Moving to the UK

December 10, 2009

A little over two months ago I moved to the UK. Here’s a random collection of tips I have for anybody doing the same. (Disclaimer: I moved to Glasgow, so some of the stuff below may be specific to Glasgow or Scotland.)

Looking for a flat

A few weeks before actually moving, spent five days in Glasgow to look for a flat. This involved looking for listings on the internet and then phoning up the respective agents to arrange a viewing and then going out to view the flats. Very stressful.

For me the best websites for flat listings were:

You could also try browsing the classifieds on if you prefer to hire from a private landlord or want to share flat.


Obviously you should decide in where in town you want to live. Find out the postcodes for these areas, this helps a lot when looking for available flats.

UK postcodes are quite brilliant. They are alphanumerical and consist of two parts, the outward and inward part. The outward part starts with a letter or two, giving the general area or city, e.g. G for Glasgow. The number that follows specifies a smaller part of that area or a part of town, e.g. G12 for the area around the University of Glasgow campus. The inward part narrows it down to about a dozen houses or so. University of Glasgow even has its own, G12 8QQ.

When looking for flats, get a list of postcodes (outward part only, e.g. G12) of the areas where you’d like to look for flats and feed these into the search engines.

Letting Agents

In general I recommend smaller agencies. The nicest agent I met was self-employed. She even offered to pick me up and drove me to two flats in her Mercedes. Sadly none of them were to my liking.

Big agents will typically arrange bulk viewings where three or four people view the same flat at the same time. If more than one person is interested in the flat, whoever gets their name (and reservation fee payment) down at the agent’s office first, gets the flat. So always write down the agent’s office address and phone number before viewing a flat and be prepared to take a cab there–what’s a few pounds in cab fare if it can shorten the flat war by a few days. Maybe also carry something like £200 in cash for the registration fee as they might not accept cards. And be on time.

Credit check

Even big letting agencies are often stumped when you tell them that you haven’t lived in the UK before. You might wonder why this matters. It matters because of the credit check. You have no paper trail with banks, phone companies, etc. Therefore by their irrefutable logic your credit check comes out negative.

As a result, my agent wanted to know how much I made. I showed her a written statement of how much my PhD grant was. According to her spreadsheet, it wasn’t enough for the flat. Because of that, and the fact that they couldn’t credit-check me, they wanted me to pay six months rent in advance. Plus the deposit of month’s rent. Clearly this was unacceptable to me. In the end I only had to pay three months rent plus the deposit in advance.

Basically, as a foreigner expect to encounter difficulties when it comes to credit checks and all that, at least with the big agencies. And by the way, if you’re coming to the UK as a PhD student, don’t ever tell them you’re a student. Many landlords don’t let to students. Tell them you’ll work for the university as a researcher. Or something.

Council Tax

When you live in a flat or a house in the UK, you generally have to pay Council Tax. This tax pays for services provided by the council, e.g. rubbish collection. The amount is determined by which of the eight or so bands (A-H) the property is in. That in turn is based on the value of the property. Typically this means the value in 1993 when the tax was introduced, but you can get properties re-evaluated as well. When you rent a flat, the landlord or his agent will report this to the council so you will get a bill automatically.

Single people can get a 25% discount, full-time students are exempted from Council Tax. To apply for the exemption, check your local council’s website. In Glasgow they have a form that you must fill out and get confirmed/stamped by the university’s administration. In Glasgow (and perhaps the rest of Scotland?), they also bill water together with Council Tax. So if you’re exempted from Council Tax, you also have free water service.


I couldn’t be bothered looking for the best deal for a bank account. I just went with “biggest is best” and got a bank account with RBS. Apparently banks are a bit fussy opening accounts for foreign students (or maybe all foreigners or all students). Either way I first had to get a letter from the university’s administrative department confirming I was a matriculated student.

To open the account, I had to fill out an enormous form. Which then of course had to be processed elsewhere which meant the opening of the account took several days. So don’t count on it being opened right away in case you’re in a hurry. Debit card and online banking came through without a problem, though despite my regular income I wasn’t allowed a credit card. Probably because of my student status. No matter, I still have a few German credit cards that I can use. So if you’re a student, don’t count on getting a credit card (though your debit card doubles as a VISA card so you can use it for online shopping and flights etc.).

National Insurance

National Insurance is the collective term for pensions and unemployment insurance. If you want to be employed in the UK, you need to have a National Insurance Number (NIN). To get one, you need to apply for one by arranging an interview over the phone.

As so often in the UK, you need to bring at least three items of identification to this interview: a photo ID (e.g. passport), proof that you live and work in the UK (e.g. a student card, driver’s license, etc.) and a proof of your address (e.g. a council tax bill or bank statement with your name and address on it). The more, the better is what they tell you on the phone. Although when I showed up they just wanted to see my passport and the letter confirming my appointment that they had sent me earlier.

Health Care (NHS)

The UK has national health care which means you need not sign up with a health insurance company. Basically you don’t need to do anything until you get sick. When you do get sick, you simply go down to the general practitioner (“GP surgery”) or accident & emergency (A&E) clinic of your local area where you will have to register. In this registration process you will automatically be assigned an NHS number. Make sure you bring enough items of identification with you, including proof of address. If you’re a student, bring your student ID card. (When I registered they were only interested in the latter, not even my passport!)

It does make sense to register with a GP before you get sick, however. Probably because you won’t have the hassle of registration then. But also because the GP surgery might not be accepting new patients at the time. Most importantly however because you need an NHS number to get an European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). You need this card when you go to Europe and happen to need medical care there. After having received my NHS number, I immediately ordered my EHIC online. It arrived within a week.

5 Responses to “Moving to the UK”

  1. juh Says:

    Very valuable information! Thanks, even though I don’t plan to move.

  2. Martin Says:

    Nice and interesting read. Reminds me a bit of the Australian “100 point system”, where they verify your identity with whatever they get (passport, credit card, visa, etc.) and where every item has a different amount of points (say, passport is 50, credit card is 25). Once you ‘hit’ the 100 points they believe that it’s actually you and employ you or whatever you wanted them to do.
    Security numbers however are much easier to get: Enter your name and current address in a web form and get it by mail a few days later.

  3. David Says:

    Nice review! Would you mind letting me point future incoming PhD students and postdocs at this?

  4. Blair Geddes Says:

    I have friends who have had the joy’s of looking for flats in Glasgow in the past. Stressful seems to be an understatement.I even tried helping them some nights! Gumtree seem’s to have a good range there but as you said, that generally with private individuals, sometimes making it even more stressful as you need to do your homework even more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: