The United States of America (USA), commonly referred to as the United States (U.S. ) or America, is a federal republic consisting of 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories and various possessions. 48 of the 50 states and the federal district are contiguous and located in North America, between Canada and Mexico. The state of Alaska is located in the far northwest of North America, with an eastern land border with Canada and separated from Russia by the Bering Strait. The state of Hawaii is an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The territories are scattered across the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Nine time zones are covered. The geography, climate and wildlife of the country are extremely diverse.
With an area of 9.8 million square kilometres and a population of more than 324 million people, the United States is the fourth largest country in the world by area (and the fourth largest in terms of land area) and the third largest in terms of population. It is one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations and is home to the largest immigrant population in the world. Urbanisation has risen to over 80% in 2010, resulting in rapidly growing megaregions. The nation’s capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city is New York City; other major metropolitan areas, all with populations of around five million or more, include Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami and Atlanta.
The Paleo-Indians migrated from Asia to the North American continent at least 15,000 years ago. European colonisation began in the 16th century. The United States grew out of 13 British colonies along the east coast. Numerous conflicts between Britain and the colonies after the Seven Years’ War led to the American Revolution, which began in 1775. On 4 July 1776, as the colonies fought Britain in the American Revolutionary War, delegates from the 13 colonies unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The war ended in 1783 with Britain recognising American independence and was the first successful war of independence against a European colonial empire. The current Constitution was adopted in 1788 after the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1781 were deemed insufficient in terms of federal powers. The first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791 and were intended to guarantee many basic civil liberties.
The United States began a strong expansion across North America in the nineteenth century, displacing Indian tribes, acquiring new territories and gradually absorbing new states until it encompassed the entire continent in 1848. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War led to the end of legal slavery in the country. By the end of the century, the United States stretched to the Pacific Ocean and its economy, driven primarily by the Industrial Revolution, began to develop. The Spanish-American War and World War I confirmed the country’s status as a global military power. The United States emerged from World War II as the world’s superpower, the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only country to use them in war, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It is a founding member of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and several other pan-American and international organisations. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States is the world’s only superpower.
The United States is a highly developed country with the largest economy in the world in terms of nominal GDP. It ranks high in several measures of socio-economic performance, including average wages, human development, GDP per capita and productivity per person. Although the US economy is considered post-industrial and is characterised by the predominance of services and the knowledge economy, the manufacturing sector remains the second largest in the world. Although its population is only 4.4% of the world’s, the US accounts for almost a quarter of global GDP and almost a third of global military spending, making it the world’s leading military and economic power. The United States is a leading international political and cultural power and a leader in scientific research and technological innovation.
The United States is not the America of television and movies. It is a large, complex and diverse country with distinct regional identities. Because of the great distances, travel between regions can be long and expensive.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic. Its main components are the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.); it also includes several island territories in the Caribbean and Pacific that are strongly – but often not fully – integrated into the Union. Many of these territories lie within the customs and immigration zone of the United States and can therefore be considered part of the United States for practical purposes.
The federal government derives its power from the Constitution, which is the oldest written constitution in continuous use. Under federal law, each state retains its own constitution, government and laws, which gives it considerable autonomy within the federation. State laws may vary in detail, but are broadly quite uniform from state to state.
The president is elected every four years and is both the head of the federal government and the head of state. He and his administration form the executive branch. The bicameral Congress (consisting of the lower House of Representatives and the Senate) is also elected by the people and forms the legislative branch. The Supreme Court is the judicial branch. State governments are similarly organised, with governors, legislature and judiciary.
Since the end of the Civil War, two major political parties have dominated at the state and federal level: the Republicans and the Democrats. Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has become the more right-wing or “conservative” party, while the Democratic Party is generally the more left-wing or “liberal” of the two parties. Although there are minor political parties, the winner-take-all electoral system means that they are rarely successful at any level.
The United States is made up of many different ethnic groups, and culture varies greatly across the vast territory of the country and even within cities – in a city like New York, dozens if not hundreds of different ethnic groups are represented in a single neighbourhood. Despite these differences, there is a strong sense of national identity and some predominant cultural traits. In general, Americans tend to believe strongly in personal responsibility and that an individual determines their own success or failure, but there are many exceptions and a nation as diverse as the United States has literally thousands of different cultural traditions. Mississippi in the south is culturally very different from Massachusetts in the north.
Religion is very important in the United States. Only 20 % of the American population does not identify with any religion, which is very low compared to other Western nations. About a quarter of Americans are Roman Catholic, half are Protestant, with Protestantism divided into the main sects of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and a variety of other religions are much less numerous. Due to the strong religious beliefs of many Americans, many shops and establishments are closed on Sundays, and a number of areas in the South and Midwest prohibit certain acts on Sundays, while some Jewish shops close on Friday evening and Saturday for the Sabbath.
Overall, while the United States is less religious than many other countries, it is more religious than Canada and northern Europe; however, this pattern varies greatly by region, with the Pacific Northwest and New England largely secular and the American South exceptionally Christian, especially evangelical. Differences in religiosity are also largely correlated with politics, so that the Northeast and West Coast are generally progressive and Democratic; most of the South and heavily Mormon states such as Utah, Idaho and Wyoming are very conservative and Republican; and much of the rest of the country (e.g. several Midwestern, Southwestern/Rocky Mountain and South Coast states) is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Units of measurement
The United States is the only industrialised country that does not use the metric system. Instead, they use “customary units” (feet, miles, gallons, pounds, etc.), which are largely derived from 18th century English units and sometimes differ from the imperial units that sometimes survive in Britain. Road distances are given in miles and speed limits in miles per hour. One of the most confusing things is that an “ounce” can be either a measure of weight or (like a “fluid ounce”) a measure of volume. The American fluid ounce is also slightly larger than its imperial counterpart, while American gallons, quarts and pints are smaller than their counterparts. Gasoline and other liquids are generally sold per gallon, quart or fluid ounce (a US gallon is equal to 3.78 litres, so a US quart [a quarter gallon] is slightly less than a litre). Beverages, such as sodas, are sometimes sold by the litre and sometimes by the fluid ounce, with one litre equalling just under 34 ounces. Temperatures are only given in degrees Fahrenheit; 32 degrees (in unspecified units) is freezing cold, not hot! The speedometer on most cars shows both miles and kilometres per hour (handy for travelling in Canada and Mexico), and almost all packaged food and other products are labelled in both systems. Outside of scientific work, medicine and the military, the metric system is rarely used in everyday life, so Americans assume you understand standard American measurements.
There are no government regulations for dress or shoe sizes. There are informal standards that are poorly enforced and the only thing you can rely on is that sizes tend to be consistent within a brand. Therefore, with any brand, trial and error is the order of the day to find out what fits, as you cannot rely on two brands being the same in size. With shoes, trial and error is required for each model, even within the same brand – even if different models have the same nominal size and width, they may differ slightly in actual length and/or width and may also be designed for a different foot shape.
Information for visitors
The US federal government determines foreign policy (including border control), while the states regulate tourism. Therefore, the federal government provides the best information on legal entry requirements, while information on attractions and destinations is provided by state and local tourism offices. Contact information can be found at the entrances to each state. Rest stops at state borders, as well as major airports within a state, usually serve as welcome centres and often offer travel and tourism information and materials, almost all of which are available online. Almost every rest stop has a road map with a clearly visible “You are here” marker. Some also offer free road maps to take home. If you call or write to the state Department of Commerce, they can also send you information.
Including the small territories in the Pacific Ocean (some of which are not easily accessible), the United States spans eleven time zones. Only four time zones are used in the 48 contiguous states. Note that time zone boundaries do not always correspond to state boundaries!
- Eastern Time (UTC-5): Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Michigan except the extreme northwestern counties, Indiana except the southwestern and northwestern corners, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington, D.C, Maryland, Delaware, eastern Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida except the western part of the peninsula.
- Central Time (UTC-6): Wisconsin, Illinois, southwestern and northwestern corners of Indiana, western Kentucky, western and central Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, northern and eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, central and eastern Nebraska, most of Kansas, Oklahoma, most of Texas, part of western Florida (Panhandle).
- Rocky Mountain Time (UTC-7): southwestern North Dakota, western South Dakota, western Nebraska, parts of Kansas, Montana, parts of Oregon, southern Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Texas.
- Pacific Time (UTC-8): Washington, northern Idaho, most of Oregon, California, Nevada.
In addition to these, there are three other time zones with important destinations:
- Alaska time (UTC-9): Alaska, except Aleutian Islands
- Hawaii Aleutian Time (UTC-10): Hawaii the Aleutian Islands
- Atlantic Time (UTC-4): Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands
Most parts of the US observe daylight saving time, but Hawaii and most of Arizona do not.
The contiguous United States or “Lower 48” (the 48 states except Alaska and Hawaii) is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Most of the population lives on these three coasts or along the Great Lakes, sometimes referred to as another “coast”. Its only land borders – both quite long – are shared with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The United States also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba and the Bahamas.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians stretch from Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three mountain ranges and offer spectacular views and excellent camping. The Rocky Mountains, which are on average the highest mountains in North America, stretch from Alaska to New Mexico. Many areas are designated as national parks and offer opportunities for hiking, camping, skiing and sightseeing. The combined Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains are the most recent. The Sierras form the ‘backbone’ of California with places like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, and then merge into the even younger Cascade Volcanic Range, which has some of the highest points in the country.
The Gulf of Mexico lies southeast of Texas, south of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, and forms the west coast of Florida.
The Great Lakes form much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. They are more freshwater inland lakes than lakes and were formed by the pressure of glaciers retreating northwards at the end of the last ice age. The five lakes stretch for hundreds of miles and border the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and their shores range from pristine wilderness areas to industrial cities in the “Rust Belt”. They are the second largest bodies of fresh water in the world, after the polar ice caps.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the nation’s population at 323,425,550 as of 25 April 2016, an increase of 1 person (net increase) every 13 seconds, or about 6,646 people per day. The population of the United States has nearly quadrupled in the 20th century, from about 76 million in 1900. As the third most populous nation in the world, after China and India, the United States is the only major industrialised nation where large population increases are projected. In the 1800s, the average woman had 7.04 children; by the 1900s, that number had dropped to 3.56. Since the early 1970s, the birth rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1, with 1.86 children per woman in 2014. Foreign-born immigration has allowed the US population to continue its rapid growth. The foreign-born population doubled from nearly 20 million in 1990 to more than 40 million in 2010, accounting for one-third of population growth. The foreign-born population reached 45 million in 2015.
The United States has a birth rate of 13 per 1,000, five births below the world average. The population growth rate is positive at 0.7 %, higher than many developed countries. In fiscal year 2012, more than 1 million immigrants (most of whom entered through family reunification) were granted legal residence. Mexico has been the largest source of new residents since the 1965 Immigration Act. China, India and the Philippines have been among the top four countries of origin every year since the 1990s. In 2012, about 11.4 million residents were illegal immigrants. In 2015, 47% of all immigrants are Hispanic, 26% are Asian, 18% are white and 8% are black. The share of Asian immigrants is increasing, while the share of Hispanics is decreasing.
According to a Williams Institute poll, nine million Americans, or about 3.4 per cent of the adult population, identify as gay, bisexual or transgender. A 2012 Gallup poll also found that 3.5 percent of American adults identify as LGBT. The highest percentage came from the District of Columbia (10 per cent) and the lowest from North Dakota (1.7 per cent). In a 2013 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 96.6 percent of Americans identify as straight, while 1.6 percent identify as gay or lesbian and 0.7 percent identify as bisexual.
In 2010, there were approximately 5.2 million people in the US population with Native American or Alaskan ancestry (2.9 million exclusively of that ancestry) and 1.2 million with Hawaiian or Pacific Islander ancestry (0.5 million exclusively). The 2010 census counted more than 19 million people of “other race” who did not identify with any of the five official racial categories, of whom more than 18.5 million (97%) were of Hispanic origin.
The population growth of the Hispanic and Latino populations (the terms are officially interchangeable) is an important demographic trend. The 50.5 million Hispanic Americans are identified by the Census Bureau as a distinct “ethnic group”; 64% of Hispanic Americans are of Mexican origin. Between 2000 and 2010, the nation’s Hispanic population grew by 43 per cent, while the non-Hispanic population grew by only 4.9 per cent. Much of this growth is due to immigration; in 2007, 12.6 per cent of the US population was foreign-born, 54 per cent of whom were Hispanic.
About 82 percent of Americans live in urban areas (including suburbs); almost half of them live in cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. There are many clusters of cities in the United States called megaregions. The largest is the Great Lakes megacity, followed by the Northeast megacity and Southern California. In 2008, 273 incorporated municipalities had a population of more than 100,000, nine cities had a population of more than one million and four megacities had a population of more than two million (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston). There are 52 metropolitan areas with more than one million inhabitants. Of the 50 fastest growing metropolitan areas, 47 are in the West or South. The San Bernardino, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Phoenix metropolitan areas all grew by more than one million people between 2000 and 2008.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion and prohibits Congress from making laws relating to its practice. Christianity is by far the most practised religion in the United States, but other religions are also followed. In a 2013 poll, 56 per cent of Americans said religion played a “very important role in their lives” – a figure far higher than any other affluent nation. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 42 per cent of Americans said they go to church about every week; the numbers ranged from a low of 23 per cent in Vermont to a high of 63 per cent in Mississippi.
Like other Western countries, the United States is becoming less and less religious. Irreligiosity is increasing rapidly among Americans under 30. Surveys show that Americans’ general trust in organised religion has declined since the mid to late 1980s and that young Americans in particular are becoming increasingly irreligious. According to a 2012 study, the proportion of Protestants in the US population has fallen to 48 per cent, ending their status as a religious majority category for the first time. Americans who do not belong to any religion have 1.7 children, compared to 2.2 among Christians. The non-denominational are less likely to marry: 37% marry compared to 52% of Christians.
According to a 2014 survey, 70.6 per cent of adults identified themselves as Christians, with Protestant denominations accounting for 46.5 per cent, while Roman Catholicism was the largest single denomination at 20.8 per cent. The total of reported non-Christian religions was 5.9 per cent in 2014. Other religions included Judaism (1.9%), Islam (0.9%), Buddhism (0.7%), Hinduism (0.7%). The survey also reports that 22.8% of Americans identify themselves as agnostic, atheist or simply without religion, an increase from 8.2% in 1990. There are also Unitarian Universalist, Baha’i, Sikh, Jain, Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, Druid, Native American, Wiccan, Humanist and Deist communities.
Protestantism is the largest Christian religious grouping in the United States. Baptists together form the largest branch of Protestantism, and the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination. About 26 percent of Americans identify as evangelical Protestants, while 15 percent are traditional Protestants and 7 percent belong to a traditionally black church. Roman Catholicism in the United States has its origins in the Spanish and French colonisation of the Americas and later expanded through Irish, Italian, Polish, German and Hispanic immigration. Rhode Island has the highest percentage of Catholics, at 40% of the total population. Lutheranism in the United States has its origins in immigration from Northern Europe and Germany. North and South Dakota are the only states where a majority of the population is Lutheran. Presbyterianism was brought to North America by Scottish and Ulster immigrants. Although it has spread throughout the United States, it is heavily concentrated on the East Coast. Dutch Reformed congregations were first established in New Amsterdam, New York, before spreading westward. Utah is the only state where Mormonism is the religion of the majority of the population. The Mormon Corridor also extends into parts of Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.
The “Bible Belt” is an informal term for a region in the southern United States where socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and where Christian church attendance of all denominations is generally higher than the national average. In contrast, religion plays the least important role in New England and the western United States.
The United States has a mixed capitalist economy driven by abundant natural resources and high productivity. According to the International Monetary Fund, the US gross domestic product of $16.8 trillion is equivalent to 24 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product at market rates and over 19 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product at purchasing power parity (PPP).
US nominal GDP is estimated at $17.528 trillion in 2014. From 1983 to 2008, real average annual GDP growth in the US was 3.3%, compared to a weighted average of 2.3% for the rest of the G7. The country ranks ninth in the world in nominal GDP per capita and sixth in GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms. The U.S. dollar is the world’s most important reserve currency.
The United States is the largest importer of goods and the second largest exporter, although exports per capita are relatively low. In 2010, the total US trade deficit was $635 billion. Canada, China, Mexico, Japan and Germany are its largest trading partners. In 2010, petroleum was the top import, while transportation equipment was the country’s top export. Japan is the largest foreign holder of US government bonds. The largest holders of US debt are US entities, including federal government and Federal Reserve accounts, which hold the bulk of the debt.
In 2009, the private sector accounted for an estimated 86.4% of the economy, while the federal government accounted for 4.3% and state and local governments (including federal transfers) accounted for the remaining 9.3%. Employment at all levels of government outnumbers manufacturing by 1.7 to 1. Although its economy has reached a post-industrial level of development and the service sector accounts for 67.8 % of GDP, the United States remains an industrial power. The largest industry by gross sales is wholesale and retail trade, and by net sales is manufacturing. In the franchise business model, McDonald’s and Subway are the two best-known brands in the world. Coca-Cola is the best-known soft drink company in the world.
Chemicals is the largest manufacturing sector. The United States is the world’s largest producer of petroleum and also the second largest importer. It is the world’s largest producer of electrical and nuclear energy, as well as natural gas liquids, sulphur, phosphates and salt. The National Mining Association provides data on coal and minerals, including beryllium, copper, lead, magnesium, zinc and titanium.
Agriculture accounts for barely 1% of GDP, but the United States is the world’s largest producer of corn and soybeans. The National Agricultural Statistics Service maintains agricultural statistics for commodities such as peanuts, oats, rye, wheat, rice, cotton, corn, barley, hay, sunflowers and oilseeds. In addition, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides livestock statistics for beef, poultry, pork and dairy products. The country is the leading developer and producer of genetically modified foods and produces half of the world’s biotech crops.
Consumer spending accounted for 68% of the US economy in 2015. In August 2010, the US labour force consisted of 154.1 million people. Government is the largest employment sector with 21.2 million people. The largest private employment sector is health care and social assistance with 16.4 million people. About 12% of workers are unionised, compared to 30% in Western Europe. The World Bank ranks the US first in hiring and firing workers. The US also ranks in the top three in the Global Competitiveness Report. The welfare state is more modest and income redistribution through state action is less important than in European countries.
The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee paid leave to its workers and one of the few countries in the world where paid family leave is not a legal right, the others being Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Liberia. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74 per cent of full-time workers in the US receive paid sick leave, while only 24 per cent of part-time workers receive the same benefits. Although federal law does not currently mandate sick leave, it is a common benefit for government employees and full-time corporate workers. In 2009, the United States had the third highest labour productivity per person in the world, behind Luxembourg and Norway. It ranked fourth in productivity per hour, behind those two countries and the Netherlands.
The global recession of 2008-2012 has significantly affected the United States, whose economic performance remains below its potential, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The consequences are high unemployment (which has declined but is still above pre-recession levels), low consumer confidence, a continued decline in property values and an increase in foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, an escalating sovereign debt crisis, inflation and rising oil and food prices. What remains is a record proportion of long-term unemployed, a continued decline in household incomes, and rising taxes and the federal budget.
Income, poverty and wealth
Americans have the highest average household and wage earner income among OECD countries and had the second highest median household income in 2007. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in 2014 was $53,657. Despite making up only 4.4% of the world’s population, Americans collectively own 41.6% of the world’s total wealth, and Americans make up about half of the world’s millionaires. The Global Food Security Index ranked the US first in food affordability and overall food security in March 2013. Americans have, on average, more than twice as much living space per home and person as residents of the European Union and more than any EU nation. In 2013, the United Nations Development Programme ranked the United States 5th out of 187 countries on its Human Development Index and 28th on its Inequality-Adjusted HDI (IHDI).
The gap between productivity and median income has widened since the 1970s. However, the gap between total compensation and productivity is not as large because social benefits such as health insurance have increased. While inflation-adjusted (“real”) household income rose almost every year from 1947 to 1999, it has stagnated since then and even declined recently. According to the Congressional Research Service, immigration to the US increased over the same period, while the incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of taxpayers stagnated and have been declining since 2000. The increase in the share of the top 1 per cent in total annual income, which more than doubled from 9 per cent in 1976 to 20 per cent in 2011, has had a significant impact on income inequality and has resulted in the US having one of the widest income distributions among OECD countries. Post-recession income gains have been very uneven, with 95% of income gains between 2009 and 2012 accruing to the top 1%. The extent and relevance of income inequality is controversial.
Wealth, like income and taxes, is highly concentrated; the richest 10% of the adult population own 72% of the country’s household wealth, while the bottom half claim only 2%. Between June 2007 and November 2008, the global recession led to a worldwide collapse in asset prices. Assets held by Americans lost about a quarter of their value. Since peaking in the second quarter of 2007, household wealth has declined by $14 trillion, but has since increased by $14 trillion from its 2006 level. At the end of 2014, household debt was $11.8 trillion, down from $13.8 trillion at the end of 2008.
In January 2014, there were approximately 578,424 homeless and unsheltered people in the United States, nearly two-thirds of whom were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing programme. In 2011, 16.7 million children lived in food-insecure households, about 35 per cent more than in 2007, although only 1.1 per cent of US children, or 845,000, had their food intake reduced or their eating habits disrupted at any time during the year, and most cases were not chronic. According to a 2014 Census Bureau report, one in five young adults now lives in poverty, up from one in seven in 1980.