Arriving and Surviving
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
After being in our flat for a couple weeks now, and with Katie well into her studies, and with both of us doing far less these days to get ourselves set up here in Leeds, we’ve finally found a moment to think about what we’ve really experienced during our short time here so far, and to start sharing with those who are curious.
Biggest take-away up until this point: Moving abroad was an exponentially more stressful experience than traveling abroad has ever been.
I guess this is a pretty “well-duh” type statement; it is moving after all, and moving is always stressful. But it was really the unanticipated, non-traditional surprises with this move that made it unique.
What was the root of all of our stress? In a nutshell, unfulfilled expectations in relation to not only how long it would take to acquire a place to live, but also in relation to what exact steps actually needed to be taken in order for us to do so.
Let me first explain a few things about our immigration status over here in the UK.
Katie is over here on a student visa that covers her for a year, the entire duration of her master’s program. Since we’re married, I was also awarded a one-year visa as Katie’s “dependant”.
What this meant as far as our housing search was concerned, was simply that Katie was a married student needing to find a place where she could live with her husband.
So, being a student with a husband, and being that we’re in our thirties, like our privacy, and are easily annoyed by neighbors (especially rambunctious students), we always just planned on privately renting a place when we came over to Leeds, rather than staying in student housing.
That was the plan.
It turned out to be an incredible mess.
The Deposit Problem
To start with, most agencies that “let” properties privately in the UK require that a deposit be paid to them by the tenant by either direct bank transfer, or in some cases, even with cash, just like when someone leases an apartment back in “The States”.
However, in planning for our year abroad, Katie and I decided on using a credit card almost exclusively to cover our costs. This is because using the right credit card can be a great way to avoid getting robbed by banks and currency exchange businesses that mark up the exchange rates to make a profit when you convert your money from dollars to pounds. With the right credit card, you simply charge your expenses while abroad, avoid these currency transfer charges entirely, and simply pay off your credit card bill every month online with your US bank account like you normally would.
But as you can see, our “credit-card-only” plan became problematic in terms of paying our deposit on our desired “flat”, as we could only find one letting agency in Leeds that would even allow us to make our deposit with a credit card, and their properties were too far from the university.
So, this meant that regardless of where we decided to live, and in light of the fact that we had too little cash on us to use for a deposit, we would need to set up a UK bank account from which to do a direct bank transfer of our deposit to our new landlord in order to initiate our tenancy; a bank account we didn’t plan on having to set up right away.
The US Bank Problem
“But why not just do an international transfer from your US bank account to your new landlord’s UK bank account?” you might ask.
In our particular situation, we discovered (regrettably, after arriving in Leeds…) that our bank in the US does not actually allow its clients to make international transfers remotely – neither over the phone, nor through their online banking portal…
That’s right; this means that you would literally have to go to the bank in person to initiate an international transfer; very tricky when you find yourself on a different continent…
Actually, even if our bank had allowed international transfers to at least be performed over the phone, we couldn’t have called them directly to initiate the transfer anyway, because the bank’s phone system wouldn’t even accept international calls!
In fact, on the two occasions in which I did actually speak to one of our bank reps in the US after arriving in the UK, I had to ask my father to go to the bank himself, with his cell phone, so that I could then call him, so that he could then pass his phone to the bank rep so that we could finally converse (thanks again, Dad!).
More like shocking and frustrating.
We never would have imagined that in this day and age, with international travel and global banking needs being as common as they are, that we wouldn’t be able to make a simple international transfer – much less even be able to call our bank directly – from abroad.
All of this shock and frustration was of course only secondary to the more threatening reality, which was that we suddenly found ourselves unable to directly access our money in the US from the UK. We were stranded with only our credit cards, a small sum of cash, some basically useless cashier’s checks, and nowhere to live.
“Why not use your cashier’s checks for the deposit?” you ask?
Cashier’s checks are generally an inefficient and non-cost effective way to bring money to another country. They take a couple of weeks to clear in a foreign bank, and you’re charged fees and/or increased exchanged rates for using them, just like when you exchange cash. We really only brought them in case we needed to get ahold of a large sum of money from our US bank account and weren’t able to get it any other way, which, actually, seemed to be becoming the case.
Although we were increasingly feeling like the time was right to try and use our cashier’s checks, we would have needed to first set up a UK bank account anyway in order to do so, so we decided to just go ahead and take that first step, regardless of the additional time it would take to do so. We really had no other option. Then, if we couldn’t get money into our UK account any other way (e.g. having someone transfer us some money from their own US account, and paying them back later), we would surrender to using the cashier’s checks as a last resort.
That’s when we became painfully aware of a second ridiculous complication…
We couldn’t actually open a UK bank account, because we didn’t yet have a permanent UK address!
The UK Bank Account and Permanent Address Problem
When you come from abroad to attend a university in the UK, you are given what’s called a Bank Letter by the university you are attending.
This Bank Letter is proof that you are a student, and therefore makes you eligible to open a “student bank account” at the financial institution of your choosing.
Student bank accounts are advantageous because most of them have reduced restrictions and fees, and require no minimum balance.
We thought – because of the information provided to us by the university – that the Bank Letter was the only thing that we would need, other than a standard passport or UK-issued ID, in order to open a UK bank account. The university even went so far as to mention in their provided student materials that certain banks only preferred that a bank account applicant have a permanent UK address, not that it was a requirement.
Having a permanent address was a requirement after all, and “news flash”: we did not have one… that’s why we were trying to get a bank account in the first place!
To make matters worse, when we went to the appropriate university office to ask how to acquire Katie’s Bank Letter, we were informed that a Bank Letter could not be even be issued to us without us first providing a permanent UK address to include ooon the Bank Letter for our bank of choice to see.
The realization of this paradox made our stomachs sink, and the more and more we ping-ponged all over campus to talk to different “experts” who “specialized” in finding housing for international students, the more and more desperate we started to feel. During that first week from Wednesday through Friday we went absolutely everywhere we could think of in search of assistance, and every fruitless conversation went essentially the same way:
– “Hi, we can’t get a Bank Letter, so we need to find a place to stay that will accept a deposit via credit card.”
– “Oh, well have you tried student housing?”
– “Yes, we checked on their website, and they have nothing available for married couples where one spouse is not a student.”
– “Oh, yes, that’s correct I’m afraid; your husband wouldn’t be able to stay with you in regular student housing. There is housing for students with families, but there’s nothing currently available. You’d have to go on a waiting list for a couple of months, and then see if something comes up.”
A couple months of living in a hotel?! Naaaaah, don’t think so.
– “Yeah, we can’t wait a couple of months.”
– “Have you considered private housing?”
– “Yes, we’d actually prefer private housing, but we’d have to be able to make a deposit from a bank account in order to get it.”
– “Oh, so why don’t you open a bank account? “
– “Uhhh, because we need a Bank Letter in order to do so.”
– “Right, so why don’t you get a Bank Letter?”
– “Uhhh, because we don’t have a permanent UK address.”
– “Hmmm… Yes that is a very unique situation.” Yeah, you’re telling us!!! “Have you tried talking to blah blah blah?”
– “Have you tried talking to blah blah department?”
– “Hmmm… yes, I’m not sure, but you might want to try…”
It was hopeless. We even ended up seeking out the chaplaincy service on campus, once again under the by-now-traditionally-misguided-premise that they might be able to offer “advice” on how we might acquire even just temporary housing.
Instead, on this particular encounter, we found ourselves center-stage in a personalized prayer ceremony, with our heads bowed and eyes closed while some kind chaplain-lady beseeched God aloud on our behalf, imploring Him to keep us strong and to aid us in finding a place to live…
…which… while incredibly generous and deeply appreciated… did not reinvigorate our confidence…
… when the people that you expected to have the concrete answer that you were looking for instead start passing the buck to God, you know you’re reaching the “end of the line” in terms of earthly resources…
Things were starting to become surreal.
After our session of spiritual supplication had concluded, we decided it was time to start thinking outside the “dox”… the “para-dox”, that is (See what I did there?)… and to consider other, perhaps more creative options.
The Perfect Place
Fortunately, in the meantime, there was one thing that actually was going well for us; we were able to view our first flat that first Saturday we were in Leeds, just four days after arriving, and we fell in love with it immediately.
It was going to be a bit more per month than what we wanted to spend, but other than that it was truly perfect.
Good security, short walk to campus, a historically protected, nearly-250-year-old building, charming architecture, furnished (huge plus), view overlooking a park on a small square, few neighbors, very English-feeling, etc…
Finding the place we wanted so fast was a real blessing amidst all of the other problems we were having, because the longer it took for us to decide on a place, the longer we were going without knowing the exact requirements for acquiring the specific home we would end up picking.
Wasting no time, we e-mailed the leasing company back that very same Saturday evening to tell them that we wanted that flat, and to ask what we had to do to get it.
We found out that, thankfully, we could put down as many months of rent on our credit card as we wanted upon signing our lease, but yes, as we expected, the deposit at least would have to be made via bank transfer.
So, the question still remained: how to do a transfer without it taking forever, and without losing more money than we wanted to.
Friends to the Rescue
By the grace of God, some good friends of ours had actually just recently moved back to the US from the UK, where they had been living for several years.
Katie and I had come over to the UK and visited them earlier in the year while they were still living here, and they knew before many others of our plans to move abroad and of Katie going to grad school.
Since arriving in Leeds, we had been keeping them updated as to our progress in terms of “settling in”, and so we naturally shared with them the details of the fiasco in which we found ourselves.
Mercifully, they revealed what would prove to be a very beneficial fact indeed; that they had not yet closed their old UK bank account, and that it was actually still open and active!
We asked if they would be willing to use a fast international money transfer service, completely online, and specifically intended to circumvent (by legal means, of course) fees and hiked exchange rates, in order to send money from their US bank account to their old UK bank account, and then allow us to use their UK bank account details to make the deposit to our future landlord.
Then, since Katie and I were at least able to make domestic bank to bank transfers within the US through our own bank’s online portal withouthaving to go to our bank in person, we would transfer the money from ourUS bank account to our friends’ US bank account to repay them afterwards.
You know, they just happened to sportingly agree with that idea…
…and that just happens to be what we did!
So having discovered how to get the deposit money over to the UK, we could breathe our first sigh of relief. But we still had to be patient, and we were very hesitant to count our chickens before they were hatched.
After all, the transfer that our friends would be doing from the US to the UK would still take a couple of days, and while we were waiting, we still had several other housing-related tasks to perform.
These included things like reviewing of our lease agreement, deciding on renter’s insurance (optional in the UK), choosing utilities providers (there are a wide array in the UK, and all of them compete for your £), choosing our internet provider, comparing potential costs with our budget, etc, etc.
There was a lot to go over.
Not to mention having to concern ourselves with another potentially disastrous situation, being our UK Tenancy Review, for which, as immigrants, we had no UK tenancy history to provide, and which therefore necessitated that we use the assistant manager of our hotel as our “tenancy” reference person; a young lady that we’d only spoken to briefly on a couple of occasions, mostly just while checking in and checking out during our multiple stays.
Can you imagine, as an assistant manager of a hotel, being asked by two, strung out, foreign hotel guests, whom you barely know, to provide a “tenancy” reference on their behalf, and only having a few short days of them staying in your hotel to base your reference on?
Can you imagine asking a hotel assistant manager in a foreign country, whom you barely know, for something so ridiculous, haha?!
Wonderful person that she is though, she agreed to help us. Lucky for her really, as I was fully prepared to make a groveling fool out of myself right there on the lobby floor until she relented, had she put up a fight.
Sealing the Deal
So, I believe it was the second Thursday or Friday after we arrived in Leeds when we found out that all of the approvals for our flat had been made, and that we could go ahead and make the deposit.
By then, the necessary funds were finally in our friends’ UK bank account, and with a few clicks that second Sunday night, the deed was done (a moment of tranquil but unabashed celebration).
The nightmare of how-in-the-heck-were-going-to-get-a-permanent-roof-over-our-heads-in-this-foreign-country was over, and not a moment too soon.
Other Battles to Win the War
We landed in Leeds on Tuesday September 12th, and by Wednesday September 27th we were turning the key in the door of our flat to take up residence in our new UK home.
It may seem like two weeks and a day really wasn’t that bad, to arrive to another country, find a home, and get moved in, and as far as the simple timeline is concerned, that’s true, even with everything we had to go through to accomplish that task.
But working out the details and taking the appropriate steps to get our home was only one component of that two-week period of time.
During all of this bureaucratic hoop jumping that we were going through for our housing, we were also busy on campus doing regular school registration stuff for Katie, which included things like going to pick up our government-issued IDs, having Katie turn in academic records, getting her school ID card (lookin’ fine, girl!), seeing her campus and program facilities for the first time, attending orientation sessions to find out more about Leeds as a university, what all it has to offer, where to go if you need “help” (unless, of course, you’re a married couple where one’s a student and one’s not and you’re looking for a home), figuring out class schedules, figuring out where to get groceries, so on and so forth.
Most of these things were exciting to do, but it was obviously hard to completely ignore our housing worries so that we could fully enjoy them, and not continuously fall back into contemplating a twelve-month existence as homeless immigrants.
On top of all of that, the hotel in which we booked our first 4-night stay (Tues-Fri) didn’t have any available rooms on any Saturday in September. So, during these chaotic first two weeks, we were forced to book two additional hotel stays, with two Saturday night Air BnB stays in between. That’s a total of four lodging changes within a two-week period of time, all of which had to be planned last minute, all while trying to stay on top of a myriad of other things.
Writing all this down now, I see it is no wonder why Katie ended up falling up some stairs while we were walking across campus one day during this timeframe.
No, you read that correctly… she fell up the stairs.
But that’s all behind us, and we’re both making it up and down stairs everywhere just fine now.
Congratulations, you made it through our first, and hopefully longest blog post! Our subsequent posts should not only be much shorter, but will also involve more fun things such as:
– What’s Leeds like?
– What’s the University of Leeds like?
– What’s our home like?
– What’s life like in the UK?
– Other random stories
We’ve already got a lot to share, so keep an eye out for new posts and pics on all of these topics and more at least once or twice a month, if not more!
Jeff and Katie