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By DANIYAL ALAM 4,844 views

The Challenges of Being an Expat in the UK: A Guide for Newcomers

When the New World was discovered back in the 15th century, the commoner in Europe saw it as an opportunity. A new life, away from the machinations of European governments, a chance to establish a new form of government, a true democracy.

It was the UK that became the largest source of immigrants as people flocked to the new country. Millions from all over the globe arrived in shiploads, populating the undiscovered land. It was on their backs that America was established and became what it is today.

Fast forward some 500 years, and both the US and the UK are still popular destinations for many eager workers seeking employment, either as newcomers or laterally in their organizations. Nearly 10 million people living in the UK were born abroad, while another 6.2 million did not have British nationality in 2015.

With real estate and overall living costs constantly on the rise, expenses are just one aspect of expats’ challenges while in the UK.

What is an Expat, and Why Does it Matter?

An ‘expatriate’ can be defined as an individual assigned to work in a country of which they are not a citizen. The term ‘ex-pat’ may be considered by some as discriminatory. Even though the word has many connotations, it is another term for foreign workers or immigrants. But these terms inspire a different image in one’s mind from the one of an expatriate.

Some have even begun to associate the term ‘ex-pat’ as solely related to white people. Essentially, it means a worker who moves to another country for employment reasons. For some, it can be a fantasy, moving to a brand-new place. The grass does seem greener on the other side.

The truth is, change can go either way. It’s up to you to make sure such a drastic move is beneficial in the long run. There is a dark side to living abroad, thousands of miles away from your community and culture. For some, the experience can be draining and sometimes even depressing. Such thoughts could lead to you doubting your own ability to adapt.

There are a lot of factors to consider when traveling or moving to the UK, primarily because working and living in a foreign country comes with its own set of pros and cons. While you may be earning more or pursuing a more fulfilling career, you must keep a watch on your work-life balance and ensure it doesn’t tip over.

Packing up your whole life and moving abroad requires massive self-confidence, optimism, independence, and energy. While it can seem like an adventurous prospect, it comes with its own variables.

You will be required to navigate simple tasks such as buying groceries or getting medicine from the pharmacy, mainly with the help of locals. Such dependency can make you doubt even your competency. Then come other factors such as the language barrier and culture shock.

Problems Faced by an Expat in the UK

While other countries may have their own set of problems, moving to the UK is hardly considered a drive in the park. From housing and education to homesickness, ex-pats face various looming issues.


One of the attractive things about living in the UK is that the National Healthcare System (NHS) is mostly free. Mostly because there are some procedures such as dental ones that have a tiered system of fixed rates.

For Americans, free healthcare is an unknown concept. In a country where two-thirds of people filing for a bankruptcy claim it was due to healthcare costs, free medical check-ups are a blessing.

You might have to pay a £2,000 surcharge to NHS, being a foreigner. However, it is also true that wait times for seeing a general practitioner can be weeks long. You might be in for a surprise if you were imagining walking into the doctor’s office and immediately be seen.

Moreover, if you need to see a specialist, the wait time could easily be months. Consequently, some choose to purchase private healthcare insurance, gaining access to a broader choice of specialists, doctors, and healthcare facilities.


If you’re searching for housing in London, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Costs of real estate in London border on the unimaginable, right up there with the most expensive cities in the world. Even if you’re looking to rent, there are variations by what area you’re searching in.

Generally, prices in southern England are higher than in other regions. As a result, associated living costs are also higher than in other places in the country. There is also the chance that whatever places you come across in your search simply don’t click with you.

It might be the potential roommates (flatmate in Britain), or it might be the landlord who doesn’t come off right. Not having prior connections in the country who can help you look around or house you for a while is discouraging. Even one familiar face among an ocean of unfamiliar ones can be refreshing.


As a country that prides itself on providing social services such as free healthcare, the UK also has a strict taxation system that ensures no one can slip through the cracks. For newcomers, navigating tax laws and filing procedures can seem like a daunting task.

There are professionals, advisors, and attorneys well-versed in these laws that you can hire for assistance. By default, any person earning a wage or salary, or any form of income, is legally required to report it and pay taxes accordingly, whether self-employed or not.

Expats may find themselves paying double taxes, both in their country of origin and in the UK. It is always helpful to find out if the UK has a double-taxation agreement with your country for such issues. A little bit of homework will prevent you from having to pay twice what you were supposed to.


Like most other Western European countries, the UK also has a competitive and well-rounded public education system. Investments of precious tax pounds ensure the highest standard can be maintained while staying on budget.

If you’re looking to get your child admitted to school, exploring options in your residential vicinity is worthwhile. Not all schools will meet your expectations. You will have to do the homework, which can put a lot of strain on recently shifted ex-pats still coming to grips with a foreign system.

Navigating living arrangements, looking for modes of transport, finding the right grocery store, and typically settling into a new town, in a new country are further stressors that could seem overwhelming initially. Looking for the right school on top of that is just added pressure.

Culture shock

Every culture is different. There is no doubt that there will be some degree of culture shock, or maybe even racism! So what is culture shock? It’s the feeling of disorientation you feel when you suddenly experience an unfamiliar culture, set of attitudes, or way of life.

Starting anew at any age is an unprecedented challenge. There are aspects of your former self that you must modify. Your habits and interactions, your whole way of life, will need to be changed. Human beings have an astounding ability to adapt and change according to circumstances. You might even end up surprising yourself.

It will take time to get used to things such as tea, not meaning tea but rather dinner, public transport that’s never on time, the lack of plug sockets in bathrooms, and even washing machines in the kitchen are familiar sights. If you were used to driving on the right-hand side, there is the initial surprise and sometimes repeated confusion of driving on the opposite side.

Language Barrier

If you come from a country that’s not English-speaking, brace yourself because you’re in for a ride. Not only can you not carry out essential interactions such as asking for the price of something or taking directions, but you will also have a hard time finding a job if you don’t already have one.

Even for people fluent in English, getting used to British slang can be a hassle. Phrases such as steaming, skint, knackered, gutted, cheeky, bugger off, and mint may seem like the wrong choice of words. For a Britisher, they’re part of communication.

It might cause some confusing and funny situations in the beginning but worry not. If you’re bewildered by the “Lads & Lasses” labels on restroom doors, you’re not alone. A modest amount of observation will reveal which one to enter. Even when someone says “alright”, it’s simply a greeting. It’s not an invitation to start telling your life story.


Getting to grips with a new culture and new life thousands of miles away from home is bound to cause homesickness. Even if what you’re running away from is your family. It can get problematic trying to incorporate new habits while holding on to what you define as being essentially you.

You’ve set out to establish a life for yourself, a new career in a new environment. Merely having job security is not enough for peace of mind. There are always the close connections that you left behind. You can no longer be physically close to your loved ones.

With time, you will make new friends, build a family, and foster a sense of being part of a community. It’s important to remember why you made a move. You have to wake up to the same environment every day now. The excitement might start to wane slightly.


The most significant part to remember and instill is the fact that you’re here to stay in the UK, for better or worse. You’re going to be hurled out of your comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. Gradually, you will learn how to navigate based on experience gradually.

If you imagined the experience as just an adventure, remind yourself that the people living in that country are the ones the land serves. If you miss your homeland too dearly, it’s time to remind yourself of your own choices. Pick yourself up, pat yourself on the back for coming this far, and keep your chin up.

You will not come across a challenge you cannot overcome. It’s like a law of nature. Did you want to get away from your family? They’ll track you down eventually. You wanted a better career, but you’re not climbing the ladder? There’re multitudes around you thinking the same thing.

Just because you moved to another country doesn’t mean your life will be all rainbows and waterfalls now. It’ll probably be more difficult initially. But you’ve stepped over every other preceding obstacle, so what’s a few more, right?

Life may not be about happiness, but we certainly go different places looking for it.

Daniyal Alam

As a Senior Editor at Talk Home, Daniyal leads a team of brilliant writers and editors. He also loves to travel and listen to frequent music in his free time.

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