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Moving from the US to the UK

Last Modified: 20 November 2001

This page describes, in fairly serious detail, the process of moving from the US to the UK. I have written it because while I was embroiled in the process of moving to the UK, information posted on the web by other people proved indispensible. Questions were answered that I didn't yet know I was going to have. I'd like to return the favor by posting information about my own experience, which includes some situations I haven't seen addressed anywhere else, in the hope that it may prove useful to others. I've tried to cover, or at least mention, all the issues I had to handle, which encompasses a wide range of topics.

Each person considering a move from the US to the UK will have their own unique set of circumstances. Yours will not be exactly the same as mine. No doubt some of the information herein will not apply to you, but much of it may. It should at least provide you with a starting point for your own research, and at best save you from duplicating the effort I have already expended.

However, if you are moving from somewhere other than the US, or to somewhere other than the UK, that will seriously limit the applicability of anything on this page (if indeed anything at all remains applicable). If you're going in the exact other direction--UK to US--try Brits in the US.

It's worth mentioning that "UK" refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It does not include the country of Ireland (Eire).

Caveat lector: Herein, I describe my experience and my understanding of the process of moving from the US to the UK. Moving to another country is a complex undertaking involving many rules, requirements, government agencies, and stacks of paperwork, all of which are subject to change at any time, and all of which are highly dependent on your individual situation. It is not my intention to advise you on how you should proceed or what is required of you. Also, bear in mind that anything I say could be wrong. Verify everything yourself.

A note about reading this page: You'll find a lot of links to other sites on this page. Obviously, clicking on such a link would take you away from this page. I waffled a bit, but in the end I've settled on opening these external links in a new browser window. This keeps you from accidentally leaving this site or losing your place on the page. I apologize if you find this annoying (I generally do, to be honest).


1. Staying in the UK: Legal Requirements
 1.1 UK Work Eligibility
 1.2 Work Permits
 1.3 Settlement Visa Process (Spouses and Fiancé(e)s)
  1.3.1 Fiancé(e) Visa
  1.3.2 Get Married
  1.3.3 Spouse Visa
 1.4 Leave to Remain
 1.5 A Word About Citizenship
 1.6 Links Related to Visas, Leave to Remain, and Citizenship
2. Preparing
 2.1 Bank Accounts
  2.1.1 In the UK
  2.1.2 In the US
 2.2 Retain Tax Accountants
 2.3 Cars and Car Insurance
 2.4 Medical Insurance
 2.5 Mail Forwarding and Change-Of-Address
 2.6 Get Your CV (Resumé) in Order
 2.7 Useful Things to Stock Up On & Do
 2.8 Homesickness
 2.9 Stress
 2.10Move to Another State??
3. Moving Your Stuff
 3.1 The Process - How Your Stuff Gets from Point A to Point B (Hopefully Without Unexpectedly Visiting Points Z, N, and W Along the Way)
 3.2 How Much Professional Involvement?
 3.3 Selecting A Moving Company
 3.4 What You Do Before Moving Day
  3.4.1 How Do I Organize This Nightmare?
  3.4.2 What Should I Bring?
  3.4.3 Forms?! What Forms?
 3.5 What Happens On Moving Day
 3.6 ...And Then You Wait
 3.7 What Happens When Your Stuff Arrives
 3.8 What Will It Cost?
 3.9 My Move Timeline
 3.10 Links Related to Move Planning
4. After Arrival in the UK
 4.1 US Taxes
  4.1.1 Federal Taxes
  4.1.2 Have You Noticed That I Haven't Even Mentioned State Taxes Yet?
 4.2 UK Taxes
  4.2.1 Filing Taxes
  4.2.2 They Pay 60% Taxes in the UK, Right?
 4.3 National Insurance Number
  4.3.1 The Number
  4.3.2 The Contributions
 4.4 NHS Number
 4.5 Retirement Planning Issues
 4.6 Driving License
  4.6.1 Apply for a Provisional Licence
  4.6.2 Get Insured
  4.6.3 Take Driving Lessons?
  4.6.4 Schedule and Take the Theory Test
  4.6.5 Schedule and Take the Practical Test
  4.6.6 Send for your Full Licence
  4.6.7 Links Related to Licences and Driving
 4.7 Absentee Voting
 4.8 Register at the US Embassy
5. More Useful Links

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Staying in the UK: Legal Requirements


Always remember two things while you're cussing and swearing at how the visa process seems designed to keep you out.

First, it is designed to keep you out. The halcyon days when people wandered freely from country to country are long gone. The UK, just like the US, doesn't want you to come in and take a job away from a citizen. Plus, a lot of people want to live in the UK; if they were all let in, it would be standing room only, so the process is designed to limit the numbers who are even eligible to apply.

Second, however bad it may seem, it's apparently worse in the other direction. Coming to the US, even as the spouse of a citizen, apparently involves blood tests and medical exams and other unpleasantness! For all that it may seem daunting sometimes, the UK immigration process is at least pretty straightforward.

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UK Work Eligibility


Any US citizen with a valid US passport can come to the UK and stay for up to six months. If you want to stay longer than six months, or if you want to take employment in the UK, you must get an appropriate visa. There are quite a few ways to get a work-eligible visa (see a fairly comprehensive list), but most of them are not realistic for ordinary people. Chances are you're probably in one of these two situations:

  • You are marrying a UK citizen (settlement visa, also called a spouse visa).
  • You have been (or want to be) sponsored by a UK company that wants to employ you (work permit).

These two situations are discussed in more (sometimes lots more) detail below.


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Work Permits


I don't know much about this route, not having done it myself, but I can still provide some general information and pointers. The basic process is:

  • You somehow convince a UK company that it wants to hire you.
  • The company applies for a work permit for you (that's right, much of the bureaucracy is on their shoulders).
  • Once the work permit is issued, you can then go to the UK.

As you might expect, the devil is in the details.

  • You cannot come to the UK to job-hunt. It is illegal to job-hunt on a tourist visa. (Well, mostly. Some aspects are and some aren't. You'd be wise to seek legal advice before trying any aspect of job-hunting while in the country on a tourist visa.) You must somehow, from afar, convince a company that it wants you badly enough to go through a vast amount of paperwork (and some expense) just to have you. If they even want to interview you in person, they have to get a special visa to let you enter the country for interviewing purposes.
  • Getting a work permit isn't much fun for the sponsoring company. It's similar to the US Green Card process in that they must advertise the position and demonstrate that they could not find qualified candidates. One extra nasty bit is that because the UK is part of the EU (European Union), the potential employer must demonstrate that there were no qualified candidates not just in the UK, but in the entire EU. (In practice, they just advertise the job in one of several periodicals that have wide enough European circulation to be considered OK by the immigration people.) You'll have to be pretty darn impressive (or convincing) for a company to choose to go through all this bother on your behalf.
  • If a company does sponsor you, your work permit is only good for that company and that job. If you change positions within the company, or change companies, you have to start all over and get a new work permit for the new job. If the company eliminates your job, you're not just out of a job, you're out of a country, unless you find someone else (quickly!) to sponsor you. (But it is possible to springboard from a work permit to permanent residency.)

With all that glum stuff said, people do manage to do this, so it's not impossible.

  • One strategy I think would be likely to succeed is to get a job with a very large US company that has offices in the UK. The bigger the company, the better. If it's big enough, it will have a department just for handling immigration matters. Once you're in, you have access to internal job postings. Eventually you may find a job at a UK office that would be suitable for you. You apply for the job, and because the company has an immigration department, the hiring manager doesn't have to deal with it herself and has no incentive not to hire you. This strategy may sound implausible, but I've seen it work myself; when I worked at Digital, quite a few adventurous staff engaged in country-hopping. (Clearly this is a strategy for especially patient people.)
  • A variant of this strategy is to apply directly to a large UK company--again, one big enough to have an immigration department. The idea is to make sure the person making the hiring decision isn't the one who will have to go through the work permit process. Very large companies apply for work permits all the time; what's one more?
  • Although I have no firsthand experience with it, some web sites claim that immigration restrictions are relaxed for certain types of jobs because of staff shortages in the UK. Some that I've seen mentioned have been teachers and nurses (not surprising), and IT staff (very surprising).
  • Finally, I've seen web sites that claim they can get you a work permit. I have no idea how shady or underhanded these companies are, or what they charge, or how successful they are, or even how they do it, but it's worth mentioning that they do exist.
  • Update: The UK may be in the process of revamping its work permit legislation to make it easier for people to get them. Specifically, they may do away with the prohibition on job-hunting. A lot of noise has been made about this in the news recently, but whether anything practical has come out of it yet I don't know.


(Not many links on this topic, because the available information is geared toward employers. They are the ones who have to apply for your work permit.)

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Settlement Visa Process (Spouses and Fiancé(e)s)


This is the process I am following.



Fiancé(e) Visa


What is it? The fiancé(e) visa allows you to enter the UK for the purpose of changing status, i.e. getting married. It is a single-entry visa, valid for entry into the UK for six months from the date of issue. Once you enter the UK, the visa is valid for six months, during which you presumably get married. While in the UK on a fiancé(e) visa, you cannot accept an offer of employment, which effectively means you can't job-hunt with one.

Fiancé(e) visas exist because it's apparently not allowed for you to come to the UK on a tourist visa and get married while you're here. But although you're not supposed to, people apparently do it all the time, at least according to the New York consulate staff. So theoretically, you could get married on a tourist visa in the UK, or alternatively, your British intended could come to the US and you could get married here. Either way, you leapfrog straight to the spouse visa. It's up to you whether you want to try doing it the officially-not-allowed way. I don't know just how frowned-upon it really is.

Where do I apply? You can apply in person or by mail to a British Consulate in the US. (I don't think the Home Office handles fiancé(e) visa applications.) If you apply in person, the visa is generally issued the same day. This is a lot better than waiting weeks or months for processing by mail (it's hard to book flights when you don't know when you'll legally be able to travel). I applied for my fiancé(e) visa in person at the British Consulate in New York. You don't get to choose which consulate you apply at; you have to apply at the one that serves your area. I was lucky that mine was relatively close to where I lived anyway; yours may be quite far away. I believe there are only 4 visa-processing British Consulates in the US (Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and New York).

How do I apply? Collect a vast pile of paper and bring it with you. (And it is you that has to apply; you are the foreigner requesting the visa.) I got the list of what to bring by calling the New York consulate and navigating their auto-attendant menus until I got to a list. Since that time, the consular web site has conveniently posted a list.

Not surprisingly, their lists are a bit difficult to decipher, because they are trying to cover all possible situations. Here's what I brought:

  • Mike. Seriously. Your sponsor (the British citizen you intend to marry) doesn't have to be there, but it doesn't hurt. If you apply by yourself, you must bring a letter from your sponsor, stating that he is aware of your application, that he supports it, and that it is your intention to marry and live together permanently as each other's spouses in the UK.
  • Immigration forms IM2A and IM2B. Leaflet INF4 will help you fill these out. Note that the UK standard is to fill out forms in block capital letters. Also, the standard for checking boxes is to use a "tick mark", which is what we'd call a check mark. Don't X boxes.
  • Passports (mine and Mike's)
  • Two recent passport-sized photos of me (they keep these)
  • Birth certificates (mine and Mike's)
  • Evidence that a wedding is planned (we had a booking confirmation from the Register Office)
  • Evidence of accommodation in the UK (we brought Mike's mortgage papers)
  • Evidence of financial support. Your sponsor must demonstrate that his salary--not yours--is adequate to support both of you. Distasteful as the notion may be, you will be considered a dependant of your sponsor for purposes of this application. Your US job and income mean nothing, because you'll most likely be giving them up when you move to the UK. They applied the closest scrutiny to this category of paperwork. Don't bring old records. We brought:
    • Mike's 3 most recent bank statements
    • His 3 most recent pay stubs
    • His most recent salary letter from his employer
    • Just in case, I also brought my 3 most recent bank statements. They're not on the official list of things to bring, but amazingly, they asked for them. I probably would have been OK if I didn't have them; I think they considered current balance, nothing more (on the grounds that it could be used to help support me until I became employed).
    It's also very good to bring a letter from your sponsor's employer stating title, length of service, annual salary, and whether the position is permanent. (The British have a different notion of job permanence than we have in the US. Many positions are contract.)
    I don't know what level of support your sponsor has to demonstrate. A UK immigration lawyer we spoke to stated that she thinks they're looking for evidence of £150/week after taxes, but that seems awfully low to me and I wouldn't count on it.
  • Evidence that you have met and have a relationship. Letters are good, but in this day of email, who writes letters? We brought pictures of us together, phone bills, plane ticket stubs, and also had the stamp in my passport from my visit to the UK. (Well, plus we had Mike himself; we could have made googly-eyes at each other if we'd had to.)
  • The visa fee in cash, money order, or cashier's check; they absolutely will not take checks. It was $384 at the time; it changes monthly (because it's really an amount in £, probably £250, so it varies with the exchange rate). Call your consulate to verify the current fee just before you go. I personally think it's a bad idea to bring a money order or cashier's check; if the fee has changed from what you expected, you're stuck. Cash is more flexible. (If you mail your application, there will be an extra fee for return post or FedEx. Again, call your consulate just before mailing to be sure you send the current amount.)

A few helpful hints:

  • Bring originals of all documents. For some documents, they'll allow notarized (or "full certified") copies, but personally I see no reason to take chances. They give everything back, so there's little reason to bring copies.
  • If you're not sure whether to bring something, bring it. It's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
  • Don't rely solely on my list of things to bring. My situation was utterly vanilla. If you have ever been married before, or you have children, or the British person you're marrying isn't a citizen, or any of a dozen other situations, you're going to need to bring a lot of documentation that I didn't have to bother with. Check the consulate's list of documents to be sure you have everything that applies to your situation.
  • Most importantly: Don't go about this haphazardly. You are two very small people going up against an enormous bureaucracy. Get your act together in advance. Be absolutely sure you have everything you need, filled out in advance. Whether you're making a special trip a few hundred miles to your nearest consulate, or mailing forms in, you're not going to be overjoyed to have your application rejected because you forgot a piece of paper.
  • This one may seem obvious, but I'll throw it out anyway: If your passport is going to expire within the next year or two, renew it before you start any of this. Your visas are just stamps in your passport, so if your passport expired and had to be replaced while you were still depending on your fiancé(e) or spouse visa, I don't know what would happen to your visa stamps, and I wouldn't want to find out the hard way.

What happens when I apply? I get the impression that the consulates have a lot of leeway to do things their own way. What I'm describing is my experience at the New York consulate.

The consulate accepts applications between 9:00AM and 1:00PM weekdays. (They observe British holidays. Call before you go to make sure it's not going to be a holiday.) A lot of people--30 or more--show up every day. The queue starts forming at 8:00AM. The earlier you arrive, the better place in line you'll secure, and the sooner you'll be done. (It helps a lot to stay at a nearby hotel the night before.) You should figure that each person's application will take an average of about 10 minutes, so if there are 20 people ahead of you and two windows open, you should expect an hour and a half wait for your turn. (I don't know what happens at 1:00 to anyone who hasn't made it to the front of the line yet.)

You're at a consulate, so security is slightly intimidating. These guys were not hired for their sense of humor. You don't get personally searched, but your bags will be. You'll be told the rules (e.g. don't turn on your cell phone, don't leave bags unattended) when you arrive. Breaking rules results in a rather stern reprimand. You are given a numbered card for a place in line, which is very nice because you don't have to fret about making sure you don't lose your place. On the whole, everything is very organized and civilized.

There are some chairs, a passport photo booth, and several windows that look a lot like bank teller windows. The atmosphere is rather subdued. There will be a few people asking to borrow a pen, looking for the forms they should have already filled out, and asking whether you can change a $10 for two $5s so they can use the passport photo machine. Shortly before 9:00, the security staff line everyone up by their numbered cards. You see consulate staff getting ready behind the windows. The windows open. As you wait in line, you can hear what the people ahead of you are saying; there's not much privacy. When your turn comes, you go up to the window, state that you're there for a fiancé(e) visa, and hand over each item of paperwork as it's asked for. They make copies of some things and return them right away. Others, like your passports, they keep. They give you a claim ticket that you must provide in order to get it all back.

They tell you that an interview is required and ask you to take a seat. First, though, you have to go to another window to pay your fee (it's not done by the person who takes your application). Then you sit down and wait for your name to be called. When it is, you're directed to one of two interview rooms. You go in and sit across from one of the consulate staff. We thought this interview would be scary--you know, an attempt to see whether we really had a relationship, or some sort of unpleasant cross-examination. Actually, there was nothing to it; we were basically told what happens next. They explain that the fiancé(e) visa is only a limited duration, single-entry visa. They tell you how to apply for a spouse visa once you're married. And, if all goes well, they tell you to come back between 4:00PM and 5:00PM to pick up your documents (i.e. your passports and the other paperwork they've kept).

Ours was probably a textbook application. We had everything we needed and had no reason to make them suspicious. I expect the interview may not always be quite such a formality, although I have no idea under what circumstances.

So, you go out and kill a few hours in the City That Never Sleeps. At 4:00PM, you come back and hand over your claim ticket. They give back everything they kept. In your passport you now have a spiffy new multicolored, textured stamp that takes up most of a page. That's it; that stamp is your fiancé(e) visa. Off you go!


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Get Married


Presumably your British fiancé(e) knows, or can find out, how to go about setting this up, so I won't linger on this topic other than to mention the basic process and the extra considerations because you're foreign. Essentially, the steps for a civil marriage are:

Book the date: At least several months in advance (especially if you want your wedding to be on a weekend), your fiancé(e) makes a booking at his district's Register Office for a wedding date. But then, you've already done this step, because you needed proof of this booking to get your fiancé(e) visa, so you're OK!

Meet the residency requirements: The remaining steps have residency requirements. Don't expect to fly to the UK and get married the next day. Call your fiancé(e)'s district's Registrar and have them explain the residency requirements to you. Make sure you understand them before you book your plane tickets!

  • You, the foreigner, must be resident in the UK, in the district served by that Register Office, at least 7 days before you can give notice.
  • Notice must be given at least 15 days before the scheduled wedding. Altogether, this means you must arrive in the UK more than 3 weeks before your scheduled wedding.
  • These residency requirements probably also apply to your fiancé(e), but since you're doing this in the district where he lives, you don't have to worry about it unless he moves at the same time all this is going on.
  • New residency requirements came into effect on 1 January 2001; the requirements described above are different from those I had to meet. I got these new requirements from web research. I could be wrong. Verify everything yourself. Watch out when you're doing your research--I have found many sites that still post the old requirements.

Give notice: Your next step is to give notice of your intention to marry, which is done by both of you, in person, at that same Register Office. This step is equivalent to applying for a marriage license.

  • Make an appointment to give notice. Don't just wander in.
  • Bring your passports and birth certificates. They also recommend that you bring any relevant travel-related documents that would establish when you arrived in the country. (I'd think the stamp in your passport ought to count, but then I'm not a bureaucracy.)
  • The fee was £25 at the time we did this.

Get married: Show up on the scheduled day with your passports, the fee (it was £84 when we did this but for all I know it may change; the Registrar will tell you when you give notice), and at least two witnesses. After the wedding, they'll give you your marriage certificate. Get a death grip on this piece of paper. You'll need it later.

A church wedding is probably completely different. They may have their own ways to handle the legal requirements that don't involve going to a Register Office. If you have a church wedding, just be careful that your necessary legal requirements are handled. Your UK relatives-in-law-to-be may be used to planning weddings and may take a particular process for granted that doesn't take your non-citizenship into account. You definitely don't want to show up for your £10,000 wedding only to find that you can't legally get married that day.


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Spouse Visa


Right, the fun's over; back to the paperwork.

What is it? The spouse visa is a multiple-entry visa (you can leave the country and return), good for one year. With it, you can legally be employed by any employer in the UK.

Where do I apply? Again, you can apply in person or by mail to a British Consulate in the US. According to the staff at the British Consulate in New York, the most common procedure is to enter the UK on your fiancé(e) visa, get married, stay here, and apply by mail for your spouse visa, but you don't have to do it this way. I didn't; I flew back to the US and applied in person, again, at that same old British Consulate. That way I got mine the same day and didn't have to wait months before being eligible for UK employment. You should take whatever approach works best for your situation. Particularly notice that by leaving the UK, I "used up" my fiancé(e) visa (remember, it's a single-entry visa). I could not return to the UK, except as a tourist, until I got my spouse visa, so there was a bit of a gamble at this stage.

You can also allegedly apply by mail to the Home Office in London, but I can't find any information on the web about where to send such an application. (Also, leaflet INF4 seems to contradict this; it specifically states that "You must apply at the British mission in the country where you are living.") I've never applied to the Home Office by mail, so I don't know whether there are differences in documentary requirements or in the process, or how long it takes. Indeed, I'm skeptical that it is even possible, but (as always!) do your own research before taking my word for it.

How do I apply? Applying for your spouse visa is just like applying for your fiancé(e) visa, so go back and reread the fiancé(e) visa section above. Collect that same pile of paper again, except:

  • This time, supply your marriage certificate instead of evidence that a wedding is scheduled.
  • Fill out IM2A and IM2B again. Your information has changed.
  • Be sure you provide new, up-to-the-minute copies of bank statements, pay stubs, etc. Old ones won't do.
  • Supply two more passport photos.
  • You have to pay the visa fee again. (I've seen sites that allege that you don't have to pay it a second time, that you are "converting" your fiancé(e) visa to a spouse visa. I certainly had to pay for it a second time.)


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Leave to Remain


Caveat: This section is entirely from the perspective of coming in through the settlement visa process. I know even less about Leave to Remain for work permit holders than I do for people with settlement visas.

What is it? As you draw near the time when your spouse visa runs out, you can apply for either "Further Leave to Remain" or "Indefinite Leave to Remain". As far as I know, Indefinite Leave to Remain is much like Permanent Residency in the US. With it, there will no longer be a time limit on how long you can stay in the UK.

If you're here on a work permit, I believe you have to be here for 4 years before you can apply for permanent residency.

Where do I apply? For an application for Indefinite Leave to Remain, Form SET(M) says to mail your application to: Initial Consideration Unit - SET(M), Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Block C, Whitgift Centre, Croydon CR9 1AT. Verify this address yourself before sending anything; for all I know it may change every other Tuesday.

How do I apply? Form SET(M) advises applying when you have about 4-5 weeks left on your spouse visa--no later, but not much earlier (if earlier, your application may be rejected).

To apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, it appears that you must submit a (very familiar) pile of documents:

  • Form SET(M). I am taking the rest of this list directly from the instructions found in form SET(M).
  • Passport photos of you and your spouse (one each), with your names written on the back
  • Your passport
  • Your spouse's passport
  • Evidence of financial resources: 3 months or more of bank statements or wage slips
  • Something different from the usual pile of stuff: Evidence that you are still married, which they want in the form of 5 items of mail addressed to both of you at the same address, or (if you don't have dual-addressed correspondence) 3 or 4 to you and 1 or 2 to your spouse. There is a specific list of acceptable correspondents (e.g. Inland Revenue, British Telecom); a letter from Aunt Ruth doesn't cut it. Plan for this one before you start assembling your application! I forgot about this requirement until just before I applied, and it very nearly killed me. I was moving into an existing house, you see. The bills are all in Mike's name and there was no reason to change any of them into my name. Nothing is addressed to both of us, and not much of an official nature is addressed to me. In the end, I supplied the cable bill, which is in my name, and a credit card statement.
  • If you want your documents returned via Recorded Delivery (RD) or Registered Post (RP), include an RD or RP label and a stamped, addressed envelope with sufficient postage.

They suggest posting your application by Recorded Delivery.

Update: I am now going through the Indefinite Leave to Remain application process. It has not gone quite as I'd expected. Here is some relevant text from form SET(M):

If your application is straightforward, it should be possible to complete it within 3 weeks of receipt (over 65% of all new immigration applications are being completed within this period). But it will take longer to complete your application if further enquiries or more extended consideration are necessary before a decision can be reached. On average, such cases are currently being completed within 12 weeks. Where enquiries have to be made, these may in some cases include visits conducted by the Immigration Service.

Silly me, I thought that this meant that, um, 65% of cases were completed within 3 weeks of receipt. Not so. Apparently the real average wait is about 3 months. Do not, as we did, make flight bookings on the assumption that allowing triple their estimated duration would be more than sufficient padding. Here's the real story:

  • The baffling 65%-in-3-weeks statistic quoted in the form is simply false. (You might think this is an old form, printed ages ago when the statistic was true. Not so. Form SET(M) has a lifespan. The one I submitted was only valid up to 14 October 2001, and replaced one that was only valid until 14 April 2001. This form is reissued regularly with this assertion still in it.)
  • The normal range of processing times is currently something like 3-6 months, and has apparently been this way for quite some time.
  • Indefinite Leave to Remain is considered more carefully than any other application. This is England's last chance to get rid of you easily. That's one reason it takes a long time.
  • Another reason is that this is the same staff who deal with asylum applications, which are all in an uproar just at the moment.
  • It's not terribly likely that your application will be denied (assuming your circumstances are simple, you meet whatever their self-support criteria are, and your application is properly made), because you're applying as the spouse of a British citizen. Approval will just take a long time in coming.
  • Your spouse visa will expire while you're waiting for your application to be processed. The immmigration attorney I spoke to said that this doesn't make you an "overstayer". If your spouse visa was still valid and not expired when your application was received, you're sort of in overtime until your application is decided one way or the other. You're still legally here. (You could hardly leave if you wanted to; they have your passport!)
  • Don't expect to get your acknowledgement form back within 3 weeks. I still haven't received mine and it's been nearly seven weeks at time of writing.


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A Word About Citizenship


I don't want to delve into this area much because I know little about it, not having had to deal with it myself yet.

Spouse visas, work permits, and even Leave to Remain have nothing to do with citizenship; that's an entirely separate topic. Some number of years after you get Leave to Remain, you can apply for citizenship (naturalization), but I'm pretty sure you don't have to.

Why wouldn't you want to? One reason is that the US isn't fond of dual citizenships. Officially, there are several ways you can forfeit your US citizenship if you're not careful (some are listed in your passport). A US immigration lawyer I spoke to said that current interpretation is that you don't give up your citizenship unless you explicitly state that it's your intent to do so, but it still sounds like an area fraught with potential difficulties. What would worry me is that so much is dependent on interpretation, and interpretations change, as they already have done on this very topic. The current favorable interpretation could go by the wayside any day, and could do so retroactively (even though we supposedly don't do ex post facto laws).

Basically, it appears to me that if you get involved in the citizenship arena, you should be careful, know the rules, and probably have a lawyer (or at least consult one) in each country to make sure you know what you're doing and don't inadvertently get yourself in a lot of trouble.

Why would you want to? Well, I don't know. So far we have only thought of two things you can't do in the UK without citizenship: vote, and serve on a jury. I've searched for a list of benefits conferred by citizenship, but haven't found one yet. (I'll update this section if I do.)

One update: An alert reader has pointed out a benefit that I hadn't thought of, namely that you get to join the short, fast passport control queue when re-entering the UK instead of waiting in the long, slow queue. If you're coming in at 5AM, you don't usually have much of a wait, but arrival during busy times is probably ghastly.

Another update: An immigration lawyer pointed out some other benefits I hadn't thought of:

  • After citizenship, you can get a British passport, which is logical. An unexpected consequence of this is that you can move freely throughout the EU, without worrying about visas as an American. You can also take employment in any EU country without further fiddling.
  • It's Indefinite Leave to Remain, not Irrevocable. It can be withdrawn at any point. Presumably there'd need to be a good reason, but it can be done.
  • Non-citizens don't have the same legal rights or protections as citizens. Like most countries, the UK is hurriedly drafting draconian new legislation to protect itself from terrorists--and a lot of it has special provisions regarding immigrants.

All in all, just more reason to consult an immigration lawyer to get your own advice if you choose to dip your toes into these waters.


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Links Related to Visas, Leave to Remain, and Citizenship


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An international move is complicated. There's a lot you need to do in advance in the US, and if possible, a few things you should do in advance in the UK.



Bank Accounts



In the UK


Opening a bank account in the UK isn't as straightforward as it is in the US. You can't just walk into a bank and open an account; they will probably turn you down. You're left standing there wondering why they turned you down when you're trying to give money to them. Here's why.

UK bank accounts have some default features that ours generally don't. One is that your debit card is also a "cheque guarantee card", with which shops may be more likely to take a personal cheque from you because it's guaranteed by the bank not to bounce (up to a certain amount). Another is that every account I've seen has some level of automatic overdraft protection. Because of these two features, opening an account is treated as a credit event, much like applying for a credit card...and you have no credit history in the UK.

Because you know how the American credit history system works, right now you're assuming that you're doomed. But here's where things get a bit surreal to the average American.

The UK, I'm told, has no system of personal credit history tracking. When someone wants to check your credit, they check the credit history of your address. (This doesn't mean a house can get a bad credit rating and pass it on to subsequent owners; you'd just have to prove your move-in date.) The good news for you is that this means nobody really has a personal credit history. You aren't going to have to establish a credit history before you can open a bank account.

Because there's no personal credit history, banks rely entirely on references and introductions. A reference from your previous bank would be sufficient to convince them of your creditworthiness. Of course the problem is that because American banks don't work this way, when you walk into your local branch and ask them to provide you with a reference, they have no idea what they should write. Sadly, neither do I. I got a letter from my bank that seemed suitable to me, but the UK bank said it wasn't good enough. I never did find out what they wanted the letter to say. If you want to go this route, you should go to (or perhaps call) the UK bank branch where you plan to open an account and get someone to dictate to you exactly what they would want a letter to say. Better yet, ask whether they have a form that your bank could fill out.

If, like me, you're moving to the UK because of marriage, you're in luck. Provided you're willing to have the same bank as your spouse, all that's required is for your spouse to "introduce you" to the bank. They'll want a letter from him that says some specific things; you'll have to ask your bank what that letter should say. (We never ended up writing the letter, because we went together to open my account. The bank employee wrote it out longhand and Mike signed it, so I don't have a copy.) Note that this presumably wouldn't work if your spouse had a terrible history with his bank. Anyway, based purely on Mike's introduction, the bank opened a current account (equivalent to a checking account) and issued me a credit card, just like that.

If you're moving to the UK on a work permit, you might try having your employer introduce you. I don't know whether that would actually work.

If you can, it's worth opening your UK bank account before your final trip to the UK, so you can make whatever financial arrangements you need before you leave the US. It's nice to have your own money already available in the UK when you get there.

The US-to-UK FAQ has a terrific section on opening a UK bank account, covering a lot that I haven't mentioned here.

Links to a few random (but all very large) UK banks (note that I do not recommend these banks; the links are provided for your convenience only):

  • This site contains links to several large UK banks
  • Abbey National
  • NatWest (National Westminster)
  • Lloyds TSB
  • Bank of Scotland
  • Royal Bank of Scotland (not the same thing)
  • Halifax
  • I looked for banks that existed in both countries, figuring that they might be better suited to my international situation. The only one I found was Barclays, and to be honest, I couldn't make heads or tails of their international accounts. I did gather that they charge a hefty fee for the privilege of having an account that's valid in two countries. (Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that an international account could be interesting from a tax point of view, so maybe it's more like having an offshore account than anything else.)

Other links:

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In the US


You might automatically assume that before you leave for the UK, you should close your US bank accounts. This is worth a second thought. Just because you've moved, your US expenses won't be over and done with on the same day. You'll have final utility bills that won't be sent till after you're gone. You may well have other, ongoing expenses in the US (for instance, I have storage unit expenses). If a surprise expense comes up months down the road, you won't have to work out how to try to pay it when all you can write is cheques in pounds. Plus, you'll continue to have ties to the US, probably for a very long time. Consider: if you return to the US for a visit, wouldn't it be handy to be able to write checks and use your credit cards? You wouldn't have to worry about currency conversion.

If your US bank has good internet banking, like mine does, it's almost no different than being there. From here, I can use the internet to transfer funds between my US accounts, and to mail checks to anyone. I can't do anything that requires being there in person, but by asking before I left, I found out that I can even mail deposits to them; they gave me special envelopes for the purpose.

Also, ask your bank about wire transfers. My bank allows any customer to set themselves up to do wire transfers. With this ability, I could make same-day money transfers from my US account directly to my UK account, without having to wait weeks for a check (from myself, to myself) to clear. This would let me do transfers on days when the exchange rates are particularly favorable. Sadly, I wasn't able to get this ability set up successfully before I left, but this was probably because I didn't start the process early enough. Don't let my blunder stop you from trying.

Important Note: Be aware that transferring money from the US to the UK can have tax implications. Depending on how your residency ends up being considered, you might have to pay income tax on funds you transfer (even if you've already paid tax on them in the US). All the more reason to retain a UK tax accountant early in the process, so you can get advice from them before you transfer anything.

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Retain Tax Accountants


I used to have a really simple tax situation. There was just me, with one employer, and no trust funds or complex investments or anything like that. I filled out the simplest form the IRS offered and that was that. Moving to another country changes all this, drastically. No matter how simple your tax situation used to be, it isn't now. See my topics about US tax implications and UK tax implications.

One of the best decisions I made during this entire process was to retain tax accountants. I actually have two, one in the US, for US taxes, and one in the UK, for UK taxes. Having tax accountants has had two great benefits for me. First, I didn't have to try to figure out for myself how all this stuff works and how it applies to me, which meant a great deal of time saved and stress avoided. Second, it means my returns have more than a snowball's chance of being right. I highly recommend it.

You might want to avoid the cost of retaining accountant(s), but it's a cost I think is well worth it. I've paid about $500 per return, which is a pittance compared to the double taxation, inadvertent taxes, and fines I could have incurred instead.

If you already have an accountant, loyalty is all very well and good, but if they don't specialize in international tax situations, you'll be the client they learn on (i.e. make all their mistakes on).

If you decide to retain accountants, I recommend doing so as early in the process as you can, so that you have advice before you inadvertently do something with serious tax implications in the course of your moving preparations. Tax laws, particularly as you move between countries, are complicated and not easy to predict. Don't assume that a simple transaction you can perform with no tax implications within the US therefore has no implications if you perform it across national boundaries. After all, people use country-hopping to avoid taxation and to launder money! When you have selected your accountant(s), describe your situation and ask them for their advice. They will probably point out things you should avoid doing that you would never have thought of. In fact, throughout this document you will find mention of tax implications in areas where you probably would not expect to find them.


  • Theodore Kleinman, CPA is an accountant who specializes in international tax considerations for US expatriates. Hey, that sounds like me! So I retained him to prepare my 2000 tax return. I've been very happy with the service he has provided; he's fast, organized and thorough. He reduced my involvement in this whole mess to a few signatures and answering some questions, and at every turn has made things as easy as they possibly could be.
  • Mark Levy, FCA (of Berley Chartered Accountants) is my UK tax accountant. Again, he obviously knows what he's doing, because I send him stacks of complicated information and he dashes out replies and forms virtually instantly.
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Cars and Car Insurance


Oh yeah, the car...What are you going to do with your car?

You're probably going to sell it. Unless you're a lot braver than I am, you won't bring it here and try to drive a wrong-sided car. (Plus you'd probably have to pay import duties on it, not to mention the cost of shipping.)

My problem was that I needed my car right up to when I left. If you're in the same situation, you'll have to think about how you want to sell it. Are you likely to find a buyer who will agree that they can't have it until a certain day? How will you deliver it? Can you get someone to sell it for you after you're gone?

Anyway, I therefore had to return the plates and get it un-registered by mail. (Well, to be honest, my sister did it.) The important thing is to know what your state requires to finalize your termination of ownership of the car, and make sure you meet those requirements, before you terminate your car insurance. In Massachusetts, without the plates being returned to the Registry, I'd still be legally liable for the car, and required to insure it.

One thing to be aware of up front: If you subsequently return to the US, you may find car insurance very expensive to obtain because there's a hiatus in your car insurance history. My insurance company told me that because of the gap, they'd treat me, upon returning, the same way they'd treat someone getting out of jail! They did say that if I brought back an official driving and insurance history from my time in the UK, they would be able to use that as evidence of continued good driving record and insurability. Therefore, if you do go back to the US, try to get some sort of official driving record and insurance record before you leave. I have, of course, no idea how you'd do that.

One more thing to be aware of, while you're visiting the UK prior to your final trip there: Your US car insurance probably doesn't cover you driving in the UK. Mine didn't, and wouldn't issue a special temporary coverage like they would for driving in Canada, either.

The US-to-UK FAQ has some words of wisdom about what to do with your car.

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Medical Insurance


Yes, the UK has the National Health Service (NHS), but do your research before you assume you're eligible to use it.

In particular, you're not eligible to use NHS for anything but emergency care while you're here on a fiancé(e) visa. With a spouse visa, you are eligible, but darned if I've figured out yet how to get an NHS number. (I'll update this once I've figured it out.) On the other hand, I've been to one medical-related activity already, and they brushed off my dutiful mention that I didn't have an NHS number. They didn't care; they took care of me anyway.

Until you get your spouse visa, if you currently have medical insurance from your US employer (and you continue to work for your US employer), ask whether they cover you while you're in the UK. My company's insurance did cover me, but I would have had to pay for any services up front and then submit bills for reimbursement.

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Mail Forwarding and Change-Of-Address


Remember to give your new address to all your utilities (for final bills), and also to anyone who will continue to correspond with you (e.g. banks, investment and retirement account holders, your current employer, etc). Basically look at the mail you get over the course of a month or so and try to notice which ones you might need to notify. I found that many of them, especially the utilities, can't handle an international address. This probably isn't surprising; a local electric company, serving a particular area, isn't likely to have very many international customers within their service area.

You may also want to put in a forwarding order with the post office. However, the post office won't forward mail outside the US. I therefore arranged with my brother to let me forward my mail to him, and he collects it up occasionally and sends it on to me. If you make a similar arrangement with someone domestic to receive your mail for you, put in your forwarding order well before you leave. My post office required a month's notice, and as far as I can tell the forms are standardized, so that requirement is probably the same where you are.

I also gave my brother's address to companies that couldn't handle an international address. (Don't worry, he holds my mail hostage in exchange for Thornton's chocolate, so he's not getting the short end of the deal.)

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Get Your CV (Resumé) in Order


Most of the rest of the world calls a resumé a CV (Curriculum Vitae, which apparently means something like "story of my life"). If your move to the UK will also require you to find a new job, you might as well get your CV ready beforehand. As with resumés, you'll get wildly differing (often directly contradictory) formatting and content advice from every source you check. Some authorities will tell you that there's no real difference between a CV and a resumé, while others will show you something that looks utterly alien. You'll have to reach your own conclusions on how to do yours.

If you search the web, you can find plenty of sites about CVs and how to write one. If you want a book, try amazon.co.uk. If you already have an account with amazon.com, you can use it to buy books from amazon.co.uk. The shipping will be fairly pricey, though. I ordered four CV-related books; the one I liked best was How to Write a Winning CV by Alan Jones.

One definite difference between what UK employers expect to find on a CV and what you're used to: Very personal information. It's routine here to include such items as date of birth, marital status, and nationality. I don't think there is as much lip service paid here to making hiring decisions without regard to these factors. For instance, it's apparently perfectly acceptable and quite commonplace to target a position to a particular age range. You can leave these items out, but you'd just be asked about them in an interview anyway, or perhaps never get to an interview because an employer might think you had something to hide.

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Useful Things to Stock Up On & Do


It's going to take you a while to settle in after you arrive. You're not going to know where anything is, how anything is done, or even see many familiar brand names at the store. I found it useful to bring some items, and to do some recurring things in advance so that I could put off, as long as possible, having to figure out where to get them/how to do them here.

Some things worth considering bringing:

  • Any product you're especially fond of (e.g. shampoo, over-the-counter medicines, particular foods). One UK quirk that might influence your thinking along these lines: They have recently passed laws severely restricting the size of headache tablet packages. You can't buy something like aspirin in more than a 16-pack. Mike says the theory was to make it more difficult to commit suicide with these kinds of pills, but the reasoning there is hard to follow; you could just buy a lot of packages, or accumulate them over time. Anyway, you won't find any 250-count bottles of Advil at your UK supermarket.
  • Prescriptions--consider getting all your remaining refills and bringing them (but verify with your pharmacist whether the medication can legally be brought into another country, or if there is a limit on quantity. Interestingly, I can find UK Customs information about restrictions on bringing medications out of the UK, but not in. It may be a good idea to bring a copy of the prescription in case you have to prove to Customs that it is indeed a prescribed medication.)

Some things worth considering doing, as close to the last minute as possible:

  • Medical checkups
  • Dental checkups
  • Optometric checkups
  • Haircuts
  • Renew your driver's license
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You might wonder why this topic appears under Preparing. The answer is that there are some things you can do before you go to help minimize or mitigate your potential homesickness.

Nobody can tell you whether you'll be homesick, or how badly, or for what. You can only try to assess yourself based on what you know about yourself. Also, your exposure to homesickness will depend on how much you're leaving behind. If your entire family is coming with you, and you're bringing most of your possessions, then I'd guess you're in pretty good shape. If, on the other hand, you're coming by yourself and/or bringing virtually nothing of your own, you may find yourself feeling alone among strangers and surrounded by unfamiliarity at every turn.

I'm about as hard-hearted as people get, yet I find that even I am sometimes overwhelmed by feeling like an alien. I suspect nothing fixes this but time--eventually, all the unfamiliar things simply become familiar. My theory is that the more you surround yourself with familiarity, the more stress capacity you'll have left over to deal with the inevitable unfamiliar. I brought much more of my possessions than, strictly speaking, I needed, and some of the things I brought could have been replaced here at relatively little cost. But I brought them anyway, just so I'd have them around when I felt the urge to wallow in familiarity. I especially made sure to bring things with sentimental importance. This is worth keeping in mind while you're ruthlessly trimming down your household belongings.

One other way you could fight homesickness is to plan a visit back to the US relatively soon after you get here. After all, it's easier and less expensive for you to take a trip back to the old neighborhood than for every single friend and family member to come visit you. (However, keep in mind that the amount of time you spend in the US can have serious implications for your tax status. Read up before you go.)

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From the perspective of your comfy chair in the US, moving to another country doesn't seem very difficult. In fact, it's very stressful, and not always in ways you might anticipate.

  • I expected the enormous amount of organizing and paperwork to be stressful, because they're not things that come naturally to me, and in fact they were, but far less so than I expected. (So far, anyway.)
  • I expected feeling foreign to be stressful, but it really hasn't been. That may change when I start working for a UK company and have to deal with far more British people on a daily basis than I do now.
  • One thing I didn't expect at all was how stressful it is to have my autopilot all wrong. This is difficult to describe adequately. I hadn't realized how much of what I do--nearly everything, as it turns out--is handled automatically. But most of my autopilots are wrong here. An easy and obvious example is crossing the street. In the US, you don't think about it; you look left, right, left, cross. Here, you have to look right. Everyone knows that. But knowing it doesn't change your autopilot. And you cannot disengage your autopilot. Everything you start to do, you automatically start wrong. You quickly become aware of this, and start paying conscious attention to everything you do, to make sure a wrong autopilot doesn't send you into disaster. It is incredibly draining to have to think consciously about everything you do.
    Of course, eventually I will retrain my autopilot to work for the UK. (Or, preferably, I'll acquire two autopilots and be able to engage one and disengage the other automatically. Otherwise I'll be in a lot of trouble the first time I go back to the US.) But I have no idea how long this will take, or how bad the overlap zone will be (the period of time when I think I have retrained my autopilot, but it betrays me occasionally...).
  • I also didn't expect just how useless I sometimes feel. The US and UK are similar in a lot of ways, but it often seems as if, whenever there were two possible ways to implement something, we went out of our way to choose opposite ways. I don't know how anything works. I have to be shown how to use things. Sometimes I have to be shown more than once. This cuts deeply into my sense of independence. It's like being a child again.

Anyway. There's no way I could enumerate every stress-inducing facet of life in a foreign country. My point here, which I was getting around to eventually, is that you should be aware of it in advance, and prime your safety nets accordingly.

  • If you are coming here with your entire family, discuss up front the fact that you may find yourselves snapping at each other for no good reason, and that you will have to show each other extra tolerance for a while.
  • If you're coming here to join a significant other, talk in advance about the need for extra supportiveness during the occasional bout of you not being yourself.
  • If you are coming here completely by yourself...gosh, I don't know. Maybe try to line up people in the US whom you can call at various hours just to have someone familiar to talk to.
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Move to Another State??


You're going to think I'm completely crazy, but hear me out.

Just in case you don't already have sufficient paperwork and logistics to deal with, I'm semi-seriously suggesting that you first move, briefly, to another state, if you're not thoroughly delighted with your current one.

OK, I'm not entirely serious, but it is worth considering the implications of being a resident of your current state. The main problem is that it's highly likely your state will try to continue taxing you, indefinitely. It's difficult, once you have left the country, to change what state you officially fail to reside in, if you follow me. My US tax accountant says there are quite a few criteria a state will use to try to claim you as a ghost resident, including owning property there, participating in absentee voting, even (and I personally find this quite obnoxious) the presence of family in that state. Also, they may simply try to argue that since it was the last state you did physically reside in, it's your official state of residence forever.

If you don't want your current state to be considered your state of residence once you live in England, it's worth consulting your tax accountant to find out what changes you have to make in order to shift some of that presumption. It seems to me that the most inarguable way to change it would be, simply, to move somewhere else first. Given that that is fairly unrealistic, try to get everything you can (based on your accountant's advice!) out of that state before you go. I didn't own property there, so that was no problem, and the stuff that I left behind in storage isn't there either. Fortunately I have no family there. The only links I still have are my bank account and my driver's license. I plan to change both of these at the earliest opportunity, but I do wish I'd done it while I was still physically in the US; it would have been easier. To be honest, I don't know whether either of these is even used to judge presumption of domicile, but I don't think it can hurt.

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Moving Your Stuff


You'll hear plenty of horror stories about stuff that never gets there, or arrives battered to bits, or takes months longer than it was supposed to because it mysteriously went by way of Fiji. I'm standing (well, sitting) here as a living counter-example--someone whose move went like clockwork. It's a long process, and you won't enjoy it, but it is possible to have a happy ending.

Just thought you might like to hear that.

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The Process - How Your Stuff Gets from Point A to Point B (Hopefully Without Unexpectedly Visiting Points Z, N, and W Along the Way)


Knowing the process your stuff follows on its journey will help you decide what level of professional help you want to engage.

  1. Your stuff is packed. If professional movers do it, they'll wrap each item of furniture in a protective layer. An inventory is generated, and you supply the moving company with forms for UK Customs.
  2. The stuff is loaded into a truck, whereupon it's transported to a storage facility. (This transportation probably involves more than one truck and more than one stop.)
  3. A crate is built around it.
  4. It is loaded into a container, possibly along with other people's crates of stuff.
  5. It sits in storage until a ship is available. (It's not like they have departures every hour.)
  6. When the time comes, the container is loaded onto a container ship.
  7. The container ship makes its leisurely way to a UK port.
  8. Your crate is removed from the container, uncrated, and probably transported to a storage facility.
  9. Your stuff goes through Customs (I think; this might happen while it's still in the container). You'd be contacted at this point if there were problems or questions.
  10. When your UK movers are ready, they notify you of the delivery date.
  11. When your stuff arrives, you match each item (box or furniture) against the inventory. The movers may be expected to unpack the stuff themselves (for verification of damage).
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How Much Professional Involvement?


How much of the work on either end is done by professionals is up to you. To a surprising degree, you can do a lot of it yourself. Obviously, the more you do yourself, the less expensive it will be, but the more work you'll have to do. I went with a door-to-door professional service. The US-to-UK FAQ gives an excellent summary of the bare-bones approach; they did everything up to the crating, and after the uncrating, themselves. My reasons for choosing the door-to-door approach included:

  • I brought a lot more stuff than the FAQ author did. If you're coming here permanently, chances are you will, too.
  • I didn't want to risk damaging my stuff by my ignorance of proper packing methods.
  • I didn't want to have to understand or deal with the intricacies of container shipment or any of the transport-related stuff; I wanted a simple, streamlined process, where it left my hands and just showed up again.
  • I didn't want to have to deal with several different companies.
  • I didn't want to get the paperwork (particularly for Customs) wrong through my ignorance.
  • I didn't want to have to handle receiving it in the UK (which would have involved renting a truck on very short notice, and manhandling the stuff ourselves).
  • If anything went wrong, I wanted the full power, resources and experience of a corporation brought to bear on solving the problem. (If your container goes missing, would you know who to call? Even if you did, what clout do you have with them?)

Basically, it's such a large and complex topic that bumbling into it as a complete amateur struck me as risky. Plus there was just too much going on. You're already juggling so much paperwork and so many things you have to do; anything someone else will handle for you is good. So, because I'm writing about my own experience, the rest of this section assumes the door-to-door approach.

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Selecting A Moving Company


Heh. Close your eyes and point.

Oh, I'm just kidding. I used search engines to find moving companies in my area that do international moves. (Things get a bit complex because the really large companies are virtual--they use agents everywhere, like a franchise system. This doesn't help you, because it means someone else's experience with that moving company means nothing if you're dealing with a different agent.) Then I called some of them to talk about my situation and get very vague estimates. Naturally you can't really get any better estimate, without them sending someone to see your stuff.

Nevertheless, of the three I contacted, two were only willing to do estimates over the phone and wouldn't send a person. Both assumed 1,000 lbs per room and did their calculations from that. Even so, I had to wait a week and a half to get that vague, formulaic estimate from one of them. The third company seemed to take for granted that of course they'd come see what I was sending before giving an estimate. You can probably guess which company I settled on.

Of course you can't really tell how good a moving company is, unless they are really bad, in which case your local Better Business Bureau might have something about them. All I can say is that two of the three I contacted were completely unresponsive and sounded apathetic or even annoyed on the phone, while the third jumped right on it. If you're lucky enough to find one that demonstrates some interest and professionalism, I'd say you've found your mover.

It's worth asking your potential moving companies just how experienced they are at international moves. How many household-goods moves to the UK have they done? How many international moves do they handle per month? Do they sound knowledgeable? My mover showed up with a brochure about their services, a packet of all the forms they'd want from me, a fact booklet about the UK, and even a rather nice travel guide. The fact that they have such a package to give the customer tells me they do this often--often enough that they have a system for it.

My moving company was Humboldt Storage & Moving, although knowing that won't do you any good unless you are also coming from New England. If you use them, your experience could, of course, be completely different from mine, but I have no hesitation in giving them a glowing recommendation. My stuff arrived, after a 3,000+ mile, two-month odyssey, with total casualties of two cracked CD jewel cases and a broken chip clip. They made it easy and there were no problems. What more could you ask?

When you talk to a moving company, one thing they'll ask you is when you want to do the move. When I told them a date that was three months away and asked "Is that enough?", one of them laughed and said people routinely answer "Tomorrow"! And I thought I was bad at planning.


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What You Do Before Moving Day


You get ready. You get organized, decide what to bring, and fill out forms.



How Do I Organize This Nightmare?


Being, as I am, a geek, the first thing I did was make a database of everything I owned. Literally! I didn't get to the level of "sock, white, left", but I did get very detailed. This may sound utterly awful to you, but it's not so bad. I probably spent a total of about six hours doing my inventory. If you want to do your own inventory (and I highly recommend it), use whatever software tool you're most comfortable with. It doesn't have to be a database; a spreadsheet would do nearly as well. If you're not familiar with any software that you think would do the job, I guess you'd have to fall back on paper, but that's scary because you can't really sort it very easily. Perhaps you could find a friend or relative who would be willing to take your paper inventory and turn it into a database.

Use common sense when building your inventory. Don't become a slave to completeness; only list items that are worth listing. For example, I listed every single pot and pan from the kitchen, because I needed to compare with Mike about duplicates, but I had a single item in the database for "clothing". It wasn't worth considering the clothing as individual items. It was easy enough to make decisions about the clothing without the help of a database, but I'd never have been able to remember what we'd decided about the omelet pan.

I describe my process of deciding what to bring as "weeding". For each item in the database, I thought about it and assigned a disposition:

  • Throw away
  • Give away
  • Sell
  • Put in storage
  • Bring
  • Hand carry (i.e. I'd need it before the shipped stuff arrived)

I then set about doing it. I threw away and gave away. Then I packed up everything that was going to storage, and moved it to storage. I think it's important to have anything you're not bringing already disposed of before the international move. Consider: You really don't want to have things that aren't going mixed in with things that are going. There will be several people packing; you can't watch all of them all the time. Things you didn't mean to ship will inadvertently be packed. (And, in accordance with Murphy's Law, it'll be your passport that gets packed.)

In the final days, I found it useful to stay at a hotel. It's hard to pack when you're still using things. You can try to live out of a suitcase, but this doesn't help with things like shower curtains, towels, sheets on the bed, dishes, and anything else you can't help using.

I did my storage move just a couple of days before my international move. A lot of what went to storage was stuff I used regularly (but didn't need to bring because Mike already had his own), so it would have been inconvenient to continue living there after the move to storage.

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What Should I Bring?


A fine question. The US-to-UK FAQ has sections about deciding what to bring, and also specifically about electrical items which I won't repeat here. My contribution to the FAQ tips:

  • Total weight will determine the cost of your move more than any other factor.
  • Bring things with sentimental value (see my section about homesickness).
  • There are things you can't legally bring. Most are what you'd expect, but some are surprising.
  • If you are joining someone in the UK who already has their own functioning household, it's worth comparing lists of what you own, so you don't bring a whole bunch of duplicates.
  • Houses and rooms in the UK are generally smaller, and doors narrower. If you're thinking of bringing big furniture or appliances, check whether they will fit where you're going (if you already know where you're going).
  • When considering commercial storage in the US, don't be fooled by apparent costs. $60/month for a storage unit doesn't sound like much, but after 3 years, that's $2160--easily more than it would have cost to bring whatever you put in storage. (Well, unless you collect printing presses.)
  • If you do put things in storage, number the boxes and record exactly what items go into each box, down to the neurotic level of detail, as you pack. This is so that when you're finally in the UK and realize you need some widget you put in storage, you can send someone to get it for you. If you can tell them it's in Box 14, it's obviously going to be a lot easier to find. An inventory database comes in handy again for this task.
  • A move is expensive. You'll be spending a lot of money. But if you leave a lot of stuff behind because you can buy it when you get here, you'll find yourself having to spend yet more money to replace things you already owned, right at the time when you'd least like to be spending it.
  • The FAQ does a good job of describing the problem with incompatible TV standards, but I'd like to add that most VCRs sold in the UK these days are "multisystem"--they can play back NTSC tapes. Thus, you can probably bring your US videos to watch on a UK VCR and TV. (Check whether the TV supports "PAL-60" and the VCR has a SCART connection to the TV. Many VCRs even say "NTSC Playback" right on the front.) I have a multisystem VCR and I'm watching NTSC tapes on a PAL TV with no trouble. However, PAL tapes absolutely will not play on NTSC; videos you buy in the UK won't play on your American TV and VCR. (Unless you can buy a "converting VCR", but they're horribly expensive.)
  • Be sure you keep aside anything you'll need for the first two months or so in the UK, especially anything visa-related. If you make several trips to the UK before your final one, use the opportunity to leave things behind, if you can. In my second-to-last trip, I brought lots of clothing and left it.
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Forms?! What Forms?


Your moving company should provide all the required forms. (This is one great advantage of the door-to-door approach; you don't have to figure out what forms you need, and you can ask someone how to fill them out if you have questions.)

  • You'll definitely have to fill out at least one customs form (probably Form C3, Bringing Your Personal Belongings to the United Kingdom from Outside the European Community, which you can take a look at if you're curious; this form also contains a slightly longer list of prohibited/restricted goods, including "horror comics"). Note that, as described in the US-to-UK FAQ, some items you bring might be subject to import duties or VAT. You can get a good idea of what items are liable by looking at the questions Form C3 asks. Electronic equipment and items you've owned less than 6 months are the hardest ones.
  • Your moving company will probably require several insurance-related forms. They will almost certainly want an inventory of everything being packed, with replacement cost. My moving company provided an inventory form for this purpose, but I found it woefully simplistic and outdated. Fortunately, they allowed me to print out a list from my database, which was much easier.
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What Happens on Moving Day


You have everything clean and ready before the packers arrive. You probably leave everything right where it normally is (i.e. you don't pull dishes out of cabinets); verify this with your mover.

You get there before the packing crew. They arrive, they pack, you fidget. It took a crew of 3 about four hours to pack what I shipped. It takes longer than you'd think because all furniture is wrapped in cardboard padding sheets.

At the end, they give you an inventory to sign. Each item, whether a box or a wrapped article of furniture, is given a number and some complex labeling. Those items are what goes on the inventory, not an exhaustive list of every object they put in a box. You hand over your filled out customs forms and your insurance inventory.

They drive off into the distance.


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...And Then You Wait


Your moving company will give you an estimate of how long it will take your stuff to arrive. Mine took two months. However, bear in mind that my location couldn't have been more fortuitous; I was living right near Boston--a major port conveniently located on the east coast. Your stuff may have to be transported over a large overland distance before it arrives at the port it will ship from, or, if you're on the west coast, the ship may have a long way to go.

Whatever your moving company estimates the wait will be, don't make plans that depend on their estimate being accurate! Almost all of the process is outside their control anyway; they are guessing based on statistics from previous moves. Plan as if they had estimated twice the time--if they tell you six weeks, expect twelve and plan accordingly.

Eventually, the removal company on the UK end called me to say the ship was expected in port in about a week, and that they expected Customs to take a week after its arrival. They would therefore call me in about two weeks to tell me that they'd be delivering the next day. You don't get much wiggle room on this; expect 24 hours' notice or less.

Of course then I didn't hear from them after the expected interval; it turned out that the ship didn't arrive in port until almost two weeks after they'd initially thought. Their failure to update me is probably not an unusual occurrence and is a very minor annoyance on the scale of things.

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What Happens When Your Stuff Arrives


A truck shows up. The person in charge of the delivery crew hands you the very same inventory sheet that was created by the packing crew. Your job is to stand in the doorway and check off each item as they bring it in. All the items are numbered, so it's not very difficult. They'll ask you which room each item should go in.

Your moving company may expect the delivery crew to unpack everything as well. Mine was supposed to, but they clearly were hoping to get away with not doing it. The idea is that by unpacking it, they can see for themselves whether any items were damaged. In my case, even though I'd technically paid for it, I was just as happy not to have them do it; the place was enough of a zoo without everything being unpacked all at once.

Anyway, the delivery crew had everything brought in and were gone in less than an hour.


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What Will It Cost?


The cost of a door-to-door move is largely determined by weight. Consequently, there's a temptation, while you're deciding what to bring, to trim ruthlessly in order to keep the cost down. I'm not so sure this is a good idea. I think there's a certain base cost you're never going to get below--the cost of doing a shipment at all. In other words, cutting the weight of your shipment in half isn't going to cut your cost in half. If you're going to all the trouble to ship anything at all, you might as well ship what you really want.

Your moving company will probably give you a breakdown estimate showing you the costs of all the stages along the way--the overland transportation, storage, the container, transportation on the container ship, etc. This gives you an idea of just how hard it would be to trim the costs. A lot of these costs are fixed and are not influenced by how much you bring.

You'll probably have to choose whether to share a container or to have the entire container yourself, even if your shipment doesn't fill it completely. Not surprisingly, the entire-container option will cost more. I don't know what benefit you'd get from it.

My moving company offered a very nice option called a "consolidation shipment" that cut the cost considerably. They happen to do a great many moves between the Boston port and the UK. Because of that volume, they regularly have containers traveling to the UK. In a consolidation, my stuff would wait in storage until several other customers with partial container shipments had collected. Then, they'd put all our stuff into one container, and we'd share the cost of the container among us. The only drawback, of course, was the unknown time period my stuff would wait in storage until a consolidation was ready to go. Since I was coming to an existing furnished house, I was in no great rush, so this option worked well for me. (Note that this "consolidation" is not the same as merely sharing a container. When you share a container, it may not be with other customers of your moving company; it's the container owners who are signing up tenants. In the consolidation, my moving company collected several of its own customers together into a single container.)

I've done all this blithering for one purpose: So that your eyes glaze over and it cushions the shock when I finally tell you how much it costs, or at least the neighborhood we're talking about. My guess is that you probably couldn't do the door-to-door option for less than about $2,000, no matter how small your shipment was. The fixed costs run that high. Shipping about 2,500 lbs, as I did, will run you another $2,000. You can see why I say it's not worth cutting your shipment to try to cut costs. Had I cut half the stuff I sent, I would have knocked only about 25% off the bill, yet have been shipping so little that it would hardly have been worth the trouble.

So right now you're looking around trying to figure out what your stuff weighs. I learned in this process that the moving companies estimate 1,000 lbs per room (500 lbs for small rooms like bathrooms). That's if you're sending everything, though; it assumes furniture, electronic equipment, knickknacks, everything.

Tips to reduce the pain:

  • The cost sounds high, but bear in mind that I shipped about $30,000 worth of stuff. Obviously it was far more cost-effective to ship it than to replace it.
  • Keep in mind that any moving costs you pay yourself are probably tax-deductible. I don't know what qualifies as a deductible expense, so either research it yourself or keep every receipt even remotely associated with your move. The move cost itself is definitely tax-deductible.
  • If you work for a truly enormous company, it's worth checking with your relocations department. Your company's discount with whatever moving company they use might extend to employees.

The moving company will expect you to pay before your container actually ships. (They've already paid the costs of shipment up front, so it's not unreasonable.) They may expect payment any time before that; if I hadn't opted for a consolidation, they'd have weighed my shipment right at my apartment (in the moving truck) and handed me the final bill right then.

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My Move Timeline


...for what it's worth. Perhaps it will help you avoid overlooking something.

(This list is necessarily oversimplified; things were nowhere near as neat as it implies.)


  • Stopped buying anything (just more stuff to bring, and anything newer than 6 months is liable to import taxes)
  • Booked wedding date at Register Office (Mike did this)
  • Applied for (and got) fiancée visa at British Consulate in New York


  • Called Register Office to verify our understanding of residency requirements
  • Called UK bank to ask what I'd need to open an account
  • Booked vacation (days from work)
  • Booked October flights to UK, New York, Boston
  • Booked hotel in New York
  • Arranged for witnesses (Mike did this)
  • Compiled inventory database of stuff I own


  • Researched international tax accountants and selected one
  • Decided (provisionally) what stuff to ship, hand carry, leave in storage, give away, or throw away (this particularly looks neater than it was; many items waffled right up to the end)
  • Researched international movers, got estimates, made a selection, booked the date
  • Stocked up on things I'd want to have in the UK
  • Returned items I'd borrowed
  • Tried to get back items I'd lent

October (weeks 1 & 2):

  • Gave notice at apartment
  • Gave notice at work
  • Booked final flight to UK
  • Sent announcement to friends & family I rarely see (e.g. college friends)
  • Found & began renting a storage unit
  • Investigated storage unit insurance (still haven't properly settled this)
  • Applied to my bank for the ability to do wire transfer (I should have done this much earlier; I ran out of time without it being successfully completed)
  • Got my CV in order
  • Packed for UK trip (including reassembling my documents for spouse visa application)

October (weeks 3 & 4):

  • Flew to UK (note that this would not have been early enough under new residency requirements)
  • Gave notice at Register Office
  • Opened bank account
  • Got married
  • Collected Mike's documents for visa application
  • Flew to New York
  • Applied for (and got) spouse visa at British Consulate in New York; flew back to Boston

November (week 1):

  • Handled legally-required beneficiary changes with HR department
  • Bought moving/packing supplies (e.g. bubble wrap, boxes, mattress covers)
  • Began packing (things going to storage)
  • Arranged move to storage (booked a U-Haul, scheduled with helpers)
  • Booked a hotel for the final week (I should have done this much earlier!)
  • Booked a rental car for final trip to airport

November (week 2):

  • Filed change-of-address order with post office (I should have done this much earlier!)
  • Notified utilities of turnoff date and gave new address (cable, local telephone, long distance, electricity)
  • Other change-of-address notifications (e.g. bank, insurance company)
  • Final dry-cleaning
  • Cleaned out car
  • Packed

November (week 3):

  • Retrieved personal belongings from work
  • Finalized arrangements with work
  • Haircut
  • Packed, packed, packed

Final week:

  • Stayed at hotel
  • Final laundry
  • Storage move
  • Filled out international move paperwork (insurance inventory, Customs forms)
  • International move
  • Cleaned apartment, returned keys
  • Turned in cable box, remote, cable modem (and got a receipt)
  • Sold car
  • Flew to UK on one-way ticket!
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Links Related to Move Planning


These may help you plan your move.

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After Arrival in the UK


Whew! You made it! You're here! You've left your suitcases where you dropped them and, quite deservedly, collapsed in the comfiest chair you could find, and you don't intend to stir from it for at least a week or two.

I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you're not done. Collapse for a while by all means, but be ready to get up again and keep toiling forward.

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US Taxes


Everyone's favorite topic!

Again, extra caveats on everything that follows. No two tax situations are the same (which is probably why the tax code is about 40 feet thick). I'm describing mine only so that you have some idea of the issues you may face, and some idea of where to get started.



Federal Taxes


Being a reasonable human being, you've probably blithely assumed that when you move to the UK, you'll simply pay taxes to the UK, and not to the US any more. Ha ha, I laugh hollowly in your general direction, you optimist. Actually, you probably won't pay double taxes, but your tax situation will most likely be hopelessly complex.

One thing I never knew is that as long as you are a US citizen, you are liable to the US for taxes, regardless of what country you live in. However, they've arranged a complex system of treaties with individual countries in an effort to avoid double taxation of US citizens. Which country you pay taxes to is determined by which one you're considered to live in. If you meet one of two tests ("Bona Fide Residence Test" or "Physical Presence Test"), the IRS will consider you to live in a foreign country.

  • Physical Presence Test: As I understand it, meeting this test requires that you spend no more than 35 days in the US during the tax year. The other 330 must be spent in any foreign location.
  • Bona Fide Residence Test: I'd tell you my understanding of the requirements of this test, but I don't have an understanding of it. The definition they give is annoying because it includes in it the very terms it's trying to define. (It basically says you meet the Bona Fide Residence Test if you're a bona fide resident of another country. Thanks, guys.)

If you're considered to live in the UK, the first $76,000 (in 2000; $78,000 in 2001) of your annual income is excluded from federal taxation. (Which clearly implies that income above that level is subject to double taxation.) This is the "foreign income exclusion". So, although you have to resign yourself to the idea that you will have to file complex federal returns, forever, you won't actually have to pay any federal taxes, unless you're exceptionally well-paid.

There's a problem with the foreign income exclusion which you may already have noticed. You can't pass a residence test until you have been here for a full year, but you may have to file taxes sometime during that year. For example, I came to the UK at the end of November. At the end of next November, when I've been here a year, I will retroactively qualify for the foreign income exclusion for December 2000, but at the moment, I don't. I therefore have to file a return now, without the foreign income exclusion, and then file an amended return in November 2001!

If you married a British citizen, you're going to find that you have another unexpected problem when you try to fill out your federal return. You write your name, your SSN, your spouse's name, your spouse's...Uh oh. Your spouse doesn't have a social security number! Instead, your spouse must apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the IRS by filing Form W7. (Yes, you really do have to mail your spouse's passport to the IRS.) It took about 5 weeks for the IRS to send back Mike's ITIN; file your W7 as early as you can.

While we're on the topic of spouses, if you married a British citizen, do you file Married Filing Jointly? Do you suddenly owe the US government taxes on your spouse's income? (Before you panic, the answer is probably no.)

If reading all this hasn't boggled your mind, you are made of sterner stuff than I am. This is a snarled and tangled mess. I'm quite sure that if I tried to prepare my own return, I'd never get it right. Fortunately, the IRS is a fun-loving agency, known for their sense of humor and fair play. They'd understand that any mistakes I made in my return were due to ignorance, not willful tax evasion.

Yeah, right.

Get an accountant.


  • Instructions for Form 2555, which is the IRS form you file to claim a foreign income exclusion. I include it here because the instructions specify the requirements for meeting the Bona Fide Residence Test or the Physical Presence Test.
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Have You Noticed That I Haven't Even Mentioned State Taxes Yet?


You probably think that state taxes are completely out of the question, because once you live in a foreign country, you don't live in any state. Right?

Wrong. States are greedy. They're not about to let you go just because of a trivial little matter like you not living there. Specifically, they use a thing called "presumption of domicile" to keep their hooks in you. A state can argue that if you ever did return to the US, you'd live in that state. From this they make the amazing leap of logic that they're entitled to tax you the entire time you're gone, even if in the end you never come back, or go to a different state when you do. Most likely, the state you lived in just before you left will be the one that presumes you'll return to it. If you continue to own property in a state, that may make you fair game. Absentee voting counts as enough, for some states. Even where your family lives can be used to argue presumption of domicile.

If you're coming from a state with no state income tax, so much the better for you; but otherwise, you might have to continue paying state taxes to the state where you used to live.

Each state has its own rules for handling taxing people who live elsewhere. Chances are your state tax situation will be even more complicated than your federal tax situation. This is, in my opinion, another reason to get a tax accountant. They can advise you on what circumstances might cause a presumption of domicile, what you could do to get it changed to another state (if that's even possible), and what your state tax liability is.


  • Probable State Income Tax Liability This document is about absentee voting, but along the way gives a summary of each state's position on taxing people who live in foreign countries. (The table of contents doesn't work properly; just scroll through the main document until you find your state.)
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UK Taxes



Filing Taxes


The good news here is that as far as I can tell, the UK tax system is much more common sense than ours. Many people here have never filed a tax return. Can you imagine such a thing?!

They use a tax withholding system called PAYE (Pay As You Earn). Unlike ours, it adjusts itself throughout the year. In the US, each time you're paid, your taxes are calculated based on the assumption that you have been, and will continue to be, paid that amount at that interval for the entire year. If your pay varies wildly, your withholding always comes out wrong. Under PAYE, your withholding is adjusted each time to take into account your total salary so far this year and the taxes you've paid so far. At the end of the year, the withholding comes out exactly right, and you don't have to file unless you have other complexities that need to be taken into account (e.g. more than one income).

If you are in the UK on a work permit, your employer will presumably tell you what you need to do, tax-wise, to satisfy Inland Revenue. If you're here due to marriage, you should call your local Tax Office to find out what they need from you. If you're not employed yet and not drawing any salary, they may not need anything from you, but let them decide that. (If you can't find them from that link, they're in your white pages; look up Inland Revenue and call the Tax Office that seems to be in your area. They'll redirect you if you haven't called the right one.) Explain your situation. If they care about you, from a tax perspective, they will probably want you to fill out Form P86, which they will send you. (I can't find it for download anywhere.)

I don't think my UK tax situation will be as ugly as my US tax situation, but have retained a UK tax accountant anyway. I'm not familiar with the UK tax system, so it would be even easier to make a very bad mistake or miss a deadline.

It's worth mentioning that the British don't use the calendar year as their tax year. The tax year runs from 6 April to 5 April of the following year.

It's also worth mentioning that the norm here is to be paid monthly. Take that, all you people who complain about being paid bi-weekly.


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They Pay 60% Taxes in the UK, Right?


Actually no. I don't know whether it's a common impression in the US or just me, but I certainly had the impression that the UK, having socialized medicine, education etc, had an extremely high rate of taxation to pay for it all. So imagine my horror when I found out that Mike pays taxes no higher than what I pay, and gets all that anyway.

The tax rates below are for the 2001-02 tax year:

Taxable income per year (£) Rate of tax
0 - 1,880 (lower rate band) 10%
1,881 - 29,400 (basic rate band) 22%
Over 29,400 (higher rate band) 40%

The first £4,535 of income is not taxed (in 2001-02; this threshold changes yearly). This is not the same as a tax deduction. If you want to take a stab at calculating your approximate taxes, keep this in mind. Subtract this from your anticipated salary before you start figuring taxes.


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National Insurance Number



The Number


OK. There's the NHS (National Health Service), which is the system that provides medical care to people in the UK. Something has to fund this system. As you might expect, it's funded much like FICA in the US; deductions are made from your paycheck, separate from your taxes. These payments are called National Insurance contributions. (National Insurance also funds many other UK government programs, not just the NHS.) In order to make National Insurance contributions, you have to have a National Insurance number.

So, contrary to what you might think, a National Insurance number actually has nothing to do with being a patient at a hospital. It's purely to allow you to pay a particular kind of tax. Therefore, if you will not be paying taxes, you may not need a National Insurance number. But again, this is something you should let the bureaucracy decide for you.

To apply for the number:

  • If you like, you can try calling the Registrations Helpline to get information about registering for a National Insurance number. (I didn't know about this number while I was going through the process, so I don't know in what way they are helpful.)
  • Find your local Department of Social Security (DSS). You can also look them up in the phone book (white pages), probably under either "Social Security, Department of" or "Department of Social Security".
  • Call for an appointment; don't just walk in. Expect to be referred on to other numbers several times. Just keep explaining your situation and throwing yourself on their mercy. Eventually you'll get to someone who knows what to do with you. They'll make an appointment for you. Ask what forms and identification you should bring. I had to bring my passport, birth certificate, and marriage certificate. (I also had to bring a letter from my employer stating that I still worked for them and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future, but you won't have to do that unless you, like me, are working for a US company that has no business presence in the UK.)
  • At the appointment, you and the DSS staffer will fill out form CA5400, an application for a National Insurance number. This form is mostly free writing, rather than fill-in-the-blanks. It took about an hour. (At the end of the process, the DSS staffer is apparently supposed to give you a reference number. I wasn't given one, but I haven't suffered horribly as a result.)
  • Once the CA5400 is filled out, the DSS staffer handles submitting it.

Your National Insurance number should eventually arrive by post. I was told to expect it to take about about three months. If your number doesn't arrive during that time (mine didn't), you can call the main National Insurance Contributions Office in Newcastle at 0191 213 5000. They'll put you through to New Registrations, where you can inquire about the status of your application.


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The Contributions


If you're working for a UK employer, your National Insurance contributions will be handled by them. If you're not, you'll have to handle them yourself. I don't know how to do this yet, but will find out in the course of doing my first set of UK taxes, and will update this section then.

When I applied for my National Insurance number, the nice DSS staffer told me that when I receive the number, the information packet will contain instructions on how to make manual National Insurance contributions. If that pans out, I'll also post what they have to say.

At the moment, according to the BBC, the current rate is 10%, probably on after-tax income.


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NHS Number


This is the number that has to do with being a patient. If you go to the doctor, you may be asked for your NHS number.

You, of course, don't have one. I haven't yet figured out how to get one. Nobody here knows, because they were all issued one when they were born. I just haven't found the right government agency yet. Again, I'll update this section when I find out how it's done.

I've found some indication that an NHS number is not required to receive care. Currently I have the impression that you get an NHS number when you register with a GP. (Unfortunately, the site that I got these impressions from has removed the FAQ that was the source of these deductions from its site.)

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Retirement Planning Issues


Bit of a late-breaking story, this one. I didn't even think about this topic as a potential problem until I started working for a UK company, which brought it all up.

If you've been employed in the US for any length of time (and probably even if not), you have at least a passing acquaintance with terms like 401K, IRA, Roth IRA etc. Not surprisingly, the UK has its own system of pension- and retirement-related laws and types of accounts available to you, with terms like ISA and SERPS. I now know the basics about these, but I'm not going to pass on any of it to you because I'll probably get it wrong; I don't know enough yet.

What I do know now, that you'll want to think about, is that retirement planning involving multiple countries may be a problem. It may be several problems, in fact:

  • Each country's retirement arrangements are unique to it and probably aren't recognized by the other one. Not surprisingly, you can't roll over a 401K into a British retirement account, nor roll a British retirement account into an American account such as an IRA.
  • This also means you'll have difficulties drawing funds from one country's retirement plan if you're living in the other country. At present, a UK retirement plan won't pay you to a US bank account, so if you were no longer living in the UK when retirement rolled around, you'd have some complexities to settle. This may be less true with personal-investment vehicles like IRAs/ISAs than with pension-esque investment vehicles that pay an annuity.
  • There are serious tax implications. Because each country doesn't recognize the other's retirement-related arrangements, if you have to bring funds from one into the other (e.g., if you transfer funds from an IRA to the UK when you retire), you'll almost certainly be taxed as though they were capital gains or income. That's probably all well and good if it was pre-tax money to begin with, but if you already paid taxes on it, you're not going to be very happy paying them again.
  • You might think to simplify things by just continuing to pay into your US retirement-investment vehicles, such as an IRA, but according to my US tax accountant, you may not legally be able to do this if you're not paying taxes in the US at the same time (i.e. you're taking advantage of Foreign Income Exclusion).
  • And, of course, the laws governing all this stuff are subject to change at any time...

To sum up: You probably want professional investment advice, in conjunction with tax advice. It would be a bad idea to stop retirement investment altogether, so you'll have to find a solution that is acceptable to you.

That's all I know at the moment; I'll post updates as I learn more.

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Driving Licence


Just as a side note, it's worth mentioning that you may well be able to get away without having a car in the UK at all. Public transportation is available just about everywhere. Also, zoning doesn't work the same way here that it does in the US. Most houses have, within walking distance, shops that cover the basics: convenience store, some kind of take-away restaurant or pub, maybe a bank, maybe a post office, maybe a lot of other shops. These little clusters of shops exist especially within otherwise-residential areas. There's no question that it's more convenient to have a car, particularly for things like going to the supermarket, but you'll definitely find that it's not the requirement it is in the US. Also petrol (gasoline) costs a lot more than in the US; it's about $5.00 per (US) gallon right now, and not expected to go down.

Whether you own a car in the UK or not, you will probably still want to have a valid UK driving licence. To begin, I have to tell you a little bit about licences in the UK.

  • The UK has only recently switched over to photo licences. When you receive your licence, it'll include a photocard licence and also an A4 sheet of paper called your "counterpart licence". Both items together constitute your licence.
  • In the states of the US that I'm familiar with, there are "DMVs" or "Registries" all over the place. You apply for licenses etc in person. Not so in the UK. There is really only one "Registry", and that's the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) in South Wales. Obviously it's not practical to make everyone in the country go there every time they have a licence-related transaction, so most business is conducted by mail. This includes getting a photocard licence. You supply them with a photo when you mail your application; they use that photo on the licence.
  • The vast majority of cars in the UK have a standard transmission--even rental cars. (Heh. Driving on the left is only the beginning of your problems.) If you take your driving test in a car with an automatic transmission, your licence will only be valid for automatics. You must take the test in a standard to be licensed to drive both standards and automatics. Given how rare automatic transmissions are here, you will seriously limit yourself if you get an automatics-only licence.
  • I'm not misspelling "license". In the UK, "licence" is the piece of paper; "license" is a verb. But I'm saying "license" to refer to a US license, because that's how it's spelled in the US.

Anyway. Everything that follows assumes that you hold a valid US driver's license. Your US license is valid in the UK for one year (provided it doesn't expire in that time). During that year, you can legally drive just like any other driver. Make sure you get your UK driving licence during this "grace year".

Update: Don't waste time. I'd thought a year was plenty of time to prepare, schedule, take, and pass both driving tests. Now I've found that there is a very long backlog when scheduling the practical test--an average of seven weeks around here. If you fail your first test, you're looking at a seven-week delay before you can take it again. If you've left the test to the last minute (or even the last two months!), your grace year could very easily run out on you! Note that you cannot book more than one practical exam at a time--you can only schedule another after failing one.)

Note that you'll find information indicating that a foreign license can be directly exchanged for a UK licence. This doesn't apply to you; US licenses aren't among those that can be exchanged. Plus, I personally would rather hang on to my US license.

The process to get your UK licence is described in the following sections.

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Apply for a Provisional Licence


A provisional licence is much like a driving permit in the US (at least in the states I'm familiar with) in that it confers a restricted license to drive. Normally, a driver with a provisional licence cannot drive on motorways, must be supervised by a licenced driver, must display an "L" plate on the car, and various other restrictions. These restrictions don't apply to you.

You apply for a provisional licence by filling out some forms and mailing them to the DVLA. They mail your licence back to you. The forms you need are probably available at the post office.

  • D1 is a generic application for a driving licence, covering lots of possible circumstances. You are applying for your first provisional licence.
  • D750 is an application for a photocard driving licence.
  • While you're at the post office, you should also pick up D100, an all-purpose leaflet explaining generally about the licence application process in the UK. See particularly section 14d.
  • Also pick up leaflet INS108, which explains how to fill out form D750.

You must supply a passport-sized photo with D750. Here's where things may get tricky. Obviously, because you're doing this by mail, they have no way of knowing if the photo you send them is really of you. Normally, you send your passport, and the form must also be signed by someone, not a relative, who has known you personally for two years. I think it also has to be a UK citizen. Since you just got here, you probably can't supply such a person.

In this case, you can't send your application to the DVLA by mail. Instead, you must take your application (your D1, D750, passport, passport photo, and fee) to a Vehicle Registration Office (VRO) in person. The staff at the VRO verify your identity and submit your application to the DVLA for you. This is actually good because they give your passport back right then. Look up your nearest VRO on this list or try the phone book (white pages) under "Environment, Transport and the Regions, Department of", or maybe "Transport, Department of". Call to find out their opening hours (and to verify their location) before you go.

By the way, don't blindly trust the list of fees printed in form D1. They were wrong when I applied. This isn't a big deal if you're taking your application to a VRO; they'll tell you the correct fee. But if you are able to mail your application, you'd better verify the fee first.

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Get Insured


As in most states in the US, insurance is a legal requirement for driving. Your US car insurance almost certainly doesn't cover you in the UK.

If you married a British citizen, your spouse probably knows about the UK insurance system and can add you to his policy, or can help you get started shopping for a policy if he doesn't have one. If you're here on a work permit, you'll have to research UK insurance companies and policies. Different companies offer very different prices for essentially the same coverage, so you have your work cut out for you. As always, you'll have to find your own comfortable point between reputability and price.

Read your insurance policy very carefully. Don't expect insurance policies here to bear any resemblance to US policies. Take nothing for granted. (For instance, Mike's policy has the bewildering stipulation that, regarding third parties, it covers "Any person, using but not driving your car". I have no idea what that means.)

Note that you can't get an insurance policy (or be added to an existing one) until you have a UK driving licence number. Thus you must get your provisional licence before you can be insured to drive.

Expect your insurance premiums to be high. Any good driving record you had in the US is irrelevant. You will be considered an inexperienced driver. (You can certainly bring official printouts from your DMV and your US insurance company, showing your driving record and claim record, but these will probably have no effect.) Mike's policy will consider me an inexperienced driver until I have held a UK full licence for 2 years. I don't know whether that is policy-specific, company-specific, or possibly a UK-wide legally defined term.

In defiance of all expectations, adding me to Mike's insurance hardly changed the premium at all. However, the deductible ("excess" to the British) that we have to pay doubles if the "inexperienced driver" (i.e. me) is at the helm during an accident. Still, just because our insurance premium wasn't greatly affected by adding me doesn't mean that will be the case for everyone.


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Take Driving Lessons?


You don't have to, but I intend to. I don't see how it can hurt. This is an unfamiliar environment; it's worth having a professional, who is used to teaching driving, explain it all to me. Yes, there's the driving-on-the-left question, but that's not all, not by a long shot.

  • Road signs are different.
  • Driving laws are different.
  • Driving customs are very different (e.g. they use the hand brake every time they start from a stop) and you will be expected to conform to UK customs on your driving test.
  • The driving environment is also very different. I'm going to include an excerpt from this site, because it's so good, just in case someday they pull the quote from their site: "Most visitors to Great Britain are already aware that driving is on the left and the steering wheel is on the right. However, few are truly prepared for the narrowness of the roads, the speed at which the cars travel them and the number of cars on the road...Driving lanes are much narrower than in the U.S. and 60 mph, the posted speed limit for single carriageways...will seem much faster than it does in New York or Los Angeles. The 30 mph speed limit in built-up urban and suburban areas seems reasonable until you add parking in either direction on both sides of the already narrow road. In many areas, heavily traveled two-way streets are only one-car wide for most of the day." I couldn't have summarized it better myself.
  • If you're not from a part of the US that has rotaries, you may want a professional explanation of the rules of roundabouts.

You can find local driver education companies in the yellow pages under "Driving Schools".

Update: Since originally posting this, I've taken two driving lessons and have generally developed a much better understanding of what will be required to pass the practical test. It is not going to be easy. See links below.


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Schedule and Take the Theory Test


One very nice thing about the UK is that there is just one set of driving laws for the whole country. Because they have just the one set, it's very simple to collect the rules into a nice little book called The Highway Code. It wouldn't hurt to buy and read a copy of it. You can find it at bookstores, big newsagents (e.g. WH Smith), and possibly post offices. You can even buy it on-line from The Stationery Office.

The DSA (Driving Standards Agency), which administers the test, has a mock theory test that you can take to help judge your readiness.

When you're ready, you schedule a test (for which there is, of course, a fee) and go take it. You can book over the phone or by mailing an application. I haven't taken the test myself yet, but information about what the test is like is available from the DSA.

If (I mean when, of course) you pass, you will be given a test pass certificate.


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Schedule and Take the Practical Test


This is the road test. You must pass the theory test before you can take the practical test (they'll ask for the test pass certificate number when you book it). They're a lot more serious here about the practical test than they were when I took mine in the US; my road test was, oh, about seven minutes (a highlight was when I had to parallel park between imaginary cars). Mike says his took about half an hour; the DSA web site says 35 minutes. Just about everyone I have met here failed their road test at least once!

Note that it's common here to take the driving test in the car you have driving lessons in (if you take driving lessons). In fact, there is such a strong presumption that you will take your practical test in your driving-lesson car that because I'm not, I'm required to provide a mirror for the examiner to clip to the visor. (Driving-lesson cars would all have one already.)

The practical test includes a very basic vision test: you are asked to read another car's number plate at a particular distance. If you can read it, wehay.

When you're ready, you schedule a test at your nearest test centre.

  • Don't leave this to the last minute. In my area there is a seven-week backlog on practical tests--when I called to schedule the test, they gave me a date seven weeks in the future. This backlog is apparently typical everywhere. Also note that you cannot book more than one practical exam at a time; you can only schedule another one after you fail one.
  • It may be possible, when you schedule your test, to declare yourself available for a test on "short notice". Presumably if someone else cancels, they call you and you dash down there and take the test Right Now, or something to that effect.

When you go to take the test, bring your valid US license with you. The card from the DVLA listing what you need to bring doesn't mention this, of course, because it's a special situation. I brought it just in case, and also because I thought the examiner might be startled by a provisional licence-holder arriving by themselves, in a car with no L-plates. Your foreign license is the only thing that entitles you to drive around like this, so it seemed a good idea to have it. And indeed, once my examiner knew my situation, he did ask me to produce the foreign license.

I spent a lot of time practicing and generally grumbling about the practical test, because I'd heard a lot of terrible things about it. It probably normally is, but I got obscenely lucky. The test centre where I took the test is in Liverpool, not exactly a suburban area, plunk in the middle of a very complicated snarl of roads. There's a double roundabout, for example, with pedestrian crossings on most of the exits. There's one of the worst intersections of two dual carriageways that I ever hope to see. There are bus lanes and bus stops and thick traffic and areas where people can park on either side of the road, effectively reducing the road to lane-and-a-half in urban traffic. But my examiner set me a course that took us straight out to a quiet suburban area, where we basically drove around housing estates for half an hour.

Now, I don't know whether this was because the rumour mill has exaggerated the horrors of the driving test, or whether this particular examiner took it easy on me because I wasn't a seventeen-year-old kid with an attitude. But it definitely was nothing like what I expected.

Official information about what the practical test is like is available at the DSA's web site.

If you pass, you will be given a test pass certificate.

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Send for your Full Licence


When you've passed both tests, you must exchange your test pass certificate for a full licence. To do this, send your test pass certificate, your provisional licence, and the fee to the DVLA; they send you back a full licence. (You can legally drive during the time the DVLA has your documents.) Interestingly, you apparently have two years during which to do this. I'm not sure why so much time is allowed, but there you are.

The DVLA is shockingly efficient (especially to well-weathered Massachusetts sensibilities); my full licence arrived back within a week of when I (actually Mike) posted the test pass certificate.

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Links Related to Licences and Driving

  • The DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) handles licensing of drivers and vehicles.
  • The DSA (Driving Standards Agency) administers driving tests; here you can find answers to questions about the theory and practical tests, locations of testing centres, and current fees.
  • The DSA has an excellent summary of the entire process on their web site.
  • Driving Online is a site with useful information and statistics about driving in the UK.
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Absentee Voting


Again, another topic I haven't tackled yet. (You may notice a trend here. Actually I'm still sitting in the comfy chair. All this blithering just lets me continue putting off doing more of this bureaucratic stuff.)

Fortunately, there's a site that covers things pretty thoroughly. Best to check this site, especially since it looks like each state has its own requirements and procedures...<sigh>

Be aware that absentee voting may affect your state tax status; in some states, taking advantage of the right to vote absentee is sufficient for them to declare you liable to state income tax.


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Register at the US Embassy


It's apparently expected that Americans abroad should notify the relevant embassy of their presence in the country. This is because (and I didn't realize this) the embassy has certain responsibilities to US citizens, including notifying your family in the event of your death (ugh), and helping to find you if you go missing.

Well. That's all fairly creepy. More mundanely, they also help you if you get into passport-related trouble. If you lose your passport, it's apparently faster and easier for them to get you a new one if you had already notified them of your passport details (including passport number).

The snag here is that you can only register with the embassy in person; you can't do it over the phone. There is an embassy in London, and consulates in Belfast and Edinburgh. Hours during which you can walk in and register are limited; call before you go. If you call the embassy, they will alternatively send you the necessary paperwork, which you can fill out and return with your passport (so they can be sure you are who you say you are).

Interestingly, all the embassy sent me was the same exact form you use to apply for a passport! If you look closely at the passport application, you'll notice that at the top there are two check boxes: "Passport" or "Registration". According to the post-its on the form they sent me, I'm supposed to check the Registration box, and beside it, note how long I plan to be in the country (i.e. indefinitely, in my case). So you might want to try calling the embassy and verifying that all they want is this form, in which case you can just download it yourself, rather than waiting for them to send you one.

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More Useful Links

  • The US-to-UK FAQ is exhaustive, comprehensive, and excellent. Read it, absorb it, memorize it; there will be a quiz later. Note that it is often very difficult to reach this site. When you do finally connect successfully, save a copy locally so you can refer to it whenever you want. Trust me, it's worth its metaphysical weight in gold.
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is about life in the UK from the point of view of an American transplant. He waxes lyrical about the facets of UK life that he likes, but isn't afraid to be blunt about those he doesn't. It doesn't hurt that he's roll-on-the-floor hilarious. (His book I'm A Stranger Here Myself, written when he moved back to the US after living in the UK for twenty years, is also quite illuminating, as he begins to notice the absence of features of life in the UK that he took for granted.)
  • open.gov.uk - Links to many UK government agencies.
  • Information for Americans living abroad from the State Department; covers topics such as tax liability, dual nationality, medications, absentee voting...
  • The American Embassy in the UK offers various services to Americans in the UK, and also has a wealth of information about the UK geared toward Americans living here.
  • Yell.co.uk and Scoot.co.ukare UK Yellow Pages on the web, which will come in handy when you get around to looking for a place to get your hair cut, etc.

Copyright © 2001 Lisa Nelson. Last Modified: 20 November 2001 Back to Top