74+ Tips for First Time Visitors in USA
So, you’ve gotten your new visa to the US and will be flying soon – congrats! Be it H1, B1 or any other visa, first time travel to USA can be exciting. Finally, it’s your chance to find out what really happens in the land of the free. All those movies, fantasies are now going to be true. But wait, ask an experienced, green card holder or long term resident of US and you might get a totally different story. A reality check, perhaps!
In this article, I’ll share with you everything I know about coming to USA, stuff that you should know about, you should learn so that you can start your journey here, safe and smooth. Most of this is from first hand experience, others from friends and other experiences. When I came to USA, some 5 years back, I learned most of the things myself. I made a few embarrassing mistakes, but learned quick. I wish I knew these things 5 years back.
- Smile and learn to be pleasant – Smile at random strangers on the street, work. It’s not awkward like it might be in India.
- Hold the door for the person behind you. Hold the lift open for those coming in. It’s rude not to.
- Do not ogle/stare/look in the eyes/without reason to strangers/others. It is rude.
- Learn to greet people. Good morning, evening, how’s it going etc. And don’t expect them to reply, but it is good to greet.
- Learn to address people by their first names.
- Stop making racist jokes. Especially at office or professional circles.
- Tip generously while eating out at a sit-down restaurant. Usually 15 – 20% is normal. Tip with cash or add it while paying with card. (Fast food restaurants don’t expect be tipped)
- Do not hug or touch a person without permission or unless you are friends with. Hand shakes are fine with everyone when offered, but other advances can be seen as a sign of personal intrusion. Respect private space.
- Learn to stay and be patient in lines (queues as they are called in India). No cutting lines or getting too close with the person in front of you.
- Littering is illegal in US. Do not litter. Period. Use the trashcans, which can be found everywhere.
- Learn to do things on time. If you can’t make it on time, call early and let know or apologize and cancel. Do not take it for granted that others will wait for you. You’ll be seen as a rude person.
- Dress neat and casual. Use a cologne if you are the sweaty type. Don’t overuse it though.
- Get a good pair of shoes. Flip-flops and sandals are ok indoors/casual places but not at work etc.
- Do not carry any seeds, rice etc in your bag when flying in from India. Immigration will stop you or worse, take away your bag.
- Declare everything at the immigration, do not hide.
- Do not carry pressure cookers. They’re considered potential threats and your bags might not make it out.
- Do not carry masala powders, pappadams etc. They might get contaminated and might be help up at immigration. There are many Indian stores almost everywhere in the US, where you can get it easily.
- Do not carry any fruits, seeds, or perishable items. It is not permissible under US laws to bring such items to the country.
- If you are carrying any earthern pots never take them with you in cabin baggage, send them via your luggage, it’ll be safer that way. (Hat tip – Sruthi Menon)
- When going to a restaurant (sit-down ones) do not go and find your seat. Enter, and wait. Staff will come and escort you to the right table.
- Vegetarians may have minor trouble getting vegetarian food everywhere, but there’s always a non-meat option.
- At fast food restaurants (like McDonald’s) after ordering, they’ll ask “here or to go”. Here means you’re eating at the restaurant. “To go” means you’re taking the food with you. (“Parcel” in Indian language)
- Vegan isn’t vegetarian, although you’ll be safe eating there if you’re paranoid about meat, meat products.
- Non alcoholic beverages are mostly free “refill”. Which means you can get another drink in the same cup one or more times (usually from a machine).
- When you order food, “drink” always means soda/cola. If you need water, just say you’re good with water.
- Chili means beef.
- Pickles means cucumber in vinegar. (Not the one your mom packed 😉 )
- When with a friend at a restaurant, do not order food for yourself. Take other people’s opinion first and wait for the waiter for his recommendation. (Hat tip – Sruthi Menon)
- If you’re eating out with friends, share the bill/check by paying your part (give your credit card when everyone shares theirs) and not be adamant to pay for others. Unlike in India, where one person pays for everyone. In US is is awkward to be paying for everyone (unless it is a party/or sponsored/arranged one)
- Do not honk while driving, like in India. It is rude.
- Learn to use maps. Use Google maps or Waze. There are no taking directions from the person on the road.
- Get a GPS for your car, it is absolutely necessary to get around.
- If you’re asked to pull over by the Police, (flashing lights behind your car), stop to the nearest, safest right side of road and stay safe in the car, Do not get out.
- Place your hands where the officer can see (on the steering wheel).
- Always carry your ID (driving license) with you.
- If there are pedestrians waiting ahead of you, stop your vehicle and give them chance to cross the road (unless it’s fast moving traffic). It’s rude not to.
Documents & Legal
- Get your driving license ASAP as you land. This will be your proof of existence in the US.
- Keep soft copies of your most important documents stored safely somewhere on the cloud (Google Drive, iCloud, Box etc).
- Address is pretty standard. There’s always a house/building number, street name, city name, state and zip. (No “near xyz building” etc like in India). Thumb rule is your address should be found on any map. Memorize your address.
- Apply for an SSN number as soon as you land. Your identity depends on this, as well as your credit history etc.
- Get a good medical insurance ASAP. Medical scene is very different from India. You don’t get to choose your Doctor and often will have to wait a while before getting an appointment.
- When signing up for utilities, you may want to opt for bills to be mailed to your address as you may need some utility bills as address proof while applying Driver’s License.
- Hold on to your SSN number securely. Do not share it with anyone. (Hat tip – Sruthi Menon)
- Get a secured credit card ASAP you land. It will help build your credit history.
- Do not use your debit cards, they don’t build credit history.
- Switch to the idea of credit, It’s not about how much cash you have saved but about how much will you spend on credit and pay it back.
- When applying for a new service (like a loan, new internet connection etc) you will have to give the SSN number, but please clarify if there will be a hard credit enquiry on you. Hard enquiry means you will lose some points in your credit history. Soft credit checks are ok, but they don’t need SSN. (Hat tip – Sruthi Menon)
- Do not apply for credit cards at many places at once. They will all run hard credit checks and will reduce your points.
- Sign up for a free credit score check service like Creditkarma or Creditsesame. It’ll help you track your credit history.
- Pay off your credit card bills in full every month. It will add up and boost your credit score.
- Utilize only 20-30% of your credit limit. When you start off, it will be low, but as you pay up, they’ll automatically be improved. Not if you utilize more and don’t pay bills.
Getting your first car
- When getting your first car, check with online car dealers like Carmax first. When you sign up you get deals.
- Do not be hasty in buying your first car. Sign up, look around and come back later. The first price is expected to be negotiated, don’t accept it.
- Buying a used car (second hand) is easier when you are building your credit history.
- When taking an auto loan, ensure your credit history is good (preferably 650+).
- Seller will make you sign a form that lets them give permissions to run your credit checks across different banks simultaneously. Don’t allow this. Ask them to check with max two banks.
- If you have folks in India whom you’ll call often, get a calling card (unless all of them are on WhatsApp)
- Stop converting everything from Dollars to Rupees. You’ll get used to it slowly.
- Set up voice mail on your phone. It is bad manners if you don’t have one set.
- Call people back if they leave a voice mail or you miss their calls.
- Tap water is very safe to drink in USA.
- Never ask anyone for rubber. It is slang for condom. Ask for eraser.
- If you’ve grown up in India, you might be familiar with the “Indian head shake”. Try to avoid it if you don’t want to be asked questions about it.
- Learn to use cutlery. Fork, spoon and knives are standard at every restaurant. Don’t be a savage and eat with your hands. In Indian restaurants, this is mostly ok, though.
- If you ever get a chance to talk to a Police office, address them as “officer”, not “Sir”. Officer – is standard.
- Use the internet to research about products/services. Unlike in India, the US has almost everything reviewed online. Search for “xyz + reviews” before you buy them.
- Don’t huddle just with your desi folks. Get out of your comfort zone. Mingle with other cultures. There’s a lot you will learn.
- Don’t be scared to admit mistakes. In India, many people (of course I’m generalizing here) see mistakes and criticize them in bad light. Not so much in US. Mistakes are ok. As long as you learn and fix it. Don’t try to pretend you didn’t make one, others usually can see through.
- Try not to be loud when speaking on cell phone. Many people have the habit of shouting on cell phone when talking (especially when you are talking to someone abroad). This might be annoying for people around you. Keep it normal.
- Join interest groups – There are many opportunities to connect with similar minded people around you. Look up interesting groups on Meetup.com, Facebook or Reddit and attend them. There’s always something you will learn.
- Learn a sport, like basket ball or base ball and pick a favorite team. Americans are very interested in sports and it’ll make it easy for you to get into conversations.
Housing & Safety
- Look out for crime rates in the locality before you move in. Check for law enforcement websites for crime maps. If you are moving to a neighborhood which has break in incidents- avoid first floor (ground floor) apartments.
- Beware of elaborate scams in classified sites like Craigslist or Sulekha. When buying, be wary of offers that are too good to be true. These are usually scams which either make you send booking deposit to an escrow service (not easily traceable). When selling, don’t trust offers to pay in advance, and complete the deal online, for items that the person has not seen yet. These are usually scams that send you a check (sometimes even cashier’s) for more than the agreed deal amount, and ask you to transfer the balance. Your bank will eventually reject the check, charge you a fee and you would also lose the balance that you’ve sent.
For H4 Visa holders
- For the spouses (H4 dependent visas) life can be difficult in US, especially if you are going to be sitting at home. (You can’t be working as it is illegal). Volunteering is a good way to get out and find some opportunities. There are plenty of companies/non-profits that need helpers/volunteers. Find them and sign up for a volunteering activity. Ex: Volunteermatch (Hat tip – Sruthi Menon)
This is an on-going post. If you know of more things, please let me know in comments and I’ll be happy to share (with due credit to you).