Emergencies: Dial 911 for police and ambulance in an emergency.
Embassies and Consulates: For consulates in Los Angeles, please go to Embassies and Consulates.
Mail: Every address in the United States belongs to a specific zip code district. Each zip code has five digits. Some addresses include four more numbers after the first five numbers. Although this speeds mail delivery for large organizations, it's not necessary to use it. Each zip code district has at least one post office, where you can buy stamps and aerograms, send parcels or conduct other postal business. Occasionally you may find small stamp-dispensing machines in airports, train stations, bus terminals, large office buildings, hotel lobbies, drugstores or grocery stores, but don't count on it. Most Americans go to the post office to buy their stamps and the lines can be long.
Official mailboxes are either the stout, royal blue steel bins on city sidewalks or mail chutes on the walls of post offices or in large office buildings. A schedule posted on mailboxes and mail slots should tell you when the mail is picked up.
Sending Mail Home: First class letters (under one ounce) sent within the United States cost 37-cents to mail; postcards are 20-cents. A one-ounce letter to Canada or Mexico takes a 60-cent stamp and a postcard 50-cents. Airmail letters (under a half ounce) to other overseas destinations cost 80-cents, and postcards are 70-cents. For 70 cents, you can also buy an aerogram - a pre-stamped sheet of lightweight blue paper that folds and seals into its own envelope.
Receiving Mail: If you want to receive mail while traveling in the United States, have it sent c/o General Delivery at the city's main post office (be sure to use the right zip code). It will be held there for up to 30 days. You must pick it up in person and bring identification with you. American Express offices in the United States do not hold mail.
The basic unit of U.S. currency is the dollar. Each dollar can be divided into100 cents. Coins are the copper penny (one-cent) and four silver coins: the nickel (five cents), the dime (10 cents), the quarter (25 cents) and the half-dollar (50 cents). Silver $1 coins are rarely seen in circulation. A "golden" dollar coin was introduced in 2000.
Paper money comes in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. These bills are all the same size and green color. They differ in the dollar amount shown on them and the pictures of famous Americans and monuments.
For the best exchange rates, change money at banks. Fees charged for ATM transactions may be higher abroad than at home. Cirrus and Plus exchange rates are excellent, because they are based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. You won't do as well at exchange booths in airports or rail and bus stations, in hotels, in restaurants or in stores, although you may find their hours more convenient. To avoid lines at airport exchange booths, get some American money before you leave home.
In general, U.S. banks will not cash a personal check for you unless you have an account at that bank (it doesn't have to be at that branch). Only in major cities are large bank branches equipped to exchange foreign currencies. Therefore, it's best to rely on credit cards, cash machines and traveler's checks to handle expenses while you're traveling.
Exchanging Money: In the United States, it is not as easy to find places to exchange currency as it is in Europe. In major cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, currency may be exchanged at some bank branches as well as at airport currency-exchange booths and foreign-currency offices such as American Express Travel Service and Thomas Cook. (Check local directories for addresses and phone numbers). It's to buy traveler's checks in U.S. dollars before you come to the United State. Although the rates may not be as good abroad, the time saved by not having to search constantly for exchange facilities far outweighs any financial loss.
Money Orders and Fund Transfers: Any U.S. bank can accept transfers of funds from foreign banks. It helps if you can plan dates to pick up money at specific bank branches. Your home bank can give you a list of its correspondent banks in the United States.
If you have more time and a U.S. address where you can receive mail, you can have someone send you a certified check or a postal money order. You can cash a certified check at any bank. A postal money order up to a value of $700 costs up to 85-cents at any U.S. post office. It can be redeemed at any post office. You can have someone overseas go to a bank to send you an international money order here in the United States. An international money order is also called a bank draft. A commission of $15 to $20 will be charged plus airmail postage. Always bring two valid pieces of identification, preferably with photos, to claim your money.
Taxes: Los Angeles charges a sales tax of 8% on all purchases except food. There is an additional 10 to 14% tax on hotel rooms, depending on where you stay. There is a tax of 8.25% on car rentals.
The most important thing to remember about packing for a Southern California vacation is to plan for temperature changes. An hour's drive can take you up or down many degrees. There can be a marked drop in temperature from daytime to nighttime. Clothes that can be layered are best - take along a sweater or jacket but also bring some shorts and cool cottons. Always tuck in a bathing suit. Most lodgings have a pool, a spa or a sauna.
While casual dressing is a hallmark of the California lifestyle, men will need a jacket at some good restaurants in the evening. Women will be more comfortable in something dressier than the usual sightseeing garb of cotton dresses, walking shorts or jeans and T-shirts.
Be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes. Even if you're not much of a walker at home, you're bound to find many times when you'll want to walk. Nothing ruins the pleasures of sightseeing like sore feet.
Electricity: The U.S. electrical standard is 110 volts/60 cycles AC. Foreign visitors traveling with dual-voltage appliances will not need a converter, but they will need a plug adapter. The standard U.S. electrical outlet takes a plug of two flat pins set parallel to one another.
Passports and Visas
Entering the United States: Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom who plan to stay in the United States fewer than 90 days do not need visas. A valid passport, a return-trip ticket and proof of financial solvency are required. You'll be asked to fill out the Visa Waiver Form, I-94W, upon entry. Travelers who plan to stay more than 90 days can apply for the appropriate visa at the United States embassy or consulates in their home country. Canadian citizens need valid identification but neither a passport nor a visa to enter the United States.
At Home: If you live in the United Kingdom: U.S. Embassy Visa Information Line (tel. 01891/200290; calls cost 49p per minute, 39p per minute cheap rate) for U.S. visa information. U.S. Embassy Visa Branch (5 Upper Grosvenor Sq., London W1A 1AE) for U.S. visa information; send a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Write the U.S. Consulate General (Queen's House, Queen St., Belfast BTI 6EO) if you live in Northern Ireland. Write the Office of Australia Affairs (59th fl., MLC Centre, 19-29 Martin Pl., Sydney NSW 2000) if you live in Australia. Write the Office of New Zealand Affairs (29 Fitzherbert Terr., Thorndon, Wellington) if you live in New Zealand.
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