Imperial vs. Metric System


2 minutes

There are two main systems for measuring distances and weight, the Imperial System of Measurement and the Metric System of Measurement. Most countries use the Metric System, which uses the measuring units such as meters and grams and adds prefixes like kilo, milli and centi to count orders of magnitude. In the United States, we use the older Imperial system, where things are measured in feet, inches and pounds. It might be confusing if you are living in the U.S for the first time and are not used to this system. If you ask someone for directions, they will probably tell you something is a certain number of miles away. Or you may be told to move a few feet… But, whose feet?

The Imperial System is also called The British Imperial because it came from the British Empire that ruled many parts of the world from the 16th to the 19th century. After the U.S gained independence from Britain, the new American government decided to keep this type of measurement, even though the metric system was gaining in popularity at the time.

We are one of the few countries in the world that still use this system, and first time visitors may find it confusing. Here are a few things to remember that will come in handy day to day:

  • 1 mile equals 1.6 Kilometers.
  • 1 inch is about 25 millimeters or 2.54 centimeters
  • A 3-foot measurement is almost exactly 1 meter
  • 1 Kilogram is just over 2 pounds
  • 1 pound is about 454 grams
  • For British visitors, 100 pounds = 7.14 stone

Complicated measurements, used in the sciences for example, will be in the metric system so no need to worry if you are planning to do an internship in engineering or chemistry.

By the way, the temperature scales are different too. We didn't want to make things too easy for you! Though not technically part of the metric system, Americans measure temperature in Fahrenheit, not Centigrade. You may turn on the television and listen for the weather and hear that it is 70 degrees outside. No, you won't pass out and be vaporized by the sun; 70 degrees Fahrenheit is actually very pleasant, about 21 degrees Centigrade. Centigrade has been used around the world from the mid 20th century but again, Americans held fast to the original Fahrenheit system.

Here are some more handy conversions for temperature:

  • 0 degrees Celsius is equal to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. (The freezing point)
  • 24 degrees Celsius is equal to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. (A very pleasant day)
  • To convert Celcius (c) to Fahrenheit, use the formula (c * 1.8) + 32

There is no reason to expect that we will change over to the Metric System and Centigrade anytime soon. The chances that we will make the switch during your short-term stay in the United States are slim, so your best bet is to try to adjust as much as possible. Or, if you have a smart phone, you can do what I do when I travel-- download a conversion app. The company World Wide Metric has a comprehensive and easy to use conversion webpage.

Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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