24 Things You Should Know Before Moving to the USA
If you’re moving from Australia to the USA, there are quite a few cultural differences you should be prepared for. Aside from the fact that both countries are massive and speak English, there isn’t much else that Americans share with Australians. The Yanks don’t eat vegemite, for a start. From NFL and Thanksgiving to pumpkin spice lattes, we’ve collected the most important things in US culture that we think you should know before you head out there.
1. No two states are the same
In a country of 3.8 million square miles, it isn’t a surprise that there are some serious regional differences. Across the fifty states, you’ll find major variations in everything from accents and dialect to laws and politics. Hop on a plane from Rhode Island to Utah and you’ll wonder if you’re still in the same country. Cannabis is perfectly legal in Oregon but it’s strictly prohibited in Louisiana. Nearly 90% of people in Mississippi think religion is important to their lives while less than half of people in Vermont think the same. The coldest month in Miami, Florida is warmer than the warmest month in San Francisco, California. You get the idea.
2. Never forget to tip
Restaurant meals will always be more expensive than the price on the menu. Serving staff are not paid particularly well in America so tipping has become an important source of income for them. Leave any less than 15-20% and your smiley waiter or waitress might get a little cold. Tipping is obviously still ‘optional’, but it’s an option we thoroughly recommend you take. It’s the same deal for taxis and hotel bellboys, so always have some cash with you.
3. Sales tax gets added at the end
Don’t be deceived by the prices in the shops; they’re higher than you think. Across the US, retail sales tax is not added until you pay at the counter. It’s printed on the receipt so you can clearly see how much has been added on. The rate differs from state to state, ranging from 2.9% in Colorado (the nation’s lowest) to 7.25% in California (the nation’s highest). Buying your clothes in Colorado sounds like a good idea.
4. Patriotism is a big deal
The national anthem is serious business over there. They even have something called ‘The Flag Code’ which tells citizens how they should behave when the national anthem is played, although you won’t actually get in trouble for breaching it. The most important things include standing up, facing the flag (if you can see one) and putting your right hand on your heart. There’s no mention of singing but most Americans tend to join in with real gusto. According to YouGov, 41% of US citizens think America is the best place in the world – more than any other country.
5. Guns are very important to them
Nearly 250 years ago, Americans were given “the right to keep and bear arms”, and they haven’t let go ever since. The level of gun ownership across the country is staggering, with nearly 90 firearms per 100 people. Many Americans see free access to guns and total freedom as pretty much the same thing, so the movement for greater gun control is proving rather difficult.
6. Work, work, work
If you like your holidays, moving from Australia to the USA might prove a bit of a shock to your system. While Aussies get at least 4 weeks off every year (plus 10 public holidays), America is the world’s only developed economy where employers are not required by law to provide any paid leave. Luckily, most businesses in the US do offer some holiday allowance, although the national average is only 21 days. Maybe you should view your move to America as one big holiday – that might help!
7. The national parks are spectacular
America’s vast size means it comes with a lot of incredible natural beauty. It’s generally the US cities that get all the global attention, but the country also has some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery. There are 412 national parks across America which cover a mammoth 84 million acres, ranging from the soaring mountains of Yosemite to the vibrant forests of the Everglades. The Yanks love their national parks, having paid them 13.5 billion visits in the past century. Just take a look at any of the parks and you’ll understand their enthusiasm.
8. They drive on the right
This one’s quick to explain and crucial to remember. If you’re moving to the USA, you’ll be joining the 75% of the globe that drive on the right hand side. This also means they build their vehicles with the steering wheel on the left hand side, so if you bring your Aussie-made car with you then you might find things a bit difficult.
9. They still use the Imperial system
Welcome to the land of pounds, feet and inches! The USA is in an elite club of countries (with Myanmar and Liberia) who don’t use the metric system. Instead, they use the rather bizarre imperial system, inherited from the Brits all those years ago. The conversion rates are pretty counterintuitive so it takes some effort to get your head around them. For example, one mile is 1.6 km and one pound is about 453.5 grams. Yes, it’s horrible.
10. The healthcare isn’t free
America has a rather different approach to healthcare than the Aussies do. Moving over there means escaping the 2% Medicare income tax, but in return you have to take out private medical insurance. The best way to do this is generally through your employer, although this option is normally only available to full-time workers. Ambulance medics have the right to ask for your insurance information before they take you anywhere, so it’s a great idea to have some kind of health insurance card in your wallet/purse at all times.
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11. The food portions are massive
Everything is big there, especially the food. It’s a stereotype that Americans tend to eat supersize portions, but there are a lot of stats to back it up. A Food Service Warehouse study from 2017 showed that the USA consumes more calories than any other country in the world, with the average American getting through 3770 calories per day. In the past fifty years, the average fast-food burger in the USA has increased in weight from 80 grams to 121 grams. It’s heaven for people with big appetites.
12. They are obsessed with pumpkins
Who knew pumpkins tasted so good? Well, apparently most of America. The tradition of carving a pumpkin at Halloween and putting it in your front yard has proved insufficient for people in the US. Now they want it in everything, from alcohol and hot drinks to snacks and desserts. You can pop into most supermarkets and grab yourself some pumpkin ale, pumpkin tea, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin donuts, pumpkin pies; the list is massive. It’s not even exclusive to Halloween anymore – in America, every month is pumpkin month.
13. Thanksgiving is huge there
Many people around the world can spend their whole lives hearing about Thanksgiving without really knowing what it is or what it means. Back in 1621, some British pilgrims invited some Native Americans for a feast to thank them for their help with the harvest, and since then America has been mad for it. They celebrate every year on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving in America is arguably bigger than Christmas, with the country’s two busiest days of travel each year happening the day before Thanksgiving and on the first Sunday after. Turkey is an absolute essential in any Thanksgiving meal, although we’re surprised America hasn’t make it pumpkin-flavoured. Sorry: flavored.
14. Don’t use the trains
America is famous for its long roads and big cars – not its trains. And there’s a reason for that. The rail system across the US is really not very good, having been underfunded for a long time. The trains on the northeast coast are pretty good but, other than that, they can be very slow and very expensive. Amtrak operates most of the railways in the US and only 72% of their trains arrive on time. It’s no surprise that Americans prefer to go by plane when internal flights can often be cheaper than the train.
Vegemite is a staple of most Australian diets – we’re not quite sure what the country would do without it – but over in America nothing could matter less. Let’s face it: the brown paste is an acquired taste, so you can hardly blame the Yanks for their lack of enthusiasm. Aussie expats living out there generally need to order it online, although you can sometimes find it in big supermarkets in the cities. Packing tip: swap all of your clothes and valuables for jars of Vegemite.
16. Hungry Jack’s is called Burger King
Don’t go asking people for directions to Hungry Jack’s, you idiot!
17. They use a knife and fork differently
Do you normally hold your knife and fork at the same time while you eat? That’s weird over there. Americans tend to use a knife and fork to cut their food but, after that, they only use a fork to eat with. This keeps the other hand free for high-fives and thumbs-ups and other super American things. While this fork-only style is fairly common across the country, there’s no official ‘Knife and Fork Code’ to worry about. You can still eat a burger with your hands.
18. Say goodbye to electric kettles
Things are a little more traditional when it comes to making tea or coffee in America. Flicking on an electric kettle is one of life’s modern conveniences, but over in the States you’ve got to boil your water on a stove. Most households in the US run on 100-127 volts, which isn’t enough power to heat water quickly in an electric kettle. The transition to a traditional kettle sounds like hassle but at least you’ll get to hear that fun high-pitched whistling sound it makes.
19. People don’t care about cricket
Americans love their sports but cricket isn’t one of them. The centuries-old sport of batsmen and bowlers has never taken off in the US, being rejected for its complicated rules in preference for NFL, baseball and basketball. The 2017 Harris Poll showed American football to be the country’s most popular game, named by 37% of adults as their favourite sport. But there’s still hope – Jay Pandya (from Global Sports Ventures) is trying to help cricket take off by investing $2.4billion in a new league. Best of luck to him.
20. College sports really matter
This one’s a little difficult to get your head around. Why do Americans care so much about sport played by their local students? Nowhere else in the world takes so much interest in amateur-level sport. The culture is massive, with most colleges and universities boasting big venues that get filled with spectators every weekend. This is particularly the case with American football. Compared to the professional clubs around the country, college teams have much less corporate money and much more history, making them a more appealing option for local fans.
21. Christianity is very important
America is famous for its Christianity and the faith still tends to have an influence on proceedings – particularly in the central and southern states. An almighty 83% of people in the US are Christian, although its most evangelical forms are reportedly on the decrease. The state-by-state differences can be pretty extreme in this instance, so the level of Christianity depends entirely on where you’re moving to.
22. Thongs are called flip-flops
And ‘thong’ means something else entirely. Most of your Aussie lingo won’t work over there, so you can leave your ‘bogans’, ‘bevvies’ and ‘eskies’ behind. There’s a whole lot of American dialect to get your head around, such as entree (main course, not starter) and tater tots (potato gems). To make things even more difficult, the slang changes from state to state. Take ‘sugar’ for example; sugar is a baking ingredient in the north, but ask for some sugar in the south and you’ll probably get a kiss.
23. They love their television
More than any other country in the world, in fact. The average person in the US watches nearly five hours of TV every day! It’s no surprise that people go to make a TV career in America, considering how much demand there is for it. The range of things on offer is phenomenal, from the hugely popular late-night talk shows and sitcoms to sport, documentaries and 24-hour news channels. Acronyms rule television over there, with CBS, NBC, ABC and HBO dominating people’s viewing time.
24. Drinking has to wait
America doesn’t mess around when it comes to alcohol laws; you aren’t allowed to start drinking over there until you’re 21. It can get even more extreme in certain states, with places like Indiana preventing the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
Hopefully this mixed bag has given you a flavour of American culture, although it’s pretty clear that the lifestyle changes rather dramatically from state to state. Say goodbye to your cricket bat, buy yourself a Burger King and you’ll be a proper American in no time.