Nearly three years ago I decided that I wanted to move to the UK. It took a lot of persistence and patience, but it finally happened!
On August 27, 2014 I made the transition from San Francisco to London.
For any of you out there who are wanting to make a similar move, below is a succinct list of things that had to happen to make my move successful, as well as some tips I learned along the way. Keep in mind that I have now only been in the UK one whole week, but I thought I’d post this list before I forget anything.
Get a job! This may sounds easier than it is. I tried everything. I applied directly to companies in London, but inevitably got turned down because of the visa. The UK is also experiencing high unemployment, so it’s difficult to justify bringing foreigners in to do a job that someone in the UK could likely do. I learned that the best (and easiest) way to obtain a visa is by transferring with your current company, assuming they are global. As long as you have been with your company at least 12 months and they have a UK office, it’s not very difficult, nor expensive, for your company to sponsor you. It did take about a year of interviewing before I finally got an offer though.
Negotiate! I desperately tried to negotiate a higher rate of pay, but London doesn’t seem to compensate all that well (which is strange considering the high cost of living). Since I couldn’t squeeze too much more money out of my company, I got a bit crafty and negotiated for things like relocation, transportation reimbursement, private healthcare and a flight home each year. I also had to negotiate my start date to give myself time to move. I was lucky and wasn’t in a lease in SF, but that’s another consideration to keep in mind.
Relocation Funding – If you manage to negotiate some relocation money, ask for an advance on it. My company initially wanted me to keep all my receipts and then submit for reimbursement, but I insisted on receiving a wire transfer up front (which was not taxed). It was really handy having a chunk of money in advance, for all my moving costs.
Visa – The UK residency permit and visa system now operates on a points-system. The Tier 1 route is now only open to Entrepreneurs, Investors, Exceptional Talent and Graduate Entrepreneurs. Tier 2 is main route for work visas which must be sponsored by a UK employer. The Tier 2 (General) permit is an option if the company can demonstrate your job cannot be filled by a local British worker. If you are transferring with your existing employer you can get a Tier 2 (ICT – intra-company transfer) visa. I am on a 5 year ICT visa. At the end of the 5 years, I have no chance of renewal. If possible, I would recommend requesting a Tier 2 General visa. My request for this was declined as it doesn’t benefit the company as much as it would benefit me. The ICT visa will not lead to settlement in the UK and makes it impossible to switch employers. If you’re planning to stay in the UK forever, the ICT visa is not the way to go. But beggers can’t be choosers, so here I am with my ICT visa.
Plan Travel – First, I bought my one-way flight (eeeeeek!). Second, the moment I signed my offer letter, I bought the New York Times: 36 Hours 125 Weekends in Europe book. I have already started planning multiple European weekend adventures.
Find a Flat – This is easier said than done. Who in their right mind would rent to someone who doesn’t have proof of employment, a bank account or any sort of credit? Luckily, I have a generous friend who is allowing me to crash with him until I find a suitable flat. If you don’t have friends there who can help you out, you’re going to need some sort of corporate housing or temporary accommodation (hotel or short-term housing). Once I actually find a flat, I can provide some more insight on this point (update here). Right now I’m just focusing on exploring southwest London and finding the right area of the city for me.
Send a Piece of Mail – You may be required to provide proof of residence in some instances. I would recommend sending yourself a piece of mail (from the US, to your new address). If you don’t yet know your address, you can probably use your work address in the interim.
UK Bank Account – My friends in the UK recommended Barclays over all the other bank options. I went to their website and it turns out that you can actually apply for a Barclays bank account in advance. Upon arrival in the UK, you’ll just need to arrange a visit at one of the branches and bring the proper documentation (passport and proof of residence – that piece of mail you previously sent comes in handy now). In theory, setting this up in advance allows Barclays to review your application and complete their initial identification checks in advance. Sounds easy, right? It should have been, but it turns out that I was only the second person in the whole of the UK who has ever used this pre-application process. Because of that, it took about 2 hours sitting in the Barclays office and in the end I still had to call the next day before all my bank details and card were shipped to me. Barclays also offers a bunch of handy information for people who are relocating to the UK.
US Bank Account – I felt that I still needed an American bank account even though I won’t be accessing it often, mainly for having some dollars when I am back in the States or if I have to reimburse anyone in the US for anything, etc. I had Bank of America in the US. Don’t even get me started on how terrible they are. I tried to explain my situation to them, but they didn’t seem to care and weren’t willing to work with me, so after 10 years of being a BOA customer, I went ahead and closed my checking and savings accounts. There are far too many fees and in order to eliminate the fees, direct deposit and monthly transfers to a savings account are necessary. Since I won’t have any income in the US moving forward, these things are impossible. After a significant amount of research, I decided to open a Charles Schwab Brokerage account and linked a checking account to it. There are no minimum balance fees, no foreign transaction fees and all ATM fees are reimbursed. After setting up the Barclays account, I simply withdrew all my cash from Schwab and deposited it directly into my shiny new account. No wire fees, no hassles. It took a lot of patience to set up the Schwab account and it was all pretty confusing, but they have friendly customer service and, in the end, it’s a far better option than Bank of America.
National Insurance (NI) Number – National Insurance is similar to Income Tax. It is designed to provide certain retirement benefits (state pension and Social Security). I did a bit of research on obtaining the NI number and it seems that it’s not that difficult to obtain, once you have your visa, but it can be tedious. I read, in several places, that it’s well worth the $50 to pay a company like Sable International to help get it set up for you. Again, you can do some of this in advance. Once you physically enter the UK, on your visa, Sable International will start your paperwork. They will send you a packet, which you’ll need to check over, sign and return to them. Then, they will submit your application on your behalf. You need a local address and phone number in order to do any of the initial set-up ahead of time. You’ll also need to submit images of your passport and your stamped visa before Sable will begin working on your application.
Renter’s Insurance – Luckily for me, my US renter’s insurance was due to renew in August. I called State Farm and was able to just pay for one more month, instead of renewing the whole policy for another year. Once I find a new residence in the UK, I will set up a new policy with Endsleigh.
Identity Protection – Likewise, I cancelled my LifeLock account, since they don’t cover anyone who has an address outside of the United States. It seems that ID fraud protection comes standard with all UK credit cards, so it doesn’t appear to be something that I need to look into.
Credit Cards – I paid off all my US credit cards before leaving the country. I didn’t want to have to worry about paying transaction fees or dealing with exchange rates. I do have one card that doesn’t incur any international fees, so I may have to use that until I can sort out a local UK credit card. Since I have no credit in the UK, my options were basically limited to opening up a starter account with Barclays or to sign up for an Amex card. Amex offers a Global Card Transfer Service to support their card members when moving from one country to another. They will reference your payment history and standing when going through the approval process for your new card. You’ll need your old card number and a home address/phone number in your new country.
Doctor Appointments – I cancelled any/all remaining appointments for the rest of this year and early next year. I rescheduled whichever ones my current insurance would allow for. I figured it would be easier to get them all done before I leave, since I already have all my doctors in place. I also refilled all prescriptions before leaving. That way, I am not rushed to immediately find a new general practitioner in the UK.
Healthcare – I was only be covered by my insurance until my final day of work in the US. However, once you enter the UK and have a visa, you should be covered by National Healthcare. My company is also providing me with private healthcare. I haven’t had to use it yet, so I can’t provide too many details, but I do know that it operates like an HMO. You’ll need to find a general practitioner and then get referrals for specialty doctors. Also, something to consider, you’ll need to invest in travel insurance for whenever you leave the UK, since other countries will not accept the UK's national healthcare. It’s nominal, but worth remembering to sign up for. Many companies offer these sorts of programs: HSBC, Amex, 1st Contact, etc.
Personal Appointments – Like with doctors, you know all the people in your current city, so take advantage of that and go get waxed, spray tanned, haircuts, etc. before you depart. Plus, these services are likely to be cheaper Stateside than in the UK. I also set up an appointment with the DMV and renewed my license, one year ahead of time, so it will be valid for 4 more years while I’ll be living in the UK.
Packing – I bought some boxes, bubble wrap and tape…The basics. As I started to pack, I realized that I had waaaaaay more stuff than I had anticipated. I brought about 6 garbage bags filled with stuff to Good Will. I also posted stuff for sale on Craig’s List (like my bed, glassware that likely won’t survive the move and appliances that won’t work in the UK). Next I worked out how many suitcases I could actually bring with me on the plane, for free. Because I am flying United over to London and I have Platinum status with them, I can check 3 bags (up to 70lbs each). I can also then carry-on my regular two pieces. As I packed, I kept an inventory of everything in each box/suitcase. This is not only helpful for organizational purposes, but also necessary for customs when you ship boxes overseas.
Shipping – I weighed and measured each box. TIP: Be sure to add several pounds on to each box. Shipping companies LOVE to charge you overage fees if boxes are underweight. And the fees are way more than the extra couple of bucks you’ll pay initially for just adding on a few pounds. Once I had all the weight and dimension information, I was able to go online and price out my options. I looked into UPS, FedEx, DHL, USPS and several private shipping companies. USPS was, by far, the best value. They don’t have a good reputation, but I was willing to risk it to save several thousand dollars. I paid about $100/box versus the $350/box that UPS/FedEx were quoting me. Also, if you print off your own postage online at USPS.com, it’s about 15% less than at a retail location. USPS will also come collect your boxes from your place, for free, if you can be around between 2pm and 4pm on a weekday (at least in my area). What I didn’t do correctly was fill out the right customs paperwork. If you are moving from outside the UK, and have lived there for at least 12 months, you shouldn’t be subject to customs duties/import VAT taxes. All your belongings must have been in your possession for at least 6 months and must be for personal use only. Since I neglected to use proper documentation, I was charged approximately £900 in fees/taxes by the Border Force, on behalf of HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs). I am now fighting the fees, but who knows how that will go. I'm not very hopeful.
Update Address – Luckily my parents allowed me to use their address going forward. I updated the address on all my credit cards and at all my banks to their address and also had my mail forwarded there, from San Francisco. Additionally, I changed my address in my old HR system so W2’s and such will be sent somewhere safe. My parents have been kind enough to send photos of every piece of mail they have received. I then instruct them to discard, save or post to me.
Transportation – The cost of transportation in London is more than I had expected. Get yourself an Oyster Card straight away. It’s good for all transportation within London.
Mobile Phones - I'm afraid I can't be of much help in this department. My company ordered my phone for me, in advance, set it up and pays the bills. You'll want to get a phone immediately, since a number is required to set up most accounts. I am on Vodaphone and it seems to be just fine, if that helps.
Update Your Stuff! - Once you have arrived, go ahead and update your new city on Facebook, your LinkedIn account/resume, your iTunes, your time zones on your computer, etc. It felt really good to make it all official!
Know the Basics - Great Britain is the name of the island on which England, Scotland and Wales are situated. It is not a country. The UK (United Kingdom) consists of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. England is simply the largest and most populated portion of the United Kingdom. Don't confuse Great Britain with England. The Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh find it very offensive. Whatever you do, don't call the Scots, Northern Irish or Welsh "English."
Be Prepared for the Weather! It rains more in England than you may be used to, although it is not as wet or dismal as has also been portrayed through ill-informed American media. Although it has very long, bright and remarkably pleasant days in summer, winter days are short and it can be dark for long periods of time. In the winter you will get about 5 hours of sunlight. If you know that you will miss the sun, get a room with a south facing window.