So, you want to live in London? Join the club!
Ever since I moved to London back in 2011, so many people have asked me if I have any tips or advice on how I did it. Therefore, I’ve decided to compile a list of things that everyone one needs to know in order to leap across the pond to hang out with Big Ben and The Queen just like I did (we’re all BFFs)!
1. You Need A Visa
No, I’m not talking about needing a credit card (although that may be helpful for some). The visa that I’m referring to is basically a piece of paper attached to your passport stating when you can enter and/or leave a country based on certain rules and regulations.
If you are just traveling to London for a vacation, you’ll be granted a six month visa as stated by a stamp on your passport which is received upon arrival into the UK. Under this tourist visa, you are not allowed to work or study, and you do not have access to public benefits.
If you would like to live in London for longer than that to study, work, volunteer or do an internship, you need to apply for a UK visa under their points based system. There are many different types of visas one can apply for determined by their intended purpose for moving to the UK, but there are only a few that Americans are eligible for.
Overview of UK Visas for US Citizens:
- Tier 4 (General) Student Visa
- Student Visitor Visa – for courses under 6 months
- Tier 2 (General) Skilled Worker
- Tier 5 – Charity, creative and athletic workers
For all of the UK visas listed above, you would need to obtain sponsorship from an institution or employer that has a license to do so.
My Honest Opinion: The advice I always give to people, especially those who have just come from undergraduate education, is that the easiest way to live in London is to become a student. I realize that this may be the last thing that you want to hear having just graduated from four years of college, but honestly, if living in London is something that you really want to do, then becoming a student again is going to be your best bet. With a Tier 4 student visa, you can not only get a master’s degree (or any other degree or diploma you choose), but you are also allowed to work up to 20 hours a week during term time to assist with covering finances. It gives you the opportunity to meet new people your age from all over the world, and it can be an excellent way to immerse yourself in a whole variety of different cultures. Also, many UK universities allow you to apply for US federal loans, which can assist with paying for the tuition fees and cost of living as well.
For more information on the UK visa points system, I highly recommend checking out the UK Border Agency website.
2. You Need To Get There
Once you have a visa stating the dates that you are allowed to live in the UK (to study, work, volunteer, or whatever), you then have to buy a plane ticket. Please, please, please do not buy your ticket to London before you receive your visa. I learned this one the hard way!
Personal Experience: Two years ago when I was accepted into my master’s program, I decided to book my ticket to London for September 14th, which was exactly one month before my program’s start date. I had spoken to my visa expeditors (people you can hire to handle visa paperwork and dealing with the British embassy on your behalf) who claimed the visa would begin one month before school began. Well, la-di-da, my visa comes and the “valid from” date is three days after the date I had planned to arrive. I then learned that the visa begins exactly 30 days before the program start date. So, even though I was scheduled to begin on September 14th, I could not enter the UK until August 17th. Its not like if I showed up a few days early they would say, “Oh its fine, we’ll let you in anyway. Its only a three day difference.” Nope! They will physically deny you entry into the country.
The moral of the story, as stated earlier, wait until you have your visa in your hands and know the exact date it begins before you book any plane tickets. This not only avoids frustration, but it also will help you to avoid paying airline change fees ranging from $250 and beyond.
A tip for purchasing your ticket: Tuesdays are best for buying AND flying! For some reason, ticket prices are a bit cheaper on Tuesdays. Not just for actually traveling, but for buying your ticket as well. Some airlines lower their prices on a Tuesdays for some reason, and because its not the most convenient day to fly, flights are usually less expensive for Tuesday travel. Just make sure that its not before the date your visa actually begins (as we learned earlier).
3. You Need Shelter, Money, A Phone and The Internet
This may sound a bit obvious at first, but it is something that needs to be considered. Once you arrive in London, where are you going to live, and how will you communicate with people? Now, if you are coming to London as a student, you may decide to take advantage of student accommodation, which will take care of the shelter and internet situation. This does make life a little easier, but you still have to set up a UK bank account and get a UK phone number. Here are a few simple tips on acquiring all things listed in this category:
A roof over your head:
I would advise arranging to stay in a hotel, hostel or at a friend’s place when you first arrive, and then begin your search while you are already in London. Flats usually go really quickly once they are listed, and they only advertise their vacancy a few weeks before they are available at the most. It is also helpful to be in the same country when scheduling viewings and whatnot.
Also, if you are looking to live with roommates, you must refer to them as “flatmates” or “housemates”. When you are searching for said flatmates, you must use the term “flatshare”. When you say “roommate,” people in the UK often think of someone who is physically sharing a bedroom with you. Just to avoid any confusion or misunderstandings, just use the term flatmate, and everyone will know exactly what you mean!
Money in the bank:
There are many banks in London, and they all offer decent bank accounts for people just arriving in the UK. Its been my experience that Barclays is one of the easiest and fastest banks that will set you up and get you on your way as soon as possible. I have also heard good things about HSBC, but I have never personally tried to open an account with them in the UK. Also, your checking account is called your “current account” here in the UK. The accounts manager at the bank will know what you mean if you say “checking account,” but if you want to get in with the lingo before you arrive, then say “current account” instead (did I just say, ‘get in with the lingo?’).
Make sure that when you arrive at the bank, you have your passport with visa information and possibly another form of identification such as a US driver’s license. This ensures that they have enough information to set up your account, and will probably move the process along a little faster.
cell phone mobile:
As you may already know, a cell phone is called a “mobile” and pronounced “mob-eye-al” (hopefully you can understand my strange phonetic spelling). There are many mobile phone shops with contracts or pay as you go. When I first arrived, I had a pay as you go phone with Vodafone, and that became quite expensive over time. I eventually switched to a year long contract with Orange, which no longer exists really (they’ve merged with a company called EE, and honestly, their service is horrible). At the beginning of 2013, I switched to an 18 month contract with O2, and they’re okay. The service is decent, but its better to get their sim cards instead of getting a “free phone” with your contract (learned that one the hard way too).
In terms of the physical phone itself, you can either buy a phone when you purchase your contract, or buy a sim card for an already existing phone. However, this phone must be unlocked, so if you are taking your phone from home which is locked to Verizon (or something like that), you must get it unlocked before you put in your new UK sim card or it will not work. There are “touristy” shops all along Oxford Street that will unlock your phone for free or for a small fee (maybe about £10 or so). Just make sure you back up all of your pictures, contacts and music before they unlock it in case anything gets erased in the process.
Catchy title for getting internet:
Getting internet in the UK is kind of a pain, and it took me forever. If you are lucky enough to find a place with already established broadband, then you won’t have to deal with this. If you are renting a new flat, odds are that you will have to get a new broadband contract, and most companies make you get a phone line along with it.
Most companies charge around £30 a month, but it is definitely possible to find a better deal. Many people have told me that Virgin Media is the best broadband company in the UK, and I used them for the first nine months that I lived here. They were fine, but a bit pricy. I am now in a house that uses Sky, and its perfectly fine as well. The main companies I would recommend looking into are: Virgin Media, Sky, BT and Talk Talk. Just take a look at the packages offered, and make the choice that’s right for your situation.
Important Side Note: If you want a television while you are living in London, you need to get a TV license, which will cost you about £145.50 per year (I believe). It is mandatory for all people living in the UK who have televisions in their homes, and the cost goes to paying for the BBC. We did not have a TV in our old flat, and the TV licensing people would harass us about it constantly. Although we made multiple phone calls stating that there was no television in our home, and we waited around for a visit from them that never happened, they continued to send us bills in the mail (London lingo: “in the post”). Now, I live in a home with a TV and split the cost with my flatmates for the license, but I have no idea what would have happened if I had continued living in the TV-less flat. Its a bit ridiculous.
4. Traveling in Europe
A lot of Americans I know that want to live in London are interested in traveling to other countries in Europe as well, and with good reason. Traveling to another European country here is almost the equivalent of driving to another state in America except its so much faster (depending on where you live, of course). If you book well enough in advance, you can find tickets to places like Prague, Budapest and Amsterdam for £30 or less round trip!
Over the past two years, I’ve traveled to about 15 other countries within Europe! I nearly tripled the amount of countries I had been to over the course of only two years. Now, I know that my case is a bit extreme because not many people may get the opportunity to travel that much, but if you can do it, I highly recommend it! These past two years have been so amazing, and I have learned so much about different countries and cultures. I will share my experiences on each country in future posts for those who may be interested in travel.
As for the technicalities of traveling within Europe, depending on where you are, you can travel by either plane, train or bus. Air travel is by far the fastest and cheapest option. They have budget airlines such as Ryan Air, Easy Jet and Wizz Air. These airlines have very strict baggage allowance rules, so check their websites before you pack your luggage.
Final Thoughts: I could go on and on about living in London and all of the things I’ve learned over the past 2 years, but I think I’m going to save that for future posts… or maybe a book, who knows! Hopefully this is a good starter kit to help you decide whether moving to London is right for you. I think a lot of people fantasize about living in London because their vacations there were so great, but the nitty gritty details are always left out. There are a lot of technicalities that I did not consider until after I had accepted my place in a UK master’s program and realized that I now had to move to another country. It is a huge deal! It changed my life in more ways than anyone can imagine, and if this is something that you really want, that aspect of it must be considered as well. Anyway, I will get into all of that another time, but I hope this list has helped you move one step closer to realizing your dream of living in London. Good luck!
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