Here’s my impression of what’s it like to live in England as an American. After living in England full time for over two years I’ve gone from seeing only the best of Britain to becoming aware there’s pros and cons to living here just as you’d expect.
Pros to living in England
- Historical heritage – you’re surrounded by world class history and culture that pre dates the Roman era. Strict laws mean historic buildings are preserved.
- Green spaces – right to roam laws encourage you to explore natural areas and national parks. Green space is planned for even in densely populated areas.
- Health care – the right to free health care through the NHS is a huge perk for residents. Prescriptions are affordable.
- Eat & drink – Vegans, vegetarians and ethnic tastes are catered for and the wide variety of traditional local food and drink is outstanding.
- People – Polite and unfailingly decent, Brits are blessed with a sense of humor and wit that sees them through the darkest times.
- Safety – Personal safety stacks better against US – US murder rate is 18X higher. Road deaths are a quarter of those in the US
Cons to living in England
- Weather – average annual hours of sun in London is 1400 compared to Dallas TX at 2850. Long periods of rain and damp.
- Getting around – public transportation while available can be unreliable and expensive. Narrow roads and congestion make driving challenging.
- Cost of living – housing is expensive and so is gas or petrol. VAT or value added tax adds 20% to most services and products.
- Customer service – to question a bill, service or product is time consuming and met with resistance. Customers aren’t naturally treated with deference.
- Consumer choice- If you’re used to US shopping, consumer options in Britain will feel limited and difficult to find.
- Privacy – There are CCTV cameras everywhere; on trains, buses, offices, stores and streets. Now store registers use cameras while you scan your purchases.
I was born in England and have family here so I’m not your typical American, but I spent most of my life in the US and moving to England has taken some adjustment. Keep in mind Ireland, Scotland or Wales will have their own unique differences!
Although I had traveled to England numerous times over the years, I’m still surprised at just how different living here can be compared to the States.
What’s it Like to Live in England – the good
1. History and culture to spare
Living in England means you’ll be surrounded by some of the worlds’ most influential history and culture.
If your impressions of England are from watching “Game of Thrones or “”Bridgerton”, you’ll get all that and more. If you’re a Bronte or Shakespeare fan, living here lets you deep dive into what inspired their writing. History buff? Be prepared to feel inspired by the physical manifestation of hundreds of years of history.
The British Empire effectively ruled the world for 400 years. You’ll never run out of historical sites to visit or impossibly pretty villages to discover!
World class museums in London ooze culture and don’t forget a globally influential music scene that kicked off with the Beatles and Stones. London theatre is world renowned and many of your favorite classic TV shows and movies originate in the UK like “The Crown”. Netflix spent 1 billion in the UK on film production in 2020 alone.
2. National parks and green spaces
If you love to walk, bike or hike, England feels like a bit of heaven. The country side is incredibly beautiful and diverse. With so many natural areas open for public use, you’ll never run out of places to roam.
I’ve found US coastal areas are often unreachable because of development, so I appreciate how much of Britain’s coastline is accessible. 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 mostly free to use. Even in a large city like London you’ll find dedicated park or green spaces. Incredibly you’ll find for a small island, it’s still possible to get your “wild” fix.
3. Health care
Everyone has an opinion about England’s national health care system. I was assigned an NHS # at birth and was eligible once I qualified for a British passport – even though I hadn’t lived here most of my life.
If you live in the US, you know the dread you feel when you don’t have good health insurance. Forget it if you’re self-employed. Even with a good plan, it’s rare to walk out of the doctors without owing either a co-pay or a chunk of your deductible. Then you wait and worry to see what other bills come due.
It still feels weird to walk out of a Dr’s surgery (as they call it 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. Prescriptions are free if you’re over 60 and a nominal cost otherwise.
Having free healthcare is a priceless benefit to living here.
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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. My ex used to bug out at seeing goose fat in jars and loads of hard to find meat options. 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.
In fact let’s put pubs on the list. Many have tried, but I’ve never been in a pub outside of the UK that has half the charisma, charm and pubbi-ness of the real deal. They can’t be duplicated and they’re one of the genuine charms of English life.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, just about every restaurant and market caters to you. 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 because 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 good at doing what they’re told. Which means they hardly ever demonstrate or protest – unlike the French.
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. Although there are unsafe areas with high crime in England as in any country, the chance of getting killed is much lower than in the US for example. The US 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 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!
What’s it Like to Live in England – the bad
1. English weather
You knew this was coming! As I write this it’s the 9th of August and it’s been raining off and on every day of the month. Forget what you may think August weather should be, it may be sunny but it’s more likely to be cool with gray skies. It’s truthful to say “no one comes to England for the weather”.
English weather can be gloriously sunny with Turner-esque blue skies but more likely there will be a dome of gray that sits overhead for days. As we’re in the far northern hemisphere, during winter expect an average of less than 8 hours of daylight. Average hours of sun in London per year is 1400. That’s just under 4 hours per day. Compare that to Dallas which gets 2850 hours of sunlight per year!
So because of the weather it can be fairly depressing during the fall and winter. It’s why tea is so popular, oh and alcohol!
The good news is temperatures are fairly mild, not too hot and not too cold. You’ll wear your waterproof winter coat much much longer than you want to. And you’ll seriously think about investing in a pair of rubber welly boots for those long muddy walks through the gorgeous damp countryside.
2. Getting Around
While I love that you don’t have 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 but if you need a UK license after that 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
Parts of England aren’t expensive to live in, but you may not want to live there because they’re further north, colder and wetter than the south! 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: £268,000 ($372,520)
UK Petrol or gas average cost per gallon. $6.83
Whether you rent or own you’ll pay the local council (town authority) a monthly council tax. It’s like a property tax but based on how many people live in the home. I get a 25% single discount that I had to apply for. Average monthly tax for a single person is $139. So it’s an extra expense especially for tenants.
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
Don’t expect things to get done efficiently or without following up multiple times. Customer service here is not a priority and you can expect to wait while your utility inspector fails to show up or tell you he’s late, a charge gets debited from your account and it takes months to clear it up, or your garbage isn’t picked up for days.
In the US you expect and usually get an apology when service is sub standard. In England it seems to me that inefficiency is widely tolerated and they’re really surprised when you complain because it’s so unexpected!
5. Consumer Choice
When you’re used to the bottomless consumer choice you have in the US, options here in England can feel limited. 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. The few chains here that do offer a wide range are just not worth shopping at in my opinion. The one exception I’ve found are John Lewis stores but 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 there are some fantastic products made in the UK, the day to day choice just isn’t there. 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 even if you’ve done nothing wrong you feel paranoid when a cruiser follows behind you! 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.
I got a letter from the driving bureau saying I owed tax on a car I had just bought. They caught the license plate on camera at 12:24 and I had paid for the car and then the tax online at 12:37!
I’ve also gotten letters from the local council demanding I register to vote or pay a fine. With all the fines and threats about COVID compliance, government feels a bit heavy handed in England at the moment. I’m hoping it isn’t a true reflection of how personal info is handled now and in the future.
What’s it Like Living in England – final thoughts
It’s best to think of England as a foreign country with a common language (if you speak English).
Ask yourself if living in England will work for you. All countries have good and bad points, the question is whether you can tolerate these differences. Do the pros outweigh the cons?
For me, they do. I feel the quality of life I have here, with access to free healthcare and a country with endless options to explore is worth the 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!