William F. Brewer

A set of notes written by Bill and Ellen Brewer dealing with the practical side of setting up temporary residence in the U.K., or what we wish we had known before our first sabbatical in the U.K..

[Note added 1999: Some of the specifics discussed here have changed but the general issues remain much on target--we updated our information with a second sabbatical in 1996]

[Parts of this document relate specifically to visitors from the U.S., but even those parts should be useful to visitors from other countries in pointing out general problems that may have to be solved]

1. Housing. Prices in 1989: one bedroom flat around L 350, two bedroom L 450, small houses L 450 and up. A new law going into effect in 1990 requires each adult renter to pay an additional L 300+ "community charge" per year.

2. Banking. A U.S. check can take up to 6 weeks to clear. This can be a problem if you do not plan ahead. We heard one horror story of a sabbatical family who showed up in London expecting to cash their pay check to live on and then discovered this aspect of the British banking system. This poor academic eventually had to have the president of his university write the bank and guarantee his paycheck in order to have food for the first month. Solutions: have money wired to your U.K. bank, use credit cards a lot, have your U.S. bank set up "an arrangement" with your U.K. bank. Barclays Bank (Bene't St., Cambridge CB2 3PZ) is used to dealing with foreigners and will let you "negotiate" one check a month (up to L 1,000) with the funds available immediately. Most places in the U.K. will not cash even a local check without a U.K. "check guarantee" card. It can take a long time to obtain this card so it might be wise to try and arrange this with a bank several months before you arrive. Travelers checks in pounds are easier to cash when traveling the U.K. than are travelers checks in dollars. [Note added 1999: ATMs can now be used to solve many of these problems.]

3. Mail. Few U.S. citizens know that the U.S. Post Office will forward U.S. first class mail to the U.K. via airmail for no charge. However, they will not forward first class mail that has been mailed using the "presorted rate." This last fact may seem a bit arcane, but it become very relevant to us since things like credit card bills are mailed using this rate. Moral--change your address with the credit card companies and others who use the presorted rate.

4. Shipping possessions. Three options we uncovered:

(a) Mail. This requires advanced planning since it takes at least 4-6 weeks for surface mail to make it from the U.S. to the U.K. The U.S. rate for books ("special 4th class rate") is very attractive. But watch out on the return. The U.K. also has a book rate ("small packet reduced rate") but the maximum amount in a single package is only 5 kilos and they can't be sealed (string is OK). We first heard about this from an earlier sabbatical visitor who described spending his last two days in the U.K. putting books into small mailers and taking them to the Post Office!

(b) Airline baggage. Most airlines will let you take extra bags for $60-80 per bag. This is a good rate, but, of course, you will have to deal with a mountain of bags as you go through the system. This problem was pointed out to us by a sabbatical family who used this option and then realized at Heathrow that they had more bags than would fit into a rental car!

(c) Emery. Emery has a very attractive option called "air economy" which takes 7-10 days and is not that much more expensive than the slower options.

5. Personal Computers. Getting through airport security can be a problem--the severity varies with the news headlines. Often they want you to show them something on your screen or they may insist on putting it through the x-ray machine. Getting through customs can be very difficult. Laptops often get through with no trouble. For desktop models we know of no easy solution. One previous visitor to the APU had two IBM's in his bags, made no provisions, and had his bags confiscated at Heathrow (he had to post a very large bond to get them back and was required to obtain a document from the sheriff of Cambridgeshire!). There is a legal solution called a "carnet" that is used by businessmen to move equipment temporarily from one country to another. We did this and it worked, but it was an enormous amount of paper work. You have to post a bond and fill out endless forms which must be stamped each time you go through customs. To apply for a carnet write to: United States Council for International Business, 1212 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036. Good luck. [Note added 1999: Things seem easier now and we would not recommend the "carnet" it seems like overkill.]

6. Immigration. Technically speaking you are not suppose to reside in the U.K. more than 6 months without documents. However, in practice you can often get by for longer. When dealing with immigration never use the word "work" for what you plan to do in the U.K. A letter from my home department saying that they would be paying me during the time I was in the U.K. once saved me from the immigration officials.

7. Transportation. It is perfectly possible to exist in Cambridge without a car provided you live close enough to food shops and are prepared to walk. Many visitors do, however, buy a car here. If you live in the city of Cambridge do not buy a car without first establishing that you will have a place to park it. Membership in the American Automobile Association gives you automatic membership in the U.K. Automobile Association. Just go to any AA office and show them your card. If you plan to drive it helps to buy a copy of a little booklet called "The Highway Code" which will tell you how to maneuver through a roundabout and explain about zebra crossings (pedestrians always have the right of way on these).

8. Appliances. There are stores that rent TV's (many require a year's lease). British appliances frequently come with no plug. Let it be a challenge to you. If you run into trouble there is published research from the MRC Applied Psychology Unit on wiring plugs (I kid you not).

9. Medical Care. If you are planning to be here for a number of months it is possible to get on the "list" and receive free health care. Try going to a physician and ask to be put on the list--it worked for us. [Note added 1999: The Brits have tightened up and now health care costs money.]

10. University Calendar. Cambridge University operates on three terms: Michaelmas (roughly 10 Oct-10 Dec), Lent (15 Jan--15 March), Easter (16 April--15 June). University related activities are concentrated in those periods.

10. Society for Visiting Scholars. In Cambridge, U.K., the Cambridge University Society for Visiting Scholars (12 Mill Lane, Cambridge CB2 1RX, U.K) was extremely helpful. They provide information, have coffee mornings for sabbatical spouses, organize excursions, and provide some short-term rentals of folding beds, baby equipment, etc.


Hannah, J. Coping with England. Blackwell, 1987. [superb book written with the sabbatical visitor in mind] [1999--sadly now out of print]

Walmsley, J. Brit-think, Ameri-think. Penguin, 1987. [one of my sons gave me this book and, at first, I didn't read it because of the odd title--wrong, this is a very funny, and very good guide to Brit culture]

Room, A. Dictionary of Britain. Oxford University Press, 1986. [a good guide to British English & culture--it will tell you what "wellies" are and why "pelican crossings" are called by that name]

Mikes, G. How to be an Alien. Penguin Books, 1946. [wry observations on how British culture looks to the foreigner, outdated, but charming)]

Lodge, D. Changing Places. Penguin, 1975. (extremely funny account of a U.S./U.K. sabbatical exchange--required reading for the U.K. sabbatical visitor)

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Last updated January 30, 2000 by EFB