The Ultimate Expat’s Library: Books for Brits in America

We're going offline with this one. (Tetra Images/AP Images)

We’re going offline with this one. (Tetra Images/AP Images)

Surprisingly, (except for the one that’s two thirds written in my head) there aren’t too many books specifically for Brits in America. While there are plenty of books about relocating to the U.S. they tend to be for any nationality and don’t address the very subtle, unexpected differences between the U.S. and the U.K. This might be because as a newbie Brit here, you can function as soon as you get off the boat, whereas someone with a real language barrier, from a very different culture, would face a much bigger challenge.

As a Brit who’s been here for over twenty years however, I do have a few books on my shelves that I would recommend for British newcomers. They have more to do with language origins and politics than how to open a bank account, but I do think it’s important to understand the history and mechanics of the U.S. to hold up your end in a conversation. There’s nothing worse than spouting off your political views only to be gently told “it doesn’t work that way here”.

Let’s Talk Turkey; The Stories Behind America’s Favorite Expressions by Rosemary Ostler is a charming book that digs into the history of American phraseology. For Brits interested in language, this is a great book for learning what the various weird phrases mean and how they came to be. (The phrase “Let’s talk turkey” by the way, means “let’s talk business”.)

Bet You Didn’t Know; Hundreds of Intriguing Facts about Living in the USA by statistics maven Cheryl Russell, is one of those books that you almost can’t put down. Each page starts with a random fact about Americans, then the author gives more background. Some of the facts will surprise you e.g., the largest percentage of self-employed individuals is in the 65+ crowd, because one of their largest fixed costs, health insurance, is covered by Medicare. Younger people have to find jobs that offer health insurance.

McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary is, as you’d imagine, choc full of American phrases and sayings that Brits are never quite sure of. Although most of us know the meaning of “fat chance”, what about the difference between “hang fire” and hang five”?* Any Brit who’s spent a decent amount of time here knows that it’s better to admit ignorance when faced with an unfamiliar phrase in the middle of a conversation. To do otherwise can result in some pretty confusing discussions but you can avoid some of this by perusing the American Idioms Dictionary.

*Hang fire – to delay or wait; to be delayed.
Hang five (or hang ten)– to stand toward the front of a surfboard or diving board and hang the toes of one or both feet over the edge.

Probably the most important type of book for Brits in the U.S. is one that covers basic government and civics The government system is quite different from the U.K. but obviously, comes up every day in one way or another. It is almost impossible to watch the news or have a conversation about politics without a basic understanding of the system and its history. Brits with school kids can probably pick up the text book lying on the bathroom floor, but for those without such resources, I recommend something like Introducing American Politics by Patrick Brogan and Chris Garratt. While it really only skims the surface, it’s great for a first bash at understanding how things work here. Once you’ve figured out the primaries and the Electoral College, you can aim for more detailed coverage. Given the increasing media frenzy about the next Presidential election, you might want to get a head start on the basics.

If you have teenagers thinking of attending college here, and like I was, you’re clueless not really au fait with the whole application system, don’t worry – I’ve written a book for you. The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students walks you and your teenager through the entire process, including visa applications, and test taking. The whole “college app” process is very, very different from the U.K.’s and can be overwhelming. In the book, there’s even a chapter especially for parents.

Please add your own recommendations on books for Brits in the U.S.

See More: 
A British Expat’s Guide to Cooking in the U.S.
A British Expat Speaks: Five Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Americans
10 Things British Expats Should Leave in the U.K.


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Vi

    Just curios: I’m a college student native to the States, how is the application process different from how it us here? Or how is it different for international students?

    • Toni Hargis

      Where are you?
      Anyway, the two (US and UK) college app systems are very different for many reasons. 1. The whole high school system is different, so filling in US application forms for British students is a challenge. They don’t have a GPA or school transcripts to submit. They also don’t take the SAT or ACT as a matter of course.
      2. The UK has an over-riding application system (UCAS) through which they apply to most, if not all, universities; in the US, altho’ there is the Common App, you still have to submit individual apps through that, many of which require different things eg. personal essays.
      3. Extra curricular activities are far more important on a US app than British students are used to.
      That’s scratching the surface and doesn’t even go into the Visa app process, which can’t be started until you have committed to one US college, which initiates everything with the !-20 form.

  • MontanaRed

    The Electoral College is a real poser. I know the history and reasoning(!) behind it, am a natural-born citizen, vote in all the elections (major and minor), and I still resent it. It would be so lovely to be able to say that our president is elected _democratically_ instead of through an arcane, petrified institution like the Electoral College.

    • gn

      Right now, each state is responsible for the conduct of elections (within some limits set by the Constitution, Voting Rights Act, etc). For example, convicted felons are allowed to vote in some states but not in others. In Oregon, all voting is done by mail. Some states allow early voting, others don’t. Etc. Etc.

      If there were to be a single national plebiscite for President, then you would need uniform voting procedures and qualifications nationwide, effectively elminating state control. Quite apart from the practical problems in implementing something like this, the states would scream blue murder.

      • MontanaRed

        With all respect, dw, that is not the case. All that needs to be done is to count the number of votes cast in the presidential election, as is done now, and take the result as written, instead of translating the popular vote into Electoral College votes.

        I get that the U.S. founding fathers wanted a backup method for electing the president (and, in fact, they didn’t really have that much faith in the wisdom of the masses), but that time has passed.

        The Electoral College is established in the Constitution. Making a substantive change is, to say the least, challenging.

        The 2000 Bush/Gore debacle cast into high relief the problems inherent in the Electoral College system.

        • gn

          Let’s say we switch to an aggregate votes method. Then each state will have an incentive to maximize its votes.

          California gives the vote to non-citizens.
          Texas gives the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
          New York gives two votes to each person.

          Can’t you see that there need to be some uniform federal standards?

          • MontanaRed

            Yes, I see your point. It’s got merit, I have to admit. So, let’s say that voting guidelines would have to be federally set for the presidential election, but not necessarily for other, non-national elections. It could get messy, as you point out.

            Your point kinda reinforces the reasoning behind the Electoral College given that states’ rights have always been a very basic, if contentious, tenet of American government.

            Well, shoot.

  • Globalista Gal

    Watching the English by Kate Fox

    • Toni Hargis

      A brilliant book but it’s facing the wrong way. It’s about the Brits not Americans. (She has written quite a few more books about pub culture etc too.)

  • gn

    It’s out-of-print and somewhat out-of-date (from the early-to-mid-1980s), but I like Peter Trudgill’s Coping With America very much. It’s brilliantly written and very funny. For example, the author writes that the detailed phone bills he found in the US “may make adulterous phone calls inadvisable, but [are] in every other way an advantage”!

    Trudgill is a distinguished linguist, and it’s no surprise that he’s excellent on the language differences between the two cultures, but his observations are witty and penetrative in many other areas too. It is particularly amusing to read of the new and amazing things the author discovered in the US (e.g. automated phone answering, cable TV) that are now standard in the UK.

    Second-hand copies are dirt cheap on Amazon.