In the middle of 2011, after talking about it for a long time, Matt and I made the decision to pack up our lives, put everything in storage, say goodbye to our loved ones and move from Brisbane to London. It was a huge move for us and, while we thought we were prepared, the reality was we were absolutely, 100%, totally unprepared… which we quickly worked out, shortly after arriving.
We had planned to live in London for at least one full year, if not longer, but things were really hard and we found ourselves struggling with a lot of things. After all the planning, time, money and huge personal toll it took to move over there and re-establish our lives, we were really frustrated that it wasn’t working and didn’t feel right. After just less than 6 months, we called it quits and left.
Looking back on it, there were definitely things we could have done to make things easier for ourselves. If we knew then what we knew now, it may not have been so hard and we may have stayed longer. If you’re planning on moving to London I want to say, upfront, that things aren’t all sunshine and Pimms – it can be really hard. So, hopefully, these must-know tips will help others learn from our mistakes and give you some of the tools you need to have an amazing time living in London.
1. Arrange a place to stay when you first arrive
We had nowhere to live when we arrived, so we stayed with some very generous friends of ours. Staying in a hotel while flat hunting will burn through your savings really fast so, if you have friends in London, ask them if you can stay on their couch for a few weeks. It may feel weird and a bit rude, but everyone does it when they first move over and you’ll probably end up hosting a few dossers of your own in the future.
You may have to stay somewhere less than glamorous – we lived on our mate’s couch during our stint and, many years earlier, Matt had slept under a television. While it may not be the perfect start you imagined, it’s still a start and it’ll help you transition into London life with others around you while also saving you money. If you do stay at a friend’s place you should offer to contribute a little money for rent, electricity, gas, internet etc. It’s also a good idea to arrive with some ‘thank you’ booze and do things like cook meals and clean up for the housemates living there.
2. Find your own flat
There are a number of ways you can find a flat in London but the best is to share-house with people you know or friends-of-friends. This way, you can rest assured you aren’t being scammed and that you won’t come home to find someone rummaging through your underwear drawer (hopefully).
When house-hunting, make sure your flat is close to a tube station. Ladies should ensure the street is well-lit and close to the main road if possible. Break-ins aren’t uncommon, so make sure your flat is secure so you’ll feel comfortable leaving your valuables there all day. I’ve heard way too many stories of break-ins!
One more thing – don’t expect to come into contact with a landlord or sign a lease (we didn’t). That said, it’s incredibly important to make sure your rental situation is legit and understand your rights! Don’t hand over a security deposit or bond without having seen the place first. Just keep in mind, things are done a little differently over there and you may just move in and out without all the usual hoo-ha.
3. Start settling into your new life
It’s important to start organising all those basic things that make your life work. It’ll help you feel comfortable in your new surroundings and give you a sense of familiarity and stability which, I believe, is really important in the early days. The move is a BIG change and it can take a toll on you mentally and emotionally, so be sure to start setting up all the things you need in your day-to-day life.
You can buy very affordable towels, linen, pillows, blankets and other homewares from Primark (just avoid the Oxford Street store where possible). I’d recommend setting aside a small budget for essential homewares so you deck your space out when you arrive. You might also like to bring a few things from home, like photographs, to put up. When we moved, we bought all our essentials from the Aussie couple moving out of the flat and got everything we needed for a bargain.
You’ll also need to get up and running with a phone for job and flat hunting as well as navigating around London (and to let your mum and dad know you’re okay!) The UK has widespread 4G mobile coverage with at least 92 per cent of the population, so getting online when you’ve just moved over is a cinch. If you don’t want to get tied into fixed contracts or sign up to home broadband immediately, one option is to get a pre-paid SIM card that comes with a set amount of 4G data that lasts 30 days. You might like to consider giffgaff as they ship their SIM cards abroad so you can get prepped before you’ve even landed in London!
The reason to think about pre-paid, rather than a contract, is most phone companies run credit checks, and if you do not have a credit history in the UK, you may be declined. When most expats first arrive in the UK, they purchase one of these bundled no credit check sim deals then switch to a contract deal once they have decided to stay long-term and built up a credit rating. Assuming you have a GSM phone, all you need to do is exchange your current SIM for the prepaid SIM. Remember though, not all international mobile phones will work with the UK networks so it might mean you have to get your phone unlocked before travelling to the UK or buy a new phone when in the country. Be sure to look into it before you leave home!
4. Find a job
Finding a job in London can be really tough! It took Matt and me three months of very dedicated job hunting to find ours. It’s important to start looking before you leave home, so you know what the market is like and what jobs are available that meet your skills. Make sure your resume/CV is up to date and you have all the references you need BEFORE you leave home.
Recruitment agencies are the norm in London and there are a lot of agencies specialising in different fields. I’d recommend doing some research before you leave and contacting agencies in advance to arrange interviews shortly after you arrive. This will keep you motivated, focused and on-track! As our savings were quickly running out and we needed to pay rent I had to take a few temp jobs here and there just to pay the bills while job-hunting.
It’s also important to be realistic about the type of job you’re going to get. I had a lot of skills and experience in the vocational education sector and was coming from a really well-paying job at home. In London I found myself looking at jobs way below my abilities, faced with the reality of taking steps backwards in my career and interviewing for roles as a personal assistant, receptionist or secretary. It wasn’t what I was expecting and that made it tough.
One other thing – I was told that the idea of ‘working hard’ in London was an absolute joke compared to Australia. I can tell you now, that’s not true. You’ll work just as hard, if not harder. The whole ‘9 to 5’ thing is taken lightly – you’ll most likely be expected to work outside those hours and not take your full hour for lunch.
5. Get an idea of what your salary could be
One great tool I found was this list of average salaries in the UK. It just gives you a base idea of what you may expect to earn, depending on the job you get. This will help you plan your new London life a little better, giving you a clearer idea of how much you can reasonably expect to be able to spend on rent.
6. Understand the cost of living
The cost of food in London is lower than it is in Australia and if you take the time to go to ASDA instead of Waitrose you will find yourself saving money on groceries. Matt and I would take our lunch to work each day and eat at home most nights to save money. We would spend around £70 per week on groceries.
Don’t pay full price for anything! There are a number of websites that have great discount vouchers and deals available, and there’s no shame in using them because everyone in London does it! Check out Money Saving Expert, Quidco, and Open Table for great deals. It’s also a good idea to take advantage of free museums, art exhibitions, and festivals.
7. Know how to get around
You will undoubtedly get around on the tube, so your first port of call should be to an off-license to buy an Oyster Card, which is used in place of paper tickets for the bus, train or tram. It will cost you £5 for the card (which is refundable) and you can put credit on it or buy a weekly, monthly, yearly pass. Also, while it may be tempting to catch the tube everywhere, sometimes it’s actually faster to walk! You should also download the citymapper app.
8. Make new friends
The great news is there are a lot of people in the same situation as you, so it is easy to make new friends in London. Of course, you will meet people when you start working, but a few other great ways are to join a social sporting team, head to a local pub for drinks and attend local events. I’d also recommend reaching out to friends who live in London or have lived in London. Matt and I didn’t know many people and I think that made it hard for us, it felt a bit lonely at times. Establishing a social circle, staying busy and getting out and about will help you ease into your new life.
Make sure you pick up TNT magazine each week – it’s published on Monday and gets snapped up fast! You can pick it up along the street and outside tube stations. The great thing about London is all the other expats are keen to make friends, so once you start getting yourself out there you’ll make new friends in no time. One really important thing for us was making friends with locals, this really opened London up for us and we felt more like we were part of it. If we’d met our London friends sooner, things may have been different for us.
I’d also suggest you get busy! Get out and explore London – it’s an INCREDIBLE place, so see and do ALL the touristy things you want to do. Make the most of each beautiful moment, don’t waste a single day. It goes so fast.
9. Travel as often as possible
You’ve probably moved to London to see the world, so don’t hold back! Start planning immediately and keep your eyes peeled for all the amazing last-minute deals that come up – these could see you running away to Sweden for a weekend or booking a last-minute trip to Turkey! The TNT travel show is a great way to score discounts on travel deals, but you can sign up to different websites like travelzoo.com as well.
The winter months can be especially tough and you may find yourself very homesick at times, so use travel as your lifeline. Always have something planned and be working toward your next holiday, don’t let your time in London go by and not do ALL those things you wanted to do while you’re here. Make the most of all your weekends and public/bank holidays.
10. Get into a routine
This may sound like something fairly trivial but, trust me, it’s important. You probably don’t realise it but when you’re at home you have a routine you’re used to. When you move to London that routine goes right out the window and can be easily replaced with a whole lot of laying around, boozing and doing very little.
Things for us really improved once we got into a routine again and felt like our lives were ‘moving forward,’ if that makes sense. I’d recommend things like getting a gym membership, planning nights out with friends, doing your grocery shopping weekly, having regular skype calls with your mum, pushing money into your savings account and all the other little things you do when you’re at home. It’ll bring an essential element of normality into your life.
11. Move when it’s warm
We made the foolish mistake of moving to London just as the Australian winter was winding down… this meant we did double winter. Considering the UK winter lasts for most of the year (or at least it feels like it does to my weak Queensland blood) this can be particularly brutal. I’d recommend moving in the warmer months. London comes alive when the sun is out and arriving in this kind of scene will make you really feel a part of it all!
12. Go in with realistic expectations
If I could give you one piece of advice it would be this… go into the move with realistic expectations. It’s not always going to be perfect, there are times it’s going to be really hard (especially finding a job and a flat!) but you can get through it. Don’t give up. Remember why you moved and try to see the bigger picture. Make friends, stay busy, travel often, eat and drink well and see the world.
Living in London can be a life-changing experience, so embrace it and let it take you where it will… your 70-year-old self will thank you!