Tips for moving to London and the UK, for confused Americans.
This is a list of things I struggled with, laughed at, and learned in the first 8 months after coming to England. My intention is to give you a shortcut through the learning curve of living in London, England and the UK- so you can hurry up and fall in love with living here.
How to Adapt as an Expat in England
If you’re the type to hit the ground running, here are a few immediate steps you can take pretty much as soon as your plane lands.
Get to know your “High Street.” Every neighborhood/borough has one; this is the “Main Street” of the area, lined with shops, restaurants, services, etc. Take a stroll as soon as possible, so you know what’s around you.
Listen to local radio. I know it’s hard to turn off your iPod, but local radio is a fast way to learn about British culture, events, and so much more. I know they speak English here, but you will still need to “learn the language” and talk-shows with call-ins, are incredibly informative (and funny.)
Meet some locals. You are delving into a world that is not nearly as internet-information heavy (go ahead and ask Google… & don’t be surprised when results for Pennsylvania come up.) Locals know things. You need to know things. They seriously know things; like hidden paths between neighborhoods that are EVERYWHERE but no way to know about unless you know. Know what I mean?
You can strike up a conversation with a neighbor, in a pub, or at a park. Londoners are not quite as chatty as some areas of England, but they tend to be curious if you are interesting or not (seriously.) Do note, that early-bonding is not all that common with the British; casual, “proper” conversation is acceptable, until you are invited to tea. No serious life-shares early on, but weather, Boris, orange Trump-jokes (they all laugh at Trump,) and questions like, “so, what’s a crumpet?” are fine. Oh, and always refer to UK driving as “the right side of the road” and just accept that Americans drive on the wrong side. They find that amusing.
You will probably need a UK phone right off the bat. When I came here, I had my US Tmobile phone set for international service (I still pay a monthly fee to keep this active, on top of my usual payment.) To be honest, it’s quite awful for anything other than texting. The data can take about 15 mins just to load a page.
I ended up getting a sim card from the cell company, Three. They have a pay as you go plan that was fast and easy to top up via their app- even on auto-renew. I pay 10 pounds a month and have plenty of data AND a much-needed local phone number (necessary for more than you will think!)
Where to Shop for What
Grocery stores are everywhere; there are large ones, and then there are the “local” ones that are within steps of your front door, no matter where you are. If you want the good stuff though, you will find specialty shops; you go to the larger grocery store for staples, the High Street butcher shop for meats, the pharmacy for toiletries, the fishmonger for fish. You get the idea. Here’s a run-down of your shopping future:
Grocery & Food Shopping in the UK
Grocery shopping in England is an experience in itself, but the amusement can wear off when you realize food here only lasts a few days (regardless of what the date says; Kind of makes you wonder about the preservatives in American food, doesn’t it?) You can either shop every 3 days, or you can sign up for food delivery.
Sainsburys is one of the best and most affordable grocery stores that offers delivery. You can order next day delivery by 11pm the night before. Tesco is also good. Waitrose is the “Whole Foods” of England and I love them, but they are definitely pricey.
Btw, if you aren’t familiar with food weights in grams, now is a good time to learn. As a general guideline to sizes:
- 100 grams: equivalent to a very tiny container of blueberries
- 250 grams: medium/normal size container of blueberries or American size normal container of strawberries
- 500 grams: quite large container of strawberries
- 1 liter: that skinny but tall carton of milk Americans never buy 🙂
There are also mini food markets within a few steps of you, no matter where you are. These are usually independent shops (some are also post offices; cute huh?) or larger grocery store markets identified with a brand-surname: “Tesco-Express,” “Sainsbury Local.” Other stores to search for include “Co-op,” “M&S Foods” Most Brits take pride in supporting their local High Street independent shops whenever possible, and I do as well. They will often go out of their way to stock something for you too- gotta love that.
Produce is often lacking compared to the US. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself visiting multiple grocery stores to find decent fruits and vegetables. I schedule grocery delivery twice a week as a time-saver, but I will still visit the weekly markets (farmers markets/ancient markets) for most of my produce. This is usually the best option. Never let a vendor put something in a bag before you see it- I’ve had more than one bag of carrots and onions that were so ladden in dried mud, they had to be thrown out.
Deliveroo will become your friend. Deliveroo is a staple in UK cities and you will get used to seeing those teal carry boxes on Deliveroo bikers zooming around town. Consider creating an account as soon as possible (first 14 days of delivery are free.) Since groceries only last a few days here, it can be a lifesaver to have food delivery (restaurant and grocery) within 15 minutes to an hour.
Shopping for Toiletries
The good news is… you have fewer product choices. The bad news is.. you have fewer product choices. (See what I did there?) Shopping will be fast and efficient in this realm because you don’t have a lot of options.
Toiletries: You know how you walk into Target stores and find rows of hair products and well over 100 shampoos to choose from? You will now have less than 10 products to choose from on a good day. This goes for hair products, deodorants, face wash, etc. You will find these in your larger grocery stores or pharmacies, such as the popular Boots Pharmacy. You will see the latter in every borough and they are the equivalent of going to a Target for toiletries (although micro size in comparison.)
One good thing; the products available in the UK are typically England-weather-geared. Same product name and package… different ingredients. For example, my specific John Freida shampoo that I loved in the states, is a different texture and color than the same one in the UK. Same with Aussie products, which are massively popular here and easily found.
TJ Maxx is here… but it’s called TK Maxx.
Ya, I have never learned why, but I’m glad to have it. Again, even the largest of TK Maxx stores do not have the volume of products we have at stateside TJ Maxx, but there are still deals to be had, and one-stop shopping for many household items: Kitchenware and decor, some furniture, a few toiletries, adult clothes, purses & shoes. In contrast to the states, there are rarely enough kids items to warrant a visit.
When TK Maxx fails…
Larger shopping centers (we call them malls in the states) are not common but do happen. They never have maps or directories which drives me mad. I prefer to find a High Street with a long line of shops. These usually include the most popular American stores, (ex: Gap & Gap Kids are popular here) mixed with British brands (which I love.)
Department Stores in the UK
There are also larger department stores in England, but few and far between. Here are the most popular:
- Argos – a *very* British catalog store, where you purchase what you want online, or via phone, and go to their pickup location.
- Ebay – This is another popular option in the UK. I hadn’t used it in the states in over 15 years. Here, I use it periodically and it’s come in handy.
Customer Service in England (blech)
Not so fast service. You may come to miss the fact that the United States is a bonafide convenience-culture, while London and England in general… are not. Same-day Amazon delivery is not a thing here. “Instant” or “immediate” is not a thing here. There are no “big box stores” like Target- you will quickly get used to hitting multiple stores for what you need. I struggled with this at the start, but eventually came to appreciate the slower and often wiser, way things work.
What to tip in London/England? They don’t tip in England. America is big on tipping- not only does American culture deem this as good manners, but Americans value rewarding good service. This belief is not a thing in the UK. Wait staff, delivery staff, etc are paid a normal hourly wage and do not expect a tip. That said… I still believe in tipping, even if only at a fraction of what I would in the states (10% vs 24% on average.) this drives my British friends crazy; “Don’t tip! They get paid to do their job!” My friend Andrew will forever give me a hard time about this. My British friends have also told me that my accent triggers better service because wait staff know there is a chance an American will tip if they are happy. I only have the one accent, so I can’t test this. 🙂
Customer service in England is… different. In America, “the customer is always right” and they are assumed to be Yelp reviewers that need to be satisfied. In England, the customer is always wrong and they are trying to get away with something and they deserve to be punished for this. (I’m only kind of joking here.) Online reviews are not as big a thing in the UK (for now,) and thus, there is no real reason for companies to bend over backwards to make you happy. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if your service related requests are delayed, blatantly questioned, challenged, or disregarded. You will have to be more prepared (think, documentation) and be patient. (Annoying, I know.)
Foods in England Tastes… Different
For years, I have teased my British friends for their lack of salt use and boiled food recipes. I have an adorable video where one of my friends asked their 6 year old, “What is salt?” The boy did not know. I think he said “bacon” eventually. It was adorable, and a good example for what I’m about to share.
Food in England is typically quite bland compared to American foods; they use a fraction of the salt and sugar that we use. Over the years, I have come to learn why…. and it’s rather touching. You see, during the world wars, these ingredients varied in supply from extremely limited to unavailable. They have become accustomed to using… less. Much less.
There is also a heavy tax on sugar use in products, so those American cereal brands you love, will not taste nearly as sweet here. McDonalds french fries, often won’t come salted (or extremely little, and NEVER on kids fries unless requested.)
This can take some getting used to, simply because American food products use sugar and salt endlessly- I mean, American food manufacturers even put sugar in our salt! Oh the irony.
Just a few of my jovial takes on eating out in England.
There are endless options for eating out in London and England in general. Traditional pubs are fun and typically have the same items on the menu. You will get to know “Hunter’s Chicken” well. Kids are allowed in pubs… usually until 9 pm but you can ask to be sure.
Fast food and drive thrus are not common here. Although, oddly enough, Brits LOVE KFC and American fried chicken. I’ve never seen so many KFC’s in my life, as I have across England. McDonalds is a common sight too. What you will find in place of fast-food options, are ready-made lunchbox style sandwiches in gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, train stations, etc. They are EVERYWHERE. They taste quite soggy and awful, but when you are starving, you make it work. 😉
Indian food is as popular here as Mexican food in California. Brits love it. Pizza is popular here.
Sushi is not that common (and if you order this to eat at home, be sure to have soy sauce in the fridge- or suffer with the 1 tablespoon the restaurant gives you.) Oddly enough, it is offered at a lot of grocery stores for take out.
Pizza- ohhhh the pizza. It’s good here. American fast-delivery pizza is pricey, but the shops are great. They have “American style pizza” here, and I’m still not sure what makes it “American” but it’s good. They even sell them frozen in the grocery store. The best pizza I’ve ever had in my life, was at an “American Style Pizza” side shop in Liverpool. Definitely better than anything I’ve had in America. By the way, the best hot dog I’ve ever had, was in York at the Shambles market. Move over, Dodger Stadium hot dog guy!
When you go out to eat with your kids, you will need to ask for ketchup. Even if your child orders a pile of “chips” or “skinny fries” they will be served without the red stuff. Weird, I know. American kids like their ketchup, but British kids are sadly, ketchup deprived.
Aside from traditional schools, daycare centers here are referred to as a “creche.” It’s a french thing, but you will see it frequently. I’ve seen them in shopping centers, at the gym, and at least one in every neighborhood. Just like in the states, there are various standards ranging from each, so it’s best if you can find a local to ask about them.
If you are coming as an expat, I’m going to assume you have done your research on the NHS (National Health Care) so I won’t go into great detail. Just a few tips:
Doctor’s offices are referred to as a “Doctor’s Surgery” and you must call to make an appointment and give your NHS number.
Even as a tourist, you can register for an NHS number and get healthcare in a pinch. I learned this when I had been in London for only a few weeks and became ill and needed to see a doctor unexpectedly. I was still on a tourist visa, and was searching for a private doctor- I had a dreadful time with rude doctor’s staff, lack of internet info, etc., but eventually found that I could register for an NHS number and make an appointment as anyone else would.
I was grateful because it turned out that I had coronavirus and needed to go into quarantine. (Had a doctor not told me it was CV, I would have thought I was suffering from something less serious & not gone into quarantine long enough.)
I actually offered to pay, (because I’m American and we pay for our healthcare!) but was laughed at. (Ok, so they laughed after I jokingly insisted on paying as a good American.) Had I required more extensive care, payment would have been a different story of course.
Over the Counter Pain Medications in the UK
I have to add this because it might save someone from suffering.
There are basically two pain meds offered as over the counter. Nurofen (ibuprofen) and various brands of paracetamol (acetaminophen.) That’s it.
After a few month’s here, I tore my rotator cuff. If you have ever experience this, you know it’s brutally painful and takes forever to heal, usually requiring surgery. Being a former nurse and naturopath, (and I’ve had this happen before) I knew I needed ibuprofen and time to let it heal. Well, Nurofen (their ibuprofen) does not agree with me- it gives me a horrid rash every time I use it. Ugh. ‘Pain, or rash-face,’ is not a fun choice to make.
Months later, I discover there is another option- if you go to the “muscle and joint” section in the larger pharmacy, there is a magical version of “Icy Hot” that is actually an ibuprofen topical gel. After months of suffering, this was a welcome option. There is also a tiny box of ibuprofen sold here that is not nurofen; it’s marketed specifically for muscle/joints. Why it is not in the regular pain medicine area, I have no idea- I’m reminded of when I lived in Mexico and ketchup was sold in 5 different places across the grocery store, all with different price tags. Weird.
Ladies, if you go in asking for Midol, prepare to get the pharmacist’s glare followed by, “not without a prescription.” Yes, that’s right- anything with water-eliminating medication in it, is prescription only.
If you have more serious pain, there is nurofen or paracetamol with codeine- but be prepared to be treated like a drug addict by most pharmacists when you ask. I saw a pharmacist make a woman cry with his interrogation- I wanted to give her a hug. Unfortunately, there has been a spike in misuse, so pharmacists do not like to sell it, and they let you know. Henry the VIII fear tactics are still in play folks!
Getting Used to the Weather in London, England
I get asked about the weather here a lot. It’s hard to grasp for an American, because you can have multiple weather types in a single day. Your mornin can start out glorious (like, wow) and by tea time, the clouds and rain can roll in… only to disappear in the evening as though it hasn’t rained in weeks… except now there’s a windstorm thing going on. See what I mean?
This year, London had a historical record heat wave (for the 2nd year in a row) and my friend Hannah was complaining that her home (an awesome former pub and landmark) was like an oven. I asked why she didn’t have air conditioning (crazy of me, I know) and she said, “well it’s only hot for a few days a year, and then you have to store it and all that…” I laughed LOUD, “Store it? What on earth do you think air conditioning is???” They really don’t do AC here.
That said, when you are preparing for the weather here, think rain and humidity proofing more than anything. You will want an umbrella (one that the wind won’t easily break,) waterproof shoes, and a raincoat of some kind. Quick-dry clothes are wise too. Oh and quick dry purses while you are at it too.
Summers may get hot (100 this year) but in a few days, it will be back in the 60’s and you will be reaching for your sweater. In fact, there is a good chance you will still be using the heater mid-summer evenings at some point.
Spring and Fall are lovely here. Chilly, but lovely, and still wet. Did I mention the rain?
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
You really don’t need a car in England, and especially in London. In fact, it can be far more difficult to manage parking and gas prices, than not having a car at all.
No matter where you are in London, you are more than likely within a simple walk to the Underground or a train station. Both are very easy to use and inexpensive… if you know how to save money with them.
Get an Oyster card if you are in the London area. The Oyster site has tutorials on how to use your card and it’s very simple. I recommend keeping it in a simple credit card folio that allows you to tap in and tap out, without taking it out. Like this.
You can also purchase passes based on your most frequently used travel “Zones.” You can also opt for a Network Railcard. I use both, an Oyster card and a Network Railcard. Oyster, I use around London. The Network Railcard card gives me a significant discount outside of the London travel zones.
To book a ticket, you can use the kiosk at the train station, or you can download one of the apps. There’s the GWR app and the Trainline app.
You can familiarize yourself with train stops and schedules using these apps, and quickly just “know” how frequently the trains to your destinations stop. For example, I know the train I like to use for Twickenham, runs every 15 minutes. Others run every 30 minutes.
There are no train numbers. In the states, trains and subways have assigned names/numbers. In England, the most you will get is something like, “Liverpool” and a time stamp- which can be delayed. This time stamp is the way you identify your train.
If you are confused about which train to get on, there are always train staff on site to direct you. They are hanging out on the platform, wearing a fluorescent vest making them impossible to miss.
Kids under 5, travel on the train for free. No one checks your child’s age so you don’t need to carry any type of ID or form of proof of their age.
ALWAYS buy your ticket BEFORE you board. As soon as the train departs, you can no longer purchase a ticket for that train, and there are occasional “checkers” that can issue a pricey ticket if you do not have a ticket.
Travel by Plane
If you are headed on a longer trip, say, to Edinburgh, then plane travel may be worth the trouble. However… in my honest opinion, it’s worth considering travel by train or car, simply because there is soooo much to see and do along the way.
That said, plane travel from Heathrow to nearby cities, is extremely cheap, even if not so efficient. A trip to Edinburgh is a mere 70 pounds on average, and can be much cheaper.
How to Drive in UK (on the “Right side of the Road”)
I kind of cheated learning this, since I learned to drive in the UK during COVID19 lockdown and the roads were basically empty. Regardless, it didn’t take long for it to become second nature. Here are a few tips for driving in the UK:
- Start with an automatic. Almost all cars in the UK are manual, but for starting out, keep it as simple as possible.
- Download Waze now. It works best in the UK for directions, speed camera alerts (they are everywhere) and speed limit awareness.
- Familiarize yourself with traffic signs before you drive. Here is the UK government’s guide to road signs. There is a shortage of signs in many areas, but it’s good to know them when you see them.
- Don’t honk. It’s considered unnecessary, rude, and uncivilized here!
- Don’t continually drive in the “fast lane.” You need to get over and keep the lane clear.
- Stop lights turn yellow before green, to allow manual drivers time to shift into go-mode. So, don’t come to a fast stop on a yellow light.
- Their speed limit signs somewhat resemble American stop signs. Grrr.
- There are “A roads” and “M roads.” A roads are small highways. M roads are full blown major freeways.
- Roundabouts are like mini freeways; the first lane is for immediate “exit” and the others are for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc exits.
- The farther north you go, the less roundabouts and more sharp turns. Something to look forward to 😉
Things to Experience as a New Expat
I love the parks here, and there are plenty of them. In fact, there are 8 royal parks alone, equaling over 5,000 acres of space that are open to the public every single day of the year. I think everyone has their favorites, and I absolutely love Bushy Park and Richmond Park. They aren’t quite as busy as downtown London’s Hyde Park and Regents Park. They are laid back, full of deer and wildlife, and lovely streams and ponds.
Brits aren’t afraid of sitting in the grass, but because I’m still new, I do use a picnic blanket. I can happily spend half the day with my 5 year old, having lunch in the parks, going for a jog, or a casual stroll and coming nose to nose with curious deer. It’s just a lovely way to spend your time.
Tearooms. Ok, so I’m not a huge fan of tea (shhh don’t tell the Brits) but I absolutely love tearooms. Especially when they have outdoor seating. You can order “cream tea” and sit back and do absolutely nothing for as long as you’d like. I will usually exchange my tea for a coffee of some type (hopefully it tastes more like chocolate) and then the magical scone experience happens. The scones here are AMAZING. We, as Americans, have been getting them sooo wrong. Not only do they taste amazing, but the British do this thing, where they smear them with devon cream (somewhere between a whipped cream and whipped butter) then top that with fresh jam. Some put the jam first and the cream on top- I’m told this is a regional choice, but regardless, it tastes like heaven and makes a great addition to a relaxed afternoon.
All that Fabulous Tourist Stuff
What better way to get to know your new home, then by doing alllll the fun tourist stuff. England is big on museums, and not just your typical ones. There are also “living museums” and exhibits that will raise your culture-fix expectations.
London’s traditional museums aside, there are “living museums” such as castles, reproduction villages, cathedrals and so much more. England Heritage organization has mastered creating unique exhibitions out of their history.
- The Tower of London: Absolutely incredible experience. Over 1000 years of history, you are standing where King Edward once stood, Queen Elizabeth, Ann Boleyn… the smell of 100’s of years of fire burning in the fireplaces is something you will wish you could capture on your camera.
- Westminster Abbey: Nothing can prepare you for this. It will exceed your expectations in every way. By the way, this is surprisingly kid-friendly. They have their own kid-level tour video set with a cartoon lion guide, and a craft table.
- Warwick Castle: Your first step inside, will be a jaw-dropper. No spoilers here, but I will say, it’s a walk back through time. There are multiple exhibit experiences here, as well as a “village” where the kids get to try their knight skills.
- Mountfitchet Castle: in addition to the castle, they have done an amazing job reproducing an ancient Norman village that once existed here.
- Hampton Court Palace: As a Tudor history buff, this was on reason I chose to live in this area. This palace deserves an entire day, where you can stroll at your leisure, have lunch at the cafe or in the gardens, and “linger” by Henry the VIII’s massive portrait.
These are just a few of the things I would have found helpful after moving to the UK. If you have a question, or just want to share a laugh about your own experience, feel free to email, comment below, or give me a shout on Instagram.