Archive for the ‘Expat Topic’ Category

No more UK taxes for yours truly

November 22nd, 2013
Comments Off

Due to the quirks of the UK tax calendar that I described in the past, having not lived in the country for four and a half years, I would be due to file a tax return for only the third fiscal year in which I have had zero UK income this coming January. Thankfully, Her Majesty Revenue and Customs finally caught on to the fact that I have no financial obligations to the crown. Some weeks ago, I received an official letter stating that I will no longer be issued a directive to file the tax return going forward. Interpreting that as having to file my now habitual zero-income return this year still, I logged onto the HMRC Self-Assessment site and found that the return had apparently already been submitted on my behalf and my tax account balance had been confirmed as £0.00.

I have to admit that it is a reasonable approach: A couple of years of required returns to confirm the pattern of zero income, before letting the former taxpayer off the hook in a fairly non-intrusive manner.

Still, a lengthier time on the hook than the actual time living in England.

Expat Topic

Tax returns unavoidable

January 14th, 2012
Comments Off

Turns out that even after not having lived in the UK for two and a half years and not having a single penny of UK-taxable income to my name, I still owe it to Her Majesty Revenue and Customs to fill out the tax return for the most recent fiscal year. Failure to do so by January 31st would result in a £100 penalty.

Apparently, the letter they sent me when the fiscal year had ended last April acts as a directive. I have received those letters for several years now, but I always assumed that they were simply form documents sent to all taxpayers. Not so. They are actually targeted to those who are required to submit a return. As I am being told, if the next year, based on my non-residency and zero-income status as recorded in this year’s return, HMRC will decide that I no longer need to file a tax return, they will not send me the letter and I will be off the hook. Of course, it is at their complete discretion: They may decide to ask me to file theoretically every year for the rest of my life (the phone representative swore that that would never happen).

The problem is, official mail from the UK takes inordinate amount of time to reach me and, while I have no specific examples of mail being lost, I can never be sure that everything reaches me properly. So, next year, I will probably be on the phone to HMRC again, trying to find out if I have to fill out the return for yet another year where I was not a UK resident and did not earn a penny of UK-taxable income.

And the funny thing is, remember how I kept saying how easy it is to complete a self-assessment return? The perspective changed greatly when I had no numbers to plug in. It still only took me less than 10 minutes, but flipping through multiple screens and waiting for “calculation” to confirm that zero income means zero owed in taxes felt rather annoying.

Expat Topic

Unexpected tax return

January 28th, 2011

I’ve been back in the States and off UK payroll for nearly a year and a half. But because of the quirks of the UK taxation calendar, I ended up having had worked part of the 2009-10 tax year in the UK, for which the returns were due this coming Monday.

I sat down today to file that return, somewhat dreading that I’ll find my taxes underpaid and will have to fork over a few pounds sterling. In my previous years, I’ve never had to pay more than a few hundred with my return, but nowadays, with my remaining UK-based funds being largely symbolic, it would involve a scramble of wiring money over and making a payment right on the deadline. (I’ll be honest: I completely forgot that I still had to do it this year; I could have missed the deadline altogether if not for a friendly reminder from the Her Majesty Revenue and Customs, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday, having been mailed on December 16th.)

As I described in this post a year ago, the entire tax self-assessment process takes maybe fifteen minutes online, with a return as simple as mine – here’s how much I earned, here’s how much they withheld, no other deductions or increases, tell me how much I owe. But when I clicked on the final screen button to take me to the calculation, I was very pleasantly surprised.

It turns out that the British government owes me a neat four-digit refund. Sterling.

The calculation showed that I should have had a considerably smaller tax amount withheld from my paycheck than in fact was. Given that I worked for roughly the third of the tax year in the UK, I see two plausible explanations. First, my withholding may have been at the rate aimed at my entire yearly salary, and not commensurate with the final amount that was three times smaller. Second, tax brackets were adjusted in the UK within last year or so; my partial-year income may have qualified me for a lower bracket than when the salary was paid.

In any case, I just had a small bag of money fall into my lap from the sky. No complaints here.

Expat Topic

On store hours

April 12th, 2010
Comments Off

One of the things that we always liked the least in Europe is the intent of people in the service sector to have lives outside of their shops. What do you mean, you are closed for three hours in the middle of the day? Are you so dumb as to lose potential customers by madly waving your hands at them and shouting J’ai fermé! at 4:58pm on a perfectly good Monday1? Used to – spoiled by it! – having places of commerce in America stay open late into the night and practically never “enjoying” days off2, we were constantly rubbed the wrong way by shops closing early on a weekday or never opening on a Sunday in most of the places that we’ve been to3.

Contrast that with a run-of-the-mill experience in our neck of woods.

We need to buy some stuff at a local Home Depot. For one reason or another, we are only able to get to the store around 9pm on a weekday night. 9:03, to be precise. The store schedule posted at the door suggests that the place closes at 9pm, but the doors slide open, a couple of cash registers are operating, and a store worker does not exhibit any displeasure with late walk-ins asking for assistance in finding whatever it is that they are looking to get. There are probably no more than a dozen shoppers all together in the huge store at this hour, and I have no clue whether their combined spend that evening covers the expense of staff wages and electricity to keep the store open, but, at the very least, there is little doubt that each one of those late customers will come back and spend at this store again and again.

For all of my natural inclination to European lifestyle, I am perpetually baffled why this notion of doing something extra for the customer so that they keep bringing back their business remains a largely foreign concept in the good old Europe.

1 True story – happened to us at a random shoe store in Avignon.

2 Northern Jersey’s Bergen County has inane local regulations that keep shopping centers closed on Sundays. I am pretty sure similar examples elsewhere in this big country do exist, but they are mostly exceptions, in my experience.

3 Prime tourist locations normally operate in more American-like way. Shops on Champs-Elysées stay open pretty late into the evening. But step a few blocks away, and Paris – or any other top destination in Europe – is not much different from the rest of the Old World: Closing early, staying shut on Sundays, etc.

Expat Topic, Re-pat's culture shock

UK taxes, one more time

January 22nd, 2010
Comments Off

Yep, 15 minutes, give or take.

January 31, 2010, is the deadline for filing UK taxes for fiscal year 2008-09, and I repeated the self-assessment process that I first mentioned here. This time, I literally typed in three different amounts provided to me on the British equivalent of W-2 form (called P60) and one other form (called P11D), after answering a series of binary questions regarding my sources of income and eligible deductions; to do all that I needed to click through about two dozen different screens at the HMRC website, but all of my personal information was already there, I only had to additionally re-enter my banking account attributes for the purposes of direct deposit. It all took 15 minutes, if that.

I actually ended up owing Her Majesty’s government a small amount of money, which was very easily paid through my UK bank online service. My tax account already reflects zero balance on the website.

Curiously enough, this is not the last time I will have to report taxes in the UK. Their fiscal year inexplicably runs from April 7th of one year through April 6th of the next. As I was on the UK payroll through early August of 2009, I earned about four months of salary in the fiscal year 2009-10. The tax return filing deadline for that will be January 31, 2011. Only after that I’ll no longer have any obligations to HM Revenue & Customs.

Expat Topic

B[b]otH interview: Kimmy

December 17th, 2009 finally got around to interviewing the youngest member of the family on her impressions and feelings regarding Europe and coming back to America.

In the practically unedited words of a 9-year-old…

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: Are you happy to be back in America?

Kimmy: Kind of… I miss London, but I’m also happy to be back in America.

B[b]otH: What do you miss about London?

K: I miss my friends. I miss the parks that we went to. And I miss my school…

B[b]otH: You miss the school? I didn’t think you liked your school in London…

K: I mean… I miss one of my teachers. Miss Coton. She was my teacher in year 3.

B[b]otH: But last year you had a different teacher, right?

K: Yeah, Miss Sheehan. She yelled at me all the time. I didn’t really hate her, but she was mean to me…

B[b]otH: Ok, forget her. Which friends to you miss?

K: I miss Grace, I miss Gabriella, and I miss Marina… And I also miss Leona, but she was sometimes mean to me too…

B[b]otH: So, you don’t have good friends here in America?

K: I have, like, 30 friends now! And I am a little happier here because I have a lot of friends, I’m quite popular and everybody thinks I’m pretty cool.

B[b]otH: In England, nobody thought you were pretty cool?

K: I was a bit happy there, but a lot of people were really mean to me.

B[b]otH: But you still miss it?

K: Mm, kind of…

B[b]otH: You mentioned you liked the parks – which parks?

K: Mostly, Greenwich Park, and the park down the street with a big field and a playground… and the teeny little park where you go down to the pond… [Ed.: Kimmy means The Tarn, featured here]

B[b]otH: Did you like traveling to all of the different countries?

K: That was my favorite part! I loved that!!

B[b]otH: Which countries do you remember?

K: I remember Spain, France, Italy… I remember Germany… I remember Switzerland… I remember Belgium… I remember we went to a lot of cities…

B[b]otH: Where is Budapest?

K: Is that in… Cracow?

B[b]otH: No, Cracow is another city that we went to. Budapest is in Hungary.

K: Oh, yeah… Hungary!

B[b]otH: Ok, now that you’re back in America, what do you like the most about America?

K: My best friends live here… Tessa, Sammy… I made new best friends… And we have this beautiful, wonderful house, and I think this is the best house that anyone could ever have.

B[b]otH: How about the house we lived at in England?

K: Yeah, it was ok, but it was kind of tiny…

B[b]otH: Is there something you did not like about England?

K: Miss Sheehan… And I did not like the kitchen in England. It was so small… And I did not really like the bathrooms…

B[b]otH: I’m not asking about the house. I’m talking overall, in England, living there, was there something else besides miss Sheehan that you did not like?

K: People weren’t being nice to me…

B[b]otH: Which people?

K: One time, Leona, because a glue-stick broke and I wouldn’t let her use it, she was mean to me all day long… She made me cry all day. And she got me in trouble with the teachers… Usually you get called by name for lunch, and she told me my name was called, and it did not, and I got yelled at because of that… Miss Sheehan yelled at me really loudly, so all the school could hear…

B[b]otH: This type of thing does not happen in America?

K: Not really…

B[b]otH: That’s all you did not like in England?

K: Yeah, my friends were occasionally mean to me, I did not like that.

B[b]otH: But you still miss them, you said?

K: Grace was my best friend and she was never mean to me. And, sometimes, I don’t make sense! [laughs]

B[b]otH: Got it! Ok… If you had a chance to go and live in Europe again, would you go?

K: That is a very complicated question, ’cause I kinda wanna stay here and I kinda wanna go there… I wanna visit but I don’t want to live there… I want to visit my friends and stuff, but I don’t want to live there again… [pause]… unless we get a really big house!

B[b]otH: Unless we get a really big house? [laughs]

K: No, actually, no. I love my best friends here, I don’t want to leave.

B[b]otH: So, you have better friends here in America?

K: Yes!

B[b]otH: Ok, is school harder or easier in England?

K: Harder.

B[b]otH: Why? You didn’t even have homework during the week in England…

K: Oh, American homework is so easy, I can do it in, like, fifteen minutes… In math, we did really complicated things in England… and sometimes, we did not even go over it before getting it for homework [Ed.: weekends only], so we had to figure it out by ourselves… there was this big 4-sheet thing that I usually got on weekends, with so many problems and things to do… and I like it here more, because we don’t get any homework on the weekend… because weekend is to relax, not to work…

B[b]otH: [long laugh] Brilliant! So… What is your favorite place in Europe?

K: I really like… Spain, France and Italy.

B[b]otH: All three of them?

K: Yes… Well, Italy is my favorite… because it’s got all of my favorite food…

B[b]otH: Which is?

K: Pasta, pizza and bruschetta! Of course!

B[b]otH: Excellent!

K: And also chocolate lava cake!

B[b]otH: Chocolate lava cake – is that also Italian?

K: Yep!

B[b]otH: Very good, then. Thank you very much for your time, young lady.

K: No problemo!

Expat Topic, Re-pat's culture shock

Foodstuff costs compared, UK vs US

December 1st, 2009

Some two years ago, I wrote a cost comparison entry for basic UK-vs-US costs. It was based on generalizations rather than some hard data, but I hope it was useful for someone.

Having now been back in the States for a few months, I am probably due an updated treatise on the subject. And, predictably, I find it hard to work up any sort of enthusiasm for an exercise of this kind. Fortunately, my lovely wife has come to my rescue, at least partially. She made quite a few references in these past months that she finds some foodstuff costs to be higher in the US compared to what we knew in the UK, and she graciously agreed to perform a sort of analysis, which I now present for my audience.

A few important notes. One, the comparison is between suburban New Jersey (Middlesex/Monmouth counties, to be precise) and outer edges of Greater London (Lewisham/Greenwich boroughs); it is more than likely than the prices will be different the closer you get to Central London or if you put New York City into the equation. Two, the exchange rate has been holding relatively steady between $1.6-1.7 per pound sterling; I am going to use 1.7 for the conversion. Three, as noted in comments to that old post, UK local salaries are generally numerically lower than respective US ones, which means that proportional outlay for any given product may actually be higher even when the absolute cost is lower; for the purposes of this highly scientific study, we will imagine ourselves receiving a US-based salary, as if we were on an expat package.
Read more…

Customerography, Expat Topic

You can’t have it all

November 16th, 2009

Today’s post was penned by my lovely wife. Hers in the next entry in a small feature of everyone in the family discussing their feelings on having lived in England and returning to the States. The previous post in the series can be found here.

Travel was number one on our list of the reasons to move to Europe. Growing up in a big but closed country, I could never imagine that one day I would be able to stroll along the Seine or ski in Alps or swim on the coast of the Mediterranean. I was living my dream for the last three years.


You see, I’m a social butterfly: I need to be around people who know and love me, who understand my desire to sing karaoke or spend an evening with a guitar. I want to simply call one of my friends – or, sometimes, relatives – and get together just because. Remember the theme song from Cheers?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

That was the main reason for coming back. That and the size of my refrigerator!

I miss my fruit and vegetable markets where you know your vendor and he knows your favorites; plus, almost everything is one pound sterling a bowl. Those specialty markets (German, French, Spanish, Italian) which were only 10-15 minutes away by foot, with everything on sale from herbs to shoes, were sometimes the highlights of the weekend. The Borough Market is an event on its own – you can have breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner by simply moving from stand to stand and tasting cheeses (not me!), sausages, bread, sweets, and even a glass of something sparkly.

I used to swim three times a week at the local pool for a mere price of £2 for a session – or £20 for unlimited swimming for a month! Here in the States, it is hard to find a sport club with a membership less than $50 a month with initial payment and a contract. I cannot wait till summer weather to use my own pool for a bit of exercising.

One of my other hobbies is badminton, which I became quite proficient at during my years in London (even won a tournament). Sadly, the few badminton clubs in New Jersey are about 30-50 minutes away from our house and I feel I will never be able to go there on a regular basis. Oh well, there is always that hula-hoop!

Free or low-cost concerts or exhibitions are widely available in London area; all you had to do was open the local magazine and choose where to go. I’m sure in New York City such things exist as well – and they do offer walks and adventure clubs in nearby parks – but it is not the same, somehow… Simply dropping by the National Gallery to see of the Monet’s masterpieces was kind of cool…

If you ask me whether I would do it again knowing what I do know now, I’d say – definitely! No question about it! Did we come back too soon and could have seen and done more? Probably. But I think now we can appreciate our unbelievable adventure even more, and we look forward to greeting family and friends at our house with a glass of Bordeaux in hand to tell them stories of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to enjoy romantic Paris.

Expat Topic, Re-pat's culture shock

B[b]otH interview: Becky

October 22nd, 2009

It took me a while to follow up on Geo’s excellent suggestion, but I finally started to sit down with members of my family to get their thoughts on living in England and being back in America.

First up, the teen.

Burlaki [back] on the Hudson: So, what did you like the most about England?

Becky: Public transportation, definitely. I also liked the fact that people there are more accepting of differences, say, in personal style. I liked the British music a lot. And the food.

B[b]otH: Food?

B: Oh, I don’t mean the English food. But there is definitely more variety there, of all of the different types of food from all over the world.

B[b]otH: Anything you did not like?

B: The weather is kinda boring there – pretty much one season all year long. It was very annoying that shops closed at 5pm… I can’t think of anything else… At some point I disliked the school uniforms – I think they’re nice now. At some point I did not like how the school system worked – I don’t mind it now…

B[b]otH: All right. Now you’re back in America. What do you like most about being back?

B: Seeing my family and friends again… No uniforms in school… I think the school is actually a bit easier, because we have the same subjects every day… Weather is nicer in general – or more “changing”…

B[b]otH: And what do you not like?

B: It’s far away from all the nice countries that you can visit! And there is no public transport, so you people have to drive me everywhere.

B[b]otH: Three years living in England – good or bad?

B: There were some good things and some not so good ones, but it was a good experience.

B[b]otH: If you could do it again, would you?

B: Yeah! [enthusiastically nods]

B[b]otH: When you grow up, will you go and live in Europe again?

B: Most definitely!

B[b]otH: Which country?

B: I’ll put them all in a hat… put the pieces of paper with the names in a hat and pull one out… and if I don’t like that one, I’ll pick up a different one.

B[b]otH: Say, you come up with Albania…

B: I don’t think so. It would be a country like Italy, maybe England, maybe Spain, but I do not like Spanish anymore…

B[b]otH: Ok, your old friends, do they show any interest in the fact that you lived in England for several years? Do they ask about it?

B: Yes, they find it very interesting, and so do all my new friends. My “accent” starts up many conversations on its own.

B[b]otH: You view it as a positive or are you annoyed?

B: It’s a great positive! “Hello” – “Hello” – “Oh my goodness! You’re British!!!”.

B[b]otH: [laughs] What’s your most vivid experience of the years that you lived in England?

B: Probably, all the school trips that I went to… You know, China, Iceland, France a few times, Switzerland… It was all good!

B[b]otH: Not the trips with the family?

B: The family trips too, but there is something special about going with your friends, with only teachers being there… You can’t really ignore your parents the way you can ignore teachers!

On that interesting thought, we adjourned to watch the latest recorded episode of Lie to Me.

Expat Topic, Re-pat's culture shock

Car leasing in England

July 3rd, 2009

I so infrequently write on expat-related topics lately that a chance visitor to my blog may be turned off by the preponderance of family news and assorted filler stuff. To rectify that just a bit, let me spend a few minutes on something that I did not get into much detail in the past: Specifics of an auto lease in England.

Anyone not interested in this bit of trivia is hereby excused from reading below the cut.
Read more…

Expat Topic

Science to prove it

May 21st, 2009
Comments Off

I have never had a slightest of doubts in the veracity of the statement I made on many occasions: My children benefited greatly through their experiences of living in a foreign country, and definitely got a leg up on their American peers who did not have such experiences.

Now, there is a scientific study that argues a similar notion. As this article in The Economist describes, the results of a recent psychological study suggest that expats acquire a discernible creative edge over their more stationary compatriots.

I feel validated.

Expat Topic, Schooling

Things You Tend Not To Spend Much Time Thinking Seriously About When Making A Decision To Relocate

January 15th, 2009

I have had this item on my blogging to-do list for probably 18 months now, without attempting to address it. To be fair, I have in the past addressed the lion share of this topic in the various posts within the Expat Topic category, but a consolidated summary has been missing so far. Here is finally an effort to rectify that.

Unfortunately, I am not too happy with the end product. I made a few re-writes over the course of several days, deleting and adding content, and in the end, I am left, I’m afraid, more with recaps of things posted elsewhere in this blog than with new and original thoughts. I still feel that it is worthwhile to post some sort of a conspectus on the subject, but anyone who’s been reading this blog since its early days may find little new stuff after the cut. Feel free to skip. Otherwise, you’re risking bearing to hear me admit mistakes.
Read more…

Expat Topic

Simple tax returns

December 13th, 2008
Comments Off

Few of my readers may remember the little adventure I had with my UK tax return about a year ago. In that post, I mentioned that the self-assessment process for filing tax returns in Britain is easy and even expressed anticipation towards trying it on my own.

Well, Q.E.D.

It took a bit over two and a half hours to do everything that I needed, and most of that time can be explained away by me being somewhat tentative on my first try.

I more or less needed just three numbers, found on two forms that were sent to me at the end of the tax year in April: My gross earnings, total taxes withheld and the combined value of any taxable benefits. At the HMRC website, I then needed to provide my personal information, answer a couple of dozen Yes/No questions about what types of income I did or did not have during the year and what kinds of “reliefs” I expected to claim. After that, it was plugging the aforementioned numbers into a form, proceeding to happily review the amount of money I’m owed back, and clicking the Submit button.

Ok, it was a little bit more involved than that, primarily because as a not ordinarily resident I can exclude a portion of my salary earned while on business outside of the UK from the tax bill. Figuring out that one number took the lion’s share of the time spent on the return. But overall, the process approximated the idea of doing your taxes on the back of a napkin as close as anything else that I know.

Next year, it should take 15 minutes.

Expat Topic, That's England

Lessons learned, two-years mark

October 1st, 2008

Two years ago I landed in Heathrow to start my life in England.

I used to subscribe to the notion that an émigré should spend 3 years establishing himself in his new life before making any pronouncements on his overall successes or failures. This period of our life is not an emigration, but I will stick to the rule nonetheless.

Instead, I’m going to extemporize on what lessons I have learned in two years of living abroad.

I’ve learned that it is much harder to establish your life anew when you are an adult and a parent, than when you are a young person. The stress is much greater. The sense of wonderment is considerably tempered by the multitude of worries. All the conveniences and habits that you spent getting used to for years of your life get shred to pieces.

I’ve learned that you find new and wonderful friends no matter where you end up. And thankfully, old friends tug at your heart no matter how far away from them you find yourself.

I’ve learned that a stay-at-home spouse has the hardest time of all adjusting to the new environment. Kids quickly make friends at school; work keeps you busy enough to somewhat blur the edges of where you were before and where you are now. It’s someone who needs to search for things to do day in and day out that ends up feeling the weight of the change the sharpest.

I’ve learned that my oft-professed love of travels and of seeing new places was not an idle desire, but a true affliction. We’ve done as much recreational travel as work and school would allow during these last 24 months, and still nothing gets me as excited as the prospect of a new voyage.

I’ve learned, conversely, that there is a limit of how much a family can take of family travels. The logistics, the harassment and delays of air travel, the duration of travel by other modes of transport, the frequent packing and unpacking, the continuous search for compromises between interests of adults and kids – it all wearies even the most dedicated explorers after time.

I’ve learned – very quickly – that London is far from an ideal base for European forays. Getting across the strip of water known as the English Channel is fraught with hassle, no matter whether you use roads, railways or air.

I’ve learned that there are many things besides ease of travel that appeal to me in Europe. Many of them have to do with political issues, religion or other aspects of life that I am reluctant to discuss in a written form.

I’ve learned that life-long dreams do come true if you pursue them hard enough.

I’ve learned that fulfilling a life-long dream is not all that it’s cracked up to be, especially when events out of your control start wrecking some of your plans.

I’ve learned that I occasionally have regrets about having done it. Mostly, from purely materialistic perspective. As counter-intuitive as it sounds on the surface, we are likely worse off financially right now than we would be had we stayed in America and not sold our house.

I’ve learned that I have no doubts that it was a good thing that we took this plunge.

What?! You thought otherwise?!

Expat Topic

Re-visiting education (Q&A, part 2)

September 25th, 2008

Continuing our Q&A exercise, in which I successfully engaged one single person to ask me questions, let’s address another one of Jeri’s queries. (Part 1 is here.)

I’m assuming your children are in British schools – what are the advantages and disadvantages of American vs. British school systems?

I did, in fact, produce a rambling essay on this very subject more than a year ago. It is worth to briefly restate it here.

Becky attends an independent – British equivalent for private; in other words, fee-paying – girls-only school that is reportedly one of the top schools in the country. Kimmy goes to a regular co-ed state school, one that is rated as “good” – but not exceptional – by the Ofsted.

After close to two years of experience with British schooling, I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion.

The greater width is best characterized by the existence of more diverse subjects, as well as the social sciences curriculum that is balanced enough to teach children about the world, not just the country that they live in.

If taught right is a very important qualifier, though. The quality of schooling varies from area to area and, as you might experience in the US as well, tends to be worse in urban areas and better in more affluent suburban ones. Moreover, state schools are unflinchingly egalitarian, in that children with different abilities and attitudes are taught in the same classroom; the pressure on even the best teachers to dumb down the instruction to the lowest common denominator is too great – the student mix becomes a dominant factor in the level of schooling that your children obtain.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.

Expat Topic, Schooling

Interaction with Brits and Americans (Q&A, part 1)

September 23rd, 2008

Jeri was the only person to accept my solicitation for questions thus far, and because customer service is what we take great pride in here at, I am addressing it right away. See what the rest of you all are missing?

Of course, Jeri posed three questions at once and I’d have to be out of my mind if I did not use that as a pretext for three separate posts on three separate dates. So, here is one of them, and the rest will follow soon. Thank you, Jeri!

Have you mingled a great deal with your British colleagues and neighbors, or has your primary interaction been within the expat community?

The short answer is neither, really.

In the first few months, I went out a lot with my British co-workers, participated in events such as quizzes and golf charity days, and become close enough with a couple of people to actually make visits to their houses. With one of the people who used to work for me, we even went to the classical music program at Royal Albert Hall two years in a row.

But I am not really spending much time with my colleagues outside of office – and after-office drinking – hours. And I never really did even in the States.

We tried getting to know our neighbors, but that quickly fizzled out for reasons that I cannot pinpoint. Natasha has occasional outings with other Moms from Becky’s school. The parents of one of Becky’s best friends once stayed at our place for tea, when picking up their daughter after a play-date. And that’s the extent of our interaction with the natives. (The kids, of course, are a totally different matter).

Of course, I am not counting the “service industry” interactions; after all, we shop at English stores, ride English public transport, go to English doctors, etc.

I keep online correspondence with a number of American expats, and most of our closest friends here share our background. But due to quirks of geography and pressures of schedules, we don’t get to interact even with our closest friends as much as we want. I am certainly looking to the American expat community for new friends, not to my local community. Maybe, that’s the best answer to your question, Jeri.

Expat Topic

More on British medical care

April 14th, 2008
Comments Off

Basic medical help is free in the UK, we have already talked about that. You don’t need any identification to walk into a hospital emergency room or an NHS Walk-in Centre to get assistance. You may even be able to arrange an appointment with a local doctor when you need it, on availability basis.

If you live in the UK, though, you are expected to be registered with a GP (which means “general practitioner” and conversationally universally used in the abbreviated form). The idea is very similar to the primary care physician concept: Not only is your GP a doctor who knows you well and who possibly has been your physician for many years, but (s)he also guards the strings of the purse that holds the public money that might be spent on your treatment, having an important say on whether you need any, and what.

So, a Brit with a medical problem is likely to go see his/her GP for an initial consultation, and then, if needed, be referred to a specialist. The physicians’ pay – whether GPs, or specialists within NHS, – is mostly the function of the size of the practice, and the margin earnings rate for each additional visit is puny enough so that there is little incentive to see the patient more than minimally necessary. Plus, no doubt, every GP is incentivized to expend as little money as possible on treatments.

Read more…

Expat Topic, That's England

Simple taxes made harder

March 13th, 2008
Comments Off

If your income consists of solely salary and wages, then filing a tax return in England is a very simple self-assessment process. Online or on paper, you literally need to provide just a handful of numbers from your W-2 equivalent (called P60), tick off a bunch of boxes, sign, and voilà, you’re done.

It does get slightly more complicated if you have taxable interest earnings or capital gains (in the case of a non-ordinary non-domiciled alien who keeps all accounts offshore, those gains are non-taxable unless they are “remitted” onshore). More work comes with figuring out what you can exclude from your salary income based on having spent workdays abroad, if you are a non-dom, but in general, filing the return is a fairly quick and straightforward process.

Accounting firms inexplicably charge hundreds of pounds for the privilege of doing your UK taxes. Professional accounting help – for at least the first year, sometimes longer, – is a never-disputed component of any relocation package. Both of the facts above leave me scratching my head in confusion after my own first experience with UK returns.
Read more…

Chronicles, Expat Topic

Phone calls abroad

January 28th, 2008

I have written before (say, here) about the calling plan that we have in the UK. The name of the plan is TalkTalk and it is with the company called Carphone Warehouse. For a basic monthly charge of £20, we do not pay anything at all for landline calls. And not only within the UK, but also within 35 other countries (pretty much all of Europe, plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, most importantly, the US). Calls to mobiles and to toll service lines are extra, but that amounts to a minuscule amount, while allowing us practically unlimited phone time with friends and family. (There is a 69-minute limit, after which the charges start accruing, but simply hang up, redial, and you have yourself another hour-plus of free talk).

Except, Russia is not one of the 35 countries covered by the free service and is quite costly to call. Natasha, obviously, regularly calls her family there, and the frequency of her calls has understandably increased of late. At something around 60p a minute, though, lengthy frequent calls would run us huge charges…

The solution? Easy. Buy an American calling card that gives you 400 minutes for $5, and dial through its US-based access number. Since calling the US is free for us, the cost of the call is exactly what it would be by using the calling card from, say, a New Jersey landline. Ingenious!

Of course, these calling cards never deliver on their promise, and with hidden charges and what not, you probably only get 100 minutes or so, but the difference between 5¢ and 60p per minute is quite considerable, wouldn’t you say?

Customerography, Expat Topic

More on taxes: Additional Child Tax Credit

January 10th, 2008

The other day, I was approached by an American tax lawyer who resides in Europe and specializes in expatriate taxation. He came across my blog and, having formed a largely valid impression of me as a person who is interested in the matters of taxation, contacted me with an offer to discuss something that he feels is largely unknown to the US expatriate population: the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC), which provides an opportunity to certain overseas American parents to obtain IRS refunds even when US tax liability is zero and no US tax payments have been made.
Read more…

Expat Topic