Travelling to the USA?

Travelling to or in transit through the USA

If you are a UK citizen and you are travelling to (or even in transit through) the USA by air or sea you will need to pre-purchase an ESTA which you can only apply and pay for online. ESTA is a web-based system that tells you in advance whether you’re eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). You need to apply at least 72 hours in advance of travel. Please note that if you have previously had an ESTA you need to check that it’s still valid as they expire after two years. If you have a new passport you will also need to reapply for the ESTA. A detailed explanation of ESTA can be found here:

You will need a full machine-readable passport valid for at least six months beyond the intended date of stay.

Travel insurance

Photo credit: foundin_a_attic via / CC BY
Photo credit: foundin_a_attic via / CC BY

If you are a UK citizen you must not consider travelling to the USA without travel insurance. You are going to be very far away from the ‘Land of the NHS’ and if anything happens to you, your treatment will certainly not be free. One of the biggest shocks for Brits is how expensive medical care can be in the USA. If you break your leg on your holiday it could cost $10,000 or more. It is absolutely essential to have travel insurance so that a small accident doesn’t bankrupt you and ruin your trip.

Accidents happen – and they can happen in the strangest places at the strangest times, like on the side of a mountain in Colorado or in an alley in New York at 3 am. Travel insurance can cover you for all sorts of mishaps during your travel, and even before you leave. Did you know up to 25% of all insurance claims are due to cancellation of travel?

There’s no such thing as ‘in-transit’ through the USA

Unlike pretty much everywhere else in the first world, there’s no way to fly through the US en-route to somewhere else without actually clearing US customs. Even if you’re continuing on immediately to Canada or South America and your luggage is already tagged to your final destination, you have to collect your bags and clear customs. (The same applies to luggage if your bag is tagged to another destination in the US.) It’s a nuisance but something to be aware of if you’re booking your own flights and are transiting through the USA, make sure you allow plenty of time for this process (we suggest an absolute minimum of two hours, and more if you’re a nervous traveller.)

Don’t lock your luggage unless you use a TSA-approved lock The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which controls airline security within the USA, frequently inspects luggage in transit, i.e. once it’s been checked in. As such, if you put a standard padlock on your bag or use a built-in locking system, it’s liable to get summarily (and permanently) removed, especially on flights within the States. (If the TSA does open your luggage, it will leave a note in it telling you this has happened.)

If you want to lock your luggage the only way to work around this, is to use a TSA-approved lock, which means the TSA can open your bag with a master key.

Car Hire

One of the cheapest options is to book via your airline when you book your flight. The airlines have a strong influence over the larger car rental firms and they often throw in extras like free additional drivers.

When you get to the hire company, you’ll often be asked for a credit card imprint as well as your licence and passport. You will then be offered an upgrade as well as a variety of different types of insurance (which you usually don’t need!)

Always read the small print and check the entire car for scratches or dents and make a note of these before driving away.

Sat Nav Hire for the USA

We have a Garmin nuvi 52LM 5.0″ GPS for hire. Cost £6 per day + refundable deposit of £100.

  • 5.0″ touchscreen display
  • Car charger and dashboard stand
  • Preloaded maps of the lower 48 states
  • Spoken, turn-by-turn directions
  • Lane assist with junction view
  • Millions of Points of Interest (POIs)


Driving through the USA can be a great experience for many UK visitors. The wide open spaces that wind for miles between cities means that you can get the best of both worlds when it comes to experience and scenery. Most UK visitors who arrive in the USA are already aware of the fact they need to drive on the right hand side, but there are also a number of other state specific and country specific rules to learn before you set off. Trying to familiarise yourself with some of the countries driving laws will mean that your trip should be far less stressful, give you time to enjoy one of the best countries in the world for road trips.

Essential Tips for Driving in the USA

Photo credit: bleuets9 via / CC BY-ND
Photo credit: bleuets9 via / CC BY-ND

To drive legally in the USA you must have a full UK licence. If you have a regular UK photocard licence, remember to take both parts of the licence with you, photo card & paper counterpart. If you have multiple drivers, you should ensure that you all have your full UK licence with you.

The US has a fairly high number of road related deaths each year, so remember to take your time and obey the road rules. Both the speed and drink driving limits in the US are lower than in the UK so get used to them before travelling long distances and if possible avoid all alcohol when driving. Always remember to buckle up in the US. It’s illegal not to wear seatbelts in both the front and rear of vehicles and it’s also illegal to have any child under the age of 4 in the front seat.

Road Conditions When Travelling Interstate

The road conditions in the USA are usually of a good standard. There are continual improvements being made to major roads and throughout most states, the highways are free of large potholes or other hazards. One of the most common issues people have when travelling through the USA however is that there are often lengthy traffic jams and areas of congestion around major cities. You should always try and plan your route beforehand, avoiding major cities at peak traffic hours and only heading into the city centre if you need to.

Parking is generally very accessible in most states in America, however you’ll be expected to pay high fees for parking in a CBD (Central Business District). Painted kerbs usually give you an indication that there are parking restrictions in force, so make sure you check any signs before parking and look for payment machines. If you’re at all concerned, it’s better to use a multi-story car park, but check for closing times!

Speeding Laws in the USA

There are numerous different state laws when it comes to speeding in the USA. It is almost impossible to learn each individual state difference, so the best option is to always make sure you’re obeying the national law and sticking to the speed limit. Speed limit signs are well posted throughout most states and there will be state troopers and police officers checking your speed with mobile speed cameras. Speeding fines are doubled in you are caught speeding through roadworks where workers are present! The general speed limits are:

  • Motorways – 70 mph
  • Outside Built-up Areas – 65 mph
  • Built-up Areas – 30 mph

Some General Road Rules in the USA

There are a variety of specific road rules for driving in the USA. Knowing these can make your trip less stressful and make you blend in more with local drivers. Some of the most important points to remember are:

  • Right turns are allowed at red traffic lights, unless there is sign telling you otherwise. Make sure that you come to a complete stop first and then only proceed when you’re sure it’s clear (give way to pedestrians and any vehicles proceeding on a green light from your left.
  • If you arrive at a crossroad (multiple junction or 4-way stop), the driver who arrived first has right of way. If two arrive at the same time, give way to the right at all times.
  • Only use a carpool or HOV lane in accordance with the laws for it. It’s usually in place to avoid congestion and should be used when you meet the minimum passenger requirements for it.
  • You must stop for school buses when they have their lights flashing and are stationary at the side of the road.
  • Remember that you must pay for your fuel BEFORE you attempt to refuel. It’s a guessing game but you park at the pump, go into the shop, produce a credit card for the amount you think you will need and the pump is then ‘released’. If you have paid $30 by card and it only takes $23, when the sale is processed you will see a refund for the difference on the receipt.
  • Vehicles in the USA don’t have a dedicated orange indicator light, they have a red flashing indicator that blends in well with their brake lights so be aware!

Arrival – Port of Entry

There are 6 Time Zones


Daylight Saving Time begins for most of the United States on the second Sunday of March and reverts back to standard time on the first Sunday in November. Daylight saving time is not observed in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands or the state of Arizona.


Photo credit: Junior Henry. via / CC BY-NC-SA
Miami Airport Photo credit: Junior Henry. via / CC BY-NC-SA

Miami airport is located 14 km northwest of the city. There is a Metrobus that connects passengers to the tri-rail commuter train system. Taxis are available and cost around $20/$25 to downtown Miami.

John F. Kennedy Airport (New York)
JFK airport is located 24 km southeast of Manhattan. The AirTrain links the airport with the region’s rail transport network 24 hours 7 days a week. Shuttles and public buses are available or you can get a cab for about $45/$55. The journey will take a minimum from half an hour to an hour depending on the route you take. Be aware that you could have tolls to pay in addition to the metered fare.

San Francisco
San Francisco airport is located 22 km south of the city. There is a very good rail system in place to get you from the airport to northern San Mateo Country, East Bay and Milbrae Station (where a shuttle service runs between San Francisco and San Jose). Taxis are available at a cost of around $37/$45 to downtown San Francisco or jump on a bus – they operate 24 hours a day and connect the airport to San Mateo County, parts of San Francisco and Palo Alto.

Washington DC
The Washington Dulles airport is located 42 km west of Washington. There is one cab company that exclusively services the Dulles International Airport, offering a 24-hour service. You can take a bus to the metro station, providing access to downtown Washington and other destinations and a line to the airport is in the pipeline. The other alternative is a shuttle service available on demand from outside the terminal building from $10 upward per ride (depending on destination and number of people).

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Seattle Airport is located 19km south of Seattle. Buses run 24/7 and you can get a shuttle which runs a door to door service. Taxis are also available and will cost around $30/$35. The journey to the city takes around 30 minutes.

Los Angeles
LA airport is located 24 km southwest of the city. Take a free shuttle service to connect you to the metro or get on a public bus taking you to various destinations from 75c. Jump in a cab to downtown Los Angeles at a cost of around $30/$40, it will only take half an hour.


Photo credit: Eric Fischer via / CC BY
Photo credit: Eric Fischer via / CC BY

The international dialling code for the USA is 001.

Some UK mobiles work in the USA but they usually have to be tri-band and it is best to check with your network provider about the international roaming facilities and costs before leaving the UK. It is possible to purchase pay as you go mobiles in the USA. Prepaid phone cards are available from stores in most major towns and cities and are an economical way to call. Many hotels and restaurants now have free WiFi access. There are also many internet cafes throughout the country.

If you have a Skype account, consider buying some credit before you leave – texts and calls will be much cheaper.

Money & expenses

Photo credit: Cubosh via / CC BY
Photo credit: Cubosh via / CC BY

The official currency is the US Dollar. All major credit cards are widely accepted and you will also be able to access US currency from ATM machines as long as you have your four digit pin-code. You can purchase US Dollars before you leave the UK or you buy a pre-paid currency card. As a general rule avoid waiting until the airport to buy your currency! A local state sales tax is applied to most purchases, including food and beverages, throughout the country and is not included in the price advertised; this will be added at the point of sale. The actual rate varies from state to state, with some states offering tax-free shopping.


Tipping is part of the culture in the USA. Tips of between 15-20% are expected for all bar and restaurant service and if paying by credit card you will have the option to add it on before totalling the bill or you can leave the tip in cash. About the same percentage should be applied to taxi fares. Hotel porters who have carried your luggage to your room expect a tip of around $2.00 per bag. It is therefore handy to have some low denomination notes for this purpose.


The electrical current in the USA is 120 V, with a cycle of 60 Hz. A flat two pin plug is required. You will need a converter if you have appliances that don’t accept this voltage, e.g. if you take your electric toothbrush with you the charger won’t work!

Paracetamol painkiller
This is available from all pharmacies & supermarkets but in the USA it’s called ‘Acetaminophen’.

Be prepared for a barrage of questions!

Regular or decaf coffee/how you want your eggs – scrambled, fried, omelette. If you say fried they will ask whether you want it sunny-side up or ‘over-easy’, i.e. flipped!

Toast – white, rye or wheat? Cream is a half-and-half mix of milk and cream. If you want regular milk you will need to ask for it. In the southern states grits is porridge, a biscuit is a scone and bacon is overcooked streaky – if you want English type bacon ask for ham! Sausages come in links (normal sausage) or a patty (flat like a burger)!

We could go on but the permutations are endless…

Measurements & sizes

  • US measurements are in inches, feet, yards and miles, and weights are in ounces, pounds and tons
  • American pints and gallons are about four-fifths of imperial ones
  • Clothing sizes are four figures less to what they are in the UK (British women’s size 12 is a US size 8)
  • Temperatures are always given in Fahrenheit
  • Dates are shown month first, for example 01/04/12 means 4th January not 1st April!