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Introduction to USA

The USA is home to several of the world's most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.

The US was fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.

So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, 'have a nice day', drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you'd be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.


Under new regulations to be phased in toward the end of 2005, travellers from VWP-eligible countries will need to present a biometric passport or US visa to enter the country. Dates regarding the implementation of this law have been relaxed to provide relevant countries more time to make passport changes. Further details and information on the changes to the visa system can be found at the US government visa website.

Full country name: United States of America (USA)

Area: 9.63 million sq km

Population: 290 million

Capital City: Washington DC

People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)

Language: English, Spanish, Native American languages

Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)

Government: constitution-based federal republic

GDP: US$10.45 trillion

GDP per capita: US$36,300

Inflation: 2.2%

Major Industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture, telecommunications, chemicals, mining, processing and packaging

Major Trading Partners: Canada, Japan, Mexico, the EU

Member of EU: No

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Canadians need proof of Canadian citizenship or a passport to enter the USA. All other visitors must have a valid passport, which should be valid for at least six months longer than their intended stay in the USA. Travellers from countries such as Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom can enter the USA for up to 90 days under a visa-waiver program if they have a round-trip ticket that is nonrefundable in the US, and have a passport valid for at least six months past their scheduled departure date. All other travellers will need a visitor's visa. Visas can be obtained at most US consulate offices overseas; however, it is generally easier to obtain a visa from an office in one's home country. The USA is regularly adjusting entry requirements in an effort to reduce the threat of terrorism. It is imperative that travellers double- and triple-check current regulations before coming to the USA, as changes will occur for several years. A procedure introduced in 2004 requires most visitors travelling on visas to the United States to have two fingerprints scanned by an inkless device and a digital photograph taken by immigration officials upon entry at US air and seaports.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (Eastern), GMT/UTC -6 (Central), GMT/UTC -7 (Mountain), GMT/UTC -8 (Pacific Standard)

Dialling Code: 1

Electricity: 120V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Imperial

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Americans love parades and pageantry, so there's no shortage of events and festivities. Half the country comes to a standstill during the Super Bowl, the roving American-football finale held in late January. New Orleans' Mardi Gras, in February or March, is a rowdy, touristy, bacchanalian knees-up. St Patrick's Day, in mid-March, is celebrated with parades and pitchers of green beer; it's especially fervent in New York and Chicago. The Kentucky Derby is raced in Louisville in May.

Independence Day (the Fourth of July) is celebrated with lots of flag-waving patriotism, fireworks and the odd beverage. Inveterate travellers should drop into the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, in August. Halloween (October 31) is a big deal for kids, who go trick-or-treating around their neighbourhood; in Greenwich Village, West Hollywood and San Francisco the holiday is subversively celebrated with glam parades. Americans go home to mom and pop for a big feed on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November.

4 Jul - Independence Day

fourth Thu in Nov - Thanksgiving

25 Dec - Christmas Day

1 Jan - New Year’s Day

third Mon in Jan - Martin Luther King Jr Day

third Mon in Feb - Presidents’ Day

last Mon in May - Memorial Day

first Mon in Sep - Labor Day

second Mon in Oct - Columbus Day

11 Nov - Veterans’ Day

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Best time to Visit

The US is most popular with travellers during the summer, but this is when American families pack everything up and head out to visit Aunt Tilly. To avoid mobs (especially throughout the national park system), it's better to go during autumn or early spring.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: US Dollar


Budget: US$3-10

Mid-range: US$10-15

High: US$15-20

Deluxe: US$20+


Budget: US$12-60

Mid-range: US$60-100

High: US$100-180

Deluxe: US$180+

If you camp or stay in hostels, catch buses and cook your own food, you could feasibly explore the country on around USD50.00 a day. Staying in motels and eating at modest cafes will mean you'll hit the USD100.00 mark, and enjoying the convenience of a rental car will push your daily budget up to USD150.00.

Tipping is expected in cafes, restaurants and better hotels. The going rate in restaurants is 15% or more of the bill; never tip in a fast-food or self-service environment. Taxi drivers, bartenders and hairdressers depend on similar-sized gratuities. Sales taxes vary from state to state but are typically 5-8%, though some states have no sales taxes at all. Top-end accommodation also often attracts a bed tax, which can be as high as 15%. It's worth checking whether quoted prices for lodging include all relevant taxes.

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Washington DC

If civic politics is the American religion, then Washington DC is the nation's holy city. White houses, capital and pentagonal buildings, supreme courts - these monumental Lego shrines are rarefied with real power. A patriotic combination of history and histrionics: BYO wiretap.

Sightseeing in DC is a steady diet of museums and monuments. History, ethnography, flora, fauna, antiques and ancestral bones - anything you can display in a glass case, commemorate on a plaque, or stick in a cage - is available free of charge to the visitor.


Calling this quaint and charming city the 'Athens of America' might seem a bit braggadocio, but the city's 19th-century glory radiates through its grand architecture, its population of literati, artists and educators and its world-renowned academic and cultural institutions.

The image of brownstone Boston bounces off the shiny mirrored skyscrapers around it but, at street level, it's still a history buff's favourite American city. The past is everywhere, from colonial buildings downtown to the grand 19th-century mansions in South End to cosy musuems.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles has littered the world with its paraphernalia. Disneyland, movie stars, TV, fast food and hype - it's all here in overdrive. LA may be a figment of its own imagination, but if you long to stand in the footsteps of stars and breathe their hallowed air, you've come to the right place.

Things to do in LA tend to gravitate around a common theme - stars. There are so many tours and shows to attend you could forget to do anything else. However, there is culture: it is housed at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. A night at the Hollywood Bowl is also a treat.


It used to be called 'God's Waiting Room' because of the many octogenarians eking out their last moments by the pool, but today the old folks mingle with fashion designers, bikini models and Cuban émigrés, and the city that once had the highest murder rate in the US now attracts millions of tourists.

Miami's steamy hedonism, stay-forever beaches and propensity for neon tack can blind the casual visitor to its more subtle charms. If you dig a little, you'll turn up some truly impressive art, and architecture aficionados and amateurs alike will be knocked out by some of its streetscapes.

New Orleans

New Orleans seduces with Caribbean colour and waves of sultry Southern heat. Enshrouding us in dreams and ancient melodies, its sweet-tasting cocktails are laced with voodoo potions. The unofficial state motto, laissez les bons temps rouler ('let the good times roll'), pretty much says it all.

The heart and soul of the city is undoubtedly the French Quarter, all of which is a National Historic District. Most of the city's museums, historic houses and markets are found here. The Tremé district was first home to the city's black population, and the cemetery here is a grisly highlight.

New York City

They don't come any bigger than the Big Apple - king of the hill, top of the heap, New York, New York. It's got its fair share of the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses, but it also has world-class museums, big statues, even bigger buildings, outrageous excess, and a whole lot of whooo-wheee!

From the top of the Empire State Building to the bottom of a glass in a Manhattan nightclub, New York has it all. For a closer look at the city, wander through Times Square and the streets of Greenwich Village and Soho, check out the Wall Street super traders, or hop on a ferry to Staten Island.


Although dear to the hearts of America's flag-wavers, there's a lot more to Philly than the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. However, despite the support of patriots and the cappuccino set, the 'City of Brotherly Love' has long been the butt of jokes by WC Fields and other laugh-a-minute types.

Philadelphia: a year of high-school history lessons condensed into an attractive school excursion package. Start with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed. For culture fiends there are museums and galleries a-plenty.

San Francisco

San Francisco has an atmosphere of genteel chic mixed with offbeat innovation and a self-effacing quality so blatantly missing from brassy New York and plastic LA. Its hilly streets provide some gorgeous glimpses of the sparkling bay and its famous bridges.

The city's steepness makes for some wonderfully panoramic viewpoints. Spread out below you is an appetising mix of colourful neighbourhoods, bohemian history, mind-teasing art, innovative architecture and restorative parks. Go explore - by foot if you're particularly sprightly, by cable car if not.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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