Fifteen Different US Systems for a new Expat to know

EXPAT LIFE: How different is the USA to Australia? Well I’d say very different, culturally. But considering we were both colonies of Great Britain only two hundred years or so ago and settled by the same people (Brits originally), you would think that when it came to everyday systems, we’d be pretty similar.

Surprisingly, that’s not the case.

There’s the obvious differences that most people know:

  1. Americans drive on the right side of the road;
  2. The US democracy model is not the Westminster style, used in Australia; and
  3. Some American measurements are different.

While the USA uses a non-metric system for measurements, not even this is the same as the old ‘Imperial System’ we used to have many years ago in the UK and Australia. Although originating from England when it arrived with the pilgrims, the American system has some basic differences in standards versus the Imperial System. Now called the ‘US customary system’, Americans use this only in commercial areas but even this reaches many parts of everyday life.


Well-known US systems that are different

1. Liquids in Fluid ozs, quarts and gallons vs mls and litres

All those recipes you have using mls instead of fluid ounces, have to be reconverted which is one challenge. Then when the standard size used in recipes changes as well e.g. standard can-of-soup etc, you need to keep the calculator and conversion charts nearby in the kitchen.


Fluid ounces (oz) are used for measuring liquids in commercial products in the USA. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.



Gallons are used for volume measurement in large commercial products. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

2. Road speed signs and distances

This may again sound easy to recalculate but when you’re used to one system, knowing the relativity of the speed you are travelling in the car is something we all take for granted. Switch the speedometer to a completely new system, and it throws your comfort levels out the window. It is equally difficult to estimate times needed to travel somewhere with such a different system, until you get used to it.


Road signs and speed signs are all in miles not kilometres. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

3. Heights are all measured differently here

It’s not often you get asked for your height. Possibly at the doctor’s office or when applying for your driving license. Previously, you could easily roll off the tongue what your height is in meters. Now you have to stand there and try and convert in your brain what this equates to.


4. Weights are measured in ounces, pounds

Just as with fluid ozs, using ozs in cooking instead of grams requires a bit of recalculating. But it’s not just your kitchen scale that need replacement. Measuring your weight changes by pounds is an experience in self-esteem lowering. Everything is doubled in pounds (1kg is worth 2.2 lbs).


The US version of the British Imperial system is used for weights which are expressed in pounds (lbs). Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

 5. Temperatures for Cooking

Arriving in the US, has forced me to re-visit the heady days of the Margaret Fulton Cookbook and Fahrenheit ovens. Fortunately, most new recipes I pick up here are already in the US system, so I don’t have to convert too often. With some burnt dinners to show, I have almost mastered thinking in Fahrenheit for cooking.


Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

6. Understanding the weather

Understanding the weather forecast in Farenheit has been another exercise all together. After nearly four years, I still have trouble reading the temperature forecast and understanding precisely what that means in Celsius, without converting it. The actual conversion formula is a little too hard to remember and I don’t always have online access to a conversion tool. A quick way of calculating the temperature that we use, is to minus 32 from the Farenheit temperature, then divide it by two. The number you get is close to the converted Celsius temperature (out by 1 or 2 degrees Celsius at the most). Unfortunately, this sort of conversion doesn`t work once the Fahrenheit temperature goes below 32F. Then you need a proper conversion calculator. 


The US daily forecast is in Fahrenheit versus Celsius used in Australia. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

 7. TV and video

Aside from electrical issues, there are format differences between Australia and the US in TV and video. Although both countries have now switched from analog to digital broadcasting, some people still refer to the older analog terms of ‘PAL’ (used in Australia) and ‘NTSC’ (used in the USA) to describe these format differences for everything.

Australia uses the DVB-T system for TV and the USA uses the ATSC format. However, even with the move to digital TV, there remain differences between how both countries’ TVs and videos work. This is because the standards used for digital TV and HDTV are rooted in the old PAL/NTSC analog systems. So even without any electricity compatibility issues, there are possible problems with resolution and refresh rate.

DVDs and Blu-Rays are still classified as having PAL or NTSC standards. PAL format discs will need either an Australian PAL format player or a multi-format DVD/Blu-ray player that plays PAL formats, to view it.       

8. Electricity

The electricity system here is different to many countries. The Voltage (V) and Hertz (HZ) specifications on Australian, European and UK electrical appliances do not match the US system (110 V and 60 HZ) and usually cannot be used here without using a voltage converter. At the very least, an adaptor plug will be needed to fit the different power points here. You can read more about what appliances you can use in the USA here. Another weird difference here is there is no on/off switch on powerpoints. The instant you plug into the socket, electricity is turned on. Fortunately most appliances have on/off switches so you can still control this at one level.P1030616


The less well-known differences

9. Light bulbs are the screw-in type here

As we had purchased convertors and knew that our lamps had small voltage that would probably be OK here, we brought them with us to the USA.

 This worked really well at first. That is until the light bulbs needed replacing. All our lamps have bayonet fittings, and these are unavailable here. They only use screw in bulbs. If we knew that beforehand, we probably would have left our lamps back at home.


US light bulbs have screw in fittings, not bayonet fittings. If you bring Australian lamps with you to the USA, you will have trouble finding replacement light bulbs with bayonet fittings here. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

10. Light switches are upside down

OK. This is an easy one but like driving on the right side, it will take time to get into the habit of flicking your light switch up (not down as in Australia) to turn the lights on.


US light switches are backwards to Australian light switches. You turn lights on by switching up, not down. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

11. Ground floor versus 1st floor

Inexplicably, buildings with more than one storey here, have a different system for numbering each floor. There is no ‘Ground Floor’ in American buildings. The street level of all buildings is called the ‘first’ floor. So if in a hotel lift (or elevator), you will need to press the ‘1’ button to get to reception. Floors below the first floor are basement levels or parking decks.

 12. Screw measurements

Measuring length in inches and feet has more implications than you think. Another surprise for us was that standard sizes of gas cylinder tubes (needed to fit our gas-fired BBQ) were different here. So we could have left that piece of equipment at home.


Screws and nails in the USA are measured in inches. Standard sizes are also different than other countries such as Australia. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

 13. Paper sizes

In Australia printer paper comes in standard sizes called ‘A4’ and ‘foolscap’. The US has its own standard paper sizes: ‘letter’ and ‘legal’. Are these just different names for the same thing? No. American letter size is shorter and wider than A4.Fortunately you can use US paper in your Australian printer but when it comes to using Australian paper in American filing cabinets, file hangers, file folders, the different sizes can be a bit of a pain e.g. A4 paper hangs out the sides and hole punches don’t always have the right adjustments.

 14. Clothes sizes & Shoes

US clothes sizes seem to cater for the superlatively tiny figure in women`s clothes. And although there is a major trend to vanity sizing (naming sizes to appeal to buyers rather than to a standard), even the standards are different from the UK. A UK clothing size is always nominally one size bigger than its true equivalent in the USA e.g. a size 14 (UK) is equivalent to a size 12 (USA). European sizing is vastly different again. So US sizing is, like many other systems, unique to this country.

 15. Local government

Government is very decentralized in the US. While Australia has local councils as the next level after state government, here in the US, it is the township (or similar) form of government which are voted in by the town’s population. Many things are decentralized under local government control including local police, school administration, municipal services, roads, parks and recreation. The major difference is that US local government, has an extraordinary amount of decision-making power. Imagine your home town or suburb negotiating its own labor agreements with teachers and other workers, rather than on a state government basis. Not only can they decide what your salary will be but also whether you get healthcare insurance or not – a major socioeconomic factor in any American’s quality of life.



Discovering all these different systems was a real surprise initially. I’d always thought that with our colonial histories we’d be very similar. No doubt if I were to compare the systems in Australia versus Egypt or Sweden, there would be a huge number of differences between them too. I guess these different systems are just a reflection of the enormously diverse solutions that people can go about solving the same problem – one of the things to learn and appreciate as an expat.

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