From UK Expat Living in Australia to Best Selling Author, and now, Relocation Expert at The Expat Concierge
I have a fantastic expat interview for you today!
Sharon Swift is the Founder and Managing Director of SettleTo.com and The Expat Concierge. She is also the author the top moving to Australia guide on Amazon, “So, You’re Moving to Australia”.
In this interview, Sharon shares with us the advice she gives her clients from what suburbs to live in Sydney to budgeting tips for newly arriving expats.
Ok, let’s get on with the interview.
Advice and Insider Tips for Newly Arriving Expats to Sydney from The Expat Concierge.
- You mentioned in your book, “So, You’re Moving to Australia”, that you have lived in several different countries as an expat. I think is was something like over ten different countries before you went to uni. Why did you and your husband decide to move to Australia? What was the reaction of your family to your decision to move permanently? Why did you settle on living in Sydney?
I had always known that I wouldn’t settle in the UK, even though that’s where my parents chose to settle after their multiple moves.
Despite learning languages at school, I didn’t really follow through to talk anything other than English fluently. During my uni degree I spent a year in Germany working for Abbott, an American pharmaceutical company. The fact that I didn’t speak German was a hindrance and it wasn’t something I wanted to do again. After finishing uni, I lived in the USA for 1.5 years and whilst I loved it there, it didn’t feel like home.
On return to the UK, I worked for an international company and travelled with work. I even got a job offer to move to the Sydney office. However, I had just met my boyfriend (now husband) Ian and was offered a promotion in London. So, I decided to stay and put a lid on the wanderlust! Ian knew early on that moving overseas was in my future plans.
After a short while of being together, we decided to do some fact finding around emigrating to Australia – it was unfinished business and something we agreed could be possible together. Ian is in IT, so his skills were in demand and we qualified for residency. Whilst the process itself is straightforward, it’s long and even with the help of a migration agent, it was nerve-wracking. After 18 months, we finally for the visa stamped in our passports.
My immediate family is very well travelled, and my extended family are all over the world, as are many close family friends after a childhood of many moves. My parents were of course sad that I would be 24 hours away, but super supportive as they just wanted the best for me, knowing that I needed to explore where in the world I felt that I belonged after a nomadic upbringing.
Sydney had always appealed to me. The water, blue skies and cosmopolitan lifestyle really appealed to me. I didn’t consider starting an Australian life anywhere else. Ian was less keen – he had never lived outside of suburbia in the UK and was nervous that living in the hustle of a city would be too much. As it happens, we live very centrally now and it suits us both perfectly.
- What type of visa did you have when you relocated to Australia? Do you have the same visa today or are you now an Australian citizen?
Skilled Independent 189 v- permanent residency. We are now Australian citizens.
- When you relocated did you ship a lot over or just a few boxes or nothing at all? How did you decide what to take and what to leave behind? How did you ship your things over? How did you pick what shipping company to use? Can you recommend any good resources to others moving to Australia from the UK? Maybe a review site in the UK for international shipping companies.
We moved most of our things that were easy to move and that would be costly to replace – things like small items of furniture and knick knacks, clothing, kitchen stuff and sentimental items. We decided to start fresh with furniture and appliances, as what we had wasn’t worth the cost of shipping it. So we sold a lot of items to family and friends or on eBay.
It was a methodical and unemotional process in terms of deciding what to take. We had merged households when we moved in together, so we had a lot of the same things. Moving to Australia was a chance to de-duplicate what we had and was a chance for us to have a fresh start and establish a new home together.
We used Allied Pickfords. I simply searched for 4 or 5 of the licensed and established shipping companies and asked for estimates of the cost. Then I built a spreadsheet and entered in the total cost for the same volume of goods, so that I was comparing like for like. It is hard to decide when you get the individual quotes, as they all use their own terms and layout. Using a spreadsheet was the easiest way of comparing like with like. Insurance and storage were two important factors for us, as we would be travelling for a few months before settling down and these were the variables that made a big difference when comparing the quotes.
My suggestion would be to get 3-4 quotes from licensed and accredited companies. For example, PSS, Pickfords or Anglo-Pacific. Your experience during the sales process and getting quotes is usually a good indicator of what the service will be like throughout the process. Go with your instinct and ensure that you’re comparing like with like depending on your needs and circumstances. It pays to be detailed with your inventory, taking pictures with the items in-situ if possible, so that you can verify your possessions. Make sure that you ask about the insurance – for example, is it a replacement cover, or reimbursement? Does it cover the items in storage and in transit?
- Looking back on your move now, knowing what you got yourself into, what would you do differently?
I would have asked for help and had a relocation company assist with the arrival. I bought all of the books and searched the internet, but I didn’t really get input from someone living and/or had gone through what I was going through, so I felt very isolated and made a lot of costly mistakes in the early days.
- What so far what has been the biggest surprise about living in Australia that you didn’t expect?
I didn’t expect the culture to be so different. I really believed it would be easy to settle and that it was like a sunnier version of England. It took me a long time to adjust with this expectation – and made the early days very difficult, and ultimately took me much longer to settle in and make Aussie and local friends as I couldn’t ‘get it’. It’s a very macho culture here, and not as tolerant a society as I expected it to be.
- What has been the biggest frustration or hardest part of settling into life in Australia?
Getting over the belief that it’s easy to make friends and that it is easy to settle down. Of course, it’s a friendly country, but unless you make connections with people and make huge amounts of effort, it can be really hard to set up a social circle. The amount of effort needed is almost uncomfortable if you don’t know anyone to begin with, so this can be frustrating and very lonely in the early days.
- Now that you’ve lived here for a while, what about Australia do you like/love the most?
I love the freedom and change of mindset that living here has helped me achieve. I’ve seen different possibilities open up that I would unlikely have had in the UK. Mostly, I just love the lifestyle – being outdoors, laid back, and that I’m surrounded by many likeminded people who have the same values and aspirations as me for a relaxed lifestyle.
- How has it been socially settling in? Are most of your new friends in Sydney other expats or Australians? Have you ventured out to any of the several Sydney expat Meetups or events? How did it go or why haven’t you? Do you have any suggestions for someone new to Sydney that is trying to build up their social circle?
Establishing a social life is very, very hard. Much harder than I expected – especially since I’ve moved around so much in my lifetime! All of the friends that I first had when I moved here 10 years ago have moved back to the UK. This is the first challenge of living in Australia – it’s very transient. A lot of people are here to sample the life, but are undecided if they will stay. I now have a combination of expat and Aussie friends, but this took a long time to develop. The easiest places to meet people are at work or through schools – and we don’t have children. We do have a dog, however, and have met other couples with ‘fur children’, which has definitely helped build a stronger sense of belonging. Having said that, they are all expats! I personally have met many people through self-development and building my business through networks and learning. I have done a few business courses and am a member of an invite-only networking group, which definitely builds a tight community of like-minded people.
I’ve tried random events and meetups, but to be honest have learnt that this is not a way I enjoy meeting people. It’s something I would strongly suggest everyone tries, but it happened that I didn’t find it rewarding.
My suggestions are to get as many contacts, tenuous as they may be – they will always help, and you never know where it will lead you. Whether it’s an invite to a BBQ, meet-up for a coffee, the conversation can always take you somewhere you never expected, so it’s always the best way to start. LinkedIn is a great way to find whether you have any connections that can be introduced via friends back home – I always find that people (with the best will in the world) will forget that they know someone in Australia, or might know someone who knows someone – and it’s always worth asking. Facebook is also a great way to find friends of friends of friends who might be happy to meet you or have a chat about how they can help.
The other tip is to say YES to every invitation you get, no matter how uncomfortable it will be, or whether it’s not something you think you’ll enjoy, or if it means you will be on your own. You’ve moved to the other side of the world – now that you’re here, you have to push a little harder outside your comfort-zone to get established.
- What advice do you have for other UK expats, similar you, that are thinking of moving to Australia?
I would say that preparation is the key – I truly believe that a large part of a successful relocation is going in with your eyes wide open, knowing the good, bad and ugly. This allows you to make decisions that are informed. So many people are blissfully unaware that things are very different here compared to the UK. Many haven’t ever lived overseas, so don’t know what to expect. I find that there are 2 main camps of people that I come across – some that think ‘how hard can it be, so many people do it’ and assume it’s like a warm version of the UK, and only see the, as I call it ‘sunshine and surfboards’ of the lifestyle here, and don’t really consider that things work differently, it’s expensive, and if you don’t prepare, you can end up in financial strife and set yourself back a long way instead of getting stuck into your new life straight off the bat. Then, there’s the other camp of people who are very nervous and tentative, keen about the lifestyle on offer, but scared of the unknown.
Both ‘camps’ need good, and reliable, information to ensure that they can plan and mitigate the inevitable risk that comes with any move – an international one can be fraught with so many variables and can be such a balancing act of finances, emotions, logistics and confusion.
Knowing how the medical system works, how much financial commitment is involved, how to find jobs, schools, a home…. Google and the internet is a great place to start – but I think there’s the danger of too much information. This creates a feeling of overwhelm – not knowing what information is reliable, as when there is much on offer there is often conflicting advice. Forums are great, but people can only really share their own experience, which, let’s face it – can vary widely based on circumstances, geography and tastes.
I believe that it’s best to get information from the source – government websites and/or reliable experienced practitioners who have a wide range of perspective and experience to draw on. Always ensure that people are qualified to give you the information you are seeking – i.e., if it’s visa advice, then ensure the agent or lawyer you are speaking to is a registered MARA agent and is therefore part of a select group that the authorities have deemed are qualified to give you the right information.
If it’s lifestyle advice, then speak to people who’ve done it – or have helped people do it successfully. Look to local sources of information to get the inside track – newspapers, local food guides, bloggers, all of the people on the ground who are in the know. Getting this insider knowledge can give you a flavour of the life on offer, rather than walking around ‘in the dark’ and fumbling about trying to figure things out yourself, which all serve to be costly, frustrating, and can set back the length of time it takes to feel at home.
- What about the spiders and snakes and all of the other dangerous critters in Australia? Have you see any or have a story to share with us? Are there as many as you thought there would be?
To be honest, we don’t really see much of the ‘wildlife’ in Sydney, so I’ve not developed any phobias – so far! Being in the city, I didn’t expect many at all, so it’s not really crossed my mind.
- How do you stay in touch with friends and family back home? Do you have any favourite apps that you use to keep in touch to share with us?
Top apps for me are the usual – Facebook, Skype, Whatsapp, Facetime and good old email! I also like to organize visits back to the UK and have people here to stay – or meet halfway! Sometimes there’s nothing like catching up face to face.
- Ok, Let’s focus in more on Sydney. How about the cost of living in Sydney? How does it compare to back home in the UK? Do you have any money saving tips for expats that have just moved to Sydney?
The cost of living in Sydney is expensive – but then again, a lot of people tend to earn more than they do in the UK. This of course depends on the industry and your skills. It also depends on whether you’re comparing it to living in the countryside in the UK, versus in one of the cities. I think that, overall, Australia is slightly more expensive when everything is taken into consideration – housing and food is more expensive, but I think eating out is much better quality and good options are so much more readily available. Public transport and commuting is generally much cheaper – season tickets on the train can costs £thousands, whereas people tend to live closer to work here in the urban areas, so they travel smaller distances. It’s common for many people can spend around AU$5-15 a day to commute to work in Sydney, much cheaper than a tube fare in London. Petrol is cheaper, about half the price, but then cars are about 20% more expensive, and more for luxury imported cars.
Medical care is not completely free like it is in the UK on the NHS – overall it’s best to think about government health care as a subsidised system called Medicare. Many people have private health cover, but this is cheaper and less sophisticated than in the UK and basically just allows you to jump the queues and access private hospitals if you’d prefer. This cover provides tax benefits and covers emergency services like ambulances which you’d get charged for separately if you didn’t have health cover!
In terms of tips – little things can make a lot of difference. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Most of the time, you can only view a rental property by public inspection for 15 minutes – you can see your competition and it makes the estate agent’s life easier to just show up once. There will almost always be an inspection on a Saturday. Arrive on a Friday to save a whole week of hotel or temporary accommodation costs when you won’t be able to view properties anyway.
- Choose your airline and route carefully – luggage allowances can differ considerably and can save exorbitant excess fees.
- Make sure you register with a currency broker rather than move money with a bank – this can save up to 20% due to difference in currency rates.
- Get at least 3 moving quotes – you’d think companies charge roughly the same, but they don’t!
- Invest in a book or local knowledge – this can save you bucketloads of money based on insider tips and useful information.
- Speak to locals about where to buy furniture and other goods – prices vary widely in Australia as it’s not as competitive in the UK, so the same product can vary by as much as 50% depending on where you buy it – so make sure you shop around or speak to someone who knows.
- Always bargain or negotiate when buying big ticket items like furniture, appliances, or even renting accommodation. There is ALWAYS room to negotiate, and simply ask ‘what’s your best price’ – you can save up to 15-20% in some cases, just by asking the question and especially if you’re buying a large consignment.
I noticed on your website, SettleTo.com, that one of your features is a Suburb Matcher. I think that’s fantastic as I get many questions about where to live in Sydney. I wanted to get your opinion and some quick pointers on Sydney Suburbs. Though I should point out that you cover all the major cities in Australia with your Suburb Matcher.
- What are your most often recommended suburbs in Sydney for new expats? I know you personalise it more for you clients but if you could just give us your top two and a little bit about why you recommend them the most.
I choose suburbs based on the circumstances and family – it’s so personal. But I do recommend that they live within 15km of the centre to start with, so that they can spend the first few months exploring and finding somewhere that suits them in the longer term. Eastern suburbs are the most popular – 99% of my clients ask to start there. However, most love the Inner West and Lower North Shore when I show them that there’s more space and options at a lower price point, with the close proximity to the city and Harbour. The great thing about Sydney is that you can get the village feel in most urban suburbs, so you don’t need to live close to the city to get the benefit of the lifestyle. Many don’t mind the commute and want to have the large house and pool, so I normally recommend somewhere like the Upper North Shore – Roseville, St Ives etc. It also depends on the community they want – I’ve relocated a few Jewish families where community is really key, so St Ives and Eastern Suburbs are popular.
- What suburb in Sydney do you think is most overlooked? Why do you think that is?
Places like Marrickville and Alexandria were overlooked until recently, and they’re just awesome, up and coming suburbs with rustic roots and are gentrifying quickly. Renters who want to live in the Inner West often overlook Five Dock and Haberfield, mostly due to supply, but they’re lovely hives of activity with a community feel. Those liking the Eastern Suburbs often overlook places like Maroubra, where the rent can plummet in many places purely because it’s a tiny further out from the city, but still has great transport links, a quiet vibe and an ocean beach. In the Inner West, there’s Petersham and Ashfield – dodgy roots, but very ‘now’ and emerging as hip places to live and hang out as refurbs and regeneration is happening.
- Another one of your services on SettleTo.com is helping expats making the move meet other expats. I was curious to know if this is a MeetUp Group in Sydney or is it online, something like Google Hangouts? Do you get expats from other countries beside the UK?
This is via my portal where there is an introduction option based on where people are currently living, where they’re moving to and the timeline for their relocation. There’s also a private Facebook group that I’ll be setting up. Yes – I’ve had expats from France, Ireland, Germany and the US. I’m also getting queries from South Africa.
- Having pre-populated budget templates are another fabulous idea, as I know from our experience, we really had no idea as far as the cost of our move. What is one expensive that expats under budget when they move? Are there any expenses that come as complete surprise to for your clients? Is it the cost or that they just didn’t realise that it needed to be added to their budget?
My budgeting advice always comes with indicative costs for everything they will ever need – even down to the initial grocery shop when they arrive. It’s not like any weekly shop, it can cost $hundreds when buying spices, toiletries etc all at once. Accommodation and set-up costs always come up as a surprise – deposit for accommodation, health care, utilities and things like driving licenses. If they don’t have the visa yet, the price of that comes as a shock as the costs have gone up hugely over the past couple of years. Cost of cars, insurance, flights and removalists all come as a surprise – even worse if they have kids or pets, as this puts the cost up exponentially just with the flights and transport to get here. Many people also underestimate the time it can take to find a job and establish a routine, which is a cost in itself.
- What hard to find items in Australia from the UK would you suggest new expats stock up on before they move?
I started out with a selection of things I really missed from the UK – or at least I thought I couldn’t live without. I’ve learnt that it’s not worth fretting over ‘stocking’ up with these items. There’s so much new stuff to try here and, apart from food, many of the shops like Next, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis deliver to Australia now, so you don’t have to go without!
- Let’s try a fun Sydney Travel question. Your best friend from the UK is coming to Sydney for the first time for a visit but only has 24 hours to spend in Sydney. What are your must dos for that 24 hours? Where would you take them for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Why? For example, for a specific dish or for the view or the people watching, etc.
This is a tough one! Here is what I would do:
Start early morning and drive north on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Balmoral. I would stop off at Milsons Point on the way and grab a photo of the bridge, city and Opera House from the North. Have breakfast (must include avocado!) at the Boathouse. Stroll along the Esplanade with a coffee.
Get back into car and drive to Walsh Bay – park and walk to the Sydney Opera House and Botanical Gardens via the Rocks, working up and appetite for lunch. If there were children involved, I would pay a visit to Taronga Zoo, where the elephants have some of the best views in Sydney!
Head to Mr Wong for yum cha (or dim sum) and a taste of how cosmopolitan and chic yet authentically anything Sydney can be.
Then drive to Bondi in the Eastern suburbs. Park and do the coastal walk down towards Coogee, grabbing lunch and a juice at a café in Bronte.
Sydney has a great bar scene, so I would go to Grasshopper or the Baxter Inn in the city, or even to Newtown to taste a craft beer at Young Henry’s or one of the pubs there for a bit of the grungier side of the city.
I would head for dinner at somewhere on the water, like Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay for their signature Snapper Pie whilst overlooking the Bay and the fish market.
- I was wondering how Sydney compares with the UK for eating out? How does the quality, selection and cost compare? Are there things you just cannot find in Sydney that are readily available back home? Or how about the opposite, are there things that you now cannot live without?
I personally thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I experienced the food scene in Sydney – and Melbourne for that matter, but that’s a different article! The produce and focus on freshness was awesome – even a basic café breakfast is fresh and yummy, whether it’s a muffin or eggs on toast. It just has more love and respect than I ever recall in the UK. In terms of cost, I would say that it’s comparable to the UK, and definitely better in terms of quality.
I don’t miss anything much apart from a decent curry and the ready meals you can get so easily in the UK from Marks & Spencer and other supermarkets. But there’s not so much from the eating out scene apart from the familiar Michelin ratings, which don’t exist here. We have a ‘Hat’ system which isn’t really comparable I don’t think.
In the reverse, I would really miss the range of truly authentic food you can get in Sydney – from Thai, Chinese, Italian, to Japanese, it’s all very readily available and authentic.
- How about takeaway? What are your top three favourite takeaway places in Sydney?
I don’t get takeaway much, but when I do, it’s pizza from SEDE in Annandale – wood-fired and delicious. Thai from Thai Pothong in Newtown or a curry from Faheem’s Fast Food in Enmore.
- How about Australian slang? Has there been any misunderstandings? What’s your favourite Australian expression so far? For me, as an American, Australian slang took some getting used to. Is it easier being from the UK do you think?
Many misunderstandings in the beginning, like seeing a brand of cheese called ‘Coon’ was shocking to me! And the open racism – like people from the Mediterranean calling themselves ‘wogs’ openly was really uncomfortable to me at first. I also didn’t understand why Aussies shorten everything and of course there were slang terms like ‘turps’ for alcohol, ‘RSL’, sporting terms and other language that I didn’t understand at first.
Official terminology was confusing in the beginning – ‘super’ is a pension, tax file number is what Brits would call a National Insurance number, having a car tested is an MOT in the UK, but is called a pink slip here – all very confusing!
The biggest thing was the simple stuff like ordering food – coffee terms like ‘long black’ and ‘flat white’, eggplant instead of aubergine, zucchini instead of courgette, ‘lollies’ instead of sweets and so on. Fish and other produce can be confusing too, as there is a lot of stuff you can get here that isn’t available in the UK, like Barramundi fish, for example is very Aussie that I’d never seen anywhere else, and things like Halibut and Sea Bass aren’t available here.
- What are a couple of your must have apps for living in Sydney?
Uber and GoCatch to get a cab or car wherever I am. For up to date public transport times and status it’s TripView.
I occasionally use Menulog for home deliveries. Domain has a good real estate app when I’m helping clients with their house-hunting, and I use Weatherzone to get the weather forecast.
- Let’s run through a few of your favourites in SydneyWhat’s your favourite –
- Tourist Attraction: Taronga Zoo
- Beach: Bronte
- Picnic Spot: Shark Island
- English Pub: The London, Balmain
- Weekend Market: Orange Grove, Lilyfield
- Outdoor Cinema: Mrs Macquarie’s Chair/ St. George cinema
- Place to find UK food products in the city: David Jones, Coles Broadway
- Cheap Eats: Marrickville Pork Roll
- What is one of your must see Australian Travel Destinations? Have you added anything to your bucket list since living in Australia that you didn’t know about before you moved?
I love, love, love the Whitsundays. Particularly Whitehaven Beach. It’s the Great Barrier Reef without the hecticness of Cairns – it’s serene and beautiful.
A few places I’d still love to visit – Ningaloo Reef, the lesser known reef (that I’d never heard of until living in Australia) on the West Coast of Australia (north of Perth). Broome/Darwin/Kakadu and surrounds
To find out more about Sharon and to pick up her moving to Australia guide go to SettleTo.com.