Your guide to expat life in United States

Living in the USA

Most expats move to the USA to improve their career prospects, but many never leave because of the wonderful quality of life.

Access to good schools and healthcare has influenced this trend, along with the captivating culture of America’s cities and the natural beauty of its wild outdoors.

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Accommodation

No matter where you settle in the USA, you’ll find a wide choice of property with high standards of accommodation.

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Types of accommodation

Depending on your needs, location and budget, you can choose to live in an apartment, duplex, townhouse or even a sprawling mansion.

Renting property

After choosing a place, you’ll have to tender a lease application. As an expat you’ll need proof that you can pay the first month’s rent plus another month’s rent as a deposit. Credit and background checks are common and lease agreements are usually for six months or a year. Whether you have to pay utility bills and maintenance costs depends on your contract.

Culture changes

American culture is a mishmash of customs, traditions, languages and beliefs. But despite its European influences, some differences may take you by surprise.

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Patriotism

Americans are very patriotic, especially on holidays like Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Labor Day. Take any opportunity to get involved in these festivities as they give you real insight into the local culture.

Religion

Although Christianity is the most common religion in the USA, most Americans hold moderate beliefs and prioritise freedom and equality. To avoid offending anyone, don’t bring up religion at social occasions. The West Coast is more liberal than the rest of the country, while the southern states tend to be conservative. Big cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York, Chicago and Boston are generally more progressive.

Charity work

You may be surprised by the lack of social services provided by the US government, but philanthropy is important to many Americans. Volunteering is a good way to meet people and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Time is money

Americans value punctuality and find it disrespectful to arrive late to an appointment. This isn’t only true in the workplace but also for social occasions.

Communication style

Americans are direct and honest. While this can come across as rude, it rarely means any harm.

Education

In the USA, compulsory education starts at the age of 5 when a child enters kindergarten. Americans have to attend school until they’re 16, although most stay until they graduate at 17 or 18.

The schooling system varies from state to state, but is generally divided into three levels:

• Elementary school – kindergarten to grade 5
• Middle school – grades 6 to 8
• High school – grades 9 to 12

For more information on planning for education, see our Family Finances content.

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Public education

Your choice of public schools is determined by where you live – so make sure you consider this when you’re deciding on a home. Schools are funded by property taxes, so those in wealthier suburbs usually have better facilities. The standard of public education varies dramatically depending on the area. While tuition is free, you’ll have to buy things like books and stationery.

Other types of public institutes include specialised charter and magnet schools, which tend to have long waiting lists and competitive admission processes.

Private schools

Many private schools are affiliated with religious institutions. Private schools in the USA don’t have to conform to government educational directives, so teachers have more flexibility with the curriculum. Higher annual fees mean they also have more varied extracurricular activities and give greater support to students with special needs. Competition to get into the most popular schools is stiff.

International schools

You’ll find international schools in all of the country’s major cities, including New York, Boston, Washington DC and Los Angeles. The most popular have long waiting lists and fees can be astronomical.

Don’t act like a tourist. Talk confidently, and be friendly.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

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Keeping in touch

Mobile

The USA has fast and reliable mobile networks. Four national companies provide the bulk of mobile services – AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. You can choose between various competitive pay-as-you-go and contract deals. Coverage is good, but each provider will have areas it doesn’t reach.

Internet

Sophisticated technology is part of everyday life in the States. Internet services are provided by private companies, and many Americans access the internet through smartphones. Service providers vary by region, but some of the biggest include Comcast, Charter and AT&T.

Social media

Many of the world’s social media sites originated in the USA. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are incredibly popular, along with instant messaging services like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Traditional media

Newspapers are regional rather than national and cater to their specific areas. Influential dailies such as USA Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post are sold across the country. The number of TV channels is overwhelming, with various major networks competing for viewers.

Healthcare

Healthcare in the USA is a contentious issue. For people with comprehensive private medical insurance, the country’s health facilities are among the best in the world. But anyone who doesn’t have insurance runs the risk of paying colossal bills or receiving no medical attention at all.

Most expats don’t qualify for the federal medical aid scheme that provides for children and people in poverty, so invest in the best insurance policy you can afford or negotiate one into your contract.

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Private healthcare

Most hospitals are privately owned – there’s no national system of government-owned medical facilities as in Europe or Canada. The standard of care is generally excellent. Doctors are highly trained and many of the world’s best specialists are found in the States.

Unless it’s an emergency, patients aren’t treated without prior payment. Long-term treatments and expensive operations are often denied to people who don’t have adequate insurance.

Pharmacies

You’ll find pharmacies in grocery shops and big department stores, as well as attached to hospitals and clinics. Prescription medicines are expensive – you’ll need to keep all the receipts to reclaim the costs from your insurance provider.

Emergency services

The emergency number 911 covers the police, fire department and ambulance services. Emergency medical services are regulated by individual state governments and must be provided to anyone in need. Paramedics are highly trained and provide an excellent level of care.

Getting around

The USA’s public transport systems include buses, trains, trams, rapid-transit subways and ferries, while intercity transport is dominated by airlines and buses. Rail networks are also popular along the East Coast.

Most cities have some form of local public transport, usually a network of bus routes. You won’t need a car if you live somewhere like San Francisco, New York or Boston. But you will need one if you live in a small town or you often have to travel long distances.

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Public transport

Traffic congestion is a problem in many cities, which is why more commuters are now using trains and buses. Fares are reasonable, with discounts for students and senior citizens. Some cities also have tram systems. Taxis are widespread and can be hailed on the street. Outside the bigger cities, public transport generally consists of limited bus services and taxis must be booked by phone.

Intercity transport

The USA has more than six million kilometres of highways – a network that’s well-maintained by global standards. Bus companies such as Greyhound have affordable passenger routes across the country and Amtrak’s inexpensive intercity railway services link more than 500 destinations.

Air travel

The USA’s advanced air transport infrastructure includes eight of the world’s 30 busiest airports and more than 200 domestic passenger and cargo airlines. While air travel is quick, allow time for immigration, customs and security checkpoints, especially when you’re catching an international flight.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

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