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I know people in England usually call the second level of a building "the first floor".

But Americans tend to call the first level above the ground "the first floor".

Is that always so?

I am wondering if there would be serious misunderstanding on some occasions because of the semantic difference, especially at some critical moments of emergency.

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    During an emergency, follow the EXIT signs. Although the first floor will generally exit onto the street, that isn't always the case. – J.R. Nov 6 '13 at 9:39
  • In UK “first floor” means the level of a building that is one level above the street. The same in french, spanish, portuguese, italian, german, etc. As far as I know only in US ”first floor” means the level of a building that is at the same level as the street. – efe Jul 6 '17 at 18:50
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To my knowledge, as an American, First floor always refers to the ground-level in American English. Ground floor and first floor are synonymous.

Example of a simple floor plan; in this case, First floor will always be at ground level:

Simple floor plan

However... there are times when there are multiple floors at ground level, as when a building is built on a hillside, and this can lead to confusion. If such a building has the floors labeled (as in a stairwell or elevator), typically the lowest level of the building with an official/main entrance is called the First floor, and any floors above that are labeled second, third, etc. Any levels below that are typically called basement, and there may be multiple basement levels, commonly indicated as B1, B2, etc.

In some other cases, again, especially for buildings built on a hillside, with two or more "ground levels" (I'm thinking especially of hotels), there may be a floor between the basement level (or B1) and the first floor. In an elevator, you may see, for instance:

B, ?, 1, 2, 3

Where ? might be GL for Ground Level, R for Reception, M for Main, SL for Street Level, etc.

Floor plan for two ground levels

And naturally, it gets even more complicated if there are more than two floors between different ground-level entrances, requiring more naming creativity:

Floor plan with more than two floors between entrances

(Image borrowed without permission from here)

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  • "might be GL for Ground Level, R for Reception, M for Main, SL for Street Level, etc.",as quoted, what does "Main" and "Street Level" mean? – dennylv Nov 6 '13 at 2:32
  • Main = main level. "Street Level" should be pretty self-explanatory I would think... – Flimzy Nov 6 '13 at 2:43
  • Are "Main Level" and "Street level" of the same meaning of "Ground Level"? – dennylv Nov 6 '13 at 2:49
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    @dennylv it depends on the construction of the building, which in turn depends on the local geography. For example, a building built against a hill could have entrances on two different levels. One of those will be the main level, which may or may not be the one that exits onto the main street, and which may or may not be the lowest level with ground access. For a real complication consider downtown Chicago where the streets are raised, so the main floor is very often on the second level. – choster Nov 6 '13 at 3:48
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    @dennylv- I think you should consider that in America, except for unusual situations, Level 1 is the floor that exits to the street. Flimzy is trying to cover all the possibilities in his answer, but it may be confusing the basic answer. – Jim Nov 6 '13 at 4:13
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I hate to be the guy who comes in after the fact and messes everything up, but to answer your question:

Is that always so?

No. Here in Hawaii (it counts as the US even though sometimes it doesn't feel like it), there are quite a few buildings (apartments and commercial) that start with G at ground level and then start at 1 for the first floor that has units on them. The example that comes to mind initially is, well, the building I live in. The ground floor has mailboxes, parking, trash, etc... and then the floor above there (1st floor) has apartment units.

Of course, this could also be due to the fact that in total my building has 13 levels, but thanks to the superstition that surrounds the 13th floor (and the number 13 in general) perhaps the builders were hesitant to label it so.

By and large, however, Americans and buildings refer to the ground floor as the 1st floor. The assumption if you reference the first floor would be that you're talking about the ground floor.

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