Basic commandments for foreigners visiting the USA

Rules for foreigners who visit us in the USA

Welcome to America! We’re glad you’re here, but please remember we’re not one and the same. These basic commandments for foreigners visiting our country will help them get the most from their travel. The USA is vast and what happens in one place probably won’t be repeated in another part of the country. Americans are diverse and come in every size, shape, and color. Please don’t make snap judgments that we’re one and the same.

Here are a dozen commandments for foreigners that will help them enjoy their time in our good old USA and help us to enjoy them.

Learn a bit of the language:

Please try to learn some English — even the most rudimentary. If you need to use the restroom, please don’t make us guess because you don’t know how to ask. It’s easy to avoid ensuing embarrassment.

Many Americans are as interested in knowing about your culture as you are about ours. Let’s try to meet on a middle ground even if it means using a translator.

Understand transportation options

Do your homework. In some cities, public transportation is an option and the best one. But if you’re going to a country destination — or for that matter, Los Angeles — you are going to need a car. Remember — drive on the right-hand side of the road and if you’re on a highway, stay to the right unless you want to pass slower cars by using the left lane. Speed limits are usually enforced if you go more than five to ten miles over the posted rate.

Another hint — if there’s a red light and there isn’t a sign saying “no turn on red,” look carefully to be sure there aren’t any cars that might cause a collision and turn. If you don’t, people driving behind you will probably be blowing their horns.

If you’re taking a taxi, don’t anticipate finding taxi stands as you would in many European countries. Step out into the street and wave your arms. If you’re in NYC during rush hour, don’t expect the first taxi to stop and you may have to do battle with another passenger who’s trying to usurp yours.

Or, get an Uber or Lyft app.

Take advantage of the hotel concierge:

If you’re staying in a hotel, take full advantage of the concierge. There’s probably one or more who speaks your language and they’re all too happy to help. But — and this is a BIG must — be prepared to tip to show your appreciation.

When staying at a vacation rental or Airbnb, ask your host for suggestions for restaurants, shopping, and sightseeing nearby.

Don’t forget to tip:

One of the biggest commandments for foreigners from people in the service industry is that they should not be stiffed. Contrasted with many parts of Europe, tips are not included in the bill. The rule of thumb in restaurants is that an appropriate tip is 15-20 percent. Some people double the city tax and call it a day.

Check your restaurant bill carefully. Some restaurants in areas with many foreign tourists are adding a tip to the basic cost of dining. Be aware. And, in that case, don’t add on a tip. (This commandment applies to American travelers as well.)

Tip taxi drivers, personnel who deliver pizza and definitely hotel personnel.

Learn restaurants’ rules:

Other important commandments for travelers include dining times. Just like in Europe, some countries dine early and others dine late. Americans eat early. Don’t expect to begin dinner at 10 p.m. — service begins at 6 p.m. If you’re trying to save money, there are many restaurants that offer discounted “early-bird-specials.” Ditto for “senior” menus as well as children’s ones.

If you’re going to a restaurant that takes reservations, make one. Don’t walk in and assume you’ll find a table waiting for you if the restaurant is one that’s in demand.

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This isn’t the case for fast-food restaurants, most of the ones in shopping centers (you may have to put your name on a list and wait to be called), and diners.

Most restaurants serve bread, butter, and water. If they are not placed on your table, you have every right to request them and there’s no cover charge. (Bread in some restaurants does cost extra.) Soft drinks are served with ice, so if you don’t want it, let the waiter know when you order.

Portions tend to be huge. Some restaurants charge a “sharing fee.” Bring your appetites and it’s OK to ask for “doggie bags” to take the excess food with you to eat later. No, you don’t have to have a pooch.

If you have food allergies, make sure you show the waiter (waitress) a paper in English that lists each and every one of them. Be certain the manager and the chef see it.

Know where your money is:

Don’t carry too much cash is another of the commandments for foreigners. Make certain you have an ATM debit card that’s on an international network. Think about safety. There are people up to no good in every country and it’s up to the individual to use big city smarts.


If you’re out for a day of sightseeing, or even shopping, leave your passport in the hotel’s safe or in your apartment. Be sure to take a copy of the key pages for identification. That way, should there be a theft, you won’t end up spending the rest of your trip getting a new passport.


Many people report they’ve been subjected to hit, steal and run occurrences and have lost the contents of their backpacks or the backpack itself. Please be conscious of them, especially in places such as subways where people are vying for sardine space. Don’t put key documents in them, nor wallets. Wear the backpacks on your front if you feel at risk.

Watch out for bad neighborhoods:

In every big city, they exist and the later it gets, the more likely it is that something may happen. Don’t lean on a lamppost in a crummy neighborhood – someone may get the wrong idea. Don’t flash a wad of cash. You get the idea. If you think someone is following you, walk in the street and move right along.

Don’t be shy about asking for help:

Don’t be shy about asking questions and soliciting advice. On the other hand, don’t get into a stranger’s car. You may be taken for a (non) joy ride.

Smoke with an awareness of the rules:

Americans are less tolerant about smoking than people in some other countries. Be forewarned.

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Be considerate when using cell phones:

Please turn them off in theaters, museums, etc. If you’re using them, please keep your voices down. It’s only good manners.


Americans tend to be on time and appreciate if you are as well. It is a basic one of the commandments for foreigners to try to observe the 15-minute rule and call if you’re running later.

Americans are not nosey. Questions are a polite way to get to know you.

Americans WILL invade your privacy, asking what seem like personal questions about your home, your family, your work, and many aspects of your life. This is our culture, and we (most of us, at least) actually consider this the polite way to interact with a stranger. You don’t have to give any information that makes you uncomfortable — but please don’t get angry with us over this issue; experiencing other cultures is part of traveling. You can avoid the situation if you find it uncomfortable by saying something like, “I hate to talk about myself — but please tell me about what it is like to live here.” (This commandment comes from a reader. It is added to this updated version of the story.)

Now it’s your turn:

Hope these are helpful commandments for foreigners. The original post was published in 2010. Some changes have been made to these commandments for foreigners. Now it’s your turn to post yours.

Cultural differences are precisely that. Let’s pave the way for people to feel comfortable in one another’s countries.