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CHICAGO BASICS AND FAST FACTS

Essentials for the international visitor: guidelines on tipping, drinking and driving regulations, time zone, etc.

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Browse the Chicago travel basics below to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the city and get an overview of customs and guidelines before you visit.

In addition to this international tip sheet, listings of Chicago hospitals, churches, post offices and other area information is available under Local Travel Resources.

Age Regulations (photo ID or passport required)

  • Legal car rental age: 25
  • Legal driving age: 16
  • Legal drinking and gambling age: 21
  • Legal age to purchase cigarettes and tobacco: 18

Currency

U.S. Dollar. For convenient currency exchange options, click here.

Driving

In the United States, drive on the right side of the road. Speeds are measured in miles-per-hour and speed limits are clearly displayed by signage along streets and roadways.

Age 16 is the legal driving age. Car rental companies rely on a different standard of minimum age, often requiring renters to be 21 years old, with surcharges for people under age 25.

If driving a private vehicle, you are required to possess a valid driver's license and insurance. International driver are not required to carry an international driving permit in the U.S., but must possess a photo ID along with their native driver's license.

In Chicago, talking on a mobile cell phone while driving a car is illegal with fines ranging from $50 to over $200. Consuming alcohol while traveling in a vehicle is illegal for drivers AND passengers. Specially chartered vehicles like limousines and particular kinds of buses are an exception. It is illegal to transport alcohol with a broken seal. If you're transporting alcohol with a broken seal, open bottles should be stored in the trunk. Violators face fines up to $2,500.

Electricity

120 volt, 60 hertz (Tip: Buy a Type-B adapter plug NEMA 5-15 to ensure your electrical items work in Chicago)

Phone Calls

Without an international plan, many cell phones will not work in the U.S. Check with your service provider before visiting Chicago. 

  • Telephone area code: 312 (most downtown hotels/businesses in Chicago)
  • For emergencies (police, fire or ambulance) dial toll-free 9-1-1
  • For non-emergency requests about City of Chicago services/government agencies dial 3-1-1
  • For directory assistance dial 4-1-1

Prescription Drugs

Carry a copy of your prescription for any or all drugs you are taking in the U.S. Some drugs that are common or legal in other countries may require a prescription or may be illegal in the U.S. You are required to report all imported medications to U.S. Customs. Carry all prescription medications in their original and intended containers.

Sales Tax

A 9.5% tax is applied to all non-perishable goods. A 2% tax is applied to grocery items and medical supplies. An additional 1% tax applies to food and beverage purchases in the downtown area of Chicago. 

Smoking Regulations

The current and most recent version of the Chicago Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking as well as "vaping" or the use of an e-cigarette, vape pen, or e-hookah in virtually all enclosed public places, and within 15 feet of the entrance of these establishments. This includes:

  • bars and restaurants
  • shopping malls
  • enclosed sports arenas and stadiums
  • concert halls and auditoriums
  • convention facilities
  • trains, buses and public transportation facilities
  • lobbies and reception areas

Time Zone

Chicago is on Central Standard Time (CST). That's 6 hours behind GMT; 1 hour behind New York City (East Coast); and 2 hours ahead of Los Angeles (West Coast).

Tipping

Taxicab drivers, bartenders and waiters generally receive a 15% gratuity for standard service, though it is appropriate to leave a 20% gratuity to restaurant waitstaff for exceptional service, particularly in fine dining establishments. Hotel doormen and valet park attendants should be tipped about $2, and bellhops should be given $2 per bag. Hotel chambermaids usually are given $2 per day, which can be left on the pillow.

Weights & Measurements

U.S. customary units (inches, miles, pounds, etc.)

Weather Units

Fahrenheit. For details on Chicago weather, click here.


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