American customs: what to expect while travelling in the US


Unique American customs and cultural differences from the UK

While citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom may speak the same language, there are many unique customs and cultural differences to be discovered and enjoyed. UK travellers to the US gain fresh perspectives and new experiences related to social interactions, entertainment, food, and other elements of daily life. For a first-time traveller to the states, learning about US-American customs can facilitate smoother interactions and greater pleasure navigating this exciting and fun country.


Passing through a port of entry in the US

Travellers are advised to confirm the validity of their ESTA travel authorisation 72 hours before a trip. This will provide enough time before travel to apply for a new Visa Waiver Travel Authorisation if needed. 

While passing through customs, expect that US Customs and Border Protection agents will have a serious tone. It is best to avoid making jokes. For a smooth entrance experience, provide straight forward responses to questions including:

  • Length of stay
  • Accommodation location
  • Travel purpose

Common greetings in the US

While the handshake is traditionally the most common US greeting, for safety reasons this has changed since the pandemic. For now, depending on the formality of the encounter, the following are considered acceptable greetings within the US:

  • A head nod
  • The friendly wave
  • Placing the hand over the heart while offering a smile
  • The “Namaste” (placing the palms together and taking a slight bow)
  • The elbow bump
  • Giving the thumbs up

Lingo (language) differences to look out for

  • When entering a building in the states, the ground floor is the same as the first floor. This can be confusing for individuals from the United Kingdom, where traditionally there is the ground floor and the next level up is considered the first floor. 
  • In the UK, one would pay the bill at the end of a meal. In the US, this is also called paying the check. One can pay the check with bills however, meaning to pay with dollars or cash. Though credit cards are the norm and are widely accepted
  • The loo is commonly referred to as the restroom, bathroom, ladies’ room, or men’s room while in the US.
  • Factor in tipping, taxes, and ATM fees
  • It is not as customary to tip in the UK as it is in the US. The minimum wage in the states for tipped employees is less than a third than that of regular employees. The customer determines the actual wage through tipping. The gratuity system may include restaurant servers, bartenders, taxis, valet, bellhops/concierge, and housekeeping.  
  • Both federal and state taxes exist in the US and are usually not added into the cost of goods until the time of payment. The sales tax will vary by state. Expect to pay 5-10% more for items than what is listed.
  • Most ATMs charge a fee for use of the machine by non-customers of the bank. The fee may be anywhere from $1.50 to $10.00.  


Differences when dining out in restaurants in the United States

A noticeable difference when dining in the US verses the UK are the portion sizes. Most US meals and beverages are much larger. It is common for the restaurant to provide a “doggie-bag” or take-away container after a meal. When dining at US-American casual or fast-food restaurants, it may be expected to bus your own table after a meal. Plan to bring your ID everywhere for entry to clubs, bars, and to purchase alcoholic beverages. Regardless of the patron’s age, confirmation via ID is a legal requirement for many establishments.

Matching the US tome with manners and communication

Being on time is important for appointments and meetings with US businesses and professionals. It is a good idea to message or call when running late—even if by just five minutes. 

A no-holds-barred conversation about an intense subject like politics at a pub in the UK may be completely acceptable. Any ruffled feathers are shaken off with the next round of drinks. Be aware this situation can be quite different in the states. Controversial topics are often uncomfortable and create lasting discord for US-Americans. It may be best to avoid subjects including religion, firearms, politics, etc. and rather choose to discuss arts, entertainment, and sports. While football (soccer), cricket, tennis, and rugby are the most popular sports in the UK, they are less common in the US. Popular sports and great topics of conversation in the states include American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. 

UK citizens visiting the US may be surprised to discover that small talk with strangers is commonplace in public areas like elevators or while waiting in line. While many countries worldwide including the United Kingdom may think of this as inappropriate, for US-Americans it is considered polite conversation.

Big contrasts in roads and vehicles

While most vehicles in the United Kingdom are manual, visitors may be surprised to find that the majority of automobiles in the United States have automatic transmission. US cars are much larger that their European counterparts, and the streets are wider too. Driving for all US states and territories is conducted on the right side of the road and the steering wheel is located on the left side of the vehicle, with one exception. The unique driving situation in the US Virgin Islands involves vehicles with left sided steering wheels that drive on the left side of the road. 

State laws differ for each state in the US

Laws may vary between states and US territories. This includes laws governing driving, particularly in relation to mobile phone use, smoking and vaping, and gambling. One law that is the same in all 50 states is the legal age for consuming alcohol, which is 21. In Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands though the legal age is 18. 

Consider visitor insurance

While all four countries in the UK have universal health coverage, the US does not. Medical care in the states can be expensive for those not adequately insured. Consider purchasing visitor health insurance to prevent large medical bills should an unexpected injury or illness occur. Often visitor insurance plans include dental emergencies and travel insurance for delays or cancellations. 

Enjoy your great American adventure with ESTA

UK citizens are invited to travel "the States" with ESTA and the Visa Waiver Programme and enjoy the entertaining culture and free spirit of the US. The United States and territories are vast, spanning over 6 times zones. There are many micro-cultures within the broader US American culture to experience. With the 90-day limit of ESTA, there is plenty of time to explore. 

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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