I’ve talked about my journey of moving to London from America before, but I remember months and months of desperately googling things like “how to move to the UK from America” and “how to move to London as an American.” many times when I was first starting out. You are basically hoping for a miracle or at least an article that will tell you moving to London is easy.
I started as a study abroad student at Richmond: The American University in London and with API and CAPA, then did my Master’s Degree at the University of Westminster, and then finally got a partner visa and now live here permanently. So for anyone wondering how to move from America to London, here are 5 things you need to know.
What Visa Do You Need to Move to London?
You can’t get around needing a visa as an American to come and live in London, unless you happen to have dual citizenship, in which case, you’re set!
For the rest of us not lucky enough to have royal parents or other means of getting in, you’re going to have to apply for one of the following visas (these are the major ones). Visas have been the bane of my existence since I started this journey, and I have spent many long days wondering about my visa.
The Tier 2 Visa requires that you have a company in London already willing to sponsor you. This route can be difficult, as companies need to submit proof to show that you are filling a spot that any other British/EU applicant can’t fill. So maybe you have special knowledge of a subject or of the company that they need.
Typically people who have success in this route already have inroads to a network of people in London, as well as a specialized knowledge of a field like engineering.
If you work for an American company, they can also arrange what’s called an Intra-Company Tier 2 visa if you are transferring from their American office to their London office.
A Tier 4 Visa is essentially a student visa. Your sponsor is the university or higher education facility that you’re studying with. The most common way is to either do study abroad from an American university or to direct enroll in a London university that is a licensed Tier 4 Sponsor.
The limit with a Tier 4 visa is that you have to leave the country by the date on your visa (typically 1 week to 2 months after the end of your studies, depending on how long your visa is). The only way to stay in the country is to be able to switch to another visa, like a partner visa.
You can have multiple Tier 4 visas in succession, but only if you continuing in your education. You can’t spend your whole life earning Bachelor’s Degrees from London universities just because you want to move to London from the US.
Another option is the Tier 5 Visa, which is for Temporary Workers. The most popular way for this to work for Americans is to do the BUNAC program. Through BUNAC, you arrange your own internship and then BUNAC act as your sponsor so that the internship company doesn’t have to. You can also pay extra for internship companies to arrange your placement, but if you’re in the position where you can take an unpaid internship, you can great luck finding one yourself by searching on indeed.co.uk and workinstartups.co.uk.
BUNAC was how I came back to the UK after my undergraduate study abroad programs were over. However, there is a stipulation that you must either be a current student or within a certain amount of time from having earned your degree, so you won’t be able to do this program if you haven’t been enrolled in college for a long time.
This is the holy grail for someone looking to move to London permanently, but of course you need to be in an actual relationship first. For full disclosure, this is the route I’m on, but make sure that you’re really ready to commit to someone. Do NOT get in a relationship for the visa or because you really want to move to London. It should go without being said, but the stories you hear make me wonder…
There are two different types of partner visa: the unmarried partner visa, and the marriage visa.
The unmarried partner visa was the first one I got in March 2016. It requires you to have lived with someone in “a relationship akin to marriage” (ie you share financial responsibilities and aren’t just roommates) for 2 or more years. It doesn’t matter which country you’re living together in, as long as one of you is a British citizen. However, you’re going to need proof spanning that whole 2 years that you’ve lived together, which can be hard to find if you have been getting rid of paperwork over the years.
They’re very strict about the 2 year mark, so if you’ve been living together for 1.5 years, you’re out of luck. Somehow the universe was working in my favor as I found out about this visa and realized that the date my student visa expired was exactly the 2 year mark to having lived for 2 + years with my then-boyfriend. I’m not sure what I did to deserve that kind of luck, but I haven’t taken it for granted since then.
The other visa you can apply for is the marriage visa. This requires you to be legally married (it can be in America) and for one of you to be a UK citizen, AND for that person to be able to financially support you either through a job offer making a certain amount of money per year or through their current earnings. The requirement is 18,600 GBP per year, so if they fall short of that, you’re also out of luck.
Practical Tips on Moving to London
Once you have your visa in hand, whether you’re a student, an intern, an employee, or a spouse, you’re going to want to take care of the basics like accommodation, a cellphone, and a way to get around. Even the differences between American and British grocery stores can be a lot to handle!
Accommodation for Expats in London
If you’re moving without a relocation package, you’re going to need to find your own flat. Keep in mind that prices get cheaper the further out from the center you go, but so do transportation prices! You need to find the sweet spot that’s close enough to your place of study/work that you’re not commuting for 6 hours a day, but you likely won’t be able to live next to Buckingham Palace, SORRY!
Great sites to use include Spareroom if you just want to rent a sublet room from someone and not from a landlord necessarily. If you want to do it through an agency or landlord, look up flats for rent on Rightmove or Zoopla. I would highly advise taking a look at the current prices and looking at a couple to get an idea for what area’s they’re in before committing somewhere.
How to Get a Cellphone in London
If you’re moving to London more permanently, you’ll want to disconnect your American number and sign up on a pay-as-you-go plan initially with a UK provider. Not only does this keep costs down, but no one is going to want to be friends with you if they constantly need to text you on your American number as it costs a lot of money. My favorite provider that I’ve been with for the past 5 years is Three. They have fantastic data plans, too, because let’s face it, who really calls each other these days? Once you have a bit of credit in the UK, you can transfer onto a monthly plan.
If you’re moving more temporarily and will be back to the US at the end of 6 months or something, I wouldn’t disconnect your American number, but instead take the American SIM card out of your American cellphone, make sure it’s unlocked, and put in a UK sim card (again, pay as you go) to use while you’re there. You will only be allowed the pay-as-you-go plan most likely, so you’ll need to “top up” occasionally, which can be done at the Three stores all across London (Three as in the provider, not the number of stores!)
Transportation in London
One thing about London that can’t be ignored is how great the transportation options are. Tube, bus, river boat, even a strange sky gondola system called the Emirates Air Line. The tube is very efficient, except when it’s not. But mostly it is! Check out my guide on how Americans should use the tube to make sure you’re prepared when you’re all up in a business man’s personal space.
The buses are also a great option, and a better option for some people as they go more places. That being said, buses go a lot slower in rush hour traffic than they do early on a Sunday morning, so keep in mind the timing of your journey as well.
Every Londoner gets around these days using their Contactless card, but you would most likely need a UK debit or credit card for this to work. If you don’t, the next best thing is an Oyster card, which allows you to either add a “travelcard” (so for instance, full access to Zones 1-6 for 1 month), or it will just deduct the cost of your journey each time you go. There’s a daily cap as well so once you hit a certain cost of journeys for the day, it won’t charge you. Head to the Transport for London counter at a major tube station to talk to the staff about what might work best for you.
Emotional Considerations when Moving Overseas
I’m not sure if “emotional” is the right word for it, but if you haven’t thought about the impact that moving to London will have on you, now is the time!
For one, unless you know someone there initially, you’re going to be on your own and away from your family and friends. If you’re used to moving around a lot, this may not impact you, but if you’ve never lived outside of your hometown before or you’ve only gone away for college, you need to thin about how to make sure you’re ready to cope with the distance and establishing yourself in a new life.
You also need to go into this process with a positive attitude and a sense of harsh reality. Moving to London is difficult if you don’t have any connections, and that’s not to say that it can’t be done, but that is to say that there’s no way it’s going to happen if you don’t have an incredibly positive attitude about it and roll with the punches. You also need to have an understanding of what you’re getting into and realize that many things need to line up perfectly for it to happen. I don’t say this to dissuade you, but I’ve seen too many people fresh off a study abroad program proclaim that they’re going to move back who get incredibly disappointed after it doesn’t happen for them. Be realistic about the chances and don’t put all of your eggs in this particular basket.
Culture Shock as an American in London
Another thing to keep in mind is that if it all aligns for you and you get to move to London or somewhere else in the UK, you’re going to encounter culture shock!
As Americans, we often think this doesn’t apply to us because our friends across the pond speak the same language as us. But oh my god, that couldn’t be more wrong!
Firstly, check out my post all about how culture shock appears and what stages you’ll likely go through.
Secondly, understand that oftentimes culture shocks hits Americans in London even HARDER than if we were to travel to somewhere we don’t speak the language. If we find ourselves in the center of Ghana or an island in Italy or a busy city in China, we are sort of mentally prepared in a way that the culture is going to be different. This doesn’t help alleviate culture shock, but it does help to get you through it because you understand that it’s going to take some adjusting.
The danger of Americans in the UK is that we just think it will all be the same. So you’re not as mentally prepared for some words to mean different things, gestures to be foreign (did you know that Brits give the “middle finger” with two fingers?), and people to generally regard you as an “outsider” even though you feel like you know what’s going on.
Even if you’re well versed in British things and know the difference between Primark and Argos and can name all of the ingredients in a fry up or a Sunday dinner. Even if you’ve tried fish and chips and love them, even if you know that “pram” means “stroller” and “college” in the UK isn’t the same as college in the US. EVEN IF you feel like you know what’s going on, there’s going to be an element of adjusting and to this day, 5 years after moving to the UK, there are some idioms and other things that go straight over my head.