Dreaming of Europe? Here's How to Move to the UK

Yes, the healthcare is everything you dreamed.

On November 8, 2016—as much of the country stood aghast—I got one piece of very good news: My fiancé visa to relocate to the UK had been approved, stamped, and delivered on the same day Donald Trump was elected president. I packed three suitcases and moved a month later, becoming an official resident of Britain by the time Trump was sworn into office. 

Not everyone is so lucky to fall in love with a British person, a life event that gifted me the ability to navigate a challenging visa system and earn the right to live in London. But if London is calling you too, it’s still possible to make that transition across the pond, and you needn’t be living a whimsical romcom to make it happen. 

The UK—England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—is a relatively welcoming place, with many ideal places to live, be it bustling London, Manchester, or Edinburgh, or smaller towns like Margate and Brighton (yes, charming cottages like in The Holiday actually do exist). It’s a place of humming cities and rolling countrysides that feel stuck in a different era, of moss-covered isles and ancient pubs. And whether you’re a metropolitan go-getter or prefer a slower pace of life, there’s a place for you. 

Moving here will take some time and effort. Some Americans spend years in visa limbo. But it’s worth the climb. Here are some things to consider when planning to relocate to the UK.

Navigating the UK visa system

The UK immigration system is complicated, though it could become less so when the country leaves the EU and adopts a points-based immigration system in January.  For now, though, the options are dependent on your finances, marriage status, and job situation. (Without a visa, Americans can currently stay in the UK for up to six months within a one-year period, but cannot work or look for work while visiting.)

Many Americans come to the UK for work using a Tier 2 visa. They’re either transferred by a company with UK offices or find a job with a British company willing to sponsor them. Sponsored jobs are only available in fields listed on the shortage occupation list, so you may be better off pursuing one of the investor, business development, and talent visas. 

Start-up visas are given to those who want to launch a business in the UK and have sponsorship from a business or university. Those who want to start a business in the UK without the hassle of a sponsor can apply for the Innovator visa, which requires at least £50,000 in investment funds. The Global Talent visa is available for those who are a leader or potential leader in academia or research, arts and culture, or digital technology. The latter lets you work as a freelancer in a variety of fields and doesn’t require a specific investment of cash. 

Another option is to apply to grad school in the UK and come over on a Student visa, which many Americans do even if they aren’t really in it for the degree. It’s fairly easy to get accepted into a program since the universities thrive on higher international student fees, and depending on the length of the course you can stay for up to five years. The fees to apply for a Student visa are also much lower than the applications for the other types of visas. 

Anyone applying for a visa will have to pay a National Health Service surcharge along with the application fee. As of October 2020, this costs £624 (about $820). Totally worth it.

Yes, the health system is as great as you dreamed

Established in 1948, the NHS is a tried and true miracle, especially for Americans used to endlessly dealing with weird health-insurance charges. It’s a simple system, and all citizens and visa-holders are entitled to use it. 

Once you have an official home address in the UK, you sign up with your local GP (general practice). There are no fees or insurance cards: you simply book an appointment and show up. The GP is the first stop for any issue, and your GP will then refer you through the NHS to see a specialist if needed. Prescriptions have a flat fee of £9.15 (birth control is free), and most prescription requests can be done over the phone to your GP. 

There are often complaints of long waiting times to see specialists or get advanced treatment, but overall the NHS is efficient and easy to use. There are private doctors who can be seen with private health insurance, but unless you have a serious condition the NHS is usually the way to go. The best part about the NHS is that you don’t have to second-guess a trip to the doctor and you’ll suddenly find yourself dealing with all those tiny health issues you ignored in America to avoid paying your deductible.

Where to live and work in the UK

Most expats find themselves in one of the major cities, especially London. Many of the jobs are located in the capital, with Americans centering themselves in specific neighborhoods like St. Johns Wood and Chiswick, but the UK is vast and there are other things to consider when picking a home base. 

It’s also important to think about your budget: London is much more expensive than somewhere like Manchester, Cardiff, or Glasgow, and now that remote working has become more commonplace it’s easy to live outside a city and commute in when needed. 

Taylor Giacoma, an American who lives in a small town called Marple just outside of northwestern England’s Manchester, notes that the trains and public transportation make the country feel accessible no matter where you end up. 

“There is a North-South divide in England, and sometimes it feels like the center of everything is London and the North is ‘somewhere up there,’” Giacoma says. “But it's beautiful up here, and yet easy to get down to London if you like. Honestly, I think I have the best of everything—I can get into Manchester in about a half hour on the train, but most of what I need I can find in my town.”

If London is your dream destination, do some digging before the move, particularly if you have kids. Joining expat Facebook groups is a helpful way to navigate the different neighborhoods, and to get some guidance on how far out of the city center you might want to be. 

“We've been very pleasantly surprised to find that a city living in London can be more comfortable than many American cities,” says Joshua Pines, who moved to London with his wife and kids from New Jersey thanks to his wife’s Hungarian citizenship. 

Pines cautions, however, that navigating that incoming parents should prepare to navigate a tough school system, which can impact where you choose to move. 

“Many primary schools in Zones 1, 2, and 3 are oversubscribed, especially the ones that are considered higher performing or in areas where Americans typically move,” he says.
So you need to move with that in mind, and get the ball rolling on your research well before you've settled.”

Dealing With Culture Shock

It may seem surprising that living in the UK would feel dramatically different to living in the US, but the cultural shock here is real. Just because most of the population speaks English doesn’t mean you’ll always understand them, and learning the cultural differences can be a real challenge. Workplace culture here takes some adjustment, especially if you’re naturally outspoken, and Brits tend to have a better work-life balance than in America. 

The first few months of living in the UK may feel like a vacation, but eventually the luster of the British accent and novelty of seeing Big Ben every day begins to wear off. 
 
“Give it a couple of years to settle in,” recommends Brenda Della Casa, founder of The BDC/Collective and an ambassador for the Global Talent visa program. “You’ll romanticize it and it will feel like a holiday, and then you will have a moment where you feel totally out of your depth. You will be lonely. Just roll with it and know that this is all a part of the process. Force yourself to get out there and try new things and remember this is a new experience and you might be doing the exact same things you did back home but it will feel, smell, sound, and taste completely different—and that’s a good thing.”

While it may be comforting to seek out other Americans, especially those who know where to buy Hidden Valley Ranch in London (Partridges) or to find real Mexican food (Mestizo), seek out those with different backgrounds, especially in London, where many locals hail from all around the globe. 

“Be willing to step out of the expat bubble,” Pines notes. “London and the UK have so much to offer that’s not just in the neighborhoods, suburbs, and schools where Americans tend to congregate. You [also] have to make the effort to make friends, to find things to do that you like and to adapt to life in a new country. You get what you give.”

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Emily Zemler is a contributor for Thrillist.