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Living in the United States of America

Your guide to expat life in the United States of America

Want to live in the United States of America?

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.

Accommodation in the USA

No matter where you settle in the USA, you’ll find a wide choice of property with high standards of accommodation. Depending on your needs, location and budget, you can choose to live in an apartment, duplex, townhouse or even a sprawling mansion.

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 6 months or a year. Whether you have to pay utility bills and maintenance costs in addition to rent depends on your contract.

Local culture in the USA

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

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

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 such as San Francisco, Miami, New York, Chicago and Boston are generally more progressive.

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

Education in the USA

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 3 levels:

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

Public schools

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.

Keeping in touch in the USA

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

The USA has fast and reliable mobile networks. 4 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 can’t reach.

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.

Those looking for local media will find most 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 in the USA

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 getting 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.

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.

You’ll find pharmacies, or ‘drug stores’, in grocery stores 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.

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

Getting around in the USA

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’ll need one if you live in a small town or have to travel long distances often.

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.

For intercity travel, the USA has more than 6 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.

The USA’s advanced air transport infrastructure includes 8 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.

Cost of living in the USA

Big cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are the most expensive places to live. The cost of living here can be 50% more than the national average due to high property prices.

While living expenses are generally lower than in Western Europe, there may be some additional costs that you might not be used to. For example, a car is essential in cities that have poor public transport, although petrol is much cheaper than in Europe.

Top tips for the USA

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in the United States of America.

Expect the unexpected. Be open minded about the people you meet, they are all friendly as long as you demonstrate your culture well. Have a good value and principle to live happily in this country. You will enjoy life overall in the long run.

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

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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