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The United States of America (also referred to as the United States, the U.S., the USA, or America) borders Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, the North Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the North Pacific Ocean to the west. At roughly 9.8 million square kilometres, the U.S. is the world's third-largest country in size and population and one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations.
The U.S. consists of 50 states (48 continental plus Alaska and Hawaii), a federal district, Washington D.C., and small territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. The capital city is Washington, D.C.
With its large size and geographic variety, the U.S. includes most climate types from the tropical atmosphere of Hawaii and Florida to the semi-arid Great Plains; from the arid Mojave Desert to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, not to mention the cold Arctic climate of Alaska. Because of the climate, the ecology in the U.S. is extremely diverse, with abundant flora and fauna and amazing natural habitats for nature-inspired visitors to explore.
The United States' earliest settlers were aboriginal natives (now referred to as Native Americans). The British then began settling on the east coast, and eventually established 13 colonies. These colonies declared their independence in 1776 from Britain as a result of the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially recognised the United States of America as a sovereign nation, and the U.S. constitution was signed in 1787. The U.S. went on to become a superpower in the 20th century, and it is one of the world's most influential nations.
Today, the population of the U.S. is just over 326,000 million. It is ethnically and culturally diverse, thanks to a long history of immigration, with Caucasians comprising 70% of the population, Hispanic or Latino 17%, Black or African American 13%, Asian 4%, and indigenous native Americans 1%. English is the main language, with Spanish the second-most common language.
A common metaphor used to describe American culture is "the melting pot," which means that a variety of ethnicities and nationalities are represented in the population and blend to form a common culture. While it is true that there is a strong sense of "Americanness" among the population, most would agree that there are still very distinct sub-cultures, especially along ethnic lines (e.g., Hispanic or Latino).
The United States is a secular country, with a core principle being the separation of church and state and freedom for individuals to worship as they choose. Another distinctive factor is freedom of expression ensuring individuals the right to express themselves without fear of government reprisals. These individual freedoms help to shape a culture where an individual's interest and skills can be more important than family or connections in the marketplace – at least relative to other countries.
Sports are quite popular in the United States. American football, baseball, and basketball represent the most successful professional franchises, while soccer is popular as a youth team sport. University sports, especially American football and basketball, are also very popular. Elite university football programs, for example, may draw regular crowds of 75,000.
The U.S. is the largest economy in the world (with China tying it on some measures), and one of the most technologically advanced. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 was roughly $17.9 trillion USD, with per capita GDP at roughly $51,600 USD. American firms are at or near the forefront of technological advances, especially with regard to computers and in medical, aerospace, and military equipment. The currency is the U.S. Dollar.
The U.S. is a federal republic with a strong democratic tradition founded on the concept of local control. The federal government shares power with strong local governments in each of the 50 states, the district of Columbia, the territories, and multiple counties, cities, and towns. At both the federal and local levels, there are three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, where each has authority over different governmental functions in a system of checks and balances. The U.S. legal code is based on English common law (except in Louisiana, which is still influenced by Napoleonic code).
Living conditions and cost of living in the U.S. vary greatly depending on location and lifestyle, but in an overall sense, they are similar to what they are in other affluent nations. Consumer goods are certainly easy to find, and basic needs such as food and household items are affordable to almost all people who live in the U.S. The average monthly cost of living for an adult living in the US is $2,300 (not including tuition fees). As in most nations, the cost of living is higher in big cities than in smaller towns; accommodation can be expensive in the cities.
The American higher education system is administratively managed at three levels: primary (generally ages 5–11 or 5–12), secondary (generally ages 12–18), and post-secondary or tertiary (generally ages 18 and up). Students are required to remain in school until the age of 16. Close to 9 in 10 Americans receive a secondary school leaving certificate and nearly 1 in 3 achieve a bachelor's degree or higher.
To understand the American system of education, it is critical to understand the concept of local control. Local control means that locally elected education entities, typically in the form of governing boards, at the city, state, and institutional level, control issues including the nature of the curriculum, admissions standards, and funding for schools, colleges, and universities. This means that the federal government of the United States has relatively little command over how education is managed and does not govern or provide control over degrees, standards, or curriculum – which is typically the role of the Ministry of Education in other countries.
Based on the above, in the United States, governance and support of post-secondary educational institutions falls into one of two categories, public (government supported) or private. American colleges and universities are roughly evenly divided between these two types of institutions. Whether a higher-education institution is public or private has no relationship to educational quality, although the very most competitive ones tend to be dominated by privates. Whether an institution is public or private, it will set its own admission standards, and prospective students must apply separately for each.
The U.S. has the world's largest population of international students: there are now more than one million foreign students enrolled in US higher education institutions.
Visitors – including foreign students – must meet stringent criteria to obtain a visa prior to entering the country, including documenting financial capabilities to support the programme of study and demonstrating compelling ties to the home country. Please see the U.S. Department of State's website for detailed information on student visas.
Some international students are eligible to work part time while studying and there are work programmes attached to different kinds of visa that allow international students to gain practical work experience as part of their study programme. These are detailed in ICEF's United States Agent Training Course (USATC), recommended for any agent who wants to specialise in sending students to U.S. education institutions.
Important U.S. Government Agencies/Departments