Living in the U.S.

The United States is a diverse country with people from many parts of the world. For people of any age and background, being in a new country combines a sense of excitement and anticipation with some fears, loneliness and doubts. Culture is a pattern of beliefs, values, and behaviors shared by groups of people. Cultural differences among groups can be sources of interest, pleasure, and growth. Learning about new and different languages, music, foods, and social customs will enhance your experience. Differences, however, can also lead to confusion about how to behave in different situations and the meaning of others’ behavior. Understanding some common cultural patterns in the United States can ease the transition and help students feel more at ease and a part of things. Understanding another culture does not mean, however, that a person must abandon his or her own ways. Getting acquainted with social and cultural differences is a very important process because it will help you build successful relationships with Americans. The following are some common American customs you will probably encounter.

Common Scams that international students face today, as taken from NAFSA: Common-Scams

Social Invitations

While you are here, we hope that you will meet and spend time with Americans and their families. These suggestions may help you feel more comfortable when you are invited out. The invitation is usually for you only, unless your hosts specifically invite your family or friends. Bringing guests of your own without asking your host’s permission is considered impolite. The written invitation will include the date, time, place, and description of the occasion. You should always answer a written invitation, especially if it says R.S.V.P. You may respond by telephone or by email; prompt notice is appreciated. Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go. If you must decline an invitation, it is enough to say, “Thank you for the invitation, but I am unable to attend”. If an unavoidable problem makes it necessary for you to change plans, be certain to tell the host as soon as possible before the time when you are expected. Make sure you get directions to the place where the event will be held.

When accepting an invitation for a meal, be sure to explain to your host if there is anything you are not supposed to eat. This courtesy will help the host to plan for food and beverages that everyone can enjoy. If you must refuse something after it has been prepared, refuse politely. Never hesitate to ask for any food on the table: “Would you please pass the rolls?”, since asking for more food is considered to be a compliment to the host. Being on time is very important in American culture.


Americans put a great deal of emphasis on personal cleanliness. The standard of personal cleanliness that an individual maintains will determine (to a large extent) how he or she is accepted into society. Most Americans are very sensitive to the smells and odors of the human body-sometimes their own, but especially someone else’s. For this reason, most Americans bathe once a day, and sometimes more during hot weather or after strenuous exercise. They use deodorants and antiperspirants, and they wash their clothes frequently. Most Americans are also very concerned about having clean hair and fresh breath.

Individualism and Privacy

The most important thing to understand about Americans is their devotion to individualism. From childhood, they have been trained to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations in life and their own destinies. They have not been trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit, tightly interdependent family, religious group, tribe, nation, or other collectivity. Closely associated with the value they place on individualism is the importance Americans assign to privacy. Americans assume that people need some time to themselves or some time alone to think about things or recover their spent psychological energy.

Directness and Assertiveness

Americans generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people. Americans will often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike. They will try to do so in a manner they call “constructive”, that is, a manner which the other person will not find offensive or unacceptable. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways (without words) through facial expressions, body positions, and gestures. Americans are not taught that they should mask their emotional responses. Their words, the tone of their voices, or their facial expressions will usually reveal when they are feeling angry, unhappy, confused, or happy and content. They do not think it improper to display these feelings, at least within limits. They are much less concerned with avoiding embarrassment to themselves or others than most other cultures. To Americans, being honest is usually more important than preserving harmony in interpersonal relationships.

Friendship and Dating

While many Americans are fairly open and warm people who are quick to make new acquaintances, their mobility and sense of individualism mean that their relationships are often casual and informal. This is not to say that Americans take friendship lightly. It just means that while Americans know a lot of people, their lasting friendships are often few. Comparatively, women in the United States are generally less inhibited than women from other countries. They are not usually shy with Americans or international visitors. Their relaxed and more independent attitude may be misunderstood by people whose native culture is more restrictive of women’s activities. It is not unusual, for example, for unmarried women to live by themselves, to share living space with other single women, or to go to public places unescorted.

Which American Holidays are Important

  • New Year’s Day – January 1: Federal holiday for schools, offices and banks. Stores are open. New Year’s Eve, December 31, is more important to Americans than New Year’s Day itself. Everyone gathers with family and friends to “ring out the old and ring in the new,” an expression that reflects the old custom of ringing church bells to greet the new year.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday – Observed on the 3rd Monday in January: Federal holiday that began in 1986. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized and led the civil-rights movement in America during the 1960s.
  • Valentine’s Day – February 14: Not a federal holiday. Lover’s holiday celebrated by sending cards and giving candy or flowers.
  • Saint Patrick’s Day – March 17. Not a federal holiday. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and this holiday was brought to America by Irish immigrants. People celebrate this holiday by wearing something green and getting together with friends to party and sing Irish folk songs.
  • April Fool’s Day – April 1. Not a federal holiday. As in many other countries, this day is marked by the custom of playing practical jokes on friends and colleagues.
  • Easter – Date Varies. Not a federal holiday. A religious holiday for Christians who believe that on this day Christ rose from the dead. Many folk traditions are now connected with Easter.
  • Mother’s Day – varies in May: Not a federal holiday. On this day Americans honor their mothers by sending flowers and buying small gifts.
  • Memorial Day – last Monday in May: Federal holiday. Memorial Day is the day on which Americans remember those who died in military service to their country. Many families visit graves and decorate them with flowers. The day is also marked with patriotic parades. This day is considered the beginning of the summer season.
  • Father’s Day – varies in June: Not a federal holiday. Fathers are honored on this day. Children give them cards and gifts.
  • Independence Day – July 4: Federal holiday. Independence Day commemorates the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. The holiday is celebrated all over the country with picnics, political speeches, and community get-togethers that culminate with fireworks displays.
  • Labor Day – first Monday in September: Federal holiday. This holiday was established in recognition of the labor movement’s contribution to the productivity of the country. This day is the last holiday of the summer season and is celebrated with picnics and other outings.
  • Halloween – October 31: Not a federal holiday. This was originally a religious holiday, but its religious character has been lost in the United States and it is now celebrated mostly as a children’s holiday. Traditions include carving out pumpkins with funny faces, as well as dressing up in costumes and going around the neighborhood to receive treats of candy, fruit and cookies. When people come to the door, children say “trick or treat” meaning “if you don’t give me a treat, I will trick you.
  • Thanksgiving Day – fourth Thursday in November: Federal Holiday. The first Thanksgiving Day was celebrated by the pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1621 to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and their triumph of survival over the wilderness. Now it is a time when Americans give thanks for the good life they enjoy. They celebrate by getting together with family and friends to enjoy turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
  • Christmas – December 25: Federal holiday. Many people regard Christmas as the most important holiday of the year because it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ with the holiday season extending from a few days before Christmas to New Year’s Day. It is a holiday celebrated by almost everyone in the country. Family members travel great distances to be together on this day on which gifts are exchanged, and a traditional dinner is shared. Even families who do not have strong religious convictions decorate a Christmas tree and join in the festivities of the Christmas season.

When inviting your family to visit you in the United States, it is important to research which documents and procedures are necessary for your specific situation. The International Center only provides letters of invitation to family members for an undergraduate student’s commencement ceremony.

Please use this as a guide to help you as you invite your family to visit:

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Visitor Visa

The intended use of a social security number is for employment. Students who have been employed on-campus or students who have received an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) are eligible to obtain a social security number.

The following documents are required to obtain a social security number:

Nearest Location:

Social Security Administration
3014 E. Cumberland Road
Bluefield, WV 24701

Hours of Operation:

  • Monday: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • Tuesday: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • Wednesday: 9:00 am – noon
  • Thursday: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • Friday: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • The office is closed on Saturday and Sunday.

The following documents must be presented to the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to obtain a West Virginia Driver’s License or State Identification Card:

  • A valid passport
  • I-94 form
  • Social Security Card or a denial letter if you are not eligible to obtain a social security number
  • I-20 form
  • A letter from your international student advisor verifying your attendance at Concord University
  • If you reside off-campus, you will need two proofs of residence. If you reside in a residence hall, your letter from the international student advisor will state that and no proofs of residence are needed.

Nearest location for the DMV:

198 Davis St.
Princeton, WV 24740

Hours of Operation:

  • Monday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Tuesday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Wednesday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Thursday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Friday: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Saturday: Closed
  • Sunday: Closed

After you arrive at the DMV, all of the above listed documents must be faxed to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services by the DMV for verification. Therefore, you should plan to arrive at the DMV before 2:00 pm if you want to receive your license or learner’s permit on the same day. If you do not arrive before 2 p.m., you may be asked to return the next day.

You have the choice between a Not for Federal Use driver’s license or ID card, or a REAL ID/For Federal Use card that contains a gold star, indicating that the card meets full federal requirements for future use at airports and other designated federal facilities and uses nationwide.

Auto Insurance

In order to obtain license plates for a car, you will be required to show proof that you have auto insurance. It is illegal to drive without car insurance. Many companies offer a variety of auto insurance policies, so you should “shop around”. When you have selected a policy, read it carefully before signing any documents.

Resources for Living in the U.S.