If you want to retire in the United Kingdom as an American, you may think that the transition will be easy, but some things are dramatically different – they have a monarchy, they drive on the left side of the road, the weather is colder and there's more precipitation than in much of the U.S., they use the metric system and other cultural norms can take some adjustment. But the U.K. also offers some advantages to retirees.
Americans can visit the U.K. as a tourist and stay for up to six months, no visa required. To stay longer, you’ll need to qualify for a visa – family links, established business connections to the U.K. or dual citizenship with a Commonwealth country like Canada may help. Owning property, however, does not guarantee a longer visa term. People who are already in the U.K. as a "retired person of independent means" can apply to extend their stay up to a maximum period of five years or for indefinite leave to remain, according to the Home Office. (That categorization is defined as those having a minimum yearly disposable income of £25,000 and meeting several other requirements).
As the U.K. prepares to exit the European Union, much is unsettled. We asked Lucy Culpepper, European correspondent for Live and Invest Overseas, what the implications might be for Americans anticipating a retirement move to the U.K. “I really don’t think anyone knows yet,” she responded, “least of all the British government or people. I can’t see that it will adversely affect American retirees wanting to come here. In fact, it may be good for retirees with an income.”
The location you choose will depend on the kind of life you want to lead – urban or rural; in a busy city like London, Birmingham or Edinburgh; in a smaller city like Exeter, Cheltenham, York or Bath; or in a small town like St. Ives, Wotton-under-Edge, Ambleside, Tenby, Beaumaris, Much Wenlock or Chipping Norton.
International Living’s report on retiring in England cites the east coast county of Suffolk as an attractive choice. Within commuting distance of London, Suffolk is “a treasure trove of squat-towered churches and high-hedged lanes ... thatched roof cottages painted in summertime colors ... medieval towns of crooked streets and half-timbered Tudor houses.” Devon – also with hedgerows and thatched cottages – has “miles of countryside walks for ramblers” and “splendid seascapes” as well.
Cost of Living
According to Culpepper, the U.K. is expensive. “In my experience, it’s more than Spain, about the same as France and far more than Latin America,” she says. Of course, actual costs vary widely depending on where you choose to live. Not surprisingly, London is the U.K.’s most expensive destination. In Expatistan’s ranking of 337 cities in the world, it’s the 11th most expensive; in Europe, it ranks fourth and in the U.K., it takes first place. Its public transportation is the most expensive in the world and housing costs are second-highest in Europe.
Numbeo, which also compiles cost-of-living data from cities around the world, reports an average price tag of $2,190 for a one-bedroom apartment in London’s city center and that will run you $1,579 outside the city center as of 2018. The average price to buy an apartment in the center of London is around $1,650 per square foot – almost 25% more than a comparable apartment in New York City.
Once you leave London, things get a bit more reasonable. Edinburgh’s housing costs are 52% lower than in London, transport is 30% less and groceries are about 2.5% cheaper. Head for Plymouth and housing is 71% less than London, transportation about half as much and overall, your living costs will be some 40% lower than in the capital city.
As an American retiree living in the U.K., you won’t be able to take advantage of the comprehensive National Health Service, except for emergencies. You will be required to purchase private health insurance. Information on insurance and many other matters including paying taxes, buying property and arranging your move can be found on a number of expat websites such as Expatica.com and UK-Yankee.com.
The Bottom Line
The United Kingdom is an attractive place for Americans to retire, according to Culpepper. American expats are welcome in the U.K.
“In the provincial towns, Americans are still viewed as exotic, and as ‘cool’ among the younger generation,” she says (although she advises staying away from political discussions). The U.K. “is a safe country. It is a fantastic place for anyone who loves history, the countryside, eating out. ... Anyone who loves the outdoors and hiking will revel in the freedom to walk almost anywhere unrestricted ... And it’s small enough to be able to travel quickly from one region to another and experience a complete change in culture.” Beyond that, connections to Europe are good and cheap. One note of caution: Americans who come from the “warmer/blue sky states” may “struggle with the weather.”