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Cultural Guidelines for Visiting the US

This is not an immigration guide.

This is a CULTURAL GUIDE to being a foreign tourist in the United States. It is my own biased opinion based on experiences shared with me by friends and colleagues who have visited from abroad. Although this information is biased towards visiting BOSTON, it applies generally well on the US EAST COAST and Chicago. It does NOT apply to the WEST COAST or to Texas (but nothing applies to Texas).


Understand first that foreign languages are not generally appreciated by Americans. All of the adventure to trying to communicate with foreigners, trying to find common ground, trying to get by with a few phrases goes out the window in the US. Generally, speaking if you go to a restaurant and don't speak English well, nobody is going to work terribly hard to communicate with you. For this reason, foreigners who speak English well will have a much easier time. Northern Europeans (Scandinavians, Germans, etc) have a very easy time visiting the US and being accepted. Asian people encounter far more discrimination but if their English is good, they will do well. Unfortunately, African people who do not speak English flawlessly encounter an uphill battle communicating as visitors. That being said, we have few African tourists (other than South Africans, who are usually welcomed with open arms).

The grand exception to this, and it is within the past twenty years, is SPANISH. So much Spanish is spoken by working class Americans that visitors from Spain or South America may very well encounter someone who speaks Spanish in almost any urban area. In such case, they will share a private bond, and will get along marvelously. However, there is no guarantee that walking into a particular hotel will find you a Spanish speaking staff member (other than in house keeping). In Texas, Miami and the entire Southwest, you will find much much more Spanish spoken and could conceivably get by on Spanish. However, non-Spanish speakers will treat you with the same discrimination that they would treat a Japanese speaker.

There is some French spoken in Maine, but most French speaking visitors are well educated in English and it would be a stretch to say that you can GET BY with French in Maine other than in the extreme north where some very small towns actually speak French instead of English. If you are going this far, you probably aren't a tourist.


Discrimination is everywhere in the world so the US is no exception. One of the advantages to America is that it is a land of immigrants, and therefore our skin color is white, black, yellow and orange. In cities, you will find almost no discrimination whatsoever. Asian tourists are sometimes ridiculed privately for seeming stereotypical (with their cameras and giggly groups) but are not mistreated. Scandinavian tourists are envied for being so tall and attractive. Australians on the other hand are treated virtually like locals as our cultures tend to be quite similar.

Outside of the cities, you may be in places that are more homogeneous and where fewer foreigners frequent. Still, there is as much discrimination against African Americans as there is against African visitors (again, which are very few).


The US has a weird fetish with under age drinking. We are very hard line about drinking ages and if you are under 40, you should expect to have to show ID before ordering alcohol. The drinking age in most US states (including Massachusetts) is 21. Do not share even your dinner wine with your kids here (even if they are eight years old). Any drinking under age is strongly frowned upon. European's think we are weird because we glorify and overuse alcohol as a society in general, but as soon as someone is shy of their 21st birthday, we treat drinking like a horrendous crime. In Massachusetts you cannot purchase alcohol at a supermarket, but other states do not have this law. A store which sells alcohol is called a PACKAGE STORE (probably because you exit carrying a brown paper package). Locals call these stores PACKIES. Driving while under the influence (OUI or DUI) is as illegal here as in Europe and just as dangerous so don't do it.


Laws which prohibit drug use in Europe are typically similar in the U.S. I urge foreign visitors who are considering drug use during their visit to reconsider this. It is simply not worth the risk when you visit a foreign country to break the law, and if you must drown out your feelings, then just stick to alcohol, presuming you are over 21 years old. Marijuana in Massachusetts and several other states has been decriminalized. This means that you receive a citation if you possess a small amount (ie - enough for you and a friend to smoke). A citation is similar to a speeding ticket, and while it is still breaking the law you are not an arrested criminal. You simply must pay a fine. However, understand that as a visitor in another country, you have been granted a privilege of visitation. The U.S. government does not have to allow you to stay. Therefore, if you do break the law even in this minor way, you could risk having your visa revoked. Again, my best advice is when visited the U.S. to abide by our laws and stay away from drugs.


Prostitution is illegal in all U.S. states except for certain counties in Nevada.


Calling for help in the U.S. is very easy. Whether you need to reach the police, the fire department or an ambulance, simply dial 911 from any phone including a pay phone or mobile phone. However, understand that this is an emergency number, and you must have a true emergency. If you dial 911 because you are lost or forgot how to say 'fish' in English, you will pay for this mistake.


Forget trying to use EURO here. Even cab drivers have no interest in your €2 tip. You must have US dollars. Also, do not expect to find foreign exchange booths outside of the airport. They are virtually non-existent in the US, outside perhaps of New York City in the summer.


In the US the service is NOT compris. This means that the tip in a restaurant is never included unless you have a party of six of more people (in which case it is typically calculated for you and added to the bill and this will be shown). You must always leave a tip. Below 15% is considered 'stiffing' and 18-20% is the most common. Taxis generally expect 18% at minimum and up to 30 or 35% if they did a great job.


In the US we call them CELL PHONES and the word MOBILE is rarely used. The US has 4-6 carriers per city and there are carriers using both CDMA and GSM systems*. The latter will generally service most foreign visitors and our two GSM carriers (AT&T and T-MOBILE) both have roaming agreements with virtually all foreign GSM providers. So, as long as you are not visiting from Japan, you will probably have no issues using your mobile phone here in the US as long as your phone is tri-band (or quad band) since our GSM carriers do use the 1900mhz band which is also used in the Caribbean. The one issue however is that all mobile providers are private companies, not government. Therefore, service is not guaranteed everywhere. Certain areas still have spotty service, but most visitors never encounter these places. Do keep in mind that rural areas will sometimes lack GSM coverage, so if you are going into the mountains or camping, be aware that you may not be able to use your cell phone.

* For more information about how mobile phones work and the differences between GSM and CDMA, see my cell phone page.


All US phone numbers are 10 digits (without exception). The first three digits are the area code, the next three are the exchange and the last four are the number. So, the number 617-439-7000 for the Boston Harbour Hotel is divided as follows:

617 - This is one area code for Boston. Metro Boston also has other area codes such as 781-339-774-and 508.

439 - Used to be the exchange was unique to the town or part of the town but in todays world, the exchange really doesn't mean alot.

7000 - The rest of the number

When making local calls within an area code (ie - if you are calling the hotel from a local restaurant) just dial the 10 digits like this: 617 439 7000

In all other cases (and really in most cases), you must dial "1" first and then the number. So, if you were calling the hotel from another nearby town, or from NY or from LA, you would dial this way:

1 617-439-7000


Leave it to the US to be different right? The International Access Code is 011 in the US. The rest of the world uses 00 (or the plus sign "+" which is not used in the US). So, to call the Georges V Hotel in Paris from the US you would dial this way:

011 - 33 - 1 - 49- 52- 70- 00

In summary:

- To call a US phone from a nearby US phone, dial the 10 digits only just like this 617-439-7000

- To call a US phone from another US phone that is not local (ie - not nearby), dial 1 first, like this: 1-617-439-7000 (most mobile phones do not require the "1" first, so if it does not work, just try the ten digits without the "1")

- To call international from a US phone (or a mobile phone while in the US), dial 011 + country code + number, like this: 011-33-1-49-52-70-00


Europeans will be delighted by U.S. hotels. They are generally more modern, much larger, have more comfortable beds and have more amenities than those in Europe. Prices are also much lower, with the exception of my own fine city of Boston. All Boston hotels are overpriced. Expect to spend $300 in the summer, unless you want to stay by the highway outside the city. Unlike in Europe, the term 'tourist hotel' does not refer to a lower priced hotel. Many tourist hotels cater to wealthy visitors. They just tend to focus more on day spas and high quality food, rather than fax machines and two phone lines. Here are some basic chain summaries (not all inclusive of course). :

Sheraton/Hyatt/Hilton - Both typically in major cities, upscale and expensive business hotels for travelers not looking for a discount.

Four Seasons - Same as above but typically more geared towards wealthy tourists and weddings. Tend to be more classy and less business oriented.

W Hotels - More stylish and trendy than the former and also quite expensive.

Marriott/Wyndham - Similar to Sheraton and Hyatt but a step down in price, services and luxury.

Courtyard by Marriott/Holiday Inn Express/Clarion Inn/Best Western/Hampton Inn - More like a roadside motel but typically clean, modern and comfortable. Be aware that Best Westerns in the U.S. are not like those in Europe. In Europe, they are quite nice, independent, hotels of character and local quality. In the U.S. they are just motels and nothing more. It is the same chain but it is a completely different format. Do not expect a home cooked meal at U.S. Best Western!

Fairfield Inn - Typically about the same as the above, though occasionally slightly lower. I will mention that I recently stayed in a Hampton Inn which was really excellent. I will have to stay in others to see if it was just that particular hotel or if the chain itself has raised the bar.

Holiday Inn/Sleep Inn/Comfort Inn - Similar to the above but not as consistently nice. Some are older and need updating. Note that HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS is a new concept with Holiday Inn. See above.

Days Inn - Yet another step down. Can be quite old. They are typically cheap though.

Motel 6 - A budget motel with limited services HOWEVER they do tend to be more consistently clean and well maintained, probably due to them being owned by European hotel group Accor (who also owns Mercure and Ibis).

Red Roof Inn / Econolodge- Similar to Motel 6 but not as consistently clean. Some are equivalent and some are really old and dirty.


Eating food in the US is quite safe. Although our standards are very slightly lower than in France and England, the difference is marginal. As with any western country, the US has a blinding array of food types from American, to BBQ to Tex Mex, to Italian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese to Mexican and a hundred other choices in between. Officially, "American Food" is considered to be "Meat and Potatoes" aka a burger and fries or a steak and fries. Tap water, though different in different parts of the US, is basically safe to drink (potable). It is not always the best tasting and some of it is not great for you if you drink it for years on end. But in terms of harmful bacteria, there is no issue unless the water supply has been jeopardized as sometimes happens during floods.


WI FI is commonplace in the US. Hotels, airports and cafes all have it. Some are free and some make you pay. Europe has generally caught up with the US on this, so European visitors will find similar situations to that which they encounter at home. Pay internet in the US (which is becoming less and less common) is generally cheaper than in Europe. Still, with smart phones all the rage, who wants to schlep a laptop with them on a plane anymore?


We drive on the right side of the road. You can turn on red unless there is a sign (common) which says NO TURN ON RED. Generally, you pump your own gas at gas stations (except in New Jersey!). Almost all cars have automatic transmission (and 100% of rental cars do) so give that clutch foot a rest. 

Renting cars in the US is infinitely quicker and easier than in Europe. The exception is in Orlando (Florida) where car rental can take all day. Crossing state lines in the US is done freely, with nothing more than a notification sign. However, certain laws change from state to state such as speed limits and the permitted use of cell phones without a headset, so watch for signs at the border. Americans generally wear their seat belts and so should you. Children under a certain age are required to be in car seats (check with the rental company as they usually have these for you). Diesel fuel is very uncommon and you will never find it in rental cars. The gas choices are just low, medium and high. I strongly recommend using the lowest (cheapest) for all rental cars. There is no rental car which really needs a higher grade of gas. Be aware that road signs typically have instructions, not symbols. For example, the no parking sign universally understood around the world to be a blue circle outlined in red and with a red diagonal slash could be replaced with a sign showing a slash through a P or a text sign (most commonly) just saying NO PARKING.


Adults do not dress markedly different here versus in Europe. However jackets and ties are less commonplace, even for business people. There are occasionally places which still require men to have a jacket but these are honestly quite stuffy and their numbers are tiny. The majority of restaurants are casual, accepting almost any dress that is nice and neat (including jeans). Oddly, American children do not dress up except for religious regions (Jewish children dress for synagogue, Catholic children dress for Mass, etc). Otherwise, American children where t-shirts and play clothes always, even to a nice dinner. It's actually a sad loss in our society and Europeans are often spotted for their better dressed and coiffed children.


The United States uses a 120v 60hz system. Therefore, European appliances and chargers will simply not work unless they are dual voltage (which thankfully more and more are today). 

So, while many laptop and cell phone chargers now will accommodate the US system, the plugs are different. Our outlets use a two or three prong, flat plug. In the case of a two prong, one prong is generally wider (we call it POLARIZED). In the case of the three prong example below, the two flat prongs are the same while the third prong (the one at the bottom) is rounded. The electricity always flows through the flat prongs. The round one is just a ground. No European country has either type of plug so you will need an adapter. This system is also used in Canada, Mexico and most of the Carribean (aside from European territories).

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