Moving to and Living in London On a Budget

Big Ben at Disney Store on Oxford St

Big Ben at Disney Store on Oxford St

Today marks my 6th month anniversary in London, England!

Additional comments added in dark blue.

Moving to London

Prior to moving to London, I found the blog posts on moving to the UK on Alyssa Writes extremely helpful, particularly regarding the Youth Mobility Scheme (Tier 5) application for Canadians. Alyssa has written two posts on the subject, in English and en français. I guarantee that every reader will know what to expect and be prepared after reading her posts. In addition, check her reader questions, as it will cover flat hunting, making friends, transferring money, and job hunting.

For those applying from Vancouver, BC, I was lucky to receive my visa within 2 weeks (14 working days) via DHL courier but that might have been due to my pre-booked return flight to London. Usually, they recommend applicants buy plane tickets after receiving their one month entry visa. I really don’t understand what the point is for a one month entry visa because Canadians are already allowed to be in the UK for 90 days without a visa. That is, we can enter without a visa. If anything, it shows that this time, we intend to stay. Nevertheless, you need the visa in order to pick up your Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), which will act as your visa and photo-ID for your two-year stay (from the date your visa has been approved). I’d like to rant about 3 things:

  • Why are visas processed in New York?
  • Why isn’t there an option to pay in Canadian dollars (or British pounds) for the amount in British pounds? The USD exchange rate was awful! Definitely a rip off. TIP: Get a USD credit card or account if you want to avoid unfair exchange rates.
  • I think it’s terribly unsafe to send one’s passports via courier. I don’t care how ‘secure’ it is. Yes, I’m sure all the London airports would be chaotic if visas were processed upon arrival (as they are in Canada, I believe? At least for my friends from the EU). Still, there has to be another option!

My Tips for Newcomers (Non-Students, Unemployed 18-30’s on YMS)

  • Flying to London – Luckily for Canadians arriving after May 2016, you now not only have Air Transat but West Jet as a direct budget airline option! You’ll be arriving at LGW.
    • LHR, LGW, LTN, or STN? Assuming you’re coming from Canada, you’ll most likely be arriving at LHR or LGW. LHR gives you the option to take the Piccadilly line straight to the city centre. It will cost just over £6 with your Oyster card (£5 deposit; credit doesn’t expire) and take more around an hour or more. There is also an express train or bus but it’s best to book in advance for the cheapest deal. For LGW, there are quite a few train and bus options. Last I heard, it’s also possible to use your Oyster card, but please go to the LGW site for more details. If you’re arriving with two pieces of baggage, maybe make your life easier and take one of those express trains?
Queen's Mosaic Portraits at LGW

Queen’s Mosaic Portraits at LGW

  • Setting up a Bank Account
    Most banks are pretty strict and require that you already have an address in the UK…. Oh no, you can’t just give your friend’s or relatives’ address, you also need proof that there’s something with your name on it. Having said that, you’re currently left with NatWest or Lloyds. I went with the latter. All you need is your passport and an address they can send the documents to. This takes 2 weeks (to be approved). You have two options: to apply online or to schedule an appointment with a financial advisor. When I arrived in October, it was very busy, so I applied online. Once you have been approved, you will receive an email with your account number and sort code. You will receive your PIN and your visa debit card separately.
  • Transferring Money, Paying
    • I would recommend opening a Scotiabank account (if you’re a student, as you have no monthly fee) and/or a Tangerine (formerly ING Direct) account. They are part of the Global ATM Alliance so find out which banks they work with in the country you’re travelling to and avoid withdrawal fees from both countries! You can read more about the benefits of Tangerine here, and if you’re interested in opening an account, would you consider helping your blog hostess here by entering my Orange Key 39200510S1? 🙂
    • If you already have an HSBC Premier account in your home country, you can open one in the UK.
    • Canadians can finally use TransferWise to move their Canadian dollars abroad, starting at $4 CAD with the real exchange rate. Don’t let banks pinch your pocket again!
    • Canadian tourists and first year expats: If you’re short on £s and need to pay for some things, consider using Amazon Chase credit card. There’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee! Plus you get a 1% cash back!
  • How long will it take to find a job? This really depends. I am still temping and over the last six months, I’ve joined at least 10 temp agencies – albeit only 4 have provided temp work – which is pretty normal here, apparently. It’s a big city, and you’ll need every opportunity you can get!
    • If you’re looking for Admin work, I suggest you submit your CV on Reed, SecsintheCity, and as many temp agencies’ websites as you can find. Unfortunately, you can’t just walk into a temp agency without an appointment.
  • When can you start working?
    • 1) Once you have received your BRP and 2) as soon as your bank account has been activated.
  • You must also apply for your NI (National Insurance number), which is like Canada’s SIN. It willl take around 6-8 weeks. Once again, you need a ‘permanent’ address, but you can give the one where you’re staying. If they find out it’s a hostel, say you’re staying there longer (definitely plan to stay at least 2 months). Reason: They have to mail out the form (you’ll have to send a copy of your visa and BRP) to you first (takes around 1-2 weeks), then you’ll have to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for your NI. You may, however, start working without an NI. Your company or temp agency will have you fill out a form, HM Customs & Revenue will then send you a temporary one. For me, due to complicated reasons, I finally had my NI by December!
  • Health insurance/card (NHS) – You’ll have already paid the £400 (in fact, more because you were unfairly charged in USD) for the 2 years you’ll be staying in London. It’s non-refundable, so if you end up leaving earlier, I don’t believe you can’t it back but do ask. You’ll also have to register with a General Practitioner (GP) in the same borough of your residence. If you move, you’ll need a new GP. Once you’ve registered, you’ll receive a letter with your NHS number.
  • Travelling around London
    • It’s survival of the fastest here. You need to get somewhere? MOVE IT. Your eyes must see signs from far away. Always be aware of your surroundings. You could be blocking someone. Beware of other humans because it’s just as painful to be ‘walked into’ by humans. Hurry! We’d all hate to be late for work!
    • Take the bus as often as you can unless you need to transfer. It’s £1.50 each way and caps at £4.50/day.
    • If you need to connect to another bus or train, taking the tube is faster and costs £2.40. It caps at £6.50 (so at least three trips).
    • A weekly pass is worth it if you travel by tube twice a day and at least 6 times a week.
    • A monthly pass is worth it if you’re buying weekly passes for 4 weeks. If you get a monthly pass, go places!
      • New: I just found another way to save money in London! I joined the Commuter Club which saves me a few pennies (or is it pences?) every month, and gives me the 12th month free! Here’s a referral link that will give you £20 off your first payment and give me £20 off my next payment: www.commuterclub.co.uk/U8PAAHIO! 🙂
    • Walking is good exercise and you can see a lot more!
  • Communication
    • O2 – I signed up with O2 because they had been my provider in Germany and I knew it was trustworthy. There are many benefits with O2. Many areas (e.g. Oxford St) use O2 wifi so you can save your data. Moreover, you’ll have opportunities to save money or win prizes with O2 Priority! It is also part of the 4G network (though certain places will switch it to 3G, like Bank!).
    • Vodafone – A Londoner recommended Vodafone because it’s always on 4G, wherever you are in London and the UK.
    • Virgin Mobile – I was tempted to go with Virgin Mobile because there’s wifi in the Underground (tube). However, it’s still on 3G (although I’m not sure if it’s really that much slower than 4G).
    • Texts & Calls – Use wifi or data to send free texts via WhatsApp. You can also make calls via WhatsApp and Skype.
  • Food & Beverage
    1. Waitrose – Get a free cup of tea or coffee with a card; no purchase necessary.
    2. Marks & Spencer – Earn points and discounts with a Sparks card. I prefer sandwiches from M&S (or Waitrose).
    3. Tesco – Everything is cheaper but the quality varies. Get a Tesco card to earn points for groceries or for Avion.
    4. There are many healthier (at least I think so) and affordable fast food chains like Itsu, Wasabi, Pret, EAT, etc. Itsu gives you one free meal when you’ve dined there 8 times (be sure to ask for a stamp card). No minimum value so you can pick the more expensive one for your free meal.
    5. You can drink from the tap but if you’re boiling it, you might want to filter it because there’s Kalk (lime).
  • Entertainment / Leisure
    • Cinema – Find out which days or times are cheapest. I think the cheapest I could find was £8 for a matinée.
    • BBC player, ITV player, TV Player, Netflix, Amazon Prime – Watch your favourite period dramas (or non-period dramas) here! TV Player includes Plus channels and you can watch them for free for 1 month before subscribing for £4.99/month. You can also subscribe to Amazon Prime for a 1 month trial. I found out that my family’s Netflix account in Canada is valid in the UK as well!
    • If you like palaces, get the HRP annual pass because you know you’ll be visiting each of the 6 historic royal residences more than once in a year. (One of these, however, is based in Northern Ireland.)
  • Miscellaneous
    • Top Cashback – The amount you get back is usually higher. Add the web extension so that you’ll always find a way to save some money!
    • Quidco – Sometimes there are more sites available but cutback rates are not as high. Add the web extension so that you’ll always find a way to save some money!
    • Treatwell (for spa and salon appointments) often has promo codes or discounted appointments. There’s a bonus when you join and another bonus when you use the app to book. Usually every month or two, there’s a £7 voucher to use towards a beauty service. You can also write a review for £5.
    • Boots is like Shoppers Drug Mart and London Drugs in Canada. You can earn points and there are weekly/daily offers.
    • Take a free tour of Canada House on Trafalgar Square. It’s lovely!

My final tip to my fellow Canadians is to continue to say sorry – even more than the Brits do. 😉

My Life in London

Firstly, this is my second time living in the UK but my first as an expat in London. I knew things wouldn’t always be as glamorous as it is for tourists. Here are a few things that I’ve learned/observed:

  • Morning coffee? No. I’m appalled you’d even ask if I drink coffee. :O How does one drink that thing?!
  • White tea or white coffee means milk and tea/coffee. I’m sure the whole world knew this except for me, who thought white tea meant white tea. Don’t know what I’m talking about? You must not be a tea expert. 😉
  • Still doing what I call the ‘left right dance’. Since the first school I attended was British (albeit overseas), I was raised to keep to the left. This is why, to this day, I panic when I see someone towards me. I go left and the person gets annoyed with me for blocking his/her way, left and right! I should have realised that London is a cosmopolitan city so I now have to be a snake to find free spaces left and right. Unless, of course, there are signs instructing everyone to keep to the left.
  • It doesn’t matter if you’re in an Asian restaurant or store, it’s not uncommon to find non-Asians working at the till. Oh yes. I can’t help but laugh when I try to imagine that happening in Vancouver, BC! I’m not sure if anyone’s tried but I’m beginning to think my hometown is really segregated.
  • Every interview I’ve had with job agencies have mentioned about ‘London experience’. It didn’t matter that I had been working over 10 years in my profession. I’d never worked in London before. I wouldn’t know which restaurant to recommend to my bosses (what’s Google for?). What I’ve learned is that you have to be tough and show that you can succeed. On the other hand, life does become easier once you’ve worked in London in at least one company. Phew!
  • I keep getting 5p and 10p mixed up because in Canada, our 10 cents is smaller than our 5 cents.
  • Jaywalking, apparently, is a North American term. Everyone ‘jaywalks’ here. Even the bobbies. The good thing is that most buses or cars will stop or at least slow down for the rude or ignorant pedestrian. If I did this at home, I’d be pizza.
  • I’ve never heard ‘ascertain’ used so many times in my life.
  • One of my biggest challenges was trying to pronounce words of locations I’d never seen or heard before. Sometimes I rely on the tube announcer to pronounce some of the stops. Other times, I butcher the pronunciation and then apologise. I’m never forgetting again!
  • Like many people in London, I’ve struggled to make new friends in London. For one, I didn’t study here. Most of the new friends I’ve made are from abroad. (This is very similar to the situation in Vancouver, but at least I went to school there!) I’m sure once I join a church group and other meetup groups, things might change.
  • Racism: So far, I have not experienced any form of racism or prejudice in London. Surprisingly, I have experienced more racism or prejudice in Vancouver (I don’t understand why the ‘New World’ can be so backwards sometimes…). On the other hand, I’m aware that my friends or acquaintances with darker skin (I really hate using colours but please forgive me this once: ‘Brown’ or ‘Black’) have experienced it at least once. I’m also aware that how one dresses and how one speaks can also affect how one will be treated. ‘Class’ clearly matters.
  • Speaking of which, it’s odd how it’s possible to hear which ‘class’ one belongs to, if that makes any sense. You can almost guess where someone’s from and what sort of family background they have just by the sound of their voice. It’s not that there isn’t a class difference in Vancouver but I don’t think I could ‘hear the difference’.
  • Same thing goes for men’s suit jackets and coats. Working in financial institutions, I’ve noticed that during the colder months, most men in the office wore knee-length coats (over their business suits).  It was almost like an indication that they’re better off than the men in suit jackets only. Or it means nothing and everyone here is obviously far better dressed than Vancouverite men!
  • Maybe I’m used to seeing so many Lululemon’s in Vancouver, but here, I’ve noticed women will wear trainers with their business suits on their way to and from work. Then it’s heels in the office. In some ways, it makes sense I suppose. All those cobblestones and escalators/stairs. I just stick with my ballerina flats.

What I love

  1. Free museums and art galleries! This is one of the reasons I moved to London. I need my cultural dosage!
  2. So much history all around us!
  3. In my adult years, it appears that a castle/palace is a must for any city where I move to.
  4. Baby on Board buttons for pregnant women are brilliant! I no longer have to guess if someone is or isn’t. Here, take my seat!
  5. The number of gentlemen (albeit mainly from Britain and Europe, regardless of ethnic background) who believe in ladies first. It still throws me off when someone opens the door for me! I don’t have to be the door woman!

What I dislike

  1. EXPENSIVE city. Well, I knew that much and in some ways, it’s not too different from Vancouver except I lived rent-free at home.
  2. Too many smokers though a great improvement from 2009. Nothing worse than taking a deep breath and breathing in smoke into your lungs.
  3. Having to emphasise tap water in restaurants and cafes lest the server brings a fancy glass bottled water. Unfortunately, I’ve made the mistake twice already.
  4. People everywhere! I really miss my personal bubble that I had in Vancouver. But my personal bubble does not fit in tubes or on Oxford Street or Victoria station or Piccadilly Circus. The best times when London is nice and quiet? Earlier in the morning or Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve.
  5. Fewer bank holidays than in Canada… but I suppose if one is entitled to 25-28 days of holiday/year, I can see why.

Here’s to another year and a half of fun adventures in London!