Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Cover photo: Belle and I at the Wings and Wheels event at Dunsfold Aerodrome.
Meeting my Future Wife in England
After celebrating Christmas 2017 and New Year’s Day 2018 via video chat, twice in two countries, the long-distance celebration in London felt too far away. I first flew to the UK to meet Belle in February of 2018 after having known each other for about 8 months. Meeting Belle in England was one of those moments where you're so surprised, you feel like your world was flipped entirely upside down. We had to find a way to be together. For family reasons, she wasn't able to leave England right away, but my career and my employer were well-established in the US.
The first time I flew over to meet Belle I was on a standard tourist visa. They detained and questioned me, leaving Belle frantically trying to get hold of family so they could confirm with her dad that I wasn’t going to be an ‘overstayer’. Overstayers are people who get in the country on a tourist visa and then never leave, becoming illegal immigrants, which causes UK immigration to lock down the process even tighter for anyone who wants to apply legally.
Flying to the UK on vacation, I had a limited amount of free days for us to spend together in person. The idea of me leaving a good career in the US to become a vagabond in the UK sounded laughable, I understand they have due process for everyone. They eventually told me that I couldn’t visit the UK on multiple trips without some kind of residency visa. After an amazing week together, this led to a very tearful departure from the UK where we decided to work out a plan.
After another visit in April, we decided we couldn't be apart any longer and after going through the options (as you'll see below) we decided to get married. With our wedding date approaching, we waited for the visa approval, which was one week late with no word. Then two weeks, and it was the cliffhanger of a lifetime since I wasn't able to book my next flight to the UK. With no word from the UK government, we had to move our wedding date, but how do you plan a wedding with no definite date?
This happened just last year, when we found that things that you normally take for granted when you’re building a future require lots of patience and flexibility when you’re starting over in a new country with a different culture and laws. It’s a journey with a high learning curve, and once again I’ve found that so-called experts everywhere are willing to capitalize on this, with sometimes misleading information.
In the meantime, we were wading through governmental red tape and spending much of our free time video chatting with each other in a long-distance relationship; or at least, when both of us were awake in our own time zones!
Now that we’ve experienced it, I completely empathize with anyone who is willing to go through immigration in order to start a family or have a better future. As we found, there is an overwhelming amount of information out there, but most only gives you part of the bigger picture. We can't help but laugh now at how visas are portrayed in movies. This is what it's like in real life!
Some Passports are Easier than Others
If you’re not part of the EU, like me, you’ve probably always envied the ease of Europeans to travel around between different cultures. Because an American visa, like many others, is only good for temporary stays in these countries, it prevents the kind of country-surfing you see on social media for those with EU passports. Even some former UK colonies (like Canada) have a program which allows young professionals to apply for a work visa in the UK.
However, since none of those applied to me, as a US citizen who found himself somewhat unexpectedly living in the UK, I’d like to share the best ways I’ve found to experience the incredible diversity in culture available overseas for anyone, since I’ve had to learn all of this in the course of moving here.
After past international trips to Tokyo, Montreal, and Vancouver, I had originally planned to visit the UK before I met Belle, while enroute to see my aunt and uncle in Portugal, who had packed up their bags years before in semi-retirement. Then, meeting my future wife completely changed my plans. A possible small trip turned into a marriage, house and 2 bunnies!
How to Live in the UK or Europe
I consulted with an array of immigration lawyers, friends with international experience, and visa experts, not to mention an enormous amount of personal research on moving out of the country to the UK or even nearby in Europe.
The list of visa options was surprisingly narrow, but still possible, to get residency in:
1. The EU (and thus the UK), through a work visa available thanks to the Dutch American Friendship Treaty (amusingly called DAFT).
2. The EU (and thus the UK), through an income visa available in Portugal.
4. The UK through a marriage visa.
The Netherlands was the easiest and cheapest route up front, and didn't require us to be married right away. Thanks to a friendship treaty, US citizens are able to apply for a work visa in the Netherlands as long as you are able to drop €4,500 in a Dutch bank account and start a freelance company.
However, Belle needed to stay near her family in the UK, and the freelance requirement wasn’t of interest since I work in finance. Despite this, the treaty is an exceedingly nice gesture from the Dutch to their American friends.
Residency in Portugal seemed easy at first, until I found that an EU residency card from Portugal wasn't good enough to enter the UK, which wasn't part of the EU free movement area (Schengen Area). Only a UK or EU passport was good enough. You also have to be a resident in Portugal for the long-term, which wasn’t in our plans, and Brexit wasn't helping either.
The Unmarried Partner Visa seemed like the perfect answer (even the US doesn't offer this), except that you had to prove you were living together under the same roof for 2 years for the application to hold any water. This was impossible to meet for long-distance relationships like our own.
The Five Main Types of Visas
If you want to live long-term in another country, there are generally only five major roads in through a visa:
The easiest option by far is to acquire a work visa that handles all of the paperwork for you. Because this costs a lot of money, employers will only consider this if you meet their ‘points requirements’, which score high points with higher levels of education and experience. If you’re a Nobel prize winner or Olympic gold athlete, they’ll take those too. The downside to the work visa is that your employer is now tied to your ability to live in the country, for better or for worse.
Oddly enough, you can get a 3-month work permit over the summer if you sign a contract as a sheep shearer. Anyone?
Student visas are one of the more popular options, but they slap a work restriction on your visa which prevents you from working more than 20 hours a week to prevent people from using it as a workaround for an income visa. Don’t get cheeky with the Brits - if they check with your employer and you’ve broken the rules, you could be deported and banned from the country for 10 years. Ouch.
Investment visas can be ‘golden visas’ which are only available to those who are well-off, with the more prestigious countries holding the top (such as the UK, at a whopping £2 million), or an entrepreneurship visa, which requires starting a company. In the UK, this requires at least £200K investment and hiring 3 employees to remain eligible for renewal. The DAFT visa in the Netherlands is also an entrepreneurship investment visa, but not as strict as the UK.
The income visas only requires that you meet a certain threshold for income, regardless of where it’s from. That’s what the Portuguese visa offered, as long as you had an annual income of €10,800 for two people. The UK used to offer this kind of a visa, for “persons of independent means,” but discontinued it in 2008 to curb immigration.
Unless your parents or grandparents are from the UK (lucky!), if you’re applying by virtue of a personal relationship with a partner you're in the awkward position of proving to the government that you're in a “genuine, subsisting relationship,” to use UK terminology. Not only that, you must prove that you can pay for yourself and your housing during the term of your visa.
Finally, after much discussion, debate, hand-wringing, and parental discussions, we decided to pursue the UK Spouse Visa. This way, we could begin our lives together, Belle was able to live near her family, I had more work options living near London, and we were able to live somewhere where one of us had an identity to begin basing our lives.
The World’s Hardest Visa?
The UK Spouse Visa is arguably one of the world's hardest residency applications, weighing in at 80+ pages which is more than doubled with a stack of paper supporting your visa which resembles a doctoral thesis. I encourage you to stay motivated, knowing that your proof to the government to obtain a visa contains some of the very obstacles that you have to overcome when moving to another country, so your goals are somewhat aligned.
It's at its heart a legal process, where you bring everything before a judge (immigration officer), and you try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you intend to be a good citizen of your new country. As long as this is your goal, and your immigration history and criminal background is clean, there is nothing to worry about.
You must prove that you have the following:
An identity and a clean background check
Your partner and children's identities and background
Your relationship history, if it’s a relationship visa
Employment, if it’s a work visa
Meet financial requirements (income, savings, investment, etc.)
Housing in your new country
Meet medical requirements
You can't fault them for asking. I mean, if you never met someone before or knew anything about them, would you let them rent out a room in your house? It's not like all of these governments are willing or able to share their citizen’s data with each other.
In our case, the UK wants to prove that you are actually in love and not going to scam the government as an overstayer, which does happen. How do you prove that? Well, we wanted to date for a few years longer before getting married, but the relationship visa system mainly uses marriage, communications, and having others vouch for you.
Filling out a visa application feels much like doing your taxes in a new country, except that it’s not automated with software. In our case it was a multi-stage process of an application via internet, then a paper-based application through the mail to Sheffield, England, then an in-person 'super priority' appointment (used to be same-day service, now within 24 hours) in Croydon, England with a paper-based application again.
The first visa expert we consulted with gave us some good advice and bad advice, so be wary. She offered to do everything for $1,000 as long as my background check was clean. Because my job is a blend of fintech/legal, I decided to use my own skills and save the money, and only pay $60 for a half-hour consultation to make sure I'd researched correctly. I'd have to do all the work of gathering all the documentation myself anyway!
Some visa advice was good, like liquidating accounts to cash to meet the financial requirement. But some was bad, because she thought we could use a UK Marriage Visitor Visa, which you can't use to live in the country. This led to Golden Rule #5: Never trust the experts and always do your own research. Instead, we needed the UK Fiance Visa first, then convert it to a UK Spouse visa after our marriage. We had to go through the UK system from beginning to end, as I'll explain.
Because I wasn't a member of a 'listed country' which are subject to tuberculosis screenings, there was no medical requirement. The NHS (healthcare) required an initial surcharge of £500 (it's doubled since to £1000), but once that was paid, I was done. No ongoing medical or dental insurance or fees to pay out of pocket. Instead, the NHS is funded indirectly through taxes.
The Big Picture When Moving Abroad
These are some of the items to consider before making the move to being an expat:
International Mobile Phones
Marriage Plans (for couples like us)
Mode of Transportation
The first major stumbling block for any visa is the language barrier. If you don't know the language, you'll have to learn it before you ever become a citizen. This was another advantage to the UK compared to The Netherlands or Portugal, as we are both native English speakers.
The second obstacle for the UK visa is their unusual financial requirement, which visa experts told me was one of the biggest reasons for marriage visa failures. The UK visa requires that you make at least a UK living wage for the length of your visa, using only UK-based income.
Because I was working remotely from a US-based employer, I had to prove enough savings were stashed away in cash. Fortunately, retirement savings were still valid.
The third difficulty with the UK visa are the marriage requirements. If you want to get married, you have to give notice in person (good luck with that, long-distance relationships) at the registrar no sooner than 28 days from your intended marriage date. I had to fly back to the US for a month just because of this waiting period, which added to my flight costs.
We had to go through the super-long fiance visa process to give notice, while not knowing when the visa will be approved. That took us over 3 months, even on an expedited visa.
Then, because you can't work on a fiance visa, we had to do it all over again with another stack of visa paperwork which included our marriage certificate right after we got married, which wasn't exactly the honeymoon we had imagined!
Visa Costs are Real!
That leads to the fourth difficulty, which is the visa cost itself. The fiance visa cost $2,250 for the standard version. If you don’t want to wait potentially 6 months, it was an extra $1000 for the priority visa service to (no guarantee) cut the wait to 3 months. For that, the UK put us at the front of all the “standard” applications in the priority queue.
You have to get a second visa, this time for the marriage, because the fiance visa only allows you to give notice at the registrar. The second visa costs another $2,250, plus another $650 (now $1,200) for the one-time NHS surcharge and another $700 ( now $1000) if you choose the option of same-day (now within 24 hrs) visa service, so you can actually start working and not wait 3 months for a decision. Grand total if you don’t want to wait the extra months to see your loved one? $6,700 in government visa fees. The wedding fees were another $300, so it was about $7,000 in total.
If you want to call and check on your visa processing status, it's a paid line which annoyingly costs $2 per minute (now $3/minute). All the UK government will tell you is the average processing time.
Belle was unable to leave the UK, but if you have the flexibility, there is a possible way to save time and lower the cost, which is to get married outside the UK where it is legally recognized (in our case, the US). You can then skip the fiance visa and go directly to the spouse visa. That saves the cost of an extra visa, or $2,250, but it offset by the cost of flights and travel.
Planning to Move Overseas
While we were buried in government paperwork, both of us were also planning to move in together. While I had a fair amount of household goods and an old Toyota truck, I ran some calculations on shipping a single crate of goods from the US to the UK and it started at $1,200. It's largely not worth shipping your household goods or car overseas because of the huge moving and import costs. Forget about shipping services like UPS or FedEx, as just sending a TV overseas with them will cost you close to $1,000.
Even if you brought your huge, widescreen TV to the UK, you can’t plug anything from the US in over here without an adapter (they are cheap and widely available). I made the mistake of bringing a canister vacuum cleaner from the US, and it worked for about a minute before the vacuum started overheating, because you need an actual transformer to handle high electrical loads, which costs you $100 or so.
You're better off selling off everything but your most prized goods, then taking the prized items with you in your carry-on airline luggage (if breakable), or checked luggage (if not breakable), using your clothes and blankets to pad military surplus canvas bags. Nothing can compare with the low cost of airline luggage, pound-for-pound, because you've earned the lower cost by purchasing an airline ticket.
This was further diminished by selling my stuff on the internet and giving away to charities, and leaving some of the heavier items at a friend's house for future trips. I finally set myself a threshold of $50 to decide if listing and selling things were worth my time. If it was worth more than $50, list it. If less, give it away.
Our Housing Situation in the US and England
After learning many lessons on the unpredictability of life, I was renting an apartment on a month-to-month lease which made moving out as easy as giving the manager 60 days' notice. The good thing was, I sold my house to pay my student loans less than 2 years before. I can’t imagine adding a house sale or purchase to the migration process, but people often do.
In England, we initially considered staying in an Airbnb, but they are expensive for long-term rentals and they aren't the strongest case for accommodation in a visa application. That left us with scouring the rental housing market in Southeast England using the Rightmove website, which is ultra-competitive compared to most of the US due to massively global demand from London.
Belle spent weeks organizing, chasing and looking around potential houses. Most good rentals that popped up had offers on the very first day. We finally found one we liked in a nice neighborhood and spoke with the agent, who said he'd look into our application, but he never wrote any information down.
After dragging his feet for a week, he finally told us that he didn't believe we qualified for the listing without my visa or having UK income, both of which were false, as I knew from my own research. I couldn't believe this guy and argued with him until he admitted to sabotaging our application by failing to turn it over to the private landlord for a decision. He claimed the background check ('references' in the UK) companies could not handle internationals, which was also false, because I called them and checked for myself.
We were furious, but fortunately another listing came onto the market for a nicely remodeled rental which Belle went to visit on the first day. We applied, along with eight others on the first day, and after a scary wait (along with hoping day after day for the visa to come) we won the listing with approval from the background check company, which was, as expected, perfectly fine with using my US references. The fiance visa came through with no time to spare, and we had snagged ourselves a rental.
We added both of our names to the lease and utility bills because it not only helps both of us build our credit score in the UK, but having more financial ties strengthened our visa application.
International Mobile Phones
Since both Belle and I had iPhones, we stayed in contact using iMessage and FaceTime for free. During one audio-only call, it dropped out and we redialed each other back at the same time. In the confusion, we connected over the cellphone line and spoke for about 45 minutes. The cost of this single mistake? About $200 for me and £300 for Belle. I ended up negotiating my bill down by about half. Ironically, both providers offered free plans that covered international calls, but you had to ‘activate’ it or it didn’t matter.
Because I work for a US company, I needed to find a way to keep a presence in the US and in the UK at the same time. The perfect solution to this very confusing problem turned out to be simpler than I thought.
I kept my US cellphone and for business reasons (app stores differ by country) kept it set up for US, but changed providers to Google FI Unlimited (careful, not the regular Google FI). Google FI Unlimited is amazing for internationals because it lets you use your US number with surprising worldwide coverage at regular high speeds. It starts at $20 per month and phone, data, and text are all included and it’s a pay as-you-go plan with bills capped at $60 per month if you use 6 GB or more. There is no contract, and no stupid termination fees if you want to leave.
Google doesn’t permit you to send their SIM card to non-US addresses, so I sent it to my US Post Office Box and picked it up during a visit. If there is a will, there is a way. Google FI was leagues better than Sprint, my old provider, because Sprint slowed my UK data service to a crawl or didn't work (as you'll see later during my first day of driving in the UK). Before that, I used AT&T and they required that you buy expensive add-ons for anything to work when traveling internationally.
For a UK number, I bought a Skype number for $50 per year and installed the Skype app on my phone. If I’m out and somebody calls my UK number, Skype uses the internet to call my phone via the app, but it was slow and unreliable. If you're going to be here for any length of time, you are better off just buying a UK phone, as you can always bring it back to the US network and there are many good options for providers. I ended up downgrading Google FI to the free Google Voice to keep my US-based number and bought a UK phone, which worked much better.
Banking in the UK While Employed in the US
At this stage in the adventure, you normally need a local bank account, because no landlord or mortgage company is willing to deduct money out of another country and currency. Belle was invaluable here, because her bank account was the foundation of our UK financial identity as a couple and we initially used it to pay rent. Eventually, after we were married, we opened a joint account at the same bank together for household expenses to make transfers easier.
If you’re still being paid from the US and into a US bank account, as I was, now you need to figure out a way to pay for your expenses in the UK. Fortunately, I already had a credit card with no foreign transaction fees which was the perfect solution, especially set up for contactless payments, which are widely available in the UK. For cash needs, I use a UK bank which has a partnership with my US bank for free ATM ('cash point') withdrawals.
Taxes, rent, and utility payments required another solution. My next article goes into how I solved the cross-border money transfer problem, which can be expensive if you make the mistake of using a typical bank. See "These International Money Transfer Fees Will Surprise You - Top 8 Sites Compared including Bitcoin" for how I solved this one.
I kept all of my US accounts because there was no need to transfer everything, and the US sticks you with regulatory filing requirements (FBAR) if you put more than 10K in foreign accounts.
My vacation was limited, so the timing of my UK visits was critical. We ran into a frightening setback when, after setting our wedding date, the visa dragged on without any explanation for two weeks past the 3-month mark. This was despite paying for all the premium ‘expedited’ services.
Finally, I found that the UK government wanted a letter from my US bank which verified that the money was in the account, even after I’d provided statements. After the stressful process of wringing a letter out of the bank, we had to move our wedding date back, but we finally got the green light of approval from the UK Visa and Immigration Office. We were elated!
My First One-Way Ticket to the UK
After packing up the rest of my life in the US, I flew over to the UK and Belle and I had a few days together before our wedding with my family in town. After a whirlwind process of picking out wedding attire, we said our vows and were married near her home town with close friends and family, with just enough time to enjoy the moment before running up to the visa office in London (still in wedding attire!) with the wedding certificate.
The same-day visa service in the office took a couple of hours, so we walked around a nearby mall in our wedding clothes, blissfully enjoying being newly married. Then, we realized security was closing the government building with just enough time for us to run back, with Belle taking off her shoes and running barefoot through the street as a rainstorm suddenly poured on us. We made it with less than a minute to spare, went upstairs and the visa officer handed back my stack of paperwork with an approval and a smile, thankfully.
Because all my vacation was used up, now we had one evening to enjoy it before I started work the very next day! Even so, the relief of finally having all of the legal obstacles finished was an enormous burden lifted.
The next day was my first day of working from my home office. Other than a few small bumps with the video conference equipment, this went smoothly after months of planning for the transition. Going remote, especially as a manager, is a subject all of its own, so my recommendation is to start planning for it early at work because you’ll be swamped with everything else.
My next task was to get a National Insurance Number (like a Social Security number in the US), which required setting an appointment and bringing in more documents. Once I had that, because my income is from outside the UK, I signed up for self-assessment with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs for taxes in the UK. Fortunately, the US and UK have a tax treaty to prevent double taxation (expat taxes are another subject all its own).
Driving On the Other Side of the Road (not the ‘wrong’ side)
Once you’re driving in another country as a resident, you have to research a driver’s license, buy a car, and get insurance. Surprisingly, in most countries you can rent a car and even drive on the other side of the road as a tourist without any license at all.
Not only are you on the other side of the road, but as an American in the UK, you’re on the other side of the car and driving a manual transmission with your left hand. Even as an airline pilot who switched sides in the cockpit, and having driven a stick shift for years, this felt unnatural to me after driving on the same side for so long. I’m sure our UK friends feel the same way when driving in the US! After a while, it starts to click and you get the hang of it.
My first day driving in the UK, I had accepted a free upgrade from the rental agency which resulted in a car that was entirely too big for British roads. I kept accidentally starting the car in third gear instead of first, the car completely stunk of burned rubber and Belle thought this was completely hilarious.
Later, on my first night, I drove myself to my English cottage Airbnb at 2 a.m. after more than 24 hours awake since my flight from the US, but ended up lost among country roads with high hedges that all looked the same at night. Sprint, my US phone provider, didn't work at all in the countryside, and the GPS ('SatNav') in the car didn’t accept the cottage address, but it gave me a moving map, and I somehow found the Airbnb after a mighty struggle where I thought I may end up sleeping the my car.
Because there is no foreign license exchange program between the US and UK, you can drive on your US license for a year, after which you have to take a UK written test and driving exam with the DVLA (their version of the DMV), which was fairly stringent compared to what I was used to. The written test is mostly logic-based and not especially difficult except for the new road signs and the ‘fines and penalties’ category.
For the driving exam, driving experience helps, but you have to check every mirror before any maneuver, or the instructor will mark it as a fault! Fortunately, I passed the test with my very serious ex-British Armed Forces instructor and have my UK license to add to my collection.
After moving to the UK, Belle's parents graciously gave us their 18-year old Toyota Yaris as a wedding gift, which we fell in love with, but were nervous of taking on a super long European trip. Belle's dad, ever the bargain hunter, found a 2014 Toyota Yaris Icon (80K miles) on Ebay for £4500, which we bought to replace the trusty old family car before driving on our long trip to Cassis, France. Fuel prices are much more expensive in the UK and Europe compared to the US (more than double), so an economical car is a must.
A Long-Deserved Honeymoon
Our long-deserved honeymoon finally arrived in May of this year, but when we did, it was well worth the wait and Belle did an incredible job planning and booking our main lodging. We took a road trip through France to Cassis, in the French Riveria, after staying in a few cities on the way, including some fun electric-scooter riding around Lyon. It was pure bliss of seaside cliffs, beaches, small Mediterranean port town charm, and a house with the best view I’ve ever seen. After being newlyweds for less than a year, we found this incredibly relaxing. I highly recommend taking a vacation to reward yourselves for making it through the transition to another country, your future selves will appreciate it later!
Like us, have you struggled to find a way to send money across countries cheaply? See my article where I compare the best services on the web today: Top 8 International Money Transfer Sites Compared including Bitcoin
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