Banking: Since coming to England to live for four months, I’ve had some trials with banks and using a debit or credit card. If an American is living in the UK for a year or so, he or she may open a checking account in a British bank (and should!), which makes life much easier. For those here for a shorter time, it is much more difficult. There are also banks, such as HSBC, that will allow you (at the time of this post) to open an International Account that allows banking between the US and UK. Sadly, I did not know about that account prior, but did open an account with a bank on both continents. Since I moved to VT only ten days before my trip over here, I have accounts in local banks in VT, NC, and one national. The VT card is a debit only, while the other two are debit/credit. Almost all of my credit cards have chip technology, which is helpful when shopping in grocery and department stores. Every transaction I’ve made in person over here uses the chip.
According to my new friends here in Nottingham, as well as some clerks with whom I’ve talked, Brits rarely use credit cards and use debit cards or cash. This is a wise decision, as an overuse of credit cards can lead to financial issues that will plague you. That being said, I’m glad I’ve had my credit cards when my bank cards fail to authorize due to possible “fraudulent activity” and I need a back up to complete the transaction.
Real Estate: When securing my rental home, I had to try a few cards to get one to work, despite me contacting the institutions prior to the trip, as well as prior to that particular transaction. Since I knew it wasn’t a problem with my funds, I wasn’t embarrassed, but it did cause consternation to make the agent keep trying various payment methods. Although I had cash at the time, I could not use that, as the company doesn’t deal in those transactions. Neither can you use an American check from a bank. Here is where you need options. If, of course, I had a UK banking account, it would have been smoother. Also, if you have the luxury of time, you can do a wire transfer. As I had been in a hotel for almost a month, I needed to act swiftly.
Online Purchases: The other times I’ve had issues is making purchases online. For instance, two grocery stores in Nottingham deliver groceries to homes. This would be perfect for me – someone without a car, who doesn’t live on a bus line, and has a ways to walk to the nearest store (over a mile). Fortunately there is a small convenience store down the road for basic staples. I was thrilled at the possibility of having food appear at my doorstep. But no. After spending almost an hour filling up my virtual cart with the necessities, I prepared to check out of store #1. That’s when I found out they only take UK cards, not US ones. So I tried a different store, put one item in the cart, and discovered the same restrictions. They did however take store gift cards. So, the next day I walked an hour to a nearby mini-store of the same name, bought a gift card, and returned home. After I entered chose my food and all of the details into the site, I could not use the gift card without a UK credit card, even thought the gift card was for a higher amount than the cart total. Argh. Finally, I took a taxi to the lovely grocery store to get fresh fruit, vegetables, and other perishables. After being in the UK for forty days and nights, I fixed myself a proper dinner! (Fresh pasta with sauce, and a piece of English grain bread with Irish butter…in case you are wondering.)
Annoyances: I’ve had my card declined online for train tickets, tours, hotels, and goods either because the transaction was mistakenly flagged as fraudulent by the forewarned credit card companies or because my card was a US card and the billing address was not a UK one. Some sites will not accept a US card, so I’ve resorted to getting the tickets through an alternate site. The only way I can get around these issues is to have several cards at hand when trying to make a purchase, entering one after another until I get an approved transaction. A dual country card would solve this problem or a card with a UK bank. Students studying abroad for a year, along with visiting professors for two school terms have no trouble getting these. They say it takes six to eight weeks for the bank to mail the bank card, but after that, life is easier.
Utilities: Luckily for me, the landlord had the electricity and gas already turned on, so I merely had to call and get it switched to my name. They will send me bills periodically and I did not have to make a deposit. When I toured a high rise housing mostly college students, there was a pay-as-you-go system where you top off a card or flash drive with money, insert it in the meter, and top it off when you run out of credit. When we were there, the lights and gas were off. The agent told me of people forgetting to “top off” and coming home to a dark apartment. Here’s a video I found about it, if you are curious to know more.
Internet: One of my biggest needs was the internet, mostly so I could stay connected to my husband and family, but also because I often work from home when writing. When I walked out of the leasing agency (pronounced “lessing”), there to my great surprise was a Virgin Mobile Internet set up in a kiosk in the square to welcome back college students. They looked up my address and discovered the previous tenant had used them, so the house was prewired. I gave them a fifty pound deposit and left with a wireless router under my arm, went home, plugged it in and was up and running in about an hour. It was the easiest part of my entire housing experience! They send me a monthly bill.
Phone: Since my iPhone belongs to me (I bought it at the Apple store, not through Verizon), it is “unlocked” so I can pop out the SIM card. On the side of the phone is a little hole. When I stuck in a paperclip, it popped out and I replaced the US card with a UK SIM card. I now have a UK phone number, which helps me make appointments for research, call utility companies, make reservations, and touch base with family and friends back home who have an iPhone. For £30 a month I get 4 GB of data, 150 talking minutes, GPS usage, and unlimited UK texting. I can only text US people who have iPhones. I am on a pay-as-you-go plan, which requires me to visit a store monthly to top off the card. You can only do it online if you have a UK bank or credit card. I’m thrilled about the low cost and have GPS in an unfamiliar country is vital for me. I’ve done the old-school way of navigation using maps in the past, and I can assure you, it is a lot less conspicuous to glance at my phone than unfolding a map in the middle of a busy London sidewalk!
Taxis: Cab drivers tell me they love Americans because we know how to tip! One of them told me he drove a client for a spell and the total was £24.75 – the guy gave him £25 and told him to keep the change (only 25p?). Pfft. I usually give them two or three pounds, depending on the length of the trip, and a little more if they help with luggage or groceries. My encounters with cabbies have all been so wonderful. They love to ask questions about America and share stories about my research. They all wait outside my home until I’m safely inside, without being asked.
Restaurants: A few times I’ve struck up conversations with waitstaff in restaurants when they were slow and discovered the tips left on the bill with the credit card do not always make it to their pockets, but stay with the corporation. Since then, I always make sure I have enough cash to tip when I go out to eat. If you are with a large party, the gratuity might already be on your bill (so I’m told), but it is customary to tip between 10 and 15%.
Pubs: Apparently, bartenders don’t expect to be tipped. I can’t get used to not tipping bartenders, so I do, but they are always surprised.
Bellhop: I tip them two or three pounds, depending on how many bags they carry.
Service People: When the landlord, who was out of town on business, had to get an electrician to come in, I tried to give him a tip. He sort of laughed at me. “You Americans always feel a need to tip,” he laughed. “We get paid enough over here to not need it!” Still, I offer a nominal amount in the hopes someone will take it, as my father said people who do the work in this world are the ones you should recognize. The second electrician, who had to come twice, did take my gratuity and was quite thankful and pleased.
If you are curious to know more, put it in the comment section and if I’m unsure, I’ll ask around for answers!