You’re coming to the U.S.? Need-to-know facts for foreigners

Written by kvfawcett on October 18, 2010 – 11:29 pm -

If you’re reading this site, you’ve certainly read about “ugly American tourists.” They travel overseas and radiate the impression they own the country and people should be delighted by their very presence. That sentiment is becoming less prevalent. But still, we can all sit up and take notice and live and learn.

But what do foreigners traveling to the U.S. need to know? If it’s a maiden voyage, there’s a learning curve of dos and don’ts and changing rules and regulations.

First and most essential:
Check and make certain your passport conforms to the U.S. requirements and don’t count on the airline to disperse the most up-to-date information. It’s a changing playing field.

For example — People with Turkish passports may find themselves in Paris not being allowed to board a U.S.-bound flight. There are requirements regarding how long the passports must be valid after your scheduled return and whether or not it’s required to have a biometric chip.

Do you need a visa? Even if you’re told you can obtain one upon arrival, it tends to be less stressful if you show up at your destination ready-to-go. Who feels like standing in additional immigration lines if you’ve been traveling for hours? Be sure you’ve filled out all of the required forms and new online forms before deplaning.

Don’t flip when a customs officer insists you look into a camera so he can take your photo. Ditto for fingerprints. He’s doing his/her job and there are some times that everyone feels as if they’re potential terrorists. Foreigners shouldn’t take it personally. Americans may also be subjected to third degree grilling.

Mission accomplished:
Welcome to the US of A. Pick up your luggage. You’re almost there. Hope you aren’t pulled over for secondary screening and/or luggage inspection. The TSA has every right and the personnel are doing their job.

You may not feel that way after you’ve opened your suitcase, been forced to display your underwear and wished you’d packed more carefully or conversely, thrown everything into your baggage because ultimately, that’s the way it’s going to arrive at your destination.

Passengers clear customs at their first port of entry in the U.S. and if they’re continuing on, their clothes may arrive a wrinkled mess.

There are times when it feels like travelers are being profiled depending on where you originated and/or your nationality. I’ve seen a lot of scruffy backpackers having to unpack and (possibly) being checked for drugs. Some of their possessions look as if they should be dumped in the nearest trash bin because they’ve served their owners’ well. But, that’s another story.

My bags have been searched so many times that the last thing I’d do (anymore) is enter the U.S. with a wedge of French cheese.

On the ground:
If you’re renting a car, be on the safe side and get an international driver’s license before leaving your home country. The car rental agency may not even ask for it. But if it does, your trip can be ruined if you’re not prepared. Traveling by bus may not have been part of your planned itinerary.

Many tourists forget how far it is from one place to another and don’t factor in enough time to get from here to there. If you’re driving (and please remember to drive on the right-hand side of the road), be sure you have a GPS to help you navigate. If you happen to be in Washington, D.C., don’t expect the directions to be 100% on target. The GPS instructions have been programmed to circumvent the White House and certain areas that may be considered sensitive.

In sickness and in health:
Buy travel insurance in case you get sick while you’re in the U.S. It’s cheap and if you have it, there’s a 99% chance you won’t need it. If you do get sick in the U.S., or are in a car accident without medical insurance, kiss your savings goodbye.

Language challenges:
If you don’t speak English, don’t count on Americans speaking your language. Bring all of your essential papers, instructions, phones numbers, etc., translated into English. Bring a phrase book. Purchase an electronic dictionary. You will probably get lucky if you speak Spanish but forget Polish, French or even German.

Cell phone:
Yes, it’s a good idea to have one because the chances of finding a phone booth are diminishing each year. There are plenty of cell phone options but if you’re in the U.S. for a short time, you probably only need one that can be used in the States with a phone card.

…To be continued.
What foreigners really need to know and people may (or may not) tell them. Each country has its etiquette, people have preconceptions about “strangers” and so it goes. Stay tuned.

Posted in Consumer Traveler |