United States of America travel guide
About United States of America
From the soaring skyscrapers of New York City to the dramatic mesas of Arizona, the United States of America is a place of staggering beauty and extraordinary diversity. Nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Manhattan’s iconic skyline, the yawning expanses of the Grand Canyon or the neon-lit excesses of Las Vegas, just some of the country's many highlights.
You could easily spend a lifetime in the US and still feel like you’ve just scratched the surface. It’s epic on every scale. After all, this is a place where you can watch the thunderous spectacle of Niagara Falls, trek through the soaring Black Hills of South Dakota and cruise along California’s glorious Pacific Coast; where you can ski at Lake Tahoe, go cattle ranching in the Midwest and imbibe live jazz in New Orleans. The options, it seems, are endless.
The USA’s manmade landscapes are nearly as spectacular as the natural ones. New York City boasts some of the most impressive skyscrapers on the planet (think Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Centre), although the skylines of Seattle, Chicago, LA and Vegas are no less recognisable.
The American people are similarly diverse; from the colourful Cubans of the southeast to the gun-slinging wranglers of Texas and hardy Inuits of Alaska, the country is a melting pot of cultures. Generations of immigrants have shaped the national identity in everything from food and language to music and manners.
Once derided for being boring, the resurgent capital, Washington, D.C, boasts hip new bars, chic boutiques and a burgeoning culinary scene, which are welcome diversions in this theatre of politics. In spring, the city turns pink with cherry blossom – the legacy of a peace offering sent by Japan.
The glorious East Coast retreat of Cape Cod is also not to be missed. Looking around this exquisite peninsula it’s easy to see why the founding fathers, who stepped off the Mayflower here, chose to make this extraordinary land their home. "God bless America," they sang. And God blessed her indeed.
9,826,675 sq km (3,794,100 sq miles).
324,118,787 (UN estimate 2016).
32.5 per sq km.
President Donald Trump since 2017.
President Donald Trump since 2017.
Last updated: 26 November 2019
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Around 3.8 million British nationals visit the USA every year. Most visits are trouble free. Take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before you travel.
You will need to get a visa or an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) visa waiver to enter or transit the USA as a visitor. Restrictions apply depending on the type of passport you hold, your nationality, criminal history, and countries you may have recently visited.
The Atlantic hurricane season normally runs from 1 June to 30 November. The Pacific hurricane season runs from 15 May to 30 November.
Snow storms during winter can cause delays and cancellations throughout the major airline hubs in the USA.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in the USA. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. You should monitor media reports and remain vigilant at all times.
You should be alert to the dangers of car and street crime.
Forest and brush fires (wildfires) are a danger in many dry areas.
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.
Safety and security
Take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your property against petty crime. Don’t leave passports in rental cars, especially in the boot, as there have been a high number of thefts by gangs targeting the vehicles of those who appear to be tourists.
Violent crime, including gun crime, rarely involves tourists, but you should take care when travelling in unfamiliar areas. Avoid walking through less travelled areas alone, especially at night. You can find public advisories and information about recent incidents on the websites of local law enforcement authorities.
Incidents of mass shooting can occur, but account for a very small percentage of homicide deaths. Read the US Department of Homeland Security website, which has published advice on what to do in such an incident.
Research your destination before travelling, be vigilant, and follow the advice of local authorities. Crime associated with the illegal drugs trade is a major issue in Mexican states bordering Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Some foreign nationals have been among the victims of crime in the border regions, but there is no evidence to suggest they have been targeted because of their nationality.
Traffic laws vary from state to state. If you’re planning to drive in the USA, check the driving rules in the state(s) you’ll be visiting. In most states, a full UK driving licence is sufficient (provisional licences aren’t accepted). However, some states may also require an International Driving Permit (IDP), which you can get over the counter at the Post Office. The USA doesn’t issue IDPs to foreign visitors, so you’ll need to get one before you travel. If you’re hiring a vehicle, check requirements with your rental company before you travel.
Driving is on the right hand side of the road.
Check the weather conditions before embarking on a long journey, particularly in mountainous and isolated areas where there is increased likelihood of snowfall, or in dry desert areas where you may need extra water and petrol stations could be scarce. Do not sleep in your car by the roadside or in rest areas and avoid leaving any items on display in your car. Try to stay on main roads and use well-lit car parks. If you’re involving in a collision while driving, indicate to the other driver to follow you to a public place and call 911 for the police.
Petrol stations that do not display the price of fuel usually charge considerably more than the national average for a gallon of fuel. They’re often found close to tourist destinations and airports, and notoriously near to Orlando International Airport.
In 2018 there were 36,750 road deaths in the USA (source: Department for Transport). This equates to 11.2 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2018.
Before you travel, check the security measures you’re likely to face at the airport on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website. The TSA has a helpline number to help passengers with disabilities and medical conditions before they fly.
Don’t make flippant remarks about bombs or terrorism, especially when passing through US airports.
Safety concerns have been raised about INSEL Air. The UK Government, like other governments (including the USA and The Netherlands), prohibits its staff from using the airline while safety checks are being carried out.
Safety rules at public venues, such as theme parks and other tourist attractions, may vary from state to state.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in the USA. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. You should monitor media reports and be vigilant at all times.
The main threat comes from individuals who may have been inspired by terrorist ideology to carry out so-called ‘lone actor’ attacks targeting public events or places. Attacks could take place with little or no notice.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides public information about credible threats. Expect an increased presence of law enforcement and tight security at public places and events. This may include a heavy police presence, additional restrictions and searches on bags, and the use of screening technologies. For all current alerts within the USA and its territories, visit the DHS website.
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Local laws and customs
Laws vary from state to state. When you are physically present in a state, even temporarily, you are subject to that state’s laws. You must carry a passport showing that you have leave to enter or remain with you at all times.
The US is an extremely diverse society and attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people differ hugely across the country. Read our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel. You can find more detail on LGBT issues in the USA on the Human Rights Campaign website.
Under US federal law, the legal age for buying and drinking alcohol is 21 years. Some states have different laws. If you are under 21 years of age, check the relevant state laws before drinking or attempting to buy alcohol.
Possession or trafficking of a controlled substance in the USA can carry a severe prison sentence and/or fine. Check with each state you are intending to visit to make sure you comply with the personal possession and consumption laws of controlled substances within those states. A list of all types of controlled substances, as listed under the Controlled Substances Act, can be found on the US Department of Justice website.
The FCO has published information about the assistance offered by the British Embassy and Consulates to British nationals if arrested or detained in the USA.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
You’ll need to get a visa or an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) visa waiver to enter or transit the USA as a visitor.
The ESTA allows approved applicants to travel to the USA for up to 90 days for the purpose of tourism, certain types of business visits, and transit to another country. You will generally qualify if you hold a valid ‘British Citizen’ passport with this internationally recognised symbol on the front cover, and you:
- haven’t been arrested for certain crimes, even if a criminal conviction didn’t result
- aren’t a dual national of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria
- haven’t travelled to Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea (DPRK), Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen since March 2011
- can show that you have enough funds available on arrival to support yourself during your stay, even if you’re staying with family and friends
Certain exemptions apply on a case-by-case basis to those who have travelled to Iran, Iraq, North Korea (DPRK), Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia or Yemen since March 2011. For more information see the US Customs and Border Protection Agency website or contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.
To apply for the ESTA, you’ll need to complete an online pre-registration form on the official ESTA website and pay the fee of US$14 per application. You should submit your application in good time and at least 72 hours before departure to allow for processing and approval by the US authorities. If you arrive at your departure airport without a previously approved ESTA or valid visa, you may be denied boarding. If you’re arriving by land or on a ferry from Vancouver or Victoria in Canada, you don’t need to complete an ESTA before you arrive at the border.
The ESTA application is a separate process to providing your airline with advance passenger information (details of your passport, country of residence, address of your first night’s accommodation in the USA, etc).
The ESTA is intended to be used for occasional, short visits to the USA. If a US immigration officer thinks you’re trying to ‘reset’ the clock by making a short trip out of the USA and re-entering for another 90-day period, you can be denied entry.
If you travel from the USA to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean you can usually re-enter using the ESTA and admission stamp you were issued when you first arrived in the US, although the time you spend outside of the country is included in the 90 days allotted for your visit. Make sure you’re clear about the length of time the immigration officer has authorised you to remain in the US if you re-enter under the same ESTA.
If you do not qualify for entry under the ESTA, and do not have a US Permanent Resident Card, you’ll need to apply for a visa from the nearest US Embassy or Consulate before travelling. Further details on US immigration rules are available on the Customs and Border Protection website.
Your passport should be valid for the proposed duration of your stay. You don’t need any additional period of validity on your passport beyond this.
The US Customs and Border Protection programme Global Entry gets pre-approved travellers through border control faster at some US airports. If you’re a British citizen you can now register to get a UK background check on GOV.UK. If you pass the background checks, you’ll be invited to apply for Global Entry.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) aren’t valid for entry into the USA or transit through the USA on an ESTA. If you’re planning to enter or transit through the US using an ETD, you must apply for a visa from the nearest US embassy or consulate before you travel, which may take a number of days, or hold a valid lawful permanent resident card (often referred to as a ‘green card’), which you must have with you on arrival.
UK ETDs issued in the USA are valid for exit from the USA.
Bringing medicines into the USA
There are restrictions and prohibitions on the import of certain prescription drugs into the US. The US Department of Homeland Security website contains further information and advice on bringing medicines into the US.
Travelling with children
If a child (under the age of 18) is travelling with only one parent or someone who isn’t a parent or legal guardian, you may be asked to provide certain documents at the border. For further information, see the US Customs and Border Protection website.
Travelling to the USA from Cuba
It’s possible to travel to the USA after you’ve been to Cuba. However, you may wish to take supporting documents about the purpose of your trip to Cuba in case you’re questioned by US immigration officials at the port of entry on arrival in the USA. If you have any further questions or concerns, contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.
General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist are available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you are abroad.
There are restrictions and prohibitions on the import of certain prescription drugs into the USA. The US Department of Homeland Security website contains further information and advice on bringing medicines into the USA.
While travel can be enjoyable, it can sometimes be challenging. There are clear links between mental and physical health, so looking after yourself during travel and when abroad is important. Information on travelling with mental health conditions is available in our guidance page. Further information is also available from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC).
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 911 and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you’re referred to a medical facility for treatment.
Medical treatment is expensive and there are no special arrangements for British visitors. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
Some hospitals may ask non-US residents to pay a deposit or ‘good faith’ payment on admittance. You should direct any requests for funds to your travel insurance provider in the first instance; only pay the hospital if you’re advised to do so by your travel insurance company. Your level of medical care won’t be affected while your claim is being processed.
Medical facilities in American Samoa are basic and medical evacuation by air ambulance to Hawaii, New Zealand or Australia may be necessary. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
You should take suitable steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and ticks. There are occasional outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.
UK health authorities have classified the USA as having a risk of Zika virus transmission in Florida, Texas (Cameron County and Hidalgo County only), Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. For more information and advice, visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website: for travel to Florida and Texas (Cameron County and Hidalgo County only) - for travel to Puerto Rico - for travel to US Virgin Islands - for travel to American Samoa - for travel to Guam.
Snow storms during winter can cause delays and cancellations throughout the major airline hubs in the USA. Contact your travel company or airline before you travel. To monitor airport conditions in the USA, visit the Federal Aviation Administration website.
The Atlantic hurricane season normally runs from June to November. The Pacific hurricane season normally runs from May to November. They can affect US coastal regions, Hawaii and Guam. The South Pacific tropical cyclone season normally runs from November to May and can affect American Samoa.
You should monitor the progress of approaching storms on the US National Hurricane Center website and follow instructions issued by the local authorities, including any evacuation orders.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website contains information about how to prepare for extreme weather conditions and what to do if you are told to evacuate. It also provides a list of disaster supplies that will help if you live in an area affected by storms and hurricanes.
See our tropical cyclones page for advice about how to prepare effectively and what to do if you’re likely to be affected by a hurricane or tropical cyclone.
Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands were affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. Infrastructure in these territories remains fragile. If you’re in an affected area, you should continue to follow the advice of the local authorities.
Alaska, American Samoa, California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Washington state and the US Virgin Islands are prone to earthquakes. To learn more about what to do before, during and after an earthquake, visit the Federal Emergency Management website.
Tornadoes can occur at any time of the year depending on weather conditions. To learn more about what you should do during, and after a tornado, visit the FEMA website
Forest and brush fires (wildfires) are a danger in many dry areas. High winds can cause fires to spread very rapidly. Areas of high risk are canyons, hills and forests. Monitor local media and weather reports and follow the advice of local authorities, including any evacuation orders. Exercise caution in areas which have been recently affected by wild fires as they are more susceptible to mudslides during heavy rainfall.
For more detail about wild fires in California, visit the CAL FIRE website.
There is continuous volcanic activity on Hawaii’s Big Island. British nationals in the area should monitor local media reports and follow the advice of local authorities, including any evacuation orders. For further updates see the State of Hawaii’s website. To learn more about what to do before, during and after a volcano, visit the Federal Emergency Management website.
Large numbers of British nationals travel successfully and safely in and around the Arctic each year. The Arctic is, however, a vast region, comprising the northerly areas of Alaska (USA), Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. If you’re considering visiting the Arctic, read the specific travel advice for each of these countries and consider carefully the potential remoteness of certain destinations from search and rescue, evacuation and medical facilities. Independent travellers are particularly advised to develop contingency arrangements for emergency back-up.
The most popular way of visiting the Arctic is by ship. As some areas of the Arctic -specifically the more northerly and remote regions - can be uncharted and ice-covered, you should check the previous operational experience of cruise and other operators offering travel in the region. You should also consider the on-board medical facilities of cruise ships and talk to cruise operators as appropriate, particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition.
The eight Arctic states take their international search and rescue obligations very seriously, and have recently signed a binding agreement on search and rescue co-operation in the Arctic. However, in the highest latitude regions of the Arctic, cruise ships may be operating in relative isolation from other vessels and/or inhabited areas. You should be aware that in these regions, search and rescue response will often need to be despatched from many hundreds of miles away, and assistance to stranded vessels may take several days to arrive, particularly in bad weather. Search and rescue assets are also likely to offer only basic transport and basic medical care, and are unlikely to be capable of advanced life-support. Responsible cruise operators should happily provide additional information relevant to the circumstances of the cruise they are offering, and address any concerns you may have.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.
Electronic devices mustn’t contain empty rechargeable batteries. For more information visit the Department of Homeland Security website.
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