A Foreigner’s Guide to Tipping in the USA

by Mike_W

If you're a foreigner in the USA and don't know how to tip, then here are five simple tipping rules so you can stop sweating the small stuff and start enjoying America.

For those of us new to the USA one of the most confusing elements to get our spinning heads around is tipping. Americans will tell you that it’s a piece of cake. Well, the truth is most of them don’t know what to do most of the time either. Here’s an article to set you on the right path so you can spend less time fretting over the restaurant bill or stressing in the back of a taxi, and more time experiencing the unique American culture.

There are so many different circumstances where tipping might be required, so I won’t try and answer every possible eventuality for tipping. Instead, I’ll try and simplify things down to five quick rules of thumb and outlooks to help.

What is Tipping?

A tip or gratuity is when you give someone in certain service sectors additional money on top of your bill to reflect the individual’s service. It is believed that the word tips is an acronym for “To Insure Prompt Service”. It is often based on a percentage of the total bill. In the United States tipping is prevalent in the restaurant, bar, food delivery, taxi and transportation, and cosmetic and hairdressing industries.

Menu Illustration of Waitress Carrying Ice Cream Desserts
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Number One Tipping Tip: Don’t Argue, Just Do It.

Let’s get this straight: I am not a proponent of the tipping system. I hate it. However, one thing I have learned since coming to the United States is that I can’t change it. Tipping is here to stay.

Some people like to preach how they never get tipped when they do a good job. Well, those people probably don’t only earn a couple of bucks an hour. The service industry in this country is based on charging customers for the meal and venue, while the customer pays directly for the privilege to be waited upon.  My advice is to give up worrying about the pitfalls of tipping and move on – there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Close-Up of Assorted Gold and Silver Coins, Sacramento, California, USA
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Number Two Tipping Tip: It Doesn’t Actually Reflect Good Service

The hardest thing for tourists in the USA to come to terms with is the fact that tipping doesn’t really reflect good service. To witness how true this is, try eating a meal with Americans and try and tip less than the customary amount due to bad service, and watch them freak out. In my experience, despite that iconic scene in Reservoir Dogs, people in the USA have subconsciously long stopped using tipping to reflect good service. As with tipping in general, it will be less stress if you consciously just add your tipping percentage to the total of your meal before ordering it and don’t give it a second thought.

Reservoir Dogs Tipping Debate

Warning Contains Foul Language

Number Three Tipping Tip: Just Add 20% and Move On

Thousands of pages have been written about how much to tip in what circumstances. The truth is, there is no right answer. In reality, you nor your server will ever both be happy with how much you have tipped. My advice is to just tip 20% and move on.  You can add this 20% to the before tax amount if you like, whatever is mathematically easier for you to do.

Number Four Tipping Tip: Don’t Tip the Fast Food Guy but Do Tip the Hairdresser

Sorry, but as you can imagine who to tip and who not to tip is what will cause you the most headaches. Hopefully, this simplifies it: If food is brought to you, then it is a tipping situation. Drinks at a bar is a tipping situation – usually a dollar, so it is often cheaper to do rounds. If you are driven somewhere or if someone carries your bags, it is a tipping situation. Finally, you should also tip if someone has cut your hair or put makeup on you. In most other circumstances tipping is not required anymore than it would be in your home country. Most people won’t say no to you suavely shaking their hand with a wad of dollar bills because people love getting money. Definitely don’t tip government workers though; they send you to jail for that here.

Women's Hair Salon
Teddy Bear
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Number Five Tipping Tip: Check That You Haven’t Tipped Already

One final tip for navigating the tipping minefield: check that they haven’t already added gratuities to your bill. If it’s already on there you don’t need to add anymore, unless you are feeling especially generous.

“You’re All Set”

Happy Tipping

The tip changes hands at the very end of the service delivery when you pay the bill. If paying by cash give your gratuity over with the rest of the money you are paying and say “you’re all set”. This is American Tip Speak for saying you don’t need any change and what is left over is for them to keep. If you are paying with a card there will be a place on the bill to add your tip and give a new total for them to take off your card.

Don’t delay calling for the bill any longer. These simple five tips should be all you need to get by in the American service industry. There’s no need to be scared of going to restaurants anymore. Sample all that the American culture has to offer, particularly the unique dining experience and cuisine. I hope you like lots of cheese and having peanut butter in everything. If not, you soon will.

Updated: 09/20/2012, Mike_W
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Tipping Comments and Advice

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sockii on 04/30/2015

I think what's important for visitors to the U.S. to remember, when it comes to tipping in restaurants, is that most waitstaff earn LESS than minimum wage from their employers. They are expected to make up the difference in tips. So tipping really is a necessary part of their income. There's a lot of resistance to changing this system for reasons that would take an entire article to explain so it's best to just accept that's the way things go...

Mike_W on 09/22/2012

Thanks Kate! People worry too much about tipping when they come to the United States. Hopefully this article helps some of them realize you don't have to think too much.

katemcbride on 09/21/2012

So now I know how and what to tip if I ever go to America. I like the bit about "To insure prompt service" in the definition. I liked this article and shared it on facebook.

Mike_W on 09/19/2012

Hi Mira, thanks for visiting. When I first came here I thought you could significantly reduce the tip to reflect service, but it just doesn't seem to be the way things are done generally. People really seem to empathize with the low wage the server is getting paid and want to make up the difference with tips, regardless of service. I think it is because so many people have worked in hospitality at some point of their lives.

Mira on 09/19/2012

Nice article! Learned a few things :-) Here in Romania if the service is really bad we might leave without leaving any tip at all.

Mike_W on 09/16/2012

Thanks for the comment Grant :)

Grant Tregidga on 09/16/2012

Good Read, definitely will be valuable in my future travels.

Mike_W on 09/15/2012

Thanks Marissa! *tips hat in appreciation*

MarissaLana on 09/15/2012

Great tips on tipping :)

Mike_W on 09/14/2012

Hi Jo. Yes, it's certainly a lot easier if you are with other Americans. However, I have been surprised the number of times even they seem stressed about the tipping!

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