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.
There are 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!
The Logistics of Expat Life in London
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 is bound to change in the next few years due to the UK’s recent 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! 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!
London is an internationally renowned financial, cultural, and political center. With over 300 languages spoken and 6.2 million people with non-British nationality, there is a place for everyone in London.
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.
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. North West 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
London surrounds the Thames River (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 before deciding where to live would be helpful to find your place in London. 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!
Getting Around Town
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 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/walk and take a bus/walk and take the tube.
I don’t know how this is true but, trust me, give yourself this amount of time.
The app Citymapper is a lifesaver and is a must-have for getting around London.
Travel Tips for the UK
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!
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The Weather in London
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 there, you will understand how unpredictable and treacherous English weather can be.
Number one rule: 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. 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
While in London, do anything and everything!
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, 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, 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 your settle into expat life in London.
My Favorite Things to Do in The City:
- 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
Cost of Living
A few things 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. 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. Furthermore, council taxes vary drastically between boroughs so take this into consideration when searching for a flat.
England has universal health care under the 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.
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
- 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.”
- Stores charge for using plastic bags so bring your own 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.
- London is amazing!