Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy), the prince and heir to the throne of the fictitious African country Zamunda, is discontented with being pampered all his life. The final straw comes when his parents, the stuffy King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aeoleon (Madge Sinclair), present him with a bride-to-be (Vanessa Bell) he has never met before, trained to mindlessly obey his every command.
Akeem concocts a plan to travel to America to find a wife he can both love and respect and who accepts him for his personality, not his status, and who can be a free thinker. He and his loyal servant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall) arrive in Queens, New York City, because according to Akeem "What better place to find a queen than the city of Queens?" They rent an apartment in the slum neighborhood of Jamaica. During their quest at crusing nightclubs and places, Akeem meets and falls in love with Lisa (Shari Headley), the daughter of a local fast food restaurateur Cleo McDowell. In wanting to woo, Lisa, both Akeem and Semmi take jobs at McDowell's, passing themselves off as exchange college students.
Lisa possesses the qualities the prince is looking for. The rest of the film centers on Akeem's attempts to win Lisa's hand in marriage, while adjusting to life in America and dodging his royal duties and prerogatives. Unfortunately, Semmi is not comfortable with the life of a poor man and thus unintentionally causes a near-disaster when, alerted by a plea for more financial help, the Zamundian royal couple travels to the United States and reveal themselves to the McDowells.
Although her father is ecstatic that his daughter has attracted the interest of a prince, Lisa, who has fallen for Akeem, becomes angry and confused as to why he lied to her about his identity. She refuses to marry Akeem and he returns to Zamunda with a broken heart, resigned to marry the woman chosen for him by his parents.
At the final scene's wedding procession, Akeem waits dejectedly at the altar as his bride-to-be makes her way down the aisle. But when he lifts the veil to kiss her, he finds Lisa instead of his arranged partner. They ride off happily in a carriage after the ceremony.