London, United Kingdom Report of what it's like to live there - 01/19/12
Personal Experiences from London, United Kingdom
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
It takes about 6 hours to get to the East Coast and anywhere from 9-14 hours to get to the West Coast. There are direct flights to many cities, but the cost is high. We have found that flights on American Airlines seems to be a little cheaper. Make sure you enroll in a Frequent Flyer Miles program.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy assignment.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I've only heard one person complain about their housing. As long as you come knowing you aren't going to have a big space, you won't be disappointed. Most families live in the same area of town. My commute from my front door to the Embassy door is 30 minutes, using public transportation. It really isn't that bad!
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
We do 90% of our grocery shopping at RAF Lakenheath. You get American food and the prices are about the same as in D.C..If you shop on the market, you'll be paying a little bit more than you'd want to. A gallon of milk is about US$6-$7 right now. There are tons of grocery stores available and most of them deliver!That is one plus to shopping on the market.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Remember that everything is more expensive here. Yes, you can find anything you are looking for but at a price. I'd ship lots of facial and body lotions. You skin will dry out like crazy here. Bring a good pair or two of rainboots and several jackets for varying temperatures.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Almost everything you can imagine is here. The price is always higher than in the States. It's not uncommon to spend around $50 USD for lunch for two. McDonalds, KFC, Subway, etc. are just slightly more expensive than in the States, but be prepared for American fast food to taste differently.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
You can find everything here! We've noticed that some of the specialty foods taste better than the regular stuff.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None really. We've had the odd spider and sometimes bees will fly in during the summer, but nothing bad!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. The mail system is a little slow. Sometimes you will get things that were sent to you 3 months earlier and sometimes you get things immediately. It's been very unreliable and I know they are working on fixing the issues.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It varies here. There is availability, but it's pricey. Every person charges something different.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a gym, which is reasonably priced. There are tons of gyms in London, but be prepared to pay a high price for membership.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
They prefer that you use ATMs that are located inside a bank because of possible fraud. Using a credit card is easy here.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Everything you can imagine.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Everything is in English. You can use BT, Sky or Virgin for cable. We use Sky because they have more American channels. With an internet and satelite package, we pay about US$150 a month.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English!You'll hear every language known to man here, but almost everyone speaks English. You'll get to know all the different accents too.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There won't be a lot of difficulties here. They are very conscious of everyone's needs and try to accommodate. The sidewalks are sometimes unlevel so you'll notice a lot of people looking down, just to make sure they don't trip. But otherwise, they are very good with helping people with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
They are very safe. The bus is cheaper than the tube (subway), but the tube is faster. Taxis are a little expensive, but reliable. I've been very impressed with the public transportation and use it every day. The prices change every year. Right now it costs about US$2.50 for a one-way trip on the bus. The Tube varies but tends to be around US$5 for a one-way trip. Expect to pay around US$5-10 a day to get to work and back. Parking at the embassy is not always available and they discourage it.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Smaller is better because the roads are narrow and gas is expensive. I'd recommend buying a car once you arrive. It's easier to navigate in a car that was made for driving on the other side of the road. Parking is a nightmare in London.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
You can get packages for high-speed internet from many companies. Do your research first so you get the best deal. Some packages only allow you a certain amount of usage before you get charged more. We have the unlimited package. With internet and satelite TV we pay around US$150 a month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We got a pay-as-you-go plan and it's been great. You can get a free iPhone if you sign a 2-year contract with several companies. Shop around before making your decision. The main providers are Orangea and Vodaphone, but there are many "off brand" companies that also have good plans.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Not anymore...there is a form you can fill out and submit with certain records they require. I don't have any specifics on it.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
I don't have pets, but the English are animal lovers.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
There are quite a few jobs available both in the Embassy and on the economy. The Embassy jobs are posted on the website by HR.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Men wear suits every day and women wear slacks/skirts. It is faily formal. You won't see a lot of people wearing shorts around here because it just doesn't get that warm.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pick-pocketing is the main thing you have to worry about. As long as you are smart about zipping up your purse and keeping items in your front pocket, you'll be fine. We have the normal threats that D.C. has.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care here is great. If you have a diplomatic passport, you are entitled to register for NHS which is the local, free healthcare. It isn't the most ideal, but it's not bad. They even offer free fertility treatments, surgeries, etc. We prefer to use the Embassy med unit and then get referred out to a private doctor. The private doctors are much better, but crazy expensive. You'll have to pay the bill in full, then submit to your insurance.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Depends on the season. There is normal pollution as you would find in any major city. The allergies here are terrible. We've been sicker here than anywhere else we've lived. If you didn't have allergies before, don't be surprised if you develop them.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It doesn't rain here as much as everyone thinks. And when it rains, it's not for long periods of time. The winters aren't fun, but it's mainly because of the constant grey clouds. When it snows here, which isn't often or a lot, the entire city shuts down. My kids have actually had snow days for 2 inches of snow on the ground. Summers are incredible!You keep your windows open (because most houses don't have A/C) and it's perfect! During the spring you need to walk around the city and admire all the flowers. It's so beautiful!!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
My kids go to ACS Hillingdon and love it. ACS is about a 45-minute drive away from our house, but only 12 miles. There is a van that picks them up and drops them off at our house. ASL is another school that Embassy people look into, because it's located a few miles away from where most of us live. ASL is harder on the kids academically and the Embassy children are seen as the "poor kids" of the school. I've heard good and bad about both, but my children (elementary and middle school ages) have loved it. There were some issues with bullying and the school took care of it immediately.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
My son has special needs and ACS did all the evaluations for him and then set up the help he needed. I have been highly impressed with how they handled the situation and how quickly they adjusted things for him. I've heard ASL isn't as accommodating.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I don't have personal experience with it, but have heard there are a lot of options...for a price!
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Tons, both through the schools and through the different Boroughs.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
It varies by department. Moral is usally good. If you are coming from a smaller post, you might find it hard to adjust in the beginning. This is a post where you only see your colleagues at work. Everyone does their own thing and it's very rare to see people outside of work. This is not a "family" type of Embassy like you get at smaller posts. It can be good and bad, depending on your preference.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Everyone tends to do their own thing. There are tons of pubs and dance clubs around.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This city is great for everyone!If you are bored here, it's your own fault.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are the normal stereotypes you have to deal with, but nothing out of the ordinary. On public transport, it's a rare occasion to see a man giving up his place for a woman. I've even seen a guy push a girl out of the way for a seat.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Touring the different castles and ruins around the country. It is truly magnificent. Weekend trips to other parts of Europe are so easy and well worth it.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Travel, travel, travel! You can do all the normal London touristy things, but it's so much fun to get out of the city. Almost everything is accessible through trains, buses and airplanes. Look into getting yearly passes to something like English Heritage, which allows you to tour different castles and ruins as many times as you want, for a flat fee.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Everything!It's an easy transition into the Foreign Service for kids. It's different than the States, yet similar enough to not be a huge shock. The tourism alone is amazing!You can get fairly cheap flights to anywhere in Europe, or take a train.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you don't travel around and enjoy the area you are in. I HIGHLY recommend you travel as much as you can and see this great country and every part of Europe possible.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. I do wish we could come when my kids are older because they'd appreciate all the history around them.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Beach attire and regular-sized cookie sheets (European-sized ovens).
3. But don't forget your:
Rain boots, lotions, coats/jackets for every type of weather and any beauty products you don't want to pay double for.