Few countries are as ethnically and culturally diverse as the United States of America. Embracing a philosophy of individual liberty, the United States is known as a “melting pot,” or an immigrant nation where citizens take pride in their independence.
Gap year programs in the U.S. are perfect for those looking to travel, learn new skills, and get real-world experience, whether it be after high school, during college, or after college or grad school. Take a semester or a year to press the pause button and see the diverse landscape and how people live in a different country or just in a different part of the country. Best of all, a well-planned gap year in America can help you gain perspective on your goals, career choices or even improve English language skills that you can use in a future job.
Read on for gap year program types, cost of living, visa information, plus health and safety while in the U.S.A.
Types of Programs
From the Rocky Mountains in the Southwest to the Florida Everglades, the United States is tropical, arid, temperate, and humid all at once. You can explore for yourself why so many people move to the United States. It’s a land of dreamers, united but individual, proud but always questioning. So explore the wide-open ranges, the skyscraper lit cities, the heavenly peaks, and the rushing rapids of this diverse country. Here are the top gap year programs you can find in the United States of America:
Volunteer in the USA! America has always been a melting pot, and volunteers come from all around the world. Volunteering in the U.S. is the perfect opportunity for both visitors and Americans to be part of an international community, meet new people, and pick up new talents. Most volunteer projects last 2-3 weeks, which is perfect for the gap year traveler who wishes to have various experiences.
Volunteer projects in America include building and fixing playgrounds, landscaping public areas, assisting nursing homes, painting classrooms, reconstructing schools, and environmental restoration. You can also volunteer with a particular group or community. Opportunities for working in professional areas are also available. Volunteers of any background are encouraged to share their skills.
Traveling throughout the United States is entirely variable. Each city differs, making it an exciting country to spend a gap year. San Francisco and New York City have adequate public transportation but are expensive. The Midwest lacks adequate public transit, but rental cars are always available. If you travel with an organization, the program will usually provide a large bus for their travelers around the U.S.
The United States offers thousands of national wonders and opportunities for exploration. If one state or city doesn't seem enjoyable to you, chances are, in this diverse and enormous country, you can travel as little as three hours and be in a completely new environment. From Yosemite National Park to the Mississippi River, the United States is a breathtaking country with so much to offer. And, if you really want to test the waters of adventure travel, take a semester in the wilderness of Alaska to backpack, mountaineer, and kayak through pristine environments.
Interning in the U.S. offers a great opportunity to gain experience in the business fields. The U.S. is considered the world's economic hub, and its business culture makes it the perfect place to find career-building internships.
Internships of every type are available throughout the country. They vary from state to state, but the United States, per capita, has more interns than any other country in the world. As a result, finding an internship is incredibly competitive, and you’ll need to be well organized and prepared. Read more in our complete guide to finding internships in the United States.
Planning Your Trip
Visas for Your Gap Year in the United States
If you're from the U.S. and looking to do a gap year, you will not need a visa to move from one side of the country to another. If you have to take a flight, you will generally need only your driver's license (the Real ID goes into effect in Oct 2021). If you don't have a license or Real ID, you can fly with your passport.
For gappers from other countries, there are a few different visas you may be able to enter the United States with for your gap year: visitor visa (holiday or vacation), J Visa (educational/culture trips), F and M visa (academic study), and H visa (seasonal work, agriculture). The visa lengths range from a few weeks on the J visa and up to a few years on the H visa. If you are taking a gap year in America with a third-party provider, the organization generally helps you with the visa process.
Cost of Living in the USA
The U.S. is too diverse to simplify the cost of living for your gap year. Products and housing vary depending on the city. For example, a movie ticket in San Francisco can cost as much as $12, while a movie ticket in Indiana will cost around $7.50. Generally, big cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Boston will have higher living costs than medium-sized cities or rural areas. Budget accordingly for your gap year, and save when possible if you plan on traveling throughout the United States. Save when traveling to less expensive places so that visiting the cities is less of a financial burden.
Culture and Etiquette in the USA
When cultures collide, history happens. The United States is home to many cultures, varying from state to state, city to city, and neighborhood to neighborhood. The U.S. is a hodgepodge of multi-ethnic traditions, along with influence by European cultures, making it an exciting place to spend your gap year.
Today, the United States of America is an ethnically and racially diverse country due to large-scale immigration. American life incorporates traditions from many cultures. From their China cabinets to the Impressionist paintings on their living room walls, American households are as diverse as the country itself. America includes both conservative and liberal elements, including military and scientific competitiveness; it’s a country where risk-taking, individualization, and free expression are idealized.
When interacting with an American, whether on the street or in business situations, always make eye-contact, be polite, and give a firm handshake. There’s an old cliché in America, “You can tell a lot about a person by the strength of their handshake.”
Health & Safety
Newly enacted healthcare codes offer healthcare coverage to the underprivileged. However, the United States does not have a large-scale socialized Health Care system, so you will need to buy health insurance or travel insurance (or both) before embarking on your gap year program in the U.S.
Health and safety should always be a top precaution, and you can never be too prepared. Always watch your luggage closely and keep your personal items in view. Pick-pocketing is common in large cities. Be aware of your surroundings when walking around or on public transportation. Don't walk alone at night or in dark alleyways -- use well-lit and main roads.
Gap Year Programs in the USA
Where There Be Dragons Financial Aid & 529 Funds
Where There Be Dragons offers need-based financial aid to students that demonstrate reasonable financial need and are excited to engage with...
United Planet Service Scholarships
Several scholarships are available for those looking to volunteer for a short or long-term period abroad with the non-profit organization United...
High Mountain Institute Award
If you’re looking at one of the four High Mountain Institute programs to Patagonia, consider applying for financial aid. Your application must include...
View the latest job postings on our job board. A great way to earn work experience during your gap year!
What are the most popular types of gap year programs in the US?
The US is a popular destination for paid internships, work exchanges, volunteering on social and environmental projects, and outdoor education. Due to the vast national parks and forest land across the US, many gappers looking for an outdoor experience find work maintaining trails and campsites or training and working as an outdoor educator. The sheer scale of America means that no matter your gap year goals, you’ll likely be able to find a fitting program.
Can I take a gap year in America?
Yes! Whether you want to volunteer, travel, or intern, gap year programs are available in the United States. You can help build homes, work on your English, and go on outdoor adventures during your year break. Gap year providers in The United States of America offer many programs for both personal and professional development.
How do I find a gap year program in the U.S.?
You can start by searching online, through gap year provider websites, and on Go Overseas. We have over 100 U.S. gap year programs on our site, with reviews and alumni interviews to help you find the right one for you.
How many students take a gap year in the U.S.?
As of 2017, the Gap Year Association estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 students take a gap year consisting of a semester or more every year.