One of my UK students is going to visit the USA soon, so I promised this overdue blog.
As a Brit visiting the USA there are certain things that can leave you a bit baffled, that just work differently (I’m a legal alien). There is nothing more embarrassing to us than causing minor inconvenience as a result, so here are some pointers (mostly applicable in Canada too!).
Taxes – it is almost impossible to work out the cost of anything before you buy it in the USA, either on price tags or menus. Various state and federal taxes are added at the till, probably to rub them in your face so that you aren’t tempted to become too socialist. So don’t try to buy something with a $10 price tag if you only have $10 in your pocket. I don’t know whether Americans are all great at mental arithmetic, or whether they are happy just estimating and tend to use credit cards all the time.
Tips – it’s much more expected in USA to give (what seems to us) a generous tip, about 15-20% of the pre-tax bill for normal service. Rather than just tipping table waiting staff, who are pretty much the only people to reliably get tips in the UK, you tip a lot more people. The ones most likely to catch you out are: a dollar for each drink for bar staff (even if you go to the bar yourself or sit at the bar), the hotel porter who grabs your suitcase for you if you go to a hotel that is a bit posh, and taxi drivers (Uber is useful here nowadays to include a sensible amount easily). There’s actually a lower minimum wage for staff who can get tips in most states in the USA, so it’s definitely not cricket to give just UK tips!
The Bill Ritual – in the UK you look at the amount, tap the machine for contactless payment and you are done (or if it is over £100, put your card in the machine and type in PIN). In the USA there is The Ritual for paying for things in cafe/restaurant/bar/hotel which takes some getting used to:
- Ask for the “check” and wait for them to bring the bill over. I don’t know what they call cheques.
- Put your debit/credit card with the bill and display prominently on the edge of table.
- Wait a few minutes for them to take it away and bring it back (note to Americans, don’t ever let your credit card out of your sight in the UK, you must be a lot more honest than we are). Presumably card details or pre-authorisation are taken behind the scenes.
- There will be gaps at the bottom of the bill when they bring it back. Write on a Tip and then Full Amount (to save on arithmetic I sometimes just put a bigger round full amount and don’t worry about the tip line, I do not know if this is breaking convention but it seems to satisfy The Ritual).
- Sign your name (in the UK before we had chip and pin, staff used to check your signature against the one on the back of your card, but again Americans are more trusting and don’t seem to bother with that step as you’ve already got your card back at this point).
- There are two copies of the bill, one for you and one for them, repeat 4 and 5 on the other one.
- Stick one copy in your wallet and leave the other one on the table.
- You can then leave the venue immediately without talking to anyone if you are confident you have mastered The Ritual. But you can hand it over and ask for confirmation it is all OK if you are feeling British. I recommend the latter until you feel you have mastered The Ritual.
Getting some dollars – Don’t bother getting any dollars from a Bureau de Change in the airport, they give you an awful exchange rate. It is always a better exchange rate with your debit card in cash machines in the airport when you land. A free Monzo account charges 0% currency fees when you pay by card and lets you get a bit of cash out of machines for free each month (£200 worth of cash every 30 days, and 3% after that). For comparison, with HSBC it is 2.75% on all debit card transactions and at least 4.75% on cash machine transactions, and more for credit cards. Even if your bank does charge currency exchange fees, they will still be less than a Bureau de Change, so use the cash machine anyway!
Cash Machines 1 – when you put your debit card in a cash machine in the US it will ask you an unfamiliar question: to ‘choose between Checking/Savings/Credit‘. If you press the wrong button the withdrawal might fail. ‘Checking‘ seems to work, I’ve no idea whether Americans have one card for three accounts or what. You might want to warn your bank you are going abroad so they don’t stop your card when you get there and leave you in a pickle (can usually do this via internet banking, or you don’t need to bother with this for Monzo).
Cash Machines 2 – If a cash/card machine asks whether you want to bill your card in GBP say “No use dollars”. You will always get a worse exchange rate than your bank uses if you say yes.
What cheese would you like? You could be asked this at cafes/restaurants/bars and in particular in a classic roadside diner or burger joint. In the UK this question would make no sense – we would reply with things like “Wensleydale”, “Stinking Bishop” or “Double Gloucester” or hundreds of other possible cheeses and the proprietor could not possibly stock even the sensible/common replies. In the USA as far as I can work out there are just 3 cheeses: American (the luminous square squishy plastic stuff); Cheddar; and Swiss. Cheddar is the safest option.
How would you like your eggs? In the UK the answers are “boiled”, “fried”, “scrambled” and (if you are somewhere posh) “poached”. That is pretty much the same in the USA, but being the land of customer service, there are extra options to say exactly how you would like fried eggs cooked as well:
- “Sunny-side up”: fried, but not flipped, very soft yolk (the normal UK style of fried egg).
- “over-easy”, “over-medium”, or “over-hard”: fried then flipped and left long enough that the yolk is still runny, slightly soft, or hard, respectively.
Take passport to bars – because drinking age is 21 it seems like the policy is “ask for ID if they haven’t got grey hair” in many bars. So you could well be asked for ID even if that hasn’t happened in the UK for years.
Free refills – definitely an improvement on the UK! Nearly every pub/diner/restaurant will give you free refills on “soda” (that is fizzy/soft drinks) and you just ask for a refill as many times as you like. Generally waiting staff will periodically ask if you’d like a refill, and it is safe to just say yes. There might be some etiquette in terms of a limit that I don’t know, but nobody’s been visibly annoyed about this even when having as much as I could possibly drink.
Electric plugs – no most things aren’t earthed, yes it is normal for live terminals to be visible when the plug dangles out of the wall, and for you to see sparks when you plug things in. It’s a wonder everything in the US hasn’t burnt down. If you want to see a well-designed plug, visit the UK! You’ll want to buy a plug adaptor before you go.
Turning at cross roads – most people know it is legal for drivers to turn right at a red traffic light in the US as long as nothing is coming (exceptions being New York City or when there is a red right arrow). What is not common knowledge is that unlike UK there is no separate “pedestrians cross” in the traffic light sequence, and so pedestrians take their chances when some cars are moving towards them. That means it is NOT SAFE to turn on a green light when there are no cars in the way like it would be in the UK; you might kill a stream of pedestrians who have the green man/WALK symbol for walking across at the same time as you do to drive across their crossing! So unless you are going straight ahead you need to give way to pedestrians, even on a green light. Counter-intuitively, you won’t kill any pedestrians on the right if you do turn right on a red light, because they won’t be walking across then. Confused? You will be. Just be very careful. Luckily roads are wider and drivers tend to be a bit slower and more relaxed (because they drive automatics that don’t accelerate very well is my guess). Canadians are even more relaxed, and there you should give way to any pedestrian anywhere as far as I could work out.
Equally, as a pedestrian, don’t be surprised when cars rush up to you whilst you are using a crossing. It is a bit unnerving but they should always give way if you are walking on a ‘WALK’ symbol!
Quirky petrol pumps – some US petrol stations, generally older ones out in the sticks, have pumps where you have to lift a handle after taking out the nozzle, like this. There are none of these in the UK! If you don’t know, you will stand there like a lemon for quite a long time wondering why the pump won’t work, before you finally give up and embrace the embarrassment, talk to the attendant, and have them look at you like you’ve never filled up a car before. They also call petrol “gas”. USA also use different octane calculation so their 3 choices (87 Regular, 89 Plus, 91+ Super) and are not as rough as they sound to UK ears (where the options are normal 95 or super 97+): consult inside of petrol cap to see which you should use. Incidentally, USA also has a smaller gallon than the UK (3.785 versus 4.546 litres), so your miles per gallon are not lower just because of inefficient “gas-guzzling” automatic cars!
Take a pen on the plane – you have to fill in a form to give to the customs people when you land, and it wants to know where you will be staying, so also make sure you have written that down somewhere before you get on the flight, or in case you run out of phone battery by the time you get there. Also take phone charger and adapter in hand luggage so you can charge it if your luggage gets lost!
ESTA – a few weeks before you go be sure to get your ESTA (electronic visa waiver). Don’t just click the top link after googling: it will be a scam site taking a cut for no good reason, or just stealing your money and details! Look for the one with web address ending ‘.gov’.
Global Entry – If you are going to the US fairly regularly as a UK citizen, consider paying a bit more for Global Entry. You first have to pay for a UK background check (£42), then apply to US system ($100). You also need to be in the USA to activate it: after a discussion with/grilling by a border agent, they register your passport to allow you to use the automated Global Entry gates like the locals, and then you can save yourself an hour or more in immigration queues every time you visit, for the next 5 years.
They don’t mean to be rude
You may arrive in the USA and ask at an information desk “Excuse me, would you mind telling me how to get to…?”, they might say something like “OK, here’s wattcha gonna do!“. Try and resist the urge to say “I will be the judge of that, my good man“, it is just their abrupt way and they aren’t trying to be rude.
Anything else I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!