Basic Life Skills for Living in the U.S.

For people who arrive in the U.S. not speaking English and not knowing basics about how society functions, the list of skills can be a starting point for assisting them to gradually learn how to function effectively and safely.


  • Structure of the U.S. government at the federal, state, and local levels and who are currently in office 
  • How and when to call 911
  • Ways in which the local police are trustworthy and helpful
  • What happens when someone breaks a law
  • Understand the map of the USA and its various time zones
  • Know the American holidays
  • How to find national, state and local parks and museums and know what they offer
  • What you can learn and do at local public libraries


  • Manners – how to introduce people and start a conversation; how to set a table for eating with guests
  • Phone etiquette (answering, returning calls, asking for info, ordering)
  • How to use public transportation
  • How to order and pay for food in a fast food restaurant or dine-in restaurant
  • How to use escalators, elevators, and revolving doors
  • How to cross streets at cross walks and with traffic lights
  • Self defense: do not ride with strangers or walk alone at night
  • Why we do not give money to or share private information with door or phone solicitors
  • Why we do not litter
  • What to do in a weather emergency (tornado warning, earthquake, etc.)
  • Rules for bike riding (use of helmets, obeying traffic laws, getting air for the tires, etc.)


  • Rules/expectations while renting a home/apartment
  • Homeowner’s and renter's insurance
  • How to organize a house; where to get help with repairs
  • How to operate a stove top and oven
  • How and when to safely use cleaning products
  • How to change a light bulb, a battery, a furnace filter, smoke alarms
  • How to use a microwave, a can opener, a blender
  • What items require refrigeration or freezing
  • How to operate a washing machine and dryer
  • What clothing needs to be dry cleaned and why
  • Why and how we recycle
  • Basic fix-it skills and troubleshooting for the home
  • Air conditioning/heating and plumbing - basic trouble shooting
  • How to unclog a sink or tub drain


  • How to drive a car
  • Meaning of road signs and signals
  • Why seat belts are mandatory
  • Defensive driving concepts
  • Understanding the dangers and penalties of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • How to pay at metered parking or in parking garages
  • How to buy a used car and get it legally registered
  • How to look for and obtain auto insurance 
  • What to do in case of an accident
  • Importance of regular auto care (put correct gas in the car; replace fluids, change oil and filter, change a flat, jump the battery)


  • Typing and computer skills
  • How to read want ads
  • How to fill in a job application
  • How to write a resume
  • Job interview skills
  • Effective communication skills; difference between communication and conversation
  • How aptitudes and strengths influence work success
  • How to build and work with a team
  • How to work with difficult people
  • How to resolve conflict


  • Budgeting/money management
  • How to write a check and balance a check book, how to manage on-line banking
  • Importance of paying bills on time
  • How to understand parts of a pay stub
  • How to invest and save for retirement
  • How to apply for a mortgage, steps of buying a house


  • How to shop at a grocery store
  • Understanding sizes of clothes, shoes, etc.
  • How to buy indoor and outdoor clothes appropriate for various seasons of the year
  • Where to find bargains
  • Understanding store hours in different types of stores
  • Ways to pay for purchases
  • Rules regarding purchase of alcohol and cigarettes


  • Why talking to an infant in English is important
  • Why we do not spank our children
  • Types of and importance of immunizations
  • How to talk to your infant’s health care team
  • Fun games for children of different ages; where to find these games


  • Essentials of self-respect and self-love -- foundational skills in relationships
  • Healthy sexuality
  • Why we do not use physical means to discipline others
  • Americans celebrate birthdays and anniversaries of relatives and friends
  • Effective communication skills
  • How to resolve conflict
  • Differences between passive, assertive, and aggressive behavior and communication
  • Discussions on dating violence; effects of verbal abuse
  • Why some people are registered as sex offenders 
  • What to look for in choosing a person to share your life with; how to nurture a marriage relationship


  • Personal Hygiene: taking regular showers or baths; washing hands after using the toilet; use deodorant, sanitary napkins
  • Dental Hygiene: how to brush teeth, use dental floss
  • Sleeping  – its importance, healthy sleep habits
  • How to deal with stress in a healthy way
  • Addiction issues; how to get help with an addiction
  • Finding types of exercise that can be done throughout a lifetime
  • How to make doctor and dental appointments
  • First aid and CPR; how to put together a “natural” medicine kit
  • How and where to purchase non-prescription and prescription medicine and follow directions for using these
  • Where to find a walk-in clinic in an emergency
  • How to deal with medical bills and insurance

For a comprehensive listing of skills, see: Mary Pipher's book 'The Middle of Everywhere' and

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