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American Expatriates in Britain

You are not here on vacation; you are actually living here. For most Americans, particularly those who have not lived abroad before, it is a curious experience. Even the term “expatriate” literally “out of the country” seems a bit daunting. One need only stand on the street corner and look at the traffic to realise that you are not at home. Observing the Highway Code is a necessity to safely cross to the other side of the street. Observing the British motor vehicle law is just one obvious example of the expatriate’s obligation to observe British civil and criminal law generally.

I have found the occasional American who naively thinks that his American nationality somehow exempts him from observing of local law. However, diplomatic immunity is reserved to embassy and consular officials and their families.

One Anglo-American legal difference (since the Hungerford killings) is the total and outright ban in England on civilian ownership of handguns. Even the British Olympic Pistol Shooting Team has to practice abroad. The American constitutional right to bear arms does not apply abroad. Simply put, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”.

As an expatriate working in the United Kingdom you will come into contact and be subject to English employment, health and safety laws. If your temporary assignment does not come complete with company furnished housing you will need to learn at least the rudiments of English real property and housing law. You will also need to learn some English legal jargon e.g. immovable property, leasehold, freehold, title deeds, etc. To buy a house or apartment (flat) you will engage a solicitor or licensed conveying practitioner.

Apart from exempt governmental and military employees, American expatriates working in the United Kingdom are subject to British income tax. They are also as Internal Revenue Service reminds us still subject to US income tax. Uncle Sam taxes on the basis of citizenship as well as residency. As an expatriate you are subject to British Value Added Tax at 17.5% unlike the tourist who may reclaim VAT upon departure with the assistance of certain participating stores. If you are self-employed or run a business you are likely to be unpaid VAT collector for Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. As an expatriate living in England you will be subject to Council Tax introduced by the Thatcher government to replace property taxes known as rates. Now that you are living in England you need to consider your position in the event of your death particularly if you are a home owner here. You may be subject to English inheritance laws and British inheritance tax.

In the event of marital difficulties you should not expect the courts of your former home state to entertain your action for a separation or a divorce. Divorce matters, child custody, legal capacity, and other family law issues are determined by place of residence and hence as an expatriate is likely you will need to go into the English Courts.

But what are the advantages of expatriate status? There are some. An expatriate, unlike a tourist, is entitled to use the National Health Service. Expatriate children are entitled to free schooling in the British public school system. By public school system I do not mean British public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Roedean. Expatriate children can attend English universities pay the resident fee currently £1,050 per year, a bargain compared to most higher educational alternatives Stateside.

As an expatriate in Britain you are subject to European Union law but do not have certain of the advantages that EU law gives to its citizens. Only citizens not mere residents of EU member states have the right to travel and work freely in other EU member states. This distinction becomes obvious when you travel to the continent and are processed by European Immigration officials separately from British nationals who move quickly through “the EU nationals only ” lines.

Perhaps the initial and defining distinction of an expatriate is that your right to live and work in the United Kingdom are defined by British law and are not the same as those who are British or EU citizens.

Being an expatriate in Britain is a complex fate but for most, an interesting and enjoyable one.