native country, are considered to be a form of sexual harassment and you may find yourself in court.
    • In cases where flirting is invited (do not assume this by default), you should avoid initiating physical contact when flirting with American women you do not know, as they may be disturbed by this and dislike being spontaneously touched or kissed. Women set the boundaries for how far intimacy is taken with them and you are expected to respect this.
      • Flirting or touching is generally unwelcome if the woman is married or in a relationship, regardless of whether her partner is present or not. Do not rely on the presence or absence of a ring on her finger to indicate status in that regard. American women tend to view flirting as inappropriate for men who are known to be either married or in a relationship. They may view with suspicion a flirty/touchy man who is older (generally appearing over 35) or otherwise appears to be of a status where it is highly probable that he is either married or attached (such as a high-income professionial). Student age young adult men (generally 18-25) may be given the benefit of the doubt, and in major metropolitan areas, shouldn't have that many problems seeking out venues to meet women of a similar age who are open to flirting so long as the men do not reflect a sleazy demeanor.

Contact[edit]

By phone[edit]

U.S. telephone numbers are governed by the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) and are invariably written in one of these formats:

  • XXX-YYY-ZZZZ
  • (XXX) YYY-ZZZZ
  • YYY-ZZZZ

The numbers YYY-ZZZZ make up the local part of the telephone number (specifically, the telephone exchange number and line number). You must dial all seven digits even if the YYY portion is the same as the line you are calling from. The numbers XXX denote the area code. Densely populated areas often have several area codes (e.g. the six area codes within the borders of New York City), while some sparsely-populated states will have one or two codes for the entire state (e.g. Montana).

Ordinarily, if the number you are dialing is within the same area code as the one for the line you are dialing from, dial YYY-ZZZZ; otherwise, dial 1-XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. However, many metropolitan areas, and even some entire states (such as Maryland and West Virginia) have implemented 10-digit dialing, where all local calls must be dialed as XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. (In such areas, you must still dial "1" to distinguish long-distance calls.) Mobile phones are much simpler and can be dialed with all 10 digits regardless of whether the call is local or long distance.

You may occasionally see phone numbers for business which spell out words, such as "1-800-FLOWERS". Almost all phones have letters written on each number ("2" is "ABC", "3" is "DEF", etc.) which you use to dial the number; for example, "FLOWERS" becomes "356-9377". This is a legacy of the old alphabet letter codes which were previously used for telephone exchanges. In the case of mobile phones, most feature phones (i.e., not smartphones) have the letters printed along with the numbers. As for smartphones, most touchscreen phones have virtual phone keypads that display the corresponding letters along with the numbers. Smartphones without touchscreens, such as some older BlackBerry devices, often allow you to enter letters as part of a phone number. In either case, entering "1-800-FLOWERS" and pressing the send button should connect you to that business.

Long-distance calls are calls to lines outside the "local calling area" of the line from which you are dialing. The long-distance prefix (in some countries called the "trunk" prefix) in the U.S. is "1", so a long-distance call should be dialed 1-XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. As with local calls, dialing incorrectly will result in an automated message informing you how to properly dial the number. Mobile phones typically do not require you to dial "1" for long-distance.

Canada and certain Caribbean islands also participate in the NANP. This means they can be dialed using "1" as if they were in the U.S., although the call will be billed at international rates. As a general rule, calls to Canada are more expensive than U.S. domestic calls, but cheaper than calls to other countries. Calls to other locations require using the international access code ("011") followed by the country code of the destination number. For example, a call from the United States to the British Museum in London would be dialed as 011-44-20-7323-8000.

At some locations with internal phone systems (e.g. businesses and hotels), you will need to dial an access code (usually "9" or "8") to reach an outside line before dialing the number as usual.

Numbers with the area code 800, 888, 877, 866, or 855 are toll free within the U.S, meaning that the cost of the call is paid by the recipient. Outside the country, dial 880, 881, 882, and 883 respectively, but these aren't toll free. The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges applied to the call (e.g. "adult entertainment"). This is also true of "local" seven-digit phone numbers starting with 976.

Most visitor areas and some restaurants and bars have directories with two listings of telephone numbers (often split into two books): the white pages, for an alphabetical listing; and the yellow pages, an advertising-filled listing of business and service establishments by category (e.g. "Taxicabs"). Directory information can also be obtained by dialing 411 (for local numbers) or 1-area code-555-1212 (for other areas). If 411 doesn't work locally, try 555-1212 or 1-555-1212. Directory information is normally an extra cost call. As an alternative, directory information is available for free via 1-800-Free411, which is ad-supported. Information directories are also available online at each regional telephone company's web site (most often AT&T, Verizon, or CenturyLink; also Frontier in West Virginia and FairPoint in northern New England), as well as www.free411.com. Although each claims to have all the local phone numbers of the others, using the site of the region you are searching for yields the best results (i.e. AT&T for most of California, Verizon for the Northeast, etc.) Many residential land-line phones and all mobile phones are unlisted.

Historically, pay phones were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States, and commonplace in other places such as gas stations. After 2000, cell phone usage soared and pay phone usage collapsed, so the regional landline telecom monopolies exited the pay phone business. The small companies that took over the legacy pay phones have ripped out most of them and increased prices on the ones that remain. Today, prices are typically 50 cents for the first three minutes, and a quarter for each additional minute. You will probably have to enter a store or restaurant to find one, though some are against the outer wall of such businesses, usually in front, or near bus stops. Most pay phones are coin operated (quarters, dimes and nickels) and do not accept paper bills. An online directory of pay phones can be found at Pay Phone Directory [33]. Dialing 9-1-1 to report an emergency is still a free call on pay phones, it's just a matter of locating one to use.

Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. Most calling cards have specific destinations in mind (domestic calls, calls to particular countries), so make sure you get the right card. Some cards may be refilled by phoning a number and giving your Visa/MasterCard number, but often operators refuse foreign cards for this purpose. Moreover, calls may cost more if a payphone or toll-free number is used or if a mobile number is dialed or if more calls are made (rather than few but longer calls).

Another option is using a virtual number service.[34] That way you can avoid paying for roaming.

Mobile phones[edit]

American mobile phone services (known as cell phones regardless of the technology used) are not very compatible with those offered abroad. While GSM has been gaining in popularity, the US uses the unusual 1900 and 850MHz frequencies; check with your operator or mobile phone dealer to see if your phone is a tri-band or quad-band model that will work here. Roaming fees for foreign mobiles are high and text messages may not always work due to compatibility issues between networks.

Depending on the length of your trip and the amount of calling you plan on doing, it may be less expensive to obtain an American mobile phone. If you are arriving and departing from the same city, consider that most larger airports will have a boutique that rents mobile phones (rates start around $3/day). Alternatively, prepaid phones and top-up cards can be purchased at mobile phone boutiques and at many discount, electronics, office supply and convenience stores. A very basic mobile handset and credit for an hour or two's worth of calls can be had for under $40, though be aware that international calling will, if it is in fact available, use up those credits much more quickly than a domestic call. It is possible to purchase a prepaid SIM card for an unlocked mobile, although these are not nearly as common in the United States as in other countries so you will probably have to purchase it from a GSM provider's boutique. The four major national carriers are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, which operate boutiques in most, if not all, metropolitan areas and offer pre-paid service. Historically, the AT&T and T-Mobile networks have used GSM, while Verizon and Sprint have used the different CDMA standard (whose phones did not use SIM cards). Today, all four carriers are quickly migrating to the newer LTE standard (which uses SIM cards), and some Verizon and Sprint phones (mostly smartphones) support LTE, CDMA, and GSM. Other providers of mobile phone service include TracFone, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and various regional operators. To work out whether a regional operator might work better (as their deals are more flexible over their local areas of service) OpenSignal provide independent US coverage maps

Unlike in many countries, there is no surcharge for dialing a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are charged the same as calls to land lines outside your geographic area), but on the other hand mobile phone users are charged for incoming and outgoing calls and SMS (you won't be able to contact someone who does not have sufficient balance to receive phone calls). Numbers that are toll-free from land lines however are not free when dialed from a mobile phone. Packages as low as $25/month are available to allow you to make hundreds of minutes worth of calls. Take note that a failed attempt at making a call (or a "missed call") will be deducted from your balance since you are charged from the moment you dial.

If you are going to be in the United States for a long time, you may wish to consider a long-term service contract. A service contract will give you the best rates on calls, SMS and data, and will also usually include a free or discounted handset. On the other hand, they are almost always two-year agreements with stiff penalties for early cancellation (anywhere from $150 to $350, depending on carrier and phone model), so consider the length of your stay and your needs before signing one. T-Mobile has recently become the major exception to this rule—in March 2013, it eliminated service contracts for new customers. New T-Mobile customers have the choice of paying for their phone up front, or buying the phone at a discounted price and paying the balance, interest-free, over a 20-month period. Users who choose the second option may prepay part or all of the remaining cost of their phone without penalty; canceling service has no penalty apart from re-payment of any remaining cost of the phone. In the case of T-Mobile, the length of your stay will still be a factor—if you do not pay the entire retail cost of your phone up front, the remaining balance at the time you leave may be more than another carrier's cancellation fee.

Conversely, if you are only going to be in the US for a short period (eg a week or less), some carriers (most notably T-Mobile) offer a plan that allows unlimited calling, texting, and data for $2-3 per day. This will not include international calling, however.

By mail[edit]

Diamond Head & Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii

Overview[edit]

The United States Postal Service (USPS)[35] operates a gigantic network of post offices and mailboxes throughout the country. The bright blue metal mailboxes of the USPS are a ubiquitous sight in rural and urban settings, indoors and outdoors, in every U.S. state and territory. They are normally serviced once, twice or even thrice a day, Monday through Saturday. Pickup times are always listed on a label on the box. In suburban areas, it is common to see mailboxes located on a drive-through lane outside of a post office.

Each post office has different hours, but most are open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Saturday. In high crime areas, post offices are completely closed to the public when not open. In low crime areas, the lobby is divided into two areas. The retail counter area is closed after hours, but the rest of the lobby can be open 24/7 (or only open longer hours likee 6AM to 10PM) and normally includes access to Post Office Boxes as well as at least one Self-Service Kiosk (SSK). The SSK is an easy-to-use self-service touchscreen kiosk that accepts credit cards. It can weigh packages and print out a variety of different types of postage and labels.

Addressing[edit]

In general, the addressee's section of the mailpiece should appear as follows:

(name of recipient)
(street address, which contains the house number and street name)
(apartment, suite or room number if any)
(city or town), (two digit state abbreviation) (ZIP code)

For example:
John & Jane Doe
555 Main St
Apt #1
Houston, TX 77002-0001

To send items to any destination within the U.S. by post, the most important item in the addressee's section of the mailpiece is the ZIP code (postal code).

The importance of the ZIP code arises from the Postal Service's highly automated process for handling mail. USPS personnel dump all newly received mailpieces into a scanning machine that runs optical character recognition on the destination address and then sprays or prints a POSTNET bar code corresponding to the ZIP+4 code. The POSTNET bar code is then scanned by high-speed automatic sorting machines at each step in the system, in order to route the mailpiece into the bag or tray of the letter carrier whose route includes that ZIP+4 code. Thus, if the ZIP+4 code and POSTNET bar code are incorrect, the error will not be detected until the mailpiece gets to the wrong letter carrier. The USPS requires a particular combination of house number and street name to be unique within the same city, but does not require a street name to be unique across an entire metropolitan area. Since there are often many cities in a single metropolitan area that have streets with the same name, writing the correct ZIP code is essential to prompt delivery of your mailpiece.

When you do not know of or are unsure of the correct ZIP code, visit USPS.com, the website of the USPS. It enables users to look up ZIP codes by city and by street address. Entering a full street address may return a ZIP code (first 5 digits) and ZIP+4 (next 4 digits) to a total of 9 digits. The ZIP (first 5 digits) usually encompasses a greater area such as a section of a city, an entire town or across an expansive (rural) area encompassing several small towns. University campuses, large hospitals, governmental agencies, military bases, sections of the U.S. military or a single large building may have their own unique ZIP code and any mail sent to that particular ZIP code goes to that institution's internal mail room for onward delivery. Depending upon the complexity of a particular place, the unique ZIP+4 code (next for 4 digits) may correspond to anything from a segment along a letter carrier's route to the entire route (which may cover an entire small town); a group of apartments, offices or storefronts in a single address; an office within a specific building (which is often the case in big cities); or a department, office, mail stop or a building on an university campus or some large entity with its own unique zip code. The "+4" portion of the ZIP code is optional as technologies in the sorting centre will be able to quickly identify the correct "+4" portion and incorporate it into the bar code but the ZIP (first 5 digits) is necessary.

Pricing[edit]

First class (airmail) postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $1.15 internationally including to Canada and Mexico. It is no longer necessary to mark "AIR MAIL" on items going overseas as EVERYTHING are now sent abroad by airplane by default. All addresses with a USPS ZIP code are considered "domestic", including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, U.S. military bases abroad (identified with an 'APO' or 'FPO' address)[36], U.S. Navy ships at sea (usually 'FPO' addresses) [37] and U.S. diplomatic missions abroad ('DPO' addresses). Domestic postcards are sent for $0.34 while a letter in an envelope weighing within 1 oz is mailed for $0.49. If you put a solid object like a coin or a key in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge. [38]

"Forever" stamps are always valid for the first ounce for all first-class domestic mail items, with no surcharge after a price increase. (For all other kinds of price increases and historically for first-class domestic mail price increases, the USPS sells one and two-cent stamps which must be added to cover the difference between the face value of stamps sold before an increase and the current rate.) However, Forever stamps are not valid for international use.

If for whatever reason you have stamps that don't add up to the correct exact amount, you can try overpaying by adding one more stamp. The USPS stamp canceling machines are intelligent enough to recognize that fact and allow the mail piece through.

Due to sagging demand, the USPS has taken away the vending machines through which one could formerly purchase a variety of preprinted stamp booklets in post office lobbies. The SSKs as initially deployed could regularly dispense at least one type of preprinted stamp booklet year-round, but that feature has been withdrawn as well. The USPS will still make stamp booklets available sometimes through the SSKs, but only on an intermittent and seasonal basis.

Therefore, at this time, the only always-available method for buying postage at a post office when the retail counter is closed is to use the SSK in the lobby to print bar-coded postage labels. While legally effective as postage, such labels lack the charm of traditional full-color stamps. However, besides post office retail counters, stamp booklets are also available from many retailers, including pharmacies, supermarkets, and certain banks.

Receiving mail via General Delivery[edit]

You can receive mail sent both domestically and from abroad by having it addressed to you as "General Delivery." In other countries, this is often called Poste Restante. There is no charge for this service. You just go to the main post office, wait in line, and they will give you your mail after showing ID such as a passport.

John Doe
General Delivery
Seattle, Washington 98101-9999
U.S.A.

The last four digits of the ZIP (postal) Code for General Delivery is always '9999'. If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will have the General Delivery service. This means, 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. On the other hand, if you're completely outside of the city of Seattle, and in a smaller town with only one post office, you can have it sent there.

The two largest private courier services, UPS and FedEx, also have a "Hold for Pickup" option. Both can hold a package at the nearest depot, while FedEx can also hold packages at FedEx Office locations.

By Internet[edit]

Most Americans have Internet access, mostly in their homes and offices. Internet cafes, therefore, are not common outside of major metropolitan, tourist and resort areas. However, you almost always have several options for Internet access, except perhaps in the most remote, rural areas.

If you bring your own computer or tablet:

Travel Warning

NOTE: An increasingly common method of identity theft is thieves turning on their computer or cell phone's "mobile hotspot" function in a public area with the expectation that someone will connect to it. This scheme sets up a Wi-Fi network—without a password and sometimes with a deceiving name— using their laptop/phone as a router to their laptop/phone's Internet connection, allowing them to record all information that passes through the connection or even (if they have expert computer skills) gain access to your computer's hard drive. Your best bet is to go into the business to find out what their Wi-Fi network is named and always select "public network" if your computer prompts you while connecting (this prevents others on the network from 'seeing' your device and preventing any other device on the network from accessing your device). Make sure your computer has good antivirus protection and a good third-party (not just Windows) firewall as a safety precaution against unauthorized access to your device. Always keep in mind that a public network may have a filter to prevent access to certain sites and some (like libraries) may even monitor your Internet usage.


  • Most public libraries have free Wi-Fi available even without a library card. In some instances, the Wi-Fi remains on 24/7, so even if the library is closed, you may be able to sit outside and access the Internet in the early morning or on Sunday.
  • Chain hotels usually provide in-room Internet connections, sometimes wireless. Some chains include Wi-Fi with the price of the room and others (especially luxury chains) will demand an additional per-day charge. Local establishments like bed-and-breakfasts and roadside motels are less likely to have Internet access.
  • Many coffee shops, book stores, and some fast food restaurants provide free wireless Internet access, though you are generally expected to make a purchase first before taking a seat. Among them are major national chains like McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble.
  • Some cities have free Wi-Fi access that spans a central business district (several square miles) or even citywide.
  • Many colleges and universities offer free Wi-Fi in their libraries and student centers, but non-students may have trouble accessing the network, or even the buildings. However, if you are a university student at a major university around the world that uses the eduroam network, you may be able to access the network of participating universities in the US seamlessly. Ask around.
  • Airports, even smaller regional ones, usually provide Wi-Fi within passenger terminals, sometimes for a nominal charge.
  • There are some paid Wi-Fi chains, where you can receive access to numerous hotspots for a small charge, such as Boingo.
  • If driving, in a pinch you can always park in a chain hotel parking lot or near a commercial strip by coffee shops or libraries, and grab Wi-Fi access from your car. Be sure to check the name of the network—"Joe's Coffeehouse" is likely a public network, "Linksys 10" or "az13t0dug" probably aren't. Using a private network (even if it doesn't have a password) can be risky and in most cases is illegal (again, even if it lacks a password), although enforcement is nearly non-existent.
  • You can also purchase a mobile broadband modem which can be attached to your laptop via the USB port and subscribe to a prepaid plan. 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 when using a mobile network.
  • If your tablet (e.g. iPad) has cellular capabilities built in, consider buying a SIM from the nearest AT&T store. You will be be able to insert the SIM into your device or ask the store staff to help you with it. You will need a debit/credit card (one from your home country with a Visa/MasterCard logo will be good enough) and you can decide to terminate the service any time before the next cycle without penalty. To maximise your available mobile data, switch cellular data off whenever free/complimentary Wi-Fi is available and use the said Wi-Fi service instead.
Travel Warning

NOTE: Some public Internet terminals track users' activities and nearly all of them are connected to a filtered Internet connection. A filtered Internet connection will restrict you from accessing certain sites, such as those with adult content or with security issues. It is best to only use a public computer for basic tasks, such as e-mail and social networking. To ensure your security, do not perform any sensitive tasks, such as online banking, on a public computer unless absolutely necessary. If you are in doubt, bring your own laptop and use a Wi-Fi hotspot instead, as these are generally slightly more secure.


If you don't have your own computer:

  • Internet cafes can still be found in some larger cities (e.g., New York and Los Angeles)
  • Some locations such as airports and shopping malls have pay-per-use Internet access terminals, where 3-5 minutes of Web time can be purchased for $1. However, such terminals are becoming quite rare, due to the popularity of smartphones and Wi-Fi. Often a cluster of Internet terminals will share an ageing ISDN or T1 connection, meaning that each user will receive the equivalent of an old dial-up connection.
  • Nearly all public libraries have PC terminals with broadband Internet access (and usually productivity software such as Microsoft Word) available for free, public use (this is the reason why the US lacks Internet cafes!). You may need a library card to access services and persons living outside the area may need to pay a small fee. Time limits are usually 1-2 hours, although you may be able to ask for an extension.
  • The best bet for computer rental is a "photocopy shop" such as FedEx Office (+1 800 GOFEDEX/+1 800 463 3339; when prompted by the voice menu, say "FedEx Office" or press "64"), which is a national chain. Most FedEx Office stores are open long hours; at least one in each metro area is open 24 hours. All stores have several Internet-connected computers with Microsoft Office, Adobe Design Suite, and a selection of Web browsers, and at least one computer always has a scanner attached. All FedEx Office branches also have self-service equipment for copying and printing (both in monochrome and color), for sending and receiving faxes, and for printing digital photographs in a variety of sizes. Larger, full-service FedEx Office branches offer professional print shop services. However, keep in mind that you will pay for all this convenience, as FedEx Office charges very high per-minute and/or per-page fees for its various services. Of course, all FedEx Office stores can also ship packages by FedEx.
  • Most higher-end hotels offer "business centers" with basic Internet access through one or more on-site desktop computers, a fax machine, a laser printer, and a photocopier. At over 80 upscale hotels across the U.S., the business center is a FedEx Office.
  • Electronics stores that sell computers, such as Best Buy or the Apple Store, sometimes allow customers to access the Internet from the computers on sale on the floor for at least a short while. This is generally a courtesy, and you should not depend on it for regular usage, but it sometimes makes for a convenient option. The Apple Store is particularly generous with their policy, and will not ask you to leave if you come just to access the Internet. However, some websites, such as Facebook, are blocked.
  • Another, albeit less likely, possibility is a university library. Private universities in larger cities generally restrict library access to enrolled students and faculty. Public university libraries are generally required by law to be open to the public (at least as far as books go), but almost invariably a student login is required to access computer terminals. Public university libraries sometimes have one or two computer terminals set up for casual visitor use, but it’s always best to call ahead to be certain first. Furthermore, most universities sit on large campuses.





This country guide is usable. It has links to this country's major cities and other destinations (and all are at usable status or better), a valid regional structure and information about this country's currency, language, cuisine, and culture is included. At least the most prominent attraction is identified with directions. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!






Graffiti wall

China Banner.jpg

For other places with the same name, see Graffiti wall (disambiguation).
Great Wall of China, Beijing
Location
China in its region (de-facto).svg
Flag
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg
Quick Facts
Capital Beijing
Government single party oligarchy
Currency yuan (¥, CNY)
Area 9,596,960km²
Population 1,357,380,000 (2013 estimate)
Language Mandarin (Putonghua)
recognized regionally: Wu (Shanghaiese), Cantonese (Yue), Mindong (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages
Religion Buddhist c. 80%, Daoist (Taoist), Confucian, Christian 3%-4%, Muslim 1%-2%, Atheist c. 10%. Most Chinese are religious pluralists, observing a mixture of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist beliefs and philosophies, but not necessarily practising. The state is officially atheist.
Electricity 220V, 50Hz (US Type A, Australian Type I, and Type G plugs)
Country code +86
Internet TLD .cn
Time Zone UTC +8
Emergencies dial 110 for police

      119 for fire
      120 for medical

Map of the People's Republic of China's territorial claims

China (中国; Zhōngguó), officially known as the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) is a huge country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world's largest population.

With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, in total it borders 14 nations. It borders Afghanistan, Pakistan (through the disputed territory of Kashmir), India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east. This number of neighbouring states is equalled only by China's vast neighbour to the north, Russia.

This article only covers mainland China. For Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, please see separate articles.

Understand[edit]

"I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there." — Confucius

The roughly 4000-year old Chinese civilisation has endured through millennia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, periods of golden ages and anarchy alike. Through the recent economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is once again one of the leading nations in the world, buoyed by its large, industrious population and abundant natural resources. The depth and complexity of the Chinese civilization, with its rich heritage, has fascinated Westerners such as Marco Polo and Gottfried Leibniz through the Great Silk Road and more ways of culture exchange in centuries past, and will continue to excite - and bewilder - the traveller today.

History[edit]

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Ancient China[edit]

The recorded history of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow River valley, said to be the 'cradle of Chinese civilization'. The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no concrete proof of its existence has been found. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence has shown that at the very least, an early bronze age Chinese civilization had developed by the period described.

The Shang Dynasty, China's first historically confirmed dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty ruled across the Yellow River basin. The Zhou adopted a decentralized system of government, in which the feudal lords ruled over thier respective territories with a high degree of autonomy, even maintaining their own armies, while at the same time paying tribute to the king and recognising him as the symbolic ruler of China. It was also the longest ruling dynasty in Chinese history, lasting about 800 years. Despite this longevity, during the second half of the Zhou period, China descended into centuries of political turmoil, with the feudal lords of numerous small fiefdoms vying for power during the Spring and Autumn Period, and later stabilised into seven large states in the Warring States period. This tumultuous period gave birth to China's greatest thinkers including Confucius, Mencius and Laozi, who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture.

Imperial China[edit]

China was eventually unified in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the 'First Emperor', and the Qin Dynasty instituted a centralized system of government for all of China, and standardized weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity. Until today, the ideal of a unified and strong centralized system is still strong in Chinese thought. However, due to despotic and harsh rule, the Qin dynasty lasted for only 15 years as the Han Dynasty took over in 206BC after a period of revolt. With the invention of paper and extensive trade with the West along the Silk Road, along with relatively benevolent imperial rule, the Han was the first golden age of Chinese civilization. Ethnic Chinese consider themselves to be part of the 'Han' race till this day.

The collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE led to a period of political turmoil and war known as the Three Kingdoms Period, which saw China split into the three separate states of Wei, Shu and Wu. Despite lasting for only about 60 years, it is a highly romanticised period of Chinese history. China was then briefly reunified under the Jin Dynasty, before descending into a period of division and anarchy once again. The era of division culminated with the Sui which reunified China in 581. The Sui were famous for major public works projects, such as the engineering feat of the Grand Canal, which linked Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Certain sections of the canal are still navigable today.

Bankrupted by war and excess government spending, the Sui were supplanted by the Tang Dynasty, ushering in the second golden age of Chinese civilization, marked by a flowering of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft, and also saw the development of the Imperial Examination system which attempted to select court officials by ability rather than family background. Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty then saw China divided once again, until it was reunified by the Song Dynasty. The Song ruled over most of China for over 150 years before being driven south of the Huai river by the Jurchens, were they continued to rule as the Southern Song, and although militarily weak, attained a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West's Industrial Revolution. The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty first defeated the Jurchens, then proceeded to conquer the Song in 1279, and ruled their vast Eurasian empire from modern-day Beijing.

After defeating the Mongols, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) re-instituted rule by ethnic Han. The Ming period was noted for trade and exploration, with Zheng He's numerous voyages to Southeast Asia, India and the Arab world. Initial contact with European traders meant China gradually reaped the fruits of the Colombian exchange, with silver pouring in by the galleon through trade with the Portuguese and Spanish. Famous buildings in Beijing, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, were built in this period. The last dynasty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911), saw the Chinese empire grow to its current size, incorporating the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. The Qing dynasty fell into decay in its final years to become the 'sick man of Asia', where it was nibbled apart by Western powers. The Westerners established their own treaty ports in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin. China lost several territories to foreign powers; Hong Kong and Weihai were ceded to Britain, Taiwan and Liaodong were to Japan, parts of the North East including Dalian and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia, while Qingdao was ceded to Germany. Shanghai was divided among China and eight different countries. In addition, China lost control of its tributaties, with Vietnam being ceded to France, while Korea and the Ryukyu Islands were ceded to Japan.

The Republic and WWII[edit]

The two thousand-year old imperial system collapsed in 1911, where Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) founded the Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó). Central rule collapsed in 1916 after Yuan Shih-kai, the second president of the Republic and self-declared emperor, passed away; China descended into anarchy, with various self-serving warlords ruling over different regions of China. In 1919, student protests in Beijing gave birth to the "May Fourth Movement" (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng), which espoused various reforms to Chinese society, such as the use of the vernacular in writing, as well as the development of science and democracy. The intellectual ferment of the May Fourth Movement gave birth to the reorganized Kuomintang (KMT) in 1919 and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the French Concession in Shanghai, 1921.

After uniting much of eastern China under KMT rule in 1928, the CCP and the KMT turned on each other, with the CCP fleeing to Yan'an in Shaanxi in the epic Long March. During the period from 1922 to 1937, The eastern provinces of China grew economically under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT government, with marked economic expansion, industrialization and urbanization. Shanghai became a truly cosmopolitan city, as one of the world's busiest ports, and the most prosperous city in East Asia, home to millions of Chinese and 60,000 foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, underlying problems throughout the vast country side, particularly the more inland parts of the country, such as civil unrest, famines and warlord conflict, still remained.

Japan established a puppet state under the name Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1931, and launched a full-scale invasion of China's heartland in 1937. The Japanese initiated a brutal system of rule in Eastern China, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. After fleeing west to Chongqing, the KMT realized the urgency of the situation signed a tenuous agreement with the CCP to form a second united front against the Japanese. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the KMT and CCP armies maneuvered for positions in north China, setting the stage for the civil war in the years to come. The civil war lasted from 1946 to 1949 and ended with the Kuomintang defeated and sent packing to Taiwan where they hoped to re-establish themselves and recapture the mainland some day.

A Red China[edit]

Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 Oct 1949. The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industrial, agricultural and commercial institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. By 1955, China's economy had returned to pre-war levels of output as factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.

Massive social experiments such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动 bǎihuā yùndòng), the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 dàyuèjìn), intended to collectivize and industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 wúchǎn jiējí wénhuà dà gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the "Four Olds," and total dedication to Mao Zedong Thought, rocked China from 1957 to 1976. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are generally considered disastrous failures in China. During the Cultural Revolution in particular, China's cultural heritage, including monuments, temples, historical artifacts, and works of literature sustained catastrophic damage at the hands of Red Guard factions. It was only due to the intervention of Zhou Enlai and the PLA that major sites, such as the Potala Palace, the Mogao Caves, and the Forbidden City escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

Mao Zedong died in 1976, and in 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by 8-10% per year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional income inequality, human rights abuses, ethnic unrest, massive pollution, rural poverty and corruption. While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, many of the more inland and rural parts of the country remain poor and underdeveloped. The former president and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy for a "Harmonious Society" (和谐社会 héxié shèhuì) which promises to restore balanced economic growth and channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the post-1978 economic boom. The current chairman of the Communist Party, and President, Xi Ji Ping, has pursued an ambitious policy of social reform, particularly income redistribution, poverty relief, and environmental improvements. Furthermore, a highly ambitious crackdown on corruption started by the previous administration has only been expanded. In 2010, China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy after the United States. China continues to develop economically at a breakneck speed, with economic growth averaging 10% every year, but what lies ahead for the Middle Kingdom is anybody's guess.

Politics[edit]

China is a one-party authoritarian state tightly ruled by the Communist Party of China. China has actually only experienced one open nation-wide election, in 1912. The government consists of an executive branch known as the State Council (国务院 Guó Wù Yuàn), as well as a unicameral legislature known as the National People's Congress (全国人民代表大会 Quánguó Rénmín Dàibiǎo Dàhuì). The Head of State is the President (主席 zhǔxí, lit chairman) while the Head of Government is the Premier (总理 zǒnglǐ). In practice, while neither one holds absolute power, the President holds the most power, while the Premier is the second most powerful person in the country.

China largely follows a centralized system of government, though the country is administratively divided into 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 directly-controlled municipalities. Each of the provincial governments is given limited powers in the internal, often economic, affairs of their provinces. Autonomous regions are supposedly given more freedom than regular provinces, one valid example of which is the right to declare additional official languages in the region besides Mandarin. In addition, there are the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which have separate legal systems and immigration departments from the mainland, and are given the freedom to enact laws separately from the mainland. Their political systems are more open and democratic in nature. Taiwan is also claimed by the PRC as a province, though no part of Taiwan is currently under the control of the PRC. Both governments support re-unification in principle and recently signed a trade pact to closer link their economies, essentially removing the danger of war.

People and Habits[edit]

China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China's land is arable. Hundreds of millions of rural residents still farm with manual labour or draft animals. Some 200 to 300 million former peasants have migrated to townships and cities in search of work. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on less than ¥924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of ¥668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much much less developed.

The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local "dialects"; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. An exception to this trend is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.

Some behaviours that are quite normal in China may be somewhat jarring and vulgar for foreigners:

No spitting please
  • Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medical thought believes it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Spitting has declined considerably in more developed urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai since the SARS epidemic of 2002. However, in other areas the habit persists to varying degrees, from moderate to ever-present.
  • Smoking: almost anywhere, including areas with "no smoking signs" including health clubs, football pitches and even hospitals. Few restaurants have no smoking areas although Beijing now forbids smoking in most restaurants. Enforcement of smoking bans can vary but with the exception of Hong Kong, they most likely will not be. Lower class establishments often do not even have ashtrays. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who consistently enforce the ban. Masks would be good idea for long distance bus trips. It is perfectly common for someone to smoke in a lift, restroom, in a massage parlor, even in the hospital. If your country of origin has banned smoking in most public places, then this aspect of China may be shocking.
  • Anyone who does not look Chinese will find that calls of "hello" or "laowai" are common: lǎowài (老外) literally means "old outsider", a colloquial term for "foreigner"; the more formal term is wàiguórén (外国人). Calls of "laowai" are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and even there, occasionally); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from the very young and can occur many times in any given day. Dark skin discrimination is quite a common issue to deal with in China.
  • Staring: This is common through most of the country. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility. Don't be surprised if someone comes right up to you and just looks as if they are watching the TV, no harm done!
  • Drinking: It is quite common for older members to toast younger members when eating. It is considered extremely disrespectful to turn down the toast, even in good faith.
  • Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments: These are very common. Many mainland Chinese speak very loudly in public (including in the early mornings) and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. Loud speech usually does not mean that the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). Full-blown fights involving physical violence are not very common, but they do occur. If you witness such an event, leave the vicinity and do not get involved. Foreigners are almost never targets in China and you will be treated with great respect provided you don't act recklessly. Noise means life, and China is rooted in a community based culture, so you may want to bring earplugs for long bus or train rides!
  • Pushing, shoving and/or jumping queues: This often occurs anywhere where there are queues, (or lack thereof) particularly at train stations. Again, often there simply are no queues at all. Therefore, queue jumping is a major problem in China. Best bet is to pick a line that looks like its moving or just wait for everyone to get on or off the bus or train first but you may be left behind! Keep in mind that the concept of personal space more or less does not exist in China. It is perfectly common and acceptable behaviour for someone to come in very close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don't get mad as they will be surprised and most likely won't even understand why you are offended!
  • General disregard of city, provincial and/or national rules, regulations and laws. This includes (among many other things) dangerous and negligent driving, (see Driving in China) that includes excessive speeding, not using head lights at night, lack of use of turn signals, and driving on the wrong side of the street, jaywalking, and smoking in non-smoking areas or defiance of smoking bans.
  • Sanitation: Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze. Also, it is not uncommon for small children (2-4 years old) to eliminate their waste in public (in bushes, on public sidewalks, even in train stations).

Some long-time foreign residents say such behaviours are getting worse; others say the opposite. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. Some department stores place attendants at the foot of each escalator to keep folks from stopping to have a look-see as soon as they get off - when the escalator behind them is fully packed.

On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh and because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that. Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. Note that a laugh doesn't necessarily mean scorn, just amusement. The Chinese like a "collective good laugh" often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude. Finally, the Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom, and heap attention upon them. If you have children, bring them!

Lucky Numbers[edit]

In general, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are lucky numbers for most of the Chinese. “Three” means “high above shine the three stars” while the three stars include gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. “Six” represents smoothness or success. Many young people choose the dates with “six” as their wedding days, such as the 6th, 16th and 26th. “Eight” sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08 on 08/08/2008. “Nine” is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.

“Four” is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin is close to “death”. Some hotels will have their floor numbers go straight from three to five much like some American hotels have their floor numbers go from twelve to fourteen, skipping the "unlucky" number 13.

Climate and Terrain[edit]

Given the country's size the climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cities in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. North China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The further north and west you travel, the drier the climate. Once you leave eastern China and enter the majestic Tibetan highlands or the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are vast and the land is very harsh.

Back in the days of the planned economy, the rules stated that buildings in areas north of the Yangtze River got heat in the winter, but anything south of it did not — this meant unheated buildings in places like Shanghai and Nanjing, which routinely see temperatures below freezing in winter. The rule has long since been relaxed, but the effects are still visible. In general, Chinese use less heating, less building insulation, and wear more warm clothing than Westerners in comparable climates. In a schools or apartments and office buildings, even if the rooms are heated, the corridors are not. Double glazing is quite rare. Students wear winter jackets in class, along with their teachers and long underwear is very common. Air conditioning is increasingly common but is similarly not used in corridors and is often used with the windows and doors open.

There is a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in center and the far west. Plains, deltas, and hills dominate the east. The Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the Yangtze delta around Shanghai are major global economic powerhouses, as is the North China plain around Beijing and the Yellow River. On the border between Tibet, (the Tibet Autonomous Region) and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China's Xinjiang is the lowest point in the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point on land in the world after the Dead Sea.

Holidays[edit]

China is a huge country with endless and affordable travel opportunities. During holidays, however, hundreds of millions of migrant workers return home and millions of other Chinese travel within the country (but many in the service sector stay behind, enjoying extra pay). Travelers may want to seriously consider scheduling to avoid being on the road, on the rails, or in the air during the major holidays. At the very least, travel should be planned well well in advance. Every mode of transport is extremely crowded; tickets of any kind are hard to come by, and will cost you a lot more, so it may be necessary to book well in advance (especially for those travelling from remote western China to the east coast or in the opposite direction). Train and bus tickets are usually quite easy to buy in China, (during the non-holiday season), but difficulties arising from crowded conditions at these times cannot be overstated. Travellers who are stranded at these times, unable to buy tickets, can sometimes manage to get air tickets, which tend to sell out more slowly because of the higher but still affordable (by western standards) prices. For the most comfortable mode of transportation, air travel is the obvious choice. There is an emerging ultra-modern bullet train network which is also very nice, but you may still have to potentially deal with many insanely overcrowded, smoke-filled, cold, loud and disorganized train depots to get on-board. The spring festival (Chinese New Year) is the largest annual migration of people on earth.


Lunar New Year dates
The year of the Horse started on 31 Jan 2014

  • The year of the Goat will begin on 19 Feb 2015
  • The year of the Monkey will begin on 8 Feb 2016
  • The year of the Rooster will begin on 28 Jan 2017

China has five major annual holidays:

  • Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (春节 chūnjié) - late January/mid-February
  • Qingming Festival — usually 4–6 Apr, or the tomb sweeping day, cemeteries are crowded with people who go to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and offer sacrifices. Traffic on the way to cemeteries can be very heavy.
  • Labor Day or May Day (劳动节 láodòngjié) - 1 May
  • Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 duānwǔjié) - 5th day of the 5th lunar month, usually May-Jun. Boat races and eating zongzi (粽子, steamed pouches of sticky rice) are a traditional parts of the celebration.
  • Mid-Autumn Day (中秋节 zhōngqiūjié)- 15th day of the 8th lunar month, usually Oct. Also called the Moon Cake Festival after its signature treat, moon cakes (月饼 yuèbǐng). People meet outside, putting food on tables and looking up at the full harvest moon while talking about life.
  • National Day (国庆节 guóqìngjié) - 1 Oct

The Chinese New Year and National Day are not one-day holidays; nearly all workers get at least a week for Chinese New Year, some get two or three, and students get four to six weeks. For National Day, a week is typical.

The Chinese New Year is especially busy. Not only is it the longest holiday, it is also a traditional time to visit family. The entire country is pretty much shut down during the period. More or less all the migrant workers who have left their farms and villages for better pay in the cities go home. This is often the only chance they have. Everyone wants to go home, and China has a lot of "everyone"! Around the Chinese New Year, many stores and other businesses will close for several days, a week, or even longer, so unless you have close friends or relatives in China, it is not ideal to visit during this period.

Also, during early July university students (twenty-odd million of them!) go home and in late August they return to school, jamming transportation options especially between the east coast and the western regions of Sichuan, Gansu, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

A complete list of Chinese festivals would be very long since many areas or ethnic groups have their own local ones. See listings for individual towns for details. Here is a list of some of the nationally important festivals not mentioned above:

  • Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuánxiāojié or 上元节 shàngyuánjié) - 15th day of the 1st lunar month, just after Chinese New Year, usually in February or March. In some cities, such as Quanzhou, this is a big festival with elaborate lanterns all over town.
  • Double Seventh Festival (七夕 qīxī) - 7th day of the 7th lunar month, usually August, is a festival of romance, sort of a Chinese Valentine's Day.
  • Double Ninth Festival or Chongyang Festival (重阳节 chóngyángjié) - 9th day of the 9th lunar month, usually in October.
  • Winter Solstice Festival (冬至 dōngzhì) - December 22 or 23.

In addition to these, some Western festivals are noticeable, at least in major cities. Around Christmas, one hears carols — mostly English, a few in Latin, plus Chinese versions of "Jingle Bells", "Amazing Grace", and for some reason "Oh Susana". Some stores are decorated and one sees many shop assistants in red and white elf hats. For Valentine's Day, many restaurants offer special meals. Chinese Christians celebrate services and masses at officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches as well.

Books[edit]

Non-guidebooks, either about China, or by Chinese writers.

Travel:

  • The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo - the Venetian traveler's stories in the Middle Kingdom (see also: On the trail of Marco Polo)
  • Dialogues Tibetan Dialogues Han by Hannü (ISBN 9789889799939) - Tibet through the Tibetans with a Han traveler
  • Behind the Wall- A journey through china by Colin Thubron. Thubron recounts his 1987 travels through China, from Beijing to Jiayuguan.

Literature:

  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck - The classic tale of Chinese peasant life at the turn of the twentieth century, by the author who kindled the American public's interest in China in the 1930's. Ms. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 for the body of her work about China.
  • Winter Stars by Beatrice Lao (ISBN 988979991X) - a collection of poems born between the Alps and the Tyrrhenian
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) - the classic Chinese novel of the heroic deeds of the generals and leaders of the three kingdoms following the collapse of the Han dynasty. Noted for its details of cunning military and political strategies. One of the Four Great Classics. It continues to inspire films, TV series, comics, and video games throughout East Asia.
  • Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传) - a Song Dynasty tale of bandits living in the Huai River Valley who fight against the corrupt government. Noted for the rebellious nature of its main characters against an established order. It's the Chinese version of "sticking it to the man". One of the Four Great Classics.
  • Journey to the West (西游记) - perhaps the most famous Chinese novel, a fantasy account of Xuan Zang's Tang Dynasty journey to retrieve sacred Buddhist texts with the aid of the monkey king Sun Wukong, the gluttonous Zhu Bajie and dependable Sha Wujing. Noted for its extremely creative fantasies and adventures. One of the Four Great Classics.
  • Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) also known as The Story of the Stone (Penguin Classics, 5 volumes)- a lively account of aristocratic life in the Qing dynasty told through the stories of three powerful families. Noted for its extremely accurate portrayal of Chinese aristocrats and the work is often regarded as the zenith of Chinese literature. One of the Four Great Classics.

History:

  • Twilight in The Forbidden City by R.F. Johnston (ISBN 0968045952) Also available in Kindle Edition. As the British-born Tutor to the Dragon Emperor, Johnston was the only foreigner in history to be allowed inside the inner court of the Qing Dynasty. Johnston carried high imperial titles and lived in both the Forbidden City and the New Summer Palace. Twilight in the Forbidden City reflects his eyewitness accounts of the memorable events of the time.
  • The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence - a renowned book written by a Yale professor about Chinese history since 1644.
  • 1587, A Year of No Significance by Ray Huang - describes an uneventful year in the history of Ming Dynasty China. Its Chinese edition is one of the most well known history books on this period.
  • China: A New History by John K. Fairbank - the last book of a prominent American academic that helped shape modern Sinology.
  • The Cambridge History of China - ongoing series of books published by Cambridge University Press covering the early and modern history of China. This is the largest and most comprehensive history of China in the English language.
  • The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 by Valerie Hansen - presents in colorful detail the history, culture, and socio-economic development of China from the Shang period to the Ming.
  • 1421, The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies (ISBN 0553815229) - well known but well contested account of China's alleged efforts to explore and map the entire world. Interestingly, this book which suggests that Chinese first discovered the New World is largely denounced as fictional by Chinese academics.
  • The Sextants of Beijing by Joanna Waley-Cohen - a book that summarizes recent thinking on how China was much more open and less xenophobic than often assumed.
  • Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow- recounts the months that he spent with the Chinese Red Army in the summer and fall of 1936.
  • The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (ISBN 0140277447) - the forgotten Holocaust in WWII
  • The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe by John Rabe - firsthand description of the sadistic rapes, torture and slaughter perpetrated by Japanese soldiers in WWII and Rabe's ultimate success in saving perhaps a quarter of a million lives
  • Wild Swans by Jung Chang (ISBN 0007176155) - a biography of three generations, from the warlord days to the end of Mao's era, illustrating life under China's version of nationalism and communism (banned in China)
  • Mao-An unknown story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. A biography of Mao and an account of China under his rule.
  • Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong, a reporter for the Globe and Mail of Toronto, Canada. The book describes her experiences as one of the first foreign exchange students to study in China after the Cultural Revolution and her life and experiences as a reporter in China until the mid 1990s.

Cinema[edit]

  • Bernardo Bertolucci - The Last Emperor (1987)
  • Zhang Yimou - Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
  • Chen Kaige - Farewell My Concubine (1993)
  • Zhang Yimou - To Live (1994)
  • Wu Ziniu - Don't Cry, Nanking (1995)
  • Zhang Yimou - Keep cool (1997)
  • Xie Jin - The Opium War (1997)
  • Zhang Yang - Shower (1999)
  • Feng Xiao Gang - Sorry Baby (1999)
  • Zhang Yimou - Not one less (1999)
  • Xiaoshuai Wang – Beijing bicycle (2001)
  • Zhang Yimou - Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)
  • Gianni Amelio - La stella che non c’è or The Missing Star (2006)
  • Zhang Yuan - Little Red Flowers (2006)
  • Daniel Lee - Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)
  • Roger Spottiswoode - The Children of Huangshi (2008)
  • Wu Tianming - The King of Masks (1996)

Regions[edit]

For a complete list of provinces and an explanation of China's political geography, see: List of Chinese provinces and regions.

Regions of China
Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang)
dōngběi, "rust belt" cities, vast forests, Russian, Korean, and Japanese influence, and long, snowy winters
North China (Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin)
The Yellow River Basin area, cradle of China's civilization and historic heartland
Northwest China (Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang)
Site of China's capital for 1000 years, grasslands, deserts, mountains, nomadic people, and Islam
Southwest China (Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou)
The exotic part, minority peoples, spectacular scenery, and backpacker havens
South-central China (Anhui, Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi)
Farming areas, mountains, river gorges, temperate and sub-tropical forests
Southeast China (Guangdong, Hainan, Fujian)
Traditional trading center, manufacturing powerhouse, and ancestral homeland of most overseas Chinese
East China (Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang)
The "land of fish and rice" (China's equivalent of the "land of milk and honey"), traditional water towns, and China's new cosmopolitan economic center

We cover Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan in separate articles. From the practical traveller's point of view, they are distinct as each issues its own visas, currency and so on.

Politically, Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions, part of China but with capitalist economies and distinct political systems. The slogan is "One country, two systems".

Taiwan is a special case. At the end of the civil war in 1949, the Communists held most of China and the defeated Nationalists held only Taiwan and a few islands off the Fujian coast. That situation continues to this day; Taiwan has had a separate government for more than 60 years and as such, is governed "de-facto" independently. However, most world bodies do not recognize it as a sovereign state - amongst other factors, this may be attributed to the strong influence of the PRC government in this matter. Both governments in theory support eventual reunification of these "two Chinas", but there is also a significant pro-independence movement within Taiwan.


Cities[edit]

The entrance to the Forbidden City, Beijing

China has many large and famous cities. Below is a top ten list of some of those most important to travellers in mainland China. Other cities are listed under their specific regional section. See the Dynasties and capitals section for a detailed list of China's many previous capitals.

  • Beijing (北京) — the capital and cultural centre
  • Guangzhou (广州) — one of the most prosperous and liberal cities in the south, near Hong Kong
  • Guilin (桂林) — popular destination for both Chinese and foreign tourists with sensational mountain and river scenery
  • Hangzhou (杭州) — famously beautiful city and major centre for the silk industry
  • Kunming (昆明) — capital of Yunnan and gateway to a rainbow of ethnic minority areas
  • Nanjing (南京) — a renowned historical and cultural city with many historic sites
  • Shanghai (上海) — famous for its riverside cityscape, China's largest city is a major commercial center with many shopping opportunities
  • Suzhou (苏州) — "Venice of the East," an ancient city famous for canals and gardens just west of Shanghai
  • Xi'an (西安) — the oldest city and ancient capital of China, home to ten dynasties including the Han and the Tang, terminus of the ancient Silk Road, and home of the terracotta warriors
  • Yangzhou (扬州) — "Epitome of China" with a history of over 2,500 years, Marco Polo served as the city's governor for three years in the late 13th century.
  • Hong Kong (香港) — Famous city of the Chinese action movies and the Cantonese cuisine.

You can travel to many of these cities using the new fast trains. In particular, the Hangzhou - Shanghai - Suzhou - Nanjing line is a convenient way to see these historic areas.

Other destinations[edit]

  • Great Wall of China (万里长城) — longer than 8,000 km, this ancient wall is the most iconic landmark of China
  • Hainan (海南) — a tropical paradise island undergoing heavy tourist-oriented development
  • Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve (九寨沟) — known as the habitat of giant pandas and for its many multi-level waterfalls and colourful lakes
  • Leshan — most famous for its huge riverside cliff-carving of Buddha and nearby Mount Emei
  • Mount Everest — straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, this is the world's highest mountain
  • Mount Tai (泰山 Tài Shān) — one of the five Daoist sacred mountains in China, and because of its history the most climbed mountain in China
  • Tibet (西藏) — with a majority of Tibetan Buddhists and traditional Tibetan culture, it feels like an entirely different world
  • Turpan — in the Islamic area of Xinjiang, this area is known for its grapes, harsh climate and Uighur culture
  • Yungang Grottoes — these mountain-side caves and recesses number more than 50 in all and are filled with 51,000 Buddhist statues

Get in[edit]

Visas[edit]

Most travellers will need a visa (签证 qiānzhèng) to visit mainland China. In most cases, this should be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. Visas for Hong Kong and Macau can be obtained through a Chinese embassy or consulate, but must be applied for separately from the mainland Chinese visa. However, citizens from most Western countries do not need visas to visit Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors from most western countries can stay in Hong Kong with free visa for 7 to 90 day. The time duration should depends on which country you are from. However, people from Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cuba and Ethiopia have to apply for a visa for Hong Kong before they travel to HK.

The most notable exception to this rule is transit through certain airports. Most airports allow a 12- to 24-hour stay without a visa so long as you do do not pass through immigration and customs (stay airside) and are en-route to a different country.

For citizens of 45 countries (including U.S., Canada, most EU countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan), you are allowed a visa-free, 72-hour stopover in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Chongqing provided you meet several conditions including:

You must have a confirmed, onward ticket to a third country before you board your flight to China. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are "international flights" so you may fly there on a non-stop flight after your time in China.

You cannot have a return ticket to the country you came from, even if the cities are different (i.e. New York-Beijing-Los Angeles would not work).

You also must fly into and fly out of the same city and airport. Note: In Shanghai you can fly into or out of either airport, I.e. into Pudong and out of Hongqiao or vice-versa.

You may not leave the metropolitan area of the city you arrive in. For example: You cannot fly into Beijing, take another flight to Shanghai or Guangzhou and leave China from there under the 72-hour transit rule.

More details can be found here: [39]

Nationals of Brunei, Japan and Singapore do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 15 days, regardless of the reason of visit. Nationals of San Marino do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 90 days, regardless of the reason of visit.

To visit mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau residents of Chinese nationality need to apply at the China Travel Service, the sole authorized issuing agent, to obtain a Home Return Permit (回乡证), a credit card sized ID allowing multiple entries and unlimited stay for 10 years with no restrictions including on employment. Taiwan residents may obtain an entry permit (valid for 3 months) at airports in Dalian, Fuhzou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xiamen and China Travel Services in Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors must hold a Republic of China passport, Taiwanese Identity Card and Taiwan Compatriot Pass (台胞证 táibāozhèng). The Compatriot Pass may be obtained for single use at airports in Fuzhou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Wuhan and Xiamen. The entry permit fee is ¥100 plus ¥50 for issuing a single-use Taiwan Compatriot Pass. Travellers should check the most up-to-date information before traveling.

Visa overview

  • C visa - international flight crews
  • D visa - permanent residents
  • F visa - business trips, exchanges, and study trips
  • G visa - transit
  • J visa - journalists, incl. J-1 and J-2 visa types
  • L visa - for general visitors
  • M visa - trade and commercial activities
  • Q visa - overseas Chinese visiting for family reunions, incl. Q-1 and Q-2 visa types
  • R visa - foreigner workers urgently needed within the mainland
  • S visa - foreigners visiting for family reunions, incl. S-1 and S-2 visa types
  • X visa - for students, incl. X-1 and X-1 visa types
  • Z visa - foreign workers


Getting a tourist visa is fairly easy for most passports as you don't need an invitation, which is required for business or working visas. The usual tourist single-entry visa is valid for a visit of 30 days and must be used within three months of the date of issue. A double-entry tourist visa must be used within six months of the date of issue. It is possible to secure a tourist visa for up to 90 days for citizens of some countries.

Tourist visa extensions can be applied for at the local Entry & Exit Bureaus against handing in the following documents: valid passport, visa extension application form including one 2-inch-sized picture, a copy of the Registration Form of Temporary Residence which you receive from the local police station at registration.

Some travellers will need a dual entry or multiple entry visa. For example, if you enter China on a single entry visa, then depart the mainland to Hong Kong or Macau, you need a new visa to re-enter the mainland. In Hong Kong, multiple entry visas are officially available only to HKID holders, but the authorities are willing to bend the rules somewhat and may approve three-month multiple entry visas for short-term Hong Kong qualified residents, including exchange students. It is recommended to apply directly with the Chinese government in this case, as some agents will be unwilling to submit such an application on your behalf. For holders of multiple entry visas to renew your visa you must leave China. The easist way was to go to hong kong, seoul or some other country, cross the border and reenter China. A new way is to go to Xiamen and cross to Jinmen island. Jinmen is held by Taiwan and iike Hong Kong is offically considered leaving China. See details of below on boats to China. Obtaining a Visa on Arrival is possible usually only for the Shenzhen or Zhuhai Special Economic Zones, and such visas are limited to those areas. When crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen at Lo Wu railway station, and notably not at Lok Ma Chau, a five day Shenzhen-only visa can be obtained during extended office hours on the spot for ¥160 (Oct 2007 price) for passport holders of many nationalities, for example Irish or New Zealand or Canadian. Americans are not eligible, while the fee for UK nationals is ¥450. The office accepts only Chinese yuan.

There may be restrictions on visas for political reasons and these vary over time. For example:

  • The visa fee for American nationals was increased to US$140 (or US$110 as part of a group tour) in reciprocation for increased fees for Chinese nationals visiting America. [40]
  • Visas issued in Hong Kong are generally limited to 30 days, same day service is difficult to get. Multiple-entry visas have also become much harder or impossible to get.
  • Indian nationals are limited to 10- or 15-day tourist visas, and are required to show US$100 per day of visa validity in the form of traveller's checks (US $1,000 and $1,500, respectively).

A few years ago, the Z (working) visa was a long-term visa. Now a Z-visa only gets you into the country for 30 days; once you are there, the employer gets you a residence permit. This is effectively a multiple-entry visa; you can leave China and return using it. Some local visa offices will refuse to issue a residence permit if you entered China on a tourist (L) visa. In those cases, you have to enter on a Z-visa. These are only issued outside China, so obtaining one will likely require a departure from the mainland, for example to a neighbouring country. (Note that in Korea, tourists not holding an alien registration card must now travel to Busan, as the Chinese consulate in Seoul does not issue visas to non-residents in Korea.) They also usually require an invitation letter from the employer. In other cases it is possible to convert an L visa to a residence permit; it depends upon which office you are dealing with and perhaps on your employer's connections.

It is possible for most foreigners to get a visa in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. [41]. . (Dec 2010) Reservations for travel and hotel are acceptable. During busy periods, they may refuse entry after 11:00. There can be long queues so arrive early. Also be aware of major Chinese holidays, the Consular Section may be closed for several days.

Registering your abode[edit]

If staying in a hotel, guest house or hostel, the staff will request to see, and often scan, your passport, visa, and entry stamps at check-in.

If you are staying in a private residence, you are in theory required to register your abode with the local police within 24 (city) to 72 (countryside) hours of arrival, though in practice the law is rarely if ever enforced so long as you don't cause any trouble. The police will ask for (1) a copy of the photograph page of your passport, (2) a copy of your visa, (3) a copy of your immigration entry stamp, (4) a photograph, (5) a copy of the tenancy agreement or other document concerning the place you are staying in. That agreement might not be in your name but it will still be requested.

  • Registration needs to be done each time you come into China (except for resident permit holders - they should register only after a new visa is issued)
  • A fine of up to ¥500 can be levied if you didn't register within 24 hours.
  • The process is quite long (more than 3 hours) and it's better to come with an interpreter. (In Shanghai this is not required of holders of residence permits of any kind, only for visa holders)

By plane[edit]

The main international gateways to mainland China are Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Almost every sizable city will have an international airport, but options are usually limited to flights from Hong Kong, neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan, and sometimes Southeast Asia.

Transiting Hong Kong and Macau

If arriving in Hong Kong or Macau there are ferries that can shuttle passengers straight to another destination such as Shekou or Bao'an Airport in Shenzhen, Macau Airport, Zhuhai and elsewhere without actually "entering" Hong Kong or Macau. A shuttle bus takes transit passengers to the ferry terminal so their official entry point, where they clear immigration, will be the ferry destination rather than the airport. Please note that the ferries do have different hours so landing late at night may make it necessary to enter either territory to catch another bus or ferry to one's ultimate destination. For example, it would be necessary to clear immigration if going from HK Int'l Airport to Macau via the Macau Ferry Terminal. The most recent information on the ferries to Hong Kong can be found at the Hong Kong International Airport website.[42]


While many major airlines now fly to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, budget seats are often scarce. For good offers, book as early as possible. Tickets are particularly expensive or hard to come by at the beginning or end of summer when Chinese students abroad return home or fly back to their universities around the world. As with other travel in China, tickets can be difficult to get and will be expensive around Chinese New Year.

If you live in a city with a sizable overseas Chinese community, check for cheap flights with someone in that community or visit travel agencies operated by Chinese. Sometimes flights advertised only in Chinese newspapers or travel agencies cost significantly less than posted fares in English. However if you ask, you can get the same discount price.

See also: Discount airlines in Asia

Information: As a result of the H1N1-flu pandemic there are some kinds of health-checks currently in effect. These may be as simple as a customs person judging your appearance to IR-cameras checking for elevated body temperature. If there is a suspicion of flu, you will be quarantined for seven days.

Airlines and Routes

China's carriers are growing rapidly. Airbus estimates the size of China’s passenger aircraft fleet will triple from 1,400 planes in 2009 to 4,200 planes in 2029.

Major domestic airlines include China Southern [43], China Eastern [44], Air China [45], and Hainan Airlines [46].

Fliers may prefer Asian airlines as they generally have more cabin staff and quality service. Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific [47] is an obvious possibility. Other candidates include Singapore Airlines [48], Japan Airlines [49], and Garuda Indonesia [50]. Korean Air [51] often has good prices on flights from various places in Asia such as Bangkok via Seoul to North America. Connecting flights may be cheaper than direct flights so keep this in mind. Korean Air also flies to more than a dozen Chinese cities.

  • North America: Delta Air Lines [52] serves Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou through its hub at Narita and directly from Detroit, Boston and Seattle. United [53] has the most nonstop flights, serving Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai from Chicago, San Francisco, Newark, and Washington. American [54] flies nonstop to Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong from Chicago. Air Canada [55] serves Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong from Toronto and Vancouver.
  • Australia: Qantas [56] offers direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Hong Kong. Qantas also flies to Beijing and Shanghai from Sydney but only offers a code-share service to Shanghai from Melbourne. There may be cheaper flights via Southeast Asia; some of the discount airlines there fly to Australia. China Southern Airlines now offers direct flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Guangzhou with ongoing connections to the major cities.
  • New Zealand: Air New Zealand [57] offers direct flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong. China Southern Airlines now offers direct flights from Auckland to Guangzhou with ongoing connections to the major cities.
  • Southeast Asia: Singapore has arguably the best connections, due to its large ethnic Chinese population, with flights to all the major cities as well as some regional centers such as Xiamen, Kunming and Shenzhen. Besides Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila offer good connections. Tiger Airways [58], Jetstar [59], Air Asia [60], and Cebu Pacific [61] offer low-priced flights from Southeast Asia (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila) to various destinations in southern China, including Xiamen, Jinghong, Guangzhou, Haikou and Macau.
  • Europe: Most of the major European airlines, including Air France [62], British Airways [63], and Finnair [64] have direct flights from their hubs to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai; several fly to Guangzhou as well. A few have links to other Chinese cities. For example KLM [65]flies direct from Amsterdam to Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xiamen and Lufthansa [66] flies a Frankfurt to Nanjing route.
  • Taiwan: Regular direct flights between Taiwan and Mainland China resumed in 2008, after a 59 year ban. There are now daily direct flights between Taipei and major cities in China.

Flights between Europe and China

Airline From To Flight time Departure Days Econ Seat P/W Notes
Finnair Helsinki (HEL) Beijing (PEK) 7:50 Daily 32" / 18"
Finnair Beijing (PEK) Helsinki (HEL) 8:30 M-Sa 32" / 18"
Finnair Helsinki (HEL) Chongqing (CKG) 8:40 M, W, F-Sa 32" / 18" Service starts May 9, 2012
Finnair Chongqing (CKG) Helsinki (HEL) 9:25 Tu, Th, Sa-Su 32" / 18" Service starts May 9, 2012
Finnair Helsinki (HEL) Shanghai (PVG) 9:05 Daily 32" / 18"
Finnair Shanghai (PVG) Helsinki (HEL) 10:15 Daily 32" / 18"
Hainan Airlines Berlin (TXL) Beijing (PEK) 9:25 W, F, Su 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Beijing (PEK) Berlin (TXL) 10:20 W, Su 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Budapest (BUD) Beijing (PEK) 9:20 M, F 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Beijing (PEK) Budapest (BUD) 10:10 M, F 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Brussels (BRU) Beijing (PEK) 9:40 Tu, Th, Sa-Su 32" / 19" Also on Fr from Apr2012, Mo from Jul2012
Hainan Airlines Beijing (PEK) Brussels (BRU) 10:35 Tu, Th, Sa-Su 32" / 19" Also on Fr from Apr2012, Mo from Jul2012
Hainan Airlines Brussels (BRU) Shanghai (PVG) 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Shanghai (PVG) Brussels (BRU) 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Zürich (ZRH) Beijing (PEK) 10:00 Tu, Th, Su 32" / 19"
Hainan Airlines Beijing (PEK) Zürich (ZRH) 10:45 Tu, Th, Su 32" / 19"
KLM Amsterdam (AMS) Chengdu (CTU) 9:25 31" / 17.5"
KLM Chengdu (CTU) Amsterdam (AMS) 10:35 31" / 17.5"
Lufthansa Frankfurt (FRA) Qingdao (TAO) 13:10 M, W, F 32" / 17.5" Stopover in Shenyang
Lufthansa Qingdao (TAO) Frankfurt (FRA) 14:25 Tu, Th, Sa 32" / 17.5" Stopover in Shenyang
Lufthansa Frankfurt (FRA) Shenyang (SHE) 10:15 M, W, F 32" / 17.5"
Lufthansa Shenyang (SHE) Frankfurt (FRA) 11:15 W, F, Su 32" / 17.5"

By train[edit]

China can be reached by train from many of its neighboring countries and even all the way from Europe.

  • Russia & Europe - two lines of the Trans-Siberian Railway (Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian) run between Moscow and Beijing, stopping in various other Russian cities, and for the Trans-Mongolian, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
  • Kazakhstan & Central Asia - from Almaty, Kazakhstan, one can travel by rail to Urumqi in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. There are long waits at the border crossing for customs, as well as for changing the wheelbase for the next country's track.
  • Hong Kong - regular services link mainland China with Hong Kong. Direct trains run from Hong Kong's Hung Hom direct to Guangzhou East station. Immigration is done at the respective station rather that at the border. Some trains also stop at other Guangdong stations. The Hong Kong MTR runs from the city to 2 points on the Shenzhen border. The main border crossing is at Lo Wu/Luo Hu, which is next to Shenzhen's main station.
  • Vietnam - from Nanning in Guangxi province into Vietnam via the Friendship Pass. Services from Kunming have been suspended since 2002.
  • North Korea - four weekly connections between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and Beijing.

By road[edit]

China has land borders with 14 different countries; a number matched only by its northern neighbour, Russia. In addition, mainland China also has land borders with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which are for all practical purposes treated as international borders. Most of the border crossings in western China are located in remote mountain passes, which while difficult to reach and traverse, often reward travellers willing to make the effort with breathtaking, scenic views.

India[edit]

Relations between the two nations are frosty, but the Nathu La Pass between Sikkim in India and Southern Tibet has recently reopened for cross-border trade. Currently the crossing is not open to tourists, and special permits are required to visit from either side.

Myanmar (Burma)[edit]

Entering China from Myanmar is possible at the Ruili (China)-Lashio (Myanmar) border crossing, but permits need to be obtained from the Burmese authorities in advance. Generally, this would require you to join a guided tour.

Vietnam[edit]

For most travelers Hanoi is the origin for any overland journey to China. There are currently three international crossings:

  • Dong Dang (V) - Pingxiang (C)

You can catch a local bus from Hanoi's eastern bus station (Ben Xe Street, Gia Lam District, tel: 04/827-1529) to Lang Son, where you have to switch transport to minibus or motorbike to reach the border at Dong Dang. Alternatively there are many offers from open-tour providers; for those in a hurry, they might be a good option if they offer a direct hotel to border crossing transfer.

You can change money with freelance money changers, but check the rate carefully beforehand.

Border formalities take about 30 minutes. On the Chinese side, walk up past the "Friendship-gate" and catch a taxi (about ¥20, bargain hard) to Pingxiang, Guangxi. A seat in a minibus is ¥5. There is a Bank of China branch right across the street from the main bus station; the ATM accepts Maestro cards. You can travel by bus or train to Nanning.

  • Lao Cai (V) - Hekou (C)

You can take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai for about 420,000 VND (as of 11/2011) for a soft sleeper. The trip takes about 8 hours. From there, it's a long walk (or a 5 minute ride) to the Lao Cai/Hekou border. Crossing the border is simple, fill out a customs card and wait in line. They will search your belongings (in particular your books/written material). Outside the Hekou border crossing is a variety of shops, and the bus terminal is about a 10 minute ride from the border. A ticket to Kunming from Hekou costs about ¥140; the ride is about 7 hours.

  • Mong Cai (V) - Dongxing (C)

At Dongxing, you can take a bus to Nanning, a sleeper bus to Guangzhou (approximately ¥180), or a sleeper bus to Shenzhen (approximately ¥230, 12 hours) (March 2006).

Laos[edit]

From Luang Namtha you can get a bus leaving at around 08:00 going to Boten (Chinese border) and Mengla. You need to have a Chinese visa beforehand as there is no way to get one on arrival. The border is close (about 1 hr). Customs procedures will take another hour. The trip costs about 45k Kip.

Also, there is a direct Chinese sleeper bus connection from Luang Prabang to Kunming (about 32 hours). You can get on this bus at the border, when the minibus from Luang Namtha and the sleeper meet. Don't pay more than ¥200.

Pakistan[edit]

The Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan into Western China is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It's closed for tourists for a few months in winter. Crossing the border is relatively quick because of few overland travelers, and friendly relations between the two countries. A bus runs between Kashgar (China) and Sust (Pakistan) across the Kunerjab pass.

Nepal[edit]

The road from Nepal to Tibet passes near Mount Everest, and through amazing mountain scenery. Entering Tibet from Nepal is only possible for tourists on package tours, but it is possible to travel into Nepal from Tibet

Mongolia[edit]

There are two border crossings between Mongolia and China. The are the Erenhot(Inner Mongolia)/Zamin Uud border crossing, and the Takashiken(Xinjiang)/Bulgan border crossings.

From Zamiin Uud. Take a local train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamiin Uud. Then Bus or Jeep to Erlian in China. There are local trains leaving in the evening most days and arriving in the morning. The border opens around 8:30. From Erlian there are buses and trains to other locations in China.

Kazakhstan[edit]

The sole border crossing to China is located at Khorgos. Buses run almost daily from Almaty to Urumqi and Yining. No visa-on arrival is available so ensure both your Chinese and Kazakh visas are in order before attempting this.

Kyrgyztan[edit]

It is possible to cross the Torugart pass to/from Kyrgyztan, but the road is very rough and the pass is only open during the summer months (June-September) every year. It is possible to arrange crossings all the way from Kashgar, but ensure that all your visas are in order.

Alternatively, while less scenic, a smoother crossing is located at Irkeshtam to the south of Torugart. There are public (sleeper) buses taking 24 hours running this route between Kashgar and Osh, roughly 2-3 times week.

Tajikistan[edit]

There is a single border crossing between China and Tajikistan at Kulma, which is open on weekdays from May-November. A bus operates across the border between Kashgar in Xinjiang and Khorog in Tajikistan. However, it currently remains closed to foreigners (non-Tajiks/Chinese).

Russia[edit]

The most popular border crossing at Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia. Buses run from Manzhouli to Zabaikalsk in Russia. There are also ferries across the Amur from Heihe to Blagoveshchensk, and Fuyuan to Khabarovsk. Farther east, there are land border crossings at Suifenhe, Dongning, and Hunchun. Ensure both your Russian and Chinese visas are in order before attempting.

North Korea[edit]

Crossing overland into North Korea is possible at the Dandong/Sinuiju border crossing, but must be pre-arranged on a guided tour from Beijing. In the reverse direction, the crossing is fairly straightforward if you have arranged it as part of your North Korean tour. Several other border crossings also exist along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, though these crossings may not be open to tourists. Ensure both your Chinese and North Korean visas are in order before attempting this.

Hong Kong[edit]

There are four road border crossings into the mainland from Hong Kong at Lok Ma Chau, Sha Tau Kok, Man Kam To and the Shenzhen Bay Bridge. A visa on arrival is available for some nationalities at Lok Ma Chau, but visas must be arranged in advance for all other crossings.

Macau[edit]

The two border crossings are at the Portas do Cerco and the Lotus Bridge. A visa-on-arrival can be obtained by certain nationalities at the Portas do Cerco.

Others[edit]

It is currently not feasible for travellers to cross the borders with Afghanistan and Bhutan.

By boat[edit]

Hong Kong and Macau[edit]

There is regular ferry and hovercraft service between Hong Kong and Macau to the rest of the Pearl River Delta, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai. Ferry service from Hong Kong International Airport allow arriving passengers to proceed directly to the mainland without having to clear Hong Kong immigration and customs.

Japan[edit]

There is a 2-day ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Osaka, Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on season.

A twice-weekly ferry also connects Qingdao to Shimonoseki.

A once-weekly ferry between Shanghai and Nagasaki has recently started[67].

South Korea[edit]

There is a ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Incheon, a port city very close to Seoul. Another line is from Qingdao or Weihai to Incheon or Dalian to Incheon.

Taiwan[edit]

Hourly ferries (18 departures per day) run between Kinmen and Xiamen, with the journey time either 30 minutes or 1 hour depending on port. There is also a regular ferry between Kinmen and Quanzhou with 3 departures per day. A twice-daily ferry links Matsu with Fuzhou, with journey time about 2 hours. From the Taiwanese main island, there are weekly departures from Taichung and Keelung aboard the Cosco Star to Xiamen.

Thailand[edit]

Golden Peacock Shipping company operates a speedboat three times a week on the Mekong river between Jinghong in Yunnan and Chiang Saen (Thailand). Passengers are not required to have visas for Laos or Myanmar, although the greater part of the trip is on the river bordering these countries. The ticket costs 650 yuan

Cruise ship[edit]

In the fall, several cruise lines move their ships from Alaska to Asia and good connections can generally be found leaving from Anchorage, Vancouver, or Seattle. Star Cruises operates between Keelung in Taiwan and Xiamen in mainland China, stopping at one of the Japanese islands on the way.

Get around[edit]

By plane[edit]

China is a huge country, so unless you enjoy spending a couple of days on the train or on the road getting from one area to another, you should definitely consider domestic flights. China has many domestic flights connecting all the major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three international carriers: Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, as well as regional ones including Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines. In recent years, it has been popular for large cities and provinces to open their own (dubiously funded) airline. These include Chongqing Airlines, Chengdu Airline and Hebei Airlines, amongst others. The parent company behind Hainan Airlines has spawned some 13 airlines in the region, including Grand China Air, Yangtse Express, Hong Kong Airlines and Deer Jet.

Flights between Hong Kong or Macau and mainland cities are considered to be international flights and so can be quite expensive. Hence if arriving in, or departing from, Hong Kong or Macau, it is usually much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, just across the border, or Guangzhou, which is a little further afield but offers flights to more destinations. As an example, the distance from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou is about the same, but as of mid-2005 flying to Hong Kong cost ¥1400 while list price for the other cities was ¥880 and for Shenzhen discounts to ¥550 were available. Overnight bus to any of these destinations was about ¥250.

Prices for domestic flights are set at standard rates, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels, and many hostels, will have a travel ticket service and may be able to save you 15%-70% off the price of tickets. Travel agencies and booking offices are plentiful in all Chinese cities and offer similar discounts. Even before considering discounts, traveling by plane in China is not expensive.

For travel within China, it is usually best to buy tickets in China via a high street travel agent, or on Chinese websites. Most domestic flights when bought abroad (e.g. on Expedia or even via an Air China office) will be much more expensive, as only full fare tickets are sold. Discounted tickets are only sold within China, or as a tag on fare on an international ticket. Schedules for domestic flights are generally not finalised or released until around 2-3 months before a flight. Unlike most air markets, early buyers will pay higher rates, as discounts tend to increase with time. For most flights, the optimum purchase period is between 2-4 weeks before a flight. On emptier flights, it can be easy to get a very discounted rate in the days before the flight. Once you know your intended route, it’s advisable to monitor the fares to see when they rise and fall (which they will almost definitely do). However, when travelling during a busy period (e.g. Chinese New Year), it’s wise to buy earlier to guarantee yourself a seat. Some more expensive tickets are flexible, allowing you to cancel for a nominal amount (between 5%-20%), then rebook at a lower fare. Recently, discounts have been made available in premium cabins on domestic flights. On some routes, the buy-up from economy is very minimal, and is worth it for the extra space. Beware, however, than often perks of the ground (e.g. lounge, extra luggage, points) are not included on the discount rates.

Be prepared for unexplained flight delays as these are common despite pressure from both the government and consumers. For short distances, consider other, seemingly slower options. Flight cancellations are also not uncommon. If you buy your ticket from a Chinese vendor they will likely try to contact you (if you left contact information) to let you know about the change in flight plan. If you purchased your ticket overseas, be certain to check on the flight status a day or two before you plan to fly. Chinese airlines are generally quick to offer meals when a particular flight has been delayed, although the meals/snacks might not be suited to Western tastes. It’s always advisable to travel with emergency rations in China. water cannot be brought through security, but all Chinese airports have hot water machines, so bring a plastic mug and some tea bags.

As everywhere in the world, prices for food and drink at Chinese airports are vastly inflated. Coffee that is ¥25 in a downtown shop is ¥78 at the same chain's airport branches. KFC seems to be the one exception; their many airport shops charge the same prices as other branches. Paying ¥20 or more for a KFC meal may or may not be worthwhile when there are ¥5 noodles across the street, but at the airports it is usually the best deal around.

By train[edit]

Maglev train in Shanghai

Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves. Their extensive, and rapidly expanding, network of routes covers the entire country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.

China is in the process of building a network of high-speed trains, similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains. These trains are already in service on several routes. They are called CRH and train numbers have a "G", "C" or "D" prefix. If your route and budget allow, these are much the best way to get around. For more detail, see High-speed rail in China.

Train types[edit]

Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:

  • G-series (高速 gāosù) – 300 km/h long-haul high-speed expresses - currently on Wuhan–Guangzhou, Zhengzhou–Xi'an, Beijing-Xi'an, Shanghai–Nanjing, Shanghai–Hangzhou, Beijing–Shanghai, Haerbin-Dalian, and Guangzhou–Shenzhen lines.
  • C-series (城际 chéngjì) – 300 km/h short-haul high-speed expresses - currently only on Beijing–Wuqing–Tianjin–Tanggu line.
  • D-series (动车 dòngchē) – 200 km/h high speed expresses.
  • Z-series (直达 zhídá) – 160 km/h non/less-stop services connecting major cities. Accommodation is mostly soft seat or soft sleeper, although they often have a couple of hard sleepers too.
  • T-series (特快 tèkuài) – 140 km/h intercity trains calling at major cities only. Similar to Z–trains although they usually stop at more stations.
  • K-series (快速 kuàisù) – 120 km/h fast trains, the most often seen series, calls at more stations than a T train and has more hard-sleepers and seats.
  • General fast trains (普快 pǔkuài) – 120 km/h trains, with no letter designation, four digits starts with 1–5. These trains are the cheapest, although slowest long-distance trains
  • General trains (普客 pǔkè) - 100 km/h short-distance trains with no letter designation, four digits starts with 5, 6, or 7. Slowest trains, stop almost everywhere.
  • Commuting trains (通勤 tōngqín) / Service trains (路用 lùyòng) - four digits starts with 8, or five digits starts with 57, very slow local trains, mostly used by rail staffs.
  • L-series (临时 línshí) – seasonal trains suitable to K- or four-digit-series.
  • Y-series (旅游 lǚyóu) – trains primarily serving tourist groups.
  • S-series (市郊 shìjiāo) - Currently the only on the Beijing Suburban Railway between Beijing North and Yanqing County via Badaling (Great Wall).

Classes[edit]

On the regular non-CRH trains there are five classes of travel:

T-train soft sleeper compartment
  • Soft sleepers (软卧 ruǎnwò) are the most comfortable mode of transportation and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (though some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), a latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious. Try to get the lower bunk as climbing up to upper bunk is not that easy, also if you can sit on th bed and look out the window if you don't want to sleep.
  • note: Ticker holder of this class can go to the VIP waiting room at station.
  • Hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò), on the other hand, have 3 beds per column open to the corridor. The highest bunk is very high up and leaves little space for headroom. Taller travelers (6'3" and above) may find this to be the best bunk since when sleeping your feet will extend into the passageway and they will not be bumped. The top bunk is also useful for people with things to hide (e.g. cameras). When placed by your head they are harder for would-be thieves to reach. It should be noted that the "hard" sleeper is not "hard"; the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable. All sleepers have pillows and a blanket.
  • Soft seats (软座 ruǎnzuò) are cloth-covered, generally reclining seats and are a special category that you will rarely find. These are only available on day trains between destinations of about 4-8 hours of travel time, as well as on all high speed trains (class D and above).
  • Hard seats (硬座 yìngzuò), which are actually padded, are not for everyone, especially overnight, as they are 5 seats wide, in a three and two arrangement. It is in this class, however, that most of the backpacker crowd travels. Despite the "no smoking" signs, there almost always remain smokers within the car. There is invariably a crowd of smokers at the ends of the cars and the smoke will drift endlessly into the cabin. On most trains, particularly in China's interior, the space between the cars is a designated smoking area although the signs for "designated smoking area" are only in Chinese so this fact may not be clear to many travelers. Overnight travel in the hard seats can safely be deemed uncomfortable for just about everyone and will cause a great deal of discomfort for nearly including many restless endless hours of no sleep.
  • Standing (无座 wúzuò) allow access to the hard seat car but give no seat reservation. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such journeys more comfortable.

The soft seat and soft sleeper cars, and some of hard seat and hard sleeper cars are air-conditioned.

The CRH trains have usually five classes - second class (3+2 seat layout), first class (2+2 layout) and three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin). There are three different VIP classes, named "商务座" (business class), "观光座" (sightseeing class) and "特等座" (deluxe class). Unlike on airliners, 商务座 (business class) is in fact better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座. The second class is equivalent to economy class on airplanes but offers much more comfortable seat and huge legroom. On the other hand, the premium classes cost only a little more and offers luxury rides.

Train tickets[edit]

Chinese train ticket with fields description

At the point where a given train starts, train tickets can usually be bought up to seven days in advance. After the point where a given train starts, a small number of tickets might be reserved for purchase in larger towns along the route of travel. Usually these are the "standing" class. If you want to get a seat assignment (zuowei) or a sleeper (wopu), then find the train conductor and he will tell you if there is availability. The biggest demand is for hard seats and hard sleepers, so it' is a good idea to ask a local friend to buy hard seat tickets as the sellers are not always willing to sell them to foreigners although this is rapidly changing. As of January 2012, nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket.

There are local state railway ticket agencies in many locations remote from train stations, clearly marked "Booking Office for Train Tickets" in English and Chinese and a locomotive emblem, but easily overlooked as these are simple "hole in the wall" shops. They are equipped with computers networked with the central booking system. Tickets purchased at these types of locations can be bought up to 10 days in advance at face value prices which can be half of what commercial travel agencies charge. Staff usually does not speak English. An easy fix is finding someone who looks like a college student and he will be usually very willing to help.

Do not expect English-speaking staff at station cash desks either, even in big cities. And if the cashier finds some English-speaking colleague, don't expect that he can work with the reservation system. If you don't speak Mandarin, write the departure and destination station, date and time of departure, train number and required class on paper. You can write the station name in pinyin, as the cashier enters them in the same way to the reservation system. Beware that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains. High-speed station names usually consist of city name and cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East")

During busy seasons (Chinese New Year, for example) tickets sell out rapidly at train stations. It may be better to get tickets in advance through an agent. In major cities there are also agents who sell tickets in the normal time frame with a nominal markup. The convenience of avoiding a trip to the train station and waiting in the queue is well worth the small increase in cost. Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had previously "guaranteed" you. This is true anywhere in China.

Travel tips[edit]

The toilets on trains tend to be a little more "usable" than on buses or most public areas because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track and thus don't smell as bad. Soft sleeper cars usually have European throne-style toilets at one end of the car and Chinese squat toilets at the other. Be aware that on non-CRH trains if the train will be stopping at a station, the conductor will normally lock the bathrooms prior to arrival so that people will not leave deposits on the ground at the station.

Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves hot, but generally overpriced, at ¥25 or so and frankly not very tasty, food. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance, interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name, you can eat very well. If you are on a strict budget, wait until the train stops at a station. There are normally vendors on the platform who sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices. Trains generally have boiled water available so bring tea, soups and instant noodles to make your own food.

Be careful with your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has gone up in recent years.

On most higher-level trains (T, K, Z and CRH trains) pre-recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong province or Hong Kong), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet) or Uyghur (in Xinjiang). On local trains there are no English announcements so knowing when to get off can be harder.

Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. Ear plugs are recommended to facilitate uninterrupted sleep. In sleeper cars, tickets are exchanged for cards on long distance trains. The cabin attendants return the original tickets when the train approaches the destination station thus ensuring everyone gets off where they should even if they can't wake themselves up.

If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people traveling the route are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by is a neat experience.

You'll need your ticket to enter and exit the station - usually there will be an inspection at the departure hall entrance or the boarding gate and another at the exit gate. Once in the departure hall, follow the digital indicator boards to find the right boarding gate (they are in Chinese but will display the train service number which is printed at the top of your ticket). Approx 10 minutes before boarding your train and platform will be announced and the gate will be opened, just follow the crowd to the platform - at larger stations the train will already be waiting, in smaller stations look for your car number written on the platform edge - make sure you're waiting in the right place because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes. Some newer stations have high-level platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to ascend several steep steps to board the train so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with bulky luggage.

Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. On the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train and the Beijing Suburban Railway smoking is completely forbidden. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.

Useful websites[edit]

  • The Man in Seat 61 [68] has a good section on Chinese trains.
  • Absolute China Tours [69] or China Highlights [70] and China local tour [71] have English time and fare information (note that while extremely useful, these sites' lists are not 100% complete)
  • OK Travel [72] has more schedules. This site is mostly in Chinese, but includes romanized place names and you can use it without knowing Chinese. On the search page, simply choose from the lists provided: the left-hand side is the place of departure, the right-hand side is the destination. Note that you have to choose the province(s) or region(s) in the drop-down box before the corresponding list of cities will appear. You choose the cities you want, then press the left-hand button below (marked 确认, "confirm") to carry out the search. If you can enter place names in Chinese characters, the search function can even help you plan multi-leg journeys.
  • CNVOL [73] has an extensive (pretty much exhaustive) and frequently updated list of all the trains that travel in China. Just enter the names of the places you with to start and end your trip in, and you will find a list of all trains that ply the route (including all trains that are just passing by your selected stations), listed with their start and end cities and times. Click on a train number you like, and you can find the prices for all the classes of seats or berths that are available by clicking check price further down the price. The most important thing here is to get your town names right in "pinyin", the characters are never separated by a space, ie: Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kunming etc.

By bus[edit]

A sightseeing bus in Shanghai

Travelling by public city buses (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long distance buses (长途汽车 chángtúqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.

City buses vary from city to city - generally expect plastic seats, many people, no English signs and unhelpful drivers. However, if you can understand the bus routes then they are cheap and go almost everywhere. Buses will normally have recorded announcements telling you the next stop - examples of which might include 'xia yi zhan - zhong shan lu' (next stop Zhongshan Road) or 'Shanghai nan huo che zhan dao le' (Shanghai South railway station - now arriving). Some major cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou will have English announcements on some major routes. Fares are usually about 1 or 2 yuan (the former for older buses with no air-conditioning, the latter for air-conditioned modern buses) or more if travelling into the suburbs. Most buses simply have a metal cash-box next to the entrance where you can insert your fare (no change - save up those 1 yuan coins and notes) or on longer routes a conductor that will collect fares and issue tickets and change. Note that the driver usually prioritises speed over comfort so hold on tight.

Sleeper buses
Sleeper buses are common in China; instead of seats they have bunk beds. These are a good way to cover longer distances — overnight at freeway speeds is 100 km or more — but they are not all that comfortable for large or tall travelers.

Generally, these are fast smooth and comfortable in the prosperous coastal provinces and less so in less developed areas. Try to avoid getting the bunk at the very back of the bus; if the bus hits a major bump, passengers there become airborne.

At some places you have to remove your shoes as you enter the bus; a plastic bag is provided to store them. Follow the locals. If there are food or restroom stops, you put the shoes back on. If you normally travel in boots, it is worth getting a pair of kung fu slippers to make this easy.


Coaches, or long-distance buses, differ drastically and can be a reasonably comfortable or very unpleasant experience. Coaches originating from larger cities on the east coast tend to be air conditioned with soft seats or sleepers. The roads are very good and the ride is smooth, allowing you to enjoy the view or take a snooze. Coaches are often a better, though more expensive option than trains. Bus personnel tend to try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline personnel and English ability is very rare. Some coaches have toilets, but they are frequently dirty and using them can be difficult as the bus turns a corner and water in the basin splashes around.

A coach or bus in rural China is a different experience altogether. Signs in the station to identify buses will only be in Chinese or another local language, routes may also be posted or pasted on bus windows and drivers or touts will shout their destinations as you pass, the coach's license plate number is supposed to be printed on the ticket, but all too often that is inaccurate. Due to different manners and customs, foreigners may find bus personnel to be lacking in politeness and other passengers lacking in manners as they spit on the floor and out the window and smoke. The vehicle can get crowded if the driver decides to pick up as many passengers as he can cram into the bus. The roads in rural China are frequently little more than a series of potholes, which makes for a bumpy and painful ride; if you have a seat in the back of the bus you'll spend much of your trip flying through the air. Scheduled times of departure and arrival are only rough estimates, as many buses won't leave until every seat is sold, which can add hours, and breakdowns and other mishaps can significantly extend your trip. The misery of your ride is only compounded if you have to travel for 10 or 20 hours straight. As gut-wrenching as all this sounds, short of shelling out the cash for your own personal transport, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China. On the bright side, such rural coaches are usually more than willing to stop anywhere along the route should you wish to visit more remote areas without direct transport. Buses can also be flagged down at most points along their route. The ticket price the rest of the way is negotiable.

Everywhere in China drivers often disregard the rules of the road, if there are any, and accidents are frequent. Sudden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible. Horn honking is widespread among Chinese drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan on sleeping during the trip.

Getting a ticket can be fairly hard. Large bus stations have ticket counters who sell printed tickets displaying the departure time, boarding gate and license plate number of your bus (not always accurate) and have fixed prices. Smaller bus stations will have touts shouting destinations and will direct you to your bus where you pay on board. Even large stations have touts outside - generally they will call the bus driver of a departing bus, who will wait up the road while the tout takes you there on the back of a motorcycle to the waiting bus - you can then negotiate the fare with the driver. This is sometimes a complete scam and sometimes you can save around 30% of the fare - depending on your bargaining and Chinese abilities.

There is an alternative now with an Independent Travel Network that has been created by a western company. Dragon Bus China now operates an Integrated transport and accommodation network across most of China. The Network is a “Jump On & Off” style of travel which means that you can stay longer at any of the Cities that they travel through and be assured that another bus will be coming through that same City for you or you travel partners to board. This travel option has been operating for more than 25 years throughout Europe and is an extremely popular form of independent travel within New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Traveling by this method could greatly reduce the hassle of traveling by public buses and greatly increase the safety aspect.

By subway[edit]

Major cities — at least Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shenyang, Xian, Chengdu and Nanjing — have a subway (地铁 dìtiě) system. Chongqing has monorail systems. Xiamen has a system of bus-only roads, mostly elevated. Generally these are modern, clean and efficient. The signs and ticket machines are in both English and Chinese.

Most of these systems are being expanded, and new lines are under construction (as of early 2009) in other cities such as Hangzhou, Xi'an and Chengdu. The long-term plans are quite ambitious, with multiple subway lines per city planned. By 2020 or so China seems likely to have some of the world's most extensive urban transport infrastructure. Subway systems which link into regional rail systems such as between Guangzhou and Shenzhen are planned in many regions.

By taxi[edit]

Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì, pronounced "deg-see" in Cantonese-speaking areas) are generally common, and reasonably priced. Flagfalls range from ¥5 in some cities to ¥14 in others, with a per kilometer charge around ¥2. In most situations, you can expect between ¥10 and ¥50 for an ordinary trip within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are a bit higher at night. Tips are not expected.

While it is not unheard of for drivers to cheat visitors by deliberately selecting a longer route, it is not that common, and usually shouldn't be a nuisance. When it does happen, the fare difference will usually be minimal. However, should you feel you have been seriously cheated on the way to your hotel, and you are staying at a mid- or high-range hotel that has a doorman, you can appeal to him and/or the desk staff for assistance: A single sharp sentence pointing out the deception may resolve the issue.

Also beware of taxi hawkers who stalk naive travelers inside or just outside the airport terminals and train stations. They will try to negotiate a set price to bring you to your destination and will usually charge 2x or 3x more than a metered fare. If you’re not familiar with the area then stick with the designated taxi areas that are outside most major airport terminals and insist that the driver use the meter. The fare should be plainly marked outside the taxi.

Finding a taxi during peak hours can be a bit hard. But it really gets tough if it is raining. Away from peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10% to 20% discount especially if you negotiate it in advance, even if with the meter on and asking for a receipt. As with everything else in China you should not tip. (It's seen as a form of corruption.)

Sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is acceptable; some taxis even mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat. Be warned that drivers may start smoking without asking by just opening their window and lighting up. In some cities it is also common for drivers to try and pick up multiple passengers if their destinations are in the same general direction. Each passenger pays full fare but it saves the time of waiting for an empty cab at rush hour.

Even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you are very unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver, though Beijing made progress toward this in preparation for the Olympics, and Shanghai has made some progress due to the World Expo. Anywhere else it is basically impossible. If you try say the name of your destination in Mandarin (but with your native pronunciation), you may not be understood. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a written note of the name of place where you want to go to by taxi. Chinese characters are far better for this than a romanized (pinyin) version, as many drivers cannot read pinyin, and the same pinyin may correspond to different characters. Get business cards for your hotel, and for restaurants you like, to show taxi drivers. It will be a good idea to equip yourself with sound tracked guide to conversation in Chinese. Such tools can be easily found on the Internet in different languages.

If you are in China for any length of time, consider getting a cell phone so you can call Chinese friends and let them tell the driver where to take you. Cellphones are inexpensive, and pay-as-you-go GSM SIM cards are readily available.

In some cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the driver's name-plate, on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicate a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you ask by the shortest way. Another indicator of the driver's ability can be found on the same name-plate - the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the city very well. A quick tip to get a taxi driver's attention if you feel you are being ripped off or cheated: Get out the car and start writing down his license plate number and if you speak some Chinese (or have a good phrasebook) threaten to report the driver to the city or the taxi company. Most drivers are honest and fares are not very high but there are the bad ones out there who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage.

Chinese can sometimes be very assertive when it comes to finding a taxi. The person who flags down a particular car is not necessarily entitled to that ride. Having locals move farther up in traffic to intercept cars or being shoved out of the way while trying to enter a taxi is not unheard of. If there are others in the area competing for rides, be ready to reach your car and enter it as soon as possible after flagging it down.

Wear your seat belt at all times (if you can find it) however much the taxi driver insists you don't need it.

By tram (trolley)[edit]

Above ground, certain cities like Dalian or Changchun, offer transport via tram. Making more frequent stops than light-rail, they may offer a practical way of getting around if the touring city possesses one. Single-cart trolleys may also be in use. Both modes are susceptible to traffic jams.

By bicycle[edit]

Bicycles (zìxíngchē, 自行车), along with electronic bikes and motorcycle, are the most common form of transportation in China; at rush hour almost anywhere in China there will be thousands of them. Many are traditional heavy single-speed roadsters, but basic multi-geared mountain bikes are pretty common as well. For travelers, bicycles can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than being squeezed into a public bus for hours on end.

There are two major dangers for cyclists in China:

  • One is the rest of the traffic; cars and motorcycles frequently pull out without any warning, and in some areas red lights are apparently optional. See the more extensive comment at Driving in China.
  • Bicycle theft is rampant throughout cities in China. Observe how other people park their bikes. In some places you can still see local people causally parking their bikes, but in many cities, people tend to lock it inside restaurants and internet cafes. This is a warning sign. Don't expect your high-grade locks can do much. You're highly advised to park in designated areas with a guard as much as possible; it usually costs around RMB1 to RMB2. Some local people also intentionally buy a second-hand, old, ugly bikes so that they won't tempt a thief.

In most tourist areas — whether major cities like Beijing or heavily-touristed villages such as Yangshuo — bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop around every corner. Guided bike tours are also readily available.

Buying a bicycle is easy. Dahon, Merianda and Giant are three most popular brands in amatuer and semi-professional market and all cities have their distributors. Many supermarkets also carry a good stock of bikes. Prices vary from as little as ¥150 to over ¥10000. For a reasonably well-equipped mountain bike for riding to areas like Tibet, expect around ¥3000-¥4500 for a bike. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing usually stock more professional upmarket bikes, but if you have very specific requirements, Hong Kong is still the last hope for buying them.

Bicycle repair shops are frequent apparently anywhere in cities and rural areas; Non-Chinese speaking tourists might find it a bit difficult, but you can just look for bikes and tires. For a quick fix to a sudden flat tire, there are also many people standing by along the road with a bowl of water and a repair kit ready. For special parts like disc brake, you may want to bring your spare one if you are not using them in big cities.

China is a vast country and it provides professional bikers with challenges to bike across mountains and desert. However, as of May 2010, if foreign tourists want to bike across Tibetan Plateau, you are required by law to obtain a permit and hire a tour guide.

See Karakoram Highway for one spectacular but difficult route. Companies such as Bike China and Intrepid Travel organize such tours for small groups.

By car[edit]

See also: Driving in China

The legal driving age in Mainland China is 18.

The PRC generally does not recognize International Driving Permits and does not permit foreigners to drive in China without a Chinese license. Note that Hong Kong and Macau licenses are also considered to be foreign and having one of them will not allow you to drive in the mainland. This supposedly changed in 2007 and short-term driving without a Chinese license became legal. However, as with many laws in China, official changes and changes in practice do not necessarily correspond; as of December 2008 it is still illegal for foreigners to drive without a Chinese license. Unless you have diplomatic status, importing foreign vehicles is nearly impossible.

Rented cars most often come with a driver, similar to the remises of South America; this is probably the best way to travel in China by car. Driving yourself around China, even if you can read and speak basic Chinese and are able to qualify for a local license, is not recommended unless you are accustomed to extremely chaotic driving conditions. Driving in China's cities is not for the faint-hearted, and parking spaces are often very difficult to find. That said, driving in China is still easier than driving in Vietnam and other developing countries in Asia. Traffic moves on the right in mainland China. Many neighbors, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan as well as the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau have traffic that moves on the left.

English directional signs are ubiquitous in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities which see many Western tourists. However, they are spotty at best in other cities and virtually non-existent in the countryside. As such, it is always a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese before you set off so that locals can point you in the right direction should you get lost.

Foreigners should really avoid driving outside of major cities. "One Way" signs usually mean "mostly but not always one way". Expect someone who misses an exit ramp on a freeway to slow down just before the upcoming entry ramp and make a 270° turn to engage on that ramp. Expect drivers to take creative shortcuts at traffic circles.

As a pedestrian ALWAYS look both ways every time you cross any street. Not only may a bicycle come along traveling in the wrong direction, so may increasingly popular electric motorbike -- and they are silent.

By motorcycle[edit]

See also: Driving in China#Motorcycles

Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective but somewhat scary. The fares are negotiable.

Regulations for riding a motorcycle vary from city to city. In some cases, 50cc mopeds can be ridden without a driving license although many cities have now banned them or reclassified them due to numerous accidents. Riding a 'proper' motorcycle is much harder - partly because you'll need a Chinese license, partly because they are banned in many cities and partly because production and importing have slowed with the focus on automobiles and electric scooters. The typical Chinese motorcycle is 125cc, can do about 100km/h and is a traditional cruiser style. They are gnerally slow, mundane to ride and have little sporting potential. Government restrictions on engine size mean that sports bikes are rare but can still be found. Another popular choice is a 125cc automatic 'maxi' scooter based loosely on the Honda CN250 - it's a bit quicker than a moped and more comfortable over long distances but has the benefit of automatic transmission which makes negotiating stop-start urban traffic much easier.

Most cities will have a motorcycle market of some description and will often sell you a cheap motorcycle often with fake or illegal license plates - although a foreigner on a motorbike is a rare sight and it will grab the police's attention. Helmets are essential on 'proper' bikes but optional on scooters. Technically you'll need a license plate - they are yellow or blue on a motorcycle or green on a scooter and can cost several thousand RMB to register the bike yourself although fake plates are easily available at a lower price - do so at your own risk.

By pedicab (rickshaw)[edit]

What's in a name?
The terms pedicab and rickshaw are often used interchangeably by foreigners in China, but refer to two different modes of transportation - one of which no longer exists. The (in)famous rickshaw was a two-wheeled contraption with two poles at the front, which the operator held while walking or running passengers to their destinations. These proliferated in the late 19th century but were gradually phased out by the 1950s. Videos of Western elites playing polo on rickshaws propelled by Chinese workers showcased the exploitative nature of rickshaws. A distant relative of the rickshaw can still be seen when day-laborers in smaller or less developed cities gather with their rickshaw-like carts each morning waiting for work delivering construction materials, coal, or other odds and ends. The rickshaw has been replaced by the pedicab - a three-wheeled conveyance ridden much like a bicycle.


In some mid-sized cities, pedicabs are a much more convenient means of traveling short distances. Sanlunche (三轮车), the Chinese term used both for pedal-powered and motorized rickshaws, are ubiquitous in rural China and lesser developed (which is to say, less touristy) areas of larger cities. Negotiating the fare in advance is a must.

Reports that "the drivers will frequently try and rip you off" probably refer to rip-off artists working tourist destinations, like Sanlitun, Silk Street, Wangfujing areas in Beijing in particular. Perhaps the rule of thumb should be, "Beware of anyone selling anything near tourist traps."

If you see normal Chinese families using the "sanlun" - for instance, traveling between the Beijing Zoo and the nearest subway stop - then it's safe. Don't patronize any sanlun wearing some old fashioned costume to attract tourists. He'll try to charge you ten times the going rate.

Where possible try to choose pedicabs over motorized transport. You'll be helping the truly poor stay in business and preserving part of China's traditional charm. Electrified 3-whelled sanluns developed or converted from the pedicabs seem to be in the majority in Shanghai.

Talk[edit]

Map of Chinese dialects

The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, which is mostly based on the Beijing dialect, known in Chinese as Putonghua (普通话, "common speech"). Mandarin has been the only language used in education on the mainland since the 1950s, so most people speak it. Unless otherwise noted, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are in standard Mandarin. As Mandarin is tonal, getting the four tones correct is necessary to be understood.

Many regions, especially in the southeast and south of the country, also have their own "dialect." These are really different languages, as different as French and Italian, although referring to Chinese dialects as separate languages is a touchy political issue. Like standard Mandarin, the "dialects" are all tonal languages. Even within Mandarin (the large brown language area on the map), pronunciation varies widely between regions and there is often a liberal dose of local slang or terminology to liven up the mix. After Mandarin, the largest groups are Wu, spoken in the region around Shanghai, Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu, followed by Cantonese, spoken in most of Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau, and the Min (Fujian) group which includes Minnan (Hokkien) spoken in the region around Xiamen and in Taiwan, a variant of Minnan known as Teochew spoken around Shantou and Chaozhou, as well as Mindong (Hokchiu) spoken around Fuzhou. Most Chinese are bilingual in their local vernacular and Mandarin. Some who are older, less educated or from the countryside may speak only the local dialect, but this is unlikely to affect tourists. It often helps to have a guide who can speak the local language as it marks that person as an insider and you as a friend of the insider. While you can easily get by in most parts of China speaking Standard Mandarin, locals always appreciate any attempt to say a few words or phrases in the local dialect, so learning a few simple greetings will help you get acquainted with the locals much more easily. In general, an understanding of or appreciation for the local speech can be useful when traveling to more remote areas. But in those areas a phrase book that includes Chinese characters will still be a big help as written Chinese is more or less the same everywhere.

Formal written Chinese is for all intents and purposes the same regardless of the local dialect. Even Japanese and Korean use many of the same characters with the same or similar meaning. There is a complication in this, however. Mainland China uses "simplified characters", adopted to facilitate literacy during the mid-1950s. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and by many overseas Chinese, but also on the mainland in advertising and commercial signs. As a result you will just as often see 银行 (yínháng) as 銀行 for "bank". The simplification was however fairly systematic, which means that all hope is not lost for the traveler trying to pick up some sign-reading skills. On the other hand, native speakers usually do not encounter problems reading either script so learning how to write either one would usually suffice.

Note that in calligraphy, the number of scripts is much more varied as different painters use different unique styles, though these have been grouped into five different styles. They are zhuanshu(篆书/篆書), lishu(隶书/隸書), kaishu (楷书/楷書), xingshu (行书/行書) and caoshu (草书/草書), of which kaishu is the official script used in China today. When calligraphy is written in kaishu, it is usually traditional Chinese characters that are used due to their superior aesthetic value. The casual traveler can easily get by without learning the other four styles though learning them would certainly help those with a deep interest in traditional Chinese art.

In the far western reaches of the country, Turkic languages such as Uighur, Kirghiz, and Kazakh as well as other languages such as Tibetan are spoken by some of the non-Han ethnic minorities. In the north and northeast other minority languages including Manchu, Mongolian and Korean are also spoken in areas populated by the respective ethnic minorities. Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan and Guangxi in the south are also home to many other ethnic minorities such as the Miao, Dong, Zhuang, Bai and the Naxi who speak their own languages. However, with the possible exception of the elderly, Mandarin is generally usable in these areas too, and most younger people are bilingual in their minority language and Mandarin. Sadly some of the minority languages such as Manchu are dying out.

See also: Chinese phrasebook, Cantonese phrasebook, Minnan phrasebook

English and other foreign language speakers[edit]

For the last twenty years, Chinese students have been taught English as a compulsory subject starting from late elementary or middle school. Passing an English exam is a requirement to earn a four-year university degree, regardless of major. However, the focus of the instruction at all levels is formal grammar and, to a lesser degree, writing rather than speaking or listening.

Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen do have a higher proportion of English-speaking locals. In certain cities, outside major tourist attractions and establishments catering specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find locals conversant in English. Airline staff and those at large hotels - particularly international chains - usually speak some basic to conversational English, although in-depth skills are seldom seen.

When speaking, as anywhere English language skills are limited, it is helpful to simplify your English. Speak slowly, avoid slang and idioms, and use simple present tense declarative sentence structure. Don't say "Would you mind if I come back tomorrow?", stick to simpler, more abrupt phrasing like "Tomorrow I will return." This brings the phrase closer to its Chinese equivalent and is therefore not necessarily condescending.

One way to meet people is to ask about "English Corner" - a time and place in town where local residents, often with a foreign host or speaker, meet to practice spoken English. Typically, they are held on Friday evenings or Sundays in public parks, English training schools, bookstores, and university campuses. There may also be "Corners" for French, German, Russian and perhaps other languages.

You may want to consider arranging the services of a tour guide before your trip commences if you wish to go to far flung areas. This will help you overcome the language barrier where locals in those places will unlikely know any foreign language, let alone English. However, due to lasting effects of the Sino-Soviet friendship treaty, in rural regions, particularly in the north west, Russian, is a commonly encountered language.

It is advisable to have all places you want to visit written down in Chinese characters, also bunch frequent words - you know them from previous trips (even words like hotel, taxi or airport are unknown). Easy way to explain your need to locals is to have Baidu Fanyi (zh-cn: 百度翻译) app installed. It will translate English and some other languages from and to Chinese. Look for 英语 (English) and click on and set your destination language to 中文 (Chinese).

Learning Chinese[edit]

See also: Learn

In the West, Chinese has an undeserved reputation for its difficulty. While it is very different from Western languages, a traveler may be surprised to learn that the basic grammar is pretty simple. Verbs are static regardless of subject and whether they are referring to the past, present or future. Genders of nouns do not exist, and there is no separate form of nouns for plurals. The main difficulties are the existence of several consonants not present in European languages and using tones.

Mandarin, like Vietnamese and Thai, is a tonal language that uses a pitch in sounds to inflict different meanings. "Ma" could mean mother, horse, numb, or blame, depending on the tone. Homophones are also common; the same sound at the same pitch usually has dozens of meanings. "Zhong1" ("Zhong" at the 1st tone) can mean China, loyalty, clock, chime, finish, a bowl, etc. All of them come with different Chinese characters, just the same sound at the same pitch. While homophones are unlikely a problem in most everyday conversations, it is very common for Chinese to ask how to write someone's name by identifying the characters one by one. "My name is Wang Fei (王菲). Wang is the "wang" with three strokes, Fei is the "fei" in "shifei"(gossip), with a grass on top."

Written Chinese looks like a mysterious secret code to some, but if you can recognize so many commercial logos -- usually not logically related, you will be impressed with your capacity to memorize so many characters - most of them are logically related and formed based on certain rules. If you have a smartphone, apps like Pleco, Waygo, and ChineseNow can identify the characters you don't recognize.

There are, in theory, more than 50000 Chinese characters. The good news is that more than 85% have become obsolete, or are rarely used. Like native speakers of many languages, most Chinese couldn't tell you how many characters are required to read a book and never bother to count how many characters they know. One may argue that junior students are supposed to learn at least 2000 characters and graduates in university 5000 characters.

To bridge the gap between recognizing and reading out loud, pinyin was developed, which uses the Roman alphabet as an aid to teaching Chinese. Pronouncing pinyin is not intuitive as certain letters and consonant clusters are used to represent sounds not present in European languages and are thus not pronounced as a westerner would expect. Chinese will not recognize place names or addresses in pinyin; it is always better to use characters for written information.

Translators and Interpreters[edit]

Foreign travelers in China will benefit from having a translator or interpreter supporting them for either leisure or business activities. Taxi drivers do not speak English, and most business meetings with either domestic Chinese companies or government agencies will likely be more successful if an interpreter is present. Prices and quality vary substantially, but some Western-managed organizations and marketplaces exist that specialize in translation and interpretation:

SeekPanda, +1 303.997.0442 +86 185.1170.8629 (), [74].  edit Pricing is by the half day / full day. Specializes in business travelers and bilingual events/conferences. Interpreters available in most of mainland China and Taiwan, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Taipei. Can handle last-minute requests for in-person interpretation.
Tripper, [75].  edit Pricing is by the minute or daily / weekly, accessed via smartphone app. Specializes in interpretation on-demand via telephone.

See[edit][add listing]

China's attractions are endless and you will never run out of things to see. Especially near the coastal areas, if you run out of things to see in one city, the next one is usually just a short train ride away.

Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover or someone who just wants to relax on a nice beach, China has it all from the majestic Forbidden City in Beijing, to the breathtaking scenery of Jiuzhaigou. Even if you live in China for many years, you'll find that there's always something new to discover in another part of the country. Perhaps unsurprising due to its sheer size and long history, China has the third largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after Italy and Spain.

Karst formations, Guilin

Karst Scenery[edit]

The gumdrop mountains and steeply sloping forested hills with bizarre rock formations favored by traditional Chinese artists are not creative fantasy. In fact, much of southern and southwestern China is covered in strangely eroded rock formations known as Karst. Karst is type of limestone formation named after an area in Slovenia. As limestone layers erode, the denser rock or pockets of different stone resist erosion forming peaks. Caves hollow out beneath the mountains which can collapse forming sinkholes and channels leading to underground rivers. At its most unusual Karst erodes to form mazes of pinnacles, arches and passageways. The most famous example can be found in the Stone Forest (石林 Shílín) near Kunming in Yunnan. Some of the most famous tourist areas in China feature spectacular karst landscapes — Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi, and much of central and western Guizhou province.

Sacred sites[edit]

For sacred mountains, see the next section.

Several sites in China have famous Buddhist art:

  • Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province - more than 51,000 Buddhist carvings, dating back 1,500 years, in the recesses and caves of the Yangang Valley mountainsides
  • Mogao Caves in Gansu province - art and manuscripts dating back to the 4th century
  • Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing - dating from the 7-13th century
  • Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang - 5-10th century

Mountains[edit]

China is home to many sacred mountains.

The Five Great Mountains (五岳 wǔyuè), associated with Taoism:

  • Mount Tai (泰山), Shandong Province (1,545 meters)
  • Mount Hua (华山), Shaanxi Province (2,054 meters)
  • Mount Heng (Hunan) (衡山), Hunan Province (1,290 meters)
  • Mount Heng (Shanxi) (恒山), Shanxi Province (2,017 meters)
  • Mount Song (嵩山), Henan Province, where the famous Shaolin Temple (少林寺) is located (1,494 meters)

The Four Sacred Mountains (四大佛教名山 sìdà fójiào míngshān), associated with Buddhism:

  • Mount Emei (峨嵋山), Sichuan Province (3,099 meters)
  • Mount Jiuhua (九华山), Anhui Province (1,342 meters)
  • Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province (297 meters, an island)
  • Mount Wutai (五台山), Shanxi Province (3,058 meters)

The three main sacred mountains of Tibetan Buddhism:

There are also several other well-known mountains. In China, many mountains have temples, even if they are not especially sacred sites:

  • Mount Qingcheng (青城山), Sichuan Province
  • Mount Longhu (龙虎山), Jiangxi Province
  • Mount Lao (崂山), Shandong Province
  • Mount Wuyi (武夷山), Fujian Province, a major tourist/scenic site with many tea plantations
  • Mount Everest, straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, world's highest mountain
  • Mount Huang (黄山) (Yellow Mountain), in Anhui province, with scenery and temples
  • Mount Wudang (武当山), near Danjiangkou in Hubei, Taoist mecca, birthplace of taichi and Wudang kung fu
  • Changbaishan/Paektusan (Chinese:长白山 Korean:백두산), the most sacred mountain in the world to both ethnic Manchus and Koreans, located on the border with North Korea

Revolutionary Pilgrimage Sites[edit]

  • Shaoshan (韶山) - First CCP Chairman and Chinese leader Mao Zedong's hometown
  • Jinggangshan (井冈山) - The first CCP rural base area after the 1927 crackdown by the KMT
  • Ruijin (瑞金) - Seat of the China Soviet Republic from 1929 to 1934
  • Zunyi (遵义) - Site of the Zunyi Conference where Mao Zedong joined the Politburo Standing Committee
  • Luding (泸定) - Site of a famous forced crossing of a high mountain river
  • Yan'an (延安) - Primary base area for the Communist Party from 1935 to 1945
  • Wuhan - Site of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China
  • Guangzhou - Site of the Whampoa Military Academy where both KMT and Communist leaders (Chiang Kai Shek, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong) trained and led troops and political study groups before the Northern Expedition of 1926-27.

Itineraries[edit]

Some itineraries cover trips that are entirely within China:

Others are partly in China:

Do[edit][add listing]

Massage[edit]

Massage is available all over China, often both high quality and reasonably priced. Traditionally, massage is a trade for the blind in Asia. Expert work costs ¥15 to ¥30 an hour.

  • Almost any hairdresser will give a hair wash and head massage for ¥10. This often includes cleaning out ear wax and some massage on neck and arms. With a haircut and/or a shave, ¥15 to ¥25. In large cities, expect to pay ¥40 or more for a cut and wash.
  • Foot massage (足疗 zúliáo) is widely available, often indicated by a picture of a bare footprint on the sign. Prices are from ¥15 to about ¥60.
  • Whole body massage is also widespread, at prices from ¥15 an hour up. There are two varieties: ànmó (按摩) is general massage; tuīná (推拿) concentrates on the meridians used in acupuncture. The most expert massages are in massage hospitals, or general Chinese medicine hospitals, usually at ¥50 an hour or a bit more. The best value is at tiny out-of-the-way places some of whose staff are blind (盲人按摩 mángrén ànmó).

These three types of massage are often mixed; many places offer all three.

Some massage places are actually brothels. Prostitution is illegal in China. Except in the city of Foshan in Guangdong, where erotic massages also known as Happy Endings is legal. However it is quite common and often disguised as massage. Most hot spring or sauna establishments offer all the services a businessman might want for relaxation. As for the smaller places, if you see pink lighting or lots of girls in short skirts, probably considerably more than just massage is on offer, and quite often they cannot do a good massage. The same rule applies in many hair salons which double as brothels.

The non-pink-lit places usually give good massage and generally do not offer sex. If the establishment advertises massage by the blind, it is almost certain to be legitimate.

It is possible to take a nap for a few hours in many massage places and even to spend the night in some. Hairdressers generally do not have facilities for this, but you can sleep on the table in a body massage place or (much better) on the couch used for foot massage. Fees are moderate; this is probably the cheapest way to sleep in China. Note, however, that except in high-end saunas with private rooms, you will share the staff's toilet and there may not be any way to lock up luggage. The best way to keep your luggage is at any railway station, they provided by charges of rmb5-10.

Language for massage:

  • tòng (痛) and bú tòng (不痛) are "pain" and "no pain"
  • hǎo (好) and bù hǎo (不好) are "good" and "not good"; hěn hǎo (很好) is "very good" or "great"
  • yào (要) is "want", bú yào (不要) "don't want"
  • yǎng (痒) is "that tickles"

There are several ways a masseur or masseuse might ask a question. For example "does this hurt" might be asked as tòng bú tòng? or tòng ma?. For either, answer tòng or bú tòng.

Traditional arts[edit]

If you are planning to spend a longer time in China then you may want to consider learning some of the traditional arts. Traveling to China is after all a unique chance to learn the basics, or refine already acquired skills, directly from master practitioners in the arts' home country. Many cities have academies that accept beginners, and not knowing Chinese is usually not a problem as you can learn by example and imitation. Calligraphy (书法 shūfǎ), a term that covers both writing characters and painting scrolls (that is, classical landscapes and the like) remains a popular national hobby. Many calligraphers practice by writing with water on sidewalks in city parks. Other traditional arts which offer classes include learning to play traditional Chinese instruments (inquire in shops that sell these as many offer classes), cooking Chinese cuisine, or even singing Beijing Opera (京剧 jīngjù). Fees are usually extremely modest, and materials you need will not exactly break the bank. The only requirement is being in the same place for a long enough time, and showing sufficient respect; it is better not to join these classes as a tourist attraction.

Martial Arts and Taichi[edit]

As with traditional cultural arts, those with the time and inclination may be interested in studying China's famed martial arts. Some, such as tai chi (太极拳 tàijíquán) can be studied by simply visiting any city park in the early morning and following along. You will likely find many eager teachers. Other martial arts require more in-depth study. Famous martial arts programs include those at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song and Wu Wei Temple near Dali.

Traditional pastimes[edit]

China has several traditional games often played in tea gardens, public parks, or even on the street. Players often attract crowds of on-lookers. Two famous strategy board games that originated in China are Go (围棋 wéiqí) and Chinese chess (象棋 xiàngqí). Mahjong (麻将 májiàng), a game played with tiles, is very popular and often (well-nigh always) played for money, although its vast regional variations mean that you will have to learn new rules everywhere you go. Among the most well known variants of this game are the Cantonese, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. Chinese checkers (跳棋 tiǎoqí ), despite its name, did not originate in China but can be found. Many Chinese are skilled card (扑克牌 pūkèpái) players; Deng Xiaoping's love for bridge (桥牌 qiáopái) was particularly renowned.

Buy[edit][add listing]

The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"), often abbreviated as RMB. The base unit of this currency is the yuan (元), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan, usually either as ¥ or 元. The RMB is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their own currencies although occasionally it will be accepted on an unfavourable (for those using yuan) 1 to 1 basis with Hong Kong Dollars.

The yuan is currently hovering at ¥6.14 to the U. dollar and slowly rising in value (Oct 2014).

Cheat Sheet

  • 10 jiao is 1 yuan (元), the base unit
  • yuan is commonly called kuai (块)
  • jiao is commonly called mao (毛)
  • 10 is shí (十)
  • 100 is bǎi (百)
  • 1000 is qiān (千)
  • 10000 is wàn (万)

The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is essentially extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛). A price like ¥3,7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (although the trailing unit is usually omitted).

When dealing with numbers, note that for example wu bai san, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens", with the trailing unit dropped. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yi qian ba, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50,000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.

Nearly all present-day Chinese coins and bills

A lot of Chinese currency will be in the form of bills — even small change. Bills are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted anywhere. Even the jiao, at just one tenth of a yuan, exists as both a bill (the smallest) and two different coins. Conversely, one yuan exists both as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognize and handle either version.

Counterfeiting[edit]

Counterfeiting is a serious problem. Anyone staying in China for a few months would have certainly experienced it. From the ¥1 coin, to ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 bills, all currency is at risk. The main focus is on the texture of different parts, metal line, change of colours under different lights. Ask anyone how, all of them have their own way. One such strategy for bills is to hold it up to the light: all real bills will have a watermark in the white blank space off to the side.

It is very common for a cashier to scrutinize the banknotes you use to pay a bill. Don't be offended; they are not suggesting that you're using counterfeit currency. They just need to be responsible. When you get change, do the same, scrutinize the banknotes you get, especially notes over ¥50. Salespeople may try to give you counterfeit money that they took from other customers as change.

Counterfeits from ATMs became a hot topic in recent years, although it is not common. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiabi (counterfeit)". Bank staff seem to be very understanding on this.

It's not unheard of a non licensed money exchanger on China borders to change counterfeits to travellers. If you're not experienced in checking notes, you're highly advised to go to banks.

When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it's socially accepted that you remember the last few digits of your currency number as you pass it. It's possible that they say that your banknote is fake, just make sure you get back what you gave them.

Changing money[edit]

Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, US dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, British pound sterling, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can all be easily changed in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being Singapore dollars (this is changing- certain branches of Bank of Communications, indicated by a sign at teller windows, will exchange Malaysian ringgit, and Travelex will accept almost anything- with a hefty commission). Currency should only be changed at major banks (Bank of China in particular) or with the licensed money changers usually found at airports or high end hotels although these offer very bad rates.

A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are highly advised to avoid as Counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China. Beware the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks. While their exchange rates may look attractive, unless you have a local friend to help you out, do not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick with the official exchange counter in the Bank of China or one of the other large banks as even though you get slightly worse rates, the risk of getting counterfeit bills is close to zero.

Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, widely seen in many tourist spots or shopping malls around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 minutes to 60 minutes to process the exchange, sometimes a little faster in an hotel, depending on their experience. Generally speaking bank branches in major cities know the procedure and are relatively quick while even main branches in third and fourth tier cities can take much longer.

Regardless of location, you will need to fill a form and show your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with larger sum of money. Note that not all banks with the "Exchange" logo will exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. For example, Standard Chartered will only exchange cash for its customers and will only do USD and HKD in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable even on a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).

Exchanging US currency for RMB can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when coming overland from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken, as the rates are better. The same is true going the other way - selling just across the border will often net a more favourable rate. Also, most international banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the rates for such actions are often unfavourable and may include steep service charges. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British pounds, US dollars, or Japanese yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.


ATM cards[edit]

ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai most ATMs will take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.

Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will all display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).

Before travelling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.

If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.

UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.

Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.

Travellers cheques[edit]

Most major banks and upmarket hotels will exchange travellers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely. In second-tier cities you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travellers cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.

Foreign currency[edit]

Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or US dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for RMB except in several 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies in most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sight-see and shop, not to play day-trader, but for the curious, the minimum balance for US$ trading is USD1000 with USD19 account opening fee while the minimum for HKD trading is HKD5000). If you are running out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means that you don't have money to pay the bill without a trip to a bank or one of the very few automatic currency exchange machines scattered around Tier 1 cities. Many shops won't accept it, having no idea on exchange rate or how to check if the bills are counterfeit.

Electronic transfers[edit]

Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the other hand, service charges are variable (depends on the sending and receiving bank), the staff is sometimes ill-trained, and the process can take up to a week to clear. Alternatively, you may choose to look for a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to do transfers. This is easier in the big cities, though.

It will be MUCH easier to do transfers if you have an dual-currency account with the Bank of China - opened at the branch from which you plan to get your money. Electronic transfers to dual currency accounts incur no or very low fees although it will usually take about one week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from overseas also take from three to ten business days. All you need to start an account is your passport, visa and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new-account fee (¥10-20). If you open a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you will be able to access it in another province or overseas. Alternatively, for visitors from the US, Wells Fargo offers a service called ExpressSend that allows someone to send money from the US and have it arrive at a China Agricultural Bank account on the same day.

Western Union[edit]

Western Union has deals with China Agricultural Bank and with China Post so there are a lot of Western Union signs around. China Construction Bank (ICBC) has also been known to accept Western Union. This method is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives, or expats sending money out of China, generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. A list of locations is available through Western Union's website. There may, however, be problems. Their system may be down or the employee you deal with may ask for silly things — for an overseas transfer, the recipient's passport and visa numbers, or for a within-China transfer, cash in US dollars.

It is sometimes difficult to find the branch listed on the Western Union website, and the process of getting the transfer completed can take a long time. Expect to take your time finding the branch, and spending 1+ hours inside the bank completing the transaction. Foreigners will almost certainly need a passport. If you speak Chinese then this probably wouldn't take so long. Just try another branch if you are having difficulties. The exchange rate through Western Union has historically been quite good, and this can be a viable way to send money to yourself or to someone else in China. Just make sure you have a safe place to hold that big wad of RMB if you choose to receive the transfer in cash!

Credit cards[edit]

Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.

Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards (unless it is also a UnionPay card). However, because of the nature of Discover's agreement with the UnionPay network, it is treated as a domestic card at ATMs and point-of-sale. If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account if signing up for a Discover card is impractical. Ideally, if in a big city and later travelling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if travelling to nearby countries later). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.

Costs[edit]

While China is no longer the bargain destination it was during the 1990's, it remains quite affordable. Unless you are heading to Hong Kong or Macau, the mainland is generally much less expensive - from a traveller's perspective - than industrialized countries. If you eat local food, use public transportation and stay in very inexpensive budget hotels or hostels then ¥200 to ¥300 is a serviceable daily backpacker budget. As of 2014 there were still many street vendors selling various products for ¥1 a piece. It's potentially risky to dine on street food but the point is there is a wide range of options. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and eat only the best Chinese delicacies or upmarket Western food and stay in luxury hotels, then even ¥3,000 a day would not be enough. There is a high degree of variation in prices depending on where you go. First-tier cities generally cost more than second-tier ones, and much more than rural and central and western parts of the country.

Although accommodation, food, and travel can all still be done quite cheaply in China, the prices of tourist attractions (historical sites as well as national parks) are increasing rapidly. If you have a tick list of things you want to see, and are on a backpackers budget, this will be a sizeable portion of your budget (potentially 25-50%). Entry fees range from ¥30 to ¥300 with the norm of major scenic sites tending around ¥100.

Tipping[edit]

As a general rule, tipping is not practised anywhere in China. When leaving a tip on your table, it is common to see a waiter chase after you to return the money you "forgot" to take.

In a hotel, it is widely accepted not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else -- exceptions can be made and especially hotels which cater to foreign clients, staff will not be offended if they receive a tip. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen have been known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy at getting tips most Chinese see this as extortion and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don't wish to give any.

In China, compliments over service is usually expressed in implicit ways. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. Offering a seat or drink would also be seen as a nice gesture.

Tipping in the wrong way can lead to embarrassment, and can sometimes be insulting, because you are suggesting that the relationship is based on money, not friendship.

Banking[edit]

Opening a bank account in China is a very straightforward process. The "big four" banks in China are the Bank of China (中国银行), China Construction Bank (中国建设银行), Agricultural Bank of China (中国农业银行) and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (中国工商银行). For locally-owned banks you only need your passport with a valid visa (tourist visas are acceptable). Some banks such as Bank of East Asia will require proof of residence, but this restriction mostly applies to banks based in Hong Kong. For long-term travel or residence, a Chinese bank account is a very good idea. Depending on the bank, the PIN and/or ID may be required for withdrawals at the counter (ask beforehand; some foreign banks only require a signature for withdrawal; if you're not comfortable with that don't open an account there) although deposits can be made no questions asked if you have the bank book or card they issued with your account. Depending on the bank, the minimum initial deposit is ¥1-100 (some multinational banks like Citibank or DBS require five-digit minimum deposits; these banks are to be avoided for the average person). You may receive a bank book in which will record all transactions and balances - including foreign currency balances. However, most banks in big cities offer card-only accounts by default; if you want a bank book you'll have to ask unless they don't issue ATM cards at all (such as Shinhan Bank or Dah Sing Bank) Banks usually charge a fee (around 1%) for depositing and withdrawing money in a different city than the one you opened your account in (if opening with Woori Bank, they offer unlimited ATM withdrawals at any ATM in China until June 2011, and Wing Hang Bank offers free withdrawals anywhere in the world, with the card fee waived until 2014). ATMs are now present in almost all towns and cities except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, Mastercard, AMEX, Maestro, and Plus debit and credit cards although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac, or Link ATM cards.

Also, in Shanghai, most of the smaller local banks have relations with each other allowing for no-fee interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3,000. Also, any Bank of Shanghai deposit-capable ATM can do deposits for any bank with a Shanghai-issued account.

Bank of China Bank of China ATMs are occasionally the only ATMs where an international bank card will work. This bank has good international banking experience.

China Construction Bank & Bank of America Bank of America and China Construction Bank have business ties, and because of this, Bank of America customers can use China Construction Bank ATM's without any fees to withdraw RMB.

China Merchants Bank This bank gets best reviews from expatriates as of July 2009.

Standard Chartered This bank is also very expat-friendly (it is based in the UK), however branches outside the big cities are lacking. They offer unlimited interbank ATM withdrawals within the city the card was issued in as long as the amount drawn is over ¥2000 each time and they also offer multiple foreign-currency investment products.

Woori Bank It has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered, but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card, which gives discounts at assorted restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions, as a debit card. Locally-owned banks only issue this as a credit card, which foreigners can't get, so this is the better choice if travelling to Shanghai. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals anywhere in China. As a Korean bank, they typically cater to Koreans and it shows in the level of customer service.

ICBC The largest bank in China.

Do note that if you are employed in China, you may not get a choice: many companies and schools deposit into only one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid. Of course you may later transfer the money to an account with a bank of choosing.

Shopping[edit]

Antiquities Banned From Export
China's government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of antiques from before 1911. It is thus illegal to take antiques out of China. Even antiques from before 1911 bought in proper auctions cannot be taken out of the country. As violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and a possible jail term, it would be wise to heed it. However if you let vendors know you are aware of this law they may lower their prices since they know you know their "antiques" really aren't Ming Dynasty originals.


As China's emergent middle class finds itself with increasing amounts of disposable income, shopping has become a national pastime. A wide range of goods are available to suit any budget.

Do not expect everything to be cheap. The prices of imported brand name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese tourists would buy such items in Hong Kong, not in mainland China.

In most brand name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.

Regarding discounts, Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represented the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to 20% off; 6.5折 is equal to 35% off.

China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labour is still comparatively inexpensive. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions, but don't take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. The overwhelming majority of the "antique" items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says. Do not spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.

Porcelain at Shanghai's antique market
  • Porcelain with a long history of porcelain manufacture, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with Ming-style blue and white, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many lovely monochrome glazes which are worth seeking out. Specialist shops near hotels and the top floors of department stores are a good place to start, though not the cheapest. The "antique" markets are also a good place to find reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from vendors' attempts to convince you that their items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centers for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Quanzhou.
  • Furniture in the 1990s and 2000s China become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from the vast countryside. As the supply of old items has dwindled many of the restorers are now turning to making new items using the old styles. The quality of new pieces is often excellent and some great bargains can still be had in new and old items. Furniture tends to be concentrated in large warehouses on the outskirts of cities; Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these and hotels can tell you how to find them. Major sellers can also arrange international shipment in most cases. Zhongshan in particular has a huge furniture market.
  • Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into three non-interacting parts. First, there are the traditional painting academies which specialize in "classical" painting (bird and flower, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and serving up painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. Second, there is a burgeoning modern art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both "scenes" are worth checking out and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The centre of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) warehouse district is emerging as the new frontier for galleries, reminiscent of New York's Soho in the mid-80s. The third arts scene fits closely with China's prowess in mass-production. China has become famous for producing hand painted reproductions of great works. The Shenzhen suburb of Dafen is particularly renowned for its reproductions.
  • Jade There are two types of Jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colorless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other type is green in color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) - if genuine! The first thing to be aware of when buying Jade is that you will get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green colour is extraordinarily expensive and the "cheap" green jade you will see in the markets is made either from synthetic stone or from natural stone that has been coloured with a green dye. When buying jade look closely at the quality of the carving: How well finished is it? Is it refined, or crude with tool marks visible? The quality of the stone often goes along with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you are going to spend a fair sum of money, do it in specialist stores, not flea markets. Khotan in Xinjiang is a famous area for jade production.
  • Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types. Many tourists come looking for silk carpets although these are actually a fairly recent tradition with most of the designs being taken from middle-eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Be aware that though the workmanship is quite fine on these carpets they often skimp on materials, particularly dyes. These are prone to fading and colour change, especially if the carpet is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan carpets are amongst the best in terms of quality and construction, but be aware that most carpets described as Tibetan are not actually made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
  • Pearls & Pearl Jewellery cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold at markets across China. The use of large scale aquaculture makes pearl jewellery affordable and widely available. Big, lustrous, near-round and round freshwater pearls come out with a variety of colours and overtones. In addition to jewellery, pearl-based cosmetics are also widely available.
  • Silver Coins a variety of silver coins are sold in China's markets with good reason: in the 19th century, the emperor decreed that foreigners had to pay for all trade goods in silver. The United States even minted a special silver "trade dollar" just to meet this requirement. Collectors can find Mexican, U.S., French Indochinese, Chinese and other silver dollars available for purchase, mostly dated 1850-1920. Unfortunately, most of the coins on sale now are counterfeit. If you want to collect coins, carry a small portable scale to check their weights. In a tourist area, expect at least 90% to fail this simple test.
  • Other arts and Crafts Other items to look for include Cloisonne (coloured enamels on a metal base), lacquer work, opera masks, kites, shadow puppets, Socialist-realist propaganda posters, wood carvings, scholar's rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so), paper-cuts, and so on.

Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other artwork, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture available today are replicas. Much of the jade is either glass or low quality stone that has been dyed a nice green; some is even plastic. Various stone carvings are actually moulded glass. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers in World War II or modern Chinese copies. At the right price, any of such goods can be a very good buy. However, none of them are worth anywhere near the price of real top-quality goods. Unless you are an expert on whatever you want to buy, you are quite likely to get sold low quality merchandise at high prices.

There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if you do decide to spend a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; you may not get the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but you probably won't get cheated either.

Clothing[edit]

Nanjing Road in Shanghai

China is one of the world's leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.

Travellers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be very erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the US can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Most nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15-30min for free.

There are very affordable tailors anywhere in China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days in many cases. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors, as everywhere, varies widely. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.

Brand-name goods[edit]

Items with big worldwide brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are bogus; virtually all major brands market in China, but some will be unauthorized or downright bogus. If you are buying genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, be aware that they will not be cheaper than buying them in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.

There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand name goods.

  • The most common variant comes from a Chinese firm that gets a contract to deliver, say, 100,000 shirts to BigBrand. They actually have to make a few more than that because some will fail quality control. Maybe 105,000? What the heck, make 125,000. Any extras will be easy to sell; after all they have the BigBrand label. So 25,000 shirts — a few "factory seconds" and many perfectly good shirts — arrive on the Chinese market, without BigBrand's authorization. A traveler might be happy to buy these — just check carefully to avoid the seconds and you get exactly the shirt BigBrand sells for a much better price.
  • However, it doesn't end there. If the factory owner is greedy, he goes on to crank out a bunch more. Only now he doesn't have to worry about BigBrand's strict quality control. He can cut a few corners, slap the BigBrand label on them, and make a great profit. These may or may not be a good buy, but in any case they are not what you would expect from BigBrand.
  • Finally, of course, some other factory may be cranking out utterly bogus "BigBrand" shirts. These outright forgeries often misspell the brand name which is a dead giveaway.

Fake brand oddities include items such as a reversible jacket with "Adidas" on one side and "Nike" on the other or shirts with more than one brand. While these might be interesting curiosities, they obviously are not genuine examples of either brand.

There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand name goods in China.

  • First, you cannot just trust the brand; inspect the goods carefully for flaws. Check the spelling on labels.
  • Second, if the deal seems too good to be true, be very suspicious. China makes a lot of good cheap products, but a hundred dollar LV handbag is utterly certain to be bogus.

Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling "pirate" DVDs or forged brand name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs for travelers' home countries. Customs officials will seize pirated DVDs or bogus brand name goods if they find them. Some Western travelers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught returning home with bogus products.

Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new "designer" wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. Feel free to purchase these items but remove the tags prior to taking them home. If you have a suitcase full of brand new tagged designer knock-offs or swing produced clothes, you are likely to be hassled by customs. The likely worst case scenario is you will lose the items and receive a fine; the best case scenario is you will lose the items. Simply remove the tags and they will almost certainly go unnoticed with the rest of your belongings.

Software, Music and Movies[edit]

Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. The ones that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are absolutely certain to be bogus. Some of the ones at higher prices with better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid bogus discs is to buy at one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section. The prices are ¥15-40.

Some good checks, or dead giveaways, for a fake are:

  • Credits on the back of the case which do not match the movie.
  • Covers which are obviously made from cinema poster images ("Coming Soon", the release date, etc. mentioned on them.)
  • Covers which feature uncomplimentary reviews ("Heavy on the spice and light on the meat", "Nothing more than you could get from an episode of CSI", etc.)

In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack.

If you buy DVDs or CDs and plan to take them home, be sure to get a receipt that will prove your good faith to Western customs officers.

Endangered species[edit]

There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing — coral, ivory, and parts from endangered animal species. China's economic miracle has been a disaster for the world's wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones, and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.

It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or jail time. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.

Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum, you will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country's customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the "ivory" items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.

Bargaining[edit]

See also: How to haggle

Bargaining is a national pastime in China. You can bargain over almost anything, and sometimes it's even possible to ask for discount in a restaurant at the last minute before you check the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have made a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask "Will I get a gift?"

Unlike many southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok's Khao San Road or Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers, are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be very pushy, sometimes even grabbing your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. Some items like silk fans (largest size: 1'2") are posted as ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually just ¥10. Therefore it's often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals.

The purchasing power of the nouveau riche in China makes the place not always cheap any more. When you go to tourist spots, it is possible to see a ¥1,000 skirt tailor-made by a designer, ¥2,000 per a bag of tea, or dozens of thousands for silverware.

It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor's first offer is common. Do note that if someone offers you too-great-to-be-true discount, it could be a sign that the goods are of less than great quality. The rule of thumb is to walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it's common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount will only make a fool of yourself.

In a tourist places, don't take what merchants say seriously. When you ask for a 50% discount, they may be appalled and show scorn; it's a favourite drama. Souvenirs, including "antiques", are almost all standard products from factories. Compare more. Do be aware that in tourist markets, the room for negotiation is not as wide as it used to be. With so many tourists all shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiating. If your starting price is too low, they may dismiss you because trying to get the margin they want isn't worth their time.

Souvenirs in some places may have no connection with the history of the place, and change frequently, often appearing to be cheap nick nacks the stallholders association picked up cheap and in bulk from a disposal sale.

In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as 'black-hearted' (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist place where rental payments are skyrocketing, if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places), you may have a chance to bargain a little bit too. It sometimes works, but not all the time.

Souvenir shops for jewellery, herbs, and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that give them commission, it is also common that they take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you make a show of being overly cautious, it is likely to offend your hosts because you are suggesting a 'good guy' is actually a cheater.

In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that you're paying commission. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.

Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk , tea, or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgement if you want to buy anything. However, the shops visited on tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods like silk and jade.

Western goods[edit]

Areas with large expatriate communities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have speciality grocery stores catering to those communities. Size and selection may vary, between city to city and store brand. They usually stock imported snacks, alcohol, and speciality groceries such as meats and cheeses and are often more expensive. See individual articles for details.

Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China — Wal-mart (沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ), Metro (麦德龙 Màidélóng), TESCO, and Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú). All have some Western groceries - often at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products diminishes at their branches in second or third-tier cities. Metro is probably the best of these; in particular it usually has a fine selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Jusco (佳世客 Jiāshìkè), RT-Mart (大潤發 Dàrùnfā) , LOTTE Mart (乐天玛特 Letianmate), Lotus, and SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian (北京华联 Běijīng Huálián) also carry a limited selection of foreign products.Furthermore, there are a lot of online services providing home delivery of food and drinks. Two most famous nationwide websites are M1NT Cellars, offering imported wines and all kinds of alcoholic beverages, and Sherpa, delivering food and soft drinks right at your door step.

Tobacco products[edit]

While China has experienced a declining trend for smoking, it is still a popular habit and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters located in supermarkets and in department stores.

Most mainstream Chinese brands sell at around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海 zhōngnánhǎi), Honghe (红河 hónghé), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜 shuāngxǐ). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13mg tar is the norm) although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors, having a similar taste to Marlboro Light but only half the price. Western brands are available including Marlboro (万宝路 wànbǎolù), 555 (三五 sān wǔ), Davidoff (大卫杜夫 dàwèidùfú), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are a little more expensive - stick to major convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi as many smaller stores sell counterfeit or illegally imported cigarettes.

Premium-brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and are vary rarely smoked personally - they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous 'premium brands' include Zhonghua (中华 zhōnghuá) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores - those sold in neighbourhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available but expensive whilst counterfeits cheaper.

Cigars can be bought from some specialty tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars can be good - expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of counterfeit western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities but are often very expensive (luxury goods are heavily taxed).

Duty-free stores in international airports, international rail stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a greater range of imported brands - expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a 200-cigarette carton.

Eat[edit][add listing]

A food street in Jinan

Food in China varies widely from region to region so the term "Chinese food" is pretty much a blanket term, just like "Western food." While visiting, relax your inhibitions and try a bit of everything. Be aware that some "Chinese" food, such as Beef and Broccoli or Chow Mein should be avoided (if you could even find them), as these are not real Chinese dishes and will get you strange looks from locals.

Do keep in mind that undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection, particularly during warm or hot weather. Thus it is advisable to take great care about (and perhaps abstain from) eating seafood and meat on the street during the summer. In addition, unless you're in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other large cities, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. That all being said, the hygiene conditions of a restaurant are usually satisfactory which means that diarrhea is usually not a risk to most people.

Chinese gourmands place emphasis on freshness so your meal will most likely be cooked as soon as you order it. Searing hot woks over coal or gas fires make even street food usually safe to eat. Indeed freshly prepared street food, as noted by many travel writers, is often safer than the food sitting on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. China is no exception.

The two-menu system where different menus are presented according to the skin color of a guest remains largely unheard of in China. Most restaurants only have one menu - the Chinese one. Learning some Chinese characters such as beef (牛), pork (猪), chicken (鸡), fish (鱼), stir-fried (炒), deep-fried (炸), braised (烧), baked or grilled (烤), soup (汤), rice (饭), or noodles (面) will take you a long way. As pork is the most common meat in Chinese cuisine, where a dish simply lists "meat" (肉), assume it is pork.

Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients some people may prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by a mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in specialty restaurants which do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients will have astronomical prices and would not be listed on the regular menu anyway.

Generally speaking, rice is the main staple in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main staple in the north.

Regional Cuisines[edit]

Four Great Traditions (四大菜系)[edit]

  • Jiangsu / Zhejiang / Shanghai (淮扬菜 "Huáiyáng cài", 苏菜,"Sū Cài", Huaiyang cuisine): Huaiyang cuisine tends to have a sweet side to it and is almost never spicy. Pork, freshwater fish, and other aquatic creatures serve as the meat base in most dishes, which are usually more meticulous and light compared to the more "brash" eating styles of northern China. Huaiyang cuisine also includes several breakfast choices such as crab soup dumplings (蟹黄汤包 "xìehúang tāngbāo"), thousand-layered cake (千层糕 "qiāncéng gāo"), steamed dumplings (蒸饺 "zhēngjiǎo"), tofu noodles (大煮干丝 "dàzhǔ gānsī"), and wild vegetable steamed buns (菜包子 "cài bāozi").
  • Cantonese / Guangzhou / Hong Kong (广东菜 Guǎngdōng Cài, 粤菜 Yuè Cài): the style most Western visitors are already familiar with to some extent. Not too spicy, the emphasis is on freshly cooked ingredients and seafood. Dim Sum (点心 Diǎnxīn), small snacks usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, are a highlight. That being said, authentic Cantonese cuisine is also among the most adventurous in China in terms of variety of ingredients as the Cantonese are famous, even among the Chinese, for their extremely wide definition of what is considered edible.
  • Shandong (山东菜 Shāndōng cài, 鲁菜 Lǔ Cài, Shandong cuisine): Although modern transport has greatly increased the availability of ingredients throughout China, Shandong cuisine remains rooted in its ancient traditions. Most notable is the staggering array of seafood, including scallops, prawns, clams, sea cucumbers, and squid.
  • Sichuan (川菜 Chuān Cài): Famously hot and spicy. A popular saying is that it is so spicy your mouth will go numb. However, not all dishes are made with live chilies. The numbing sensation actually comes from the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒). Sichuanese food is widely available outside Sichuan and also native to Chongqing. If you want really authentic Sichuanese food outside Sichuan or Chongqing, look for small eateries sporting the characters for Sichuan cuisine in neighborhoods with lots of migrant workers. These tend to be much cheaper and often better than the ubiquitous up-market Sichuan restaurants.

Famous Traditions[edit]

(The Other Four of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine):

  • Fujian (福建菜 Fújiàn Cài, 闽菜 Mǐn Cài): uses ingredients mostly from coastal and estuarial waterways. "Buddha Jumps over a Wall" (佛跳墙 Fó Tiào Qiáng) is particularly famous. According to legend, the smell was so good a monk forgot his vegetarian vows and leaped over the wall to have some. Fujian cuisine can be split into at least two distinct cuisines: Minnan cuisine from the area around Xiamen and Mindong cuisine from the area around Fuzhou.
  • Zhejiang (浙菜 Zhè Cài): includes the foods of Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Shaoxing. A delicately seasoned, light-tasting mix of seafood and vegetables often served in soup. Sometimes lightly sweetened or sometimes sweet and sour, Zhejiang dishes frequently involve cooked meats and vegetables in combination.
  • Hunan (湖南菜 Húnán Cài, 湘菜 Xiāng Cài): the cuisine of the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province. Similar, in some ways, to Sichuanese cuisine, it can actually be "spicier" in the Western sense.
  • Anhui (安徽菜 Ānhuī cài), 徽菜 huī cài): Anhui cuisine is known for its use of wild herbs, from both the land and the sea, and simple methods of preparation. Braising and stewing are common cooking techniques. Frying and stir frying are used much less frequently in Anhui cuisine than in other Chinese culinary traditions.Anhui cuisine consists of three styles: the Yangtze River region, Huai River region, and southern Anhui region. Anhui has ample uncultivated fields and forests, so the wild herbs used in the region's cuisine are readily available.

Other traditions[edit]

  • Shanghai (沪菜 Hù Cài): because of its geographical location, Shanghai cuisine is considered to be a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. The most famous dishes are xiaolongbao (小笼包 Xiǎolóngbāo) and chives dumplings (韭菜饺子 Jiǔcài Jiǎozi ). Another specialty is "pulled noodles" (拉面 lāmiàn), from which Japanese ramen and Korean ramyeon are believed to be derived. Fried dishes are often somewhat sweet.
  • Teochew / Chaozhou (潮州菜 Cháozhōu Cài): originating from the Shantou area in northern Guangdong, a unique style which nonetheless will be familiar to most Southeast Asian and Hong Kong Chinese. Famous dishes include braised duck (卤鸭 Lǔyā), yam paste dessert (芋泥 Yùní) and fishballs (鱼丸 Yúwán).
  • Guizhou (贵州菜 Guìzhōu Cài, 黔菜 Qián Cài): combines elements of Sichuan and Xiang cuisine, making liberal use of spicy, peppery and sour flavors. The peculiar zhergen (折耳根 Zhē'ěrgēn), a regional root vegetable, adds an unmistakable sour-peppery flavor to many dishes. Minority dishes such as Sour Fish Hot Pot (酸汤鱼 Suān Tāng Yú) are widely enjoyed.
  • Hainan (琼菜 Qióng Cài): famous among the Chinese, but still relatively unknown to foreigners, characterized by the relatively heavy use of coconuts. The signature specialties are the "Four Famous Dishes of Hainan" (海南四大名菜 Hǎi Nán Sì Dà Míng Cài): Wenchang chicken (文昌鸡 Wénchāng jī), Dongshan goat (东山羊 Dōngshān yáng), Jiaji duck (加积鸭 Jiājī yā) and Hele crab (和乐蟹 Hélè xiè).
  • Beijing (京菜 Jīng Cài ): home-style noodles and baozi (包子 bread buns), Peking Duck (北京烤鸭 Běijīng Kǎoyā), cabbage dishes, great pickles. Not fancy but can be great and satisfying.
  • Imperial (宫廷菜 Gōngtíng Cài): the food of the late Qing court, made famous by the Empress Dowager Cixi, can be sampled at high-end specialized restaurants in Beijing. The cuisine combines elements of Manchu frontier food such as venison with exotica such as camel's paw, shark's fin and bird's nest.

Fast food[edit]

Various types of Chinese food provide quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold from portable vendors can be found throughout China's cities. Wangfujing district's Snack Street in Beijing is a notable, if touristy, area for street food. In Cantonese-speaking areas, street food vendors are called gai bin dong; such ventures can grow into a substantial business with the stalls only barely 'mobile' in the traditional street food sense. Various quick eats available nationwide include:

  • Various, usually sweet, items from the ubiquitous bakeries (面包房, 面包店). A great variety of sweets and sweet food found in China are often sold as snacks, rather then as a post-meal dessert course in restaurants as in the West.
  • Barbecued sticks of meat from street vendors. Yang rou chuan (羊肉串), or fiery Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs, are particularly renowned.
  • Jiaozi (饺子), which Chinese translate as "dumplings", boiled, steamed or fried ravioli-like items with a variety of fillings. These are found throughout Asia; momos, mandu, gyoza, and jiaozi are all basically variations of the same thing.
  • Baozi (包子), steamed buns stuffed with savoury, sweet or vegetable fillings.
  • Mantou (馒头), steamed bread available on the roadside - great for a very cheap and filling snack.
  • Lanzhou-style lamian (拉面), fresh hand-pulled noodles. This industry is heavily dominated by members of the Hui (回族) ethnic group[76] - look for a tiny restaurant with staff in Muslim dress, white fez-like hats on the men and head scarves on the women.
  • In Guangdong and sometimes elsewhere, dim sum (点心). At any major tourist destination in China, you may well find someone serving dim sum for Hong Kong customers.

The Western notion of fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety. KFC (肯德基), McDonald's (麦当劳), Subway (赛百味) and Pizza Hut (必胜客) are ubiquitous, at least in mid-sized cities and above. Although common, the menus and flavors in these Western chains have been altered to suit Chinese tastes, such as Mcdonald's Red Bean Mcflurry. There are a few Burger Kings (汉堡王), Domino's and Papa John's (棒约翰) as well but only in major cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos (德克士) - chicken burgers, fries etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better - and Kung Fu (真功夫) - which has a more Chinese menu.

Another Western brand that takes on a surprising incarnation in China is Häagen-Dazs. If you see a Häagen-Dazs in a larger city like Shanghai or Guangzhou, note that it is in fact a formal dining experience, where an ice cream sundae will cost about 100 RMB. Also note that some other Western brands that are considered casual in the West may take on a more formal atmosphere in China. Pizza Hut is an example of this.

Etiquette[edit]

China is the birthplace of chopsticks and unsurprisingly, much important etiquette relates to the use of chopsticks. While the Chinese are generally tolerant about table manners, you will most likely be seen as ill-mannered, annoying or offensive when using chopsticks in improper ways. Stick to the following rules:

  • Never use your chopsticks to examine a dish piece by piece, making everyone taste your saliva. Implicitly use your eye to target what you want, and pick it.
  • Once you pick a piece, you are obliged to take it. Don't put it back. Confucius says never leave someone what you don't want.
  • When someone is picking from a dish, don't try to cross over or go underneath his arms to pick from a dish further away. Wait until they finish picking.
  • In most cases, a dish is not supposed to be picked simultaneously by more than one person. Don't try to compete with anyone to pick a piece from the same dish.
  • Don't put your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice as it is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and carries the connotation of wishing death for those around you. Instead, place it across your bowl or on the chopstick rest, if provided.
  • Don't drum your bowl with chopsticks. Only beggars do it. People don't find it funny even if you're willing to satirically call yourself a beggar.

Other less important dining rules include:

  • Many travel books suggest that cleaning your plate suggests that your host did not to feed you well and will feel pressured to order more food. In general, finishing a meal involves a delicate balance. Cleaning your plate will typically invite more to be served, while leaving too much may be a sign that you didn't like it. When you're stuffed, you will please your host by lifting up a thumb, telling your host how much you enjoy it, and theatrically rubbing your belly to show that you're stuffed.
  • Communal chopsticks (公筷) are not always provided. Diners typically use their own chopsticks to transfer food to their bowl. While many Westerners consider this unhygienic, it is usually safe. However, if desired, it is acceptable to request communal utensils.
  • Making slurping noises when eating is common but could be considered inappropriate, especially among well educated families. However, slurping is seen by some gourmands as a way to enhance flavor.
  • Spoons are used when drinking soups or eating watery dishes such as porridge. In China, the dish should be scooped towards you, and not away from you as done in the West, as the Chinese believe that this rakes in wealth.
  • If a piece is too slippery to pick, do it with the aid of a spoon; do not spear it with the sharp end of the chopstick.
  • All dishes are shared, similar to "family style" dining in North America. When you order anything, it's not just for you, it's for everyone. You're expected to consult others before you order a dish. When you're asked about your opinion, being overly picky is usually seen as annoying.
  • It is normal for your host or hostess to put food on your plate. It is a gesture of kindness and hospitality. If you wish to decline, do it in a way so that it does not offend. For example, you should insist that they eat and that you serve yourself.
  • Fish heads are considered a delicacy and may be offered to you as an honored guest. In truth, the cheek meat is particularly savory.

Treating[edit]

In China, restaurants and pubs are very common entertainment places and treating plays an important part in socializing.

While splitting the bill is beginning to be accepted by young people, treating is still the norm, especially when the parties are in obviously different social classes. Men are expected to treat women, elders to juniors, rich to poor, hosts to guests, working class to non-income class (students). Friends of the same class will usually prefer to split the opportunity to treat, rather than split the bill, i.e. "This is my turn, and you treat next time."

It is common to see Chinese competing sweatily to pay the bill. You are expected to fight back and say "It's my turn, you treat me next time." The smiling loser will accuse the winner of being too courteous. These dramas are becoming somewhat less common among young urban Chinese despite still being widespread among all generations and usually played wholeheartedly.

Unless you only hang out with non-Chinese tourists, you will have fair chances of being treated. For budget travelers, the good news is that Chinese tend to be eager to treat foreigners, although you shouldn't expect much from students and working class families and individuals.

That being said, Chinese tend to be very tolerant towards foreigners. If you feel like going dutch, try it. They tend to believe that "all foreigners prefer to go dutch". If they try to argue, it usually means that they insist on paying for your bill as well, not the opposite.

Drink[edit][add listing]

The Chinese love a tipple and the all-purpose word jiǔ (酒) covers quite a range of alcoholic drinks.

Toasting[edit]

Chinese toast with the word gānbēi (干杯, literally "dry glass"). Traditionally one is expected to drain the glass in one swig. During a meal, the visitor is generally expected to drink at least one glass with each person present; sometimes there may be considerable pressure to do this. And it can be considered rude, at least early during the meal, if you do not make a toast every time you take a drink.

Exercise caution. Fortunately, the glasses are usually small — even beer is often drunk from an oversized shot glass. The Chinese liquor, baijiu, is definitely potent (up to 65% alcohol). Baijiu is often drunk in small shot glasses for a good reason. US president Nixon practiced drinking before his first trip to China to be ready to drink with Mao Zedong. Unless you are used to imbibing heavily, be very careful when drinking with Chinese.

If you want to take it easy but still be sociable, say suíbiàn (随便) before you make the toast, then drink only part of the glass. It may also be possible to have three toasts (traditionally signifying friendship) with the entire company, rather than one separate toast for every individual present.

Alcohol[edit]

The legal drinking/purchasing age in China is 18, except in Macau where there is no legal drinking/purchasing age. Note, alcohol regulations of Hong Kong and Macau are different from Mainland China

Beer (啤酒 píjiǔ) is very common in China and is served in nearly every restaurant. The most famous brand is Tsingtao (青島) from Qingdao, which was at one point a German concession. Other brands abound and are generally light beers in a pilsner or lager style with 3-4% alcohol. In addition to national brands, most cities will have one or more cheap local beers. Some companies (Tsingtao, Yanjing) also make a dark beer (黑啤酒 hēipíjiǔ). In some regions, beers from other parts of Asia are fairly common and tend to be popular with travellers — Filipino San Miguel in Guangdong, Singaporean Tiger in Hainan, and Laotian Beer Lao in Yunnan, The typical price for beer is about ¥2.5-4 in a grocery store, ¥4-18 in a restaurant, around ¥25 in an ordinary bar, and ¥40+ in a fancier bar.

Most places outside of major cities serve beer at room temperature, regardless of season, though places that cater to American and Canadian tourists have it cold.

Locally made grape wine (葡萄酒 pútaojiǔ) is common and much of it is reasonably priced, from ¥15 in a grocery store, about ¥100-150 in a fancy bar. That said, most of the stuff bears only the faintest resemblance to Western wines. The Chinese like their wines red and very, very sweet, and they're typically served over ice or mixed with Sprite. Great Wall and Dynasty are large brands with a number of wines at various prices; their cheaper (under ¥40) offerings are generally not impressive. Chang Yu is another large brand; some of their low end wines are a bit better. If you're looking for a Chinese-made, Western-style wine, try to find these labels:

  • Suntime [77], with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Yizhu, located in Yili and specializing in ice wine
  • Les Champs D'or, French-owned and probably the best overall winery in China.
  • Imperial Horse and Xixia, from Ningxia
  • Mogao Ice Wine, Gansu
  • Castle Estates, Shandong
  • Shangrila Estates, from Zhongdian, Yunnan

There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of these resemble a watery rice pudding, they are usually very sweet and only have a very small amount of alcohol for taste. These do not generally much resemble Japanese sake, the only rice wine well-known in the West. Travelers' reactions to these vary widely.

Báijiǔ (白酒) is distilled liquor, generally 80 to 120 proof, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. As the word "jiǔ" is often loosely translated as "wine" by Chinese beverage firms and English speakers, baijiu is frequently referred to as "white wine" in conversation. Baijiu will typically be served at banquets and festivals in tiny shot glasses. Toasts are ubiquitous at banquets or dinners on special occasions. Most foreigners find baijiu tastes like diesel fuel, while a liquor connoisseur may find high quality, expensive baijiu quite good. Baijiu is definitely an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it's quite fun to "ganbei" a glass or two at a banquet.

The cheapest baijiu is the Beijing brewed èrguōtóu (二锅头) (¥4.5 per 100 mL bottle). It comes in two variants: 53% and 56% alcohol by volume. Ordering "xiǎo èr" (Erguotou's diminutive nickname) will likely raise a few eyebrows and a chuckle from working class Chinese.

Máotái (茅台), made in Guizhou Province, is China's most famous brand of baijiu and China's national liquor. Made from sorghum, Maotai and its expensive cousins (such as Kaoliang in Taiwan) are well-known for their strong fragrance and are actually sweeter than western clear liquors as the sorghum taste is preserved - in a way.

Chinese brandy (白兰地) is excellent value, about the same price as grape wine or baijiu, and generally far more palatable than either. A ¥16-20 local brandy is not a ¥200+ imported brand-name cognac, but it is close enough that you should only buy the cognac if money doesn't matter. Expats debate the relative merits of brandies from French-owned Louis Wann [78], Chinese brand Changyu [79], and several others. All are drinkable.

The Chinese are also great fans of various supposedly medicinal liquors, which usually contain exotic herbs and/or animal parts. Some of these have prices in the normal range and include ingredients like ginseng. These can be palatable enough, if tending toward sweetness. Others, with unusual ingredients (snakes, turtles, bees, etc.) and steep price tags, are probably best left to those that enjoy them.

Bars, discos and karaoke[edit]

Western style pubs are becoming increasingly popular across the country. Especially in the more affluent urban centers such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hangzhou one can find painstakingly recreated replicas of traditional Irish or English pubs. Like their Western counterparts most will have a selection of foreign beers on tap as well as provide pub food (of varying quality) and often feature live cover bands. Most of these pubs cater to and are frequented by the expatriate communities so you should not expect to find many Chinese in these places. Be aware that imported beer can be very expensive compared to local brew.

To just go out for a few drinks with friends, pick a local restaurant and drink beer at around ¥5 for a 600 ml bottle. It will be Chinese lager, around 3% alcohol, with a limited choice of brand and may be served warm. Most mid- to high- range restaurants will have small private suites for gatherings (usually offered free if there is more than around 5 people), and the staff will generally not try to hustle you out even if you decide to stay until closing time. Many residents frequent outdoor restaurants or roadside stalls and barbecues (shāokǎo - 烧烤) for a nice and inexpensive evening.

In discos and fancy bars with entertainment, you normally buy beer ¥100 at a time; this gets you anywhere from 4 import-brand beer (Heineken, Bud, Corona, Sol, ..) to 10 local beers. A few places offer cocktails; fewer have good ones.

Other drinks are sold only by the bottle, not by the glass. Red wine is in the ¥80-200 range (served with ice and Sprite) and mediocre imported whiskeys (Chivas, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels; extremely rarely single malts) and cognacs, ¥300-800. Both are often mixed with sweet bottled green or red tea. Vodka, tequila and rum are less common, but sometimes available. Bogus "brand name" products are fairly common and may ruin your next day.

These places often have bar girls, young women who drink a lot and want to play drinking games to get you to consume more. They get a commission on whatever you buy. In general, these girls will not leave the bar with you; they are professional flirts, not prostitutes.

Karaoke (卡拉OK) is huge in China and can be broadly split into two categories. More common is the no-frills karaoke box or KTV, where you rent a room, bring your friends and the house gives you a mike and sells you booze. Much favored by students, these are cheap and fun with the right crowd, although you need at least a few people for a memorable night. Bringing your own booze can keep the price tag down but must be done on the sly - many places have windows in the door so the staff can make sure you only drink liquor they sold to you.

Rather different is the distinctly dodgier special KTV lounge, more oriented to businessmen entertaining clients or letting their hair down, where the house provides anything and everything at a price. At these often opulent establishments — over-the-top Roman and Egyptian themes are standard — you'll be joined by short-skirted professional karaoke girls, who charge by the hour for the pleasure of their company and whose services may not be limited to just singing badly and pouring your drinks. It's highly advisable not to venture into these unless you're absolutely sure somebody else is footing the bill, which can easily run into hundreds of dollars even if you keep your pants on.

As elsewhere, never never accept an invitation to a restaurant or bar from an available-looking woman who just picked you up in the street sometime after sundown. At best, suggest a different place. If she refuses, drop her on the spot. More than likely, she will steer you into a quiet little place with too many doormen and you will find yourself saddled with a modest meal and beer that will cost you ¥1,000 or worse. And the doormen won't let you leave till you pay up. This is somewhat rare. But it does happen.

Tea[edit]

China is the birthplace of tea, and at the risk of stating the obvious, there's a lot of tea (茶 chá) in China. Green tea (绿茶 lǜchá) is served up for free in some restaurants (depending on region) or for a small fee. The most common types served are:

  • gunpowder tea (珠茶 zhūchá): a green tea so-named not after the taste but after the appearance of the bunched-up leaves used to brew it (the Chinese name "pearl tea" is rather more poetic)
  • jasmine tea (茉莉花茶 mòlihuachá): green-tea scented with jasmine flowers
  • oolong (烏龍 wūlóng): a half-fermented mountain tea.

However, specialist tea houses serve a vast variety of brews, ranging from the pale, delicate white tea (白茶 báichá) to the powerful fermented and aged pu'er tea (普洱茶 pǔ'ěrchá). Tea in Chinese culture is akin to wine in Western culture, and even the same type of tea will come in many different grades. Always check prices carefully before ordering as some of the best varieties can be very pricey indeed. Most tea shops have some teas at several hundred yuan per jing (500 g) and prices up to ¥2,000 are not uncommon. The record price for top grade tea sold at auction was well over ¥7000 a gram.

Various areas of China have famous teas. Hangzhou, near Shanghai, is famed for its "Dragon Well" (龙井 lóngjǐng) green tea. Fujian has the most famous oolong teas, "Big Red Robe" (大红袍 dàhóngpáo) from Mount Wuyi and "Iron Goddess of Mercy" (铁观音 tiěguānyīn) from Anxi. Pǔ'ěr in Yunnan has the most famous fully fermented tea, pǔ'ěrchá (普洱茶). This comes compressed into hard cakes, originally a packing method for transport by horse caravan to Burma and Tibet. The cakes are embossed with patterns; some people hang them up as wall decorations.

Most tea shops will be more than happy to let you sit down and try different varieties of tea. "Ten Fu Tea" is a national chain and in Beijing "Wu Yu Tai" is the one some locals say they favor.

Black tea, the type of tea most common in the West, is known in China as "red tea" (紅茶 hóngchá). While almost all Western teas are black teas, the converse isn't true, with many Chinese teas, including the famed Pǔ'ěr also falling into the "black tea" category.

Normal Chinese teas are always drunk neat, with the use of sugar or milk unknown. However, in some areas you will find Hong Kong style "milk tea" (奶茶 nǎichá) or Tibetan "butter tea". Taiwanese bubble tea (珍珠奶茶 Zhēnzhū Nǎichá) is also popular and widely available.

Coffee[edit]

Coffee (咖啡 kāfēi) is becoming quite popular in urban China, though it is nearly impossible to find in smaller towns.

Several chains of coffee shops have branches in many cities, including Starbucks (星巴克), UBC Coffee (上岛咖啡), Ming Tien Coffee Language and SPR . All offer coffee, tea, and both Chinese and Western food, generally with good air conditioning, wireless internet, and nice decor. ¥15-40 or so a cup.

There are also lots of smaller independent coffee shops or local chains. These may also be high priced, but often they are around ¥15 a cup. Quality varies from excellent to abysmal.

For cheap coffee just to stave off withdrawal symptoms, there are several options. Go to a Western fast food chain (KFC, McD, etc.) for some ¥8 coffee. Additionally, almost any supermarket or convenience store will have both canned cold coffee and instant Nescafé (black or pre-mixed with whitener and sugar) - just add hot water.

Cold drinks[edit]

Many drinks that are usually served chilled or with ice in the West are served at room temperature in China. Ask for beer or soda in a restaurant, and it may arrive at room temperature, though beer is more commonly served cold, at least in the summer. Water will generally be served hot. That is actually good, because only boiled (or bottled) water is safe to drink, but it's not pleasant to drink hot water in the summer.

You can get cold drinks from small grocery stores and restaurants, just look for the cooler (even though it might not actually be cool). You can try bringing a cold beverage into a restaurant. Most small restaurants won't mind--if they even notice--and there is no such thing as a "cork" charge in China. Remember that most people will be drinking tea, which is free anyway, so the restaurant is probably not expecting to profit on your beverage consumption.

Asking for ice is best avoided. Many, perhaps most, places just don't have it. The ice they do have may well be made from unfiltered tap water and arguably unsafe for travelers sweating bullets about diarrhea.

Sleep[edit][add listing]

Travel Warning WARNING: Foreigners MUST present an original passport with a valid visa for checking in a legal hotel or hostel.

Many wikitravellers have reported troubles during check-in when their passports were held by other consulates or PBS office for applying or extending a visa. Without an original passport, you will be refused to check in under any circumstances. Presenting a receipt from the police or consulates to prove the whereabout of your passport will NOT help. Therefore, before applying a new visa, travellers should stay at the same hotels/hostels and move until taking back the passport.

Travelers will also be denied to stay when their visas or passports have expired. Because every passport must be submitted to the Public Security System, an illegal visa or passport will trigger an alarm and the police may come to you immediately.

As of Nov, 2014, the China government does not have a policy to help those who have lost their passports to check in. Due to the tough penalty especially in big cities, it is impossible to ask for the mercy of a receptionist to break the law for you. In this situation, you should call the police and require them to arrange a place for you to stay.

In the worst case, you may also look up a list of illegal hostels in a hostel booking website. There are plenty of "homestay" (家庭旅馆, jiating lvguan)which are illegal accommodations located somewhere in a residential building. These types of accommodations are subject to frequent crackdowns. Be aware that they can also be a magnet of unemployed, criminals and those who overstay with their visas. You should not ditch your common sense when staying at those places.


Types of accommodation for tourists range from shared dorm rooms to five-star luxury hotels. In certain areas, foreign tourists are only allowed to stay at several approved hotels. although this is slowly changing. Some cheap establishments are still locally state-run affairs and haven't changed much since the Maoist era. Other ultra-cheap options are used as temporary housing by migrant workers and would not appeal to most travelers for security and cleanliness reasons. That said, there's a dizzying number of sleeping options in most Chinese towns, and despite language and legal barriers you should be able to find something in your budget and comfort range.

Finding a hotel when first arriving in a Chinese city can be a daunting task: a mob of passengers is pushing to disembark from the train or bus, touts are tugging at your arm and screaming in your face to go with them, everything is in incomprehensible Chinese and you are just looking for a place to put down your bag. It doesn't get any better once you get in a cab because the driver doesn't speak any English and every hotel in your guide book is full or closed! This can be the experience for many travelers in China, but the pains of finding a hotel room can be avoided if you know where to look and what you're looking for. In addition, star ratings especially for two and three-star hotels generally cannot be trusted in China. Pricing is a much better guide.

If you're willing to pay ¥200 or more for a room, then you'll probably have little problem finding a room. But if you want something cheaper yet still comfortable, you'll need more information than many guide books provide. The cheapest options include hostels, dorms, and extra rooms called zhusu. Every city has plenty of hotels charging ¥150 and up. Sleeper trains and sleeper buses can also be a decent option if you schedule your long-distance travel overnight (see the Get around section of this page for more information). If you're in a town and you can't find a hotel, try looking near the bus or train station, an area that typically has a larger selection of cheap hotels. Hotels that are not licensed to accept foreigners can be heavily fined if they are caught housing foreign occupants, but enforcement of this law appears spotty and many unlicensed hotels will find you a room anyway.

In the cheapest range of hotels it is important to ask if hot water is available 24 hours-a-day (有没有二十四个小时的热水 yǒuméiyǒu èrshisì ge xiǎoshí de rèshuǐ), and check if the shower, sink and toilet actually work. It is also advisable to avoid checking into a room next to a busy street as traffic may keep you up late and wake you up early. If you do plan on just showing up in town and looking for a place to sleep, it's best to arrive before 6PM-7PM. or the most popular places will be booked for the night.

Note that if you are absolutely at a loss for finding housing, you should seek out the local police (警察) or Public Security Bureau (公安局). They can help you find a place to crash - at least for one night.

Prices are often negotiable, and a sharp reduction from the price listed on the wall can often be had, even in nicer hotels, by simpy asking "what's the lowest price?" (最低多少 zuìdī duōshǎo). When staying for more than a few days it is also usually possible to negotiate a lower daily rate. However, these negotiating tactics won't work during the busy Chinese holiday seasons when prices sky-rocket and rooms are hard to get. Many hotels, both chains and individual establishments, have membership cards offering discounts to frequent guests.

In mid-range and above hotels, it is common for guests to receive phone calls offering "massage" services; this is actually a thinly-veiled front for prostitution.

Booking a room over the Internet with a credit card can be a convenient and speedy method of making sure you have a room when you arrive at your destination, and there are numerous websites that cater for this. Credit cards are not widely used in China, particularly in smaller and cheaper hotels. Such hotels usually ask to be paid in cash, with a security deposit, up front. Some new online services [80] allow you to book without a credit card and pay cash at the hotel. During Chinese holidays, when it is difficult to get a room anywhere, this may be an acceptable option, but in the off-season rooms are plentiful almost everywhere and it may be just as easy to find a room upon arrival as it is to book one over the Internet.

Low-cost Housing[edit]

There are various ways to sleep very cheaply in China: hostels, dorms, zhusu, massage shops, saunas, and spas.

  • Hostels (青年旅社) are, by far, the most comfortable low-cost options. They typically cater to foreigners, have English speaking employees, and can provide cheap, convenient transport around town. Some of them are even cleaner and better furnished than more expensive places. Hostels also have a cozy, international atmosphere and are a good place to meet other travelers and get some half-decent Western food, which can be a godsend after days or weeks surviving off rice and noodles. In most cities of any size there is at least one hostel available, and in travel hot spots such as Beijing, Yangshuo, Dali, and Chengdu there are plenty of hostel options, although they can still fill up quickly because of their popularity with backpackers. Hostels can often be booked on-line in advance although you definitely should bring a print out of your confirmation as not all hostels are aware you can book their rooms (and pay a portion of the cost) on-line in advance. In Beijing, many hostels are located in Hutongs - traditional courtyard homes in the midst of a maze of traditional streets and architecture. While many of Beijing's Hutongs have been demolished a movement to save those which remain has led to a boom in youth hostels for backpackers and boutique hotels for the mid-range traveler.
  • Dorm rooms (宿舍) are located on university campuses, near rural tourist attractions and as part of some hotels. Most travelers have spotty luck with dorms. It is not unusual to have rowdy or intoxicated roommates, and shared bathrooms can take some getting used to, especially if you're not used to traditional squat toilets or taking cold showers. However in some areas, especially on top of some of China's holy mountains, dorm rooms might be the only budget option in a sea of luxury resorts.
  • Zhùsù (住宿), which simply translates as "accommodation", can refer to any kind of sleeping accommodation, but those places that have the Chinese characters for zhusu written on the wall outside are the cheapest. A zhusu is not an actual hotel, but simply rooms for rent located in homes, restaurants, and near train and bus stations. Zhusu rooms are universally spartan and bathrooms are almost always shared. The price can be quite low, costing only a few dozen renminbi. Officially a zhusu should not provide a room to a foreigner, but many times the caretaker is eager to get a client and will be willing to rent to anyone. There are never any English signs advertising a zhusu, so if you can't read Chinese you may have to print out the characters for your hunt. Security in zhusu's is sketchy, so this option is not recommended if you have valuables with you.
  • Massage shops, saunas, and spas: spa costs vary but can be as low as ¥25. Entering a spa very late at night (after 1AM) and leaving before noon may get you a 50% discount. When in the spa there are beds or reclining couches in addition to showers, saunas etc. Admission to a spa is typically for 24 hours, and a small locker is provided for bags and personal possessions. This is ideal if you are traveling light. Furthermore spas often provide complimentary food, and paid services such as massages and body scrubbing. There is no privacy because usually everyone sleeps in one room. However, there is more security than in a dorm, since there are attendants who watch over the area, and your belongings (even your clothes!) are stored away in the lockers. Don't be fooled when receptionists try to make up reasons why you have to pay more than the listed rate. They may try to convince you that the listed rates are only for members, locals, women, men, or include only one part of the spa (i.e. shower, but no bed/couch). To verify any claims, strike up a conversation with a local a good distance away from the spa and inquire about the prices. Don't let them know that you are checking the spa's claims. Just act as if you are thinking about going there if the price is good. If they know that the spa is trying to overcharge you, they will typically support the spa's claim.

Budget Hotels[edit]

The next level of hotels, which cater to Chinese clients, are usually officially off-limits to foreigners but you may be able to convince them to accept you, especially if you can speak a smattering of Chinese. The cheapest range of Chinese budget hotels (one step above the zhusu) are called zhāodàisuǒ (招待所). Unlike zhusu these are licensed accommodations but are similarly spartan and utilitarian, often with shared bathrooms. Slightly more luxurious budget hotels and Chinese business hotels may or may not have English signs and usually have the words lǚguǎn (旅馆, meaning "travel hotel"), bīnguǎn or jiǔdiàn (宾馆 and 酒店, respectively, meaning "hotel") in their name. Room options typically include singles and doubles with attached bathrooms, and dorms with shared baths. Some budget hotels include complementary toiletries and Internet. In small, rural towns a night's stay might be as cheap as ¥25; in bigger cities you can usually get a room for ¥80-120. One problem with such hotels is that they can be quite noisy as patrons and staff may be yelling to each other across the halls into the wee hours of the morning. Another potential inconvenience is booking a room with a shared bath as many of these hotels have one bathroom for twenty or thirty rooms. You may have to wait a while to use the toilet and half an hour or more to take a shower. In smaller budget hotels the family running the place may simply lock up late at night when it appears no more customers are coming. If you plan on being late, try to explain this in advance or else you may have to call the front desk, bang on the door, or climb over the gate to get in.

Mid-range hotels[edit]

These are usually larger hotels, clean and comfortable but not too expensive, with rooms ranging from ¥150 at the low end to over ¥300. Frequently the same hotels will also have more expensive and luxurious rooms. The doubles are usually quite nice and up to Western standards, with a clean private bathroom that has towels and free toiletries. A buffet breakfast may be included, or a breakfast ticket can be purchased for around ¥10.

Sprouting up around China are a number of Western-quality budget hotels that include the following chains, all of which have rooms in the ¥150-300 range and on-line advance booking in English:

  • JJ Inn (锦江之星) [81]
  • Rujia Home Inn (如家快捷酒店) [82]
  • Motel 168 (莫泰168) [83]
  • 7DaysInn ((7天连) [84]

Splurge[edit]

At the high end of the hotel food chain are international hotel chains and resorts, such as the Marriott, Hyatt and Shangri-La and their Chinese competitors. These charge hundreds or thousands of yuan per night for luxurious accommodations with 24-hour room service, satellite TV, spas, and western breakfast buffets. There are suites in Shanghai, for example, for over ¥10,000 a night. Many of these establishments cater to traveling business-types with expense accounts and charge accordingly for food and amenities (i.e. ¥20 for a bottle of water which costs ¥2 at a convenience store). Internet (wired or wireless) which is usually free in mid-range accommodations is often a pay service in high-end hotels. Some hotels in the ¥400-700 range such as Ramada or Days Inn are willing to lower their prices when business is slow. Chinese three and four-star hotels will often give block pricing or better deals if you negotiate or book a room for more than 5 days. If you are coming to China on a tour, the tour company may be able to get you a room in a true luxury hotel for a fraction of the listed price.

Learn[edit]

A statue of Confucius in a Chinese high school

Foreign students have different educational needs. China's universities offer many different types of courses and teaching methods to cater to these needs as well as to the different educational levels of the students that come from abroad. Peking University (北京大学) and Tsinghua University (清华大学), both based in Beijing, are China's most prestigious universities, and are regularly ranked among the top universities in the world.

Language trainees Universities accept students who have achieved the minimum of a high school education for courses in the Chinese language. These courses usually last 1 or 2 years. Students are given certificates after they complete their course. Students who do not speak Chinese and want to study further in China are usually required to complete a language training course.

Private language schools also offer more flexible language training courses to get prepared to study, live or work in China. Mandarin House (美和汉语), [85]. was established in 2004 and is a well known Chinese school offering intensive group courses or tailor-made private tutoring lessons. Students can start every month and choose for how long they want to learn. Xi'an is also a popular destination for language learners due to it's low population of foreign workers and good standard Mandarin. International House Xi'an (IH Xian), [86]. offers intensive language training  edit  edit

Undergraduates Undergraduate degrees usually require 4-5 years of study. International students have classes together with native Chinese students. In accordance with each student's past education, some classes of a degree course can be cancelled and some have to be added. Students receive a Bachelor's degree after passing the necessary exams and completing a thesis.

Postgraduates Master's degrees are granted after 2-3 years of study. Oral examinations are also taken as well as written exams and a postgraduate thesis.

Doctoral students Usually 4-5 years of study are needed to obtain a PhD.

Research scholars Research is usually conducted independently by the student under the supervision of an assigned tutor. Any surveys, experiments, interviews, or visits that a research scholar has to make need to be arranged beforehand and authorised.

Short-term training courses Short-term courses are now offered in many areas such as Chinese literature, calligraphy, economics, architecture, Chinese law, traditional Chinese medicine, art, and sports. Courses are offered in the holidays as well as during term time.

Foreign students are encouraged to continue their studies and obtain Master's or doctoral degrees in China's universities, and those who have graduated in China are welcome to return for further education. Some universities offer courses taught in foreign languages, but most courses are in Chinese, and you need to demonstrate a sufficient proficiency in Chinese before you can enroll. You do this by passing the HSK test (汉语水平考试 hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì), the official way to certify your skills on a Basic, Intermediate or Advanced level. The test involves reading, writing and listening, but no speaking. See the HSK homepage [87] for dates and locations.

Scholarships[edit]

In order to promote its culture and language, the Chinese government offers scholarships to foreigners who want to study in China. Partial scholarships will cover the tuition fees of the study of your choice. Full scholarships cover pretty much everything, including books, rent, some medical coverage, and a monthly allowance for food and expenses. Although studying pins you down to a specific city and limits the time you can spend travelling, a scholarship is a great way to help you cut through some red tape, get a Residence Permit, and, if you're lucky, live in China practically for free.

To inquire about scholarships, you can directly contact the embassy in your area, or ask around at universities and language schools that have China-related courses. Scholarships are pre-distributed by quota to every country, so if too many people want one, you will be competing against your fellow citizens, not against the entire world. The procedure varies from country to country, but normally requires the following paperwork :

  • authorized copies of your highest (preferably university) degree, including the exam scores;
  • two letters of recommendation
  • proof of a full health check-up (blood-test, ECG, X-Ray, ...)
  • a motivation
  • plenty of passport-sized photos

All of this is shipped by the embassy to Beijing, which then decides who is accepted, where, and under what modalities. Application usually rounds up by the end of march, and the answer may not come until as late as august, with classes starting in September.

If all goes well, this will net you a letter of acceptance by the university of your choice, plus a visa that lets you stay in China for about two months. Once in China, you will have to do the medical tests all over again, and upgrade the visa to a residence permit. This however is where being part of a university comes in handy, as they should be able to handle all of the paperwork, going so far as to bring a medical team on campus to check you up — much preferable over you running from police station to hospital to consulate, especially if you don't speak Chinese!

When all is said and done, you will have a residence permit that lets you stay one year in China, lets you leave and enter the country as you want, and a fair ability to travel during weekends, holidays, and the occasional class-skipping stint.

For more information, visit the China Scholarship Council [88] and China Service Center for Scholarly Exchanges [89] websites.

Work[edit]

Teaching a language, most commonly English, is a very popular source of employment for foreigners. There are English-teaching jobs all over China. The market for teachers of other languages is more limited. However most universities require all English majors to study another foreign language as well, and there are specialised universities for foreign languages in major cities such as Beijing [90], Guangzhou [91], Xi'an [92], Dalian and Shanghai [93] which teach most major world languages. Guangzhou is establishing itself a reputation as a hub for so-called rare languages.

Requirements and qualifications range from just having a pulse and speaking a bit of English up to needing an MA and experience. Typically the good jobs want at least one, preferably two or three, of:

  • a 4-year degree
  • a teaching certificate for primary school or high school from your own country
  • a recognised TEFL certificate, e.g. Cambridge CELTA [94]
  • teaching experience

If you want to go and do not already have good qualifications, get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. It really helps.

There are a fairly strong preferences for native English speakers and for citizens of major English-speaking countries. Job ads routinely include a list of acceptable passports; UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are on every list, Ireland and South Africa on most. Some schools will not even read the rest of your resume if you do not have one of those passports. Various prejudices may also come into play; overseas Chinese (even with perfect English), Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, American Blacks, and especially Africans all report some difficulties finding jobs, or getting lower offers. Members of all those groups are happily employed in other schools, and many are well-paid, but getting a job is easier for people who fit a stereotype — Caucasians especially Americans or British. Some schools want blue-eyed blondes, because they hope that will help their marketing. Accent can also be an issue; Chinese people generally hope to acquire American accents, so a really thick Scots or Aussie accent will bother some employers, for example.

Pay and conditions vary greatly depending on location, experience and qualifications. Free accommodation, provided by the institution, is common. Generally this means an apartment of your own, though some tightfisted schools want teachers to share. Most jobs pay for all or part of an annual trip home. Teachers nearly always make enough to live well in China, though some have a problem in summer because many university or high school jobs pay for only the 10 months of the academic year. It is often possible to teach private lessons on the side - in fact your students or their parents may ask about this incessantly. Foreign teachers generally earn two or three times their Chinese colleagues' salaries but the differences are gradually narrowing. A public college or university will often pay less than a private school, but will also require fewer teaching hours.

Make certain you understand your employer's policies on outside work as some are quite restrictive. The standard government-provided contract[95], which most schools use (perhaps amended a bit), prohibits it enitirely unless you get permission from the employer.

If you plan to work as a teacher in China, research very carefully. You might get your dream job or a nightmare. Take great care in your selection of employer; broken contracts and general unscrupulousness and dishonesty are common. As a rule, government schools give the best all-around deals and if there is any dispute, you can appeal to the Foreign Experts Office of the provincial education ministry. If you can document your case and it is a valid one, they will take action. And it tends to be fast. Before filing an appeal, try to resolve the issue through direct discussion. If that fails, ask someone to function as a go-between -- a Chinese if possible, but otherwise another expatriate will do. Only appeal as a last resort: as in other aspects of life everywhere, the threat of action is often more effective than action itself.

When looking for a teaching job in China it's generally a good idea to apply through a reputable recruiter such as Footprints Recruiting, and ask them about the schools, the contracts, the work, the hours, the pay and anything that may be a cause for concern. With the size of the Chinese ESL market exploding, there are many private academies sprouting up and many unscrupulous businessmen trying to make a buck. Be careful, and let the recruiter do the work of screening an employer for you.

Recruitment services are completely free of charge for teachers. The fee is covered by the schools or the language centers.

See also Teaching English.

Work visas[edit]

To work as a teacher in China you need either a Foreign Teacher's Certificate (FTC) or a Foreign Expert's Certificate (FEC). Both are issued by the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) [96]. In theory, the FTC is for elementary or high school teachers and the FEC is for tertiary education. In practice, everyone seems to get the FEC. In theory, both require a degree; this is usually, but not always, enforced. Whether it is depends at least on where you are, how well-connected your school is, and how much trouble they are willing to go to. If you lack a degree, it helps if you have other certifications or diplomas.

Once you have the FEC, getting a Residence Permit is routine. The Residence Permit is generally good for a year and it acts as a multiple entry visa; you can leave China and return with no problem.

There can be difficulties. Universities and other public institutions can easily get Foreign Expert Certificates for staff, but not all private schools can. Before they can even apply for certificates, they must be authorized to employ foreigners by SAFEA. Getting the authorization takes many months and a significant amount of money. They also have to comply with SAFEA standards such as providing housing, health insurance and annual air fare home for all staff. Large established schools have the permission, but many of the smaller ones don't want the expense, so all their teachers are illegal. Some lie to teachers about this.

People over 60 often have trouble getting visas because of their age, and some job ads specify an age range. There are conflicting reports on whether this is SAFEA policy, SAFEA advice to provincial departments that make their own policies, or a question of health insurance. There are some exceptions, including a few people in their seventies still working legally.

The Foreign Expert's Certificate may get you a teacher's discount on some products and services including domestic flights.

Much the safest way to come to a job in China is to enter the country on a Z visa. There can be some confusion with the terms; a few years ago, the Z was a one-year working visa but now the Residence Permit is the long-term visa and the Z is just an entry visa good for 30 days, long enough to get the FEC and Residence Permit. The Z visa can only be obtained outside of China, and it requires a letter from the employers to accompany your passport when you apply. Generally the school will request a signed contract, a health certificate from a health professional, a copy of your passport details, and a copy of your diploma. If you are over 60 and they are asking for their provincial office to accept you, they may also require that you have your own health insurance.

It used to be common for people already in China to go to Hong Kong or Macau for the Z visa. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the rules tightened up considerably; they have relaxed some since, but not entirely. This is also true for getting Chinese visas in other nearby countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore. Some people have been told they must return to their home countries to obtain a Z visa. Others have been able to get a Z in Hong Kong, provided the invitation paperwork clearly stipulates it.

Some employers ask teachers to come in with a tourist visa, and say they can get a residence permit from that. The official regulations require the Z but moving from a tourist visa to Residence Permit is sometimes possible, depending on policies at the local PSB (Public Securty Bureau, the cops) office and the employer's contacts there. On the other hand, working on a tourist visa is illegal and some of the employers who want you to come on one are stringing you along; they do not have SAFEA permission to hire foreigners legally and are trying to wriggle around that. Do not even consider taking a post anywhere that wants you to come on a tourist visa unless you have talked to current foreign teachers already there and been assured that they came that way and had no problem getting FEC and Residence Permit..

If you complete your health certificate in your home country, be sure to get copies of the x-ray, lab reports and other machine documents. Also have the form stamped with the official seal of the hospital. Even though you do all of this you may,and most likely will, be required to take another physical in China. Request before coming to China that if the physical is required inside of China after you arrive, that the school pay for the service. The physical is usually very quick: EKG, chest x-ray, sonogram of heart and stomach area, blood test, and urine check. However, the time of completion and various tests may change depending on the province.

An appearance at the local PSB is required to get your residency permit. Again, negotiate with the school for them to pay for the permit prior to your leaving for China. Children and spouse going with you may require an even higher amount for their residency permit.

Schools range from completely reliable to crooks who leave foreigners stranded without a legitimate work visa after they arrive. It is illegal to work with a tourist visa, but some schools want teachers to do that, and some even want you to foot the bill for "visa runs" to Hong Kong to renew it, although with restrictions on renewals this has become more difficult. Be sure to speak with current or former teachers from the school before you sign up. If the school won't put you in touch with them, or if current teachers don't have Foreign Experts Certificates, don't go near the place.

Stay safe[edit]

Crime[edit]

China is a huge country that shows a big regional difference over crime rates.

Most of major cities in China are extremely safe. Violent crime remains rare and it is generally safe for even women at night. There is some scam, such as teahouse scam, and petty crimes can happen especially at the transportation hub and crowded area.

Some petty crimes such as bicycle theft and pickpocket are known. For bicycle riders, follow what local people do. If you see bikes are parked anywhere, just tie yours to a pole. In a place where everyone takes their bikes inside restaurants or internet cafes, it's a warning sign. Bike parking is common outside supermarkets or shopping centers, and usually charges RMB1 to 2 per day (usually until 8-10pm). If you have an electric bicycle or scooter, pay extra caution as the battery-packs may be targeted.

On long journey buses especially departing from Shenzhen, passengers are required to take a mug shot before boarding. You are not expected to discuss privacy issues raised. Since this measure was introduced, reports of muggings on bus have dropped drastically.

Under the powerful government, the "Triads" or gangs group are quite rare in mainland China as long as you avoid getting involved in illegal activities such as drug trading and human trafficking. To the Chinese communist, power is exclusive. Any illegal groups, from dissidents' political parties or triad society, will be suppressed anyway once they grow big.

Scams[edit]

See also: Common scams, Pickpockets

Beijing and Shanghai continue to be plagued by the notorious "teahouse scam", the most common safety concern for foreign travelers in China.

The scam goes something like this. Around Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing in Beijing and the Bund, People's Square, and Nanjing Road in Shanghai, scam artists stroll up to foreigners and attempt to start a conversation in English. They sometimes help you bargain and show you around. Everything is fine until they invite you to go to a teahouse, cafe or pub. Every item you consume there including each cup of tea, each biscuit or slice of fruit is priced at an extortionate rate. In some cases scam artists may ask to split the really high bill and convince the victim to pay at least half of it. A variant of this scam may happen when you are invited by "art students" to shabby art shops and pressured to buy overpriced reproductions.

Having said that, in real life, it is very common for curious Chinese to genuinely start a conversation with you, show you around, invite you for a drink and a meal. If you are paranoid about all invitations and interactions with the Chinese, it will ruin your travel experience.

Remember the following tips:

  1. If you feel suspicious about the place you are invited to go, choose your own place such as McDonald's, Starbucks, KFC. If they are persistent at going to their "place" and make endless excuses to turn down your suggestions, use your common sense to tell if it's a scam.
  2. In a genuine tea shop, tea sampling is always for free. They just want you to taste and buy the tea leaves. If you have to pay, you will know it beforehand.
  3. In a teahouse, it is unusual if they serve you any premium tea without your knowledge. Remember that you are Laowai, a foreigner, you should not feel embarrassed to ask about the price.
  4. If you are asked to foot a bill at a ridiculous amount (more than Y500) without your prior knowledge, you know it's a scam. Don’t pay. Call 110 and report the scam.
  5. If you are forced to pay, ask for a "fapiao" (发票), an official sales invoice issued by the taxation department. It is against the law for an owner to refuse to give it to you. If you have the receipt, you can use it as evidence when making a report later. You should also pay by a credit card, because it is possible to cancel the payment later.

However, high prices do not necessarily indicate a scam. In a teahouse, ¥50-200 per cup or pot of tea is common. In a bar, price range is even bigger, in which ¥10-80 per bottle of beer is a norm and having a new bottle of wine can cost from a few hundred to many thousands. However, in all genuine places, prices should be stated clearly on a menu.

Finally, although it is perfectly possible to pay more than RMB1000 in a high-end teahouse and bar, run-of-the-mill teas and bars should not be nearly this expensive. Such delicate tea would only be offered to tea gourmets, not a casual tea taster. Furthermore, it is considered socially offensive to take a new friend to spend so much money and expect them to pay the bill. If this happens, it is most likely a scam.

Traffic[edit]

Traffic jam in Beijing

Driving in China can range from nerve-rattling to outright reckless.

Traffic rules are practiced half-halfheartedly and rarely if ever enforced. Zebra crossings are for display, cars are allowed to turn right on a red light and rarely stop for pedestrians. Biker tend to do as they like. Don't be fooled by following any signs and pedestrian paths; it is very common to see a motorcycle driving in a pedestrian lane. On occasion even cars will take to bike lanes and motor bikes to the sidewalk. Equally, pedestrians often walk in the roadways, especially at night, as they are better lit. Look in all directions when crossing! Expect or assume that anything will come at or behind you from any direction at any time.

See also driving in China.

Begging[edit]

Chinese people traditionally hold strongly negative views against begging, so unsurprisingly, begging is not a major issue in most places. However, it is never off the scene in a big city and is particularly common just outside major tourist attractions and around major transportation hubs. Beggars may also show up outside some major temples which are popular among local worshippers because it is a tradition for buddhism practitioners to give money to beggars.

Be aware that child beggars may be victims of child trafficking. Fortunately it is becoming much less common compared to the early 2000s due to a strong crackdown from all over the society. You should avoid giving them any money.

In China, local people usually only give money to those who have obviously lost the ability to earn money. Professional beggars have very clear deformities. If you feel like giving them some, bear in mind that many Chinese make only ¥30-70 a day doing hard labor jobs.

See begging for more detailed discussion.

Pollution[edit]

Pollution is a serious problem in the world's factory. Beijing, by some accounts, is the most polluted city in the world. 16 out of the worst polluted cities in the world are in China. Talking about air pollution has become a part of life for both locals and expatriates. Even the countryside, depending on the province in question, is not immune.

Places at higher altitudes or plains like parts of Yunnan and Sichuan, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and outlying islands such as Hainan usually have good air quality. Visitors should be prepared to see smog, which can be quite heavy, in nearly all large cities, including those on the coast.

You will also hear a lot of noise. Construction and renovation are full-time activities. Chinese and long-time residents' ears are trained to filter and tolerate it.

Illicit Drugs[edit]

Possession or trafficking of illicit drugs is a gross serious offence in China. Enforcement is generally weak, but penalty is extremely tough once an offender get caught.

Possession of certain drugs such as weed even for personal use may lead to a prison term. Be aware that the Chinese generally hold a strong negative against the use of drugs probably because their humiliation in the past 150 years are often linked to the spread of drugs. Weed, heroin, LSD are the same to many of them, especially to the elder generations. It may make you fool if you try to tell them that weed is so common in the West. It is totally irrelevant to them.

Drug trade could result in a capital punishment and foreigners will not be exempted. In some cities such as Beijing, the police tend to see foreigners as high risk group. Body inspection can happen in a bar which is popular among expats. Random searches of cars may occur in the countryside and if caught with drugs, do not expect lenient treatment from the police. In 2009, a British national was executed for trafficking heroin amid the protest of the British government, but it just did not stop any execution.

Banned items[edit]

The Chinese government is known to try to control the media. Books, magazines and CDs can be confiscated if the content is considered inappropriate, although customs usually doesn't bother to take English books away if there are no explicit photos depicting politics of China. In general, use common sense.

  • So-called Anti-Chinese materials will generally be confiscated: These include the Tibetan Lion-Mountain flag, and Falun Gong or Tiananmen Square incident materials.
  • Books: Any books with photos of the Dalai Lama or Tiananmen Square incidents will be subject to confiscation. Expect to be questioned if you bring a book with Chairman Mao's portrait on it. George Orwell's novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been seized at Chinese airports despite the fact that the very same books are legally published and sold in both English and Chinese within China. Some of the more sensitive books are "muck-raking" publications regarding the current government, or specific high-level leaders, usually published in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The aforementioned books will be only available in China through illegal street vendors, which are plentiful in major cities.
  • Pornography: A heavy penalty is imposed on all pornography and penalties are counted based on the number of pieces you bring into the country. If customs considers what you bring to be too much, let's say, more than 100 videos on your laptop, they will likely detain you.

Stay healthy[edit]

A domestic desiccant may be useful in Eastern China's humid summer

Personal hygiene[edit]

Outside major cities, public washrooms vary from mildly unpleasant to utterly repulsive. In cities, it varies from place to place. High quality bathrooms can be found inside major tourist attractions (e.g., the Forbidden City), at international hotels, office buildings, and upper-class department stores. Washrooms in McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, or any of the coffee chains listed in the drink section are usually more or less clean. While those in common restaurants and hotels are barely acceptable, those in hotel rooms are generally very clean. Some public facilities are free, others cost from a few mao up to one or two kuai (¥1-2). Separate facilities are always provided for men (男 nán) and women (女 nǚ), but sometimes there are no doors on the front of the stalls.

The sit-down toilet familiar to Westerners is rare in China in public areas. Hotels will generally have them in rooms, but in places where Westerners are scarce, expect to find squat toilets more often than not. Many private homes in urban areas now have sit down toilets, and one major benefit from having a local host is that they have clean bathrooms. As a rule of thumb, a western establishment such as McDonald's will have a western toilet.

Carry your own tissue paper (卫生纸 wèishēngzhǐ, or 面纸 miànzhǐ) as it is rarely provided. You can sometimes buy it from the money-taker at a public toilet; you can also buy it in bars, restaurants and Internet cafes for ¥2. Put used paper in the bucket next to the toilet; do not flush it away as it may block the often poor plumbing systems.

The Chinese tend to distrust the cleanliness of bathtubs. In hotels with fixed bathtubs, disposable plastic bathtub liners may be provided.

Wash your hands often with soap, or better carry some disposable disinfectant tissues (found in almost any department or cosmetics store), especially after having used public computers; the main cause for getting a cold or flu is through touching your face, especially the nose, with infected hands.

Food & drink[edit]

There are no widely enforced health regulations in restaurants. Restaurants generally prepare hot food when you order. Even in the smallest of restaurants, hot dishes are usually freshly prepared, instead of reheated, and rarely cause health problems. Most of the major cities have chain fast food places, and the hygiene in them tends to be good. Use common sense when buying food from street vendors. This is especially true for meat or seafood products; they can be very unsafe, particularly during warm weather, as many vendors don't have refrigeration.

A rule of thumb regarding street food is to make certain it is cooked thoroughly while you are watching; also, visit stalls frequented by locals, and look for plastic-wrapped disposable chopsticks. Minor stomach discomfort may still be experienced from street food and restaurant food alike, but is said to pass as one becomes accustomed to the local food. Ginger is effective against nausea, though it does not kill bacteria.

Even in the cities, Chinese people do not drink water straight from the tap, and you should not either. All hotels (even boats!) provide either a thermos flask of boiled water in your room (refillable by your floor attendant) or - more commonly - a kettle you can use to do it yourself. Generally, tap water is safe to drink after boiling. Purified drinking water in bottles is available everywhere, and is generally quite cheap. ¥1 is normal for a small bottle, but it will be more in some places. Check that the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.

Health care[edit]

Drugs are generally available from a pharmacist without prescriptions. You can usually ask to see the instructions that came with the box. Western medicine is called xīyào (西药).

Common symptoms

  • Caught a cold: 感冒 gǎnmào
  • Fever: 发烧 fāshāo
  • Headache: 头痛 tóutòng
  • Stomach ache: 肚子痛 dùzǐtòng
  • Sore throat: 喉咙痛 hóulóngtòng
  • Cough: 咳嗽 késòu
  • Diarrhoea: 拉肚子 lādùzǐ

See Chinese phrasebook for more.


Most Chinese doctors and nurses speak no English, even in larger cities. However, medical staff are in plentiful supply and hospital wait times are generally short - usually less than 10 minutes at general clinics (门诊室 ménzhěnshì), and virtually no wait time at emergency rooms (急诊室 jízhěnshì).

Ensure that needles used for injections or any other procedure that requires breaking the skin are new and unused - insist on seeing the packet being broken open. In some parts of China it is acceptable to re-use needles, albeit after sterilization.

For acupuncture, although the disposable needles are quite common in mainland China, you can provide your own needles if you prefer. The disposable type, called Wujun zhenjiu zhen (无菌針灸針, Sterilized acupuncture needles), usually cost ¥10-20 per 100 needles and are available in many pharmacy. Note that there should be minimal to no bleeding when the needle is inserted and removed if the acupuncturist is sufficiently skilled.

While Traditional Chinese Medicine is widespread in China, regulation tends to be lax and it is not unheard of for Chinese physicians to prescribe herbs which are actually detrimental to one's health. Do some research and ensure you have some trusted local friends to help you out if you wish to see a Chinese physician. Alternatively, head to Hong Kong or Taiwan instead, as the practice is better regulated there.

If making more than a short trip to China, it may be a good idea to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Typhoid as they can be spread via contaminated food.

Parts of southern China have mosquitoes which transmit malaria, dengue fever, etc. The CDC has a complete list of recommended vaccines when traveling to China.

China has only officially recognised the threat of an AIDS/HIV epidemic since 2001. According to the United Nations "China is currently experiencing one of the most rapidly expanding HIV epidemics in the world. Since 1998, the number of reported cases has increased by about 30% yearly. By 2010, China could have as many as 10 million infections and 260,000 orphans if without intervention"; Chinese President Hu Jintao has recently pledged to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV within China. Sex workers, clients of sex workers and injecting drug users are the most infected groups.

New diseases are sometimes a threat in China, particularly in its more densely populated parts. In 2003 China experienced a serious SARS outbreak; this is no longer considered a major threat. More recently, there have been cases of bird flu; avoid undercooked poultry or eggs. Partly as a result of the SARS experience, China's government has taken the global threat of Swine Flu very seriously. If you are running a fever or otherwise obviously ill, as of Summer 2009, it is possible you will face several days in quarantine upon entry into China. If you speak the local tongue or Standard Mandarin, DO NOT mention you are a foreigner.

Respect[edit]

A few basic guidelines and tips can help you avoid faux pas in China.

  • Tipping: is not necessary or advised. No tip is needed for taxi drivers and most restaurants. Leaving a few coins in most restaurants, you will likely be chased by staff to give you back the money you 'forgot' to take. In some cases, a fee regarded as tipping in America is actually a fixed fee, such as a fee for a doorman allowing you into a building at a late hour.
  • Business Cards: When presenting or receiving a business card or handing over an important paper, always use both hands, and never put it in pant pockets.
  • Visitation: A small gift taken to a host's home is always welcome. Wine, fruit, or some trinket from your native country are common. If the hosts are wearing slippers at home, and especially if there is carpet on the floor, remove your road shoes and ask for a pair of slippers before you enter your host's home, even if the host asks you not to.
  • Hosting meals: Hosts tend to order more food than you can eat because it is considered shameful if they can't stuff their guests. If you attempt to finish all food, it means that you're still hungry and may prompt your hosts to order more food (i.e. never totally clean your plate). However, this is changing in some parts of China where it has become more acceptable and preferable to minimise wastage at the end of a meal. It could be a good idea to observe other guests and follow suit.
  • Dining: Table manner varies from different places among different people in different scenarios. Sometimes you can see Chinese spit on a restaurant floor, pick their tooth in front of you and yell whilst dining but it is not always welcome. Follow what other people do. It very much depends on what kind of party you are involved in.
  • Drinking: When offered a drink, you are expected to take it or your friends will keep pushing you. Excuses like "I'm allergic to alcohol" is usually better than "I don't feel like drinking". Sometimes you can pretend that you are drunk. Don't panic as usually foreigners are tolerated much on these customs.
  • Tobacco: If you smoke, it is always considered polite to offer a cigarette to those you meet, as long as they are of adult age. This rule applies almost exclusively to men, but under certain circumstances, such as a club, it is okay to apply the rule toward women. If someone offers you a cigarette and you don't smoke, you can turn it down by politely and gently waving your hand.
  • Staring: As a traveler, you may find that your language, color of hair and skin, behavior, and manner of dress will draw long and sustained stares, especially outside the major cities.
  • Saving Face: The Chinese tend to be very concerned about "saving face". Pointing out mistakes directly may cause embarrassment. If you have to, call the person to one side and tell him/her in private, and try to do it in a polished manner.
  • Pointing: Never point to statues of Buddhas or other deities with your index finger, as it is considered to be very rude. Instead, point at them with your thumb.
  • Religion: Swastikas have been widely used in Buddhist temples since the 5th century to represent Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. Simillar to India, it does not represent Nazism. It is also worth noting that the local Jews have historically lived peacefully with their non-Jewish neighbours, and save for the Cultural Revolution, during which people of all religions and not just the Jews were persecuted. China does not have a history of significant anti-Semitism unlike the Inquisition in Europe.

Gay and lesbian travelers[edit]

Homosexuality was de-criminalized in 1997 and taken off the state list of mental disorders in 2001. Chinese people have a range of opinions when it comes to sexuality. Though there are no laws against homosexuality in China, films, websites, and television shows involving themes of homosexuality tend to be self-censored or banned.

Whilst there is no obvious gay scene or community in China, most Chinese cities have at least 1 gay bar, although it’ll be well hidden. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are more in the open, with a range of gay bars and clubs, albeit nowhere near as brash and outspoken as their counterparts in other international cities. Most Chinese are reluctant to discuss their sexuality in public, as it is generally considered to be a personal matter. But don't be surprised to find younger people in the cities openly discussing their sexual orientation.

Homosexual marriages and unions are not recognised in the country. Nevertheless, while openly displaying your sexual orientation in public may draw stares and whispers, gay and lesbian visitors should generally not run into any major problems, and unprovoked violence against homosexual couples is almost unheard of.

Cope[edit]

Electricity is 220 volts/50 hz. Two-pin European and North American, as well as three-pin Australian style plugs are generally supported. However, be careful to read the voltage information on your devices to ensure they accept 220V (twice the 110V used in many countries) before plugging them in — you may cause burnout and permanent damage to some devices such as hairdryers and razors. Universal extension cords that can handle a wide variety of plug shapes (including British) are widely used.

Names of long streets are often given with a middle word indicating the part of the street. For example, White Horse Street or Baima Lu (白马路) may be split up into Baima Beilu (白马北路) for the northern (北 běi) end, Baima Nanlu (白马南路) for the southern (南 nán) end and Baima Zhonglu (白马中路) for the central (中 zhōng) part. For another street, dōng (东 "east") and (西 "west") might be used.

In some cities, however, these names do not indicate parts of one street. In Xiamen, Hubin Bei Lu and Hubin Nan Lu (Lakeside Road North and Lakeside Road South) are parallel, running East-West on the North and South sides of the lake. In Nanjing, Zhongshan Lu, Zhongshan Bei Lu and Zhongshan Dong Lu are three separate major roads.

Laundry services may be expensive or hard to locate. In upper end hotels it will cost ¥10-30 to wash each article of clothing. Cheap hotels in some areas do not have laundry services, though in other areas such as along the Yunnan tourist trail the service is common and often free. In most areas, with the exception of the downtown areas in big cities, you can find small shops that do laundry. The sign to look for on the front door is 洗衣 (xǐyī), or spot the clothes hanging from the ceiling. The cost is roughly ¥2-5/item. In even the smallest of cities dry cleaning (干洗 gānxǐ)outlets are widely distributed and may be able to wash clothes. But in some areas you're going to be stuck washing clothes by hand, which is time consuming and tiresome. It may take days for a pair of jeans to dry, which is especially difficult if you're in a dorm room with no hangers, so fast drying fabrics, such as polyester or silk, are a good idea. If you do find a hotel that does laundry, usually they will put all your clothes into the wash together or even with other items from the hotel, so lighter colours are best washed by hand.

Smoking is banned in public buildings and public transport except for restaurants and bars (including KTVs) - many of which are outright smoke dens, although many multinational restaurant chains do ban smoking. These bans are enforced across the country. Generally, smoking laws are most strict in Shanghai and Beijing, whilst they are more lightly enforced elsewhere. Many places (particularly train stations, hospitals, office buildings and airports) will have smoking rooms, and some long-distance trains may have smoking areas at the end of each car. Facilities for non-smokers are often poor; most restaurants, bars and hotels will not have non-smoking areas apart from top-end establishments although many modern buildings have a smoke extraction systems which suck cigarette smoke out of the room through a ceiling vent - meaning that the smoke doesn't hang in the air. The Chinese phrase for 'May I smoke?' is 'kěyǐ chōuyān ma?' and 'No Smoking!' is 'bù kěyǐ chōuyān!'.

Contact[edit]

Internet[edit]

Internet Censorship[edit]

Travel Warning WARNING: As of September, 2014, Google Search, Gmail, Google Map and Google Translate all cannot be accessed in China without a VPN. Before you come to China, better redirect your Gmail account to other email services. Travellers may switch to Bing.com, a Microsoft search engine with self-censorship. If you prefer to subscribe a VPN service, please be aware that the websites of many major providers, including StrongVPN, Astrill or Ninja VPN are blocked although their services are still working.


Internet censorship in China, which (as with most parts of this page) does not apply to Hong Kong and Macau, covers a wide range of internet services. Pornographic, political sites, some Chinese language foreign-based news sites are routinely blocked.

Since the end of May in 2014, all google-related services, including Google Search, Gmail, Google Map, Google Translate fail to work in China. That is an unprecedented block on Google services and no reasons have been announced. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Wordpress, Picasaweb are all banned.

Websites of many universities are not accessible as well, probably because those servers are also active in hosting China-related political materials.

What's banned

  • Most Google-related services, including Google Map and Translate.
  • Gmail and Google may be accessible, but highly unstable and slow.
  • Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
  • Youtube and Vimeo
  • Most Hong Kong-based media websites.
  • Most English news services are generally accessible, but their Chinese versions may be banned.
  • University websites may be banned, because their servers may also host so-called "anti-China" materials.

Complied as of Oct 2014.


Wikipedia and Flickr are available too, although webpages that contain sensitive keywords (usually in Chinese language only) may trigger the censorship system, called the Golden Shield (金盾) (or euphemistically, the Great Firewall or GFW ) and result in the message "your connection has been reset".

Censorship is often tightened during certain sensitive periods, such as the annual meeting of China's parliament in March, the CCP congress every fourth October, and anniversaries such as the National Day in October and the Tiananmen massacre in June.

The most common way to access blocked sites is to use a proxy server. VPN (Virtual Private Network) which usually provides users with more stable and reliable access to banned websites for a fee starting from a few dollars per month. Other ways to bypass censorship include downloadable software such as Freegate, Tor [97] and Psiphon [98]. These introduce certain levels of encryption, and therefore so-called sensitive content can be seen. These should be downloaded before entering China as access to their official websites are blocked.

It is a legal offence to upload and submit any materials seen as subversive. However, regular internet users, especially English-speakers without political backgrounds, are usually free to write and send anything without a problem.

Certain companies like Yahoo have a track record of helping the government crackdown on political dissidents. In 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist in China, was imprisoned for ten years for releasing a document of the Communist Party to an overseas Chinese democracy site after Yahoo! China provided his personal Yahoo emails to the Chinese government.

Access[edit]

An Internet café in Lijiang

China has more Internet users than any other country in the world and internet cafes (网吧 wǎngbā) are abundant throughout China. Most of them Many of them are designed for gamers though and are not useful places to do business. It is cheap (¥1-6 an hour) to use a computer, albeit one with Chinese software. Internet cafes are supposed to require users to show identification (passport). Traffic may be monitored, and be aware that there maybe background malware recording keystrokes.

WIFI is pervasive in coffee shops and many restaurants. Free WIFI is provided especially in cafes such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, some McDonald’s and many private coffee houses.

Some hotels and hostels provide access from the rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.

You may also purchase a mobile data card for use with your own computer instead (these generally cost ¥400 and data plans run ¥10-¥200 per month depending on your usage).

Printing and CD burning service is provided in many hotels and hostels. You may also look for the characters 复印 (fùyìn) meaning “photocopy”. Printing costs about ¥1-3 per page and photocopies are ¥0.5-1 per page. Printing/photocopy shops are scattered around university campuses and prices are usually cheaper.

Getting news[edit]

Please fix it!
China Daily, the nationally distributed English newspaper, sometimes publishes constructive criticism of China from frustrated tourists. If you think something about China for travelers needs to be fixed, you should send a letter to letters@chinadaily.com.cn and it could possibly be published.


China has some local English language news media. State-run CCTV 9 is an English channel available 24/7 in most cities; CCTV 4 has a short newcast in English every day.

China Daily is a state English language newspaper available in hotels, supermarkets, and Beijing newstands.

There are also a few English magazines such as China Today and 21st Century.

There is no longer any problem getting most foreign news (provided it is in a foreign language, like English) in China.

  • The better hotels often have satellite TV in the rooms.
  • More and more business hotels have Internet links for your laptop in each room: 7 Day Inn and Home Inn are two nationwide chains of impeccable cleanliness with such links and cost ¥150-200 per night. Other locally-owned hotels offer the same standard for ¥60/night.
  • Top hotels also sell major newspapers from around the world and business-oriented publications like The Economist, albeit at very high prices. Some provide international newspapers free for reading in their coffee shops.

Mail[edit]

The Chinese Post Office is generally reliable and sometimes quick. There are a few things you need to adapt to:

  • Incoming mail will be both faster and more reliable if the address is in Chinese. If not, the Post Office has people who will translate but that takes time and is not 100% accurate.
  • It will be very helpful to provide the receiver's phone number with packages or expedite mails. The customs and delivery postmen usually need it.
  • Do not seal outgoing packages before taking them to the Post Office; they will not send them without inspecting the contents. Generally it is best to buy the packing materials at the Post Office, and almost all Post Offices will pack your materials for you, at a reasonable price.
  • Most Post Offices and courier services will refuse to send CDs or DVDs, this can be circumvented by placing them in CD wallets along with lots of other things and finally packing the space in with clothes, giving the appearance of sending your stuff home, also easier to send by sea as they care less.

Fax[edit]

International fax (传真 Chuánzhēn) services are available in most large hotels for a fee of a dozen renminbi or more. Inexpensive faxes within China can be made in the ubiquitous photocopy outlets that have the Chinese characters for fax written on the front door.

Telephone[edit]

Telephone service is more of a mixed bag. Calling outside the country is often difficult, and usually impossible without a calling card, which can often only be bought locally. The good news is these cards are fairly cheap, and the connection is surprisingly clear, uninterrupted and delay-free. Look for IP Telephone Cards, which typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialing the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper.

If your line allows for international direct dialling (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00. So if you wish to make an overseas call, you would dial 00-(country code)-(area code)-(tel number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require international dialling. IDDs could be very expensive. Ask the rate before calling.

Mobile/Cellular Phones[edit]

Cellular phones are using widespread offer very good service in China. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for nearly all expatriates in China. The typical expat spends a few hundred yuan buying a phone, then about ¥100 a month for the service; tourists might use it less.

If you already have a GSM 900/1800 cellphone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/minute is typical). UMTS/HSDPA roaming is not available with every carrier, but you can buy a local SIM card for 3G data access (see below). Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent), so American CDMA phones will not work off the bat, but it's possible to program a new Chinese prepaid number into one at some shops for a fee of ¥100-400 — just don't forget to restore your old number before you leave. The one exception is the iPhone 5; plug in a China Telecom R-UIM and it will work after a few minutes of automatic reconfiguration. Droid-series phones will have functioning call/text but making the data work will require perusing Chinese forums or finding a specialist shop at an electronics market to do the reconfiguration.

If you have a non-CDMA smartphone and are planning on using 3G, China Unicom is your only option, as China Mobile uses a different technology which is unique to China. Calls and messages will still work but data won't, at least not at 3G speeds.

It's very difficult to get a Chinese SIM unless you speak Chinese, or have an interpreter with you. There are companies who can send these to you before you leave for China. A vending machine in Terminal 3 at Beijing airport sells China Mobile and China Unicom SIM cards for ¥100 each, and ¥50 or ¥100 recharge vouchers.

For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese cell phone from a company such as Pandaphone [99]. Rates are around ¥7 a day. The company is based in the US but has staff in China. Toll free numbers are 866-574-2050 in the U.S. or 400-820-0293 in China. The phone can be delivered to your hotel in China prior to your arrival and dropped off there at the end of your trip, or shipped to you in the US. When you rent the phone, they will offer you an access code for calling to your country, which is cheaper than buying a SIM card from a local vendor and dialing directly.

If you're staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit '4', and vendors will often be happy to offload these "unsellable" SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them. China's two big operators are China Mobile [100] and China Unicom [101]. Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about 1RMB/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge as long as it's active. Avoid the cheaper wireless phones called PHS (小灵通 xiǎolíngtōng, see "Area Codes"); they only work in one city. PHS are excluded from networks now. For China mobile, you can get your credits balances by calling 1008611 and get a sms with balance.

International calls have to be enabled separately by applying for China Mobile's "12593" or China Unicom's "17911" service; both require a simple application with no deposit requirement. Usually there will be an English speaker, and let him/her know what you want. Ask for the "special" dialing code, and for 1RMB/month extra on China Mobile (free on China Unicom), this will be provided to you. Enter the code, the country code, then the local number and you will be talking cheaply in no time. Don't be fooled by cellphone shops with the China Mobile signage, be sure to go a to a location. The employee's will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. At time of writing, China Mobile is the cheaper of the two with calls to North America/Asia around ¥0.4/min. You can also use prepaid cards for international calling; just dial the number on the card as with a regular landline phone, and the charges will go to the prepaid calling card.

To recharge, visit the neighborhood office of your mobile service provider, give the staff your number and pay in cash to recharge your account. You can also recharge at any post office. Alternately, many shops will sell you a charge card, which has a number and password that must be used to call the telephone company to recharge the money in your account. You will be calling a computer and the default language is Chinese, which can be changed to English if you understand the Chinese. Charge cards are sold in denominations of ¥30, 50 and 100. (If you're on Unicom, you have a local bank account, and you understand Chinese, you can recharge by bank transfer online; this is cheaper and sometimes there will be special offers for recharging this way)

For mobile data addicts, the "Wo" 3G USIM from China Unicom starts at ¥66/month for 240 nationwide minutes, 10 videocall minutes, 300MB data, and some free multimedia/text content (ringtones, mobile news reports, wallpapers, music videos, etc). Incoming transmissions (video/voice call, text) from anywhere is completely free. For short-term use there is no longer a basic service fee, with calls around ¥1/3 min, text messages ¥0.10 each and data ¥10/MB (overage for the ¥96 plan is a more reasonable ¥0.15/min, ¥0.10 per text ¥0.3/MB). The student plan (¥66 for 50 minutes, 240 texts, everything else same as ¥96 plan) is also an option. China Mobile offers their "Easy Own" prepaid card, the offer also includes data plan options: ¥100 or ¥200 for 1 or 2 GB of data a month. It's possible to de-/activate this service with a short message to the number 10086. There is also a 5 G cap (maximum charge per month) of ¥500.

An alternative for those who want a Hong Kong number, the ability to recharge with a Visa/MasterCard credit card, and/or access to certain overseas websites that are otherwise blocked without paying a small fortune is to get dual-number Hong Kong-based SIM cards. A Hong Kong-based China Unicom SIM costs somewhat more at HK$0.60/minute (HK$0.45/minute in Guangdong), HK$0.50/text, and internet is HK$38/300MB daily or HK$78/500MB weekly for unfiltered internet (removing the need to pay for an outside VPN) but is not as unreasonably priced as roaming from most other countries. For those who want more data at the cost of speed (no 3G access), China Mobile Hong Kong actually charges less than China Mobile proper at HK$148 for 2.5GB data compared to ¥200 for 2GB, but charges the same higher rates as China Unicom HK. Note that the downside to using a HK-based SIM is no cheap international calls; China Mobile HK, for instance, charges HK$5.80/minute to call all other countries from China, but softens the blow by offering a recharge bonus that increases with the amount of the top-up applied (for instance, a recharge of HK$300 gets you an extra HK$100, a recharge of HK$200 gets you an extra HK$50, and anything less than that but more than HK$50 gets a 10% bonus applied to it).

For the very short-term, the truly data-heavy users, or those to whom money is no object, Three HK data SIMs offer unlimited data in China (again unfiltered because everything runs through Three servers in HK) for HK$98/day. With their recharge bonus scheme a HK$300 recharge will last four days on top of the credit included with the SIM (2 days for the $198 SIM + 4 days from a $300 recharge make 6 days and HK$10 left over, for instance).

All of these can be purchased in HK, from specialist SIM dealers in larger cities, or online.

See also cell phones.

Area codes[edit]

The country dialing code for mainland China is 86. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have their own separate country dialing codes which are 852 for Hong Kong, 853 for Macau and 886 for Taiwan.

  • Major cities with eight-digit numbers have a two-digit area code. For example, Beijing is (0)10 plus an eight-digit number. Other places use seven- or eight-digit local numbers and a three-digit area code that does not start with 0, 1 or 2. So for example: (0)756 plus 7 digits for Zhuhai. The north uses small numbers, the south has larger numbers.
  • Normal cell phones do not need an area code. The numbers are composed of 130 to 132 (OR 156/186) plus 8 digits (China Unicom, GSM/UMTS), 133/153/189 plus 8 digits (China Telecom, CDMA) or 134 to 139 (OR 150/152/158/159/188) plus 8 digits (China Mobile, GSM/TD-SCDMA).
  • There used to be a service (小灵通 xiǎo língtōng) that offered landline numbers at lower prices but at the cost of not being able to move your phone between provinces; this is no longer available as the PHS networks in China have been completely shut down.

Emergency numbers[edit]

The following emergency telephone numbers work in all areas of Mainland China; calling them from a cell phone is free.

  • Patrol Police: 110
  • Fire Department: 119
  • (Government-owned) Ambulance/EMS: 120
  • (some areas private-owned) Ambulance: 999
  • Traffic Police: 122
  • Directory inquiries: 114
  • Consumer Protection: 12315











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Graffiti wall

USA banner.jpg

Mount Rushmore
Location
United States in its region.svg
Flag
Flag of the United States.svg
Quick Facts
Capital Washington, DC
Government Federal presidential constitutional republic
Currency US dollar
Area 9,826,675km²
water: 664,709km²
land: 9,161,966km²
Population 319,309,000(2014 estimate)
Language English is the most commonly spoken language
Spanish, Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Carolinian ,Cherokee and many other indigenous languages are recognized at State and Territorial levels
Religion Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 estimate)
Electricity 120V, 60Hz (Type "A" plug)
Country code +1
Internet TLD .us, .edu, .gov, .mil (most sites use .com, .net, .org)
Time Zone UTC -4 to UTC -10
Emergencies dial 911
Map of the mainland US, insular areas and Minor Outlying Islands.

The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as the "USA", the "US", the "United States", "America", or simply "the States". Home to the world's third-largest population, with over 318 million people, it includes both densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast, uninhabited and naturally beautiful areas.

With its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a "melting pot" of cultures from around the world and plays a dominant role in the world's cultural landscape. It's famous for its wide array of popular tourist destinations, ranging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago, to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and Alaska, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California.

Understand[edit]

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." — Mark Twain

The United States is not the America of television and the movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with several distinct regional identities. Due to the vast distances involved, travelling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive, but often very rewarding.

Geography[edit]

The contiguous United States (called CONUS by US military personnel) or the "Lower 48" (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the population living on the two coasts. Its land borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The US also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba, and the Bahamas. If counting the Insular Areas and Minor Outlying Islands, the United Kingdom, Samoa, and Haiti would also share maritime borders.

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 protected as national parks. They 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; the Sierras transition at their northern end into the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.

The Great Lakes define much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. More 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 southwestern portions of the USA in eastern California, Arizona, Nevada, and much of southern New Mexico are rugged and very arid landscapes, complete with wind-shaped desert sand dunes like White Sands New Mexico. Death Valley (282 feet below sea level) is the lowest spot on the USA mainland and one of the hottest areas on Earth. Natural areas include vast areas of desert untouched by humans. Camping and hiking through the majestic landscapes of the Southwest is a big vacation draw for many Americans.

Florida is very low-lying, with long white sand beaches lining both sides of the state. The mild subtropical climate allows many exotic (both native and non-native) plants and animals to flourish. The Florida Everglades are a pristine "river of grass" that is home to 20-foot alligators among other creatures.

Climate[edit]

The overall climate is temperate in much of the northern and central regions, with the deep southern areas along the Gulf Coast and Florida being subtropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West, while much of California is Mediterranean, and arid desert in its southwestern areas. Hawaii is tropical, and South Florida is semi-tropical.

The least difference in climate from region to region in the USA occurs in summer - when much of the USA has warm to hot summers. Areas of the Southwestern deserts (California, Arizona, and Nevada) often see the highest summer temperatures of 100 to 115°F (38-46°C) on many days with long periods of rainless weather. Much the rest of the USA sees high temperatures from 70 to 90°F (21-32°C). Only areas along the upper Pacific Coast (in Oregon and Washington) have summer highs below 70°F (21°C). The greatest difference in climate from region to region occurs from December through March - when temperatures can range fridge in the far northern areas (Minnesota, North Dakota...etc) to warm to hot in the deep subtropical portions (Florida, Arizona...etc). Some areas in the northern Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota) have highs only in the 20s Fahrenheit (-5°C) in January, while areas in the deep south along the Gulf Coast, the Southwestern Deserts, and Florida have highs in the 60s and 70s °F (15-26°C).

History[edit]

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

What is now the United States was initially populated by indigenous peoples who migrated from northeast Asia. Today, their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Although Native Americans are often portrayed as having lived a singular, usually primitive lifestyle, the truth is that prior to European contact, the continent was densely populated by many sophisticated societies. The Cherokee, for example, are descended from the overarching Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape, while the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. As was the case in other nations in the Americas, the primitive existence attributed to Native Americans was generally the result of mass die-offs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox which spread like wildfire ahead of the early European explorers. That is, by the time most Native American tribes directly encountered Europeans, they were a post-apocalyptic people.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, multiple European nations began colonizing the North American continent. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of what would become the USA. Of those early settlements, it was the original British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts that formed the cultural, political, legal and economic core of what is now known as the United States of America.

Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants—Puritans—who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Its neighbor to the southwest, Rhode Island, was founded by refugees from the religious fanatics of Massachusetts. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland.

Virginia, on the other hand, became the most dominant of the southern colonies. Because of a longer growing season, these colonies had richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate large plantations. Slavery became an important part of the economy in the South, a fact that would cause tremendous upheaval in the years to come.

By the early 18th century, the United Kingdom had established a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On 4 July 1776, colonists from the Thirteen Colonies, frustrated with excessive taxation and micromanagement by London and encouraged by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from the UK and established a new sovereign nation, the United States of America. The resulting American Revolutionary War culminated in the surrender of 7,000 British troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. This forced the British government to initiate peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, by which the victorious Americans assumed control of all British land south of the Great Lakes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. British loyalists, known as Tories, fled north of the Great Lakes into Canada, which remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown and would not become fully independent until 1982.

Although the Thirteen Colonies had united during the war in support of the common objective of getting rid of British tyranny, most colonists' loyalties at the end of the war lay with their respective colonial governments. In turn, the young country's first attempt at establishing a national government under the Articles of Confederation was a disastrous failure. The Articles tried too hard to protect the colonies from each other by making the national government so weak it could not do anything.

In 1787, a convention of major political leaders (the Founding Fathers of the United States) drafted a new national Constitution in Philadelphia. After ratification by a supermajority of the states, the new Constitution went into effect in 1791 and enabled the establishment of the strong federal government that has governed the United States ever since. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the Revolutionary War, was elected as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By the turn of the 19th century, a national capital had been established in Washington, D.C..

As American and European settlers pushed farther west, past the Appalachians, the federal government began organizing new territories and then admitting them as new states. This was enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare and disease. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee tribe in what is now the southeastern United States was forcibly relocated to lands in present-day Oklahoma, which was known as "Indian Territory" until the early 20th century. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought French-owned territory extending from the Mississippi River to parts of the present-day American West under American control, effectively doubling the country's land area.

The United States fought the War of 1812 with Britain as a reaction to British impressment of American sailors, as well as to attempt to capture parts of Canada. Though dramatic battles were fought, including one that ended with the British Army burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., the war ended in a virtual stalemate. Territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, with the United States acquiring more and more of their territory for white settlers.

Florida was purchased in 1813 from Spain after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a short-lived independent republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 resulted in acquisition of the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. After 1850, the borders of the continental United States reached the rough outlines it still has today. Many Native Americans were relegated to reservations by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases transmitted by large numbers of settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail and other routes.

Tensions between the US and the British government administering Canada continued to persist because the border west of the Great Lakes was ill-defined. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 failed to adequately address the complex geography of the region; the boundary dispute remained unsettled until 1871.

Meanwhile, by the late 1850s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The rapidly industrializing North, where slavery had been outlawed several decades before, favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. In 1861, the Southern states, fearing domination by the North and the Republican President Nominee Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Union and formed the breakaway Confederate States of America. These events sparked the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict on American soil, with over 200,000 killed in combat and a overall death toll exceeding 600,000. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, thereby cementing the federal government's authority over the states. The federal government then launched a complex process of rehabilitation and re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898 after a brief revolution fomented by American settlers. After decisively defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States gained its first "colonial" territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (granted independence shortly after World War II), Puerto Rico and Guam (which remain American dependencies today). During this "imperialist" phase of US history, the US also assisted Panama in obtaining independence from Colombia, as the need for a Panama Canal had become palpably clear to the US during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the new country of Panama promptly granted the United States control over a swath of territory known as the Canal Zone. The US constructed the Panama Canal in 1914 and retained control over the Canal Zone until 1979.

In the eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country's growing industrialization. Many African-Americans fled rural poverty in the South for industrial jobs in the North, in what is now known as the Great Migration. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads was laid across the country, accelerating development.

With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power by helping to defeat Germany and the Central Powers. However after the war, despite strong support from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States refused to join the newly-formed League of Nations, which substantially hindered that body's effectiveness in preventing future conflicts.

Real wealth grew rapidly in the postwar period. During the Roaring Twenties, stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to a period of economic havoc in the 1930s known as the Great Depression. The Depression was brutal and devastating, with unemployment rising to 25%. On the other hand, it helped forge a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in its next conflict. President Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid in 1932 as a result of his ineffective response to the Depression. The victor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ("FDR") pledged himself to a "New Deal" for the American people, which came in the form of a variety of aggressive economic recovery programs. While historians still debate the effectiveness of the various New Deal programs in terms of whether they fulfilled their stated objectives, it is generally undisputed that the New Deal greatly expanded the size and role of the US federal government.

In December 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, thus plunging the United States into World War II, which had already been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia since 1937. In alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the United States helped to defeat the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan. By the end of World War II, with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, the United States had firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world; it was then responsible for nearly half of the world's industrial production. The newly developed atomic bomb, whose power was demonstrated in two bombings of Japan in 1945, made the United States the only force capable of challenging the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.

After World War II, America experienced an economic resurgence and growing affluence on a scale not seen since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the racism traditionally espoused in various explicit and implicit forms by the European-American majority against the country's African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American and other minority populations had become impossible to ignore. While the US was attempting to spread democracy and the rule of law abroad to counter the Soviet Union's support of authoritarian Communist governments, it found itself having to confront its own abysmal failure to provide the benefits of democracy and the rule of law to all its citizens. Thus, in the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which ultimately eliminated most of the institutional discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women's movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in gender roles and perceptions in US society, including to a limited extent views on homosexuality and bisexuality. The more organized present-era US 'gay rights' movement first emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s.

During the same period, in the final quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent a slow but inexorable transition from an economy based on a mixture of heavy industry and labor-intensive agriculture, to an economy primarily based on advanced technology (the "high-tech" industry), retail, professional services, and other service industries, as well as a highly mechanized, automated agricultural industry.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, millions of US manufacturing jobs fell victim to outsourcing. In a phenomenon since labeled "global labor arbitrage," revolutionary improvements in transportation, communications, and logistics technologies made it possible to relocate manufacturing of most goods to foreign factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. The outsourcing revolution was devastating to many cities, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, whose economies were overly dependent upon manufacturing, and resulted in a group of hollowed-out, depressed cities now known as the Rust Belt.

The United States also assumed and continues to maintain a position of global leadership in military and aerospace technology through the development of a powerful "military-industrial complex", although as of the turn of the 21st century, its leadership is increasingly being challenged by the European Union and China. US federal investments in military technology also paid off handsomely in the form of the most advanced information technology sector in the world, which is primarily centered on the area of Northern California known as Silicon Valley. US energy firms, especially those based in petroleum and natural gas, have also become global giants, as they expanded worldwide to feed the country's thirst for cheap energy.

The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population from rural towns and urban cores to the suburbs. These population shifts, along with a changing economic climate, contributed heavily to Urban decay from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The postwar rise of a prosperous middle class able to afford cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline in turn led to the rise of the American car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, became the most comprehensive freeway system in the world, at over 47,000 miles in length. It was surpassed by China only in 2011, although the US is believed to still have a larger freeway system when non-federal-aid highways are also included.

In the late 20th century, the US was also a leader in the development and deployment of the modern passenger jetliner. This culminated in the development of the popular Boeing 737 and 747 jetliners; the 737 is still the world's most popular airliner today. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn devastated US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, with the consent of the railroads, who were eager to focus their operations on carrying freight, Congress nationalized their passenger rail operations to form the government-owned corporation now known as Amtrak.

During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers were the first to pioneer many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including self-service supermarkets, inventory bar codes to ease the tedium of accurately tallying purchases, "big box" chain stores, factory outlet stores, warehouse club stores, and modern shopping centers. American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, books, and art, all combined to establish the United States as the cultural center of the world. American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, thanks to generous assistance from the federal government in the form of the GI Bill, followed by massive research and development investments by the military-industrial complex, and later, the Higher Education Act. Today, US universities are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.

Government and politics[edit]

The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the District of Columbia (Washington DC), 16 terriories, and numerous Indian Reservations. The federal government derives its power from the Constitution of the United States, the oldest written constitution in the world in continuous use. Although federal law supersedes state law in the event of an express or implied conflict (known in legal jargon as "federal preemption"), each state is considered to be a separate sovereign, maintains its own constitution and government, and retains considerable autonomy within the federation. State citizens enjoy the power to vote for federal representatives, federal senators, and the federal President.

By way of contrast, the District of Columbia and the overseas territories have limited federal representation, as they can only elect "delegates" to the federal House of Representatives who cannot participate in votes by the Committee of the Whole on the House floor. (D.C. does, however, get three electoral votes with respect to the election of the federal President.) Because they lack state sovereignty, the governments of D.C. and the territories exist at the mercy of the federal government, which theoretically could dissolve them at any time.

State and territorial laws can vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, meaning that the US actually consists of at least 54 separate legal systems with regard to any area of law not within the purview of federal law. State and territorial laws are quite uniform in some areas (e.g., contracts for sales of goods) and extremely divergent in others (e.g., "real estate," the American term for immovable property). If this was not confusing enough, sovereign Native American tribes are allowed to operate their own legal systems separate from both federal and state law.

The federal government consists of the President of the United States and his administration acting as the executive branch, the United States Congress acting as the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts acting as the judicial branch. State government structures are organized similarly, with governors, legislatures, and judiciaries.

The President of the United States is elected indirectly every four years by the people via an electoral college, and serves as both head of government and head of state. The Congress is bicameral; the lower House of Representatives has seats assigned to the states proportionally, while the upper house, the Senate, comprises exactly two seats per state.

The United States has two major political parties at both the federal and state levels, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Their dominance over the American political landscape has remained largely unchallenged since the end of the American Civil War and leads to a heavily criticized and frequently corrupt system of "pork-barrel politics" where necessary change is too-often subject to deadlock and bi-partisan point scoring. While smaller political parties exist, the American winner-take-all electoral system means that they are rarely competitive in elections at any level.

Americans value their rights to political expression strongly, and politics are fiercely debated in American society. In fact, there are many popular web sites and cable channels devoted primarily to political opinion programming. American politics are very complex and change quickly. For example, gay people were not allowed to marry in any US state as recently as 2003, whereas now, 17 states allow gay marriage, while over 20 states have passed amendments to their state constitutions explicitly outlawing gay marriage. Many Americans hold and passionately defend strong opinions on a wide range of political issues, many Americans, especially older Americans, are loyal to one party, and political debates often become heated and lead to insults, vulgarities, and personal attacks being exchanged. For these reasons, unless you are intimately familiar with American politics or already know and agree with the political views of the person you are talking to, you are best off not talking about politics at all.

Culture[edit]

The South's famous Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

The United States is made up of many diverse ethnic groups and its 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 it is important to note that 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.

Holidays[edit]

The United States has a number of holidays — official and/or cultural — of which the traveller should be aware of. Note that holidays observed on Mondays or Fridays are usually treated as weekend-long events. (A weekend consists of a Saturday and a Sunday.) Federal holidays — i.e., holidays observed by the federal government, state and local government and banks — are indicated in bold italics. If a federal holiday with a fixed calendar date (such as Independence Day) falls on a weekend, federal and most state and local government offices will be closed on the nearest non-weekend day. Since the early 1970s, several federal holidays, including Memorial Day and Labor Day, have been observed on a certain Monday rather than on a fixed date for the express purpose of giving federal employees three-day weekends. Foreign embassies & consulates in the U.S. also observe the same federal holidays (in bold italics) in addition to the official holidays of their respective countries. The private sector (besides banks) are usually open for business on most holidays with people working except New Years, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas when a vast number of non-retail businesses do close or open partial hours in observance.

Due to the number of major holidays in close proximity to each other, many Americans refer to the period between Thanksgiving in late November and New Year's Day as simply "the holidays." School and work vacations are commonly taken during this periods:

  • New Year's Day (1 January) — most non-retail businesses closed; parades; brunches and football parties.
  • Super Bowl Sunday (usually the first Sunday in February) — The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL (National Football League) American football league and the most-watched sporting event of the year; supermarkets, bars, restaurants and electronics stores are very busy; big football-watching parties everywhere. Those with the extra money to burn DO travel to the host city where the Super Bowl is happening to attend the game live. This makes travel to that city even more hectic with a limited availability of airline seats, hotel rooms, rental cars and parking spaces at much higher than usual prices. The host city varies annually so plan accordingly if planning to be in the host city on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • (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 or a green accessory is common.
  • Easter (a Sunday in March or April) — Christian religious observances. Depending on location, many restaurants, including franchised outlets of major national chains, may close. Major retailers generally open; smaller shops may or may not close.
  • Passover (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days around Easter) — Jewish religious observance.
  • Memorial Day (last Monday in May) — most non-retail businesses closed; some patriotic observances; trips to beaches and parks; beginning of the traditional beginning of summer tourism season which means jacked up summer prices for rooms and airfare to some places.
  • Independence Day / Fourth of July (4 July) — most non-retail businesses closed; airports and highways crowded; 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; last day of the traditional ending of summer tourism season which means a better time to plan for travel to or within the U.S. in many places.
  • 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. Columbus Day can be controversial, especially among Native Americans, and is not as widely observed as it was in the past.
  • Halloween (31 October) — trick-or-treating, parades, and costume parties.
  • Veterans Day (11 November) — government offices and banks closed; some patriotic observances.
  • Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November, date varies annually) — almost all businesses closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants; family dinners. Airports and highways are very crowded. The next day, known as "Black Friday," major Christmas shopping traditionally begins. Many non-retail employees are given Friday off or take it as a holiday. If planning to fly within the U.S. during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday and the weekend after plan accordingly as the airfares are jacked up.
  • Hanukkah / Chanukah (varies based on the Jewish calendar, eight days usually in December) — Jewish religious observance, often culturally associated with Christmas.
  • Christmas (25 December) — almost all businesses, grocery stores, and many restaurants closed the evening before and all day. Airports and highways are crowded. Families and close friends exchange gifts; Christian religious observances. If planning to fly within the U.S. and internationally around the Christmas holiday and the week between Christmas and New Years Day plan accordingly as the airfares are jacked up.
  • New Year's Eve (31 December) — many restaurants and bars open late; lots of parties, especially in big cities.

From a foreign traveler's point of view, there are two major services affected by federal holidays: visas and mail.

First, if you are a foreigner who needs to apply for a US visa, it is important to note the federal holidays marked in bold italics. All US embassies worldwide close on those days, in addition to the official holidays of the host country and are unable to process applications on those days.

Second, United States Postal Service retail counters are closed on federal holidays, and in high-crime areas, the entire post office stays closed. Self-service kiosks at post offices in relatively safe areas with 24/7 lobby access remain operational through holidays. However, mail deposited at a post office or in a mailbox will not be processed until after the holiday is over.

Other federal services like national parks and airport security operate 365 days a year regardless of federal holidays.

Many state governments also observe official holidays of their own which are not observed in other states or by the federal government.

Units of measure[edit]

The United States is the only industrialized country that has still not adopted metric units of measure in daily life (it still uses the customary English units that were in use prior to the revolution, similar to the later British imperial system, but typically with smaller units as one of the major differences), except for scientific, engineering, and military applications.

All road signs and speed limits are posted in miles and miles per hour respectively. Automotive fuel is priced and sold per gallon. Other capacities of liquid products are normally quoted and sold per gallon, quart, or ounce (although liters are often indicated and sometimes exclusively used, as with some soda, wine, and other liquor products). Temperatures are reported in Fahrenheit only; 32 degrees (with units unspecified) is freezing (equivalent to 0 degrees Celsius). The good news is that most cars on the road in the US have both mph and km/h marked on their speedometers (good for trips to Canada and Mexico), and almost all groceries and household items sold in stores are labeled in both systems. The vast majority of Americans, though, have little day-to-day exposure to the metric system (apart from having studied it a little in school) and will assume some understanding of customary measures.

In addition, the US government does not regulate apparel or shoe sizes. Although there are informal standard sizes, they are not strictly enforced. The only thing you can count on is that sizes tend to be consistent within the same brand. If you plan to shop for apparel or shoes, you will have to do some trial-and-error for each brand to determine what fits, because you cannot rely on any brand's sizes as equivalent to another's. Please note that, as the average body size of Americans tends to be larger than that of those living in other countries, a concept known as vanity sizing (the labeling of larger garments with smaller sizes) exists in many clothing retailers, especially those aimed at women. It is very possible for people with smaller body types to have some difficulty finding suitably sized clothing.

Electricity[edit]

For more information: Electrical systems

Electricity in the United States is provided to consumers in the form of 120V, 60Hz alternating current, through wall outlets that take NEMA 1 or NEMA 5 plugs. (NEMA stands for National Electrical Manufacturers Association.) NEMA 1 plugs have two flat, blunt blades (don't worry, they're not sharp), one of which may or may not be polarized (slightly larger than the other), to ensure that the hot and neutral blades are inserted correctly for devices for which that matters. NEMA 5 plugs add a round grounding pin below the blades. All US buildings constructed or renovated after the early 1960s are required to have three-hole outlets that accept the two blades and one pin of NEMA 5 plugs, as well as both polarized and unpolarized NEMA 1 two-blade plugs. The US Virgin Islands uses a slightly lower voltage of 110V. American Samoa uses US plugs, the German Schuko plug, and the Australian standard plug.

All of North America, nearly all of the Caribbean and Central America, Venezuela, and Taiwan follow US standards for electricity and plugs. If you are arriving from outside of those areas, you will need to verify whether your electrical devices are compatible with US electricity and plugs. Japan uses the same plugs as the US, but has a unique standard of 100V with frequency of either 50 or 60Hz depending on region. Most of the rest of the world uses 220-230V at 50Hz, for the simple reason that they began large-scale electrification at much later dates than the US and after wire insulation technology had significantly advanced. This meant they could select a higher voltage and lower frequency, which required less conductor material (meaning less use of expensive metals) but at the expense of more insulation and larger, more heavily insulated plugs. Colombia's voltage is 110V and Ecuador's 120-127V but the frequency is the same as the US.

Most consumer electronics, computers, and shavers are already designed as "dual voltage" devices capable of accepting voltages from 110V up to 230V and between 50-60Hz. For those devices, a plug adapter is sufficient. Purchase your adapter at home before you depart. Most US stores carry adapters designed to adapt NEMA plugs to other countries' outlets, not the other way around.

The differences in voltage and frequency are most frequently an issue for travellers with hair long enough to require the use of a hair dryer for proper hair care. Foreign visitors regularly find their hair dryers to be starved for power in the US; conversely, Americans' hair dryers are regularly burned out and destroyed by high voltages overseas. Apart from doing without or waiting an annoying long time to dry one's hair, the solutions are to either

  1. buy a high-wattage transformer capable of stepping up 120V to 220V
  2. buy a hair dryer with a switch that allows it to be switched between 110 and 220V
  3. buy a cheap US hair dryer for use during your trip; or
  4. book hotels that cater to international travellers and place hair dryers in the rooms for this reason.

For more information[edit]

The US federal government sets foreign policy, 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 is best provided by state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state articles. At state borders, highway rest stops sometimes feature visitor centers and often offer travel and tourism information and materials, almost all of which is also available on-line or can be requested in advance by mail. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated "You Are Here" marker. Some also offer free paper road maps to take with you.

Note that government tourism bureaus and their Web sites tend to be rather indiscriminate in their recommendations, since for political reasons they cannot be seen as overly favorable towards any particular area within their jurisdiction.

Regions[edit]

The United States is composed of 50 states, various overseas territories, as well as the city of Washington, D.C., a federal district and the nation's capital. Below is a rough grouping of these states into regions, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:

Map of the USA
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. The small town environments have managed to maintain a large degree of autonomy for centuries.
Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
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. Bridging New England and the South, the Mid-Atlantic includes some of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world as well as small enclaves of American history.
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, and country music traditions. A distinct literature, accents, and religiosity help distinguish Southerners as well. This lush, largely subtropical region includes cool, verdant mountains, agricultural plantations, vast cypress swamps, and long white sand beaches.
Florida
Northern Florida is similar to the rest of the South, but is not so in the resorts of Orlando, retirement communities, tropical Caribbean-influenced Miami, the Everglades, and 1,200 miles of sandy beaches. An extremely popular tourist attraction, Florida includes some of the nicest attractions that the United States has to offer and is conveniently located in the Caribbean, facilitating travel to exotic islands.
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 US. Midwesterners are known for their simplicity and hospitality.
Texas
The second biggest state in the nation is like a separate country (and in fact, once was), with strong cultural influences from its Spanish and Mexican past. The state is also a nexus of Southwestern and Southern cultures. The terrain ranges from southeastern swamplands to the cattle-ranching South Plains to the sandy beaches of South Texas to the mountains and deserts of 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 (short grass prairies) nearly as desolate as in the frontier days. You can enjoy serenity and a beautiful expanse that's impossible on the coasts.
Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer hiking, rafting, and excellent snow skiing as well as deserts, and some large cities. Tourist cities include some of the nicest amenities for hundreds of miles and some parts of the Rockies are virtually untouched by man.
Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture, 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 of the nation's largest cities. Additionally, a strong Native American influence can be felt throughout as this region includes many large reservations and sovereign territorial lands.
California
Like the Southwest, California has a history under Spanish and Mexican rule and is heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican culture in addition to massive immigration from around the world. California offers world-class cities, deserts, rainforests, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches. Northern California (around the San Francisco Bay Area) and Southern California (around Los Angeles) are culturally distinct.
Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)
The Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits as well as cosmopolitan cities. The terrain ranges from spectacular temperate rain forests to scenic mountains and volcanoes to beautiful coastlines to sage-covered steppes and deserts. In minutes, you can travel from a high-tech metropolis to a thick forest or a mountaintop.
Alaska
One-fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features mountainous wilderness. The state has a rich and diverse tapestry of native cultures including Yupik, Inupiat, Tlingit and others. Around 15% of the residents are of native origin.
Hawaii
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 miles south west of California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii is a vacation paradise. The indigenous Polynesian population are known for being