USA surprises for International Visitors

There are a lot of stereotypes about the United States, some are true, some are not. Many things fall somewhere in between. Common beliefs regarding the USA that are certainties are the average car is much larger than vehicles in most of the world. And an American is more likely to be toting a gun than most places asides from countries currently at civil war. I believe that misconceptions about my country are things like “Americans are the most ignorant and obnoxious travelers.” Bell and I have traveled enough to know that there are many ignorant and obnoxious travelers from everywhere. I certainly know I have been that guy before…in my early days of travel.

Americans are typically not as Exposed to Foreign Cultures like Europeans

The USA is a big country where many people aren’t as exposed to foreign cultures and languages. So kudos to anybody who chooses to get out and explore the world. But what surprises international travelers when they visit the USA? We want readers to share some experiences in the comments section but we’ll share a few things about what we’ve heard and experienced first.

La Camina de la Plaza and Tijuana, surprises international travelers when they visit the USA
Thumbs up Tijuana border crossing!

Many Americans are Scared of their Own Public Transportation

A Dutch friend once told us that she had a 1 day layover in Houston and asked the receptionist at her hotel about catching a bus to something of interest. The receptionist looked at her as if she was crazy. “You want to catch THE BUS?” she said. She suggested that if our friend really wanted to do that she should catch the bus to the shopping mall. Many Americans are wary of public transport (often for good reason in their town), and they fear for visitors safety in using it.

Crazy Outlet Malls and Shopping Addictions

A Polish friend told us a USA surprise her was feeling “stalked” in many American retail outlets. We told her the reason is that either they receive commission or they’re just very bored. The American way is to always try and up sell, often blatantly scripted. On a side note, a couple years ago Bell and I traveled to Lithuania and Latvia and were surprised that shop keepers would stare at us the entire time we were in their store. They wouldn’t offer to help, they just stared.

American beer goes far beyond Budweiser and Coors, to the surprise of many international visitors.
Many are surprised with the abundance of tasty micro brews and intriguing marketing campaigns.

Oversharing Political Opinions

A German friend finds it bewildering why so many Americans LOVE to announce their political and religious beliefs. European countries themselves vary on these subjects (many Greeks and Serbians for example love to talk politics) and European workers in many nations are notorious for worker’s strikes. But on average, a European is less likely to start randomly shouting about their political or religious beliefs for little apparent reason.

Cane Sugar vs Corn Syrup

An Italian friend told us one of his USA surprises was American coke (no, not the drug!). Coca Cola in Europe is still made from sugar cane, like it used to be in the USA. Now American coke is sweetened with corn syrup because it’s cheaper. Remember when they changed the flavor about a decade ago? Yeah, they never did that in Europe. When I return to the States and pay for coke with unlimited refills, I will often drink 3 glasses (I know, I’m a real health freak). Then my stomach hurts because the corn syrup is eating away at my internal organs.

Health warning at a Starbucks in California, surprises international travelers when they visit the USA
Health warning at a Starbucks in California…their coffee can cause cancer?

Misunderstandings in English

When Bell first set foot in the United States in 2005, in Los Angeles, she was surprised at how friendly Californians were, not that she expected them to be rude, but she enjoyed chatting with people in the bars. She was also shocked at the size of food portions, but loved that she could take her food away in a box, because in Australia it is illegal to do that, for health reasons. Finally, despite speaking the same language people didn’t always understand her. She would frequently say “Saturday” and have people say they weren’t open on “Sunday.”

Several people have mentioned it surprised them how much water is in American toilet bowls. They wondered whether the toilets were flooded. European toilet bowls are not filled like a kiddie pool. Water conservation is becoming more of an issue in the USA now.

USA Surprises Recap

Some American stereotypes are true. Some aren’t. And many are somewhere in between. This is definitely a gun problem in the USA. It’s too large a business, and politicians lack the political will to properly legislate. There’s no reason that ordinary American citizens should be able to legally purchase assault rifles.

Being a dual Greek citizen, married to an Australian and living abroad has broadened my world views. Perhaps I’ve shifted to become European. It’s something I’ve also written about. Of course, these are generalizations. People are diverse, and simply can’t be categorized under one brush stroke.

What are some USA surprises for you? Share them in the comments!ย 


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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8 thoughts on “USA surprises for International Visitors

  1. Speaking of Australians in the US, there is an episode of House MD in which House says something like “you can’t really understand what Chase says.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yes, yes us Aussie’s can be tough to understand ๐Ÿ˜‰ but all the Aussies now think I sound American, this is clearly not true given Alex and I still miscommunicate!

  2. As a Chinese new immigrant, I was surprised by the number of cars running around town. As an American expat, I am surprised by the lack of public transit that’s available compared to the rest of the world.

    1. Thanks for sharing Maya! You have unique perspectives on this having immigrated and emigrated from the USA. It’s a shame Americans are so addicted to their cars- and what doesn’t get talked about enough is that poor public transport in the USA is a barrier for struggling people to get to better jobs and bring themselves up in the world.

  3. I love that you admit that you’ve been one of those ugly American travelers. I don’t think many people see themselves as perpetuating a stereotype – but we all do. Ha ha. I did not know you couldn’t take your food away in Australia.

    1. Haha Ann, oh yes about being an ugly American, sometimes even on purpose ๐Ÿ™‚ Like when I pretended to know the families of the tuk tuk drivers in Thailand because they annoy you constantly. I would say “Hey Bob, how’s it going? How’s the wife and kids??” and then just walk off. When I was younger I got really drunk in Salzburg and couldn’t find my hostel and just went into a random hotel and slept in the hallway. I was rudely awaken and thrown out into the freezing cold (that’s just two of many!) lol…And yeah the Aussies are very strict on certain things. Occupational health and safety inspectors are like the #1 source of employment there! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Supermarket staff will actually ask the customers if they need any assistance in finding an item! In Australia you need to go find a worker who will then generally be totally indifferent to any request. The Americans take real pride in their work, even if their job might be considered mundane by the rank and file.

    1. Hi Gary, good one! Thanks for sharing that! It’s funny because Bell is Australian and she found the customer service at super markets over the top. She couldn’t believe that while she was looking through produce at Publix, an employee would randomly ask if she needed any help with anything. Hmm, what does a grapefruit look like? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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