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Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to the USA

Our top list of things you need to know as Brit before moving to the USA.

10 minute read

Moving to the USA is an exciting prospect that will expose you to new people, places, and experiences.

But whichever state you choose to call your new home – tropical Hawaii, subarctic Alaska, or rainy Washington State – it’s worth remembering that relocating abroad can be tough, both physically and emotionally.

Last year, over 400,000 people emigrated from the UK. And the second most popular country for relocation? The USA. One of the major reasons is because they speak the same language. Or, at least they do in theory (more on that later).

Of course, there are plenty of other enticements – we’re familiar with the culture thanks to growing up with US films and TV. And America has some of the best cities and natural landscapes on the planet, plus, according to the Star-Spangled Banner, it’s ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. You can’t argue with that.

But no matter how much we feel we know the USA, living there is a different prospect to visiting or seeing it on TV. And as they say, forewarned is forearmed, so learning as much as you can about the differences between the UK and the US helps when it comes to making this big life change.

Here are some of the biggest differences between life in the US and the UK.

What is it like to work in the US, compared with the UK?

Working in the US might come as a shock after being employed in the UK. There are significant differences – most notably in the benefits and working culture, and these aren’t always positive.

But earning potential in the USA is practically unlimited, and thousands of UK ex-pats work in the US in successful, fulfilling jobs – and are loving every minute.

How much annual leave do workers get in the US?

Unfortunately, annual leave is one aspect of American life that doesn’t stack up so well compared with the UK. There’s no legal right for employees to be granted paid annual leave in the USA. And although many companies do include paid time off in their benefits packages, it’s rarely the 4+ weeks we’re used to in the UK.

Do you get paid maternity leave in the US?

It’s well-publicised that maternity leave is lacking in the USA, especially when compared with the rest of the developed world. However, thanks to 1993’s US Department of Labor Family and Medical Law Act, parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child. Just don’t expect the months of paid maternity leave you’d enjoy in the UK.

What’s working culture like in the US?

Generally, working culture is more intense in the US than in the UK. Working hours can be long, and in some states, if you don’t have a contract, your employer can sack you without notice. Because of the lack of job security, employees often end up working extra hard, so they’re seen as indispensable.

On the flip side, there is also a strong emphasis on team working in the USA, and companies try hard to create an inclusive environment for their employees.

Is there a minimum wage in the US?

In the UK, the minimum wage is the same in each nation. But in the US, each state sets its own minimum wage laws.

Currently, the lowest wages are paid in Wyoming and Georgia, at $5.15 per hour (although certain employees must be paid the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour). California pays the most generous minimum wage, at $14 per hour for companies with 25 or more employees.

Is shopping in the US like the UK?

With international shopping brands dominating high streets and shopping malls around the world, shopping in the States is, in some ways, like the UK. But there are some important differences:

What is ‘sales tax’ in the US?

One of the major ways that shopping is different in the US from the UK is the addition of sales tax at the checkout. So, the price on the shelf isn’t the final price you pay.

And to make things more complicated, there are two kinds of sales tax – state and local – both of which must be paid. This can make a significant difference to what you end up paying for your shopping, so don’t bother counting out exact change while you queue!

Combining the state and local taxes in all 50 states, Tennessee charges the most, at a whopping 9.55%, and Alaska the least, charging only 1.76%. On a $100 Tennessee purchase, you’ll actually pay $109.55.

Are clothing sizes the same in the US as in the UK?

You guessed it; clothing sizes are different in the US from the UK. But understanding those differences is quite simple.

For clothes: Women should go down one size in the US, sometimes two. Men should choose the same size in the US as in the UK.

For shoes: Women should go up two sizes – so, a size 7 in the UK would be a size 9 in the US. Men should go up one half size – so, a size 10 in the UK would be a 10.5 in the US.

I’ve heard that chocolate is bad in the USA, is that true?

Chocolate in the US tastes different to UK chocolate. This is mainly down to the percentage of cocoa solids required to market a product as chocolate in the two countries.

In the UK, it’s in the region of 20%, in the USA, it’s only 10%.

However, British ex-pats in the US can still access ‘proper’ chocolate, and other treats from home, thanks to British Corner Shop.

Is food a similar price in the US and the UK?

Some foods, especially common items, can be much more expensive in the US, compared with their British counterparts.

For example, a basic tinned soup may cost around $4 in the US (and that’s without the sales tax added).

Are there cultural differences between the US and the UK?

There are plenty of cultural differences between the US and the UK, but that’s part of the fun of exploring a new area. Here are some ‘quirks’ you’ll come across as you begin your new American life as a British ex-pat:

Will I get free healthcare in the US?

One of the hardest things to get used to as a British ex-pat in the States is the cost of healthcare. While the UK has the NHS, those requiring healthcare in the US typically pay out of their own pocket. There are many different healthcare plans – some private, some subsidised – but few are cheap.

You may be lucky enough to have healthcare provided through your employer. This was the case for 55% of working-age Americans in 2019. Healthcare coverage is an in-demand perk, and it’s worth checking the benefits package when applying for a job.

Are there language differences between the US and UK?

One difference between the UK and the US is our use of the English language. It’s surprising the number of words that differ between the two countries.

For example, Americans refer to the vegetable as ‘zucchini’, while the UK prefers ‘courgette’. But some differences are less simple. For example, what we call a waistcoat in the UK is called a vest in the USA, but what we call a vest in the UK is called an undershirt in the States.

Then there’s the spelling. Dropping the ‘u’ is a popular one, as in colo(u)r, favo(u)r, catalog(ue), humo(u)r, and neighbo(u)r. Then there’s the swapping of the ‘re’ used in British spelling, as in cent(er), fib(er), lit(er), theat(er).

Is it worth learning a new language before I move to the US?

Although most people speak English in the US, if you’re planning on relocating to one of the southern states (like almost half of all US immigrants who move to California, Texas, or Florida) it might be useful to learn some beginner Spanish.

Not only is it helpful to be able to communicate with more people in your city, but it will also come in handy if you choose to cross the border for a holiday to Mexico.

Is dining out common in the USA?

Unlike in the UK, where dining out is often considered a treat or special occasion, in the USA, going out for food is much more common.

In fact, in 2019, before the pandemic hit, it was reported that Americans spent more on dining out than they did on groceries.

Should I tip staff in the US?

Tipping is an expectation in the US and typically gratuities are higher than in the UK – for example, a common restaurant tip in the US would be around 15-20%.

Other common gratuities in the US include a tip for taxi drivers (each way) and a per-drink tip at the bar you visit after your meal.

How patriotic is life in the USA?

Take a drive around any US neighbourhood and you’ll see more than your fair share of American flags proudly flying outside homes. Watch any international sporting event and you’ll hear ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ being chanted with gusto. Ask an American which country is the best at anything, and it will always be America.

How popular is sport in the USA?

One thing to know when moving to the US is just how much Americans love sport.

In order of popularity, American football tops the spectator sport ranks, followed by baseball, and basketball. The UK’s most popular sport, football (or soccer), comes in fifth.

What is school like in the US compared with the UK?

School is different in the US and the UK. American education is much more generalist, both at school and university level. And the structure is also different, as explained below:

What’s the school structure like in the USA?

Children in the US start their formal schooling later, with Kindergarten – the equivalent of Year 1 in the UK – beginning around age 5. But they also stay in education later, usually until the age of 17 or 18 when they graduate twelfth grade with their high school diploma.

The US schooling system is split into three main stages:

  1. Elementary School: covers Kindergarten to Grade 5 (ages 5-10)
  2. Middle school: from Grade 6 to Grade 8 (ages 11-14)
  3. High School: from Grade 9 to Grade 12 (ages 15-18)

What is university like in the US?

University – or college as it’s known across the pond – can be eye-wateringly expensive, with tuition fees running into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. ‘Community colleges’ can be a cheaper alternative, but still have a significant price tag attached.

However, American colleges are also world-class, consistently ranked among the top of world league tables – for example, in the 2022 QS rankings, the US holds 3 of the top 5 spots for MIT, Stanford, and Harvard universities.

What are the attitudes to transport and travel in the USA?

In the US, cars are king, and road-tripping is a cultural institution. Americans love to explore their own country – and who can blame them, it’s stunning. But their attitude to world travel is gradually changing, with more US citizens applying for passports year on year.

Is public transport popular in the USA?

Compared with the UK, using public transport is much less common. While it’s acceptable to use subways in the American cities that have them, if you suggest using the public bus system, expect a look of horror from your American companions. It’s just not the done thing.

Do people from the US like to travel abroad?

It’s currently reported that only 37% of Americans have a valid passport, but that number is gradually increasing over time. And those that do have passports certainly like to use them.

Mexico is the most popular destination for US holidaymakers, with 40 million Americans visiting in 2019. Canada ranks second, with 15 million American visitors. And the UK is third, with almost 4 million US visitors.

Is it easy to travel around the US?

There are many ways to travel in the States and a dizzying array of places to visit. Film and TV have introduced many of us to places like Route 66. And who hasn’t watched Easy Rider?

The American landscape is iconic and whichever state you relocate to, you’ll have access to all the best places, whether you drive a car, use a motorhome (or RV), or take a flight. Transport is easily accessible and, compared with the UK, it’s reasonably priced.

If you’re looking to move to the US from the UK, you don’t have to worry about missing out on your favourite home comforts. British Corner Shop stocks all the most popular British snacks and drinks, available for worldwide delivery at an affordable price.

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Author: Carly Rolfe
Carly Rolfe is a freelance writer and blogger. She loves travelling and sharing her experiences of becoming a Seattle-based expat in her mid…