10 Things the United States Should Copy From Other Countries


For anyone who has used a passport, coming home to the United States can feel like returning to a boring family reunion. (See also: Passport Carrying Tips)

Yes, there's clean water, dependable electricity, and hopefully a job and a family to come back to, but the adventure of eating new foods, experiencing new customs, and meeting new people with different outlooks can go by the wayside after a trip overseas.

Some countries can teach Americans a lot, as I wrote last summer after discovering first-hand how some countries save energy. Other international finds worth having at home are less life-changing and can be as frivolous as beer vending machines in Japan, crashed motorcycles as memorials in Indonesia, and interesting foods such as currywurst in Germany and camel milk chocolate in the United Arab Emirates. (See also: What Americans Can Learn About Saving Energy From Foreigners)

But there are bigger lessons to learn abroad — some serious and and others just plain fun — that the United States can benefit from. Here are 10 countries that the U.S. should be mimicking, at least in part.

Sweden: Turning Trash Into Power

Sweden burns trash to generate electricity, allowing it to power most of its homes and businesses. Like its neighbor Norway, which does the same thing, Sweden imports trash to produce energy — not a bad problem to have. U.S. cities would have to invest heavily into infrastructure that would turn trash into electricity, and it's unlikely to meet all of America's power needs. And there's also the problem of ash, which can be more harmful to the environment than raw trash. Still, it's an idea that could be copied. (See also: Cut Your Electric Bill With Solar Panels)

Germany: Pedestrian-Only Areas

While pedestrian-only shopping streets are popular in many cities throughout Europe, Germany seems to be ahead of the game in giving pedestrians more room to roam, says Margo Schlossberg, who lives near Washington, D.C. and has traveled to 26 countries. They help reduce driving, encourage walking, and lower pedestrian fatalities.

United Kingdom: Student Loan Repayment Program

For college students in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, a government program makes paying back student loans easier and cheaper than other countries, according to Globalise Me, a website that helps students worldwide decide where to study abroad. Payments and interest rates fall and rise based on a graduate's income, allowing a decent quality of life during the first years of a career instead of facing pressure from a large financial burden. If the loan can't be repaid within 30 years, it is completely written off. (See also: 15 Ways to Pay Back Student Loans Faster)

Denmark: Maternity Leave

Parents in Denmark are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. Parents get what's called a "maternity subsistence allowance," which is a full salary for public sector employees and negotiable in the private sector. The mother gets one month of leave before birth and 14 weeks after. The father also gets two weeks of leave after birth. The remaining 32 weeks can be divided between the two spouses as they wish. Many other countries have paid maternity leave programs. The U.S. doesn't have a national program but leaves it up to states to provide paid leave.

Austria: Vacation Time

Every country in the European Union requires at least four weeks of paid vacation per year, with Austria leading giving workers the most time off at 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays per year at a legal minimum. The U.S. doesn't legally require paid days off, though the average private sector worker gets 16 paid vacation and holidays off each year. Some nations that do this, however, struggle with high unemployment and a poor economy, including France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

France: Health Care

This is another area where many other countries can be a model for the U.S., including Canada, Israel, Australia, Italy, among many others. The World Health Report 2000 listed France (PDF) as the best country in the world in terms of health care, combining the private and public sectors to provide universal health coverage for all.

Ecuador: Rights of Nature

According to its national Constitution, Ecuador gives Mother Nature the same rights as people, says Susan Schenck, who has lived in Ecuador for three years and has written a book about expats there. It is the first Constitution in the world to legally recognize ecosystem rights. It prohibits the extraction of non-renewable resources in protected areas. Schenck says a friend went to court to protect the rights of certain trees, and won.

Estonia: Free Wi-Fi

The Internet may be just another service like tap water and clean streets in most of the developed world, but in Estonia it's a symbol of democracy and freedom, according to a story in the Guardian. Many Estonian services are managed online, including voting, signing legal documents, prescriptions from doctors, and paying by text. Known as "E-stonia," Wi-Fi is free throughout the country, making working life easy for anyone with a laptop computer. Says Steven Macdonald, who works in online marketing: "I've been lucky enough to have traveled the globe, but in today's Internet driven world, free Wi-Fi all over the country is truly one the best things the U.S. should have." (See also: Frugal Advice for Gadget Addicts)

London, England: City Train System

New York and Paris are often cited for having excellent metro train systems, but London's subway system seems to always come out on top. The London Underground, nicknamed the Tube, is celebrating 150 years of service. The New York City Subway is a strong contender, carrying 4.5 million passengers daily — the same as the London Tube carried one day during the Summer Olympics last year. For trains across the country, Portugal's Alfa train is excellent at twice the speed of Amtrak's Acela train in the U.S., says Jayme Simoes, a Concord, N.H. resident who travels to Portugal often.

Panama: Long Tourist Visas

For foreigners who want to visit Panama, the country gives them a lot of time to explore. People holding North American or EU passports, along with other countries, are given a six-month tourist visa in Panama, says Rob Harper, who has lived in Panama full time for the past six years and sells vacation packages there. While many countries give tourists 30 days or less to visit, Panama gives six months to explore "without having to worry about a specific time frame for heading back out," Harper says.

Visitors don't have to apply before arrival, but just show up with a passport that's valid for at least six months after arrival, he says. They're then granted a "visa" with a simple stamp inside the passport. In the U.S., unless visitors are flagged for a possible illegality, nationals from Western Hemisphere countries can enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days.

That should be enough to get you to write your representative in Congress for some changes, or at least buy an international cookbook. I could go on and on about smaller changes that make a world of difference — single lines at grocery stores in South Africa and London, and central switches for electricity in hotel rooms in India and Australia — but it might be best to start off thinking big.

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Guest's picture
David Kuck

With $17 Trillion in debt, the United States shouldn't be spending money on ANY of these. If states or companies want to do it, great, but the Federal Government should not have a part in any of these sorts of things.

Guest's picture

Most of these things are infrastructure that would end up generating more private enterprise in the long run. If we stay tight-fisted on everything but war, we're not going to go anywhere fast but behind.

Guest's picture

Don't know where you live, but we have many immigrant communities and their restaurants and food stores here in the ATL.--maybe you should get out more and explore the us sometime!

Guest's picture

I'm from the UK but have visited the USA a few times on vacation - I would change your tipping system in restaurants. Why dont restaurants pay their staff a decent liveable wage instead of making it virtually obligatory to tip 20%+ whether you get good service or not ?

Guest's picture

No nation has all of these things, and some nations with the biggest 'expenses' (like Fance's healthcare) are in the same national insolvency mode that we are. Listen people, I want a new truck, a new home, a new jet, a staff of 20, just like everyone else. My $750 a week take-home pay, and my $155,000 of total debt, including mortgage, isn't going to support my wants. I get by, by learning that I just can't have everything I want. Something that half our nation clearly doesn't understand - LIVING WITHIN OUR MEANS!

Guest's picture
rational thinker

Here in Minneapolis we do have a trash burning power plant. It only took about 15 years too long to build because of every self appointed green environmentalist protesting and suing it in the court systems.

Free Wi Fi? Where does that start and end? Wi Fi for everyone in the city, then the farmer is dis-enfranchised from something their taxes are paying for. Or do you plan on wi fi for the entire continental US?

Guest's picture

Stop using stupid Imperial system and switch to Metric System. It's MUCH more easy, logical and productive.

Guest's picture

I'm disappointed to see this kind of article on Wisebread. Sharing ideas is phenomenal, and when you can replace your ideas with something others are doing better, everyone wins. But many of these ideas are not better at all, or at least not better for society overall.

More subsidized student loans, universal healthcare, and legally enforced vacation time are all items that unquestionably hinder economic prosperity. It would be a tragedy to see the US make the same mistakes as Europe in this regard.