United States of America
The United States stretches across the breadth of North America, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, with states in the Arctic circle and in the equatorial region of the South Pacific. Its regions are far-flung and various. This is a rough grouping of the country into regions relevant to the traveler.
Politically, the USA is divided into independent entities called states (thus the name); see list of American States for a full listing.
America has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of the most famous among travelers.
Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
The United States of America is the third-largest country in the world, both in terms of area (it's about half the size of Russia) and population (with 280 million residents, it's far behind China and India). Few would deny, however, the immense importance of this country on the world stage in the 21st century. American media, news, technology and culture continue to flood the rest of the world's mindframe, while its economic, political and military clout make it able to get what it wants, when it wants.
America is bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the country's population living on one of these two coasts. Its only borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. Both border areas are relatively unpopulated, and Americans tend to view other countries as very distant ideas rather than part of everyday life. The climate is mostly temperate, with some amazing exceptions. Alaska is an arctic state, while Hawaii and Florida are tropical. The western half of the country is covered largely with arid desert, and the semi-arid areas of the Great Plains are also dry and flat.
The Missouri-Mississippi river system runs from the far north to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting the country almost in half, and giving a convenient mental border between "East" and "West". Three major mountain ranges (the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada) also run north-south through the continental US, giving another set of clear divisions. There are few climate types that can't be found somewhere in the USA.
There used to be a bunch of stats here about the US. They're gone now - reference them in the Wikipedia. What you really need to know about US geography is this:
The United States of America is big. Really, really big. With few exceptions (Alaska and Hawaii) you can travel among any of the states with no papers needed beyond a driver's license (and a passport if you're not a US citizen). Alaska requires you to leave the country if you go by car or rail. Hawaii requires you to take a boat or plane.
Each state in America is practically its own mini-country, with its own peculiar laws, customs, and culture. What may be custom in Massachusetts almost assuredly is not in Texas. Part of the United States' appeal is that you can experience so much diversity in one country.
Given America's place on the world stage, it may seem strange to non-Americans how they picture themselves: warm, thoughtful, friendly, uncomplicated, and righteous. Most Americans consider their place in the world as that of common sense and homely living -- "Mom and apple pie", as the saying here goes. The flipside of this attitude is a general anti-intellectualism, with "real people" being more respected than "snobs" and "bookworms". The simple sentimentalist and violent streaks in American media are a strong reflection of this attitude.
The nation's agricultural roots, history of civil rights (often unevenly applied), and up-by-the-bootstraps ideas of economic advancement makes Americans very individualistic, both in terms of personal privacy and personal responsibility. They've learned to take for granted the incredible benefits they get from economic and technological advantages. Although many question their busy lifestyle and its effect on the environment, most consider technological progress to be beneficial and inevitable.
It's nearly impossible to discuss American culture without considering the question of race. America has a large minority (13%) of citizens descended from African slaves once used to work its southern plantations, and now occupying, for the most part, the nation's urban core. Race wends its way into almost all political discussions, and the white-black division -- or white-brown, considering the growing Hispanic population -- falls fairly closely along the rich-poor line, too. The cultural changes of the 1960s have made overt racism an extremist view, but most Americans have confused and fearful ideas about their compatriots on "the other side".
A similar issue in American culture is the question of immigration. Although almost all Americans, except the now-minority native population, are descended from immigrants from all parts of the globe, and the economy of the country is largely driven by hard-working economic immigrants, people from other countries, especially in Asia and Latin America, are often viewed with suspicion. Americans have an ideal of what the "real" American culture is like, and although they may and often do experiment with immigrant cuisine and music, non-natives are considered by some as a threat to what's "really" American. Some foreign travelers may feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny of America's xenophopic side.
Overall, however, Americans often live up to their own standards of friendliness and live-and-let-live attitudes towards diverse cultures and backgrounds. Even those who may espouse extreme views towards Others on the whole usually show great decency and generosity to individuals in particular. Travelers may be surprised by the offers of help, spontaneous conversations, and genuine warmth they receive from complete strangers in America.
The area now known as the United States was once populated by Amerindian peoples now known as Native Americans, with populations in the tens of millions. Most led Stone Age hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but there were many incidences of the beginnings of settlement and civilization, such as the Five Nations of the Northeast and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest.
European settlement of the area began in the 16th century with the establishment of St. Augustine in Florida by missionaries from Spain. The Spanish also established colonies in much of the Southwest, California, and Texas as extensions of their North American stronghold in Mexico. Meanwhile, French missionaries and settlers from Canada made inroads into the Great Lakes region of the Midwest and down the Mississippi River. The colony of Louisiana, centered around New Orleans, became a French stronghold in the Gulf of Mexico. Smaller colonies were established by the Netherlands in present-day New York, by Sweden on the Atlantic Coast, and by Russia in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Tradition in the United States of America, however, dates its founding to the establishment of British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 17th century. By the early 18th century, 13 colonies ranged from Georgia to current-day Maine, to the detriment of the Native American population, many of whom were exterminated, and the embryonic Dutch and Swedish footholds. There were distinct differences between the British settlers of the North and South: the southern areas had richer agricultural prospects, especially for tobacco, and attracted aristocrats building large plantations. Much of the agriculture was maintained through slave labor, using Africans imported through the Caribbean. The Northern colonies had mainly been established as havens for religious minorities from England, and these groups kept up their mercantile tradition started in Britain.
By the late 18th century, the colonials -- or Americans, as they now called themselves -- had sufficient economic power and differences of interest with the British Empire to separate from it. Declaring independence on July 4, 1776, now the American national holiday, the 13 original colonies fought a Revolutionary War against the British, and with the aid of French troops were able to secure their autonomy in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The colonies -- now states -- established a Federal government through a constitution in 1786. The American Constitution was inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about government and human rights; its Bill of Rights established privileges that all citizens could enjoy.
The late 18th and early 19th century were characterized by the stabilization of the Federal government and the first steps of Western expansion. Many prominent Americans felt they had a Manifest Destiny to control the entire North American continent. Territories in the Midwest were added as new states, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 gave the United States nominal control of former French territory along the Mississippi River, and stretching out to the Pacific Ocean. Florida was purchased in 1813 from the Spanish; American settlers in Texas and California both rebelled against the Mexican government, and were added as American territories. The Mexican-American War of the 1840s won the territories of Arizona and New Mexico, giving the continental US the rough outlines it has today.
By the mid-19th century the differences between North and South had become severe. Western expansion had raised questions about the legality of slavery in the new territories, and political negotiations fell through. By the 1860s, the original Southern states decided to secede and form the Confederacy; the Northern states refused to allow the disruption of the Union. The consequent American Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. With the victory of the North a single country was maintained, and slavery was abolished. Subsequent punishment of the South, known as Reconstruction, broke the former economy in that region, a blow from which it has yet to fully recover. The former African slaves, now American citizens, became a Southern underclass.
The late 19th century saw the USA cementing its power on the continent and making tentative expansions abroad. The last remaining independent Native American groups of the Great Plains were defeated by military force, and like most other survivors they were relegated to small reservations while European settlers moved into their former territories. Alaska was purchased from the Russians in the 1870s, and Hawaii was taken over from British control in the 1880s. The Spanish-American War, a test of the USA's ability to play the global imperialist game, won the US territories in the Philippines and Cuba (both later granted independence) and Puerto Rico (which remains a US territory).
In the Eastern cities of the United States, an immigration boom had begun. Southern Europeans, especially Italians, and Eastern Europeans, including many Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country's growing industrialization. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty for the relative security of 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, allowing faster movement of people and materials, and thus accelerating development.
The 20th century -- called by some the American Century -- saw the United States take a leading role in world affairs. With its entrance into World War I near the end of the conflict, America truly established itself as a Power to be reckoned with. The Roaring 20s saw immense wealth, largely on paper, grow in the country, and political disaffection among the poorer classes, including a marked rise in socialist and anarchist groups. The inevitable stock-market crash of 1929, combined with a drought in the West, brought on a Great Depression that lasted through the 1930s. Increased federal spending during this time maintained the economy.
With the outbreak of World War II in the 1940s, America came into its own as a leader. In Alliance with the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and French and other resistance fighters in Europe, the USA helped defeat the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. As the colonial powers of Britain and France recovered from the War, their colonies broke loose from the empires, and were included in spheres of influence by the United States and the Soviet Union. With the development of nuclear weapons, direct war between these successor states was not possible. The resulting Cold War for the hearts and minds of the world between the superpowers of the US and the USSR cost millions of lives and drove much of political and international thought during the second half of the 20th century.
The 1960s in America saw a revolution in the political spectrum. African Americans, who had long suffered de facto disenfranchisement, demanded equal rights, with violent and non-violent demonstrations. Women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other groups soon followed suit. Additionally, there was widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, an extension of the Cold War in Southeast Asia.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s saw America emerge as the sole superpower in the world. Long defining itself by its devotion to democracy and free-market capitalism, and thus in opposition to the communist USSR, the country in the 21st century faces the challenge of redefining its place in the world.
The United States has reciprocal agreements with Canada and most Western European countries making it unnecessary to get visas before arrival. Increased security at borders has made it more important than ever before to have all your papers in order, though.
A huge country with significant technological development, the United States has more than enough points of entry. Some of the most common are listed below.
Almost every US state has at least one major international airport with flights arriving from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the Americas. Los Angeles and San Francisco are convenient starting points for tours of California and the West, while New York and Washington, DC are good starting points for eastern trips. Chicago and Dallas are great for visiting the interior of the country. All these airports will have connecting flights to each other and to smaller cities.
Although discount airlines are common for domestic travel, there are no major international discount air carriers. However, the careful traveler can find price deals among the major carriers.
Several land borders exists between the US and Canada in the north and Mexico to the south. Major entry points from the south are at the Tijuana-San Diego border, at the El Paso-Juarez region, and near Laredo-Nuevo Laredo. From the north, major crossings are at Vancouver-Seattle in the west, at Detroit-Windsor on the Great Lakes, at Niagara Falls, and south of Montreal in New York.
Be sure to check your documents including car insurance, rental agreements, visas, etc., before trying to enter the US, as the process has become more strict in the last few years.
Entering the US 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.
The size of the US, and its far-flung major cities, make most forms of domestic transportation difficult or inconvenient.
By far the most convenient form of domestic travel in the USA is air travel. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours, compared to the days or weeks necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the US are served by one or even two airports, with many small towns also having some passenger air service.
Major carriers compete vigorously for business on the major routes, and bargains can be got there for travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance. The converse of this is that, sadly, most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be surprisingly expensive and inflexible. It can often be cheaper to fly to a nearby large city and take land transportation to your final destination.
There are a few discount air carriers in the USA. Southwest Airlines is the largest and best known; unlike its European counterparts, there are significant penalties for not booking in advance.
Passenger trains in the United States are surprisingly scarce and expensive. Most Americans don't use them and are usually only used as a novelty or for short commute trips. Passenger rail in the USA is nationalized (shh! Don't tell the free-marketeers!); the national rail system, Amtrak (1-877-YES-RAIL), provides sporadic service to most cities, concentrating more on sightseeing tours than efficient intercity travel. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day USA Rail Pass for international travelers only.
Perhaps the only line in regular daily use by Americans themselves is the Metroliner running between New York and Washington (D.C.). It stops in Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from either of these major cities to their respective airports, the Metroliner can often be more convenient than air travel.
Another major train route is from Oakland in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip take around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans prefer the convenience of car travel for getting to nearby cities in their state or region.
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 within American cities, the loss of time travelling by car between cities, compared to 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.
The United States is covered with a convenient system of interstate highways, funded by the federal government, and built and maintained by the states. These huge roads stretch from one end of the country to the other, either north-south or east-west, and can make it easy to eat up long distances in record time. A drawback is that the highways usually run well outside small towns, served only by fast-food chains and gas stations. If the point is to "see America", traveling on the large highways can be somewhat counterproductive.
Renting a car in the USA usually runs anywhere from $30 and $100 per day, with some discounts for week-long rentals. The major rental agencies are Hertz (+1 800 230 4898) and Avis (+1 800 230 4898). There are no discount rental agencies per se, although Rent-A-Wreck (+1 800 944 7501) 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, and most have higher rates for long-distance travel; check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
Another option for long-distance car travel is to buy a car in the United States, and try to sell it again (or just abandon it) when leaving. Although some travelers report success with this strategy, the difficulties of making a major purchase (even the cheapest used automobiles in the US run about $1000), registering the car with authorities, and selling the car at the end of the trip can make this an unreasonable option. In addition, inexpensive cars tend to be less reliable, and in parts of the US worth traveling by car to, a breakdown can be very inconvenient.
On that note, remember to join some kind of car club before starting a large American road trip. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest and most popular club in the United States is The American Automotive Association (1-800-391-4AAA), known lovingly as "Triple A". Triple A membership runs about $50, which is well worth the peace of mind. Triple A 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.
Bus travel in the United States combines the bureaucratic inefficiency of its rail service with the mind-numbingly long durations of travel by car. However, a gigantic infrastructure in bus travel exists in the United States, mainly frequented by people who can't afford the high price of airplane tickets. Traveling by bus in America is a truly democratic experience. Bus travel also fills an important gap where air travel would be ridiculous -- say, for cities only an hour or so away by car, mostly in the East and Midwest.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800 229 9424) has a stranglehold on American bus travel. 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.
The United States of America has no official language, but English, or, rather, American English, is by far the standard for everyday use. Visitors from Commonwealth countries may get some funny looks at more colorful or slang expressions, but should otherwise get along fine. A degree of romance is attached to non-American English accents, and people may be friendlier to you because of yours.
There are fascinating regional accents in the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, in California, and in the upper Midwest, but aside from pronunciation and a few colorful local phrases Americans from different regions can understand each other quite well. Most Americans in the rest of the country speak with a twangy, flat Midwestern accent, much popularized by radio, TV and movies. African Americans across the country often speak with an accent sometimes called Black English.
In many parts of the USA, such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, and New York, Spanish is the first language of a large minority of residents, mostly immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. Although it's rare to be in areas where no one speaks English, a good handle on Spanish can make communications easier in some areas. Most Americans, however, resent the implication that they can't speak English; don't start off with Spanish or any other language when talking.
Besides immigrants or second generation Americans, few Americans can speak a foreign language. Visiting America without at least a basic knowledge of English -- anyone who can read this paragraph applies -- is asking for trouble.
The official US currency is the United States dollar (symbol: $). The dollar is an extremely stable currency, with about 3% or less inflation per year. Conversion rates vary daily, but rough ratios with other major currencies follow. A weak dollar policy by the current American administration is pushing the dollar on the lower sides of these ranges.
Most Americans shop at supermarkets and superstores, that is, huge national chain stores that aggregate anything from baby shoes to lawnmowers under one roof. Competition on volume, and cheap imports from countries with poor labor standards, make these superstores very competitive on price, to the detriment of smaller local stores. Most large markets are located outside of city centers and accessible only by car. Corner stores in city centers often have poor selection and significantly higher prices.
American posted prices are usually set in stone and non-negotiable. The one major exception is for purchasing a car, where a long, drawn-out haggling session is considered a basic part of the transaction. Many retail stores have student or senior discounts that aren't widely advertised. Americans love a good bargain and respect a bargain-hunter, so it never hurts to ask store personnel how to get lower prices.
Eating in America is a mixed bag, to say the least. Most people in the world equate American cuisine with cheap, greasy fast food, churned out on assembly lines by huge chain businesses like McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And, to tell the truth, many Americans do eat hamburgers, tacos, and fast food on a daily basis, washed down with a sugary cup of Coca Cola. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why more than 30% of American adults are obese -- the highest rate in the world.
However, french fries and chicken nuggets are not the end of the story on eating in America. With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a huge stock of ethnic foods. Everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Lao food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations, but some ethnic foods have become integral parts of the American cuisinary landscape. Probably the most ubiquitous is Italian food, or, rather, Italian-American food. Mostly characterized by heavy wheat pasta noodles and spicy red tomato sauces, the American take on Italian cuisine can be found in towns of almost any size. Italian food is usually a sit-down affair, with dishes running about $8-15 apiece.
Chinese food is also widely available. Some fast food joints, catering specifically to non-Chinese, serve a much-morphed form that would probably seem foreign to anyone from Beijing. Different restaruants specialize in different regional variations of Chinese food. Chinese food in America can range from cheap take-out stands, where a meal can be had for a few dollars, to gourmet restaurants with all kinds of exotic fish, vegetables, and game meats. Other Asian food traditions, such as Japanese sushi and Thai food, have been adapted for the American market in recent years, but have made few inroads outside of coastal cities. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation.
As with other cooking traditions, Americans have given Mexican food their own twist. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy salsa, sour cream, and an avocado mix called guacamole. Small shops called taquerias can be found in the Southwest of the USA, where a good meal can be put together for $5-$10. The North and East usually have more pricey establishments, with entrees running about $10-15.
Of course, there is also American cuisine in and of itself. An experience not to be missed is breakfast at an American diner. Huge plates full of eggs, pancakes, and fried ham or sausage, washed down with potsful of weak sugary coffee, are an American staple, much lauded in movies and music. Diners are considered yet another American icon, where truckers and other "real people" come to get personal service from gritty and loveable waitresses. The truth is often a little less authentic -- many diners are chain restaurants -- but the tradition and spirit is there. Other American restaurant traditions include the steakhouse, where incredibly huge slabs of beef are eaten by the cartload.
Vegetarians will normally not have too much of a problem in urban areas, but it can be difficult getting much more than the fast-food "vegetarian special" -- french fries and a vanilla shake -- in some rural regions. Be forewarned: vegetarianism is considered a dangerously extreme political statement in some regions of the country, especially where the cattle industry is a major employer. It's best to be discreet.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be well-served in the USA, 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 demand.
When eating in a restaurant, tipping is pretty much mandatory. A standard rate is 15%, with 20% being expected for reasonably good service. Staff at American restaurants are taxed on tips as if they received 15%, so don't tip less than that unless the service or food was execrable.
America's bars and nightclubs are as varied as the country itself. As with most parts of the world, seedy bars tend to be in seedy neighborhoods, and while some are worth checking out, most are dangerous for unwary travelers. Conversely, fancier bars in nicer neighborhoods give better service and better drinks, with considerably less value for your dollar.
American beer is often a subject of derision for travelers, and with some good reason. Most of the commercially available beer is produced in huge quantities with industrial techniques. The result is a watery, weak lager without much in the way of flavor or kick. However, a new trend in microbrews has put quality beer back on the menu in the United States. Microbreweries -- not so micro anymore, by the way -- make porters, reds, lagers, and stouts in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand.
Wine in America is also a contrast in low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. California wines are labeled by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay) rather than the regional appellation, although wine producers are trying to give names like Napa Valley some more clout on the market. French wines are available, especially in the East, but in some places are considered unpatriotic; tread with care. Some Chilean and Australian wines can also be found, but what's imported to the US is usually of lower quality. Most other countries -- including Spain and Italy -- aren't represented on America's wine map.
Hard alcohol is usually provided with mixer; each combination usually has a catchy name (e.g., vodka and orange juice is a "screwdriver"). Asking for liquor plus mixer will sometimes get you funny looks, but you'll get what you want. Drinking hard alcohol straight is rare, mostly done in shots -- 1 oz. glasses that are drunk in one swallow, usually after a toast.
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes -- from cheesy discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. One dance format probably unfamiliar to foreign visitors is country music, a musical form derived from traditional folk tunes but played with electric instruments. 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.
By far the most common form of lodging in the United States is the motel. Providing inexpensive rooms ($25-$80 per night) to automotive travellers, most motels are clean and reasonable with a limited array of amenities: telephone, TV, bed, bathroom. As with most low-cost accommodations around the world, the cheaper motels tend to attract a seedy clientele; be cautious with your neighbors. Motel 6 (+1 800 4MOTEL6/+1 800 4668356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$60, depending on the city).
More expensive hotels are available in most major cities. Rooms usually run about $80-$200 per night, with the top limit blowing wide open for some super chi-chi spots. In many rural areas, especially on the coasts, bed and breakfast (B&B) lodging can be found. Usually in buildings with less than a dozen units, B&Bs feature a more homely 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.
There is a network of youth hostels across the USA, affiliated with the American Youth Hostel organization (affiliated with Hostelling International). 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.
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 CAMP/+1 800 365 2267) in the US, with most states and counties having their own park system, too. Most state and national campgrounds are of excellent quality, with beautiful natural environments. Expect to pay $8-$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.
The United States has no national university system. Each state has its own state university network, of varying qualities, with 1-20 campuses around the state. Many are commuter colleges, oriented towards education for working adults, without much in the way of student housing or culture. There are also private universities, which run from world-class to abominable. Private technical institutes are usually quite expensive, without the prestige of an accredited university.
However, the United States does provide a federally-funded financial aid system for citizens, funding which can be applied to any accredited educational institution. Financial aid is applied for at individual universities or through the US Department of Education.
Most universities accept foreign students, but expect student fees to be significantly larger, in the range of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Some financial aid does exist for international students via private organizations, but such programs usually require a US citizen to guarantee that assistance will be repaid.
Application fees usually run from $50-$150, with no guarantee you'll be accepted. Casual students simply looking to improve their knowledge will find city colleges an excellent deal -- you can take one or two courses for a few hundred dollars on any of a variety of subjects, and admission is usually open to all comers. Part-time study is usually not sufficient to get a student visa, though - student visas require either half or full time enrollment.
There are any number of student exchange programs for full-time students in foreign universities who want to spend a term or a year in the United States. You can ask at your university's student exchange center for details. Be forewarned, however: many of the state universities are located in remote towns, hundreds or thousands of miles from any big urban centers. Be prepared for a lot of small-town living, and don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota.
Student social culture in America mostly centers on binge drinking, as many students are living away from home and parental supervision for the first time, and unlike other countries, children are not exposed to alcoholic beverages. Many students at American universities join fraternities and sororities, single-sex clubs identified by Greek letters providing housing and social events to a select, usually elitist group. Most large universities have an intellectual set and some infrastructure for political activism, but this is usually a minority, even at the best schools.
Want to work while visiting the USA? Join the club. America's national wealth makes it a mecca for job-seekers from around the globe. Consequently, it's extremely difficult to get legal working papers for the US. Work permits, or green cards, are given out on a quota system according your country of origin. With the exception of Ireland, most English-speaking countries are underrepresented in the quotas. The best bet for an applicant is to find work in the USA before arriving, and let the company you work for sponsor you for a work visa. This is rare, hard to do, time-consuming, and usually requires special skills not widely available in the USA.
All that said, it is possible to find unofficial work in the US. Most off-the-books work is in the restaurant or construction businesses, or in agriculture. You'll be competing for illegal jobs with desperate people from the Third World, willing to work for peanuts. Thus, except for exceptional cases, expect low wages and poor treatment.
The United States has a reputation in other parts of the world as a hotbed of random crime and murder. There's some merit to this stereotype; America has the highest rate of shootings in the industrialized world, by several orders of magnitude, and many other crimes. Standard procedure for traveling in a high-crime country should be sufficient, however.
In most cities, avoid walking alone in city centers after dark. Don't let anyone in your car you don't know; if anyone reaches for your car's doorhandle, drive away immediately. Keep any personal belongings in the trunk of your car, out of view of curious passersby.
Don't depend on racist stereotypes to keep safe; the color of someone's skin is a poor indicator of their intent to harm your person. However, sexist stereotypes are quite justified; men, and especially men in groups, are much more likely to attempt to harm you than single women, groups of women, or mixed groups.
Almost all cities in America now support the 911 program. Dialing 911 at any telephone will connect you to a call center for all the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Dispatchers will send appropriate personnel to deal with criminal or other emergency situations. The 911 call center can trace your call to get to your location. Abuse of the 911 program for non-emergency purposes can result in a heavy fine. Only use it if life, limb, or property are in immediate danger.
The USA is the only industrialized nation in the world with no national healthcare system. Americans are expected to get private health insurance, paid either by their employer or out of their own pocket. As a traveler, make sure you have either traveler's insurance or insurance provided by your government, before arriving in the USA. Getting health care without insurance is extremely costly, averaging up to US$450 per month.
The medical infrastructure is mostly handled at a state or city level. Hospitals are either run by city governments, or by religious or charitable organizations. Many private hospitals exist; some will not admit patients who are not members of one or another health insurance program.
Free health care for the uninsured is rare indeed. Some cities provide free clinics, or low-cost walk-in clinics, but these are usually overworked and understaffed, with limited services. Planned Parenthood has clinics and centers around the country providing birth control and other reproductive health services, as well as general healthcare services for any mother or child under the age of 18.
As a last resort, you can get health care at the emergency room of any hospital; they are required by law not to turn away anyone. Note that emergency room care costs about 2-3 times as much as care from a regular doctor, with a basic consultation averaging US$250.
For the most part, Americans dislike arguing. Expressing strong opinions on any non-trivial subject (politics, religion, society, whatever) will make Americans extremely uncomfortable.
Race, in America, is possibly the most taboo subject to discuss. Whether with black, white, Hispanic, Asian, or other people of color, any conversation about race will be particularly loaded. The subject is extremely nuanced, and it is highly unlikely that any foreign traveler will be able to navigate the minefield of American race relations without stepping on something extremely explosive. If someone else initiates a race-related conversation, ignore it. Also, be watchful for racial code words, that is, terms that are often used in America to express racist views without addressing race directly.
Interpersonal space, for Americans, is very important. Unless you're on a crowded bus or subway, avoid touching other people, even in friendly conversation. Touching has high sexual connotation, and is seen as a come-on. Touching between men is particularly unacceptable.
Most bodily functions -- excreting, burping, farting, copulating -- are also unacceptable subjects of discussion, especially in mixed company. Men and to a lesser extent women will bring up the subjects with other members of their sex.
The USA shares the international country code 1 with Canada and some Caribbean islands. Long-distance telephone prices can be quite expensive, but long-distance calling cards, available at most convenience stores, can make it more reasonable. Most calling cards have specific destinations in mind (domestic calls, calls to particular countries), so make sure you get the right card.
Directory information can usually be contacted by dialing 411. This is normally a toll call, unless dialed from a pay phone.
In the great American tradition of national stubbornness and free market economics, America has no national mobile phone standard. Most mobile phone service providers do have national networks, so domestic phones will usually work in other cities, but roaming (that is, making calls while outside your "home" service area) can be expensive depending on rate plan. Most mobile providers in the US now support text messaging both within their own networks and frequently among each other's networks, though large delays are sometimes associated with inter-carrier messaging. Third generation, or 3G, mobile technology is slowly being deployed in the US but many carriers are still working on upgrading their existing first- and second-generation networks. There are a handful of nationwide carriers in the US who operate nationwide GSM networks, but they operate on different frequency bands from the rest of the world for regulatory reasons (the 900/1800MHz bands were already allocated for other uses). Nevertheless, they do have extensive domestic and international roaming agreements, so international travelers who have GSM "world phones" can likely roam in the US (check with your home provider for further information). Still, international travelers who are planning long trips should be advised that it may be less expensive to pick up a local pay-as-you-go or prepaid phone, especially if you're planning to make many calls within the US.
Although America is a highly technological country, Internet cafes are not common, especially outside of major metropolitan areas. The best bet for computer rental is at a photocopy shop; Kinko's (+1 800 2KINKOS/+1 800 254 6567) is a national chain. Many hotels are equipped with Internet connections, but they assume you will be using your own laptop. Some public libraries also provide Internet access, with low rates or free of charge.
Some cities also have free WiFi connectivity, although this movement is still in its early stages.