Series ‘I wish I’d…’ is supposed to serve one purpose – help new expats avoid some of my mistakes and make their transition smoother. Of course, you still need to make your own learning. But even if you just reflect on one little thing from the below list and avoid even one difficulty during your move I’ll consider this article helpful!
Under each of the questions you’ll find my experiences and examples as well as some of my key reflections.
There’s also a BONUS at the end of this article, so read on for some extra information.
1. What do you need to be able to set up a bank account?
I come from Poland. Setting up a bank account there took me 10 minutes. I walked into the branch, waited for a couple of minutes for an advisor to be available, I only needed my ID and phone number. End of story. Easy-peasy.
Imagine my frustration when I walked into a bank branch in my first week of being here only to be told that I need to call (!) and arrange a meeting to be able to set up a bank account. I asked if we can just arrange it now since I’m already here. No. I needed to call. So I called one bank and basically after a short discussion about where I live where I’m from etc. it turned out that they are not allowing bank accounts for foreign new-comers. I called another bank and (luckily!) they were fine with the foreigners. My meeting was arranged for the following week.
And that’s not the end of story yet.
I appeared in the bank at a scheduled time. I started talking with the customer advisor, all going well, ‘So far so good’, I thought. Well, turned out that I’m missing a document confirming my employment and salary and they are not able to set up my account now. I asked if we could maybe set it up and I will arrange the document and bring it in tomorrow. No. You can’t. You need to set up another meeting, but of course you can’t do it now – I needed to call the hotline again. Ri-di-cu-lous!
I got a bunch of other forms to fill in at home, I set up another meeting, finally had all the documents and the meeting in the bank itself lasted 1,5 hours. One and a half hours! The advisor was rewriting all the information (addresses, personal data etc.) from the forms to their system.
Three things I’ve learnt here:
If I’d asked another expat how the process looks like, I would have spared myself a lot of frustrations.
If I didn’t know the language well I would have definitely needed much more help with the bureaucracy here.
If I had come with an open mind, without expectations (which at the time were that in this highly developed western country everything works well, there’s no bureaucracy and it can’t be worse than Poland), I would again have spared myself the frustrations.
2. What was your biggest challenge/learning after moving here?
Moving to London I knew how important a state of mind is, I knew that moving abroad is full of challenges and full of adventures. Nevertheless, I focused more on reading the practical tips, asking about practical things and generally, I have been doing more than reflecting.
I wish I’d asked more people about what their biggest surprises in this city were, what were the biggest challenges, what they found great and what they found difficult. I would have asked fellow Polish people with similar background to mine, but also expats from other parts of the world. The problem was, at that time I didn’t realise how big (and great!) the expat community is and how many ways there are to get in contact with them virtually. This would have been so helpful in widening my perspective before coming here and also just being prepared for various situations.
3. What does it mean? What is it?
Let me start with a mistake I made. I thought that if I know the local language, it would be so easy to adjust. Wrong. Language is important and it definitely speeds up the process, but it’s a mistake to think that you will only end up with challenges non-related to it. I’ve learnt the lesson very quickly.
At the beginning I didn’t want to look incompetent or ignorant, I wanted to blend in as much as possible. Of course the accents, slang, local names for various things, tv shows and childhood memories became a challenge in communication. Turned out that my colleagues at work talk about so many different things that I have no clue about! I ended up asking them probably 2-3 times a day what something means, what is it that they’re talking about. It must have been slightly annoying as it disrupted the flow of their conversations, but I must say that if it weren’t for them, I don’t know how I would have coped. They were really understanding towards me (Thank you guys if you’re reading this! ;)). Some of them were expats themselves, but living in the UK for years, so they were able to relate to my challenges better.
At some point I stopped asking those questions so often as I felt that, you know, two months in, I should know it all by now. That meant I started taking notes of the words I’ve heard, as I’ve heard them, and googled based on the context after these conversations. That also meant I was missing out, not being able to contribute.
Things I would have done differently:
I would have kept asking. I would have used these couple of first months even more to grasp as much as possible and allow myself to do more mistakes and not understand things. I would have asked the questions ‘What does it mean?’, ‘What is it?’ as I needed to. I wouldn’t have been ashamed of not knowing. It’s obvious that I’m foreign anyway, right? 😉
4. Where can you buy food with good quality and reasonable price?
Very practical question that I asked quite late.
Moving to London was a financial slap in the face anyway, so the price of goods that I was buying was a serious thing for me at the time. At first I started buying in Sainsbury’s and Tesco as that’s what everyone seemed to be talking about and they were nearby. Food seemed quite expensive though so I started my own research, looked at websites that compare various supermarkets and also talked to my friends. I’ve learned about a shop called Asda, relatively cheap, has a lot of products marked with their brand, but the food is normal quality and much cheaper (for Polish people that might be reading it, you can compare it to Biedronka). A couple of my expat friends also recommended is as good and cheap, so I tried. And I still do the weekly shopping there, going to nearby shops only once in a while. (Not a sponsored article, by the way, just a real expat life experience!) )
Things I wish I’d asked in advance:
I would have asked people what are the equivalents of my home country’s shops in England. Globalisation makes things a lot easier these days anyway, with various brands being present around the world, but it’s good to relate to the things we already know. I’d encourage you to do it before you arrive to a new country.
A note for my Polish readers, looking to move to the UK: Asda could be an equivalent of our Biedronka, Sainsbury’s would be something like Piotr i Pawel, Boots is like Rossmann or Hebe, Wilko is a bit like Pepco.
5. What are the everyday do’s and don’ts?
I know it’s probably stupid, but I didn’t really ask that question to anyone before coming to London. Not a major thing here, but I wish I’d asked some people about what are the do’s and don’ts in London, what do people hate when tourists do etc.
I’ve learnt very quickly that you cannot stand on the left side of the escalator under any condition (you stand on the right and walk on the left); you have to move down inside the carriage and cannot obstruct the doors in the tube (tube=underground=metro); you don’t need to push the button for the doors to open in the tube. Tube etiquette is pretty extensive here! 😀
It’s even more important to just be aware of these things when you move to a culture that is more distant to yours. The do’s and don’ts then refer more to the behaviours (how to greet, take the shoes off at someone’s house or not etc.), but remember that there’s much more to cultural differences than just those things.
And here’s a promised BONUS for those of you who got through to the end – things I have asked and which helped me a lot!
– What do you need to set up once you arrive? – in the UK there were a couple of things – bank account, national insurance number, medical care (NHS), flat rent. All of those things seemed to be interrelated and for example you couldn’t set up NIN without having an address, you couldn’t rent a flat without the bank account etc, so there was some logistics and luck involved in the process.
– What to watch out for when looking for a flat and where to best look for it? – I did quite a research among friends about the flats. I didn’t have much time to find it really, so I needed to know the basics. Thanks to this I restricted my search to the recommended areas, set up a reasonable price range and avoided renting flats that were a scam. In London I think the most important thing is to look at the EPC ratings (especially if the heating is not included in the rent) and any damp and mould. Looking for flats is one of the things I really don’t like about London, by the way.
– What’s the best way to travel around the city? Are there any discounts? – It was important for me to again find any bargains possible with the absolutely ridiculously high prices in London. I found out what the cheapest options are of travelling with Oyster card and how does it work. My friends also told me about a Railcard, which is a discount card for people aged 16-25 and provides you with 30% discount on rail travel. There are different kinds of this Railcard as well, so depending on your situation you can look for various options. Any student discounts were not applicable to me, but if you are student it’s good to enquire what is or is not available for you in a given country.
If you have the experience of moving abroad as well, what are the things you wish you’d asked before your move?