20 Mistakes Americans Make When Traveling Abroad

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Traveling abroad is an exhilarating way to learn about the world firsthand, but unless you're an expert globetrotter, it can be hard to keep track of expectations in other nations. Americans are common offenders when it comes to committing cultural faux pas, however unintentional. Here are 20 common missteps to avoid the next time you dust off your passport, along with the countries where the mistakes are often made.

man hand with Euro
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Put the plastic away in Italy. It's uncommon for smaller shops and restaurants to accept credit cards, so make sure you hit the ATM before going on a buying spree. When you do get cash, take care to get some small bills, too. Those same shops are unlikely to have the change you need if you try to pay for a small purchase with a large bill.

amazed couple of tourists finding location in a vacation travel with a port of a town in the background
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The French are famously chic, and you'll stick out like a sore thumb in typical American tourist garb (think baggy T-shirts, cargo shorts, and blindingly white sneakers). To blend in, you can never go wrong with something in basic black that fits well. Wearing a scarf, no matter the weather, can pull an outfit together.

tip left on table for server
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A tip is considered an essential part of dining out stateside, but tipping etiquette is often different  in foreign countries. In Japan, it's unconscionable for a worker to provide anything less than the best service — so if you offer a tip, it's likely to be refused. Tipping is frowned upon especially in restaurants, and may even be considered rude. If you must tip, put the money in an envelope instead of handing it over directly.

man hold the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Monarchies are a subject of fascination for Americans, but Thailand's king and royal family are treated with extreme reverence. Even well-intentioned questions can be misinterpreted, and foreigners have been thrown in jail for defaming the monarchy, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Adolf Hitler giving Nazi salute in 1939
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A Nazi salute is more than a tasteless joke in Germany: It's illegal. Two Chinese tourists found out the hard way recently while making the salute in Berlin during photos. They were released on bail, but the offense is punishable with up to three years in prison, the BBC reports. In a separate incident, a drunken American tourist was punched for giving the salute in Dresden.

woman wearing skimpy black leather pants
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When visiting cosmopolitan Dubai, it may be easy to forget you're in an ultra-conservative Middle Eastern country. Erring on the side of caution is a sign of respect for local customs. Shorts should be knee-length or longer; showing off shoulders or cleavage is a no-no; and skin-tight anything is frowned upon.

used wrinkled 'Hello my name is' tag
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Americans use first names fairly casually, but in China, visitors should use the family name to address an acquaintance — and remember, it's customary for the family name to come first and the given name second. Calling someone by their given name is a privilege reserved typically for family members and the closest friends.

red wine on wooden table
Photo credit: Marko Poplasen/shutterstock

If you visit any Russian household on your trip, don't show up empty-handed. Bringing a gift is considered an essential sign of respect and thanks. Alcohol and chocolate are almost always appreciated. RussianZine also recommends a small gift that is unique to your state or region — and suggests bringing extras, just in case.

woman showing ok sign and looking at camera
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If everything is A-OK on your trip to Brazil, just say it — making an "OK" sign by touching your index finger to your thumb to make a circle is considered vulgar in Brazil. Then-vice president Richard Nixon found this out the hard way on a trip to Brazil in the '50s, when he made two of his signature "OK" signs to a crowd after emerging from his plane.

young woman blowing a bubble gum balloon
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Leave the Dubble Bubble or any other gum at home if you're heading to Singapore. Bringing chewing gum into the famously tidy Asian nation has been banned since 1992. Males can even be flogged for the offense. Other no-nos include vandalism, littering, and spitting.

woman left hand showing the five fingers
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In India (as well as much of the Middle East and Africa), the left hand is considered unclean — it's traditionally reserved for managing personal hygiene in the bathroom. That means using your right hand to touch plates, scoop food, and bring it to your mouth, as is often customary. You should also greet locals only with your right hand.

man's index finger beckoning
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In the United States, curling your index finger is a quick way to signal you need someone to come closer. But if you're visiting the Philippines, save it for beckoning dogs. Using it to call a person over is extremely rude, and indicates you see someone as your inferior.

mature friends enjoying outdoor evening meal around fire pit
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There are no early bird specials in Spain. In fact, you may be out of luck even if your stomach is rumbling at 7 p.m. Here, it's typical for locals to take a long midday siesta, or rest, and not sit down for dinner until 10 p.m. Dinner is usually a lighter affair than lunch, which is usually around 2 p.m. If you're ravenous, you may want to grab a merienda (snack) during the long lag between lunch and dinner.

funny young woman looking at the camera through magnifying glass
Photo credit: Dean Drobot/shutterstock

Eye contact is expected in the United States. But in South Korea and other Asian nations, prolonged eye contact can make others extremely uncomfortable. This is particularly the case when interacting with someone of higher status or authority, when eye contact can be interpreted as disrespectful.

SUV going off roading in Iceland
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In wide-open Iceland, a little off-roading is tempting, especially if you're touring the country in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Resist the urge, even if you see tracks from others who've done it. It's illegal to go off-road here; it can wreak havoc on Iceland's unique and fragile environment.

artisan shop of colorful moroccan leather in Fez, Morocco
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At most American retailers, haggling is a no-go. But in Morocco and many other parts of the world, haggling isn't considered rude. In fact, it's an essential part of social interaction. Travel experts recommend offering half the price you're originally quoted, then meeting in the middle on a number agreeable to buyer and seller.

French fries on a fork
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Americans love to dig into a burger and fries and other fare with their hands. In many parts of South America, this is no big deal, but experts say that's not the case in Chile, which is more formal and European when it comes to food. You'll even want to eat those french fries with a fork.

shocked man looking on wrist watch over grey background
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Most Americans prize punctuality, but in Venezuela, being on time (or early) is considered a little bit rude. According to travel guide Safari the Globe, if you have dinner plans with others, you should aim to be about 15 to 30 minutes late, and up to an hour late for a party.

young woman with Canadian flag on cheek and red & white manicure sport fan
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Canadians are known for being unfailingly polite, but there's no quicker way to test that stereotype than by assuming everything is the same as it is in the United States. So lay off those jokes about "America's hat." (Side note: Leave the fake Canadian accent — "aboot" and "eh" included — at home.)

woman traveler with backpack hiking in mountains in New Zealand
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Think the Canada-U.S. rivalry is intense? You'll really tick off normally easygoing Kiwis by comparing the country to its larger neighbor. The two countries are quite geographically and culturally distinct. New Zealanders also pride themselves on their comparatively better treatment of native Maoris versus Australia's checkered past with Aboriginals.

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