Tipping Etiquette in America

A tip jar at a restaurant.

When I was a server eons ago, I always dreaded when I would have a table full of foreigners. They’d ask for their check, and leave a measly amount for a tip. No matter how enthusiastic or helpful I was.

But I know that tipping is often a foreign concept to visitors in America. It’s understandable that it’s super confusing: who to tip, when to tip, where to tip, what to tip, and even why to tip.

In fact, just recently a co-worker of mine who was about to leave for the States had asked me just what the hell is the etiquette for dining out. And being someone who gets worried about not knowing the how-to’s of new places, I thought it’d be appropriate to clear up any tipping confusion for the apprehensive.

Eating brunch at Screen Door in Portland, Oregon.

If you didn’t know, unlike every other country in the world, hospitality employees in America highly depend on their tips (unfortunately). Under the Federal law, all states must pay tipped employees at least the minimum wage of (at the time of writing) $2.13. Most states; however, have a slightly higher minimum wage than the Federal requirement.

According to the , the highest minimum wage for tipped employees is $9.32 in Washington State. The second highest is my favorite state, Oregon, at $9.10. (This makes it great for those creative, starving artists in Portland.) The Federal government feels that tipped wage can be different because these employees are earning tips as well, which supposedly compensates for the oh-so-low hourly wage.

Flight of ice cream at Salt and Straw in Portland , Oregon.

Here’s a quick guide on tipping at restaurants in America.

Who: Servers (sometimes known by their archaic name: waiters and waitresses)

Where: They are usually found at any dine-in restaurants taking orders, bringing food, and pleasing people.

What: If you were happy with the service, 20 percent is the norm (but 18 percent is usually acceptable.) If you were dissatisfied with your server, then leave them 10 percent. That’s actually more of an insult than leaving nothing. If you were absolutely appalled by the food (and not the server), talk to a manager. It probably wasn’t the server’s fault for your steak being overcooked. Whatever you do, though, don’t tip 15 percent.

Why: Servers may only be earning $2.13 an hour. Their income depends on your tips.

Tip: If you’re using a debit or credit card, and you were highly impressed with your server, consider paying a tip with cash. That way, a server won’t be taxed (shh!) and they get the tip immediately. Where it says tip on your receipt, simply draw a line through. Your server will be thankful.

Another Tip: You may see on the receipt that the gratuity (normally 18 percent) has been added. Don’t feel pressured to tip on top of that. It’s possible that the restaurant automatically adds gratuity to larger parties (usually 8 people). You can find this in small print on the menu.

Biscuits and gravy for brunch in Portland, Oregon.

Who: Cashiers/Baristas

Where: They are usually found at–what I like to call–“upscale” fast-food restaurants (Chipotle, Panera Bread, etc.), coffee shops, or restaurants that offer take out.

What: Tipping is not expected because these employees usually earn more than a server. But it’s highly appreciated. Usually a couple of dollars will do. You’ll sometimes see a tip jar, which often have witty signs on it: “New Shoe Fund” or “Tipping is Sexy” to encourage customers to tip, near the cash register. If you pay with a card, there might be the tip option on the receipt (similar to in a sit-down restaurant and at a bar).

Why: They still have to do other things than take your money: make that fancy espresso drink, pack up your to-go-order, and act happy to be working on a Saturday night.

Enjoying Annie's Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon.

Who: Bartenders

Where: They are usually found in restaurants, bars, or clubs making drinks.

What: I’d say one dollar per beer should be satisfactory. Two to three dollars if you’re feeling generous. Keep in mind though, if you end up buying an expensive cocktail drink, which actually takes a little more effort than pouring from a tap, expect to give at least a 15 percent tip.

Why: They have to put up with drunkards all night. Anyone who has to deal with that shit should get a tip.

How: If you’re using cash, simply place it on the bar after the bartender hands you the drink. They will usually take it right away. If you’ve kept a tab open (by giving them your credit or debit card), ask the bartender you’d like to close your tab. She or he will give you back the card along with a receipt. You will put the tip amount on the receipt.

A flight of beer at HUB in Portland, Oregon.

Who: Hosts and Hostesses

Where: They are often found greeting guests who are entering dine-in restaurants. They’re usually wearing a forced smile.

What: They never ever expect a tip. Hosts should be earning way more than a server.

Why:  It’s a busy Friday or Saturday night, and the wait list is nearly five pages long. You’re hungry and are on the bottom of the list. Get chummy with them and slip them a $20. Depending on how they feel, they’ll likely accept it and bump your name up on the list.

Food cart cuisine in Portland, Oregon.

Tell me your American tipping experiences and annoyances! 


  1. says

    Great post, it was quite helpful to me because I actually though 10-15% percent was an acceptable tip so now I know better and won’t have to offend anyone I was actually satisfied with! As a kiwi, it’s pretty hard sometimes to wrap my head around the concept of tipping (why can’t the government just get its act together and legislate for a decent minimum wage – that could be a whole other post on an entirely different sort of blog), it seems easier to factor these things into the meal price than to make someone as mathematically inept as me sit there with a calculator to figure out what 20 percent of my meal would be! But, I understand that many people rely on them and it’s not their fault, and it’s not my country/culture, so it’s good to know what is a good amount and for who.

    • Dan says

      Jamie didn’t really elaborate but part of the problem is that in the US each state has two different minimum wages. One minimum wage is the normal minimum wage, the other is for tipped workers. So in New Jersey the tipped min wage is $2.13 and the normal min wage is $8.25. All tipped workers are meant to make the minimum wage, it’s just expected that they’ll make the extra through tips. So their employer pays them $2.13 per hour with the expectation they’ll make at least $8.25 with tips. If they don’t make enough including the tips then their employer is supposed to pay the extra to have them reach the actual minimum. Whether that happens or not is another matter!

      I guess the problem with minimum wage in America is that…like most things…one political party wants to raise it and another doesn’t, so the other party prevents it from happening. Plus tons of small business owners don’t want it raised so they’ll kick up a fuss if it looks like it’ll happen!

  2. says

    This is a great post guys!

    We tip in Sydney, Australia, where I come from. But verrrry differently to the States. Minimum wage is, off the top of my head (so it might not be exact) around $18.90 per hour for adults (so 18+). And many high end restaurants pay very good wages over the minimum.

    So in my social circles, we’d usually just do 10-15% as a tip. And frankly, nothing, if we were disappointed by the service or people. (Though, in one fancy restaurant our waiter was such a rude, unpleasant individual, we tipped in loose change to show our displeasure. I know, mature, right?) In bars I basically chuck in the change from my notes, same with cafes/coffee shops. We don’t tip our hair dressers or salons though, unlike in Canada and America.

    One thing that ALWAYS confuses me about tipping in America, is when the hell to tip with buffets? Can I tip when I pay at the beginning? Or do I just leave it on the table? What if someone steals it? Does that mean the lady who does our drinks/tea/coffee gets some as well as the person who cleans my table? So complicated…lol.

    Oh, and why is 10% worse than nothing? That was one thing I was curious about!

    • Dan says

      Non-server, non-American here. But I imagine it’s because 10% is a statement. Like saying “Yeah, I tip, but I’m only giving you 10% because you suck ass!” Where as no tip is like…no statement. It’s just saying nothing. Or rather the server just thinks “Oh, that lousy cheapskate doesn’t tip!”

      We’re moving to Melbourne (hopefully) next year and I can’t wait for that huge minimum wage. Although I hear it’s so expensive there that it doesn’t really matter!

      Hopefully Jamie answers your question about buffets. Usually in England we leave the tip on the table anyway (as they bring the bill to your table on a plate / book). You just have to trust nobody will steal it, I suppose! I believe that the waitresses are meant to “tip out” too, which means that they pass a percentage of their tips on to other staff (people in the kitchen, table cleaners etc!)

      P.S. Off topic but I’ve noticed the link to your blog is always broken when you make comments. It links to which it says is a protected blog. I’ve been editing it for you to , but just thought you should know incase you are using that link elsewhere!

      • says

        Oh wow, that will be a great move for you guys :) If you like NZ, you’ll like Melbourne. The people aren’t as relaxed (Aussies are surprisingly… busy? Is that the word? I don’t know how to describe it, but I think you’ll see what I mean when you get there), but it’s a lovely city with nice bars and restaurants, and beautiful natural parts of wider Victoria.

        Okay, I think I just need more trust in my fellow humans when it comes to buffets and leaving tips. I have no idea how I managed to miss the buffet experience in Australia.

        And thank you! I will fix that.

        • Dan says

          In all honesty, I’ve got really low expectations for Australia. We’re only going as a matter of necessity (closest to NZ, cheapest place to get to, only place we can both get working holiday visas!) We’ve done so little research and are only going to go. It wasn’t til a few days ago that I actually realised Australia has mountains. I just thought the whole thing was one big patch of bare, barren outback. A pretty silly assumption I suppose since the country is so huge!

          Not a fan of buffets myself. I just can’t eat enough to make them worthwhile! (Plus, aren’t you a vegan? Do vegan buffets even exist?)

    • Jamie says

      Dan summed it up about the whole 10 percent. If you’re going to leave a measly tip, may as well leave nothing!

      As for the buffets, I’d also leave cash on the table. Most people are fairly good about not taking it! :) And as Dan said, it’s more than likely the server has to tip out the other employees.

Leave a Reply