The ultimate guide to living in London

Living in London can be expensive, lonely and tiring, but it’s still worth it. Or rather, it depends. For anyone considering moving to London, here’s a my ultimate and oh so personal guide to London life, including all the pros and cons.

London skyline

Is moving to London a good idea right now, bearing in mind the coronavirus pandemic?

Yes and no. It’s complicated.

We all know that we should only leave our homes if it’s absolutely essential. Alas, sometimes we have no choice other than to move abroad. And relatively speaking, London isn’t a bad place to move to right now.

If you have to move countries now and can’t delay the move, then yes, London is not a bad place to be. This depends on where exactly you live and your personal circumstances, of course.

Currently, anyone living in the UK can only go out if it’s essential. And in case you were wondering, this police document explains what constitutes ‘essential’.

The UK has a public health system, the National Health Service which is really struggling. Nevertheless, compared to many developing countries, the NHS is doing an amazing job.

Online grocery shopping is not always possible, with people rushing to book slots for three weeks later. While supermarkets have long queues and have introduced one way queuing systems and strict hygiene measures, smaller shops are well stocked on the whole. Most friends I know are OK, however others working on long shifts have really struggled.

Schools remain closed, but some state schools have been opened for the children of essential workers only.

Alas, now more than ever, life in a poorer district of central London varies a lot to life in the leafier, more affluent suburbs. It’s personal and like anywhere, quality of life right now depends on so many factors: grocery shops in your area, if you can work from home, your home space, your local hospital, who you live with…

London Hyde Park

What should I know before moving to London?

Before you move to London, investigate the area where you’ll be working. Figure out your commute, and also factor in the journey to your children’s school or daycare if appropriate. The speed and comfort of your daily commute makes such a difference to your life experience in London.

Plan your budget. Think about how much you’ll need to get by. Don’t forget extras such as flights to visit family, healthcare and education (the UK offers ‘free’ state education and healthcare but you might want to go private… see below for more).

Make sure you have your paperwork in order. Make copies of your work contract or evidence of a place at university, as well as copies of you passport, rental contract, utility bills and other important documents. If appropriate get them translated into English and apostilled. In the UK we don’t have national IDs, but we do have a National Insurance Number. If you don’t have yours already, you may need to request one before working or applying for a government loan or benefits.

Reach out online before you move to connect with people living there already. As well as making friends, they will have invaluable information and tips for your new London life. It’s also comforting to meet  a mix of fellow expats experiencing the same challenges, as well as friends from your home country.

Download Google Maps of your home and work locations. That way when you arrive fresh into town you won’t get lost.

Upon arrival in London buy a local pay as you go SIM card or a data plan. It’s really important to have a local mobile number if you want new friends to reach you and so you don’t spend a fortune via roaming to keep in touch with friends and family from back home . Yes free WiFi is widely available, but not everywhere.

Noone really lives in London, they live in a part of it. Don’t feel obliged to visit every tourist site immediately. Get to know your neighbourhood. And when life gets too hectic, escape to the country. Book train tickets in advance to explore the rest of the UK. Bristol, York, Edinburgh… I could go on and on.

Beware of rental scams and dodgy landlords. Work with a recognised rental agent only. Never accept a handshake deal; always insist on a contract and be sure to read the small print.

Pack warm clothes and an umbrella (‘brolly’). Pack warm and waterproof clothes. Even a summer night can get very chilly if you’re used to warmer climes.

When you do arrive, register with your local general practitioner (GP). You need to see a GP before any medical treatments or seeing a specialist. If you’re not registered it really complicates matters. All you need to do is take a proof of address and some ID (e.g. your passport) to your nearest clinic (we call them surgeries even though they don’t carry out surgery). You can find your nearest surgery on the NHS index.

If you’re staying any length of time, open a UK bank account. You can waste a lot of money withdrawing cash in the UK if your bank back home charges a fee. It is free to open a bank account – unless you’re looking for a credit card account, be suspicious if charges are mentioned. Personally I like Nationwide, which offers simple and efficient banking (especially online). Whatsmore, it’s free for FlexPlus customers to withdraw cash abroad, (although a 2.75 per cent fee applies if you buy anything with the card). However, once you leave the UK permanently you’ll be charged a monthly fee and it might be best to close the account. 

Londoners might not be the friendliest (venture north if you want to see more smiles), but on the whole, they’re still polite. We British take our please and thank yous very seriously. If you forget your manners, chances are a Londoner will remind you. Be polite. 

Be patient. Don’t expect to adapt to London overnight. It takes time and patience to settle in and find your way around town. Londoners might seem cold or reserved, but generally they’re just busy. Don’t take it personally.

For more tips, read this post with advice from London locals.

London weather

What’s the best way to get around in London? 

Unless you live far in the suburbs, chances are you won’t need a car. In fact having a car could be a nuisance. Driving in London is stressful and expensive. There are congestion charges for travel to much of the city and car parking is both pricey and hard to find.

For the underground metro (known as the ‘tube’), paying by contactless on your credit card works out the same price as a pay as you go travel card (Oyster card). However, if you have kids aged 11-15 get an Oyster Zip Card for free and discounted travel. Underground train services finish at midnight, or even earlier, so plan your night out or use Uber to get around.

The underground is free for children but it’s not always very comfortable. I’d highly advise against travel with kids at rush hour. Also, beware many stations don’t have escalators or lifts, and even if they do they are often out of order. Transport by bus is generally more convenient with kids or have a disability.

Some underground lines are notoriously delayed (circle and central line, I’m looking at you…) but others, such as the Jubilee, tend to work well. Even better, overground routes offer a little daylight in a very sun deprived city.

When planning your journey, think in terms of public transport routes rather than distance alone. A commute on the District Light Railway from East London right across the city might work out faster than a 5km trip to the local school. Conversely, sometimes it’s faster to cycle or walk than take an underground train (locals will snigger if you take a tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, for example).

London underground

Is living in London expensive?

Yes, although there are some ways around it.

Local markets are a wonderful way to save money and stock up on great produce. Of course, depending on where you live and your work hours, it might not be convenient to shop at markets.

Public transport is very, very expensive. London has the most expensive public transport in the world and is also the most costly place to hire a car. Travelling by bus instead of the underground (aka the tube) can cut costs significantly. Even better, cycle or walk. Cycling can be a little scary in congested areas of London. Allow plenty of room for buses and lorries who might not see you, always wear high visibility gear and plan out your journey ahead, opting for quieter routes and side streets wherever possible.

Eating out in London can rack up crazy bills, but then again, if you have the budget it can be worth it. London has some of the best restaurants in the world. That’s not to say cheap eats aren’t great too. A picnic in borough market, a curry in Tooting, dumplings in Chinatown… I miss dining out in London a lot.

There’s no getting away from it though. Rent in London doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it’s the sixth most expensive city in the world to rent.

On a brighter side, most museums and galleries are free. Even fee paying attractions offer special reductions on certain days and for students.

London vibe

How much do you need to live in London? What is a good salary?

Is 30k a good salary? Is 50k a good salary? How long is a piece of string?

While personal lifestyle dictates what constitutes a good salary in any location, there are some guidelines on how much you’ll need to get by in London.

According to a study by Time Out magazine, Londoners reckon you need to earn £52,859.67 a year to live in London. But this figure depends on whom you ask. Londoners on less than £20,000 think you need £46,571, and those earning more than £100,000 think you need at least £79,576. So the more Londoners earn, the more they think they need to earn.

To throw some more figures at you, the national living wage (the minimum wage) in London is set at £8.21 per hour. The average salary works out at around £38,272. There’s huge discrepancy between lower and higher earners though, with the average earnings of the top 0.1% exceeding £990,000.
London mews

To break down the cost of living in London…

Housing

A two-bedroom apartment in the centre will cost you around £3,000 per month. This is very approximate though – in the most expensive area of London a similar sized apartment could cost upwards of £35,000 per month, whereas with a bit of luck you might be able to find something very, very basic for £1,000 in a less fancy neighbourhood.

Things get less expensive as you move away from the centre, but there are still expensive pockets here too. Take a look on sites such as Zoopla and Right Move to get a feel.

Dining out

A good meal out without alcohol will set you back around £30 per person, but you can grab a take away for around £7. Meanwhile, you could easily burn £100 per person in a fine dining restaurant.

Transport

A single ticket on London’s underground within the most central district will set you back £4.90. A daily travel card will cost you £7.20.

Those living out in the suburbs could face a whopping £3,000 per year in annual travel costs, but even then it could still be worth it. Here’s a map comparing commuter costs).

Driving in London isn’t just stressful, it’s expensive too. Expect to pay £11.50 per day to drive within London’s congestion zone during peak hours. It’s rare to drive within London, at least in the central parts of town.

Groceries

I don’t think groceries are badly priced compared to other cities I’ve lived in. Markets tend to work out cheaper than supermarkets, which in turn tend to work out cheaper than out of hours corner shops.

Click here for a more detailed breakdown of the cost of living in London.

Health

National Health Service (NHS) treatments are free for any foreigner in the following cases:

treatment in a hospital Accident and Emergency department
seeing a General Practitioner (GP) – but only as an NHS or temporary patient
family planning services
treatment for certain infectious diseases
compulsory psychiatric treatment

Whether you can get other free NHS services depends on the length and purpose of your stay in the UK, not your nationality. Click here to see if you’re entitled to free NHS healthcare.

Education

In the UK, education is mandatory from the age of five to sixteen. Compared to the rest of the world, free state education is really good on the while.

Like most things, the quality of state education depends on the area. Alas, in much of the UK, this ‘postcode lottery’ can determine the future of the child. Good quality schools hike up local house prices, leaving parents competing to live in the most prized ‘catchment areas’. With preference going to children living nearby the school, many ‘free’ state schools are anything but.

If you’re lucky enough to be relocating with a full expat package you might still choose to send your children to a fee paying school (confusingly known as ‘public schools’). For example, if your child doesn’t speak English fluently or they’re used to a specific country education system, they might settle in better in an international school setting. While religious state schools do exist, some parents choose to pay a premium for a private, religious school.

Fee paying schools generally offer the option of weekly or termly boarding. Some parents, for example those in the military or constantly on the move, choose to send their children to boarding schools for the stability, as well as the level of education on offer. Boarding schools are not all lumpy porridge and cold showers, but they do vary hugely in quality and price. Don’t assume a high fee equals a high quality education.

In order to compare individual schools, you can click here to access the league tables for schools across the UK.

Childcare

The average cost of a full-time day nursery in London is around £280 per week for a child younger than two. However it can be much, much more depending on the area in which you live. I know one friend who paid £90 per day for her kindergarten. Fees tend to decline as your child ages (younger children need more attention whereas older kids are more independent).

As for childminders, they tend to work out a little cheaper, from £250 per week. Again it very much depends on the area in which you live.

Live in nannies cost from £350 per week, and day nannies cost more, from around £500 per week. The sky is the limit here though, and a top quality nanny agency, will cost much, much more.

Another option is to hire an au pair. By law au pairs must be paid at least £70 for a 25 hours working week. This increases to £85 per week if they work 30 hours. And you’ll need to pay babysitting, board and lodging, as well as extras such as their meal when you go out together. Many employers pay transport and study costs as well. It’s worth remembering that au pairs are not necessarily qualified, so might be unsuitable for caring for babies and very young children.

London pub

What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in London?

The main advantages I would say are:

Career opportunities

While Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh are just a few of the UK’s great regional cities, there is nowhere in the UK with the same level of career opportunities than London.

Cultural attractions

There are museums, galleries and cultural centres all over London. Quite simply, it is impossible to get bored in this city. From world famous institutions, such as the British Museum, to random pop ups, the only drawback can be the overwhelming wealth of options. FOMO is a big thing in London.

Food

Yes, I know the UK doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to food, but the culinary offerings in London are top notch. Whether you’re into sloppy pizza, elegant sushi or the most obscure central asian dish you can think of, you won’t go hungry in London (assuming you can afford it, of course).

People

While locals can have a steely exterior and they might not smile in public, Londoners are fun. London attracts some of the most talented, interesting, smart and quite honestly, fun people in the world.

English

If you’re a non native speaker, living in London is the best way to learn the language. Yes, there are a lot of foreigners in London (and that’s why it’s such a cool city), but if you really make an effort to meet new people it’s the best way to improve your lingo.

If your moving over with kids, it’s a brilliant opportunity for them to learn English super fast.

British Museum

And as for the downsides…

Cost of living

Yep, the cost of living in London is so high that your salary might not make living in London worthwhile. Rent and transport are just stupidly expensive compared to other cities I’ve lived in.

Weather

If you’re relocating from a sunny country it can take a while to get used to the grey mornings, rain and generally dreary weather. But on the bright side, summer sunshine London is such a special occasion that everyone goes a bit bonkers (in a good way).

Settling in

London can feel like an awesome party… that you’re not invited to. Londoners can be reserved, standoffish and too busy to socialise with newcomers. London is so big that it can be really hard to meet people, especially in central London.

The city is so big it can take a while to find your way around. Most people I know reckon it takes three years to figure your way around the city and even then, London is always a learning curve.

Is living in London safe?

Yes. If you’re relocating from a hardship location, chances are you’ll feel very safe in London.

Of course, there are some neighbourhoods which experience higher than average levels of crime. As a newcomer to the city you might want to avoid them after dark. You should still be cautious in ‘safe’ areas, for example if you’re a woman avoid travelling on your own through a park at night.

Like any city, you need to be on your guard against pickpockets in touristy areas. Covent garden, Leicester Square, Oxford Street and around major tourist sites such as the London Eye, Big Ben etc. are prime targets.

All in all though, London is a busy, bustling fun and safe city. Throughout all the three years I lived in London I never experienced any crime. The worst I ever had was some catcalls from a gang at night as I walked through a supposedly dangerous area of London.

Big Ben

Where should I not live in London? What are the bad areas?

You would really be missing out if you avoid all areas deemed unsafe in London. Sure, get your bearings in town before you start exploring too wildly, ask locals for their thoughts, but don’t avoid vaste areas of London out of irrational fear.

Statistically speaking, the districts with the highest rate of gun and knife crime are Southwark and Lambeth. Other London boroughs with high gun and knife crime rates include Brent, Haringey and Hackney.

Nevertheless, these are huge areas, and it really depends where you go within them. The supposedly dangerous parts of London are often some of the trendiest areas, with Hackney in particular garnering a reputation as a hipster hang out.

The same applies to Peckham and Brixton. These are wonderful, vibrant and colourful neighbourhoods, but they do house serious drug and gang problems in many parts.

If you’re new in town you might also feel unsafe in parts of Hounslow, Newham, West Croydon, Bromley, Streatham and New Cross.

Nevertheless, I lived near Neasden for some time. This area had a really bad reputation for crime and yet I never faced any issues.

In fact the area with the highest crime rate in London is Westminster. The reasoning behind this is not gang related bust ups but pickpocketing – Westminster is the most touristy part of London.

For more on where to live in London, you can read my guide to renting in London here.

Shoreditch

All in all, is living in London worth it?

According to a Deutsche Bank survey, London ranks at a dismal 41st place out of 56 among other global cities. Cost of living is terrible.

Nevertheless, it’s very personal.

If your salary puts you in a tight spot, if you face a long or tiring commute to your office and you work long hours, London can feel rather depressing.

On the other hand, if you appreciate culture and dining out, or you want to progress in your career, London is definitely worth it.

Holidays tend be more generous than in the US, so if you’re American, a spell in London is a great means to explore the rest of the UK too. York, Edinburgh, the Cotswolds, Bristol, the Lake District… there are so many wonderful places to visit, many of which can be seen on a weekend away.

If you’re young, free and single London offers a great experience. If you’re married with children and can afford to live in a good neighbourhood it’s a great opportunity too.

As an expat you might not want to live in London long term. I very much doubt that you’d want to live in the same part of London forever, but a few years in the capital is a wonderful opportunity.

view from the Tate museum

What tourist traps should I avoid?

OK, I might offend some people, but I vote you should avoid the following:

  • Restaurants in Leicester Square (or anything there)
  • Shopping on Oxford Street (unless you like the feeling of ten people glued to your hip)
  • Vue cinemas (unless you’re a teenage gangster)
  • Rickshaws (even if you’re drunk, they’re not worth it)
  • Madame Tussauds (queue for miles to see plastic people? Seriously?)
  • Harrods (I do wonder if only foreigners shop in Harrods… There are so many better options – Harvey Nichols, Joseph, Liberty London…)

Kew Gardens

Any blogs or websites you’d recommend for newbies in London?

To keep abreast of what’s on, read Time Out London, the London Evening Standard (it’s a free magazine given away on the underground and other public places), The Londonist, and Secret London

In terms of aspirational blogs, check out Liberty London Girl, Poppy Loves, The Londoner and A Lady in London.

Guide to living in London

Do you live in London or you’re thinking of moving there? Let me know in the comments below. 

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