Sales Taxes, Speed Limits, and Bra Sizes: Differences Between Britain and America

Stay aware of the speed limit, which can change from state to state. (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)

When you’re ordering a pint or finding a new pair of shoes, you’ll notice some subtle differences between America and Britain. Here are just a few facts and figures to keep in mind.

Why don’t those shoes fit?
The fit can often vary from product to product, and though the men’s sizes are close (i.e. a U.K. men’s 8 is a U.S. 8 ½ and so on), for some reason women’s shoes have a big difference – a U.K. 4 is a U.S. 6 etc.), so it’s worth checking before you shop. 

Is this $2 bill real?
Apart from being annoyingly all the same size – watch out for that – bills are easy to get used to. But don’t be suspicious of $1 coins and $2 bills. They’re legal tender even if they’re not used that much, and many people consider the $2 bill to be good luck – they were even once common currency at Disneyland. So if you get one, hang on to it!

How does “sales tax” differ from “VAT”?
Every city and state can have different amounts of Sales Tax – a fee that will be added on to the advertised price of the item when you pay for it. In Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Oregon and New Hampshire, it’s zero, whereas in my home of California it can be as high as 8.75%. Many Brits are caught off guard by this, thinking they have enough to buy something – and then finding it actually costs more. In the U.K. of course, VAT is just added into the overall price.

Can I put the pedal to the metal?
In the U.K. the rule is generally that in towns/built-up areas the limit is 30mph, with 70 the limit on motorways. Here in the U.S.A., it varies from city to state and what kind of road you’re on, but overall it’s less than Brits are used to. In California for example, it’s 55 on two lane highways. Police aggressively target speeders and tickets can be expensive, so slow down!

Where are my TV channels?
Terrestrial television channels (“free to air”) are not the U.K.’s simple BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 with their corresponding buttons 1-5. In the U.S. it depends where you are and if you use satellite or cable, but you’ll usually be able to get CBS, NBC, The CW, ABC, Fox and PBS (the distant cousin of the BBC that has similar programs and some BBC content).    

Why does my phone take so long to charge?
None of your U.K. electrical goods can be plugged in here – many U.S. sockets only have two holes – but more importantly, the voltage levels are different. Buy a converter if necessary, but whatever happens, charging things will take longer: the U.K. voltage is 240 and the US voltage is half that – 120V.

What’s the age of consent?
The age for drinking is 21 (always have ID), but it varies by state for buying alcohol in stores. It’s 18 for buying cigarettes (except in Alabama, Alaska and Utah, where it’s 19), and as for driving, that’s mainly 16 – but can be 14½ to 17. As for the age of consent, that varies too.  

Why is my pint of beer smaller AND colder?
Here in the U.S. a “pint” isn’t quite the same as Brits are used to (an “Imperial” measure of 568 mL). Sadly it’s quite smaller (473 mL), though alcohol percentages are more or less the same (it’s just that the most heavily-advertised U.S. beers are particularly bland – mentioning no names!) One thing Americans always say is that U.K. beers are warm, and it turns out there’s some truth to that. Serving temperatures are around 50-55 degrees, whereas in the generally hotter U.S. it is 35-38 degrees.

What are the differences between British and American measurements?
Official changes or not, many Brits still work in feet, inches, stones and so on, instead of the metric system. U.S. customary measurements are based on the British “Imperial” system, so you’ll see many similarities. However, you will soon get used to someone saying their weight is 196 pounds, while no one in America will know what you mean if you say you’re “14 stone.”

Why doesn’t my bra fit?
Confusingly, U.S. bra sizes start at 30AA, whereas it’s 30A in the U.K. From then on it’s always behind (i.e. a U.S. 30A is a U.K. 30B, U.S. 30B is a U.K. 30C and so on), plus others change too. My wife says U.K. bras tend to fit more snugly, but the best idea might be to check a conversion site.

What conversion has given you the most trouble?

  • rsevan

    God forbid people use their common sense to figure these things out, thanks for the info :-/

  • dw

    ‘U.S. customary measurements are based on the British “Imperial” system’

    Actually it’s more the reverse. Where the two systems differ (fluid oz, pint, quart, gallon, hundredweight, ton) it is generally the US definitions that are older. The Imperial system dates to an Act of Parliament of 1824, after American independence: the Americans retained the earlier English system of weights and measures.

  • http://twitter.com/gladleynet Gillian Ladley

    The sales tax thing does my head in. I hate having it added at the point of sale.

    Charging things is a nuisance, although the only UK goods I have now is my camera and laptop.

    But the thing that has annoyed me most is baking measurements. We don’t have a set of scales and even with my cookbooks with metric and imperial I have to use complicated maths to work out US cup measurements for each ingredient. What a stupid, inexact way of measuring!

  • Laurie

    Bras can start at a 28AA!

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