The site was last updated August 2012 (originally compiled December 2007)
We’re Keith and Marie, our home is in England (UK). I'm 65 and Marie is 62. We started our trip in July 2004 and are still enjoying the RV life-style.
We own a 1 Ton, long-box Chevvy Silverado dually with a Duramax turbo-diesel engine / Allison auto-transmission power train. This tows our home, a 36 foot (11.5 metre) fifth wheel trailer with three slides. The trailer is rated at 14,000 lbs (6300Kg) gross vehicle weight. Both were bought in Houston, Texas. On the road trailer weight is ca 13,000 lbs.
See http://rving.sunpix.co.uk/ for more information. There is also information relating to entering the USA using a B1 / B2 visa and about travel in a fifth wheel trailer based on our personal experience.
Below are some of the issues we have faced before and during our trip. Although we are Brits, many aspects will be similar for other non-US travellers They are listed in no particular order of importance. If you are planning to use any information please check that it is current and relevant for you.
For a stay in the USA of more than 3 months, a B1/B2 Visa is necessary for tourist and certain business travel. The American Embassy in your home country issues these. A charge is made for the issue of the Visa.
A VISA DOES NOT GIVE PERMISSION TO ENTER OR STAY IN THE USA!
Before entering the US an I-94 application card has to be completed. At the border an immigration official will decide whether you may enter the country.
If permission is granted, the bottom section of the I-94 card will be stamped with the date of expiry and stapled in your passport. Usually a maximum time of six months is granted but sometimes a longer or shorter time is authorised. It is an offence to stay beyond the expiry date of the I-94. Even having an acknowledged application to extend the I-94 'in the system' does not change that situation. (see next paragraph)
Whilst in the USA you can apply for an extension of your stay. Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status is available online or by post from US Citizenship and Immigration Services www.uscis.gov The cost per application (not per person) was $300 in May 2009. A detailed submission must be made explaining the circumstances for requesting an extension. Application may now be made online. During 2009 and 2010 application processing was taking several months.
The consequence of such a delay - resulting in an eventual denial - will be that an overstay will have occurred from the date of expiry of the last I-94. Even leaving the USA immediately after receipt of the denial notification could, then, still result in a lengthy overstay. US border officials are likely to question firmly why that occurred when you apply to re-enter the US next time. All documentation relating to an application should be kept to hand to prove it was made and that denial notification was delayed. When an application to extend is contemplated, it may be worth doing it shortly after arrival to allow adequate processing time.
You may travel across the border into Canada, with the intention of returning to the USA, for up to 30 days without needing a new I-94. Staying longer than 30 days would mean surrendering your current I-94 at the Canadian border and then completing a further I-94 application when returning to the US.
It might be thought that surrendering an I-94 at the border would be an easy way to get a new one later but American immigration may see this as a back-door method of extending your stay. (see 'Entering the USA') Additionally, Canadian immigration may want to be reassured that you will not simply remain in Canada, although I have heard no accounts of this. A flight reservation to indicate your intention of returning home might be useful when crossing in either direction.
UK credit cards work fine in the US. Credit Card companies may make additional charges for foreign transactions. We've used Nationwide credit cards all the time and have found the service excellent - there is presently no additional charge for purchases made outside the UK. SAGA charges 1% for foreign transactions but we've had many problems with this company. The UK Post Office also issues a credit card without additional charges and we have had no problems with ours. (see also 'Quick Guide')
When we first arrived, our UK Debit Cards did not work for getting cash-back at store check-outs because the PINs were not recognized. We gave up trying to resolve this difficulty and opened a Wells Fargo dollar checking account with a debit card. A US checking account has been invaluable when buying goods or services online because a US billing address is usually required. A checking account is also convenient for depositing mail-in rebate checks and for issuing personal checks when campgrounds do not accept plastic cards. We transfer money from our online UK bank as necessary – this costs £8 per transaction plus a $10 Wells Fargo charge. (see also 'Quick Guide')
We have been told that Washington Mutual Bank and Nationwide are linked - withdrawals from WaMu ATMs using Nationwide cards apparently do not attract additional charges.
Chip and PIN is on the horizon in the US and Canada. New-generation card readers detect the presence of embedded chips and 'swiping' will not then work. PINs have to be used as at home but a workaround is to get the trader to manually input the card number. This avoids having to keep UK PINs to hand for these odd occasions. We have encountered chip readers on only four occasions, twice in the USA and twice in Canada thus far (Mar 2008).
A legal address is required for registering, titling and insuring a vehicle. Certain states recognize PMBs (Private Mail Boxes) as legal addresses. Texas, South Dakota (see also 'Quick Guide') and Florida may be good choices for foreigners. In 2010 we met a Brit who had been registered in New Mexico for some years so that might be worth checking out. We chose Texas and joined the Escapees RV Club in Livingston. Their mail service provides Polk County mailbox addresses for many RVers.
MAIL As indicated above, Escapees RV Club has a receipt and forwarding service. Other mail handling and forwarding services are available.
DRIVING LICENCE UK licences are accepted. We have never been asked to show an International Driving Permit (this is NOT a driving license) but it may be useful in some States. A UK licence may attract loading of insurance premiums.
For extended stays it is worth considering taking a US driving test. A Texas licence cost $24 in 2004 and was valid for seven years.
The driving test in Texas was far easier than a UK driving test. A 'Driver Handbook' (like 'The Highway Code' in the UK) may be obtained from libraries or DMVs. The theory test has multiple choice questions, computer-based. Driving test centres can be very busy. We started waiting in line at 6·45am for a 9 o'clock driving test. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TAKING A TEST IN A LARGE DUALLY TRUCK (as we did)! Use a rental car if nothing else is available.
BUYING AN RV
Buying, registering, titling and insurance should be straightforward provided you have a legally recognized address. Titling and Registering in Texas (Polk County) was straightforward. (although the clerk needed telephone help from the local DMV office because we did not have Social Security Numbers)
Unlike the UK, travel-trailers ('caravans') and fifth-wheel trailers have their own registration plate and ownership (title) documents . Tags (UK tax disc) for both trailer and towing vehicle are renewed annually. Postal renewal or online. Tags arrive in a few days. The cost of registration and titling varies from State to State. Online renewal is easy, even from the UK.
Varies considerably from State to State and may be is likely to be more expensive if using a UK license. Holding a US license could make a big difference but 2009 regulations governing (TX) driving licence issue may make it much harder for foreigners to obtain a US licence. Other States may appear now (2012) to have similar restrictions. In March 2010 I changed my insurers in an attempt to get flexibility in cover and lower rates. 'Progressive' provided cover. The original quotation through an agent was upped when the insurers learned that Marie held a UK licence. The additional annual premium came to $140 just for her - I can only guess it would have been at least that for me too had I not held a TX licence - ie another $280 on the annual premium. This is the first time I've seen a quantified difference. (see more below)
[Research the Escapees members' web pages (http://www.escapees.com) or other RV forums for insurance experiences. Many insurers do not write policies for Texas. We chose Explorer RV agency. All arrangements were made by telephone, Internet and Fax. Be sure that your insurance is written for FULL TIME TRAVELERS unless you are travelling only for short vacations. Our premiums (with National Interstate) increased dramatically in 2007. In early 2008 I had tried several insurers but found nothing better.]
Spring 2010 I approached Poliseek, a California based agency after finding a brochure in an Escapees magazine. As we intended to spend more time out of the USA I wanted to find an insurer who could temporarily reduce the cover yet allow us to increase it when we returned to travelling in the USA. National Interstate through Explorer RV was not suitable. Initially everything went smoothly but I then had several problems with Poliseek and also with Progressive's website. They were eventually resolved and the first period of 'off the road' state mimum insurance cover was arranged for the time we were back home in the UK for the Spring. Marie was removed by Poliseek from the list of drivers, again to reduce the premium, and after a few weeks the excess premiums were refunded. In August 2010 I increased cover to 'comprehensive' (as described in the UK) covering all risks in readiness for getting back on-the road during the summer.
October 2010 The second 6 months instalment of the annual policy was fuss-free. This payment was made by phone to Progressive, again straightforward although I had to ask for a faxed 'cover note' as the website would not allow me to produce one until the exact date it became active - even though I had already paid in advance. Otherwise no problems.
October 2010 On returning home I reduced cover as before, later increasing it again and adding Marie in readiness for our return in January 2011.
March/April 2011 A further 6 months premium was paid by phone without hitch. At the same time future coverage was reduced for the period when we'd be back in the UK with the truck off-the-road and I removed Marie again from the policy. The procedure for the latter was less straightforward after we were given the wrong advice about what was needed. 5 weeks later Progressive notified me online that documentation was still needed to complete that process and, after complaining through email, I eventually managed to get that sorted too. Annoying, though, as I had deliberately spoken directly to Progressive's agent in the first instance about how to deal with the matter. On the plus side I could at least make these changes - something not possible with our previous insurer.
In readiness for returning in July 2011 I again increased cover on the truck from the state minimum to a level of cover which dealt with all risks (described as 'comprehensive' in the UK) and also registered my UK licence because my Texas one had expired on my birth date, almost 7 years after it was issued. As licences are now available only for the duration of an I-94 at best, it is probably no longer worthwhile trying to get a US licence.
One issue to have emerged since changing to Progressive is that when reducing cover, signed paper declarations have to be made by the policy holder and anyone affected by any changes. That caught me out a couple of times because I'd expected everything would be covered online - not quite! And somewhat strangely I found by making a declaration that I'd be using my UK driving licence it would also affect the trailer insurance. Bizarre - I pointed out to the Progressive agent - because the trailer can't be driven so the premium shouldn't be affected by a driving licence change.
Interagency Pass (National Parks Pass) is good value. The initial cost is quickly covered after a few visits. The annual pass can be purchased at information centres or at park entry booths on the first visit. Gives entry to all US National Parks and Monuments. States parks do not accept the National Pass.
Sales Tax is between 5 and 10 percent. Some States may have lower rates and Oregon, for example, has no sales tax BUT check whether you’d be able to register and title a vehicle. Oregon allows only genuine residents to buy and register there. Buying in one State and then registering in another may attract additional tax.
PHONESPrepay cell phones can be bought cheaply and easily from retail outlets. Unlike in the UK, ‘air-time’ is charged both for incoming and outgoing calls. To keep the service active, and credit rolled-over month to month, regular payments have to be made (typically every 1, 2 or 3 months). Contract phones were hard to come by but may be available after putting down a moderately large deposit ($400 we were asked). The lack of a US Social Security Number (and US credit rating) prevented us entering a contract with Verizon for example. A 'call-card' may be economical for ringing home. We found the MCI card least expensive when ringing back to the UK but many are available and rates need to be checked carefully. (also see 'VOIP' below) OCTOBER 2011 We're still using the second-hand cell phone we bought in July 2004! We've nothing to gain by swapping and contract rates have gone up enormously. An unlocked UK tri-band phone could be used with a US SIM. We only use cheapo ASDA pre-pay phones in the UK so that's no good to us - we're very old fashioned!
On the road we once regularly used libraries to access the Internet for email etc along with campground WiFi when available. Wireless Internet (WiFi) has gradually become more widely available but it's still not everywhere (October 2011 - it's are to have no service nowadays). Daily rates can range from $2.50 to $10 but often there is no additional charge. Reception at campgrounds is as variable as the places themselves. It can be excellent but may be patchy with variable signal strength and stability. OCTOBER 2011 Over the pst couple of years we've seen BIG improvements in many campground WiFi systems. Better signal strength, 11-N service, faster speeds. How things have changed.
Wireless cards provide Internet access using cell phone providers' networks - download speeds are reported to be good provided the cell phone service is also good. Satellite broadband can be good but is still VERY expensive - OCTOBER 2011 Many satellite users are likely to have changed to using cell-phone services for Internet. Adverts for satellite systems are rare. We still haven’t found any need for our own ISP (Internet Service Provider) but there are still some inexpensive dial-up providers. Dial-up is as slow as in the UK.
It can be frustrating when campgrounds advertise Internet availability but it's then found to be unavailable or the service is poor! In time this is likely to be less common as more campgrounds upgrade their service.
In summer 2009 we were back on the road and had good WiFi at the +35 campgrounds we visited. We might have just been lucky but I get the impression that more parks are using modern high-quality antenna systems which, coupled with improved broadband capacity, has markedly improved the service. Admittedly I'm also using a Hawking dish antenna (details below) and that's a help where trees, or distance, weaken the signal. (OCTOBER 2011 It's definitely the case that systems are better and probably more widespread - I still find it's beneficial to use the Hawking unit shown below - the latest is 11-N)
I am very grateful to Kirk Wood for all his practical help and for continuing to provide a space to record this information.
For more info, with a personal emphasis and fifth-wheel bias, visit me at http://rving.sunpix.co.uk/
There’s also much useful and interesting information at the website of Linda and Wullie Keir http://geocities.com/TheTropics/Coast/4356/index.html