Visiting the US: 5 Things You Need to Know

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Oct 03, 2014 / 0 comments

Are you planning a trip to the USA? There’s so much to see and do, from coast to coast (not to mention Alaska and Hawaii). Whether you come to the US for a culinary extravaganza, to visit a specific place, to relax at the beach, to play at a theme park, or to visit friends and family, here are 5 things you need to know:

Visiting the US: 5 Things You Need to Know

Getting In

The Department of Homeland Security strictly regulates entry into the US. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), citizens from 37 countries can apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). If you have ESTA, you can travel to the USA for up to 90 days under certain conditions (tourism, short term medical treatment, transit, etc.). ESTA is not a visa, although many people call it such. You may not submit an ESTA application for work, study, marriage, or immigration (for those purposes, apply for a visa).

The 37 countries that participate in VWP/ESTA USA are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Malta, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK.
You must have a passport to apply for ESTA and to travel to the USA. ESTA approvals usually last for two years or until your passport expires, whichever is shorter. Tip: Get your ESTA as soon as you know you may be traveling, to avoid stress.

At the Border

The US Customs and Border Patrol states:

“Whether you are a visitor to the United States or U.S. citizen, each individual arriving into the United States must complete one or more of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) entry forms.

Every traveler must complete the CBP Declaration Form 6059B. This form provides CBP with basic information about who you are and what you are bringing into the country, such as agriculture products and whether or not you have visited a farm prior to traveling to the United States. If you are traveling with other immediate family members, you can complete one form for your entire family.”

You will receive these forms on board your airplane, on the flight in.

Mt Rainier, WA. From Visiting the US: 5 Things You Need to Know

Flying in, Mt Rainier, WA

Getting Around

Unless you are in one of the major urban areas with a great transportation system, you’ll probably need to rent a car – there are a LOT of wide open spaces. You will be the driver, so ascertain what exactly you need for the car rental. In general, you will need to have a valid driver’s license and a credit card, and be at least 25 years old. When you rent the car, be sure to get the comprehensive car insurance, in case of problems or an accident. You can get car rental insurance through the car rental company, or possibly through your own car insurance program. Please note how much gas you are required to have in the tank when you return it. 

Major car rental companies include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertze, National, and Thrifty. There may be local car rental places where you’re headed – check and see. Also look for sales – sign up for travelzoo’s weekly top 20 deals list a few months before you come, to learn prices and discover sales.

Traffic lines on the Toledo, Ohio bridge

Lines on the Toledo bridge

Driving in the US is on the right. Remember – look left, turn right!

Familiarize yourself with traffic signage before you arrive. In most places, you can make a right turn on a red light from the right lane. Two straight yellow lines down the center of the road means don’t pass; a dotted yellow or white line means it may be safe to pass or switch lanes (check for traffic).

In urban areas, you will probably need to pay for parking. Either look for a meter next to where you park (these usually take quarters), or for a parking box on each block (these take cash or cards).

Parking box. From Visiting the US: 5 Things You Need to Know

Parking box


Most Americans don’t carry much cash, generally preferring to use a debit or credit card. There are ATMS just about everywhere, even in very small towns.

Standard tipping is 15-20% at restaurants, taxis, and hotels, and is not included in the bill. Please remember to tip – these employees make most of their income from tips. Carry cash for tips.

As with anywhere in the world, don’t flash money around, and be aware of your environment. While in most places crime is low, it behooves you to pay attention.


Americans are very open and friendly. They are also prompt (lateness is rude).

Conversations are polite and to the point.

Cleanliness is important, so be sure you shower frequently and don’t wear cologne or perfume (many people have chemical sensitivities and get sick from smelling them).

In most places, smoking is not allowed, either indoors or in public spaces.

Most mealtimes follow this schedule: breakfast, 7-10am; lunch, noon-2pm; dinner, 6-8pm. If you go out for dinner much later, the restaurant may be closing or have a limited menu.

Cutting in line is not acceptable.

Bribery and haggling are very uncommon.

Both men and women expect to be treated equally.

Children are an active part of the culture.

Playing at the Bean, Chicago. From Visiting the US: 5 Things You Need to Know

The Bean, Chicago


Have you been to the USA? Do you have any tips to add?





All photos courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators