United States of America
The United States of America  is a large country in North America, often referred to as the "USA," the "U.S.," the "United States," "America," or simply "the States". It has a land area of about 9.6 million sq km (about half the size of Russia and about the same size as China). It also boasts 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.
The country plays a dominant role in the world's cultural landscape, and 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 movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with distinct regional identities. Due to the distances involved, traveling between regions can be time-consuming and expensive.
The contiguous United States or "Lower 48" (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the population living on these two coasts. Its only land borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The U.S. 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, then give way to 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 has 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 U.S. 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 (1,200 cm) 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.
The United States was initially populated by people believed to have migrated from northeast Asia. In the United States their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. While Native Americans are often portrayed living a singular, usually primitive lifestyle, in fact prior to European contact the continent was densely populated with 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 depicted of Native Americans is generally the result of mass die-outs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox. In effect they were a post-apocalyptic people.
During the 16th and 17th Centuries, the continent began to be colonized by European nations; Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of the area. The British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts formed the kernel 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. 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 a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On 4 July 1776, colonists from 13 colonies, frustrated with overseas rule and encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from Great Britain. The resulting Revolutionary War lasted until 1783, with the Americans taking control of all British land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.
After a largely unsuccessful first attempt at establishing a national government, in 1788 the country created the United States Constitution, inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about individual liberty. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the War, was elected the first President of the United States. 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 United States began admitting 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 the east 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, DC, the war ended in a virtual stalemate, and 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 won the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, giving the continental United States the rough outlines it 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.
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. Beginning 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, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. In 1865, Northern forces prevailed and began the re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by Constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898. After 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).
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 Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty for industrial jobs in the North. 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 crisscrossed 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 its 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 this period. In the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to economic havoc, known as the Great Depression. The Depression was devastating, but it created a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in the coming conflict.
In December 1941 Japan, attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II, which had been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia prior to World War I. 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 the United States firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world, 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 far greater affluence. In the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which eliminated most of the institutional discrimination against African-Americans, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women's movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in American society. After World War II the United States also saw a shift to an economy primarily based on technology rather than agriculture. Today, many of the leading technology companies are based in the United States (especially on the Pacific Coast). The United States also took the lead in military and space technology.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population to the suburbs and largely contributed 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 perhaps the most comprehensive freeway system in the world. Major chain stores began popping up in cities across the country, and some later spread to foreign countries. The American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, arguably established the United States as the cultural center of the world.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the Washington, D.C. and several dependent areas including Puerto Rico and Guam. 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 conflict, each state maintains its own constitution and government, effectively retaining considerable autonomy within the federation. State laws can vary widely from one state to another but are, for the most part, fairly uniform.
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. 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 the 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 as all US embassies worldwide will close on those days and will be unable to process applications on those days in addition to the holidays in your homecountry.
Some state governments also have a few of their own official holidays not observed in other states.
Units of measure
The United States is the only industrialized country that still uses solely customary units of measures (except for scientific and military applications). All road signs and speed limits are posted in miles and miles per hour respectively; gas 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, not at all warm! The good news is that most cars on the road in the USA 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 and will assume you understand customary measures.
In addition, the U.S. 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 count on any brand's sizes as equivalent to another.
For more information
The federal government of the U.S. 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 will be provided by the state and local tourism bureaus. Contact information is available in the individual state entries. At state borders, highway rest stops usually serve as Visitor's Centers and often offer travel and tourism information and material, almost all of which is available online. If you call or write the state Commerce department, they can also mail you information. Nearly every rest stop has a posted road map with a clearly indicated "You Are Here" marker. Some also offer free paper roadmaps to take with you.
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 U.S. is a federation of states, each with its own rights and powers (hence the name). The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 nine 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 exceptionally onerous and complicated visa requirements. Read up carefully before your visit, especially if you need to apply for a visa, and consult the Bureau of Consular Affairs . Travelers have been refused entry for many reasons, often trivial.
The territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have the same entry requirements as the 50 states; however, Guam operates a separate Visa Waiver Program for an additional group of foreign nationals that is valid for Guam only.
Planning and pre-arrival documentation
Citizens of the 36 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 U.S. embassy for advice on whether they need a visa.
For travelers under the visa waiver program, but the entry period is limited to 90 days (see additional requirements below).
As of 5 April 2010, 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, and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 may not be extended nor will travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean reset the 90-day limit. Take care if transiting through the U.S. on a trip exceeding 90 days to Canada and/or Mexico.
Travelers entering the U.S. through the Visa Waiver program must apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval online  before their flights, preferably 72 hours before travel. An ESTA approval is valid for two years (unless your passport expires earlier) and costs $14 . Approvals issued before 8 September 2010 (i.e. those which were free at the time) remain valid until their expiry date.
Passports issued after 26 October 2005 need digital photographs embedded on them, and passports issued after 26 October 2006 must be biometric passports, which have a chip embedded with the user's information. Some countries, e.g. France, did not have biometric passports available at that date, meaning that citizens from these countries with newer passports but not biometric passports have to obtain a tourist visa, which can be a cumbersome, costly and time-consuming process. If you have a non e-passport issued after 26 October 2006 and you are from a Visa Waiver country, try having your government exchange it for an biometric passport, explaining that you wish to travel to the U.S.
Entry under the Visa Waiver program by air or sea requires that you are using a signatory carrier. It is a fairly safe assumption that commercial scheduled services to the U.S. will be fine, however 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 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 U.S. 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, 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 waived under very limited circumstances, namely for people requesting certain exchange visitor visas.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from $7-200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee and is charged by the U.S. to match the fees charged by other countries on U.S. citizens.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non-immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to their home country as well as sufficient proof that the visit will be temporary. When the U.S. rejects a visa application, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that the person will not try to overstay. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are indeed genuinely entitled to the visa they are applying for. Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for almost all nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
Keep in mind that the embassy is closed on both U.S. holidays and holidays of your home country so you need to know both holidays when setting dates to apply for a visa. In addition, travelers should start planning their trips way in advance, as the application process is known to take up to 6 months.
Do not assume anything. Check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department  or with the United States consulate nearest you. If coming to the country with a car, be sure to have documents showing car insurance, rental agreements, driver's license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S.
For technical and scientific fields of work or study, processing non-immigrant visa application can take up to 70 days, as it can require 8 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.
A visa is not a guarantee of entry into the US: it only allows you to proceed to a port of entry and request admission. Your visa is generally not tied to your permitted length of stay; for example, a 10-year visa does not allow a stay of 10 years. On the other hand, you can enter the US on the last day of validity of your visa and still be allowed to stay, for example, up to 180 days as a tourist.
Please bear in mind that applying for the incorrect/inappropriate visa for your purpose of travel will lead to serious problems, not to mention a possible perpetual bar from getting any US visa (especially if you attempt to fraudulently obtain the visa). As such, please consult a US immigration attorney especially if you want to apply for visas that require you to stay longer or do something other than business or tourism. This includes performing in concerts or competitions as well as field reporting for your media organisation back home.
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. Most persons arriving in the United States under the Visa Waiver Program are no longer issued with I-94W cards, however, as 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, where the official will try to determine if the purpose of your visit is valid. Just like when obtaining the visa, of most concern to immigration officials is to determine that you have the funds to support yourself and that you do not intend to work or perform any activity not authorized by the your visa. Be prepared to show proof. If you are on a business visit, have an invitation letter from the company you are visiting, or the registration details of the conference you are attending. If you are a tourist, you may need to demonstrate you have funds available to you. In both cases proof of onward travel may be required. Usually, the determination of admissibility is made in a minute or less, but you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. At this stage they will likely search your possessions, and may read any documentation, letters or diaries in your possession. Do not bring anything that will imply you will immigrate (employment documents, photographs typically kept at home, excessive luggage, pets). If you are unable to prove or convince the officers that you will potentially abide by the terms of your visa (or visa waiver program if applicable), it can be cancelled on the spot, and you will be refused entry and sent on the next flight home.
Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. These are additional security measures dubbed US-VISIT  that is currently applicable to all non-resident aliens, at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports.
As in most countries, customs 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.
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. If it is a hotel, have a reservation under your name. If it is a private address, make sure that the people there know that they are expecting you that day, as officials may phone them and ask them for the name of the guest they are expecting. Make sure you have their contact details (especially phone numbers where they can be reached immediately), and save any text messages or e-mails in which your hosts mention inviting you to stay at their residence.
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 and, if you fail to turn it in, you run the risk of being thought to have overstayed.
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. If you are traveling by air to the U.S., many airports will provide two lanes: for those who have something to declare and those who have nothing to declare. Regardless of the lane you choose, customs officers still have the right to search your bags. After you are admitted into the U.S. and you retrieve your bags, you will proceed to the secondary inspection area (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.
The officer may ask you some routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to the X-ray to have your bags inspected or may refer you for a manual search of your bags. Customs has the right to search your person and your bags, but any search more intrusive than a bag search is rare and is usually indicated only if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity. Random searches of luggage, either by X-ray or manually, can occur.
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 U.S. Customs process is straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the U.S. The only rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions: Cuba, Iran, North Korea (DPRK), Syria, and Myanmar (Burma).
Besides your personal effects, which will go home with you, you are allowed to import $200 of merchandise duty free, including 1 liter of alcohol (for those 21 and older only) and 1 carton of cigarettes. If you are bringing in more than $10,000 cash or its equivalent, you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out; not declaring exposes you to a fine and possible seizure of that cash.
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 U.S. 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.)
Since you have had access to your checked bags while going through customs, you will always need to re-clear security if proceeding on to a connecting flight. Some airports (such as Philadelphia) have a bag drop belt right outside customs and a dedicated security line for passengers connecting from international flights. At others (such as Boston where domestic carriers all depart from terminals other than the one used for international arrivals), you will have to exit the terminal you are in and proceed to the terminal of your departing flight, drop your bags at your airline's counter and then proceed through security.
Note that the bag drop procedures above work only if you have requested the staff at your port of departure to check your baggage through to your final destination (as opposed to your first U.S. port of entry). If this is not possible or there are no check-through agreements between the airline that took you to your port of entry and the next airline, you will have to proceed to the terminal of your next flight and check in as usual.
Leaving the United States
Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no formal passport control checkpoint for those exiting the country, especially for those traveling by air or sea. As such, if you are leaving the US for the last time on a particular trip (i.e. 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 you leave the country with it, still in your possession, contact U.S. officials about how to return it and update your departure records to avoid entry hassles in the future. If you leave by a commercial carrier, your departure will also be verified with the airline or shipping company. Hence it (at least theoretically) means no further action is needed from you; nonetheless bring whatever documents to prove you were outside the US before time was up the next time you visit. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has information  about what to do if your slip is not collected.
If you intend to leave for Canada or Mexico by land for a side trip and return to the U.S. within 30 days or the allowed time of your stay (whichever is shorter), you may re-enter the US provided that you do not yet return the I-94 or I-94 card before you proceed to Canada or Mexico. This can also be done even if you originally entered the US on a single-entry visa. However, you will only be admitted for the remainder of your original allowed time; the deadline to ultimately leave the US won't be extended by just leaving the US for somewhere else in North America. If you return the I-94 while on the side trip, you will have to apply all over again to enter the U.S. (which means a new visa for single-entry visa holders) and be subject to the usual questioning that alien go through to lack of any intentions of immigrating, working, or doing something else not authorized by the visa.
That said, avoid re-entering the US a few days, weeks or months after one visit. Even if you don't technically overstay, planning several US visits spaced shortly after each other may be interpreted by immigration officers as having "immigrant intent" and hence your visa could be subject to cancellation the next time you apply for entry.
There are additional pilot security measures dubbed US-VISIT  that will eventually require non-resident aliens to be fingerprinted and photographed upon their exit. This is applicable at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports.
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 these and most travelers find themselves entering the U.S. at one of the major entry points along the coasts:
Luggage allowance for flights to or from the U.S. 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.
Security procedures for commercial flights departing from anywhere in the U.S. 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. Random passengers may now be selected for additional screening. This may include an "enhanced pat-down," or you may be required to submit to a full-body X-ray. 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 U.S. or Canadian carriers will have the advantage of clearing U.S. 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 U.S. domestic flights but only because clearance has been performed at the Canadian airport. Hence once passengers from Canada arrive at their U.S. 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 U.S. domestic terminals.
Take note that passengers on U.S.-Canadian flights operated by foreign carriers like Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific will still see traditional entry formalities upon arrival at their U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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; 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 U.S. passport control and customs preclearance at Dublin or Shannon. Upon arrival at the U.S., they will arrive as if they were domestic passengers.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a $6 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 U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders 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 U.S. customs service website . The U.S.-Mexico border is lucrative for drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be X-rayed or searched by a drug-sniffing dog. If there is suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect no patience from border agents.
As Canada and Mexico use the metric units of measure but the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 2 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 6 hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the 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 there can be expensive.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
Fortunately, most of the prices that you immediately see when searching for flights already include taxes and other mandatory fees applicable to all passengers. This is true whether you directly check the carrier's website or a consolidator (e.g. Travelocity). Unlike carriers in other foreign countries, those in the US do not explicitly have 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 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) 'Ziplock' 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 that they give away at most decent hotels are perfect for this.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 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 host railroad; 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 themselves 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. This line is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). The Acela Express has first class 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 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).
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.
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, 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 (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 the 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.
Many U.S. 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 which 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, 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. Enforcement of these High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes typically coincide with rush-hour, from 7:00am to 9:00am, and again from 4:00pm to 6:00pm on weekdays. Driving in an HOV lane as the sole occupant of a vehicle during these times is could result in a traffic citation and fine.
Commercial rest areas were prohibited on the U.S. Interstate Highway system by the Federal government. As a result, the vast majority of stopping points are state-operated rest areas 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.) 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.
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, though New York City is a notable exception. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions.
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 kilometers.
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. 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. 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 mike on their person. See the section on police officers in the Stay Safe section below.
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 Enterprise Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz  (+1 800 230 4898); Avis  (+1 800 230 4898); Thrifty Car Rental ; and Dollar Rent A Car . 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 , 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 influences the price of your car rental will be location. Sometimes renting a car at an airport location will cost 3 times as much as renting the same car (from the same company) at a downtown location. In other areas the airport location will be cheaper. On-line travel websites such as Orbitz or Expedia can be useful to compare the best prices and make 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.
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 May 2012, current prices are averaging near $3.80/gallon (equivalent to $1.00/liter) for regular and $4.10/gallon for diesel ($1.08/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). The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast, Illinois, and New York. The lowest are generally found in the south central US.
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 79 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  (+1 800-229-9424) and several affiliated partners 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.
Internet based buses are becoming very wide-spread. Megabus  offers inexpensive daily bus service departing from curbside bus stops across the eastern half of the country: the entire East Coast from Maine to Florida and as far west as Texas and Nebraska (and to Canada) from 9 hub cities. BoltBus  competes with Megabus on major routes in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest.
So called Chinatown buses also provide crub-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 and South, along as along the West Coast. GoToBus.com  is the largest online booking agent for these buses.
Hispanic bus companies tend to have the most spacious buses in the country. Connections from Texas hubs to the Midwest including Chicago, the Southeast and Mexico are offered Mexican(-American) companies Tornado Bus , El Expreso , El Conejo , Omnibus Mexicanos  and Groupo Senda . Service in and out of Florida is offered by the Chilean JetSet , Argentinian RedCoach , and Cuban-American La Cubana . In California and the Southwest operators include FuturaNet  and Crucero , which have tickets starting from $1.
There are numerous other local operators, many of which are also affliated with Greyhound or Amtrak. The next largest affliation is Trailways .
The Federal Highway Adminstration 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.
Almost all Americans speak English. They generally use a standard accent (native to the Midwest), popularized in the 20th century by radio, TV and movies. In many areas, especially the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, and in the upper Midwest, you'll find distinctive regional accents and dialects. Nowhere should this pose any problem to a visitor, as Americans often admire foreign accents and most will approximate the standard accent to help you understand them, or try to speak your language if they can.
Even so, visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. While many 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 many parts of the United States such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, and the metropolitan areas of Chicago and New York City. 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 it's rare to be in areas where no one speaks English, a good handle on Spanish can make communication easier in some areas.
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, 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. However, the vast majority of consumer products are labeled 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 a firm grasp of 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 tallest living organisms; Glacier National Park is a great place to see huge sheets of ice; 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 . 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. While almost never seen, any currency over 25 years old and coin over 40 likely has collector value.
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. The biggest retail banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank. Because interstate bank branching was legalized only in 1994, many parts of the U.S. (like Hawaii) are poorly served by the big retail banks and are dominated by local banks.
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.
Credit and debit cards
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard (and their debit card affiliates) are widely used and accepted. Nearly all large retailers will accept credit cards for transactions of all sizes, even as small as one or two dollars. However, some small businesses and independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $2-5, but can legally charge up to $10 minimum) for credit card use, as such transactions cost them around 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.
Only a few high-end boutique stores in major cities also have window stickers for foreign cards like JCB and China UnionPay. However, both JCB and China UnionPay have alliances with Discover, so they can be used at any retailer that accepts Discover cards.
When making large purchases, it is typical for U.S. retailers to ask to see some form of photo identification. Shops may also ask for photo identification for foreign issued cards. In certain circumstances, credit/debit cards are the only means to perform a transaction. Hence if you do not have one, you can purchase a prepaid card or gift card with Visa/Mastercard or Amex logo for yourself in a good number of stores but you may need to provide identification before the card is activated.
Transaction authorization is made by signing a paper sales slip or a computer pad, although many retailers will waive the signature requirement for small purchases. The U.S. has not yet implemented the chip-and-PIN credit card authorization system used in Europe, due to the high cost of upgrading point-of-sale systems.
Gas station pumps, selected public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Many gas station pumps and some automated vending machines that accept credit cards ask for the zip code (i.e., postal code) of the U.S. billing address for the card, which effectively prevents them from accepting foreign cards (they are unable to detect a foreign card and switch to PIN authentication). At gas stations you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside.
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. 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). 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 US 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. 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.
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". 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 over 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.
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. The dominant warehouse club chain 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, which may compete with a number of smaller regional chains. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), electronics (Best Buy), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond). The three big pharmacy chains are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid.
Unless you live in Australia, Canada, Europe or Japan, the United States is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. Many Europeans come to the United States for shopping (especially electronics). While prices in the United States are lower than in many European countries, keep in mind that you will be charged taxes/tariffs on goods purchased abroad. Additionally, electronics may not be compatible with standards when you return (electrical, DVD region, etc.). As such, the savings you may find shopping in the United States may easily be negated upon your return. Furthermore, your U.S.-bought item may not be eligible for warranty service in your home country. A 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 go down in the countryside. Most U.S. cities have suburbs with good hotels that are often much more affordable than those in the city center and enjoy lower crime rates. Thus, if you plan to rent a car and drive between several major cities on a single visit to the U.S., it is usually a better idea to stay at safe suburban hotels with free parking, as opposed to downtown hotels that charge exorbitant parking fees. Additionally, if you have generous friends from the US who will give gift cards to you for some reason, the cards can somehow help you defray some of the costs.
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). 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 "normal" minimum 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, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all.
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. 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—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, Subway and Burger King are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the U.S. 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). 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.
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, 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  and Norm's , 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.
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 (7-Eleven or AM/PM). Dunkin' Donuts is a popular doughnut chain with surprisingly good coffee.
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 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. Those with sensitive stomachs would do best to give buffets a miss, as buffets are a breeding ground for food-borne illness because restaurant owners can't always be counted on to replace the food as often as necessary to avoid spoilage (frequently changing the food/throwing away uneaten food = lost money). Generally, buffets serve American or Chinese food.
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.
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.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer 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.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc) are designed to be eaten by hand (so-called "finger food"); a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (french fries, barbecue, chicken on the bone) even at moderately nice restaurants. If unsure, eating finger food with a fork and knife probably won't offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might, as it's considered "uncivilized" and rude.
When invited to a meal in a private home it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.
An exception is the potluck meal, where each guest (or group/family) must bring a food dish to share with everyone; these shared dishes make up the entire meal. Usually dishes are grouped (e.g., salads, main dishes or casseroles, side dishes, desserts); you should ask the host if they want you to bring something in particular. Ideal dishes for a potluck should be served from a large pot, dish, or bowl, and would be spooned or forked on to diners' plates—hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and spoonable side dishes.
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., and is priced cheaply and bought without high expectations for quality. 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.
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; doing so is still commonly treated as vulgar or an indicator of alcoholism. While bars will serve hard drinks before 5, don't be surprised by strange looks or remarks on the subject. 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. State lotteries and "scratch games" are another, popular form of legalized gambling. However, online gaming and wagering on sports across state lines remains illegal in 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 travellers, 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 or extended-stay hotels are increasingly available across the country. They can be found in smaller towns across the midwest or in coastal urban areas. 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 from larger hotels. Examples include Marriott's Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inns, and Residence Inns; Hilton's Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express; Starwood's Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place.
Some extended-stay hotels are directed at business travelers or families on long-term stays (that are often relocating due to corporate decisions). These hotels often feature 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.
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-in and check-out times are almost always fall in the range of 11AM-noon and 2PM-4PM. Note that many U.S. 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 U.S. 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. Don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota.
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 dollars per year, including both tuition and "room & board" in that price. Most U.S. citizens receive substantial financial assistance from the federal government in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to non-citizens. 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 U.S. 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 U.S..
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 tertiary 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. On the other hand, there is the more permanent employment-based immigrant visa which has similar requirements to the H-1B visa. Whichever visa you wish to apply for, it is important to note that the employer must ensure that nobody within his locale is willing or qualified to do the job before considering you.
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 U.S. Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the U.S. 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 traffic 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. 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.
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. U.S. police culture categorically rejects bribes, and 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.
During any emergency, dialing 911 (pronounced "nine-one-one") at any telephone will connect you to the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc). Calls to 911 are free from payphones and any mobile phone capable of connecting with local carriers. 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 locate you.
With mobile phones it is more difficult, and 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 figure out what you need. In recent years, more and more mobile phones have incorporated GPS devices that will display the user's precise geographical location to the 911 operator.
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. Do 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. U.S. GSM carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and smaller regional operators) automatically redirect 112 calls to 911.
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 miles of Mexico (although the law allows for 100 miles from any border, including sea; this includes the entirety of some states and the majority of population centres). Presence near Canada tends to be unobtrusive (generally limited to checking long distance buses, Amtrak trains and their associated terminals.) On the border with Mexico and in Southern coastal areas, systematic vehicle checkpoints or being stopped on the street with a friendly "Papers Please..." is much more likely.
As a foreign national you are legally required to have your passport, visa, and I94(W) entry record (or Green Card) in your possession at all times, and if you're in the border zone the consequences for not having them could be severe. You may be delayed or detained until your status can be verified, long-term visa and Green Card holders have been fined for being without their documents. If your documents are in order you generally won't be questioned.
Border Patrol does not have a presence outside the border zones (and the agency responsible for inland enforcement doesn't target tourists). In most States, police and other local authorities can not 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
Homosexual relations are 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, though this is not 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 recieve 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. Homophobia and anti-gay violence may be encountered in some suburban and rural areas, especially in the Southeast and interior West, but the chances of this are relatively low.
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. Precausions, 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 reprucssions 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".
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.
It's true: many—but by no means all—Americans own a firearm of one sort or another; 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:
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 can be very expensive. 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 high costs if you need medical care.
Most metropolitan areas will have a mix of public and private hospitals, and in turn, U.S. private hospitals can be either nonprofit 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.
Today, dress in the U.S. 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.
U.S. telephone numbers are invariably written in one of these formats
The numbers YYY-ZZZZ make up the local part of the telephone number; you must dial all seven digits even if the YYY is the same as the line you are calling from. The numbers XXX denote the area code. Especially densely populated areas may 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 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". Almost all mobile phones with alphabetic keypads (such as the U.S. standard of QWERTY) allow you to enter letters as part of a phone number—so, for example, if you have a smartphone, 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. Calls to Canada and certain Caribbean islands can be dialed using "1" as if they were in the U.S., although these 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") and the country code of the line you are calling. 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. 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.
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).
American mobile phone service (known as cell phones regardless of the technology used) is not very compatible with that offered elsewhere. 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 two major GSM providers in the U.S. are AT&T and T-Mobile, which operate boutiques in most, if not all, metropolitan areas and offer pre-paid service. Other providers of mobile phone service include Verizon, TracFone, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and various regional operators.
Unlike in many countries, there is no surcharge for dialing a mobile phone (calls to mobile phones are billed the same as calls to landlines), 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). 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.
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.
To send mail to any destination within the US, the most important item in the addressee's section is the ZIP code (postal code). The website of the United States postal service has a look-up feature that allows you to get a zip code after inputting a city as well as a more precise address. Inputting the more precise address may return a zip code with 9 digits. In general the addressee's section in the envelope will look something like the following:
(name of recipient)
Given that there are possibly plenty of streets with the same name in a particular metropolitan area, placing the correct ZIP code is crucial to speeding-up delivery of your post.
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 locations 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. Navy ships at sea, etc. Domestic postcards are $0.32, and small letters up to an ounce are $0.45. If you put a solid object like a coin or keys in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge.
A rate increase took effect on January 22, 2012. "Forever" stamps on domestic mail can be used indefinitely with no surcharge after an increase, but these stamps are not valid for international use.
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. UPS and FedEx also have a "Hold for Pickup" option.
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: