What is it really like to live in England as an American? After living in England full time for the past few years, I’ve become aware of my pros and cons to living here just as you’d expect. I mean nowhere is perfect, right?
What’s It Really Like to Live in England?
PROS to Live in England
- Historical heritage – You’re surrounded by world class history and culture that predates the Romans.
- Green spaces – Right to roam laws encourage use of extensive natural areas. Parks and green spaces are “baked in”.
- Health care – The right to free health care through the NHS is a huge perk for residents along with affordable prescriptions.
- Eat & drink – Vegans, vegetarians and ethnic tastes are catered for with a wide variety of excellent local food and drink.
- People – Polite and unfailingly decent, Brits are blessed with a sense of humor and wit to see them through the darkest times.
- Safety – Personal safety stacks up – US murder rate is 18X higher. UK road deaths are a quarter of those in the US
CONS to Live in England
- Weather – Average annual hours of sun in London are half that of Dallas TX with long periods of rain and damp.
- Getting around – Public transportation can be unreliable and expensive. Narrow roads and congestion make driving challenging.
- Cost of living – Housing, gas/petrol can be pricey. VAT or value added tax adds 20% to most services and products.
- Customer service – Consumer needs may be met with resistance, indifference and a lack of initiative.
- Consumer choice – Consumer options in Britain feel limited and difficult to find when compared to the US.
- Privacy – CCTV cameras everywhere; on trains, buses, offices, stores and streets.
As I was born in England and have family here, I’m not your typical American. However I spent most of my life in the US and moving to England has taken some adjustment. I’m still surprised at just how different living here can be compared to the States. Keep in mind Ireland, Scotland or Wales will have their own unique differences!
When You Live in England: The GOOD
1. History and culture to spare
The British Empire effectively ruled the world for 400 years and England is home to some of the worlds’ most influential history and culture. This can be heady stuff for enthusiasts, writers and history buffs. British art, TV and film is also world famous. James Bond anyone?
World class museums in London have mostly free admission and don’t forget a globally influential music scene which kicked off with the Beatles and Stones. London theatre is first class and many of your favorite classic TV shows and movies originate in the UK. Netflix spent 1 billion in the UK on film production in 2020 alone. You never have to run out of historic sites to visit or impossibly pretty villages to discover!
2. National parks and green spaces
If you love to walk, bike or hike, the incredibly beautiful and diverse English countryside is a bit of heaven. With so many natural areas open for public use, there’s always room to roam.
With US coastal areas often unreachable due to development, you’ll appreciate how accessible Britain’s coastline is. In England, the Crown Estate owns 45% of the shoreline and remaining beaches are owned by the National Trust, local councils (towns) and other entities.
“Right to roam laws” mean coastal paths, fields and ancient forests are accessible and free to use. Even in a large city like London you’ll find dedicated park or green spaces. For a small crowded island, it’s surprisingly easy to get your fix of “wild”.
3. Health care
Everyone has an opinion about England’s national health care system, the NHS. If you live in the US and don’t have good health coverage, it can be very stressful, especially if you’re self-employed. It’s rare to walk out of the doctors without owing either a co-pay or a chunk of your deductible, not to mention waiting and worrying to see what other bills come due.
So it still feels weird to walk out of surgery (as they call it doctors offices here) or hospital without being asked for payment. There’s something very leveling about the NHS because it doesn’t matter who you are – you’re covered.
When I’ve really needed to speak to a doctor I’ve been able to get help that day or the next. I’ve heard the criticism of long wait times for treatment on NHS and I’m sure that’s true, but it’s not been my experience. Having free healthcare is a priceless benefit to living here.
4. Food and drink
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s some seriously tasty food back in the States. Barbecue, brisket, tex mex and fresh sweet corn, oh my. It’s hard to find dupes here.
But I’ve found the variety of food in the US doesn’t match what you find in the UK. Local seafood and produce are amazing. England’s close proximity to European markets and the dedication to quality standards for everything from apples to chicken is the key. Eggs are really tasty here. Pub food can be amazingly good. Have you tried a proper Sunday roast dinner (er lunch)? You’re in for a treat.
Although the US tries to emulate pubs, I’ve never been in a pub outside the UK with half the charisma, charm and pubbi-ness of the real deal. Pubs are one of the genuine charms of English life.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you’ll be catered to. Marks and Spencers food hall is packed full of really delicious fresh food to buy and take home to heat and eat. They don’t really do frozen dinners here, it’s usually prepared fresh. To sum it up, lots of options whatever you’re craving. Even ‘cue!
5. The people
Now I consider myself English as I was born here but I grew up in the US so I tend to think and talk like an American. One of the things I love about the British is their curiosity about the US. They seem to have a fascination for it, probably from watching too much “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”. I’m often told “I love your accent” and I think, wait a minute I don’t have an accent, you do!
Brits can be incredibly kind, decent and helpful even while they’re giving off an aloof vibe. I think it’s a cultural thing to NOT make a scene or speak out – unless you’re at a football match or it’s closing time at the pub!
I’m not a rule follower but that seems to be the norm here. From waiting in a queue (a line) to following government rules and regulations, Brits are reasonably happy to do what they’re told. Which means they hardly ever demonstrate or protest – although they’re not opposed to striking!
To sum up, most Brits are respectful, considerate to a fault and good conversationalists. In other words, you’ll be tolerated!
I feel quite safe living here. As in any country, there are unsafe areas with high crime in England. But the chance of getting killed is much lower than the US where the murder rate is 18 x higher than the UK.
The rate of road deaths in the UK is 27.7 per million population (2018). By contrast the rate is 112.3 road deaths per million in the US. So you’re less likely to get run over here. That said, they don’t understand pedestrians always have right of way – yet!
When You Live in England: The Bad
1. English weather
You knew this was coming! As I write this we’re experiencing a prolonged cold spell with temperatures about freezing. Oh and snow has fallen. To be fair, it’s not often this cold, at least in the south of England. Nor is it blisteringly hot in the summer. However as you may have heard, it does rain a fair amount.
English weather can be gloriously sunny with Turner-esque blue skies or conversely you’ll have a dome of gray sitting overhead for days.
As we’re in the far northern hemisphere, expect less than 8 hours of daylight in the winter. The average hours of sunlight per year is 1400 in London which translates to just under 4 hours per day. Compare that to Dallas TX which gets 2850 hours of sunlight per year!
The weather can be fairly depressing during late fall and winter, possibly explaining why tea is so popular….oh and alcohol!
The good news is temperatures are usually mild, not too hot and not too cold. You’ll wear your waterproof winter coat much much longer than you’d like and you’ll seriously think about investing in a pair of rubber welly boots for those long muddy walks through the gorgeous damp countryside. It’s truthful to say “no one comes to England for the weather”.
2. Getting Around
While I love that it’s not necessary to have a car here, public transportation can be unreliable and pricey. Trains can be canceled at the last minute with passengers expected to work out how to get to their destination on their own.
Driving, you’ll need to navigate narrow country roads or parked cars on both sides of narrow streets while trying to decipher the incredibly complicated directions painted on roads, signage (often hidden by over-growth) and roundabouts.
You’re allowed to drive on your US license for 12 months. If you decide to get a UK license be prepared for an expensive hurdle of passing a theory test then a very strict driving test of 30-40 minutes before you’ll be legal to drive.
3. Living expenses
The parts of England that aren’t expensive to live in, are usually further north, colder and wetter than the south and London! Housing is the biggest cost to living in England and average house prices can vary from $911,617 in London to $447,662 in York.
- UK Average housing price: £296,000 ($364,080) August 2022
- UK Petrol or gas average cost per gallon. $7.50
Whether you rent or own, you’ll pay a monthly council tax to the local council (town). It’s similar to property tax. If you live on your own you’re eligible for a 25% single discount. Average monthly tax for a single person is $139.
Almost everything from eating out to clothing has the 20% VAT (value added tax) already included, which inflates the cost of everything just a bit.
4. Customer Service
Customer service here is not a priority and you can expect to wait while your utility inspector fails to show up, a charge gets debited from your account and takes months to clear it up, or your garbage isn’t picked up for days. Efficiency isn’t a high priority and delays and mistakes can sometimes seem to be the norm.
You expect and usually get an apology when service is sub standard in the US. In England it seems to me that inefficiency is widely tolerated and so if you complain – you’re looked at as if you’ve just asked for the moon! I find the lack of customer appreciation and willingness to go above and beyond when merited, a slightly irritating fact of life here.
5. Consumer Choice
When you’re used to the US bottomless consumer choice, options in England can feel limited by comparison. If you want a car accessory, there’s one chain that handles that. If you want to get your groceries and pick up a side table and a throw pillow at the same time, forget it. Oh a few of the grocery chains have a sideline in clothing and homewares, but the selections are limited. The few chains that do offer a wide range aren’t worth shopping at in my opinion with the one exception, John Lewis stores. Too bad there’s only 34 throughout England!
As a designer I miss having a wide range of choice for bedding, home decor and furniture. Although I have to admit if you’re into vintage and antiques there’s no better place to scout than England. Although the UK makes some beautiful crafts and bespoke products, the day to day choice can’t match the worlds largest economy. Not that you would expect it to! Let’s just say I long for some major US retail therapy at Pottery Barn, Target and the malls!
6. Privacy & Rules
When I first moved here I loved that English police seem so benevolent compared to the US, where a cruiser following you makes you paranoid even when you’ve done nothing wrong. However I’m beginning to realize the reason the police don’t seem to be on top of you is because there are CCTV cameras every where. Also the police don’t have a good reputation for doing their job.
For example, I received a letter from the driving bureau saying I owed tax on a car I’d just purchased. They caught the license plate on camera at 12:24 just before I’d paid for the car and tax online at 12:37!
I’ve also gotten letters from the local council demanding I register to vote or pay a fine. Store registers use cameras while you scan your purchases. During COVID, government felt a bit heavy handed in England but I’m happy to say most of the restrictions and rules have lapsed.
When You Live in England: Final Thoughts
It’s best to think of England as a foreign country with a common language (if you speak English). At the time of writing this, England is getting prepared to endure strikes from train workers, postal workers, nurses, border force, driving examiners and more. Life is about to get even more challenging for those living here.
Ask yourself if a life in England sounds like your cup of tea. Every country has its PROS and CONS, the question is whether you can tolerate these differences?
For me, I feel the pros outweigh the cons. I feel the quality of life I have here, with access to free healthcare and a country with endless options to explore is worth any downsides.
Come over and find out for yourself. Living in a foreign country is a bit like any relationship. Things you love, things you don’t, things you can live with and things you won’t. You won’t know unless you try!