There are many similarities between London and New York. There’s also a whole lot of differences. In no particular order, here are some really useful things to know before your own move to NYC:
- Tips. Everyone gets tipped here. Restaurants expect 18-22% for good service, taxi drivers like you to add a dollar, hairdressers, supermarket check out staff all like tips (not obligatory). Clothes shop staff work on commission, so don’t get tips. Schools may well ask you to contribute for staff and teacher tips at Christmas. Doormen, concierge and janitors in your building also bank on a generous tip at Christmas. There’s a sliding scale for how much you give each person in your building, factoring in how long you’ve lived there, how much help each one gives you throughout the year, and how fond you are of them. It’s not unusual for a friendly Manhattan apartment doorman or concierge to get $100 tip at Christmas.
- Eating is expensive. Food is extremely expensive here. You need to allow a large food budget – a family of four can easily spend $300-500 on food a week. Eating out pretty much costs the same as cooking it yourself. When we first got here, we did a shop at Whole Foods (our nearest large supermarket at that time), and I almost cried when charged $180 for two baskets of food of really normal stuff, there was no caviar or smoked salmon! Learn to eat leftovers for lunch, and get used to taking doggie bags home whenever you eat out – American portions are huge anyway. Oh, and prices don’t include VAT here, so the total cost is always higher than the figure on the price tag.
- Food. It’s unusual to get a big kitchen in Manhattan. One you can actually cook a meal in is called a chef’s kitchen. Thankfully New York City has an exceptional number of restaurants, so to survive, they have to be good. Eating out is a real pleasure, but most will deliver to your door too. Lots of places have kids menus, almost always involving hot dogs, pizza, mac & cheese or chicken with fries, and rarely come with a side of veg or salad. Brunch is big here, it’s quite common to invite someone over for brunch rather than supper. High Fructose Corn Syrup crops up in all sorts of foods, including ones marketed at children. Don’t even get me started on trying to order a decent cup of tea, just ask for something else instead. Go to Myers of Keswick or Tea & Sympathy to buy British food when you’re feeling homesick.
- Subways. The subway takes some getting used to. Southbound is called ‘Downtown’, and northbound is ‘Uptown’. Platforms do not have clear signage, so make sure you have a subway map on you to double check your destination. I still sometimes find myself in Brooklyn when I meant to get to Union Square. Lots of the smaller stations do not have interconnecting platforms, so if you’ve accidentally come to the wrong platform, you have to go all the way back up to the street, cross the road, and go all the way down to the correct platform. When this happens, you may also have to negotiate with the subway employee locked inside their cubicle (they never come out) to let you through the ticket barriers, as the Metro cards sometimes refuse to let you through so soon after you’ve swiped elsewhere. Add kids and a stroller into the mix, and you really want to make sure you get the right platform first time.
- Schools. Try to time your move for the school year. We arrived mid-August which worked really well, as we had a couple of weeks to get over jetlag and unpack before the start of school. Obviously depending on the age of your children, it’s really helpful to start school at the same time as all the other families so your kids will not be the only new ones, and the parents won’t know anyone else yet either. I’d say that 90% of my social contact is with the other school moms, it was such a help to get to know them right at the start of our time here. Also, school is a massive help in getting the whole family settled in to your new lives. It gives structure to the day, interest and stimulation for the kids, and you get to meet a whole load of local parents to befriend. For that reason, it’s worth looking into schools to last your whole planned tour, as it is very disrupting to have to pull out of that social group and start all over again, for the kids and for you. Kindergarten starts the year after children turn five, but it’s common to start ‘Pre-K’ aged three. New York schools close a lot – T got 12 weeks off for the summer and endless public holidays throughout the school term. Daycare for younger kids generally stay open most of the year. Consider using a professional schools broker to help find suitable schools with places available for your planned arrival.
- Vaccines. New York schools have different vaccination requirements, and they will badger you constantly until you’ve either had them all, or have completed formal documentation explaining why you are abstaining. These include Chicken Pox and Hep C. When I heard about this, I wasted a lot of time trying to get the Chicken Pox vaccine in London. My advice – don’t even bother. You can’t get hold of the second part of the vaccine in the UK. Just register for your local pediatrician when you get here, and get them to fill in all the gaps.
- Language barriers. ‘Restaurant’ sounds like ‘Restroom’. Say ‘Cafe’ instead. Baby cots are called cribs. If you say ‘cot’ here, they think you mean a very small bed that slides away under a bigger one. This can be annoying if you’ve taken the trouble to book one for a hotel on your arrival. Nappies are called diapers, breastfeeding is nursing. and pushchairs are strollers.
- Car seats. Car seat requirements are different here. Your UK car seats will probably not be legal. Leave them at home with the grandparents, and buy new American ones on arrival (Buy Buy Baby has loads in store you can try out). And if you’ve pre-booked a taxi to pick you up at the airport, make sure you check the car seats carefully. Twice we have found the driver had simply plonked them on the back seat, and left it to us to figure out how to fasten them safely.
- Electrics. Your old electrics won’t work, the voltage here is so low. Sell all your British kettles, lamps, toasters, alarm clocks and hair dryers and buy new here (try Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond. Craigslist is the equivalent of Gumtree, there may be some bargains if you have time to trawl). For your bigger electrics such as your desktop computer, you can buy a transformer to use it out here. American toasters have a ‘bagel’ setting, and the microwaves have ‘popcorn’ settings. Excellent. On the whole electrics are cheaper here, and there are frequent sales like Black Friday, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day….
- Comms. Try to get a mobile phone/landline and internet up and running the moment you arrive. It is really, really hard to set up a family in a new country when you can’t make any phone calls. I took about 10 days to get mine going as I got so overwhelmed by which provider and plan to pick, and was driven mad trying to do things like register with a pediatrician and sort out contents insurance. T-Mobile has a package with unlimited calls and texts to UK landline and mobiles, which is a wonderful way to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
- Social Security. All adults have to have their own social security number in order to get anything official done, from signing a rental agreement to setting up a phone contract. Get it sorted the day after you arrive, if you can.
- Photo ID. This is often asked for before entering business buildings. Consider getting a New York Drivers Licence, or a Non-Drivers Licence from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) so that you don’t have to carry your precious passport (with it’s even more precious visa stamp) around with you. DMV is stressful. Check you have the right documentation at least four times before your appointment, then get an employee to check again on arrival.
- Import rules. US Customs won’t allow you to bring any food or cleaning products with you, so you have to completely restock your kitchen cupboards on arrival. Allow a lot of time in the shops trying to get your head around all the different brands. Clorox Wet Wipes are amazing, and I really like the Mrs Meyer’s Clean Day range.
- Healthcare. Health insurance takes quite some getting used to after the NHS. Make sure you always carry the family’s insurance cards in case of emergencies, as doctors won’t treat you without it. Dental and vision are not normally included in standard healthcare cover, you have to make sure yours is either included or separately covered. Root canal treatment can cost $1,800 without insurance. Epi-Pens cost $600 for a pack of two syringes. Also, New Yorkers use specialist doctors for every thing – they have allergists, dermatologists, pediatricians, OB/GYNs… it can be bewildering at first. Calpol = Tylenol. The dosages for children are much more accurate here, they do it by the child’s weight rather than age.
- Taxes. Taxes are complicated, even for born-and-bred Americans. Give yourself at least two weeks to fill out your tax returns and keep records of everything you can think of like every bank account you have open (even abroad). You have to think twice about remortgaging or paying a lump sum off a mortgage whilst you’re here, since this could open you up for additional liability. Try to negotiate a tax advisor for both UK and US taxes for the length of your time here.
- Banking. American banking seems v old school and bureaucratic compared to the UK, even if you open up a bank account with international options like HSBC. Setting up a new American account is painful, you have to fill in an astonishing amount of hypothetical detail like how many payments you plan to make in an average month. Chip and pin is rare, most places require signatures which are rarely checked against the back of the card. Online banking isn’t really online, as we found when trying to make an online payment to a friend. Weeks afterwards, he finally received a cheque (spelt ‘check’ here) which had been handwritten by someone in the back office and physically deposited in his bank.
- Directions. New Yorkers walk fast as it’s the quickest way round Manhattan; don’t dawdle or block the pavement. They will always help if you need directions, just make sure you get to the point and don’t start with British waffle, “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, can you help me find this place?” gets their backs up. Get right to the point, “Which way for XXth Street?” and they’ll point it out. City Mapper is an excellent app to help you plan the best route to wherever you need to go, assuming you’ve managed to get your smart phone sorted. And always know the ‘cross street’ of the address you’re aiming for, since New Yorkers never use street numbers.
- Traffic. It’s just like you’d expect from TV. Honking and yelling out of windows is common, especially if the front car hasn’t accelerated the nano-second the lights change from red to green (they only use amber to slow you down, not to warn you to get into first gear). Cars are allowed to turn into roads even when the pedestrian crossing light is on – it is a green light for them too. Keep your eyes peeled, especially on the way to school during rush hour. That said, I’ve found most drivers to be careful when they can see you have children with you.
- Deliveries. If you decide to move into an apartment block, chances are they will have really strict delivery rules. Delivery companies will have to fax a Certificate of Insurance (COI) to the building management before they are allowed inside. Ours also requires a $500 cash deposit against any damage to the lifts or carpeting, and fines you if the delivery arrives after 5pm. This can be stressful as chances are you’ll be getting a lot of deliveries early on including your air freight, sea freight and Ikea. Food deliveries are fine.
- Laundry. It is very rare for New York homes to have their own washing machines or dryers. Brownstones sometimes have them in the basement. Apartment blocks generally have one per floor. There’s a complicated etiquette for using communal washing machines. It is ok to move someone else’s laundry from the washing machine into the tumble dryer, ready for them to come and fire off. If both are in use and you can see another pile of dirty laundry waiting to go in, don’t try nipping ahead of the queue if you value your relationship with your neighbours. For that reason, set the timer on your phone to make sure you’re back in time to move your stuff, and best to leave your empty basket in the laundry room, if you don’t want to find your clean washing dumped on the floor. Luckily American appliances are far larger than British, so you can fit a lot more into a load. OR outsource the whole thing to your nearest Wash & Fold company, which charges you by weight and brings it back washed, dried and beautifully folded that same evening. An average load of Wash & Fold costs between $13-17, depending on heavy stuff like wet towels and jeans.
- Babysitter. It’s essential to have some childcare back up when you move overseas, even if it takes you a while to find someone you can trust with your children and your home. We never did back home since we could always call on family or friends, so it was a major milestone when we finally felt ready to start interviewing babysitters (a mere eight months after The Big Move). There are loads of agencies out there, friends of mine have recommended Sensible Sitters and Lifevine Family. We ended up asking other school parents for their recommendations, and now have someone we can call when we fancy a night out or I need some cover for a school run.
- Weather. None of this grey drizzle for months on end so common in Britain. The seasons are really distinct here, with extreme weather in Summer and Winter. You will need to get specialist cold weather kit once you get out here, since nothing we brought out with us would cut it in a New York Winter. Trudging to and from school in all conditions makes you particularly aware of the weather, believe me.
This week’s Highs & Lows:
- Having a specially day with C. For the very first time, there was a federal holiday which the schools did not close for, but his company did. So the two of us headed off to the Whitney Museum of American Art and lunch at Bubby’s round the corner. Lovely.
- The kids have been playing musical beds a lot lately. Reminds me of having v tiny babies in the house, constantly settling one child or other back in their own beds before giving up at 3am and climbing into the bunk bed with them.