20 December 2017

Sarah Bence - Expat in UK

Sarah Bence - Expat in UK

We’ve had the chance to talk to Sarah Bence, 24, an American expat who has moved to the UK alone. Ms Bence, who has been living there for 3.5 years, now works as a travel writer, blogger, yoga teacher and occupational therapist. Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born near San Fransisco, California, but I spent most of my childhood living in Michigan. So I usually tell people I am a Michigander!


Q: What made you move out of the United States?
A: I studied abroad in England for a year in college and fell in love with the country, and a boy. After I graduated college, I decided to move back to England where I pursued my MSc.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: I settled on Plymouth, England mainly because it had a very good department for Occupational Science, and I was familiar with the area after having studied abroad in Devon in my undergrad! I also had friends living in the area from my time studying abroad, including my boyfriend who lives in the Southwest. It was nice to know that even though I was moving abroad on my own, that I would have a small support network already in place.


Q: How long have you been living in England?
A: In total (including my college study abroad) I’ve been a UK resident for 3.5 years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
A: I moved to the UK on my own!


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?
A: I do miss home, family, and friends sometimes, usually the most right after a trip home. Homesickness is something that comes and goes, though, and when it happens you just have to accept it, it’s not always a bad thing! I cope with it by trying to set up a routine and keeping myself busy, and also having regular weekly phone calls home for at least an hour on Sundays!


Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: One thing living abroad has taught me is that, at our core, people really aren’t that different the world over. Beneath the British accent and somewhat more formal mannerisms, before they know you, I’ve found that there’s really the same diversity of people in the UK as there is anywhere else. You’ll find people you love and people you less-than-love, just like at home.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in England? How did you manage to find a social circle there?
A: I found it more difficult to meet people when I moved to England this time than I did when I studied abroad. I think that has a lot to do with being older, though, and it just generally being more difficult to make friends as you get older versus when you are a uni student! However I did make friends after a few months, a mix of other international students and British people. Things that helped me make friends were joining an international student society at the university and living in a house with six other flatmates. After a while, you begin to meet friends of friends as well, and your social circle becomes a bit more natural.


Q: How does the cost of living in England compare to your home?
A: England is funny because it is more expensive in some ways, and way less expensive in others. For example, the pound has a better value than the dollar, so every time I transferred money from the USA I lost money. Rent is very expensive in the UK, but I was lucky to live in Plymouth which is one of the very cheapest cities to rent in England. I saved money there compared to what I would pay for rent in the States. Another big way England was less expensive was education!! This is a huge one and a really big reason I decided to move to the UK. Higher education costs in the UK (and Europe in general) are a fraction of what they are in the USA. The universities I was looking at in the USA were around $60,000/year, whereas UK universities are generally 9,000GBP, before scholarships, which I was lucky to receive.


Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: I would say from 1-3GBP.

Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?
A: You can get a cheap meal at a Wetherspoons (a pub chain that is a British institution!) for 6-7GBP including an alcoholic drink.

Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A: A really nice restaurant could be 25-35GBP for a meal with a drink and multiple courses. And meal prices (and prices in general) go up in London.

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: You can get a cheap bottle for 3-5GBP at any Tesco, Aldi, Food Cooperative, or Sainsbury’s. Of course, you can find more expensive ones too! I don’t know about cigarettes because I don’t smoke.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in England?
A: You can’t open a bank account until you are actually living in the country, and you have to provide proof of residence such as rent paperwork or a council tax bill with your name on it. Both times I moved to England I just walked into a bank my second or third day living there with the paperwork, and it was pretty easy to set up.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: It is very difficult to get a work visa in the UK if you are not European, as you have to prove that they must hire you over any European citizen. Other visas are easier to get (such as the Tier 4 which I was on) but still very difficult. The process is pretty convoluted, and I found it very difficult especially as I didn’t have a lawyer and the university’s international student department was not very helpful. My biggest advice is to just get everything done as early as possible.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in England is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: The UK has a socialized healthcare system called the National Health Service (NHS). This is funded by UK taxpayers and through a healthcare surcharge on your visa. A lot of people complain about the long waiting times on the NHS, but coming from the USA where we have private healthcare, I am a big fan of the NHS. I also worked for the NHS for over six months during my time in the UK as a trainee Occupational Therapist, and I have a huge appreciation for it.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in England? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: Everyone automatically has access to the NHS in the UK. All you have to do is register with your closest surgery (doctor’s office), which you should do within a couple of days of arriving.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to England? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?
A: Everything was a whirlwind, especially because I was having trouble with my visa and didn’t know if it would arrive in time. It was a very stressful time! I didn’t hire a mover – I literally just took a suitcase and a backpack! Vacuum seal bags help though – you can fit a lot in one suitcase! ;)


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?
A: As a new expat I struggled to find friends to start with. I didn’t really see my housemates ever, and my course ended up being eight people, 7 of which commuted, so they didn’t even live in my city! I felt pretty lonely, and it didn’t help that I compared it to my college study abroad experience where I had made lifelong friends right off the bat. However, I should have been more patient with myself because I made amazing friends. Eventually, it just took a few months.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in England?
A: I love England for countless reasons, including its gorgeous nature and hikes, the ease of travel to the rest of Europe, the history and literature, the pub culture, the dry sense of humour, the socialized healthcare and so much more.

However, after the last three years, I also noticed some negatives. Salaries in the UK are generally lower than they are in the USA, rent and houses are more expensive, and there are long waiting times on the NHS, and you have less time with your doctor. I also found people to be less aware of other cultures, which was surprising. Plymouth was very whitewashed, and it was not uncommon to witness racist slurs. I think this depends on the city you are living in, though, and cities like London and Birmingham are much more multicultural.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: I have so many recommendations and would signpost people to my blog for specific tips! But I particularly love hiking the Southwest Coastal Path and visiting the little towns in Cornwall and Devon.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: Yes. I am actually moving back to Michigan very soon, as I finished my MSc and my visa is expiring. I decided not to apply for a new visa immediately, but the UK is always a place I will consider home!


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: Actually for me, something that really helped was starting my blog where I could write about my expat experiences. I started the blog, so I could share stories and photos with my family in the USA, but it really blossomed, and now one of my favorite aspects of it is being able to connect with other expats. I love reading about and speaking to other Americans living in England, but I’ve also found that expats anywhere in the world have similar experiences and can really relate on a deep level to what I write about. So if you’re so inclined, read blogs or start your own!


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about England?
A: Like I mentioned, I really love reading other expat blogs. My favourite expat blog of a fellow American in England, though, has to be Jaime from Angloyankophile. I have been reading her beautiful blog for years.

Blog: Endless Distances