What to know before going to the USA

Every country is a custom. Find out what customs and solutions are used in the USA, and thus avoid unnecessary disappointments or even problems while away.

One of the best things about traveling is being amazed at the different customs, food, landscapes, and architecture of the places you go to. However, it is better to be prepared for certain things to avoid overpaying, troubles, and disappointments. So here are some tips to get to know before going to the USA.

In this article you will find among others:

  • what documents are valid for the trip to the USA,
  • how to prepare for flight,
  • what is jet lag and how to overcome its unpleasant effects,
  • will the electrical equipment imported from Poland work in the USA,
  • what measures are used in the US instead of meters, liters and kilograms,
  • where to shop in the US,
  • on what terms alcohol and cigarettes can be bought in the USA,
  • is every purchase really refundable in the US,
  • why the prices at the counter are higher than on the shelf in the store,
  • how to get around the USA,
  • how to pay for refueling,
  • what to expect from the Americans,
  • if tips are mandatory in the US,
  • why you have to carry a dime in the US.

Visa promise and US visa

As you probably already know, to travel to the USA, you need a visa in your passport. Or rather: a visa promise, which does not yet guarantee entry into the United States. You can obtain the correct visa only after a short conversation with the immigration officer at the US airport. However, he also has the right to refuse you entry to the USA and have you return to Poland at his own expense. We wrote more about this in the articles “Visa to the US and the visa promise” and “Interview with the immigration officer in the US”.

Customs declaration before entering the US

Another important document is the custom’s declaration. You will get it from the crew on the plane flying to the States. If you are traveling with loved ones, you can complete one form together. It should include, inter alia, personal data as well as the address where you will be found in the USA. If you only know the name of the hotel you are staying in – it should be enough, add only the name of the town where the hotel is located.

In the custom’s declaration, according to its name, you must also consider whether you are carrying anything that requires customs duty, is intended for trade, etc. In point 11, you should also indicate whether you have in your luggage (both handheld and registered) some food products. Providing false information on this matter may result in a fine of 10,000 dollars in case of a random check. Certain things cannot be brought to the States. And it’s not only about drugs, but also about such “innocent” things as … Habanos sausages. You can read more about this in the article “Things must not be brought into the US”.

Flight to the States and jet lag

After reading it, you will know better how to pack when you want to take with you, among other food, alcohol, or medication. Regardless of this, get ready for the flight itself, taking in your hand luggage, among others wet wipes or moisturizing cream. Thanks to this, the journey lasting 8-9 hours will become more comfortable. For the same reason, remember not to wear tight-fitting clothes or high heels, because when changing the height and pressure, you should keep your body free to circulate (and stimulate it from time to time, e.g., by walking).

Changing the time zone, in turn, after arrival may cause the so-called jet lag. It manifests itself, inter alia, in tiredness or irritability and may last from one day to a week. To minimize its effects, it is worth “switching” to the local time as soon as possible. So go to sleep and get up according to what the American watch shows, and not when you feel like it because the latter is due to the habits of the Polish time zone (if you usually go to bed in Poland at 23, then e.g., in Chicago it is 6 in the morning, which is a moderately good time to fall asleep).

Lot do USA i jet lag

US Electrical Equipment

There are two things you need to keep in mind when you take with you equipment that needs to be connected to it. First: American contacts have a different shape, so European plugs will not fit. A special adapter is needed. You can buy it in Poland, although much more expensive than in the States. On the other hand, it may be difficult to access in the United States (some hotels offer rental services). You should also know that while the adapter should be enough to charge the phone or camera, it can be a problem with larger devices (such as a hairdryer or razor).

The second thing is the voltage of the electricity network. In Poland, it is 220-230 V as standard, while in the United States it is much lower (120 V). If your equipment says that it works in the 110-240V range, you’ll be fine. But if the operating range is limited to 220-240 V, then you need an adapter – quite large, heavy, and more difficult to access than adapters.

Dates, measures and weights in the US

Another important piece of information is that Americans write the dates first give the month, then the day and year, use degrees Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (for conversion it is worth using one of the online calculators, e.g. this one), and also do not use the notions of meter, liter or kilogram. They have their own system of measures and weights in which:

  • 1 inch (inch) equals approx. 2.5 cm
  • 1 foot is approx. 30 cm
  • 1 yard is less than a meter
  • 1 mile is just over 1.5 km
  • 1 pound is less than half a kilo
  • 1 oz (ounce, oz.) is less than 30 g
  • 12 fluid ounces equals 355 ml
  • 1 gallon equals 3.78 liters

Please note this when shopping. The price of fruit, for example, will be per pounded rather than a kilogram, while fuel is sold by gallons, not liters.

Shopping in the USA

While we’re already shopping, it’s worth knowing that most things in the US are more expensive than in Poland. So it’s good to stock up in supermarkets such as the famous Walmart, as well as cheap stores with a dollar in the name (e.g., Dollar Tree or Dollarama). The latter is often the only place in the area where you can buy  food – apart from the ubiquitous fast food outlets, of course. You will also get beer and wine there, but for alcohol high-percentage alcohol you will have to go to the “liquor store” in the USA. Remember that alcoholic drinks are only sold to people who are 21 years old (and the accompanying people must have at least that number). Interestingly, cigarettes – contrary to appearances, much less popular in the States than in Europe – can be purchased from the age of 18.

In chains such as Target and K-mart, there are rather few food products, and their prices are often higher and the quality is quite the opposite. In Walmartach, the choice of food and actually all other goods is huge. So be prepared for quite a long search for what you need.

The lines at the store’s returns points are also long. Because it is true that within 90 days of purchase, you can return virtually everything that many people use (including because the quality of many products available in the USA – not only food – leaves a lot to be desired). All you need to do is show the receipt and provide a reason such as “I don’t like it” or “it looked different in the ad”.

Nobody will take into account your doubts that the amount due for purchases on the receipt is higher than it would appear from the prices indicated on the goods. These are net prices, to which a tax is added at the checkout (in Poland already included in the final price of the product). It ranges from a few to a dozen or so percent, depending on what you buy and what state you are in.

Zakupy w USA - Walmart, duże markety

US law

Individual states differ not only in the amount of taxes but also in some laws. What is allowed in one state may result in arrest or a fine in another. State boundaries are often unmarked, so be careful not to unknowingly commit an offense.

Moving around the US

The differences may concern, for example, the permitted speed on the roads and the penalties for exceeding it. As a rule, however, for example, you can turn right at the red light (this is our “green arrow”, only in default mode).

A local curiosity about moving around the USA is the presence of lanes on some roads marked with the words “Carpools Only “. Usually, there are no traffic jams on them, and they can only be used by cars that have at least one person in addition to the driver. This solution aims to promote travel in larger groups, and thus reduce the number of vehicles, which in turn leads to the reduction of the aforementioned traffic jams and exhaust emissions.

It is a pity that, on the other hand, in the United States public mass transport is not doing well. In large cities with buses or subways, this is not such a problem. But if you plan to visit smaller cities or travel long distances, rent a car is your best bet.

You may have come across the statement that everything is bigger in the US. Basically, it’s true. There are even bigger cars, shops, or food portions (only the classic BigMac has the same size all over the world). But what is really huge is the ” long-distance ” just mentioned, and therefore perceived by Americans quite differently than by Europeans.

The norm is a daily commute of 100 km and a three-hour drive for lunch or shopping. If someone in the US tells you that they live close to the airport, it may be an hour on the highway. Therefore, most often distances are not given in miles, but in terms of the time needed to cover them.


Because you can travel from one place to another, and for a few hours through complete desolation, you should refuel not when the reserve is on, but about halfway through the tank.

It is worth mentioning at this point that you pay in advance at many gas stations – only then the distributor is unlocked. You can pay with a card, but Polish cards, unfortunately, do not work here. However, they operate in the ATMs present at the stations, from where you can withdraw cash to pay at the cash desk. If it is difficult to estimate how much it will cost to fill the tank, it is better to pay too much – any excess money will be returned.

In addition to fuel in the car, you should always have food and water in case of a breakdown and the need to wait a long time for help. It is difficult to call her on the phone, because “long distances” also mean problems with phone coverage. Usually, all that remains is to wait for a car to pass – it may take several hours, but the driver will probably also stop and rescue you.

Tankowanie w USA

People in the USA

Most of the people in the USA are helpful, polite, and friendly. Especially representatives of the Police who may have a bad association in Poland. It won’t be uncommon for a stranger to smile at you, say “good morning”, or even have a small talk – especially in the checkout line, in an elevator, or on the subway. This does not immediately mean that the person wants to take a closer acquaintance (or do anything to you). It is fine to reciprocate the kindness shown.

Tipping and restaurants in the US

People serving you in the restaurant will also be nice and smiling. In this case, however, the gratitude should not only be a smile, but also a tip, because most of the waiter’s earnings come from this source.

In the US it is somewhat compulsory and the question is not whether, but how much to leave. Usually 15-20% of the order value. Sometimes the suggested tip is stated on the bill, other times it is simply added to the bill.

The price usually includes a refill of the drink you order, and coffee and water are often free (the water is usually tap water – safe to drink, but incredibly chlorinated). Ice water, in turn, is an inseparable component of cool drinks. If you do not want ice, you must say so clearly when placing your order.

Air conditioning in the USA

Americans in general seem to like the cold. This is probably why air conditioning at high speed works not only in restaurants, but also in bars, shops, cars, and private homes. With time, you get used to it, but especially at the beginning, dry air and rapid temperature changes (which outside can be even a dozen or so degrees higher) can be quite unpleasant.

Quarter Dollars

Finally, it is worth mentioning the 25-cent coins, or quarters. Why is it so important? Well, these are often the only coins accepted by American self-service machines. And there are a lot of these, as well as opportunities to take advantage of them. From washing machines and dryers to parking meters, to showers (e.g. at camping sites) and air conditioners in hotels. Sometimes you have to put more coins in one machine, so you just have to have a quarter of a dollar with you. You can get them at the hotel reception, but also, for example, buy 10-20 pieces in rolls at the post office.

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