Difference between revisions of "United States of America"
Revision as of 19:12, 25 October 2013
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". It is home to the world's third-largest population, with over 310 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 is 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.
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, traveling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
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.
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 overall climate is temperate, with notable exceptions. Alaska is cold and dominated by Arctic tundra, while Hawaii and South Florida are tropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West and Mediterranean along the California coast.
In the winter, the northern and mid-western major cities can see as much as 2 feet (61 cm) of snowfall in one day, with cold temperatures. Summers are humid, but mild. Temperatures over 100°F (38°C) sometimes invade the Midwest and Great Plains. Some areas in the northern plains can experience cold temperatures of -30°F (-34°C) during the winter. Temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) sometimes reach as far south as Oklahoma.
The climate of the South also varies. In the summer, it is hot and humid, but from October through April the weather can range from 60°F (15°C) to short cold spells of 20°F (-7°C) or so.
The Great Plains and Midwestern states also experience tornadoes from the late spring to early fall, earlier in the south and later in the north. States along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, may experience hurricanes between June and November. These intense and dangerous storms frequently miss the US mainland, but evacuations are often ordered and should be heeded.
The Rockies are cold and snowy. Some parts of the Rockies see over 500 inches (12 m) of snow in a season. Even during the summer, temperatures are cool in the mountains, and snow can fall nearly year-round. It is dangerous to go up in the mountains unprepared in the winter and the roads through them can get very icy.
The deserts of the Southwest are hot and dry during the summer, with temperatures often exceeding 100°F (38°C). Thunderstorms can be expected in the southwest frequently from July through September. Winters are mild, and snow is unusual. Average annual precipitation is low, usually less than 10 inches (25 cm).
Cool and damp weather is common in the coastal northwest (Oregon and Washington west of the Cascade Range, and the northern part of California west of the Coast Ranges/Cascades). Rain is most frequent in winter, snow is rare, especially along the coast, and extreme temperatures are uncommon. Rain falls almost exclusively from late fall through early spring along the coast. East of the Cascades, the northwest is considerably drier. Much of the inland northwest is either semi-arid or desert, though altitude and weather patterns may result in wetter climates in some areas.
Northeastern and cities of the Upper South are known for summers with temperatures reaching into the 90's (32°C) or more, with extremely high humidity, usually over 80%. This can be a drastic change from the Southwest. High humidity means that the temperature can feel hotter than actual readings. The Northeast also experiences snow, and at least once every few years there will be a dumping of the white stuff in enormous quantities.
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 U.K. 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, many Native American tribes in what is now the southeastern United States were 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 in an attempt to reassert its authority and to capture 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 avowedly anti-slavery President 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 reassimilation 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 move manufacturing of most goods to Asian factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. Prior to 1960, it was necessary for US executives to take months off work to tour overseas operations by steamship or propeller aircraft, they had only minimal visibility into such operations through expensive international long-distance telephone calls, telegraphs, or telex transmissions, and goods were shipped in "break bulk" form on individual pallets or in crates. By the 1980s, US executives could race overseas and back in a handful of days via jetliners, closely monitor overseas factories via fax, cheap long-distance calls, and early online services, and ship goods in bulk on huge container ships. 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 "defense-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. 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 mi 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 jetliners. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn wrecked US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, Congress authorized the formation of Amtrak to enable the railroads to shed themselves of their remaining passenger routes (which would now be operated by Amtrak over the railroads' tracks).
During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers pioneered many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including 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 established the United States as the cultural center of the world. With the aid of generous federal funding as part of the defense-industrial complex and later, under the Higher Education Act, American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Today, they are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the District of Columbia (Washington DC), and several dependent areas overseas. 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 (eg, contracts for sales of goods) and extremely divergent in others (eg, "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.
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.
The United States has a number of holidays — official and/or cultural — of which the traveler should be aware. 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 — 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 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.
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 period.
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 and are unable to process applications on those days, in addition to holidays observed by their host country.
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
The United States is the only industrialized country that has still not adopted metric units of measure in daily life (it still uses customary units mostly similar to the 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 prices and the capacity of liquid products are quoted and sold per gallon, quart, or ounce. Temperatures are reported in Fahrenheit only; 32 degrees (with units unspecified) is freezing and not at all warm. The good news is that most cars on the road in the US have both miles and kilometers indicated by 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.
Electricity in the United States is provided to consumers in the form of 120 V, 60 Hz 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 blades, 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.
All of North America and nearly all of the Caribbean and Central America follows 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. The rest of the world uses 220-230 V at 60 Hz, 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.
Most consumer electronics, computers, and shavers are already designed as "dual voltage" devices capable of accepting voltages from 110 V up to 230 V and between 50-60 Hz. 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 primarily an issue for travelers with hair long enough to require the use of a hair dryer. 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 120 V to 220 V; (2) buy a cheap US hair dryer for use during your trip; or (3) book hotels that cater to international travelers and place hair dryers in the rooms for this reason.
For more information
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.
The United States is composed of 50 states, 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:
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 in Oceania.
The United States has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of ten of the most notable. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities.
The United States has somewhat 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.
There is no airside transit without US entry between international flights. All travelers must disembark and proceed through immigration and customs inspection to enter the United States, even if you're only staying for the two to four hours required to transit between flights. This is most relevant if you're transiting between Asia or Europe to/from Latin America. Therefore, all travelers 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.
Law and bureaucracy
The US federal government has three 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 travelers 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.
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.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 37 countries within the Visa Waiver Program, as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), and Bermudians (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 travelers under the visa waiver program, the entry period is strictly limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below).
As of October 2012, the countries under the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, 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 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
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.
Travelers 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.
Travelers 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 traveler must be a legal resident of that country/territory. If traveling by land, there is a $7.00 fee when crossing the border. Before VWP travelers commence their journeys, they must apply electronically for authorization to travel (ESTA) through the ESTA website. If approved, it allows the traveler 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 traveler ineligible for visa-free travel with the following exceptions:
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:
Obtaining a visa
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.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require eight weeks for receiving an approval from authorities in Washington. This especially applies to military and dual-purpose fields which are mentioned in a so-called technical alert list.
Travel to US possessions
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), & Hong Kong. Citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, & 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, a return airfare, and is limited to a 45 day stay in Guam & the Northern Marianas 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 Northern Marianas as well as on flights to the rest of the US (currently, only Guam-Hawaii flights).
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. 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. All other foreign nationals must contact the American Samoa Attorney General's office to obtain a visa at (684) 633-4163.
Arriving in the United States
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. However, as May 21, 2013, the CBP offically announced that I-94 paper forms is now optional, as you can submit the form electronically at this link. Most persons arriving in the United States under the Visa Waiver Program are no longer issued with I-94W cards since the qualifying paperwork was filled out with the ESTA application.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will go through a short interview at immigration.
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. Keep it safe as you will need to give it to airline staff upon departure from the US.
A customs form is handed out to all travelers; however, 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. 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). Hand your customs declaration to the officer. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it. If you are traveling by air to the US, many airports will provide two lanes: for those who have something to declare and those who have nothing to declare.
You can't bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables but you may bring cooked non-meats, such as bread. 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. The only 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: Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK), Syria, and Myanmar (Burma).
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 connections to other destinations inside the US. Nearly all major hubs have special arrangements for travelers with connecting flights, such as a conveyor belt just the other side of customs where you can place your baggage that has been already been tagged with your final destination. (Some hubs like JFK have now switched to a more inconvenient system, where you must show your ID and boarding pass at a "Connecting Flights" check-in counter.)
Leaving the United States (and Re-entering from Canada or Mexico)
Unlike most countries, the US has no formal passport control checkpoint for those exiting the country, especially for those traveling by air or sea. If you are leaving the US for the last time on a particular trip (eg, 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 the airline or ship staff at check-in, or the Canadian or Mexican border officer if leaving by land.
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 travelers enter the US at one of the major entry points along the coasts:
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 traveling in.
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 checked again and your carry-on bags will be hand-searched.
Within the US, airport security procedures continue to evolve. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration)  now requires all passengers to remove shoes and outerwear and submit personal belongings to X-ray screening. New body-scanning x-ray machines are in use at many airports, which are capable of detecting non-metallic threats. These machines are optional and passengers have the legal right to "opt out" and request a manual search instead. Random passengers may also be 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 screenings.
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 preclearance formalities. However, even if you pass through these airports, make sure that your papers are in order to allow you to enter Canada. If you cannot travel to the US on the same day you go through preclearance, if you are not cleared for entry to the United States, or if you and/or your luggage is not checked through by your airline to at least your first destination in the United States, you will need to report to Canada Customs, and in that event, a Canadian transit or temporary resident visa may be required.
Preclearance facilities are available at most major Canadian airports (Toronto-Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier, Vancouver, Calgary, etc.), Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, Grand Bahama and Lynden Pindling International Airports in the Bahamas, Bermuda International Airport in Bermuda, and Dublin and 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 preclearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the US, they will arrive as domestic passengers and can transfer immediately to domestic flights.
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 traveled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1-2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the 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 55 mph in the US is 88 km/h.
Greyhound offers substantial inexpensive cross-border service from both Canada and Mexico throughout their network. Some routes, such as Toronto to Buffalo have hourly service. Megabus U.S. also runs multiple daily trips from Toronto (also a hub for Megabus Canada) to New York City via Buffalo for as low as $1.
Be warned that bus passengers often experience greater scrutiny from U.S. customs officials than car or train passengers.
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.
Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.
Amtrak offers international service from the Canadian cities of Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades has two trips per day to Seattle), Toronto (Maple Leaf has a daily trip to New York City), and Montreal (Adirondack has a daily trip to New York City) into the U.S. Note that crossborder rail service is more expensive and less quick than the buses, which are more frequent and serve a larger range of U.S. destinations from both Canada and Mexico.
On international trains from Montreal and Toronto, immigration formalities are conducted at the border.
Those traveling from 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.
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.
The size of the U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. If you have time, travel by car, bus, or rail can be interesting.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the U.S. is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and 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 U.S. 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 travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices to destinations outside of the big cities can be very expensive.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
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.
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 U.S. 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:
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.
Security at U.S. 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 a single (1) transparent resealable plastic bag that is 1 quart or less in size. Please note that you can take as many of the little "travel size" 3-ounce bottles that you 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 U.S. pharmacies as well as Walmart have a section for "trial or travel size" bottles of personal care liquids that fall under the three-ounce limit.
By private plane
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.
See also: Rail travel in the United States
Except for certain densely populated corridors (mostly just 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 travelers only. If you plan to buy a regular ticket within a week of traveling, it pays to check the website for sometimes significant "weekly specials".
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. Travelers 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 enroute), have a contingency plan for being at least three hours late when traveling 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 90 mph). 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 FY2007, 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 traveling 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.
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:
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.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans use a car traveling within their city, and when traveling to nearby cities in their state or region.
Generally speaking, American cities were built for the automobile, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. This applies even to very large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami, where public transport is very limited and having a car is the most practical way of getting around. (The exceptions are New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where having your own car is not only unnecessary, but discouraged.) In most medium-sized American cities, everything is very spread out and public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but if you're not at the airport, you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, making similar arrangements to return. While most Americans are happy to give driving directions, don't be surprised if many aren't familiar with the local public transport options available.
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. Even states that ban the use of hand-held phones by drivers often allow the use of GPS features, as long as the driver enters no data when in motion (check local laws in the places you will be traveling).
Unlike the rest of the world, the United States continues to use the imperial system, meaning that road signs are in miles and miles per hour, and fuel is sold in gallons. 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 U.S. and Canada today can be readily switched between the two sets of units.
Great American Road Trip
A romantic appeal is attached to the idea of long-distance car travel; many Americans will tell you that you can't see the "real" America except by car. Given the dearth of public transportation in most American cities, the loss of time traveling between cities by car rather than flying can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country's major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to get to without an automobile. If you have the time, a classic American road trip with a rented car (see below) is very easy to achieve. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many long days behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use.
See also: Interstate Highway System
The United States is covered with a convenient system of Interstate Highways. Interstates are always expressways (or "freeways")—that is, controlled access divided highways with no 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.
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' cheques 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 (70 km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85 miles per hour (135 km/h) in rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they'll be between 65 and 75 mph (105–120 km/h). The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly posted on Interstates.
American drivers often drive 5 to 15 miles per hour (8–25 km/h) over the posted speed limit; driving slower than the speed limit can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than 5 to 10 mph (8–15 km/h) over the speed limit, and be sure that some other cars are always passing you; avoid being the fastest or the slowest vehicle. If you are pulled over by police for speeding, the excuse "Everyone else is speeding too" will not help. 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 will nearly always get a ticket, but it never hurts to express 'regret' as maybe you will get lucky and only receive a warning. If you are pulled over, remain in your car. 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.
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.
Commercial rest areas were prohibited on the US Interstate Highway system by the Federal government. As a result, the vast majority of stopping points are state-operated rest areas (sometimes called "visitor centers" near state borders and major cities) with public toilets, parking, tourist information, vending machines, and a small picnic area. While there are no restaurants, gas stations, or other stores, some rest areas are equipped with vending machines. (A notable exception are tolled, limited-access highways such as Florida's Turnpike, where exiting would force you to pay a toll; service plazas with both food and gas are found on these highways every 20–40 miles [30–60 km] or so.) Some states (Oklahoma in particular), commonly use the term "picnic areas" in contrast to "rest areas." While rest areas can be found in these states, picnic areas are an economical alternative for the state; they lack facilities such as restrooms and vending machines. These picnic areas will often include a few picnic tables (hence the name) and a non-electric outhouse to serve as a restroom.
Commercial traveler services tend to congregate on the local roads just off popular interstate exits, even if the exit is miles from the nearest population center. Sometimes you'll find a truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travelers; Truck stops provide several services all in one building, with a "greasy-spoon"-style restaurant, gas station, general store, and even hot showers. 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.
In rural areas, some businesses also build very tall signs that can be seen miles in advance from an adjacent freeway.
Off the Interstates
A secondary system of federal highways is the U.S. Highway system. U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections, but they are often surface roads, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. U.S. Highways, which generally predate the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. 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, U.S. Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights.
Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and U.S. 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 surface roads 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.
As with the rest of North America, Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left. 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 nearly all states and cities. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. 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.
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 at: http://drivinglaws.aaa.com/. The Digest contains comprehensive summaries in plain English of all major driving laws that typically vary between states. The Digest's coverage includes all U.S states and all Canadian provinces.
International visitors age 18 and older can usually drive on their foreign driver's license for up to a year, depending on state law. Licenses that are not in English must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation. Persons who will be in the United States for more than a year must obtain a driver's license from the state they are residing in. 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 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. Most traffic stops are recorded by a video camera in the trooper's patrol car, as well as a lapel microphone on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.
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. The major rental agencies are Sixt  (+1 888 749-8227), Alamo  (+1 877 222-9075); Avis  (+1 800 230 4898); Budget  (+1 800 527 0700); Dollar  (+1 800 800 4000); Enterprise Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz  (+1 800 230 4898); National  (+1 877 222 9058); and Thrifty  (+1 800 847 4389). There are no large national discount car rental agencies but in each city there is usually at least one. A couple discount car rental companies, usually restricted to areas of the country, are Advantage Rent A Car  or  (now owned by Hertz and expanding across the country), E-Z Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 277 5171) and Fox Rent A Car . The Internet or the Yellow Pages are the easiest ways to find them. One widespread chain is Rent-A-Wreck  (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices. Most rental agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another (the ones that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
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. 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  (+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. Alternatively, Better World Club  (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs). 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.
Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or their own private vehicle insurance policy. Without appropriate loss/damage waiver cover, you could be liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident. Purchasing loss/damage waiver cover and supplemental liability insurance may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental, in some cases doubling the price of the rental. 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.
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 U.S. 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. U.S. 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, but 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 September 2013, current prices are averaging near $3.40/gallon (equivalent to $.90/liter) for regular and $3.90/gallon for diesel ($1.03/liter).
Gas prices vary dramatically from state to state 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.
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).
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, and while not available everywhere, there are at least three daily routes in every state. Service between nearby major cities is extremely frequent (e.g. as of July 2012 there are 82 daily buses, by seven operators, on an off-peak weekday each way between Boston-New York, an average of nearly one every 10 minutes during daytime hours). Many patrons use bus travel when other modes aren't readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. The disadvantaged and elderly may use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or unaffordable for some. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable, safe, affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (First Group)  (+1 800-229-9424) and several subsidiaries and affiliated partners (Neon, Vermont Transit, Cruceros USA, Valley Transit, Americanos, and Greyhound Canada) have the predominant share of American bus travel. Steep discounts are available to travelers 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 9 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 routes until most of them were brought 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. 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 bus "Chinatown" 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 Mexican(-American) companies on:
Service in and out of Florida to the southeast and up along the eastern seaboard up to New York & Pennsylvania (I-95 corridor) are offered by:
In California, the Southwest, and northwestern Mexico include:
Onward travel down into Mexico can be also booked w/ 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:
Otherwise see the entries for individual U.S. states and/or cities for additional companies.
The Federal Highway Administration certifies all bus operators, though they have a hard time keeping wraps on the large amount of services. Curbside bus operators (Chinatown and Internet based buses) are more dangerous than others, though still much safer than driving a private vehicle.
By recreational vehicle (RV)
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.
The thrill and exhilaration of cross country travel are magnified when you go by motorcycle. Harley-Davidson is the preeminent American motorcycle brand and Harley operates a motorcycle rental program  for those licensed and capable of handling a full weight motorcycle. In some parts of the country, you can also rent other types of motorcycles, such as sportbikes, touring bikes, and dual-sport bikes. For those inexperienced with motorcycles, Harley and other dealerships offer classes for beginners. Wearing a helmet, although not required in all states, is always a good idea. The practice of riding between lanes of slower cars, also known as "lane-sharing" or "lane-splitting," is illegal, except in California where it is tolerated and widespread. Solo motorcyclists can legally use "high-occupancy vehicle" or "carpool" lanes during their hours of operation.
American enthusiasm towards motorcycles has led to a motorcycling subculture. Motorcycle clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorcycle within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding clubs may or may not be organized around a specific brand of bikes and offer open membership to anyone interested in riding. Motorcycle rallies, such as the famous one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are huge gatherings of motorcyclists from around the country. Many motorcyclists are not affiliated with any club and opt to ride independently or with friends. In general, motorcycling is seen as a hobby, as opposed to a practical means of transportation; this means, for example, that most American motorcyclists prefer not to ride in inclement weather. However you choose to ride, and whatever brand of bike you prefer, motorcycling can be a thrilling way to see the country.
A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. are most covered by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) and if not on an Interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.
In many states Interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads and Texas only bans it on toll roads — and on free Interstates within the city of El Paso. Oregon only bans it in the Portland metro area. Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.
Hitchhiking has become much less popular due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media). International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable "thumbing a ride" if they had a good knowledge of the locale.
Craigslist  has a rideshare section that sometimes proves useful for arranging rides in advance. If you are open with your destination it's almost always possible to find a ride on C.L. going somewhere within the U.S.
Some states offer traffic and public transport information by dialling 511 on your phone.
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). While some Americans study a foreign language in school (usually Spanish, French or German), few achieve or retain fluency into adulthood. The end result is that many Americans know only a few words at best of a foreign language, even if they studied that language in school. A growing number of popular tourist sites have signs in other languages, but only English is certain to be available at any given location.
Due primarily to immigration from Latin America, the United States has the fifth-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.
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, although Japanese is also widely spoken there. In the various Chinatowns in major cities, Cantonese and Mandarin are common. Smaller immigrant groups also sometimes form their own pockets of shared language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Chicago, for instance, is the city with the second largest ethnic Polish population in the world, behind Warsaw. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 indeed be a little hard to uncover, as most of the Native American tribes did not build permanent settlements. But particularly in the West, you will find magnificent cliff dwellings at sites such as Mesa Verde, as well as near-ubiquitous rock paintings. The Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. is another great place to start learning about America's culture before the arrival of European colonists.
As the first part of the country to be colonized by Europeans, the eastern states of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have more than their fair share of sites from early American history. The first successful British colony on the continent was at Jamestown, Virginia, although the settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, may loom larger in the nation's mind.
In the eighteenth century, major centers of commerce developed in Philadelphia and Boston, and as the colonies grew in size, wealth, and self-confidence, relations with Great Britain became strained, culminating in the Boston Tea Party and the ensuing Revolutionary War...
Monuments and architecture
Americans have never shied away from heroic feats of engineering, and many of them are among the country's biggest tourist attractions.
Washington, D.C., as the nation's capital, has more monuments and statuary than you could see in a day, but do be sure to visit the Washington Monument (the world's tallest obelisk), the stately Lincoln Memorial, and the incredibly moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The city's architecture is also an attraction—the Capitol Building and the White House are two of the most iconic buildings in the country and often serve to represent the whole nation to the world.
Actually, a number of American cities have world-renowned skylines, perhaps none 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, but the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building still 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
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:
Here is a handful of itineraries spanning regions across the United States:
The official U.S. 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 travelers 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 less of an issue nowadays with the stronger 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, but less so the further south you go. Now that the Mexican peso has stabilized, it is somewhat accepted at some locations at border towns (El Paso, Laredo, etc), but you're better off exchanging your pesos in Mexico, and using U.S. dollars instead, to ensure the best exchange rate.
Common American bills are for $1, $5, $10, $20, and $50 with $2 and $100 bills considerably less common. All bills are the same size. All $1, $2, and $100 bills, and older $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills are greenish and printed with black and green ink. Newer versions of the $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills incorporate different gradations of color in the paper and additional colors of ink. As designs are updated every 5-10 years, 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 U.S. banknotes have been devalued in the last 80 years. Coins also haven't been devalued, and coins from as early as the 1940s are still found in circulation.
The standard coins are the penny (1¢, copper color), the chunky nickel (5¢, silver color), the tiny dime (10¢, silver color) and the quarter (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) coins exist but are uncommon. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters.
Currency exchange and banking
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 $2.50 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.
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
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card counterparts/affiliates) are widely used and accepted. Nearly all large retailers will accept credit cards for transactions of all sizes, even as small as one or two dollars. However, some small businesses and independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $2-5, but can legally charge up to $10 minimum) for credit card use, as such transactions cost them around 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, 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 had alliances with Discover for several years 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. However, between August 2011 and June 2012, the four big credit card networks separately announced target dates in spring 2013 for EMV implementation among their US merchants. Most merchants failed to meet that deadline and accordingly, EMV implementation is still mostly incomplete.
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 (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. At gas stations you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside.
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.
There is no nationwide sales tax (such as VAT or GST), the only exception being motor fuels (gasoline and diesel). As a result, state/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.
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 statewide sales tax, but a few local governments (mostly in tourism-dominated towns) are allowed to collect sales taxes. Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not collect sales tax on clothes. 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 traveler'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 travelers. Thus, sales taxes can vary up to 2% in a matter of a few miles.
However, even accounting for the burden of sales taxes, U.S. retail prices still tend to be much lower than in many other countries. The U.S. 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, U.S. 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.
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
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 that will you encounter are operated by big 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.
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.
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
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. But 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. And most of those are store brands (i.e., not associated with a famous fashion designer). But 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). Unless you are actually a fan of Macy's store brands, save your time and money for Macy's regional flagship stores or its original flagship store in New York City.
Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Other midrange stores include Kohl's, Sears, and JCPenney, while the lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy. General discount stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart are ubiquitous. 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 being its largest retail chain. The two largest supermarket chains are Kroger and Safeway, 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, but neither chain operates in the nation's largest city, New York City (which is dominated by numerous regional chains). The dominant warehouse club chain in the U.S. is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam's Club (operated by Walmart).
In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, each of which competes with various regional chains and local stores. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), electronics (Best Buy), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond).
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. 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. Almost all other items sold in the pharmacy section can be paid for at any checkout counter.
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 . This costs $80 and gives access to almost all of the federally administered parks and recreation areas for one year. Considering the price of admission to many parks is at least $20 each, if you visit more than a few of them, the pass will be the cheaper solution. You can trade in receipts from individual entries for 14 days at the entrance to the parks to upgrade to an annual pass, if you find yourself cruising around and ending up visiting more parks than expected.
Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association, 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.
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:
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.
The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. 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; a few are open 24 hours a day. A third remarkable fact is the size of the portions generally served by U.S. restaurants. Although the trend has moderated in recent years, portions have grown surprisingly large over the past two or three decades.
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 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.
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.
Types of restaurants
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 fellow patrons filling their cups two-thirds with ice and then adding what would seem to be a tiny amount of the actual beverage.
The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected but you must clear your table after your meal.
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 U.S.; 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.
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, 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  (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.
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. Note, however, that bars may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo ID proving they are not, 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
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.
Dinner, the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9pm. Most restaurants will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a "to go box"). Making reservations in advance is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, "up-scale", or you are dining in a large group.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a single, flat, rate, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Generally, buffets serve American or Chinese-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
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 food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes. Authentic Chinese food can be found in restaurants in Chinatowns in addition to communities with large Chinese populations. Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai food have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation. Indian food outlets are available in most major U.S. cities and towns.
Mexican/Hispanic/Tex-Mex food is very popular, but again in a localized version. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy tomato salsa, sour cream, and an avocado-based dip called guacamole. Small authentic Mexican 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
If you're dining at a restaurant and can't finish what's on your plate (which often happens to visitors unaccustomed to the giant portion sizes prevalent throughout the USA), always ask for it to be "wrapped to go" or for a "doggie bag," even if you have no intention of eating it later. If you don't want to eat it later then discreetly throw it away or give it to a homeless person after you've left the restaurant. Leaving a significant amount of food on your plate is considered wasteful and a universal sign that you weren't happy with your meal.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 most of the outlying territories (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.
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. Several "dry counties" – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most towns ban drinking in 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 its self). 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.
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.
By far the most common form of lodging in rural United States and along many Interstates is the motel. Providing inexpensive rooms to automotive travelers, most motels are clean and reasonable with a limited array of amenities: telephone, TV, bed, bathroom. Motel 6  (+1 800 466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels  (+1 800 800-8000) provides reasonable accommodations throughout the country as well. Reservations are typically unnecessary, which is convenient since you don't have to arbitrarily interrupt a long road trip; you can simply drive until you're tired then find a room. However, some are used by adults looking to book a night for sex or illicit activities and many are located in undesirable areas.
Business 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  organization (a Hostelling International member). Quality of hostels varies widely, but at $8-$24 per night, the prices are unbeatable. Despite the name, AYH membership is open to people of any age. Non-AYH hostels are also available, particularly in larger cities. Be aware that hostels are clustered in more touristy locations, do not assume that all mid sized towns will have a hostel.
Camping can also be a very affordable lodging option, especially with good weather. The downside of camping is that most campgrounds are outside urban regions, so it's not much of an option for trips to big cities. There is a huge network of National Parks  (+1 800 365-2267), with most states and many counties having their own park systems, too. Most state and national campgrounds are of excellent quality, with beautiful natural environments. Expect to pay $7-$20 per car on entry. Kampgrounds of America  (KOA) has a chain of commercial campground franchises across the country, of significantly less charm than their public-sector equivalents, but with hookups for recreational vehicles and amenities such as laundromats. Countless independently owned private campgrounds vary in character.
Some unusual lodging options are available in specific areas or by prior arrangement. For example, you might enjoy staying on a houseboat in Lake Tahoe or the Erie Canal. Or stay in a treehouse in Oregon. More conventional lodging can be found at college or university dormitories, a few of which rent out rooms to travelers during the summertime. Finally, in many tourist areas, as well as big cities, one can rent a furnished house by the day.
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. Information on touring a handful of them has been collected into Touring famous universities in the US.
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. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions.
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.
While there are locations throughout the United States with higher crime rates, most crime is concentrated in inner city neighborhoods. Few visitors to the U.S. experience any sort of crime. Much crime is gang- or drug-related or the result of family / personal disputes, and it usually 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 petty crimes.
Most American urban areas have homeless people. In some areas aggressive panhandling is a concern. If you feel you are being harassed, say NO firmly and walk away.
Security has increased along the United States–Mexico border due to increased illegal immigration and drug crime. Only cross the country's borders at official crossings.
American police are generally polite, professional, and honest. When in uniform, they are also more formal, cautious, and cold than police in, say, Latin America—especially in large cities. If stopped by the police, you should stay calm, be polite and cooperative, avoid making sudden movements, and state what you are doing if you need to reach for your purse or wallet to present your identification. Often police will ask you to keep your hands out of your pockets while speaking to them. This is for security and is in no way meant to be offensive. American police officers are always armed while on duty. Turn on the inside car lights and keep your hands on the wheel to make it clear that you are not a threat. Do not exit the vehicle unless told to do so. 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).
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. U.S. police culture categorically rejects bribes. The mere suggestion would very likely result in your immediate arrest. 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.
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 U.S. 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.
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 travelers 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 U.S. 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.
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
Homosexuality is legal. Many states and cities have anti-discrimination codes, including public accommodations in hotels, restaurants and transport. Several states have legalized gay marriage or civil unions, and legal gay marriages 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, 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  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.
Street drugs, including marijuana, are illegal throughout the U.S. 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, and travelers would be wise to avoid using such substances in the United States. 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 U.S. poses a serious risk of being arrested for "trafficking".
Notable exceptions to the precautions above are the states of Colorado and Washington (Washington state, not Washington D.C.) which have both recently legalized recreational use of marijuana. According to these state's new laws you can possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana from a licensed seller and use it personally if you are over 21 years old. 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 future of these laws is uncertain, but for now, they stand. Marijuana possession and use is still illegal in the states surrounding Colorado and Washington, so do not under any circumstances bring marijuana outside of Colorado or Washington as you risk facing criminal charges in other states if you are caught with it.
Prostitution is illegal in all areas except at licensed brothels in rural Nevada counties. In other states, 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.
Some Americans own a firearm of one sort or another, though the vast majority do not; firearm ownership is legal in all locales with varying degrees of restriction by state. Legally carried firearms can range from hunting rifles and shotguns to 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 also qualifies. 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:
The average American takes a bath or shower once a day, and expect other people to do the same. Excessive body odor is frowned upon, as is excessive use of perfumes and colognes.
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).
It should be noted that 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 
The American health care system is world-class in quality, but is the most expensive in the world. Millions of working Americans struggle to pay their medical bill. 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.
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  (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.
On average, most American public restrooms/bathrooms/lavatories vary widely in quality. Hotel, bars and upscale restraunts are usually well kept, while those found in gas stations frequently aren't. Basically all public buildings are required to have handicapped accessible restrooms. Increasingly, restrooms offer baby changing stations in both the men's and women's restroom (these are mostly seen in shopping places and restaurants); a few places have a separate "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.
Cable News Channels
Today, dress in the US tends to be fairly casual. For everyday clothes, jeans and T-shirts are always acceptable, as are shorts when the weather is suitable. Sneakers (athletic shoes) are common; flip-flops and sandals are also popular in warm weather.
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.
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.
Religious proselytising is uncommon but not unheard of. If anyone approaches you and acts excessively friendly, be cautious. If strangers approach you and start discussing religion, politely but firmly say something to the effect of "My faith is a private and personal matter and I don't feel comfortable discussing it with you." That usually does the trick. Engaging the proselytiser in any way is often misinterpreted as interest in converting to their religion and can make it very difficult to get rid of your new friend. Proselytising is most common in the South and Midwest, i.e. the so-called "Bible Belt," and in Mormon regions such as Utah, Idaho and northern Arizona.
U.S. telephone numbers are governed by the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) and are invariably written in one of these formats:
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 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; Frontier and FairPoint in some small cities and rural areas), 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.
Prior to the popularity of personal cell phones, pay phones were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States, and commonplace in other places such as gas stations. Today, however, many phone companies have removed them or have increased their charges substantially. (Prices are normally 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 .
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 virtual number service. That way you avoid paying for roaming.
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 U.S. uses the unusual 1900 and 850 MHz 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 main GSM providers in the U.S. are AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon, which operate boutiques in most, if not all, metropolitan areas and offer pre-paid service. 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 there 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.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) 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 remains open 24/7 and normally includes access to Post Office Boxes as well as at least one Self-Service Ship and Mail Center (SSCMC). The SSCMC 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.
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 website of the USPS enables users to look up ZIP codes by city and by street address. Entering a full street address may return a ZIP code with 9 digits known as ZIP+4. Depending upon the complexity of a particular place, a unique ZIP+4 code may correspond to anything from a letter carrier's entire route (which may cover an entire small town) to a single office in a specific building (which is often the case in big cities).
In general, the addressee's section of the mailpiece should appear as follows:
(name of recipient)
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.
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.
First class airmail postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $0.85 to Canada and Mexico and $1.05 elsewhere. 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 (including those abroad), U.S. Navy ships at sea, etc. Domestic postcards are $0.33. Small letters up to an ounce are $0.46. If you put a solid object like a coin or keys in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge.
"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.
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 SSCMCs as initially deployed could dispense at least one type of preprinted stamp booklet, but that feature has been withdrawn as well.
At this time, the only way to buy postage at a post office when the retail counter is closed is to use the SSCMC in the lobby to print bar-coded postage labels. While legally effective as postage, such labels lack the charm of traditional 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
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.
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.
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 do have some options, except perhaps in the most rural of areas.
If you bring your own computer:
If you don't have your own computer: