Having moved from the US to the UK not once but twice now, I have a lot of thoughts on how to ease an expat international move, and especially an expat move to London. It kills me when I see other expats make the move and then struggle to do it all…numerous trips to John Lewis and Argos, packing and unpacking, missing out on great resources, discounts, and general savings in time and aggravation.
Over the years, I have maintained an informal list of resources for any American expat moving to the UK. I’ve decided to formalize this — as much as it’s possible to here — so please feel free to share this with any expat friends. While this is slightly geared towards American expats, 90% probably applies to just about anyone making a move to London.
If there is anything I’ve forgotten to include or if you have other tips to share, please leave a comment!
London flats don’t operate on the New York and Chicago schedule of “You must find your flat two to three months before you move in.” You just don’t see people searching that far in advance in London. When I moved to the UK the first time, I arrived on March 31st. I looked at about five flats, picked an awesome one (seriously awesome), and moved in on April 23rd. When I moved to the UK the second time, I arrived June 26th, looked at about five flats, picked an awesome one, and moved in on July 10th. The background check will take about 5 days (or at least it did in my latest case), which will affect the start date of your lease. (I was seriously ready to move in on July 5th, but had to wait for the background check to complete.)
Oddly for most Americans, most flats in London come furnished or some version thereof. This can work out though! My first London flat in Shad Thames came with all the things I didn’t have (a big dining table, sideboard, coffee table) and I brought my bedroom set and a sofabed. If you want unfurnished, you might find that you have a smaller number of flats to choose from.
Rents are (oddly) quoted by the week, although you will pay monthly. If you live alone, make sure you apply to your local council for your single occupancy discount on council tax! (Another thing I learned after a year of living here the first time.)
During my first and second flat hunt, I wandered around the neighborhood I wanted to live in and stopped in at every estate agent office and asked in person if they had any properties that met my criteria. That was pretty time-consuming. This time around, I used the website RightMove. There is a function on RightMove called “One email to all.” I typed in a very specific message about what I was looking for — desired location, start date, washer/dryer, dishwasher, porter (I know…rare), wood floors — and labeled everything as “Must Haves.” Within MINUTES of clicking send on that, my phone was ringing off the hook. There was only one guy that wasted my time and “got lost” on his way to my showing. And there were a few agents who called me with flats that wouldn’t be available until much later in the month. But at least I was able to phone screen those.
I’ve used Interdean, Allied, Britannia, and EuroUSA and had good experiences with all of them. (Interdean in particular!! I loved my moving team.) Note that the company that picks you up on one side will not be the same company that delivers on the other side, even if they tell you it will be. Also, “the moving van broke down and the team will be late” is VERY common. If it’s not going to take them a whole day to pack you, they are always moving things around so they will use this ploy quite frequently. DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU. Make it very clear that you have a flight to get on or something else that’s equally immovable so that they arrive at the proper time.
The main cost of an international move is *not* in the labor. The cost is in the actual moving and container space, which is a commodity. That is, don’t feel like you need umpteen quotes to make a decision. You’re fine with two quotes. Maybe three if you’re unsure. Because the costs are not in the labor, have them pack you and unpack you to make life easier for you. (They will usually only unpack to a flat surface but keep reading.) Do not try to pack yourself. It will not save you a significant sum. In fact, most movers won’t even let you pack yourself now for insurance reasons.
Unpacking and “De-Stuffication”
When I decided to move back to London in 2014, I knew I would go crazy doing it myself. So on the Chicago side, I hired a personal assistant to help me. She was AWESOME. She took a bunch of boxes to Goodwill for me and she even returned my cable box, picked up my drycleaning, and brought me lunch while I was hanging out with the movers! She did all the tasks in one day that I probably would have done over the course of a week. On the London side, I used both Quintessentially and Buy:Time to help me get situated. Quintessentially was probably a little expensive for what it was — unpacking my kitchen — but I was still grateful for their help. Buy:Time was much more cost effective and I was equally pleased with the help I received. I guess my point is…remember that you don’t have to do this all yourself. If you have the cash, hire someone to help you. Don’t be a martyr, as my mother would tell me.
When flat-hunting, make sure you get a flat with a washer/dryer combo. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that my first London flat only came with a washer and I was expected to air dry everything. (Just a note for non-American readers…Americans love dryers. You will not change our minds on this. We don’t air dry.) It is very rare to find a separate dryer unit in a London flat, although you can buy them online. If you want your own dedicated dryer, look for dryers clearly labeled as “consdenser” units. Condenser units vent into a container that you then have to empty occasionally. During my 2004 – 2010 tour of London, I bought a condenser dryer and it made all my American friends jealous.
Kitting Out Your New Flat
JohnLewis.com has pretty much everything you need in terms of sheets, towels, small appliances, general housewares etc. Think Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s. At this point, I’m comfortable with just ordering everything online and having it delivered. But if you’re not necessarily willing to buy sight-unseen, I recommend doing one reconnaissance trip to JohnLewis to see things in person. While you’re shopping though, use your mobile phone and the JohnLewis app and fill up your shopping cart on the app. Then, checkout on the app when you’re done shopping and get everything delivered! GENIUS!
Robert Dyas is great for electrical although I feel like I see them less and less around London now. Argost is good for random stuff like appliances…it’s a “catalog showroom” type of store, similar to the old Service Merchandise, if you remember them from the US.
Use Ocado.com for online grocery orders. They also have housewares. Do not use Waitrose.com directly. Use Ocado. Ocado’s delivery network is much stronger than Waitrose’s own network and they’ve really gotten things down to a science and can deliver to very small delivery time windows. (Ask me about my 36 hour Waitrose.com delivery nightmare. Never doing that again!) You can also try Amazon Prime Now but I don’t have firsthand experience with that yet.
Where to Get American Products
At Thanksgiving time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that your local Waitrose will have a small display of Thanksgiving ingredients. Selfridge’s and Harrod’s both have American products and Partridge’s on the King’s Road in Chelsea and on Gloucester Road in South Ken will also have a good selection. Prices can be a little crazy though.
Getting a Credit Card
UK credit checks are based on address, which is a bit weird. If you end up living in a flat that had a “runner” before you — that’s someone who has skipped out on all their bills — you’re kinda screwed and you will find it difficult to get a credit card or, in fact, any utilities without putting down a large deposit. The British Airways American Express Card is pretty much the only credit card I have had in the UK. I’m on my second one now. No problems in getting a card either time…they seem to make their decisions based more on income than address, but this is only a guess.
Getting a Bank Account
Such a chicken and egg problem. You can’t get a bank account until you have an address. You can’t get an address unless you have a bank account. If you’re lucky, your employer will be able to help you, especially if they are used to moving expats around. If you are not lucky, I recommend walking down your local high street early on say a Tuesday morning when bank traffic is at a minimum. Stop in each and every bank and see if they will give you an appointment without an address. Bring your employment contract and passport just in case. A lot of banks require appointments to open bank accounts, which is why I suggest starting early some weekday morning so you can get in before everyone else.
Getting a Mobile Phone
You can’t get a phone without a bank account unless you go pay-as-you-go. In my case, even though I had a bank account, I didn’t yet have the debit card, and they wouldn’t give me a phone without that. Also, because I had no recent UK credit history, they charged me a £500 deposit that they returned to me six months later. You may again find it helpful to bring your employment contract to prove income when you try to get a phone. And wait until you have your debit card!
Most importantly though, check call and data rates for trips home to the US. O2 was willing to give me a phone so I went with them BUT it turns out that they are ridiculously expensive to use in the US. £6 a MB for data. £6!! That’s crazy. During my first London tour, I was with Vodafone and I was able to purchase small data packages to use when traveling to the US. O2 doesn’t offer that option. Now that I know everything I know now, I wish I had gone with Three as you can use your normal plan in 18 countries including the US without getting gouged.
What to Do about iTunes
Keep your US account if you plan on moving back to the US someday. I opened a UK account when I moved here in 2004 and now I live in perpetual two-account hell. I’ve talked to Apple about this in the past (albeit not recently) and they say that there is no way to combine accounts.
Getting around London
You’ll need a couple of essential apps. I am totally obsessed with CityMapper…it has seriously changed the way I travel around London. Who knew about all the connections!! And of course, you will need Uber. You should also get “Gett,” which is the app for black cabs.
Getting to Heathrow and Gatwick
Another favorite app of mine is the Heathrow Express app. I am trying to beat my personal best of 1 hour and 6 minutes Heathrow to Farringdon door-to-door. The first thing I do when I get to immigration is check when the next Heathrow Express train is. And then I start running! I also buy all my Heathrow Express tickets online through the app now — super quick and easy! Tip…also sign up for Heathrow Rewards so you get points for all your Heathrow Express tickets. BUT…right now, you don’t get Heathrow Rewards points when you purchase tickets through the app. You have to purchase tickets via the website to get your Heathrow Rewards points. (They are apparently working on this as of April 2016.)
Note that Heathrow Express has a number of advance-purchase discounts and also discounts for groups and same day travel. Make sure you understand your options!
Also…a quick note about getting to Gatwick. You don’t have to take Gatwick Express!! You can actually get to Gatwick from Farringdon/London Bridge. It kills me when I see people schlepping to Victoria (there are a lot of stairs in Victoria) when they could have just as easily taken a train from London Bridge to Gatwick.
The two biggest food delivery services in London are JustEat.co.uk and Deliveroo. I don’t think JustEat’s interface or functionality and service is as nice or as advanced as the US app, Grubhub (GRUBTRACKER!!), but it’s still pretty good. Use Deliveroo for restaurants that don’t do their own delivery.
Nothing in Certain but Death and TAXES…
Expat taxes for US citizens are the bane of my existence. (The US and Japan are two of the only countries that tax on the basis of citizenship, not residency.) In the old days, PwC would do my taxes. After my relocation package ran out, I asked PwC how much it would cost for them to do my taxes directly and they wanted £5000. That’s bullshit. Talk to my friends at Greenback Expat Tax. I love them. They handle both my US and UK taxes now and their prices are reasonable. Please tell them I sent you. There’s a refer a friend form here that I would be happy to fill out for you. Email me your details. I wish they had an affiliate program because I am such an evangelist. Also, if you are a digital nomad, what I love about Greenback is that a lot of their accountants are digital nomads too! My UK accountant lives in Argentina and my US accountant lives in Israel!
US Expat Community Groups and Boards
1. See if your university has a local alumni group. I am a member of the Notre Dame London Alumni Club (I’m also the former president) and I’m so lucky because the club is so active and is always doing fun things. I am also a member of the Chicago Booth London Alumni Club, but I feel that that’s much more about general business seminars than hanging out and giving back, like Notre Dame is.
2. Join the US Alumni Club. They do a ton of fun events.
3. UK Yankee is a great board if you need advice on anything. They are particularly helpful if you are trying to figure out where you can find a specific American product or hah — where to watch that critical basketball or baseball game. Lots of good stuff on taxes and visas too.
Tell Me Your Tips
I am sure I am forgetting some things. Please let me know your tips for moving to London and I will add to this post as time goes on!