The United States of America is a federal republic composed of 50 states, a federal district, five major territories and various possessions. The 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., are in central North America between Canada and Mexico. The state of Alaska is located in the northwestern part of North America and the state of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific. The territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. At 3.8 million square miles (9.842 million km2) and with over 320 million people, the country is the world's third or fourth-largest by total area and the third most populous. It is one of the world's most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations, the product of large-scale immigration from many countries. The geography and climate of the United States are also extremely diverse, and the country is home to a wide variety of wildlife.
The United States is a developed country and has the world's largest economy by nominal and real GDP, benefiting from an abundance of natural resources and high worker productivity. While the U.S. economy is considered post-industrial, the country continues to be one of the world's largest manufacturers. Accounting for 34% of global military spending and 23% of world GDP, it is the world's foremost economic and military power, a prominent political and cultural force, and a leader in scientific research and technological innovations.
The United States is home to many cultures and a wide variety of ethnic groups, traditions, and values. Aside from the Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Native Alaskan populations, nearly all Americans or their ancestors settled or immigrated within the past five centuries. Mainstream American culture is a Western culture largely derived from the traditions of European immigrants with influences from many other sources, such as traditions brought by slaves from Africa. More recent immigration from Asia and especially Latin America has added to a cultural mix that has been described as both a homogenizing melting pot, and a heterogeneous salad bowl in which immigrants and their descendants retain distinctive cultural characteristics.
Personal transportation is dominated by automobiles, which operate on a network of 4 million miles of public roads, including one of the world's longest highway systems at 57,000 miles. The world's second largest automobile market, the United States has the highest rate of per-capita vehicle ownership in the world, with 765 vehicles per 1,000 Americans. About 40% of personal vehicles are vans, SUVs, or light trucks. The average American adult (accounting for all drivers and non-drivers) spends 55 minutes driving every day, traveling 29 miles (47 km).
Education in the United States is provided by public schools and private schools.
Public education is universally available at the K–12 level, and is available at state colleges and universities for those students who can afford to pay for it. K–12 public school curricula, budgets, and policies are set through locally elected school boards, who have jurisdiction over individual school districts. State governments set overall educational standards, often mandate standardized tests for K–12 public school systems, and supervise, usually through a board of regents, state colleges and universities. Funding comes from the state, local, and federal government.
Private schools are generally free to determine their own curriculum and staffing policies, with voluntary accreditation available through independent regional accreditation authorities. About 87% of school-age children attend public schools, about 10% attend private schools, and more than 3% are homeschooled.
Education is compulsory over an age range starting between five and eight and ending somewhere between ages sixteen and eighteen, depending on the state. This requirement can be satisfied in public schools, state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program. In most schools, education is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle or junior high school, and high school. Children are usually divided by age groups into grades, ranging from kindergarten and first grade for the youngest children, up to twelfth grade as the final year of high school.
The United States spends more per student on education than any other country. American students rank 14th worldwide in cognitive skills, just behind Russia. On the other hand, of the top ten colleges and universities in the world, eight are American. (The other two are Oxford and Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.)
Mainstream American cuisine is similar to that in other Western countries. Wheat is the primary cereal grain with about three-quarters of grain products made of wheat flour and many dishes use indigenous ingredients, such as turkey, venison, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash, and maple syrup which were consumed by Native Americans and early European settlers. These home grown foods are part of a shared national menu on one of America's most popular holidays; Thanksgiving, when some Americans make traditional foods to celebrate the occasion.
Characteristic dishes such as apple pie, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs derive from the recipes of various immigrants. French fries, Mexican dishes such as burritos and tacos, and pasta dishes freely adapted from Italian sources are widely consumed. Americans drink three times as much coffee as tea. Marketing by U.S. industries is largely responsible for making orange juice and milk ubiquitous breakfast beverages.
American eating habits owe a great deal to that of their British culinary roots with some variations. Although American lands could grow newer vegetables England could not, most colonists would not eat these new foods until accepted by Europeans. Over time American foods changed to a point that food critic, John L. Hess stated in 1972: "Our founding fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and intelligence".
The American fast food industry, the world's largest, pioneered the drive-through format in the 1940s. Fast food consumption has sparked health concerns. During the 1980s and 1990s, Americans' caloric intake rose 24%; frequent dining at fast food outlets is associated with what public health officials call the American "obesity epidemic". Highly sweetened soft drinks are widely popular, and sugared beverages account for nine percent of American caloric intake.
English is the de facto national language. Although there is no official language at the federal level, some laws-such as U.S. naturalization requirements-standardize English. In 2010, about 230 million, or 80% of the population aged five years and older, spoke only English at home. Spanish, spoken by 12% of the population at home, is the second most common language and the most widely taught second language. Some Americans advocate making English the country's official language, as it is in 28 states.
Both Hawaiian and English are official languages in Hawaii, by state law. Alaska recognizes many Native languages. While neither has an official language, New Mexico has laws providing for the use of both English and Spanish, as Louisiana does for English and French. Other states, such as California, mandate the publication of Spanish versions of certain government documents including court forms. Many jurisdictions with large numbers of non-English speakers produce government materials, especially voting information, in the most commonly spoken languages in those jurisdictions.
Several insular territories grant official recognition to their native languages, along with English: Samoan and Chamorro are recognized by American Samoa and Guam, respectively; Carolinianand Chamorro are recognized by the Northern Mariana Islands; Cherokee is officially recognized by the Cherokee Nation within the Cherokee tribal jurisdiction area in eastern Oklahoma; Spanish is an official language of Puerto Rico and is more widely spoken than English there.