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Money and travel tips: UK to USA

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One of the places I have been most excited to travel to is the USA.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel there twice so far: once for a five week trip with an ex-boyfriend and another time for a two-week trip with a friend.  Both times I stayed in California.  I also ventured to Nevada, Arizona and even Mexico.  The USA is vast and there is so much to explore.  I plan on returning one day and would love to go on a huge road trip with my husband and children to see as much as possible.  When travelling to the USA there are a few things to plan in advance such as an ESTA.  In this blog post I will explain what the ESTA is and also answer some popular money and travel questions when travelling from the UK to the USA.

What is an ESTA?

ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.  Anyone travelling to the USA from the UK must complete an ESTA form before travelling.  Even if you are just passing through and not staying in the USA you will need to complete one in order to access the country, otherwise you may not be allowed in and will have to return home.  You may not even be able to board! 

An ESTA visa will approve you in advance for travel to the USA.  You can stay in the USA for 90 days with an approved ETSA. 

You will still have to pass through US Custom and Border Protection when you arrive in the USA, so an ESTA doesn’t absolutely guarantee entry to the country, but it’s very unlikely you’ll be denied if you have an approved ESTA and have declared everything required of you.

The ESTA needs to be completed in advance of your trip from the UK to the USA.  It is recommended it is completed at least 72 hours before your trip.  There is a small fee for completing an ESTA and it’s a straightforward form that can be completed online.

Everyone needs an ESTA, even babies.  So make sure you complete an ESTA for every member of your travelling party.

Once you have an approved ESTA it is valid for two years.  Once it expires then you’ll need to apply for a new one when you want to next visit the USA.  You’ll also need to apply again if you renew your passport.

If your ESTA is denied for any reason then you are unable to enter the USA and you will still be charged a nominal fee for your attempted application.

Apply for your ESTA before booking your flights or accommodation

Make sure you apply for your ESTA before you book any travel or hotels, just in case you are not permitted to travel.  If your application is denied for any reason then you may not be able to cancel your hotel or flights, depending on if you booked with a cancellation cover or not.  Either way, you could lose money if you are not approved for USA travel.

Print your ESTA and take it as proof

Once your ESTA is approved then print out the confirmation page right away and take it with your travel documents as proof.  Your airline may ask to see your ESTA so it’s important to have it to hand.

Do I need an ESTA or a visa?

The ESTA allows you to visit the USA for 90 days.  If you are planning on staying longer then you’ll need to apply for a US visa instead.

You’ll need to apply for a visa if you meet the following:

  • “You plan to stay in the USA for longer than 90 consecutive days.
  • You plan to work in the USA.
  • You are impermissible based on the “Immigration and Nationality Act (212)”.
  • You travel to the USA for purposes other than tourism or business.
  • You travel to the USA with an airline or transportation company which is not part of the “Visa Waiver Program”.
  • Since 2011, you have been in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia, or have ever held the nationality of one of these countries.” (source:


What else do I need to travel UK to USA?

The ESTA is the most unique thing you’ll need to arrange in advance in order to travel to the USA from the UK, but here’s a reminder of the other things you’ll want to check or arrange.


You’ll need to have at least six months left on your passport for travel in the USA.  Make sure your passports are valid and have at least six months left before you travel.  If not, you’ll need to apply for a new passport and receive this before you head off on your travels.


Although not a legal requirement, it’s a very sensible requirement.  It’s important to have a suitable travel insurance that covers you for travel in the USA for the duration of your stay.  Note that some travel insurances only cover you for a maximum of 30 days, so if you are travelling for longer then make sure your insurance offers an extended cover.  Medical expenses are very costly in America and you won’t be covered by a National Health Service as you are in the UK.  If you need any medical attention then expect a large bill.  If you have an appropriate insurance then they will cover any medical costs you accrue.

Driving licence and IDP

If you're wondering can I drive in the USA with a UK licence then yes you can, but you'll also need to take an international driving permit with you too which you can get from a Post Office.


USA money tips

Some things to do with money are slightly different in the USA compared to the UK.  Here are a few handy things you should know about money before travelling to the USA.


The currency in the USA is the US Dollar (USD).  Major credit cards are widely accepted and you’ll be able to take out USD at cash machines.

Sales tax

Many stores have sales tax, but this is not listed on the advertised price, but only added on once you get to the checkout.  This means the price you see on an item isn’t always the total price you pay.  It varies from state to state, but just be aware that the sales tax could be added on at the till.  I used to roughly add on 10% in my head as I totalled things up so as I wasn’t surprised at the checkout.


Tipping is customary in the USA with a 15%-20% tip being the norm in restaurants, bars and taxis.  It’s seen as rude to walk out of a restaurant without tipping and there are stories online of waiting staff chasing customers down the street to ask why they did not tip.  The tips actually make up the server’s wage and it is standard practice to tip in the USA.  Hotel porters who carry your luggage to your room should be tipped around $2.

Mobile data

Make sure you purchase a cost-effective international data bundle from your mobile phone provider when travelling to the USA, or else you may rack up a high phone bill in roaming charges.  Alternatively turn off your mobile data and make use of the free WiFi in public places, hotels and airports.


Final word

Visiting the USA is such a great experience.  There is so much to see and do.  Just make sure you remember to apply for your ESTA in advance, check all your travel documents are still in date and learn about some of their unique customary money habits before you go.