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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Nelson

Tips for Visiting the United States for the First Time

For many people, the United States offers plenty of opportunities. Whether you come here for work, school, medical treatments, or simply for recreation, there is something here for everyone.

American culture can be overwhelming, though, especially if you’ve never been to the United States. On top of this, because the country is so big, there are different subcultures. Depending on where you visit, there might be different social expectations.

Before you book your flight, though, there are a few things you should know about the cultural norms here. Knowledge is power; the more knowledge you have, the easier it will be to navigate U.S. culture. There is a lot of information in this list, but don’t feel the need to memorize all of it. Most people are understanding and forgiving of foreigners, and most are more than willing to answer your questions. While social expectations can vary from region to region, here are some of the most common behavioral expectations you should know when visiting the United States.


Greetings can vary widely in the U.S., depending on which part of the country you're in. America also has a large immigrant population, especially in major cities, and they may greet people differently. In general, however, most people greet each other with a handshake, especially if you’re meeting someone for the first time. With Covid, this has changed somewhat. Many people have different attitudes towards shaking hands. For some, the widespread availability of vaccines has made them comfortable shaking hands again. When in doubt, follow the lead of the person you’re greeting. If they offer their hand, feel free to shake it.

A picture of two men in suits shaking hands.
Different people have different attitudes towards shaking hands.

Some people might not feel comfortable with handshakes, especially if they’re immunocompromised. Regardless of whether you shake hands or not, it’s important to make eye contact and speak up when you talk. If you don’t make eye contact, it can signify a lack of confidence and trustworthiness. In American culture, people who don’t make eye contact are seen as untrustworthy. Because of this, I strongly recommend making eye contact and speaking up in social situations, whether you’re talking to someone at a party, a bus stop, or anywhere in between.

Now that we know how to greet others, let’s talk about shopping in American stores.


For many, shopping is one of the best parts of traveling. After all, no vacation is complete without buying some souvenirs. Here’s what you need to know to have a smooth experience:

  • For most purchases, the cashier will add sales tax when you check out. This is because each state (and even some cities) has its own tax rate. There are generally two taxes that are added, one for state tax, and one for local tax. In my area, the tax rate is about 8% of the final price, 6% for state tax, and 2% for local tax. For example, if I made an $80 purchase, I would have to pay an additional $6.40 in taxes. The cashier will collect this money, and the store is responsible for sending the taxes to the appropriate agencies. As the shopper, you’re only responsible for paying the tax.

    • The only exceptions are with purchases considered “essential,” such as healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and meat) and prescription medication. Because these items are necessary, stores won’t charge tax for them, and you’ll only be responsible for paying the listed price.

  • More expensive items might have security tags on them. Once you pay for them, the cashiers have special machines to remove them. If you don’t remove them and try to leave the store with the item, this will set off alarms. If this happens, don’t feel bad or embarrassed. This has happened to almost everyone I know, myself included. Most employees will be understanding. If you’ve already paid for the item, they’ll double-check to ensure the security tags have been removed. If you haven’t paid, they’ll lead you to the line where you can pay for the item.

  • Some items (like electronics) are so expensive that the store keeps them behind locked glass doors. If the item you want is locked in a cabinet, find an employee for help. They have keys to unlock it, and they’ll be happy to help you.

Now that we know how to shop, let’s explore museum etiquette.


If you like history, you’ll love all of the museums the U.S. has to offer.

This is a picture of an art gallery.
There are lots of fascinating museums in the United States.

Here are some tips to have an enjoyable experience:

  • There are two different types of museums, regular museums and children’s museums. In children’s museums, kids are encouraged to touch things, explore, and play with the exhibits. It’s also acceptable for them to be a little louder, especially compared to regular museums. In regular museums, everyone is expected to talk quietly and walk, not run. If the staff thinks your group is being disruptive, they can ask you to leave.

    • If you have children under age 12, I strongly encourage you to go to a children’s museum. It will be far more enjoyable.

  • Some museums are considered federal sites. Because of this, they’re subject to additional safety measures. For example, be prepared to have your backpacks and purses searched through before you’re allowed in. You might also have to walk through a metal detector. If that’s the case, then you’ll have to remove anything made of metal (such as earrings, rings, watches, keys, and coins) and put them in a plastic tray. A security guard will feed the tray through an X-ray machine. While this happens, you’ll either walk through a metal detector or a security guard might wave an x-ray wand over you. If it doesn’t beep, you’re fine. You can collect your things and enjoy the museum.

    • If it beeps, the security guard will probably ask you a few questions. They’ll ask if you have anything else on you, if you have any pieces of metal on your clothes (like rivets on jeans) or if you have any medical devices on you. Alert them if you use any medical devices, such as a hearing aid, a pacemaker, or an artificial hip. Things like these can trigger alarms. They know how to differentiate between a medical device and an actual threat, but they need to know beforehand.

    • This process may seem invasive and time-consuming, but sadly, it’s needed to maintain safety. These procedures were signed into federal law after the 9/11 attacks and other high-profile terrorist attacks.

  • Some museums have special rules about certain exhibits. Depending on the type of exhibit, you might not be able to take pictures using flash photography, or you might not be able to take pictures at all. This is typical, especially for older, more fragile items. Repeated flashes can degrade old items, so museums prohibit this as a way to preserve them. Occasionally, there might be an item that’s so old that you can’t take any pictures of it. If either of these rules is in place, there will generally be a sign posted nearby. If you go on a tour, your tour guide will also remind you.

    • Unless otherwise specified, do not touch the exhibits, even if they’re not behind glass or a barrier. The oils and dirt on your hands can destroy paintings and objects. If this is the case, there will be a sign posted nearby, and a tour guide will also remind you.

After spending all day at museums, you’ll probably be hungry. Fortunately, there are thousands of restaurants available with every food imaginable. Let’s talk about how to eat at a restaurant in the U.S.


In the U.S., there are several different types of restaurants. These include fast-food restaurants (which are very casual) and fine dining restaurants (which are very formal).

This is a picture of an American 50s style diner.
No matter what kind of food you like, there's a restaurant for you.

Here are some things to know about restaurants and dining with others:

  • Use your silverware unless you’re eating “finger foods,” like pizza, french fries, hamburgers, fried chicken, or prepackaged snacks. Doing so is especially important with messier foods.

  • Most consider it rude to talk when your mouth is full of food. Instead, wait to speak until after you swallow.

  • Research the dress code beforehand. Fast food restaurants don’t have a dress code. However, due to federal health laws, everyone is required to wear shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt at a minimum. Depending on the restaurant, men might be required to wear a collared shirt, a dress shirt and tie, or a suit. Women might need to wear something casual (like a blouse and dark-wash jeans) or something formal (like a skirt and blouse or a dress). When in doubt, feel free to contact the restaurant for more information.

  • In the U.S., tipping is strongly encouraged, especially if you eat at a fancier restaurant. You’re also encouraged to tip more if you go with a large group (generally eight or more people), you’re going at a busy time, or if you’re especially pleased with the service you received. Usually, 15-20% of your final bill is the most appropriate amount.

    • Tipping is generally not expected for fast food restaurants. In fact, many of these restaurants have policies against tipping. However, if you had food delivered, it’s recommended to tip 15% of your final bill to the driver.

  • When you eat at a restaurant and are ready to pay your bill, the server will ask if you want one check or separate checks. If you ask for one check, that means that all of the orders at your table will be added into one large sum. If you ask for separate checks, that means each person will have their own check, and they’re only responsible for their purchases. If you have kids with you, then their purchases will go on your bill.

    • The server will give you a leather folder with a receipt in it. It will list out everything you purchased, and at the bottom, there will be a total amount that you’re responsible for paying. There’s also a line where you can add the amount you want to tip, and a line where you sign your name. You then leave your payment in the folder. If you’re paying with a credit card, the server will collect your folder, run your credit card, and charge you the appropriate amount.

    • Depending on the restaurant, you might also have to take a ticket to a counter. In that case, You’ll hand the ticket and your payment to the person at the cash register.

  • Occasionally, someone in your party might offer to pay everyone’s checks, especially if you’re here for a business trip or you’re visiting family and friends. If that’s the case, the polite thing to do is to ask and make sure. If they insist, make sure to accept their generosity and say “thank you.” If someone displays generosity towards you, it’s impolite to reject it. This might be awkward or confusing at first, especially if this doesn’t happen in your home country. For us, it’s a pretty normal thing to do, especially if we’re welcoming people from outside the country. This is our way of taking care of you and making you feel welcome.

American culture can seem overwhelming, especially if you don’t have much experience with it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. With these tips, you can navigate through unfamiliar situations and have a good time.

If you want to learn more about American culture and expand your English skills, ReDefiners World Languages has you covered. We offer online classes in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic for kids and adults. In all of our courses, we teach you about the language, as well as how to navigate the culture. For more information, please visit our website or email us at

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