I moved back to the US from the UK after 4 years. Here are 9 things that have surprised me the most so far.

I moved back to the US from the UK after 4 years. Here are 9 things that have surprised me the most so far.
  • Earlier this year, I moved back to the US after living in the UK for four years.

  • The transition has been a bigger adjustment than I expected, and I've felt some real culture shock.

  • Surprises include getting my head around tipping and realizing how much Americans love a parade.

Earlier this year, I decided to move back to the US after four years of living in the UK, where I spent most of my life.

I grew up in and around London but lived in Boston for four years during college before moving back home to kick-start my career. For a long time, moving back to the US was a thought that very rarely crossed my mind, for several reasons. In truth, I've always felt more at home with British customs and I loved living close to my family members, who are mostly based there.

That said, I was ready for a change of pace this year. So on October 17, I brought three suitcases to London's Heathrow Airport and boarded a flight destined for JFK in New York.

It's been less than a month, but I can already say this transition has been way more of an adjustment than I'd anticipated. From my experience, culture shock, even if you have lived in a country before, is a real thing. Picking up my life in the UK to start over in the US has come with challenges and many surprises.

I'd forgotten how much bigger everything is in the US, from roads and cars to food and drinks.

Food and structures in the US are noticeably bigger than in the UK.
Food and structures in the US are noticeably bigger than in the UK.Maria Noyen/Insider

From the moment I hopped in a taxi at JFK Airport and began the drive to Manhattan, I started to notice just how much larger than life things are in the US compared to back home — from the width of the highways and cars to the moment I ordered my first bagel in New York City, which was so big it was basically impossible to take a full bite.

I've also noticed that the smallest to-go cups at coffee shops in the US are way bigger than the largest I'd had in the UK, and the portions of meals I've eaten at restaurants in America so far have been more than I'm used to.

I'm far from the only one who's picked up on how portion sizes vary vastly in the US from the UK. Insider's Food Wars senior video producer Joe Avella previously wrote about being continuously shocked by how much larger fast-food items are in the US than in the UK. At McDonald's, for example, he discovered that American drinks are 89% bigger than their British counterparts, whether you order a large or small.

I still can't wrap my head around tipping culture in the US, which is basically nonexistent in the UK.

Tipping culture is very different in the US versus the UK.Anastasiya Aleksandrenko/Shutterstock

Having lived in the US previously, I was somewhat familiar with how important it is to tip when you go out to restaurants, which continues to baffle people from different countries where the practice isn't considered a cultural norm.

That said, knowing where exactly a tip is appropriate and the amount to give has been confusing. When buying a coffee or a drink at a bar in the first week of my relocation to the US, I found myself in an awkward spot deciding whether or not that warrants a tip and, if so, how much to give.

So far, I've learned that it can vary, but that the safest bet whenever you have doubts is to leave a tip — no matter the situation.

I have been pleasantly surprised by how much warmer customer service at restaurants in the US is compared to service in the UK.

Customer service at restaurants in the US is better than in the UK.
Customer service at restaurants in the US is better than in the UK.Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Unlike the US, tipping isn't mandatory in the UK, as most places add a mandatory service charge to a bill, which in my view, might explain why customer service at restaurants is generally quite different.

Since I'm still in the process of setting up my apartment, I've done a lot of eating out in NYC. Granted that hasn't been the best for my budget, but it has made me appreciate how much more effort servers in the US put into giving customers the best dining experience possible. So far, I've had instances where dishes have arrived late and have been taken off the bill or where servers have taken time to get to know a bit about me while taking my order. That kind of warmth and charisma is rare to find in the UK, from my experience.

A welcome surprise is how much better frozen-food options are at grocery stores in the US compared to those in the UK.

Frozen food in the US is much better than in the UK.
Frozen food in the US is much better than in the UK.Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

My favorite place to grocery shop when I was in college in the US was Trader Joe's, which sadly has yet to open any locations in the UK. One of the reasons why I loved it so much is because of the quality and sheer variety of its frozen food. The chain's frozen pasta and dumplings are some of my favorites, and I can't wait to explore new staples now that I'm back in the US.

The same can't really be said for what's available in the frozen-food aisle when grocery shopping at stores like Sainsbury's and Tesco in the UK, in my experience. Besides the odd pizza, I've generally avoided purchasing frozen meals in the UK in favor of going for fresh produce because they aren't as appetizing or as diverse as those I've seen offered at grocery stores in the US.

The fact that there is AC on the subway was another welcome surprise because I'm used to how sweaty the London Tube can be.

Public transport in the UK is more efficient, in the authors experience.
Air-conditioning is more common in the US.Maria Noyen/Insider

I knew that Americans loved air-conditioning in their homes, but I genuinely was taken aback when I felt the cooling breeze of an AC unit while riding the subway on an unseasonably warm day during my first few weeks in New York City.

Back in the UK, not only do most homes not have AC units, but neither do most of the trains that run through the London Tube. In the summer when temperatures soar, you can often hear announcements over the loudspeaker warning people to stay hydrated and seek assistance if they find themselves struggling due to how hot it is on public transportation.

From what I've seen, people in the US really don't mind waiting in line.

Lines are a staple in the US.
Waiting in line is a staple in the US.Maria Noyen/Insider

As someone who grew up with a Dutch father who is all about efficiency, I've been shocked and frustrated at how many long lines I've seen in the US since moving back.

I first noticed it when my little sister took me to grab a bagel at Tompkins Square Bagels in the Lower East Side. In fairness, we arrived around midday during the work week, so I assumed there were a lot of people there to grab lunch, but I still thought it was wild that customers were happy to wait in what looked like a line of over 30 that wrapped around most of the restaurant.

As we joined the back of the line, I turned to my sister to point out how crazy it was, to which she said: "Americans love lines. I've seen people join the back of lines without even knowing what they're queuing for."

I've just discovered how much people love to throw a parade in the US.

The annual Halloween parade in New York on October 31, 2023.
There's an annual Halloween parade in New York.Maria Noyen/Insider

One of the biggest takeaways I've had since moving back to the US is the realization that Americans love a parade. From watching "Friends" growing up, I knew that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was a big thing that happened each year, but I had no idea that people in the US throw a parade to celebrate pretty much any holiday.

For Halloween alone, I saw two different parades, including one where dog owners dressed up their pups in costumes.

Aside from the official royal parade during the coronation of King Charles III in May, I've never seen anything on the same scale in the UK.


Bars I've visited in NYC haven't seemed as homey or open to different generations as pubs in the UK.

Drinking culture in the US is worlds away from the UK.
Drinking culture in the US is worlds away from the UK.Maria Noyen/Insider

I'm not a huge drinker, but I will say that one of my favorite aspects of living in the UK is its pub culture.

People in the UK will usually say they have "a local" pub, meaning one that they frequently visit. For them, it's not only a place to have a few drinks with friends, colleagues, and family, but where they can enjoy meals.

Most pubs I've visited in London have a super homey, laidback atmosphere. Unlike the bars I've visited since moving to NYC, pubs back home rarely have loud music, and visitors are often allowed to bring dogs and young children along with them.

Planning international travel or visits to different cities within the US is a bigger hassle than it is in the UK.

The author in Boston, Massachusetts.
The author in Boston, Massachusetts.Maria Noyen/Insider

One of the things I was really looking forward to before moving back to the US was traveling within the country to the Midwest and the West Coast, places I didn't get the opportunity to visit during my college years.

But unlike the UK, where different cities are often a train ride or short flight away, everything is so much more spread out in the US, which is something I've only just started appreciating since looking into booking vacations.

The idea that it takes over six hours to reach a different city within the same country by plane is a wild concept for someone from the UK, where a flight to France and Spain is only a couple of hours.


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