London, United Kingdom Report of what it's like to live there - 06/27/17
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?
No, we've also lived in Scotland and Canada.
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?
Midwestern US. Lots of flights from London, with connections often going through Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, or Newark.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We have a large attached house with garage, provided by the school where my husband works. The large, leafy campus is a playground for our kids, and a respite from big city life. It is significantly better housing than we could afford on the open market. American friends of ours live in a two-story freestanding house with a small garden. Most UK houses are smaller than what Americans are used to, and have far less storage.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything is available here, and if you can't find it in the shops (canned pumpkin, Bisquick), you can probably find it on Amazon UK. Coffee creamer isn't a thing, but single cream works fine. Like most things in the UK, food isn't cheap, but it depends what you buy. London is such an international city that there are loads of ethnic grocery stores, with lots of interesting spices and sauces to make simple foods more interesting. Also, grocery delivery is available and so convenient!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing, it's all available here, somewhere.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You can get almost anything delivered and/or available for takeout. Kebabs are popular, and we've found Turkish and Thai restaurants we love. Pizza Express is a great place for Italian. Pubs are great and have everything from fish and chips to more gourmet fare.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There really aren't many insects here, in fact, the windows don't tend to have screens! We've had some ants and flies, but that's about it. Slugs can be annoying, but don't tend to get into the house.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Royal Mail is perfectly fine. Post offices here are often located in shops.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
I have no idea, but I assume it's available and expensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Lots of gyms, and again, I assume they are expensive. But walking and running in the beautiful London parks is free, and there are likely local teams that are affordable (rugby, cricket, football, etc)
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?
Yes, and yes. Contactless debit cards are also popular, and make bus/tube travel especially easy in London.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Every religion is represented here, and I assume most have English-language services.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
If you speak English, you're fine in London. You just have to get used to the accent and to the different words/phrases Brits use. You're not sick, you're 'poorly.' It's not the car trunk, it's the 'boot.' You're not going on vacation, you're going on 'holiday.'
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The buses have ramps and spaces for wheelchairs. Some of the tube stations are wheelchair accessible and some aren't. The city does its best to accommodate people, but it's large and much of its infrastructure is old.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
London has a fantastic public transport network, but it's not super cheap. However, for us, it's cheaper than owning and driving a car, and certainly less hassle. The bus/tube/Thames river bus/ London overground are all integrated, so with an Oyster card or by using your contactless debit card, your journeys are kept track of and you won't be charged more than the 'cap' for that day and that week. Children under 11 are free on buses and tube, while children 11-15 are free on buses and get discounted tube fare. Taxis are safe, but not cheap, and so many people are using Uber. Trains around the UK are frustratingly expensive, but by booking advanced tickets, and making use of discount rail cards (we have the Family and Friends rail card), the price can be brought down.
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?
Given the cost of petrol, the difficulty with parking, and the narrow roads, I wouldn't recommend bringing anything big, especially if you live in central London. We have no car at all, and find it liberating. Public transport and walking work just fine for most things. It would be nice to have a car to get out of the city on weekends, but if a train won't get us there, we could always rent a car. Other options are Zipcar or Easy Car Club (like AirBnB but for cars). Most Americans we know who have cars bought them here, apparently used cars are not terribly expensive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, it is available and good. We had to wait a month for BT to send an engineer out to hook up our house for broadband, but since all the companies use the same engineers, going with another provider wouldn't have helped.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use BT for broadband. Giffgaff for phone and mobile data, which I like because we aren't locked into a contract and have a choice of how much to buy each month.
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?
There are qualified vets. I'm not sure about the rules regarding bringing pets into the UK.
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?
Most of the expat spouses I know are staying home with young children, but there are loads of Americans working in London, many in financial services in the city. My understanding is that salaries are often less than you'd expect in a comparable job in the US, depending, and the fact that London is so expensive can mean you will often need to accept a simpler lifestyle.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Sports, education, sustainability, charity shops, churches, etc.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Comparable to the US.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
London has had three terrorist attacks so far in 2017, and then there was the one in Manchester. The probability that any one individual will be caught up in a terrorist attack is still extremely low, but people are on edge. Some schools have canceled school trips to central London, or parents have decided not to let their children participate. But life goes on, tourists are still here, London is still amazing, and it doesn't affect us much overall.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The NHS is fine, although depending on what sort of healthcare you had in the states, you may have to wait longer here to see a specialist or get non-urgent care. Private insurance plans are available if you want to be able to access private medical care.
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?
London does have air pollution, although this isn't obvious to me when I'm walking around outside. Spring can be hard on hay fever sufferers.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
You should be able to find products that will help you avoid any chemicals or foods you can't have contact with.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Winters are quite mild, in my opinion, but it can get dark quite early. Anxiety can be an issue for those who think about the possibility of terrorism a lot.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Quite temperate. It never seems extremely cold to me, but I suppose it's all relative. We had some hot days this summer (low 90s), and that was challenging, especially because AC is less common, and we spend more time walking to get places.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I know there are at least a couple American international schools, but I can't really comment on them. Our children are in British state schools (public schools) because they are free, local, and of high quality. We are here long-term, so we don't need to worry about them transitioning to another country's school system later on. I think this is why so many expat parents choose international schools, especially those with an International Baccalaureate degree option. That said, I don't think it would be a big deal to transition from a British primary school to an elementary school in the US, however, it would likely be more complicated at secondary level.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
If you look at a state school's admissions criteria, children with special needs who have chosen that school, are always admitted first. Only after that, do they admit siblings, people who live close to the school, etc. There are also schools designed especially for children with special needs. If you have any questions about schooling, I would read the school websites, and visit the forums at Mumsnet. As for the international schools, I couldn't speak to their policies and services.
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?
All 3 to 4-year-olds in England can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. Itâ€™s usually taken as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. Check www.gov.uk to find out current options and eligibility. Daycare is available, but expensive. Our son's primary school does provide before- and after-school care, and our daughter's secondary school is open early and stays open late, with the library available for use.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Anything you could want. Schools also have extracurricular activities, most for free, and some for a fee.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. London is so large and spread out, that most expats will never meet each other. I understand there are some areas that have more Americans than others, perhaps around the American international schools. The American expats I know love it here, although finances can be tight.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Pub nights, dinners at each other's houses, sightseeing, walks. I've heard good things about the American Women's Club. I would encourage expats to resist the temptation to build their social lives around other expats exclusively.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's good for everyone. Families may find it challenging to find the right mix of neighborhood, school, and housing, because of the high costs. And buying a property may not be a possibility at all, depending.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
London is a very diverse city. Overall, people live harmoniously, but there can be tensions. I personally witnessed a British man berate an immigrant mother on a bus, and tell her she was in the wrong country. Muslims may feel anxious because the general public might associate them with the radicalized Muslims who committed the terrorist attacks.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Day trips to Cambridge and Oxford, a long weekend in Edinburgh, and feeling like we will never run out of things to explore in London. We are also on the doorstep of Europe, and there are cheap flights to so many wonderful destinations. Overall, what I love most is living daily life in such a beautiful place, and integrating into British life.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
British Museum, Covent Garden, theater, Natural History museum, Thames river cruises, Kew Gardens, Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, St. Paul's Cathedral. A good tip is just to ride some of the bus routes that go through central London, and get a grand tour for a cheap price.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tons to buy, most of it expensive. However, there are lots of charity shops and markets where you can find treasures for cheap.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's a world class city where you can find almost anything. The city alone has loads to do, but you're also on a fascinating island, where nothing is too far away (by American standards!). You have easy access to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and it's easy getting back to the US. London is diverse and you can experience any culture you choose as you travel around to different neighborhoods, theaters and restaurants.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I knew it would be expensive, but it has surprised me just how tight our budget is at times.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
American exceptionalism, car, and all your electric items (unless you want to go to the trouble of using a transformer).
4. But don't forget your:
Openmindedness, raincoat, and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox.
The Crown, Netflix series about the life of Queen Elizabeth.
6. Do you have any other comments?
If you get a chance to live in London, go for it!