Living In The UK – The Essential Guide For Expats

Find out about living in the UK as an expat, where to live, how much it costs, the pros and cons and other facts that you need to know.

Living in the UK
York, Shambles Alley

Living in the UK offers plenty of prospects for expats. While it might not have the same attractive weather as southern Europe, it makes up for this through its quality of living and amazing scenery.

In this article, we’ll cover what it’s like to live in the UK. We’ll look at immigration options, where to live, and the main pros and cons of living in this prosperous nation.

Is the UK a good place to live?

By most measurable standards, the UK is a good place to live. It offers personal security, decent employment opportunities and education, and a stronger than average sense of community. Add in varied scenery and high quality of living, and you could do a lot worse.

Living in the UK
The traditional hillside village of Shaftesbury, Dorset and the views of the English countryside.

According to the OECD Better Life Index, the UK ranks above average in most quality of life areas. Employment rates are above average, as is environmental quality and healthcare. While these aren’t the most interesting, they certainly make a difference when you’re looking to relocate.

Despite what you might see in the news, the UK is generally a tolerant country. Actual incidents of intolerance against others are low, and anti-discrimination laws have you covered in the workplace and your personal life.

The UK is also one of the best countries to earn a good income if you are a professional expat. There’s a special visa programme for skilled workers wanting to move to the country. Also, its thriving startup scene is attracting more and more entrepreneurs and startups from all over the world. 

Usually, at this point, we would sell a country’s weather as one of its more desirable aspects. We, unfortunately, can’t do this for the UK, as its weather is, well, wet. It’s not south enough to enjoy a Mediterranean climate, and it’s not north enough to get much snow. As a result, there’s lots of rain and cloud.

Temperatures (infrequently) peak around 35 degrees C in the summer, but can drop as low as -10 in the winter. One benefit of so much rainfall is that everywhere is incredibly lush and green. So, if you like verdant nature and don’t mind the rain, the UK is a good place to live.

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Interesting facts about UK weather and climate

The UK as a whole might be a bit cloudy and rainy, but if you look at various locations separately, you might find that the situation is not so bleak after all.

Living in the UK
Tudor buildings lining the High Street in Chester, England.

Fact 1: London is drier than Rome

If you have a look at the list of the wettest capitals in Europe, London comes 35th with Istanbul, Rome, Monaco, Lisbon, Barcelona and Sofia being wetter than the UK capital. London gets 557.4 mm of rain a year which is comparable with Malta’s capital Valletta where they see 553 mm.

Fact 2: There are some very sunny spots in the country

Bognor Regis, a town and seaside resort in West Sussex on the south coast of England enjoys on average 1902 hours of sunshine every year. It’s of course not even close to what Southern Spain or Cyprus get, but still not bad for a country where complaining about the weather is a national sport.

For comparison, Biarritz, a popular seaside resort on the Atlantic coast in France gets around 1,920 hours of sunshine a year.

Fact 3: It can get really hot in the UK in summer

Yes, some places can get unbearably hot. Cambridge, for example, can reach 35°C-37°C in summer while in July in London it can get as hot as 30°C. Cardiff and a score of other cities can also be face-meltingly hot.

Fact 4: You can swim in the sea without getting frostbite and hypothermia (just about)

Sea lovers will appreciate Cornwall in August when the average sea temperature is a balmy 17°C.

In Brighton on some days of July and August, the water temperature warms up to 20°C and above.

The water in a sunny and picturesque Tenby in Wales can get as warm as 18°C in July and August.

Temperatures aside, there are some stunning beaches in the UK. Even if you are not brave enough for a dip, a beach day out is a huge pleasure. Just don’t forget a suncream, the sun here is powerful enough to burn you lobster-red very quickly.

The pros and cons of living in the UK

On the whole, there are more benefits to living in the UK than drawbacks. However, it’s worth weighing up both sides before moving to get a fuller picture of living in any country.

Living in the UK
Conwy Castle in Wales, United Kingdom, is one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe.

The pros:

1. (Mostly) free healthcare

The NHS (National Health Service) once set the standard for publicly funded universal healthcare free at the point of use. While it’s going through a rough patch, its service remains free for anyone ordinarily resident in the UK. In short, this means anyone living lawfully in the country, including immigrants, has access to NHS services.

2. Inexpensive access to mainland Europe

The UK is well connected to mainland Europe, meaning you can go for a day trip if you want or a longer holiday. Your options include major (and minor) airports, the Eurostar, the Eurotunnel, or ferries.

3. Old-school charm

The UK has a reputation for old-school charm, particularly in more rural areas. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Poldark, you’ll feel right at home in some of the quainter villages.

4. Amazing landscapes

Remember all that rain we mentioned? One benefit it brings is lush and varied landscapes ranging from cliffs and mountains to rolling green fields and crystal-clear lakes. Many are peppered with incredible historic landmarks, some dating back several thousand years. If you enjoy a castle or two, take a trip to Wales, as it has the highest number of castles in the world.

5. Food quality is generally high

Although the UK lacks a native food culture comparable to Spain, Italy, and France, most of its food is high quality. You can shop at farmer’s markets or have produce delivered to your door. You’ll find butchers and greengrocers in most towns, which are generally cheaper than supermarkets.

The cons

1. High cost of living

There’s no point in sugar-coating this one: the UK has a high cost of living. The housing market is, frankly, massively overpriced, and there are huge variations in the cost of living across the UK. London, for example, has its own minimum wage bracket, which should tell you all you need to know.

2. Public transport

While this doesn’t belong entirely in the cons list, there’s more bad than good to say about it. Trains are expensive and subject to frequent delays. Buses are more reliable, and in some areas are fairly cheap. For getting around, your best option is a car.

3. Cities vs. countryside

There’s a noticeable difference between cities and rural areas. Granted, this is true for most places, but access to public amenities is a big one. For example, rural areas might have greater difficulty accessing larger healthcare facilities or usable internet speeds.

4. Brexit

Brexit might be an issue fraught with political implications, but there’s no denying it’s made things harder for would-be expats from the EU. If you are a non-EU citizen, nothing has changed for you, and maybe, in some cases, things have improved as UK employers are no longer forced to give preference to EU nationals.

Can expats move legally to the UK?

Your options for migrating to the UK largely depend on your country of origin and reason for moving. Freedom of movement rules no longer apply to EU countries, meaning if you are an EU citizen, you have to follow the same process as non-EU citizens.

Living in the UK
The scenic coastline near the fishing village St.Mawes at the Cornish Coast near Falmouth, Cornwall.

The main visa categories are:

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  • Tier 1 (investment/business visa)
  • Tier 2 (skilled worker)
  • Tier 4 (student, family, and short-stay visa)

A Tier 1 visa requires you to invest a minimum of £2 million into the country. There are other requirements, though, and you can reduce the time to settlement by investing more money.

For a UK Skilled Worker Visa, you must have a job offer lined up from an approved employer before you arrive in the UK. The visa can last up to 5 years before it’s due for renewal, although this depends on your role and a few other factors.

A family visa covers you if you’re marrying a UK citizen or have close family who already live lawfully in the UK. You can switch to a family visa under certain conditions, too.

The easiest way to check what kind of visa you need is with the government’s visa checker. It’s a list of simple questions that’ll give you a rough idea of the application process. The UK now uses a points-based system for eligibility, which, while clearer, does make things stricter.

There is no specific retirement visa in the UK. If you plan to retire to the UK, your options are a Tier 1 or Tier 4 visa, although it’s worth speaking to a UK consulate or immigration professional for more specific information.

Commonwealth Citizens

Commonwealth citizens have a few more options aside from standard visas. The first is the Right of Abode, which will generally apply to older people and retirees. The second option is an ancestry visa, which has fairly specific requirements.

Can a US citizen live permanently in the UK?

American citizens can live, travel and study in the UK for up to 6 months without a visa. You can’t, however, work, so you’ll need enough money to cover yourself for this period.

If you want to work or live permanently, you’ll have to follow the visa rules described above. In short, you’ll either need to invest money, have family living in the country, or have a skilled job lined up.

The Right to Abode does apply to US and Canadian citizens. Providing you can remain in the UK for 5 years, you can then apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain before moving onto full citizenship status.

Is living in the UK expensive?

Yes, it’s rather expensive to live in the United Kingdom. Overall your bills will depend on your chosen location, and housing will be your biggest expense.

The cost of living in London is the highest in the country. Here is how London compares to other major cities when it comes to average monthly expenses:

Rent
2-bed flat outside of the city centre
Average utility bills for a 2-bed flatMonthly transport expenses3-course meal for 2 people in a restaurant
London£2,000£190£160£60
Edinburgh£1,100£136£56£60
Cardiff£900£190£53£40
Belfast£710£70£60£50
Manchester£960£160£74£60
Birmingham£900£150£65£50
Leeds£850£145£62£52
Glasgow£820£110£60£50
Liverpool£680£130£70£60
Sheffield£710£145£65£40
Average monthly expenses in UK cities

Food and grocery

When it comes to food and grocery shopping in the UK, the average grocery shopping bill for a family of 3 is £350 a month. Food and clothing are generally inexpensive.

Healthcare costs

Your healthcare is publicly funded (paid out of your taxes) and you don’t need to buy health insurance, however, you might want to get dental insurance which usually starts at about £30 per couple per month. All children under 18 are eligible for free dental care by NHS.

Childcare costs

Children aged 3 and 4 are entitled to 30 hours of state-funded childcare per week. A part-time day nursery for a child under 2 years old costs on average £138 per week.

You will pay approximately the same for a holiday club for your child (a childcare facility looking after children during school holidays).

Where to live in the UK

The UK consists of mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Deciding where to live in the UK depends on plenty of factors, but the biggest one is how much money you’re willing to spend.

Let’s break it down into the 4 nations for greater clarity.

Living in the UK
The four nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the England’s regions.

England

England is the largest and most diverse nation in the UK. It’s what many expats consider to be the UK, but this isn’t correct. Within England, you’ll find a wider range of quality of living than elsewhere.

London

London is an obvious choice for many, particularly due to its job opportunities. It’s unlike any other city in the UK because of its size, and many British citizens treat it almost as a country in its own right.

London has (by far) the highest cost of living in the UK. Living in London comes with all the pros and cons you’d expect from a capital city. Many workers prefer to live elsewhere in the UK and commute to their London jobs, as this isn’t particularly difficult.

Southeast England

Outside of London, the south of England has the highest quality of living in the UK. Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex are the most prosperous – and expensive – counties in the south.

Living in the UK
Brighton Beach and the seafront at dusk.

House prices aren’t far below London, but there are some amazing properties to compensate. Despite prices, it’s a good option for setting up a business because of connections to London and Europe. It’s also the best area for the most “authentic” English experience.

If you want to be by the sea, the choice is great. Brighton has the best connection with London and is a very trendy and fashionable place.

An hour train ride from Brighton is Eastbourne, a popular seaside town where properties are more affordable than in Brighton. It has a wonderful town centre and a fantastic seafront that stretches for over 4 km.

Hastings is one of the cheapest places in the region while still being relatively close to London (90 minutes by train).

Other popular places are Reigate in Surrey, Petersfield in Hampshire, Farnham in Surrey, Cowes in Isle of Wight, Amersham in Buckinghamshire, Hurley in Berkshire, Petworth in West Sussex, Cookham in Berkshire, High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

The region has plenty of amazing towns and villages, most of them less than 2 hours’ drive from London.

Southwest England

The counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset are some of the most picture-perfect places in southwest England. There are, of course, others: Gloucestershire, Bristol and Wiltshire, but they can’t beat Cornwall, Devon and Somerset in popularity.

The cost of living is among the lowest in the south, but it’s still pretty expensive. It’s perhaps one of the best choices if you want a more peaceful life with stunning views, a sweet climate and a beautiful coastline at your disposal.

St Ives in Cornwall deserves your special attention as it was named the happiest town in the UK in 2020.

Another place to consider is Topsham in Devon. The town has been regarded as one of the best places to live in the Southwest for its strong sense of community, independence, quirky family-run cafes and coffee shops and improving amenities.

In Somerset Frome is a very popular town. It has good schools, stunning countryside close to the Bristol Channel and boasts an easy commute to Bristol and Bath.

If you prefer city living, look at Bristol, Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Exeter, Gloucester, Plymouth and Swindon.

The Midlands

The Midlands include Wolverhampton, Birmingham, and the Black Country. The quality of living is lower than in the south, but so is the cost. However, the area has experienced a significant economic revival in recent years, so is a good option for work. It also has the most multicultural communities in the country, making it a fascinating place.

Living in the UK
Broadway in Worcestershire, West Midlands, is often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the Cotswolds’.

If Midlands cities are a bit too industrial for your taste and you wish to consider smaller towns, you have a lot to choose from.

Shrewsbury in Shropshire is very picturesque with its Tudor centre lined with half-timbered houses. The town has fantastic parks and lovely walks along the river.

Stamford in Lincolnshire has been named as the best place to live in the Midlands and is described as “architectural eye candy”. It’s also one of the favourite locations in the UK for filming period dramas.

Lincoln is another place that has also been rated as one of the best places to live in the Midlands and the UK.

It’s a great place with all the amenities, schools, shops, a hospital and a very pretty high street called Steep Hill. It is very steep, so you do need a certain degree of fitness to go all the way up. But if you manage it, the reward is the entrance to Lincoln Cathedral – one of the most spectacular Gothic buildings that held the record for the world’s tallest building for over two centuries

Northern England

Northern England includes counties such as Yorkshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire. Its distance from London has led to historic inequality, but this is currently changing. The area is going through a period of strong economic growth, making it another good option for businesses.

There are some absolutely spectacular cities, towns and villages in Northern England.

York, for starters, is a true star if you can afford it. It’s cultured, beautiful, has top schools, great infrastructure, good travel connections with London and amazing restaurants and cafes. It’s a brilliant place for bringing up your children, starting your own career or for an upscale urban retirement.

If you look for an affordable vibrant city, Leeds should be on your list. The food and drink scene in Leeds is top-notch, the rent is affordable, all the facilities you need are here. Besides, Leeds University is one of the top 100 universities in the world.

If you are after a seaside living, Yorkshire boasts a long list of very pretty seaside towns including such gems as Scarborough, Bridlington, Filey, Whitby, Sandsend and Robin Hood’s Bay.

In Cheshire, Altrincham is one of the best places to live in the northwest credited for its parks, excellent transport links and top-class schools. Bollington and Knutsford are also among the top locations in the area.

Chester, Cheshire capital , is great if you don’t like big cities, but need all urban amenities on your doorstep. In Chester, you will find excellent schools, low crime levels, all the shops, restaurants and bars you can dream of and, of course, Chester Zoo.

Wales

Wales is a country of incredible beauty that’s often overlooked by expats. Quieter than Cornwall, less crowded than Devon, Wales is full of unspoiled natural beauty.

Living in the UK
Tenby Beach in Wales

Moreover, according to livingcost.org Wales is the top country to live in the UK. It shares the same livability score as England – 92, but its cost of living is significantly lower – $1,502 vs England’s $1,978.

Being on the west side of the UK with the Atlantic as its closest neighbour, the country is a bit wetter than southeast England, but the climate is very mild. Many coastal towns have a very exotic feel with their seafronts lined by palm trees and evergreen ornamental grass happily enjoying mild winters.

Wales is the only country in the world with a continuous waymarked path around its entire coast. Yes, it means you can walk all the way along the Welsh coastline, all 870 miles/1400 kilometres of it. The path is well maintained, the nature – unspoiled and stunning, and the views are unforgettable.

Wales is not just pretty, it’s a distinct country with its own national identity and language. Don’t worry though, everyone in Wales speaks English as it has the same official status as the Welsh language has.

Wales is perfect for families as there are a lot of facilities for children. Education is of high quality. Six out of eight Universities in Wales are in the top 100 of University League Tables 2022.

South Wales, particularly Cardiff and Swansea, is quite a vibrant and economically active region. It is a great option for establishing a business in Wales or looking for good career opportunities.

If you are after a smaller cosy town, consider Aberystwyth, Bangor, Carmarthen, Penarth, Cardigan, Abergavenny and Cowbridge.

Anywhere in Wales is an excellent choice for retirees, particularly if you enjoy an active lifestyle and want access to stunning nature walks, amazing beaches and picturesque hills.

Scotland

Scotland is also known for its beauty and wildness. There’s a far more explicit divide between cities and rural areas, thanks in part to the Highlands.

Living in the UK
Edinburgh skyline, Scotland.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are obvious choices for businesses and career opportunities but the country is currently making a name for itself in the UK’s space industry, meaning there’s a boom of specialist jobs.

There are dozens of towns in Scotland that deserve your attention too.

North Berwick, for example, has lovely beaches, great views, and a vibrant town centre. It’s a good place for families with children as the secondary school is very successful.

Bearsden is another top town. It’s conveniently close to Glasgow, but is tranquil and peaceful, with excellent facilities for families.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has a fascinating history and is known for its kind and tolerant people. Its capital, Belfast, is the most obvious choice for businesses and jobs, but the more rural areas (County Down and County Antrim) are excellent choices for those wanting a peaceful retirement.

Living in the UK
Bangor, a seaside resort on the southern side of Belfast Lough in Northern Ireland.

Holywood, for example, offers all town amenities, access to parks and proximity to the capital. It has a beautiful coast, good train connections to Belfast and a perfect balance between town and countryside living.

If you are looking to retire to Northern Ireland, consider Armagh. According to the local residents aged 65 and over, it is apparently the happiest county in Northern Ireland.

The city of Armagh is pretty stunning, with all the facilities you need, good schools and plenty to do. It’s perfect for families and retirees wishing to have both the bustle of city living and the charm of the countryside.

Life in the UK

Many expats have a certain perception of the UK based on TV shows. Despite it being popular in TV and film, and as a tourist destination, there are some things you’ll only find out by living here.

Luckily, we’ve got the real facts for you.

1. The British love to drink

Sure, most countries enjoy a drink or two, but the British are on another level. Many (particularly European) countries consider being drunk to be gauche, but the British love it. Visit a city centre on a Friday night for a taste of British drinking culture.

2. Hopefully you like football

This myth is pretty accurate: football (soccer) is a religion for many British people. You’ll inevitably be asked your favourite team and have to put up with matches on the TV at your local drinking establishment.

3. Buying a property is convoluted

If you’re lucky enough to be buying a property in the UK, be prepared for a lengthy process. There are numerous steps involved, and the need for lawyers on both sides means everything drags on for months.

4. National Trust membership is worth it

The National Trust manages the majority of the UK’s heritage sites, beautiful parks, forests and impressive mansions full of historic treasures. Visiting such sites is one of the favourite past times for the locals. Buying a membership gives you access to all of them, so it’s a great idea if you love historical sites.

5. British food culture is… interesting

Chicken Tikka is the UK’s national dish, despite it being an Indian-inspired dish. But, this is a country that used to count jellied eels and offal amongst its go-to dishes, so at least it’s moving up in the world.

6. Accents vary wildly

Here you only need to travel a few miles up the road to find a vastly different accent. If English isn’t your first language, be prepared for some interesting conversations.

7. The UK is home to the longest town name in the world

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (Llanfair PG) is a town in Wales that takes the award for the longest town name in the world. While not a defining part of British culture, it’s certainly an interesting tourist fact.

8. British people are nicer than they seem

Despite being the home of football hooliganism, the UK’s population are much nicer than they seem. If you settle down in a smaller town or rural village, most people will happily make you feel welcome.

9. The British have their own perception of distance

Americans, Canadians, and most Europeans will notice this. In the UK, a 30-minute car ride is considered longer than average, and a 4-hour drive is a day’s worth. Despite this, it only takes 15 hours to drive from one end of the country to the other.

10. The UK is very diverse

The UK has a long history of immigration, resulting in a very diverse population. It’s illegal to discriminate against people based on race or ethnicity (among other characteristics) and this has led to the UK being a generally very tolerant country.

Final thoughts on living in the UK

Living in the UK might not offer the same laid-back lifestyle and glorious weather you’ll find in many other countries that we feature, but it’s still an attractive prospect for skilled workers and other eligible visa-holders. It has high standards of living, a mild climate, lovely towns and villages for healthy active retirement and good opportunities for businesses and professionals.

When assessing your options for living in the UK, it can help to travel around to check out different areas. Luckily, this isn’t too difficult because it’s a fairly small country!

Jacob Powell

Jacob is a freelance writer based in Swansea, Wales. He lives with his partner and two dogs, Merlin and Matilda. After gaining his BA and MA in English Literature, Jacob decided to take his writing full time.

He writes for Expatra alongside a number of other regular clients. After his parents emigrated to France in January 2020, Jacob has a special interest in all things expat related and even plans to retire abroad himself someday.

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