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5 essential things to do before travelling to the USA

The USA can be a little different to other countries. Here’s how to prepare.

Luggage being packed for a holiday

Australians are travelling to the United States in record numbers, spurred on by rock-bottom airfares. For the first time in history, more than a million Australians have travelled to the United States in a calendar year, second only to New Zealand and Indonesia.

While the United States is a fantastic place for a holiday, it’s worth keeping in mind that travelling there is a little different to most other places. Follow these five helpful tips to make sure that you spend your time relaxing and creating great holiday memories, not stressing out solving problems in a foreign country.

1. Apply for an ESTA

Thanks to the Visa Waiver Program, most Australians won’t need to go through the hassle of applying for a visa before a holiday to the United States. However, this doesn’t mean that you can simply book your ticket and turn up to the airport.

To enter the USA, you’ll need to apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) approval. Luckily, this is a quick and simple process that can be done online.

Your ESTA will cost you only a small fee (currently $14USD), and allows you to travel within the USA for up to 90 days, starting from the day you enter the country. Make sure you apply at least 72 hours before your scheduled departure, otherwise you may not be let on the plane.

2. Buy TSA locks for your luggage

The Transport Security Administration (TSA) is similar to Australian customs, and they don’t mess around. Even if your bag passes through the scanner okay, you may arrive at your destination to find a note inside your luggage letting you know it was searched.

If you want to lock your luggage, make sure you use a TSA approved lock. Most locks will advertise on their packaging if they’re TSA approved. These locks work just the same as a normal luggage lock, but they can all be opened by the TSA’s master keys. Anything else will be cut off and thrown away, and is more likely to get your luggage searched.

“To enter the USA, you’ll need to apply for ESTA approval. Luckily, this is a quick and simple process that can be done online.”

3. Allow plenty of time for US Customs

One thing that makes the USA unique is the airports. The most important thing to keep in mind that the first airport you reach will be the place you need to clear United States Customs, even if you have a connecting flight to another country. This is especially relevant if you’ve got a connecting flight to another airport inside the US booked with a different carrier.

Make sure you leave plenty of time (2+ hours) to make it through customs, collect your baggage, and get to your next gate.

It’s also important to remember that just having a ticket and an ESTA won’t guarantee that you’ll get into the United States. The US is considered one of the most security-conscious nations on earth, and you’ll probably be asked a few questions by a US Customs officer about your plans and details for the trip. Americans generally love Australians, so smile, be polite, and definitely don’t make security-related jokes.

4. Get your cash once you’re there

You’ll always get more bang for your buck stateside, but gone are the days of US and Australian dollar parity. A fistful of American dollars make a nice Instagram photo, but buying them in Australia will actually get you less of them, compared to exchanging money once you’re over there.

As a general rule of thumb, exchange rates are better in your destination country. Avoid changing money at airports if at all possible – the rates aren’t great and the fees can be exorbitant. Also consider getting only a small amount in cash, and using a prepaid Visa or travel cash passport instead for greater security. Cards can be replaced, lost cash can’t.

5. Make sure you have travel insurance

One of the major differences between the United States and Australia is our respective healthcare systems. In the US, Americans pay out of their own pocket for healthcare, and healthcare costs are one of the most common reasons for declared bankruptcies. Each year, many Americans end up with medical bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While we never plan to get injured or sick on holiday, having travel insurance means that you’ll receive good medical attention if required, and shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant out-of-pocket costs. Unexpected bills are the quickest way to ruin a holiday, and having this peace of mind is sure to help you relax properly on your well-earned break. Get a competitive quote on your travel insurance with Medibank.

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