The Expat Relocation Guide to London

December 6, 2023

Home to many internationally known companies and industries, London consistently ranks as one of the top business cities in the world, offering work in everything from financial services to technology. Many companies bring foreign talent into their London-based offices—and as an expat, you could hardly ask for a better place to be your new home.

As one of the world’s great cities, London has everything from a vibrant cultural scene consisting of theatre, fashion, architecture, art, music, and fantastic dining and shopping. World-renowned transit systems, like the London Underground, make it easy to get around, and you get to live alongside landmark attractions, like Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben. On top of all that, top-notch, public-funded healthcare helps ensure a good quality of life.

If you’re preparing to move to England’s capital city for work, this expat guide to London will help you get settled and hit the ground running while adapting to a new city and country. 

London fast facts

  • Population: 8.982 million
  • Currency: Pound sterling (GBP; £)
  • Time zone: GMT+1
  • Climate: Temperate oceanic
  • Emergency number: 999 or 112

UK work visas

If you’re moving to London for work, you’ll need to make sure you get the proper work or business visa. UK visas are available for many different types of work and business, including those for Skilled Workers, Global Business Mobility Workers, and Start-up Founders. Work visas for the UK can be valid anywhere from one year to five years for the Skilled Worker visa.

Exact requirements vary depending on the specific visa type, but in general, you need to meet the following requirements to get a visa to work in London:

  • Valid passport
  • Proof of sufficient funds to support yourself (salary, savings, etc.)
  • Job-offer letter or employer sponsorship from a London-based or UK-based employer (if applicable)
  • High proficiency in English (B1 or B2 level)

Some employers may offer assistance or guidance through the visa application process, but it’s not guaranteed. You can learn more about Newland Chase’s United Kingdom immigration services and how to apply for the correct UK visa here.

The cost of living in London

As a major global center for business, culture, and politics, affordability isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of London. But in 2022, London didn’t even break the World Economic Forum’s top-10 list of the most expensive cities in the world.

Now, London is still an expensive city, but you’ll be paying less to maintain the same quality of life, compared to other major cities like New York. Prices and average rates also vary depending on where you live in the vast, sprawling metropolis. While rental prices and the overall cost of living will be higher in Central London or West London, you’ll find lower average rental or mortgage rates the further you get from the city center.

Here’s a brief rundown of average cost-of-living prices per month in London:

  • Rent for a studio apartment: £1,500–1,600
  • Rent for a one-bedroom apartment: £1,400–2,500
  • Home asking price: £685,200
  • Cost of living for a family of four: £4,850
  • Cost of living for one person: £2,892
  • Internet: £30-40
  • Gas and electric: £121–180
  • Water: £20–30
  • Transportation: £156–407
  • Grocery bill for a family of four: £725
  • Grocery bill for one person: £200–300

The best London neighborhoods for expats

Choosing the right neighborhood to live in is an important part of moving to a new city or country. Not only can it help you connect to a new community and make friends, introducing you to both locals and fellow expats, but it should also meet your basic needs with regard to schools, entertainment, shopping, and transit.

Many Londoners don’t drive or use a car on a regular basis, so you’ll want to find a neighborhood that has everything you need within walking, cycling, or transit-ride distance. Here’s a run-down of London’s top expat neighborhoods.

West London

Affluent West London is home to several neighborhoods that are extremely popular among expats.

For those seeking proximity to cultural institutions, including world-class museums, like the Natural History Museum, gorgeous historic architecture, and prestigious schools ranging from primary to university, Kensington and Chelsea always rank high. Families and young professionals also enjoy access to fresh air and outdoor recreation in nearby Kensington Gardens, as well as close proximity to the city center.

Although the area is popular with many expat communities, it boasts an especially strong French community, thanks to the presence of two different French schools and its proximity to the French Embassy.

Many American and Australian expats also set down roots in the Notting Hill area, drawn to its attractive properties, diversity, close-knit sense of community, and exciting neighborhood events, like the famous annual Notting Hill Carnival.

East London

Young professionals and couples looking for a hip and creative neighborhood to call their new home will love the vibe of East London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood. Tech startups sit side-by-side with cool cafes, global eateries, street art, and chic shopping boutiques. It also boasts a thriving nightlife scene.

North London

Close to the city center in North London, Islington is a trendy and cosmopolitan neighborhood popular for its lively nightlife, theaters, and numerous restaurants and cafes.

Families settling in North London may prefer Hampstead. This affluent district attracts residents with its picturesque streets, Hampstead Heath Park, cultural attractions, and more suburban feel while still being close to Central London.

South London

Offering lovely parks, good schools, laid-back neighborhoods, and a lower cost of living, South London is a great option for families.

Situated in southeast London, Greenwich is famous for its maritime history, Royal Observatory, and the Cutty Sark. Expats appreciate its historical charm, riverside location, and Greenwich Park.

The southwest neighborhoods of Richmond and Wimbledon are both popular on account of their green spaces, excellent schools, and peaceful, suburban lifestyle.

For families or young couples who want a mix of fun entertainment in a more relaxed area, Clapham could fit the bill. Known for its green spaces, good transport links, and lively social scene, it’s popular among expats for its family-friendly environment and proximity to the city.

Education in London

If you’re moving to London with your family, finding the right schools for your children will be among your top priorities. As a parent diving into the UK education system, here’s everything you’ll need to know.

Education system and types of schools

The UK education system is divided into several stages, beginning with primary education (ages 4 to 11) and secondary education (ages 11 to 16). After age 16, students can pursue further education, such as A-levels or vocational qualifications. Schools in London range from state-funded institutions to private (independent) schools, with day school and boarding options as well.

Funded by the government and designated by catchment area, state schools are generally free to UK residents and foreigners legally living in the UK with a UK address. Admissions can be competitive, though, making it difficult to get in.

London also has a thriving private-school sector, with prestigious primary and secondary schools, like St. Paul’s and the Westminster School. Many of these highly selective schools have strict admission criteria and can cost thousands of pounds a year.

State schools in England typically follow the National Curriculum, which sets out the subjects and content to be taught at each stage. Independent schools may follow a different curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) or the Cambridge International curriculum.

It’s also important to note that many private and independent schools in London are still divided by gender, with separate boys and girls schools. Many schools, both public and independent, also still require specific uniforms.

International schools

With 37% of its population born outside the UK, London has top-notch international schools where many expats send their children. These popular, selective, and often expensive schools cater to students from around the world, with English-learning programs and support, immersion programs, and the International Baccalaureate curriculum (as opposed to the UK’s National Curriculum). Some of the top international schools in London include:

  • Southbank International School: One of the top options among London expats, Southbank has three campuses around London and follows the IB curriculum.
  • TASIS The American School in London: American expats often choose to send their children to this reputable school geared toward American youth.
  • International School of London: This coed institution was one of the first in London to offer the IB curriculum.

Due to London’s large French expat community, there are also several renowned French or bilingual schools, including Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle de Londres and Ecole Jeannine Manuel.

How to build community in London

As exciting as it can be to move to a new city or country, it’s also difficult to leave friends and family behind. Finding a new community, connecting with locals or other expats, and making new friends helps make the transition easier, especially if you have kids.

Due to the sheer scale of the city, many expats have reported having trouble breaking through that social barrier and making friends in London, both inside and outside the expat community. But while it may be tough at times, putting yourself out there will help you make connections and gradually grow your new social circle.

As a city with thriving expat communities from around the world, London newcomers will find plenty of ways to become part of their new community. Here are some ways to start building a new social circle upon moving to London:

  • Expat groups: Join online expat groups on Facebook, like American Expats in London or InterNations, to learn about meet-ups and activities, meet more people in your situation, and make friends. A quick Google or social-media search can help you find different options in your area. The London subreddit is also a great resource for asking questions and connecting with others.
  • Introduce yourself at work and schools: If you’ll be working in-office once you’re in London, be sure to introduce yourself to coworkers and colleagues and extend invitations to socialize outside of work. If you have school-age children, introduce yourself to other parents during pickup and drop-off times to start making connections.
  • Join clubs, groups, and classes: Find organizations, like clubs or social groups for sports, pastimes, or activities that you enjoy, and join up! You’ll get to meet like-minded people while doing something you’re passionate about or learning a new skill. Taking classes is another good option. In London, some popular expat clubs include the American Society and the American Women’s Club of London. Rabble and Social Sports Mix can help connect you to local sports clubs and teams, while Thinking Bob and other sites can introduce you to new people at events and social gatherings.
  • Volunteer your time: Volunteering is a popular hobby in the UK, so you’ll find all sorts of options depending on your interest. You’ll get to meet more people in your neighborhood, give back to your new community, and make a good impression by joining a local volunteer group.

Navigating the UK’s National Health Service

Living in London, you’ll mainly be using the National Health Service (NHS) for your healthcare needs. This universal or public healthcare system is funded by general taxation and sponsored by the government, rather than employers or private providers, ensuring that all residents have access to free, high quality health care. Due to the quality of care and modern facilities throughout London, expats can feel confident seeking care from the NHS as well as private options.

Eligibility for NHS services is primarily based on residency rather than nationality. As an expat, if you are living in the UK legally, you are generally entitled to NHS healthcare at little or no cost. After gaining your residency, the first step to accessing NHS healthcare is to register with a general practitioner (GP), also known as a family doctor. You can find a GP practice near your residence and register with them.

GPs provide primary-care services, such as general medical consultations, referrals to specialists, and prescriptions for medications. The cost of prescription medications in England is generally lower than in many other countries. Dental and eye care are not always fully covered by the NHS, so you may need to pay for dental check-ups, treatments, and eyeglasses or contact lenses. In the case of serious illnesses or emergencies, you can access NHS hospital services for free emergency care.

Even though there are many benefits to the UK’s National Health Services, some criticisms against it are that wait times for nonemergency procedures and services can be long. Because of this, some expats opt to have private health insurance in addition to using the NHS. Private health insurance can provide faster access to specialists and elective procedures.

Banking and money in London

As a global leader in the financial industry, London is home to many reputable banks and financial institutions that are up-to-date on modern features, like online banking. Major banks include Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, NatWest, and Santander, among others.

Counterfeit money is not a major issue in the UK, so expats can feel confident that their money will be safe while setting themselves up in the UK’s banking system.

Opening a bank account in London

You generally need to be a resident of the UK to open a bank account, and some banks may require proof of address, a valid visa, or other documentation. Different banks will offer different types of accounts as well as different fees, account features, and online services, so do some research to find which bank best suits your needs.

To open a bank account, you will typically need to provide the following documents:

  • Proof of identity (e.g., passport or national ID card)
  • Proof of address (e.g., utility bill or rental agreement)
  • Proof of income or employment (e.g., employment contract or pay stubs)
  • Visa or residency permit (if applicable)

You can set up bank accounts either online or in person at a local branch.

Getting around in London

Even though some of the most iconic images of London include its red double-decker buses and stout black taxis, London is not a car-only city. In fact, to combat air pollution and ease traffic in the city center, London has levied a congestion charge against drivers in Central London since 2003.

The vast majority of London residents don’t drive on a regular basis, instead using the city’s robust, far-reaching, and diverse public-transport network of buses, metro rail, and light rail, including the London Underground, the London Overground, and London buses, to get around.

London is divided into zones organized by transit, with Zone 1 being the city center and Zone 6 covering the outer suburbs. Fares are calculated based on the zones you travel through, so it’s essential to know your starting and ending zones to determine the cost of your journey. Fares start at £1.75 for buses and trams and £2.70 for the London Underground.

While you can pay for public-transit services using contactless credit and debit cards or mobile-payment apps, you’ll probably want to set yourself and your family up with Oyster cards. Costing £7 each, the Oyster card is a reusable, pay-as-you-go smart card that gets you lower rates on rides. Just load with credit as needed and use it for travel on the London Underground (Tube), Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground, some National Rail services, trams, and buses. (Tip: London buses don’t accept cash.) For day passes, you can also get a Travelcard.

Things to know about living in London

Here are some other tips to keep in mind as you’re adjusting to your new life:

  • Tipping: When dining out at restaurants, it’s customary to tip 10-15%, although some restaurants have swapped this out for service charges. Tipping taxis isn’t compulsory, but many locals simply round up the fare.
  • Taxes: Along with the UK’s personal income taxes, Londoners are required to pay local taxes, like the council tax for your area. These taxes cover things like road maintenance, street cleaning, schools, and more.
  • Weather: London weather can live up to its reputation of being cool and rainy, especially during the winter. Invest in appropriate clothing, including waterproof gear.
  • Queues: Moving to London, prepare to spend a fair amount of time waiting your turn in lines, locally known as “queues.” Britons take queuing seriously. Always stand in line and wait your turn, whether it’s at a bus stop, in a shop, or for public transport.
  • Recycling and waste: Londoners take recycling seriously, so be sure to separate your trash into the appropriate bins for recycling, general waste, and organic waste.
  • Tea culture: As you may well know, the British love their tea. Tea is a common social beverage, and as you’ll quickly discover, the concept of “tea time” is deeply ingrained in the culture. Accepting a cup of tea when offered is considered polite.

Preparing for expat life in London

Offering visa assistance and beyond, an experienced immigration specialist can help you navigate the complexities of settling in and adjusting to a new culture. Contact Newland Chase for a quote today.