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An Expat's Guide to Living in London

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Harry Potter, the Royals, Amy Winehouse, Notting Hill, Sherlock Holmes, red telephone boxes, double decker buses, The Spice Girls, afternoon tea, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Beatles, and Abbey Road, the list of things that make London a popular place to visit goes on and on.

Yet, living in this beautiful city is quite different than just a short visit. 

London offers so many things to love: beautiful green spaces, afternoon tea, extensive history, free museums, diversity, cozy pub culture, but there are certainly things that require adjustment as well: dark, rainy weather, cost of living, big city busyness.

Let’s take a closer look and see if living in London would be a good fit for you!

Short on time? Here's the cheat sheet:

💭Living in London means a super fun day-to-day, so long as you carry your umbrella
🛂Most expats living here are on Work Visa, Student Visa, Youth Mobility Scheme Visa, or the High Potential Individual Visa
🏠There are a lot of great areas to live but my favorites are North London and South London.
🛏️Commuting to and from work can be time consuming. Before you sign a lease sight unseen, book a comfortable and central place to stay like at The Kings Arms Pub & Boutique Rooms.
☂️The weather is unpredictable and the cost of living in London is super high but…
☀️The quality of life is also really high, with so many great restaurants, bars, theaters, shops, and things to do at every corner.

The Evolution of Expat Life in London

a mom and daughter walking across the famous Abbey Road crossing in London
We lived just a few blocks away from Abbey Road Studios and the famous Beatle's crossing

London is the capital city of the United Kingdom. The actual City of London was established as a Roman settlement in 43 AD and, fun fact, is technically only a one square mile area. The rest of the area is considered the Greater London area and is made up of 32 boroughs or what you might think of as neighborhoods.

The population of London was around 9 million in 2019 and continues to grow steadily. However, the make-up of the population and residents vs. citizens has been consistently evolving and shifting due to the UK’s departure from the European Union.

With London having left the EU, your prospects of moving to London might now look slimmer. I can certainly understand that! 

Common Visa Options for Foreigners

It's no longer an "easy" option for EU citizens to try out life abroad in London for a few months or years as it once was. Now you'll need to enter on a specific visa or already have a job lined up that will sponsor your move to the UK. Don't fret though, it's still completely possible to land your dream job abroad here!

‍The most common visa types foreigners apply for to live in London are:

  • Skilled Worker Visa: This is the visa you'd be on if you're offered a job in London that will sponsor your visa.
  • Family Visa: This visa is for family members of either residents or citizens of the UK.
  • Youth Mobility Scheme Visa: This is the best option for young people (under 30 or 35 depending on your nationality) that want to have 2 years to live and work in the UK.
  • High Potential Individual Visa: If you're a recent graduate, this visa allows you to come and job hunt in-person.
  • Student Visa: This visa is specifically for those that want to study in the UK
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Making Friends in London

London is an internationally renowned financial, cultural, and political center. With over 300 languages spoken, so many different cultures, and 6.2 million people with non-British nationality, there is a place for everyone living in London.

What's been so great about this is it's made making friends easier as so many people living in London understand what it's like moving to the city without knowing anyone.

Another popular place for expats to live in England is Leeds. Leeds is a little under 4 hours away from London, in the north of the country. It's a beautiful city and a great choice for someone looking for all the amenities yet less hustle and bustle than you find in the capital city.

Want even more options? Manchester is another great city in the UK with plentiful job opportunities and a lower cost of living than in London.

As an American Expat

While it is amazing to connect with people from all over the world, you can easily connect with other Americans as well. Northwest London houses much of the American population as this is where The American School in London is located and many of the State Department employees are housed.

St. John’s Wood, home of Abbey Road Studios and many celebrities, feels like home away from home with the sheer number of Americans living in the area.

That being said, it isn’t hard to connect with others in any part of London considering that it is an English-speaking country and culturally not terribly different from the US.

It can be a comfort while living abroad to be surrounded by an environment and culture you're accustomed to but to really embrace the full experience of living in another country, I highly recommend you connect with people from the UK or other countries, immerse yourself in their culture, and learn more about the world than your previous life in your home country could offer.

Where to Live in London

smiling family standing in front of borough market in london
Borough Market is amazing for food truck meals, groceries, and artisan food products

London surrounds the River Thames (pronounced “Tems”) and whether you are in North or South London depends on where you are relative to the river. Your post code further identifies where you live (Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, Southeast) and each area has a different reputation and overall vibe.

North London vs. South London

North is often considered more posh and manicured while South London is full of character and more youthful and vibrant.

There are amazing areas in each part but exploring the different neighborhoods in London before deciding where to live would be helpful to find your place here. London is a huge city and finding a community that you like makes it feel much more homey.

You should also take into consideration where you work when deciding where to live. Public transportation is great in London but having to transfer between buses or tube lines multiple times during your commute might not be ideal, especially if you'll need to travel during rush hour. Finding a flat that is near the same tube line as your workplace (or better yet, in walking distance) will make life so much easier! 

A Good Starting Point

While you most likely won't choose to live in Central London due to costs (more on that later!), it is a convenient area to start your house hunt off in. This way you're not having to travel too far to look at flats.

📍These hotels are all in Central London, based on your budget:

  • Budget-Friendly Stay: St Martins: While the room is basic, you'll have everything you need and be right in the center of the city, without paying too much for it.
  • Mid-Tier Stay: The Kings Arms Pub & Boutique Rooms: Located right in Westminster, this hotel is ideal for those that want a stereotypical British experience.
  • Luxury Stay: Broadwick Soho: This 5-star hotel aims to give every guest the celebrity treatment so if you want your first few days in London to feel super spoiled, this is the way to go.

Getting Around Town

a small girl looking out the window on a train in the UK
Taking the train around England is the best way for a quick getaway

London is a super walkable city and walking around the city is definitely the most exciting way to get to your destination, there is always something to see! That being said, London is pretty large so you will probably rely on public transportation or paid rides often.

Public Transportation

Public transportation is reliable and efficient and is often the best way to get places quickly. Once you get your Oyster card you will use this on all forms of public transportation; you cannot pay with cash so get the Oyster card right away.

The tube trains run frequently and are, for the most part, safe, clean, and reliable.

The overground trains run similarly, although a little less frequently, and typically take you to the further out places in Greater London. Overground trains and buses are great for getting a tour of London and looking about as well.

Fun tip: Take the 139 bus for an awesome and cheap tour of London’s Christmas fairy light displays, they’re phenomenal.

Ubers and Black Cabs are available but they are not cheap and sometimes it can take longer than public transport because of all the traffic!

Bonus Getting Around Tips

If you have a US driver’s license, you can also drive under this license for the first year before needing an English license - just don’t forget to drive on the opposite side of the road!

Although you aren’t probably traveling over huge distances, getting mostly anywhere in London takes about 30-45 minutes. You could be going half a mile or 3 miles across London and it will take you 30-45 minutes by the time you walk, catch the bus, or head to the tube.

I don’t know how this seems to always be true but, trust me, give yourself this amount of time when getting from Point A to Point B.

The app Citymapper is a lifesaver and is a must-have for getting around London.

Travel Tips for the UK

a smiliing toddler leaning against the handrail on a footpath towards to the water
Can you believe this is England?? Cornwall is just beautiful

One of the best parts about living in London is the easy access to domestic and international travel. Although London has plenty to do, getting out of the city is very accessible and easy to do.

Enjoy the rest of the UK or easily travel throughout Europe when you need a vacation.

International Travel from the UK

London has multiple international airports that travel directly to everywhere around the world.

Catch a train or take a taxi to one of the airports and in a matter of a few hours, you can find yourself in a completely different culture! The Eurostar is also great, and a little bit less of a hassle, to travel to places like Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, etc.

The best part, you can find amazing deals so travel doesn’t have to break the bank. One of the best adventures is going on a budget airline website and choosing your next holiday simply by the cheapest flight. 

Domestic Travel in the UK

Don’t discount traveling around the United Kingdom either.

The train journey up to Edinburgh is gorgeous; not to mention the day trips you can take to the English coastal towns, the Lake District, the Cotswolds, Liverpool, Canterbury, Oxford, Cambridge...the list goes on and on and each place is rich in history and charm.

Many of these places are just a few hours away via the train so can easily be done in a day trip. Pack a picnic lunch, grab a good bottle of wine or some local brews, a good book or company and hop on the train to wherever!

This is great for spontaneous excursions as, most of the time, you can buy your ticket at the station when you arrive with no treacherous security lines, long waits, checked baggage, etc.

Just make it in time for the train departure and you’re golden! 

The Weather in London

a dad holding his daughter smiling in the rain under an umbrella
ALWAYS be prepared for rain and try to keep a smile when it comes out of nowhere

If you ever find yourself needing to make conversation with an English person, talk about the weather.

To the outsider, this may seem like a boring topic but, after spending any amount of time here, you will understand how unpredictable and treacherous English weather can be.

Rule #1: Bring an umbrella everywhere, all the time, regardless of the season and even if it has been sunny all day! London rain will come out of nowhere and it could be a light mist or a full-on downpour!

For people unaccustomed to it, London weather can be a big downer.

During the winter, you might find yourself walking to work in the dark and leaving work in the dark, missing the sunlight completely. Couple this with cold rain (it infrequently snows and instead hovers right above freezing temperatures) and a seemingly perpetual Autumn season, one’s mood can easily be negatively impacted if you don’t purposefully combat the winter blues.

Expect to need a coat from around the end of September until as late as early May (then bring a cardigan or sweater all the time too!).

That being said, when the weather is nice, the city has a hopeful, celebratory vibe everywhere. When it’s sunny outside, you must go outside and take advantage of it!

On the flip side, days are long in the summer and an outside picnic with a pretty view of the city skyline is the perfect end to a summer day.

Things to Do in London

a picture from high tea overlooking the Thames River in London
High Tea at The Shard was one of my favorite tea experiences

While in London, do anything and everything! From the city center and beyond, there's so much to see and do in London. Boredom is impossible unless you sit at home all day!

Think things like: West End shows, free museums, the zoo, a walk around one of the many beautiful parks, a concert, a football or rugby match, a walk along the Thames, vibrant nightlife, comedy clubs, shopping on Oxford Street, a city tour, a pint at a pub, a picnic, wandering through the woods in Hampstead Heath, a Harry Potter adventure, afternoon tea, one of the many markets, art galleries, amazing restaurants, the list goes on and on.

While it can be easy to get caught up in the basic, tourist things to do in London, there are plenty of epic hidden gems that you'll want to explore as you settle into expat life in London.

There's something for everyone in London but my personal favorite things to do here include:

  • Going to a park for a picnic
  • Getting a view of the city (Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill are lesser known and amazing!)
  • Exploring the local pubs
  • Going to the markets (Borough Market for overall experience, Maltby Market or Camden for food, Columbia Road Flower Market, Portobello Market and Spitalfields for antiques and knickknacks)
  • Having a traditional afternoon tea (the tea at the Shard is lush!)

You can find things to do for just about any interest and any price range. All you have to do is prep for rain, pack some water and snacks, download Citymapper, and you can find any kind of fun!

Notable Factors About Living in London

a happy woman smiling with a beer in her hand in front Camden Locks
Enjoying a beer at Camden Locks

Cost of Living in London

Something to keep in mind before moving across the pond: the cost of living in London proper can be quite high.

Rent will be your biggest expense and flats are quite small overall. On the bright side, finding a flat can typically be done within the month or even a few weeks before move-in.

Taxes are significant in England so make sure you have a clear understanding of your take home salary when signing a job contract and you're not just looking at your gross pay.

Furthermore, council taxes vary drastically between boroughs so take this into consideration when searching for a flat and choosing which part of the city you want to live in.

Not just taxes but also average monthly rent changes drastically depending on the borough and how far out from the city center you plan to be. Just keep in mind that if you're too far outside of the city, it might be tough to want to come downtown to make friends and enjoy all the fun things to do.

You'll need to figure out where your balance lies between being able to enjoy living in London yet not going broke because of it.

Health Care

England has universal health care under the National Health Service (NHS) if you are a resident. Healthcare experiences can vary widely but, overall, once you learn how the system works it can be very convenient and helpful.

However, private health insurance is also available.

The Weather

I know I've already brought this up once but maybe it's the UK rubbing off on me because I have the need to drive the point home. It may sound dramatic but the weather really can impact your experience of living in London.

Many people find SAD lamps helpful during the dark winter months. Finding a cozy, friendly local pub and spending time there with friends or a good book (preferably near a warm fireplace) can also help you embrace the cold and rain. 


Lastly, as in any big city, it’s important to note the safety of living in London. Petty crime is somewhat common, especially cell-phone theft from motorcyclists. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings and take other basic safety precautions as you would in any big city. 

Fun Facts About the UK

A mom holding her two children in front of colorful houses in London
Attempting a self-guided Paddington Bear Tour with the kids

Before I leave you ready to take London by storm, there are a few more things to know that'll help you settle in abroad:

  • There are different English accents and they can indicate your social status as well as the area you are from. 
  • People will often say “that’s alright” instead of “no problem” or “you’re welcome.” Similarly, instead of asking "how are you?" people often say "you ok?"
  • Stores charge for using plastic bags so bring your own when you go shopping to help the environment and save money.
  • You can use your Oyster card on the Thames Clipper for a scenic view of London. 
  • Bank Holidays occur periodically throughout the year and many people get a day off work! 
  • If you want to order a regular coffee, you should ask for a “filter coffee” and if you want milk in it you will say “white filter coffee.” 
  • On the coffee note, there is no half and half in England. 
  • To order food to bring home, ask for “take-away” rather than “take-out.” 
  • Cell phone plans are ridiculously cheap in comparison to many other places!
  • Maternity leave is guaranteed for a year (partly paid for a large part of the time) 
  • Many English beaches have pebbles instead of sand. 
  • And last but certainly not least, living in London is amazing! 

Will You Try Living in London?

Living in London was an absolute blast. It was a learning experience but in the best way possible. For a vibrant city life that offers so much to see and do, it's hard to beat England's capital. Plus, the ease of travel within the UK and the rest of Europe means that whenever you're itching for a break, a fun trip is never too far or too costly away.

Although my family and I have recently relocated to the UAE, if you have questions about life in London or want to chat you can reach me on Instagram!

Hero photo courtesy of depositphotos.com.

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