Moving to a new city is bold. Moving to a new state is adventurous. But moving to a new country and continent isn’t easily described by an adjective or two. It’s thrilling, terrifying, exciting, and anxiety-inducing – all in a day’s time.
I’m lucky my journey into expat life involved an English-speaking destination with friends from the US who forged the way for me. Nonetheless, I had to figure out a lot of “stuff” that comes with moving 5,000 miles overseas and starting over. Navigating London’s unwritten social norms and cultural rules wasn’t easy those first days and weeks, but the feeling of independence that came with every situation I tackled and overcame was worth the struggle.
I’ve compiled my advice for newbies to the London expat scene. It’s a great club to be part of and one that will change your life forever.
I can’t offer much advice on visas as I’m sponsored by my company who handled the logistics and legal stuff. All I can say is if you’ll be here longer than six months (for Americans) then you’ll need a visa. If you’ve already figured out this crucial step then read on.
Doctors, Dentists, and Pharmacies
How you see a doctor depends on whether you’re on the NHS (National Healthcare Service) or using private insurance. For the NHS you’ll need to search for your local neighborhood clinic and see a GP (general practioner) before you can see a specialist. As far as I understand dental is not 100% covered by the NHS, so you’ll pay for some services out of pocket. More on that here. Forget everything I just said if you have private insurance and search for doctors on Harley Street in Marylebone.
Local pharmacies, or chemists, as they’re called here can be found in every neighborhood. If you can’t find something you used to purchase over-the-counter in the US ask the chemist because it’s likely behind the counter in this country. The big pharmacy chains are Boots and Superdrug.
Also important, the emergency line in the UK is 999 and the emergency room is called the A&E for accidents and emergencies. More info here.
Finding a place to live AKA flat-hunting
Now you’ve decided to move, what’s next? Find a place to live. Prepare yourself for the shock of the cost of living in London. It ain’t cheap and the rental market is competitive because very few Londoners can afford to get into the real estate market.
Luckily this means finding a furnished flat is no problem at all, so don’t worry about bringing all your furniture and kitchen supplies from home. You’ll easily find a flat with these items included in the rental price if you prefer it. Most rentals are handled by agencies who will help you find a flat and they’ll take a cut from the landlord. You can also search for your own flat using sites like:
- Prime Location
- Gumtree – the UK equivalent of Craigslist.
- Spare Room – for finding a flat share.
Oh, and take into consideration something called council tax, even renters have to pay it in London. The amount depends on your postal code and borough, but I was told to estimate an additional £200 each month for utilities, cable, and council tax.
Now you’ve got a flat, time to move. A friend told me about the concept of a man with a van, basically just like it sounds and much easier than hauling your boxes on the tube. Get a quote here.
Spending time on the bus and tube network of London is currently my #1 hobby. The TFL, or Transport for London, is inevitable without a car. The abundance of public transportation options is so convenient you’ll soon forget what it was like to sit behind the wheel in bumper to bumper traffic. Read books and listen to podcasts to pass the time. All my visitors leave TFL experts.
The card you’ll want is called an Oyster card and you can top up in increments or purchase a weekly, monthly or annual travel card. Review your pricing options then purchase one at any tube station.
Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, and Santander are the big ones. Take proof of your visa and UK address to the bank to open an account. You can try to walk-in but most likely they’ll have you make a formal appointment and come back at a later date. Any bank will provide you with a debit card with chip & pin technology, which makes life so much easier. I use Barclays and haven’t had any issues.
If you like scones and pubs you’re going to need a gym.
Find one near your office/school, home, or somewhere between the two because commuting anywhere else during the week is not feasible. I use the gym in my office building but there are several chains of varying price tiers depending on your criteria. I love classes so that’s a requirement for me, but there is also Fitness First, Fitness 4 Less, David Barton, and Virgin Active in most neighborhoods. Crossfit doesn’t seem to be as popular here yet but I heard ClassPass is coming to London, woohoo!
It’s senseless but grocery shopping was a homesickness trigger for me during my first week. Walking through the aisles of foreign brands tears started welling up behind my eyes. “Why aren’t the eggs refrigerated?,” I thought to myself. “What kind of milk equates to 1%?,” I contemplated.
Take a deep breath, it will be okay and you’ll learn to live without Trader Joes, Mexican food, and half and half soon enough. Here’s the hierarchy of UK grocery chains in my opinion starting with the fanciest:
- Whole Foods
- Marks and Spencer
Pro tip: work smarter not harder and shop online at Ocado, an online grocery delivery service. They have top-notch customer service. The slightly higher cost is worth never hauling bags of groceries on a packed tube or bus again.
Data plans are generally cheaper in the UK than in the US. You can expect to pay £15-30 monthly. I use O2 which I “top up” monthly because I’ve been too lazy to set up a plan. You need a UK bank account to set up a monthly plan which I didn’t have when I signed up with O2 initially. I have friends who like GiffGaff, Three, and EE too.
Try and unlock your phone prior to moving so it’s carrier neutral, otherwise you’ll have to buy a phone and data plan rather than just switching out your SIM card.
Staying in Touch
Add these tools to your lineup and you’ll still have friends when you move back home one day.
- Viber – app that is free and for texting and calling when both people have it
- FaceTime if you have Apple products
- Google Hangouts and chat
No, we don’t have Nordstrom or Target here. Le sigh. However, you can find everything you need at Westfields Shopping Centers (big mall) in Shepherd’s Bush or Stratford, and plenty of high street shops on Oxford & Regent streets, Covent Garden, Kensington High Street, or Angel’s N1 Center and Upper Street.
Okay kids, listen up. Half the fun of living in London is taking advantage of the cheap and plentiful European flights.
Get on your travel game and start using these websites to hunt for cheap fares and plan your bank holidays. Bank holidays are the equivalent of US government holidays. I wrote about my favorite technologies for travel here in addition to these tools:
- Skyscanner – search flights from London to “everywhere”, really.
- National Rail – for train travel around Britain.
- Rome2Rio – how to get anywhere.
- Kayak – flight and hotel search tool.
- AirBnB – find apartments and live like a local.
Finding other expats
You can find meetup groups for every hobby and interest. I’ve attended a few gatherings with the American Professional Women in London. I also had someone tune me into this Facebook group for American Expats in London which is a wealth of knowledge. My London family is made up of fellow expats from the US and Australia, there’s nothing that will bond you more than navigating a new country together.
Keep Up with London’s Cool Kids
These publications keep me up to date on everything I’m missing in London while I’m at work:
- The Londonist’s daily newsletter
- Time Out London – get the print version every Tuesday outside your local tube station or view online
And these London bloggers are dialed in:
The truth of it is you can prepare all you want but you’ll undoubtedly be faced with new situations unique to your experience. Those are the real tests of survival and the most rewarding to overcome. When they happen, have faith in yourself and remember how far you’ve come. Nothing worth having is easy. Unless we’re talking chocolate, but that’s an exception to the rule. Now get out there and expand your horizons.
What other helpful tips do you have for expats? If you live in London what else should us newbies know?