Saturday, 2 August 2008

US and UK incompatability

A list off the top of my head of the adjustments you have to make when moving between the USA and the UK or vice-versa. This is a can of worms I wish I'd never started. Read at your own risk.


US: Drive on the right, steering wheel is on the left. Thus drivers are more likely to get skin cancer on their left arm.

UK: Drive on the left, steering wheel on the right. Drivers get skin cancer on right arm. Except the UK gets it less because of the weather (but don't kid yourself, melanoma rates are rising).

In the UK you can get a special license if you can only drive an automatic car but why bother. Everyone has a stick.

If you come to the UK from the US and stay more than 30 days with intention to live here, you have to take the UK driving test. If you say you're not coming to stay more than 30 days, you can drive on a US license but only for one year. It is not that hard to get car insurance on a US license but you will pay a slightly higher premium but you won't be able to transfer your 'no claims' bonus unless you get a certified letter from your old insurer less than 30 day old.

On the other hand, you can come to the UK from Zimbabwe and hand in your license and get a UK one straight away. Do they think Zimbabwe's driving standards are better than American ones?

The know-it-all in the pub told me (and I haven't yet heard that this loophole has been closed) that you can get legally a driving license from the DR Congo which has no driving test and then exchange it without a test in Germany and then exchange that (because it is EU) for a UK license WITHOUT EVER TAKING A TEST. There are dodgy websites that claim they do this for you and relieve you of 600 euros for the privilege.

If you get a ticket in the UK when driving on a US license, you get fined etc. just the same and the minute you get a UK license, the 'points' (endorsements) show up.

Taking the UK driving test is not just going down to the DMV. Oh no, it's an example of British bureaucracy at its finest. You have to make an appointment to take the written test and maybe wait six months. Then when you've passed that you make another appointment for the driving test, and then maybe wait six months. Without driving lessons the fees etc. add up to over £150

The UK test is MUCH harder than the California DMV exam. Maybe because UK roads are smaller and speeds are higher.

Bringing an economy type car with high mileage from the US to Britain is not worth the cost of all the extra cost of insurance that you will pay for a left-hand drive (and conversion of emissions and light lenses etc.) but for luxury and sports cars, it might be worth it.

If your car is over 30 years old, you will pay NO road tax in the UK and avoid all kinds of emission regulations. Certainly importing some classic tin from the US to the UK is a lot easier than importing a modern car. A lot of classic UK cars (Jags, MG's, and Bentleys etc.) seem to go the other way too.

I've met a lot of British people in the USA buying classic Harleys for half the UK cost and importing them to the UK where any adaptation to UK specifications must be more straightforward.

Car Insurance

I never got to the bottom of this but in the US, if you have a license and fully comprehensive insurance, you can lend your friend or your child your car to drive as long as they have a license. Your policy covers occasional use by family or friends if there under reasonable circumstances.

In the UK, the driver has to have their own insurance (and license obviously) before they can drive anyone else's car. Total pain and you have to get a rider on your policy.

Road Tax (Registration)

USA: (California) your car and your trailer have different license plates.

UK: your trailer has to have the same license plate as the car pulling it. So you have to have a lot of custom plates if you have a lot of different cars.

When you rent a trailer in the UK, they charge you extra (around £30) to make up the plate unless you have your own.

If you have a tow bar (hitch) installed on your car, you should get an extra license plate (wired and illuminated of course) to put on whatever you tow with it.

In California the annual registration sticker goes on the corner of the rear license plate and it sticks really hard. You have to buy one every year. You stick the new one over the old. After about ten years, you take them off with razor blade.

In the UK, the registration sticker isn't a sticker but a paper beer label and sticks on the inside of your windshield (windscreen) with a lame bit of phthalated plastic. It can fall off and blow away anytime. That's really annoying if you get a ticket for not displaying one or a residents' parking permit when this type falls off in the sun. As it costs an arm and a leg, you can buy one for six or twelve months.

Rear Lamps on cars.

US cars: Red brake lights and turn signal (indicators).

UK cars: Amber turn signal, red brake lights.

In the UK, you can tell if they’re turning and not that they have lost a bulb in the brake light.


US month/day/year… but why?

UK day/month/year is better but still not logical.

Why don't we just do year/month/day - hour/minute/second like astronomers do?

The international format defined by ISO 8601 tries to address all these problems by defining a numerical date system as follows: YYYY-MM-DD where

* YYYY is the year [all the digits, i.e. 2012]
* MM is the month [01 (January) to 12 (December)]
* DD is the day [01 to 31]


In Britain, Mother's Day is on the fourth Sunday of Lent and therefore its date varies, depending on the date of Easter.

In the USA and also in Australia and many other countries, Mother's Day is on the second Sunday in May.

Father's Day seems to be different either side of the Atlantic too.

People in Britain complain about the American invasion of 'Trick or Treat' corrupting Halloween which twenty years ago didn't have the mischief element in the UK nor the hordes of sweet collectors but they forget it was invented in Yorkshire and went to the New World, so it's a custom that's just come home and it never died out here in the first place.

'Bonfire Night' on 5th November means the fireworks show starts earlier than it would on 4th July. And what better on a winter night than a great big fire! In the UK you can buy fireworks in a sweetshop (candy store). They are neither safe nor sane. M-80's or cherry bombs (real or not) are called 'bangers'. The British love flammable magnesium wands called 'sparklers'.


The US and the UK change to/from Summer Time or Daylight Saving Time at different times.

The U.S. federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 mandated that daylight saving time begin nationwide on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October. Then they changed it again so daylight saving time goes from the second Sunday of March to the first Sunday of November.

"Spring forward, Fall back" is universal but the change always happens about two weeks apart. LA is eight hours behind London then for two weeks in the Spring it is nine hours behind.

Brits say "quarter past". Americans say "quarter of".


US: Legal and letter paper sizes Duh?

UK: A4 and dead easy to scale up and down and to calculate the shipping weight of a publication by the GSM of the paper.

This makes US filing cabinets and suspension systems incompatible with UK ones and vice-versa.


The US three ring binders are totally incompatible with UK two-ring or four-ring binders.


Henry Ford turned down the Roberston Bolt because they (the Robertson's) wouldn't let him have it exclusively. Canadians on the other hand have adopted it everywhere. Why Britain uses the inferior Philips I don't know.

American bolts are Imperial and the UK is pretty much metric now. US manufacturers are slowly and very quietly changing to metric because of overseas markets (the US) as tools and dies in offshore manufacturers are generally metric.

NASA's loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter was caused by assumptions that the US way is #1.
A NASA investigation into the satellite's failure revealed that one team of engineers had used traditional American units, while another had used metric units. The result was a trajectory error of sixty miles, and a $125-million disappearing act.


US pints are 16 fluid ounces.

UK pints are 20 fluid ounces.

This makes the US gallon smaller and trips to the pub bathroom more frequent as Brits drink bigger pints.


US 110v 60 Hz

UK 230v 50 Hz

I've always liked the US voltage. Appliance plugs are smaller.

US cube taps (two-way adaptors) are quite small. British ones are huge and bulky. Same with wall sockets. If you like minimalism, have US style household electrics.

If you move to the UK from the USA, you don't have to give away or sell all your appliances and power tools. Since 1991 all professional contractors (builders) have to run 110v power tools on sites in the UK so you can buy 230v-110v transformers very cheaply capable of almost any wattage. Things like record players don't work so well as the AC hertz governs the motor speed. Small appliances like a US specification KitchenAid mixer or HP printer will work just fine with a transformer in the UK and besides they cost twice in the UK what they do in the US. Most desk computers and laptops are universal voltage so not a worry.

A UK hairdryer in the US is anemic and useless. A US hairdryer used in the UK will burn out in seconds (I tried it!) I saw in a drugstore (chemist) one with a switch on the handle that said 230v/110v and when I opened it, it was just a dummy stuck in the housing not even connected to anything.

When you go into a UK bathroom, you won't find a light switch inside it. Because of the voltage, wet hands might get a nasty shock so bathrooms have a pull switch on a long cord which hopefully insulates you. For any electrical things you want to use in a bathroom like razors, there is often a two-pin plug unit on the wall marked 'Shavers Only' which has a monstrous GFI to prevent electric shocks.

If you have your US laptop or similar with you and you have forgotten or lost a US to UK plug adaptor, you can make the US plug fit in those shaver sockets without too much butchery. Just tamp down the widest part of the prongs on the US plug which a shoe heel or something heavy.

A trick I've learned is when using something that can run on a car adaptor taking 12v from the cigarette lighter, you should buy an American one for 12v to 110v as it’s a waayyyy smaller package than a 12v to 240v.

American appliances like the WaterPik are not as common in the UK because they don't allow electricity in bathrooms. Which also helps explain British teeth.

Household Wiring.

In Europe the following colour scheme is used: the covering of the live conductor is brown, that of the neutral conductor is blue and that of the earth (ground) has green and yellow stripes. Britain previously used a different colour scheme but changed to the European standard many years ago.

For many years the USA has used the following colour scheme: the covering of the live conductor is black (or occasionally red or blue), that of the neutral conductor is white and that of the ground (earth) is green. However, according to some sources the USA is now changing to the European standard, especially for equipment which is distributed world-wide.

I suspect that the colour scheme used in Canada is the same as in the USA.

Electrical Safety.

USA: Underwriter's Laboratory UL logo

UK BSA 'Kite Mark' logo

Mobile Phones (Cell Phones).

USA: CDMA/TDMA are the predominant wireless technologies.

Everywhere else: GSM 900/1800

Phone Dialling.

UK area codes start with a '0' (zero) so think 0213-555 -1212

US phone numbers start with a 1 so it's 1-213-555-1212

BUT when you call a number in the UK from the USA, you have to lose the zero.

UK country code is 44

USA country code is 1

UK country code comes after Romania, Austria and Slovakia. Why? Long story but Britain arrived late at the conference. No seriously.

International Dialing Code in the UK is '00'

International Dialing Code in the USA is '011'

To call a number in the UK from the USA it would be 011-213-555-1212 (you lost the '0' right?)

To call a number in the USA from the UK it would be 00-1-213-555-1212

UK emergency services (any type) 999

USA emergency services (any type) 911

Phone Wiring.

Land-line phones, answering machines and fax machines imported from the USA don't work very well in the UK unless they say they are UK specification. The UK has different dialing tones and line voltage which gives US specification phones a really bad hum.

If you're travelling with a US modem in the UK, they work OK but if you're having problems connecting, the first thing to check is the cord. Get to down to a stationery store and get a UK one. The wiring of wall boxes and lines is different in the UK and a USA RJ11 cord doesn't work.

UK phones use BS6312 431A plugs to connect to the wall anyway. The latch is on the side.

UK phones cords are hardwired. You can disconnect the handset but usually you can't replace the line from the base unit to the wall. Only one end has the plug, the other is hardwired into the unit which is a pain if you want to make the cord much longer without a big lumpy connector in the middle of it which someone will step on and crunch underfoot.

Southwestern Bell, a US phone appliance maker, also makes UK phones but these are UK specification.

Electrical Switches.


UK: Off is UP (except for some equipment intended for the world market and imported into the UK.


Portable radios are compatible between the UK and the USA/Canada, except that there are no long wave transmissions in the USA or Canada.

Radio stations are 9 kHz apart in the EU. In the USA it 10 kHz. Digital tuners often have a switch.

What the British call Medium Wave is called AM in the US. What Britain calls Long Wave is AM too but Long Wave is something else in the US. If you want to get the main UK stations on a US radio, it just needs to have VHF.

Mail (Post).

In the UK no mail is collected from your postbox. A pain if you live in rural area.

In the US your mail is collected if you put the flag up on your mailbox.

CANADA (BC at least) has no deliveries on a Saturday.

UK delivery is six days a week Mon-Sat. Sometimes twice in one day.
Special Delivery is not on Sunday, Saturday Special Delivery has a surcharge.

US delivery is six days a week; Mon-Sat.
Special Delivery is on Sunday too.

Read this essay about what happens when you don't put enough postage on a letter in the UK and why Britain should do what the US does and put a return address on every piece of mail which isn't required in the UK.

In the UK you can't send a letter to Canada without a return address.

Gas/Petrol Stations.

Unlike in Britain, in the USA and Canada most petrol (gas) pumps do not switch on automatically as you lift the hose out of the pump. Instead, you have to pull a lever up, turn a lever, or press a button to switch the pump on. Then with self-serve you have to wait for the pump to be cleared down by the operator before you can start filling.

You can’t put unleaded in the leaded car in the US but in the UK you can’t buy leaded anyway.

In the UK you can easily make a mistake and put petrol in a diesel car. Big Mistake. It'll cost you £5K if you have a Landrover.

If you really try, you can also put diesel in a petrol car. Not so bad, makes lots of smoke though.

Sales Tax/VAT.

UK sales tax/value added tax included in the retail price unless at a wholesaler or trade store.

VAT is different from sales tax though in the way it is collected.

US & CANADA, sales tax is on top of quoted price.

In UK, if Business to Business, prices exclude sales tax/VAT.

In a petrol station in the UK they might ask you "do you want a VAT receipt". Why don't they just give everyone the same receipt with the VAT and non-VAT breakdown, which is what it is?

Fast Food.

In the US you get heaps of free condiments. Totally groovy by me.

In the UK condiments nearly always cost extra. A gouge really. I've seen unsuspecting Americans pile their tray with condiments in a self-serve cafeteria and freak out at the check-out (till).


USA has seven bank holidays.

New Year’s Day
President Day
Memorial Day
Independence Day
Labour Day
Thanksgiving Day
Christmas Day

Most people in the USA only get ten to twenty-one days holiday (vacation) from their workplace per year.

In the UK, four weeks is around the basic. The British don't only get fewer public holidays; they also have the least statutory annual leave in Europe.
The UK has up to 8 bank or public holidays depending on the calendar in comparison with the European average of 10.8
There is no statutory right to time off for bank and public holidays in England and Wales. Any right to time off or extra pay for working on a bank holiday depends on the terms of an employee's contract of employment.


Whenever you talk about the law in Britain, you have to remember that Scotland has its own legal system and so what goes in England and Wales may not apply there. A bit like Federal and State law.

If arrested in the US you have the right to remain silent and that is respected. Google Professor Duane for his lecture on YouTube.

In the UK, you have the right to remain silent but jury attitudes tend to consider that an admission of guilt (I served on a jury and that's all I base it on).


The US uses absolutely brain-dead bank notes: all denominations have the same size, feel and color. Furthermore, the largest denomination is only $100.

UK pound coins weigh a ton and wear out the pockets of your pants (trousers).

When writing cheques (checks) in the US you write the dollars and the pennies as fractions of dollars e.g. twelve dollars and 25/100

In the UK you write: twelve pounds and 25 pence.

Did you know that Nat West and Barclays and some other UK banks will take a US dollar check from US certain banks and convert it at the interbank rate? It's good to ask your bank first; you can save a bundle on fees if someone sends you money from the US. You can also walk into almost any Canadian bank a get a cheque for UK sterling with very little markup which is cheaper than an ATM.

You can't go overdrawn in the US without a pre-arranged line of credit. The bad check just gets sent back and you get an NSF fee.

In the UK, if you have had an account for a year or so and suddenly go one pound overdrawn, they tend to let it through but charge huge fees and over 30% APR.

To deposit a check in the US you have to endorse it on the back. You don't do anything in the UK except enclose a deposit slip.


Americans have a strange obsession with the points of the compass. Frequently inside a building you will find signs like "This elevator is out of order. Please use the one on the North side of the building." How am I supposed to know where North is? Why can't they just tell me where the elevator is?


A confusion arises between the two forms of floor numbering in use worldwide. In most of Europe, and thus British usage, the floor at the ground level is the ground floor, and the floor above is the first floor, which maintains the continental European use dating from the days of the construction of palaces. For example, in French, the term for the ground floor is rez de chausée. But in North American usage, the floor at the ground level is the first floor and the floor above is the second floor; this system is also used in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Russians thought, "some day, some day."


American 50's and 60's modernism was a bargain once upon a time. I used to buy stuff for my apartment cheaply at Deseret Industries and when I shipped it to my new home in the UK, it was the envy of several antique dealers who were buying in the US and selling in the UK. I nearly plotzed when I saw Steelcase 'tank' desks and old steel medical cabinets on sale in London for 1200 dollars which I could find for ten dollars in the US.


There a lots of US/UK clothing size charts out there. I need not go into that. Google them.


US bed sizes are totally different than the UK ones although they have the same names.

I've been in touch with the UK Sleep Council (an association of furniture and mattress makers) and they told me they don't have any official standard sizes in the UK although there are some standards; these are not any kind of legal standard.

The UK hotel industry doesn't have any standardized sizes either. If a place advertises 'King' beds, it could be anybody's king. Hope it’s not the king of Lilliput.

Now IKEA in the UK has slightly different sizes of sheets than you would buy in John Lewis or Sears for example. IKEA sells different sizes in the US than it sells in the EU as it learned that, sorry guys, Americans are a tad bit heavier than Europeans. Must be all those free condiments.

So, if buying linens for friends in another country; get very specific about measurements and don't just go by the names for things.


Way too complicated but remember;

In the United States, typeface designs are not covered by copyright, but may be covered by patents if sufficiently novel.

In the UK, typefaces can be copyrighted. So if you borrow someone's fonts and publish something with them, you could be in twubble.

Tax Filing.

For an UK employee, the end of the UK tax year is April 5th and you can file as late as January 31 following.

US tax year is Dec 31st and you file by April 15th.

Thanks go to many for info and corrections.


  1. Medium Wave is AM in the US, not FM.

    110v can kill.

    Car registration stickers- wipe off the top on the old sticker with a dry paper towel, stick the new one on top. You can keep doing this for 10 + years. The glue is made stronger than the sticker so people can't steal your sticker easily.

    The State of Louisiana (New Orleans is there) has a different basis of law - some of it based on the French Code Napoleon, some based on English Common law, like the rest of the US.

  2. A few points...

    UK mains voltage is 230v 50Hz, US is 110v 60Hz.

    Higher voltage is actually safer as the currents are lower (Power = Volts x Amps). UK appliances also have thinner power cables as the current is lower.

    Pull cord switches in the bathroom has nothing to do with the higher voltage - its just common sense. Water and electricity don't mix. Mains outlets are allowed in bathrooms if isolated (shaver socket) I have one that charges my electric toothbrush.

    British phones do not use RJ45 plugs at the wall socket, they use BS6312 431A plugs - the latch is on the side not the top. RJ45 plugs are used by network connections and are 8 pin not 6.