This article is written by Kathy Badertscher as part of the "Leaving America" series on FIVE THOT. In "Eighteen Months as an Ex-Pat," Kathy tells the story of her adventure from San Francisco to the UK and back—all with her partner, two dogs, and sanity intact.
It’s been just over a year since my partner, pup, and I returned from living abroad for 18 months in the UK. A short, but life-changing stint.
Growing up in California, I traveled to New York, Ohio, and Hawaii with my family before the age of ten, Jamaica (and more Hawaii) in my teens. First passport in hand, I took the obligatory two-month Europe trip upon my college graduation. In my late 20s, I belatedly joined the PeaceCorps and lived in Thailand for three months before early terminating or ETing (another story for another time). All of this to say that by the time my partner, Shelly, and I started on our overseas trips to Europe and Asia, we shared an infinity for traveling and always, always talked about living in another country, gut checking each other with questions over and over about what if.
Well into our careers, our biggest obstacle to pursuing the living-abroad dream was my partner’s stationery and office supply business. Our brick and mortar ball and chain. We could take two-week vacations here and there but we couldn’t leave for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, the startup I had been working for in San Francisco was easing into Europe with an office – and for me, a direct report – in Amsterdam. In a meeting one day with the CEO and COO I offered to help build out EU operations on the ground. The news, though well received, lay dormant for over a year. My partner had been thinking of selling her business, so the timing seemed good.
Fast forward a year plus after that first talk with the execs, my partner had indeed moved on from her business, we were free, and in talking with a colleague, my CEO in earshot, I brought up moving to Europe again – our office now in London. Less than two weeks later, the COO approached me with the offer to relocate and work from our UK office, helping to build out our localized customer support team, on-site ops, and bridge the gap between the two offices. They wanted us to get over there as soon as possible, but me being the pragmatist and knowing that our two dogs would be going with us, five to six months was the soonest we could leave.
Dogs being the stickler here. We had done enough research to know that you cannot move freely about the world with your pets. Quarantine laws were strict and the UK had among the strictest at the time. Needless to say within days, nay hours, of the assignment offer, we got the canine visa paperwork going. No, we weren’t going to leave the dogs with friends as some people queried. I mean, please, who knew when we were coming back ... if ever. Paperwork, vet visits, blood work, and shots began a six-month stateside quarantine for our 2 ½- year old dachshund and 9-year old lab mix. We ended up working with a pet-transportation service that handled everything for us. The price was astronomical, but absolutely worth it in the long run. An early October departure became the goal.
Dogs aside, I hadn’t even worked out any details with my company yet, so next came the many work logistics: Who to tell on my team and when, when to tell the UK office, rewriting my job description to account for new responsibilities, figuring out direct report issues, getting the assignment letter, and what turned out to be the trickiest issue of all, securing a visa. All a first for my company, and so I became their guinea pig.
Work logistics happened during work and became part of my day to day. Completely manageable. Moving/home/family logistics were a different story. My partner, now working for a two-store natural grocery company, decided to leave her job soon so she could handle the big job of moving us across the pond. And it was a big job. We decided to rent out the house we had owned for 11 years, so that meant storing what we didn’t take with us. Storing meant sorting, donating, junking, garage selling, craigslisting stuff. Lots of stuff. Shelly created a calendar that plotted out our weekends and to-dos. When the trifecta of packing began – packing for storage, shipping, and taking on the airplane – I’d come home to a mountain of boxes to lug to the garage.
With packing and readying the house for renting in full swing, Shelly went to work on our UK living arrangements. We looked into corporate housing, found it expensive, and knew we could do better for less money. Ideally, we would get a short-term rental, look for a place upon arriving, and then lease for the remainder of my assignment. But we quickly found that having two dogs and needing a furnished rental narrowed our choices considerably. We ended up getting a very small, laughable one-bedroom flat in Hammersmith for the first five weeks. A colleague of mine had checked the place out and warned us not to take it, but with slim pickings, we felt we had no choice.
Because we were concerned we wouldn’t be able to find a place quickly enough, we talked the owners of a vacation rental into renting the flat to us for the duration of my assignment. This meant services like garage, water, utilities, cable, and wifi were taken care of. If we had to secure these services on our own, we probably would have gone mad traversing the bureaucracy of an unfamiliar country. Our monthly flat fees ended up being lower than corporate housing but the location, Richmond-upon-Thames, a London suburb meant a huge commute for me to my company’s east London office. The promise of my office moving offices to a more central London location meant I could handle a long commute for a few extra months.
Other logistics that are worth noting: mobile phone services and banking. Try and figure out what you need before you go. In the UK, you can’t get a bank account without a local mobile number and address, and you can’t get a mobile account without a UK bank account. A definite chicken/egg predicament. We did as much research as we could prior to leaving, but getting these services set up proved harder than expected once in country. To set up shop once there, make sure you have three months of hard copies of bills to prove prior residence. For mobile, using your U.S. smartphone that’s not tied to any U.S. service is the way to go with a pay-as-you-go plan to start or just start from scratch. Mobile is less monopolistic in Europe than in the U.S.
My company worked with a not-so-spectacular visa lawyer and it went downhill from there. Even though I accepted the transfer in April, the visa process didn’t begin in earnest until July. My company chose to go with an intra-company transfer visa, which would essentially open up a gateway for future employee transfers. Once that was in place, my visa should have been cake. Let’s just say my five-month runway to move to the UK proved pretty darn smart. The advice my company got was neither sound nor quick. We ended up having to go through the visa process twice and we ended up moving to the UK without one.
We had to process our visas for the second time while in London and then had to return to the U.S. in November over Thanksgiving for two weeks to get them finalized. The process was one of the most stressful things we’ve ever gone through. Living and working in Brooklyn, all expenses paid by your company during the holidays has it moments, but when you’ve just moved to the UK, want to dig in, and have left your dogs with strangers, the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
If my partner hadn’t found an excellent visa expediter service in New York, we would still be in a holding pattern. For visas, having three months of bank statements, proof of degrees, and a myriad of other things is mandatory. We deemed one of our suitcases the safe because of all the paperwork we had FedExed from the U.S.
The assignment letter
One absolutely critical cog in the relocation wheel didn’t materialize until my last week at HQ. Most of what my boss and I discussed about the transfer was just that, a discussion – I had very little in writing at this point. The assignment letter came from another set of lawyers, so once again, my company was dealing in firsts. Assignment letters will differ from company to company, but you do want to make sure they outline your housing compensation/arrangements if they are handling, visa arrangements, how you’ll be paid (in the local currency or by USD), if they provide a cost of living stipend, relocation expenses, supplementary insurance, PTO accrual and benefits, tax preparation and protection, emergency leave, and more. Tax preparation and protection were absolutely key. Our U.S. taxes were difficult enough what with inequality for same sex partners, an S corp for my partner, and rental properties, so having this peace of mind was huge and something I will forever by grateful for.
Those five plus months of intense, stressful planning made for a relocation that went as well as could be expected. I flew over with three suitcases one week before my partner and dogs arrived. I got the temporary rental set up as best as I could while dealing with FedEx arrivals – 25 boxes of stuff and one lost box fiasco. In that one week I could not make a dent in setting up a bank account or get a mobile plan, but I did sign up for a gym and find a natural grocery store. Priorities.
One of my dogs had been diagnosed with a bad medical condition days before her flight over, but knowing she could make the trip and enjoy life for up to a year or so meant no going back. Three hours after landing, the dogs barreled their way out of Heathrow’s Animal Reception Centre, none the worse for wear, and then a bit after that, on their first walk at Ravenscourt Park. I knew we were in the right place.
After months of planning we were living in the UK. Most things were harder. We received our NHS cards nearly two months after our arrival. Stocking a refrigerator the size of a hotel minibar and watching our clothes disintegrate in a combo washer/dryer will never be forgotten. Weather-wise, growing up in the inner Sunset fog belt of San Francisco prepped me for the grey UK days. My commute by tube, and then train and tube, standing smashed up against strangers, doors, and windows, never ceased to amuse me. BART and Muni had trained me well.
As for living and working the day to day in the UK, travelling to other countries for work and holiday, hiring, U.S. and UK finances, making friends abroad, frequenting your local pub, what you can or cannot say to colleagues, when your visa expires and you don’t want to leave … well, that’s another post or two.