I’d love to live my life with zero regrets. And for the most part, I do. Choices I’ve made when I have as much information as possible have generally been good choices. They haven’t always been popular with my family (declining my admissions offer to UCLA Law School probably ranks high on that list), but I’ve never done anything that deeply opposed my values.
I have, however, made some decisions that, in hindsight, were not the best. In nearly all of these cases, the decision would have been improved if I’d had a bit more information, or if I’d fully understood the consequences of my actions. That doesn’t necessarily mean I would have made a different choice, but life might have been a bit easier if I’d better known what I was signing up for. That’s probably not a unique experience. There are probably loads of people looking at their partners or children or careers and thinking “yeah, if only I’d known about X, I probably would have done Y, and saved us all a lot of stress.”
For me, the biggest near-regret has been moving to London for my partner’s job.
Moving anywhere new is hard. I’ve never moved anywhere that wasn’t home to at least one person I knew. Wait, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t know anyone in New York City when I moved there in the fall of 2002, but my housing was sorted ahead of my arrival, and I was there for school. I had people to help me, and it wasn’t a country with a different currency, or language, or customs (for the most part). And even when I did move to a new country the first time, I spoke the language, and I once again had a university helping me with everything from housing to banking. It was a tough transition emotionally, but the logistics were all sorted.
This time, when my partner and I moved to London over three years ago, I spoke the language and knew the customs better than the last time, but we had almost zero support in the lead-up to and after our arrival. The risks and challenges we’ve experienced are not the same as what others have experienced, but given how many of us live in a country other than the one they were born in (as of 2017, about 258 million people), I know that — even in a pandemic — there are individuals who are choosing to move to a new country.
We made the choice mostly because my partner had always wanted to live overseas. I liked my career for the most part but didn’t love it, and was definitely open to a change. We’d bought a house just a couple of years earlier, but when my husband lost his job as part of large lay-offs at his company, we agreed that it was as good of a time as any for him to look for something outside the US. My partner works in a field where workers are in high demand but not necessarily in high supply outside the US, which meant that in some ways it was easier for him to find work overseas than within the Seattle area.
I know there are many people who bemoan ‘foreigners’ taking ‘their’ jobs (these people are generally known as xenophobes), but there are a lot of reasons why companies might be open to hiring someone from another country. They might want to diversify their workforce, the job description might include skills that are harder to find in local candidates, or they just might have enough money to offer a sponsorship and so don’t want to limit their candidate pool.
In nearly all jobs in all organizations, there is a serious power differential right from the start. This is not unique to immigrants; every time a person is hired, they are taking a much larger risk than the person doing the hiring. They are trusting someone they don’t know to treat them fairly, pay them a reasonable wage, and not put their mental and physical health at risk. Potential employees need jobs, and have at most a handful of interviews with a few people to determine whether their potential employer can be trusted. In our case, making that decision when I’d also likely be giving up my career and we’d be moving away from friends and family carried a different kind of weight, and required an even higher level of trust. In the end, my partner secured three offers from companies in three different countries. With not a lot of time (about an hour)to consider the final offer, we agreed on London.
Here is where my first near-regret comes in: we didn’t fully appreciate how big of a risk we were taking in comparison to the company doing the hiring, and as such, we didn’t require adequate compensation. And no, I’m not just talking about the pay (which was, frankly, deeply insulting, but then many tech salaries outside the US are embarrassingly low considering the level of skill they demand). I’m talking about the entirety of the contract.
Once there is agreement that the potential out-of-country employee and organization are a good fit, many companies consider their job done. They will likely assist with securing the visa because they need that to comply with the law, but many treat that as the beginning and end of their moral duty to their new hire. I disagree, and if I had known at the time what all went into moving overseas when one is not a student, my partner would have negotiated his contract very differently to ensure that the company was offering proper support.
And proper support is much more than a couple of weeks at an Air BnB, some money to ship a handful of boxes, and a visa.
And speaking of visas, governments need to provide more information about their terms. My second near-regret is not requesting much more detail about all the restrictions and requirements associated with our visa from the immigration attorney my partner’s future employer secured. All we got was a letter telling us the dates within which we needed to enter the country, and directions to go pick up our permanent visas at a nearby post office within 10 days of arrival. That was it. There was nothing saying if, for example, the sponsored employee parts ways with their sponsoring company, they will not be able to leave the country until they secure a new visa, if they want to keep working in the UK. That’s information one can only find if one knows to go looking for it.
But back to that original near-regret: there is a huge difference between starting a new job in one’s own city or state and starting a job in a completely new country. Employment laws are different. Tenancy laws are different. Banking laws are different. It’s hard enough to jump into a new job and learn about the company culture and one’s place in it; add on doing that while not knowing where you’re going to be able to live and it can be extremely stressful. I would have required that either the company hire a relocation company to work on our behalf, or provide us with enough funds that we could fully pay for a relocation company on our own. Such a company can help find a place to live, set up necessary financial and other accounts and documentation, bring pets over, and provide support to partners who don’t have jobs lined up.
Unfortunately we weren’t offered the services of a relocation company when we moved, so I was the one who navigated the rules and regulations set up to make moving that much more difficult. For example, we needed to get an ID number from the UK so our belongings wouldn’t be taxed upon arrival. If we hadn’t done that, we might have had to pay part of the value of items we already owned just to get them back! I was the one who found an apartment via a private landlord; a relocation company would have known that we should have instead rented through an estate agent to help secure our bank account, as banks in the UK don’t accept private landlord leases as proof of address. As I didn’t have a job for the first few months, I was able to devote a significant part of my day just doing life administration and searching online to figure out what I didn’t know. It was physically and emotionally exhausting, and it was happening while I was getting used to living in a new country, far away from family and most of my friends.
Consider banking. This is where my third near-regret appears. It’s hard to do pretty much anything in a new country without access to funds. Paying for things in the wrong currency ends up increasing the cost, as exchange rates are often not favorable to the purchaser, and wire transfer and conversion fees add up. We didn’t realize that my husband’s proof of employment (and the need for an account into which his paycheck could be deposited) would not be sufficient for us opening a bank account when I arrived. We read that Metro bank, for example, was especially kind to people who moved from the US (narrator: they were the WORST), but it took us a dozen visits to four different banks and like six different branches to finally open an account. If we’d known this, we would have explored opening an account in the US at a bank that had branches in the UK so we would have an existing relationship.
But that’s not something one should have to sort out. One of us had a job, and the company confirmed that. The financial sector should allow people to open bank accounts with proof of employment OR proof of address, instead of requiring both. Someone who has just moved overseas doesn’t have an address, but they do need a bank account. If they have a job, let the employer take on the responsibility of confirming that, and allow that person to open a bank account. Allow their partners to open their own accounts without proof of employment (but with proof of address once they have found a home) to ensure they are not being financially abused.
Housing is a challenge for pretty much everyone who isn’t rich, and looking for housing was one of the biggest concerns I had when we arrived. Which is where my fourth near-regret rears its head. We basically took the first place that fit our needs and was affordable, and we paid for that. A year and a half after moving in, our gas was shut off when we learned that the gas connection to the building was illegal and could have exploded at any time. This is on top of the fact that the landlords refused to perform the paperwork required to get our address registered with the Royal Mail. If we’d either negotiated more than the two weeks the company paid for our temporary housing, or had negotiated for a relocation company, we might have been able to do more research into trustworthy landlords. And if landlords were willing to accept our rental and credit history in the US as proof that we could rent here, we might have had more options. As it was, we got our first flat by having enough money to offer to pay the first three months up front. That’s ridiculous! No one should have to do that.
After taking on all that risk, moving one’s entire life and family across an ocean, sometimes it still doesn’t work out. Perhaps the company was less than honest about what they were looking for from the employee. Or perhaps the employee learns the company is less than ethical, or is asking for work but not fairly compensating for it. Perhaps the company just loses money and has to lay people off. Perhaps the employee is struggling with the work. What happens to those visa holders?
Nothing good. We were so lucky that my partner found work and got a new visa prior to the pandemic, but if he’d been let go after March 2020? I don’t know what we would have done. There’s nothing we can do about it, but I’d have another regret to add if I didn’t include this here: the government must also allow workers who are no longer with their sponsoring company more than 60 days to sort out their lives. Currently, the sponsoring company has to immediately let the Home Office know when they have parted ways, and then the Home Office (eventually) sends a letter to the visa holder saying they have two months to find a new visa or get out. Now, with delays and back-ups that letter might not come for as many as three months, but there’s no guarantee, so visa holders have to assume that they will need to leave the country within eight weeks. That’s absurd. Six months should be the bare minimum; a year would be better.
It also creates opportunities for abuse within companies. If the sponsored employee is being mistreated, or the terms of employment differ than what was discussed during hiring, what can the employee do? If they quit, they may need to leave the country! And what’s to stop the company from immorally letting the employee go if the employee isn’t a perfect cog in the machine? Are employees meant to stay silent when they witness bad practices or poor employee treatment because in the first two years than can just be fired at will? These rules give employers even more power, and we know companies cannot be trusted to do the right thing when they have that much power.
There are also some pretty insidious rules related to access to benefits, as though someone who finds themselves in a shit situation should be forced to suffer because there are an immigrant when they encounter it. When the furlough scheme was implemented, I raised to my boss that someone needed to get clarification that having our salaries paid by the government wasn’t considered a public benefit; otherwise they’d need to ensure they weren’t furloughing any people working on visas. What a silly, unnecessary stress during an already challenging time.
If I knew what I know now before moving here, I think we would have done a lot of things differently. We might have chosen a different company’s offer to take. We might have picked a different country, one that is more welcoming to people who weren’t born there. I’m happy we live here, and we aren’t planning on leaving any time soon, but we know part of the reason we are able to still be here is because we have access to resources.
With all that said, things have generally worked out for us. I’ve found a decent job working with a wonderful boss and delightful co-workers who could not have been more supportive during the pandemic. I’ve gotten involved with soccer (football) again and love playing every week when we aren’t in lock down. My partner has become extremely involved in organizing and worker rights, and it’s been wonderful to see him flourish there. We’ve made great new friends and deepened friendships with those we knew before. And prior to the pandemic, we were doing wonderful things like spending Christmas in Scotland, or traveling to France repeatedly for the World Cup. Living in London has worked out, so I can’t say anything above is ultimately an actual regret, but those are some lessons I wish I’d learned before we signed on the dotted line.