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”.

This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, click here.

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

Save me for later!

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.

RELATED: Buying a House in the UK as an American in 11 Steps

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, about 80% of 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 far more 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 the labor shortage created by Brexit) compared to older homes.

For more property differences, check out my post on British vs American houses.

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.

RELATED: 23 Things Americans Miss While Living in the UK

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.

Managing your money abroad

One of the most common questions new expats ask is how to move money between bank accounts without paying a fortune in exchange fees. Luckily, there’s an easy and cheap solution:

Sign up for a Wise account!

Wise (formerly TransferWise) comes in handy all the time, whether its making a rental deposit or moving funds to cover student loan payments. And it’s way cheaper and faster than doing an international wire transfer from a traditional bank.

If you get paid in multiple currencies (hello digital nomads!), the Wise Multi Currency Account will let you send and receive money in over different 40 currencies. It even comes with a multi-currency debit card.

Open a Wise account today to get real exchange rates, speedy transfers, and ultra-low fees.

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.

Want more travel + relocation tips?

Become a member of my Patreon group for exclusive access to my resource library, including:

  • Printable packing lists for moving + travel
  • Money-saving tips
  • Insider travel guides
  • And much more

20 thoughts on “18 Surprising Differences Between Living in the US vs UK”

  1. Great article! I am a Brit who has lived in Hungary, Germany, and recently moved back from the US to the UK after 3 years of being abroad, and I can say you are spot on on all these points! My question is: which one do you prefer?

    • Thanks Bob! I personally prefer living in the UK. While there are some great things about the US, you’re only one bad accident or unlucky health condition away from massive medical bills. Not having that fear hang over my head is a massive QOL improvement, especially when combined with the UK’s work-life balance.

      • I agree with the write up. I was born in America but lived in the UK for 36 years and went back to the US for 6 years, now back in the UK again . The pandemic has run down England with a big housing shortage of decent property . America has much more housing . Also doctor storage in the NHS has to be considered. If one can find a good home here all the rest will work its self out. I love the English lush countryside to get out doors and walk is such a gift.

      • This was something I always wondered .. if you had to have been born in the country to get the access to free healthcare… I have wanted to travel to the UK for a long time, as long as I can remember really… even potentially move to the UK one day… it has much more of an appeal than the US. One thing you didn’t mention..that I recently heard was in the UK the television license…is this truly a thing?

        • Yes, TV licensing (also called the Telly Tax) is a thing here! It pays for all the free programming we get via the BBC and other channels, and gives you access to on-demand programming and recording via BBC iPlayer which you can use on mobile devices as well. We personally don’t pay for cable/satellite TV here because there’s plenty of over-the-air (or internet-accessed) programming, plus what we get via Netflix.

      • Hi, I have read your article and I have to say it is well written and clear. Thank you so much for the clarification. Well done!
        For quite some time I have been researching and in hopes of moving to the UK but I still find myself undecided for many reasons (work, finances, where to live in the UK, etc). However, reading a comment you made brought me to tears on a personal level. One of the replies you mentioned: “While there are some great things about the US, you’re only one bad accident or unlucky health condition away from massive medical bills.” That is absolutely 100% correct. Currently, I have several affecting factors such as physical illness, and mental health, including an unhealthy workplace which is the main contributor to the detriment of my health and mentally, hence, medical bills! I found this article to be exceptional, but all in all, it has helped me to decide and choose between what I am at now vs a better QOL in the UK. Now, my next move is to find work and a place to live.

    • Hey! Lives this article!! I’m not english but I lived in Northern Ireland my whole life. I was genuinely surprised people don’t walk further than 20 minutes?? I walk home from school everyday for half and hour and I walk around my whole town which is quite large on weekends. Is this why on so many american websites ‘what to do when you’re bored’ it says to take a walk? Bro I’m tired if walking. Also by religious studies in primary schools you do sing songs and stuff but in high school religious studies isn’t just about Christianity. We learn about the variety of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s also more about controversial topics and arguments for and against a lot of things and stuff.

  2. Hello Chelsea! I did enjoy your write-up. However I am to be an international student looking for where to apply to for schools, but at the same time I want to be exceedingly cautious about where that would be considering that’s where I would live for the time period. I am also looking for where I would feel at home and it’s between the U.S and the U.K and I must confess your write-up has me a bit indecisive at the moment lol. So I suppose asides looking for where to live, where would cost me cheaper, better transportation, give me room to set up my businesses, be innovative or pursue my passion, cost me less for data plans and apartments.. I must say I still look forward to more insights that would solidify my decisions.

  3. Good article, and beyond the obvious points of most others. I’m a Brit whose been living in the States for 18 years (FL, OH, and now MI). I do miss aspects of the UK, but the property situation would be laughable were it not so serious. The amount the UK and so many of it’s people are propped up far more by property rises than actual hard work is not only risible, but frankly extremally discouraging if one is on the wrong side of that line. Yes, it’s like that in parts here, such as CA, CO, and NY/NJ, but in so many places you can still buy a good home with 1-2 good salaries. Not so in the UK for the most part. Very bad psychology.

  4. Great article. I’ve been fascinated with British culture for years thanks to YouTube and it’s near the top of my travel list. I may even get a chance to live and work here in the future. I wish the US had adopted infrastructure similar to the UK instead of what we have today.

  5. Thanks for the article! I’m going to visit my fiancé soon and eventually may be moving to the UK. *Immigrating to the US is a much more lengthy process with way more difficulty.* It’s helpful to know some of the key differences before I go. 🙂

  6. I’m a Brit living in the USA for the past 3 years and slowly starting to miss the UK. I may look to move back in a few years, I’ve covered 18 states so far, need to see a little more of the USA before I make a decision on moving back

    Great article, I agree with a lot, the necessities costs a lot more in the USA. Toilet paper & deodorant being noticeably more expensive.

    Cell phone & internet prices are quite insane too when compared to the uk

  7. I grew up in the United States and have lived 5 years in Germany and 6 in the United Kingdom. There are aspects of the UK I enjoy. Universal Health Care, Tax system( all though higher) affordable groceries, historical sites. However, You have a TV tax, a road tax, counsel tax last I checked I’m paying £80 per person in the home. Then you have gas and electric which is even higher now then before the pandemic. You’re paying about $8-$12 per gallon to fill up your car. Getting on the housing ladder in the UK is almost impossible. If you’re a young adult you’ll pay around $750-$2000 for a room in a house shared with other people. (Tiny rooms, closets) compared to The US. The UK has 60 million people and has to import 2/3rds of its food or else? And the weather is gloomy. America has its issues too.. No healthcare, food prices, cost of living. But at least you can own a house some what and live off the land. Social problems everywhere.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Johannes. As you described, nowhere is perfect and each country has advantages and disadvantages over one another. Getting on the housing ladder is certainly harder in the UK (funnily enough they rarely call it the “housing ladder” in the US because home prices and equity usually increase far more slowly than in the UK). However, I definitely prefer the weather in SE England to every state I’ve lived in the US!

  8. I enjoyed reading your article. It is definitely a spot on.
    I work and live in the NHS for 18 years.
    I moved to US and live here in Ca for 2 years and I absolutely miss the European culture. Although I am compensated here in US with my job, j still feel there’s a quality of life in UK. Wish to save and move back to UK someday.
    One thing I realised though, they are both great countries but both has its pros and cons and it is all up to you where you can live happily and face its shortcomings.

  9. the weather thing is kind of funny because the weather in the US varies so much by location. my husband is from england and also lived in Wales for around 10 years. I’m from Michigan and he moved here. the weather where he’s from is much, much milder and more predictable than the weather in Michigan. we have extreme swings, extreme cold and heat and it’s very up and down. it’s literally been freezing cold in the morning and scorching hot by the afternoon, and we went straight from winter into summer, no spring transition. He said he’s never experienced anything like it and he has always found it downright shocking how much worse and more bipolar it is here lol.

    • Yes, this was exactly my experience growing up in Michigan. I will say that UK weather is growing more unpredicable every year (we also went straight from winter to summer here in 2023), so your husband may be surprised next time he comes back to visit!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.