Top 10 Things to Know When Visiting the United States for the First Time

LAST UPDATED: 5/13/24 – Things to Know When Visiting the United States

I have written a lot on my blog about my experiences overseas. I have discussed what you can expect when you visit some of the beautiful places in the world. However, it occurred to me that I have a lot to offer travelers who plan to visit my country. That is why I am writing this article on what to expect when visiting the United States.

Visiting the United States - New York City
The Freedom Tower in New York City

In my travels, I have learned that a lot of people around the world have misconceptions about Americans. At the same time, some of the things I’ve learned people think about Americans are spot on. You see, the United States is a very big and complex place. If you are visiting for the first time and don’t know what to expect, it can be intimidating.

Visiting the United States - Zion National Park
Zion National Park in Utah

In this article, I hope to dispel some of the more common misconceptions about visiting the United States. I also hope to provide you with some tips on how to prepare for your first visit state-side. You see, that is what we Americans call home.

As always, if you have any thoughts or opinions on what travelers should know before visiting the United States for the first time, please comment below. Any and all feedback is helpful for other travelers. Even if you disagree with me. However, please no political comments (more on that later).

The United States is Big and Diverse

Visiting the United States - Denali National Park
Mount Denali in Denali National Park in Alaska

I think the most common misconception that people have when they visit the United States for the first time is how big it really is. People will often visit the United States thinking they can see all of the places they want in a few weeks. Then, when they arrive, they realize just how challenging that is.

Some travelers I have talked to don’t understand the logistics involved in visiting the East and West Coasts all in one trip. And that is just the Continental United States. When you add in the states of Hawaii and Alaska, the United States is even more vast.

The United States is Almost as Big as Europe

To give you a sense of just how big the United States is, take a look at the overlay map I created below.  The drive from New York City to Los Angeles is roughly 4,489km. Compare that to the drive from Madrid, Spain to Moscow, Russia, which is roughly 4,176km.

USA Size Europe Overlay
The United States is almost as big as the entire continent of Europe

If you want to drive from New York City to Los Angeles, you are looking at a 41-hour drive. That does not include breaks for gas, food, and sleep.  Visiting both coasts of the United States in one trip is much more like visiting multiple countries in one trip.  You are better-served booking flights from one region of the United States to the next. Or better yet, plan to just visit one region at a time.

Pick One or Two Regions to See

My recommendation would be to visit just one or two regions of the United States in one trip. The United States can be broken up into seven logical regions, which I detail in the map below.

For example, let’s say you are interested in visiting New York City, Washington DC, and Las Vegas. You can easily do this in one trip. All you would need to do is visit the Northeast United States and book a flight to Las Vegas as part of your trip.

However, if you plan to visit New York City, Los Angeles, and Orlando, Florida in one trip, that will be tougher. You will be spending quite a bit of time on your trip traveling.

USA Region Maps
There are seven distinct regions of the United States

Take Advantage of My Travel Itineraries

If you would like some itinerary ideas for visiting the United States, I have you covered. I have already created an incredible 7-day itinerary for the American Southwest, which I linked to below. That is one of my favorite parts of the country. In the near future, I will be adding additional itineraries that you can use. So, keep an eye out for those!

Another thing that people sometimes don’t realize when they visit the United States is just how diverse it is.  Because the United States is so big, there are different cultures, accents, and customs from region-to-region in the country.  In fact, it has been reported that there may be as many as 11 different cultural areas within the continental United States alone. Each of these areas has their own distinct culture and customs.

When traveling to the United States, it may make sense to keep these cultural differences in mind.  What is acceptable in the Northeast United States may not be acceptable in the South or the Midwest, and vice versa.

The US National Parks are Amazing

Visiting the United States - Yellowstone National Park
The Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park

Another thing that many people may not fully appreciate is the beauty of the national parks within the United States.  Most people I talk to have plan to visit places like New York City, Disney World, Las Vegas, or Hollywood.  Don’t get me wrong, those are all fantastic places to visit.  However, seldom is it that I talk to someone abroad who has plans to visit some of America’s national parks.

America Had the World’s First National Park

The United States is the birthplace of the concept of national parks. That’s right, Yellowstone National Park being the world’s first national parkland.  Since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, sixty-two additional national parks have been established in the United States.  Each of these parks is fabulous in its own unique and beautiful way.

From the desert landscapes in parks like Saguaro NP, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, and Zion NP, to mountain landscapes in parks like Rocky Mountain NP, Yosemite NP, and the Smoky Mountains NP, the landscapes in the US National Park System is as diverse as it is beautiful.

There is a Diversity of Landscapes in the National Parks

There are parks that feature giant canyons, like the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Then you have parks that feature giant trees, like Redwood National Park in California. If you want to see a giant wetland, all you have to do is visit the Everglades National Park in Florida.

Whatever your interest, there is a park that suits your needs. Whether that be camping, hiking, star gazing, photography, or wildlife viewing. The United States National Park System has something for everyone.

So, if you are planning a trip to the United States, make sure you check out one of its amazing national parks.  If you aren’t familiar with the national parks in the United States, I have written extensively on them.  In most cases, it isn’t very difficult to fit a visit to one of the national parks into most trips.  For instance, Zion National Park is only a few hours away from Las Vegas.  Anyone visiting Las Vegas would be missing out on seeing some of America’s most beautiful landscape by not working a visit into their trip.

Tipping is Expected

Visiting the United States - Tipping is Expected

In many places in this world, it is possible to earn a living as a waiter or waitress without having to rely on tips.  In the United States, this is a different story.  Most wait staff and service staff in other industries as well earn a very meager wage for doing their job.  Instead, they rely on tips from patrons to make ends meet.

This is why tipping your service staff in the United States is so important.  While a tip elsewhere may be a gesture reserved for only those who do a stellar job serving you, in the United States not leaving a tip is only reserved for those who do an absolutely awful job serving you.

What to Tip When Dining Out

When dining out, you can use the following guidelines to determine how much, or how little, to tip:

  • Excellent Service:  20%+
  • Good Service:  15-20%
  • Average Service:  10-15%
  • Poor Service:  5-10%
  • Awful Service:  0-5%

Now, I am not saying you are absolutely obligated to tip your wait staff in the United States.  You aren’t at risk of getting arrested or verbally assaulted if you don’t.  However, you should be aware of the message that you are sending if you don’t.  If you don’t leave a tip, you are basically telling your waiter or waitress that they are absolutely horrible at their job.  And believe me, they work very hard.

Other Situations Where it is Expected to Tip

In case you are wondering how much to tip for other services in the United States, here is a reference.

  • Bartender:  $1 per drink served or 15-20% of the tab.
  • Coatroom Attendant:  $1 per coat.
  • Washroom Attendant:  $1-$2.
  • Taxi Driver:  10-15%.
  • Food Delivery Person:  10% of the bill.
  • Barber:  15-20%.
  • Spa Service:  15-20%.
  • Skycap at Airport:  $1-$2 per bag.
  • Hotel Doorman:  $1-$2 per bag or per person if hailing a cab.
  • Hotel Bellhop:  $1-$2 per bag.
  • Hotel Housekeeper:  $2-$5 per night.
  • Hotel Concierge:  $5 for getting tickets.  No tip required for asking directions.

Americans Value their Personal Space

Visiting the United States - Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

If you haven’t visited the United States before, you should be aware that Americans value their personal space.  Americans typically don’t like to be crowded or have people sit or stand too close to them.  If you don’t keep this in mind during your visit, you might find yourself in some awkward or uncomfortable situations.

If you are boarding a bus or train and there are plenty of empty seats, avoid taking one right next to someone else. Likewise, if you are entering a restroom and there are plenty of urinals available, don’t use one right next to someone else. Now, if the only seat or stall left is by someone else, that is fine. However, if you have a choice the American custom is to leave space between others.

Don’t Stand Too Close When Talking

This concept also applies to other situations.  If you are engaged in a conversation, make sure you leave at least a few feet between yourself and others.  If you get any closer you run the risk of making other people feel crowded and uncomfortable.  You should also refrain from touching other people unless you know them well.  This doesn’t apply to handshakes, which are part of American culture and are widely seen as acceptable.

Americans are Friendly, but Don’t Like Being Crowded

However, please keep in mind that just because Americans tend to value their personal space, that doesn’t mean that Americans are stand-offish.  On the contrary, Americans tend to be overly engaging and friendly in their conversation.  Don’t be surprised if a stranger asks you how you are doing. Or if someone ends a conversation with “see you later”.  So, don’t be surprised if someone engages you while waiting in line, on a bus or train, or elsewhere in public.

I have spoken to many travelers visiting America that are taken aback by the overly engaging tendencies of Americans.  It’s a bit of a paradox in the sense that Americans can be overly engaging, but at the same time value their personal space. In fact, it can take some getting used to for travelers visiting the United States for the first time.

America is a Safe Place to Visit

Visiting the United States - Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada

Gun violence in the United States gets a lot of media attention. And certainly, the United States has some issues with violence in certain areas of the country. I do not want to get into the politics of gun control in this article, but I do want to let visitors know that the United States is generally a very safe place to visit.

In my 45+ years in the United States, I have never seen a gun in public. Nor have I ever felt unsafe when traveling throughout the United States. And I travel A LOT.

Obviously, there are areas of the country that you should be wary of. This is especially true at night, like all places in this world.  Furthermore, it always makes sense to keep your safety at the forefront of your mind when visiting any location.  For some tips on how to stay safe when traveling, please refer to my Travel Safety Guide that I linked below.

All that said, the United States was built by immigrants. America is a country that is built on and embraces diversity, and has many warm and welcoming people. The vast majority of people you meet would love to show you hospitality. So, if you are planning a trip to the United States, we are anxious to host you!

Avoid Talking About Politics or Religion

Visiting the United States - Washington DC
The Capital Building in Washington D.C.

One tip that I can give you when visiting the United States is to avoid talking about politics or religion. I cannot stress this point strongly enough. This is especially true about the politics of the United States.

The United States has become more-and-more divided on politics recently, and the subject is a hot button. If you were to ask me one way to quickly offend Americans, I would say by bringing up politics. I would avoid talking politics unless you are talking to friends or family.

The Same Goes for Religion

The same can be said for religion.  Debates on religion are hot topics in parts of the United States.  The vast majority of Americans will not judge you based on your politics, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. However, the topic can make some people uncomfortable. Not because they are judging you, but because the topics have become so polarized.

Unless you are speaking with someone that you know very well, it would be best to avoid talking about these subjects. If these topics come up in groups you are with, it would be best to just stay neutral or listen.  These topics have gotten increasingly divisive over the past few decades and discussions even within families can include lots of animosities.

America Measures Things Differently


One of the most noticeable differences between the United States and most other countries in this world is the fact that the United States does not use the Metric system.  These differences are most notable when driving or looking at the weather forecast.  Instead of measuring distance in meters and kilometers, Americans measure distance in feet and miles.  Americans also use the Fahrenheit scale to measure temperature instead of the Celcius scale.

Believe me, adjusting to these things can be as confusing to Americans traveling overseas as it is to visitors who are visiting the United States.  It can be confusing, especially if you are forced to do some conversions on the fly.  For that reason, make sure you have a good understanding of how to convert kilometers to miles and degrees Celcius to Fahrenheit.

In case you don’t know, 1 Kilometer is equal to 0.621371192 Miles, which means 100 Kilometers is equivalent to roughly 62 miles. 

In regard to temperature, to convert a temperature in Celsius to Fahrenheit, you multiply the temperature by 1.8 and then add 32 degrees.

Food Portions are Very Large

American BBQ

Another thing that I frequently hear from people who are visiting the United States for the first time is how much bigger the food portions are than they are used to.  This is something I have also noticed in my travels abroad.  In the United States, we really do serve very large food portions at meals.

You should keep this in mind when you go out to eat at a restaurant in the United States.  I would suggest reading restaurant reviews, talking to your hotel concierge, or asking around before going out to eat at a restaurant.  This way you will not only be able to determine which restaurants have the best food, but you can also get an idea as to how big the portions are before you visit.  If the portions are really big, you can plan on sharing.

One tip I can give you is that most restaurants will have a lunch portion for many of the items on their menu.  This lunch portion is typically smaller than the larger dinner portion.  If you are out to eat for lunch at a restaurant, I would suggest asking them if they server lunch portions.  This can not only save you on wasted food but wasted money as well.

Be Punctual

Visiting the United States - Nashville
Nashville, Tennessee

When visiting the United States, it won’t take you long to notice that Americans are really serious about being on time for appointments.  If there is one thing that Americans generally are not, it is cavalier about their time.  On the contrary, Americans are typically very conscious about how they spend their time.  Americans typically don’t like wasting time.

It is important to keep this in mind when visiting the United States.  If you have an appointment to meet someone, you will want to make sure that you are not only on-time, but you should plan on trying to be there a little bit early.  Few things annoy Americans more than not being punctual and few things will endear you more to an American than being early to meet them.

Don’t Cut in Line

Visiting the United States - Hollywood
Hollywood, California

Another really good way to annoy Americans is to cut in line (or the queue as it is often referred to abroad) ahead of them.  As I mentioned in the section on being punctual, Americans are very serious about how their time is managed and spent.  Again, Americans typically don’t like wasting their time.  If you cut in line, it will be seen as an affront to their personal time, and you will likely offend people.

When in the United States, make sure you understand whether there is a line when waiting for tickets, waiting to order food, waiting to pay for items in a store or any other activity where others are involved.  If there is a line, make sure you understand where the back of the line is and get in the back of the queue.

If you have one person waiting in line while others use the restroom, do some other shopping, etc… that is generally acceptable.  As long as you have someone that waits in line, no one will typically have an issue with others joining them in line later.

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  1. I thought these were all excellent tips, Josh. You might want to mention that most Americans are not multi-lingual.

  2. As a Yankee-southerner with British relatives and a few international friends, this article was fantastic! It really hit the button on our customs, and the fact that you basically help visitors plan their vacations to this country was so well thought out!

  3. Some very good tips to aid our understanding of America. It is a huge country by European standards and best taken a region at a time as you say. Another thing I noticed is that you are likely to need to rent a car to make the best of your trip. This is often a given for Americans, but not necessarily for Europeans who maybe more likely to travel by public transport.

    • Thank you so much for reading and for the thoughtful comment! You are absolutely right that Americans are far more reliant on cars than in other regions of the world. I would love to have the wonderful train system that Europe has here in North America!

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