Today, we’re covering the quirky and important aspects of U.S. life that visitors should know when visiting America.
A few months ago, we did a video on the things I noticed when I traveled to England. It was a fun and light-hearted video and it received a lot of attention. The video seems to be trending in the UK, so we had a lot of folks chime in with their thoughts. A lot of people shared their experience of visiting America, and some of the confusing aspects of our life and culture.
While many of you in the US might not think that any of these things are unique, I think it’s still useful to be mindful of them, especially when you have family and friends visiting from abroad.
Lastly, before I run through the list, keep in mind that I’m intentionally ignoring politics and guns. While these are very stark and unique aspects of US culture, I’m really trying to avoid political debates on this site and channel.
8 Important Tips to Navigate American Life
1. Paying for gas
If you’re visiting America, you’ll notice that most gas stations will require you to pay for fuel in advance before you start pumping. Most Americans simply swipe their credit card, which then puts a hold on their account until they’re done fueling. This can be a big problem for international visitors as the pumps are often not able to process a hold or verify their credit card. This is especially the case since the US is behind on their payment technology.
If you’re faced with having to pay for gas or “petrol”, as it’s known in the rest of the world, you’ll probably need to pay the attendant cash. For most cars, you can expect to pay around $25-30 for a full tank. Ask the attendant for a refund if you end up filling up less than the pre-paid amount.
Keep in mind that in the US, the black pump is usually designated as regular unleaded fuel. Green pumps are used for diesel, which is not as common in the US as it is in the rest of the world.
2. Stay in your car when being pulled over by the police
This one is extremely important to know if you’re visiting the US. If you’re driving and you get pulled over by the police, you should remain in your car and keep your hands on the steering wheel. You do NOT want to get out of your vehicle. While that may be the normal process outside the US, doing so could result in the police feeling threatened and potentially drawing their weapons.
The normal procedure in the US is to pull over to the side of the road and turn off your engine. You’ll want to roll down your driver-side window and keep your hands on your steering wheel. The police will ask for your driver’s license and registration. Though I would not start looking for these items until the police officer asks for it.
I don’t mean to scare people, as this is such a common scenario in the US. But it’s an easy way to startle the police, especially if you exit your car and walk toward the officer.
3. Turning right on a red light
This is one that seems to disturb a lot of people when they visit the US, though I think most Americans find it to be very convenient and useful. If you’re in an intersection and want to turn right, you can do so on the red light if there is no:
- Pedestrian crossing at the time
- Car(s) coming toward your direction
- Sign prohibiting a right turn on red
If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll want to stop at the intersection first and allow any pedestrians to pass. You can then slowly move forward into the crosswalk and turn right when it’s clear and safe. Though be careful of folks who ignore the crosswalk signals and try to cross the street at the last second.
4. Avoid jaywalking
The US has laws against “jaywalking”, which is basically disregarding the law and crossing the street outside of the crosswalk or when the crossing signal is red. This is usually only enforced on busy roads. Its purpose is to keep people from crossing streets to avoid getting hit by cars and causing disruptions to the flow of traffic.
I know it’s very annoying, even for Americans, but it’s something to be aware of when you want to cross a street. Also, police officers will often wait around busy streets to catch people jaywalking. I recommend being careful when you’re crossing the street in high-traffic areas to avoid any citations.
The tipping culture in the US is excessive and confusing, even to us Americans. Although it’s customary to tip servers 15-20% at restaurants and bars, it’s often unclear in other scenarios like valet parking, hotel staff, and cafes.
For example, Fiona recently told me that she struggled with determining the amount to tip when visiting a hair salon. In these cases, we usually default to 15-20%, but only if you were happy with the service.
Keep in mind that servers at restaurants and bars typically make less than minimum wage in the US. That means that the tip is a major component of their wages. While I personally think they should get paid more, know that we view tipping in restaurants as mandatory unless the service was not up to standards.
6. Stop signs
A lot of visitors complain that they often don’t know how to deal with multiple cars arriving at a stop sign at once. The official rule is that the person to the right has the right of way. Though it’s confusing when it’s not clear who is to the right.
My suggestion is to be defensive and move slowly through stop signs. It’s not worth fighting over the right of way, especially when we’re talking about a few seconds of time.
7. Sales tax
One thing that a lot of visitors find confusing is our sales tax. When buying an item at a store, you’ll almost always pay more than the label price. Since sales tax is different in every state and county, we add it to the price at the register.
We’re used to this as Americans, but I can understand how it’s confusing to others. Just know that you’ll likely pay up to 10% more than the sticker price, depending on where you’re visiting.
8. Showing your ID
This one drives Americans insane too! In most restaurants and bars, you’ll need to show your ID, even if you’re obviously over the drinking age of 21. It’s mostly a liability issue. Restaurants and bars don’t want to be sued or found accountable for serving alcohol to minors. They also don’t want to be perceived as singling out people based on age.
This can lead to some very annoying and frustrating situations. I’ve even seen elderly people being asked to show their ID, which is ridiculous.
If you’re planning to drink in the US, make sure you’re carrying some form of ID that shows your birthday. Even if you’re much older than 21, you may be asked to show proof of age when entering a bar.
For those of you in the US, do you have any other tips for visitors? If you’ve visited the US from abroad, what did you notice? Let us know in the comment section below.