The (Spanish) guide to working in London

I've been asked about this topic so many times that I've finally decided to write a post so that I can forward people to it next time I'm asked about it. Please skip it if you're not Spanish or interested on working in London :-)


Learn English

The most important thing to do is to learn English. You don't need to get any official certificate (I don't have any either), but you need to be able to understand at least written English. If you still require translated versions of software manuals, or use Spanish forums when looking for support, you're doing yourself more harm than good. Stop immediately and begin using English for everything; otherwise you won't even be able to answer interview questions involving a minimum amount of technical terms, even less communicate with work mates efficiently.

It's quite probable that one of the reasons for moving to London is learning or improving your English. I'm going to disappoint you: you won't be able to get a Perfect British English accent here. There's so many people from so many nationalities that there's hardly any Perfect British English speaker left, and as such, you'll encounter an incredible number of different accents. This is good in a way, since that trains your ears and makes you able to decipher pretty much every accent out there. But it's bad too, because it totally renders useless the English you've been taught in school. Don't worry though, after a couple of weeks/months your ears learn quickly, and you'll "get it".

It's OK to come with a rudimentary level of English. I thought mine was pretty good... until I came here! But you can learn. You just need dedication, willpower and practice, practice and lots of practice :-)

Get a passport

Let's assume you've got a semidecent level of English. The next thing you need to get is a Passport. Yes, you can travel to most parts in the European Union with your Spanish ID (el DNI), but when it comes to filling official documents in the UK, most clerks only recognise/trust passports. Everything else looks unknown and potentially fraudulent to them ;-)

Getting a passport is not that hard and will make things easier for you later on, so I highly recommend getting it.

Another document that might prove useful is a driving license (if you have it). I'll detail why later on.

Moving around

Spain is quite well connected with the UK thanks to holidaymakers in search of sun and cheap beer, so you're lucky here. I'd suggest to deal directly with the flight company and avoid agencies. Firstly, it's cheaper, because there are no intermediaries, and secondly, if there is any flight change, you'll get notified instantly to your email, unlike with travel agencies where there's always a delay. If you want to look for tickets and compare several companies, have a look at trabber --I use it myself.

I personally dislike ryanair. easyJet are pretty decent and straightforward, and vueling does a good job too, although the website can be totally absurd and maddening at times. I quite liked British Airways but sadly they do not fly to Valencia anymore. Sometimes their prices can be more competitive than easyJet's and you get luxuries such as numbered seats, wider seats and in-flight coffee etc, so if you're flying from important cities such as Barcelona or Madrid I'd recommend you to consider them too. If you use trabber you can check all of these at the same time anyway :-)

There are five London airports. From further to closer to the city centre: Luton, Stansted, Gatwick, Heathrow and City.

Probably the best connected ones are Heathrow and Gatwick. If you arrive at a decent time, you can use the tube from Heathrow. From Gatwick you can take a normal train or the Gatwick Express which is direct and only 15 minutes faster than the normal train and a little bit more expensive, but at least you can't end up in an unexpected place. City airport is mostly used by businessmen and tickets tend to be more expensive. Finally, Stansted and Luton are further away, but depending on where you intend to stay the first weeks they might be more convenient for you.

One of the best things you'll do is getting an Oyster card. It's a rechargeable card which you use to pay for the Tube, buses and increasingly trains too. Otherwise fares will be astronomical (e.g. 1.70 vs 4 pounds for a single tube journey). Putting money into the card is called topping up, and you can get an Oyster in most main tube stations --I think the deposit is just 3 pounds. It seems they can also deliver overseas. Have a look at Transport For London's website and learn all that you can about London's geography and transport means.

Ah, right, pounds. Money. The UK uses pounds, so you can save your euros for when you come back to Spain. A pound is worth a little bit more than a euro nowadays (exchange rates). £ is the pound sign, and a pound is worth 100 pennies or pence (singular is penny), exactly like euros and cents. You might have heard about shillings but that is superoldschool and it's not used anymore. The pound always goes before the figure, like this: £100, unlike the euro which goes after: 100€

If you want to have some pocket money, you can exchange euros into pounds at either airport; this is technically known as "buying pounds". You can also withdraw money from any ATM (Automated Teller Machine, Cash Machine or cajero) with your Spanish card. I have used both debit and credit cards; sometimes Visa Electron cards don't work in some machines, but there's probably another ATM close by. Generally, you get charged a fixed minimum amount per transaction, so maybe it'll be more convenient to withdraw a larger amount once than withdrawing smaller amounts several times. Consult with your bank first!

Looking for somewhere to live

There are two ways to start living here. First one is to try and convince someone you know to live in their place while you look for your own place. This is sometimes known as a soft landing in the expat jargon, and is surely the best and cheapest option if you don't intend to stay with them for a long time.

The second option is to find a room in a hostel or hotel. How safe this option is, considering you will have probably brought a sizeable amount of clothes and personal valuables, depends on how much money you're willing to pay. Generally, more expensive == safer, and more private, as in having your own room and/or bathroom.

It's also good advice to travel lightly and bring only indispensable items. You'll have less to worry about and it'll be easier to move around.

You can then start looking for your own place when you're physically living in London. Some people have reported moderate success at looking for flats using the Internet when in Spain, but I've heard of more disappointments than successes.

Again, there are two ways of looking for a flat or shared room. First is browsing classifieds. The main places where people look for and post flat ads are the Loot and gumtree. The Loot also has a paper edition that you can buy in any newsagents. These two sites are sourced by particulars and as such some of the transactions can be a bit underground. There's also quite a good amount of fraudsters trying to convince desperate people to pay deposits for a flat they have yet to see via Western Union and similar methods. Please don't fall for these scams!

The second way is to contact a letting agent. If you're looking into renting an entire flat for yourself and not sharing one, this is probably the best option, although it'll be more expensive! RightMove aggregates properties to let from several agents.

You generally have to pay a month or more in advance plus some more fees, but you've got peace of mind. The problem is that they probably require you to have a UK bank account to pay your rent--which you don't have yet! They might also require you to provide references (i.e. a couple of written letters proving you're a nice and reliable person and are not going to set the flat on fire), so you probably don't have them yet either. All of this makes this option infeasible until you get a job.

Whatever the option you chose, it might be interesting to have a look at one of the websites that aggregate crime data and other statistics to find out about your potential home before deciding. For example, upMyStreet. In any case, take the results with a pinch of salt ;)

Getting a job

So you're living in a hostel/hotel, with a friend or sharing a room in a flat or house. To look for a job you mainly need three things:

  • Skills!
  • A mobile phone with a UK SIM card
  • A CV or Website

You can buy a SIM card in pretty much any High Street shop, and it will allow you to be contacted by phone without having to pay roaming (which you'd have to pay if you used an Spanish SIM card). Also, providing an UK phone number is more professional and shows more commitment about staying in the UK than using a phone number that requires an international prefix ;-)

Nowadays most of the carriers offer some sort of pay as you go internet access, so you can use that to connect to Internet with your laptop and phone and avoid having to go to a public library to apply to jobs. So do investigate the possible options and find out which one you like more. Of course, you'll need an unlocked phone!

There are more places where you can get online such as coffee chains, alternative/independent cafes, museums, etc, but certainly nothing is more convenient than your own laptop :-)

You'll use your CV to demonstrate/announce your skills to the world+dog. Keep it short and to the point. Alternatively you might want to use your website as promotional material, as in doing nice things and publishing them there, and waiting for interested parties to call you with job offers. A github account (with checked in code!) is a very good way of showing potential employers your programming abilities--much better than the old "send us two samples of code" requirement.

If you're not into that, you'll want to browse job websites, create a profile there and prepare for a neverending stream of calls from clueless recruiters. The two websites I've used in the past were reed and cwjobs.

There's always the social way: word of mouth, LinkedIn, Twitter, and attending user groups and or social events related to your field of expertise. London2 has a list of London user group meetings. I highly recommend these meetings; they are a great way of getting to know people in the community and learning new stuff. Plus you get to hear and speak technical English while having a beer in an English pub! Nothing can beat that :-)

From my experience, what works best is word of mouth, directly contacting companies and self-promotion (i.e. via your website). All attempts to get a job via recruiters have been an immense waste of time.

Some recruiters will ask you for a Word version of your curriculum instead of a PDF or HTML version. They do it so that they can edit your CV and remove all contact details (phone number, email, website) from it, and therefore your potential employer has to arrange your contract and everything through the recruitment company (and thus pay them a commission). I think this is somehow nasty, specially when done without being upfront clear about it. Other recruiters are so mad about earning those commissions that will harass you into taking jobs you don't want or in places you dislike or are very inconvenient for you. The best solution in these cases is to terminate the call immediately, since they won't accept a polite "no, thanks".

You don't need to prove your skills with a University degree, although some places require/value it. I've never been asked to produce my university degree in an interview, so I wouldn't worry about bringing it with me to the UK. It's probably going to be more useful hanging in your old bedroom :-P

Whatever you do, don't lie about your skills, because it will show up in the interview(s), and you'll feel greatly embarrassed.

Regarding interviews, generally you'll get contacted first by phone, and get asked a few questions. Even if you don't succeed (i.e. you don't get asked for another interview on-site), consider each phone call as training. Conversational training if you want. You might get asked what your responsibilities were in your previous job, what are your current programming interests, what would you like to do in a job, etc. You might also get asked about the very exact things that are in your CV; this is very typical from recruiters which will re-read your CV to you and ask you to explain whatever is in it. Again, don't get mad at them (at least not the first weeks), and use these silly conversations for your own profit :-)

When getting interviewed for a second time, I've got more interesting questions than by phone. Sometimes I've been asked to complete a very simple code exercise, and other times I've been asked both about obvious implementation details or to write complex SQL queries. The most entertaining one was an interview in which we talked about the applicability of design patterns, differences between ruby and php, and business models. It's obvious that the more that you practice technical chat, the easier it will be for you to communicate :-)

You might also get asked if you intend to stay in the UK for the foreseeable future. This is probably because of some Spaniards that got hired and then disappeared after a month or a couple of weeks in the job, so say thanks to them for helping build this nice image of Spain. Therefore, be honest and let your potential employer know about your plans--if you're just planning to stay for six months, let them know. If you actually plan to stay, of course let them know too.

Also, you might get offered "contract work". This usually requires you to register as Self Employed, fill in your tax return and all that, which is the equivalent of being autónomo... and you don't probably want to do that when you've just arrived into the UK. It's better to opt for permanent work, so that you get some stability and get to learn about the culture by interacting with people :-)

Office hours tend to be from 9 to 17.30h with 30min or an hour for lunch. Some companies shift it by an hour so the work is from 10h to 18.30h and you avoid peak times in the tube, which makes for a nicer, less stressful commute.

Normally jobs are advertised in a format such as "Job title, xyK" where xy is an integer number. For example: "PHP developer, 50K". Here 50K means £50000 gross salary, i.e. what you would get paid in a year if no taxes or deductions were applied to your salary. A quick way of getting a rough idea of the net amount is to remove 30% from the gross salary. So £50000 would be approximately £35000, or £35K net --approximately 2916 pounds per month. Here's an online calculator too.

Of course, the tax system is more complex than that, so if you're interested in how it works, you're encouraged to find more information about it! IANAA (I Am Not An Accountant!).

Getting a bank account

Let's assume you've been successful and you've got a job! Hooray! Now you need a bank account so that you can get paid. This can be very easy or very bizarre, since banks don't want to expose themselves to any risk and sometimes won't allow you to open a bank account no matter how clean you are.

Best thing to do is to ask your employer for a letter that says you're employed by them and have a permanent job with a salary of X pounds per year, etc. With this letter and your passport, go to the nearest bank branch and tell them you want to open a bank account. If you're lucky, they might accept. If the clerk has a bad day, you'll get all sorts of excuses. Maybe trying in another branch of the same bank will work. It's all very random and unpredictable.

Things that help: a driving license serves as another official document; a statement letter from your bank in Spain showing you're not in debt and are a good bank customer, etc. Utility bills are useful too, but this is somehow a recursive problem, since you can't pay utilities if you don't get money and you can't get money if you don't get a bank account. DNI's are typically worthless in their eyes.

Some banks offer an "starter" bank account for people like you. These accounts are limited and don't allow you to withdraw more than X money per day, and things like that, but once you stay with them for a while you can usually upgrade to a "normal", better account.

The hardest part is to get the first bank account; everything is easy after that.

Getting a National Insurance number

You need your own National Insurance number (NI number) so that your taxes are properly calculated and your work contributions are properly tracked too. Otherwise your employer will use a temporary number and they will apply you the "emergency tax" (which is higher than normal, and you surely would prefer to avoid), plus you won't get any contributions in your file etc.

For getting your own number you need to call Jobcentre Plus and ask them for an appointment. Most of the people I know were sent to an office South of London, close to Tooting Broadway. I went somewhere else because I asked at a Jobcentre Plus office directly. You'll get an appointment for an interview and they will ask you questions as to why are you in London, why do you want to work there, why do you want the NI number, etc.

The full process is explained here.

Once that is done they will send you a card with your NI number to your address. So that means you can't move to a different place until you get that card. Otherwise you'll have to go back to that office and implore them to provide you with your NI number or follow the instructions in the above website.

When you get the number, it's yours forever. Actually the plastic card with the number on it is rather useless--they don't even send replacements anymore. What really matters is the number itself, so don't lose it, and provide that number immediately to your employer so that your records can be updated and you don't pay wrong tax.

At this point you are done with the hardest part! Yay!

Things that aren't strictly required

Moving to a definitive flat

You can now think about moving to another flat (maybe you're bored of sharing flats and prefer to rent your own?). When you do this, you'll have to contract utilities such as water, electricity, gas, etc. If you rent a flat through an estate agent, they might help you with this. It's good to have utility bills in your name because they are sometimes used as proof of address, but that's another story.

You'll also be asked to register for Council Tax too. Most of the shared flats hide this in the fee, but when you rent a flat you have to pay it too. It's roughly equivalent to the Impuesto sobre Bienes Inmuebles (IBI) --but it gets paid by the people who live in the property, not by the owners.

Another thing you can do when moving to your own flat is signing up for broadband. Generally this implies having to get a phone line too, but some companies are starting to offer broadband without phone line, so if you don't plan on using a landline this might be interesting.

Finally on the utility side, if you plan on watching TV you need to sign up for a TV license. This is very puzzling for Spaniards which are used to get TV for free. If you don't watch TV --as is our case-- you'll get harassed by the TV license company so that you get one, but if you resist and tell them you don't want one, they will stop harassing you for a couple of years, after which they will insist again "just in case you've moved or your circumstances have changed".

Registering for a doctor

Go to the NHS (the equivalent to Spanish Seguridad Social) website and look for GP (General Practitioners) close to your address. Then it's a matter of calling clinics and asking them if they are accepting new patients. If they are, they will tell you to go to the clinic and fill in a registration form; they might ask you to pass a health test too. It depends. You'll then get a NHS card with the name of your doctor and clinic. Since this gets sent to your address, you might want to wait until you've settled down on a given place.

This isn't strictly necessary since there are walk-in clinics that will attend any emergency treatments you might require, and hospitals if your case is more serious, but if you require repeated prescriptions you will need to register.

Registering at the Spanish Consulate

You might want to register at the Spanish Consulate (not the Embassy). For this you need to go there physically and prepare for a good amount of Spanish bureaucracy.

This enables you to vote in Spanish elections, renew the passport if it expires, get notified in an emergency, get a salvoconducto if you destroy your passport in the washing machine and your DNI has expired and need to fly to Spain, etc.

And finally...

... enjoy your stay here :-)

If you have any other doubt please ask in the comments. I have probably overseen something important, although I've been aggregating all the questions I've got in my inbox!