10 things to know before moving from the UK to NYC

By Alexandra Da Cunha

Toddling Round New York chronicles a British family’s experience of moving with young kids from London to New York.


Alexandra Da Cunha moved from London to New York in the summer of 2014 with her husband and two daughters, now aged two and four-and-three-quarters. She writes about the highs and lows of expat parenthood on her blog, Toddling Round New York. Before the move, Alexandra was an Account Director in Public Relations.

There are many similarities between London and New York. There’s also a whole lot of differences. In no particular order, here are some really useful things to know before your own move to NYC:

1. Tips. Everyone gets tipped here. Restaurants expect 18-22% for good service, taxi drivers like you to add a dollar, hairdressers, supermarket check out staff all like tips (not obligatory). Clothes shop staff work on commission, so don’t get tips. Schools may well ask you to contribute for staff and teacher tips at Christmas. Doormen, concierge and janitors in your building also bank on a generous tip at Christmas. There’s a sliding scale for how much you give each person in your building, factoring in how long you’ve lived there, how much help each one gives you throughout the year, and how fond you are of them. It’s not unusual for a friendly Manhattan apartment doorman or concierge to get $100 tip at Christmas.

2. Food. It’s unusual to get a big kitchen in Manhattan. One you can actually cook a meal in is called a chef’s kitchen. Thankfully New York City has an exceptional number of restaurants, so to survive, they have to be good. Eating out is a real pleasure, but most will deliver to your door too. Lots of places have kids menus, almost always involving hot dogs, pizza, mac & cheese or chicken with fries, and rarely come with a side of veg or salad. Brunch is big here, it’s quite common to invite someone over for brunch rather than supper. High Fructose Corn Syrup crops up in all sorts of foods, including ones marketed at children. Don’t even get me started on trying to order a decent cup of tea, just ask for something else instead.  Go to Myers of Keswick or Tea & Sympathy to buy British food when you’re feeling homesick.

3. Subways. The subway takes some getting used to. Southbound is called ‘Downtown’, and northbound is ‘Uptown’. Platforms do not have clear signage, so make sure you have a subway map on you to double check your destination. I still sometimes find myself in Brooklyn when I meant to get to Union Square. Lots of the smaller stations do not have interconnecting platforms, so if you’ve accidentally come to the wrong platform, you have to go all the way back up to the street, cross the road, and go all the way down to the correct platform. When this happens, you may also have to negotiate with the subway employee locked inside their cubicle (they never come out) to let you through the ticket barriers, as the Metro cards sometimes refuse to let you through so soon after you’ve swiped elsewhere. Add kids and a stroller into the mix, and you really want to make sure you get the right platform first time.

4. Schools. Try to time your move for the school year. We arrived mid-August which worked really well, as we had a couple of weeks to get over jetlag and unpack before the start of school. Obviously depending on the age of your children, it’s really helpful to start school at the same time as all the other families so your kids will not be the only new ones, and the parents won’t know anyone else yet either. I’d say that 90% of my social contact is with the other school moms, it was such a help to get to know them right at the start of our time here. Also, school is a massive help in getting the whole family settled in to your new lives. It gives structure to the day, interest and stimulation for the kids, and you get to meet a whole load of local parents to befriend. For that reason, it’s worth looking into schools to last your whole planned tour, as it is very disrupting to have to pull out of that social group and start all over again, for the kids and for you. Kindergarten starts the year after children turn five, but it’s common to start ‘Pre-K’ aged three. New York schools close a lot – T got 12 weeks off for the summer and endless public holidays throughout the school term. Daycare for younger kids generally stay open most of the year. Consider using a professional schools broker to help find suitable schools with places available for your planned arrival.

5. Language barriers. Baby cots are called cribs. If you say ‘cot’ here, they think you mean a very small bed that slides away under a bigger one. This can be annoying if you’ve taken the trouble to book one for a hotel on your arrival. Nappies are called diapers, breastfeeding is nursing and pushchairs are strollers.

6. Electrics. Your old electrics won’t work, the voltage here is so low. Sell all your British kettles, lamps, toasters, alarm clocks and hair dryers and buy new here (try Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond. Craigslist is the equivalent of Gumtree, there may be some bargains if you have time to trawl). For your bigger electrics such as your desktop computer, you can buy a transformer to use it out here. American toasters have a ‘bagel’ setting, and the microwaves have ‘popcorn’ settings. Excellent. On the whole electrics are cheaper here, and there are frequent sales like Black Friday, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day….

7. Healthcare.  Health insurance takes quite some getting used to after the NHS. Make sure you always carry the family’s insurance cards in case of emergencies, as doctors won’t treat you without it. Dental and vision are not normally included in standard healthcare cover, you have to make sure yours is either included or separately covered. Root canal treatment can cost $1,800 without insurance. Epi-Pens cost $600 for a pack of two syringes. Also, New Yorkers use specialist doctors for every thing – they have allergists, dermatologists, pediatricians, OB/GYNs… it can be bewildering at first. Calpol = Tylenol. The dosages for children are much more accurate here, they do it by the child’s weight rather than age.

8. Taxes. Taxes are complicated, even for born-and-bred Americans. Give yourself at least two weeks to fill out your tax returns and keep records of everything you can think of like every bank account you have open (even abroad). You have to think twice about remortgaging or paying a lump sum off a mortgage whilst you’re here, since this could open you up for additional liability. Try to negotiate a tax advisor for both UK and US taxes for the length of your time here.

9. Banking. American banking seems v old school and bureaucratic compared to the UK, even if you open up a bank account with international options like HSBC. Setting up a new American account is painful, you have to fill in an astonishing amount of hypothetical detail like how many payments you plan to make in an average month. Chip and pin is rare, most places require signatures which are rarely checked against the back of the card. Online banking isn’t really online, as we found when trying to make an online payment to a friend. Weeks afterwards, he finally received a cheque (spelt ‘check’ here) which had been handwritten by someone in the back office and physically deposited in his bank.

10. Directions. New Yorkers walk fast as it’s the quickest way round Manhattan; don’t dawdle or block the pavement. They will always help if you need directions, just make sure you get to the point and don’t start with British waffle, “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, can you help me find this place?” gets their backs up. Get right to the point, “Which way for XXth Street?” and they’ll point it out. City Mapper is an excellent app to help you plan the best route to wherever you need to go, assuming you’ve managed to get your smart phone sorted. And always know the ‘cross street’ of the address you’re aiming for, since New Yorkers never use street numbers.

To read the full list of 22 helpful things to know before you move from the UK to New York and for more of Alexandra’s blog posts visit toddlingroundny.com

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