Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Taxation without Representation - Importance of the NI Number

Since I want my blog to actually be somewhat useful to other poor bloakes that plan to jump across the pond to the UK, I want to discuss the importance of the NI Number (National Insurance Number). As soon as you get here and start work, set an appointment with the nearest Job Centre and obtain one! Your employer should tell you all about it upon your arrival. If they don't, ASK! The number registers you as a UK worker and allows you to pay the fair tax rate into the National Insurance (actual rates vary and depend on your salary, marital status, etc.). Until you get one however, you are taxed under an "Emergency NI" which means you pay ridiculously high taxes in the interim, seriously upwards of 55 to 65 percent of your gross.

The good news is that once you receive an NI number, you get the over-taxed amount back in your following pay period, but it's shocking at first when you see what the Queen takes from you initially as an "emergency tax". This is fairly standard. Another piece of good news is that the process isn't as painful as people here would make you think. All week I've been warned about going to my appointment at a Job Centre in "dodgey" Tooting (apparently the Brits think this is a bad neighborhood...It's rough for sure, but I just moved here from Oakland...Oakland helped perfect "rough"). To be fair, I didn't stick around long to explore, so maybe it's bad. I did stick around long enough to have a fantastic sheekh kebab wrap at a legitimate Indian takeaway stand for just 1.50 pounds. Not bad, not bad at all. That experience alone is worth a future tube ride back to Tooting Bec.

These Job Centres are largely utilized to help unemployed people on the UK public assistance program. They are also used for expats like myself that need to obtain a National Insurance Number to prevent the Crown from taxing the hell out of them, so the crowd is a very mixed bag. My impression is that if I had made an appointment at a Job Centre near Canary Wharf, I would have been in line with people from Lehman, Merril, and Bear Stearns. Instead, in Tooting, I was definitely with "working class" people who were probably legitimately looking for good, noble, and honest work, not investment banking jobs.

Once you arrive to your appointment time and location, it isn't really that bad. Just be sure to bring everything under the sun that identifies you. I suggest you bring your passport/UK visa, work permit, copy of pay stub, confirmation of UK bank account, confirmation of UK residence (temporary and/or proposed lease is fine), signed employment contract, and offer letter. After all of this, they will mail you your NI number within 10 business days...

If you're moving to the UK with a current employer (a transfer) I suggest the following:

Negotiate full tax support. I get tax support with PwC and it's worth it. The taxes get really complicated out here and it will be very difficult to try to muddle through it all on your own. After a couple of years, I'm sure we all figure it out, but you could lose a lot of sanity and a lot of money in the process.


Canary Wharf

I thought I'd share a little bit about the place I spend my days...I think it's obvious that no matter who you are, where you are, or what you do, those of us who work spend most of our waking hours in some sort of a work environment. The space can be defined by an office, a cubicle, a shipyard, a department store, a lecture hall, an art studio, etc., etc., but the amount of time we spend in this "space" influences, if not defines, our general disposition.

I work in Canary Wharf, one of the three major central business districts of London (the other two being "The City" and the West End). Canary Wharf is the most recent of these and is pretty much the home of the major world banks (or what used to be the major world banks...those that haven't disappeared, become nationalized or acquired are still there I think). Interesting enough, Lehman was in the building adjacent to mine, but that's a different topic altogether.

I don't intend to write an essay on the development of Canary Wharf. I think that my wife and wikipedia can speak to that better than I can. Since my wife is busy at the moment, see the link below.

Generally, it's an interesting place. Beneath the surface of the grandiose scale of modern highrises is a massive underground shopping mall, which comes in handy in these parts since I have yet to discover the conveniences in Isle of Dogs that populate all other neighborhoods I've explored in London.

I've also attached some photographs from my walk to work this morning and some views from my office. I'm staying nearby for the timebeing until I get my permanent living situation squared away. I'll write about that in another post. For now read a little bit about Canary Wharf. It's really only one small part of a massive redevelopment campaign going on in east London, prior to the 2012 Olympics. I imagine these parts will look completely different four years from now.


Monday, November 10, 2008

The British Raj...In England.

So I'm learning about the bureaucracy that permeates almost every aspect of life in London, and I'm sure the UK as a whole, but I do not want to pass that judgement across the board as I'm only staying in London (although my experiences are speaking to the UK tax system, the UK banking system, the UK housing options, including duty due to the Councils, etc, etc). Taxes, taxes, taxes everywhere! This is perhaps a good reason that we revolted and became independent.

First of all, almost everything requires an agent, which at first doesn't sound bad, especially when you're moving from abroad, you are new to the system, and your company is footing the bill. What you'll soon learn is that these agents have a different response level and response time than what you'd find in the States. I'm not criticizing. Generally speaking, the Brits get a ridiculous amount of "bank holidays", "holiday (vacation)", and the working hours are more reasonable than in the US. It just takes some getting used. The grass is always greener I guess.

Another interesting observation is the amount of "snail mail", forms, references, phone calls, and ink signatures required to get anything done in this country! Now perhaps this is because I'm a child of the information age, but we're talking about London here! This is perhaps the most dominant financial capital in the world, and by many good arguments, a cultural and historic centre of the world, and it takes one week for your debit card to be activated, one week for your potential landlord to have his "agent" conduct background checks (another favourite English pastime), and multiple phone calls and reminders to get your "current account cheques" sent to your flat. Margarat Thatcher could build perhaps the most over the top corporate and commercial monstrosity out of former shipping docks, but securing a flat and opening a bank account conjures up the same emotions as standing in line at a train station in Rajasthan, hoping to get onto 2nd class AC.

In the end, I'm sure it will all work out and I do have a tendency to be fatalistic, but the experiences have been shocking.

On another note, and to the credit of my new office, I am amazed at the amount of efficiency and communication that goes on there. I've had my second Monday meeting (something we never did in my last office) and it's very insightful to know what sorts of opportunies are going on in the other practices. I've alread identified a couple of things on my own. It's amazing what can happen when people actually talk to one another.

To end on an optimistic note, I want to list the things that are more efficient here than back home:

The Tube beats BART
I can pay rent via direct debit (once it gets set-up!!!)
The grocery stores have great "singles" food (as I anxiously await my wife's arrival)
You don't have to tip the bartender...That never gets old.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Finally in London!

Well I've finally arrived in London! The entire transition and relocation process, while at the time seemed to drag, has really come and gone pretty quickly. For the most part, it was a smooth move. My last month in California was spent with quality friends, family, and of course my wife. It seemed the lunches, brunches, happy hours, coffee dates, and dinners would never end and now that I've had some time to detox and reflect a bit, October 2008 may have been one of the greatest months of my life. When you make such a big move like this, you really learn to appreciate the blessings in your life. While it's bittersweet, I'm comforted in knowing that Lily will be with me shortly, we already have several visitors committed over the next several months, and our stay in London, while long term, is only temporary and we will one day return to the blue skies (most of the time) of California.

When I arrived in London on October 30th, they were experiencing colder than usual temperatures for this time of year. In fact it had just snowed the night before, but not enough to last on the ground. The last several days have been more temperate, but with lots of light rain. I work at 40 Bank Street in Canary Wharf on the 25th Floor and the views from that level are amazing. However, since it's been fogged and cloudy most of the time, I only just saw the view on Friday for the first time. Indeed my co-workers even joked with me that yes, the sun does exist from time to time in London.

I spent my first couple of days in London with my relocation agents looking for my permanent housing accomodation. The "flat" hunting was a very valuable exercise because it allowed me to tour different neighborhoods in London to get a feel for the space of the city. The area we covered was diverse and varied significantly. Each neighborhood in London is unique in its own way, but I ultimately decided to live in either Islington (Angel) or Clapham. The decision between these two areas was difficult (there is a big North and South divide in London). I've decided to live south in Clapham because of the combination of wide open green spaces and the urban atmosphere.

I am currently staying in Isle of Dogs, near Canary Wharf in a corporate flat. The area is really an artificial city, built out of the wastelands of the former docks and recreated as an ultra-corporate headquarters for the world's largest banks. There isn't much of a character to this area as most of it is newly built and it's skyline is defined by highrises and condominium towers. Beneath Canary Wharf itself is a gigantic shopping mall. It's comfortable and convenient for the time being, but I am looking forward to moving to a London neighborhood with more excitement and culture.

I hope this was an insightful first post to let people know what I've been up to over the last week. I plan to write regularly and frequently, so please feel free to provide questions and comments!