At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks


GloboTreks is reader-supported through affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support! – Norbert

The United States is home to countless natural wonders and cosmopolitan cities that attract travelers from all over the world. 

From lush Caribbean jungles and beaches to vast deserts and snowcapped mountains, the country has some of the most picturesque and diverse landscapes on earth – and let’s not forget the concrete jungles of cities like Chicago and New York City.  

However, prior to visiting, there are several important things all travelers should be aware of to make their trip as smooth as possible. To help your planning, here are my 12 essential things to know before traveling to the USA!

1. You Need a Tourist Visa or ESTA to Enter the USA

The first and possibly most important of my US travel tips is to be aware of and understand the requirements to enter the USA.

As of today, the US Visa Waiver Program, also known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), allows citizens of these 39 countries to enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa. 

Passport and sunglasses ESTA

This includes countries from the European Union, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and a few others.

Your 90 days of visa-free travel start from the moment you step on US soil, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other US territories.

Those 90 days in the United States also include time spent in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean Islands if the arrival was through the United States. 

The ESTA application is only required if arriving by air or cruise ship. It is not required if entering overland or on local ferries, such as between Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State. 

The validity of the ESTA is for up to two years. You’re allowed to make an unlimited number of trips to the US as long as each stay has a maximum of 90 days.

The ESTA is far less expensive than the traditional tourist visa, and it only takes about 20 minutes to fill in a simple application form. While you can apply for your ETSA at any time before boarding your flight, it’s advised to do it at least 72 hours before departure.

Golden Gate, San Francisco, California

At the time of departure, have your ESTA and approval number handy, as it’ll be requested during check-in. 

Now, should you wish to stay in the USA for longer than 90 days, or if you don’t fall under the ESTA program, then you’ll need a visa.

Getting Other US Visas

If you want to stay longer in the United States, or if your citizenship is not included in the ESTA program, you will have to look at other US tourist visas – mainly the B-2 Visa (tourist visa). 

These visas are usually much more expensive than the ESTA (around $160-$180 for many countries), but unlike with the ESTA program, the process is a bit more complicated, and there is no single list of requirements as they vary depending on your citizenship. To expedite your application, I recommend using iVisa.

You can also check the visa requirements on your country’s US embassy website or by visiting the embassy or consulate. For example, if you’re Moroccan, head to the US embassy in Rabat, Morocco.

2. Check Your Passport’s Validity 

To enter the USA, your passport must have at least six months of validity left at the time of travel. This means that if your passport expires in less than six months, you will not be allowed to travel to the US. 

Additionally, you should make sure that your passport is valid for the entire duration of your trip.

Passports, money, and cards

3. Understand the US Tipping Culture

In the United States, you’re expected to tip all forms of services, like cab drivers, deliveries, valets, porters, room service, and most notably, waiters and bartenders. (Most of them earn under the federal minimum wage, which is already way too low!)

The typical tipping practice is between 15% to 20%. 

Know that while it is expected, you’re not obliged to tip. However, not tipping is considered to be a big faux pas.

As a general rule, if the service is ok (nothing outstanding), I give 15%. If it was exceptional, I offer 20%. On the other hand, if the service was terrible, I give 10% or less, depending on how bad the service was. 

Other common tip suggestions in the hospitality industry include: 

  • Concierge: dependent on the difficulty of your request
  • Bartenders: $1-2 per drink
  • Housekeepers: $1-5 per night 
  • Valets: $1-5 each time the valet brings your car
  • Hotel porters: $1-2 per bag
  • Doormen: a few dollars if they help you get a cab
  • Taxi drivers: 10-15%
  • Shared shuttle drivers: $2-3 per person
  • Food delivery: $1-$4 depending on the distance from the restaurant to your accommodation

Lastly, always check your restaurant bill before tipping, as some restaurants already include the tip in your bill’s total. Equally, some other services already include a “service charge,” which is considered a tip.

4. The United States is Much Bigger than You Think

As the third-largest country in the world, with an area of 9.83 million square kilometers (including territories), the US has a wide variety of landscapes and a rich, diverse culture that makes each state almost feel like a different country. 

Not to mention the different geography and cultures you’ll find in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other territories.

Beach at Culebra, Puerto Rico

In terms of land mass, many states are bigger than some European countries.

Two North-South features split the country into three distinct areas. 

West of the Rocky Mountains, we have the Pacific states, which are known for long expanses of beach along the California coast, the stunning deserts including the Grand Canyon, and year-round temperate weather. 

Sandwiched between the Rockies and the Mississippi River, we have the vast plains stretching from Mexico to Canada, giving the US one of the world’s most fertile growing regions and cities like Denver, Oklahoma City, Houston, Kansas City, and more. 

And last but not least, we have the east of the Mississippi, which is the industrial and economic hub of the USA. Several major cities like New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, and Miami, among others, sit on this side of the country. 

Here you also find the Appalachian mountains, which are not only one of the most diverse ecological regions in the country but also played a vital role in US history, from its settlement to its westward expansion.

The US’ most visited national park, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is located in the Appalachians.

Which brings me to…

Yosemite Valley

5. Visit at Least One National Park

Even though the United States is well known for its buzzing cities like San Francisco, the country also offers incredible nature and outstanding landscapes within its National Parks. 

In fact, the USA has the first National Park in the world. In 1872, Yellowstone was established by Theodore Roosevelt, starting a natural conservation practice that would spread all around the world.

With 62 protected areas, the USA has amassed an impressive range of national parks, including all kinds of landscapes, flora, fauna, and outdoor experiences. 

Escape the city and get lost in nature, camp in dense forests, marvel at sky-scraping snowcapped mountains, wander in hidden red desert canyons, and hike past lush valleys and pristine lakes.

Moab, Utah, USA

When you plan your trip, check which national parks are in or close to the states you’re visiting. I guarantee you; they are worth visiting! You can check the full list of national parks here

Among the most popular National Parks are:

6. Plan Your USA Itinerary Accordingly

As already mentioned, the USA is enormous, so you should plan your trip accordingly. How much time do you have available? A few days, weeks, months?

If your trip is short, you’ll probably want to focus on just one city or a few cities nearby, like New York, Washington DC, and Boston.  

If you have a few weeks, you could expand your trip and fly to the other coast (like flying from New York to Los Angeles) or do a road trip crossing several states.

San Francisco

If you have up to 12 weeks (roughly three months), you could make a road trip crossing several states across the entire continental US, or concentrate on exploring one region.

Also, do you have a focus for your trip? What would you like to experience? 

It could be anything like visiting several national parks, seeing some of the most famous cities in the country, or visiting several theme parks.

You could also go road-tripping off-the-beaten-path, camping in the wild, participating in festivals and major events, or discovering the US’s historical trails, among many others. 

The options are endless, but be aware that given the size of the country, getting from one point to another could take a lot of time if you’re driving, or a lot of money if flying.

While planning your trip, make a list of: 

  • Free things to do in each city or town
  • National Parks of interest
  • Best hikes, bike trails, walks (if you’re into that)
  • City tours or Day tours of interest
  • Attractions of interest
  • Restaurants of interest

Now, try to accommodate all of them within your trip’s timeframe to see how they all fit. This will help you decide if your itinerary is too ambitious or if you have time to see more destinations or attractions.

Always include your estimated transportation time from place to place. Google Maps is excellent for this.

As a general rule, I always like to leave some time off to have some wiggle room in my itinerary. 

Speaking of attractions, most major attractions in the US cost money, and the cost can quickly eat into your budget. This is why you should consider getting a Sightseeing Pass for the US or any major city in the program.

You can choose the pass that’s right for you -Day or Flex- and choose attractions as you go. The more you visit, the more you save, and you’ll even get to skip some admission lines!

7. Consider Doing a Road Trip or Overland Adventure

Many cities in the USA are far from each other, but in between, there are a lot of stunning places and quirky roadside attractions you can explore and enjoy. This is one of the reasons why road trips or overland trips are so popular in the US. 

You can travel between cities and rural areas using bus operators like Greyhound and Megabus, or by taking the Amtrak – the national train operator. 

road tripping

When it comes to buses, the earlier you book, the better deals you’ll find, including $1 bus fares! The same applies to Amtrak, and they even offer a USA Rail Pass for 15, 30, or 45 days.

When looking for trains or buses, I highly recommend checking Busbud. They show an expansive inventory of train and bus routes at the best price.

On the other hand, if you’d like more freedom to move as you want, then renting a car or an RV is the recommended option for road-tripping the US.

A personal recommendation is that unless you’re visiting a city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, you should rent a car while you’re in the USA. 

Unfortunately, most of the country was not developed with urban centers and public transportation the same way Europe was. A car is needed, or at least recommended, to move around even in major cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Orlando, and so on. 

I use and recommend using DiscoverCars.com, Kayak, and Skyscanner to search for your car rental. 

If you are planning to rent a car, then you might need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to be able to legally drive. However, not all states require you to have an IDP. So, make sure you check the rules in all of the states you plan to drive through, and get an IDP if necessary.

Don’t forget to get a Sightseeing Pass (of the entire USA or any major city pass) to save money on hundreds of attractions across the country.

When renting a car in the USA, I recommend checking the following:

  • The total price of the car rental. Usually, the amount mentioned during a search does not include taxes or insurance. 
  • Often car rental companies will push to get premium insurance coverage above the minimum required one. You will have to consider whether to add it or not based on your situation.
  • The minimum age you need to be to rent a car. This varies between rental companies.
  • The current fuel/gas price in the states you’ll be visiting. Estimate the potential cost of gas you’ll consume based on the distance you expect to travel, and the car’s gas consumption rate (you can find that online by searching the car model and its miles per gallon rate).
  • Will it include GPS? If so, how much does it cost? These days you can get a local SIM card with data and use your phone and Google Maps or Waze as your GPS.
  • How much per additional driver? Add all drivers to the rental agreement to play it safe in case of an accident.
  • How much will it be to drop off the car in a different city (if you’re traveling just one way)?
  • Are there tolls on your route? Check them online. Toll fees can add up quickly! 
  • When picking up the car, document and photograph all visible defects on the car before leaving the car rental lot. Also, take a photo of the dashboard to record the fuel level and mileage. 

When doing a road trip in more remote regions, like in the mid-west, make sure you’re aware of the distance between gas stations as some of them can be far apart. Make sure your gas tank is full to last the journey through those empty expanses.

Grand Canyon view

Lastly, if you have an RV, know that the Walmart chain allows RVs to use their parking lots for one night, free of charge. There are also several free or cheap campgrounds all over the country.

Note that overnight RV parking is prohibited at roadside rest stops in many states, so check how that applies to your trip.

8. Book Your Domestic Flights Separate From Your International Flights

If you’re short on time and would like to travel between distant cities, flying will be your best option. What I recommend, though, is to buy your domestic flights separately from your international flights. 

Often, airlines and flight aggregators add a premium to domestic flights when purchased together with the international leg. On the other hand, if you book them separately, you’ll have more options across all airline alliances.

Flying Puerto Rico

Many popular routes in the US, which are the ones typically traveled by foreigners, are incredibly competitive among US airlines, so you’ll have better chances of getting a good deal when searching for them independently.

Quick Tip

I recommend using the WayAway Plus membership, which helps you find the cheapest flight possible for your route and offers cash back on bookings for flights, hotels, car rentals, tours, and more.

This can easily amount to a saving of hundreds of dollars sent back to you via PayPal.

For more tips on how to always find the cheapest airfare, you can read this article I’ve linked to.

9. Expect to Pay More Than What’s Displayed

Contrary to most countries, the prices displayed at supermarkets, stores, restaurants, hotels, and any other businesses do not include the sales tax. Every state has its own state sales tax, and they vary from 7% to 11.5% or so.  

Resorts are notorious for charging a hefty “resort fee” that is often not mentioned when booking.

This could vary from $10+ to $100+, depending on the resort. Always read the small print or the “not included” section of the advertised price to see these extra taxes and fees. 

Stunning Sedona Landscape

10. Do NOT Travel Without Travel Insurance

I’m sure you’ve read horror stories about the inefficient and expensive medical system in the US. Well, they are all true. So, it would be irresponsible of me not to include getting travel insurance in my list of USA travel tips.

I’m sure you won’t want to go back home and receive a $1200 bill just for getting ibuprofen prescribed by a doctor. This sounds exaggerated, but it isn’t far from the truth here. 

Having travel insurance with medical coverage is essential for any trip, but even more so in the US.

It’s also great if your insurance has trip cancellation coverage in case of flight cancellations and other unexpected events. I use HeyMondo travel insurance and have loved my experience with them. I highly recommend them.

11. Don’t Forget to Visit the Islands!

Both Hawaii and Puerto Rico have several islands that are stunning and make you feel like you’re in a different country, worlds apart from the typical US image. 

Coming from Puerto Rico, and having grown up there, I can attest to that – as a local! 

You can Kayak in the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, visit one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, and surf in the surfing capital of the Caribbean.

El Morro Sunset, San Juan, Puerto Rico

12. Always Carry Cash with You

As advanced as the US likes to say it is, it’s still pretty far behind many European and South American countries when it comes to digital payment options.

The US is always playing catch up, so even to this day, don’t be surprised if many rural businesses only accept cash.

Also, in many places, the tip is left in cash, unless you can add it to your credit card.

In most major cities, you’ll be able to pay almost everything with credit cards and contactless payments. But still, you’ll find several businesses that are cash only (for tax purposes).

Compensation money

Before departing from your home country, alert your bank that you’ll be using your debit and credit card in the US, so they don’t block it thinking it is a suspicious charge.

A Few Extra Quick Tips:

  • 911 is the emergency number in the US.
  • The US is one of only three countries in the world that uses the Imperial system. Measurements are in inches and feet, distances in miles, weight in pounds, and the temperature in Fahrenheit.
  • You drive on the right side of the street.
  • The US spans six time zones. Make sure you know which time zone your destination is in, especially when booking flights and airport transfers.
12 Essential Things To Know Before Traveling to the USA
Adventure Awaits

LET ME HELP YOU TRAVEL MORE BY GETTING ADDITIONAL TIPS AND INSPIRATION VIA THE MONTHLY NEWSLETTER.

Plus, receive a short e-book with 15 Beginner Tips and Tricks to Start Travel Hacking!​

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 Comments

  1. I see you don’t say anything about Covid vaccination requirements for entry to USA. Is than no longer required? If it is, why have you left it out?

  2. Under #4, the statement said, “Not to mention the different geography and cultures presented by Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other territories.” Hawaii is not a territory and hasn’t been since 1959 when it became a state. U.S. Territories are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Please update your information.

    1. That sentence does not say Hawaii is a territory… it says there’s a geographical difference between Hawaii, Puerto Rico, AND other territories (which include the ones you mentioned).

  3. Mostly good advice here except for one vital thing. Tipping. You must tip 20% whenever you sit down at a restaurant. 15% is too low and 10% or less is so insulting you might as well tip nothing. I am not saying this is a good system but it is what it is and employees depend on at least 20% tips to make ends meet.

  4. I think another thing is so universally understood that we forget to say it explicitly:

    Americans hardly ever speak/understand anything besides English. So the tourist visiting from abroad must come prepared for this.

    Even highly educated Americans *might* speak some rudimentary Spanish at best; the chances of finding someone to help you translate to Japanese, Chinese, German, Arabic, etc. are extremely low. Restaurants hardly ever have non-English menus (unless the restaurant serves ethnic cuisine such as Mexican or Chinese). Same goes for road signs, public transport, etc. unless you’re in a city that borders Mexico, in which case signs *might* have Spanish versions.

    National parks/monuments/museums sometimes have displays that are written in English+Spanish+/-French but that’s about it.

  5. Carrying cash is not necessary. I live in the US and rarely carry cash. Most everything else is accurate. The country is huge and it would take months to see even half of it. Pick a region or even a couple neighboring states and explore. You will find MOST Americans are friendly and helpful.