This is the fifth instalment of a new series interviewing expats across the world. I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place! If you’re interested in taking part, or want to see a certain place featured let me know!
I lived in the UK for two years on a working holiday visa, but in Edinburgh rather than the usual choice of London. I’m always interested in the stories of other expats who found themselves there and how they did it! So here’s my 5th expat interview, with a student in London, Valerie of Valerie & Valise.
Valerie is a travel writer currently based in Seattle (after loving the grey, rainy weather of London). She has written for AFAR, Lonely Planet, and Matador, and is currently planning a multi-month escape to Europe.
What made you decide to move to London?
I fell in love with London when I first visited in the autumn of 2011, and knew I wanted to get back as soon as I could, for as long as possible. Actually, during my visit, I had already applied for an MBA program in London, though I wouldn’t know if I had been accepted until December.
Really, my MBA was just a means to get to spend time in London; my decision to move there was motivated by everything London has to offer: amazing food, rich culture and history, beautiful architecture, and a distinct sense of style I haven’t found anywhere else I’ve traveled.
Tell me about the cost of living. What’s the price of a beer and a loaf of bread?
London has a reputation as one of the most expensive cities on earth, and it is totally accurate: London is expensive. At the same time, I’ve found many costs to be affordable compared with elsewhere.
Personally, I had a really good living situation with two roommates in a brand new building on the edge of Zones 1 and 2 in East London, and was paying $1000USD per month for my room in that flat. I know lots of people who were paying up to $2000USD per month for private apartments, and of course, it only gets more expensive the more centrally you live.
As for food and drink, it’s quite expensive. When I lived there, a pint was usually anywhere between £3-4 ($5-7*), but if you’re doing London “right,” you drink a lot, so it’s easy to blow your budget! Eating out is expensive, with most meals costing £20-30 ($30-50). Grocery shopping isn’t too bad, actually. I found that a bag of bagels in London is actually cheaper than Seattle (£0.99 versus $1.99).
*These estimates are based on the exchange rate at that time, which was really high compared to now!
What did you do in London?
As a full-time student, I wasn’t legally allowed to work, so that was mighty convenient (hello, living off student loans!). When my MBA program ended, I did spend time looking for a job, but was hampered by needing a visa. The feedback I got was that the job market is incredibly competitive and fast-moving: if you see a job, you should apply the same day you find the listing. Needing a visa will hamper you to be sure, but it’s not impossible to find an employer willing to sponsor you.
Do you need a visa to live in London?
Yes. Unless you’re from the EU, and then I envy you tremendously.
What’s the social scene like? How easy is it to make friends?
I found Londoners to be quite friendly, though I will admit that I ended up with far more fellow expats than locals as friends. My school program helped with that, but the friends I made were often from fun situations like striking up conversations on plane rides or trains, or through existing communities like Yelp. I think it is no harder to make friends in London than anywhere else as an adult, and easier than some cities!
What’s the best thing about living in London?
Personally, I loved living among history: every step I took was imbued with some gratitude for the past around me. I used to love going for runs along the Thames so I could admire the sights like the Tower of London and St. Paul’s while working up a sweat.
What’s the hardest thing about living in London?
Saving any money at all. It’s just so easy to find amazing things to do and spend your time and money on.
If we had just one day in London, what should we not miss?
Walking along the Thames to do some free outdoor sightseeing, riding the tube around because it’s so convenient, and eating and drink your way through Shoreditch in the evening.
If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in London what would it be?
Pack half the clothes and four times the money – you’ll want to shop, too!
All jesting aside, if you find a legal way to live in London (aka you get a visa), be sure to do your research on housing and living costs so you can be sure to cover your expenses. London is a wonderful place to live, but it will eat up all your savings if you’re not frugal and careful about spending.