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While much of my time has been spent living in the UK as an American, an increasing amount has been spent in the USA with my British husband, seeing the bright lights, straight roads, and free refills of America through his eyes. From the USA ESTA process to tipping culture, here are my top 5 tips on things Brits should know before they travel anywhere in the USA.
1. Not Every State is the Same
The USA is about 40 times bigger than the United Kingdom.
And within that absolutely massive amount of space are 50 states, each with their own culture, customs, and sometimes, even vocabulary!
Your experience in Texas is going to be vastly different than your experience in Rhode Island, and California is nothing like North Carolina.
When you plan your trip, if you’re planning on visiting more than one state, do some research into each separately instead of assuming it’s all the same.
For instance, in Florida, the roads are mostly straight – hardly a bend in sight.
The driving is mostly gridded, with 90 degree turns and very wide roads.
In Massachusetts, on the other hand, you’re going to find more bendy driving like you’re used to and smaller roads – it was, after all, home to one of the first American colonies and that means that the founders built it more like they were used to back home across the pond.
America can usually be grouped into “regions” like the Southeast, Southwest, Northeast, etc, and you will usually find similar cultures between states in the same region.
So Georgia and Alabama have a lot more in common than Mississippi and Maine, and Washington and Oregon in the Northwest are going to share a lot more similarities than Texas and Connecticut, for instance.
2. Sales Tax is Added At the Register
Unlike in the UK where VAT is already added in the displayed price, sales tax differs in the US across each state and each county within that state.
This means that sales tax is usually not included in the price you see displayed in the store, and will be added at check-out.
Be prepared for this so you don’t get caught out thinking that you can buy the candy bar listed for $1.00 with only a $1.00 bill in your pocket, because it will probably end up being a few cents more.
If you want to learn more about the sales tax where you’ll be traveling, check out this helpful guide on local sales tax rates.
3. Free Refills on Soft Drinks
When you order a soft drink in the USA, it is almost always assumed that you will get free refills.
The waiter or waitress will continue filling up your drink unless you ask them to stop, and you won’t be charged extra.
This is very different when compared to the UK, where free refills is almost unheard of and you are expected to pay for each drink you consume.
If it’s alcohol, then all bets are off and of course do not expect free refills.
4. Tipping Isn’t Suggested, It’s Basically Required
While tipping at restaurants is a common practice in the UK these days, it’s not seen as socially required and instead is for good service.
Even when you tip in the UK, you may tip something close to 5 to 10 percent.
In the US, there is a strong “tipping culture,” and oftentimes a waiter or waitress will rely on these tips for their wages.
Tipping is culturally seen as a must-do, with 15-20% being standard regardless of the service, and at least 20% for great service (if not more).
Tipping is also more common when it comes to getting your haircut, taking a taxi, taking a tour, getting drinks at the bar, and a number of other experiences that you might not always tip for in the UK.
Carry around extra cash on you and ask someone around you what the custom is for that activity if you’re not sure.
5. Most UK Citizens Need a USA ESTA for Travel
While US citizens can simply come into the UK without being preapproved for a travel visa, don’t assume this is the case when you’re a UK citizen visiting the US on vacation.
If you do not apply for an ESTA beforehand, you will be denied entry when checking in for your flight and it’s not something you want to risk.
Luckily, applying for a USA ESTA is amazingly easy.
It’s all done online, and there is no need to visit an embassy or do anything more complicated than fill out an online form with your identification information and a few other questions about your background.
ESTAs last for 2 years, and you can use it for multiple trips to the USA within that time, as long as each trip is less than 90 days (and of course consult official advice before your travels, this is not immigration advice!).
To apply for an ESTA, simply fill out a form with e-visa and you’ll be on your way to exploring the beautiful roads, states, and culture of my homeland!
Make sure to have your passport information on hand when you fill out the application for each person in your family, as well as dates of travel and any countries you’ve visited recently.
It only takes about 5 minutes per application, and the cost is £29.95 for each one (lasting 2 years, though, remember).
If you didn’t know about the ESTA before your trip and have suddenly realized as you’re going to check-in for your flight or last-minute, there is also an “urgent” option that may have your application come back within an hour if it is a straightforward application.
The ESTA records are logged in a central database, so even if you forget to print your approved ESTA information out, they will still be able to look you up in the system and send you on your happy way when you land, but I always recommended printing it out just in case.