Picture of suburban houses in the USA

Life as a British Expat in the USA

What's it like living as a British Expat in the US? Real life experiences from Brits living in the USA.

7 minute read

When hubby and I left the UK to teach in the USA 16 years ago, we weren’t too sure what to expect. Although we’d been here on holiday before, spending a week or two as tourists in New York is nothing like starting a new life Stateside.

So, what is it really like being a British expat in America?

Home Sweet Home

One of the things I love most about living in the US is how much house you get for your dollar.

When we made the move to metro Atlanta, the proceeds from our 3-bed semi in Luton paid for a huge house with a hot tub in the woods, by a beautiful lake. We’ve since moved closer to work, and now own another gorgeous single-family (detached) home with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a laundry room, basement, double garage and more living space than two people could ever need.

All this would never have been possible on teachers’ salaries in the UK. And of course, everything inside our house is huge too, from the refrigerator to the beds, bathtubs and walk-in closets. I adore our kitchen, with its super-sized appliances, and can’t imagine how I'd survive without a garbage disposal system again.

Even if you aren’t a homeowner, renting is generally much cheaper in the US than in the UK, and apartment complexes come with luxury amenities such as electric-gated entry, swimming pools, gyms and clubhouses as standard.

What is it like driving in the US?

Unless you live in a large American city, you’ll find yourself driving a lot. Public transport is scarce in most US suburbs and non-existent out in the sticks. And as you’d expect in a large country with lots of space, places are fairly spread out.

Once I’d overcome the challenge of getting my US driving license (UK driving licenses don't count in the US – so, be prepared to take another test), my biggest issue was remembering to get into the right side of the car and drive on the right side of the road – literally.

I was relieved to find that most motors here are automatics, which makes handling a big SUV much easier (who needs a “stick shift” anyway?). I must say, driving in Georgia is a breeze compared with back home in the UK – wide, open roads, no shortage of free parking spaces and relatively cheap petrol prices. Plus, you’re even allowed to turn right at a red traffic light. Road trip, anyone?

What is food & drink like in the US?

Thanks to McDonald’s, Starbucks and Colonel Sanders, most Brits are already familiar with American cuisine. But beyond fast food, eating and drinking in the US is full of differences.

Although we speak the same language, when it comes to grub, the lingo can get a bit tricky. As an ex-pat, I still have to remind myself that our crisps are “chips”, and our chips are “fries”.

Tea comes chilled with ice and a straw (and if you live in the South like me, a bucket load of sugar, too). And even if you remember to ask for “hot tea”, if you forget that biscuits are called “cookies” here, you’ll get something vaguely resembling a plain scone, probably smothered in thick gravy. Don’t try dunking that in your cuppa.

Talking of cookies, the type sold by girl scouts (the US equivalent of ‘Brownies’) are a rather weird US phenomenon, which was something of a surprise to me as a British ex-pat. In January each year, gangs of uniformed youngsters swarm onto streets, parking lots and shopping malls across the country to flog boxes of thin mints and shortbread to every passer-by.

They’ll often come and ring your doorbell, too. Apparently, these girls have sales targets that would make a used car dealer hit the bottle, and there’s fierce competition to see who can rake in the most cash – all for charity, of course.

If you’re a soft touch like me, you’ll end up with cupboards full of their cookies, long after the little ones have gone back to singing around the campfire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What are rules for drinking alcohol?

When it comes to booze, the USA is a lot more restrictive than Britain. The legal drinking age is 21, and you should be prepared to show your ID each time you fancy a tipple.

Get ready to pull out your driving licence in bars, restaurants and even the supermarket. At Walmart, for example, anyone who looks under 40 has to prove they’re old enough to buy beer or wine. And if your “poison” is anything stronger than a bottle of vino, you’ll need to find a liquor store.

What is dining out in the US like?

Dining out in America is all about getting what you crave, and getting your money’s worth, at the same time. Forget what’s printed on the menu – you can generally ask for changes (substitutions) and specify exactly how your nosh should be cooked and served. For example, requesting sauce “on the side” rather than all over your meatloaf, or your steak to be “butterflied” is pretty common.

When it comes to ordering eggs, you need to be detailed. Merely replying “fried” to the question of how you’d like them is not enough – sunny side up, over-easy, over-medium, over-hard? Your chef needs to know.

But the biggest difference you should brace yourself for is the huge portion sizes. When we first moved here, hubby and I naively ordered an appetizer and main course each, not realising just how large the servings would be. Halfway through our starters, we were already full, and that’s when we understood why restaurants in the USA provide doggy bags.

It’s totally acceptable, and even encouraged, to ask for a box to take your ton of leftovers home. No embarrassment or need to pretend it’s for the cat – after all, you are paying for it. Which reminds me, settling the bill is another difference. When we go out to dinner with friends in the US, everyone expects “split checks” – separate bills for each person. Try asking for that at the Beefeater!

One nice surprise here is that you’ll never be charged for more than one soft drink. After your first soda, the waiter will keep topping up your glass without even being asked. Welcome to the land of free refills.

Should you tip in the US?

Brits are generally not known for being big tippers, so it may come as a shock that 15-20% is the norm in restaurants in the US. And it’s customary to tip your bartender, too – usually $1 per drink.

To be fair, service is often of a much higher standard than the UK, and restaurant staff rely heavily on tips.

Does the US have good shopping?

If you love shopping as much as me, America is a shopaholic's heaven. Despite the shift to online ordering and the demise of traditional town centre malls, an eclectic new breed of mixed-use retail spots are popping up in suburbs all over the States.

Cute boutiques, artisan jewellers and designer shoe shops dotted amongst cafes, condos and leafy squares are all the rage – and perfect for a day out with the girls. Living here, I’ve also noticed how Americans love a bargain, and money-saving coupons are king.

It’s not uncommon to get 20 or 30% off every item in a store with just one QR code downloaded to your phone. And haggling is not out of the question either, even at the supermarket. When I fancied roast beef for Sunday lunch, but my local grocery store only had huge pieces, the butcher offered to either cut one smaller for me or sell it at a discount. That would never happen at Sainsbury’s.

Are Americans patriotic?

Americans love America. And they’re not shy about showing it. As a British ex-pat, one of the first things you’ll notice is the abundance of US flags everywhere you look.

On federal buildings – fair enough, but you’ll see the stars and stripes everywhere. Most Brits seem a bit unsure about flags (unless we’re doing well in the football, of course). Here, the flag-flying mantra appears to be ‘the bigger and bolder the better, all the time’.

American kids begin their school days by making the Pledge of Allegiance, and you’ll soon become familiar with the national anthem, too, as you’ll hear it at every sporting event.

And as a Brit in the United States, you’ll also be surprised that another patriotic song, “My Country Tis of Thee”, is sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen”.

Do Americans like British people?

As much as they love their own country, Americans also love Britain, Brits and everything British.

As a British ex-pat, you will be hugely popular here, and your accent will go down a storm. As long as you are prepared to be mistaken for an Australian at first, you’ll soon enjoy all the attention and get used to being asked if you’ve met Prince William or visited Downton Abbey every time you speak.

Yours truly might even have been known to play the Brit-card to her advantage, over-using words like “lovely”, “brilliant” and “ghastly” to impress total strangers or get exactly what she wants.

Yes, being an ex-pat in the USA can be challenging and perplexing at times, but if you’re open-minded and prepared to embrace the differences, you’ll soon discover your new life Stateside really can become your American dream come true.

And thanks to British Corner Shop, if you’re ever in need of home comforts or a UK pick-me-up, you can get all your favourite British snacks and drinks sent to your US home effortlessly.

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Author: Mary McCarney
Mary McCarney is a freelance writer and blogger. She has written for numerous publications ranging from The Times and The Telegraph to NOW…