10 Cultural Differences Between Austria and the USA

Are you curious to know the cultural differences between Austria and the USA? As an American living in Vienna, I’ve encountered many unique experiences compared to my old life in the States.

This post is for fun and educational purposes and in no way is meant to bash one country or the other. We are all world citizens – each culture has its meaning and purpose. Hey, perhaps through this post, you will learn a thing or two about your own culture!

american in vienna austria

1. Paid Sick Leave

If you are employed and too sick to work in Austria, you need to go to the doctor within two days and get a confirmation paper called a Krankenstand. This paper states you have been ill and can get paid for the time you took off work. This means you have to go to the doctor’s office to receive this paper even if you are sick. If you are extremely ill, you can call a house doctor.

In the USA, sick-day policies are unique to each business and establishment. In most cases, you only need to provide a doctor’s note if you have been sick for more than a week.

So, when I am sick in Vienna, I go to a walk-in clinic 15 minutes before they open. Once inside, I’ll have to provide my insurance card and keep my ears open for hearing my last name and the door number in German to talk to the general physician. Check out English-Speaking Doctors from the US Embassy Vienna Website or Doc Finder-Vienna to find your doctor.

2. Saying Excuse Me

In the USA, when Americans bump into someone, we typically say ”sorry.” Then, at the store, when we need to grab an item near someone, we’ll say ”excuse me” as a warning that we may invade their personal space. I noticed these behaviors are not so common in Vienna. Furthermore, I’ve been told there is no need to apologize when a person bumps into you.

3. Serving Water with Your Coffee

When I would go out for breakfast in the USA, coffee would be served in a large mug. If you wanted water on the side, you’d order that separately.

When you order a coffee at a cafe in Vienna, the server will bring out your drink and a small glass of water. I like this, and it helps you stay hydrated.

4. Stores Closed on Sundays

We Americans have been spoiled with conveniences: Stores and restaurants are typically open every day, into late hours of the night. Then you have superstore Walmart open 24/7, so you can purchase that cookie dough ice cream at 2 am with no problem.

In Vienna, having such places closed on Sunday can cause an American to panic. Closed stores on Sundays is one of the most common complaints Americans (and perhaps other expats) have about Vienna.

Sunday is treated as a day of rest in this city, so it’s best to get all your major shopping done by Saturday. In certain apartment buildings, you can’t even use the washing machine or make loud noise on this day. Therefore, you have to get used to it.

Don’t worry too much, though. At Vienna train stations, small grocery stores are open, and certain pharmacies open on Sunday.vienna austria shop

5. Unique Milk and Food Items

Goat milk, sheep milk, spelt flour, and more are very common in Vienna’s grocery stores. I find this cool because usually, one has to purchase these products in a health food store in the USA. Additionally, I’ve seen much more lactose-free options in Vienna’s cafes and restaurants.

6. Certain Baking Products are Hard to Find

Vanilla extract. Brown sugar. Baking soda. Chocolate chips. These ingredients are challenging for an American in Vienna to find – especially if they plan to make chocolate chip cookies.

Usually, one has to go to an exotic food market, gourmet shop, or international store to grab these items, as they are not in regular grocery stores.

You can also be lazy and ask your mom to ship you these products, but they will be more expensive than the transportation ticket needed to travel and purchase the products yourself in Vienna!

Tip: Chocolate chips can be made by chopping up a baking-chocolate bar.

7. Alcohol is Much More Accepted

Laws in Vienna state individuals can drink alcohol in public starting from age 18, but in some places in Austria, you can be 16 years old to purchase beer or wine with an ID. In the USA, people can start drinking at 21.

These alcohol laws place a huge cultural difference between the USA and Austria – and perhaps it is an exciting one for young students visiting the European country.

Grand openings in Vienna usually provide alcohol for their customers. For example, when a new store opens on Mariahilferstrasse, it is common to see a table stand with champagne glasses to consume. 

In my personal life, school events such as parent evenings offer wine – a definite difference to what I have been used to in the USA, where parent evenings provided only water and coffee.  

It’s apparent drinking alcohol is much more relaxed here than in the States.

cultural differences USA and Austria

8. Puddles of Urine and Dog Poo

Even though public urination is banned in Austria, some men still pee around the corners and against buildings. Sometimes the pee will run down the sidewalk too. Gross.

Then, the same laws apply for dog poo. Even though owners must pick up after their dogs, some don’t – so watch out! These situations was all new to me as a small-town woman when I first came to Vienna. Now I am much more vigilant about where I am walking!

9. Counting Numbers with Your Hands

When you ask an American to show you the numbers one, two, and three with their hands, they will use their index finger as one, middle finger as two, and ring finger as three.

In Austria and most of Europe, people start the number one by using their thumb first, then the index finger (two) and middle finger (three).

So when you are in Vienna, and you want to communicate to the bartender or waiter you want one beer, you use your thumb, like a thumbs up. This is another cultural habit I had to get used to. When I worked at a kindergarten and counted numbers with the kids, I had to re-train myself to count the European way. 

10. Paying for the Toilet

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between the USA and European cities is paid toilets. In Europe, you pay a small fee – usually 50 cents – to go to the bathroom. At first, I was stunned by paying to use the toilet, but it is very common in Europe and something to accept.

Do You Agree?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the cultural differences you’ve noticed between Austria and the USA. Or, if you have insights from other cultures from around the world, feel free to share them below!

25 Replies to “10 Cultural Differences Between Austria and the USA

  1. A good list of differences; after four years here I could probably add a dozen more if I thought about them anymore! Regarding chocolate chip cookies (and many, many other favorite dishes from the US), we have adopted a “When in Rome…” approach and have found we prefer our “Austrian” recipe!

    You can easily substitute vanilla bean for extract (2 or so inches of scraped bean=1 teaspoon of extract). Or, if you prefer extract, which is essentially vanilla bean steeped in alcohol, purchase any size bottle of vodka (the cheaper the better) and stuff in a few beans. Put it in your cabinet and voila! you’ll have extract in a couple of months. As for chocolate chips, a chopped bar of Milka stands in beautifully for Nestle or Ghirabaldi. And, Wiener Braun Zucker works just fine, too. Since the major grocers carry all of those items, no need to run around town when you’re in the mood for chocolate chip cookies!

  2. I absolutely LOVE this post! Yes to all of the 10 differences you mentioned!! We experience them all here in Salzburg. Especially with the baking products! We had my husband’s Mom ship baking soda here and brought bags of chocolate chips from the USA too! Ohh the things we’ll do for classic chocolate chip cookies now 🙂

  3. Hi there,
    Other Substitutes:
    Baking Soda = Natron
    2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract = 1 Package Vanillezucker
    Go for Kochschokolade for your Chocolat Chips (less sweet, less dissolving)
    An Other American in Vienna

  4. I liked the shops not being open on Sunday in Germany. Most people spent time with their families and end up window shopping. One practice I am glad they have mostly stopped is being closed midday for 2 hours for nap time or lunch. I really don’t know why they closed but they used to do it in the 70’s.

  5. Read this going: yes!!! that’s what I’ve been saying!! Since I spend 99.9% of my first conversations with people talking about the differences in America, I’d like to try and add a crucial one…
    Supermarkets. Biggest difference between pretty much all of Europe and America, I think. Here, you see people standing at Hofer or Billa or Spar or wherever, reading every produce label. Why? Because every Austrian is nationalistic about at least one thing, food. They want their “true, honest, simple, Austrian” produce (to quote my Austrian confidant). There are more billboards advertising Steiermark berries than…anything.
    I could go on and on about the differences between supermarkets; no silly fake rainstorms for veggies, only seasonal vegetables, one peanut butter brand called, “American Peanut Butter,” similarly, white sliced bread also called, “American Sandwich Bread,” everyone brings their own bags and pack their groceries in record speed, etc, etc, etc… But the huge surprise to me: supermarkets are HOT. In the US, you walk in and are freezing by the time you’ve reached the bananas. Gotta love the European attitude of no A/C.
    Am I right? Or am I spending way too much time in Hofer? (Yes, Spar and Eurospar are fancy but think about the average store in the US, we don’t call them markets for a reason.)

    1. Ah yes, can totally relate to what you are saying! Yes, I am happy I don’t have to be freezing in a grocery stores here! I use to complain about the lack of AC here, but now I prefer it, since I find being in a AC room all day unhealthy 🙂 except those old trams…on a hot summer day it can be brutal in there!

    2. Hey Holly!
      I am Austrian and I’m not thinking our behaviour about food in supermarkets in “nationalistic”. Haha this sounds quite funny to me. Austrian people just want to know where there food comes from and prefer Austrian food because:
      – the way of dilivery was not so far. That’s just good for nature and sustainable. Think of your CO2 foodprint 😉
      – Austria has strict regulations how food has to be processed. No GMO’s, strict regulations which pesticides and so on are allowed to be used and so on and so on. Also more sustainable and better for nature.

      So (in my opion), that has nothing to do with being nationalistic 😉

      And yes, I think our supermarkets are sooo different to the american ones! Just the difference of package sizes or vegetable prices, …

  6. I enjoyed reading your post! I plan to apply for studying abroad in Austria. Is there any similar in life between USA and Austria that you have realized?

  7. Hi!
    Thanks for this list! My sister just went to the U.S. and I was curious what the differences will be for her.
    But I cannot completely agree with point 6.
    – Vanilla extract – with this, you should be right, but there are alternatives like vanilla sugar or vanillin sugar or just something else with vanilla in it.
    – Brown sugar: should be available everywhere, I don’t know what you were looking for.
    – Baking soda: Just look for “Backnatron” (should be the same) or “Backpulver” (slightly different), should also be available everywhere. Or is it not the same? I haven’t found out yet.
    – Chocolate chips: Maybe you don’t find them as chips everywhere, it depends on the store, if it’s a bigger or smaller supermarket, but smaller ones should also have alternatives like “Schokoplättchen” or “Schokostückchen”… Or as somebody else already said: you could also just use normal chocolate, just be creative 😉

    1. Hi Lisa! Thanks so much for your perspective. This blog post is 3 years old, so some changes happened in Vienna. The sticky brown sugar Americans use for chocolate chip cookies can only be found International shops right now. But – baking soda, chocolate chips, and vanilla extract can now be found in grocery stores (yay!). I appreciate your helpful advice 🙂

      1. Hi! I’m going to visit some family in Vienna soon and would like to bring them some things. Unfortunately they won’t tell me what they’d like!! Do you have any recommendations for a few items that are expensive/unavailable in Austria but readily chepear/readily available in the US? I’m open to anything, including non-food items! Thanks so much in advance.


        1. Hey Jasmine! Unfortunately I’m more confident giving you advice on the other way around – items in Vienna to bring back to the US. Hmmm. My suggestion is look into what unique items your state has, and bring those over. For example, I’m from Connecticut and we’re know for our taffy, fudge, and imported maple syrup from Vermont. Pure maple syrup is quite rare in Vienna so perhaps you’d want to bring some of that over. I hope this helps you!

  8. Great article! #8 though, may seem an accurate comparison only for someone from a small town.
    Compared to New York City, Vienna does not only have a “puddle and poo” problem.

  9. Hi, thanks for this post, although it was published a while ago. I am not American but Mexican, and in my case, I realized that we have very similar habits with the Americans, since every time I had a cultural shock regarding something and I mentioned how things were in my country, everybody would say “that is sooo American”. I never perceived things such as peanut butter, white-sliced bread or chocolate-chip cookies as something “American”, because when we buy them, they are just labeled as peanut butter, white-sliced bread, etc. I can mention that for me, going out for pizza was a huuuuge cultural shock when I found out that everybody orders their very own pizza and even if they don´t finish it, they take it home, whereas I was used to ordering a couple of large pizzas and sharing the slices with friends. Another cultural shock for me, as a woman, was going to the OB-GYN, and finding out that you are just expected to take off your pants, walk half-naked and barefoot to the chair and sit by yourself, whereas in Mexico, they at the very least give you a robe so that you don´t expose your privates unnecessarily (and generally some slippers so that you also don´t walk barefoot). The third cultural shock for me was the encouragement to take off your shoes when you are inside a house, whereas in my family it was strictly forbidden to do so. The fourth cultural shock was not finding pancake mix and having to learn how to prepare mine by myself. It didn´t kill me, though, but I never considered ever to prepare pancakes without pancake mix. The fifth cultural shock which still annoys me is the size of their fridges. I know that you can now buy a bigger one, but man, they are expensive. You are right about the baking soda, it is not possible to get it by the bulk and use it for literally every cleaning hack ever, or use it to adsorb bad smells on your fridge; it is always sold in ridiculously small amounts and before I found out where I could get it, I purchased an extremely overpriced package of Arm and Hammer baking soda on Amazon.

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