South Africa to London –> how it’s done!

I’ve been wanting to write about my move to London for some time now. The reason it’s taken me this long is, well, because I’m in London. There’s so much to do and see that I find myself constantly overwhelmed at the amount of options available – finding time to blog is quite difficult.

We both did the MBA because we wanted an international move. Yes, we were tired of the crime in SA and frustrated that travelling anywhere meant at least a 12 hour flight, but more than that, we wanted a change. We’ve only ever lived and worked in SA and we really wanted a new adventure. We had no idea where we’d end up – and were really open at the outset. Talking about emigrating is particularly sensitive now because of everything that’s been going on in SA, but I still think of SA as home and am not ruling out coming back. To me, it’s a trade off. Yes, here I get safety (although even that is questionable as of late), I earn pounds, I have tons of options of cool things to do on any given day and I have Europe at my doorstep which is amazing for travelling but I can’t save any money because the cost of living is so high, I live in a small-ish apartment and the weather is miserable most of the time. Not to mention the fact that I get sick every 2 weeks. Nowhere is perfect, it’s about what you want at that particular moment in your life. For me, right now, I’m loving being in London. But first thing’s first:

Why London?

While at INSEAD, we needed to narrow down our choices from “the entire world.” I knew I wanted to live somewhere pedestrianised, with lots of street life (not malls) and good public transport. I also wanted to live in a big city, like New York, Hong Kong or London. After living in Singapore for 6 months, we both decided that we didn’t really like it. Singapore in particular is quite Westernised but it was a bit too small and sterile for me. It’s also tough to spend time outdoors because of the heat and humidity. Hong Kong didn’t feel like somewhere I’d like to live either. We were considering Sydney for a bit, and went there last December, but the distance put us off. I love travelling and I don’t want every holiday to be an 8 hour + flight away. We then looked into getting US visas which is pretty much impossible because it works on a lottery system. Even if one of us had to get a visa, the other person wouldn’t be able to work off that visa. So, we narrowed it down to London, and started aggressively recruiting in London for the last 2 months before the MBA ended.

It was HARD work. London is really competitive and you’re not only competing with UK citizens, you’re also competing with the rest of the EU, who can all work in the UK visa free. Sponsoring a visa is time consuming and expensive for a company, and most companies won’t even bother conducting an interview if you need sponsorship. I guess it’s hard for them to commit to spending all that money upfront on a person they don’t really know. At INSEAD, we were always told that a “triple move” is close to impossible: sector (for me, mining), function (finance), and location (SA.)

After a million Skype calls with INSEAD alumni, lots of Eurostarring to and from London for interviews, and reaching my limit of Linkedin name searches (who knew there even was a limit?!) I was close to giving up and was about to start looking at finance roles in London, when I got 3 offers in the same week! I ended up picking the best one by far – a job at Millward Brown Vermeer in brand strategy consulting which I am loving. Even though I’ve been working here for 5 months now (2 months in Cape Town and 3 months in London), I still feel super grateful and lucky to finally love what I do. The culture is exactly what I’ve always wanted, the people are great and I love the office’s central location in Holborn. It’s hard work and I do get stressed and tired during busy times but it’s amazing to be doing something close to what I’d be doing anyway if I didn’t have to work or didn’t need the money.

So, what does one need to do to move to London with a South African passport? 

In short – a lot. Unless your occupation is on the shortage occupation list, you have to be sponsored by a company before you can come to the UK. For a company to sponsor you, they first have to be on the list of approved employers in the UK. They then  have to prove that they couldn’t find anyone else in the UK that can do your job, by advertising the job for 28 days, and then possibly even conducting interviews with candidates similar to you. Obviously, if you’re transferring internally, things are a lot simpler. Once that step is done, the company applies for a sponsorship certificate, which allows them to sponsor a human. The company can also agree to sponsor dependents. On the back of that sponsorship certificate, you can then apply to be the human they sponsor. Ours are Tier 2 visas, valid for 5 years, after which we can apply for permanent residency. After another 2 years (so 7 in total), we can get UK passports.  The whole process took around 3 months. We also had to do TB tests and get original copies of our degree certificates and marriage certificate. It was stressful, because this year, for the first time the UK has imposed quotas on visas. Points are assigned based on how much you’ll be earning, plus other factors, so even if you have all your ducks in a row there are never any guarantees.

How to find an apartment in London? 

This was the next piece of stress after the visas were sorted. I didn’t know London, and had no idea where I’d want to live. All I knew is that I made this list of promises to myself when I left my last job and I wasn’t going to back out of what I said – no longer than a 30 minute commute to work. Rereading that, I’ve kept all the promises – except maybe long hours which I have to do from time to time but because I actually enjoy what I do now, I don’t feel pained by the hours.

In London, it’s not uncommon to travel 1.5-2 hours to and from work. The closer you stay to central London, the more expensive it gets. A 1 bedroom apartment in Zone 1 (central London) can cost upwards of 2000 pounds per month. I know – craziness, especially when converting to rands. So my idea of walking to work quickly disappeared and I started looking in Zone 2. East London is quirky and up and coming. Here, and in North London, we mostly found high rise apartment blocks which I didn’t really like. I wanted to feel like I was living in London, so had my heart set on a living in a house like one of these.


Work is on the Central / Piccadilly line, so I looked at areas that were also on these lines, in Zone 2. Our search ended up being concentrated around West London. Thankfully I had a month in a serviced apartment close to work, so we had enough time to do a thorough search. We set up appointments with a bunch of agents ahead of time, after looking on websites like Rightmove and Zoopla. The property market in London moves FAST, especially in September (when we looked), because of the amount of students moving to the city. Often, apartments go off the market before agents even have a chance to upload pictures. The best thing to do, imo, is decide on an area by actually being in London and getting a feel of the areas you like, and then allocate 2-3 days to view apartments with various estate agents. The most popular (and professional) agents are Foxton’s, but we actually ended up using Douglas & Gordon who were also quite good. The weird thing about London is that most apartments are furnished. Unfurnished apartments aren’t actually any cheaper. As part of my relocation package all our furniture from SA was being shipped over, so we were only looking at unfurnished places, plus we needed something cat friendly – our cats were waiting for us at a cattery for the 2 months we were in SA, poor things! That meant that we couldn’t be too picky. We eventually settled on a beautiful, completely renovated 2 bedroom apartment in West Kensington. Google Maps says it should take me 30 minutes to get to work, but in reality it takes about 40. It’s a lovely 15 minute walk to the tube, then around 20 minutes on the tube and another 5 minutes to get to my office. Not bad at all.

I’ve dreamt about having a home for so long, so as soon as we moved in, I tried to make it homely. This proved to be a bit tricky as our last apartment was quite a lot bigger than this one, so we had more furniture than we actually needed. This is what we ended up with – still work in progress, we need a few paintings and we need to fill up the shelves a bit.. but we’re getting there!

DSC_4239 photo_46157_23 DSC_4243 DSC_4238

Guest bedroom with a sleeper couch - we've already had quite a few guests over and it's great being able to host those close to my heart
Guest bedroom with a sleeper couch – we’ve already had quite a few guests over and it’s great being able to host those close to my heart


It was definitely the roof terrace that sold it for us!
It was definitely the roof terrace that sold it for us – can’t wait to host summer parties here!

Getting to know London: 

London is really overwhelming. Every suburb feels like a different city. When I googled “best brunch in London”, I got lists like “100 best brunches in central London” and then I would just give up. There are TWENTY THOUSAND restaurants here. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to eat out as much as I did when I was in SA. In SA, eating out at the average restaurant costs maybe 1.5 – 2.5 times more than buying the food and making it yourself. Here, it’s at least 10 times more. It’s really hard to justify eating out. Now, it’s more of an occasion and a treat for us, and less like us going out because we don’t feel like cooking on a random Tuesday night. I have to say – that part sucks.

I’ve been tackling getting to know London area by area. I try to venture out to a new area every weekend, and do as much exploring on foot as possible. It is cold here, but it seldom drops below 10 degrees so it’s completely manageable for an outdoors stroll.

The only thing I miss about SA (apart from the people of course) is sometimes having a car to lug stuff around – it’s really annoying to not be able to do a full grocery shop because you know you physically won’t be able to carry it home! Other than that, no regrets. I feel like if I had to design the city of my dreams from scratch, it would be London with sunshine 🙂 Wouldn’t that be perfect!

Next post will be on my favourite pieces of London – watch this space!

xx H