Seven Things You Should Know Before Visiting America

Although the US is a former British colony, one of our closest allies, and generally lumped together on the world stage, travelers are often surprised and delighted by the differences they encounter in the US in terms of lifestyle, attitudes, and geography.

Yet delight can turn to irritation when British travelers, with their keen belief in common sense lording it all, realize that America is an often chaotic clash of beliefs, values ​​and customs. You’re expected to know the rules – both those enforced by law and unspoken cultural norms – and play by them, but individual states have their own regulations on everything from driving to taxes to consumer protection, and they’re not usually set up with visitors in mind.

Fortunately, a little forward thinking research and planning will pay off in terms of time, cost and general enjoyment. Plus, we Brits love a rule, so by getting all your paperwork ready in advance and thinking of backups to minimise grey areas, you’ll be fully prepared for your trip.

What to prepare before you leave

ESTA visa waiver

To enter the US, most British travellers will need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa waiver. The application is available online and only takes around 20 minutes to complete, but can take up to 72 hours to process, so make sure you complete it at least three days before arriving at the US border. It costs around $21 (£17) and is valid for two years. Some who don’t qualify for the visa waiver scheme may need to apply for a visa, which should be done as far in advance of departure as possible.

Health insurance

There is no equivalent of the NHS in the US and visitors must pay for their medical bills in whatever state they are in, which can range from expensive to financially ruinous. Comprehensive travel insurance with full medical cover is recommended. An annual multi-trip policy with cover in the US is usually the most cost-effective, but check the limits for the duration of your trip. For more information, see our guide to finding the best health insurance for you.

UK banks may offer complimentary travel insurance with certain accounts or credit cards: check the policy booklets and terms and conditions carefully. For longer trips to the US, paid extensions are available. HSBC Premier, for example, offers account holders an extension upgrade for a trip of up to 120 days for £297.02. Rules include booking a return flight before departure, being a UK resident and registered with a UK doctor, declaring any pre-existing conditions, and avoiding certain high-risk activities, such as no trekking above 5,000m.

Drivers license

Apart from the obvious difference of driving on the right, America is generally a delight for Brits accustomed to narrow, congested roads riddled with endless roadworks, traffic lights, zebra crossings and roundabouts. Car hire and petrol are generally still cheap, although these also vary considerably from state to state: Hawaii is notorious for its high petrol and car hire prices, while at the other end of the scale are states such as Arkansas and Missouri.

British travellers wishing to hire a car must obtain an International Driving Permit from the AA before departure

British travellers wishing to hire a car must obtain an International Driving Permit from the AA before departure – Getty

Although British driving licences are accepted for use in America, individual states have varying and often unclear rules about how long this is valid for (most states allow at least 60 days). The US Embassy in London advises British travellers planning to hire a car to obtain an AA International Driving Permit before travelling, although in practice this is rarely required or requested. Car hire companies have their own individual requirements, so it is best for travellers to call them and read the small print before setting off.

Most cheap car rental packages are geared towards American drivers whose own auto insurance covers them in another vehicle in the event of an accident; this is not the case for holidaying Brits. Be sure to compare the full cost of the rental with comprehensive insurance included, and carefully document the condition of the vehicle, its mileage and fuel level, both before you leave and when you return the vehicle, in the event of an accident.

Expectations for the road

In general, traffic flows much more smoothly in cities, partly because of a more fluid system at intersections, where foreign drivers must be extra vigilant: watch for oncoming traffic and pedestrians before turning left or giving a perfectly legitimate “right on red” signal. In residential areas with multiple four-way “intersection” streets, it’s difficult but crucial to get into the habit of stopping at the octagonal red “stop” signs, even when there’s no traffic – continuing to drive is extremely dangerous and illegal.

Each state has its own rules, so drivers should familiarize themselves with the traffic regulations for the states they plan to drive through.Each state has its own rules, so drivers should familiarize themselves with the traffic regulations for the states they plan to drive through.

Each state has its own rules, so drivers should familiarize themselves with the traffic regulations for the states they plan to drive through – Getty

Individual states also have their own rules – in cities in Oregon, for example, you can’t turn around at a traffic light, and in California it can be an offence to park against the direction of traffic on that side of the road. Another thing UK drivers should be prepared for is the prevalence of multi-lane, one-way roads. For example, don’t try to turn left across multiple lanes, but rather one lane at a time. If you’re planning a multi-state road trip, it might be worth researching the driving rules for the individual states you’ll be travelling through.

What to expect there

Drugs and alcohol

Not only is the legal drinking age 21 in the United States, but individual states also have different rules about alcohol sales. Unlike the United Kingdom, in most states undiluted spirits can only be purchased at liquor stores, not supermarkets or convenience stores. And in some states, such as Utah, general alcohol strengths—including beer—are lower and liquor stores are closed on Sundays. Many states also prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public places and parks, so be careful before pouring a glass of wine at a picnic.

Regardless of your age, whether you are buying alcohol in a bar or a shop, it is important to always carry some form of ID. A passport or a copy of it with a driver’s license as a backup is recommended. As usual, checks are inconsistent, but it pays to be prepared.

The legal drinking age in the US is 21The legal drinking age in the US is 21

The legal drinking age in the US is 21 – Getty

Likewise, certain states like Oregon and California have fully legalized the drug, while in neighboring Idaho it is completely illegal. Across the country, the rules change daily, with some allowing medicinal use and various other definitions. Psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are also legal in several states under certain circumstances, but always illegal at the federal level, so never take a chance and never travel in or out of the U.S. with such substances, no matter how small the amount.

Tipping culture

Most bars and restaurants across the country still require a 20 percent tip, which has led to grumbling from out-of-state travelers. In states like California and Oregon, it’s less of a concern because staff don’t have to rely on tips to make a living in the same way as in states with a “minimum tipped wage.” In these states, which include Wisconsin, Texas and more, an hourly wage of just over $2 is the norm, and workers rely on tips to make up the difference to meet the individual state’s overall minimum wage.

The built-in ‘service charge’ that restaurants sometimes include on the final bill also requires the same level of scrutiny. This means that it is sometimes possible to accidentally tip 20 percent on top of a 20 percent service charge. This can increase the price of a meal out by as much as 40 percent.

Casual dining options such as food stands, food halls, salad and pizza counters in supermarkets, and the old-fashioned picnic areas of stores like Trader Joe’s are easy ways to minimize unnecessary markups on meals and drinks.

Tax calculations

Fortunately, it seems to be becoming more common for Goods and Services Tax (similar to VAT in the UK) to be included in the advertised price. However, depending on the state, you may still see the tax on your receipt.

Things get more complicated when you realize that, regardless of state regulations, individual cities and towns can roll out their own laundry list of additional fees and taxes, such as nightly occupancy taxes and short-term lodging occupancy taxes. These tend to be higher in wealthier, more touristy states, so for longer trips, a little advance research into which state you should actually take your business to can pay dividends, both in terms of cost and authenticity.

Avoid paying lodging taxes by camping for free on Bureau of Land Management lands or in national forestsAvoid paying lodging taxes by camping for free on Bureau of Land Management lands or in national forests

Avoid lodging taxes by camping for free on Bureau of Land Management lands or in national forests – Getty

Five states (Alaska, Oregon, Delaware, Montana and New Hampshire) do not have a sales tax. This generally makes it more attractive to bring items, such as clothing, into the UK from these states.

Travelers can use sites like and Airbnb to make some dummy bookings in different states to see the different distributions well in advance. Or, if you really want to avoid all the fees and taxes and don’t even have to make a reservation, bring a tent and food and park and camp for free on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land or in national forests across the country.

Cultural norms

British levels of alcohol consumption and the associated noise and rowdiness/foul language are still frowned upon in most parts of the US, which still prides itself on a family-friendly, mind-your-own-business sort of atmosphere. Respect for the country’s armed forces and flag is almost cult-like, and police and immigration officials are best treated in a compliant and deferential manner; joking in response to questions is often frowned upon.

Service in stores in the US is generally better, and there is usually a no-quibble attitude towards returns, as long as you are polite. “Sir” or “ma’am” are safer to use than a loud “excuse me!” or “hello?”, and a British accent is best appreciated if you speak slowly and non-confrontationally. Loudly stating your political views can often cause people to turn their backs; as in many parts of the world, it is better to say less and let people express themselves without prodding.

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