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Things to Know About American Culture Before Traveling to America for the First Time

Updated: Jun 4

Traveling to America for the First Time

If you are traveling to America on a tourist visa for the first time, it's good to know a bit about American culture. Americans like doing their own thing, being on time, and having some space to themselves. When you eat at a restaurant, it's normal to leave a 15-22% tip to say thanks.


People there often chat a bit and might ask, "How are you?" to be friendly. The US is diverse, so it's important to respect different ways of thinking. Learn about local traditions, like holding doors for others. Just be open-minded, friendly, and smiling, and stay chill about the differences you might find.



Table of Contents: Traveling to America for the First Time



US Customs

When traveling from India to the US, there are a few things you should avoid bringing to avoid customs issues. It's a good idea not to carry firearms, certain fruits and vegetables, animal products, and animal by-products.


Also, avoid bringing plants, seeds, and some dairy products. Items like gold and silver beyond a certain limit might need to be declared. Be cautious with medicines as well; it's advisable to carry prescriptions for them.


And, of course, any illegal substances are a big no-no. You can find the complete list of prohibited and restricted items on the CBP website.



Jet Lag

Traveling from India to the US might bring a thing called jet lag. Jet lag happens because your body needs time to adjust to the new time zone.


The US has six time zones and it depends on which part of the US, you are traveling to. There is roughly a 12-hour difference between India and the US time zone.


Jet lag can mess up your sleep and eating times. To help, adjust to the local time when you arrive, get sunlight, drink water, and try to sleep at US times. It takes a bit, approximately a week, but your body will catch up, and soon you'll be ready to enjoy your time in the US.




Greeting Culture

In the US, saying hello is pretty common. So when you reach the US, you will notice that people often greet each other with a simple "Hi" or "Hello". It's normal to use phrases like "How are you?" as a friendly way to start a conversation, even if it's just a quick chat.


The expectation is not that you have to answer every time, even a smile in response is perfectly fine. Handshakes are common in more formal situations.


Americans are cool with personal space, so keeping a comfortable distance during greetings is a good idea. Just be yourself, keep it friendly, and you'll fit right in!



Tipping Culture

When you're in the US, tipping is a common thing. In restaurants, it's good to leave a tip, usually around 15-22% of the bill. This is like a way of saying thanks to the waitstaff. Sometimes, taxicab drivers, hotel staff, hairdressers, and other service people also get tips.


It's just a nice thing to do to show appreciation for good service. Here is the rule of thumb for tipping:


  • 0-15% Tip - Poor service

  • 15-22% Tip - Good service

  • 22-25% Tip - Excellent service




Measurements

In the US, they measure things a bit differently than you do in India.


  • Temperature: For example, when they talk about temperature, it's in Fahrenheit, not Celsius. So, if someone says it's 68°F (which is 20°C), it means it's not too hot or too cold, just a pleasant temperature. To convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, formula is: °C = (°F − 32) × 5/9, for example

    • 0°C is 32°F

    • 25°C is 77°F

    • 37.7°C is 100°F

  • Speed: For speed, they use miles per hour (mph) instead of kilometers per hour (km/h). If you see speed limit signs, they'll be in mph. To convert miles per hour (mph) to kilometers per hour (kph), you can use this formula: kph = mph × 1.61


  • Weight: When it comes to weight, like in grocery stores or talking about body weight, they use pounds (lbs) instead of kilograms (kg). If someone says they weigh 150 lbs, that's their weight in pounds. To convert pounds (lbs) to kilograms (kg), you can use the conversion factor: kg = lbs × 0.45


  • Length: For measuring length, the most commonly used unit is feet in the US.




Emergency Services

In case of emergencies, the primary contact number is 911 for immediate assistance. You need to dial 911 from your phone (anywhere in the US). It's beneficial to be aware of the locations of nearby hospitals and clinics, ensuring that you're well-informed about where to seek help in unexpected situations.


If you have specific medical conditions, it's advisable to purchase medical insurance before traveling, as healthcare services in the US can be costly. However, the decision to buy health insurance is not mandatory and depends on individual preferences.



Driving in the US

In the US, driving happens on the right side of the road, and cars are left-hand drive. This means the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, and you'll be driving on the right side of the road. It might feel a bit different if you're used to driving on the left like in India, but you'll get used to it.


Also, driving in the lane is important. Do not blow a horn unless someone has made a mistake. Give preference to pedestrians and bike riders.


In addition to driving on the right side of the road with a left-hand drive, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind while driving in the US. First, most gas stations are self-service, so you'll need to pump your gas. In the US, gas means petrol.


Second, be aware of toll roads, especially on highways. Some roads require toll payments, and you might encounter toll booths or electronic toll collection systems. You can also avoid them by adding filters to your Google Maps.



But in case you use toll roads, try to make the payment within 5 days otherwise you will be fined. And the fine is a lot, for example, for a 2$ toll, the fine will be 50$.


For the first-time mistake usually, tolls waive the fine if you request them (call them) but why wait for that situation? Keep some cash or a card handy for toll payments, or pay them online by searching your vehicle number plate.


Here are some commonly used terms which you will encounter:


  • Freeways: High-speed, divided highways for long-distance travel.

  • Ramp/Exits: An inclined entrance or exit, used to get on and off freeways.

  • Avenue/Boulevard/Street: Different terms for roadways, with avenues often running north-south and boulevards east-west, while streets are general terms.

  • Ct (Court): A short road typically ending in a cul-de-sac or loop.

  • Bike Lane: Designated lanes for cyclists on the road, promoting bicycle safety and commuting.

  • Gas station: Means petrol pump.




Public Transportation

If you prefer not to drive, public transportation options like buses, trains, and subways are also available, but sometimes they will be very limited. You will notice most of the people in the US rely on private transport like cars.


However, if you have to travel by public transport, tickets can be purchased at stations or online/ apps, and it's essential to familiarize yourself with popular routes and bus schedules (you can find them on Google Maps).


Different cities may have unique payment methods, so understanding the local public transport system will make your travel more convenient and efficient.



Things to Know About USA

  • No First Floor Concept: In the US, buildings often skip the "first floor". What might be called the first floor in India is labeled as the ground floor in the US. So, when you see a building with floors, remember, the first floor there is what you'd call the second floor in India. It's a little different!


  • Ice in Drinks Everywhere: Americans often enjoy their drinks with a generous amount of ice, something you might find surprising if you're used to drinks without much or any ice in India.


  • J-walking is a Thing: Jaywalking means crossing the street in the middle instead of using a crosswalk. If you decide to jaywalk, you could be breaking a rule. In India, it is quite common to do so.


  • Drive-Through Everything: Americans love the convenience of drive-throughs. You can get fast food and coffee, and even do your banking without leaving your car.



  • Flags Everywhere: The American flag is all around - on houses, cars, and clothes. You'll notice it more frequently compared to how flags are commonly seen in India.


  • Saying Sorry a Lot: Americans apologize a bunch, even for little things. It's just part of being polite, and you might hear 'sorry' even when it's not necessary.

  • Barbecues Any Day: Americans don't save barbecues for weekends. They'll grill up burgers and hot dogs even on a regular weekday. It's a year-round thing.



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