Life in the UK

So one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog was to help people like me, moving from Canada to the UK… As I’m often reminded here, it’s not as common for Canadians to move to the UK (especially Nottingham), as it is for British to move to Canada. Leave it to me to be one of the weirdos.

So when I was trying to do research from Canada, I found there wasn’t really a ton of resources to help me figure out things like what renting is like, how the healthcare system works, or even if I could drive over here. The UK Government website is quite useful, but if I hadn’t had the help of a relocation services team, it still would’ve been quite a struggle on my own. This post is hopefully a helpful, but (fairly) brief guide to relocating here from Canada.

First fun fact of this post: The UK and Great Britain are not the same. A lot of people use the terms interchangeably, but it’s not technically correct. The UK actually means The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so it includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is simply the island that consists of England, Scotland and Wales.

Although the UK is part of the European Union (for now), it has its own currency, Great British Pound (GBP), also known as Pound Sterling (£). The exchange rate at the moment is £1 = $1.83 CAD. So basically any time I buy something here, I figure in Canadian terms, it’s a bit less than twice as much.

Weather

One of the most common stereotypes of England is that the weather is terrible and it rains all the time. But I have been here for almost a year and can honestly say I don’t find it much different from the weather at home in Nova Scotia, other than it rarely ever drops below zero in the winter. I find the sun slightly more intense here too, so even when the temperatures are showing around 20 degrees, it feels much warmer. Although Nottingham is super land-locked, there always seems to be a breeze, so it reminds me a bit of home on the shore too.

I think it actually rains more at home than it does here – when it rains at home it typically seems to last for a whole day, whereas when it rains here it’s just for short periods of time. Supposedly the rainfall levels here are similar to France and other central European countries, so that myth is busted.

You will find that the UK just cannot handle snow, however. It snowed a total of three times this winter, and every time the city basically shut down. The tram lines will stop, you’ll see cars stranded in the streets… I honestly believe Cuba would be more prepared for snow than this country. Although I do come from Canada, where I drove to work in this….

cruise

So I may bit a bit biased when I say it’s not that bad. But this much snow in Nottingham shut the tram lines down and had businesses closing early…

snow

Like I said, this country is not prepared for snow. They don’t handle it well at all. But good news is, for Canadians like me who hate the snow and cold, it hardly ever snows in Nottingham.

Utilities

Here in the UK, it’s quite rare to find places to rent where utilities are included. In fact, I’m not sure that there are any places where the tenant isn’t responsible for utilities (including gas, electricity, water, Council Tax, and internet/TV).

The connections are not disconnected between tenancies, so once you have moved into the property all you have to do is have the utilities put into your name. You simply have to contact the companies who supply the property, and make sure the meters are read so the accounts can accurately be put in your name.

When I first moved, I was surprised to learn that there are multiple different suppliers and tariffs to choose from. In Nova Scotia, if you want power hooked up, you call NS Power. That’s it, your one and only option. Here, you can choose from multiple different options of suppliers, and there are different ways to pay as well. uswitch.com has more information and advice on suppliers, and can help compare other services such as broadband and TV, mobile networks, and even insurance.

Typically there are three choices for payment – quarterly bills, where you pay for the amount used during the previous three months; monthly direct debit, where you pay the same amount each month (although it may increase depending on your usage); or prepayment meters, where you have to top up the meter before using your energy (generally the most expensive way to pay).

Typical costs are quite hard to estimate because it varies so much from company to company and property to property. But I can tell you that I live in a two bedroom flat and pay monthly direct debit of about £25 for my gas and electricity.

Depending on where you live in the UK, you will be charged an annual Council Tax by your local authority. You’ll usually have to pay if you’re 18 or older and own or rent a home. If everyone in your home is a full-time student, you won’t have to pay any council tax. Damn students and your discounts.

Council Tax is your contribution to local amenities such as recycling and waste management, and local police services. You can find more about this at https://www.gov.uk/council-tax

Mobile Networks

There are four major mobile network operators in the UK, including Three, Vodafone, EE, and O2. There are a number of virtual operators as well, such as Virgin, Tesco Mobile, Giff Gaff, and Lyca. They all have a wide variety of tariffs, but I can almost guarantee they’ll all be cheaper than your Canadian plans. I was paying $115 a month for 1GB of data at home, whereas I pay £15 a month for 5GB of data here.

I had a slight struggle when I arrived to the UK with getting a phone set up. The problem was, my provider at home would not offer me any sort of overseas package, and my phone was not unlocked to be able to put a UK sim card in it. So, basically, I was phoneless. I could have paid to have my phone unlocked, but I figured it was time for a new phone anyway, so I’d just wait until I was in the UK.

However, in order to get a phone here on contract, I needed a UK bank account. Which I did not have yet. Even if I had had one set up at that point, it wouldn’t have made much difference as they would’ve had to run a credit check as part of the application process. Which may not be successful if you have no/little credit history in the UK (which, obviously I didn’t). Some providers may allow you to get around this by paying an amount upfront as a deposit, but it’s hard to know in advance whether you’ll be able to get a contract phone or not. You’ll also need to wait until you have a permanent address before you can apply for a contract phone.

So my problem was that I needed a bank account to get a phone, and a bank account to get my rent direct debit set up… but to get a bank account set up I needed a home address to have the card and pin number sent to me. So I was going in circles for the first few days here.

I ended up just buying a phone outright and setting up a pay as you go account, so I can just top up when I’m running low. Since you don’t apply for a contract with this type of account, anyone is free to get one.

This is useful information for anyone coming to visit also – if you have an unlocked phone, you can just buy a UK sim card and put however much data/texts/minutes you’d like on it. It’s typically cheaper than phone plans from Canadian suppliers since international plans have outrageous prices. You can get a UK sim card and initial top-up for as cheap as £10.

Word of advice, though: don’t buy a SIM card from the airport. You’ll save a lot of money by waiting and going to a cell phone store, or even a grocery store or gas station. You can even order them online and have them delivered to you, so you can hit the ground running when you land at Heathrow.

Another bonus of UK SIM cards is that they work across Europe as well – no roaming fees for any of my many trips to Europe! There are certain countries they don’t work in, however… I believe (with O2 at least) these are Monaco, Switzerland, Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. Well, they will still work, you’ll just get roaming fees here. Double check before traveling to these countries!

TV and Licensing

As for TV bills… one of the first things I learned about the UK that I found extremely weird was the fact that you have to have a valid TV license if you want to watch TV in the UK. I mean, sure, I understand the need for a licence to drive a car, or go fishing, or hunting… but to watch TV? Really? 

The license costs £150.50 per year, and it’s a hefty fine if you’re caught without one. You need to be covered by a TV licence to watch or record live TV programs on any channel, or watch or download any BBC programs on iPlayer.

If you don’t watch or record any live TV, or watch or download any BBC programs, you don’t need a licence and simply have to declare no licence needed. They may confirm this by making a visit and doing a property check. You can learn more about it at http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/

If you do want TV, you can watch it via Sky (satellite) or Virgin (cable). Sky is the most common, and cable services are not available in every area.  You can also stream TV through providers like BT, Virgin, TalkTalk, etc. For more information you can check out uswitch.com, or sky.com

Banking

So, back to banking. Most banks offer a free current account which caters to all basic banking needs. There are four main (large) UK banks – Barclays, NatWest, HSBC, and Lloyds. It’s hard to say which is best, but I have had great experiences with Barclays, personally.

The one downside I’ve had with Barclays (which I’m sure I would have with any bank here) is that my credit limit on my credit card is a whopping £260. As mentioned above, it can be hard to get a phone contract set up if you have little to no credit history in the UK. It can also be quite hard to get any sort of decent limit on a credit card. Thank goodness for my Canadian cards.

You will need two documents to open a bank account in the UK: proof of ID and proof of address. In my case, I wouldn’t be moving into my apartment until two weeks after arriving in the UK, but needed a bank account set up before then in order to get my rent set up and get paid by my employer. With the help of a reference letter from my employer, stating my job title and salary, I was able to get an account set up at Barclays.

Another nice thing about living in the UK is that you don’t have to pay ATM fees. It is free to withdraw money from an ATM if you use one of your bank’s ATM machines, but most banks also offer free cash withdrawals from their cash points even if you don’t bank with them. Some ‘private’ ATM machines aren’t free and can charge you, but I hardly ever see any of those here.

Taxation

There are two main elements of taxes in the UK, Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions, which will be deducted by your employer.

HR/payroll will be able to advise you on the level of Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions you should be paying/making. The Government website gives more information on taxes and such than I’ll ever be able to, so here’s a link to learn about the income tax here – https://www.gov.uk/income-tax

You pay National Insurance contributions to qualify for certain benefits and the State Pension. You’ll need a National Insurance Number before you can start paying these contributions.

You may have a National Insurance Number printed on the back of your Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), like I did, but if not, either you or your HR/payroll department will need to apply for an NI number. The application process differs depending on which country you are originating from. The UK Government website can give you more information about applying for an NI number. ( https://www.gov.uk/apply-national-insurance-number )

Health Care

Health care in the UK is very similar to that in Canada. The National Health Service (NHS) ensures that all eligible UK residents receive medical care free of charge, but services such as dental care and prescriptions may have fees.

NHS services include doctor care, hospital care, family planning, child-care clinics, home visits by health visitors to check child development, immunizations and prescriptions.

The NHS website is useful for general information about the NHS, how it works and how to use it – https://www.nhs.uk/pages/home.aspx

All family members should register at the local health clinic (AKA Doctors Surgery) to receive an NHS number. Although somehow, when I signed up at my local surgery, I already had an NHS number. How? I have no idea. Magic. 

Specialists such as a paediatrician or gynaecologist require a referral from your GP, unless you are a private patient.

Terminology in health care is a bit different here, though. Specialists and GPs are addressed as “Doctor”, whereas surgeons, obstetricians and gynaecologists are referred to as “Mister” or “Mrs.”, etc. The operating room is known as theatre, and the office of a medical practitioner is referred to as a surgery. The emergency department is A&E (Accident and Emergency), and pharmacists are called chemists. Like I’ve explained before, understanding British English is hard. 

The emergency line isn’t 911 here, though. It’s 999.

And NHS 111 is a relatively new service here (similar to Canada 811), where you can call if you need medical help or advice urgently but it’s not a 999 emergency. It’s available 24 hours a day, and calls are free. They will give you the healthcare advice you need or direct you to the local service that can help you best (ie, A&E, emergency dentist, chemist, etc.).

Where possible, NHS 111 will be able to book you an appointment or transfer you directly to the people you need to talk to . If they believe you need an ambulance, they will immediately arrange for one to be sent to you.

Register with a Family Doctor

As I mentioned before, you should register with your local health clinic. You can choose the surgery and doctor you would like to be registered with, but you must live within that surgery’s designated traveling area, ensure they have availability, and the doctor is willing to accept you on their list.

You should register as soon as possible after you arrive in the UK, as you need to be registered in order to receive treatment of any kind. Make sure you take your passport, proof of address, and any medical history is useful also.

Although you may be registered with one particular doctor, it is not uncommon to be seen by another doctor if yours is not available. And don’t expect to spend much time at the doctor’s office here – generally 5-10 minutes allocated per patient. If you think you’ll need more time with them, it is good to mention that when making your appointment.

My first time visiting the doctor here lasted a total of 8 minutes, including the time it took for me to walk in and check in, and wait to be called in to the office. They’ve always been very efficient… No waiting for over an hour in the waiting room just to be moved to the doctor’s office to wait another 20 minutes before seeing the doctor.

My GP’s office has a pharmacy right in the building as well, so no need to go far to get your prescription filled. Unless you are in a certain category which makes you exempt from prescription fees, you will be charged £8.60 for any prescription. They’re free in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but not in England. The NHS website explains the costs and who is eligible for free prescriptions, as well as health costs in general.

Dentists

You can choose between private dentists, or NHS dentists. Most are in private practice, but dentists who take NHS patients may also take private patients. If you want treatment as an NHS patient you have to state this when registering or requesting an appointment. The main difference between the two is although NHS dentists tend to be slightly cheaper, they do not offer cosmetic treatment.

As I stated earlier, dental care is not covered as part of the NHS medical care free of charge. Private practice prices vary, but NHS services have fixed rates:

Band 1 (£21.60) – covers the exam, diagnosis, advice, x-rays, scaling and polish, and planning for treatment (if necessary)

Band 2 (£59.10) – covers all of the above, as well as any additional treatments such as fillings, extractions, and root canals.

Band 3 (£256.50) – covers all of Band 1 & 2 treatments, as well as more advanced procedures like crowns, bridges, and dentures.

Again, the NHS website can explain this all further (https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Dentalhealth/Pages/Dentalhome.aspx) and which.co.uk can help compare the differences between private and NHS dental care.

Education

The school system in England is different than Canada. It is divided up into four main parts: Primary: age 4-11, Secondary: age 11-16, Further Education: age 16-18, and Higher Education: 18+

This works out to kids age 5/6 being in kindergarten/grade primary in Canada, and in “Year One” in England. Which means that when we’re in grade 12 in Canada, they’re in Year 13 in England.

I personally don’t know a whole heck of a lot about it, so I’ll leave it to this site to explain it a bit better: https://www.internationalstudent.com/study_uk/education_system/ and here’s a good article on it as well: https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/education-system-in-england

Cars and Driving

I tried to give my brief Canadian explanation of driving in the UK before… But for a real detailed description of road rules in the UK, you’ll want to read “The Highway Code“.

The minimum driving age in the UK is 17. If you have a Canadian driving licence, you can drive in England for up to one year. After that, it is considered invalid, and you will have to take a British driving test to get a British licence. Otherwise, you can exchange it to a UK automatic licence. If you can show proof you took your Canadian test in a standard, you can exchange it to a UK manual licence, but otherwise, without proof, you’re stuck driving automatics only.

Living Costs

I’m not sure about you, but I was always told that the cost of living in England is a lot more than that of Canada. From personal experience, I can tell you, it’s not.

If you live in London, sure. But if you live in Toronto, you’re going to pay more than in rural Nova Scotia too. So, like anywhere, cost of living will vary from one region to another. I can only speak for Nottingham, but it’s significantly cheaper for me to live here than it was in Halifax. Or anywhere I lived in Nova Scotia, honestly.

Groceries cost me a lot less here – a 2L jug of milk just cost me £1.50, 3 packs of 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts for £4, and a three pack of bell peppers was £0.97. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than £35 on a grocery run, where I used to spend $100 easily on less items in Nova Scotia.

In general, the cost of living is comparable to Canada. Some things are much cheaper, like produce, simply because the climate is different and availability throughout the year is better than in Canada (lack of snow for the win, again).

I do find that restaurant and cafe prices can be slightly more expensive, but typically comparable to Nova Scotia restaurants. For a country that loves tea so much, it’s definitely more expensive in cafe’s here.

I don’t know a ton first-hand about vehicles here, but I know that gas is more expensive – roughly 1.5x as much I believe, and insurance can be quite costly too.

My experience with rent is that it’s a bit cheaper, and things like internet and phone are significantly cheaper also, but we do have to pay council tax so that’s a downer.

All in all, like I said, the costs of living are quite comparable. I think it all equals out to be pretty close, but with my personal experience, I do have more money in the UK than I did in Canada… even with my trips to 12 different countries in less than a year!

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