What you need to know before traveling to the US
Planning a trip to America? Here's what you need to know before traveling to the US to help you prepare for an epic trip.
Jul 30, 2019
I recently quit my day job to travel full time and chase my dream of being a freelance writer.
Feeling a little overwhelmed about your first trip to the United States? I've put together this list of everything you need to know before traveling to the US so that you can stop stressing and plan the perfect trip!
1. The United States is bigger than you probably realize
At the top of the list of things you should know before visiting the US is the country's size. At nearly 3.8 million square miles, the United States is just barely smaller than the entirety of Europe.
I've lived here for almost 30 years, traveling frequently for most of my life, but I still haven't seen everything on my United States travel bucket list. The point is, it's basically impossible to see everything worthwhile in one trip.
A much better approach would be to choose one region of the United States to explore per trip. There's plenty to see and do, no matter which part of the country you choose to visit.
2. Public transportation outside of major cities is virtually non-existent
If you're in a major city then you'll likely have no problem finding public transportation options or, at the very least, Uber. However, outside of major cities, public transportation is often non-existent or super unreliable.
If you're planning to spend time outside of the cities (and you should!) then your best bet is to rent a car.
3. Car rentals are expensive
Speaking of car rentals, they can be super pricey in the United States, especially if you're planning to drop off in a different state than you pick up in or if you're under 25 years old.
Many car rental agencies will not rent to drivers under 25 and almost none will rent to you if you're under 21. If you're under 25 and find a car rental agency willing to loan you a car, you'll probably be required to pay a "young renter" fee, which averages around $20 per day.
So don't forget to include car rental costs as a potentially significant expense when planning your budget to travel around the United States.
4. You will most likely need a credit card at some point
If you don't usually travel with an international credit card, add getting one to your checklist of what to do before traveling to the USA.
Most hotels and car rental companies require you to provide a credit card in order to use their services. Even some retail stores and restaurants won't accept cash. It's best to give your bank a heads up before your trip and bring your cards with you, just in case.
5. Tipping your server is expected
Unlike most other places in the world, the United States has a separate, much lower minimum wage for servers (as low as $2.13 per hour in some states). These servers rely almost entirely on tips to make their living.
15-20% is the standard tipping rate so factor the extra cost into your meal price before ordering.
6. Sales tax isn't included in the displayed price
Another "hidden" expense is sales tax. When shopping in the United States, be aware that the price you see on the shelf or tag does not include sales tax.
Sales tax varies from state to state and also depends on what you're purchasing (there's a difference between the tax on clothes and the tax on food), but it's typically between 5 and 10%.
7. The laws in each state differ
Curious what to do before traveling to the USA to be better prepared for your trip? Read up on the laws for the state(s) you plan on visiting.
In the United States, there are federal laws that apply throughout the country, but then there are also state laws. Most of the time the differences are small, but be aware that some major differences do exist.
For example, the legality of marijuana varies widely across states. While some states have legalized recreational use of marijuana, there are other states where it is only legal for medical use, as well as states where marijuana is illegal under any circumstance.
Another notable example is that in most places it is illegal to walk around in public while consuming alcohol. However, in a handful of cities, including New Orleans and Las Vegas, it is perfectly fine to do so as long as you are not visibly intoxicated and causing problems.
It is important to be aware of major differences in state laws to avoid any trouble. If you have doubts, a quick Google search should help clear things up for you.
8. You need to be 21 to drink, and there's really no way around it
The legal drinking age is 21 throughout the United States, and businesses who are caught serving minors face huge fines. Depending on where you are, many bars and liquor stores have someone check IDs at the door and don't allow anyone under 21 to even enter.
If you're looking for a great place to party, the United States can definitely be that place, but only if you're 21 or older.
9. We're still using the Imperial system
No, it doesn't really make sense for the United States to still be using the Imperial system, but we do. Distance is measured in miles, weight in pounds, and temperature is measured in degrees Fahrenheit.
It's not a huge deal, but maybe brush up on those conversions before you leave, just to be safe. Or you could just download the handy Metric Conversions app on your phone.
10. You need to buy travel insurance with medical coverage
If you've found yourself asking, "What do I need to do before traveling to the USA?", buying travel insurance with medical coverage should be your top priority.
The United States has higher healthcare costs than any other developed nation, with the average cost of a trip to the emergency room being somewhere around $1,900. Simply put, this is NOT the right trip to skip out on travel insurance.
Just buy the insurance and enjoy the peace of mind it allows.
11. Don't forget about the national parks!
As a relatively young country, the United States just can't compete with the history found in many other parts of the world. The area where we excel most notably is in nature.
The US is home to nearly 90 million acres of protected land, which make up the National Park System. Each year, our 58 national parks welcome over 330 million visitors, and it's for good reason.
Wildlife, deserts, mountains, volcanoes, swamps, unique geological formations, we’ve got it all! You can explore the longest known cave system in the world at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, spot grizzly bears at Glacier National Park in Montana, climb the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, or stand in awe of the vastness of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The United States National Parks offer unforgettable opportunities to connect with the beauty and diversity of our planet, and no trip to the US is complete without a visit to at least one of these jewels!
12. Yes, there are guns
When I talk to people from other countries, the most common concern they express about traveling in the US is gun violence.
Yes, there are a lot of guns in the United States. Yes, our society faces a gun violence problem that should be taken seriously. However, the chances of foreign travelers being targeted by a gun-wielding maniac are fairly small.
I've lived in the southern United States for most of my life, where the majority of both guns and gun-related violence exist. I've never been victim to or even known anyone personally who was victim to gun violence.
I even lived in New Orleans for three months, a city with one of the highest rates of gun-related homicides per capita in the country. Again, no problems.
My point is not to dismiss the problem or pretend it doesn't exist. My point is simply that you shouldn't let the threat of guns keep you from enjoying your trip.
As always, if you follow your normal safety protocols when traveling in the United States, you're most likely going to be just fine!
13. The emergency number is 911
This might be one of the most important things to know before traveling to the US.
Should you find yourself in need of emergency services, dialing 911 on any connected phone in the United States will put you in touch with an operator who will then dispatch the local police, fire department, or ambulance, depending on your emergency.
Save the number in your phone before you arrive just in case you ever need it.
14. Knowing a little English will really help you out
Many people in the United States only speak English. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the USA, but even that depends on where you are.
It's best not to rely on other people being able to communicate in your native language to help you figure things out because it's very possible that you'll have a hard time finding someone who can.
15. Public libraries are a great resource for free computer and internet usage
Most every city and town has public libraries with computers and free WiFi, and you do not have to be a resident to use them.
16. Worldpackers offers 150+ work exchange opportunities in the US
If you want to travel and stay in the United States for no money at all, consider doing a work exchange in the US with Worldpackers. For only a few hours of work each day, you can stay with a local family, hostel, NGO, farm, or eco-village in exchange for accommodation and other benefits. This is a great way to save money, learn new skills, and live like a local while traveling!
17. The stereotypes are true, sometimes
If you're still wondering what you need to know before traveling to America, it's that the stereotypes aren't always true.
Stereotypes of Americans abound, and while yes, you can definitely find giant food portions and heavy regional accents, our roads are paved with asphalt, not gold, and some of us are even pretty good at geography.
The United States is so much more than any one stereotype. We are a country of immigrants, a "melting pot" of cultures, and it's exactly this that makes the United States such an interesting place.
As long as you come with an open mind, I think you'll be pleased with what you find!