Thinking of making a big move? In a new regular column, we ask what life might be like if we were to relocate to various cities around the world. While we can’t account for all budgets and professions, what we can do is take a look at the lifestyle benefits, costs and culture shocks you might want to weigh up before making any snap decisions. This week, our destination is L.A...
Although I might be too shy to admit it down the pub – at least until my flights are booked – I regularly think about packing up shop and relocating to L.A. It’s a common pipe dream; what’s not to find desirable about a warmer climate, so called “cleaner-living” and a fresh start in another English-speaking country? I have family in Santa Barbara and friends in L.A., so I like to think I wouldn't be too lonely.
Trouble is, there are catches. Spending more than three consecutive months in the U.S. requires a work visa, green card or U.S. passport, all of which are difficult to obtain if you don't already have one. The dollar might be cheap against the pound, but America is a much more expensive choice than countries in Asia, Africa and South America, for example. And besides, don't you need a car in L.A.?
I talked to some Brits who've made the move to find out more about the practicalities.
Working and studying
Here's the deal: You can't enter the U.S. as a British Citizen unless you have a valid visa and passport. A travel visa will get you up to 90 days, and you can do some types of temp work on that (unless you're "media", like me, in which case you don't qualify.)
If you want to stay longer and work, you'll need your employer to sponsor you for a Temporary (Nonimmigrant) Worker VISA, for which there is a bunch of complicated criteria. In short, though, you'll need a strong professional reason to go and you'll need to fill out a hell of a lot of forms. If you really want to stay in L.A. when you get there go on Tinder, start swiping and urgently find someone to marry. Joke. Kind of.
"There's an (I) visa which is for visiting media, which is what I used – but you'll need a letter from your British employer – the time period it lasts for varies, but it will allow you to go in and out of the country. You're not really supposed to live there, but you can – only, you can't get paid in U.S. dollars, only by British companies into your UK bank account. Another type of visa you can get is the (O) visa – for "individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics" ... but you'll need a lawyer to organise that, and you'll need some extraordinary ability." – Sophie, 32, moved from London to LA between 2009 and 2011
L.A. is famous for its travel catch 22. At almost 500 square miles, the city is sprawling, which means you kind of need to be able to drive to make the most of it – however, because so many people do drive, the traffic is awful. Expect to spend big portions of your day trying to catch a tan through your car window. Prepare yourself for driving on the right instead of the left. And remember that different rental agencies have different policies on how long you have to have been driving with a UK license before you can rent a car and drive it there, while – if you're looking to become a permanent resident – you'll need to convert your foreign license to a California license, which means taking local tests.
And what happens if you don’t have a driving license at all? Well, you can catch buses, take the Metro or catch an Uber – all three options are significantly cheaper than here in the UK. Uber Pool is popular in L.A. and a good way to get to know the city because you can chat to your driver or fellow passengers, but while Uber is usually $5-$10 a ride, it might be unsustainable for your bank balance over time. Buses are crammed and infrequent, I'm told, and the routes are limited. The Metro runs regularly and relatively smoothly, but won’t get you everywhere.
In terms of leaving the city and exploring surrounding areas, The Pacific Coast Highway or ‘Big Sur’ – running from Dana Point to Mendocino County – is one of the most stunning drives in the world, tracing the edge of the Pacific Ocean for over 556 miles through LA, Santa Barbara, San Jose and UP to San Francisco. Again, if you can’t drive, all is not lost – there’s an Amtrak train that will take you a similar route North from L.A. to Oakland, but it takes 11 hours.
Undoubtedly the biggest transport expense if you were to move to LA, would be travelling there from the UK to begin with, or back home to see friends, family or your partner. Flight prices fluctuate year round, but you’re looking at about £179 as the cheapest ticket for a one way flight to LA out of one of London’s main airports, and £300+ for more expensive dates. A return flight from LAX to London will set you back around £400-600. It also takes 11 hours, so don’t forget to bring your neck pillow.
Finding the right place to live when you're half way round the other side of the world is important to how you settle. If you have friends in L.A., it might be worth staying with them when you arrive, and viewing apartments in person, else finding something temporary – perhaps via Airbnb – until you've found your feet and decided on an area that suits you on a more long term basis.
When looking for an apartment, good websites to use are Craigslist, Padmapper or Rent.com. Always let a friend know when you're at a viewing that's been arranged online. Or, if you feel more comfortable going through an agency, hit up a local real estate agent who deals specifically in rentals.
I asked a couple of friends which areas are relatively inexpensive but culturally interesting. They suggested Echo Park and Silverlake for a hipster vibe (the houses there are all cute cottages and condos with gardens), although claim those areas are getting more expensive. If they're out of your price range, try the trendy Highland Park. Downtown and Pico Union also good options in East LA. Another suggests Korea Town as cool, and still kind of cheap.
On the West Side, they say it's a good idea to check out West Adams or Venice Beach – although the latter can be pricey. "I live in Mount Washington so I look down on all of those places and laugh," adds one friend, rather unhelpfully.
"When you first move to L.A., try to make friends with singer songwriters – they'll have enough money to have a decent apartment, but not enough that they can afford to leave it empty when they go on tour. This is where you strike for a cheap rental." – Sophie
If you like the sun, this one’s a bit of a no brainer; L.A. is sunny and warm virtually all year round. It rains approximately 18 inches a year (certain parts of Britain rain up to 180 inches, to put things into perspective) and hits a low of 13C, which is scarcely jumper weather. In the Californian Summer – July to September, usually – be warned that things can sometimes get a little too hot. The highest temps hit a sweltering 30C, albeit cooled by a sea breeze. In the words of Baz Luhrmann: Wear sunscreen.
California is famous for peddling a lifestyle of smoothies, yoga and fad diets. There's a certain truth to this, if not evidenced by the Instagram accounts of L.A. dwelling celebrities, then by the mind-bending diet blogs of local nutritionists and food entrepreneurs like Amanda Chantal Bacon. But there's more to it than that. Sure, a bunch of my friends have quit smoking since moving there, and tell me that they drink less, but that doesn't mean L.A. is all Paleo foods and gluten free diets – that is an option, and one arguably more available to people with a certain amount of disposable income. For a vast number of Angelenos, living isn't quite so clean. There's notoriously bad pollution due to congestion, and L.A. – like many American cities – is a mecca for fast food. Outlets ranging from Taco Bell to In & Out Burger line the streets. Plus, there might be a yoga class for every hour of the day, but there's also other fun stuff to do exercise-wise. And we're not just talking about pumping iron on Venice Beach. My friends in L.A. tell me they regularly go hiking, swimming and cycling.
Ultimately, if you moved to L.A., your lifestyle options would be as open-ended as they are here; how you want to eat and exercise would be your choice entirely.
"Prepare to eat out a lot but, don't worry, it's cheaper than the UK. Just make sure you know the difference between a burrito, taco, enchilada, and quesadilla" – Alex, 25, moved to LA in 2012
Most people I talk to say that the biggest thing that hit them when they moved to L.A. was the cultural and ethnic diversity. The advantage of this is the number of languages spoken, the plethora of authentic food types on offer (the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, for sure) and the sensation that you're living in a cultural melting pot. If you're new to the city you don't need to expect to feel like an outsider, because – in some capacity – almost everyone is.
L.A. has several big and impressive galleries, like MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as a flourishing art scene spread across the city. It has beautiful stretches of beaches. It has a vibrant music culture spanning Coachella to tiny folk festivals. In fact, as the second most populated city in America, it basically has everything going for it. Except maybe a rich history. For a European, the biggest cultural shock about L.A. could just be how new everything seems in comparison to places like Paris, Barcelona and London. The city has a glean to it, but one that can – at times – feel only surface deep.
"There's not so much of a weekend culture here... people in L.A. are not as into binging or 'living for the weekend' as people in the U.K. It's less about drinking and drugs than my experience in London, and much more about hanging out, dancing, and having a good, clean time. Also... people smoke a lot more weed. " – Laura