On May 28, 2012 a routine Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis touched down in London’s Heathrow airport, ushering a new beginning for (at least) one passenger on board.
My arrival to London not only marked a new beginning for my personal and professional lives, but also drew a line under a two year effort to make the dream of work abroad a reality. Since I began my expat existence, I’ve received numerous emails from current and former coworkers and friends asking for advise on all aspects of relocation – from visas to weather, and everything in between. While I greatly enjoy answering each and every one of those emails, I do feel that in repeating myself, I start to gloss over some of the details which may actually prove to be interesting to those who are just starting their foray into the relocation experience.
This blog entry will aim to provide a comprehensive recap of my experience. I thought about making this into more of an advice (do this, not that) column, but I realize that everyone’s experience is unique and the circumstances which eventually get them abroad may differ significantly form mine. Therefore, please treat this as one person’s account, rather than a rule book to follow.
If I did have one broad advice to give, it would be that you should not give up. It is, at times, a frustrating journey, but the payoff is worth it for many reasons. So push on and make your dream come true!
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
From the moment I graduated from university and moved to New York, I knew I wanted to work abroad. It was one of the main drivers behind going to work for a global ad agency and staying there for quite a few years. Therefore, I can honestly say that the desire was there from the start.
I came to realize fairly early on in my career that in the transient world of advertising and media, connections and good relations matter as much as a good reputation and work ethic. I believed that mine was a longer-term goal, and one that required me to invest time and effort before I could reap the benefits. Therefore, when choices to move companies presented themselves, I opted to stay with my agency – I believed that this loyalty, along with the power networks and the reputation I built up would pay off in the end.
Ultimately, I needed to let those whose support I counted on know that I saw a stint abroad as part of my career progression. By the time the conversation about my relocation became a very real one, everyone who mattered pretty much knew that this was something I wanted, so there wasn’t an element of surprise or shock. I think that if I sprung this onto senior managment last minute, I would not have received the support I ended up getting. Agencies, and their clients, don’t like disruptions in account team structurs. They also don’t like spending money on recruitment fees to bring in replacement talent, so the earlier you start this dialog, the better, in my opinion.
GETTING THE RIGHT EXPERIENCE
One question that every foreign agency asks is why they should spend money, time and most importantly their precious visa quotas to bring someone in from abroad. It’s a valid question, and one that demands an answer that is grounded in more than just ambition.
In my case, I was working on a global client and already had an extensive relationship with our London office. When an opportunity in the UK opened up, it was for a similar type role that demanded someone who knew how to handle multi-market coordination, and who could start fairly quickly without needing to ramp up. I had the experience of working in a similar account structure, and also had the requisite relationships with our global outposts to take on the challenge.
I think that if I didn’t have this type of experience, or something relevant to point to, it would be tough to justify for the local office to justify the hassle.
Another thing that I believe is truly necessary is to have some strong expertise in something. The funny thing about the US is that it is, by far, the leading market in terms of ad/media tech innovations and people who work on the agency side there are spoiled with access to resources and information – something the rest of the world sorely misses out on. Therefore, there is quite a bit of demand for US talent that actually has something to bring to the table in another market. But don’t be fooled – media folks in other markets are savvy and can read through the BS. So, pitch yourself as someone who has a leg up on the competition, even at home, and chances are, it’s going to set you aside from the domestic competition in the local market.
WHERE TO GO?
Probably the funnest and most frustrating element of relocation. I knew that I wanted to leave New York, and if I had my way, I would have moved to Sydney before any other place. London did seem like the easiest place to move to, in terms of international locales, for obvious reasons. It’s also the ad and media hub of EMEA (Europe Middle East and Africa), so it enjoys the scale of servicing many markets and getting significant international budgets from clients. From a career progression standpoint, London was going to win over Sydney, which, despite its coolness factor, serves a very small and isolated Australian market.
I think the key thing is to keep a somewhat open mind and to be prepared to compromise, knowing that your perception of a particular place from visits as a tourist/student may differ greatly from actually living there as a working adult. This was the case for me when Australia did not materialize. The reason for this was that agencies there did not want to go through the ordeal of sponsoring me, though they claimed to be interested in bringing me on board. A useful note is that these were not agencies that were part of my company’s network, so I would have been a new hire for them.
When the call from our UK office came and we started talking about the finer details, like visas, it turned out that the process was a lot simpler when transfering through the same company. The UK has a special visa that allows multinationals to transfer their staff around for fixed term placements. It’s called the Intercompany Transfer Visa (ICT), which is a special variant of the Tier-2 visa. This visa does not have as strict of a requirement and does not have a quota against it, unlike a general Tier-2 (or Tier-1) visa. The downside is that after a maximum of five years, you have to leave the UK as a worker and not return in this capacity for at least a year.
So, while London was not my top choice, it was on my list and, after quickly weighing the pros and cons of waiting for Australia (who knows how long that could have taken) or moving to London now, I opted for door number two. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made in my life which goes to show that you can’t always predict what will happen and just have to trust that you will make the best of it.
I think making a list with at least 3-4 locations that you truly would like (or at least wouldn’t mind) moving to. And if one of these presents itself as a more immediate opportunity, it makes sense to be real with yourself about the feasibility of going after your top choice versus seizing on the one at hand.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO ACTUALLY MOVE?
Oh man, everyone who has gone through this process (at least in the UK) has told me a story similar to my own. It took a long time, seemingly forever! From the time I started the conversation in January to the time I walked on English soil in late May, nearly five and a half months elapsed. I warn you, just like I was warned myself, that the wait is by far the most frustrating process and it’s one that is largely out of your hands. Having patience, and as much humor as you can muster, is important.
The reason it takes this long is multi-fold:
– You have two HR departments involved. One is trying to hire you (they actually have to hire you and not just “transfer” you) while the other is trying to move you off their roster and P&L.
– Unfortunately, the communication between HR groups is non-existent, so you serve as a conduit, and things can take weeks to get resolved.
– It can take a long time for your new contract to be drawn up. Add more weeks if the terms you agreed on aren’t reflected in it and you have to go back for revisions.
– Finance department of the agency bringing you on board can take ages to green-light the expenses associated with the transfer.
– Immigration lawyers get hired, and they take some time (a week at least) to draw up the necessary forms.
– Once you get all the paperwork in place and submit it to the UK Embassy, a good three months could go by.
– The wait for the visa itself can last up to a month (or longer!)
Once you finally get a visa, there is a mad rush to actually make the move. In my experience, my company was reluctant to buy my plane ticket till the visa was in hand (understandable). The result of this wait was the drastically escalated price of the ticket, which prompted another delay, while Finance re-approved the new cost. This shoulnd’t really be something most people have to encounter if they’re being moved, but depending on the terms of your relo package, you may have to foot the difference in price, even if it’s not your fault that the ticket price increased.
Speaking of which…
NEGOTIATING THE RELOCATION PACKAGE
This is an important one as it can make your life easier or harder, depending on what you get. Remember this: you won’t get if you don’t ask, so ask for more and be prepared to negotiate down.
The more senior you are (and the more the move is driven by your company’s need and desire), the more leverage you have in negotiating a good package. In my case, I was moving across in a middle management position so I was able to secure a fairly basic relo allowance that consisted of airfare, two weeks worth of housing and visa support. I did, however, ask for a month of housing and an annual return flight home, knowing that I would have to compromise down.
Hearing from other people, it sounds like they either got nothing except the flight + visa or they were able to get much better packages, which included a month or more of housing.
Housing, above all else, is probably the most important thing to try and get. It gives you a bit of breathing room to find a more permanent place to live. You can’t underestimate how crazy your life will be in the weeks leading to the move and the several months after, especially considering that your new work will expect you to hit the ground running after all this time trying to get you over.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE MOVE?
So once you finally move, there are a ton of things that will hit you like a brick and that you’ll have to deal with. The specifics will depend on the country you have chosen to move to, so I will speak from my UK experience.
1. The first thing I got was a mobile number. I brought my iPhone over from the States, which was thankfully unlocked, so all I had to do was get a Pay Monthly SIM, which was SO much cheaper than in the US (£15/month for unlimited data, 300 min and 3,000 texts). No contract was needed.
2. The job itself started the next day after the move. Thankfully, my colleagues and management were very understanding of the complexities that come with the move and that in some instances I needed more time to sort things out at home. Establishing what is and isn’t allowed, and getting that flexibility will go a long way toward reducing your stress level.
3. Apartment hunting was something that really couldn’t wait. You can do a lot of research online prior to moving to the UK using sites like Rightmove and Zoopla and get an idea of which neighborhoods offer what. I had a price in mind, but the confusing thing was that the Brits price their rent payments on weekly rather than monthly basis, so a bit of math was needed.
If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, as was the case with me, then hiring a real estate agent is a necessary evil. There are many of them, but Foxtons was the company I employed and they helped me get a place in the time I needed. While more expensive than others, they do have a good sized portfolio of apartments and, in the end, still come out to be cheaper than brokers in the US. I paid about £430 for their services.
Note that if you sign an annual contract with your landlord, you can usually break it penalty-free after six months. Also note that most apartments are rented by private owners as there is not really a concept of buildings being built for rental properties. You may deal with a landlord directly or through an estate company, but it will be a private owner.
4. Healthcare is a confusing topic for Americans as it is completely different in the UK. You first have to apply for a National Insurance Number (NIN), which then enables you to apply for National Health Service (NHS), which is their public insurance scheme. Even if you managed to get private insurance through your employer (likely through Bupa), you still should get NHS.
Getting NIN is easy enough – just call Jobcentre Plus to register and they’ll send you your number. After you have it, you can find your local NHS clinic, schedule an appointment and register for NHS there.
5. Council tax is another foreign concept that really sucks. It’s basically a tax that is charged by whatever borough you live in and is calculated using a whole bunch of variables, such as the type of the building, the number of people who live in your flat, etc. I moved twice in London, and my council tax varied from £60/month to nearly £100/month. The annoying bit is that you have to pay it from your post-tax salary.
6. TV license is another “tax” that you pay after you get your paycheck. It gives you permission to watch over-the-air programming (mainly, the BBC). Even if you don’t have a TV and only watch the BBC online, you are still required by law to pay this fee. It’s about £12/month and something you have to register for.
7. Driver’s license is a fairly difficult thing to get in the UK. As an American citizen, you’re allowed to drive with your U.S. license for a year. Afterwards, you do need to get a UK permit. Note that pay-by-the-hour rental car companies, like Zipcar, are available here but you need a UK driver’s license to register. However, if you have registered for Zipcar in the US before moving, you can use their service without a problem here and don’t need a local permit.
8. How could I forget the bank account saga. Before moving, this may have been the thing that stressed me out the most, as the money laundering laws in the UK make it very difficult to open a bank account for expats. There was nothing but scaremongering going on in online forums, and I was prepared for a lenghty process. In reality, it was simple enough. HSBC only needed a form from my HR guaranteeing my salary to open a checking (current) account. The whole thing took a day and I was set. This is probably true for most major employers, but may not be so for start ups, so do check.
Getting a credit card was more difficult. I needed to wait six months from the time I opened a bank account to get a basic card from HSBC and another year to get a non-basic Amex card. Your credit history does not transfer from the US, so you’re starting from scratch here.
9. Don’t forget that when you travel back to the U.S., you will be un-insured. It was something I realized only after a couple of trips back, when I got the flu and remembered that I no longer had U.S. coverage. NHS doesn’t cover international medical care, so you need to get private travel insurance. It’s not expensive, but just something you need to do.
10. Get out and meet people and say yes to everything. I had a ton of friends in the US and knew everyone in media. Not so here, in London, so you feel like you’re starting fresh and it can be daunting and exciting at the same time. If you put in the effort, you will get a lot of satisfaction from new friendships and experiences. Work will also be a challenge for a host of reasons you didn’t expect, so dive right in.
Well, the weather is something people wonder about. Generally, it’s more temperate than in the States. It does rain a fair bit, but the winters are warmer (about 45 F) and it rarely snows. The summers can get warm, but are generally cooler than in the states, with the average temperature in the high 60s or low 70s. In 2012, there was not a lot of sunshine in the summer months, whereas in 2013 we had a very good summer, so I can’t say definititively.
When it’s warm and sunny, London is the nicest city in the world to be in. There are a lot of parks and you can spend days on end outdoors. It’s easy to get to anywhere in Britain by train, if you fancy hiking or biking or other activities.
It does get dark early in the winter, but just enjoy the museums, theater, etc. after you get off work. And remember, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece are only 2 hours away by easyJet!