This post is sponsored by e-visa, the specialists in visa and ESTA applications

There is so much to explore in the United States – whether it is cities or countryside, well known tourist attractions or lesser known places. But, as with any country, there are a few things you need to know before you visit. Here are my top tips for first time visitors to the US, including the important visa and ESTA application procedures.

1. Getting Around in the United States

Americans love their cars. Not just for long road trips, but for every day travel as well. So, unless you are planning to confine yourself to a city with good public transport, you may well choose to rent a car. A few things to know in advance:

  • Some states require you to have an International Drivers Licence before you rent a car. Elsewhere they are not essential but can be useful, for instance if you are involved in an accident.
  • Car rental agencies may have upper and lower age limits. If this is likely to affect you, check their terms carefully
  • Rental cars in the US are almost invariably automatic transmission.
  • Distances between places can be huge – take this into account when planning your itinerary. (If you are using a satnav or Google Maps, measure distances by hours rather than miles, because speed limits may be lower than you are used to.)
  • Rules of the road vary slightly from one state to another. However, this is a useful summary of the driving regulations.

But what if you don’t want to hire a car? Some cities, like New York or San Francisco, have well developed public transit systems, but smaller towns may be less well provided for. And don’t expect to be able to walk everywhere either: outside of the town centres you may find that pavements and safe road crossings are in short supply. But you can always find a taxi, and Uber is becoming increasingly common.

Amtrak train in Los Angeles
Trains provide a good service in some parts of the country

To get around the country you could use the famous Greyhound Bus which connects many different cities. However, reviews suggest that it is used mostly for economy rather than comfort! In some parts of the country trains are a possibility but the network is not extensive, and train journeys can be very slow. If you really don’t want to drive, another alternative is to fly between cities: there are around 500 regional airports.

2. Immigration Procedures – Visa and ESTA Applications

Before you visit the United States you need to make sure that you have the correct entry documentation. For many visitors a full visa is not required, and you can make an ESTA application instead. This will be suitable for most leisure travellers. However, you may need a full visa in certain circumstances:

  • If you plan to live or work in the United States
  • If your visit will last for more than 90 days
  • If you have visited, or are a national of, certain countries.

Read more about ESTA requirements.

3. Tips, Taxes and other Financial Matters

Tipping etiquette can be a particular minefield for visitors to the US. In restaurants, you should expect to leave a minimum of 15%, more for good service. But where it becomes confusing is all the other situations in which you are expected to tip, from hotel housekeeping to the doorman who carries your bags. There is no definitive answer as to when and how much you should tip, but this is a useful guide. One thing that everyone agrees on is that tipping is not optional: service staff are often low paid, and tips are an essential part of their income.

Another thing to trip up the unwary traveller: advertised prices in shops are not necessarily what you pay at the till. In some places both sales tax and state tax are added to the final bill (which may cause a surprise if you have already counted out your cash…)

Credit cards are accepted just about everywhere. However, some automated systems (such as at petrol pumps) require you to enter a US Zip Code, meaning that foreign tourists need to find another way to pay. When you do use a credit card, you may be surprised to find that you have to provide a signature, as chip and pin is not common in the US.

4. Personal Safety in the United States

Despite what you read in the media, the United States is not a particularly dangerous place for visitors. Of course, there is crime in the big cities (as there would be anywhere in the world) and you need to take the usual precautions with respect to your personal safety and belongings. But the vast majority of Americans you meet will be very friendly and polite.

However, you do need to think carefully about safety when venturing into the countryside. This can pose unfamiliar risks, particularly if you come from a country where there are few threats from wildlife or the physical environment. Be prepared for the fact that bears, bison, and other animals roam wild in parts of the country (not necessarily just in the national parks). Another factor is the vast distances and isolation of some areas. If you are planning any hiking or other outdoor activity have a look at the National Parks Service page on wildlife and outdoor hazards.

Grey timber wolf in Yellowstone Park
This wolf might look friendly, but don’t get too close!

When driving long distances carry water and make sure your phone is fully charged, with the rental company’s emergency number stored. The national emergency number in the US is 911.

5. Don’t Forget to Carry ID

You need to be prepared to provide identity documentation in certain situations:

  • When hiring a car or taking a domestic flight
  • When buying a train ticket or travelling by train (ID is not always requested, but I have been refused tickets in the past because I didn’t have any documentation)
  • When buying alcohol, tobacco or medicine in shops, or entering licensed premises. Again, it is not always requested, and requirements vary from one state to another. But note that this is not age-related: I have often been asked for ID despite obviously being well above the legal drinking age!

Additionally, you can be asked for proof of identity by the police if you are involved in any kind of incident. Your passport always serves as valid ID but, if you don’t wish to carry your passport around with you, any other government-issued photo ID (such as a driving licence) is acceptable. You may wish to carry a photocopy of your passport as an extra precaution.

6. The Amazing Cultural Diversity of the United States

But, finally, don’t forget to enjoy your visit to the United States. This is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with an astonishing range of cultures, city landscapes and countryside. And don’t believe anyone who says that “America doesn’t have any history” – it does! Even if you ignore the thousands of years of pre-colonial history, there has been plenty of action in the 500 years since Columbus discovered the New World…

Historic buildings in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Enjoying small town America in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Have a look at some of the posts on this website for inspiration:

Then start planning your adventure – but don’t forget your ESTA or visa application.

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