Deciding where to live: Binational couple edition
July 14, 2019 11:55 PM   Subscribe

Couples with mixed nationality and residency who elected to combine households, how did you decide where to live? What factors were most important in your decision? How did you assess the total quality of life available for you as a couple in the locales you considered, and the financial implications of your choice? I am especially interested in situations where both members are mid-career age and already well established professionally and socially. Snowflakes about my/our personal situation within.

I'm a US citizen based in San Francisco, she's a UK citizen based in London. We have been together for a little over a year and the relationship has been long-distance the whole time, with periods of extended visiting from both of us. That's something we would like to resolve if the relationship is to continue, however, while we have talked about the possibility of marriage we are not married nor formally engaged. We are in our late-30s/mid-40s.

I have now spent enough time in London to know that while I am unlikely to fall deeply in love with it, there is plenty to like and my quality of life would be fine there. She has spent enough time in San Francisco to feel she doesn't want to live there but says she is open to trying Seattle. My route to UK/EU temporary residency would be via a work visa, her route to US residency would have to be via marriage. If landing in the UK gave me a good path to EU permanent residency I might do it for that alone, but, well... Brexit, alas.

I'm a software engineering manager who likes to work in a physical office with people, she has her own location-independent consulting business and primarily works from home. Her major clients are located in the US and in Southeast Asia. Career advancement is important to me, and I strongly prefer working for companies where software products are a core line of business rather than a support/cost center.

I have always been open to the idea of living and working abroad, so for my last job search I said I would look in San Francisco, Seattle, London, and Berlin (all cities with strong tech sectors where we both would be willing to live). Job searching in the UK/EU from the US West Coast has not been easy (the time difference is a big problem for scheduling and my professional network is 99% US-based), but I ended up with an offer in London and an offer in Seattle. Both offers are good for their respective locales and both companies are pretty well-regarded names in their areas, however, the opportunity in Seattle looks stronger both in terms of my personal growth and overall company potential. Also, while it's not just about the money for me, at the current exchange rate the gap in base salary is HUGE in Seattle's favor. The London job has more paid time off but not a lot more.

Aside from the pay scale differences, I am unsure of how to assess the larger financial implications for both of us. E.g., I have several years of good 401(k) contributions built up—what happens if I start contributing to a UK pension instead? As a sole proprietor, is Girlfriend better off in a country with universal health insurance?

Then there are the fuzzier issues like access to travel opportunities, arts and culture, natural beauty and outdoor recreation, decent public infrastructure, social comfort for us as a Black/White mixed couple (certainly the Bay Area claims to be highly progressive and tolerant, but does not necessarily live up to that claim), proximity to friends and family, etc.

For personal finance especially and general "how to adult" topics as well I feel like I have a good level of US-based knowledge built up and am starting almost from scratch anywhere else, so sometimes I don't even know what I don't know. This job search has been draining and I would like to resolve the locale question soon. How do people make their way through a decision like this?
posted by 4rtemis to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You should move to the UK/EU

Assuming things like social comfort and safety, and self-determination are as important as money and status, she would be worse off if she moved to the US. She'd lose universal health insurance and she would have to get married. Plus, you know, Trump, religion, earthquakes, and guns.

You on the other hand, only lose some earnings and status by taking the London job. You can always get another better paying job later anyway. You don't have to marry or tie yourself to anyone just to get health coverage. And you get more culture.

She'll be able to love you better in the UK/EU.
posted by Thella at 1:07 AM on July 15, 2019 [15 favorites]

Also, while it's not just about the money for me, at the current exchange rate the gap in base salary is HUGE in Seattle's favor. The London job has more paid time off but not a lot more.

In general, European salaries are lower than American salaries. This shouldn't affect your ability to go back to the US and get a US salary again. Exchange rates are a poor guide to equivalent cost of living and what you should do is look at what your expenses would be on either side. Healthcare of course is a factor as well.

If landing in the UK gave me a good path to EU permanent residency I might do it for that alone, but, well... Brexit, alas.

There are many things to consider of course. If Brexit happens, it is possible for EU protections to disappear. This may affect your potential quality of life as well as your future ability to live, travel and work in the EU of course. Also, personally, I think things are getting worse in the UK so if your goal is to escape to a Trump-free country that is less racist then the UK is going in the wrong direction for you at the moment.

I do agree with Thella though that the hurdle of getting married is high for her. It makes more sense for you to live together in the UK if getting married is not a certain path at this point. And on the positive side, Brexit may not happen or get indefinitely delayed. The latter would still allow you to more easily find a path to be an EU citizen as many EU countries are carving out paths for British citizens to reside and live in those countries.
posted by vacapinta at 4:10 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I cannot answer the financial implications, but I can tell you about the importance of living somewhere that feels like home to both of you.

I had a LDR with Mr Bookish - he lived in the UK and I lived in Denmark. I opted to move to the UK (Glasgow) rather than him moving to Denmark. From a financial and social security pov, it would have made more sense if he had joined me in Copenhagen, but it was not a good cultural fit. Relationships are hard work, even without the added stress of living somewhere you don't feel comfortable.

At the end of the day, this is a step you will take in order to make the relationship work, so foreground that in your thoughts. A place might make sense on paper and in terms of career/finance, but you need to think hard about what will work in terms of your relationship.

Also, I didn't see Ireland mentioned?
posted by kariebookish at 4:21 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

there are a lot of professional and relationship advantages as you describe in moving to the UK - however you cannot discount the effect of "all the other hours in the day when you are not at work" might have on you. "Living in" a country is *not* the same as "having vacationed in a country and loved it". It is quite different. Please consider how well you feel you can/will integrate into the culture as well. There are large things ("how do I make friends", "how to I maneuvre the beurocracy") to smaller things ("where's my favorite brand of toothpaste?", "they dont have [this thing] here?!?"). This things can and will impact you. It might be easier for you than for other ex-pat couples because you will have a job and work colleagues, but don't discount the other 16 hours of the day. Really be mindful of what a years-long existence in the UK might be like for you once the "honeymoon" phase moves away and the "real life" phase begins.
posted by alchemist at 4:37 AM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I see a lot of ‘on paper’ data here and no mention of a visceral feeling of belonging. Choosing a place to live is a lot like choosing a relationship partner - they could be 100% perfect on paper but if the spark isn’t there, that’s irrelevant. All the options you describe sound pretty meh, the way you describe them. Given that, I would personally choose a city that causes the least disruption for both of you (ie lets you avoid decisions about marriage and citizenship, for now).

In general, this basically comes down to who is more passionate about their preferred city. It can be a hard, drawn-out decision. It is not easily solved by refering to data and hard facts and numbers.

Source: transatlantic immigrant, friends with many transatlantic couples, have had to make similar decisions in a couple context.
posted by The Toad at 5:42 AM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you move to London, you won't both be navigating a new ciry with no other support network than each other.
posted by kate4914 at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Have you seen the TV show Catastrophe? It's quite a funny programme about an American man who moves to London to be with his Irish partner.

I'm an American and my partner is British. We chose the UK for the NHS, lack of gun crime, and length of holidays. He'd like to spend more time in the US when we retire but I'm not bothered. YMMV. A major consideration will be who is more comfortable living far from family and friends.
posted by hazyjane at 6:25 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have a similar dual-country. It is a hard decision. London is in a terrible mood right now, and has a lot of problems. (I live here!) But it would be much easier for your girlfriend and much easier for health insurance; how would she get a visa in the US? And London is a huge city and the neighborhoods have vastly different personalities. I would strive to find a place that you both love within London, if possible.

That said, it can be great to navigate a new city together, and Seattle sounds great if she's up for it. And I like the suggestion of Ireland as well -- excellent in Europe from a tech perspective.

I would also think the gender aspects of this. EVERYONE I know who is in this kind of relationship who is a woman moved for a man. It's not even that it is obviously gendered, just that the woman generally gives things up. This often breeds resentment.

Also, are kids in the future? One surprising thing to me is to raise kids in a culture that is not my own. It's not bad -- but just very different. I hadn't really thought of it before.

Good luck!
posted by heavenknows at 10:12 AM on July 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd move to Seattle and see how you both like it there for say, a year or two. That will also give you time to see how Brexit is going to shake out and how the economy in the UK will convert. I wouldn't move to the UK right now due to Brexit uncertainties and the trend that leadership there has displayed: namely, not getting anything stable in-place in the years they've had to plan and transition. Yes, the US is also a hellscape right now, but with any luck, post 2020 elections, things could look better.

Your partner is willing to consider Seattle and it puts both of you in a new place that you can make yours, together. It also helps you stay in the type of work environment you prefer while not impacting her portable business much.

Try it for awhile, see how various political things in both countries turn out and then make a decision about whether Seattle is for you or whether you'd like to revisit going to Europe.
posted by quince at 10:13 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I commented above but just noticed you said that you would get a US visa through marriage -- I would REALLY hesitate to do this if you've never lived together before, much less in the same country. Living together for the first time, with one of you in a completely new country that may or may not be FOREVER, would be incredibly stressful on a new marriage. I'm not saying that means London, but it may mean finding another way to get her a visa.
posted by heavenknows at 11:03 AM on July 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

In general, European salaries are lower than American salaries. This shouldn't affect your ability to go back to the US and get a US salary again. Exchange rates are a poor guide to equivalent cost of living and what you should do is look at what your expenses would be on either side.
I've looked into this and for my situation the decrease in cost of living from moving SF -> London does not make up for the drop in salary. Looking just at CoL versus earnings alone Seattle is actually the optimal choice.
I would also think the gender aspects of this. EVERYONE I know who is in this kind of relationship who is a woman moved for a man. It's not even that it is obviously gendered, just that the woman generally gives things up. This often breeds resentment.
We're a same-sex couple.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:13 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ah, I apologize for assuming about sexual orientation! But that does raise another point (that you've probably already thought of.) If children are at all in the cards, DOMA does weird things if you the American are not the birth mother. It could mean that your child born in the UK may not be an American citizen. I know a family struggling with this now in London, and it makes the move back to the US more complicated.

And even if you take gender out of the equation, one part of the couple really might feel a lot of resentment than the other one -- and it sounds now that you really will if you move to London. I would try to figure out who would resent the move the least and go with that.
posted by heavenknows at 12:06 PM on July 15, 2019

Also, I didn't see Ireland mentioned?

This. If you're considering marriage, it's worth pointing out that a) she has the right to live and work in Ireland, and Brexit will not change this; b) if you are married, you gain the right to live and work here without any restrictions or application process; c) after 5 years, you can both apply for Irish, and thus EU, citizenship; d) neither of your nations of birth prevent joint citizenship. This is the route my spouse and I took; one of us is born in the UK and the other is born in the US. We reside in Ireland.

Additionally we have same sex marriage enshrined in our constitution and are working to sort out same-sex inter-marriage adoption to cement the legal status of both parents. Adoption here is ridiculously difficult, as it should be, and donor sperm is legally delivered via IVF only.

Finally, while both the UK and the US are socially regressive, this is not the case in Ireland. I am glad every single day that I live here.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:06 PM on July 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hi 4rtemis, it feels a bit personal posting about my experiences with the questions on your mind here, but I wanted to say that I have extremely relevant experience (moved to Berlin many years ago to be with the woman who I ended up marrying, and I'm from the US and female and in tech – Brexit is a bit outside of my personal experience, but I'm pretty up to date on the travails here of UK folks I know, P.S. I'm very happy with my choices but can speak honestly to the difficulties, for what that's worth) and you're welcome to shoot me a line if you want to discuss stuff/get advice in memail. In any case, good luck on your life adventure and I wish for you both to enjoy it as such!
posted by Halle at 9:40 AM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would think carefully about your mixed race couole-Dom, and the difference in experience that the person of colour might have in London versus Seattle.

I’m a white US woman who met and married a white Brit man, and we live in the UK now. We did not use any decision making methodology! We were young and we’re/are in love.

Politically both countries feel awful to me, but I think the experience might well be substantially different for a person of colour.
posted by mgrrl at 3:20 PM on July 16, 2019

Hi, I'm an American woman now living in Australia after meeting my Australian husband in London. I moved to London for a new experience, which I got in droves, and unexpectedly met the Australian dude while already living there.

I won't try to speak to what your experience might be as a same-sex biracial couple in London from any direct experience - my husband and I are both white, for one. However, I can say that I feel London is a bit more welcoming than NYC (my hometown). The reality might differ from my feeling though.

I also have a career both in tech (so many startups) and journalism. I don't want to get into precise numbers but I can tell you I took a job in London at a pay cut to what I was making in New York. My personal "calculation" was that moving to another country and having that experience was worth more to me than the high salary. I was able to live comfortably in London on the salary I had, and I'm happy to discuss stuff like that in more detail if you MeMail me. Some things are cheaper in the UK, even in London, than in the US (having lived in SF as well, I found London bizarrely more affordable in certain groceries and so on). I didn't like where I first ended up living - east London - but that changed big time when I found a new area - northwest London for me, your mileage will vary of course.

So I guess I'd say figure out what it's worth to you. I think living abroad is very eye-opening and rewarding - though definitely challenging too. I'm horribly guilty of underestimating the potential downsides in search of adventure, and I'm getting through the reality vs expectations alright so far. I've had my moments though. If you look at it as a new experience, new adventure, that isn't necessarily permanent (what is?) you should be fine.

I would definitely want to limit the pressures on your relatively new relationship and avoid doing things like getting married for a visa: adjusting to a new country and culture for either of you is going to be hard enough, and getting used to living with each other as well - in the same flat, and/or in the same city - will take some work too. Good luck, I really hope you can arrive at the next steps, both excited about what's to come.

Oh one more thing: you make a very good point of not knowing what you don't know. This can be one of the trickiest aspects to starting a life in another country. You'll have help in this if you go on a work visa, as at least in the UK your employer is somewhat responsible for you and plus people will most likely be nice and want you to be happy - in other words, your coworkers (and your gf, I'd guess) will help you navigating stuff like "how do I file my taxes? Do I file my taxes?" or "what's a good low-key bar to meet someone at?" or "what is this XYZ thing people keep laughing about?" (pop-culture education). At least that's what happened with me.
posted by jacquilinala at 7:17 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, these comments gave me a lot to think about. I realized that:
  • The job opportunity I have in Seattle really is stronger in every respect than the opportunity in London. I would resent giving that up and I don't want that resentment to damage our relationship.
  • The long-term "right answer" may well be the UK rather than the US. However, I have reached the end of both the time and money I am willing to spend on this round of job hunting. I really wish I had found an opportunity overseas that I wanted to move for (and have my work visa linked to), but that's not what happened this time and I accept the outcome.
  • I am definitely willing to make another UK/EU job search in the future, but based on this experience I want to be in/near the area when I do it so I can take full advantage of schedule overlap and in-person networking. That means finding a path to a longer-term stay there allowing me that flexibility—"pack up a suitcase and the cat and push the limits of a tourist visa" doesn't count. Maybe that means marriage ends up being my route to immigration.
  • Anything we do at this point will put stress on our relationship. As much as we might like each other (and we really do—a lot more than like!) this relationship is still pretty new. We haven't truly committed to living a partnered/married life together at this point, and I have to be practical and keep that in mind.
So, after extensive consultation with Girlfriend we've decided that I will take the job in Seattle. She will visit me as her work and schedule permit, and we will see how we both feel there. That means deferring a more permanent decision for a while but maybe that is for the best at this stage. I am meeting with an immigration lawyer next week to get a better understanding of her visa options as well.

Seattle will be a new place for both of us so who knows?—maybe she will fall in love with life in the Pacific Northwest or I will decide that if I'm going to live with that much rain in my life, I'd rather live with it in London—and we will go from there.
posted by 4rtemis at 6:55 PM on July 20, 2019

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