Though moving to England was one of the most amazing decisions of my life, there are certain things I wish somebody had told me about living in a foreign country. As fun as it seems to live in Europe (and it IS!), there are a lot of steps to moving your entire life halfway across the world. When I got to London, I came with two suitcases and a very vague idea about what it would be like. Thankfully, the last five years have taught me A LOT about what it means to be an Expat.
You'll have to make the effort to keep in touch.
Let me start by clarifying that I am not naturally great at this. I need to make little reminders in my calendar to call home, and it’s definitely one of my New Years resolutions to make more of an effort to keep in touch this year. The time difference is the real killer here – while my friends are mostly in New York and only 5 hours behind, my immediate family is on the west coast, and therefore 8 hours behind London time. This means that when I am waking up for work, my little sister is just getting ready to go to bed. Weekdays are pretty much out for FaceTime, as they’re in the middle of their work day when I’m at home cooking dinner. This means that Sunday evenings I do the rounds – about an hour on FaceTime with my mom, my dad, and my sister. I’m lucky if I get all three in one day, what with alternating or conflicting schedules.
Your accent will always set you apart.
It’s not such a big when living in London, where different accents and languages are barely even noted. When I first moved to England, though, we lived in Hertfordshire, and if there were other Americans around, I definitely did not encounter them. Though it’s just 30 miles north of the city, it felt remote enough that I was very self-conscious about being foreign. There certainly weren’t many Americans around that area. The first few months, I was reluctant to speak in public too often, for the fear of being labelled as an outsider. Now, I recognize how silly that seems, but it was something I was incredibly conscious of at the beginning.
Stereotypes of Americans do exist (and they’re not always flattering).
I sometimes joke that I start every conversation with new people as “Yes, I’m American. No, I don’t own a gun, and no, I didn’t vote for Trump.” The thing is, you start to see the stereotypes through the lens of others, which can be eye-opening. For example, Brits don’t speak on public transportation - It’s a sort of unspoken rule, and you begin to adapt to the silence. Every time I bring my (very American sounding) dad on the tube now, I’m always aware of how loud he is! (Love you, Dad!)
Visa struggles are real, and they suck.
I won’t go too far into this (partly because I could get on my soapbox and go on for hours, and partly because I’ve written a longer, in-depth post about this), but visas are a huge pain. I am currently on a Further Leave to Remain Marriage visa, which lasts for 2.5 years. I had to renew the visa as my first 2.5 years was up in January 2019, and once I’ve finished my full five years, I can apply for dual citizenship. Every time we renew the visa, it’s piles of paperwork, and costs about £2,000 in total (and that’s without using a solicitor for help). It’s also incredibly invasive and stressful, and this is one of the easier paths to residency. There are other options, such as company sponsorship, student visas, entrepreneur visas, but they’re all equally complicated… like I said, I could go on…
You’ll probably make silly mistakes.
The first time I used the overground train system in England, I got on the wrong line and ended up miles from my destination. I’m from the West Coast of America, where we don’t have trains, or really any decent public transportation. I’ve also mispronounced more locations than I can count (honestly, who names a place Bicester?), royally messed up military time, and opened countless doors the wrong way (they swing the opposite way here!). I’ve gotten pretty good at just laughing at myself. If all else fails, I can always play the “I’m not from around here” card.
You’ll convert everything back into dollars for the first year, probably for longer.
The plus side of this is that a lot of things (Groceries! Rent!) seem like they’re much cheaper in England. The downside is that the exchange rate is not at all in Americans’ favor, and that means everything is wayyy more expensive. Until you’re making money in pounds, it always feels a little bit like you’re getting ripped off.
You’ll crave “American food”.
My one true vice is and always has been fake cheese. I’m talking the fluorescent powdered stuff you get in the Kraft Mac & Cheese packets, or coating cheetos,
or – oh my god, I’m feeling lightheaded just thinking about it – the weird squeezy Velveeta cheese that may or may not contain traces of plastic. The thing is, food in England is so fresh, including the cheese. The obvious reason being that the country is far smaller and therefore there’s less shipping time, yes, but also there are generally less preservatives and sugar and salt content in the foods here. I’m a fan of this about 99% of the time, but I won’t lie and say I don’t occasionally crave a Cheez-it or two. For this reason, I always bring a massive suitcase when visiting home, so that I can smuggle junk food back.
You’ll pick up the slang.
One of my biggest fears upon returning back to the States is always that I’ll sound like Jennifer Coolidge’s character in that Friends episode with the horrible fake British accent. Let me clarify - I don’t have an accent. However, when you spend your time around British people day in and day out, you do tend to pick up little language habits. It’s no different from when I went to drama school and ended up saying “fierce” every other word. I do get made fun of a lot when I go home and claim that the weather is “lovely” or offhandedly mention throwing something in the “bin” instead of the trash can.
For more information on British vs American language, see my blog post about it!
Always have a stash of emergency funds to go home.
When I moved abroad, one of the main requirements was that we would always keep a savings account with money allocated to my emergency trip home. Thankfully, I haven’t needed to use it, but I can’t tell you how much relief it gives me to know it’s there.
Alternatively, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel guilty every time you go on a big trip that’s not back home. We get a precious amount of paid holiday days per year, and Seattle isn’t always number one on my list to go to. Add to this the fact that I’ve got family and friends elsewhere in the States, and you end up trying to portion out holiday days and funds to cover both going back home and going abroad elsewhere. Bottom line is, it isn’t always practical to spend all of your vacations going back to see family and friends. But having a bit of money put aside for a “rainy day” so that you know you can always go home if needed is immensely helpful.
Take in everything.
I’m really lucky to be able to live abroad. It’s something that I definitely don’t appreciate often enough. There are so many advantages to living in London, or indeed in any foreign country. I’ve learned so much about foreign culture, about different world views and politics, and met so many incredible people. My philosophy here, and part of the reason I’ve started writing this blog, is to hold myself accountable to experiencing all that living in London has to offer. There are so many discoveries to be made by wandering around the city, by hopping a train to a new place, or meeting somebody new. Living in another country is the experience of a lifetime, so why not make the most of it?