By Greg Sandell - This is a list of Frequently Asked Questions by people planning to move from America to the UK. Topics relate to practical matters of moving as well as tips on what the experience is like. Possibly also useful to anyone traveling to the UK, or moving to Europe in general.
Note from Avatar Relocation regarding this FAQ: While author Greg Sandell has created a comprehensive and immensely valuable resource, readers should take note that Avatar Relocation first started hosting Mr. Sandell's FAQ in 1995 and it is now approximately twenty (20) years old. Although much has changed over the past twenty years (and as a result the passage of time has invalidated some of what Mr. Sandell has written), Avatar Relocation has decided to continue to host this FAQ and leave it intact as the majority of this writing remains pertinent and of great value to those interested in this subject. Thank you Mr. Sandell.
- Can I run US-made electrical devices (appliances, stereos, computers) in the UK?
- What are the differences?
- How can I convert?
- What are the differences in power plugs/jacks in US and UK?
- What features should I look for a transformer?
- Where can I get a transformer, and for how much?
- What items should I not bring?
- What items should I bring?
- Will phone items (modem, answering machine) work?
- How should I transport my belongings to the UK?
- How much of my stuff should I take?
- What should I do with my possessions in the US while I'm away?
- Will I have to pay import duties, VAT, etc. on items I bring into the UK?
- What sorts of documents should I bring with me?
- How is health care in the UK?
- How expensive is it to live in the UK?
- How can I get a bank account?
- What kind of housing will I find?
- How do I get utilities (gas, water, phone, etc.)?
- How should I manage my financial affairs back in the US?
- How much will I be taxed (in US and UK)?
- Will I be able to stand food in the UK?
- Do I want to get around by train, bus, or car?
- Is Internet easily accessible?
- What kind of Visa/Permit do I need?
- What's it like living in the UK?
- Do I want to be an academic in the UK?
- What should I read before moving to the UK?
- Is there a FAQ for moving from the UK to the US?
- Basic facts comparing the US and UK
Feel free to duplicate and circulate all or parts of this document provided you do so on a non-profit basis, indicate my name as author, and do not alter it in any way.
How was this FAQ written?
I lived in Brighton, a mid-sized UK city. Cities with a population size close to Brighton are Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Plymouth, and Southampton. Although the information here might not apply to so me of the smaller or more remote towns, I suspect it will apply to much of the UK. On the other hand I should give is that Brighton is a particularly liberal, free-spirited sort of place that gets a lot of foreign visitors: consequently I may have a view of Britain as a slightly more "open-minded " place than other parts of Britain actually are. One particular warning I feel compelled to give is that I have no experience living in London which, being a major world city, has unique rules and idiosyncrasies of its own. So if that's where you're moving, caveat emptor: for any given statement I make you should mentally append "it may be different in London."
Also keep in mind the information here reflects a particular point of time (specifically, April '93 when I moved to Brighton, until the present, January '95). I have no doubt that that many of the facts and certainly the prices will all sound very quaint in one or two years' time. I put all costs in US dollars for the purpose of simplicity. The exchange rate I use is $1.50 to the UK pound, which it hovered around (plus or minus 2 cents) during most of the time I lived in the UK. Note that even though the "last modified" date that I give at the beginning of this FAQ may show a more recent date, it does not mean that I updated the prices at that time.
This FAQ is written by a single author. Ordinarily FAQs are compendiums of wisdom on subjects relevant to a large number of people on matters for which there are generally agreed-upon answers, but this is not the case with this FAQ. This is a highly specialized topic, and includes discussion of matters that are of a subjective nature. It has not been exhaustively researched like a Frommer's Guide to be equally true for all Americans from all sorts of regions and socio-economic levels; rather it's the sort of guide where the reader should figure out whether my viewpoint is one they're likely to share based on the way I say things. On the other hand, subjects of a more factual nature (like electrical products) have benefited from numerous suggestions and corrections I have received by email responses, which I welcome and for which I am very grateful (see the acknowledgements section at the end).
I've received many positive responses on the accuracy of this FAQ from many people for whom it is relevant, that is, Americans who have lived, will be living, or currently are living in the UK. Occasionally I get a critical (sometimes nasty) reply from someone saying that I generalize too much, that I am inaccurate or excessively critical in my assessment of life in the UK. Interestingly enough, such comments almost invariably come from people with no stake whatsoever in the matter of what it's like being an American living in the UK, but British readers who saw the FAQ posted on the USENET groups uk.misc or soc.culture.british and read it just to see what a Yank has to say about their country. If you are such a reader please think twice about sending me your criticisms, since the perceptions that are true for you may not be true for someone who grew up in America.
I left the UK in April 1995 and have been living in Chicago since.
Can I run US-made electrical devices (appliances, stereos, computers) in the UK?
Bing! You've just asked the very most Frequently Asked Question regarding a move to the UK. The UK, of course, has a completely different electrical standard than the US (in terms of voltage, current available, frequency, and physical plugs). There is a lot of information to consider here, at different levels of technicality; there are no quick answers to some problems, so please read carefully. A warning: the advice given here is based on my own experience, and the information I have received from informed individuals. None of it should be considered the advice of a professionally qualified electrician. I cannot be held responsible for any accidents or lawsuits that occur from following the advice contained in this FAQ.
In my view, your best start is to find a store that deals primarily in selling foreign electronics goods, and get a friendly salesman to explain the ins and outs of power conversion. Such shops (found only in large cities, I'm afraid) will be listed under "Export shops" in the yellow pages; you might also try "Freight Forwarding" and ask where such shops may be found in that area. Another idea is to ask people who work at specialty shops for Asians and Indians (food shops, video stores); they may know of a local export shop.
What are the differences?
There are four matters relating to using US appliances in the UK
- the voltage ( US = 120V, UK = 240V )
- the number of watts the product draws (different for each product)
- the frequency ( US = 60 Hz, UK = 50 Hz )
- the plug on the power cord
How can I convert?
To have a US item run under UK current you need to buy a transformer, a product that you plug into the wall and has a US-style jack at the other end. The transformer will "step down" in voltage from 240 to 120v. From there you may want to plug in a US-style power strip and provide current for several products.
Next you need to consider how many watts your transformer is providing (all transformers should clearly indicate this). The more wattage required by the electrical item(s), the bigger (and more expensive) the transformer will need to be. Add up all the watts that every one of the components will draw that will be turned on at the same time, then throw in 20-25 extra watts for good measure, and that's about the size you need. So if you have three stereo components drawing 30 watts each, get a transformer than delivers about 120 watts. Don't try to draw more than what the transformer provides: you will be risking the health of you and your electronic components!
Now, on to the frequency of the product, a subject which is notorious for causing great confusion. UK outlets provide a frequency of 50 Hz. Transformers do not provide a conversion to US 60 Hz; you are stuck with UK 50 Hz. The only electrical products that need concern you regarding this frequency mismatch are products that contain motors (i.e. things that run fans, spin wheels, rotate things, etc.). But...there are two kinds of motors that will be found inside electrical products, and one type is affected by the frequency, while the other is not.
- Synchronous motors are affected by the frequency mismatch. When such a motor made for 60 Hz receives 50 Hz, it runs at 5/6 speed. You will generally find that any product that contains a motor that runs at high speed (e.g. hair dryer), or must drive something with great force (e. g. power drill) will be a synchronous motor.
- DC motors are not affected by the frequency mismatch, because the motor runs on DC (for which frequency is irrelevant) and the DC current is supplied internally by the product. Thus, as long as the product gets current from a proper transformer, the motor inside will run at the correct speed. Generally, any product which requires only a small motor (e.g. Walkman cassette player, computer disc drive) uses its own low-voltage (5 or 12 volts) DC motor.
You may ask: "So if I don't particularly mind that a product with a synchronous motor is running at 5/6 speed, can I run it safely anyway?" The answer is "probably." I have been warned that some products (rare, and perhaps even illegal by UL standards) are rated for no lower than 60 Hz, and w ill overheat when supplied with 50 Hz. The only way you can be sure is to find out the minimum frequency that the product may be run at (which should be 50), for which may need a trained electrician if the manual doesn't say so. But if the item is a modern product by a company with a good reputation, you probably needn't worry.
What are the differences in power plugs/jacks in US and UK?
There is only one type of plug in common use in the UK, a three prong plug, larger than the US three-prong equivalent. A schematic below (which requires a mono-spaced font to be viewed correctly) illustrates the differences between the blades of the two plugs:
There is an older, two prong plug which apparently is still in use in older dwellings that haven't been updated, but I have never seen them, even in quite old fashioned cottages. So if a salesman selling you UK/US adapters tells you need to need to be equally prepared for both kinds o f plugs, he's wrong.
The UK plug also differs from the US one in that a fuse is contained inside. Until recently, when you purchased an electrical product often times it would have no plug at the end of the power cord, which you'd have to buy separately and attach yourself. The practice has recently been discontinued (supposedly abolished by law), so you will may not even encounter the problem. While we're on that subject, you'll also discover that most UK electrical outlets have switches on them, like the switch on a power strip. And, like all other switches in the UK (such as those used for room lights) the effect of the position of the switch is opposite that of the US: down means on, up means off!
What features should I look for a transformer?
Go for good quality here. The small products that are made for the vacation traveler, sold at department stores and places like Radio Shack are not just poor quality, they aren't even transformers at all. They try to simulate a transformer with capacitors, and they can 'short-circuit', blowing up whatever they are powering. You know you are being conned when you see a so-called "1600 watt transformer" the size of a portable electric shaver, weighing 16 oz and costing $20: a true 1600 watt transformer is far larger, heavier and more expensive (see below).
Go instead to an export shop, if you can find one. They tend to carry a wide range of authentic transformers. Look at the back of every one of your electrical items you plan to bring to the UK, write down its power consumption in watts, and take this list to the vendor, and see what he/she recommends.
Many commercial transformers I have seen only provide a two-prong US jack, i.e., no ground, so you'll have to look harder to find one with a ground, i.e., three prongs. People with some expertise have told me that it can be very risky to bypass the ground plug (with one of those three-to-two-prong adapters) when using products that require a ground.
Where can I get a transformer, and for how much?
First of all, you might consider whether it might not be better to wait until getting to the UK to buy transformers. There's not much of a market in the US for converters, since there is only one electrical standard in the US and Canada. Europe seems to be a little more aware of the existence of different electrical standards in the world, and thus stores probably have better availability and wider selection. Furthermore, for some reason professional electrical equipment used at building sites in the UK use the US standard of 110v, which means there is a market here for 240-to-110V transformers capable of delivering a LOT of power. Also, keep in mind that all transformers are very heavy: my own 1000 watt converter is about 4x4x4 inches in size, and about 35 lbs in weight (so you'll have to ship it rather than take it on the plane with you). On the other hand, they may be cheaper in the US (see prices below).
- There is a electronic parts catalogue sales company in Britain called RS Components which deals in transformers; they deal with the public through a mail order company called Electromail, P.O. Box 33, Corby, Northants, NN1 79EL (telephone 0536 204555, fax 0536 405555). I hear that a 500w converter costs $105.
- A company in the northwest, in Runcorn called Spenfields will make up transformers to order. The cost for a 1250 watt transformer with two US-type 2 or 3 pin plugs is $328. They take about 7 days to make up. The phone number is 0928 572578.
- I'm told that a hardware chain store in Britain called Ryness sells transformers, but I have no further information on this.
- Maplins supply a range of transformers: Maplins Electronics plc, PO Box 777, RAYLEIGH, Essex SS6 8LU, Tel. 01702 552961. Their catalogue can be obtained at the UK bookseller chain W.H.Smith.
- Magellons Essentials for the Traveler (Santa Barbara, CA), 1-800-962-4943 (they have an extensive catalog). A 1000w transformer is listed as costing $118.50, and a 1500 watt at $169.50.
- Appliances Overseas, in New York City.
- Rainco of Dallas, TX (800 779 0502) (fax 214 242 0243) sell transformers similar to those in the Magellon catalog.
What items should I not bring?
Easily replaced items that draw vast amounts of current are unwise to bring because the cost of the transformer you will need for them will probably be several times more than the cost of buying the product anew in the UK! For any given item, take a look at the number of watts they require, consider the cost of transformers you'll need to convert them. It may be much more economical to replace them with the same items bought in UK stores. This may sound expensive, but if you settle for a cheaper food processor to replace your industrial-strength Cuisinart, it won't be bad at all. And besides, you don't want industrial-strength commercial transformers sitting on your kitchen and bathroom counters, do you? Here is a list of some items you should just decide to leave at home:
- Hair driers
- Kitchen appliances with motors: blenders, food processors, coffee grinders
- Any other item with a high speed motor, e.g. power drills
Your US-made LP record turntables or cassette decks may contain synchronous motors, in which case they will run at 5/6 speed, or about 3.2 musical semitones too flat (yes, bad enough that it will ruin the music: even John Cage's 4'33" will come out lasting 55" too long!). Battery powered Walkman cassette players will be fine, though, even when run with the AC cord.
Your American-bought TV sets, Video Cassette machines, and the cassettes that are made to play on them, are likely to be of little use to you. If you bring both your TV and VCR from home, the only thing you will be able to do with them (after you've bought the gigantic transformer you' ll need to convert the watts) is watch American-made video tapes on your VCR. You will not be able to watch British TV broadcasts, or British-made video tapes, nor will you be able to hook up a British-made VCR to that TV set. This is because both British TV sets and VCRs (yes, both) run on a different video standard than in the US: the standard in the US is NTSC, while in the UK it is PAL. Don't be confused by the fact that the physical cassette is called "VHS" and looks just like the ones back home: they are the same cassette, but the information is encoded on them differently. If you want to throw a lot of money at the problem, you can buy both TVs and VCRs that can run PAL or NTSC at the flick of a switch; I've seen these for great cost at export shops.
Beware of "amateur advice" in this area...people will tell you completely false things that they have never tested themselves, or information that was true five years ago. A few people have told me that an NTSC VCR will play on a PAL TV set (you don't get the color, but you will get black and white), but frankly I wouldn't bank on it.
Digital radios (car radios, Hi-Fi tuners) may not work, since the channel step in the UK is in units of 9kHz, while in the US it is 10. So your US-made radio may "miss" all the right frequencies.
Some people are so attached to US-style refrigerators and washer/driers (and I can't say I blame them) that they buy special US products that can run on UK current and have them shipped to the UK. I've seen such things in export shops, and I hear that they are available at US Army bases in the UK as well. But save yourself supreme embarrassment and measure the doors and hallways of the house you will be living in; will the products fit through the door? One reason that the UK version of these products are smaller is due to a smaller sized door standard.
What items should I bring?
Provided you use the proper transformer, you can expect these items to work in the UK.
- CD players. Manufacturers make them so the motors are internally supplied with the correct frequency.
- Personal Computers. The motors in their disk drives are internally supplied with the correct frequency.
If you're lucky, perhaps the item you want to bring runs on both standards of current and frequency. The good news is that more and more products are being built this way, especially consumer stereo items, and computers. You can find out if you have such a product by looking near the spot where the power cord comes out: if it says something like "AC 100-240, 50/60 Hz", you are in luck. You won't need a transformer at all, just a plug converter. Make sure to check this for every product that needs to be plugged in. Good news for Apple Macintosh users: everything after the M ac Plus was made in this fashion (although check the back to make absolutely sure).
If it turns out you have several such products, you could get a mere plug converter, plug in a US power strip to it, and then plug all your components in (although you do not want a power strip with a surge protector, since it will freak over receiving 240v). Of course this practice is very risky: someone who is not aware of what this strip is being used for may mistakenly plug in a US product that does not handle its own conversion, and you'll fry it (and maybe yourself). Caution is advised!
Will phone items (modem, answering machine) work?
Yes, provided you supply the correct adapter for the different standard of phone plug and the correct power, modems, answering machines and extension cables will work on the British phone system. (I am not sure if phones themselves will work.) However, I should point out that it is technically illegal to do so. The only products which may legally be hooked up to the phone lines are those with a special BT green sticker of approval.
Buying the correct adapter can be tricky. Believe it or not, it is a rather frequent occurrence to buy a US-UK adapter and have it not work because it is incorrectly made! Apparently, US telephones use pins 3 and 4 in their jacks, while British ones use 2 and 5, and companies who make connectors will actually get this wrong. I have only heard of this happening with connectors purchased in the UK; the US-made US-UK adapter that I bought at an export shop worked fine.
The British phone ring poses a rather obscure problem to US-made answering machines. The US phone ring goes "ring (pause) ring (pause)" while the UK one goes "ring-ring (pause) ring-ring (pause)." Unfortunately the US-made answering machine will regard each double-ring as two single rings, and thus the answering mechanism will kick in sooner. If your phone is far away from you, you may find it frustrating to have the machine kick in before you get to the phone (I certainly do). You are best off if you own a machine that lets you control the number of phone rings before answering to a high number like eight. Or, you could simply buy one made in the UK, although I don't think they are as well made or as full of as many features as ones available in the US.
They're just starting to get fancy phone services such as call-waiting here. You'll have to inquire how to turn such features off if necessary (i.e. for modems).
How should I transport my belongings to the UK?
Bing again! This is the second most frequently asked question. People living abroad for a while tend to want to bring a larger amount of possessions with them than can be brought along as luggage on the plane. Here's a guide to the various methods for doing so. One bit of advice: before selecting any one company, call around and compare prices. You'll be surprised how much they vary!
I start with the method I used, which I decided to be the best value for the money of all the available methods. I engaged a "Freight Forwarding" service, which performed the services of enclosing my items with a crate, insuring it, shipping it by sea, and arranging for an equivalent UK firm to receive the crate (thus there are two companies with which you make a financial transaction). These kinds of firms are probably available only in port cities, unfortunately (on a coast, or one of the Great Lakes, or maybe even the Mississippi River).
One advantage is that almost anything can be shipped by this method: sofas, refrigerators, even automobiles are handled by these companies. In the warehouse of the company I used I saw a Mercedes being prepared for delivery, and a crate of household belongings the size of a medium sized bedroom!
The crate I shipped contained 3 boxes of books, 3 boxes of household items, a large box of clothing, a button accordion, and two mountain bikes in their boxes. The crate measured 38 CF (cubic feet). The overall cost of this shipment, from start to finish, came to about $896, which we found a tolerable price to pay. Here's how the costs broke down, more or less:
- Charges on the US end:
- $3.75 per CF basic cost
- $1.90 per CF to build the crate
- $75 handling charge
- $7.50 communications charge
- Insurance costs 3% of the total estimated value of the belongings (which we calculated to be $8284).
- Charges on the UK end (in US dollars):
- $1.50 per CF
- Customs charge ($81)
- Delivery from London to Brighton ($105)
The UK company would accept only money order or cash as a form of payment. Regarding crating the items: another option is to have them put your stuff on a pallet and shrink-wrap the whole thing; they call this "palletizing". Presumably that means they don't try to stack stuff on your shipment (but how can you be sure?). The cost for this was a flat rate of $20. We felt much safer using the crate method. The Freight Forwarding company will require a fairly detailed packing list of the items in your shipment, with an estimated value for each. Your shipment will be submitted to inspection by customs authorities at the UK end. This could range from them merely examining your packing list, possibly taking a quick peek under to lid to see if it looks believable, to a full examination of every item in your crate. The receiving freight company acts on your behalf at the customs ceremony, but you can attend if you want to take the trip into London (or wherever). See another section of this FAQ for details about customs and paying import duty.
Our stuff (coming from California) had to go through the Panama Canal to get to England. It was estimated to take one month to deliver; in reality it came to just about two! No doubt it will be quicker if your shipment is leaving from any of the other coasts, or via the St. Lawrence Seaway, bu t keep in mind that sometimes your crate sits around in a warehouse for a while (weeks, maybe) before they find which vessel it will go on. There was virtually no damage to any of our belongings, and the customs ceremony was completely unremarkable.
The cost of shipping that Mercedes, by the way...I asked...was around $900, which struck me as tolerable. That was probably not including crating and insurance, though.
Sounded very expensive, but definitely quick. They were very discouraging about shipping anything which might be assessed an import duty. The number for UPS International shipping is 800-325-0365.
Standard airlines such as United have a separate freight shipping service, and you can even make sure it goes on the same plane as you're traveling on. It's expensive, but not as much as I'd thought. You wouldn't want to ship a whole household, but smaller fragile items, or things you have to have immediately might be handled this way. Charges are obscure: they use a formula that takes into account both weight and size. One agent mentioned $2.83 per pound as a sort of ballpark figure. Virgin Atlantic charges $2.50 per kilogram up to 100kg, $2 per kilogram if it's over 100kg.
Extra baggage on passenger flight
Between $76-85 for each extra checked piece not exceeding 62" (height, depth, width added together) and 70lbs. If larger than 62": $152.00. If heavier than 70 lbs: $228.00. Bicycles have a special arrangement where they are treated as a standard extra item ($76) even if over 62". If your bike is over 70lbs, I recommend getting your money back from the guy who sold it to you.
Note that if you are sending computer or other fragile equipment this way, the airline does NOT insure it in any way against damage. If you decide to ship a computer this way anyway, to be safe, use the original box with the original packing materials. If you don't have these, there are packing companies that make made-to-order injected-form packing for any item (we did this on a Mac monitor and CPU at the cost of $70).
Traditional relocation moving company Services
The costs quoted to me by these companies sounded very high. I was told that a 250-lb box of stuff could run $700-$1250 depending on size and dimensions. It appears that the companies engage a freight forwarding company to do their work for them, the very thing you can do on your own (see earlier). The advantage is of course that they will handle the delivery door-to-door from US to UK. If your new employer in the UK is picking up moving costs (they call it "removals" in the UK), this might be the easiest way to do things.
What should I do with my possessions in the US while I'm away? (This section has been written since I've returned to the U.S., so you get the benefit of learning from my errors :-)
My time in the UK lasted 2 years, and I wasn't a homeowner at the time that I took the job, so I had to do something with all my belongings. Furthermore, I had no inkling what part of the US I'd be living in when I returned. If any of this applies to you, you may find the following useful.
How should I store my possessions?
It cost us about $600 a year to keep our US household (1 bedroom) in a storage locker (Public Storage). This, actually, was a bargain compared to other storage locker services we could have tried. Make sure to shop around for the best deal; you may find widely varying rates! So two years cost us $1200. Sound like a lot? Read ahead.
We ended up relocating to Chicago, and the stuff was stored in California. The cost of moving our stuff (United Van Lines) was almost $3000...more than twice the cost of two years of storage. When the stuff finally arrived, we had mixed feelings about lots of the stuff. We wanted to get rid of several boxes of books. There were boxes of clothes that had come to be of little use to us at the time we moved, and now were 100% useless. We had pieces of furniture, cheap stuff, that was heavy and we no longer wanted. We should have tried to sell a lot of that stuff before we moved...or tried to sell it before United put it on their truck.
We made two huge financial mistakes. First, we didn't get a binding estimate on the move, because the United people have to see the stuff up close, and it just seemed like too much cost and trouble to fly out there just to watch them make an estimate. Second, we considered flying out to try to sell off the stuff, but that too sounded like too much cost and trouble. Wrong on both counts...the $400 (at most) plane ticket would have been a tiny fraction of that total bill. And in the case of the estimate, we might have gotten off with paying around half that amount... they usually underestimate (salesman wants his commission), and when the driver discovers the shipment is 1500 pounds over estimate, well that's his tough luck.
What stuff should I sell or throw away?
This is one of those highly personal questions, but I'll try to shed some light on it for you. Unless your car has some special value to you, sell it. Anyone with good economic sense will tell you why: it will simply depreciate sitting out there in a driveway. (It will also cause you anguish abroad as you worry about all the parts that are gumming up with disuse.) If you can get a good price for it, sell it, put the money in the bank and let it earn interest, and don't touch it until you come back. Presto, you've got money to buy another car.
I'll add another remark about cars. If you are either selling your car or storing it in a garage or driveway, you will probably be either slimming your insurance coverage down to basic theft and vandalism, or dropping it altogether. Now here's where you can really get ripped off when you come back. If you do drop your insurance, and then want insurance again, you're viewed as "trouble" by the insurance company because you haven't had any car insurance in the last six months. The mindset of insurance companies is (and there's nothing you can do to change it) that if you were without insurance for a while, there is probably some sinister reason behind it...you lost your license, you killed someone in an accident...yep, they think pretty negatively. There is nothing in their "system" to account for someone going abroad for a year to work. The upshot is that the cost of your insurance may double in the first year that you return to the US. So my advice to you is to have a talk with your current carrier, and ask them what options you have for staying on the books in their company.
If you happen to be an academic and you have lots of books, take a hard look at taking this opportunity to unload as much as you think you don't actually need. The weight of boxes of books really adds up and makes a moving bill huge rather quickly.
Cruddy furniture that you bought cheap and you don't like particularly even now. You'll hate the sight of it when you come back. Unless you think you're going to be flat broke when you come back, sell it or give it away.
I also had lots of files of papers that I could have gotten rid of. The one area that I'd suggest caution in is anything with sentimental value...this stuff is what you'll be glad to see again one day.
How much of my stuff should I take?
Assuming you are only making a temporary move to the UK, there will no doubt come the time when you agonize over what things you should leave behind and what you should take. Obviously this is a personal matter, but here is some advice based on my experience.
If you particularly like to cook, take your favorite cookware with you. You'll hit yourself for having to pay all over again (at higher prices) for the favorite cast iron saucepan that you use for making spaghetti sauce, say. Don't bother taking silverware and plates, since rented accommodations are frequently furnished with such in the UK (see elsewhere). A good idea is to make photocopies of your favorite recipes rather than bringing several enormous cookbooks with you (and for that matter, bring US measuring spoons and measuring cups with you, since they'll b e impossible to find in the UK). As far as kitchen appliances are concerned see elsewhere for reasons why you should not bother bringing them.
Use common sense about your clothes. There's nothing profoundly different about the way they dress in the UK (except perhaps for women's shoes, which have 2-3" platforms these days), so bring whatever it is you need and like to wear. Clothes are more expensive here, and good-quality clothing is more widely available in the US, so if you can afford it, go on a shopping spree before you leave.
Books are a very personal matter, but also one involving common sense. If you're an academic or technical person, you should of course bring the books that you need to have for your work, since replacing them will cost far more than shipping them. As for novels and other books for passing the time, I'd suggest leaving them all home, since there will be plenty of things you will want to buy in the UK. But as for music, I'd say bring all your most beloved CDs and cassettes, since they are relatively small and overpriced in the UK.
If you're going to be running any of your US electrical products in the UK, take plenty of electrical adapters, power strips, extension cords, and equivalent items for telephones as warranted; they will all come in handy.
If you are moving to the UK permanently, you may wonder whether to bring large items such as furniture and cars, or sell them before you leave. This is not an area in which I have any personal experience. On the one hand, cars are extremely expensive here, so the possibility that you could save money exists. On the other hand, consider that a car with the wheel on the "wrong" side is trickier to drive, less safe, and will have lower resell value in the UK. Of course, if you are taking the kind of job where a company car is provided for you, you're all set. If your furniture is high quality stuff, it too may actually be economical to have it shipped rather than replace it at high cost here.
A slightly different question is "what should I bring on the plane with me, to have immediately on arrival?" If you are planning to use your US-made answering machine and modem in the UK, that will be useful immediately, and will be easy to bring. If these and other such products need power conversion, you'll need a transformer right away; but given the immense size and weight, it may be best to purchase this after you arrive in the UK.
Will I have to pay import duties, VAT, etc. on items I bring into the UK?
First of all, the following is non-official information based on hearsay and unverified personal experience. For official information, try the US Dept. of Commerce (202-482-3748).
Anything you bring into the UK, whether with you on the plane, or shipped separately is fair game for the customs officials to inspect, and possibly liable for import duty. Newly purchased goods (defined as items less than 6 months old) are the only things that you need to worry about: customs can charge you an import duty of 17.5% on these items. A sales slip or purchase invoice is considered the proof of the age of the item, so have these on hand if you think you might get asked about anything. There is probably little to worry about if you are bringing in household-type items ("personal effects") and you can prove that you're coming over to live and work in the UK for an extended period of time. However, if you are bringing in a bunch of new looking products in their original boxes (like a personal computer system), I'd say your chances of being asked some questions are goo d.
As you enter customs (after getting your stuff off of the baggage carousel), you'll see two lanes to exit from, one for where you have nothing to declare, and one where you have to declare. I've heard that the rules say that items you intend to reexport (return to the US) are exempt from duty ( which is why regular tourists don't get charged for cameras and such). So newly purchased items pertaining to your job (say, a new Mac Powerbook) can probably be considered exempt. I suspect that customs mainly concern themselves with snagging people who bring in non-duty-free alcohol and cigarettes, drug smugglers, and people transporting merchandise for resale (like ten Mac Powerbooks, say).
Our passage through customs and immigration was completely unremarkable, despite having six large pieces of luggage. However, we did see two parties being submitted to extensive baggage searches (down to examining individual scraps of paper). Sad to say, I have read that people with darker ski n get stopped more frequently in UK customs.
What sorts of documents should I bring with me?
The following are suggestions of documents it might be good to bring just in case you need them:
- Birth certificate (in case you need to apply for a new passport)
- Marriage certificate (esp. if you and your spouse have different last names)
- Last set of dental X-rays (although see the Health section on dentists)
- Results of last medical exam
- Photocopies of your university diplomas (might be needed when applying for jobs)
- Some bank statements showing a solid banking history and a nice fat balance
- A letter from your bank manager testifying to your sterling history at their bank
- A similar letter from your previous landlord
- A utility bill proving the address of your residence in the US
- Your US Driver's license (and make sure it's not due to expire while you're abroad)
- If you're working on a degree back in the US and want to do research in a British library, get a letter from your adviser or department chair, and this will assist you in getting a library card
How is health care in the UK?
Statistics comparing the UK and US
- Infant mortality (deaths per 1000 live births):
- UK: 8
- US: 10
- Life expectancy:
- UK: 73 (M), 79 (F)
- US: 72 (M), 79 (F)
- Fertility rate (children born per woman):
- US and UK: 1.8
(Source: 1992 CIA guide)
Will I get health care for free?
The universal health coverage in the UK is known as the National Health Service, or NHS. According to a 1990 source, you are entitled to NHS coverage if:
- (1) you are from an EC country
- (2) you are from a country with a reciprocal health agreement with the UK
- (3) you are a student in a course lasting more than 6 months
- (4) you came to the UK with a work permit
- (5) you have refugee status or Exceptional Leave to Remain
- (6) you are the wife or child of a person in 1-5.
In my case (as an employed person in category 4), monthly payments towards NHS are taken out of my pay like a tax. This amount is $186 a month in my case. So I wouldn't exactly call it free, but it gives me medical coverage (there is no bill to settle when I visit a doctor) and covers drugs (except for a nominal fee of $6.75 for each prescription, no matter how costly the drug).
How is the quality of health coverage?
I've found little cause to complain about the health coverage here; it's been at least as good or better than the coverage I've gotten from membership in an HMO in the US. You get assigned a particular doctor, and mine is very sharp and professional. If you're suddenly ill you might have to be content see another available doctor rather than yours, which of course is no different from in the US. The system appears to not be so generous when it comes to surgery or special medical treatment: you get put on a waiting list that can go on for years. A couple we know whose child was put on a two-year waiting list for a tonsillectomy gave up in frustration and took a private route. Because this waiting list problem gets worse every year as the government makes bigger cuts, many Brits can be disparaging about their health care.
My wife Elena and I got to put the NHS to the test by having a baby while we were living here and feel we got excellent care. For example, the hospital enthusiastically admitted her early to watch her high blood pressure; she was able to stay in the hospital for three days following delivery simply because she felt like it; and as part of the standard treatment, was given daily visits at home by a midwife for ten days afterwards. Our child-bearing friends in the US whose coverage is by HMO all had much less generous care (for example, being sent home the day of the delivery, even after having a cesarean).
How concerned are Brits about health and fitness?
On the whole, Brits seem less concerned about maximizing their personal health and fitness than Americans are. In fact (get ready for this one), they view America as a nation of "health nuts," all consumed by the pursuit of the "clean life" and a fixation on having the perfect skin, body, legs, an d so on. Not long ago an article in a London paper on the Irish actor Stephen Rea remarked that, when Rea ordered mineral water (rather than beer) during the interview, it was telling proof that he'd "gone Hollywood." The book "Brit-Think/Amerithink" has some funny material on this cultural difference (details elsewhere).
Here are a few random observations on health in the UK. Although the movement for banning smoking in public places is gaining ground, it remains a more a minority sentiment in this country. Pubs are tremendously smoky, although thankfully, smoking is not allowed in movie theatres. Probably be cause Britain makes some of the best ales in the world, people drink a lot (3 or 4 pints an evening is not considered particularly excessive here), and they seem to start very young. The institution of The Pub is an omnipresent, essential public facility; for example, Universities will have not just one pub, but three or four spread over the campus. You will not see any oriental restaurants proudly displaying a "No MSG" sign, and waiters may consider the request unusual. There are many workout clubs, but you will not find many men in aerobics classes; the British sense of macho identity seems to regard that as a domain for women. Magazines on childbirth, instead of glorifying more natural methods of childbirth, contain testimonials from women who were so glad they were drugged up for delivery: "It was wonderful, I didn't feel a thing."
And then there's the incredible amounts of grease and deep frying in their foods. In particular, there is the "English Breakfast" you will find served at every restaurant and Bed & Breakfast: greasy fried egg (although on alternate days, tolerable scrambled eggs), greasy sausage, greasy bacon, slices of bread fried in grease, hash browns fried in grease, plus the piece de resistance, the small half-tomato fried in grease. You have been warned.
Technically you can have dental care for free as part of your coverage under NHS. However, NHS is very stingy in the fees they're willing to pay dentists, making it not feasible for dentists to run a fully modern service on such income, so it is very rare to even find an NHS dentist. So you'll probably want to look for a private practice, not just for availability, but in order to get good quality care. One that I've heard recommended is called Denplan.
It might be advisable to spend a little extra effort finding a top quality dentist, since I suspect that the UK lags behind the US a bit in quality of dental care. Two US dentists I have talked to, including one who actually practiced in the UK for a while, tell me that "preventative care," the cornerstone of US dentistry, is not as widely practiced in the UK. Many Brits still regard the dentist as someone you see only after something has actually gone wrong, rather than for "checkups." A Brit actually asked me, with a straight face, "what's the matter, do you have a bad tooth?" when I asked that he recommend a dentist. If your stay in the UK is only temporary and you plan to have visits to the US from time to time, you might just make things easier (and give yourself peace of mind) and visit dentists when you're in the US. In fact, I insist that all dentists I see let me keep my X-rays, since I never know where I'm going to visit a dentist next.
How expensive is it to live in the UK?
This is a tricky area. Sitting at home in the US and pondering your move to the UK, you may think it wise to make some calculation using the exchange rate, your salary, and the costs of items in the US to estimate how much it costs to live in the UK. It all turns out to be more subtle than that. Different things are expensive here. Once you get here, you'll eventually become accustomed to how much a pound can buy you. I can think of ways to describe the UK as cheaper or more costly than the US, depending on what you're talking about. In general however, I think the argument for calling the UK a more expensive place is slightly stronger. Here is some information to help you decide.
If one thing makes the UK a more expensive place, it's certainly gasoline (petrol). If you expect to own a car in the UK (and with a quite good rail system, you might not need to), expect this to consume a much larger chunk of your income. If you won't be owning a car, you just may be one of those people who think the UK is a cheaper place than the US.
Manufactured goods such as CDs, books, clothes, computers, consumer electronics and appliances can be 25-50% more expensive than in the US; sometimes it seems like "whatever it costs in dollars in the US, the cost in the UK will be the same number of pounds." This is changing, though; for example, prices on Macintosh computers dropped radically last year.
Restaurants are slightly more expensive than in the US, but food bought at grocery stores is not; in fact, it is often cheaper.
Salaries in the UK are for the most part lower than in the US. This is considered so patently true by most Brits that when preparing for an interview for a lectureship at a British university recently, I was advised to be ready to answer the question "Why would you want to work here when you could earn a much larger salary working in the US?" So it may very well be that the salary you will make as an X (engineer, lecturer, student) in the UK will provide less purchasing power than what you would make as an X in the US. If you are coming here for an academic job (see elsewhere) and with a family, keep in mind that it'll be harder to get by on a single income (unless it's a senior lecturer position or better). It's even been said to me that an academic career pretty much rules out every buying anything better than a second-hand car.
A recent source compared the cost of living in the US vs. the UK, in order to figure out how overseas employees would need to be paid. In March 92, the USA came out 14% less than the UK, but in March 93, the USA came out 4% more than the UK, for what it's worth.
Overall it appears that the UK does tend to be more expensive than the US, but it is not "impossible to live" here (as the exaggerated estimates of US tourists who have stayed in expensive London hotels and restaurants might have you believe). Not all things that you'd think are expensive actually are; sometimes they are cheaper than in the US. Brits can be extraordinary penny pinchers, and prices for essential items are often low because otherwise nobody would buy them. Also, even if you find that you can afford less living here, you will adapt quickly, live as others do, and not even notice much of a change.
A rather conspicuous source of increased expense in the UK is the nasty tax called VAT (Value Added Tax), which is 17.5%. This is like sales tax in the US, but it is usually figured into the listed price of an item, so you tend to be unaware of it. Just about everything (restaurant food, manufactured goods, home heating fuel) is subject to VAT.
VAT is not the only new sort of tax you'll need to cope with; a list of other little expenses to which you'll have to become accustomed, either as part of living in the UK or as part of living abroad, is shown below. Many of them are discussed in greater detail in other sections of this FAQ.
- VAT (17.5%)
- Council Tax (ca. $50/month or more; see elsewhere)
- National Insurance (ca. $184 out of each paycheck; see elsewhere)
- Income Tax, if you're paying it (20-27% of salary; see elsewhere
- TV License ($150/year for a color TV; B&W is cheaper...see elsewhere)
- Charges for local telephone calls (see elsewhere)
- Initial deposit paid for utilities services (ca. $150 each for gas/electricity, water, phone; see elsewhere)
- One-time $45 fee for registering with the local police station in your neighborhood. The police give you a small identification booklet with your photo in it, like a low-budget passport. When you first arrive in the country, the authorities at immigration will instruct you how to go about this.
- Paying to keep your stuff in a storage locker in the US (see elsewhere)
Ways in which you may save money, on the other hand, are:
- Free health coverage
- Not needing a car if rail service is convenient
- Car provided by your company (if you're lucky)
- One less tax to pay, since in the US you pay federal and state taxes.
- More "exotic" vacations available for less money (e.g. a summer in the French countryside, a week in Paris, etc.)
To get right down to the nitty-gritty, here are the prices that things cost right now (summer 1994). Gasoline is sky-high (remember the US is the only country that does not add a separate tax to its gasoline), about $3.50 per US gallon. Dinner at a yuppie-style restaurant, with beer and a dessert, runs about $30, while take-out Fish & Chips with a soda is only about $4. Renting a Ford Escort from Hertz for a week costs $252 (insurance included). A 2-3 mile trip in a cab is about $5.50. A medium-sized novel is $7.50. CDs are notoriously overpriced, from $21-27 each. A round-trip plane ticket (they call it "return fare") to Brussels in July is $153; a good bargain on a Paris return flight found in late August was $127. A ticket for a movie costs $6, and a videotape rental is $3.75. Some items at the store: potatoes are $.51/lb; peas $1.20/lb; green bell peppers $1.40/lb; apples and bananas $.60/lb; $1 for 6 eggs. A Sony 25" TV is advertised for $750. A new, British-made (Rover) economy car costs $9000 (financing is 18.41% APR). A cheap futon/couch costs $277. A daily paper is $.75.
To follow the fluctuation of the value of the US dollar against the UK pound, see any major newspaper's financial section, or check the frequent VNS (Vogon News Service) posting on the USENET group soc.culture.british.
How can I get a bank account?
A checking account (sometimes called a "current account") is an absolute necessity here, since (1) you will need a bank account to pay your bills, (2) most companies that require a monthly payment wish to be paid by auto-debit, and (3) your employer all but requires you to be paid by auto-deposit. Banking conveniences are pretty much the same as in the US: there are automatic tellers (ATMs) everywhere, you can pay with your ATM card auto-debit for just about anything (groceries, restaurants, department stores). There are ordinary banks, such as Barclay's and NatWest, and bank-like companies called "Building Societies" (such as Abbey National) which are like "Savings and Loans" in the US. You probably want to use an ordinary bank.
However, your ATM card is really useful only if it is also a "check guarantee card." This essentially makes it good for credit and insures merchants against theft. Without that status it will be useless as a debit card, and perhaps more importantly no merchant will cash your check without it (although it will be accepted as payment for bills over the mail). Therefore when you get an account you want to insist on getting a check guarantee card.
And this one detail may turn out to be the biggest hassle you have to go through in the UK. Banks will happily open a plain savings and checking account with almost no questions, but they'll make getting the check guarantee card almost impossible because you have zero credit history in the UK. Unfortunately, no matter how sterling your credit history in the US is, no matter how amazing your assets and investments in the US are, they meaning NOTHING abroad, and help not one bit towards getting that important card.
Probably the best way win the trust of the bank to give you this credit is to ask your employer (someone in the salaries office, say) to call the bank to vouch for you. They in fact may be motivated to do this because they are eager to find a way to auto deposit your paycheck. Some other thin gs that might help are:
- Get a fellow employee from your new job who has a bank account at the bank you want to write a letter on your behalf
- Open the account with a HUGE initial deposit so that they will roll out the red carpet for you (however, there are limitations on the amount of money you can bring into the country with you...see an earlier part of this FAQ)
- Get someone from your bank at home to write you a letter telling how long you've been an excellent customer there, etc.
- Show them several bank statements from your US account demonstrating a nice, fat monthly balance.
What kind of housing will I find?
There's as much variety in housing in the UK as in the US, so there is no simple way of advising you on what kind of place you'll be living in. Keep in mind that flats in general can be old here (living in a 200 year old flat is no big deal), so they are likely to look more like Brownstones in NYC rather than pre-fab apartments in California.
The primary way flats are advertised are via Estate Agents (why call them "Real" Estate Agents when there are no "Imaginary" ones?). Go to their offices and ask to see a listing. They will drive you around to any of the properties that interest you. Advertisements for flats often give the price on a per-week basis, although you actually pay monthly. "Hob" (a hot plate) or "cooker" (synonymous with stove) are other words you will find in advertisements. By the way, many British stoves, even modest ones, have a open broiler on the top, which is a real treat: they grill steak and fish mu ch more effectively than the down-below broilers of US stoves.
There is a nasty property tax called the Council Tax, formerly known as the Poll Tax, which you are required to pay, even if you are merely renting the property. The tax is paid only 9 out of 12 months of the year. We pay $66 a month for our flat. Good news for students: there is a special provision that may make you exempt, depending on your living situation, so look into it before you pay it.
Furnished flats are quite common in the UK. They will include living room (called the "lounge") furniture, a fridge and stove, a kitchen table, and kitchen cookware and utensils, and sometimes beds. You can bargain a bit with the landlord on the items that are included in t he furnishings (after all, you are paying more than for a non-furnished flat). Note that the kitchen cookware includes only enough items to cook basic meals. You'll have to outfit them with more to make your favorite recipes like fancy omelets, stir-fried oriental dishes, etc.
In the part of the country I'm in, central heating is no longer considered a luxury. A flat with independent space heaters in every room rather than radiators fed from a central heating source should probably be considered fairly "low rent." The lounge often has, even in a centrally-heated dwelling, a small heater (usually gas) located where a fireplace used to be. These are a cherished, cozy item, although some are unfortunately festooned with tacky decorations or pseudo log-fire regalia. The lounge often has a door on it (to keep the heat in); strangely enough, these are sometimes made of an opaque glass rather than wood, like something you'd see in a hair salon.
Clothes washers are often included in a flat; it's not too demanding to include that as one of your requirements. UK clothes washing machines tend to be low-capacity and low-speed (they are smaller, usually kept underneath the kitchen counter, just like a dishwasher). Some of them, even ones o f fairly recent vintage, don't even use microprocessors, using instead a primitive mechanical programming system that clicks away like Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. Also, many do not draw hot water from the household hot water supply; rather, they take cold water and heat it electrically in side the unit. The slow rate of heating the water means that each load can take over an hour to complete (but I'm told the ones in France take even longer). However, if you pay enough you can always buy as high-tech a washer as you like; but what you'll find in rental properties will tend to be t he more modest ones. Clothes driers and dish-washing machines are less-frequently included items in UK flats. See elsewhere about bringing washing machines and refrigerators from the US.
UK home showers also merit some comment; compared to US showers, they run at a pathetic trickle. Take a nice long shower before you leave for the UK, it's the last decent one you'll have for a long time. Water pressure within the usual British household is obtained entirely by gravity. Unfortunately, the hot-water storage tank is frequently at a location just below the shower head, so an "electric shower" (one that pumps and scalds the water as quickly as it can, which is not very) is found in most homes. I find rinsing my hair to take so long under our shower that it's easier to wash my hair while taking a bath, dousing my head with a pail of water. The quality of electric showers varies: one that costs $450 might be able to deliver a fair amount of water pressure, but in an average quality flat the shower will probably be cheap. At an even greater expense you can actually install a pumping system that will give you a good US-style shower (it.s called a "power shower").
The day you move in to your new dwelling, MAKE SURE to have whomever is providing the flat show you how to turn on the central heating and water heater. The workings, appearance (a square box mounted on the side of the wall), and location (sometimes the kitchen) are completely different than in the US. Also it includes a device with several switches for controlling fuel efficiency. We spent our first weekend in our flat unable to take a hot bath because we didn't know where the water heater was!
How do I get utilities (gas, water, phone, etc)?
Getting hooked up
The experience of getting water, gas and electricity bills for your dwelling is fairly straightforward and very much like in the USA. It is not nearly as difficult as getting a bank account (see elsewhere), but you are stuck in a nasty Catch-22 because utility companies will no t give you access until you have a bank account, and bank accounts want a utility bill as proof of where you live. (I'll never forget when I pointed that out to a bank clerk and he responded by lighting up and saying, "well yes, it is a bit like that, isn't it?") After that is taken care of, they may require an initial deposit, since you will not have a previous history with a British utility company.
If you are on friendly terms with the previous tenant, it may be to your advantage to take over their old phone number, and other utility accounts, as it can save a lot of time, money and hassle in hookup.
Utility bills are billed quarterly (every 3 months). Beware of your long distance calls to the US...you could be quietly running up a huge bill and not know it until your third month here!
Note that every phone call, even local ones, costs money in the UK, and it is billed by the minute. If you use a modem with your phone (see elsewhere for information on bringing your phone-related products from home), note that it's costing you money to be logged in! However, a discount rate begins at 6 pm and continues until 8 am the next morning, so your nighttime log-in sessions won't be so bad.
As in the US, phone numbers consist of an area code (used only when dialing from outside the area) and a local number. Numbers are not standardized in length in the UK: the area code may have 3-4 numbers, the local number 6-7 numbers. Within the country, area codes always begin with a zero; calling from another country to the UK, however, you omit the zero.
For directory information, you dial 192, for operator, 100, for phone sales 150, for emergency, 999. I am reminded of Homer Simpson's line "Operator, give me the number for 911..." :-)
Phones: the BT (British Telecom) system appears to understand both 'touch tone' and 'pulse' dialing over most of the UK, as far as I understand. The physical phone in your home may one or the other, but even if it's pulse, it will respond to tones dialing from your modem or pocket dialer, if you have one. Pay phones: the standard BT pay phones are pulse dialers, but BT's competitor Mercury are touch tone dialers.
UK Phone companies have just begun to offer fancy phone services such as call waiting, or message leaving and answering services.
University phones: at my university, off-campus dialing for many phones is disabled after 'business hours'. Very frustrating!
Some British pay phones do not take coins at all; instead, they take a "money card" that you buy at shops with between 1 and 20 pounds of calls encoded on them.
Long distance carriers
I still use US Sprint as my long distance carrier, and my wife still uses MCI as hers...there are European access numbers for reaching their operators. (By the way, France and Germany are about to buy a 40% interest in US Sprint.) However, strangely enough, we recently discovered direct dialing from home is cheaper than our long distance carriers; but when you're at a public phone you may need your carrier. Warning: neither Sprint or MCI can place calls to Canada from the UK (I haven't the slightest idea why).
You may wish to buy a television and VCR (you certainly don't want to bring yours from the US...see elsewhere), but it is rather common practice for people to rent them. If you shop around, you might find a TV/VCR combination for as cheap as $27/month. However, as you are a foreigner some shops may balk at renting you a set, and even then will probably require a deposit of around $150, so getting a TV may require some perseverance.
There's a joke that goes "In America you have to have a license for a gun; in Britain, you have to have a license to watch TV." Laugh if you like, but it's literally true. You purchase a yearly license to watch TV from the Post Office (!), and it costs more for a color TV than a B&W one. The license helps pay for the BBC. Trucks prowl around your street from time to time and make surprise visits to see if you've paid up your license. They even have equipment that tells them if "TV rays" are coming from your living room. Go ahead, don't believe me...but this is completely true!
How should I manage my financial affairs back in the US?
Chances are you will have at least some bills you have to keep paying, so you will want to keep your US Bank account(s) open, and be able to write checks on those funds to pay your bills. Also, you probably have some monthly statements that you will need to monitor regularly. We changed our official mailing address to our UK home for all such bills and statements and have had little difficulty receiving them (although it does seem to pose their computers a bit of a challenge).
If you have to move cash from the US to the UK, or if you will be living in the UK off of funds in a US bank account, using an AMEX (American Express) card is a good way to go. You tell them to set up your account in such a way that when you use your card at an AMEX cash station (which can be found in every large town in Europe), the checking account at your US bank gets debited. Or you can even use your bank's ATM card to do so. ATMs are everywhere, and if your card is on either the "Cirrus" or "Plus" networks (look at the back of the card), it will work. From either card, the conversion is done at that day's exchange rate, and no more (unlike the money changing service such as Thomas Cook, who charge a fee for the transaction). You can also cash an ordinary American check at any AMEX office. I think AMEX limits the amount of transactions to a total of $1000/month, but it ma y depend on your account.
Given the difficulty with obtaining bank accounts (described elsewhere), it should behoove you to apply for US credit cards before you leave the US, since you will have no credit history in the UK and may be flatly denied a credit card. Also take the trouble to go get PINs ( personal passwords) encoded on your cards. An AMEX card doesn't have one unless you get it put on, and you'll need to visit an AMEX office to do so.
Once you have a British bank account, you will also probably be able to draw US cash from US ATMs of off funds from your UK bank account during your trips to the US. Once again, look for the Cirrus and Plus network.
How much will I be taxed (in US and UK)?
Tax rules change every year!
What I say in this section was true for us during the first year we lived here. Do not regard this information as current; the laws can change profoundly from year to year. Use it as an idea for what may be possible. It may be worth springing a $100 or so to get a qualified person to properly evaluate your situation. A British company that specializes in US/UK tax matters is Frank Hirth & Co., 8 Coldbath Square, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 5HL, Tel 071 833 5500.
If you are employed in the UK and drawing a salary, and you are going to be in the UK for two years or less, you may be exempted from paying income tax. Request a "Claim for exemption from United Kingdom Income Tax" form from H.M. Inspector of Taxes, and submit it to your salaries department, and taxes will not be deducted from your salary. Once you stay even one minute into the third year in the UK, however, Her Majesty will expect you to pay all two years of those back taxes to her.
If for some reason you do wish to pay income tax, the monthly deductions will be between 20-27% of your salary (mine was 20%).
National Insurance is a different affair. No-one is exempt from this, I believe. $186 per month is taken from each monthly paycheck I get.
Here was how we figured our taxes at the end of fiscal year 1993 (keep in mind that the rules change each year, and depend heavily on what properties you own, what investments you have, and so on). If you spent at least 330 days of that fiscal year outside of the US and the total amount of income you earned that year (combined from all sources of income, regardless of country) was less than $70,000, that income is termed "foreign earned income," and you will owe no taxes on it.
Before you leave, visit with a qualified tax accountant to find out exactly how you should handle things. Even if it costs you $100 or so, you might just be saving several thousand.
Will I be able to stand food in the UK?
Is store-bought food decent?
Absolutely! Your local supermarket will carry very high quality goods and fresh produce in large quantities, so you should be able to eat and cook at home pretty much in whatever way you like. The produce is as fresh as the produce that most Americans eat. At my house we have no problem cooking the way we like: Pad Thai, Baba Genugh, Szechuan chicken, salsa, Mexican-style corn-chips and guacamole (to name some particularly non-British selections). Vegetarians and Vegans will find many of the items they want at supermarkets, and (in Brighton, at least) there are natural foods stores. I f someone tells you that British markets have miserable food selections, their experience may be several years out of date (perhaps before Britain joined the E.C.). I'd have to say that the US has a bit of an edge on the quality of meat, however; beef products taste a little more "grey" here, and fish seldom seems as flavorful. One exception is bacon, which is much better in the UK (Brits are utterly appalled at the fatty, streaky stuff that is sold in the US under the name "bacon").
British supermarkets (Sainsbury's, Waitrose) are about the same in size and appearance of the average American supermarket. The American chain Safeway, with the same insignia (although different ownership, I'm told) is also found in the UK.
Many American brands of products you are accustomed to are sold here, and if not, the British/European version is usually equivalent in quality. If there is a particular brand of item that have you become so reliant on that you you have been never been able to tolerate a substitute (many people feel this way about pharmacy items like decongestants and rash creams), you might want to stock up on them before you leave. Also, there are many foods that are particularly "American," such as bagels, maple syrup and BBQ sauce, for which UK versions exist, but which taste not at all like the real thing. If these are important to you, plan to have friends bring them to you when they visit, or stock up on it on any of your visits home.
What's this about British food being bad?
First of all, if you're the type of person who is not picky about what you eat, then you can skip this section!
This topic needs to be broken into three main areas: British Cuisine, British "Fast Food," and standards of quality in British restaurants. First, British Cuisine. Although clearly not ideal for vegetarians, and rather high on fats and cholesterol, its quite delicious when prepared well. I have had wonderfully satisfying meals of finely seasoned roasts with delicious garnishes and sauces both at restaurants and friends' homes. So it is unfair to attribute the "bad British food" reputation to their cuisine, in my view.
Second, British Fast Food, by which I mean the food that is sold cheaply for lunch at pubs, "caffs" or small takeout shops. Here you are likely to discover at last that you really are in a foreign culture (having been fooled at first by the common language). The very names seem designed to send chills up American spines: Sausage Roll, Steak and Kidney pudding, Bubble and Squeak, Green Mushy Peas, Cheese and Pineapple Toastie, and Pie and Mash. So here the problem is not really one of "bad food" but whether you are ever likely to develop a taste for their dishes.
The kind of eating establishment you will want to identify if you want to avoid such food is the caff. "Caff" is their pronunciation of the word that is spelled "cafe," and that ought to give you a warning for starters. Caffs are the culinary equivalent of the pokey little antique shops that retired people in the US like to open in low-real-estate shopping zones in small towns. They are attempts to run restaurants as cheaply as possible in a small shop with only a small domestic kitchen stove, quickly prepared food (for example, egg sandwiches with white bread), and -- no kidding -- plastic lawn chairs and tables for furniture. Although they are popular gathering spots for locals, you're not likely to get good food there.
Lastly, there are British restaurants, the area in which I cannot pull any punches or lay the blame on cultural relativism. As an American, you have simply been pampered by high standards. Sure, you'll find good UK restaurants and bad US restaurants, but the proportion is distinctly in favor of t he US. For confirmation, you'll find that most Brits who have travelled to America agree with this estimation. If you've ever been stunned to hear a Brit who visited the US talk about how much they loved eating at Denny's, of all places, you'll learn why after eating at a smattering of British restaurants. Of course, if the restaurant is expensive, you're probably okay; the advice I'm giving here is for moderately priced restaurants. Essentially you will have to be accustomed to having a lower success rate at finding satisfactory restaurants by chance: you can't just take a look at a place, size it up, and estimate its food quality with as much accuracy as you probably can in the US. Often you'll find the items on the menu to be as inspired and flavorful as TV-dinners, or in worst cases, cooked in grease that's been recycled too many times.
As I've pointed out elsewhere, the bad food is certainly not attributable to poor quality foodstuffs; the bad reputation is due entirely to the way in which it's prepared. I break this down into four causes:
- Brits can be notorious penny-pinchers. While Brits like good food as much as the next person, they don't think its worth shelling out the extra 10p to pay for it. Similarly, cooks are inclined to cut costs and cook quickly than take the trouble to make good cuisine.
- An odd sense of what ingredients go together (you find pineapple, tuna and sweetcorn in the oddest places, even together sometimes)
- A dislike of strongly seasoned food; very little garlic or spices used, so things taste bland. Even a restaurant claiming to be Szechuan will serve barely-spiced food. You'll have much better luck at getting spicy food in Indian restaurants, however.
- Many British recipes involve astonishing amounts of frying in grease (see the description of the English Breakfast in the section on health).
Where can I find the restaurants with the good food, then?
By now the picture must sound fairly grim, but it's not. While it is true that in a very small town or small villages outside of town you may find nothing but pubs, caffs and takeout shops, but if you're in the center of a large or mid-sized city you need not worry. You will definitely find a handful of restaurants that serve well-prepared, tasteful dishes. Naturally, check your friends for recommended restaurants. But here are a few rules of thumb as you experiment in finding them on your own. Italian restaurants, for some reason, have a high success rate for delicious food, as good or better than the best Italian restaurants in the US; perhaps because most of the time the staff and owners are really Italians. Properly prepared Fish & Chips is probably many times better than what you ever had at home, but by no means expect to find good fare from any old Chip Shop (as they're called here), so ask around for where the best one is. Vegetarian restaurants are rare, but any of the larger cities will have one or two. There are good French restaurants here and there, and they're often not as costly as you'd think. Indian food can be fabulous, although since there are so man y Indian restaurants and takeout shops, the quality can be very uneven, so look around. Lastly, there are plenty of Burger Kings, MacDonalds, and Pizza Huts, and believe or not, you may get a hankering to eat there every now and then when you're in the mood to have some food that tastes "like home."
Do I want to get around by train, bus, or car?
Trains and buses
Despite the recent initiation of a privatization scheme, travel by rail (either for long-haul trips or for commuting) is still one of the most appealing and best-run aspects of the UK. Unless you live in a remote area, chances are that you will be able to catch some train between home and work if you choose to, and if close enough to a shopping area, do without a car altogether (I do). If you commute to London you can get there amazingly fast from most parts of the country. However, note that long trips can be quite costly. One-way from Plymouth to London was $52 each for some friends of mine recently (and it would be much more if they were traveling at rush hour); note that renting a car, although less convenient in some ways, is a much better bargain ($42/day). However, I get to work every day (about 5 miles away) for $1.40 round-trip. Buses are lumbering and slow. Yes, the double deckers look charming from the outside, but they are really bumpy inside, and if you're the sort who likes to get caught up on reading while you commute, it's unpleasant. For longer distances, buses (coaches) are cheaper than going by rail, but of course rail is always nicer than bus. Many trains make it very easy for bicyclists to bring their bikes on board, and a conductor will even open the door for you to help you in and out. This is the case with trains that are outfitted with a special car that contains a cage for this purpose. If you're old enough to remember the Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night," one of the songs they sing on the train is performed in one of those cages!
Do I want to drive in the UK?
Driving on the left is a trick, but by no means a major challenge to the experienced US driver. Before you get behind the wheel, however, have someone explain the rules of a UK "traffic circle" or "roundabout" since they involve specific rules of who-goes-first which will not be intuitive to you (although there are traffic circles in some parts of the US, I don't believe the rules of precedence are defined). Better yet, take a drive with someone and have them explain what they are doing in a traffic circle. The book "Coping with England" (details elsewhere) shows how it's done. Also the UK "Highway Code" is available for a small price at most bookstores. Reading it is advised, since there are many signs and road markings which are unknown to the US driver.
A US license evidently allows you to drive on the road, since many (but not all) car rental companies will rent you their car with only a US license. No doubt if you stay in the UK for an extensive period of time you are obliged to get a UK drivers license eventually, but I don't have any information on that. Passing the driver's test is sufficiently tricky that it is advised that you take a few driving lessons; on the bright side, however, your license will be good until you are 70 years old! If you expect to visit the continent, you may also wish to get an "International License" which simply translates the information on your current license into 19 different languages.
Note that many companies (not universities, unfortunately) provide "company cars" for employees, which you can use exactly as if it were you own car. It's one of the compensations for salaries being generally lower in the UK than in the US, and cars being so obscenely expensive.
Do I want to be a pedestrian in the UK?
I'm kidding; this is not really a Frequently Asked Question. But I'm not kidding when I say that being a pedestrian in the UK is noticeably different than in the US. And I'm not talking about being careful about drivers being on the left (although you should); I'm talking about the attitude drivers here have toward pedestrians.
Unlike the US, where white lines are painted to indicate a crosswalk at practically every intersection, there are few such zones of safety in the UK; there are just rare "zebra crossings" (like on the Abbey Road album cover) with flashing lights that oblige the driver to stop. When there's no zebra crossing at an intersection, drivers do not think you belong in the road (and will barrel down on you, expecting you to leap out of the way). The fact that they don't think you belong there even when your were there first, before the car arrived on the scene (say, if they ca me from around a blind corner), lends an air of uncivility to the experience of being a pedestrian.
I thought I'd compare highway codes of our two countries to see if they were the source of this societal difference, and sure enough, my sources showed that in the US the burden is on the driver to watch out for pedestrians, while in the UK the burden is on the pedestrian to watch out for cars. Here's what a copy of the UK highway code which I purchased at a bookstore tells the pedestrian on the subject of crossing the road: "If there is any traffic near, let it go past. When there is no traffic near, it is safe to cross. Remember, even if traffic is a long way off, it may be approaching very quickly." Here's what the 1992 California Driver Handbook says to the driver about pedestrians: "Pedestrians have the right-of-way at intersections, whether or not crosswalks are marked by painted white lines. . . . Always stop for pedestrians crossing at corners. Stop for anybody crossing the street. Do not pass a car from behind that has stopped at a crosswalk. A pedestrian you can't see may be crossing."
You might almost say that you don't need to worry all that much about which direction traffic is coming from, because you'll have to run like hell to avoid getting hit anyway.
To be fair about it, however, it must be observed that roads tend to be much smaller here than in the US. Consider that an average road in the UK may have been laid down in Roman or Medieval times, and with the cities that have grown around them have made widening impossible. As a result, there is very often simply no room to spare for the drivers, and even putting one foot in the road puts you at risk.
Second, I think that I underwent some minor attitude-modification on this subject. In the US, a pedestrian will see a giant bus or truck approaching, then walk into the crosswalk as though they were royalty, pretending not to notice the big vehicle which is now spending a few dollars of brake pad wear to stop for them. In the UK, the trucks and buses zoom past the pedestrians rather than stop up traffic waiting for them. Which makes more sense?
Do I want to be a bicyclist in the UK?
Because of the narrowness of the roads, described immediately above, you will often find not only no bike lanes, but virtually no margin on the road at all to keep you safely out of traffic. Of course, it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk (pavement, they call it here), but I do it when I feel my life is endangered otherwise.
Thinking of taking bicycling trips, with camping gear, and so on? Well, before you do consider the fact that
- the roads will be even more narrow in the countryside (like, only one extremely narrow lane)
- June/July/August are the only months you can hope to have stretches of several days without rain
- while Britain is a relatively "gentle" landscape (the Rocky Mountains it ain't), you will still find plenty of steep hills to wear you out.
Is Internet easily accessible?
At universities, a system known as JANET (the one that brought you backwards email addresses, such as edu.berkeley.garnet) used to be primary network carrier, but now most universities have moved to becoming full-fledged members of the Internet. Most machines have IP addresses and can be telnetted and ftp'd to and from. However, vestiges of JANET remain, and network communications can sometimes be a bit baroque as a result.
USENET news-feeds are available at many universities, but not all the groups available in the US are available here. Most or all of the entire "alt." hierarchy, for example, is not available at many sites.
There are Internet providers which can be reached by dialup for a monthly charge. The prices I've heard sound very reasonable, but if you don't live in a town that has an access number, your phone bills will be huge. The company that seems to be the most popular is Demon Internet Services, phone 081-349 0063, email email@example.com. You can probably find the names other companies by making a query on soc.culture.british or uk.misc.
The university I work at has dialup modems (although not very many), so I am able to work from home when it's necessary.
Can I bring my pets into the UK?
I have no firsthand information on this, but here is a small amount of information I have gathered from others over email. (If anyone would like to contribute more information, please write, as this seems to be a truly Frequently Asked Question.) The British are rather proud of having zero incidences of rabies in their country, and are rather eager to keep it that way, so pets are screened with extreme care. One person wrote: "All pets (dogs, cats, etc) must undergo a 6 month quarantine. You bring the animal in, check it into an approved quarantine kennel (you can visit the animal there) and if all goes well, take it out after the six months are up. It's very hard on the pets and it is also quite expensive to board them. With the advent of the chunnel, the policy may change but if it does, it won't be for some time yet." Another person wrote: "A free guide is obtain able from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (Whitehall Place, LONDON SW1A, U.K., tel. 011 44 171 270 8080). Your cat must be quarantined in a registered cattery (i.e. approved by the Ministry for quarantine purposes). A list of registered catteries is included with the guide. The co st worked out at roughly $1500 per cat. Most of this cost is the cattery fees for the six months quarantine period."
What kind of Visa/Permit do I need?
If you are going to the UK for some kind of legitimate employment lasting for six months or more, your UK employer should have gotten (or is currently getting for you) a Work Permit or Work Visa. If not, any time you spend over the six months you're allowed as a traveller will be technically illegal, and you'll be thrown out as soon as Immigrations catches you. I know nothing about how student permits work, I'm afraid.
My wife accompanied me to the UK, and she was automatically (well, after a visit to a British Consulate in the US) granted a work permit as well. In fact, her work permit is less restrictive than mine: my permit is good only for the job for which I was hired, whereas hers gives her unrestricted freedom in the entire E.C. Not bad, being a spouse!
My work permit allows me to leave and re-enter the UK as many times as I wish. If your job renews you for a period extending beyond the originally requested duration of the job, they will need to reapply to the Home Office. This can take a long time, during which they take your passport from you (and your spouse...your spouse's passport, that is). But if something pressing requires you to travel out of the country, they will let you have it back temporarily.
The laws change constantly...call the British Consulate to find what the current rules are on these things.
In case you have (i.e. give birth to) a child while living in the UK (I did, so it's not too silly a thought!), here are some issues of citizenship that may interest you. If the mother and father are both American, the child can only be an American citizen; he or she does not get dual US/UK citizenship simply because he or she was born in the UK. If someone you know tells you something to the contrary it's probably because they're unaware of the 1981/83 immigration laws that changed everything. For further information, you could call the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Ho me Office in the UK at 081-686-0688.
What's it like living in the UK?
"What's it like living in the UK?" has got to be the most preposterous question in this FAQ! I can't possibly cover all the aspects of life that will pertain to you, and even if I tried, I'd only be giving a personal perspective. Nonetheless, I've thrown together a few thoughts that may interest you.
Do I want to move to the UK?
No doubt at some point you'll be forced to decide whether you really want to take this position, degree program, or whatever. Although this is a very personal issue, I can provide a tiny bit of food for thought.
You have a chance to live in another country for a while? Wow, what an opportunity! You want to pass up this possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance? I'm sure glad I didn't, is all I can say.
What part of the UK will you be in? Just as you wouldn't want to live just anywhere in the US, the UK has its ups and downs. My firsthand experience consists solely of living in Brighton, but I've visited a handful of British cities, so I can pass on my impressions and echo what I've hear d from others; better yet, though, ask other Brits what places are like, and if it sounds doubtful, make a visit if you can. I think that if you're going to any of Brighton, Bath, Cambridge, Bristol, Sheffield and Edinburgh you can't go wrong; all fall within the range of "very nice" to "fabulous" in my book. I've found most of Cornwall and Devon to be very lovely, and I'd enjoy living there (not many big universities out that way, though). I've seen some pretty frightening-sounding descriptions of South Wales and Liverpool (in terms of them being industrial, economically hard hit, dirty ) that would make me think twice before living there. The weather in the so-called "northern industrial cities" (Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester, more properly called the midlands cities) is said by many to get pretty grey and depressing in the winter (see David Lodge's books, described & elsewhere for some rather candid descriptions of Birmingham). You no doubt know of Northern Ireland's reputation, but in its defense, what is true about the larger cities (Belfast, Londonderry) is not necessarily true about the smaller towns (see Paul Theroux's book, elsewhere). Before moving to London, try talking to a Londoner to find out about the many complications of living there. I love London for its many historical and cultural wonders, but with the way the residents complain about the crowds and traffic, I'm in no hurry to move there myself.
Going with a partner (spouse, significant other, etc.) can be a great advantage, because even if you're working full time, living in a foreign country is a bit like being on a vacation. It's not only fun to share that with someone who you feel very comfortable with, and it's comforting to have a companion with your accent and set of cultural references. Warning: only if you are legally married to your partner will the British Consulate issue him or her a work permit to go along with yours (see elsewhere). If you are unattached when you go, here's some food for thought: the wish to stay in the UK or Europe rather than return to the US may strike you (it strikes many Americans), and the best way to make that possible is to become a European Community citizen. If you marry someone here, I believe you acquire EC citizenship.
How much of a "foreigner" will I be?
While its a matter of debate as to how culturally different the US is from the UK, in a certain sense all the English-speaking countries of the world comprise one vast extended culture. We're all aware of current events in each others countries (although Brits are much more aware of what's going on in the US than the other way around), and we listen to each others music and watch each others movies. If Clint Eastwood or Emma Thompson have a new movie, it's a media sensation in both countries. So if you want a vastly different cultural experience, you ought to try a non-English speaking country.
I seldom see any evidence that Brits have any intrinsic dislike for Americans; I've experienced nothing but good will from people here. Mind you, they don't particularly want Britain to become "like America," but they find it very interesting to know what's going on in the US. News coverage of US events is usually in a concerned, empathetic manner, as though they regard Americans as the cousins living "over there."
Britain is full of people from all over Europe, speaking different languages, so being a native English speaker makes you only a semi-foreigner. So there's little to worry about "sticking out like a sore thumb" as an American, unless you've got one of those expressionless, unmodulated, military-style voices (which Brits find irritating to listen to), or an extremely southern accent (which Brits find fascinating and charming).
Your accent will even give you a number of advantages: friends on the phone recognize you before you even get two words out; people strike up conversations with you to find out what you think of their country and why you came; and because Brits tend to size each other up by the way they speak, you will be completely classless to them and they'll show you a little respect by default.
How foreign you feel in the UK may depend on what part of the US you are from and where you are going. I happen to think that there are greater cultural differences within the US than there are between certain parts of the US and certain parts of the UK. As an example of that, I found the experience of moving from west coast US to northeast US (many years ago) to be more of a culture shock than my move to the UK was. I suspect, for example, that someone from the deep south will find the UK more "foreign" than someone from Boston would. Also take into account socio-economic and educational issues, not just regional issues, in predicting whether you'll feel comfortable in the UK. There's a certain amount of affinity you share with someone who comes from a similar background as you, even though it may be from a different country.
Nonetheless, it will be a foreign culture to you in many ways. There are British words you may have never heard before (dodgy, pillock, punter, nappy), and different meanings of words you may have never encountered (suspenders, pants, braces, grass), and learning it all is part of the adventure. People grew up with completely different radio and TV shows, so there are a million cultural references that people make in conversation and TV that will have to be explained to you. Plus there are all the words and phrase whose usage that have a subtle, but definite difference. (My favorite is the phrase "I don't mind". In the US it means almost exclusively "it won't annoy/bother me"; in the UK it means this as well as "it makes no difference to me." For example, someone asks "do you want decaf or regular coffee," you could answer "I don't mind" in the UK.)
Society is run differently (for example, much more social services), so people have different expectations of, and attitudes toward the government. The UK has a completely different history of problems and national events that shape the way they view things that happen around them: it will be a major eye-opener to you to discover how unique your American point of view is. None of this can be explained to you, there's nothing you can prepare for: you'll experience it in your own way once you come here.
There are what Brits consider to be "typically American" traits. Most of these they regard with benign amusement (although they will seldom let on that they are having a laugh over you), a few with a little more annoyance. Here are the American stereotypes, like them or not:
- Bragging, lacking modesty: proudly proclaiming ones accomplishments at work or school, or the fabulous vacation they've had
- Blundering into a situation without studying it first, making unwarranted snap judgments, being a "gunslinger"
- Talking with with your guard completely down, blurting out personal things to near-strangers (Debra Winger's character in "Shadowlands" was a good example of this)
- Talking loudly in public places to your friends so that everyone around can hear your private remarks (US students riding the tube, if you have to tell a story containing the sentence "I was so drunk last night", say it more quietly, okay?).
Ever hear Martha Stewart (a US media personality who gives advice on home decoration and entertaining)? She strikes me as a caricature of "the typical American" as Brits see them. It's downright embarrassing.
Will you acquire an accent? If you acquire a full-blown British accent I'd say you were either working at it, or you are extremely impressionable. You probably will acquire, at most, the faintest trace of an accent.
Make sure to get straight the difference between "England" and the "United Kingdom" (and furthermore "Great Britain" and the "British Isles", and even "Europe" for that matter). Scots and Welsh can be quite insulted by your referring to them as being English, or living in England.
How does the standard of life in the UK compare to the US?
- per capita GDP
- UK: $15,900 (1991)
- US: $22,470 (1991)
- Unemployment rate
- UK: 8.1% (1991)
- US: 6.6% (1991)
- Kilowatt hours produced per capita
- UK: 5520
- US: 12,080 (US, 1990)
"The US has the most powerful, diverse, and technologically advanced economy in the world, with the highest per capita GDP of all major industrial nations. . . . The UK is one of the world's great trading powers and financial centers, and its economy ranks among the four largest in Europe."
(Source: the 1992 CIA Guide)
Quality of Products
Perhaps the statistics above say it all: Americans make more money and consume more resources in spending it, but in the world scheme of things, the ranking of the British come very close. Personally, I find the UK an entirely satisfactory place to live. Fear not, you will definitely not find the UK to be a primitive place, lacking comforts and material goods that you consider essential. Nonetheless there is a noticeable difference in access to new technologies and products, diversity and competitiveness of services, and quality and price of manufactured goods, with the edge quite definitely belonging to the US (almost any Brit will agree with this assessment, by the way).
Regarding new products, British business practice is quite conservative. Suppose a new product becomes available, like CD players or microwave ovens. The US business and marketing approach is to go "guns blazing": get the product and try to make a million as quick as possible selling it. The Br its, however, simply "observe" the phenomenon for up to two or three years before making a move, even if its wildly successful in the US. Finally it comes out as the "latest thing from the US." As a result everything lags behind in the UK, so whatever the product, you can find it made better, cheaper and with more features in the US than in the UK. There are also some products and levels of quality that never seem to come to the UK. They can't seem to make milk cartons that open properly here. Cellophane tape (i.e. "Scotch tape") is appallingly bad here (gooey and yellow).
Examples of UK disadvantages in the area of comforts, convenience, or material wealth relative to the US are: small refrigerators, slow home laundry machines, only four standard television stations, home showers with pathetic water pressure, stores closed on Sunday, and expensive gasoline. In defense of the Brits, however, it's a matter of how you look at it: many of these things could be chalked up to the "comparative wastefulness of Americans" with equal fairness.
One important fact to point out is that this situation is constantly evolving. Britain has become much better even over the last five years, and is still changing rapidly (thus, be careful about trusting any descriptions from someone who last lived in the UK over five years ago). In terms of access to technology and high-quality manufactured goods, the UK is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the US.
When are shops and restaurants open?
This isn't exactly a frequently asked question yet, but it will be when you discover that places aren't open according to the pattern you're used to. For one thing, the hours that people shop and eat are simply different from one country to the next. But perhaps more importantly is that while America is a "catered society" where we can eat or shop for whatever we want, whenever we want, Britain is not nearly so. Shopping districts pretty much close up around 5:30pm, so if everyone in your household is working, life can be tough. Travel agents and car rental places are either closed on Saturdays or open only until noon, a practice that seems defy all business and marketing logic. Sundays will make you feel, if you're over 30, in a time warp. Remember in the 60's when Sunday was a "church day," you went to grandma's house, and you ate at home and did no shopping because nothing was open? It's still like that in the UK. To be a little more accurate, this situation is rapidly changing: more and more places are opening on Sundays. Nonetheless the mindset still exists, and there are even still a few laws on the books that prevent "Sunday Trading" (I kid you not). Of course, whether you think Sunday Trading is a good idea or not depends a lot of which side of the counter you're on.
In the UK, I find few restaurants are ever open before about 10:30 a.m., so plan to have food at home for breakfast. You will also find that the nicer restaurants aren't open for dinner at five o'clock, or if they are, they will be empty. Most Brits have a tea break (i.e. snack) around four or five pm (yes, they really do this), which means they aren't much in the mood for a meal out until around 8pm. Oh yes, in case you didn't already know, pubs close at 11 p.m. (it's illegal to serve liquor after 11pm, unless you're a restaurant). A practice that seems to defy all logic at fir st is that take-out places (Chip shops, Kebab shops) might be closed in the evening yet suddenly open at 11pm. Why? Because of pub closing time, when hungry customers flood the street. Now, about food at Pubs: people tell you all the time that pubs are a place to get food (I've had delicious lasagna at a number of pubs), but what they don't bother to mention is that this is mainly a lunchtime affair. The menu may be on the wall, but they'll look at you strangely and say "I don't think there's anything left" if you try to order something after two p.m.
If you find the pattern of hours that things are opened frustrating, you can always go to the American chains (Pizza Hut, MacDonalds, Burger King, 7-11 and KFC); they all follow American style hours!
Sexism and Racism
I've tried to convey that the UK is a friendly, civilized place for all people who visit or live there, and I think it is. You probably will not experience any blatant racism or sexism because people try very hard to be nice. However, you may experience it in more subtle forms. Although I'm n o expert, here are a few things I've learned or noticed.
Is the UK a sexist place? While educated women in the UK are very informed about feminism, you will find that modern feminist thinking has not yet seeped into the culture quite to the degree it has in the US. Women tend to accept traditional roles with less protest. One of our first culture s hocks was during an interview with a landlady in which she said she'd be willing to knock the price down a bit if my wife did some babysitting now and then. Also, even liberal-minded women seem to dutifully shave their legs and underarms here; similarly "going braless" is seen more infrequently than in the US. The same women don't bat an eye when a female in her twenties is referred to as "a girl." I'm not sure to what extent discrimination in the workplace is worse here than in the US, but the sense of "male bastions" is pretty strong, and there certainly seem to be fewer laws in place t o prevent it. The hours that shops and laundromats keep (i.e. closed at night) send a clear message that the society still thinks that one member of the family (guess who) is at home during the day. When we filled out an application for a birth certificate there is an "occupation" line for the father, but no such line for the mother. Even more sinister is the fact that if you are a married student coming to study abroad, a male may granted a VISA for his wife, but female student will be denied one for her husband. All this being said, I must emphasize that on a day-to-day basis the UK do es not seem very sexist. I think that attitudes have run somewhat ahead of actual laws so far.
Is the UK a racist place? It's a sad but commonly observed fact that white people tend to breeze through customs and immigrations, while people of color are stopped and questioned with more frequency. If you are Indian or Pakistani, you should realize that Asians (which is what they call Indians and Pakistanis in the UK) are generally on a lower societal rung here than they are in the US, and you may find you are treated in subtly different ways here. But before you make up your mind about the UK in this regard, be aware that only 2.8% of the UK consists of non-whites (although another source puts it at 5.5%), whereas in the US it is 13.9% (source: CIA Guide). As a person from "melting pot" America, think twice before applying the same yardstick to the UK that you use for the US.
My list of what's great about living in the UK
- Pubs: an essential part of the social infrastructure, unlike anything in the US. Pubs are hardly at all like US "bars", being much cozier, friendly (usually) and not sleazy (usually).
- Fabulous beers and ales. You'll be spoiled for life.
- Fabulous natural and historical sites all over the UK, all reachable within a day. Dozens of trips worth taking (see a guidebook). My personal favorite is the western highlands of Scotland.
- There really are unspoiled "olde worlde" towns in all sorts of places in the UK that still look very much like they did several hundreds of years ago. And these aren't just "heritage sites", but places you can actually live.
- The opportunity to view your own country in a completely different light. Come to learn US history better and understand what makes it unique. Gives you a grasp on the American national identity. Make a hobby out of comparing US and UK cultures, and see how other countries view us.
- Getting to experience a foreign culture without the inconvenience of a language barrier.
- Cheap and easy travel to the continent. A ferry to France from where I am costs less than a round trip ticket to London! Package weekend deals to Paris including flight and hotel for less than $200 during the off-season.
- The excitement of having many cultures in a smaller place. The European Union is making life particularly interesting here.
- A fabulous rail system that goes seemingly everywhere
- In a word, "civilized." People are much more agreeable and less conflict-prone than in the US; they solve problems by talking things through rather than arguing and posturing. People in positions of authority tend to consider the facts more thoughtfully instead of making inappropriate snap judgments.
- Slower pace of life. People tend to really leave work at 5pm and go home, and not come into work on weekends. Everyone gets about six weeks of vacation here. All of this is much more conducive to a better family life.
- A sense of a social safety net. Universal health care, so there's not that sense of grave fear of becoming unemployed that one has in the US.
- Personal safety. It will be a very long time before the UK becomes what Brits most fear: crime-ridden like the US (as they see it). A far larger proportion of areas in major cities are safe to walk in at night in the US than the UK. Places that Brits consider a "bad neighborhood" in the UK a re often quite benign by US standards.
- Common sense prevails. Although the UK gets its share of nuisance lawsuits, affirmative action laws gone out of control, and "politically correct" liberal parochialism, none of it is nearly acute as it has gotten in the US.
- Arguably better quality television. The junk on British TV is every bit as bad as the junk on US TV, but the best stuff in the UK tends to be a lot better than the US's best TV.
Do I want to be an academic in the UK?
A large number of people who request this FAQ are academics who are considering taking a position at a University in the UK. Since this was my own situation here, I thought I'd supply some information in that area.
What is the research ranking of the department you are going to work for? All British universities are ranked on a 5-point scale for research excellence, and the standards are very high. A department with a five rating means that there are many faculty members with strong reputations and long publications lists; you can probably assume that it is competitive with the best department of its type anywhere in the world, and that it is probably drawing in huge amounts of research money. The rating review is performed every five years.
The universities in the "industrial north" (Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester) tend to have a slightly more "practical flavor" to them, with research funding tied to major industries (much like University of Michigan's ties to the auto industry). But this need not deter you, these are still three of the best research universities in the country.
The word "professor" has a different meaning here. If you refer to some not particularly stellar junior colleague as a "professor" be prepared to be greeted with shock, or amusement ("what, him, professor??"). In the UK, "professor" is a rank of considerable seniority and distinction, roughly equivalent to what is called a "full professor" in the US. Other translations: assistant professor (US) = lecturer (UK), associate professor (US) = senior lecturer (UK).
University lecturers in the UK are burdened with massive amounts of paperwork; it appears that the typical academic spends a larger proportion of his/her time on paperwork than in the US. The conservative government seems to have this idea that academics spend money frivolously, so they figure if you have to fill out three forms in triplicate for every move you make, that that will keep costs down.
Prepare for a very different interview process. First, it is quite typical for all the candidates for the position to interview on a single day (so be prepared to meet your competitors). It is not the grueling whole-day affair that US interviews tend to be, where you are marched around to see dozens of future colleagues and deans. Rather, you'll give a presentation (not always!), and a 20-30 minute interview, maybe be given a cursory look around the department with your competitors, and that's all. Sometimes it happens that the committee makes their decision on the day of the interviews and tells you before you leave! If you give a presentation, for research-oriented departments this is the single most important component of your visit, so do it well. For your interview, be prepared to describe your work at differing levels of technicality; make it so someone outside your field can get the basic message of what your work is about.
This may be arguable, but the image of an academic here seems to be a little more casual, as though looking untidy is a sign of intelligence. This means men might get by with slightly longer hair than in the US; but I would still wear a suit of some sort to be safe.
Here is the latest UK salary scale from April 1994. I'm not exactly sure how the different categories relate to the more familiar US categories; use your imagination.
- Lecturer Grade A: $22134 to $28989 in seven steps
- Lecturer Grade B: $30199 to $43134 in ten steps
- Senior Lecturer and Professor: $40527 to $49510 in eight steps
What should I read before moving to the UK?
The following is a list of suggested readings to get a feel for the UK, the language, and what to expect. Read the non-fiction before you go, and the fiction shortly after you arrive.
- "Changing Places" by David Lodge (Penguin Press): story about an American and a British professor who swap positions at their respective universities for a year. Extremely insightful and funny view of the cultural differences between our countries. Highly recommended! "Small World" is a followup novel by the same author. If you're going to Birmingham, these two novels, and his "Nice Work" are a must-read.
- The "Rumpole of the Bailey" stories (many different volumes) by John Mortimer. Deserves a place alongside Sherlock Holmes for great criminal fiction, although in this case from the view of a cynical trial lawyer rather than a detective.
- "The British Museum is Falling Down" by David Lodge (Penguin Press). Novel from the early 60's about a PhD student trying to get work done on his dissertation at the British Library.
- "Lucky Jim" by Kingsly Aims. Novel from the 50's about a recent college graduate struggling to get by in his first year as a college lecturer.
- Paul Theroux, "The Kingdom by the Sea" (Penguin Press, 1983). A "travel biography"...author decides to see the UK by visiting every city along its perimeter, staying on foot as much as possible. Excessively cynical at times, but some good insights, and you'll learn about lesser-known places worth seeing.
- "Coping With England" by Jean Hannah (publ. Basil Blackwell, 1987). A mostly factual guide of what to expect in England, not at all cynical as its title might suggest. Starting to get a bit out of date.
- "Brit-Think/Amerithink, a Transatlantic Survival Guide," by Jane Walmsley (publ. Harrap London, 1990). Written by an American author. Pokes fun at the mindset of Americans and Brits with equal sarcasm. Very funny at times, although some of her ideas about Americans are odd (we don't all get plastic surgery, Jane), and she feels obliged to tell us what it's like being a TV producer in the UK (three guesses as to her occupation).
- "British English, A to Zed" by Norman Schur (publ. Harper Perennial, 1991). A dictionary of British words that are mostly unknown to Americans. Needs an update, but still pretty good. Very useful for reading British novels.
- "An American Looks at Britain," by Robert Critchfield (1991). Recommended by someone on the net (I haven't seen it myself).
- "The Underground Guide to University Study in Britain and Ireland," by Bill Griesar, Intercultural Press, 1992. Aimed at the foreign student, everything from a language glossary to the rules for cricket. (Also recommended by someone on the net.)
- "How to Study and Live in Britain," by Jane Woolfenden. Northcote House, 1990. A bit more stolid, but lots of useful information (i.e. on registering with the police, immigration, etc). (Also recommended by someone on the net.)
- "Studying and Living in Britain," by the British Council. Northcote House, 1991. Essentially a shorter version of Jane Woolfenden's book, although it's "official." (Also recommended by someone on the net.)
- "Driving in Britain: A North Americans guide to the ins and outs and roundabouts of driving over there," by Robert A. Lockhart. Cande Marketing, PO Box 405, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3C 2T2. $12.95 plus $2.00 shipping and handling.
Other sources of information
- An American (and Canadian) expats support group in the Manchester area publishes a useful guide, I'm told. Their address is The Ruskin Rooms, Drury Lane, Knutsford, Cheshire WA16 6HA.
- For help on immigration laws, tax laws, duty imports, etc., write to British Information Services, 845 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022, Tel: 212-745-0200 or possibly 212-752-5747.
- The British Weekly, a throwaway newspaper for Brits living in the US. Contains many ads for international moving companies, export shops, etc.: 1617 Lincoln Blvd. Suite. 248, Venice, CA 90291, Tel: 310-452-2621
- Union Jack, another paper like The British Weekly: Union Jack Publishing, PO Box 1823, La Mesa, CA 91944-1823, Tel: 619-466-3129.
- International Express, "Britain's premiere newspaper for British news, sports, Royalty and entertainment." Speedimpex USA Inc., 35-02 48th Avenue, Long Island City, New York 11101-9748, Tel: 718-392-7477.
- The International in Britain, a magazine for Americans living abroad in the UK. Lots of good tips for getting by in British society; example articles in the October 1995 issue are: "Domestic emergencies; how to avoid the cowboys when disaster strikes", and "Divorce: the British way of splitting up." FT Magazines, Greystoke Place, Fetter Lane, London EC4A 1ND. Telephone 0171-405-6969, FAX 0171-831-2181.
- If you need to get a copy of one of the daily British newspapers such as the Times, Guardian, Independent, etc., you can get them through International Media Service, 3300 Pacific Avenue, Suite 404, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23451-2983 Tel: 800-428-3003.
Is there a FAQ for moving from the UK to the US?
Although I get this query frequently, I have never heard of the existence of any such FAQ on USENET. However, I have been told of a monthly newspaper on the subject called "Going USA." It's address is Outbound Newspapers Ltd., 1 Commercial Road, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN21 3XQ, Tel. 0323 412001 .
Basic facts comparing the US and UK
- Total area:
- UK: 244,820 km2 (slightly smaller than Oregon)
- US: 9,372,610 km2 (38 times larger)
- UK: 57,797,514 (1992)
- US: 254,521,000 (1992; 4 times larger)
- Type of government:
- UK: constitutional monarchy
- US: federal republic
- UK: unwritten; partly statutes, partly common law and practice
- US: 17 September 1787, effective 4 June 1789
- Legal system:
- UK: common law tradition with early Roman and modern continental influences; no judicial review of Acts of Parliament
- US: based on English common law; judicial review of legislative acts
- Percentage of non-white ethnic groups
- UK: 5.5 (1992)
- US: 13.9 (1989)
- Full name of the country
- United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
- United States of America
- Major Regions
- UK: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales
- US: no official regions
(Source: the 1992 CIA Guide)
Thanks to the following people who have given comments, suggestions and corrections:
- Al Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Brian McKinney (email@example.com)
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- Andrew Henry (A.H.Henry@bath.ac.uk)
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- Kevin Lynch (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Clive D.W. Feather (clive@sco.COM)
Written by Greg Sandell - Last updated January 21 1995
Note from Avatar Relocation regarding this FAQ: While author Greg Sandell has created a comprehensive and immensely valuable resource, readers should take note that Avatar Relocation first started hosting Mr. Sandell's FAQ in 1995 and it is now approximately twenty (20) years old. Although much has changed over the past twenty years (and as a result the passage of time has invalidated some of what Mr. Sandell has written), Avatar Relocation has decided to continue to host this FAQ and leave it intact as the majority of this writing remains pertinent and of great value to those interested in this subject. Thank you Mr. Sandell.
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