Between last name and surname, which one is British and which one is American? If I talk with somebody from Great Britain, which one is preferable?


5 Answers 5


COCA has 507 "surname" vs 1790 "last name". BNC has 315 "surname" vs 43 "last name". So while neither word belongs exclusively to one side of the Atlantic, "last name" is preferred in AmE and "surname" in BrE.


As someone who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, speaking both American and British/Commonwealth English, I would say that, regardless of what the dictionaries might tell you, last name is distinctly American usage, while surname is arguably British/Commonwealth usage

If you have access, take a look at forms generated on both sides of the pond. In America, I doubt you would find any asking for your surname. In the UK, RSA, etc, I doubt you would find any indicating last name. And trust me, if you said surname anywhere in the US, you may still be understood. You'd probably be excused if you had a noticeable British accent. Otherwise, you'd just sound weird.

The only term that might be equally common in both American and British usage is family name, especially in formal documents and the like. For regular conversation however, I think the above discussion holds.

  • As a native AmE speaker who has never lived in Britain, I would normally use "surname" although "last name" is what you'll see on forms. Jan 4, 2018 at 2:53

Surname would be the normal UK term, although last name would be sometimes used and understood.


There is no distinction in American English. Both last name and surname are used, but last name is more common. The dictionaries I checked do not give the term as a British variant.

  • Why do you say last name is more common? My sources (BNC, ngram) say the opposite.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Apr 1, 2011 at 11:46
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    Maybe because I see it and hear it more often. In casual conversations here, nobody ever asks "what's his surname": they say ask what a person's "last name" is. Any government form you fill out will have you list "First Name / Middle Initial / Last Name" as well.
    – Robusto
    Apr 1, 2011 at 11:50
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    @z7sg: Robusto said American English, and Peter Taylor's statistics confirm that 'last name' is somewhat more common in the US.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 1, 2011 at 13:31
  • @Colin Fine But ANC returns 45/22 in favour of surname. UK government forms use 'last name', even though most people in the UK would say 'surname' imo. Perhaps that has something to do with political correctness.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Apr 1, 2011 at 13:44

I'm only familiar with the USA. The only place I ever see surname is in classic literature. Last name is used everywhere else.