England, Europe, Journal, Life Abroad

15 Harsh Truths About Living In England

On October 12th, 2016, I got onto a plane in Minneapolis and moved to England. It was the culmination of a dream I’ve had for what seems like forever, and it was the chance to finally get to live legally in the same country as the person I love.

What a wild ride it has been since then.

Living abroad in and of itself is a huge step, and does not come without significant struggles. In the last several months, I have struggled so much living in Britain. Since I’ve moved, I have questioned (very, very seriously) as to whether or not this was the right choice, and whether I want to stay and “stick it out.” (“It” being living permanently in England.)

Before I moved last October, I’d already lived in England before—I studied abroad for my junior year of college in Nottingham, during the 2013-2014 academic year. But studying abroad and living abroad are so completely different (not least because Nottingham and York are very different cities!), and living abroad comes with a whole lot of systems and complexities that are frustrating at best.

So often, people tell me that I’m “living the dream” and that my life is “perfect.” “England is so amazing,” they tell me. “I’d give anything to be able to live in England like you,” they say.

The truth?

Living in England really sucks sometimes. So much more than any of those people realize.

As a travel blogger, it’s all too easy to paint every experience abroad as wonderful and amazing and inspirational. But I want to be honest—brutally so—because just like traveling, life abroad is never as perfect as it looks online.

Here are 15 harsh truths I’ve discovered about living in England.

1) Council tax.

One of my biggest frustrations about the systems in place in England is council tax. Council tax is a local tax, usually done by the city or county you live in. The Council is responsible for all of the local things—streetlights, garbage collection, libraries, police and emergency services, etc. The reason I hate council tax is because it’s not a normal tax—you have to pay it separately, it’s not automatically deducted from a paycheck. This is because it is not technically income-based—how much council tax you pay depends on where you live and the size of your residence. So even if you aren’t employed and aren’t receiving paychecks, you still have to pay council tax. (Students are exempt from paying council tax, and in theory if you are on welfare/benefits you won’t have to pay either. But as I have no access to public funds through my visa, even when I didn’t have a job I was still paying council tax.)

I fundamentally disagree with tax that is not income-based. I think how much tax you pay should always depend on how much money you’re making—otherwise it’s not fair. It is also so hard not to be extremely frustrated when the everyday, tangible things your council tax pays for don’t go right—like when it took the Council 6 days after collection day to pick up the trash on our street (after several phone calls and being unable to open the windows due to the smell and flies/mice on the street). Council tax is such a massive frustration and one that I was not expecting at all when I moved.

2) There is literally trash everywhere

Britain has to be one of the dirtiest countries I’ve ever been to. I know not every place can be as clean as Minsk or Moscow, but in general, England is full of trash. It is everywhere. There are also very very few garbage cans anywhere. This is due in part to the IRA bombings in the 1970s and 1980s that targeted trashcans. But my one of my first impressions of England was running around Liverpool Lime Street train station trying to desperately find a trashcan. There wasn’t a single one. And with no trashcans, there is just garbage and shit everywhere. Litter and cigarette butts and trash is everywhere, in the streets, on the highways, on the sidewalks, on the road, etc. It is absolutely disgusting. The exception to this is national parks/protected nature areas, like the Peak District and the Lake District—those mercifully don’t have trash everywhere (yet?!). But pretty much everywhere else does. It can come as a bit of a shock, considering that Britain is meant to be a world leader but can’t (literally!) clean up after itself.

Also, York doesn’t have dumpsters, so the above photos are what the city streets look like in the morning on collection day: literally full of garbage and recycling in the streets.

3) Racism.

The racism is by far the thing I was least prepared for moving to England. I just wasn’t expecting racism of this level in this country. This post isn’t the place to talk about Brexit, which broke my fucking heart (that’s a post for a whole other time). But racists have been emboldened since Brexit, and the attitude to foreigners is appalling. And for me, this comes from a place of privilege as a white American. I have never been scared for my physical safety here, and for that I am extremely grateful. But the racism in this country is overwhelming.

Perhaps as a student I didn’t realize this that much, or maybe England just wasn’t this way before the Brexit vote. York is also a very “white” city to live in, and there isn’t very much diversity here, which might skew my perspective a bit. But British people can be obscenely, horribly, awfully racist. I say this as an American, and as someone who lived most of their life in the US—which is extremely racist and notorious worldwide for its discriminatory approach to foreigners and racial/ethnic minorities.

The racism and micro-agressions are hard to deal with. It’s so hard to deal with. A woman once went off on me at work for making her tea “wrong,” because “you’re in England, and we make tea this way.” Sometimes it’s just customers at work asking me far-too-personal questions. Sometimes it’s customers at work shouting country names at me (“CANADA?”) and thinking that’s appropriate—whereas if I wasn’t white and American, it would be obviously racist to do that (you wouldn’t just shout “POLAND? PAKISTAN?” at someone!!!). The micro-aggressions are small, but each one builds up to create an atmosphere of racism that is fundamentally exhausting. I had no idea there was so much racism here. And not only is it difficult to put up with, it is also extremely disappointing.

4) Immigrants have it tough

Besides the racism, life can also be a real struggle as an immigrant. I pay (federal) tax but get next to nothing for it—members of government that I can’t vote for, a benefits/welfare system I’m barred from accessing (even though I’m paying into it), “free” healthcare that I paid £600 for as part of my visa. Not being able to vote was extremely hard in the election in June—and what was worst, British people talking to me about how they weren’t going to vote, when I would have given anything to vote! On top of this, there’s visas and the expenses associated with them. The fees for a visa are embarrassingly higher than how much it costs to process. 70 million bank accounts will now be checked after January 2018 in an effort to catch out illegal immigrants—and will undoubtedly affect legal migrants (LIKE ME!) as well.

It can be so exhausting, especially when I paid so much money to be here. I am so grateful that I have made several friends at work who are foreigners as well (one from Latvia and one from Thailand), who understand my frustrations. Because it is so hard to be a foreigner in England when you feel like the entire system is rigged against you. And people just don’t understand until it’s directly effecting them.

5) The economy is sliding downhill

The British economy is not doing well these days. The pound dropped to its lowest rates in the history of the currency following the Brexit vote. While that was nice for me when all my money was in dollars and I was converting into pounds, it’s pretty painful now that all my money is in pounds and I still have to convert it to dollars to pay my credit card and student loans every month. When I lived in Nottingham, the exchange rate was roughly £1=$1.65 or £1=$1.68. Now it’s about £1=$1.30. That’s a huge drop. It’s shocking. Butter has jumped from £1 to £1.37 at my grocery store in the year since I’ve lived in York. Other things have gotten more expensive, and it will only get worse after Brexit. The worst part, is that too many British people don’t realize how their economy is tanking, and will refuse to acknowledge it and never talk about it. Which is frustrating in and of itself.

6) Finding a job can be really hard

I say this as I’ve been seriously job hunting for 8 weeks. This is probably true for foreigners in most countries, but it is still tough in England. Although it’s illegal for most employers to discriminate based on nationality, I do feel like I’ve lost out on many opportunities (and at least the chance for an interview) because people look at my application, see that most of my work experience is in the US (and I used to put one of my references from the US), and just throw it out. Without connections and a good network, it can be really difficult to find a job. This has been a major struggle for me. Also, most jobs pay monthly, so you just get one lump sum and need to budget it out throughout the month. This is opposed to in the US, where paychecks are generally bi-weekly. Oh, and if you work two jobs, your second job can be taxed nearly 50%. Good luck trying to pay rent with a tax return in April.

7) The weather can be seriously depressing

England is known for its rain. It always rains. And if it’s not raining, it’s going to rain soon. This is a great joke until you’re actually living there, and it’s raining constantly, every single day. This can also lead to major mold problems (I’m not looking to fighting the Mold Wars 2.0 with my house this winter…). I get seasonal effective disorder pretty bad in winters in Minnesota, with the soul-numbing cold. But I also got it quite a bit this spring and summer, when I’d be stuck inside at work on a nice sunny day (and the worst part is when customers come up and say, “Oh it’s such a nice, sunny day today!” I wouldn’t know, I’ve been stuck in here for 8 hours serving people like you coffee). The weather can be consistently grey and mentally draining and depressing in Britain.

8) Trying to drive on the wrong side of the road is the worst thing ever

I’m working now on trying to learn how to drive on the wrong (left) side of the road. It is one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had. Despite driving for nearly 10 years, and learning to drive on a manual, learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road is frustrating, infuriating, and downright painful. Everything is opposite, you constantly get scared of cars coming towards you, and you drive far too close to the left (because there’s a whole goddamn car on that side!!). It is so much harder than I thought it would be. And don’t even get me started on roundabouts.

9) Transportation is ridiculously expensive

One of my favorite things about the UK has always been its public transportation system—you can get all over the country without needing a car. But the flip side of this is that all transportation is insanely, painfully expensive in this country. Prices for train tickets have been constantly rising for years, even though the level of service and punctuality/reliability of trains has decreased (I’ve noticed this particularly from 2013-2014 in Notts and now). It is generally cheaper to fly from the north (Edinburgh/Glasgow or Newcastle) to London, than it is to take a train. Public city buses in smaller towns can be ludicrously expensive (£4 to go 15 minutes down the road). And gas (or petrol, as the Brits say) is so expensive it hurts—despite our small, relatively fuel-efficient car, it costs at least £50 (roughly $68) to fill our car up. I know that not every country in the world can have gas as cheap as America. But when public transportation is expensive as well, it just seems like there’s no way to win.

10) Brits can seem very fake—and they’re the Americans of Europe

I am blessed and incredibly fortunate to know many wonderful British people here, including a very cute husband. But Brits are notoriously passive aggressive and avoid conflict, and this can sometimes come off as very fake and superficial. It can also be very counterproductive and time consuming to jump around a subject instead of being direct with it. It’s hard to tell when Brits are genuinely interested/happy/upset/any emotion ever, instead of just being polite. And I cannot stand fake people.

Some British people also think they’re at the center of the world in Britain, and they’re not. This is something I have a lot of experience with—there are so many Americans who believe that the world revolves around the US of A (news flash: it doesn’t). It has also taken me about a year, but I’ve also realized that stereotypical Brits are the Americans of Europe. They’re the tourists that refuse to learn/speak any local language and believe everyone should speak English, they stick to holidays in Spain and never go outside their comfort zone, they’re the big partiers who cause massive problems when drunk on stag dos (bachelor parties) in European hotspots or at airports.

This is by no means to say every British person travels this way!! I have many British friends and have met countless Brits abroad who challenge this stereotype in every single way. But just like the stereotype of American tourists is the socks-and-sandals and fannypacks, there is a stereotype of British tourists abroad as well. And I often get the impression that other Europeans feel about British tourists the way most of the world feels about American tourists—a bit exasperated with them. As a traveler, I’m an unofficial ambassador and represent my country abroad—and as an American, I love breaking down peoples’ stereotypes and expectations. Many Brits do this as well, which is wonderful.

11) The country is very London-centric

London sometimes seems to be the center of the universe when you live in the UK. And if you don’t live in London, it sucks. Everything happens in London, everyone wants to go to London, everything about London is expensive, all transport is centered on London, and most people struggle to grasp the idea that not everyone lives/wants to live in London. This is true for both British people and foreigners—I still get comments about “living in London,” when I have never lived in London… ever… The country has so much else going for it besides the capital, but it can still be frustrating if you don’t live in London. So news flash: I love London but I DO NOT live there!

12) The healthcare is “free” but not necessarily great

The NHS (National Health Service) is technically free, but as an immigrant I paid an “immigration health surcharge” as part of my visa to get onto it—so it’s not free for me. While in general, I think the NHS is great and walking out of a doctor’s office without paying a co-pay was a wonderful feeling, there are problems. It’s not easy to get appointments—in most places, you’ll need to wait about 3 weeks before you can get an appointment. This is extremely difficult for me, as I don’t know my work schedule more than a few days in advance. I haven’t used the dental services yet, but right now I’m not impressed: the first appointment I could get was for 7 weeks away. The only appointment in the late afternoon Adam could get was THREE MONTHS away. That’s three (3!!!) months of waiting. While I definitely prefer this system, as it means people aren’t going bankrupt from hospital bills like they do in the US, it isn’t without its drawbacks—no system is ever perfect.

13) The language barrier is real

So many people (myself included) think that since English is the official language in England, there is no language barrier. This is an absolute fucking lie. There is such a huge language barrier, but since it’s “technically” the same language, people don’t see it as an actual barrier. Trousers are pants and pants are underwear, lifts are elevators and lorries are trucks, chips are fries and crisps are chips, rubbers are erasers (NOT CONDOMS!), “murdering an Indian” is not a racist act of violence but voraciously eating a curry, and cheers is a catch-all phrase that can mean thank you or fuck off depending on the tone of voice. Pronunciation is different, accents vary (see below…), and I have frequently had no idea what people are talking about. The language barrier is real and present and it is not as easy as English-speaking foreigners think it is.

14) There is no one “British accent”

One of the biggest shocks of living in England is realizing that there is no one single “British accent” that much of the rest of the world thinks exists. While yes, you can easily tell that Scottish accents aren’t the same as English accents, it’s worth knowing that there are literally thousands of “British” accents in England. Adam and I met once met a guy in Montenegro and within about 10 seconds of this guy opening his mouth, Adam leans over to me and says, “he’s from about 20 minutes of where I’m from.” How did he know that?!? Because English accents are incredibly localized, and the accent will change possibly every mile depending on where you are. People from Liverpool sound nothing like people in Cornwall, people from Derbyshire will sound completely different to people from Yorkshire, and people from Newcastle sound like they’re speaking a different language altogether (sorry Geordies). I struggled for weeks understanding one of my managers’ accents (and sometimes I still have to ask two or three times what she said). The accents are incredibly diverse for a country as geographically small as Britain.

During my year in Nottingham, I was able to identify Northern and Southern accents. That was about it. Now, I can sometimes tell a Scouse (Liverpool) or Brummie (Birmingham) accent. I know a Geordie (Newcastle) accent only because I honestly can’t understand a single word that’s being said. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. So if you think you “know” a British accent, you’re wrong—there’s too many of them to ever try to know.

15) Nothing is open late, and major stores that sell everything don’t really exist

This is pretty common to most places in Europe, but as it’s a major frustration for me sometimes, I wanted to include it on this list anyway (my blog, I can do what I want). Even in a large town like York, it’s hard to get things done or go shopping in the evenings. Most businesses in town close around 5:00pm, with a handful of stores staying open to 7:00pm or so. I’m used to being able to go to Target until 10:00pm and buy literally everything I need there. Luckily, most supermarkets are open in the evening (until 10:00pm or so), and corner shops or small locations of big-name chains (like Tesco and Sainsburys) will be open late as well. But everything closes early on Sundays—so good luck buying groceries at a supermarket after 4:00pm.

Also, there are no giant superstores that sell everything you need. There is no Target equivalent. In order to do all your shopping, you’d need to go to Primark (for clothes), Boots (for toiletries/pharmacy things/makeup), and your local Tesco/Sainsburys/Morrisons (for food). So often I have to ask the question of “where can I buy this one specific thing?” Because there is no Target where you can buy everything all in one. Again, this is common across Europe (you’ll need to go to a butcher, a bakery, and a veg market to buy all your food), but it can still be really frustrating. I miss Target everyday.

So there you have it. 15 harsh truths about living in England. One final thing? Regardless of whether you’re in England or anywhere else around the world, living abroad is lonely. It can be so incredibly lonely when you’re in a foreign country, in a culture that isn’t your own, especially if you don’t speak the local language and only know other foreigners (as opposed to knowing locals).

Living abroad is hard. It is not the “perfect” life people might assume it is from social media or Hollywood movies. It’s really, really hard. I am in a constant state of missing people and things. I miss my family and my friends, I miss Taco Bell and Target, I miss driving the streets of my neighborhood in my beautiful, beloved Minneapolis.

Whether you’re in England or somewhere else around the world, taking the step to live abroad will definitely bring challenges. These are 15 things that I wish I had known or understood before I moved abroad—and I hope it offers a different perspective, for both Americans, Brits, and people around the world.

Have you ever lived in a foreign country before? What was your experience like? What things did you find most difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments!

8 thoughts on “15 Harsh Truths About Living In England

  1. Enlightening! I had a great experience in the Luther Nottingham Program and I’ve been guilty of romanticizing the ex-pat experience since I returned to the US. Thanks for the reminder that life is challenging no matter where you find yourself.

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Madi! I also had a great experience with the Nottingham Program, and maybe that’s what’s made a lot of these things feel so unexpected–especially since studying abroad and living abroad are so completely different. I’m definitely glad I didn’t have to pay council tax for the Notts flat!!

  2. I enjoyed the post, though I have never considered that life in the UK is challenging.
    My tips:
    You should never buy a car from a person who lives in Milton Keynes due to the amount of roundabouts. Hemel has a magic roundabout you can go around clockwise or anti clockwise- you choose!

    The NHS is amazing once you are ‘in the system’. Book your next appointment every time you use the dentist.

    Only the city centres have big litter problems, market towns and villages are generaĺy spotless apart from the ever present MacDonalds bahs tossed from cars.

    The apple generaĺy doesn’t drop far from the tree and British people don’t move far from home. The North / South divide is a real thing… Watford gap is seen as an unofficial barrier.

    When the sun shines avoid the coast as it is rammed!
    Don’t travel on or near Bank Holidays. Avoid going on holiday during the school holidays.

    There is no such thing as bad weather….just take the right kit /coat / fuĺl waterproofs / shorts / jumper and a hat! Everything is better when the sun shines.

    The next generation is more tollerant and less racist than the last.

    Shop smaĺl and local. Find the best butcher / baker / coffeshop/ tearoom /pub / curry house / restaurant you can. Avoid the multinationals and chains. Re visit the ones you like. If you didn’t like it find a better place. Personal reccomendations are the best way to expand your favourites.

    Find a beer you like. Enjoy trying to find it. Some are awfull. Some are ok. Write down the ones you like and seek them out. The same goes for people and places.

    Enjoy the best bits.

    I hope the positives soon outweigh the downsides

    1. Robert, thank you so much not just for reading, but for such a wonderful and thoughtful comment. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. Some of your tips I sort of know, and others I will be sure to keep in mind! Especially about avoiding the seaside, I went to Scarborough on a warm, sunny, Sunday in April–it was absolutely packed and a bit awful. Thank you for this comment 🙂

  3. After reading your very interesting and enlightening article I cant help thinking you are possibly living in the wrong country, there is always the option of living somewhere where yourself feels a little more comfortable.

    1. Thanks for reading! I have loved England for what seems like forever, and since I moved to study abroad I have always felt like England is where I’m meant to be. Especially as I feel like I don’t entirely fit in in my home country (the US) anymore–and moving abroad just because you want to (as opposed for work or family) is nearly impossible! Sometimes the frustrations of living abroad can just be overwhelming. I am glad you found a different perspective from this post! 🙂

  4. Dear Maja, I read every word and love “going on” adventures with you! My prayer for you is that you find contentment wherever you are, that you see each day as a gift, and sleep each night with knowing you just spent one of your days as one worth worth living for. Kelsie calls me the happiest person she knows, which is sweet. Some of that is that I do just have a natural happy outlook and the other part is that I CHOOSE to be happy. You are such a wonderful, talented young woman and you have so much to give others. I pray that in these simple acts of service, that you will find deep joy. Love you, sweet Maja, can’t wait to see you and Adam at Christmas!! Kathleen

    1. Thank you so much Aunt Kathleen! It can be so hard sometimes to keep a positive attitude. I can’t wait to see you and everyone else at Christmas!! 🙂

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