If you’re considering moving to the United Kingdom, it is advisable to research the cost of living, including house prices, childcare costs and food prices, before you land on British soil.
The cost of living in the UK is high compared to other countries, although in many cases, higher salaries can offer a comfortable lifestyle for some expats. This guide gives you an in-depth overview as to general living costs in the UK including housing, healthcare, public transport, groceries, childcare, taxes and entertainment.
The majority of expats arriving in the UK, come in search of jobs and an opportunity to expand their education. In general, expats with a good level of education can enjoy a higher quality of life despite relatively high costs for housing, public transport and utility bills.
Since the turn of the millennium, Britain has attracted workers from the EU, immigrants and expats looking for a better quality of life, though it remains to be seen how its decision to leave the EU will affect this in the future.
Until legislation for Brexit is organised, the UK remains an attractive destination for expats looking to further their career, education and cultural experiences.
Cost of living in UK
Whilst London is arguably the destination of choice for expats arriving in the UK, the living costs in the capital are significantly higher than other parts of the country. The cost of living in the south is typically higher than the north, but the salaries also reflect that. London house prices remain high, meaning a move to the big smoke often requires a bigger budget.
Having said that, the UK performs surprisingly poorly in the Mercer’s 2018 quality of living survey. Only two cities make the top 50 best cities in the world: London is ranked 41st and Edinburgh is ranked 46th.
Cost of living in London
- 4% cheaper than New York
- 66% more expensive than Madrid
- 58% more expensive than Brussels
- 21% more expensive than Paris
- 12% more expensive than Los Angeles
Cost of living in Manchester
- 38% cheaper than New York
- 7% more expensive than Madrid
- The same as Brussels
- 22% cheaper than Paris
- 28% cheaper than Los Angeles
Cost of living in Birmingham
- 40% cheaper than New York
- 5% more expensive than Madrid
- The same as Brussels
- 29% cheaper than Los Angeles
Cost of living in Edinburgh
- 36% cheaper than New York
- 11% more expensive than Madrid
- 6% more expensive than Brussels
- 25% cheaper than Los Angeles
House prices UK
The UK housing market has begun to slow after years of unprecedented growth – with more expensive markets in particular seeing price increases stagnate. Transaction levels have also slowed a little as the UK continues to negotiate its exit from the EU.
Despite this, a price crash seems unlikely, with a shortage of housing meaning house prices and rent costs are likely to remain stable.
Needless to say, London is the most expensive place to live in the UK. In the capital, the average price for flats was £414,889 in late 2018, while terraced properties were going for £493,579.
If you plan to rent in London, a one-bedroom flat might cost between £1,200 and £1,600 a month. Singles willing to live in shared accommodation can dramatically reduce rental charges. Expect to pay between £500 and £750 for a single room. Utility bills are typically an additional expense.
Elsewhere in England, house prices are around £300,000–£500,000 in the south, and £200,000–£400,000 in the midlands and further north.
According to Numbeo’s 2019 figures, the average cost of renting in a city centre in the UK is £712 for a one-bedroom apartment. For three bedrooms in a city centre, the cost rises to £1,188, whilst outside the city is considerably cheaper at £923.
Utility costs and energy prices in UK
The privatisation of energy companies on the UK means utility costs keep getting higher year-on-year despite the government’s efforts to introduce policies that will reduce energy bills. As a result, energy bills in the UK cost more than other European countries.
According to figures produced by energy market regulator Ofcom, the average dual fuel (gas and electricity) variable tariff in April 2018 was £94.83 a month, or £1,138 a year. The cheapest, meanwhile, was £65 a month, or £788 a year.
For those with separate providers, the average cost for gas was £48 a month (£572 a year), while the average electricity bill was £49 (£590 a year). By law, energy companies in the UK must inform households if they could be getting a cheaper deal by switching to another tariff.
In terms of home entertainment, broadband, telephone and satellite TV costs can be bundled into one expensive if you buy Sky or BT. However, packages vary depending on the channel selection you want. Sky Sports and cinema packages are more expensive.
You can also purchase broadband and landlines with mobile deals or some supermarkets and department stores such as Tesco and John Lewis. Expect to pay somewhere in the region of £30 to £40 a month for a high-speed broadband and landline package.
Cost of public transport in UK
Public transportation in the UK is also more expensive than other countries. Buses are particularly expensive and not always reliable. Surprisingly, London boasts the best transport system in the UK, mainly thanks to the Underground – although it is also the most expensive transport network in the world.
Residents in London should invest in an Oyster card, which provides access to buses and metro for slightly cheaper rates. A single fare with an Oyster Card is £1.50 on the bus and a minimum of £2.40 on the underground.
In some areas of the UK, buses are the only public transport and cost a minimum of £1.20. The cost varies depending on the city and the distance you are travelling.
Taxis are also costly. Black cabs are readily available, but the starting fare is around £3 and costs escalate quickly on longer journeys. Private companies like Uber can be considerably less expensive than black cabs. Before travelling by taxi in the UK, estimate the cab fare with an online price finder.
Owning a car is also expensive in the UK thanks to relatively high fuel costs. As of January 2019, the price per litre is around £1.20 for unleaded and £1.30 for diesel.
The UK also has an extensive rail network. Train fares can be high although monthly passes are much more cost effective. If you are making one-off journeys and know the dates you are travelling booking two or three weeks in advance using websites such as thetrainline can save you an average of 43% per journey.
Cost of British food
The UK has a string of supermarket chains which can be affordable if you shop in the right places. Lidl and Aldi stock a variety of quality products at reasonably low prices for budget shoppers whilst at the other end of the scale, Waitrose and Sainsbury cater towards the higher end of the market.
There are also middle of the range supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons which often have good deals. The weakened pound and higher import costs due to Brexit have resulted in prices of some foods rising dramatically.
The average weekly shopping bill is estimated to be around £60 in the UK for two people, although expats can expect to reduce grocery shopping to around £45–£50 in the budget stores. To get the latest average prices for staple products, check out this website.
School fees UK
Expats residing in the UK are eligible to send your children to state schools is England free of charge. The only costs are for uniforms, dinners and extra-curricular books that are not offered by the UK education system.
Children are obligated to attend school from the age five to the age of 16, but can extend your education at high school or college to take ‘A’ levels which are required to qualify for university places.
The UK has one of the best private school systems in the world, but tuition fees averaged a whopping £17,000 in 2018. The upside is the quality of education is significantly higher than state schools.
Non-English speaking expats often choose to send their children to an international school to learn the education syllabus from your home country. Although international schools represents the least disruption to your child’s education, they are also the most expensive.
Most international schools charge an application fee which is non-refundable if your child fails to secure a placement. Tuition fees range between £3,000–£9,000 around the country and up to £24,000 in London.
University fees are capped at £9,000 per annum by the UK government. The average university course costs £6,000 a year, but fees include other services such as private tutoring, access to information technology and various library services.
If you intend to take a postgraduate course in the UK, fees range significantly depending on the university you choose and the subject you want to study.
Healthcare costs in UK
Residents in the UK have access to free medical care under the National Health Service (NHS). This covers doctor’s appointments and some hospital treatments although most prescriptions carry a charge. In order to qualify for NHS treatments, expats are obliged to register for an NHS number.
There are also plenty of private clinics. Prices vary widely depending on the type of treatment you require and the experience of the specialist. However, operations are long-term illnesses can be very costly and could easily run up into tens of thousands.
Harley Street in London is regarded as the home of some of the world’s leading specialists, but charge around £210 for a consultation. Treatments are significantly higher. Harley Street is only really a viable option for the mega-rich.
Healthcare insurance is not an obligation in the UK and most expats or native take out healthcare insurance because of the wide range of free treatments available on the NHS. If you do not qualify for NHS treatments insurance companies such as AXA, Bupa and Allianz provide healthcare insurance for expats. Average private healthcare insurance premiums in the UK are £1,435 a year.
Childcare costs in UK
Working parents with children under the age of five need to make childcare arrangements.
Children under the age of two years old are eligible to attend a day nursery. The average cost of sending a child under two to nursery is £122 a week (part-time) or £233 a week (full-time).
British food and the cost of dining out in the UK
The major cities in the UK are cosmopolitan and have a wide choice of restaurants, cafés and pubs that serve food. The latter typically offer the best value for money deals and chain pubs such as Brewers Fayre, Harvester, Punch Taverns and Scream Pubs make an effort to serve a good selection of dishes at a reasonable price.
If you want to go to a nice restaurant, you will find reasonably priced options for around £20–£25 a head with a glass of wine or pint of beer. For something a little more upmarket, expect to pay closer to £40–£50. If you live in London, add £10–£15 on to the budget mentioned above, although there are plenty of cheaper options as well that offer reasonable quality.
The price of a bottle of wine in restaurants will typically start at a budget price of £5 to £10, but can be up to and over £100 in some restaurants. The average price for a beer is £4–£5.50 in the south and around £2.80–£4 in the north. Prices in bars are more expensive than the traditional pubs.
Tax costs in UK
If you have been living and working in the UK for more than 183 days, you are eligible to pay personal income tax. Compared to some other western European countries the tax thresholds in the UK are not bad although the higher cost of living accounts for the higher tax brackets.
If you earn less than £11,850 in England, you are not obligated to pay tax. However, if you are self-employed you are still obligated to submit a nil-return tax form. Most expats will pay personal income tax directly from your monthly salary. The tax bands are as follows:
- Up to £11,850: 0%
- £11,851–£46,350: 20%
- £46,351–£150,000: 40%
- Over £150,000: 45%
For more information about your potential tax liabilities in the UK, see our comprehensive guide.
Social security and pension costs in UK
The social security system in the UK can be complicated. If you start a job without being registered with social security, you have to pay emergency tax for the first month, which typically involves substantially overpaying taxes. However, the difference is returned after the second or third month.
Social security benefits (National Insurance) cover expats for unemployment, sickness, maternity, disability and death. The rate you have to pay depends on the length of service and the amount of income.
Most expats earning between £702–£3,863 a month will pay 12% to social security. Expats from other European Economic Area countries can also draw benefits earned in your native country upon retirement.
For more detailed information about the social security system in the UK, check out our comprehensive guide here.
For more information on economic indicators such as consumer inflation and tax news, visit the UK’s Office for National Statistics.