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Telephone

The U.S. phone system comprises regional service providers, competing long-distance carriers and several mobile-phone and pay-phone companies.

Cell Phones
In the USA, cell phones use GSM 1900 or CDMA 800, operating on different frequencies from other systems around the world. The only foreign phones that will work in the USA are GSM tri- or quad-band models. If you have one of these phones, check with your service provider about using it in the USA. Ask if roaming charges apply, as these will turn even local U.S. calls into pricey international calls.

It might be cheaper to buy a compatible prepaid SIM card for the USA, like those sold by AT&T or Cingular, which you can insert into your international mobile phone to get a local phone number and voicemail. Planet Omni and Telestial offer these services, as well as cell phone rentals.

If you don’t have a compatible phone, you can buy inexpensive, no-contract (prepaid) phones with a local number and a set number of minutes, which can be topped up at will. Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile, AT&T and other providers offer phones starting at $15, with a package of minutes starting around $40 for 400 minutes.

Huge swathes of rural America, including many national parks and recreation areas, don’t pick up a signal. Check your provider’s coverage map.

Dialling Codes
All phone numbers within the USA consist of a three-digit area code, followed by a seven-digit local number. Typically, if you are calling a number within the same area code, you only have to dial the seven-digit number; however, some places now require you to dial the entire 10-digit number even for a local call. If dialling the seven-digit number doesn’t work, try all 10.

If you are calling long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus the phone number. If you’re not sure whether the number is local or long distance (new area codes are added all the time, confusing even residents), try one way, and if it’s wrong, usually a recorded voice will correct you.

Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 888, 877 and 866 and when dialling, are preceded by 1. Most can only be used within the USA, some only within the state, and some only from outside the state. You won’t know until you try dialling. The 900- series of area codes and a few other prefixes are for calls charged at a premium per-minute rate – phone sex, horoscopes, jokes etc.

1 is the international country code for the USA if calling from abroad (the same as Canada, but international rates apply between the two countries).

011 to make an international call from the USA (followed by country code, area code and phone number)

00 for assistance making international calls

411 directory assistance nationwide

800-555-1212 directory assistance for toll-free numbers

Pay Phones
Local calls at pay phones that work (listen for a dialling tone before inserting coins) cost 35¢ to 50¢ for the first few minutes; talking longer costs more. Only put in the exact amount because pay phones don’t give change. Some pay phones (e.g. in national parks) only accept credit cards or prepaid phone cards. Local calls from pay phones get expensive quickly, while long-distance calls can be prohibitive, especially if you use the operator (0) to facilitate long-distance or collect (reverse-charge) calls. It’s usually cheaper to use a prepaid phone card or the access line of a major carrier like AT&T.

Phone Cards
Prepaid phone cards are a good solution for travellers on a budget. Read the fine print, as many cards contain hidden charges such as ‘activation fees’ or per-call ‘connection fees’ in addition to the rates.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Car & Motorcycle

Foreign visitors can legally drive a car in the USA for up to 12 months using their home driver’s licence. However, an IDP will have more credibility with U.S. traffic police, especially if your home licence doesn’t have a photo or isn’t in English. Your automobile association at home can issue an IDP, valid for one year, for a small fee. Always carry your home licence together with the IDP.

To drive a motorcycle in the USA, you will need either a valid U.S. state motorcycle licence or an IDP specially endorsed for motorcycles.

Insurance
Don’t put the key into the ignition if you don’t have insurance, which is legally required, otherwise you risk financial ruin and legal consequences if there’s an accident. If you already have auto insurance, or if you buy travel insurance that covers car rentals, make sure your policy has adequate liability coverage for where you will be driving; it probably does, but beware that states specify different minimum levels of coverage.

Rental-car companies will provide liability insurance, but most charge extra. Rental companies almost never include collision damage insurance for the vehicle. Instead, they offer an optional Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), usually with an initial deductible cost of $100 to $500. For an extra premium, you can usually get this deductible covered as well.

Paying extra for some or all of this insurance increases the cost of a rental car by as much as $30 a day. Many credit cards offer free collision damage coverage for rental cars if you rent for 15 days or less and charge the total rental to your card. This is a good way to avoid paying extra fees to the rental company, but note that if there’s an accident, sometimes you must pay the rental car company first and then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. There may be exceptions that are not covered, too, such as ‘exotic’ rentals (e.g. 4WD Jeeps, convertibles). Check your credit-card policy.

Car Rental
Most rental companies require that you have a major credit card, be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s licence. Some major national companies may rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge of around $25 per day. Those under 21 are usually not permitted to rent at all.

Car-rental prices vary wildly. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees; city-centre offices may do pick-ups and drop-offs. Adjusting the days of your rental even slightly can completely change the rate; weekend and weekly rates are usually cheaper.

Most national agencies make ‘unlimited mileage’ standard on all cars, but independents might charge extra for this. Tax on car rentals varies by state and agency location; always ask for the total cost, including all taxes and fees. Most agencies charge more if you pick the car up in one place and drop it off in another.

Automobile Associations
The American Automobile Association (AAA); has reciprocal membership agreements with several international auto clubs. The Better World Club donates 1% of revenue to assist environmental clean-up, offers ecologically sensitive choices for every service it provides and advocates politically for environmental causes. In either organisation, the primary member benefit is 24-hour emergency roadside assistance anywhere in the USA. Both also offer trip planning, free travel maps, travel agency services, car insurance and a range of travel discounts.

Road Rules
Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. The use of seat belts and child safety seats is required in every state. Most car rental agencies rent child safety seats for around $12 per day, but you must reserve them when booking. In some states, motorcyclists are required to wear helmets.

On interstate highways, the speed limit is sometimes raised to 75mph. Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is generally 55mph or 65mph on highways, 25mph to 35mph in cities and towns and as low as 15mph in school zones (strictly enforced during school hours). It’s forbidden to pass a school bus when its lights are flashing. Unless signs prohibit it, you may turn right at a red light after first coming to a full stop – note that turning on right on red is illegal in NYC. At four-way stop signs, cars should proceed in order of arrival; when two cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way. When in doubt, just politely wave the other driver ahead. When emergency vehicles (i.e. police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, pull over safely and get out of the way.

Most states have laws against (and hefty fines for) littering along the highway. In an increasing number of states, it is illegal to talk on a hand-held cell (mobile) phone while driving; use a hands-free device instead.

The maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration for drivers is 0.08%. Penalties are very severe for ‘DUI’ – driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. If you fail, they’ll require you take a breath test, urine test or blood test to determine the level of alcohol or drugs in your body. Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you’d taken the test and failed. In some states it is illegal to carry ‘open containers’ of alcohol in a vehicle, even if they are empty.

Road Conditions & Hazards
America’s highways are legendary ribbons of unblemished asphalt, but not always. Road hazards include potholes, city commuter traffic, wandering wildlife and, of course, cell-phone-wielding, child-distracted and enraged drivers. For nationwide traffic and road-closure information, click here. In places where winter driving is an issue, many cars are fitted with steel-studded snow tires; snow chains can sometimes be required in mountain areas. Driving off-road, or on dirt roads, is often forbidden by rental-car companies, and it can be very dangerous in wet weather.

Hitch-hiking
Hitch-hiking is potentially dangerous and definitely not recommended. Indeed, drivers have heard so many lurid reports they tend to be just as afraid of those with their thumbs out. Hitch-hiking on freeways is prohibited. You’ll see more people hitch-hiking in rural areas and in Alaska and Hawaii, but these places aren’t safer than anywhere else, and with sparse traffic, you may well get stranded.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Camping

Most federally managed public lands and many state parks offer camping. First-come, first-served ‘primitive’ campsites offer no facilities; overnight fees range from free to less than $10. ‘Basic’ sites usually provide toilets (flush or pit), drinking water, fire pits and picnic tables; they cost $5 to $15 a night, and some or all may be reserved in advance. ‘Developed’ campsites, usually in national or state parks, have nicer facilities and more amenities: showers, barbecue grills, (Recreational Vehicle) RV sites with hook-ups etc. These are $13 to $40 a night, and many can be reserved in advance.

Camping on most federal lands – including national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management land and so on – can be reserved through Recreation.gov. For some state park campgrounds, you can make bookings through ReserveAmerica.

Private campgrounds tend to cater to RVs and families (tent sites may be few and lack atmosphere). Facilities may include playgrounds, convenience stores, wi-fi access, swimming pools and other activities. Kampgrounds of America is a national network of private campgrounds with a full range of facilities.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Visas for Entering the USA

Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the USA must first obtain a nonimmigrant visa for a temporary stay. The visa allows you to travel to the USA port of entry and request permission of the USA immigration inspector to enter the country. For general information about applying for a visitor visa, including documentation and fee requirements, please visit travel.state.gov. For information on arrival procedures in the USA, including customs requirements, please visit cbp.gov.

Note: As of July 27, the Department of State has made continued progress on restoring our system to full functionality. As we restore our ability to print visas, we are prioritizing immigrant cases, including adoptions visas. System engineers are performing maintenance to address the problems we encountered. As system performance improves, we will continue to process visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. We are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

What is a visa?
A visa is permission to apply to enter the USA. A U.S. consular officer will issue a visa after determining that the applicant is eligible to travel to the USA under a particular visa classification.

Who needs a visa?
A visitor (temporary) visa is required of all visitors seeking to enter the USA with the exception of nationals of Canada and countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Programme. Currently, 36 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Programme. For a list of participating countries and additional information on the Visa Waiver Programme, visit travel.state.gov.

Applying for a visitor visa
Applicants for visitor visas generally should apply at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where they live. As part of the visa application process, an interview at the embassy or consulate consular section is required for visa applicants from ages 14-79, with few exceptions. Persons age 13 and younger and age 80 and older do not require an interview, unless the embassy or consulate asks them to be interviewed.

You can complete a U.S. visa application online at travel.state.gov. Once you have completed the application, the next step is to make an appointment for a visa application interview. The wait time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so we strongly encourage you to apply as early as possible. Visa wait times for interview appointments and visa processing times for each U.S. embassy or consulate are available at travel.state.gov. To learn how to schedule an appointment for an interview, pay the application processing fee, review embassy specific instructions, and more, please visit the website of the U.S. embassy or consulate where you plan to apply. You can find a list of all U.S. embassy and consulate websites at usembassy.gov.

There are different categories of visas that correspond to your purpose of travel, and each one has its own application procedures. If you are travelling to the USA for a reason other than tourism or temporary business—for example, to study or for temporary employment—you will need the correct visa. You can find more information at travel.state.gov.

Further visa inquiries
Questions on embassy-specific visa application procedures and questions on visa ineligibilities should be addressed to the U.S. embassy or consulate where you will be applying. Please be sure to check travel.state.gov, which has complete information about the U.S. visa process. Very often you will find the information you need.


Note: Beginning Wednesday, November 12, most business and tourist visas from China to the United States will be valid for 10 years. Previously valid for one year, Chinese travelers will now be able to make multiple entries for a decade without having to reapply for their visas. The validity period for student visas is also increased from one year to five years. For more information, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/10/fact-sheet-supporting-american-job-growth-and-strengthening-ties-extendi.


Arriving in the USA

Enhanced Ebola screening is now occurring at five U.S. airports with a new tracking program for all people entering the U.S. from Ebola-affected Countries

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection (CBP) are screening for Ebola at five U.S. airports that receive over 94 percent of international travelers, including the Ebola affected nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Passengers arriving in the United States whose travel originates in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea are required to fly into JFK International Airport in New York, Newark Airport in New Jersey, Washington-Dulles, Chicago-O’Hare, or Atlanta International Airport, where enhanced entry screening will occur.

For more information please visit: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/

On Sunday, November 16, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added Mali to the list of Ebola-affected nations for which enhanced screening and monitoring measures will be taken. Click (http://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/11/16/enhanced-airport-entry-screening-begin-travelers-united-states-mali) for more information.


Travel Advisory: The USA has updated entrance requirements and electronic devices may be screened. Please be advised that powerless electronic devices will not be permitted onboard aircraft bound to the USA.  Click here to read the TSA's press release and the statement issued by Homeland Security.


Your airline will give you documents to complete while en route to the USA. All travellers are required to complete Customs Declaration Form 6059B. Those travellers who are non–U.S. citizens and are requesting admission to the USA with a visa will also be handed Form I-94 (white), Arrival/Departure Record.

You must go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), for immigration and customs processing. CBP must approve your entry upon your first airport landing in the USA.

At Passport Control, most foreign travellers need go through the US-VISIT process. A CBP officer takes your electronic fingerprints and a photograph as part of your travel record. US-VISIT uses biometrics—such as fingerprints—to establish and verify your identity and identification materials and to check you against a watch list of known or suspected terrorists, criminals and immigration violators. You may be asked questions such as what you do for a living, whether you have enough money for your visit (a credit card is a smart precaution), and when and how you will be leaving the country (bring a copy of your itinerary). It is advisable that single parents and guardians travelling with a minor should have proof of legal custody.

After Passport Control, gather any baggage and enter Customs.

Train

Amtrak has an extensive rail system, with Amtrak’s Thruway buses providing connections to and from the rail network to some smaller centres and national parks. Compared with other cross-country modes of travel, trains are rarely the quickest, cheapest, timeliest or most convenient option, but they turn the journey into a relaxing, social and scenic all-American experience.

Several long-distance lines traverse the nation east to west, and even more run north to south. These connect all of America’s biggest cities and many of its smaller ones. Long-distance services (on named trains) mostly operate daily on these routes, but some run only three-to-five-days per week.

Reservations can be made any time from 11 months in advance up to the day of departure. Space on most trains is limited, and certain routes can be crowded, especially during summer and holiday periods, so it’s a good idea to book as far in advance as you can; this also gives you the best chance of fare discounts.

Classes & Costs
Fares vary according to the type of train and seating; on long-distance lines, you can travel in coach seats (reserved or unreserved), business class, or first class, which includes all sleeping compartments. Sleeping cars include simple bunks (called ‘roomettes’), bedrooms with en-suite facilities and suites sleeping four with two bathrooms. Sleeping-car rates include meals in the dining car, which offers everyone sit-down meal service (pricey if not included). Food service on commuter lines, when it exists, consists of sandwich and snack bars. Bringing your own food and drink is recommended on all trains.

Various one-way, round-trip and touring fares are available from Amtrak, with discounts of 15% for senior citizens aged 62 and over and for students with a ‘Student Advantage’ card ($20) or an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), and 50% discounts for children aged two to 15 when accompanied by a paying adult.

Train Passes
Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass offers coach-class travel for 15, 30 or 45 days, with travel limited to eight, 12 or 18 one-way ‘segments’, respectively. A segment is not the same as a one-way trip. If reaching your destination requires riding more than one train (for example, getting from New York to Miami with a transfer in Washington, DC) that one-way trip will actually use two segments of your pass.

Each segment of the journey must be booked and reservations should be made by phone (call 800-872-7245, or 215-856-7953 from outside the USA) as far in advance as possible.



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Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Post

For 24-hour postal information contact the U.S. Postal Service, which is reliable and inexpensive.

For sending urgent or important letters and packages either domestically or overseas, Federal Express and United Parcel Service offer more-expensive door-to-door delivery services.

Postal rates for first-class mail within the USA are 45¢ for letters weighing up to 1oz (20¢ for each additional ounce) and 32¢ for postcards. First-class mail goes up to 13oz, and then priority-mail rates apply.

International airmail rates (except to Canada and Mexico) are 98¢ for a 1oz letter or a postcard; to Canada and Mexico it’s 80¢.

If you have the correct postage, you can drop mail weighing less than 13oz into any blue mailbox (postbox). To send a package weighing 13oz or more, go to a post office.

Poste-restante mail can usually be sent to you c/o General Delivery at any post office that has its own zip code. Domestic mail is usually held for 10 days and international mail for 30 days before it’s returned to the sender. You’ll need photo ID to collect mail.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Public Holidays

On the following national public holidays, banks, schools and government offices (including post offices) are closed, and transportation, museums and other services operate on a Sunday schedule. Holidays falling on a weekend are usually observed the following Monday.
New Year’s Day: January 1
Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Third Monday in January
Presidents’ Day: Third Monday in February
Memorial Day: Last Monday in May
Independence Day: July 4
Labor Day: First Monday in September
Columbus Day: Second Monday in October
Veterans Day: November 11
Thanksgiving: Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day: December 25
During spring break—which occurs throughout March and April—high school and college students get a week off from school. For students of all ages, the summer holidays runs from June to August.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Business Hours

These are general guidelines and may vary:
Bars: 5pm-midnight Sun-Thu, to 2am Fri & Sat
Banks: 8:30am-4:30pm Mon-Thu, to 5:30pm Fri (and possibly 9am-noon Sat)
Nightclubs: 10pm-2am Thu-Sat
Post offices: 9am-5pm Mon-Fri
Shopping Malls: 9am-9pm
Stores: 10am-6pm Mon-Sat, noon-5pm Sun
Supermarkets: 8am-8pm, some open 24 hours



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Insurance

It’s essential to purchase travel health insurance if your regular policy doesn’t cover you when you’re abroad.

If your health insurance does not cover you for medical expenses abroad, consider supplemental insurance. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Natural Disasters

Napa Valley is open for business. For travelers planning to visit Northern California in the near future: Most business are open as usual. However, following Sunday’s Napa Valley Earthquake, make sure to contact your travel providers prior to travel. The affected areas include Napa Valley, Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Sonoma and Vallejo. Get more information here: http://www.visitcalifornia.com/Articles/Napa-Valley-Earthquake-Update/

Most areas with predictable natural disturbances – tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes in the South – have an emergency siren system to alert communities to imminent danger. These sirens are tested periodically at noon, but if you hear one and suspect trouble, turn on a local TV or radio station, which will be broadcasting safety warnings and advice.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers in-case-of-emergency advice, news and information on all the ways your vacation could go horribly, horribly wrong. But relax: it probably won’t.



Lonely Planet logo

Includes content provided by Lonely Planet. The views expressed in Lonely Planet content are those of Lonely Planet, told without fear or favour. This information is as accurate as possible, but it is provided ‘as is’ and we accept no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience resulting from this information. You should verify critical information (like visas, health and safety) before you travel.

©2012 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

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