12 Important Things You Must Know Before Visiting the USA

Travelers from all over the world come to the United States to experience its many natural beauties and metropolitan cities.

The nation contains some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes on earth, including snow-capped mountains, enormous deserts, and lush Caribbean jungles and beaches. Of course, it is also well known for its concrete jungles.

While visiting all of these well-known places is exciting, there are 12 things you should know before making travel plans to the US that will help you organize your ideal getaway.

1. You Need an ESTA or Tourist Visa to Enter the United States

The requirements for entering the USA must be known to and understood by incoming passengers.

As of right now, people from these 39 nations are able to enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa thanks to the US Visa Waiver Program, commonly known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

sunglasses and a passport ESTA
The majority of these nations are members of the European Union, along with a few others like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore.

The moment you set foot on US soil, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or any other US territory, your 90 days begin to run out.

If the arrival was via the United States, the 90 days in the United States also include the time spent in Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean islands.

Only travelers coming by plane or cruise ship are required to submit an ESTA application. If traveling locally or by land, such as between Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and Seattle, Washington, it is not necessary.

The ESTA is valid for a maximum of two years. You are permitted to visit the US an infinite number of times as long as each visit lasts no longer than 90 days.

The ESTA application process only takes around 20 minutes to complete, and it is far less expensive than a conventional tourist visa. Although you can apply for your ETSA at any time prior to boarding your aircraft, doing so at least 72 hours in advance is recommended.

San Francisco, California’s Golden Gate
Have your ESTA and approval number on hand when you depart because check-in will require it.

You will need a visa if you want to stay in the USA for more than 90 days or if you don’t qualify for the ESTA program.

Finding Additional US Visas
Other US tourist visas, primarily the B-2 Visa, must be considered if you plan to stay in the country for an extended period of time or if your citizenship is not recognized by the ESTA program (tourist visa).

The cost of these visas is typically substantially more than that of the ESTA (about $160–$180 for many nations), but unlike the ESTA program, the application process is a little more difficult, and there is no set list of qualifications because they differ based on your citizenship.

I advise looking up the requirements on the website of the US embassy in your country or going in person to the embassy or consulate to receive the most precise information. (For instance, the US embassy in Rabat, Morocco, if you’re a Moroccan)

2. Verify the Validity of Your Passport

Your passport must be valid for at least six more months at the time of travel in order to enter the United States. This means that you won’t be able to travel to the US if your passport expires in less than six months.

You should also confirm that your passport is valid for the whole time you will be traveling.

Money, cards, and passports

3. Recognize the US Culture of Tipping

You must tip everyone who provides a service in the US, including cab drivers, delivery people, valet parking attendants, porters, room service providers, and most importantly, waiters and bartenders. The majority of them make less than the federal minimum wage, which is already absurdly low.

The standard tipping ranges from 15% to 20%.

Although it is customary, tipping is not required. I typically give 15% if the service was satisfactory (nothing was remarkable). I’d offer 20% if it was truly great. In contrast, if the service was appalling, I might only give 10% or less, depending on how horrible it was.

Other typical tip ideas in the hospitality sector include:

Concierge: Depending on how challenging your request is
Servants: $1–$2 per beverage
Cleaning staff: $1 to $5 each night
Valets: $1 to $5 each time they deliver your vehicle
$1 to $2 per bag for hotel porters
If they assist you in finding a cab, doormen receive a small tip.
Drivers of cabs: 10-15%
$2 to $3 per person for shared shuttle drivers.
Food delivery costs between $1 and $4, depending on how far the restaurant is from your lodging.
Last but not least, always double-check your restaurant bill before leaving a tip because some places will already include it. Likely considered a gratuity, some other services already add a “service charge.”

4. The US is Much Larger Than You Think

With a total area of 9.83 million square kilometers (including territories), the US is the third-largest country in the world. With such a diversified geography and a rich, varied culture, it almost feels as though each of the 50 states is practically an own nation.

Not to mention how Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other territories provide different geographies and cultures.

Culebra Beach in Puerto Rico
In actuality, many US states are larger than some European nations. The country is divided into three separate regions by two North-South features.

The Pacific states, located west of the Rocky Mountains, are renowned for their expansive stretches of beach along the California coast, breathtaking desert landscapes like the Grand Canyon, and mild temperatures throughout the year.

The enormous plains that run from Mexico to Canada are located between the Rockies and the Mississippi River, making the US one of the world’s most fertile agricultural regions.

Last but not least, the USA’s industrial and economic center is located east of the Mississippi. A number of significant cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Chicago, Miami, and others.

The Appalachian Mountains are also found here; in addition to being one of the nation’s ecologically most diversified regions, they have had a significant impact on US history, from its settlement through its westward development.

The Appalachians are home to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular national park in the US.

Which leads me to…

5. Yosemite Valley is number five on the list of places to visit

The United States is known for its vibrant cities, but it also has National Parks that provide a healthy balance of nature and breathtaking scenery.

Indeed, the United States is home to the first National Park in history. Theodore Roosevelt established Yellowstone in 1872, ushering in a global movement for environmental preservation.

With 62 protected places, the USA has accumulated a diverse collection of national parks with a wide diversity of landscapes, flora, and fauna, as well as outdoor activities.

Get away from the city and lose yourself in nature. Camp in a thick forest, gaze at towering mountains covered in snow, explore secret red desert canyons, and stroll past verdant valleys and crystal-clear lakes.

Inscription Valley
Check which national parks are located in or close to the states you will be visiting when you are planning your trip. I can assure you that they are worthwhile visiting! The complete list of national parks is available here.

The most well-known national parks include:

National Park of the Great Smoky Mountains
The National Park of the Grand Canyon
Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and more.

6. Make a USA travel itinerary Accordingly

The USA is a huge country, as was already said, therefore you need make travel plans accordingly. How much free time do you have? a couple of days, weeks, or months?

If your vacation is brief, you should generally concentrate on one city or a few adjacent cities, such as New York, Washington, DC, and Boston.

If you have a few extra weeks, you can decide to extend your journey by taking a flight to another coast (say, from New York to Los Angeles) or driving across multiple states.

Santa Clara
If you have up to 12 weeks (approximately three months), you may take a road trip across the entire US mainland or focus on thoroughly investigating one area.

Do you also have a goal in mind for your trip? Which experience would you like to have?

It can involve going to numerous national parks, touring some of the most well-known cities in the nation, or going to several theme parks.

Other options include taking off-the-beaten-path roads, camping in the outdoors, taking part in festivals and significant events, and exploring the US’s historical trails.

There are countless possibilities, but keep in mind that due to the size of the nation, traveling from one location to another could take a significant amount of time or money, depending on whether you choose to drive or fly.

Make the following list while you arrange your trip:

Free activities available in every town or city
parks of national importance
Best routes for biking, walking, and hiking
a city tour Interest-based day trips
Interesting attractions
restaurants worth visiting
Now, check if you can fit all of them inside the time allotted for your journey. This will enable you to determine whether your itinerary is too ambitious or whether you have enough time to visit additional locations or activities.

Always factor in the time it will take you to get from A to B. For this, using Google Maps directions is highly recommended.

Generally speaking, I try to keep some time open in my schedule so that I have some wiggle space.

7. Take into account going on a road trip or overland excursion

Although many American towns are spread out from one another, there are many beautiful locations and odd roadside sights that you may discover and enjoy in between. This is one of the factors contributing to the popularity of road trips and overland travel in the US.

Using bus companies like Greyhound and Megabus or Amtrak, the country’s train company, you can travel between urban and rural locations.

a road trip
Bus rates as little as $1 are available, but the earlier you book, the better the savings! The same is true for Amtrak, which also provides a USA Rail Pass that is valid for 15, 30, or 45 days.

I strongly suggest using Busbud to find trains and buses. They display a large inventory of train and bus routes at the lowest cost.

On the other hand, renting a car or an RV is the suggested alternative for road touring the US if you’d prefer more freedom to move how you choose.

Unless you’re traveling to a metropolis like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, I’d advise renting a car while you’re in the United States.

Unfortunately, unlike in Europe, most of the country has not been developed with urban areas and public transit. Even in large cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Orlando, and so forth, an automobile is required for transportation—or at the very least, it is advised.

I utilize and advise searching for your rental car on RentalCars.com, Kayak, and Skyscanner.

I advise looking over the following before renting a car in the United States:

Verify the rental car’s total cost. Typically, neither taxes nor insurance are included in the price mentioned during a search.

The majority of the time, car rental businesses will push for insurance that is more comprehensive than the minimum required. Depending on your circumstance, you will need to decide whether to add it or not.
The cost of gasoline at the time you plan to travel there. Based on the anticipated distance of your trip and the gas consumption rate of your vehicle, make an estimate of the probable cost of your gas use (you can find that online by searching the car model and its miles per gallon rate).

Will GPS be included? How much does it cost if so? Nowadays, you can get a local SIM card that includes data and use your phone with Waze or Google Maps as your GPS.
How much does each extra driver cost? To be safe in case of an accident, include all drivers on the rental agreement.

What will it cost (assuming you’re only going one way) to drop the car off in a different city?
Does your route have any tolls? Look them up online. Toll costs can soon mount up!
Before leaving the car rental facility, note and take pictures of any evident flaws in the vehicle when picking it up. Additionally, snap a picture of the dashboard to note the miles and fuel level.
Make sure you are aware of the distances between gas stations when on a road trip in more isolated areas, like the midwest. Some of them can be rather far between. Make sure you have enough gas in your tank to get you through those voids.

12 Things You Must Know Before Visiting the USA 1

Finally, if you own an RV, be aware that the Walmart corporation offers free parking for RVs in its lots for one night. All around the nation, there are a lot of campgrounds that are free or inexpensive.

Be aware that several states forbid overnight RV parking at roadside rest areas, so be sure this applies to your journey.

8. Separately book your domestic and international flights.

Flying will be your greatest alternative if you need to go quickly between two far-off cities. However, I advise purchasing your local tickets independently of your overseas travels.

Airlines and flight aggregators frequently charge more for local flights when the international leg is also purchased. On the other side, you’ll have more choices across all airline alliances if you book them independently.

Puerto Rico airline
You’ll have a higher chance of finding a good bargain while looking independently for several popular routes in the US, which are the ones that are frequently taken by international tourists.

You can read this post as well for additional advice on how to always locate the lowest airfare.

9. Be Prepared to Spend More Than Is Shown

In contrast to most other nations, the prices listed at the grocery store, retail outlet, restaurant, hotel, and any other establishment do not include sales tax. Each state imposes its own state sales tax, which ranges from 7% to about 11.5%.

A large “resort fee” that is frequently not disclosed when making a reservation is notoriously charged by resorts.

Depending on the resort, this could range from $10 and up to $100 and up. To learn about these additional taxes and fees, always read the fine print or the “not included” section of the listed price.

Yosemite hiking

10. Ensure that you have travel insurance.

You’ve probably read horror stories about the overpriced and ineffective US healthcare system. They are all true, I suppose.

You won’t want to return home and find a $1200 bill waiting for you just for getting an ibuprofen prescription from a doctor, I’m sure. Although it may sound overdone, this isn’t too far from the truth.

Any vacation requires travel insurance, but it is especially crucial while visiting the US.

In the event of airline cancellations and other unforeseen circumstances, it’s also fantastic if your insurance offers trip cancellation coverage. I use World Nomads travel insurance, which I wholeheartedly endorse.

11. Remember to Travel to the Islands!

Both Hawaii and Puerto Rico contain a number of gorgeous islands that, in contrast to the normal perception of the United States, give you the impression that you are in another nation.

I can relate to that as a native having been born and raised in Puerto Rico!

You may go kayaking in the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, tour one of the continent’s oldest cathedrals, and go surfing in the Caribbean.

Sunset at El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico

12. Even though the US likes to portray itself as technologically advanced, it still lags behind many South American

and European nations in terms of available digital payment methods.

Don’t be surprised if many rural establishments still only accept cash because the US is constantly trying to catch up.

Additionally, unless you can charge it to your credit card, many establishments only accept cash tips.

You can use credit cards and contactless payments to pay for nearly everything in the majority of large cities. However, there are still a number of establishments that accept just cash (for tax purposes).

payment for damages
Inform your bank that you will be using your debit and credit cards in the US before you leave your own country so they won’t block it as a suspicious charge.

Additional Quick Tips:

In the US, dial 911 in case of emergency.
Only three nations in the world—the US included—use the imperial system. Distances are measured in miles, weights are measured in pounds, and temperatures are measured in Fahrenheit.
The right side of the street is where you drive.
There are six time zones in the US. When planning flights and airport transportation, it’s especially important to be aware of the time zone that your destination is in.