What should I not do when visiting the USA?
Overall the US is a pretty laid-back country and welcoming to foreign visitors. You’re not likely to offend people as long as you try your best to be polite. However, by following the tips below you can ensure the smoothest visit possible:
Don’t assume that the US is exactly the way it is portrayed on American films and series. Please leave your stereotypes and pre-conceived notions at the airport. American movies and TV shows don’t accurately represent the country.
Not everyone is wealthy (we actually have a lot of poverty, and our middle class is struggling). Not everyone is fat. Not everyone parties constantly. Not everyone lives on hamburgers. Not everyone owns a gun. Not everyone lives in New York City or Southern California.
Try to approach every person that you meet as an individual rather than a walking stereotype, and you will be well received. (This is good advice for travelling anywhere, really).
Don’t underestimate the size or diversity of the United States. The US is the third largest country in the world, after Russia and Canada (roughly tied for size with China). Every region has a distinct culture, so much so that journalist Colin Woodard proposed that America is really 11 separate nations:
Your experience as a visitor to the US will be VASTLY different in Chicago vs rural Kansas vs New England vs Alaska vs Southern California vs Atlanta, Georgia. Do some research on the culture and history of the citie(s) and state(s) you plan on visiting. Don’t expect that the whole country is a monolith. It is not.
Don’t overbook your visit. If you only have two or three weeks in the US, don’t try to hit every major attraction in the country. You can’t, and you’ll exhaust yourself trying. It’s a better idea to plan a trip in one or two regions of the country, based on your personal interests. Southern California or Florida if you love theme parks. The East Coast corridor (Boston, Philadelphia, NYC, Washington DC) for history and museums. Hawaii for beaches, volcanoes and surfing. If you love the outdoors, try the national and state parks in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Alaska, Utah, California, Washington or Oregon.
A road trip is a classic, all-American way to see large parts of the country. It will cost more money and take more time than you think. I would say three to four weeks is the minimum, if you want to cross from one coast to the other at a leisurely pace, with time to stop and see things on the way. Do keep in mind that a lot of the “heartland” (the area between the coastal states) is empty and reallyboring. There are wonderful things to see in the middle of the country, but expect hours and hours of driving past cows, oil wells, and endless open land. Download some good audiobooks.
Don’t settle for bad food. There is amazing food in the US, you just have to seek it out. Please don’t eat fast food for your entire visit and then complain that the food was bad!
Most major cities, states and regions have their own food specialties. Lobster in Maine. New York style pizza in NYC, or deep-dish pizza in Chicago. Gumbo and jambalaya in Louisiana. Giant burritos in California. Tex-Mex in Texas and the southwest. Barbecue in Memphis. Grilled salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Philly cheesesteaks. Georgia peach pie.
Research and seek these out. Ask locals you meet for their restaurant recommendations. Try the local wine or beer, and maybe the local ice cream too!
If you’re visiting a big city, you can find excellent food from all over the world, from Ethiopian to Thai to Mexican. Food carts are gaining in popularity in many American cities as well. They often serve really innovative and tasty food for less than the restaurant price.
Don’t count on speaking any language besides English. Most Americans only speak English and will expect you to do the same. If you go to a doctor or hospital they can call an interpreter for you, but otherwise you need to speak English fluently to get around. You could probably manage with just Spanish if you are visiting the southwest, but keep in mind it will be a Mexican/Latin American dialect. It’s best to brush up on your English skills before your visit.
Don’t stress out about clothes. Outside the big East Coast cities, the US is a very casual country. You’ll see people in workout clothes, sweats and sneakers everywhere. A common outfit in the US, for both men and women, is jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a fleece jacket or hooded sweatshirt depending on the weather. Only very nice restaurants require men to wear sports coats.
Do some research on the local climate during the dates of your visit, and pack comfortable clothes that are appropriate for the expected weather conditions and the activities you plan on doing. If you forget something, you can buy it here (and if you’re from Europe, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the low clothing prices!).
Don’t discuss politics, religion, race or money with new acquaintances. These are perfectly fine topics of conversation between close friends and family, but they are considered personal and sensitive matters. It would not be appropriate to bring them up in conversation with a person you just met. “Safe” topics of conversation include sports, the weather, movies, music, books, art, travel, hobbies and your impressions of the US.
Don’t be afraid to share your culture with Americans. We’re not exactly the most cosmopolitan people—it comes from living in such a big, geographically isolated country. Many Americans can’t afford the airfare or time off work to travel abroad. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear about where you come from! You’ll find that most Americans are curious about your country, be it Sweden or Somalia. If you are not from western Europe or a major anglophone nation (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) people may not know much about your country or even where it is on a map. Don’t take offense, just talk about daily life where you live (food, work/school, what you do with your friends and family, how it compares to the US) and you will probably find plenty of interest.
Don’t be disrespectful to the police. Hopefully you are not planning to break any laws while in the US, but you might still need to deal with the police. Please keep in mind that we do have a gun violence problem in the US, and as such officers tend to be on edge. They don’t know if you have a weapon or not. In many countries, it’s normal to get out of the car to talk with the officer if you get pulled over. Don’t even think about doing that in the US as it will cause the officer to freak out and yell at you to get back in the car. If you get pulled over, roll down the window, turn off the engine, turn on the interior light if it’s dark outside, and then sit still with your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t make sudden movements or reach for things unless you’re asked to provide a document. Also, make sure to carry the proper ID (your driver’s license from home and an international driver’s license should suffice—check with your car rental agency).
Don’t expect service workers to clean up after you. Always clean up after yourself. Littering is illegal and you may have to pay a big fine if you get caught. If you go out to eat, don’t make a mess and leave garbage everywhere. The service staff are not your personal servants.
Don’t invade people’s personal space. Comfortable speaking distance in the US is about an arm’s length. If you stand closer than this you will make people nervous. When adults are formally introduced or meet for the first time, they usually shake hands. Hugs are for close friends and family (and straight guys don’t usually hug each other). Hand holding is for couples, or parents and small children. Kissing on both cheeks is seen as something European, and only very cosmopolitan people in big cities ever do it.
Don’t insult US armed service members or veterans. Americans revere the military, and those who serve or have served are honored as heroes. It’s okay to disagree with certain wars or military actions that the US was involved in—lots of Americans do too—but don’t criticize or insult the institution of the military, or armed service members or veterans. The person you are talking to may be a veteran themselves or have family members who served.
Don’t look grumpy or sulky. Americans smile a LOT! A friendly smile, eye contact and a firm handshake when you meet someone new will help you make a good impression. Outside the big cities, it’s normal to smile and say “hi” to strangers, and stop to chat with people you know.
If you visit the US, I hope you have an amazing time exploring this wonderful country! Feel free to send me a message with specific questions and I will try to help….