41 United States Traditions & Customs That Surprise Non-Americans

It may just seem like everyday life to you, but the rest of the world sort of scratches their heads at these distinctly American customs and traditions.

Updated June 7, 2024

Some traditions and customs that we embrace in the United States may seem a bit unusual from outside of our borders. These unusual USA traditions often confuse visitors from other parts of the world. 

Virtually Indistinguishable Paper Money


If you've ever encountered colorful money from around the world, it makes the USA's currency look rather dull. And if you've ever given somebody a $20 bill when you meant to give them a $10 bill, then you know that this can be an issue. We have to look at the face and the number on our bills. In other countries, the color palette makes it much easier to find the right bill the first time.

Thanksgiving Presidential Turkey Pardon


We're not sure what the turkey did or why the President of the USA needs to pardon it, but pardoning the turkey has been an American Thanksgiving tradition that traces its roots back to the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln spared a turkey's life at the request of his son. But although one has its life spared, more than 46 million turkeys aren't quite so lucky in the US every Thanksgiving and are served at American tables. 

Grab-and-Go Coffee


In any major city in the US, you'll see people carrying to-go cups of coffee as they go about their days. This started in the US in the mid-1960s and has become a cultural touchstone. In many other countries, getting coffee is a whole experience, where they sit at a table and enjoy the coffee. The US was the first to do grab-and-go coffee, but other countries have followed suit, and the practice is growing around the world

Groundhog Day


Imagine visiting the USA on February 2, when we allow an animal to tell us when spring will come. And we get pretty excited about it, too. While Groundhog Day started in Pennsylvania, it spread throughout the entire country, and it is a distinctly USA tradition.

Related: 40 Groundhog Day Quotes to Keep You Going for the Next Six Weeks

Hot Dog Eating Contests


You can thank Nathan's Famous for hot dog eating contests, which started in 1916 at Coney Island. FYI, the reigning champ ate 73 hot dogs in a sitting. Yikes. 

The Imperial Measurement System


For common measurements, most people in the US use a form of the Imperial System called the United States Customary System (USCS). While Americans do learn and use the metric system like almost every other country in the world, the USCS is preferred.

Writing a Date With the Month First


When Americans write a date, they write the month, then the day, then the year. Many other countries write the day first, then the month, then the year.

Sweet Breakfast


In many countries, lunch or dinner is the most important meal of the day. In the USA, breakfast is. While others grab a coffee and some fruit, many Americans eat sweets for breakfast, such as donuts, sugary cereals, or pancakes smothered in maple syrup.

Leaving Home at 18


Americans value independence, so it's no surprise that moving out of your family home as soon as you finish high school is a custom. Even if you don't attend or finish high school, many 18-year-olds are expected to move out and live independently. College students are welcomed back into the home during school breaks, but they're expected to get their own home as soon as they graduate college.

Kindergarten Graduation


In the United States, we like to celebrate accomplishment, even if it is just moving on from kindergarten. Tiny children wearing full cap and gown is pretty uniquely American. Many countries don't even have high school graduations — only university level. 

Black Friday


The day after Thanksgiving in the United States is famously known as Black Friday. It's a massive shopping day filled with extreme deals to encourage early Christmas shopping. Some shoppers camp out in front of stores until they open for Black Friday shopping. There are even injuries reported annually as shoppers will do almost anything to get their deal items.

Gender Reveals


Gender reveals are a relatively new American tradition, beginning in the 2000s. With the globe growing smaller and the influence of social media such as TikTok, however, the tradition is starting to spread to a few other countries. 

Baby Showers & Sprinkles


Speaking of babies... throwing a baby shower (or a baby sprinkle for subsequent kids) for a pregnant friend or family member is an American custom for almost every family. People play games and watch the mom-to-be open gifts as a way to celebrate the impending birth. Baby showers are common in some countries, but in other cultures, it can be bad luck to give gifts before a baby is born.

Super Bowl Sunday


One game and one winner to rule them all — with hundreds of millions of people watching. The Super Bowl is the most hyped sporting event in the country, complete with parties, amazing commercials, a half-time spectacle, and tons and tons of junk food consumed. And so. Much. Merch. Yes... there's no spectacle quite like Super Bowl Sunday in America.

Plastering the American Flag on Everything


One thing you'll notice no matter where you travel in the United States is the ubiquity of the stars and stripes. It's on clothes and shoes, yards, cars, businesses, hats, and pretty much all over the place. Americans are proud of their flags. And while people in other countries are, too, you certainly don't spot the sheer number of flags around those countries as you do in the United States. 

Root Beer


Root beer is distinctly North American, and it's really only popular in the US and Canada. While it can be found elsewhere in the world, it's not as common as it is in the good old US of A.

Pumpkin Pie-Spiced Everything


Sure, other countries put spices in their pumpkin pies, but they don't have a spice blend called "pumpkin pie spice" (which is uniquely American), and they certainly don't go quite as gaga for pumpkin-spiced baked goods, coffee, beer, and all sorts of other stuff like we do in the USA.



Of course, people worldwide bring food to events, but the traditional American potluck is unique to the USA. While the word potluck comes from the Middle Ages (the luck of the pot), a planned communal meal where everyone brings a dish to share probably started in the US during the Great Depression. They're still a great way to gather without any one person spending a ton of money.

Jell-O Salad


The Jell-O salads of my youth are mostly a thing of the past, but when I was a kid, every holiday or family gathering included one. And here's the wild part: We actually ate it as a salad. While Jell-O salads are less prevalent today, they're still around. This isn't just Jell-O. It's a bunch of ingredients (fruits, veggies... my mom made one that had whipped cream and cheese) encased in a Jell-O mold. 

Calling Ourselves Americans


The United States isn't the only American country, but we're the ones who call ourselves Americans, in spite of the fact that any country in North, Central, or South America are also Americans. 

Tipping Culture


Tipping may not seem strange to Americans, but visitors to the United States are often overwhelmed by the tipping culture here. Around the world, tipping is a nice thing to do but not an obligation. In the US, however, many jobs in the service industry expect tips, and it's considered a faux pas not to tip. This is especially evident in the restaurant industry, where restaurants can pay hard-working servers less than minimum wage with customer tips expected to make up the deficit. 

Huge Portions


It seems that in the US, one of the ways fast food and fast casual restaurants make people think they're getting a great value is by serving huge portions of their food. Of course, the best-known was McDonald's now-defunct supersize menus, but over time, American portion sizes have grown larger and larger, and they tend to be larger than other places in the world

Doggie Bags


Big portions make great leftovers. To-go bags or boxes are standard in the US but not everywhere else in the world. The portion sizes are so huge it's almost impossible to finish a meal at any restaurant. Taking the food home in a special container is an American custom that makes people feel like they're getting their money's worth.

World Series


Ah, American branding. Sure, the World Series is technically "world" in that two countries (USA and one Canadian team) participate, but it's not "world" in the way of, say, the World Cup. Yet we call it the World Series and deem the winner the world champion, despite the fact baseball is played globally. 

Different Sales Tax Throughout the Country


You'll pay vastly different amounts of sales tax on the same item depending on where you buy it in the US. In fact, you could pay a different amount of sales tax depending on where you are in the state, since counties and cities can levy sales tax, too. In many other countries around the world, VAT (value-added tax) is much more common and is incorporated into the final price of the item. 

Opening Gifts in Front of the Giver


From birthday parties and baby showers to holidays such as Christmas, people in the US consider it customary to open a gift in front of the person who gave the gift. This gives the giver a chance to see your reaction and receive immediate thanks. In some countries, opening a gift in front of the person who gave it to you is offensive because it makes you look greedy.

Hugging & Shaking Hands in Greeting


When Americans greet strangers and colleagues, they almost always shake hands. When people in the US greet close friends and family members, they hug. Americans do not generally kiss anyone other than a partner or child as a greeting.

Wearing Shoes in the House


The rules about wearing shoes in the house vary from region to region around the world, but it's considered rude and offensive in many northern and eastern European countries. Not all Americans wear their outside shoes inside someone else's home, but it's common.

4th of July Shindigs


While celebrating your country's independence or founding isn't unusual, the way Americans celebrate their Independence Day is unique. In the United States, the 4th of July features large parades, crowds of people wearing patriotic clothes, and backyard barbecues. The day ends with massive fireworks displays.

Cars for Teens


While teen drivers in other countries may have cars, it's not nearly to the level that you see in the US. Busy parents in the United States often give their kids cars when they turn 16 so they no longer need to drive them everywhere. 

Getting Drunk on Your 21st Birthday


The legal drinking age in the US is 21. Many Americans plan to go out for a long night of drinking alcohol with friends on their 21st birthday to celebrate this rite of passage.

Football Tailgating


In the U, "football" is the term used to describe what others call "American football" since "football" is what the rest of the world calls soccer. Americans love football so much, that they spend hours before football games gathered in the stadium parking lot tailgating. Tailgating involves grilling and playing games with friends or strangers to get pumped up before the game even starts.

Playing the National Anthem at Every Sporting Event


American pride is strong at sporting events from youth soccer all the way up to professional sports. If you attend any kind of sporting event for any age group, you'll probably hear the "Star-Spangled Banner" played or sung live. Players and spectators stand with hands over their hearts to show their American pride.

A Sauce for Every Dish


In the US, there's a sauce for everything. From dipping sauces to traditional sauces, Americans eat a lot of sauces. Ketchup and ranch dressing are favorites for kids to dip everything from veggies to chicken nuggets. Adults enjoy things like barbecue sauce on burgers, and they smother other meats in gravy.

Adding Ice to Every Drink


Americans don't only put ice in their water as a standard, they also put ice in coffee and even wine. When you order a cold drink at an American restaurant, it automatically comes filled with ice. In many other countries, drinks are served at room temperature as the standard.

Going Into Debt for College


Going into debt for a college education is an American custom that even Americans don't like. While other countries offer free college options to all, college students in the US are responsible for figuring out how to pay for an expensive education. This often involves taking out student loans and paying them back over years or decades after completing a degree.

Medical Debt


Speaking of debt, medical debt is uniquely American, too. This is definitely not a tradition we love, but one that many US citizens struggle with. 

Limited Time Off From Work


In the US, it's customary to take as little time off from work as possible. Many employers don't offer generous time off benefits, and employees feel guilty or inefficient for taking off any unnecessary time. This custom is slowly changing in the US, but time off from work is nowhere near what other countries customarily have.

Sitting in the Back of a Cab


Whether you're hopping in a taxi cab, an Uber, or some other driving service vehicle, Americans sit in the back of the car. In many other countries this is considered offensive and elitist, so riders sit in the front passenger seat.

Chatting Up Strangers


Americans from the US love to chat, even to strangers. So they make a lot of small talk — something people from other countries can find a little disconcerting. 

Free Soda Refills


Free soda refills are pretty uniquely North American. In other countries, you pay for each cup of soda you consume. 

United States Traditions & Customs That Confuse the Rest of the World


The USA is huge and full of different types of people, but there are some things we do culturally that you don't see done in the rest of the world. These traditions and customs may not be 100% uniquely American, but they're certainly aspects of American culture that don't happen all around the world. 

41 United States Traditions & Customs That Surprise Non-Americans