I found several notes that I had sent to friends or friends of friends who were planning on visiting the United States from Europe, or who were going to be temporarily assigned to the United States. These are some of the things I have found different abroad, that may be a surprise to a visitor here. This is certainly not a complete guide (but I welcome suggestions or questions about things that would be helpful to add.)
The use of credit cards has become so dominant that "real" money is almost an exception in many places (perhaps other than small towns).
American paper money (currency) comes in $1, $5, $10, and $20 denominations. There is a $2 bill, but I haven't seen one in years. There are $100 bills but they are rare and treated with suspicion. American currency is being redesigned every few years for security, but older designs are completely valid.
American coins come in pennies or one-cent coins (made with copper), nickels or 5 cent coins (at one time made with nickel), dimes or 10 cent coins (smaller and thinner than a nickel, at one time made with silver), and quarters (25 cent coins, or a quarter of a dollar). There are half dollars (haven't seen one in years) and dollar coins (quite rare - unpopular because they are heavy in the pocket compared to a dollar bill, and the "improved" dollar coin was easily confused with a quarter, so never became popular). Many vending machines now take $1 and $5 bills, or even credit cards, which weakens the "need" for half dollar and one dollar coins.
Checks are widely used for payments to known parties (pay the rent) but are rarely accepted in stores.
In North America the magnetic strip on the back of the card is the universal mechanism, and was the only mechanism for many years. Most American merchants now have a reader for the chip cards that are standard in Europe and elsewhere, but still require signatures rather than a PIN. US banks are starting to introduce a proximity chip card, that you only place near the reader, without inserting (perhaps without removing from your wallet or purse), but they are not yet universally accepted.
Master Card and Visa are almost universally accepted. American Express, Diners Club, and Discover are widely, but not universally accepted. Travelers Checks are an obsolete technology that are sometimes not accepted.
Some credit cards add a fee for international charges (Foreign Transaction Fee). I have heard of up to 5%, but my cards charge nothing or 1%. You will want to check with your bank before you leave, and perhaps get a new card with a lower fee.
I have both debit and credit cards, and primarily use the credit cards because the banks are more responsive if there is a problem such as a false charge on a credit card. Credit cards in the US are still verified with a manual signature (for all but the smallest purchases). Withdrawing cash on a credit card is considered a "cash advance," basically a loan at high interest rates.
Debit cards have a pin that you enter on a keyboard, rather than a signature. Primarily these are for cash withdrawal from your bank account (not a loan). A few stores don't accept credit cards (for which the merchant has to pay a fee) but they do accept debit cards - another reason to carry both. A few stores give a cash discount, and give that same cash discount when you use a debit card.
It is quite common for the waiter in a restaurant to take your credit card and disappear with it. It may be stupid, security wise, but practically nobody in the US has portable card readers in their restaurant.
Many American banks have a fee for withdrawing cash from an ATM by someone who does not have an account with the bank that owns the ATM. They will dispense the money but add a fee, so it is far more difficult (expensive) for a European in America to get cash from an ATM than it is for an American to pick up cash abroad. Sometimes you can pick up cash when you make a debit card purchase from a high volume business (with ample cash in the drawer) like a grocery store or WalMart. If you will be in the USA for an extended stay, choose a bank with lots of ATMs in the area where you will be, to avoid the fees (often $1-$5 per transaction). A few banks don't try to establish their own network of "free" ATMs. but refund the fees for several cash withdrawals per month from other ATMs (as does my bank).
If you are visiting the USA for the first time, beware of sales tax. The sales tax is similar to the VAT, but by law is NOT included in the posted price of the item, except from vending machines (including fuel) and newsstands. Thus your total at the cashier may be significantly higher than you expected. The amount of sales tax varies in different areas, from 2-3% to almost 10%. In my area of Texas the "sales tax" is 8.25%. The sales tax rules are funny - in Texas there is no tax on groceries, but there is on other things from the grocery store like candy and soap.
Taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars are far higher than the normal sales tax, but are usually disclosed when you make the reservation.
It is rare that a restaurant will include the service charge in the bill except for large groups. If there is no tip on the bill you are expected to add 15-25% tip, either paid in cash or added to the credit card when it is brought for your signature (restaurants pay the servers a very low wage, expecting that most of their income is from their tips). In some places restaurant food is subject to sales tax, but "take out" food is considered groceries which may not be taxed.
Taxis normally are given a 10-20% tip
No tip is given if you check your bag at the airport counter, but you should tip at least $1 per bag for curbside check-in.
Purchasing beer, wine, and liquor is different in each state, and sometimes even different within the state. In Texas, beer and wine is available in many grocery stores (but on Sundays, only after noon), but liquor is only available in special liquor stores (closed on Sundays). In Pennsylvania beer can only be purchased in case quantities except at a tavern, and wine and liquor only comes from state run stores. Other states are different. In a few areas restaurants can only sell a drink to a "member," but check - membership may be free, or only one person at the table needs to be a member, or you can join "instantly" for perhaps $1 per year!
In the United States we drive on the right side of the road. As a result we often walk on the right in a crowded area such as going through an airport. The active escalator we will likely use is on the right. We enter "Turnarounds" on the right and turn counter-clockwise. We enter revolving doors on the right and the door turns counterclockwise. Apologies to our friends from the UK, Ireland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Thailand, and many others.
Almost as bad are the floor numbers in buildings. The main/entry/ground floor in the US is numbered 1. One floor up is numbered 2, not 1 as in many countries. Occasionally there is an oversize balcony or "half floor" between 1 and 2 (or between ground and 1 if you count that way) that is called a Mezzanine or "M". The basement may be designated "B" or sometimes -1, or if there are several lower levels, perhaps -1, -2, -3.
Occasionally when you head for an elevator in a large high rise building, there are ramps up and down to a pair of elevator doors, for even or odd floors. That allows the elevators to work much faster, only stopping at alternate floors, and opening both upper and lower doors.
Driving rules allow for a right turn on a red light after a full stop, from the right lane into the right lane, unless specifically prohibited. The full stop is rarely enforced. Beware of New York City - on each road into the city there is a too-small sign that says "No Right Turn on Red Anyplace in New York City." (But I don't recommend any visitor drive in New York City.)
Soda Pop: The flavored carbonated drinks often bought as single servings (cans, cups, or bottles) are called "Pop" in parts of the country, and "Soda" in other parts. In transition areas you may hear "Soda Pop"
Airport Luggage Carts that are widely available without charge in most countries, are only free in International Arrivals in the US. Other airports they are rented from cart vending machines.
The USA uses 120 volts 60 Hz for all conventional outlets. Some plugs have 2 parallel blades, sometimes with one blade slightly wider than the other so the plug can only be inserted one way. Some plugs have a 3rd round "blade". The 2 blade plugs will work in the 3 blade outlets.
In contrast, most of Europe uses 240 volt power at 50 Hz, Japan uses 100 volt power at 50 Hz. Where I lived in Brazil in 1969, half the town used 120 volts, and the other half 240 volts, so everyone was an expert on electricity and knew which bulbs to buy.
Most of our electronics (computer power supplies, cell phone chargers, etc.) now have universal power supplies - they accept 100 to 250 volts, 50-60 Hertz, and work throughout the world (check the very fine print on the power block). I expect that overseas electronics have the same, but you will have the challenge of the right plug on the power cord. If you coming here for an extended visit, you will have to solve the problem for each device, but when I am in a hotel, I use this trick: I have one adapter for each country, and use it to plug in an American extension cord. All of the items I have with us that have universal power supplies get plugged into that extension cord, so I only need one adapter.
If you get to the United States without an adapter for your extension cord, I have found them at Frys electronics for about $5, in airports for about $30, and occasionally at other stores for $15-20. They are not always easy to find.
It is amazing how different the North American (USA, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean) telephone system can be from the rest of the world, yet the systems can connect almost instantly.
The North American numbering system includes 10 digit numbers - the first three digits (sometimes shown in parenthesis) are the area code, which functions much like a city code but typically covers many cities - sometimes even an entire state. You only dial the area code if you are calling a different area... usually. Some of our cities have gotten so large that there are multiple area codes within the same city. All 10 digits have to be dialed, even for a local call. People in those cities often refer to it as "10 digit dialing." This includes New York City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Northern Ohio, several areas in California, and so forth.
If your call will be long distance, whether 10 digit or 7 digit dialing, the number is preceded by "1", technically called the exit code to switch to the long distance rather than the local phone system. If it is an international call (outside North America) the exit code is 011.
The last 7 digits of North American telephone numbers are always split into 3 digits followed by 4 digits. There is no significance to that split, other than historical accident (there was significance many - perhaps 40-50 - years ago).
The cell phone user in the United States pays for all calls, both placed and received, on the cell phone (unlike other countries, where you only pay for calls placed).
In the United States, cell phones have a location much like a land-line - often related to where the owner lives. This location allows local land-line users to place free "local" calls to that cell phone. Many American cell phone plans include nationwide calling at no extra charge, so there is little motivation to change numbers when they move to college or to a different job, even though those with land lines may have to pay long distance tolls to call them.
The GSM network is common for cell phones, but it uses two different frequency bands than those used in Europe. More expensive cell phones have four bands (quad-band) so they work on both continents, but cheaper cell phones with only two bands may not work on the other continent. If you will be in the United States for a while, it may pay to buy a "throw away" cell phone, often available from discount stores for $10-$20, plus a modest extra charge for minutes. We bought a phone for a friend, with more minutes than he will probably use in 3 months, for less than $45.
Conventional land-line telephones are becoming far less common in homes - many people, especially younger people - only have cell phones. If you have a land line, local calls are generally free or almost free, but you have to choose a separate provider for your long distance service. Depending on the long distance plan, domestic long distance calls, or sometimes even international calls, may be included in the basic fee, or they may be very expensive - if you are visiting someone don't assume their long distance calls are free, even though they may have been practically free at the last home you visited.
Most of the highways in the United States are free to use (the cost is paid by the fuel tax). But some highways, and many bridges, have a toll - usually to pay for an extra-convenient or especially well maintained road (often with a higher speed limit). For example, when we visit our son, the toll roads in Dallas are slightly longer in distance, but the savings in time and fuel (no stop and go travel) more than offsets the cost of the toll.
Some of the toll roads have automatic collection of tolls - either by reading an electronic permit in the car (and charging a lower toll, deducted from your prepaid account), or by reading the license plate and mailing you a bill. Beware if you have a rental car - the toll charges may be much higher as the rental car company adds their fees to figure out who had the car when the toll charge was made, and where to send the bill.
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