London, United Kingdom Report of what it's like to live there - 11/10/09
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, have also lived in Taipei.
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?
There are direct flights from most major cities, which are about 7 hours from the East Coast, depending on winds.
3. How long have you lived here?
One year, from 2008-2009.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Small and very expensive - if you stay in the outskirts of the city you'll have more space and lower rent but longer commute times. My flat was about a quarter the size of one I had in DC, and nearly double the rent.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get anything you want here, though many things won't be branded the same way as in the US. Tesco is the cheapest grocery store, but their quality and availability varies. Sainsbury's and Waitrose are very good, but a bit pricier. With the exchange rate, everything is more expensive in London, but you can live on a budget if you know where to look.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing, you can get it all here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Anything you want! They have all the American chains, as well as some local or European deli-style fast food, which are all relatively cheap. Dining can be reasonable if you pick the right places, and there is delicious food at all price ranges. Especially Indian!
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None, though on the odd weeks it gets hot in summer, and if you open your windows you'll get a few mosquitoes and a bunch of gnats inside.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Royal post is fine when they aren't on strike.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, everywhere. Prices are comparable to US prices.
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 are everywhere, and are perfectly safe. The major banks in the UK have a cooperative agreement, so you can use your card in most any ATM without any fees. Credit cards will be accepted most places, but the country has mostly switched to a chip-and-pin card system, so your American swipe-and-sign card may not be accepted sometimes, and it will definitely cause you glares for the delays you create using it.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, anything you want.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Of course, and at the same prices as in the US. There's a TV tax of some sort, though. I think it was about 100 pounds a year, but I didn't get a TV while I was there, so I don't know.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Well it's English, but knowing what 'quid' and 'loo' and 'bangers' are wouldn't hurt.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Well it's becoming more disability-friendly, but most of the streets, buildings, tube stations, etc. are very old and don't have adequate facilities for anyone who can't do steps or cobblestones. You can get around, but you may have to out of your way to do it.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Definitely safe and clean, but not exactly cheap. Buses are the most economical option, and they can generally get you where you want to go. Sometimes the Tube workers go on strike... and trains/stations are frequently out of service, especially on weekends -- so always check TFL before you travel. Get an Oyster card as soon as you get there! And don't take the Tube in the summer, you'll suffocate. Taxis are great, but a bit pricey.
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?
As small a vehicle as you can find! I wouldn't recommend bringing a car to London at all - driving is a nightmare and is ridiculously costly with the price of petrol and the congestion tax. Public transport is ubiquitous.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, about the same as US prices. Some limit your weekly bandwidth, though, so be careful of that.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are plenty of good options for phone plans, whether contract or pay as you go. I had 3 pay as you go, and it worked out very well at about 15 pounds per month. Orange, O2, and T-mobile are also good.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
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?
Yes, but they just changed the work permit rules to make it more difficult to get one. I don't know how those rules work for EFMs, but for everyone else you basically have to be a skilled worker to get a permit.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Pretty casual, unless you're in the financial district. Jeans at work aren't uncommon, as long as they're paired with dress shoes and a nice shirt.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Moderate. Some days you can see the particles in the air, which is uncomfortable both to breathe and open your eyes in. My allergies worsened here but were fine with OTC medications.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
None, it's one of the safest cities I've ever been in. Just stay out of Peckham after dark and you'll be fine.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No health concerns, and the medical care is fantastic. I was covered under NHS while I was there, and it was always great care (and all free!) I've heard private care is even better. Despite the stereotypical bad teeth of Brits, the dentists there are great (just not free).
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Not as bad as you've probably heard! It was a relatively dry year when I was there, so I found it to be very pleasant. It's usually a bit above freezing in the winters, and dark from about 4pm to 8am. It warms up very gradually through Spring, with usually a week or two of absolutely beautiful sunny weather in May. June and July are warm, but usually rainy. Autumn is very nice, until it starts getting dark again.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
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?
Fantastic! Pubs, clubs, plays, concerts, food, sports... anything you want, pretty much. Not much entertaining is done in the home, though, partly because Brits are very private people and partly because the flats there are generally just too small to have people over.
3. Morale among expats:
Very high - London rocks!
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's great for anyone.
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?
Only if you're Polish... but in general no.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Everything! It's London! All the touristy things are fun, even if you've seen them before. And there are tons of little towns and sites within easy distance by train or bus of the city.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tea! And traveling around and sightseeing.
9. Can you save money?
Probably not, unless you never go out or travel.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Definitely! I miss it all the time. I'm more homesick for London now than I was for the US when I was there.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
bathing suit, idea that the office runs from 9-5 (they are very flexible on schedules, so 10-6 is more common), and any aversion to strikes.
3. But don't forget your:
umbrella, galoshes, and a dry and sarcastic sense of humor.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Any classic Brit Lit, John le Carré.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Monty Python, Happy Go Lucky, Bridget Jones/Notting Hill/Love Actually
6. Do you have any other comments?
Other than it is pretty expensive, I have nothing bad to say about London. It's absolutely fantastic - the weather isn't that bad, the food is actually really good if you know where to go and what to buy, and the health care is fabulous. You'll learn to whine about the Tube just like a native Londoner, but really, compared to anything you'll find in the US it is amazing.