Other overseas locations may appear more challenging to expats, but relocation to the UK holds some interesting surprises of its own.
The first culture shock Americans experience when moving to the UK is that they experience culture shock at all! Since we share a common language with our cousins — the Brits — we assume the transition will be easy. Official figures prove otherwise; US to UK relocations (and vice versa) have one of the highest failure rates of all expatriate assignments.
An American family moving to Japan knows instinctively that the language, culture and customs of the country will be totally foreign. The same family moving to the UK, however, would find many aspects of that culture to be equally foreign. It’s the fact they seldom expect this that makes their transition all the more difficult.
Although we supposedly speak the same language, misunderstandings between Americans and Brits are common, giving expats to the UK a long list of funny — and not so funny — stories to tell the folks back home.
In the UK, for example, a subway is not the “T” or “the metro” as it is in Boston or Washington, DC, it’s a walkway under a road. Cling film is plastic (Saran) wrap, and the letter z is pronounced “zed.” Complimenting a man’s pants (underwear) will bring plenty of stares. And if a co-worker confesses that he spent the weekend relaxing in the garden, chances are, he was sitting in a lawn chair in his backyard, not dozing amongst the petunias or tomato plants.
There’s no place like home . . .
Another shock expats to the UK encounter is the chore of buying or renting a property in what we Americans consider a rather antiquated and inefficient realty system. Multiple listing services do not exist in the UK, so each home for sale or rent is listed with just one real estate agency. As a result, the transferring family must register with every estate agent or Realtor in their destination area. Using the services of a homefinding/relocation company that will conduct the search for the expat greatly eases this process.
American expats also find that living quarters in the UK are often too small to accommodate all their worldly US goods. (Sterling International’s storage vaults pay testimony to this!). Closet and storage space in most UK homes is considerably smaller too.
Plenty of schools in the expat neighborhood
Not surprisingly, virtually all of the American communities in the UK center around an American school, such as those found in St. John’s Wood, Cobham (Surrey), Uxbridge, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. (The US Embassy can provide a complete list of schools.) Ironically, this often leads to Americans being neighbors with other Americans, which may not have been the idea in the first place!
Spaces at most American schools are limited, so expats should organize their children’s enrollment well in advance. There are various educational consultants in the UK who can assist expats with their schooling and educational options. Among the most well known are ISIS — the Independent Schools’ Information Service — and Gabbitas.
Healthy options for medical coverage
The UK government has a subsidized National Health Service (NHS), which entitles all residents to medical coverage. Expats, however, usually sign up for a private medical insurance plan, such as BUPA, WPA or PPP. Although the quality of care is comparable between private and public services, those under private health insurance often have greater flexibility in scheduling, particularly for non-emergency surgery and treatment.
It’s best to leave Fido at home
A word of warning to expatriate pet lovers: quarantine is alive and well in the UK. Importing a pet into the country involves costs for collection, veterinarians, injections, kenneling and other fees. This not only leaves the company or expat with a sizable bill — from $1,200 – $1,800 for cats, and $2,250 – $3,000 for dogs — quarantine facilities may fall short of expats’ expectations. At Sterling, we’ve often had the unpleasant task of moving family pets straight out of quarantine because a relocation has been cut short. Those on short-term assignments, especially, should think long and hard before relocating the family pet.
Electrical differences not so shocking
A common fallacy among American expats is that their US electrical items won’t work in the UK. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most, if not all, electrical goods can be easily adapted for use in the UK using transformers that convert the power from 110 to 240 volts. Lamps can quickly be converted by changing the bulb and plug. Since there is a cost involved in doing this, however, it is best to leave smaller items, such as irons and hairdryers at home. It is also possible for expats to purchase dual voltage 110-240 appliances from select stores in the US and the UK.
What is different in the UK is the television system. The UK operates on PAL.I rather than NTSC. Many Americans, however, bring their US televisions and VCRs for use as either a monitor to view US videos, or to play US video games. Expats have the option of purchasing a multisystem TV (NTSC/PAL.I) that’s operable in the US or the UK, which will eliminate the need to sell their UK TV at the end of their assignment.
Similar fish, different pond
Americans relocating to the UK should be aware of and prepared for the differences they’ll encounter in the British culture and lifestyle. While they’ll find there’s no place quite like the US, with a little effort and a lot of information, they’ll discover they can experience most of the pleasures of home “across the pond” in the UK.