America, Here I Come! 7 Incredibly Important Things to Know Before Visiting the U.S.

September 12, 2019

Are you visiting the U.S. for the first time?

The U.S. makes such a big deal about airports, security, and visas that you might feel like it’s a big undertaking. Fortunately, for many people, visiting the United States as a tourist is straightforward. However, you do need to have your ducks in a row before you leave – or you could find yourself unable to board your plane, pick up your car, or afford dinner out.

Here are seven incredibly practical things that all visitors need to know to make your trip run smoothly.

1. You Need an ESTA or a Visa (Unless You’re Canadian)

Almost everyone who visits the United States needs a visa or an ESTA – unless you’re Canadian or Bermudian.

If you’re lucky, your a citizen or national of a country included in the U.S.’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP makes it sound like you don’t need a visa, but you do. It comes in the form of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). And you must apply for it at least 72 hours before your flight departs.

You qualify for the VWP if you live in:

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Republic of Korea
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom

The ESTA is an automated system, but you should still file your ESTA when you buy your flight to the United States. Although the decision is usually instant, it’s better not to forget because if you don’t have a valid ESTA, the airline can deny you boarding.

Did you apply for an ESTA in a previous year and wonder if it’s still valid? Go online and check ESTA status before you go to the airport.

If your country doesn’t fall under the VWP program, you need to check with the U.S. Embassy in your country to learn more about the visa requirements and application process for a tourist visa.

2. You Need a Return Flight

For regular travelers, it’s tempting to buy a one-way flight so as not to limit your onward travel plans. What if you want to stay longer, or leave the U.S. and head to Mexico?

You need proof of a return flight (or one leaving the U.S.) before you get on the plane. If you don’t have one, your airline can deny you boarding because U.S. Customs and Immigration can turn you away at the border upon arrival.

3. You Need Excellent Travel Insurance

The U.S. government doesn’t require you to provide proof of health insurance or travel insurance to cross the border. There are exceptions for visitors on J1, F1, or H1 Visas who are in the U.S. for longer stints.

However, your healthcare in your home country won’t cover any costs in the U.S. And if you find yourself in an accident or becoming unwell, the experience can cost you thousands of dollars in medical bills alone.

Travel insurance (that covers the U.S.) reduces your liability and means you don’t have to worry about affording care – or flying yourself home after.

If you have private health insurance in your home country, ask your carrier if they cover you overseas and if the coverage includes the U.S.

4. You Need an International Driver’s License

Renting a car? Unless you’re staying in one large city, then you need a personal form of transport.

While some states accept your foreign driver’s license, other states and rental agencies may require both your license and an International Driving Permit (IDP). People whose driver’s licenses are in a language other than English almost always need one.

You need to get your IDP before you leave because the U.S. doesn’t issue them to foreign nationals.

5. You Need to Learn the Laws in the States You Visit

Learning the law sounds scary, but for visitors, it’s more about understanding the little things. For example, speed limits vary by state as do laws surrounding jaywalking.

There are also state laws that regulate hotels, rental cars, and other things that impact tourist infrastructure. Most of these impact people under 25 by limiting your access to certain products.

Finally, you need to know about drug and alcohol laws. Alcohol is legal for those over 21 in all 50 states. As of 2019, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia, but transporting it across state lines isn’t – even if you bought it somewhere legal.

Use common sense, and if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask!

6. You Need to Learn About Tipping

There’s one thing that remains the same no matter where in the United States you travel: tipping.

Americans like to say that if you can’t afford to tip, then you can’t afford to go out to eat.

With that said, you need to prepare to add 15-20% to your bill every time you go to a cafe or restaurant.

You don’t need to worry about having cash. Your cashier gives you the option to tip when you pay with a credit or debit card.

Keep in mind that taxes on food ordered in a restaurant can range from 0-8%, depending on the state. That means your total bill could be almost 30% more than just the cost of the food alone, so budget accordingly.

7. You Need to Prepare for Diverse Weather

The United States is a huge country, and autumnal weather in the north meets hot weather in the south somewhere around the Mason-Dixon line. Weather changes are particularly frequent in the country’s mountainous areas, like the Rocky Mountains, and you could experience all four seasons in a single day.

If you intend to visit more than one region, pack layers and make sure you have both warm clothing and lighter items. Not keen on packing before you leave? It’s not a problem because, as we know, the U.S. has an excellent shopping culture.

Visiting the U.S. Requires Planning – But It’s Worth It

A trip to the United States requires extensive planning to make sure you check all the boxes. But it is a vast and beautiful country, and there’s nowhere in the world like it. It would take you a lifetime to see it all.

Are you visiting the U.S. soon? Read about my favorite U.S. destinations in my Travel archive.

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Andi Perullo de Ledesma

I am Andi Perullo de Ledesma, a Chinese Medicine Doctor and Travel Photojournalist in Charlotte, NC. I am also wife to Lucas and mother to Joaquín. Follow us as we explore life and the world one beautiful adventure at a time.

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