“Welcome to Vodafone. How can we help you?”
Wait, let me rewind that. That’s not quite how it went.
<I enter the store and think to myself: This is a nice Vodafone store. Lots of employees. Hmmmm…where do I begin. Maybe we should get an iPhone on a contract, since that seems to be the most cost effective plan. I wish I could track down someone to talk to me. None of the salepeople are even looking up at me. They’re all just minding their own business. I’ve been here like 10 minutes and no one has even approached me. Weird. Oh, wait, they told me about this. I have to initiate; salespeople leave you alone. Right. Here goes.>
“I’m interested in signing up for a 2-yr contract with data, phone, and texts with the iPhone 5.”
….. 20 minutes later ….
“Well, Mr. Lanier, I really really wish we could make this work. I’ve called underwriting at corporate three times to get them to approve your contract, but they will not do it since you do not have any demonstrated source of income and have not been a customer before.”
“But, you don’t understand, I’m willing to pay THE ENTIRE CONTRACT up front, right now, in cash, for all 24 months of our plan + the cost of the device + and the activation fees. The entire thing … today, before I walk out. I won’t owe you another shilling … it’s completely risk free for you. I’m not sure how my lack of payment history matters if I pay in full for 24 months ahead of time. How can this not be approved?”
“I’m sorry, I really am. I don’t really understand either. But underwriting will not approve it. The only thing we can allow you to do is purchase a pay as you go plan without a contract. So you’d have to buy the phone at retail price and then we can provide you with a SIM card.”
Thus was my first attempt at getting something set up in the UK, where things may not always make sense.
In my fifth and final post regarding the major logistical steps involved in moving from the States to the UK, I will cover the topic of how to get a new life set up in the UK. To a large degree, you close down shop when you move away from America: cell phone plans, insurance plans, credit cards (most, at least), address, healthcare plan, and much more. On top of the massive list of to-do’s just to get from across the Atlantic (covered in prior posts), there’s a whole world of things involved in setting up shop once you’re in the mother land. This final post will be a bit of a grab bag of things we learned in reestablishing life here.
- Visas and Immigration
- Academic Planning
- Finding a place to live
- Setting up your new life (this post)
(8) Setting Up Your New Life
I will focus on the following categories involved in getting set up for day-to-day living in the UK (apart from the topics covered above, of course): cell phones, broadband/TV/house phone, utilities, furniture/household items, and automobiles.
a. Cell Phones
One of the strong points of the UK telecommunications scene is that the combination of more options + fiercer competition + lower regulation yields a fairly attractive cell phone market for consumers. There are a lot of options, and in general your total cost of a cell phone package will be much lower than what you’d get for the equivalent plan in the U.S. For instance, before we left the US, we had switched to Wal-Mart’s Family Mobile Plan (a spinoff of T-Mobile’s plan), which at the time provided a decent amount of mobile data, unlimited texts, and a good number of minutes for $40 per month, which is to my knowledge the cheapest plan with that level of features available. The same plan, however, can be purchased in the UK for about £10-15 per month (depending on your data allowance, which is the biggest cost driver). On a dollar-for-pound equivalence basis, that’s a huge difference; even taking into consideration the exchange rate, the savings are still meaningful.
Additionally, there seem to be more options here. There are numerous reputable carriers, including Vodafone, EE/Orange, Three, Virgin, O2, T-Mobile, Talk, and Tesco Mobile. Each carrier offers a fairly broad and customizable array of cell phone packages, including the following basic types:
- Standard 1- or 2-yr contract plans (in which the cost of the device is amortized over the term of the contract and added to the monthly fee for the services you choose)
- Monthly payment plans for services only, which are cheaper than the pay as you go equivalent but which lock you into at least a six-month revolving “contract” of sorts
- “SIM-only” pay as you go plans, whereby you “top up” monthly to buy data/minutes/texts to use during the next 30 days. There are numerous combinations of data levels (250MB…500MB…1GB…2GB), texts, and minutes.
As my introduction alludes, we failed at securing a contract plan that included a device. It’s unclear whether our experience was normal, but our Vodafone salesperson made it seem like the main carriers have, in effect, “cracked down” on letting international students sign up for contracts if they have no income (a bank statement was not sufficient) and no contract history. But take our experience with a grain of salt; it’s entirely possible that it was a random fluke. For us, however, it meant forking out the retail price for an iPhone in pounds so that we could get a SIM plan instead of a contract-based plan (which meant paying approximately 60% more for the phone than the exact same phone in the US, given the exchange rate). In sum, I cannot really speak to the contract plans here.
At present we have two different plans. My wife has an fully unlocked phone (purchased here) with monthly payment plan (#2 above) whereby we are direct debited once a month for her data/text/minutes. As mentioned above, signing up for the monthly payment plan (which is technically a contract but does not include the amortized cost of the phone) saves us about £3-5 a month relative to what the identical plan would cost us with pay as you go.
Vodafone would not allow us to do two such monthly plans (in light of the bizarre fiasco mentioned at the outset), so I have an unlocked phone (brought from the US) with a pay-as-you go SIM card (#3 above). So each month I either “top up” at any number of retail stores where Vodafone (or other carriers) vouchers can be purchased, or I call a number to top up. The cheapest plan costs £5 / month but includes very little data, so I use a £10 top-up to get a bit more.
As regards service, all the UK carriers boast of having super fast 3/4/5 G networks and whatnot, just like US carriers. The reality is that the UK is still in process rolling out the latest technology, so its availability varies based on where you are and what carrier you choose. In our case, Vodafone has great voice coverage in Cambridge, but our normal data rate is 1 or 2G, despite their claims to have 4G. Depending on which direction we head out of the city, we might maintain decent service or lose it altogether at various points. Between the major cities, England is surprisingly rural, so coverage on the highways is highly variable. But in general we’ve been pleased.
To summarize our learnings:
- If you have an unlocked GSM phone that you can bring from the US, do it. It’ll work just fine here.
- Purchasing phones (or any electronic device, for that matter) here is quite costly, because they price the devices at the same nominal price as in the US. Hence, if an iPhone is $499 in the US, it will be £499 in the UK. However, at today’s exchange rate of 1.67, you’re actually paying a whopping $833 for that phone! Hence, if you want to have a SIM-only plan in the UK, purchase an unlocked phone in the US before you come.
- In general, I’d say that the SIM-only pay as you go plans are the best overall value, given the flexibility you have. The cost differential is not huge relative to monthly payment plans that lock you in.
- For those who are not interested in smart phones, you can get a fantastic deal on a “dumb” phone with just text/voice for as little as £10 for the device, a free SIM, and a very cheap pay as you go plan. In fact, when I visited the UK before our move, I bought such a phone for my time here, and we now have it on hand for folks who visit (or for us to take along when we go jogging).
b. Broadband / TV / House phone
In general, these three services are provided by the same company (as is typical in the US). The major difference is that, as with cell phone providers, it is a much more competitive landscape here. You have many more options to choose from, as any provider can theoretically service your house; that, for me, was a breath of fresh air after 7 years dealing with TWC’s monopoly over our hometown and their incredibly horrible service (but I digress).
The major providers include Virgin Media, Talk Talk, British Telecom (BT), PlusNet, Sky, and Three. They all have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to price, customer service, TV packages, and broadband speeds. However, as one might expect, they all offer a variety of bundles: TV + Broadband, Phone + Broadband, Broadband Only, Phone Only, TV Only, and All Three.
Landline phone. We opted not to bother with a house phone. However, I’ll mention two key points of information:
- You typically have to pay a monthly fee to “rent” the phone landline as part of your broadband service, which is a little odd, since many providers no longer run their broadband over cable phone lines (DSL) but rather use the same television cable wiring. Even if you do not purchase the phone service itself (which is a separate fee), you still have to pay the line rental charge no matter way. For some folks, that may mean that you might as well add the actual phone service since you already have sunk costs for it.
- Some providers provide a nice package for international phone calls. For instance, at least one carrier offers a £5/month “add on” to a base landline package that provides free nighttime and weekend phone calls internationally. We use Skype, so that was not a value to us, but for many it may be a great way to go. It is important to note that you must buy the base phone package and then add this feature; you cannot request to have only the international service package.
Television. The UK offers standard cable packages that include, so far as I can tell, basically 400 soccer channels, the major BBC channels, a good kid’s channel that everyone raves about, and a variety of others depending on the provider. Unfortunately, add-on packages that include the major US networks (CNN, ESPN, Fox, NBC/ABC/CBS, and so forth) can be quite pricey.
One key thing to be aware of is the dreaded UK TV license. For a mere £144 per year, you get to support the BBC in its efforts to provide fewer advertisements than it’d otherwise be forced to run. You HAVE to pay the license annually if you meet any of the following criteria: (a) you use cable or antenna TV service, or (b) you stream live media (radio or TV) via the internet on any device, or (c) you listen to the radio. In effect, if you consume any media in any form on any device that is live broadcasted—even for 1 minute a week—you have to pay. They make a lot of threats that if you don’t pay, they’ll come audit you, etc. However, if you (a) do not have TV service and only use your TV for DVDs or gaming, (b) only watch non-live movies/tape-delayed broadcasts (e.g., streaming services that are not live, such as Netflix) and/or listen to already purchased music on a device , and (c) never listen to the radio, then you do not have to pay for the license. Thus, watching DVDs, purchasing music and movies from iTunes, or watching non-live TV and movies on Netflix or other providers is all fair game without paying for the license.
A few things to note about online entertainment services in the UK:
- Hulu, including HuluPlus, does not work in the UK as of yet. Sorry, Modern Family fans.
- Netflix does work, but there are some differences.
- iTunes works, but in principle you have to use the UK storefront since your IP address will be UK. Unfortunately, the UK storefront only accepts pounds, not dollars. This creates a bit of a problem if you have friends who want to purchase you an iTunes gift card in the US, for it will not work in the UK storefront. I’ve heard that it is possible to use the US storefront if you maintain a US address and credit card.
- Red Box, or anything like it, does not exist here. In fact, the only place I’ve seen where DVDs can be rented is the local library, but you’ll be paying about £3 per DVD.
- There are a few mail-based DVD services, but they are not the same caliber as Netflix.
Broadband. In-home wifi service is generally good here. The broadband providers will typically include all the hardware as part of your contract, which is very nice. Additionally, the setup fees tend to be much lower than what we experienced in the US, and the total cost per month—even with the ridiculous landline “rental” fee, which is inexplicable—are much lower than in the US. For instance, we opted for unlimited bandwidth and pay about £22 per month, which is far less than the equivalent with our good friends at Time Warner. Capped plans are obviously much cheaper. The UK providers do regularly practice bandwidth throttling at peak times, but for the average customer it’s barely noticeable.
The single most important thing to know about getting broadband/TV/phone set up in the UK is this: the lead-time for having a service technician come out to your house to set up the service(s) can be anywhere from 3-6 weeks. When you order your service, you’ll be asked to pick a date when they can come out. Given that England is not generally known for its sense of urgency or customer service, you’ll be shocked to find that the next available date might be 5 weeks away. This becomes hugely problematic when you have just moved to the UK and desperately need connectivity in order to do the other 1,704 items on your list, such as find the nearest cell phone provider so that you can get online (since you won’t have wifi for another 32 days!). There are, fortunately, three mitigants:
- Many pubs and all coffee shops will have free wifi.
- Depending on where you live, British Telecom may offer a pay-per-hour or pay-per-day wide area network in your neighborhood that you can use to connect. It may run you £5-10 a day, and the connection will likely be very slow (if it exists at all), but I’ve known several folks who made it to their service visit date using BT.
- Most importantly, if you are able to get a bank account set up before you arrive, and if you already know your address and arrival date, you can go ahead and sign up for broadband before you even get on the plane. This allows you to get a date closer to when you move-in. This was huge for us.
As with the prior two categories, one of the brilliant aspects of the UK is the greater competition that exists for electricity and natural gas providers. You will typically have a least 2-3 options to choose from; though the differences between them are probably indistinguishable at the end of the day, the very fact that there is competition (ahem, Duke Energy) helps drive prices down.
The second greatest thing about utilities in the UK is that they stay running between tenants. Unlike the practice in the US, the water, gas, and electricity providers do not cut off service when a tenant moves out. Hence, you do not have to worry about getting contracts set up before you arrive so that you have hot water or power when you move in; in fact, if you call them (as I did, multiple times), they will be generally perplexed and tell you to call back once you’ve settled into your house.
Within the first few days of arriving, you’ll need to select a gas/electricity (they are usually bundled) provider, call them to set up an account, and that’s it. They will send you a confirmation package at their leisure, and then you spend the next 3 months with absolutely no idea what you will be paying until you get your first bill. Most utility companies only bill quarterly (or even ever 4 or 6 months). You can choose to report your meter reading to them periodically so that you receive an accurate bill, or they can charge you a set rate and then true up the overage/underage (based on your actual usage) at the end of the year. It’s quite vague, really. You pay nothing and really know nothing until you get your first bill for some ungodly number of pounds. But hey, at least you had a warm shower that first day you arrived!
For water service, it is usually provided by the municipal or county authority. Same deal: you call to let them know you live there, they will set up your account, and then you’ll receive a bill at some undetermined point in the future.
In most cases with the utility companies, you can save a little money by signing up for automated direct debit.
In sum, good luck budgeting for your utilities. After six months here, we’ve received exactly one bill for gas/electricity and water, and we have no idea when our next will come or how much to expect it to be!
d. Furniture and household items
This category is one of the most fun but also most stressful. Depending on your lease, you may have an “unfurnished” or “part-furnished” rental dwelling, which means you will be on your own to fill it up with all or at least many items: beds, chairs, bookcases, couches, tables, cutlery, plates, cups, smaller appliances, and so on. In many ways, you’re starting over, so you will be hemorrhaging cash on stuff you need just to live each day for quite some time. Based on people we have talked to and our own experience, it is quite normal to take up to 6 months to really feel “settled.” The typical approach is to go gangbusters to buy a ton of bare essentials in the first week or two, then take longer for decorations or secondary items.
Here are a few pointers:
- The UK is renowned for its charity shops, such as the British Heart Foundation. These shops are a lot like Goodwill stores in that they sell second-hand clothing, appliances, books, and in some cases furniture. They will deliver to your home for a fee, which helps if you do not have a car.
- The UK-equivalent of Craigslist for buying used items person-to-person is Gumtree. It is a great service and lacks a lot of the sketch-factor that Craigslist often has.
- There are numerous IKEA stores all over the UK.
- Many towns will have “freecycle” websites, whereby you can post or respond to ads for items that people are giving away for free (or exchange). Examples: Cambridge, Edinburgh, London.
- One you are settled in a bit more, you may find that your church, nursery/school for your child, or college offers a mailing list for giving away items. Because most university towns are so transient, people moving out often give away things they were unable to sell.
As a side note, many of the grocery stores in the UK (Tesco and Sainbury’s, at least) offer online grocery shopping with home delivery. It’s a fantastic service at a very reasonable price. As soon as you settle on your preferred store(s), sign up for their membership card, through which your purchase history will be recorded. You’ll want to visit the stores in person for at least a handful of trips to get a sense for the products and to build up your purchase history. But once you have done this, you can use their online store–which will have built up a list of all your regular purchases–pretty quickly build a weekly shopping cart, and request a delivery date and time. Then a nice fellow shows up with all your groceries. It takes some time investment to get it running well for your food needs, but it’s brilliant.
Depending on where you live and how you like to live, purchasing an automobile may not be in your plan. However, if you are interested, here are a few things we learned in the process.
Purchasing a vehicle. The used car market in the UK is very peculiar. I have asked tons of people, including at least one car dealer, to explain to me its oddities, but I have not received a consistent answer. The main source of peculiarity is that, while new cars are incredibly expensive here, used cars are very inexpensive, by US standards. The most common explanation I have received is that British nationals place a lot of importance on vehicles and tend to swap them out only after a few years, so there is simply not as much interest in used cars. A second common explanation is that vehicles depreciate much faster here, resulting in very affordable prices for cars that are older than 5-7 years. I’m not sure how much stock to put in those explanations, and it still puzzles me, but the fact remains that you can find a used car at a very affordable price here. (For instance, we sold our 1996 Toyota for more money, even factoring the exchange rate, than we bought our 2004 Vauxhall here, though the Toyota had nearly 3 times the mileage). Naturally, you can easily buy a lemon, as you can in any used car scenario, but the low purchase prices mean that you can recover even if you do end up with a lemon, either through buying something else or putting some money into repairs.
The used car market is also much more informal. At least in Cambridge, the new car dealers have very few, if any, used cars for sale. You rarely see large used car lots, either, nor will you find used car ads or cars sitting on the side of the road with For Sale signs posted (which is no doubt partly driven by space issues, at least in the cities).
Thus, you have basically three options:
- Visit used car dealerships in your area, if you can find them.
- Use Gumtree to buy a car locally from a private individual. As with many online peer-to-peer settings, there may be scammers here and there, but that comes with the territory.
- Use Autotrader.co.uk. From what I can tell, this is the premier source for used cars (akin to rightmove.co.uk for finding housing). I tried out some other services, but Autotrader had everything listed on those other sites plus more, but not vice versa. It provides very helpful search and filtering criteria.
Manual vs. Automatic. The urban legend is that everyone drives manual cars in the UK (and Europe), and that it is “impossible” to find an automatic. That is simply untrue. It is indeed more difficult to find options for automatics, and they run perhaps 10% more expensive than manuals. However, we had at least 100 automatic options in our price range within a 50 mile radius. Unlike unicorns and snipes, they exist.
Evaluating a vehicle. One great aspect of the UK automotive system is that the license plate stays with the car, not the driver. Every car, in other words, has a unique vehicle tag for its lifetime. Hence, you can check the history of a specific vehicle you are looking at (even when you are just browsing online, assuming one of the photos of an ad includes the front or rear plate): https://www.carcheckuk.co.uk, http://www.vehiclecheck.co.uk, https://www.hpicheck.com.
Once you are evaluating a specific vehicle, the process is fairly straightforward when it comes to inspecting it on-site, test driving, etc. The refreshing aspect is that, on the whole, UK salesmen are far less pushy (in general, not just with vehicles). They may be fairly blunt about the status of the car, and they will leave you alone to evaluate it (even let you test drive it alone, in some cases). I was shocked to get very honest answers. One salesmen said, “Actually, this car is kind of in bad shape. I don’t think the prior owner took good care of it.” Another salesman gave me the keys, pointed to the car, and walked back to his desk with nary a word. The vehicle history was in the glove box, I drove it around, and when I turned him down, he thanked me and went back to his work. It was surreal. No sales pitch, no pressure. All in all, it was a positive experience apart from the fact that I know nothing about cars and was afraid of buying a dud, but that had nothing to do with the UK (rather, it had everything to do with the fact that my father was an ocean away!).
MOT and Tax. With any vehicle purchase, you will have to have it “MOTed,” which is similar to a state inspection in the U.S., only it is a bit more focused on mechanical issues and not just emissions. If you purchase from a used car company, they will be on the hook to get the car in good enough shape to pass the MOT test, which is done by a third party. On the upside, if there is anything major wrong with the vehicle that comes up in the MOT, the dealer has to fix it on their dime, not yours (note: this is not the case if you are purchasing “as is” from a private individual). On the downside, the MOT itself can be fairly expensive—in the £200 range per year—and the bar is pretty low: e.g., as long as you have 1 mm of brake pad left, they will pass it (which is what happened to us). The MOT is good for 12 months, and you cannot drive without an up-to-date MOT. This is an important consideration when you are buying a car used. Most ads, whether on AutoTrader or Gumtree, will list whether there are any months left on the MOT, or whether it is expired. It may seem like a blessing to have some time left before you have to have it re-MOTed. However, for some folks it may be even better if you must have it MOTed right away, so that you can at least have an objective set of eyes on the car for the bare essentials of roadworthiness. So for me, the number of months left on the MOT was simply not a purchase factor.
Before you drive away with the car, you must also pay the annual automobile tax and receive the “Tax Disc” that goes on the windshield. The amount you pay depends on the type of vehicle, but it ranges from £100-300 per year. If you purchase from a company, they will take care of the paperwork for you and build the price of the tax into the final invoice. If you go private, you will have to handle the paperwork yourself before you take possession.
Apart from MOT and Tax, there are no other required fees. There is no such thing as a car title in the UK, though you will need to keep your purchase receipt and service book in the car. Since the vehicle already has a permanent license plate, you do not have to worry about going to the DMV to procure a new one. Moreover, many states in the US require an annual registration fee, but that is taken care of via the Tax Disc here.
Driver’s License. If you are from the US, you can drive on your state driver’s license for up to 12 months from your visa start date; you do not need to get an international license before you come (and, in fact, it will not help you). At some point before the 12 month anniversary of your visa date, you will have to take and pass the UK driving test to receive a “provisional” license for non-citizens. We’ve heard it is very difficult and very expensive. We are, thus, not looking forward to it in the slightest.
[The upside of a US license for those first 12 months is that, should you perchance get a traffic ticket, they cannot put points on your license. For a first time offender, you will be able to pay a reasonable fee and take a driver safety class, thus avoiding the much larger fine. Not that we know anything about that at all.]
Insurance. For non-UK citizens with no driving record in the UK, the most shocking cost will be automobile insurance. In some cases, it may exceed the cost of the car! In the UK, you can opt for either comprehensive (max coverage) or simply third party/fire/theft (the minimal level of coverage). In the past, the cost differential was huge between the options, but in recent years the gap has narrowed, and many insurance providers no longer offer the third party/fire/theft option at all.
To price out various options, the best website is Confused.com, which is appropriately titled based on how you will be feeling through the process. Once you enter the license plate number of the car you are interested in, you will receive a range of quotes, and the gap between the minimum and maximum may be quite shocking. The cheapest will likely be Admiral or Bell, and it goes up from there. The main issue is that some providers are averse to international drivers with no driving history.
However, some carriers may allow you to send them an authorized letter from your prior auto insurer in the US that specifies how many years you have been covered by them and the details of your accident/claim history. If you have a clean history, the UK carrier may give you credit for it, but it will depend on the company. It is worth asking, at least.
Once you have a firm quote, you have to provide them with a date when you want coverage to begin, which should be the day you take possession of the car or, to be safe, a day or two beforehand to make sure you are fully set up in the insurer’s system. Unlike the US, they will not provide you with a temporary insurance binder to keep in the vehicle until the formal insurance cards/docs are mailed out. Rather, if you get in a collision before they have sent you the package (which may take a month!), you have to call them and work it out. A little dicey, but there you have it. Just be sure you have a printed confirmation of your purchase of the plan (with your contract number) so that they can locate you in the system.
Rental car. Finally, I would be a strong advocate of renting a vehicle when you first arrive, for at least 7 days. Sure, you may live in a biking town or have access to great transit, but you will be making so many trips to Ikea or Homebase or Tesco that a car is clutch. Plus, if you are able to pick up your own purchases instead of paying for delivery, you will make back some of the cost of the rental.
I hope these posts have been helpful in demystifying some of the complexities of moving to the UK. I was not actually being hyperbolic when I said it takes 2,735 steps to move here; in fact, that number might be low! But my hope is that these overly-long posts will help make the transition for future expatriates a bit smoother than it might otherwise have been.
Three final tips:
- Be ready for anything. Some things will go well, and others will not. Though the UK is not, as I like to say, South Sudan, any international move is hard on everyone involved. The UK is great, but it is different. So be patient with things that do not go like you would expect them to go back home.
- Have a sense of humor. You may get a letter saying you are exempt from city council taxes … then receive a bill for £1,800 … then visit the city council office and find that they have no record of your existence … then get another exemption letter … followed by another bill that states you are now past due … and then visit the office again and find that they are simply behind on the paperwork on their end and that you will receive another letter correcting your past due notice. Seriously. You just have to laugh sometimes. Part of the journey is trusting that God is somehow sanctifying you through the ups and downs.
- Celebrate small victories. Moving is stressful, and it is easy to get discouraged when things do not go well—especially if you feel the pressure of making it all go smoothly so that your spouse and children do not crater. Thus, it is important to celebrate the small things as gifts from the Lord, such as getting a cell phone that actually works, or getting wifi set up, or paying for your first item with a new bank debit card without it being rejected. “Do not despise these small beginnings” (Zech 4:10).