18 Surprising Differences Between Living in the US vs UK

From national healthcare to the side of the road you drive on, there are some pretty well-known differences between living in the US vs UK. But what about the things you discover only after moving?

White and red cars parked outside blue row home with ivy growing around door.

Year after year, Americans relocate to England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland believing their life will carry on mostly the same. Given our shared language and history, it’s an understandable assumption.

Even after devouring several books and documentaries about British life–and brushing up on British slang–I spent my first six months in a near-constant state of surprise.

Why were all the cats running around outside and using my garden as a litter box?

Can you really cross the street anywhere you want?

And what exactly is a “cheeky Nando’s”?

If you’re an American deciding to move to the UK, here are some lifestyle differences you need to know about before making the leap.

Want more help with your move? Check out my ultimate FAQ on how to move to the UK!

FYI, this post contains some sweeping generalizations about British vs American culture. It should not be interpreted as “everyone and everything in x country works like this”.

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1. The cost of living in the US vs UK impacts different areas of life

Comparing the cost of living between two countries isn’t an exact science, but it’s estimated that living in the UK is roughly 16% more expensive than living in the US.

However, that doesn’t mean everything in the UK is 16% more expensive vs the US. In fact, some costs vary wildly between the two.

For example, petrol (i.e. gasoline) and cigarettes cost nearly twice as much in the UK vs the US. But internet and cell phone bills are around 30-40% cheaper in the UK than the US.

Clothing, electronics, and childcare are also more expensive in the UK, while university fees and healthcare are far more costly in the US.

As you can see, these price differences could be a huge positive for some and a negative for others. An American family with a young child and one or more adults who commute via car will be affected very differently than a young couple who switched to public transit after moving to the UK.

And of course, these price comparisons are all averages across large countries. The cost of living in rural Scotland is obviously far less than in the south of England, just like it’s cheaper to live in North Dakota vs California.

If you’re trying to figure out whether it’s more expensive for you to live in the US or the UK, you’ll need to do some research. My London cost of living guide is a helpful starting point, especially if you want a breakdown of monthly expenses.

RELATED: How Much Does it Cost to Move to the UK?

2. Walking 20+ minutes to your destination is common in the UK but unusual in America

Dirt path through farmland next to trees in UK Peak District.

A few months ago, I came across a Reddit post in /r/AskUK where a bewildered American asked if it was normal for Brits to walk 20+ minutes to get somewhere.

Many of the Brits in the replies joked that it’s no wonder Americans are famously overweight. However, a few pointed out that it’s more to do with infrastructure than laziness.

Much of the US was designed for getting around by car. Everything is spaced far apart, and many people live a 10+ minute drive from the nearest supermarket.

Plus, sidewalks and safe street crossings aren’t common outside of town and city centers. And even then, they often end abruptly.

In the UK, residential areas are more closely packed. Public footpaths are abundant, and Right to Roam laws mean you can walk through fields, farmland, and even golf courses to get to your destination.

Also, you can walk on or cross any road except for motorways (i.e. freeways), which would be considered jaywalking in the US.

Additionally, walking is a national pastime in the UK. Going for a ramble through the park or countryside is a wonderful Sunday tradition (bonus points if you follow it up with a Sunday roast at the pub).

3. Taxes work very differently when living in the US vs UK

I won’t get into all the little details of how taxes work in the US vs the UK. But the biggest difference is that most people in the UK don’t file their taxes every year, unlike the annual filing that happens in the US.

The UK has a PAYE (pay-as-you-earn) system, where the government calculates exactly how much tax you owe for the year. The UK also uses a marginal tax rate system, which provides people with a Personal Allowance (similar to the US Standard Deduction) for some tax-free earnings. 

The HMRC will mail you a letter with your tax code and personal allowance amount each year so you know how much Income Tax will come out of your paycheck. Your employer will then deduct the appropriate amount from your paychecks over the course of 12 months, so you don’t need to worry about owing money or applying for a refund (except in rare cases).

Some people do have to file a UK self-assessment, but it’s far more straightforward than filling out a US tax return.

Unfortunately, American citizens are required to file a US tax return every year no matter where they live. But at least you probably won’t have to fill out two different returns!

RELATED: How to Move Out of America in 10 Steps

4. Driving differences between the US vs UK go way beyond right vs left

Black cab on side of London street, with angel light display and pillar in the distance.

Americans fret over learning to drive on the left side of the road in the UK. But there’s way more to adjust to than which side of the road you’re on.

Motorways aside, British roads are far more narrow than American ones. Two-way streets are often not wide enough for two cars to pass side by side, so one person has to pull onto the shoulder to let the other pass. And if you’re on a country road with no shoulder, someone has to reverse back down the road!

It also takes a lot longer to drive from place to place in the UK vs the US, because there aren’t nearly as many highways or even long roads. You’ll end up driving on a number of side roads to get from point A to B, and it can take 10 minutes to drive a single mile.

There’s a reason road trips are an iconic part of American culture but not British culture. You’re more likely to find a foreigner doing a London to Scotland road trip than a Brit.

The UK’s road system relies heavily on roundabouts, which are efficient for keeping traffic moving but very intimidating to unfamiliar Americans.

One convenient difference is that you aren’t required to carry your driver’s license with you in the UK. However, if you get pulled over and the officer asks to see it, you’ll have to make a special trip to the police station to present it.

5. Daily drinking is frowned upon in the US but normal in the UK

In the US, if a co-worker stops at the bar every day after work, it would raise eyebrows. Some people might even be concerned enough to talk to them about their “drinking problem”.

In the UK, going to the pub after work is a normal part of people’s daily lives. Pubs are social hubs that play an important part in British culture. Frankly, they’re one of my favorite things about living in England.

Having a pint or two with your friends or colleagues before heading home for the evening is as natural as an American getting a coffee on their way to work. It’s also fine to get a “cheeky pint” during your lunch break–a single drink during lunch is absolutely normal in Europe.

6. Classism is more deeply rooted in the UK vs the US

From the way you speak to the grocery store you shop at, Brits are quick to suss out class differences.

Some accents are posh, while others are “working class”. Sending your child to an independent school is “upper middle class”, but moving to a catchment area with good state schools places you in the “middle class”.

The roots of classism are far deeper in the UK thanks to the country’s hereditary ruling system. Ancestral wealth and property ownership still play a large role in British society even today.

Every country has some element of classism, and the US is no exception (though it’s more closely tied to race than wealth). But in a country where most children attend public school and meritocracy is worshipped, it’s far easier to move between social classes in America vs. Britain.

7. Weather is far more predictable in the US than the UK

UK residential street with red postbox covered in snow in foreground.

There’s a myth that it’s always raining in the UK. It’s more accurate to say that there’s a chance of rain almost every day, and you can’t rely on a forecast more than 6 hours in advance.

Being an island nation surrounded by different air streams, British weather is unique and unpredictable. And it’s not just the days of alternating blue skies and heavy downpours. There are also the random rain clouds that will drench your front garden while the sun shines on the back.

I grew up in Michigan, which is one of the more unpredictable weather states. But it doesn’t come close to how wildly the forecast changes in the UK.

8. Religious activities are common in British public schools but generally banned in American ones

Personally, I found this to be one of the most surprising differences between life in the US vs UK.

Despite being home to the world’s largest Christian population, the US’s public school system is secular. Mandatory religious activities like school-wide prayer or Bible study are not allowed in American public schools, though things like private prayer and after-school religion clubs are permitted.

It’s ironic that in the UK, a country where 55% of people claim to be “not religious”, Religious Education is compulsory in the state education systems of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

For example, in England and Wales, state schools must hold daily “collective worship”, which usually involves singing Christian songs in an assembly hall. That being said, parents can opt out their children from religious activities.

9. Off-leash dogs and outdoor cats are normal in the UK but not the US

Brown dog running with ball in the green hills of English countryside.

The treatment of pets is another big cultural difference between Brits and Americans. If you’re moving to the UK with pets, you’re in for a shock.

In the UK, cats are almost always allowed to go outside for part or all of the day. Brits tend to think keeping a cat indoors 100% of the time is cruel and unethical.

In contrast, most Americans keep their cats indoors, believing it to be much safer than letting them roam outside.

I’ve already touched on the differences in American vs British roads, but in general, most Brits don’t live right next to high-traffic or 40mph roads like you find around American suburbs. Cats getting run over by cars is not nearly as big of a fear in the UK as it is in the US.

Off-leash dogs are another common sight in the UK but not the US.

Even in major cities like London, many dog owners will let their dog run off the lead while inside parks and commons. While some areas require you to keep your dog on-lead, there aren’t that many places with leash laws compared to the US.

10. Brits grocery shop more frequently than Americans

This is less a British vs American cultural difference and more like a European vs American one. But Brits generally go grocery shopping multiple times a week vs. once a week (or less) like Americans do.

There are a few reasons for this, with the most obvious one being that American fridges–and kitchens–are much larger than British ones. You can’t fit a month’s worth of Costco bulk shopping inside the average British cupboards, and you probably won’t have a big double-door fridge in your kitchen for perishables either.

Also, animal products like milk and meat don’t have as long of a shelf life in the UK vs the US. Preservatives and processing methods (like pasteurization for milk) are used more heavily and intensely in the US, which is why you can buy a gallon of milk at Walmart that doesn’t expire until 2 weeks in the future.

Finally, it’s just a cultural thing. Europeans have been “going to the market” for centuries and live in walkable towns with greengrocers, butchers, etc., while America evolved into a country where you drive your car to the supermarket.

RELATED: Where to Buy American Food in the UK

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11. Laundry is a very different experience in the US vs UK

In the US, we have “laundry day”. It’s when you’ve nearly run out of good stuff to wear and spend all of Sunday moving clothes from washer to dryer to closet.

If you tried this same strategy in the UK, you’d run out of places to hang your clothes and nothing would be dry in time for work.

You see, most British homes don’t have dryers–partly because there’s no room in the old homes here, and partly because energy costs are way higher than the US.

So in the UK, clothes are either dried outside on a line, or inside on a clothes horse (or draped over the radiators). It’s all well and good on warm, sunny days, but it’s a huge pain once the weather turns cool and damp.

You can use a dehumidifier to speed up the process indoors. But the real game-changer for us was buying a condenser tumble dryer, which can be plugged in anywhere and doesn’t need to vent outside. If you have the space, I highly recommend it!

12. Unlike American homes, British houses rarely have forced air heating or A/C

Coming from the sea of new construction homes and 1950s-era urban sprawl that is America, British homes are positively ancient. And nowhere is that more apparent than the difference in heating and cooling.

While most American homes have forced air heating and central air conditioning, British homes mainly have radiant heating and no A/C at all.

Frankly I don’t feel much of a difference between radiant and forced air heating (we experienced both in the US before moving to the UK), but you will need to learn a few new mechanics like boiler re-pressurizing and radiator bleeding.

Not having an aircon has become more of a problem, unfortunately. While summer highs in London hover around 75°F / 24°C, we’ve been getting multiple 86°F / 30°C heat waves these past few years.

If you can’t escape to the sea during a heat wave, you’ll probably want a portable air conditioner.

13. Houses are much closer together in the UK vs US

Street view of stone facades of UK row homes, with autumn leaves on sidewalk.

As much as I love it here, one of the biggest cons of living in London is how close together the houses are.

Even outside of major UK cities, most British houses are attached to another house on one or both sides. Detached homes are simply not the norm like they are in the US, and buying one is incredibly expensive compared to a semi-detached or terraced house.

There are a fair number of new build suburbs going up around the UK that feature detached houses, but the build quality is infamously poor (and likely to get worse due to Brexit chasing away skilled laborers) compared to older homes.

14. American customer service is friendlier than it is in the UK

I’m not one of those Americans who misses smiling and chatting with the checkout clerk at the grocery store. But it is jarring to go from the “fake happy” American customer service to the quiet and occasionally brusque British style.

Of course, this varies quite a bit between regions (just like the southern US vs east coast), but overall you shouldn’t expect to get anything more friendly than a “have a good day” at the very end of your transaction.

15. Cell phone bills are way cheaper in the UK than the US

I touched on this topic earlier in the post, but cell service prices deserve their own section.

Thanks to heavy competition between UK carriers, you can get 10GB of data for as little as £15. Compare that to Verizon’s 10GB shared data plan at $65/month, and it’s no wonder why Americans who move to the UK are shocked at the difference.

And in the UK, it’s far more common to get a SIM-only plan where you pay monthly with no contract. There are contract plans that come with a phone, but they aren’t as popular as they are in the US.

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16. Work-life balance is far better in the UK vs US

Blenheim Palace fountain and garden, with two women sitting on wooden bench.

With 28 mandated paid holidays per year and a generally non-competitive work culture, I’d say the UK has a good work life balance compared to the US. While it may not be as good as France or Sweden (with a whopping 41 days off), it’s far better than the 0 days Americans are entitled to get.

Obviously, your experience will vary depending on your company, field, and location. Londoners allegedly work three weeks a year more than the rest of the UK. But I’ve yet to run into anyone who brags about NOT taking time off, which happened way too often in the US.

From my experience, people don’t feel guilty about using their holidays, and it’s normal for offices to empty out in August. And when post-work drinks at the pub are an integral part of the culture, late nights in the office aren’t too common.

17. Restaurant reservations are more necessary in the UK than in the US

This one is so random, but it’s one of the first things I noticed after moving to London from America.

We used to be able to go pretty much anywhere in the US that wasn’t a foodie hotspot without a reservation. Granted, we tended to eat dinner early, but even in major cities like Philadelphia and Austin, we rarely needed to have a reservation to dine out.

In the UK, it’s a lot harder to go out for dinner on the weekend without reserving a table in advance. Sure, there are places like pubs and fast casual chains where you can pretty much always find a spot. But most decent independent restaurants fill up quickly.

I blame the smaller building sizes–you don’t see many restaurants with 40+ tables in the UK like you do in the US.

18. Brits travel abroad way more than Americans

For most of my life, traveling abroad seemed like something only rich people do. Aside from a quick trip across the Ambassador Bridge to Canada as a kid, I didn’t travel internationally until I was 25.

In 2007, only 27% of Americans had a passport, though it has since increased to around 42%. Depending on the state you lived in, your family might have gone to Mexico or Canada every now and then, but few Americans were jetting off overseas on a regular basis.

Brits, on the other hand, pretty much invented the package holiday. Even average income families could afford a trip to Spain or France every few years, and today’s budget airlines can get you from London to Rome for £40 round trip.

It was strange to hear so many people talk about their recent trip to Costa del Sol or an upcoming ski holiday in France.

Having lived a short drive away from both the Canadian and Mexican borders, I can say with confidence that most people I knew never considered crossing the border for a vacation.

There are cultural reasons why Americans don’t travel far from home. But when you have a diverse landscape and little PTO, it’s no wonder international trips are a rarity.

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