If you want to retire in the United Kingdom as an American, you may think that the transition will be easy—everything's in English, right?. The U.K. does indeed offer some advantages to retirees, but many aspects of life there can take some adjustment, from the metric system to the autos (they drive on the left side of the road, sitting at steering wheels on car's right side) to the uniquely moist chill-to-the-bones climate. Here's what you should know before you cross the pond permanently.

key takeaways

  • Americans retiring to the U.K. need to qualify for a visa.
  • The U.K. is expensive, though the farther from London, the more reasonable the prices are.
  • American ex-pats can't join the U. K.'s National Health Service.

Necessary Paperwork

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 ties, 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 UK 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 ex-pat-oriented site 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.”

Location Choices

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, another county amply equipped with hedgerows and thatched cottages, as “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 282 cities in the world, it’s the 10th most expensive; in Europe, it ranks fifth and in the U.K., it takes first place. Its public transportation is the most expensive in the world and housing costs are the highest in Western Europe. 

Numbeo, which also compiles cost-of-living data from cities around the world, reports an average rent of $2,243 for a one-bedroom apartment in London’s city center and $1,579 outside the city center as of January 2020. The average price to buy an apartment in the center of London is around $1,587 per square foot—just over 16% more than a comparable apartment in New York City.

Once you leave London, things get more reasonable. Edinburgh’s housing costs are 52% lower than in London, transport is 32% less and groceries are about 7.19% cheaper.  Head for Plymouth and rent is 69% less than London, restaurants are about 23% cheaper, and overall, you would need around $6,001.46 (£4,615.98) in London to maintain the same standard of life that you can have with $3,640.42 (£2,800.00) in Plymouth.

Healthcare

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 ex-pat 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 ex-pats 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.”