Making the decision to emigrate and move your family to a brand new country and culture is huge. Winding up life in SA and starting fresh in every area of your life at the same time is probably one of the most stressful life events you can experience, so it’s important to do all your homework before you take the plunge.
Taking inspiration from Becoming You’s The Honest Expat series, we got in touch with James, who left Cape Town five years ago to live in London, to share his experience of immigrating to the UK.
When did you emigrate?
What was the catalyst for your emigration decision?
My wife, Tina, and I worked in Vail, Colorado for six months during the 2007 ski season. We had always spoken about doing something like that again and being in a country we could travel from. Another more serious reason was that we had started a business that created quite a lot of debt for us and just decided, as Tina was a Greek passport holder, that it was time to seek out our fortunes in the UK to try and work off that debt. I had originally thought we would only be here for about 18 months but after five years we are still here and going strong!
How long had you thought through the emigration process?
We still haven’t actually spoken about truly emigrating, we are just enjoying this new stage in our lives. Having close friends and family back in SA always kind of ties you back there a tiny bit – we’ve never been able to say to each other that we are never going back.
How easy was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take?
It was quite easy. Because Tina is a Greek citizen and with the free movement of EU citizens into and around Europe and England at the time meant it cost us very little for the five-year visa. That made it super-duper easy to decide to come.
Did it require certain qualifications, documentation and finances?
No, nothing like that. Some standard paperwork was required, but it was easy travelling to the UK on a European passport.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
It was awesome! Everything was new and different – from the supermarkets to travelling on public transport and the food. We already had some friends here, which made it feel a tiny bit like home. We got plugged into a great church that a friend of ours was pastoring and both my wife and I play hockey, so we were able to plug into communities from the word go. We also stayed with friends of ours for the first ten months which helped ease the homesick feelings. You are quite distracted when you first arrive as you want to try all the new experiences and see all the new places, so that left very little time for being homesick.
What have you loved about your new home?
I know a lot of people will probably say that the financial positives first, but I think it was great to be in a new city with different cultures and to experience new things. We still find new thing to do and places to visit even after five years, so that’s been really great. Living next to Europe and being able go on quick breaks and ski trips has also been awesome.
Second was the financial security: being able to pay off our debt and having disposable income made life easier, for sure. Thirdly, it would be the safety aspect. As much as there is crime here, too, there is just a feeling of peace and safety and not feeling like you have to look over your shoulder, or be on guard, like you have to in SA.
You can travel alone and even when you are walking around at night, you relax a bit more. A bonus for us is that there is a government that isn’t perfect, but things work here: public transport is great and there’s a big focus on public one spaces, which is great for us as we have two young kids.
What have you found hard about your new home?
To be really honest, I would say that we haven’t found anything too hard that would make us want to go back to SA.
What have you NOT missed about South Africa?
The lack of opportunities, the terrible government that continues to pull the wool over the public’s eyes with regards to how to fix the country and develop it economically going forward, crime and the lack of peace and rule of law.
What have you missed about South Africa?
Actually, quite a lot. We’ve missed family and friends, of course – it’s hard to be so far away from everyone we grew up with, especially now that we have two young children. Having them far away from our families makes it difficult to be away. Skype and WhatsApp are great for staying in touch, but it’s not quite the same.
Next would be the food! South Africa has awesome food and meat and, yes you get variety here, but I think it’s just better at home. Being close to the beach for summer is another one. Cape Town has a great quality of life and the South African people are so open and friendly – people can be a bit insular here.
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?
Yes, for sure. We would do the UK again, but we also wouldn’t mind going to the United States.
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you consider returning to South Africa?
No, not at the moment. What would make us consider returning to SA would probably be a change from our current government to a government that believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Also, one that moves away from the current socialist policies and adopts free market principles so that the South African people can thrive.
It does always seem like there are opportunities for starting business in SA as its a few years behind the trends of the UK so, who knows, maybe one day in the future we will be back.
What were the unexpected aspects of emigrating that you’d wished you’d known about before going. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
I would say, do it! It’s such a great opportunity to learn new things and experience new opportunities. You take certain things for granted when you have people helping you, like your family, and then when you get to where you are going you’re alone and need to do everything for yourself – and in a short timeframe! Organising things like a bank account, phone contracts, a car and all the insurance you need can be overwhelming.
If you’d like to read more South African expats’ experiences, visit the Becoming You blog.