Thames looking west toward Tower Bridge
Personal Reflections

My Journey – Tips for New Brits

When I moved from Seattle to London to take a job in late 2020, I thought I was mentally prepared to make a new life here. I knew it would be an adjustment to pickup and leave a place I had called home for more than three decades, where I had years of friendships, familiar places, and everyday habits. I also sensed that moving to a European city would be different from moving to say, Portland. The timing of my move also happened to coincide with the UK officially leaving the European Union (Brexit), at the start of the longest and strictest pandemic lockdown in the world, and only months after the tragic death of my spouse, who was meant to accompany me on this adventure. The lure of a good job opportunity after completing my PhD and the need of a change compelled me to make the move, but all of these factors were on my mind as I winnowed down my possessions to a fraction of what had, fixed up the house I intended to rent out and eventually sell, and tried to figure out where I was going to live in an enormous city I had visited only a few times as a tourist and where I knew next to no one. Cutting to the chase, it was all much harder than I thought it would be, and yet I have managed to stick it out and to embrace this new chapter in my life. I am a couple of months into my second year in London. I learned many things during the first year, and I continue to learn and grow from this experience. I have compiled a mix of practical tips and strategies that have worked for me, and may be of help to you.

I’ve broken this out into a several chapters, which will be updated as time permits.

  • Moving to faraway places
  • Finding a place to live
  • Getting your stuff to the UK (coming soon)
  • Things to do BEFORE you move (coming soon)
  • Communication and technology (coming soon)
  • Eating and drinking (coming soon)
  • The weather (coming soon)
  • Errata (coming soon)

Moving to faraway places

Deciding to move to new country is one thing, but making a life there is another. As you probably know, you can’t easily work in a foreign country without the right type of visa. Getting permission to work is not trivial (which is also true in the US). In my case, I came to the UK because I was hired as postdoctoral fellow at a research institution, and they were willing to sponsor me for a work visa. The type of visa I have at present is a Tier 2 (General) visa, which is for skilled workers (similar to the H1-B visa in the United States). This may be one of the easier work visas to acquire, but it is by no means easy. The employer, job type, and salary all have to meet particular standards. And it is not inexpensive. Visas of all types have become increasingly expensive in the UK, in part, because the Conservative government is fairly hostile to immigrants. This is true for all immigrants but more so if you come non-white and/or Muslim dominated countries. There are a range of seemingly punitive charges that are non-negotiable and subject to the political winds. My employer completed the sponsorship paperwork but left me to apply for the visa and jump through the hoops. I wound up hiring an immigration lawyer based in the US who handles UK visas. All in all, the process set me back a few grand. You might be in a better position with a large employer who will do the paperwork for you, but no matter how much support you may have, be prepared to manage bureaucracy and wait longer than you think you should. It is possible of course for US citizens to come to the UK without a proper visa. Tourists are permitted stay for 6 months and that status is renewed by simply leaving the country and coming back in (a quick trip to France, for example). It might be possible to find work without a visa, but it is illegal and risky. And of course, it’s possible to work remotely for a US employer and get paid into a US bank, which I have seen some people do. It’s not a very stable or secure existence, but it’s an option. A significant obstacle there is moving money from the US to UK. I (will) have another post about that, but simply assume that it is more complicated than it should be and, at times, quite expensive and aggravating. A curious thing – once I was approved for the visa, I wasn’t eligible to work until I was physically in the country and able to collect my national biometric’ ID. Only with that in hand can an employer in the UK legally pay you. Working remotely might be an option for you, but you will still have to make a trip to finalise getting your visa.

One of the things that still catches me up short is what it means not to be a citizen where I live. I took for granted my citizenship in the US and, thanks to the vast privileges of that citizenship, I didn’t have to worry about it much when I traveled to other countries. But here in the UK where I work and live, I am aware of my somewhat reduced status. I can’t vote and I have fewer rights in general. My ability to live here is contingent; my work is tied to my visa and my visa to my work. I can’t afford to put either at risk. So, I can’t put either at risk, either by performing poorly at work or by getting caught committing crimes. Readers who have lived as immigrants, especially in the US, may well be rolling their eyes here, which is fair. My white skin and Americanness continue to be significant advantages, particularly in the UK. So, while I feel chastened by my immigration status, it is mainly a passing concern. I fit in pretty well. Of course there are cultural aspects I still have to master, but being from the US excuses me from some social expectations. My gaffs are mainly seen as comic rather than insulting. There’s an unlikely chance I will be alienated for failing to be more British. I can at least be thankful for that. And in general I find that unlike say, the French, the British people seem to be overall friendly and accommodating. I can’t guarantee your experience with that, however.

Finding a place to live

Unless you already have a good friend or family member where you are planning to move willing to serve as your guide, agent, or first housemate, finding a place to live can be a huge challenge. I can only report on the challenges of moving to London. Some of this will be applicable to moving elsewhere in Europe or to other parts of the UK, but some of it is very London specific.

The first challenge I encountered was navigation. If as a tourist visiting an unknown city you’ve ever used an online map to find a hotel or Airbnb that seemed close to where you wanted to be only to find out that, in reality, the distances were quite enormous, you already know one of the key risks of choosing poorly. London in particular is a very large city and one that is not all that easy to get around. There is no ‘grid’ and, while there are some dense and concentrated bits, a lot of interesting things are scattered very far apart. A typical London life can be spread out across numerous, distant neighbourhoods (it’s a little like LA that way). Despite its incredible tube and rail services, it can take ages to get from one neighbourhood to another – and a lot of neighbourhoods are not well served by trains. There are buses everywhere, including those cute double-deckers, but London’s narrow streets and endless traffic means they can be very very slow. Same with taxis and hire cars; they’re plentiful but getting anywhere takes a while. I tend to rely on my bike, which makes most trips faster than other options (fortunately London is pretty flat), but the distances and the weather do not always make that a pleasant option.

I didn’t know London very well before I moved here. I didn’t really know the names or characters of neighbourhoods besides some of the famous ones (those, of course, tend to be the most expensive). I was lucky to have an American friend who had lived in London for a spell a while back, and she was able to at least help me narrow my options. But no one came forward to say “this neighbourhood is IT.” I think it’s because London is a rather strange city with a lot of variety, both close into the centre and farther afield. Depending on what makes you feel ‘at home’, you might find it miles away from areas that others crave to be near. Centuries of mycelium-like growth and subsequent consolidation of thousands of years of human settlement, plus massive WWII bombings and atrocious civic planning have produced a modern city that is a riot of architectures, sleekness, decay, densities, and ‘vibes’. I have yet to identify my ‘ideal’ neighbourhood based on any familiar template (e.g., Seattle, SF, Boston, NYC). There are of course very picturesque areas of Victorian gingerbread homes and costume drama-worthy high streets, but those are likely to be in places like West London where the housing values are most suitable to oligarchs and sheiks.

Which brings me to my second major consideration, which is cost. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Moving here from expensive US cities, like Seattle or New York, might prepare you for it, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Unless you’re emigrating to be a banker or have a large trust fund, it’s hard on your own to afford anything within easy commute of the things that make London most exciting. Fortunately, there are Facebook groups for people looking to share spaces, including the dwindling supply of warehouse spaces that were once the cornerstone of London’s scene (and are being quickly replaced by bland apartment blocks). Single occupancy places that are not stratospherically expensive do exist, but they tend to be found in distant neighbourhoods that might make it that much harder for a newcomer to feel like they’re part of the city.

I managed to solve the navigation and cost problem fairly well. I was lucky to have a friend and colleague who had moved to Oxford about a year before and was now interested in moving to London. We decided to team up as flatmates. Though neither of us knew London, my friend could at least take a train in on a weekend and look at flats I identified online, and that is how we found our place. First, the other friend who had lived in London gave me some very broad parameters. Second, I used a few of the online services (current favourite ‘rightmove.co.uk’) and looked at maps and available flats based on pictures and prices. I used my bad Airbnb experiences to look very carefully at commute times from where prospective places were to where I expected to go. Third, I ran leads by the formerly-London friend, who gave me ‘snoozy’ ratings to indicate how dull or interesting a particular neighbourhood might be. Recall that there is a LOT of variety here and zones that should be interesting because they are close to something interesting might be really bland (sort of like Brooklyn) or lack much in the way of decent shops and other amenities. Ultimately we found a ‘council flat’ in Rotherhithe, around the corner from an Overground stop, also not far from two tube stops, and very close the Thames. Council flats are generally very utilitarian and can be quite ugly, but there are a TON of them in London–built hastily during and in the first few decades after WWII–and that is what housing looks like for many Londoners. Our flat is comfortable and well-positioned in the estate, with a view towards a pretty church and a very old pub. In fact, our immediate neighbourhood was rather unscathed by bombs and has a number of well-preserved cute bits. By and large though, it’s pretty snoozy compared with other parts of London. But it’s not hard to get places, the price is right, and I think we landed well.

My advice to you, if you don’t have anyone to help you choose, prioritise being near a tube line that can get you to something central – like Soho or King’s Cross – in less than an hour. North of the river is both hipper and higher class than south of the river (though there is plenty of hipness to the south, e.g., Bermondsey, Peckham, Brixton). East London is gritty and cool, West London is posh, most of Central London is businessy or posh, and North London is family-oriented. These are wild generalisations for which numerous exceptions exist. If you have a job lined up, use a mapping app to figure out how long a bike, tube, or overground trip is required to get there. Aim for 30-40 minutes tops. Use Google Street View to look at the streets near the flat to get a sense of what’s there and how far away a decent food shop might be. Ideally, connect with a local person to go and walk it for you. And most of all, be prepared to have chosen poorly on your first try and then take time, once you’re here, to explore the city. It’s all part of the adventure.

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