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UK and US expats-Be prepared for the cultural differences
While US and UK expats share a language and traditions, there are many differences to be aware of before relocating to the other country. And many people have done so: there are around 700,000 British expats living in the US and about 200,000 Americans living in the UK.
Of course, the list of cultural differences is longer than what’s covered here, but none of the differences should be considered impossible to get used to. Adventurous expats would be surprised if they found everything the same in their new country.
The work environment differs greatly between the two countries. For example, average salaries are greater in the US, but US individuals must pay for certain things that the government covers for UK citizens.
The benefits employees receive highlight the work culture differences between the two countries. Employers in the US are highly concerned with the output and productivity of individuals and have few federal guidelines. In the UK, the rights of the individual are guarded by federal laws.
In the UK, most employees who work a 5-day week must receive at least 28 days paid annual leave a year. This is the equivalent of 5.6 weeks of time off work. The employer can choose to include bank holidays as part of a worker’s statutory annual leave. Current employment offers are trending toward unlimited holiday allowances.
People working irregular hours, like shift workers or term-time workers, are entitled to paid time off for every hour they work. Term-time usually applies to school employees who work 39 weeks (about 9 months) per year but are paid for the whole year.
On average, workers in the US will be offered around 10 days of Paid Time Off (PTO) but they may have to work at the company for a certain amount of time to earn it. This may or may not include the eight federal paid holidays.
The work culture of Americans extends to the actual time they take off. Brits are much more likely to take their vacation days, whereas 55% of Americans don’t use the small number of vacation days they do get.
Paid Sick Leave
There is no federal law in the US that entitles workers to paid sick leave from work. Generally, it is the US employer that determines whether employees can receive sick leave, paid or not. Some employers include time taken off for sickness within the PTO bank of hours allotted. Others may offer a few days of paid sick leave per year.
Some individual US states do have laws in place: New York and parts of California require that employers provide seven days of Paid Sick Leave (PSL) per year, and more states are beginning to require PSL.
In the UK, the employer pays £99.35 per week in Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks. You cannot get less than the statutory amount. Some companies will pay more, according to the employment contract signed at hiring.
Employees must provide proof of their illness to their employer in the form of a ‘fit note’ from the healthcare provider if they’re ill for more than 7 days. If employees are off work for 7 days or less, they do not need to give their employer a fit note or other proof of sickness from a healthcare professional.
The US has a federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for longer-term absences. Employers with over 50 employees must provide up to 12 weeks leave to eligible employees; however, employees will not receive pay for the time off.
Reasons for leave can include the birth and care of a new-born child of an employee; parental and maternity leave; to care for an immediate family member; and when the employee is unable to work due to a serious medical condition.
One of the biggest US vs UK work culture shocks is that women in the US are not federally entitled to any paid maternity leave.
The UK’s statutory maternity pay lasts up to 39 weeks (about 9 months). During maternity leave in the UK, an employee is entitled to six weeks receiving 90% of their average weekly pay, and for the next 33 weeks, either £151.97 a week or 90% of their average weekly pay (whichever is lower).
A major difference between the UK and US is taxes. Brits don’t file their own taxes unless they are self-employed. Americans must file annual (or quarterly) taxes regardless of employment status.
Taxes on products are also different. In the UK, when buying something in a store, the tax is already included in the price. In the US, only the cost of the product is shown, and the sales tax is added at the cash register, so the amount paid will be more than what the tag showed.
Healthcare in the UK is provided by the National Health Service (NHS). It is paid for by an approximately 20% tax on each employee’s income and the federal government. There are no further charges for doctor visits, tests, hospitalizations, and prescription medications. It is not unusual to never pay a single medical bill.
The downside to this system is that medical care can be a lot slower in the UK than in the US, and sometimes patients will have to wait weeks or even months for procedures that might take days in the US. Long wait times are contributing to a trend toward buying supplementary private insurance in the UK, which allows speedier healthcare access.
In the US, there is no government-sponsored healthcare until age 65, when Medicare is available. Currently, employees are required by the Federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), to have it covered by their employer. The employer is required to cover a portion of the monthly health insurance premiums.
Workers on average pay more than a quarter of the cost of health insurance premiums, with employers paying the rest.
On average, in 2023, workers are paying about $509 per month for their share of family coverage. Added individual expenses can include annual deductibles, co-pays, coverage limits, and prescription medications.
Different plans offer varied coverage, so an attractive healthcare plan can be a huge deciding factor for employees considering new jobs.
The insurance does not follow the worker when they change jobs, and there is often a waiting period from the time of hire at a new company before they are eligible for the new health insurance. The solution is very expensive. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows the employee to pay the entire premium – their portion and the former employer’s portion – until they can be covered again
A mass shooting in the US is usually defined as one in which at least four people are shot, excluding the shooter. There were 647 mass shootings in the US in 2022. More than 44,000 people died due to gun violence overall.
Gun laws vary across the US with some states allowing people to own a weapon without a permit. California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York have some of the strictest gun laws in the country but many of these have had mass shootings.
With 120.5 civilian-owned firearms per 100 citizens (many citizens own more than one gun), the United States has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world —nearly double that of the second-place country.
Britain is at the other end of the spectrum with one of the strictest gun control regimes in the developed world, where even many police are unarmed.
Today, there are about five guns per 100 people in Britain (except in Northern Ireland, where this number is higher), which is one of the lowest rates in the world.
The obvious difference here is Americans drive on the right side of the road, from the left-hand steering position, while Brits drive on the left side of the road from the right position.
Many country lanes in the UK don’t have space for two cars. One driver must stop in a pull-out or reverse back down the road to let the other pass.
Cars vs. Walking
One of the biggest lifestyle differences between living in the US and the UK is the ability to walk places. The US has lots of space and isn’t afraid to use it, so traveling between home and job or running errands is almost entirely done by car.
In the UK, everything is condensed, so going from home to a job, or stores, or supermarkets, etc. can often be reached on foot. The British roads are often smaller and busier too, meaning that often it can be quicker to walk a couple of miles than to drive.
There’s a major difference in driving habits between the US and the UK. In the US, driving six hours on vacation is considered normal; in the UK, even a one-hour drive is a long journey.
This makes sense, based on the size of the two countries. To drive from the north to the south of England takes just under 10 hours, so one hour seems like a relatively long time. In the US, it takes 14 hours to drive across Texas alone, so six hours in the car seems doable.
Train vs Plane
The size of the island of Great Britain, and the existing rail routes, make traveling by train common and relatively inexpensive.
The US does not have the railway infrastructure in place to make train travel a good option, except along the Eastern seaboard. When traveling domestically, US citizens generally drive or fly to cover the large distances.
UK expats are often surprised by the amount of fast food consumed regularly in the US, as well as the large portion sizes of restaurant meals.
Clearing the table
In a casual, fast food type restaurant in the US, throwing out the trash and returning the tray is normal; leaving a mess behind for staff to clean up is usually frowned on.
In the UK, it is more acceptable for diners to leave their food wrappers, beverage cups, and trays at their table for employees to collect.
Food in the UK comes in much smaller quantities than in the US. Gallon-sized milk isn’t available in the UK. This is partly because animal products like milk and meat don’t last as long in the UK as in the US. In the UK, preservatives and processing methods, like pasteurization for milk, are less common, so everything expires much more quickly.
As a result, Brits typically make many smaller trips to the grocery store than Americans. Americans, with their cars, pantries, big freezers, and refrigerators can – and do – often buy in bulk to reduce the number of trips to the store, because they have the space to store it and the cars to carry it.
Paying and tipping
In the US, it’s common practice to give the server a credit card, have them return it with the bill, add the tip amount on the paper printout, and leave the paper on the table.
UK citizens are not used to having their credit card taken away, out of sight. In the UK, and many other European countries, the server brings a small credit card machine to the table, where the diner tells them the tip amount they want to add to the bill, and the receipt is provided for the full amount.
For American wait staff, tipping makes up a huge portion of their wage so tipping anything from 15-20% is considered standard. Although tipping is always appreciated in the UK, it is not expected, as wages for wait staff are much more reasonable.
US outlets receive a plug with two flat prongs and use 110-volt electricity. In the UK, a plug with two rounded prongs is used with 220-volt electricity. To use an American appliance in the UK, both an electrical converter (from 110v to 220v) and an adapter (from flat prongs to round) must be used.
In the US, using a hair drier or electric toothbrush in the bathroom is standard. But in the UK, for safety reasons, power sockets are not present in the bathroom unless they’re a certain distance away from the bathtub or shower, which isn’t always possible in small spaces.
In multi-floor buildings in the UK, the initial floor is called the ground floor, or floor 0. In the US, the floor you enter at street level is the first floor. This makes the floors above different: the second floor in the UK is the third floor in the US.
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The views expressed in this article are not to be construed as personal advice. You should contact a qualified and ideally regulated adviser in order to obtain up-to-date personal advice with regard to your own personal circumstances. If you do not then you are acting under your own authority and deemed “execution only”. The author does not accept any liability for people acting without personalised advice, who base a decision on views expressed in this generic article. Where this article is dated then it is based on legislation as of the date. Legislation changes but articles are rarely updated, although sometimes a new article is written; so, please check for later articles or changes in legislation on official government websites, as this article should not be relied on in isolation.
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