United States of America – The Ultimate Guide For First Time Visitors

The United States of America is an incredibly diverse country. There are quite literally too many reasons to list that someone might want to visit the USA, but since you are reading this article, you’ve obviously got at least one of your own.

That said, your first trip to America can be quite a daunting experience. From simply getting into the country to understanding tipping. Even simple things like keeping connected while you are over there. The US has a lot of little intricacies that you need to know before you get there.

So, let’s go through all the information you need to make your first trip to the United States memorable.

An Introduction to the United States of America

Popularised in cinema and television, the United States of America offers so many different reasons to visit that it appeals to almost everyone.

As the world’s third-largest country by population and the fourth-largest by area, the US is comprised of 50 states with hundreds of cities scattered all across it (including Hawaii and Alaska). Each with its own unique atmosphere and appeal.

However, unlike most countries you might have already visited where everything is the same across the entire country, American states and, in some cases, cities have a lot of their own unique rules and ways of doing things. Something could be perfectly fine in one place and illegal in another. You’ll need to keep this in mind as you research each US destination of your trip.

One other thing to note about the United States is that it is one of only three countries in the world that uses the Imperial system. That means that measurements are in inches and feet, distances are in miles, weights are in pounds, and the temperature is in Fahrenheit. All of which can catch you out in different ways if you aren’t paying attention.

The size of the USA also means climates and time zones can be significantly different depending on which cities you plan to visit during your time there. Los Angeles and New York, two of the cities most tourists want to visit while in the United States, are extremely different, being on completely opposite sides of the country.

Internet/Mobile Phones/Data in the United States of America

Internet/Mobile Phones/Data in the United States of America

Let me preface this by saying this in my experience of visiting the United States of America; international airports are set up predominantly to welcome back returning American citizens and less so for arriving international tourists.

While this isn’t a big issue, it does mean that simple things you might have come to expect from travelling to other countries just simply aren’t there. In particular, for this context, the ability to grab a prepaid tourist-focused SIM card at the airport.

It’s not all bad news; most of the airports provide some sort of free wifi. And you will most likely be able to access wifi at your hotel, usually for an extra fee (we’ll get to that shortly). But if you are planning to use a service like Uber or Lyft, or even just hope to use Google Maps to navigate, to get between the airport and your accommodation, you might have a little bit of an issue.

So let’s run through what you need to know about internet access in the US so you can make some informed decisions.

SIM Cards/Cell Service

This is probably the most confusing thing you will need to deal with when arriving in the US, so I’ll do my best to explain it as simply as possible.

Global Roaming

The easiest thing for you to do is enable global roaming with your local provider. Most telecommunication companies, in my experience, offer a daily rate for global roaming that includes a data allowance.

While expensive ($5-$10 per day), if you plan on staying in the US for less than two weeks, this is probably your best option, especially if you don’t use much data.

I would even suggest that you enable global roaming for the first 2-3 days of your arrival in the United States to give you the time to get settled in and pick up a local prepaid SIM card.

Global eSIM

There are a couple of Global eSIM providers that allow you to purchase a prepaid data-only eSIM before you depart. The prices of these vary, so the best thing to do is have a look and see what the current pricing is.

My recommendation is Airlo globally, but I chose not to use them in the US as I found a better local option.

Local PrePaid SIM Card/eSIM

Buying a local prepaid SIM card is the cheapest option, especially if you are planning on staying in America for a month or longer, but there are several things you need to keep in mind.

As I mentioned earlier, picking up prepaid SIM cards at the airport really isn’t an option. So, in most cases, you need to head to a store in the city that you are first staying in. However, it’s not just as simple as buying a prepaid SIM.

Companies AT&T and Verizon will need to check your phone’s IMEI number to see if it’s on their list of approved devices for their networks. Since your phone was purchased overseas (as far as they are concerned, even if you purchased it outright), it’s unlikely that it will be on the list. Even a common device like an iPhone.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, has a couple of options that better suit travellers, and I’ve used them a couple of times now without major issues.

If you have an iPhone that is eSIM capable and want to make sure you are connected from the moment you land, T-Mobile does offer a pre-paid eSIM service that you can purchase and set up prior to your departure. It’s really straightforward to process with their app, and all you have to do is choose a plan that suits you. They even have unlimited data options (albeit with a couple of limitations which we’ll get to shortly).

If you have an Android device or something that is not eSIM compatible, those same Pre-Paid services are available by simply picking up a SIM card in one of their stores. They usually have several locations, no matter the city you are visiting.

Another thing to keep in mind, despite offering unlimited data prepaid services (both T-Mobile and AT&T) they have limits on hot-spotting (tethering other devices to your phone). Unlike other countries, where you can just connect your laptop (or any other device) to your phone and use the data as part of your plan, this is restricted in the US. T-Mobile allows a maximum 10Gb of hot-spotting on their top unlimited pre-paid service.

In the event you need a lot of data, uploading photos and or videos etc, you can get around this by purchasing a data-only prepaid SIM service with up to 100Gb of data allowance, but you will need to head into a store to get one of these. Again keeping in mind everything else I just mentioned.

WIFI Access

Wifi internet access is also an option all throughout the US. However, not all Wifi access is free, and in some places, it can be extremely expensive!

The good news, when you arrive in America and travel across the country, there is usually free wifi access within the airport terminals. Cafes and some restaurants also offer free wifi internet access; Starbucks locations are particularly good for internet access.

The bad news, while all hotels offer wifi internet access across the US, it’s usually not free. How much hotels charge for internet access depends, but I have seen it for as much as $25 per day (over twice as much as paying for global roaming on your mobile device from home!).

My best suggestion is to have your own mobile data service available (either global roaming or a local prepaid SIM), even just to help you navigate while exploring American cities, and then use WIFI if it becomes available for free (or at least cheap), but don’t rely on it being available.

Pro Tip: When using public WIFI, always make sure you are also using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service. You never know how secure public WIFI services might be, even if you are paying for them. A VPN will give you more reassurance that your bank details and emails aren’t being intercepted and recorded. I personally use ExpressVPN.

Money in the United States of America – Credit Cards/Cash

Money in the United States of America – Credit Cards/Cash

Money is going to be the biggest adjustment you make while travelling throughout the United States of America.

America uses the US Dollar, and that part is fairly straightforward. The notes are in fairly obvious denominations $1, $2 (although very rare), $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.

The coins, however, do have their own unique names:

  • 1 Cent – Penny
  • 5 Cents – Nickel
  • 10 Cents – Dime
  • 25 Cents – Quarter
  • 50 Cents – Half Dollar (again, very rare)

The use of both Cash and Credit Cards is extremely common all across the US cities. All major credit cards are fairly widely accepted. In more regional areas, you might find that you do need to carry cash with you, particularly for smaller, local shops and restaurants. But for the major tourist areas, your credit card should be just fine.

Just make sure you let your bank know that you are visiting the United States before you leave so that it won’t block any transactions.

Where money gets tricky in the US is prices and tipping.

The price listed on any particular item almost certainly doesn’t include tax. And the sales tax rate does vary significantly from state to state and, in some cases, city to city.

On top of that, in many instances where you are being provided with a service or at a hospitality venue, tipping is also expected.

With this in mind, how much you spend, particularly at a dinner out at a restaurant, could be up to 40% more expensive than the listed price. That’ll catch your attention at your first meal out, trust me.

How do you work out the sales tax? I actually don’t have a good answer for you. You just need to know that it’s going to be charged and look out for the final balance or receipt.

Everything from picking up a bottle of water from a convenience store to paying for your rental car will be subject to some additional taxes. Something to be aware of.

As for tipping, that is a little more standardised, if you can say that, but you need to look out for several things.

A general rule for tipping is if someone is providing you with a direct service, they’ll expect a tip. At a sit-down restaurant, 15-20% of the total bill is expected. Taxi, Ride Sharing, and Private Transfer drivers will expect 10-15% of the fee. Bartenders are $1-$2 per drink, and Housekeepers are $1-$5 per night.

With that said, there are a few traps to keep an eye out for.

In some cases, sit-down restaurants will automatically include a gratuity or a service fee on the bill. This is the tip. Have a look at the bottom of the bill first to double-check before paying and awarding a tip. This can also be the case with other services, private transfers etc. When in doubt, just check the bill or invoice.

Another thing to look out for when paying via credit card is the tipping options presented to you. For the sake of convenience, most card machines now give you the option to pick between two or three tipping amounts on top of your total bill. They also offer the option of entering a custom amount.

Some businesses exploit this by offering 25% and 30% as your tipping options (I’m looking at you Starbucks airport locations). Always check the screen and adjust as you need to.

Getting Around the United States of America

Getting Around the United States of America

The United States of America is a very big country. Very big! So chances are that if you want to visit a couple of cities and/or states while you ate there, the most efficient way will be to fly between cities.

That said, there is plenty that you need to know about travelling throughout America, so let’s delve into it.

Air Travel

As I just touched on, flying is the most efficient way to travel around the United States, especially if you want to visit cities on both the West and East coasts in the space of a couple of weeks. However, it can also be the most daunting.

For obvious reasons, Americans take their airport security very seriously. With some of the strictest and most thorough checks, I’ve experienced while travelling within a country.

As a foreign traveller, it can be quite confronting the first time you experience it. But a little preparation will go a long way to making it as easy as possible for you.

Airport security in the United States is typically referred to as TSA – short for Transport Security Administration. Thankfully TSA actually has some very good information about what is allowed and the processes; however, how it is implemented varies from airport to airport.

The best advice I can give you for flying across America is to get to the airport early. 2-3 Hours early! TSA queues can become quite long, often well over an hour during peak travel times.

As with everything in the US, there is the option to pay a premium for a more streamlined experience, in this case, TSA Pre-Check (which you might notice once you’re at the airport), but as a foreigner, you can’t apply for this directly. You can however, utilise the US Global Entry program, which does allow you to use TSA Pre-Check, but you need to be from one of a select few countries and organise it all well in advance of your travels to the US.

If you check the rules in advance, have a lot of patience and watch what the people in front of you are doing, you’ll be able to navigate TSA without any issues.

As for airlines, the US has several to choose from. American Airlines, United and Delta are the larger full-service airlines that cover the majority of the country.

There are also smaller, more regional airlines (only in comparison to the three mentioned above, which are some of the largest in the world), like Alaska Air and Hawaiian Airlines, that still connect many cities. In contrast, the cheapest options will be the number of low-cost carriers that operate throughout the country, like Southwest and Sprint.

Train Services

An alternative for travelling across the United States of America is the rail system. Outside of the local city and state-based rail services, Amtrak is the one service that interlinks a lot of American cities.

Not every city is connected by Amtrak, but it does link a lot of the major US cities and a couple of Canadian ones as well (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal through the US).

Amtrak could be a good alternative for shorter trips, particularly on the more densely populated east coast, where large cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington are only 3-4 hours of travel time away from each other.

Coach Services

Several bus/coach services also operate throughout the United States of America, the most well-known and best-connected being Greyhound.

If your travels through the US have you visiting a smaller town, then Greyhound is probably the best option for the final leg of the journey instead of renting a car. Several other companies also operate more regionally based services, but Greyhound is the one company that you will find right across America.

Public Transport

The Public Transport offering across the United States of America varies greatly depending on which city you happen to be visiting.

Cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle have very good public transport systems. Others, not so much. You will need to investigate each city you plan on visiting during your travels through the United States.

Ride Sharing

Ride-sharing is extremely prevalent throughout the United States of America. The two most popular services, Uber and Lyft are available right across the vast majority of America.

In addition, there are also some other more regionalised ride-sharing services, particularly in San Francisco and New York, that take advantage of emerging technologies, including driverless cars.

Definitely make sure you have the Uber and Lyft apps installed; they’ll come in handy at some point during your travels throughout the United States. But also keep an eye out for those fancy new services, they can sometimes be cheaper, but there is also a novelty factor of being transported around in a driverless car that you probably won’t be able to experience at home for a few more years yet.

Rental Cars

As you will no doubt have seen in any of my other travel guides, I am very much a proponent of renting a car while travelling. It will give you the freedom to see so much more and maximise your opportunities to explore. This is no different for the majority of the United States of America.

The biggest question is whether it is worth renting a car. In some cities, given the cost of parking and the availability of a decent public transport system, having a rental car isn’t really worth it. New York and San Francisco come to mind straight away. Where in other cities like Los Angeles or Orlando, not having a rental car is going to very strictly limit what you can and can’t see while there.

Rental cars are very easily accessible all throughout the US, and all of the major car rental companies have a strong presence all the way across the country.

There are a couple of caveats, you will need to be at least 25 to rent a car, and that seems to be a fairly common rule.

It’s also worth noting that having an International Driver’s Permit before heading to the US is recommended. While many states don’t need it as long as your driver’s license is in English, it’ll save you some possible issues.

Some other tips about driving in America, they drive on the right-hand side. If you typically drive on the left-hand side of the road like myself, it’s something to be conscious of both when driving and crossing the road.

From personal experience driving on the opposite side of the road to what you are used to is much easier when there are other cars around. It’s a good reminder of where you are supposed to be. But it can take you a couple of days to adjust.

Another thing to keep in mind, there is a unique road rule in the US – turn right on red. This one took me a couple of days to adjust to, but you are allowed to turn right even when the lights are red if it’s, safe to do so and if there’s no sign prohibiting a right turn. Americans don’t tend to be patient drivers, so you might find the cars behind you on their horns if you forget.

Looking for a rental car deal while travelling around the US? My best recommendation would be to look at Thrifty or Budget.

Keeping Healthy in the United States of America

Rental Cars in the United States of America

I’m just going to put this out there, the United States of America is not a country you want to get sick or injured in.

It’s not that they provide poor health care, but unlike many other Western countries, their health system is not underwritten by the government. As a result, even simple visits to a medical facility can be extremely expensive if you don’t have insurance.

I cannot stress this enough – If you are travelling to the US, make sure you have travel insurance.

I use Cover-More and never had any issues in those odd times when I’ve needed to resort to using travel insurance. But always make sure you have yourself covered by some sort of travel insurance, just in case.

Beyond that, everything else about America is ok. You can drink tap water just fine.

Just watch out for things like jet lag when you arrive. If you are looking for more generalised advice, my keeping healthy while travelling overseas post will be useful to make sure you are best prepared regardless of where you are travelling to.

United States of Americas Immigration, Customs and Visas

Probably the most daunting part and any international trip are the customs, visas and immigration processes for each country you visit.

The processes for the United States of America, particularly for immigration and visas do take a little bit of research to make sure you are applying for the right thing. For the latest information, visit the US State Department’s Travel Visa Information website. Also contacting your local US Embassy will also get you the right and most current information.

Also, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your intended trip to the US. That can also catch a few people out.

After a long flight, arriving in America can also be a little daunting. Being such a popularised destination, particularly for people from poorer countries, the US takes its immigration process very seriously. They will ask you a lot of questions about the nature of your intended stay in the US. That is part of the process.

Another thing to note – Even if you are connecting to another international flight and immediately leaving the United States (say to Canada or Mexico), you will still need to clear the US Immigration process.

Given the nature of the process, the queues can be quite lengthy to officially enter the United States before you can transfer to your next flight. I would strongly recommend that you give yourself a few hours between flights, just to be on the safe side.

On the flip side, the process of leaving the United States is very straightforward. They just check your passport on the way out.

Another thing to note is that international and domestic flights often operate out of the same or at least interconnected terminals, making the process of transferring from a domestic to an international flight to leave the country actually very easy.

Conclusion

The United States is an amazingly diverse country to visit, but there are a lot of things to keep in mind if you plan on travelling there.

If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around the United States of America, I’ll have some more specific content coming in the not-too-distant future.

Also, make sure you check out the travel tools I use most to help you save money when booking your next trip.

Keep up to date with all the latest Here, There & Gone! adventures by following along on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

And if you have a travel-related question you would like me to answer, head on over to my contact page to get in touch and let me know.

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About the author

Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here: vandersyde.com.au

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