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Tipping in Restaurants in the United States: Necessary or Voluntary? Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 in Culture, Travel

Many visitors to the United States do not fully understand our custom of tipping* waiters and waitresses in restaurants.  To help clarify this custom I’ve put together a brief explanation of the importance of tipping and some general guidelines on tipping in restaurant in the United States.  The first thing you should know about tipping in restaurants in the United States though, is that tipping is necessary, not voluntary.

In the United States, most waiters, waitresses, and bartenders in restaurants are paid below the minimum wage. Some restaurants pay their waiters and waitresses as little as $2.00 per hour, but this base pay does vary among states.  These restaurant workers are expecting to make up the difference, between minimum wage and a fair wage, in tips. This means that waiters and waitresses might earn much more than the minimum wage on a busy work night when they get many tips, or far below the minimum wage on a slow work night in a restaurant when they do not receive many tips.  Waiters, waitresses, and bartenders (also called servers or wait staff) are required to pay taxes on the tips they receive.  The tips you give, are not just “extra” money for them, it is part of their salary.

You can leave a tip in cash or if the restaurant or bar accepts credit cards (and most do) you can leave a tip for your server on your credit card bill.  You can leave your tip on the table or hand it to your server, that is up to you, just be sure to leave an appropriate tip somewhere.  So, how much is the right amount to tip?

In restaurants with table service: You should plan to tip about 15% of the bill, but this may depend based on the quality of service you receive.  In most places in the United States 20% is now considered to be a normal tip for “good” service.

Unlike many countries, in the United States, the amount of tip you should leave is usually not included in the bill you receive.  The exception to this rule is if you are eating in a large group of six or more people.  Then the tip is usually included in your bill, but you can leave more if you want to.

In most larger restaurants in the United States, the server has to pay back a portion of their tips to the bartender, busser**, hostess***, and food runners****.  If you see people other than your server helping with your table those people are being tipped by your server for their work at the end of the night.  In these cases, the tip you leave is being shared by these different people.

In buffet restaurants:  If you eat at a buffet, where there is less service to you by wait staff a tip of 10% of the bill is generally given.  Remember, even at buffets the wait staff is still working to bring food to the buffet, to bring your drinks, and to clear your plates.  Also, the minimum tip at a buffet should be $1 per person, do not leave only cents for a $5.00 buffet bill.

Fast food restaurants:  These establishments often have tip jars out for you to put money in, but you are not required to tip.  At these restaurants it is up to you to decide if you want to leave a tip or not.

Bartenders: It is best to give bartenders $1 – $2 per drink when you order a drink at the bar or 15-20% of the total bill if you are keeping a tab and paying your bill at the end of the night.

So, now you know the basics for tipping in the United States, remember it is important to always tip, but also keep in mind if you feel you have not been well-served, you can adjust the tip you give down.

* giving a small sum of money to someone who has performing a service; also called a gratuity
** the person who clears a table of the dirty dishes
*** the person who seats you at your table and/or takes your name for the wait list at restaurant
****the person who delivers your food from the kitchen (if it isn’t your server)


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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.