The author's story

The early days

My name is Vaughan Vandenberg and I'm an ex-South African who made 'The Big Move' to the United Kingdom in April 1996. This guide is a collection of my experiences, knowledge and inside information on relocating to the UK, as well as contributions from many friends, family and colleagues. 'Insiders' from certain industries that affect new arrivals in the UK have also generously given of their time and knowledge. No other guide like this is known to exist. (I wish I had something like this when I moved to Britain, but instead paid a heavy price for not having it.)

The hundreds of "Insider Info" tips scattered throughout the guide are the result of years of trial and error, personal observations and being enlightened by insiders from the UK recruitment, real estate and other industries.

The reason for this guide's existence was initially to give to friends and family that were settling in the UK. This would save me from having to repeat myself as regularly as I was finding myself doing. The feedback garnered, with additional input from its readers, plus secrets from UK employment and housing industry insiders, is what you have available to you today. The reason it is being marketed is to serve as an aid to people like you who need it. I kind of think of it as my personal public service.

When I arrived in the UK in April 1996 I was on a Working Holiday Visa. I was 24 years old, only having ever worked for a local authority as a clerk. This dead-end job was the best I could do in a country wracked with unemployment (over 30%). Unsurprisingly I wasn't too happy with my daily grind. That fact, coupled with a life-long desire to travel extensively, made this, the biggest gamble of my life, easy to undertake. I was on this big exciting adventure with my girlfriend and we were both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. What we lacked in resources, skills and knowledge we believed we made up for with enthusiasm and energy. We knew nobody in the UK and had never been overseas before.

We had 4 000 Pounds between us which had taken us a year to save. We had totally closed down our lives in South Africa (SA) except for our bank accounts. We fully intended to return to SA once our 2 years was up. Several sets of friends had done what we were intent on doing, but with mixed success. That didn't deter us because none of them regretted their time in the UK. We had itchy feet spurred on by dead-end jobs that paid peanuts. Selling it all up and hitting the road was too appealing to resist. It took us a year of saving and planning until we landed at Heathrow on a cold, misty Saturday morning.

Like many before us, our first stop was a hostel in Earl's Court. We were intent on spending our 2 years in London and seeing the rest of the country when we could. We had planned things so that come Monday morning we would start the quest for a place to stay and for jobs. We expected to have either a place to stay or one of us would have a job by the end of the week.

The going gets tough, but we keep going...

By the end of Monday it was evident to us that setting ourselves up was going to take far longer than we had anticipated. Finding a decent place of our own that we could afford was going to be hard work. Opening a bank account seemed like an impossible mission. Finding work was like confronting the biggest maze imaginable. Our confidence wasn't shattered, but we were in a mild state of shock.

After a few weeks we had figured out a way to open bank accounts. A small success, but our money situation was starting to look tenuous. We had seen several properties to rent, all over London, none of which were suitable. We spent our long days divided between viewing properties and visiting prospective employers. Our days seemed dominated by viewings of dreary dumps in dangerous areas. Despite our best efforts at researching the UK before we came over, it was evident that the reality was very different from what we had found out from reading free websites, buying British newspapers and talking to people who had been over.

We then met up with some friends who were in the same situation as us. We agreed to live together in an attempt to pool our limited resources, which was ominously starting to feel more like time rather than money. Living in hostels for weeks and eating cheap food from supermarkets was all adding up to more than our meagre budget could stand. Our savings just were not sufficient to adequately sustain us in our new lifestyle.

The job-hunting scene was proving arduous and at times somewhat demoralising. We had figured before landing that the nature of our visa would be a handicap in some ways. We quickly realised that even if we had full British passports, our predicament would have been the same. Companies and employment agencies just weren't interested in us.

My girlfriend was a part-qualified accountant and thus far more marketable than I was. Nevertheless, she wasn't having much luck either. Agencies made positive assurances, but no work was forthcoming. Agencies I saw would take my CV and then never make an effort to contact me. Our friends, in the meantime, had found a place to their liking, but it was only for a couple, so they went their own way. We weren't having fun at all. In fact, an atmosphere of desperation was starting to set in.

A breakthrough, at last.

Six weeks after landing we had a place of our own. We had figured out how the property market worked and how to apply our circumstances to it. Neither of us was employed without any prospect of income on the horizon. We considered having our own place to be a massive achievement. By now we had only a thousand Pounds left. We were determined to succeed despite our bank balance declining every day.

A few days after moving in to our new home (a flat above a restaurant) my girlfriend was offered work at last. It was a 3-day temporary assignment. The money, although minimal, was welcome and it lifted our spirits. It was almost 2 months since we had landed.

A few weeks later I found a low-paying job close to home that required me to start work at 5:45 in the morning. It involved marketing a website service through the Internet. This job only lasted 2 weeks after the owner tried to bully me into cold calling people on the phone. It wasn't what I was hired for, interested in or experienced for, so we parted ways. I proudly stood my ground and paid the price for it. We started doubting our ability to pay the rent the next month. The air of desperation was becoming one of panic and unsurprisingly we were finding it hard to sleep at night.

Luckily my girlfriend was offered a 3-month temporary assignment on the other side of London. I was still calling employment agencies frequently now that we had figured out how to get our own phone. All that this really achieved was a large phone bill. I was still going in to see various types of employment agencies to spread my chances of employment more widely. I was starting to think I was unemployable.

The skyline of the City of London - the financial heart of Britain.

Our progress starts to accelerate

Cut forward in time 6 months and things were going much better for us. In the interim it had felt like we were crawling out of one pothole, only to roll down in to another pothole. However, we'd both had a succession of short temporary assignments. Each one was paying more than the preceding one. Making the monthly rent wasn't a problem. We had recouped all the money we had paid out in the first few months. We were saving regularly and had more money than we landed with by Christmas.

What lead to the large improvement in our circumstances? Firstly, and most importantly, we had figured out how the employment market in the UK really functions. We got to know the finer machinations of employment agency practice. Secondly, we got to understand how British employers go about deciding whom to hire. Armed with this knowledge, we positioned ourselves accordingly. With time, we got to know the "game" better than most. A year after landing we thankfully had no money problems and were sleeping soundly.

Cut forward another 2 years. My girlfriend is my wife and we're in the UK on an ancestry visa. She's working permanently for a world famous opera house and in the top 10% of income earners in the UK. I work as a freelance computer consultant to global banks and earning enough to be in the top 5% of income earners in the UK. We have maintained our income stream, standard of living and quality of life in the years since. We travel regularly on holiday to places most people only read about and in a style only a very few get to enjoy. I say these things not to boast, but rather as a statement of fact. Our efforts have rewarded us with a good life in Britain.

From the time we first landed to the present we did not improve our skillset through training of any kind. We did not call in any favours or lean on family contacts because we knew nobody in the UK. Nobody helped us in any way, shape or form. We achieved what we have through never giving up (we never had much choice on that score) and through constantly learning about the way things are done in the UK.

Looking back on it all

We now know that even if we had twice as much money upon arrival, our initial experience in the first year would not have been much better. In hindsight we have learned that only if we had a fount of knowledge (like this guide) would our experiences have been much better, much sooner. Knowing what to do, how to do it, when and where to go to get things done, dramatically eases the strain of establishing a new life. Speeding the process up makes it less painful and gets you quicker to the things that matter most to you. A guide like this would have been invaluable to us every step of the way.

We struggled and persevered and have no regrets. We are more than content with our lives in the UK and consider moving here the best thing we ever could have done. We know that our future lies in Britain and, having travelled worldwide as much as we have in the last few years, we cannot be convinced otherwise.

Our persistence, attention to detail, secrets discovered and tricks learnt is what propelled us to where we find ourselves now. That persistence and detailed knowledge of how things really work in the UK is what is captured in "How to arrive and thrive in the UK".

If you have any questions, whether about our experiences or the guide, you can contact me by email at I look forward to hearing from you.

Also feel free to visit the "Testimonials" page to see what other people have had to say about "How to arrive and thrive in the UK".

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