Expat Guide To Living In The USA

Expat Guide to Living in the USA

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Living in the United States is the dream for millions of expats worldwide who flock to the land of plenty to start a new life.

The US is a global powerhouse awash with opportunities, whatever your background and what you want to do.

America has more billionaires and millionaires than any other, and many started their journey from a much more modest lifestyle.

If you have the drive and enthusiasm, you can make a better life in the USA.

Read on to find out the basic information every British expat needs to know about living in the USA.

USA – Quick Facts

  • Population: 350 million
  • UK expat population: 680,000
  • Capital: Washington DC
  • Main cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Fransisco

Visas And Residency

The USA has a strict list of entry requirements for expats.

All British expats need a visa or an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) visa waiver to enter or transit to the US. If you have any doubt about which visa you need, go to the US State Department website for help applying for the right one.

Suppose you have visited Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen since March 1, 2011. In that case, you cannot apply for an ESTA visa waiver but should apply for a US visa. The same may apply if you have travelled to Cuba.

Some other visa restrictions apply to expats who:

  • Who police have arrested, even if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction
  • Expats with criminal records
  • Individuals deported or refused admission to the USA in the past
  • Travellers who have overstayed their ESTA

Fast track with Global Entry

Global Entry allows expats through border control faster at some US airports.

You’ll need a UK background check to apply.

Once you’ve got a Global Entry membership, you:

  • won’t need to queue at US border control
  • can use electronic check-in lanes

You’ll still need a visa or ESTA.

If you have a Green Card, apply for Global Entry in the USA as you don’t need a UK background check.

Fully vaccinated expats

Most fully vaccinated expats enter the USA. Any COVID-19 vaccine approved by the US Food & Drug Administration or the World Health Organisation is OK.

Any visa holder based in the USA leaving and re-entering the country must follow the standard vaccine entry requirements. Fully vaccinated travellers do not need to quarantine.

However, some states may have specific quarantine requirements if you travel within the USA. A complete list is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Proof of vaccination

The US accepts the UK COVID-19 vaccination record, provided your final dose was administered 14 days before travelling.

Passport validity

As a visitor, your passport must be valid for your entire stay in the US.

Taking medicines into the USA

Some restrictions and prohibitions cover taking prescription drugs into the US. The USA Food and Drug Administration website contains further information and advice on taking medicines into the USA.

Police certificates

The US authorities may request a police certificate or criminal record check as part of the visa application.

The UK Criminal Records Office (ACRO) offers a certificate for expats who need to disclose their convictions or good behaviour.

An International Child Protection Certificate is available for expats working with children or vulnerable people.

Make both applications through the ACRO website.

Safety And Security

One of the biggest worries for expats relocating to the US is crime and the quality of life.

Endless TV shows and movies pump out violent gun crime, but US crime statistics show property crime is more common than violent crime.

In 2019, the FBI reported 2,109.9 property crimes per 100,000 people, compared with 379.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That adds up to five times more property crimes than violent crimes.

The FBI went on to explain theft, burglary and stealing vehicles were the most common offences.


Traffic laws vary from state to state. Check the rules for each state(s) you plan to visit.

A full UK driving licence is sufficient for driving in most states, but UK provisional licences aren’t accepted. Some states may require drivers to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). The US doesn’t issue IDPs to foreign visitors, so you’ll need to get one before travelling.

Getting around is cheaper than in the UK – a litre of fuel costs 91p, compared with £1.79 in London – about half the UK price.

Cost of living

In such a vast country, the cost of living varies from place to place and is generally higher in cities than in rural areas.

Online cost-of-living monitor Numbeo is a good place to check the cost of living in the place where you plan to live as the listings cover hundreds of places in the US.

As an example, here is a comparison between the cost of living in New York and London.

Overall, the cost of living is 40 per cent higher than in London, including housing costs.

In New York, expect to pay 50 per cent more in rent, while grocery prices are 83 per cent higher.

Spending power is 13.5 per cent more than in London. Average salaries are higher – take-home pay in New York is around £4,862 a month, compared to £3,048 in London.

However, Numbeo estimates expats need £7,445 a month to maintain the same standard of living that costs £5,300 in London.

Buying Or Renting A Home

The USA has a thriving property market for expats wanting to rent or buy a home.

Estate agents are called realtors.

British expats can buy a home without restriction. Like in the UK, house prices vary between places and even within the same neighbourhoods. The average house price is £358,000, compared to £290,000 in the UK.

Finding a house is similar to home-hunting in the UK. The US has local, state and national websites listing thousands of properties, just like Rightmove in the UK.

The biggest site to search is probably Zillow

Thinking about living in Florida? Check out the Expat Guide To Buying Property In Florida.

Cost of renting and buying a home

Rent (Monthly)

LondonNew YorkDifference
Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre£2,035\$2,453£3,158\$3,807+55%
Apartment (1 bedroom) Outside of Centre£1,4534\$1,752£1,972\$2,377+35%
Apartment (3 bedrooms) in City Centre£3,618\$4,361£5,887\7,096+62%
Apartment (3 bedrooms) Outside of Centre£2,455\$2,959£3,347\$4,035+32%

Buying an apartment

Price per Square Meter to Buy Apartment in City Centre£12,025\$14,495£11,845\$14,277-1.5%
Price per Square Meter to Buy an Apartment Outside of Centre£7,340\$8,848£7,694\$9,275+4.8%

Financing a property

Average Monthly Net Salary (After Tax)£3,048\$3,674£4,899\$5,905+60%
Mortgage Interest Rate in Percentages (%), Yearly, for 20 Years Fixed-Rate3.45%5.66%+58%

Where Do British Expats live in the USA?

These are the top ten cities where British expats live:

  • New York – the White Plains suburb
  • Austin, Texas
  • Seattle, Washington – the Bellevue suburb
  • Portland, Oregon
  • San Francisco, California
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Sarasota, Florida
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Phoenix / Scottsdale, Arizona

Source: Money Transfer Comparison


Healthcare costs in the US are a worry for everyone. Bills for basic consultations and treatments are expensive and long-term treatment even more so.

The UK and US do not have reciprocal healthcare agreements. Private healthcare is available to expats and their families with comprehensive medical insurance, which should be bought before entering the country.

Expats need medical insurance for any trips to the UK because fee National Health Service treatment is not available to anyone living in America.

Before leaving the UK, check any prescription medicine you are taking is not banned in the USA

For the latest healthcare information and alerts, check out the USA page on the Travel Health Pro website.

Working In The USA

Expats need clearance to work in the US, which normally comes with one of the following:

If you are a professional, be aware US employers may not recognise UK qualifications, although some accept a UK equivalent of a US qualification.

Some jobs need a criminal records check, called a DBS check or Disclosure and Barring Service check in the UK.

Well-paid roles are in IT, science and engineering. Other jobs with good pay include financial services, teaching, graphic design and copy-writing.


Expats must tell HM Revenue & Customs if they are making a permanent overseas move or going to work abroad for at least one tax year – a trip starting before April 6 one year and lasting beyond April 5 the following year.

You will likely still pay UK tax on any UK earnings, such as dividends, interest or rents from property investments.

Ask HMRC if they need you to file a full tax return or just a Form P85.

If you become a US tax resident, you need to file an annual return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Don’t worry about paying tax on the same income twice as the UK and US have a double taxation agreement that prevents this happening.


Consider if you are likely to draw your UK State Pension. If so, you may pay your National Insurance Contributions from overseas.

Expats can claim the State Pension from the US and the payments are index-linked.

Don’t forget you cannot make tax-relieved contributions to a UK pension if you are a tax resident in the US. The US equivalent is a 401(k).

The US is not part of the Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme (QROPS), so expats must find an alternative offshore pension.

Life certificates for UK state pensions

If you get a ‘life certificate’ request from the UK Pension Service while in the US, you must respond as soon as possible, or your payments may be suspended.

Local Laws And Customs

  • Laws vary between states. Even if you are passing through, you are subject to that state’s laws. You must carry a passport showing that you have leave to enter or remain in the US with you at all times.
  • Under US law, it’s illegal in most states for anyone under 21 years old to buy or drink alcohol.
  • Possessing or trafficking a controlled substance is punishable by prison sentence and/or a fine. Check with each state you plan to visit to ensure you don’t break the personal possession and consumption laws of controlled substances within those states. A list of controlled substances is published on the US Department of Justice website.

Education And Schooling,

The ages children must attend school varies from state to state.

Kindergarten starts at five or six years old, although many children attend pre-school from three or four years old

From kindergarten, children learn at three levels:

  • Elementary – from kindergarten to grade five
  • Middle school – covering grades six to eight
  • High school = grades nine to 12

School leaving age in most states is 16 years old or to the end of high school.

Expat children can attend public schools. To choose a good school, look for an arera with expensive housing as education is funded from property taxes and schools in wealthier areas are likely to have better facilities.

Public schools charge no fees, although families must outlay for the cost of books.

Private schools – including international schools – offer high standards but the chase for places is competitive. International schools provide a British curriculum. Every large city has at least one international school

Popular schools have lengthy waiting lists, so applying well in advance is recommended.

The fees are not cheap. Expats can expect to pay between $6000 and $20,000 yearly to a community college and at least double that to study for a degree.

Living In The USA FAQ

What is the US currency and exchange rate?

The US currency is the dollar. A pound is currently worth £0.83 dollars.

What’s the weather like in the USA?

The USA is roughly 3,000 miles across and 1,650 miles north to south. Within such a vast land mass, the weather and climate vary considerably from sub-tropical in Florida to cold and windy in Chicago.

How do I get a green card?

A green card shows you are granted the right to live and work permanently in the USA. To apply for the card, you must file a Form l-485 to the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) with supporting documents and any fees due. A green card is valid for ten years. Expats planning to naturalise as US citizens must have a green card.

Are the streets safe in the USA?

Despite the gun crime and violence seen on TV and in the movies, the streets in the US are safe. Expats are five times more likely to experience a break-in or theft than to be involved in gun crime.

How do I apply for a US visa?

Visas for stays over 90 days or to live and work permanently are available on application to the US embassy in London.

Below is a list of some related articles, guides and insights you may find interesting.

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