British in the Bay: What to Know Before You Arrive

It’s exactly a year since I stepped off the plane and into my new life in San Francisco. Here are a few essentials that as a British person I wish I’d known twelve months ago:

Half and half is not the same as semi-skimmed milk

This is a mistake every new British expat makes. You go into a coffee shop and order a cup of tea. You ask for the milk and the barista points to a bar a few feet away. There’s a jug marked ‘Half and Half’ and a jug marked ‘Skim’. You go for the Half and Half – after all, what’s the point of adding watery skimmed milk to a cup of English Breakfast? Hold it right there! Half and half is half milk and half cream. A dash of half and half and you’ve ruined your steaming mug of tea. Instead, ask if they’ve got any 2%. This is also what to go for in the supermarket. And yes, you can only buy it in enormous half-gallon cartons. But don’t worry, for some weird reason even organic milk never seems to go off here.

Ask for a biscuit and you’ll get more than you bargained for

British Buscuits

You’ve packed your Yorkshire Gold/Tetley/PG Tips, you’ve got the whole Half and Half thing sussed, and now you just need a Digestive biscuit for dunking. Don’t head to the supermarket and ask the shop assistant for the biscuit aisle. You’ll find yourself staring at something very different. A biscuit is akin to a very large savoury scone – it’s a southern food that’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but not at teatime. If you neglected to bring a stash of Chocolate Fingers in your suitcase, head to World Market. This shop is a strange combination of furniture, kitchenware, and international food. They have Chocolate Fingers, Digestives, Hob Nobs, and my personal favourite: Garibaldis. Or, by all means, indulge in the wonderful chocolaty array of sweet treats in your local grocery store; just make sure you ask for the ‘cookie’ aisle.


Don’t ask for the loo

No one will know what you’re talking about. I can’t bring myself to say ‘restroom’ – it sounds like I’m heading off for a nap. But you can get by on ‘bathroom’ very well. Now, I know you’re moving to a developed country, but when it comes to relieving yourself in the US there are a couple of things to be aware of. For some reason, the standard in public toilets is to leave big gaps between the doors and surrounding panels. Privacy is an illusion rather than a reality. So save your number twos for the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve found a public loo and decided you can deal with the fact that they are indeed, very public, you maybe shocked to discover that your throne is flushing before you’ve finished your business. Such is the love for all things automated in Silicon Valley that most of the loos flush by themselves. It can be a bit disconcerting if you’re not expecting it.

You’ll never, ever understand how health insurance works

I’ve tried to get clear on this one. And just when I thought I understood it, I received a $260 bill for a twenty-minute doctor’s appointment. And I used to be an in-house speechwriter at an insurance company, so I feel I have a head start on most people on getting to grips with this one.

When I rang my insurance company for the fiftieth time to understand why I had to pay the bill the lady on the end of the phone said:

“You live in California right?”


“You have to think about insurance costs as being a bit like earthquakes. You can do everything you want to prepare, but when they hit it won’t make much difference.”

The best advice I’ve received is to find someone else (perhaps a colleague) who’s on your plan. They can point you in the direction of a good doctor and tell you what to expect. The good news is that as long as you have health insurance you shouldn’t face too many costs, and in my limited experience, the medical care here is excellent. But even though my doctor’s office waiting room resembles a boutique hotel lobby I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for the NHS.

Everyone will love your British accent

British red telephone box

But it’s also quite likely they’ll think you’re from Australia! Once people realise you’re British they may have a lot of questions about the Royal Family. Someone even asked me if I knew the sex of the royal baby, long before she was born! Look at a rack of magazines and at least half the front pages carry a picture of Princess Kate. The American obsession with the royal family is a bit disconcerting at first, but once you get used to it, it becomes rather endearing. I’ve come to see it as a huge privilege that people are so interested in an aspect of my home culture. And I milk the fact that I’ve written a book given as a gift to The Queen to its full advantage!

Are you a British person in the Bay Area? What do you wish you’d known before arriving?

About Felicity H. Barber

I am a speechwriter, who coaches people to make awesome speeches, presentations and pitches. I moved to San Francisco from London with my software engineer husband and two cats in 2014. As if moving half way around the world wasn’t enough, I made the crazy decision to start my own business at the same time! Life has been a big adjustment to go from in-house to freelance, tea and scones to coffee and brownies, rainy days to constant sunshine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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