Living Abroad in London with Karen White

1. What draws people to move to London?

Generally, people move to London from the U.S. for professional or academic reasons—to advance their career, or to pursue their studies at one of London’s prestigious universities. Most of the Americans that I know ended up in London because they were transferred there by their employer, although I also know a few people with dual British/American nationality that decided to move to London just to see what life is like on the other side of the Atlantic and to get closer to their British roots.

2. What do you recommend packing before moving? Are there any items that just aren’t available in the U.K.?

To some extent, what you choose to bring with you to London depends on how long you are going to be here (and who is paying for your move). Certainly you should pack important personal possessions so that your flat or house here feels like a home. If your employer is willing to pay the shipping for all of your possessions and you are going to be here for a couple of years, you may want to take advantage of that. Just don’t bring electrical items: they run on a different voltage. It is also pretty easy to get a furnished flat in London, in which case you will just need linen, bedding, and cooking/eating equipment, as those are the things usually not included.

3. What’s the best way to get to know Londoners?

The notorious British reserve can make it hard to get to know Londoners, especially for Americans who have a more gregarious nature. For students, I’d recommend that they try to live in a “hall” (like a dorm) so that they can mix with their fellow students. Establishing a new social life can be a bit more difficult for professionals and their partners; a good way to get to know like-minded Londoners would be to join a group, organization, or club, whether it be through your children’s school, church, a volunteer organization, or a gym. Otherwise, you could try enrolling in a course for adults (see City Lit). Don’t forget that the office can also be a good place to get to know Londoners; quite often, people will head to the pub on a Friday after work.

4. Name a few of your favorite historical sites.

My favorite historical site in London has to be the Tower of London. Not only is some of it nearly 1,000 years old, but the items on display in the various buildings are fascinating, and include the Crown Jewels. Be sure to go on a guided tour with one of the Yeomen Guards (included with admission) to learn about the Tower’s history.

My second-favorite historical site in London is also medieval: Westminster Abbey. This is a breathtakingly beautiful church, and is well worth a visit if you are in the area. I especially enjoy wandering around Poet’s Corner and taking note of the well-known literary figures commemorated there. You may want to attend one of The Abbey’s choir and musical concerts, or one of the frequent religious services held there.

Another one of my favorite historical places to visit in London is the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where you have the chance to stand on the Prime Meridian line and see where each new day starts. From there, you can experience the relaxing qualities of Greenwich Park, with its long sweeping vista up the hill to the Observatory, and you can see all the way down to the Thames River, where the Maritime Museum and Queen’s House stand.

5. London can be expensive—do you have any advice on managing your money?

You’ll need to be realistic about what you can afford and what is available in London in your price bracket. Unless you have a massive budget, don’t expect to live in the heart of central London in a large house with a garage. Instead, you may have to make do with a 2-bedroom apartment that is a bit of a walk from the tube station. Cars are expensive here, so I’d try to get by without one if you can. It’s much easier to join a car club or rent a car periodically, rather than have one all the time—remember, you probably won’t need it to get to and from work.

6. Where might you go for a weekend getaway?

Top of my list for a weekend getaway would be Paris. Jump onboard the Eurostar in St. Pancras Station, and two and a half hours later you’ll be in Gare du Nord.

If you’d prefer to stay in the U.K., then I’d suggest going to the Cotswolds and staying in a pub or B&B. Woodstock, Oxfordshire is a pretty town and is near to Blenheim Palace; or, if you are a fan of the Bard, you could stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and take in a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

If you fancy a trip to the seaside, I’d suggest you try the east coast in Suffolk—somewhere near Aldeburgh or Southwold. There are numerous stately homes to visit in this part of Suffolk, as well as the 7th century Anglo-Saxon burial mound of Sutton Hoo.

7. What do you love most about life in London?

The best thing about living in London is the sheer variety of things to do and see. I adore its old-world charm. It seems like there is a bit of history on every corner, be it the architecture or layout of the streets. I also like the fact that you can live just a few miles from the center of town, but be on a normal residential street in a house with a backyard. I also have to say that the public transportation system in London makes life much easier—especially for those with a regular commute to central London.

8. Where’s the best place to shop in London?

If you are looking for one place with everything under one roof, it’s hard to beat John Lewis on Oxford Street. It’s a massive, five-floor department store that sells just about everything you could want—there’s even a food hall in the basement.

With its numerous department stores, shops, and boutiques, Oxford Street is thought to be Europe’s busiest shopping street. When combined with Bond Street and Regent’s Street, the choice of shops available (and the crowds) can sometimes be overwhelming.

Of course, if you enjoy markets and are a “foodie,” then you should head to Borough Market on a Saturday to collect your specialty beer, Comté cheese, and gourmet chocolate.

9. Do you have any suggestions for finding employment in London? Are there any particular industries hiring at the moment?

In London, one of the largest employers for expats is the “City” (the banks and financial institutions that are based in the City of London). Another industry that seems to be doing well and expanding into London at the moment are high-tech and media companies.

Unfortunately, the prospects aren’t great for those looking to find a job in London directly, as it is getting increasingly difficult to find a U.K. employer willing (and able) to meet the sponsorship requirement of a Tier 2 work visa. Your best bet for a job would be to get a transfer to London through your American employer.

10. What is the one thing you wish you had known about living in London before you made the move?

Certainly I wish that I had a better knowledge of the city of London before I arrived. I was very lucky to find a great flatmate that knew London well and could give me advice about things to do and see, as well as where to shop.

From speaking to fellow expats, I know that those with children found the schooling system in London hard to grasp—especially understanding how the state system works (things like “catchment areas” and why living close to a school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a place there).

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  1. Dawn Henriques says:

    Good Day Mrs. White,

    I am in the process of ordering your book because after years of trying to find material that was informative and your book hits every mark. My father use to talk about London as if it were the most fascinating place to ever visit. I suppose that’s where my deep anglophile roots began. It seems that I may finally get my opportunity to come to London, after what appears to be a lifetime of dreaming of what it would be like to visit the UK and the possibility of moving there as well. I have poured over numerous websites, books and travel guides, looking for just the right amount of information about ‘finding out it would actually take to move to London.’ I can only say, ‘thank you, very much.’