Congratulations American student, you have been granted a place at the London School of Economics for a term and program of your choosing. First, give yourself a pat on the back. This is not an easy position to get and you should feel proud of your accomplishment. But going to LSE means moving to the UK. Fortunately, there is not much of a language barrier for you to overcome, but that doesn’t mean it will be a seamless transition. I have been living in the UK for over a year now while working on my PhD. My experience is somewhat unique as I moved over with a wife and two children so we have settled into a familiar pattern of life. You may be moving with your own family or on your own. Regardless, here are some of the fun cultural points that may well shock you.
Getting your Visa
This is a bit of a journey, but thankfully LSE has an entire department that can guide you through the process. You will be on a Tier 4 visa and will need paperwork from the university to even apply in order to show you have a place. The application process is not easy and is handled by an outsource company. You can get your visa fast-tracked if you want to pay more, but it is a lot more.
Once the visa is actually done you will need to pay your NHS fee. Yes, free healthcare will be available to you, but because you don’t pay UK taxes you have to pay a fee upfront to help fund it. Once you arrive, it’s recommended you register with a GP which is a challenge as they are in high demand and the front office admin can vary. The NHS has all the problems large hospitals in the US do – overcrowding and understaffed – but if you do have a severe medical emergency, because they have the entire nation’s resources, you can get pretty much any treatment you can conceive of, and yes it is free.
Visa and healthcare done, time to find a place to live. If you have not been offered accommodation by LSE, don’t worry. Getting around London is easy, so you don’t need to live right by LSE. Unfortunately, the UK real-estate market incentivises buy-to-let arrangements. This means that rents are high. At first, you might think they are low when you begin browsing but that’s because they are listed “as per week” rather than “per month”. Stunning, I know. I managed to find a cosy little house through a private landlord and it’s been an equitable relationship. If your family unit consists of just you or you and a partner, I recommend a flat and probably a flatmate or possibly two. You can actually find some fairly pleasant places in London not far from LSE or within easy commuting access. Do make sure to read your rental contract closely, though. Often landlords make you responsible not just for utilities but also for council tax which is usually a few thousand pounds per year. One important thing to note is that things like utilities cannot be paid by credit card. You need to pay it via bank transfer.
So you need a bank account. Oh well, you have no credit history so this will be difficult. Your best option is to find a bank that has a big international footprint and entry-level accounts. Get the banker on the phone, going to the branch is useless as all they do is call the phone number, and explain your situation. Usually, if it’s a bank that handles a lot of international business you can get something set up.
Bank account established, flat rented, time to consider transportation if you’re commuting. Do you need a car? Probably not, unless you, like me, will be doing a school run and taking the kids to the countryside on the weekend. Actually, leasing or buying a car is hugely expensive and if you don’t absolutely need one, save your money. If you do want to go for a drive, remember it’s the other side of the road.
Enjoy your time off
Now that you’re established try to enjoy London, and more importantly find time to get out of London. The UK is a very accessible country if you are not in a hurry, trains can get you from central London to most any part of the UK or Europe, and embrace the cultural importance of a holiday. People in the UK take holidays seriously and holidays are not a time to catch up on work or get ahead, they are a time for relaxation and adventure. So enjoy your time at LSE. The logistics of getting established in the UK are a bit difficult, but not insurmountable and once you’re here have the time of your life.