I’m feeling a bit dirty even writing the words ‘top 10 tips’, but since people have zero attention spans nowadays it seems like the best solution. So here goes, my advice for leaping across the pond re: all the fun/boring logistical stuff.
1. Don’t bother using an agency to help with your visa
Seriously. I’ve seen so many companies charging stupid amounts of money to set you up with a bank account, National Insurance Number and organise your visa for you, and it’s all a crock of shit. All you have to do to apply for your visa (well the Tier 5 Youth Mobility one in my case), is visit the UK Government website and follow the instructions. As long as you are eligible, have enough money saved up, have a passport, can figure out how to print the application, get a passport photo, and walk into your bank and ask for an up-to-date statement, then you’re sweet. Details for the other two are a little further down the article.
Total cost to set up: £Visa processing fee (this varies)
2. Calculate how much spending money you think you’ll need, then double it
Pardon my language, but London is FUCKING EXPENSIVE. Unless you’ve got free accommodation and are walking into a well paid, full time job, the minimum amount of money needed to qualify for a visa (£1800 when I applied) is a complete joke. So start saving, right now. Budget, make lists and stick to them!
The main things that I did to save money before I left were:
- Sold all my useless stuff on eBay – books, DVD’s, clothing, random knick knacks. Hell I even had friends give me their stuff because they couldn’t be bothered to sell it (thanks guys!)
- Embraced instant/free coffee – if your workplace provides coffee/tea, drink it and save the $$ you would’ve spent at a cafe
- Pick up work on the side – I only did a couple of extra photography jobs, but a couple of hundred extra is better than nothing at all! If you’re artsy you can sell your creations, take photos, write freelance, tutor, etc etc
- Walk to/from work – for me this was mostly theoretical, I always slept in too late to walk to work, but walking home saved me a bus trip, basically making a weekly spend on buses last a fortnight
- Cut back on outings – this means going out, going to gigs, holidays. Yes it sucks at the time, but in the end it’s worth it to get you where you want to go
- Home brands are your friends – for your basics in groceries, go with home brand stuff. You don’t need to spend a fortune on organic olive oil that’s been hand pressed by blind nuns in Tuscany
3. Buy an oyster card and sim card as soon as you land
If you’re like me and travelling on a budget, then public transport will definitely be your go to. Unless you’re in an extreme hurry to get to your shitty hostel, just buy an Oyster Card at the Heathrow tube station, then jump on the regular tube to get into town. It’ll take roughly an hour, but it’ll give you a great glimpse of life on the outskirts of London (and will only cost about £5).
Again unless you need to call your mother the second you land, don’t buy a travel sim before you leave cos it’ll just end up costing you more. Keep your phone on airplane mode and take advantage of the free wifi at the airport, cafes and hotels until you can get your hands on a cheap pay as you go (PAYG) sim. I bought my Virgin Media sim for £2 from Sainsbury’s. Get a plan with a good data limit – there is a lot of wifi around, but if you’re trying to find somewhere with google maps you’ll need the 4G.
4. It’s easier to set up a bank account than a library card
I’ve made this point before, learning the hard way once I went to check out the British Library that all the really cool stuff is behind the ‘Reading Room’ doors, meaning you need to be a member to access it. After a discussion with the very nice man at the help desk, I left with an instruction booklet and a red face, feeling like a complete fucking idiot because I had nothing with my face and new UK address on it.
Yet when I went to set up a bank account, all I had to do with show them my passport and give them a mailing address. Twenty minutes later I had an account and internet banking set up ready to go. The catch is only two banks in the UK do this for people on visas – TSB or Lloyds. Just make sure you call and make an appointment as you can’t just walk in for a new account.
Total cost to set up: £0
Finally your National Insurance Number! This is basically the UK equivalent of a Tax File Number, and you’ll need it to work. The catch is you can’t apply until you get to the UK, nor can you apply online. You have to call them, they’ll mail you an application, you fill it out and return it, then they’ll send you your NIN. It’s all a bit archaic, but it’s a fairly quick process (about two weeks total for me, though they say sometimes it can take up to 10). The good news is you can start work without one, so it’s not super urgent.
Total cost to set up: £0
5. Job agencies are a godsend
I’ve applied for more jobs than I can remember in the two months since I’ve been here, and the only time I’ve gotten any work is through a job agency. It’s just the way things work here, so research what industries you want to work in and find the relevant agencies to help you out. The best ones for me were:
The above specialise in office assistance staff – receptionists, admin, PA’s and EA’s (I’m an EA). Australasian Recruitment also specialise in placing Australian’s and Kiwi’s in jobs, and they have been the best so far when it comes to keeping in touch, support, advice and placement in roles that are interesting and relevant to me.
Other good job sites are:
6. I suppose you’ll need a place to live…
I’m no authority on this, yet, as I am still crashing on a friend’s couch (don’t judge me, it’s cheap). That being said, I’m told that Spareroom.co.uk and Gumtree.co.uk are both awesome in finding a place. Spareroom also does “Speed Flatmating” nights to match up housemates. Also ask around on Facebook, the odds are you’ve got a friend of a friend with a couch as well. Just remember once you finally get set up to pay it forward…
7. Friend dates
Ironically since I’ve arrived in London the people I’ve hung out the most with have both come from my hometown, along with a smattering of Kiwis, Canadians and one lovely Lithuanian. It’s true that you’ll mainly hang out with expats, usually because they’re on their own and looking for people to hang out with too.
So ask people on Facebook if they have friends/relatives in the UK and connect with them, buy people drinks/coffee and generally pick their brains. Hell give Tinder a go too if that’s your thing, if only for the pure amusement factor of losers who try and turn the fact you’re playing Tomb Raider into a rubbish pick up line.
As an introvert I’ve found the friend hunting thing to be quite difficult, but I find alcohol helps.
And though I haven’t taken advantage of it yet, Meetup.com always seems to have great events for just about anything you’re interested in, so it’s worth signing up and having a look. Also websites like Kiwi’s in London (as much as I hate to admit it, they’re far more organised than us Aussies) usually have a monthly drinks catch up, as well as room and job advertisements.
8. Cheap is good (free is better)
Take advantage of the free time you have before starting work by exploring the city. You can fill weeks and weeks with the awesome free/cheap stuff to do in London, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the typical touristy stuff. Here’s some ideas to check out, some touristy, some a bit weird:
The National Gallery / National Portrait Gallery / Trafalgar Square
Ok this is uber touristy, but both museums are amazing and Trafalgar Square always has entertaining buskers, not to mention it’s hilarious trying to watch people climb on top of the lion statues on Nelson’s Column…
Walking the length of South Bank won’t cost you a penny, and you’ll get amazing views of the Thames, St Paul’s, Shakespeare’s Globe, the awesome skate park, the secondhand book market under Waterloo Bridge and you can even head to the Tate Modern. And if you don’t mind standing, grab a £5 ticket to whatever is playing at the Globe and see the Bard the way it was meant to be seen.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum / The Wellcome Collection / Highgate Cemetery
These are for the more morbidly-inclined of my three readers. It’s all there in the name of the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, an old school theatre built in the attic of a church. You can check out their collection of old school surgeons tools, remedies, morbid curiosities and the theatre itself. This was fairly cheap (about £7 I think…).
The Wellcome Collection is without a doubt my favourite place. The founder basically spent his life travelling the world and collecting weird stuff, anything from medical apparatus to carved wooden gods to pornographic Indian pottery (not kidding). It’s all free, and at the moment has a great exhibition on Forensics, Sexology and has the greatest reading room I’ve ever encountered. Plus you can send free postcards anywhere in the world.
Highgate Cemetery is a little bit of a trek to find, especially if you make the mistake of getting off at the Highgate Tube stop (Archway is closer!!). There are two sides to the cemetery, west and east. The east is the main one, costs £4 to get in, and has the graves of Karl Marx and Douglas Adams, amoug several others. The west side can only be accessed during a tour, which is about £12 I think, and apparently involves catacombs!! I’ve been too cheap to check that bit out, but the east cemetery is so beautiful and serene you could easily wander around there for hours.
Obviously there’s way more stuff, but that’ll keep you amused to begin with.
9. Take a book on the Tube
No reception down there people, so take a book to keep yourself entertained. People watching is also fun, but be subtle as this breaks one of the cardinal rules of the Tube – don’t make eye contact. I mainly do it because I live in the vain hope that I’ll one day see someone famous on there. Otherwise if reading isn’t your thing, go with the usual music/podcasts/audiobooks…
10. Go, go go!
Take your savings and your visa and jump on the nearest plane to London! The rest is up to you…
Listening to: Oslo Ess
Watching: The Bridge
Reading: Long Way Down by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman
Current man-crush: Christian Hillborg