Thursday, July 30, 2009

Life as an Expat

We’ve always dreamed of living abroad, so when the opportunity for Keenan to transfer to his company’s London office came up, there was no discussion about it – we were going! As I write this post looking out to the cloudy and rainy skies from the spare bedroom (more an office now), I still can’t believe we live in London! It is truly a blessing to start out our married life here in this amazing city.

While this blog is intended to keep our friends and family up to date about our time in London, we also want to make it useful to those who are planning to, or about to jump across the pond to the U.K. As Keenan wrote in his post “The British Raj…in England” back in November, it is true that bureaucracy permeates every aspect of life in the UK, especially for expats, where life revolves around red tape, documentations, more documentations and oh yes, ink signatures and snail mail! I cringe when I hear: “I am afraid electronic statement of your credit card or billing statement will not suffice.” Urghhhh…..

All this leads to unnecessary frustration! Allow me to elaborate with our experience with opening/adding my name to our UK bank account this morning. I’ll let Keenan share his thoughts on this one; see below under "UK Banks." But first, let me back up and share our experience with getting our visas and housing.

This part was quite easy and straightforward as this was a work transfer. Fortunately, for me it was easy as well and I applied for my spousal visa several months after Keenan moved to the U.K. We completed several forms, submitted documentations such as our marriage license, university diplomas, and passports, and a week later, the UK immigration office returned the passports with a 5 year work permit/visa. I know several expats who applied on the Tier 1 Highly Skilled Immigrant Programme, which allows them to seek employment upon arriving to the U.K. To be eligible, you have to meet a certain number of points based on your age, educational attainment, salary, etc. I have heard that the Tier 1 visa process can be a pain, so we’re very thankful that the visa process was relatively easy.

Keenan was in charge of this task; I was in Berkeley finishing up my master’s degree. Since he was assigned a relocation agent, this was also somewhat painless where he gave his requirements to his agent and subsequently, she took him to view some 30 properties over 3 days. An additional role of the agent is to negotiate the terms of your lease which must be done in every case in the UK. Rarely do tenants end up paying the asking price on rent, usually lower. Not knowing London initially, he visited a lot of different neighborhoods to get a representative sample. The quality of area and accommodations ranged from extremely upscale to downright filthy and scary. If only I can find the photos he sent me of the flats he viewed -- some were less than desirable.

Keep in mind that 90 percent of flats in London come furnished (landlords get a tax write-off for the depreciation on furniture that they lease). In fact it’s harder to find an unfurnished flat in London, and if you opt to have your own furniture, you may have to pay the landlord extra for furniture storage. We didn’t know that upon arriving to the UK and all of our furniture was on an ocean freighter across the Atlantic. We really got lucky with our 2-BR/1BA flat right off of Clapham Old Town that came unfurnished. The owners were having their first child and decided to buy a place on the south coast with a bit more space, so they wanted all of their furniture anyway. If you don’t have a relocation agent, then I suggest you register with a local letting agency in the neighborhood(s) you want to live in, and they’ll be happy to show you properties as they become available. Also, rent is quoted by the week here, so if you see an advert for 400GBP, that’s 400GBP per week x 4.3 weeks.

National Health Service (NHS):
I know President Obama is currently pushing for healthcare reform as we speak and some are skeptical of having a universal health care plan. This morning, Keenan and I went down to our local Clapham Family Practice to register with NHS which everyone who lives in the UK must do at some point. We already mentioned that expat life is mired with tons of bureaucracy, so we thought we would have to jump through hoops at the local NHS. To our surprise, I’ll say that registering with the NHS was A LOT easier than adding my name to our current bank account! We walked in, showed them our passports, marriage license, proof of address, filled out some forms, and we were able to make a “surgery” (read: doctor/health) appointment with the General Practitioner for next Monday, 3rd of August. Not bad. I know health care reform is a contentious topic, but it is really troublesome to know that some 46 million Americans are uninsured, yet healthcare cost in the US accounts for 16% of GDP, nearly twice the OECD average. Sure the NHS is not perfect, but I am comforted by the fact that if I cut my finger and need stitches, I don’t need to shell out $500+ dollars out of pocket.

UK banks (from Keenan):
This post is long overdue! I began the process of setting up my bank account before I arrived in the UK. My relocation agent recommended a particular bank (one of the major UK ones) and it was slightly easier to setup initially because I was already technically “employed” by a UK company. If I wasn’t employed, and I’ve known people in this situation, the task of setting up a UK bank would have been near impossible since foreigners have no credit history when arriving here. To start the process you will need a letter from your employer confirming employment, proof of UK residence, a valid immigration visa and a work permit. You will also need to post all original forms, with ink signatures to the bank in order to open the account. From then it’s a matter of weeks before it’s up and running.

What happens next is so arduous and painfully frustrating it actually feels unpleasant to write about it…

Your debit card doesn’t just arrive. You obtain a form that needs to be completed and mailed back to the bank requesting a debit card. A few weeks later, you obtain a debit card along with a letter stating that you need to complete an additional enclosed form to activate your card. You then need to mail this form in to obtain your pin number by mail. All in all, it should have taken me about one month to get a functioning debit card up and running, but things spun wildly out of control with all these forms flying around. To make a long story shorter, things got sent to the wrong address, needed to be reissued several times, cancelled, reissued, cancelled and finally reissued for “security” reasons. The end result was me writing an extremely strong letter of complaint with lots of strong language and threats to my relationship manager (something I strongly recommend you use if you have a UK bank). Lily and I wanted to share this letter in this post, but unfortunately I didn’t archive it in my outlook and it is now gone. Probably better that way actually.

Since this incident, service has improved dramatically, although there is still plenty of incompetence in any UK bank. For example, it was relatively easy to have Lily added to my credit card account, but incredibly painful to have her added to my bank account. I’ve checked around and talked with my friends in the UK, but all banks here seem to operate in similar ways, so there is no point in switching. It would only force me to go through these steps once more. I could write more on the password requirements, customer IDs, smartcard readers, and other irritating topics on UK banks, but I am already mentally exhausted from reflecting on my initial experiences.

We hope that this post is somewhat helpful for all you folks planning on jumping the pond. It's not all that bad, and the pros of living in this fantastic city certainly outweighs the "minor" frustrations with UK bureaucracy. We hate to end this post on a negative note. That said, we're really excited about our upcoming weekend travels: Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, and Geneva, and seeing Hamlet with Jude Law in a few weeks!

Have a great weekend!

Update 09/09/09:

I still have not received my debit card since we wrote this post. Why? "It got lost in the will be another 10 working days."


  1. Hey Lily and Keenan! Thanks for the blog post I just started to follow your blog.

    I will make the move myself in September. I'm a EU citizen so visa should not be a problem but I am not looking forward to setting up a bank as I am self-employed, but I guess I'll figure that out when I get there.

    Keep blogging and have a great weekend!


  2. Thanks Michael for reading our blog! Congratulations on your move to the UK. You'll love it here.

    All good wishes, L&K

  3. Hi Lily and Keenan!

    My fiance and I are moving from NYC to London this summer and we love your blog. If I could ask though, which bank did you have this experience with?

    We were told to open an account with HSBC in New York a few months before moving, and then to open an account at HSBC in London as soon as we had our new address. Our relocation person even said that we wouldn't need more than our passports and proof of address to do this. Is this the same process that you two followed, only to have it fail so disastrously?

    Thanks, and keep blogging!

  4. Hi Martha!

    So happy you're enjoying our blog! At this point I'll go ahead and identify my bank - NatWest. I know people who bank with HSBC and they are more or less happy with them, although you'll find hoops and procedures in all the banks here; the degree to how extreme just depends on the bank.

    I would say that if you are going to have employment in the UK upon arrival, a letter from your employer to your bank confirming the details of your work/assignment would only help speed up the process (in addition to passport and proof of address). Also, if you or your fiance are going to be employed immediately upon arrival (work transfer, job offer, assignment), you will need a UK bank account up and running to receive payment from your employer, so the sooner you can get it opened, the better. I opened my NatWest account from the US (with the supporting documentation required) and it took about one month to have it active.

    If you have any other questions at all, don't hesitate to ask. There are lots of little things we forget to blog about.

    Congratulations on the move and good luck! Despite the bureaucracy, you're moving to a fantastic city!