United States of America
Earth : North America : 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 after China and India, with over 300 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 United States is not the America of television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse. 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 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, touching 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 geographical diversity is great. In the middle, in the heartland’s undulating fields of grain, among the soaring Rocky Mountains or under the endless sky of the Southwest desert, there is a vast expanse changing color with each subtle shift of the sun. In the south, in the velvet heat of the Carolinas or Mississippi, one can see the wondrous wetlands of the Florida Everglades or the dusty dream-catcher towns of New Mexico.
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 snow can fall 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 & 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 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 northwest (the state of Washington and its vicinity). 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.
Northeast cities are known for summers with temperatures reaching into the 90s or more, with extremely high humidity, usually 80%. This can be a drastic change from the Southwest. High humidity means that the temperature can feel up to 20 degrees 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 numbers.
America was once populated by people who are believed to have migrated from northeast Asia. In the United States their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Most were tribal hunter-gatherers. The Five Nations of the Northeast and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest developed societies based on agriculture.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, parts of the region were colonized by European nations including Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia, and/or their religious missionaries. The British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were the kernel of what we now know as the United States of America. By the early 18th century, 13 colonies ranged along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to Maine. Their growth drove the Native American population westward, until the Native American population was decimated by European diseases such as smallpox.
The southern areas, because of a longer growing season, had richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were forced to cultivate large plantations. The northern colonies developed as mercantile societies modeled after the "home" country, Britain.
In the late 18th century, colonists declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. They achieved their freedom in a War of Independence also known as the Revolutionary War. The colonies formed a federal government, with its Constitution inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about individual liberty. In the late 18th and early 19th century, this government expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean.
The United States acquired territories in the Midwest as new states, and in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 acquired a former French territory along the Mississippi River. Florida was purchased in 1813 from the Spanish; American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 won the northern territories of Mexico, including such states as California, Arizona, and New Mexico, giving the continental US the rough outlines it has today. The Native Americans were concentrated in the west by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases.
In mid-1800s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The industrializing North didn't need slaves anyway, and 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. The Southern states, fearing domination by the North, decided to secede from the Union, sparking the American Civil War. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The North won. Slavery was abolished, but the former slaves by and large remained an economic and social underclass in the South.
The US purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, and Hawaii was annexed in 1898. The Spanish-American War gained the first "colonial" territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (also later granted independence) and Puerto Rico (which remains by choice a US territory).
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 near the end of the conflict, the United States established itself as a world power. Real wealth grew rapidly in this period. In the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October of 1929, contributed to economic havoc, known as the Great Depression. Socialists and Communists seized the opportunity to win converts.
At the end of 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a military base in the Pacific, plunging the United States into World War II. In alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the U.S. defeated the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. At the end of this war, the United States was the dominant economic power in the world, responsible for nearly half of the world's production. It was the only force capable of containing the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
After WWII, America experienced far greater affluence. A civil rights movement emerged that eliminated most discrimination against African-Americans during the 1960s; a revived women's movement also led to wide-ranging changes in American society. Post WWII 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 U.S. also took the lead in military and space technology, especially beginning in the 1960s.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population to the suburbs and largely contributed to the United States giving rise to the car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s - 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, has arguably established the United States as the cultural center of the world.
Because of its size and because its citizens are descended from diverse immigrants, there is no single universal American culture. Visitors to the South will find a far different culture from those traveling to California or New York City.
The US has a number of holidays - official and/or cultural - of which the traveller should be aware. Note that holidays observed on Mondays are usually treated as weekend-long events. (A weekend consists of a Saturday and a Sunday.) Federal holidays—i.e., holidays observed by the US federal government—are indicated in bold italics.
Also, if a federal holiday with a fixed calendar date (such as Independence Day) falls on a weekend, the holiday is moved to create a three-day weekend—to Friday if the holiday date is a Saturday, or to Monday if the holiday date is a Sunday.
For more information
The Federal government of the USA 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 in the country has free maps of the state in which it is located.
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 independent states each with its own rights and powers (hence the name); see list of American states for a full listing. The U.S. also administers a motley collection of non-state territories around the world, the largest of which are Puerto Rico 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.
See United States National Parks for a list of all national park areas.
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 official United States Visas  site for current information.
Citizens of the 35 countries within the Visa Waiver Program , as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card) and Bermudans (with British Overseas Territories passports) do not require advance visas for entry into the United States. In the case of Canadians and Bermudans, the entry period is normally for six months maximum. However, since 2009, even visa-free travelers must now apply for Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval online  before their flight, preferably 72 hours before travel. ESTA approval is free and, once granted, is valid for two years (or until your passport expires).
Travel under the Visa Waiver Program is limited to 90 days for 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.
As of December 31, 2008, the countries under the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, 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, United Kingdom.
Visa Waiver Program Requirements
Passports issued after October 26, 2005 need digital photographs embedded on them, and passports issued after October 26, 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 passport 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 October 26, 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 VWP from air or sea also requires entry via an approved carrier. It is a somewhat safe assumption that most major airlines and sea carriers are approved, but make certain that the carrier is approved to carry Visa Waiver visitors. Notably, however, this means that flying private aircraft or chartering a vessel to the United States requires a full visa.
Travelers 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.
The I-94W form (see below) has a checklist of conditions that may deny visa waivers. Most of these are not a problem for most visitors ("Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage, sabotage, terrorist activities, genocide?"), but the important one is that if you have ever been denied a US visa for any reason or overstayed on a previous visa, you will be denied entry. Having a criminal history with convictions for "crimes of moral turpitude", controlled substance (drug) offenses, or jail terms of more than five years total are also disqualifying factors.
Obtaining a visa
For the rest of the world, the visa application fee is US$131 (as of 1 January 2008; not refundable). 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 your home country as well as sufficient proof that your visit will be temporary. When the US rejects visa applications, it is usually because the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the consular officer that he or she is not planning to be an immigrant. 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 many nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
Depending on your nationality and the category of visa you are requesting, you may need to pay an additional fee (ranging from US$7 to US$200) only if the visa is issued. This is called a reciprocity fee, and is charged by the US to match the fees charged by other countries on US citizens.
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.
Arriving in the United States
Before arrival, 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.
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. Of most concern to immigration officials is that you have the funds to support yourself, and that you do not intend to work. 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, however if there are any doubts, 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. Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. As in most countries, assume that customs official are humorless about any kind of security threat; even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation.
For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying; this should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. may not be sufficient; you must provide the street name and number. If staying in multiple locations, provide the address where you will be spending the first night of your stay. 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 if your plans are doubted border control officials may phone them and ask them for the name of the guest they are expecting.
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 mentioned in a so-called technical alert list (a copy can be found at ).
Travelers should avoid bringing meat or raw fruit or vegetables into the U.S., but may bring cooked nonmeats, 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 USA. 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, e.g., Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar (Burma). Besides their personal effects which will go home with them, visitors are allowed to import $200 of merchandise duty free, including 1 liter of alcohol (21 and older only) and 1 carton of cigarettes. If you are bringing in more than US$10,000 or its equivalent, you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out. At immigration, the officer usually puts some sort of a tick mark on your customs declaration form to alert the customs officer of any need to search you or your luggage. 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.
Leaving the United States
There are additional pilot security measures dubbed US-VISIT  requiring you to leave your fingerprint and photograph at a kiosk even while leaving. This is applicable at a majority of land, sea, and air entry ports. Check the list, as most of the ports of entry are covered.
Airline or border staff will take the I-94(W) card stapled in your passport from you on departure, but you should check and insist on it. 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. US Customs and Border Protection has information  about what to do if your slip is not collected. You should retain this card if you are traveling by land to Mexico or Canada and you will return to the U.S. within your allowed stay.
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:
Note that the United States requires entry formalities even for international transit, and the current state of international affairs means that this is not going to change anytime soon. You must have a valid visa to enter the United States if required by your citizenship, even if you are immediately continuing on a flight to a different country. If your citizenship requires a visa to enter the U.S., avoid transiting through the U.S. unless you want to spend time and money to obtain a C-1 transit visa. Further, when booking flights to the U.S. note that you will be required to clear customs and immigration at your first U.S. stop, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least 2 hours of stop-over (ideally more than 3) at your first U.S. stop.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a US$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 US-Canada & US-Mexico borders are two of the most frequently crossed borders with millions of crossings daily. Average wait times are 0-30 minutes, but some of the most heavily travelled border crossings may have considerable delays—approaching 1-2 hours at peak times (weekends, holidays). Current wait times (updated hourly) are available on the U.S. customs service website . The US-Mexico border is lucrative for drug trafficking, so vehicles crossing may be x-rayed or searched by drug-sniffing dog. If there is suspicion, your vehicle may be searched. Since this is an all-too-common event, expect little patience from border agents.
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.
There are many border crossings in urban areas which can be crossed by pedestrians. Crossings such as those in/near Niagara, Detroit, Tijuana, Nogales, & El Paso (not recommended at present due to drug/gang-related violence) 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 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 US are served by one or two airports; Many small towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car.
Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and 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.
Discount air carriers are becoming more dominant. Southwest Airlines  is the largest and best known.
There are a number of ways to save money when flying within the United States. See Cheap airline travel in North America.
By private plane
The advantages of private plane travel are:
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.
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. 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.
See also: Rail travel in the United States
Except for certain densely populated corridors, 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, concentrating more on sightseeing tours than efficient intercity travel. 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".
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.
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 America's scenic beauty, without the trouble and long-term discomfort of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying.
Travelers choosing Amtrak should be prepared to pad their schedules somewhat. Since Amtrak does not own the rails on which they operate their trains, they must yield to the whim of the freight operators who do own them. In general it's a good idea to pad the schedule by 25% when planning connections with other trains or other transport modes, especially for those few Amtrak lines which cross the Canadian border. If you plan to board an Amtrak train at a location other than the train's initial place of departure, its usually a good idea to call ahead before you leave for the station to see if the train is running late. Expect to wait two hours; 6 or 8 hour delays are not unheard of.
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, 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, slower regional trains covering the same stations along the Northeast Corridor for lower fares.
All Amtrak trains in the northeast as well as all long-distance trains now require reservations. The only routes that don't require reservations are Hiawatha trains between Chicago and Milwaukee, Keystone Service trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and Capital Corridor (Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose), and Pacific Surfliner (San Diego-Las Angeles-Santa Barbara) Trains in California. During usual American vacation times, some long-distance trains 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.
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.
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.
Bradt's USA by Rail  book (ISBN 9781841622552) is a guide to all Amtrak routes, with maps, station details and other practical advice.
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. The need for a car depends greatly on the cities or regions being visited. A car can be necessary even to get around in a city such as Phoenix or Dallas, while in places such as New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago driving a car is not only unnecessary, but discouraged. Travelers from outside the country may not sufficiently appreciate the need for an automobile here. However, in most medium-sized American cities, particularly in the west and south, cities are very spread out and public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but except at airports you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, and make similar arrangements to return. Even in some very large cities (such as Los Angeles and Atlanta), a private car is your most practical option. Gas stations have traditionally sold regional and national maps, although many drivers have begun to obtain driving directions on their home computers before beginning a journey; MapQuest and Google Maps are popular websites for obtaining directions. Drivers can obtain directions in the midst of their travels by calling 1-800-Free411, which will provide text message directions, or they can stop and ask locals for nearby directions. Generally, Americans are happy to give directions to travelers.
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 within 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 U.S. and Interstate highways. Interstates are always freeways (limited access; no grade crossings), while U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections and not on others. These roads network between major (and minor) population centers, and can 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 freeways. 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. The U.S. Highways are generally 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 city.
Speed limits on the interstate highways can vary from state to state, as setting the speed limit is up to each individual state. For example, Interstate 70 from east to west is 65 miles per hour in Pennsylvania and Ohio, 70 miles per hour in Indiana, 65 miles per hour in Illinois, 70 miles per hour in Missouri and Kansas, and up to 75 miles per hour in Colorado and Utah.
The vast majority of interstates do not charge tolls, but those that do are also known as turnpikes. Tolls are also frequently levied for crossing notably large bridges or tunnels.
American drivers tend to drive calmly in residential neighborhoods. Freeways around big cities, however, can become really crowded with a significant proportion of "hurried" drivers - who will exceed speed limits, pass unsafely, or follow other cars at unsafely close distances. Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Keeping pace with most local 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 town are taken very seriously.
Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English, using only words. The country is gradually adopting signs with internationally understood symbols, usually with English "translations" for locals not yet familiar with them. Only a negligible amount of signs use metric units; distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles/hour, without these units specified. (1 mile = 1.6 km).
Renting a car in the U.S. usually runs 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 can often influence 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.
Most rental agencies accept an International Driver's Permit only when presented along with a valid driver's license from your country. 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 and most popular 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-US automobile clubs have affiliate relationships with AAA, allowing members of the non-US 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.
Also for international tourists, note that most American tourists 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. For international tourists without a US credit card, car rental excess cover included in International Credit Card Travel Insurance policies may not be applicable. Therefore purchasing loss/damage waiver cover and supplemental liability insurance is recommended and may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental. Often 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.
Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon. 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. 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, generally ranging from around $2.30 to $3.00/gallon as of August 2009.
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, but is not available everywhere. 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) has 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 US fee for priority seating.
Megabus  offers inexpensive daily bus service in the Midwest from their hub in Chicago to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
For bus service between large East Coast cities (particularly Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston), travelers can purchase deeply discounted (below Greyhound prices) tickets from a number of small operators, typically called "Chinatown bus" operators, because they usually enter and depart from the Chinatown area of the cities they serve. These type of services are also beginning to appear on the West Coast.
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 RV'ers 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 unexperienced 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.
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 some distinctive regional accents and dialects. Nowhere should this pose any problem to a visitor, as Americans often admire foreign accents and most will approximate the standard accent to help you understand them, or try to speak your language if they can. You may occasionally need to repeat yourself in order to be understood. Some words with short vowel sounds can be hard for some Americans to understand, and without necessarily imitating an American accent it can help to lengthen them for understanding. If the travelers assistance desk don't understand you when you say locker, try lah-ker. If you have difficulty ordering the salad at Wendys, try sah-lid.
Many Americans are familiar with Spanish, or French, but few are fluent in languages other than English, unless they are from immigrant communities; Visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. Even popular tourist sites may have signs only in English, or perhaps one or two other languages.
Spanish is the primary second language in many parts of the U.S. such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, Chicago Metropolitan Area, and the New York Metropolitan Area. Spanish is also the first language of the U.S. territory Puerto Rico as well as a large minority of residents, mostly immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. The United States has the fifth largest Spanish speaking population in the world. 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.
French is the primary second language in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and by immigrants from West Africa. Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a separate language derived from French, as their second language, although a substantial number also speak French. Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii, and 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 home to the second largest Polish-speaking 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.
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. 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 US 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 US 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 rarely used. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters.
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. Most automated teller machines (ATMs) can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logo; 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.
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are widely used and accepted, even for transactions worth only a few dollars. Some independently-owned stores specify a minimum amount of money (usually $10) for credit card use, as credit-card transactions cost them around 30-50 cents (this practice is also common at bars when opening a tab). Other cards such as American Express and Discover are also accepted, but not as widely. Almost all sit-down restaurants, hotels, and shops will accept credit cards. Authorization is made by signing a paper sales slip or a computer pad. When making large purchases, it is typical for the shop to ask for photo identification, but no additional security precautions are taken, so guard your cards carefully. Shops may also ask for photo identification for foreign issued cards.
Gas station pumps, selected public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Some automated vending machines accepting credit cards ask for the zip code of the US billing address for the card, which effectively prevents them from accepting foreign cards. At gas stations you can use a foreign issued card by paying the station attendant inside.
There is no nation-wide 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, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax; Alaska has no state sales tax, but allows local governments to collect sales taxes. 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.
Some states will refund sales tax on purchases made by international travellers taken out of the state.
Places for shopping
Major retail. America is the birthplace of the shopping mall, and suburbs in particular have miles and miles of strip malls, or long rows of small shops with shared parking lots, usually built along a high-capacity road (the "strip"). Large cities still maintain central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small.
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 auctioneers, and watch paintings, antiques and works of art be sold in a matter of minutes at prices that go into the millions.
Unless you live in 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 compatable 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. 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.
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:
The important one here is restaurants. Theoretically, tipping waiters is optional, but in practice you should always leave a tip. In almost every state the minimum wage for waiters and waitresses is significantly lower than that for other jobs (maybe $2.50/hr rather than the standard $7.25/hr) and thus tips are the majority of a waiter's income. The rest of the service staff may also depend on their share of the tip as well. If you receive exceptionally poor 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.
Tips are normally left as cash at the table when you leave (there is no need to hand it over personally or wait until it's collected), but if paying by credit card you can sometimes add it directly to the charge slip when you sign it. For larger parties (sometimes over 6, almost always over 10) it is common for "gratuity" of 18% or so to be added to the bill and included in the total. In this case, an extra tip is not necessary. This will be stated somewhere on the menu, but you should also review the bill carefully before paying to determine whether or not the tip is already included.
Tipping is not expected at restaurants (such as fast-food chains) where patrons stand at a counter to place their order and receive their food. Some such restaurants may have a "tip jar" by the cash register, which may be used 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.
Certain individuals are not customarily tipped. Doctors and dentists, for example, do not accept tips. Additionally, one should 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 US 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.
A majority of states ban smoking in restaurants and bars by law, and many other restaurants and bars do the same by their own policy. Some have designated smoking areas. Check local information before lighting up.
Types of restaurants
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese food, 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 the Northwest, or generically "coke" in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. 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 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.
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. In the majority of restaurants, soft drinks 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.
Continental Breakfast is usually a cheap way of getting food in the morning. Normally only cold foods such as cereal, breads, muffins, fruit, etc. are available. Milk, fruit juices, hot coffee and tea are the typical beverages. There is usually a toaster for your bread. Most frequently seen at hotels and motels.
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. Making reservations in advance is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, "up-scale", or you are dining in a large group.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a single, flat, rate, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Generally buffets serve American or Chinese 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" (actually the southeast), where traditional local fare includes grits (ground maize/corn), collard greens (a vegetable usually served boiled with a dash of vinegar), sweet tea (tea mixed with sugar and served with plenty of ice), barbeque(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).
Barbeque, BBQ, or barbecue is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it's beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder wood smoked slowly for hours. The brisket and ribs are usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded into a dish known as pulled pork. Sauce of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. Various parts of the US have unique styles of barbeque. Generally, the best barbeque is found in the southeast, with the most distinct styles coming from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. However, barbeque of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbeque restaurants differ from many other restaurants in that the best food is often served at very casual establishments. A typical barbeque restaurant may have plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and serve sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbeque found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic.
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 US cities and towns.
Mexican/Hispanic 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 salsa, sour cream, and an avocado mix 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 "Schwarma" 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/sauce) and "baklava" pastries are frequently found in supermarkets.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarianism is becoming more common in the US, 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. 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.
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 be unwelcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating are considered rude in most restaurants, as well as loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. Except in fast food restaurants, it is common to keep your napkin on your lap. 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). Visitors wishing to use this service option should ask the server to get the remainder "to go"; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrasement. 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.
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".
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 a hundred or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and "draft", though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen "on tap". 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 characterful than the big national brands. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand.
Wine in the U.S. is also a contrast between 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. These are labeled primarily by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay). 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. The most prestigious California regions are Napa Valley, followed by Sonoma County. Other regions producing excellent wines, which may be better value for money since they are less famous, include Mendocino County, Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Imports are widely available in better stores and establishments. All 50 U.S. states now support winemaking, with varying levels of success and respect. Oregon and Washington wines have been improving greatly in recent years, and can be bargains since they are not yet as well known as California wines. Michigan, and Colorado have recently been producing German-style whites which have won international competitions. In recent years, the Llano Estacado region of Texas has become regionally reknown 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. 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" or "straight up" 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 older drinkers favor.
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 liqour 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 US 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. Almost all communities have some sort of ban on "drunk and disorderly" behavior. 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". 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). Penalties for DUI ("driving under the influence") or DWI ("driving while intoxicated"), can include thousands of dollars in fines and a jail sentence. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol within reach of the driver. 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 the Marriott's chain of Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inns, and Residence Inns; Hampton Inn; or Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express. Some of the hotels are for long term stays directed at business travelers or families, as they might feature kitchens in most rooms, afternoon social events (generally by a pool), and generally serve continental breakfast.
Hotels are available in most cities and usually offer more services and amenities than motels. Rooms usually run about $80-$200 per night, but very large, glamorous, and expensive hotels can be found in most major cities, offering luxury suites larger than some houses. An affordable and nationwide set of hotel brands exist such as Amerisuites , Hawthorn , Days Inn  (+1 800 329-7466), and Microtel , all boasting the amenities and services of an expensive hotel at budget to reasonable rates. AmericInn  offers very nice but reasonable lodging for families and business travelers alike throughout the 50 states.
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 homey 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.
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 US$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 work in the United States. It is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, math teachers, and computer science professionals.
Paid work is generally not allowed on a B1/B2 visitor visa. Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions.
If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the US Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the 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 visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary; be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties.
Keep in mind that anyone entering under the Visa Waiver Program cannot adjust their status for any reason.
It is true that for an industrialized nation, the USA has a fairly high violent crime rate; however, this is mostly concentrated in inner city neighborhoods. Few visitors to the US experience any sort of crime. Much crime is gang- or drug-related, 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.
Most American urban areas have homeless people. In some areas aggressive panhandling is a concern. If you feel you are being harrassed, 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.
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, occasional tornadoes mostly in the Great Plains region, earthquakes in California and Alaska, and wildfires in summer on the West Coast, particularly California. See the regions in question for more details.
Because tornados 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 boundry running through California and so this area is prone to earthquakes.
Gay and lesbian
Attitudes toward homosexuality vary widely, even in locales with a reputation for tolerance or intolerance. Most Americans avoid public displays of affection; same-sex couples holding hands in public may get stares. Violence, however, is rare and extremely unlikely to happen to a traveler. In general, most Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality.
The U.S. has many gay-friendly destinations, where openly gay couples are common, including New York's Chelsea, Chicago's Boystown, San Francisco's Castro Street and Noe Valley, Washington's Dupont Circle, 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 these areas it's generally not a problem to be open about one's sexual orientation. In many other smaller cities, there are neighborhoods where gay people tend to congregate.
Some gay-friendly businesses like to advertise themselves as such, say, 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. You will find that the rural areas of states, especially in the far South, will be much more unaccepting to homosexuals to the more modern cities on the East and West coasts.
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, and private residences in Rhode Island. 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.
During any emergency, dialing 911 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 locate you; with mobile phones it is more difficult. Never call 911 except to report a violent crime, a crime in progress, fire (in most places), or a medical emergency. Some cities have a 311 number for less urgent situations.
The American health care system is world-class in quality, but very expensive for the uninsured. 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, it is advisable to acquire health insurance with medical evacuation coverage before arriving in the U.S.; should you not do so and a medical incident occurs, you may face enormous hospital bills.
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 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. 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.
In 2009, the outbreak of Swine Flu has left many sick or even dead. Make sure you are taking any necessary precautions and to get vaccinated when possible.
U.S. telephone numbers have a fixed format XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. The first three digits (XXX) are the area code, which is unique to a specific region of a state or sometimes a section of a city. You must sometimes dial "1" before the area code, if the area code differs from your phone's number. All of the digits must usually be dialed, even if "XXX" and "YYY" matches your phone's number. (In the smaller cities, XXX need not be dialed for local calls.) Calls to Canada and certain Caribbean islands can be dialed as if they were in the U.S. (some Caribbean islands are expensive); calls to other locations require an international access code (011). At some locations (businesses and hotels with internal phone systems), you will need to dial an access code (usually "8" or "9") to reach an outside line before dialing the number.
Numbers with the area code 800, 888, 877, or 866 are toll free within the U.S. Outside the country, dial 880, 881, 882, and 883 respectively, but won't be 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 books 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-areacode-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 (AT&T, Verizon, Bell South, and Qwest), 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 cellular (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.
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 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. The two largest GSM network operators are T-Mobile USA  and AT&T . Roaming fees are high and text messages may not always work due to compatibility issues between networks. Alternatives to using your own phone include renting one (most larger airports have a shop, with rental fees starting at $3/day) or buying a cheap local prepaid phone. Be aware, however, that prepaid mobiles in the U.S. are not nearly as common as in Europe; per-minute fees for prepaid service are generally high (usually around $0.25/minute).
First class airmail postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $0.75 to Canada and Mexico and $0.98 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, U.S. Navy ships at sea, etc. Domestic postcards are $0.28, and small letters up to an ounce are $0.44. If you put a solid object like a coin or keys in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge. Rates change annually in mid-May of each year.
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, in every city and large town there is at least one public library where computers equipped with free internet access are available to the public.