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Facts at a Glance
 Full country name: The United States of America (USA)

Population: 285,000,000

Area: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)

Capital city: Washington, DC (pop: 570,000)

People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)

Languages: English, plus many secondary languages, chiefly Spanish

Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)

Government: Federal republic of 50 states

President: George W Bush


The continental US stretches across North America 'from sea to shining sea.' It borders Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Alaska juts out from northwestern Canada; Hawaii lies 2500 miles (4000km) off the country's western coast, in the middle of the Pacific. There are three major mountain ranges: the Appalachians in the east, the titanic Rocky Mountains in the west and the Sierra Nevada along the border of Nevada and California. The country has abundant natural resources and vast swaths of fertile soil.

The Atlantic Coast is the most heavily populated area and retains strong traces of its European heritage. This is where the oldest American cities, such as Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia are located, and where most of the major events in early American history took place. The central northeast is marked by the humongous Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario), which occupy an area larger than most European countries. The rivers and canals linking the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean made virtual seaports out of Midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit.

The central area drained by the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers is the grain basket of the country. Farther west, on the Great Plains, are the country's chief grazing areas. This is cowboy country, though today the trusty steeds tend to be battered pickup trucks rather than hi-ho Silvers. Desert predominates in the southwest, where the climate and degraded soils keep population density to a minimum, and where you really don't need much of a wind to see tumbleweed bouncing across the highway. Cross the Sierra Nevada and you're on the West Coast, which was settled by Americans only 150 years ago but has been on a headlong rush into the future ever since.

With such varied topography, the US has extremely diverse ecosystems. The most impressive flora are the huge evergreens of the West Coast, the sequoia and the redwood, some of which are believed to be the oldest living things on Earth. The eastern states are home to leafy hardwood forests of maple, oak and elm, which burst into color in autumn. The three most famous national parks are Yellowstone, in the Rockies; Yosemite, in the Sierra Nevada; and the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. The largest land mammals, such as black and grizzly bears, elk and deer, roam the northwestern states. The southern states are home to some of the most interesting fauna, including the marsupial opossum and the mean old alligator. Beasties to avoid include rattlesnakes, bears, wild boar, alligators and Hank, a gas station attendant from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

The climate is temperate in most of the US. Generally, it gets hotter the farther south you go and seasonally more extreme the farther you are north and inland from the coasts. Winters in the northeast and upper Midwest can have long periods below freezing while it's still warm enough to swim at the beaches in Florida (which has a tropical climate) and southern California.

Economic Profile
 GDP: US$9.3 trillion

GDP per head: US$33,900

Annual growth: 4.1%

Inflation: 2.2%

Major industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture, telecommunications, chemicals, mining, processing and packaging

Major trading partners: Canada, Japan, Mexico, the EU

Facts for the Traveler
 Visas: Most visitors to the US require a visa. However, Canadians need only proof of citizenship. A reciprocal visa-waiver program allows citizens of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland to stay up to 90 days without a visa if they have an onward ticket.

Health risks: None, apart from the high cost of medical care

Time: Eastern (GMT/UTC -5), Central (-6), Mountain (-7), and Pacific Standard (-8)

Electricity: 110V, 60Hz

Weights & Measures: Imperial

Tourism: 45 million visitors per year

Money & Costs
 Currency:US dollar (USD)
Relative Costs:

  • Budget: US$3-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-20
  • Top-end: US$20 and upward

  • Lodging

  • Budget: US$12-70
  • Mid-range: US$70-100
  • Top-end: US$100 and upward
  • If you camp or stay in hostels, catch buses and self-cater, you could feasibly explore the country on around US$50 a day. Staying in motels and eating at modest cafes will mean you'll hit the US$100 mark, and enjoying the convenience of a rental car will push your daily budget up to US$150. If you want to do the US in style, welcome to the world of credit and consumerism.

    You'll save yourself hassle and expense if your traveler's checks are in US dollars. Restaurants, hotels and most stores accept US dollar traveler's checks as if they were cash. Major credit cards are widely accepted; you'll find it hard to perform certain transactions (such as renting a car or reserving tickets over the phone) without one. You may also be able to access your bank account using US ATMs.

    Tipping is expected in restaurants and better hotels. The going rate in restaurants is 15% or more of the bill; never tip in a fast-food or self service environment. Taxi drivers, bartenders and hairdressers depend on similar-sized gratuities. Sales taxes vary from state to state but are typically 5-8%, though some states have no sales taxes at all. Top-end accommodation also often attracts a bed tax, which can be as high as 15%. It's worth checking whether quoted prices for lodging include all relevant taxes.

    When to Go

    The US is most popular with travelers during the summer, but this is when American families pack everything up and head out to visit Aunt Tilly. To avoid mobs (especially throughout the national-park system), it's better to go during autumn or early spring.

    Autumn is an especially good time to visit New England and the upper Great Lakes because fall colors are at their best. Most of the country east of the Rockies is hot and humid during summer, especially the south. The deserts between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada are very hot and dry during the summer, especially in the southwest. California's southern coast is comfortable year-round, but if you want to experience the beach scene, it's best to visit between June and September.

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