The United States of America, universally known as America or the USA, is made up of 50 states and several overseas territories. America declared independence from Britain in 1776 and was recognised as autonomous in 1783, leading to the adoption of its constitution four years later in 1787. Since then, the USA has developed at an astonishing rate to become the world’s economic powerhouse and most influential political authority.
Founded on the principals of equality and individual rights, it is perhaps not surprising that America is traditionally viewed as the land of opportunity. The promise of social mobility and classlessness has attracted huge inward migration and made the USA extremely ethnically diverse, although critics might argue that its different communities could be better integrated with each other. Although officially secular, America maintains a strong religious identity with Christianity the dominant faith.
For such a large country, the USA has a fairly strong sense of national identity and many of its pastimes have a uniquely American feel. Sports play a major part in people’s social lives, with baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey drawing huge crowds to games. Those who don’t attend matches often watch games with friends and enjoy food and drink together. Geography also influences people’s activities – for example rodeo and country music are popular in the Southern states while areas with cold winters enjoy a range of snow sports.
Food and drink
Think American food and you’re probably imagining hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza and donuts. While it’s true that the USA exported fast food chains to the rest of the world, its culinary heritage is in fact as diverse at its culture. Every state has its own dishes based around its produce and the influences of its different communities, although common indigenous ingredients such as pumpkin, sweet potato and corn feature heavily in most regional menus. Americans generally prefer coffee or iced tea to hot tea, and the country is also home to a huge range of soft drinks – usually known as sodas.
Although there is a no official language in the USA, English is the majority language. However, Spanish is also widely spoken, particularly in the southern and western states where large numbers of Mexican migrants have settled. Most official documentation is readily available in Spanish and it is the most widely taught foreign language in schools. There are also at least five other languages with over a million native speakers residing in the USA.
Despite its size and large population, America has relatively few regional accents. However, the sounds and dialects of each region can vary quite dramatically, with the differences between the east coast, west coast and southern accents perhaps the most noticeable.
Compulsory education in the USA covers elementary school, middle school (sometimes known as junior high) and high school (or senior high). The ages of students who are required to attend school vary slightly from state to state, but generally children start school between the ages of 5 and 8, and finish between the ages of 16 and 18. State schools are free to attend and many students get free transportation and subsidised meals, while private schools are usually fee paying. After school, students may choose to continue to college or university.
The academic year is determined by individual states so there is quite a lot of variation. However, schools typically work two semesters, the first from August or September to January, and the second from January to May or June. Many universities use the same system, and most allow students to start courses at the beginning of either semester.
There are over 4,500 colleges and universities in the USA, ranging from the private Ivy League institutions to the public colleges and smaller liberal arts colleges. College in the USA has a particular character, with sports clubs, fraternities and sororities famously at the centre of social life on campus. Most colleges require students to pass an entrance exam (usually the SAT or ACT) and college applicants are allowed to apply to as many institutions as they want to, although there is usually an application fee.
As in many countries, financial pressures have led American higher education institutions to increasingly seek commercial or corporate funding. Colleges in the USA charge tuition fees depending on whether a student normally lives in-state, out-of-state or internationally relative to the institution. Students can apply for various types of funding including both loans and grants through the Federal Student Aid programme. Some foreign nationals studying in the USA are eligible for funding depending on their visa status.
American universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degree courses, but undergraduate courses work differently to in many other countries. Most last four years – commonly referred to as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years – and for the first two students take a broad range of subjects before choosing a ‘major’, their specialist subject for the final two years. Some students choose a double major or take an additional ‘minor’ in a secondary field. Graduate qualifications usually last between one and three years, and most colleges also offer several non-degree qualifications.
Research in the USA is very prestigious and competition for funding can be competitive. For more information, visit Grants.gov to find out about federal funding, or contact a specialist organisation in your research field.
Elementary, middle and high school education
Schools in America use a system known as K-12, which covers compulsory education from kindergarten through to twelfth grade. Although some schools run slightly different systems, the three levels of schooling are usually divided into:
- Elementary school – kindergarten to fifth grade
- Middle school – sixth grade to eighth grade
- High school – ninth grade to twelfth grade
There is no federal curriculum, but most schools follow a structure outlined by local authorities in their area. At the end of high school students hope to complete their High School Diploma. Although courses are not standardised, the diploma is a nationally recognised award and very important for employment prospects.
Preschool and childcare options
Preschool and childcare options for people moving to America with their families include:
- Day care centres or crèches
- Au pairs
The cost of childcare can be very high, although some employers do have facilities on site to care for their employees’ children. In 2013, new plans were announced to make preschools more accessible, and these will continue to be phased in over the next few years.
Cost of living in the USA varies hugely according to a number of factors. Wages for the same types of job often vary between states, meaning that the cost of living and quality of life is best viewed on a state by state level. Within states, cities are usually more expensive to live in than smaller towns or rural areas, although the local economy and levels of self-sufficiency also have an impact on the cost of living, with prices of goods also higher in very remote areas.
Living options in the USA include properties to buy or rent as well as options to lodge, share accommodation or stay in hotels at relatively cheap rates. Most universities offer accommodation for foreign nationals taking academic jobs, and other employers should be able to offer advice on good areas to live in.
If you choose to rent a property in the USA, you will need to submit a lease application. At this point your credit history will be checked too. Usually you need to pay a deposit and the estate agent’s fees, but the process depends on state law. If you move to America permanently and decide to buy a property, you’ll find that the process is relatively quick as long as you have proof of funds, with purchases typically completed in between 30 and 60 days.
For more information on property prices and housing issues in the USA, visit the National Association of Realtors website.
Most property lettings will require a deposit. Some states limit the number of months’ rent that landlords can request as a deposit and set deadlines for them to return it after the lease ends, so check the law in your state before signing a lease.
Local services in the USA are funded in part by a property tax, which is calculated based on the value of a property. Although it is the owner who is liable for the tax, some landlords may pass the cost on to their tenants, so always check the rate whether you are renting or buying.
Utilities in the USA are regulated by public utility commissions and provided by a combination of publically-owned and private companies. In some areas, you will have a choice of suppliers and may be able to change to get a better price on your water, electricity, gas, telephone and internet, but in other areas you may be locked in to a particular provider.
There is no cost for owning a television in America, and five major national networks – NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and The CW – show free-to-air channels. However, many people choose to pay for additional channels or regional services.
Healthcare and medical costs
Although the quality of healthcare in the USA is of a generally high standard, the costs are equally high. There are few publicly-funded services, with the system largely paid for by private insurance. Be aware that certain kinds of visa require you to arrange medical insurance before entering the country. The new health insurance marketplace is designed to help more people access insurance, but is currently only available to US citizens. There are also Medicare and Medicaid schemes, but again qualification is limited for foreign nationals so it’s best to arrange your own insurance or take up an option through your employer.
America is famed for its shopping, both on the high street and at out of town malls. Outlet malls offer attractive prices on clothing and household goods, but do your research first to spot the genuine deals. Supermarkets offer a comprehensive choice of groceries and are usually the cheapest option, while local produce is available at farmers’ markets and convenience stores.
There is no federal VAT (value-added tax) or GST (goods and services tax) in the USA. Instead, sales tax is levied at various rates in different states and sometimes even in different cities of the same state. Prices are usually quoted without sales tax, so be prepared to see the cost increase when you get to the checkout.
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – $996.51 (≈£592.95) per month
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – $753.41 (≈£448.30) per month
- Price of apartment in city centre – $1,876.64 (≈£1,116.65) per square metre
- Price of apartment outside city centre – $1,230.65 (≈£732.27) per square metre
- Loaf of bread – $2.40 (≈£1.43)
- Milk (1 litre) – $1.00 (≈£0.60)
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – $1.76 (≈£1.05)
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – $3.50 (≈£2.08)
- Packet of cigarettes – $6.00 (≈£3.57)
- Petrol (1 litre) – $0.96 (≈£0.57)
- Cinema ticket – $10.00 (≈£5.95)
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed May 2014)
Because of its size, the USA experiences the whole spectrum of climate conditions from tropical Hawaii to arctic Alaska. The overall climate could be described as temperate, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Summer temperatures in certain areas can pass 50°C (122°F), while winters can see -30°C (-22°) or even lower. However, these are the absolute extremes – to find out more about the climate in a particular state, visit the National Weather Service website.
Safety and security
Although the USA has a reputation for high levels of crime, it’s important to understand that this is not true across the board. Rates of gun crime and homicide are slightly higher than in some developed countries, but they remain significantly lower than in many places. What you tend to find in the USA is that particular neighbourhoods have bad reputations for crime, so always listen to local advice and avoid these areas.
America can be prone to natural disasters, with earthquakes sometimes striking the west coast and hurricanes affecting the southern and eastern states between June and November each year. Certain areas of the USA are also at risk from wildfires and tornados. If you move to a high risk area, familiarise yourself with safety recommendations and in the event of a natural disaster, follow any instructions given to you by emergency services.
Employees in the USA typically work a 40-hour week. The normal hours are Monday to Friday from 9am to 5:30pm with 30 minutes allowed for lunch, however many organisations allow employees to work earlier or later than this provided they get their scheduled hours in. Overtime is permitted and may be paid or unpaid at the discretion of your employer.
Many foreign nationals who move to the USA to work are surprised to find that there is no provision in federal law for paid holiday (usually referred to as vacation). Larger companies may still offer good benefits packages to attract top quality staff, but this is not universal. Employers typically offer between 10 and 20 days vacation at their discretion. Be aware that other types of leave – including sick leave and maternity leave – may also be paid or unpaid at the employer’s discretion.
The USA has 11 officially recognised federal holidays. Ten of these occur annually and one, Inauguration Day, occurs every four years (in the year of a Presidential election). Apart from Inauguration Day, which is usually observed only in counties affected by the election, federal holidays are observed by the majority of public offices and private businesses may also close. Individual states sometimes observe additional holidays, so dates are best checked on the state government websites.
Federal holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Birthday of Martin Luther King: 21st January
Memorial Day: 27th May
Independence Day: 4th July
Labor Day: 2nd September
Columbus Day: 14th October
Veterans’ Day: 11th November
Thanksgiving Day: 28th November
Christmas Day: 25th December
Visas and eligibility to work
The USA is a very desirable proposition for people seeking work abroad and attracts large numbers of migrants each year. High levels of illegal immigration in the past have led to the famously strict border control system in operation today, and there are a large number of different visa types available. Apart from those travelling under the Visa Waiver scheme, people of most nationalities require a visa to visit the country, and almost all foreign nationals will need a visa to work in the USA. To find out what visa is right for you, use the Visa Wizard tool on the US Department of State website.
Your visa application is most likely to be successful if you already have a job offer from a company in the USA. The majority of jobs available to foreign nationals are specialist or skilled positions as labour laws require local workers to be given preferential access to jobs if they are available. Remember that the US has some major restrictions on entry to the country so any criminal convictions, particularly relating to drug use, may lead to an application being rejected.
The tax system in the USA is complex as residents are taxed at both federal and state levels. To work in America you will need to apply for a Tax Identification Number, usually a Social Security Number. The rules for international taxpayers vary, but generally speaking employees can expect to pay federal income tax, state or city tax, social security tax and a Medicare levy. The rate you are taxed at will depend on your earnings, social situation and residency status, and the majority of people will need to file tax returns annually. For help with tax issues in the USA, contact your local IRS office.
When you work in the USA and pay social security taxes, you accrue social security credits. These can later be used to claim retirement benefits. The amount of credits you need to claim depends on your age, so if you only work in America for a short period before retiring you may not be eligible. However, government incentives and tax breaks enable many companies to offer staff access to pension plans, so speak to your employer about your options.
Depending on your residency, work and social status, you may be able to claim benefits in the USA as a foreign national. To find out what is available, use the federal Benefits Finder, or look up the local support options for the state you intend to live in.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability, and disabled people also hold a number of other rights defined by the law. For more information, visit the Disability.gov website.
The structure of American businesses depends on their size. Large corporations with multiple offices tend to maintain a hierarchical structure with lots of levels and sub-departments for operational practicality. Smaller companies and smaller departments within big firms may have a flatter organisational structure. Decision making is usually fast and will traditionally be top down in most businesses. Be aware that in such a large country, business practices may also vary by geographical location.
Management styles in the USA very much depend on the type of organisation and the nature of its work. Ambition is a key driver so individualism and independent work is highly valued from employees, who are expected to progress in the workplace and develop their skills. Managers will be straight and direct with their staff and expect the same in return. Communications are explicit and mostly verbal, and it is acceptable to criticise people’s ideas candidly and in public without causing personal offence.
Americans are known for their forward nature and will often begin conversations with complete strangers. In business, people in the USA like to use first names from the start, and titles are rarely used. Interactions may also be quite physical, with the backslapping and exaggerated handshakes of popular culture not far from the truth, however politeness and courtesy are also rewarded, so remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ upon being thanked by your American colleagues.
Although Americans value and encourage equality, status is still significant so make sure you show respect to senior figures. Networking is important to success as using connections and even dropping names can be a good way to secure meetings and introductions, but remember that in such a large country not all networking is face to face, so take advantage of telephone contacts, Skype meetings and social media to develop relationships too.
There are various styles of business letter in the USA. Although written in a relatively formal manner, there can be slight differences to British correspondence, for example the signoff is normally ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Sincerely yours’ rather than ‘Yours sincerely’. Emails can be much less formal, often beginning with ‘Hi’ and ending with a more personal line such as ‘Have a nice day’ or ‘Enjoy your weekend’, but if in doubt, keep it formal to begin with.
Typical business dress consists of a dark-coloured business suit for men, usually with a shirt and tie or open collar. Women tend to wear suits or business dresses with conservative makeup and modest jewellery. However, there is something of a geographical divide, with western states generally allowing more casual clothing than their eastern counterparts. Casual Fridays are observed by some businesses, and summer dress codes may be different to account for warmer weather conditions.
Business greetings in the USA can be more casual than elsewhere, so don’t be surprised to hear ‘Hi there’ or ‘How are you?’, even in a formal environment. Always greet your American contacts with an enthusiastic handshake and a warm smile. Business cards should be exchanged but there is no formal ritual for this, and cards may be accepted with no more than a cursory glance.
Make sure you arrive on time to appointments as lateness is considered disrespectful and unprofessional. Many Americans work a lot of overtime and will conduct business dealings outside normal working hours, so they don’t appreciate having their time wasted.
Despite the informal greetings and customary small talk, business meetings are usually quite structured. Agendas will be followed throughout and action plans agreed before the meeting is adjourned. Everyone attending is expected to understand the issues being discussed and actively contribute to a lively debate. People in the USA are not shy in asking questions, so always prepare to be challenged on your presentation or figures. Meetings rarely finish open ended as Americans like to have a clear conclusion or plan in place by the end of a meeting.
The USA has a very diverse society, so always be aware that you may meet people from very different social backgrounds and cultures. Although they can appear quite forward at times, Americans often prefer not to discuss topics like religion and politics in public, so keep your small talk to less controversial topics.
Most business dealings in the USA are conducted in English, although American English can differ in spelling and vocabulary to British English. However, there is a large Spanish-speaking minority, with well over 10% of the population regarding Spanish as their first language. There are also large numbers of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, French and German speakers, so on occasion you may need to interact with someone whose native language is not English.