12 Tips For Visiting the United States For The First Time


As an American I always write about the places I travel, where I want to go next, and some travel tips for such destinations. I've even written some articles about the US, though never really came at it from a different perspective. By working for international conferences in Washington, DC and New York City, I've met a ton of high school students who were visiting the US, most for the first time.

"Ally, you didn't tell us they charge you more than what it says on the price tag!" they said. It took me a second to realize they were talking about sales tax. I'm just so used to it; I forgot it would be something the students may not know about.

Here are 12 tips for visiting the United States for the first time:

The White House South Lawn

The White House South Lawn

1. Tax on shopping and food

Going off the beginning of this post, you will find a sales tax added to your total when you go shopping or eat at restaurants. Sales tax varies from state to state, and it usually isn't too much added to the bill.

Large groups at restaurants may already have gratuity built into the check - on the bill you should see this listed.

2. Tipping culture

In addition to sales tax, tips are expected for most services, especially when dining at restaurants. Here is a general breakdown of expectations:

Sit-down restaurants: 20% for standard, good service. It is not expected to tip more than 20% unless you'd like to or feel the service was exceptional. Anything less than 20% - or no tip at all - tells the server they gave poor service. Not tipping your server is considered rude as a customer, or a "message" to the server that they gave terrible service.

It's also common to split the bill between the group if you're dining with friends. Typically it's courteous to ask at the beginning of the meal if the server is able to give separate checks. If not, you can figure it out how much cash to put in when the meal is over.

Fast casual restaurants (like Chipotle), cafes, and coffee shops: Up to your discretion. It isn't expected to tip, but there may be a tip jar sitting on the counter if you'd like to add your spare change.

Taxi rides: 15-20% tip.

Uber, Lyft: No tip is required with Uber, as the driver makes a certain profit from the ride. The last time I rode with Lyft I saw you can tip $1-5 (or none) through the app.

Salon services such as haircut, nails, wax: 15-20% or up to your discretion.

Car wash: $1-2 for the person toweling at the end.

There is no expectation to tip when shopping at retail stores or markets.

golden gate bridge

golden gate bridge

3. Everything is big

Portion sizes at restaurants, soda cup sizes, even people...you'll definitely see that in the US.

However, keep in mind this is more of a general stereotype - not everyone is overweight, and not every restaurant serves six servings for one entree.

4. Sidewalks

If you walk in the street not on a crosswalk, you'll be honked at in many cities. It's also dangerous on busy streets because drivers aren't used to people waking in he middle of the road.

I had a few Caribbean students who would naturally just casually walk in the streets before remembering getting back on the  sidewalk. They said the "sidewalk culture" (is there such a thing?) was far more strict in DC than it was back home.

5. Coins - their names and value

Coins all have names, and some don't have the monetary value on them. Which is actually really confusing if you've never used American money before!

Coins and their value

Coins and their value

A quarter is 25 cents, a dime is 10 cents, a nickel is five cents, and a penny is one cent.

6. You need to be 21+ to drink in bars

Some states allow you to go into a bar if you're 18 but not order drinks, though many states ban those under 21 altogether. Either way you will need to show a government-licensed ID to either go into the bar or be served an alcoholic drink.

If you live in the US you'd use your driver's license, but if you're international your passport or another government-issued ID will usually work.

If you're unsure if your international license/ID will work, bring your passport to be on the safe side (but make sure to keep an eye on it!).

Pinnacle Peak Arizona

Pinnacle Peak Arizona

7. Most people only speak English

It's kind of sad, but true. There are some pockets within cities - New York City, especially - that have neighborhoods of people who primarily speak other languages. And to be honest, I only know a little bit of Spanish and even less Italian, but not enough to even come close to be considered fluent.

When I was in China at the English Corner, a Chinese man said to me: "What's it called when someone speaks three languages?"

(Me): "Trilingual."

"Two languages?"


"One language?"




"Actually, it's American." Everyone around me erupted in laughter. It's actually a pretty decent joke, I'll give him that!

It would be tough to get around in many parts of the country without semi-fluency or more than basic English. But, if you're reading this blog in its original form, I'm assuming you're already pretty good at English.



8. Burgers n' fries with a Coke are classic - try other American foods too!

Barbecue in Texas. Cajun, Creole, and French food in New Orleans. Lobster rolls in New England. Craft beer in Colorado. Deep dish pizza in Chicago. Seafood in Seattle. Literally anything in New York.

Thrillist is a great food & travel site that has a gazillion articles on finding good food in different cities.

American Flag unsplash

American Flag unsplash

9. We are patriotic folk

We are proud of our country and proud to live here. We'll take an American flag, Budweiser, a big pick-up truck, and country music, please, with a side of Freedom.

'Nuff said. #Merica

10. ...Though subcultures can be very different around the country

Going to artistic, hipster Seattle is going to be a different experience than trendy LA.

What's cool about the US is that in a very general sense the people are alike, though when you break it down into subcultures you'll see the differences. This is in terms of lifestyle, culture, and even accents.

11. There's somewhere for every type of trip!

No matter the type of vacation you're looking for, you'll most likely be able to find it in the US: beaches, mountains, desert, outdoors, countryside, big cities, historic towns, small towns, theme parks, - Disney is on both coasts! - national parks...the list goes on.

San Diego Pacific Beach

San Diego Pacific Beach

12. There is a decent distance between most large cities

It can be tempting to "see it all" in a short amount of time. Though if you're only here for a couple of weeks or less it's best to stick to just 1-3 or so cities so you can experience them more thoroughly during your trip. It's also a great incentive to come back!

Los Angeles is pretty close in terms of driving distance (3-6 hours) to other western cities like San Diego, Las Vegas, or Phoenix. East coast cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC are fairly close.

Flights are pretty quick - a couple hours or less between most east coast cities, a few hours in between the middle US and the coasts, or about 4.5-7 hours from coast to coast. Alaska and Hawaii, since they aren't connected to the continental US, can take longer depending on where you're departing from.