The honest reality of living in the UK

Could you be happy living in the UK as an expat? That’s a tough question.

You’re never going to truly know a place until you live and work there. I’ve definitely gone on holiday somewhere and been like: “Wow, I could totally see myself living here.”

Sure. But you won’t really know what it’s like until you live through the boring day-to-day. The same is true for the UK.

As a Canadian who’s lived in England for nearly 8 years, I’ve created my own pros and cons list. I hope these can help you decide whether the UK is right for you.

So let’s break it down.

The pros and cons of living in the UK

Pros to living in the UK as an expat

In my opinion, here are some of the best parts of living and working in the UK.

1. Real sense of identity

I love that British culture is a real, defined thing.

You have British slang, British food, British drinks, British traditions and quirks – many that are incredibly historic and still kept alive. Not to say that Canadian culture doesn’t exist, but we share so much with the US that it feels less special and unique.

2. Public Transportation

I sold my car a few years ago and I’ve been completely reliant on British public transport. It’s not perfect, but it’s doable – something I can’t say for Canada.

It’s easy to catch a bus to visit a nearby village or hop on the train to get into the city. While I can’t get everywhere easily, I can happily live my life in the UK without a car. It’s also extremely nice being able to save up money as it’s cheaper to take public transport (for me) than to own a car.

It’s also wildly simple buying train tickets now that most providers offer eTickets for trains that I can store on my phone.

If you live in London, you’ll never have to worry about getting a car as the public transport in London is incredible. However do keep in mind: if you’re interested in living in the rural countryside, relying on public transport will be harder for you.

3. British Healthcare

You never want to think about “what if I get sick” or “what if something bad happens while I live in the UK” but that’s life and it can happen. I’m very grateful that the British healthcare system is free at the point of contact and I don’t need to worry about how much a doctor’s appointment will cost.

The National Heath Service (aka NHS) is a great service that should be protected. While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely special.

4. Better work/life balance

Compared to North America, I find working in the UK has a better work/life balance. You’re given way more holiday time right off the bat with regular employment here, compared to so little vacation days in Canada and the US – and your home country may be similar.

Typically for new hires in Canada, you get two weeks vacation. You earn more days the longer you work there.

Almost all workers in the UK legally entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday a year.

It’s a massive difference.

This is one of the big drawbacks to thinking about moving back to Canada and going back to just two weeks vacation.. that’s hard to accept.

5. The charm & character

One of the things I hope to never take for granted is the charm and character of the UK. You’ll find loads of this in small towns and villages, each with their own character, surrounded by beautiful architecture and history everywhere.

You’ll see wonky shops that you find out are 400 years old, tutor buildings that aren’t just built to imitate tutor buildings… they are the real deal.

There’s also gorgeous cathedrals, abbeys and churches that are used by the local people, they’re not just “for show.”

6. The Pubs

There’s something so special about getting cozy with a pint in a historic pub. Maybe there’s exposed wooden beams on the ceiling, or maybe there’s a dog curled up in front of a wood-burning fire. I just love it.

And while going to the pub is often thought of as “just somewhere to drink” I find they’re much more than that. They’re a community place that brings together all different types of people.

I’ve done a lot of travelling, but I always feel at home in a British pub.

7. The Location

Love to travel? England is a wonderful homebase. As a Canadian, I might be able to afford a trip to Europe once a year, at most. Now that I’m living in England, I can find affordable flights to mainland Europe and beyond. I can visit these places multiple times a year!

If you’re interested in travelling more, whether around the UK or onward, Britain is a great location to do so.

Cons to living in the UK

As with any country, England isn’t perfect. There are a lot of things wrong with this country, but it’s a matter of whether the pros outweigh these cons.

1. Cost of Living

The UK is currently in a “cost of living crisis.” It’s very real and it’s unavoidable. Don’t move to the UK because you think it’s a cheap place to live – it really isn’t.

Unfortunately my home country Canada is also struggling with insane house prices, so no matter what country I choose, it’s going to cost me. However your home country may be different (and cheap) so keep that in mind.

2. The Weather

I love the sun and I miss the sun. Living in the UK means you have to sacrifice some sun. As a Canadian, I didn’t realize how sunny Canada can be until moving to England.

The stereotype is that England is dark and rainy 90% of the year. And while this isn’t totally true, you definitely experience much less sun and it can be tough in the winter months.

Just be prepared to get rained on.

3. Horrific Traffic

Some of the worst traffic I’ve ever seen has been in England. Unfortunately it’s the combination of different elements:

  • England is a small country
  • With lots of people
  • Which means a lot of cars
  • And tiny, extremely old roads!

If you do decide to drive in England, just be aware of the traffic. If you can, avoid driving in towns and cities during rush hour as you’ll likely crawl faster.

4. Missing Friends and Family

If you’re moving to the UK solo, you’re leaving behind everyone you’ve ever known. This shouldn’t be overlooked.

Missing my friends and family back home is the hardest part of being an expat for me. I am no longer part of their lives and they are continuing on without me. That’s tough. I think some expats blissfully overlook this issue when they first move because the whole experience is so exciting. But just wait.

5. Difficult Accents

One of my favourite things about the UK are the variety of accents. I love how different they can be and how it adds to the overall charm and character of Britain. But having to understand them? THat’s a different story.

It can feel really overwhelming at first when you can’t properly communicate with those around you. Maybe you get a call at work and cannot understand them on the phone, or you try to order a coffee at a cafe and can’t understand what the server has said. It happens.

But give it time and you will get there. At nearly 8 years in the UK, I no longer hear the British accents around me – they just sound like regular people.

6. Feeling lost

Moving abroad isn’t like what you see on Instagram or in the movies. It’s genuinely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful moments, but I think we often overlook the bad bits and feeling lost is a big one.

Maybe you feel like you’re the odd-one out at work, or you have no friends or you feel like you don’t know who you are – that’s all part of this experience.

7. Sacrificing certain comforts

Moving abroad (at least for me) meant sacrificing certain comforts from back home.

British homes are smaller than what I’m used to in North America – that’s a simple fact. In the UK, I don’t have a basement, laundry room, driveway, air conditioning… many British houses don’t. I’ve accepted it now, but it was definitely difficult at first.

If you want fun and exciting life in the UK, you have to sacrifice certain comforts.