Sometimes the planets align and everything seems to conspire to make things happen. A year ago, during this same month, I embarked myself on a trip that was going to be both an adventure and a life-changing experience. I was able to go to the UK for 6 months to spend time with who is now my lovely fiancé.
England. A place I have dreamt about since I was a kid. A country I had the chance to visit for only 4 days before and I had fallen in love with so hard. I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic.
Though I must confess that getting ready for a trip like this- so long and to a country that is really strict when it comes to visitors) was not easy. Therefore, I put together a set of tips, notes and, bits and pieces to help you in case you are going to this exciting country. So here we go!
- Not many people know this but you are allowed (at least if you are from Argentina) to stay in the UK for six months as a tourist without a visa. Still, I recommend going the British embassy website and check if you need a visa. Just in case! I will leave a link here for those who wanna go and take a look.
- Make sure you have health insurance for the duration of your trip. even though it is not a legal requirement, you may be asked about it at the UK airport and it is advisable to have one as treatment in the UK can be expensive and it can save you in case of an unexpected issue. Companies like Universal Assistance (one that I have used and charges less the longer you stay) or Assist Card are a good call when choosing travel health insurance and can even be hired at the airport, before boarding your plane. The companies I just mentioned are Argentinian, so check for local companies and read reviews of them before hiring anything.
- Have an updated passport that does not expire during or close to your trip. The UK (as well as many other countries) is very strict about this and you may be denied entree if your passport is close to its expiration date.
- When you book and buy your ticket, make sure to get a return ticket. I can´t put enough emphasis on this. You must have a ticket to go back to your country. Why can´t you just buy it later, while in the country? Well, since you are staying for so long, authorities may question your reasons behind it and it is a reassurance for them to know that, in fact, you do have a ticket already bought to take you back home (they may even ask you to buy one there and then, or risk deportation) . Trust me in this one, it has saved me (nor once, but twice) to have my ticket to return to Argentina.
- If you are staying at a hotel or a rented accommodation, have at hand your booking papers, address and contact numbers of these places as you may be asked to present them when you arrive at the UK border. If you are staying at a friend´s or a family member ´s house, you should carry an invitation letter from them stating that they have invited you to stay, that they will be responsible for you and they should add a copy of their id and proof that they own or live in that address. I would say that this is something you should have if you stay abroad at any friend´s house, regardless of the country, as I was asked to present something similar when I stayed at a friend´s house in Norway for 3 months.
- Have money on you and/or proof that you can maintain yourself with it during your stay. I recommend having pounds if you go to the UK as euros are accepted but not everywhere. (BTW, I was recently told by my fiancé that the old 5-pound notes are not longer in use, so make sure you get the new ones!)
- Make sure you authorize your credit cards to be used in the UK or any other country you go to (you can usually do it online) before you travel. In case you have a visa card, make sure you get “VERIFIED BY VISA” as well to be able to buy online outside your country. Seriously. Do it.
- If you take any important medication regularly, put it in your hand luggage and make sure you have a doctor´s prescription for it, even if it is in your native language. Mainly if you take things like antidepressants, really strong pain/sleep/anxiety medication, pills for ADHD, etc.
- Carry a photocopy of your passport always with you, but not your passport. If you lose it or you get robbed, you are in for trouble.
- Prepare a first aid kit and a bunch of medication that you may need and put it in your luggage. In the UK there are some meds that are not sold over the counter and I personally recommend to take medicated eardrops as some places are really windy and can provoke you to have an earache or an ear infection. If you are prone to any infection regularly, you can bring spare antibiotics, because you cannot get them without seeing a doctor at all.
- If you happen to go out of the UK during your visit and then go back because well, in Europe everything is so close that it is normal to want to visit different places, remember to take with you all the papers I mentioned before: return ticket, proof of money, health insurance, contact of your hotel in the UK or house you are staying, etc.
- It may sound silly to say but be honest and cooperative with the immigration official. Always. If you have any issues, lying won´t get you anywhere. I had an unexpected issue (more on that later) and believe me, being honest, polite, helpful and as long as you have everything in check, things will be ok.
- Get yourself an Oyster Card. (not necessary if you have a RFID debit/credit card or mobile). More information here.
- Do not behave weirdly or leave your luggage unattended at stations or airports. Trust me, there are announcements every couple of minutes about it and you will be sorry if you do. Think of the sock incident from Monster’s Inc… No, literally, they explode them!
- Bear in mind that if you are staying in the UK for 6 months, you´ll experience a change in season. When choosing your clothes, decide carefully and plan ahead. UK weather is usually cold even in summer, so a jacket is always a good idea. Also, you have the option of getting cheap clothes in places like, for example, Primark. But I will make a full post about what and where to buy cool things in the UK soon!
- Comfortable shoes. Yes, I know. What a silly suggestion! But as someone who hates trainers and always tends to wear high heels, I must confess that buying a pair of hiking boots was one of the best things I could do in the UK. Leave the platforms and high heels for photos and get yourself a good pair of waterproof trainers or walking shoes. But what about my fashionable outfit, you may ask? Look at British women and you will see them rocking amazing outfits…wearing flats or trainers. So there you go!
- Pay attention and plan your way before taking the underground or any form of transport. Even though it is fairly easy to use public transport in the UK, it is better to prevent any mistakes than to be sorry.
- Get roaming before going abroad or get yourself a free phone. Just remember that making phone calls or using the internet of your own company is expensive. If your phone is unlocked, you can buy disposable sims for £1 at any garage or supermarket with optional text, minute and data bundles. If your phone isn’t region free, you can also buy phones from as little as £5 if you only want to call or text, and £29 for an android phone able to use the internet on the high-street. The Networks GiffGaff and 3 are best for internet services, on a budget, but all networks should be relatively accessible and far cheaper than roaming options. Whilst it is possible to only use free wifi in cafe’s and other locations, it may be safer and more enjoyable to use a phone; especially if you think you may need a GPS function in case you get lost, or will be more likely to skype, WhatsApp or Kik message friends/family.. or if you want to access your Instagram or blog!
- If you don´t stay in London, but you plan on going there to do a lot of things, take into account the cost of train tickets. I stayed in Kent and it was around 30 pounds to go to London and back. We achieved this cost with a discount railcard which saved a third off of each ticket. You almost always save the cost of the railcard on the first trip if it’s long distance so it’s really worthwhile. If you’re moving around a lot in London on some days you can get an underground pass ticket, and your railcard will take a third off of that too, so it can really add up the savings! Though we also took advantage of advanced and off-peak fares for extra savings. It may be easier to book online anyway as you can see everything clearly and choose what you want, in your own time. It’s really simple to do from this site and you can collect your ticket in advance or simply on the day you go, the site works for mobiles too, whereas National Rail’s mobile interface is patchy at best, so really this is a useful bookmark!
- Which leads me to: keep an eye for discounts or 2 for 1 tickets. For that, don´t throw away your train tickets, check online and grab those touristic brochures of different attractions. Sometimes those offer 2 for 1 or even big discounts if you travel by train or if you book online (you can use more than one 2 for 1 offers with one rail ticket; in London, this can mean multiple attractions and food offers in one day, coupled with advance fares). It may save you a lot of money.
As for what issue I had when I arrived? Well, I was detained at the airport for almost 4 hours. Yes, no joke. I was taken into a custody room and questioned about a lot of things. It was terrifying. For those who do not know, I suffer from panic attacks, so imagine how bad I was feeling. Turns out I had everything in order and that they usually do that to those who stay for a long period of time. So beware! I did not know about that and it was hard. Luckily, I can speak English well and I had all the papers and the official said there was no reason to keep me. If it happens to you, just stay calm, answer truthfully and things will be fine.
But despite all this, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy your trip. All of it. England is a country of history and culture, a mixture of modern and old. Get lost in it. Live it. Make it magical.