Friday, 10 July 2009

Money Saving Tip #3: Use Skype

Most of you probably already know about Skype. For those who don't I'll give a brief overview plus a couple tidbits you might not already know.

Skype is a program that allows you to make calls from your computer to other computers so you can talk online for free. All you need to do is download the program to your computer and make sure that whoever you want to call has also downloaded it. It is then completely free to make international calls. You must, of course, have a microphone on your computer. If you don't, though, you can always buy one separately and connect it.

The other perk, is of course, the video feature. If you and the friends you're talking to have cameras either on your computer or installed separately, you can talk "face to face".

In addition to the free computer to computer calling feature, though, Skype also has a very cheap rate for calling phones. You still have to call from your computer, but you can call phones in the US for a little under 3¢/minute (that's USD, not GBP). This is a much better rate than you'll get with many phone cards here, many of which will expire within a month of purchase. Here are a few things to note:

-You can set up your Skype account with your payment info, so that if you need to buy more minutes, you can just click a button rather than fishing for your credit card info every time. Especially nice if you're running out of minutes during a phone call.

-Your minutes will not expire as long as you make a call every 180 days. This is from their website: "Skype Credit remains active for 180 days after your last use of a product or feature that uses credit. So making a single call, or sending a single text message will ensure your Skype Credit is active for a further 180 days."

Happy Skyping!

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Gumtree vs. Craigslist

Just a note about Gumtree vs. Craigslist since I've made several references to them already. We were big Craigslist fans in the States and were excited to see that it had expanded to the UK too. However, we quickly found that while it does exist here, it has nowhere near the following here that, a very similar site does. If you want to look for housing, jobs, furniture, etc., you can check Craigslist, but will likely find your options much more extensive at Gumtree.

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UK Grocery Prices

For those of you looking for an idea of what basic food prices will cost you while you're in the UK, here are a few sample items for you. Obviously, we're in Edinburgh, so prices will vary depending on your exact location. Also,I tend to shop for the cheapest brand available--you can certainly spend a lot more if you want to. We do most of our shopping at Sainsbury's, simply because it's the closest, large grocery store to our flat. We also supplement with cheaper items from Iceland and independent, ethnic grocery stores. [Updated 10 May 2010]

Milk: £1.00/4 pints (So, £2.50 a gallon)
Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread: £1.00/loaf
Yogurt: £0.29 for four little pots
Butter: £0.85/250 grams (that's about a cup or two sticks)
Rice: Basmati-- £1.20/kilo Brown--£1.12/kilo
Beans (various): between £0.19 and £0.55/can
Cereal (Fruit & Fiber): £0.64/box (Muesli is £0.58/kilo)
Oatmeal: £0.70/kilo
Apples: (currently) £0.65/kilo (tends to be cheapest in summer months)
Bananas: £0.95/kilo
Vegetables: Usually between £1.68 and £3/kilo
Large Head of Lettuce: £1
Stewed Tomatoes: £0.33/can
Peanut Butter: £0.69/jar
Strawberry Jam: £0.33/jar
Cheddar Cheese: £5.00/kilo
Flour: £0.42/1.5 kilos
Meat: Varies. We can get a large, whole chicken for about £4.50. A bag of 8 small, frozen pork chops costs £2.79.

*Remember a kilo is 2.2 pounds.

If you want to know about specific items, let me know and I'll check them out for you next time I go to the grocery store.

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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Scottish Word Translations

Here’s a rudimentary list of words you might hear or see if you're living in Scotland. Some will be obvious. Others a little less so. Many are probably the same in England, but, not having lived there, I'm not sure.

Ante-natal: Prenatal
Aubergine: Eggplant
Bicarbonate of Soda: Baking Soda
Biscuit: Cookie or Cracker
Black Treacle: Molasses
Bonnet: Hood (of the car)
Boot: Trunk (of the car)
Brofen: Ibuprofen
Chips: French Fries
Crisps: Chips
Coriander: Cilantro
Cot: Crib
Courgette: Zucchini
Crèche: Nursery
Crib or Moses Basket: Bassinet
Diary: Day Planner/Appointment Book
Dummy: Pacifier
Flapjacks: Something like a granola bar
(Lyle's) Golden Syrup: Corn Syrup
Jelly: Jello
Jumper: Pullover Sweater
Mobile: Cell Phone
Napkin: Don't worry, you CAN still say 'napkin'
Nappies: Diapers
Neeps: Turnips
Pants: Underwear
Paracetamol: the equivalent of Acetaminophen
Pavement: Sidewalk
Pudding: Dessert
Rota: Rotational Schedule (like for nursery duty at church)
Rubbish Bin: Garbage Can
Scale & Polish: Tooth Cleaning (at the dentist)
Scan: Ultrasound
Scone: Biscuit or Scone
Tatties: Potatoes
Tea: 'The drink' or another way to say 'Dinner'
Tele: TV
The Wash: Laundry
Traybake: Kind of like brownies: dessert baked in a shallow baking dish & cut into squares
Treble: Triple
Trolley: Shopping Cart
Trousers: Pants
Vanilla Essence: Vanilla Extract
Vest: Baby Onesie
Washing-up Liquid: Dish Soap
Wellies: Rubber Boots

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Setting Up A Bank Account in the UK

I have just a bit to say about banking. We signed up for basic checking and savings accounts when we got here through Lloyds TSB. Since we've had some friends who've had hassles with other banks, I'll just talk about Lloyds--not because they're the only way to go, but because they are all that we know and they've worked really well for us. They are certainly one of the easier banks to open an account with if you're not a UK national.

Here's what we needed:

Proof of Address (an official bill or rental agreement)
A £200 deposit (I'm pretty sure it was only £200--it may have been £250 but certainly no more.)

A few minutes later we walked out with our own UK bank accounts!

Lloyds has great options for online account management, including automatic bill pay.

They have a small overdraft protection for no charge.

They will also coordinate with your US bank to bring funds over directly into your new account if you want. Note there will likely be a charge associated with doing this, but that will come from your US bank. I think we paid something like $35 for the transaction.

If readers have suggestions about other banks to use/not to use, please chime in!

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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What's in a Fully Furnished Flat?

In case you're wondering what the term "fully furnished flat" means in the UK, here's a basic idea of what you can expect. It's a lot more than just furniture. Obviously, these things will vary somewhat from one place to another, and for your own sake, you'll want to check before you sign anything. Most flats will have gap items that you'll need to go and pick up yourself, but from our experience and that of our friends, this is what you might be able to expect. (For those gap items, don't forget to look at charity shops.)

Pots and Pans
Cooking Utensils
Hot Pot (for boiling water)

Comforter and Cover
Bottom Sheet and Pillowcases (it's not very common to use top-sheets here)


Broom and Dustpan

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What to Pack? General Household Items

Here are some general household items you may want to consider bringing along:

Framed pictures of family and friends: You'll probably want to see familiar faces. (I say framed because if you're like me, it may take you forever to get to the store here to buy new frames and it's just so nice to open up your suitcase when you move in and have things to put up right away. However, if you're organized, just buy the frames when you get here--obviously you'll save on luggage weight if you do. You should be able to buy frames really cheaply--a pound or less if you look in the right places.)

Decorations: If you have small decorations you can throw in, by all means, do so! Small table cloths, candle-holders (tea-lights are easy to get here), little pictures or posters for the walls, a wall calendar, a pretty, light-weight vase, a couple Christmas ornaments, a decorative pillow cover. If you enjoy having them in your home now, you will REALLY enjoy having them when you get here. The point is to make your new flat feel like your home. Again, don't go overboard, but remember, you will probably want these little touches of home more than you realize.

Rags!: Don't overlook the importance of throwing a couple of sturdy cleaning rags in your suitcase. These weigh practically nothing and are invaluable when moving into a new flat that is not up to par with your expectations of cleanliness. While you're at it, throw in a pair of rubber gloves too.

Screwdriver: Hey, it's light-weight and you never know when you might need one!

Pens: Just throw a couple into your suitcase. You can buy more when you get here, but there's nothing worse than not being able to find a pen when you need one, especially when you're flat-hunting. A little note-pad will be helpful too to save the back of your hand from getting covered with chicken-scratches.

Games: If there is a game that you love playing, consider making room for it. I know, this is kind of a luxury item, but if you can make room, you'll be happy for it.

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What to Pack? Kitchen Checklist

Here are a few considerations for kitchen items to bring.

Favorite Recipes: For comfort food, or at least for use until you can figure out some of the local cuisine. You can save room in your suitcase by typing them all up on your computer before you leave. Don't forget to get recipes out of your cookbooks too. I forgot to do so until I'd already packed them up. Now I kick myself every time I want one of those recipes.

Measuring Cups & Spoons: You'll find measurements are different here. Kitchen measurements are done mostly in ml/grams. However, you'll even find differences in measurements that go by the same name, e.g., pint, gallon, ounce. For more info see the chart on British and American variances.

Kitchen Knives: Do you have a favorite kitchen knife or two? If you're picky about your knives, you may want to bring your own along. You never know what quality of knife you will get in a furnished flat.

Anything you really love cooking with: A favorite wooden spoon, rubber spatula, garlic press, a meat thermometer, a particular spice. If it doesn't weigh much and you love it that much, why not just throw it in? You'll be happy for a little connection to home every time you make dinner.

A note on appliances: One of my big packing-splurge items was to bring along my Kitchen Aid immersion blender. The first time I plugged it in (with an adapter, of course) and turned it on, it fried. We heard only a little click and it was dead. Needless to say, I would NOT recommend bringing along kitchen appliances. They may work here, but they very well may not and it doesn't seem worth wasting the space in your luggage without having that certainty (much less, ruining your nice appliance for good! Boohoo!). And, I later found an immersion blender here for under £10.

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What to Pack? Clothing Checklist

Here are some clothing considerations for your trans-Atlantic voyage.

Warm Winter Items: While the winters here are fairly mild compared to many places in the States (especially the Midwest and Northern US) they can feel extra cold when you're out walking in the elements regularly. Those who do not plan to get a car will want to be especially sure they have a good warm coat, sweaters, wool socks, hat, gloves and scarf. Depending where you are, the wind can be strong and brutally cold.

Jacket: We would strongly recommend you invest in a light-weight, waterproof, breathable hooded jacket. (Phew!) It does rain a lot here and you'll want a heavy coat for the really cold months. However, you will get hot very quickly if you plan to be walking a lot and you will regret having only a big, heavy coat to wear (especially if you're also carrying a book bag, groceries, etc.).

Walking Shoes: A good pair of walking shoes is a must. Think about them like you would a good set of tires for your car--especially if walking will be your primary means of transportation. They are one of the best wardrobe investments you can make. (And remember, shoes are a lot cheaper than maintaining a car.)

Summer Clothes: There have been a couple of days this summer when having a pair of shorts and a tank top has been nice. Don't overdo it, though. You can get by with very little in this department. I've been sad that I left my capri's at home--they would have been the perfect thing to wear on most summer days. I would recommend that girls think about bringing skirts instead of shorts--not only are they a little more versatile with warm and cold weather, but you'll look a lot less like an American. (People do wear shorts here, by the way-- they're just not that common.) Another consideration, though, is if you plan to take holidays to the Continent where the summers will be much warmer...

Grungy Clothes: If you're like me, then every now and then you find yourself doing a job or participating in an event that gets you really dirty or grimy. Consider bringing a pair of old jeans and an old t-shirt to accommodate such an activity. If you never find yourself in that situation now, just disregard. But remember, basic life is not going to be that different: if you like hiking, gardening or every now and then doing a house-cleaning so intensive that you need a shower afterward, bring some clothes along that you won't mind getting dirty.

Slippers: A must, in my opinion. Your flat may be a bit drafty and heating is expensive. Also, the sidewalks in Edinburgh at least, are really filthy so you may not want to wear shoes in the house.

Generally, you will probably regret bringing too many clothes at the expense of other items. A large wardrobe is less common in the UK than in the US, so it would be far better to bring fewer clothes of nice quality than lots of clothes so that you have something different to wear every day of the month.

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

How to Get a UK Visa for a Foreign Baby, Born in the UK

Did you know that if you and your spouse are foreigners, your baby has no right to live in the UK, even if he/she was born there? That's what we were told by the border patrol agent at the Glasgow Airport after making a weekend trip to Paris when our son was two months old. Oops! We figured that after getting his passport, we were good to go. We were wrong. The border patrol agent VERY kindly let us back into the UK with the stern warning that he had the authority to put our son in detention and have him put on the next plane to the US without us (now, the logistics of doing this with a nursing infant would have been interesting, but nevertheless, he did a good job of scaring us). He stamped our son's passport with a six month tourist visa and told us we needed to apply for a proper dependent visa as soon as possible. Below I'll share with you what we learned about this process. As usual, though I'm writing from an American point of view, this information would likely pertain to other nationalities as well.

First of all, we found the citizen's advice bureaus to be very helpful. "The Citizens Advice service helps people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free, independent and confidential advice..." They are non-profit organizations and they are happy to help people like you and me with just these sorts of questions. I highly recommend giving them a call if you need help with anything.

The other folks to contact are the people at your regional Public Enquiry Office. Actually, the phone number on the website can be incredibly difficult to get through on, but it is possible. They are the people with the definitive answers, so it's good to double check any advice you get with them.

Basically, though, the form we were directed to complete to apply for our son's visa from within the UK is called the FLR(O) form (Further Leave to Remain (Other)). Note, this form is only applicable if you are trying to apply while in the UK. While it may not seem like the right form, it is. It's basically a left-overs sort of form for all the people who don't fit into other categories. Also note (this is important), your child will be the main applicant--don't be confused and add yourself as the main applicant and your child as the child of the main applicant. You will have to add a note explaining your particular circumstances, i.e., that the main applicant is a child.

Also, you will see on the application, that it is expensive. The current price is £465 if applying by mail and £665 if applying in person. Yikes! We had to remind ourselves that we didn't have a hospital bill for this kid! One final thing, the wait-time on this application if you mail it in is 4-14 weeks. The more expensive in-person appointments are processed same-day, but you often need to book your appointment a month in advance. You do this by calling the Public Enquiry Office mentioned above.

The other option, of course, would just be to go home to the US (or wherever you have citizenship) to make the application. If you do this, you would need to follow the procedures for applying for a dependent visa from the US per The difficulty you might run into with this is knowing when to book your return tickets to the UK, since the visa application process can take several weeks and you are not permitted to apply without being on US soil. However, the price for the actual visa is currently around $230. The price difference may almost pay for your plane ticket to go home. Also note, biometric data is NOT currently required for children under the age of five years.

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American Passport for your Baby Born in the UK

One of the first things you'll need to take care of after your baby is born (and you're feeling up to snuff) is to apply for your baby's passport. This is not something you can do by mail or online. You will be required to go in person either to the embassy or your nearest consulate. Here's a little step-by-step guide from the website of the US Embassy in London. This site will give you the up-to-date info on what you need to bring with you to the appointment depending on where you live. For visa info for your baby, see the next post.


You will be asked to show a marriage certificate. If you do not have a copy with you, you should be able to obtain one from the county you were married in for a minimal fee and have it mailed to you.

You will be asked to show a "long copy" of your baby's birth certificate. This must be obtained at a register office within 3 weeks (Scotland) or 6 weeks (England/Wales) of your baby's birth. This website should provide all the information you need. The "long copy" is referring to the copy you have to pay for, as opposed to the "short copy" you receive for free.

The application for your child's passport will automatically include the application for a Social Security Number and a Consular Report of Birth Abroad. You don't have to make any additional appointments.

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General Info About UK Maternity Care

Here's a little general info about the antenatal (prenatal) maternity care I received in the UK.

1. Generally, all maternity care is handled by midwives, not doctors. If you have complications, doctors will likely take a more active role. Otherwise, you may see a doctor only at the very beginning and very end (38 weeks) of your pregnancy.

2. I had appointments every four weeks with the midwife, 36 weeks being my last visit. As I said, I saw the GP at 38 weeks.

3. Last year in Edinburgh, pregnant women were only entitled to one scan (ultrasound) during their pregnancy: around 10 weeks. They have just switched it to two scans: around 10 weeks and 22 weeks. I think this probably varies depending on your location. If you want more scans, you would have to go to a private practice and pay for them.

4. Many hospitals/districts have non-disclosure policies about divulging the gender of your baby. You may or may not be able to find out what you're having before-hand depending on your location.

5. There are birthing classes (called "antenatal classes") available, usually through your local GP.

6. It was made clear that epidurals would be an option for delivery only if an anesthesiologist was on duty when I was in labor. No promises. I had a friend, though, who was given more solid assurance that that would be an option.

7. Prescriptions are free of charge during pregnancy and for the 12 months following the birth of your child. So is all dental care.

Questions? Feel free to ask!

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Registering with a Doctor: the Gateway to the Healthcare System

One of the first things you will want to do upon your arrival (after you've secured housing) is to register at your local surgery (doctor's office). As you've no doubt heard by now, most health care in the UK is free if you (or your spouse) are studying for more than six months. However, there are some things you need to do in order to be able to access it. Registering with a GP (General Practitioner or Doctor) is the first step. It is important to do this as soon as you have housing because it can take up to several weeks to get the process sorted out. If you are pregnant, or have an ongoing medical condition, those weeks can be really frustrating.

1.) Find the surgery that is nearest to your flat. You can do this online by clicking on the following links. For England click here. For Scotland, click here.

2.) They will need to see:

a. Your proof of address. You MUST take either a copy of your rental agreement or a piece of official mail (such as a phone bill) with you to the GP's. A hand-addressed envelope will not work. Believe me, I tried it.

b. Your passport with visa inside.

c. It's worth mentioning that they will need to see you too. You cannot register for your spouse. Again, tried it.

3.) They will give you paperwork to fill out--nothing too long or scary. You should be able to fill it out while in the office.

4.) If you don't need to see a doctor immediately you’re done. If you do, you can try making an appointment while you’re there.

If you are pregnant or need to see a specialist, there may be a further wait as you will now need a referral from your new doctor.

Here is a timeline from my experience for accessing specialized care:

1.) Two weeks after settling in at our flat, we received our first official piece of mail. (Want a tip for speeding that up? Sign up for a phone and/or internet plan as soon as you move in. The phone company should send you a piece of mail within a couple of days. This will be helpful, especially if you don't receive a copy of your rental agreement right away as proof of address.) As you know from above, official mail meant we could register with the GP which was the first step.

2.) At the time of my registration, I made another appointment with the GP to go over my general medical history. Just more paperwork, really. This was a necessary prerequisite to being referred to the midwife. The first available option for this appointment was a week after initial registration.

3.) Only after this appointment, did my GP make the referral to the midwives. A week and a half later, I got a letter from the midwives offering me an appointment for the following week.

So, I had been in the UK a total of 5 1/2 weeks before I was seen by my midwife. I believe the process would be the same with any specialist, though with some specialists I imagine the wait would be longer.

My point in telling you this is so that you will not arrive in the UK (as I did) with the expectation that you can go right to the doctor. It may be several weeks before you can be seen, especially if you need to see a specialist.

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Having a Baby in the UK?

Having recently gone through this experience myself, I would like to offer a couple of posts with advice on what to do if you are planning to have or have had a baby in the UK as a foreigner.

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Money Saving Tip #2: Get to Know the Local Cuisine

While you are certainly going to want to bring your own recipes with you--especially for those times when you just need some comfort food--you will end up saving money if you're willing to branch out into the local cuisine. For example, as much as you may love chicken burritos and as cheap a meal as they may be at home, you will likely find them to be on the more expensive side of a meal cost in the UK. The reason is that most burrito fixin's here are specialty food items. Taco shells, tortillas, refried beans, black beans, tortilla chips, salsa--these are not part of a standard UK diet (at least as far as I can tell!). Even if you can find cheap substitutes for things, your burritos are not likely to taste how you had hoped. Black-eyed beans do NOT taste like pinto beans and a cheap jar of salsa may taste closer to a syrupy tomato jelly than a satisfying, fiery salsa.

By contrast, most Indian-style cuisine is remarkably cheap to make here. At little Indian stores you can buy a 5 kilo bag of lentils for so cheap that the cost per serving ends of being something like 6p. And, lentils are healthy, a good source of protein and quite tastey when prepared well.

Couscous, when purchased in bulk at Asian food stores is also a great deal, not to mention a great thing to have on hand because it's so quick to make.

"Cooking bacon" (quite a bit different from American bacon) is a really cheap way to get meat--if you're making soup, quiche, pasta or pizza, you'll find it's a great flavour booster.

These are just a couple of ideas. The cheap items in your area are likely to vary, so look around. The point is to try to incorporate the cheaper ingredients into your diet, rather than to stick to all your American recipes which may very well end up costing more.

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Monday, 6 July 2009

Money Saving Tip #1: Make Use of Charity Shops!

One way that you could really rack up the expenses on your arrival in the UK would be to go out and purchase a bunch of household stuff brand new. This is especially true if you decided not to ship anything, but your flat is still not furnished with everything you need. Our first month in Edinburgh, I was down at the T.K.Maxx every couple of days. (Yes, that's T.K--not T.J. Don't ask me why!) While I didn't have that many things to get, I look back now with dismay at the price I paid for the few things I got.

The antidote? Charity Shops!!! The charity shops (i.e., thrift stores) here are wonderful! I have noticed them in every town we have visited in Scotland, and I imagine they are just as prolific in England. Unlike the typical Goodwill in the States, the shops here are often quite small, which is why I missed them at first. Keep your eyes peeled as you're walking down the street--they will likely just be little hole-in-the-wall places.

Here are a few examples of some savings:

Blankets: I paid £20 for a new blanket at T.K.Maxx. (We were really cold when we got here and the single comforter on our bed was not doing the trick.) In contrast, later on, when we had visitors coming I was looking around for more blankets and found a charity shop selling really nice, good quality blankets for £1-2 each. I threw them in the washing machine and, presto! They were good as new!

Kitchen Stuff: I found the cheapest teapot I could at T.K.Maxx for £6. I have since seen them at charity shops for under £1. Recently I was at a charity shop and bought a large handful of silverware (forks, knives, spoons), salad servers, a cheese knife, a butter knife, an hors d'oeuvre fork, a beautiful creamer and sugar bowl and a large wire fruit bowl for £2 total.

Wall Hangings: When we got here we spent £10 on a picture for our very bare walls. You can buy them for 50p at charity shops.

Those are just a few examples. You can also look for bedsheets, curtains, clothes, baby items, CD's, DVD's, books, children's books, kitchen appliances, etc.

All charity shops, however, are not created equal. I have two on my street and one of them has significantly lower prices than the other. In fact, the cheaper one often feels more like a garage sale than a typical thrift store. They will often offer a cheaper lump sum for several items purchased together. Be sure to shop around for the best deals!

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Money Saving Tips

I'm going to start publishing regular money saving tips to help you think about ways that you can reduce your expenses during your stay in the UK. When you arrive in a new place it can be very difficult to know where to look to find good deals or even to know what things should cost. I'll try to offer some guidance here. Click on the following links if you're looking for cheap budgeting help on moving to the UK or on living in the UK. Have any great tips yourself? Feel free to pass them along. We'd love to hear from you!

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Using a US Driver's License in the UK

Did you know that your US driver's license will be valid in the UK for one year following your arrival here? That's right! For the first year of your stay, it will not be necessary for you to get a UK license. However, when that year is up, if you plan to do any driving (even just renting a car for a weekend), you will be required to get a local license. How will they know how long you've been here? They will check your passport which should either have a date-stamp from the border patrol or your visa which will have the dates of your stay.

More later on how to obtain a UK license.

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Friday, 3 July 2009

UK Dental Costs for Foreign Students

While the NHS offers free medical care to those who are studying here for more than six months (and their dependents), there are some medical expenses you will have to factor in to your budget. Here's what you need to know about dental expenses.

All NHS dental examinations in Scotland are free of charge. Take note--that's just NHS dental examinations. There are plenty of private dentists around which you would be expected to pay for. If you want a free exam, be sure you make it clear that you want NHS treatment. (Sometimes the same dentist will do both private and NHS treatment. Confusing, I know.)

An examination will NOT NECESSARILY include a cleaning. (We've heard rumors that some have gotten a free cleaning at their exam, but this is not standard.) It will definitely include a general check-up to see that all looks well and is healthy. A standard cleaning fee is around £10. An intensive cleaning might run you £25. If further work is needed, you will be informed and you would need to schedule an appointment which you would be required to pay for. Click here for a sampling of dental prices in Scotland.

In England exams are not free of charge. However, they're not terribly pricey. Click here for a regularly updated list of dental costs in England.

Exceptions exist, however, in both England and Scotland. All children under 18, for instance, receive free dental care. If you are pregnant or have had a baby in the last 12 months, you will also receive free care. There are lots of other exceptions too, but I don't think they would apply to folks like us who have no recourse to public funds.

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Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Cost of Living in the UK: the cheap student version

It's hard to address the issue of budgeting because everyone's lifestyle expectations are a little different. Your specific location will also be factor. For instance, these figures are based on our life in Edinburgh. I imagine you would have difficulty getting by on this little in London. The point is to show that it is possible to get by on a small budget in the UK, if you need to.

Housing: £475/month (This was a pretty good deal when we arrived. We have found that many friends pay around £550. However, we have recently noticed more and more flat prices falling down into the £400's. Don't forget to explore alternative options too. Are you or your spouse interested in nannying? Being a caretaker? Helping at a B&B? Check out my post on how to avoid paying for housing. There are options out there for free housing. We would have done this ourselves had they been interested in taking us with a baby on the way.)

Food: £30/week (This is not easy, but it is possible, depending on the stores you have available. We eat healthily and we think it's tasty, but it's not particularly luxurious. We eat meat only a couple nights a week (sometimes less). We do not eat out, except on a VERY rare occasions. And, I plan our meals and grocery list pretty scrupulously each week to avoid unneeded items and to ensure that nothing is being wasted. For people with less time/interest in scrimping, £40-£50 might be a more reasonable figure. Sometime, maybe I'll do a post on cheap menus especially crafted for life in the UK...)

Electricity/Gas: £60/month (We used the heat pretty sparingly this winter before the baby came. Not so much afterward... I think that's a fairly good average of summer and winter months, though.)

Water/Sewer/Garbage: £0 (This is covered under the Council Tax, which as you'll remember from this post Council Tax Exemption for Students and Spouses, you are not responsible for paying. Yay!)

Phone/Internet: £30/month

Diapers (a.k.a. Nappies): £3.33/week
(Thanks to ASDA!)

Other Toilettries/Household Items: £10/month

Transportation: £10/month or less (We really do walk just about everywhere. No need for a car.)

The total here is £8755/year for a family of three. And, of course, this does not include tuition which, depending where you are studying will probably be around £10,000/year.

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The Cost of Moving to the UK: the cheap student version

Budgeting is a tricky issue because people have such different ideas about what is necessary when making a move like this. Below I am going to detail what we did: the cheapskate way. Keep in mind, my husband and I take a certain pleasure in roughing it a little. Then again, our budget was incredibly small so we just spent according to our means. Here is roughly what we spent (this is for travel in 2008--prices will likely have altered):

US Passports: $100/each = $200

UK Visas: $214/each = $428

Storage of belongings: $0 (Our parents were very generous with their attics. Also, we sold all but our nice furniture on Craigslist and made close to $1000 to help fund our trip.)

Shipping of belongings: $0 (We just decided that what we couldn't fit in our suitcase we could do without. We've missed a few things, but nothing we couldn't pick up here or just accept not having for a couple of years. If you're planning to ship, you might find this website helpful.)

One-way Plane Tickets: $470/each = $940 (Of course this depends entirely on the rates of the day. We've found Cheapoair to have pretty consistently low prices, though.)

Miscellany: $50? (Power converters, adapters, maps, etc.)

2-Nights in a Hostel: £24/each = £48 (It took us 2 days of pretty dedicated searching to find a flat. Thank you Gumtree!)

Bus fare for first 2 days: £8/each = £16 (We took a bus from the airport and then bought day-passes on the bus to get around the city for flat-hunting.)

Food for first 2 days: £22/each = £44 (We hit grocery stores for breakfast & lunch & very cheap hole-in-the-walls for dinner. P.S. Check with your airline--most airlines still serve meals on international flights!)

Setting up house: £50? (With a furnished flat we didn't need much.)

Phone & internet setup: £30

Housing Deposit: £200 (We were a little lucky--I think most people have to deposit a whole month's rent in advance. Also, we rented privately through Gumtree and so we didn't have to pay a rental agency fee--usually around £50 or £75.)

I don't think I've left anything out! So, the grand total (give or take a little for exchange rate variations) is $2234 for two people. And, subtract from that the nearly $1000 we made from hocking our unwanted belongings on Craigslist and you have a very cheap move indeed! (Oh yeah, don't forget that we did have to buy new plane tickets after our visas didn't come in time, but you shouldn't have to do that...)

Obviously, there is a LOT more you could spend, especially if you plan to ship anything, stay in hotels instead of hostels, and eat out a lot while flat-hunting. Perhaps sometime I'll do a non-cheapskate's guide to moving. Until then, take heart: you don't have to spend a bundle unless you want to!

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FAQ's About Obtaining a UK Visa

Q. The website is kind of unclear. Do my spouse and I need separate visas? What about children?
A. YES. You will each need to fill out separate application forms. (Usually online.) Everybody needs their own visa.

Q. Do my spouse and children also need to have biometric data taken?
A. YES, unless they are under the age of five. (Children under age five are not currently required to have their biometric data taken.) When applying online, this can be particularly annoying, especially since some systems don't take into consideration that you may wish to book your appointments together. When my husband and I applied, he was given a slot at the end of August. The next appointment available when I applied (only minutes later) wasn't till mid September. Thankfully for us it was only a 45 minute drive. For some, the nearest office is hours away. So...

Q. ...Will we have to make the trip (to get our biometric data taken) twice?
A. Not necessarily. My best advice would be for both of you to apply (DEFINITELY, don't just think you can squeeze in an appointment without applying for one. In my experience, they WILL NOT see you if you do not have an appointment number. Even if you cry.) So, each of you get that appointment number and then make the trek to the office with your spouse for whoever's appointment comes first (even if the other person's appointment isn't for several days or weeks). There is a good chance that they will see you both together if one of you has an appointment scheduled for that day. Let me repeat again, though. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS UNLESS YOU BOTH HAVE APPOINTMENT NUMBERS. And, if they insist on only seeing the one with the appointment on that day, at least the other has an appointment scheduled. If you'd waited to make that appointment, you would be adding several more weeks on to your waiting time.

Q. How long should I allow for my visa to be processed?
A. Well, the visa website says something like three weeks. If I were you, I would allow more like three months, just to be safe. This is coming from someone who had to cancel plane tickets and buy new ones because our visas weren't ready in time. To give you an idea, we applied at the end of July. The first biometric appointment wasn't available till the end of August. After that, we still had to send our paperwork in to be processed. This took a further three weeks. In all, our visas took about seven weeks to be processed. Maybe it was just a particularly busy time when we applied--it may not happen to you. But, if you can apply sooner, just do it. You will save yourself a potentially big headache and a sizeable wad of cash.

Q. My spouse is planning to work while I study. Is it okay to count this toward our maintenance fees on the application?
A. Yep. We did anyway.

Q. The application says to include our address in the UK, but we haven't secured housing yet. What should we do?
A. Make reservations at a hotel or hostel for when you arrive and include that as your address. Indicate you'll be staying there until you have secured housing.

I will keep updating with more FAQ's. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions and I'll be happy to answer as I can.

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Claiming Your Council Tax Exemption

I wrote previously about ''Council Tax Exemption for Students and Spouses''. The next thing you need to know is that you are required to inform the council of your exemption status. They will not automatically know that you are a student or, if you have a spouse, that your spouse has no recourse to public funds. It is your responsibility to communicate with them. If you do not, you will likely begin to receive scary notices some time in the spring indicating that you owe the council a lot of money.

The best course of action, is of course, to settle the matter as soon as possible. However, if you wait till the last minute (which I did!), you should still be able to get it all sorted. Here's what you should do:

1. As soon as you secure accommodation, inform your landlord or the letting agency of your exemption status. As stated previously, they will probably not know that your spouse is also exempt from the Council Tax and will try to convince you that, while you may be eligible for a reduced rate, the spouse will still be required to pay something. They are wrong. If they don't believe you, send them this link Council Tax: A guide to your bill (also included in the previous post). Once you have convinced them, they may be able to help you in your communications with the council or let you know what to do next. If not:

2. Write to your local council informing them of your exemption status. Most have email addresses and are willing to communicate, at least partially, in this way. It may take a couple of weeks for them to respond to your query. If no email address is available, send them a letter.

3. In response to your correspondence, they should eventually send you a letter requesting that you either send them your passport by mail or that you take it in person to the council. Copies are not usually accepted. They may also require a letter from your University confirming your student status. This can usually be obtained by phoning your Registrar's Office.

4. Once you have either mailed these things or gone in person, they should grant you the official exemption status and you should have nothing further to do.

5. If you have waited till the last minute and have already begun to receive bills, don't be surprised if you receive several more bills after you have been granted your exemption status. It often takes several weeks for them to update their systems. If worried, best to phone the council to confirm.

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