Expatriates and the Patriots

Expat living in London is easy. But of course, not everything in the UK is the same as the US, beyond the typically cited differences.

Expat living in London is easy. Almost everyone speaks English, you can watch Westworld on Sky Atlantic, and Ocado brings groceries right to your front door. However, this isn’t enough for some people. In which case Starbucks inhabits every other corner of the city and NFL GamePass allows you to watch “American” football teams like the New England Patriots, live every Sunday evening. The incessant spread of capitalism has created a commercial monoculture in which an expat can find the comforts of home, until realising that the sameness is terribly boring.

Of course, not everything in the UK is the same as the US, beyond the typically cited differences: driving on the left instead of right side of the road, replacing many z’s with s’s, Boris Johnson’s hair vs. Donald Trump’s hair, et al. If you haven’t lived in the UK, you might not know that:

  • You often pay for consumer service calls.

"calls charged at 7 pence per minute"

I needed to change the mailing address on my British Airways Executive Club membership from New York to London. This wasn’t possible online due to technical difficulties on BA’s side. After exhausting all free options, I called the service center. About £15 later, my account address was finally changed. “Business rate numbers” can cost you 6p to 51p.

  • You can usually withdraw money from any ATM without a fee.

On a more consumer-friendly note, when you have a UK bank account you can withdraw money from almost any UK ATM without paying additional bank fees. This is unlike the US where you might go to a bank’s ATM advertising “free” withdrawals, only to have your own bank charge you a $1 or $2 service charge. I was surprised to find that even the ATMs at Heathrow Airport — which seems like a place ripe for price-gouging — were indeed free of service fees.

  • The tax year starts on 6 April.

The current tax year runs from 6 April 2016 to 5 April 2017. Not the calendar year. It’s been this way since 1800.

  • You need an annual £145.50 ($180) TV license.

You can check whether you need one, but basically if you intend on watching a moving picture on any screen, you need to pay £145.50 every year to the government. While this may seem odd to Americans who are used to watching PBS for free (and taking this for granted), the visibility of this fee seems to make many UK residents defensive and proud of the diverse programming the BBC offers.

  • Mobile phone pricing is competitive.

I pay £60 ($75) per month for a wireless data/text/minutes plan for four iPhones that cost $160 from AT&T for similar service levels. The UK and US have roughly the same number of large carriers, but regulation seems to have reduced prices more in the UK consumer’s favor.

  • Transferwise is the best option for normal people to transfer money across borders.

Despite the number of Britons who live and work abroad, banks still charge hefty fees on foreign currency transfers. Some of these are transparent (e.g. “wire fee”), but there are absolutely hidden costs buried in unfavorable exchange rates. I’ve found that Transferwise is the best option for getting rates close to public quotes, wth clearly outlined fees.

  • Contactless payments are a thing.

In the U.S., it appears that chip-based credit card transactions have finally caught on. However, some retailers I visited over the holidays had handmade signs over their chip readers indicating that cards could only be swiped. But just when the US seems to be catching up, the UK is already far ahead as chip-and-PIN payments are ubiquitous and contactless is accepted almost everywhere you’d need it — the Underground and fast food outlets, in particular.

Life as an expat is full of looking for similarities and appreciating differences; for Americans, life in the UK can lull one into a false sense of familiarity, which is when frustration or something a pleasant surprise usually finds you in situations like these.

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