- I grew up in the United States but my husband grew up in the United Kingdom, where we both now live.
- In my experience, A lot of things that are common in the US aren’t so common in the UK, such as celebrating Halloween, going on trips to enjoy fall foliage, and tipping bartenders.
- Where I live in the UK, I am able to get free prescriptions and healthcare, which wasn’t the case in the US.
- In the UK, I can’t order a “regular coffee” unless I want watered down espresso, and if I want the pancakes I’m used to, I have to order them “American-style.”
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I was born and raised on the East Coast of the United States. After moving to Scotland in the fall of 2017, I met my husband and settled into life in the United Kingdom as an expat.
Growing up in separate cultures means we’ve had to navigate a slew of differences in our everyday habits, expectations, and worldviews.
Here are a few of the most surprising differences between life in the US and UK, as experienced by me and my partner.
My partner thinks it’s strange that servers take your credit card away in US restaurants.
The first time my husband and I ate together at an American restaurant, he was alarmed when the server took his credit card away to swipe it after the meal.
He was also totally perplexed by the need to sign a receipt, which apparently isn’t the norm in the UK.
In UK restaurants, the server typically brings the entire card machine to your table. While they supervise, you insert your card and follow any on-screen prompts before grabbing your receipt and leaving.
Though my husband thinks that taking a customer’s card away after a meal is a security hazard – someone could potentially copy down your card details out of view – I prefer the convenience of simply handing my card to a server and allowing them to take care of the rest.
Fall activities, like hayrides and “leaf-peeping,” are completely alien to my Scottish husband.
Growing up in New England, where October is essentially a month-long celebration of pumpkin spice and apple-picking, I was startled to find that the rest of the world doesn’t worship autumn in quite the same way.
My husband is completely baffled by the idea of actively making plans to admire fall foliage. He could not stop laughing when I first explained that some people in the US go for walks or drives just to look at the changing leaves.
When I mentioned that this is often called “leaf-peeping,” he nearly collapsed.
He’s also confused by the concept of going on hayrides (“Where do you even go? Why would you pay for that?”), driving to a farm to pick pumpkins, or getting lost in a corn maze.
My husband finds it strange to tip bartenders and buy your own drinks at a bar.
The UK is famed for its “pub culture,” or the socialising and social drinking that happens in its many cosy bars and pubs.
Although buying a round of drinks is an optional act of generosity in the US, it’s standard practice in the UK. Members of a group will rotate who is responsible for each round, and skipping your turn is seen as rude.
Though I can definitely see the advantages of electing a single member of your group to fight their way through a crowded bar, I find the US method of independent drink-buying means that you can imbibe at your own pace and don’t have to keep tabs on your friends’ drinks.
Speaking of tabs, it’s unusual to open one at a UK bar unless you’re a true regular. Tipping is also not standard, though it’s certainly appreciated.
Halloween is much more of a big deal in the US than it is in the UK.
Halloween is one of my favourite holidays, and it’s a huge deal in the US. I love the decorations, the horror-movie marathons, and the seasonal treats.
And so, I was gutted to find that the sum total of Halloween spirit in our Scottish city amounted to a flyer advertising a children’s spooky story hour at the library and a lone bin of sad-looking pumpkins at the supermarket.
On a related note, in the fall, it’s often more common for some parts of the UK to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day (also known as Guy Fawkes Night) with bonfires and fireworks in November – though that holiday doesn’t really exist in the US.
The day actually commemorates a failed scheme from the 17th century, in which Roman Catholic conspirators tried to blow up Parliament due to King James I’s refusal to expand the religious freedom of Catholics.
Everyday patriotism is a little weird to my husband.
One big thing I’ve learned from living abroad and being married to someone who didn’t grow up in the US is that overt, casual patriotism is a very American thing.
Most people in the US wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you flew an American flag outside your home or showed up for a lunch date in a red, white, and blue baseball cap.
Plus, popular music in the US often features lyrics that proclaim pride in being American, and many cars are plastered with patriotic bumper stickers.
Patriotism is different in the UK, at least in the more urban areas where I’ve lived. In my experience, donning a patriotic T-shirt as everyday wear or flying or a Scottish flag on your front lawn would be unusual.
You might wave a Scottish flag at a rugby game, but my partner and I have noticed that people in the UK aren’t as fixated on “doing” patriotism, as many Americans are.
Having electrical outlets or light switches in a bathroom terrifies my partner.
In the US, blow-drying your hair or charging your electric toothbrush in the bathroom is no big deal.
But in the UK, for safety reasons, you’re not allowed to have power sockets in your bathroom unless they’re a certain distance away from the bathtub or shower, which isn’t always possible in small spaces.
Electric showers are normal in the UK, but I’ve never seen one in the US.
Despite the UK’s prohibition on power outlets or light switches in bathrooms, it’s common to have an electric shower unit right in the shower stall.
These units heat the water with electricity, which means you’ll have hot water in the shower even if your boiler breaks. You push a button to turn them on, and they usually feature an attached shower head and temperature dials.
My husband has said he feels more pressure to clean up his food wrappers at casual eateries in the US than he does in the UK.
In the US, throwing out your own trash and returning your tray when in a casual cafe or fast food restaurant is normal – and leaving a mess behind for staff to clean up is usually frowned upon.
In the UK, it seems to be more acceptable for diners to leave their food wrappers, beverage cups, and trays at their table for employees to collect.
Though picking up after yourself is appreciated no matter where you are, my husband admits to feeling much more social pressure to clear his own table when we’re visiting the US.
My husband is puzzled when I ask for a “regular coffee.”
I grew up with the impression that brewed drip coffee – the kind many Americans make in a machine in a kitchen or break room – is the standard, baseline type of coffee. In the US, it may be, but that’s not so in the UK.
My husband considers espresso-based coffee drinks to be the norm. Ask for “just coffee” in a UK restaurant or cafe, and you’ll likely be asked what kind of coffee you mean.
In fact, most places I’ve dined in the UK don’t even prepare drip or filter coffee. If you ask for black coffee, you’ll usually be served an americano, which is a shot of espresso in hot water.
Similar beverage confusion has happened when we’ve visited the US and my husband asks for “regular tea.” In the UK, “tea” is common shorthand for what people in the US would call black or breakfast tea.
Ask for tea in the UK, you’ll be asked whether you’d like milk or sugar. In the US, you’ll likely be asked what kind of tea you’d prefer.
If you order a pancake in the UK, you’ll usually get what many Americans know as crêpes.
Ordering pancakes in the UK will get you a plate of what many in the US would call crêpes. These are thin, papery pancakes that can be sweet or savoury, depending on how they’re prepared.
If you want a stack of fluffy, pillowy pancakes, you’ll have to ask for “American” ones. In my experience, though, your chances of having them served with real maple syrup are slimmer than a crêpe.
Interestingly, I’ve also seen UK grocery stores sell packages of miniature, precooked American-style pancakes that are sometimes pre-soaked with syrup.
Eggs sold in UK grocery stores aren’t usually refrigerated like they are in the US.
Even after living in the UK for years, it’s still a little unsettling to walk by shelves of unrefrigerated eggs in a grocery store on a hot summer day.
In the US, eggs are often washed and this process removes a protective outer coating called the cuticle, which is thought to help prevent bacterial contamination. The eggs are then refrigerated to better keep them from becoming contaminated with harmful bacteria.
Eggs in the UK are sold at room temperature because they aren’t washed before sale.
Brown eggs are also much more common than white in the UK. My husband initially assumed US grocery stores only sold white eggs because those are the kind he always sees used in American television shows and movies.
The UK leads the US on renewable energy, but excess plastic is everywhere in grocery stores.
Considering this environmental victory, I’m always shocked to see how much excess plastic packaging is still used in UK food stores.
In the UK, it’s not uncommon to see plastic wrapping around individual pieces of produce, such as bananas, heads of lettuce, and single apples. Plastic containers are used more frequently than cardboard boxes to hold items like berries, plums, or peaches.
The US certainly uses a lot of packaging, but grocery stores often have optional plastic bags for produce.
Medical care in the UK is free, although it often comes with longer wait times.
In the US, medical care is not free, though there are a few special government health plans that provide insurance to certain groups of people, such as low-income families and the elderly.
In most cases, those in the US have their healthcare partially covered through their employer.
Medical care in the UK is provided by the National Health Service (NHS), and it is government-funded and free for all residents.
In the UK, it’s not unusual to go your entire life without paying a single medical bill.
Though the care I’ve received under the NHS while living in Scotland has been high-quality, both my husband and I have noticed that wait times for appointments and treatment under the NHS can vary wildly depending on the circumstances.
In April 2018, I developed a non-life-threatening health issue that required an appointment with a specialist. I was placed on a waiting list and was eventually seen in January 2019, nearly a year and a half later.
In contrast, when my husband was diagnosed with a serious health problem in 2018, he was brought in for treatment and continued care within 24 hours.
Medical appointments in the UK are shorter and involve fewer forms.
In the US, an appointment with my primary-care doctor might take anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes, not including the time spent filling out forms and processing insurance information with reception. When booking an appointment, I’ll usually be able see my doctor in the next few days.
In the UK, the average time I spend face-to-face with my general practitioner, or GP, is about five to 10 minutes per appointment.
When booking, I’ll typically be assigned a doctor with the next available appointment time, which may be anywhere from that afternoon to two weeks in the future. On the bright side, there are no insurance forms to fill out and no bills to pay afterward.
If you’re having surgery in the UK, you may need to bring your own pillow and pain medication.
When scheduling a minor operation through the NHS in Scotland, I was surprised by a nurse’s instructions to bring my own pillow and ibuprofen to the hospital. This is something I’d never been asked to do in the US.
My husband confirmed that, largely due to the taxpayer-funded nature of the NHS, patients are sometimes encouraged to bring their own basic supplies from home.
This isn’t the norm everywhere in the UK and policies can vary by hospital, but it’s not unheard of.
My partner thinks it’s disturbing that people need to pay for prescription medicine in the US.
In Scotland, prescription medicine has been free for everyone since 2011. England is the only part of the UK that still charges for prescriptions. By law, you can be charged around £9, or about $US11, per prescription in England.
In contrast, the average American will spend about $US1,200 on pharmaceuticals per year, according to 2019 data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In the UK, it often feels surreal to pick up a prescription for a month’s supply of medication without swiping a health insurance card or opening my wallet. To my husband, the need for US residents to pay for necessary medication is equally unusual.