Are you planning to move to the US? Or has it always been your dream to live there? Each country has a uniqueness distinguishing it from other places. This makes a move interesting and fascinating but also intimidating when you first get there. On top of that each country has multiple facets especially when it is a big country like the US. But don’t be overwhelmed by it, there are certain things that apply to the whole country. Here are 19 things you should know before moving to the USA.
1. Every measurement is different
This is one of the first and most visible things you will encounter when coming the US. Everything – and I mean everything – is different. You might have visited other countries before where one or two measurements are different but the majority of them are the same worldwide. The US is different in every aspect – be it date, temperature, distance, speed, liquids, weight, size, lengths or electricity. A lot to get used to. I have a separate blog post about the different measurements here.
2. Eating out is quite normal
I love food! After living in Melbourne, I’m especially excited about breakfast and brunch. People in Melbourne just love it that is also one of the reasons why my mindset about eating out has changed a bit. Café on the weekends are just filled with people and takeout coffee is an everyday thing.
Compared to Europe and Australia, eating out is even more common in the US. If you live in a city like San Francisco or New York great food options are just around every corner making it very difficult to cook for yourself. And even if you prefer to have a relaxed meal at home, most Americans prefer takeout food to home cooked food.
Living in a suburban area or further away from a bigger city doesn’t necessarily mean that people cook more. Restaurant won’t be as diverse (there will be a lot of fast food chains – think the big, red M), but there are still enough places to eat out. And people don’t necessarily look for super healthy or fancy meals anyway.
3. Portions are huge
When I had my first cup of coffee in US, I was blown away by the size (even though I knew everything was bigger from when I first lived here). The small size in the US was still bigger than a tall coffee in Australia (or anywhere in the world, for that matter). If you have a big latte, it will fill you up like an entire meal. So, is it just coffee? No, it’s basically everything (well, maybe except a Michelin star restaurant where portions are universally small). The good thing is, that you already have your lunch sorted for the next day, because you can get takeout boxes everywhere and take your leftovers home.
4. Who needs a knife when you have a fork
This is something I still can’t get my head around. People in the US use their knife to cut their food but once that is done, they will stick to their fork. For me, a fork and knife work together meaning I will eat my meal with the fork in my left hand and the knife in my right hand. Maybe that is just a German (or European) thing?
5. Tipping is important
I feel like this is already general knowledge, but it still had to be in the list of 19 things you need to know before moving to the USA. In Europe or Australia, people tip smaller amounts (think 5-10%) or don’t tip at all. In the US waiters really depend on their tips because their basic salary is so small. This is also why they come to your table so often to make sure the service is good and they get tipped well.
As a result they don’t wait till you ask for the bill, they will bring it as soon as you take your last bite (or maybe even before that). The sooner you get out of there the sooner they will have new clients. Imagine someone would do that in France where enjoying food with good company is a way of life and cannot be interrupted.
6. Food regulations are less strict
If we are already talking about food let’s have a look at the differences in legislation. No matter your stance on food safety, if you are for or against GMO, organic, non-organic etc. when moving to the US you have to be aware that safety regulations are not as strict as in Europe. It starts with pesticides that are allowed and used and ends with additives and food colors etc. Some products of the same company have other ingredients in other parts of the world – even though it is the same brand and the same product. A lot of times there is more sugar and different food colors, colors that are banned anywhere else. So, start reading food labels and buy organic if you want to avoid certain pesticides and GMO.
7. Cars – the bigger the better
Another topic that has to be on a list of 19 things you should know before moving to the USA is cars. The first thing you will notice after arriving in the US is how much bigger the average car is. Pickups and big SUVs are part of the American way of life. Streets and highways are wider and I guess it just plays a role that there is more space in general.
8. You need a car unless you live in a big city
My expat journey brought me from Europe to Australia and eventually to the US. With every move, the public transportation has become worse.
All major cities in Europe have a decent public transportation system and even less populated areas or smaller towns can be reached via trains and buses.
Australia has a good train and tram system within the cities and even to most suburbs (even though some aspects still need improvement). When it comes to the US, public transport outside of a major city like New York is an alien concept. If you don’t have your own car you basically can’t participate in everyday life.
To be fair, in the Silicon Valley some major corporates offer free community buses but that is just the Valley and not applicable to other suburban areas in the US.
9. Manual vs. automatic cars
The other difference between Europe and the US is automatic versus manual. In Germany, everybody learns to drive a manual car and most cars are manual anyway. In the US, I haven’t come across a manual car yet.
10. Cities are setup differently
The setup up of American cities is quite different from European cities. First of all, there are no real city centers in the US. Most European cities have a real city centers and in that center more often than not there is something like a town square. In Europe you often find a church there and these squares are also a place for your weekly farmer’s markets.
Another difference to Europe is that there is no clear separation between towns, especially in suburban areas. In Europe, there are usually signs with the city name when entering or leaving a city or town. In the US, it’s all kind of fluid and you don’t really know where one area starts and where it ends.
11. Buy, buy, buy
Shopping and consumerism is undoubtedly part of the American DNA. Therefore, it is no surprise that shops are open every day and often 24 hours (not like in some European countries where everything is closed on Sundays).
What I found quite interesting is that despite being a country where individuality is so so important, everyone runs to the same shopping malls, with the same brands and same big chains. What’s individual about that? Where are all the small, unique shops and boutiques? I know they are there, but not to the degree you would think and definitely not in suburban areas and small towns.
One more thing: When shopping, always remember to add the VAT (value added tax) on top of the advertised price. It always is the net price. And to make it even more complicated, every state has a different VAT percentage.
12. It’s all about selling
Shopping and buying is important. And so is selling. Insane advertising budgets, big billboards, and constant sales – everything to get the product to the consumer.
When watching TV, it feels like the movie interrupts the commercial, not the other way round. You are hardly five minutes into the movie and there it is – the first commercial. And this continues throughout the whole movie. No wonder streaming services are so popular.
Selling doesn’t just apply to products and services, it effects every aspect of life. You have to sell yourself constantly. Be it when applying for a job where you have to showcase all your achievements and experience or when meeting new people. And don’t get me wrong, you obviously have to talk about past experiences and how you can be an asset for a new company. But compared to e.g. Germany or Switzerland, a lot of things are just part of your job and don’t need to be ‘celebrated’ as much as they are in the US. For a German, it can be a bit over the top.
13. You can wear workout clothes for (almost) anything
This is another funny thing of the 19 things you should know before moving to the USA. Before moving to Australia and then the US, I would have never considered wearing workout clothes for any other activity than – you guessed it – workout. In the US, you can basically wear it every day, all day. When dropping your kids off at school, picking them up, going shopping, having breakfast or lunch in a café…you get the picture. This is unthinkable in Europe, especially in countries like Italy, Spain, France, where fashion and being dressed properly is very important. And even though Germans are not famous for being fashionistas (for the most part), we still wear proper clothes, when leaving the house. But I have to admit, every now and then I will wear workout clothes even if I’m not working out – do as the locals do, right?!
14. Checks are still alive
Cash is still king in Germany, in the US everyone has at least several credit cards and people hardly use cash. They pay with paypal, venmo and other new ways BUT and this is a big but – then they also still use checks. I don’t know about you but this seems so old-fashioned. It still blows my mind how people think this is convenient.
In Germany, it takes time to form friendships but once you reach that point to become friends, Germans generally take friendships very seriously. The word ‘friend’ is generally used if someone is a good friend.
Americans on the contrary, use it more freely. Someone who might just be an acquaintance is called a friend.
People are generally friendlier in the US than in Europe. For Europeans, this can come across superficial and when I lived in the USA the first time it definitely felt like that to me. But when you think about it, what’s really the harm? You enter a shop, someone is polite and gives you a smile, asks you how you are. Obviously, that person doesn’t want to know your whole story. But who would you rather buy from, a nice and polite person or a grumpy person? I guess the answer is not that difficult.
Another thing I noticed is that people smile a lot more or even greet you (even if they don’t know you). If you walk around in Europe smiling at people in the streets they will get suspicious. Asking themselves why is this person smiling at me. Here it is so much easier to talk to people when you go shopping or go for a walk.
17. Vacations are really short
One definite downside of working in the US is annual leave or PTO (personal time off). Americans can only dream of six or more weeks of holidays, like some European countries like Germany or France. Some tech companies in the valley offer as much vacation days as employers want but in more traditional places, it is still quite common to have a lot less.
I’m sure you expected this one to be on the list of 18 things you should know before moving to the USA because nothing is more American than patriotism. I’ve seen no other nation celebrating its country like this. Flags are not just put up for a world championship or on a national day but every day of the year.
Before big sporting events such as the super bowl
19. Everything is so big
The one things that stands out is definitely how much bigger everything is in the US than in Europe. Cars, food portions, shops, spaces, nature, houses…everything. But it’s also not too surpirising if you consider the vastness of the country. It’s simlpy really big!
I hope you enjoyed this list of 19 things you should know before moving to the USA. Let me know in the comments if there is anything else, that people should know before moving to the US.