Things to Know Before Visiting America

Statue of Liberty New York

A gift to the USA from France and first unveiled in 1886, Lady Liberty greeted seafaring immigrants into New York.

What can the Arrivals Hall travel blog tell you about the United States of America that you don’t already know? There are a few salient things to know before visiting America but firstly, an overview of this massive country.

The US has a population of over 300 million people spread across 50 states, 9 time zones and several climates. The US has the world’s largest economy and largest military. It’s a world leader in science, technology and the arts.

The headquarters of the United Nations and the World Bank are located in New York City and Washington D.C. respectively. The US is home to the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. The US also has the most Nobel Prize winners.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS 

Visa: According to the website of the US Embassy in Dublin “A non-immigrant visa is required by anyone seeking temporary admission to the United States who is not eligible to travel visa free under the Visa Waiver Program or is traveling to the U.S. for a wide variety of reasons, including tourism, business, medical treatment, study, research and certain types of temporary work“.

The Visa Waiver Program allows visa-free tourism travel for up to 90 days for citizens of certain countries but there are restrictions if you have visited certain countries within a specified timeframe or have a criminal record. The majority of EU and Scandinavian countries are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program as are Australian, New Zealand, Japanese and South Korean citizens.

The US State Department’s Consular Affairs web page comprehensively covers Visa applications for all nationalities.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection have pre-clearance locations in 6 countries: Ireland, Canada, Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, United Arab Emirates. This means no queues when arriving on US soil.

You must have a biometric passport to enter the US as details of your finger print and iris are kept on record.

Language: English. Some words in US English have a different spelling to UK/International English. Travelling, colour and harbour in my world are traveling, color and harbor in the US. Some words are unique to US English such as trash/garbage can, Fall, restroom, gas. In UK/International English these are known respectively as rubbish bin, Autumn, toilet/bathroom, diesel/petrol.

Dates in the US are written as MM/DD/YYYY.

Currency: US Dollar, the world’s dominant currency. ATMs are ubiquitous and are the best way of getting your dollars upon arrival.

One Dollar note

Best time to visit: The US is not just a country but practically a continent with diverse eco and weather systems which will greatly influence your trip. This means you can visit all-year around. Winter in the north sees snowfalls and ice whilst the temperature in Miami rarely goes below 20°C anytime of the year. Death Valley in California has seen some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. The US is also subject to hurricanes and tornadoes.

Ice Rink Rockefeller Centre

The benefits of cold weather…the Ice Rink at the Rockefeller Centre, New York.

 The US has a number of federal holidays which apply throughout the country with Independence Day on 4th July the best known, celebrated even in other countries.

Electrical Plugs: The US Department of Commerce International Trade Administration has assigned letters to world plug categories. Plugs A and B are the types used in the US and are of a 2-square pin variety both grounded and ungrounded of voltage 100 – 127V.

 You may require a voltage converter as well as the regular pin adaptor if your appliances are set for higher voltage: Irish, British and European travellers will require this. Without one you will struggle to charge your phone and you will definitely not be able to straighten your hair!

Food: The ethnic diversity of the US is reflected in its food and one will find an extraordinary mix of cuisines available. However, pies, doughnuts, burgers, hot dogs, barbeque ribs, macaroni and cheese are considered traditional American foods.

Drink: The calorie and sugar count continues with popular American drinks. Of the non-alcoholic variety milkshakes, hot chocolate with marshmallows, and the carbonated soft drinks of Coca Cola and Pepsi are iconic American drinks.

The alcoholic drinks are dominated by Napa Valley wines, beers and famous whiskeys Jim Beam, Southern Comfort and Jack Daniels.

Legal Issues: Some laws are federal and apply throughout the country but, by and large, each state sets its own laws. What may be legal in one state may be illegal in another particularly in relation to traffic laws.

Culture: One of the things to know before visiting America concerns tipping. Standards of service in the hospitality industry are high but don’t forget to tip as it’s not included in the price and forms a sizeable part of the waiting staff’s wages.

Getting around the USA: Depends on how far you’re travelling! Air travel is hugely popular for inter-city travel. Amtrak operates the inter-city rail system.

Most of the larger cities have their own municipal transport networks. The only one I’ve used is the New York subway which is the busiest rapid transit rail system in the US and the world’s largest in terms of stations. Check out this New York Subway Tips post by Tracy Kaler.

Car usage is extensive in the US with automatic transmission the default. Cars with gear sticks are called stick shifts. Road laws vary from state to state but driving on the right is standard. Some nationalities require an International Driving Licence to rent cars. As an Irish/EU citizen I didn’t.

Route 66 USA

I’ve only driven in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco area of California and didn’t find it too problematic but then again I had a co-driver at all times. I realised my life-long dream of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge only to find a California Highway Patrol speed-check awaiting me on the Marin County side!

My brother has driven in 9 West Coast and Mountain States plus Texas and Louisiana. He found the task easier than expected and much easier than driving in Ireland.

Getting to the USA: Mainland USA shares land borders with Canada and Mexico. Passenger rail connections between the US and Mexico are limited. Several northern US cities are connected to neighbouring Canadian cities most notably Vancouver-Seattle and Montreal-New York.

The US is well-connected to all parts of the world by air. The East Coast cities generally see many flights from Europe while the West Coast hubs of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles receive flights from Asia. I travelled to San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic from London and to New York JFK with Aer Lingus from Shannon.

Is the USA a safe country to visit: My only experience of the US is California and New York and, by and large, I found all destinations safe with the exception of San Francisco. Saying that, service in San Francisco’s hotels, restaurants and cafes was exceptionally friendly.

Personal gun ownership is legal and widespread in the US but sadly mass shootings are commonplace as per this article.

However, law abidance and a respect for authority is the general attitude I both observed and experienced. 911 is the emergency services phone number.

Of all the things to know before visiting America having travel insurance with full and comprehensive healthcare cover is a must.

USA Geography: In 2016, the percentage of Americans who held passports was 41% compared to 66% of Canadians and 76% of those living in England and Wales. To be honest, the US is so geographically diverse that American residents have everything at their doorstep: sun-kissed beaches, deserts, lakes, rivers, mountains and unique features such as the Utah Salt Flats, Wyoming’s geysers and the Grand Canyon.

Some of these exquisite features are nicely packaged into National Parks. Few countries can match this environmental variety so can you blame Americans for staying at home?

Horseshoe Bend Grand Canyon Arizona

Horseshoe Bend in the Grand Canyon, Arizona

USA History: It is believed that the first settlers arrived from Asia via the Bering Strait thousands of years ago and gradually moved southwards.

Modern American history is said to have begun when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 but he wasn’t the first to get there. In the early 6th Century, St. Brendan is said to have arrived at a landmass matching a description of America.

Post-Columbus, the colonies of Spain, Britain, France and the Dutch competed for land and this period saw the advent of slavery from Africa and a downturn in the fortunes of Native Americans. It was the successful revolution against the British in the 18th Century which led to the formation of the USA with George Washington as the first President.

The territory of the USA grew dramatically in the 19th Century in an era which also saw the US Civil War between Union North and Confederate South. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln began the process of liberating slaves which didn’t happen fully until the 13th Amendment of the Constitution was adopted in 1865, a couple of months after Lincoln’s assassination.

National Mall Washington DC

The National Mall in Washington DC. To the centre is the Lincoln Memorial. Also visible is the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building where the US Congress is based.

Union North prevailed and the expansion of the US border, as we know it today, continued until 1893 when Hawaii was taken over.

With its borders now defined, the 20th Century saw the US focus increasingly on foreign policy. The sinking of the Lusitania off the Irish coast in 1915 by a German torpedo drew the US into World War I. The bombing of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour prompted the US to join the Allies in World War II.

The Cold War led to overseas operations which often drew criticism. At home, the Civil Rights Movement against racial segregation and discrimination inspired millions worldwide, and produced what I believe to be the greatest rallying call in world history, Martin Luther King’s captivating I have a dream speech in Washington DC 1963. Not only was it America at its greatest but humankind at its best.

King’s hope that content of character be the yardstick by which people would be judged has been my lifelong core philosophy. His life and achievements are celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday on the third Monday in January.

The Arts: The British may have invented television whilst the French invented cinema but the US has excelled in both of these art forms using this soft power to promote America worldwide. One could be forgiven for thinking that the capital city of the US is rotated between New York and Los Angeles.

The world loves US film and television. For example, much as the Cubans protested about the US embargo during the time of my visit they had no hesitation in sitting around a TV set to watch CSI in their casas.

Hollywood sign

It’s between London’s West End and New York’s Broadway for the title of the world’s epicentre of theatre. The US theatre scene is very strong, the home of an astonishing amount of playwrights who have written works of a very high calibre. My favourites are The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl and anything by Neil Simon.

The US visual art scene has produced some of the 20th Century’s major artists. Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko’s bright colours championed pop art and abstract expression respectively. But my favourite US artist is Edward Hopper followed in second place by Georgia O’Keeffe. Hopper’s Nighthawks is the definitive take on American urban life but it’s a print of his New York Movie that takes centre stage in my living room.

The music of America could arguably be its greatest asset and what a magnificent soundtrack it is. An extraordinary amount of genres grew out of the country’s ethnic melting pot, among them jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, disco and hip hop. Check out this amazing USA map of popular song titles:

DESTINATIONS

Ellis Island Visitor CentreFew national monuments and visitor sites chronicle the entire modern history of a country like New York’s Ellis Island does. Operational from 1892 to 1954 Ellis Island was America’s largest immigration station and processed 12 million immigrants during that time. Opened in 1990, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and charts the history of immigration to America from pre-independence colonisation to the present day.

NYC St. Patrick's Day ParadeThe 17th March is St. Patrick’s Day, a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland where people celebrate the country’s patron saint by holding parades. But the largest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world is actually held in New York and in 2017 I had the privilege of not only attending it but, by accident, participating in it as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting former US UN Ambassador Samantha Power in Ireland in 2017 when she gave a public interview at the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in Waterville, Co. Kerry. Born in Dublin, Power emigrated to the US in 1979 with her family.

Samantha Power interview

Her public interview covered her early years as well as her rise to a senior official in the Obama Administration. I wrote a review of her public interview and also outline the reasons why such a topic is of relevance for inclusion in a travel blog.

For other destinations in the US, check out this post by Alyssa of the Like Where You’re Going travel blog on How to Spend 3 Perfect Days in New Orleans. It covers advice on what to do, where to stay and eat plus tips on how to avoid scams.

Things to know before visiting America

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