Notes from an American (Texan) living and doing business in England

After many years successfully consulting in the USA, in late 2006 I moved to England. Being from another culture has been both an advantage and a disadvantage. Thank heaven we speak the same language—or do we?

You are welcome to also visit my separate page about living in the UK when you’re from the States. You will probably order some stuff from Amazon UK and can save money by getting open-box or refurbished items here.

A lot of the challenges I faced in moving to the UK do not apply for citizens from the European Economic Area. At least until Brexit is final, EEA citizens have rights here that I did not have until I became a British citizen, EEA citizens do not need to get the increasingly scarce type of work visa that I had to hold before I achieved citizenship.

As of early 2013 I am a dual citizen of the UK and USA. This makes a big difference. I lost out on work here in the past because of not being a British citizen. If your company is American-based and not UK-registered, until you reach the upper echelons it is difficult to get Britons to do business with you. But setting up a foreign branch or office has lots of tax implications for Americans.

One of the books I point out near the end of this page is my most essential reference about tax implications. It’s more than 800 pages of dry material, but it has helped me sidestep mistakes that would have been horribly expensive.

Introductory Tips to Make a Fool of Yourself a Little Less Often

If you are American and want to do business here, it will not be like in the States. An occasional minor stumble will not hurt, but blundering too often or too badly (even just once) will sink your business here. A few tips:

  1. Avoid the mistake Obama’s staff made when Gordon Brown visited. Always tend to protocol, especially where anyone’s stature must be acknowledged.
  2. Watch your manners. Even Southerners from the States are too direct for British sensitivities. Please, thank you, a low-volume voice and subtleties are the norm. I once witnessed British Telecom management dressing down their American counterparts in a large project. At the end of the conference call, the American managers congratulated themselves on how well they were pleasing the Brits. They had been chewed out in front of their subordinates, and they didn’t even realize it. That’s how different the styles are!
  3. As part of watching your manners, learn to use your eating utinsels at least Continental style. Britons don’t expect other people to be able to eat vegetables on the back of the fork the way they do, but some of them are offended by the American habit of swapping the knife and fork from one hand to another. You don’t want a business lunch to sabotage the deal you want to land. Your fork stays in your left hand and your knife stays in your right hand.
  4. Always offer tea, and learn to brew it well. Ask whether milk or sugar is desired. Usually they’ll want milk in the tea. If they say they want “white tea,” they want milk in their tea—they are not asking for what the Chinese would call white tea, which is tea made with leaves that were not allowed to ferment.
  5. As a colleague pointed out during a visit here, you may be ambushed by a non-alcoholic drink called squash. It is often on the table for people who want a cool drink in meetings or at family get-togethers. It looks like a fruity beverage, and there may be no clue on the label that it’s a concentrate. Only pour a couple of fingers of it into a full sized glass, and fill the rest of the glass with water. You may also be startled by what they call lemonade. It is not American-style lemonade. It’s a carbonated drink resembling 7 Up. Orange [juice] and lemonade (half and half) is a commonly available soft drink at pubs and restaurants.
  6. This is a much more regimented society than the USA. As an example, we have two modestly sized “wheelie bins” per household. One is for recycling and the other for rubbish. They are collected in alternate weeks. All rubbish must be in trash bags that are tied closed, with no more than four bags in the bin, and the bin lid must close completely. The bins must be set out between specific hours before collection. Setting them out too early or failing to bring them back soon enough can get you a fine. There’s more, but you get the idea.
  7. Whenever you are outside your home, expect to be under surveillance. You only get away from CCTV in the countryside. The slightest infraction can get you in trouble even if no one else is in sight. In some places, CCTV operators can talk to you through speakers and tell you to pick up the trash you just dropped. (This is how society is kept so regimented.)
  8. Make sure your tetanus booster is up to date before traveling to or moving to the UK. In some portions of Britain (I’m not sure about Northern Ireland), an especially virulent strain of tetanus is endemic in the soil. If you are in one of those areas and get as little as a fingerprick from a rose thorn, it is considered a medical emergency—you will be rushed past other people to A&E (Accident & Emergency) for a tetanus shot, as happened to an American colleague visiting here on business.
  9. While you’re at it, private medical insurance is a good idea. People who have private cover (private health insurance) are entitled to use the private clinics and medical practices, which are generally better than NHS. The main catch comes up if you need A&E. All emergency rooms are in NHS hospitals. When a private patient needs emergency care, the patient has to be transferred. The delay and extra handling involved are the only downside I know of about private medical care here.
  10. It is nearly impossible to get enough exposure to sunlight for your body’s vitamin D requirements in winter, so take vitamin D. That is important for bone health and for fending off the common cold. All year, take folic acid and B vitamins. Much of the world refers to folic acid deficiency as English disease. English speaking countries tend to cook vegetables more, destroying the folic acid. Adding to that, the British tend not to eat enough of the types of veggies that contain the most folic acid, even if they didn’t cook it too long. Lack of folic acid can cause symptoms similar to those of pernicious anemia, including fatigue and cognitive difficulty. Getting enough folic acid but not getting enough B vitamins (especially B12) causes cognitive problems, so you need those too.
  11. Payments are usually done by electronic transfer if they are too large for cash, debit or credit card. Cheques are not common, and suggesting payment by cheque may be a misstep. This is beginning to become true in consumer transactions too, not just business to business. Electronic payment is so heavily preferred that for some services, you will have to pay a surcharge if you pay with cash! Don’t even try traveler’s cheques except at money-changers or banks. Few places even remember what those are, let alone accept them. If you are a business paying an invoice from another business, you are expected to send a Remittance Advice ahead of time stipulating exactly when you will pay, how much you will pay and for which invoice(s). QuickBooks USA version generally does not provide Remittance Advice, but the European versions do.
  12. Debit and credit cards are European chip-and-pin style. American cards are less and less accepted. Speaking of which, of the USA cards, American Express still seems the best at responding to emergencies and detecting card fraud. By special request you can get an American Express card with a chip in it that European card readers can read, but you will still have to sign instead of entering your PIN.  (Once you do that, you cannot go back to a swipe-only Amex card.) It is no longer easy to find merchants who accept Amex. VISA and MasterCard are everywhere for both European chip-and-pin and American swipe cards.
  13. If you are dining out with British business contacts, try to find out where they want to go. Some have taken to spicy Indian food quite well. But many native Britons have difficulty with spicy food. They will not complain or protest much. They’ll go to a spicy place if they feel the least pressure from you to do so, but it won’t be good for your business relationship. Missing spicy food but not fond of Indian? Then try Nando’s, which offers chicken (and veggie patties) cooked Portugese style with piri piri sauce.
  14. Since they generally don’t complain or protest much, you can’t either. Yes, winter is miserable. Just get on with it.
  15. No matter how careful you are, the language will get you. If you avoid American slang and idioms, you’ll fare better. If you watch everyone else’s faces, you’ll at least recognize when you put your foot in your mouth.
  16. Don’t expect to get invited into a home. I know an American who worked 5 years in London and is very sociable, yet was never invited into a British home. I have a friend of more than 20 years here, and I’ve never been invited to his home. Social time happens more easily in pubs or on walks, a cost-free recreation that is especially popular in rural areas. But if you do get to visit at a home, it’s probably a good idea to bring little something: a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers, or some such.

How an American can Compete in the UK

The Most Crucial Advantage

Jim Poynter, in his non-credit courses about living and working around the world, says being from the States can often get you into a good money-making position. I thought he was talking about Third World countries. It turns out to be true here too, for slightly different reasons.

Because much of the legal system in the USA came out of English common law and the two countries speak a similar language, Americans tend to expect it not to be terribly different here. Sure, Brits drive on the left, but that must be the biggest difference.

For me, now that I live here, there are striking differences between the two societies. British emphasis is on fulfilling protocol, going through a procedure dictated from above, being able to report that centrally dictated targets have been met, and making sure bosses can control every aspect of the workday lives of workers. Having attended Princess Diana’s funeral, I can attest that when done right, the results can be magnificent. I waited for the procession about 30 feet beyond where the royal family joined it, and it arrived at the precise minute stated in the published timetable.

But when all of this is done wrong, the results can be dreadful. See the news about Stafford hospital for an example of all of this when it is handled in the worst way. And let’s face it, doing anything right is much harder (and therefore much less common) than making mistakes.

The most common mistake is getting so focused on formalities, paperwork and reporting that achieving the desired result slides to secondary importance. The frequency of product defects and poor standards of customer service were serious shocks when I moved here. In fairness to the British, the two world wars drained too much out of this country. By the end of WW II, everyone was thoroughly conditioned to put up with whatever was available. Conditions of daily life actually became worse for most of the British in the several years immediately following the war. Put the deprivation of the war and post-war years together with post-war socialist emphasis, centralized control, and aversion to risk, and… here we are.

For an American living and doing business in the UK, the result is a simple advantage. Americans have a reputation for getting things done. The British themselves will tell you that they talk about doing something while Americans simply get on with it.

One of my UK clients is USA-headquartered and takes that for granted. The others find it at once amazing and terrifying. Amazing, because I can do so much so quickly compared to their staffs. Simultaneously amazing and terrifying, because I am willing to take on something that breaks new ground for me and thus has risk, and I have a long record of succeeding. Absolutely terrifying, because I might neglect some tidbit of protocol in order to do that.

The trick is to figure out which bits of protocol can be sidestepped without causing distress. If you accomplish so much, so well, that it makes your clients look brilliant, you can take carefully chosen minor (not major) shortcuts on protocol to make it happen. But the balance must be such that accomplishments outweigh shortcuts, so that the shortcuts are easily accepted. Businesses here do not bog themselves down in bureaucratic procedure because they want to make less money. They would like to make more. But from a UK-only perspective, in the risk averse stance that is a natural reaction to the wars and post-war scarcity, it is hard for them to change protocols.

Coming from the outside, you may be able to find the way. If you can do that, everyone wins.

Mixing British and American Styles

One year I spent the last weekend in May at a marketing seminar just outside London. The material was mostly the usual. Like most people, I need a push once in a while to remind me to do what I know I should do.

My accent announces that I moved to Britain from elsewhere. I was pleased to be guessed as Canadian sometimes, instead of American. (So far nobody has guessed Texan.) Canadians have a reputation as good global travelers.

In breakout sessions, some people told me that they fly to the States at least once a year to attend seminars there. Dan Kennedy seems to be especially popular among the Brits. Business is done differently in America, they said. I nodded. I’ve certainly noticed.

People said they find seminars in the States more interesting, with new material and lots of energy. They went on to say they can only stand so much of it at a time. Then they have to step out for a break. It’s so intense, they said. Business is so much harsher than in the UK. It’s exciting, but they aren’t accustomed to it. It’s like a full contact sport when they are accustomed to a non-contact sport. Well, yes. That’s a good way to describe it.

Many businesses I deal with in the UK would last a New York minute in the States. But not everything that is different in the States comes from the rough and tumble side. People at the seminar find doing business in the States is a shock, but being a customer in the States is, for the most part, a pleasure. Listening to them talk, I was reminded of listening to Americans talk (with awe) about customer service they’ve experienced in Japan.

So I got more from the seminar than the one piece that I expected:

  • I got the desired push to remind me to do things I allowed to drop off my radar screen.
  • Other seminar attendees confirmed that I have correctly identified which aspects of American business can give a UK business an advantage at home while still keeping it British. (Customer service! Quick, friendly delivery of something that works!)
  • In these tough times, some UK businesses are looking abroad for customers… and they could use some help understanding how to cope where the norms are less polite, perhaps not gentle at all.
  • I got a reminder that when mixing American and British styles, it’s important to mix the right elements. Yes, friendly (not obtrusive) smoothly delivered service and high product quality are welcomed by the British. But too much American intensity (pushiness and hype) is more than the British can swallow.

The distinction between a good mix and a bad one can be a fine line. When a sales clerk approaches a customer who just walked into a store, smiles warmly and offers help, that’s good. But if the sales clerk is too persistent, pushy about it or too personal, that’s intrusive and unwelcome. Just introducing herself or himself by name can be all it takes to cross the line. So as I said earlier, using some American traits over here can be a competitive advantage, but they have to be the right traits. Think Goldilocks—not too hard, not too soft, just right.

Governments and Business Do Not Think Beyond Their Borders

Keep a USA Address and At Least One USA Bank Account and Credit Card

Everywhere you turn, you will find a Catch 22. In order to claim the Foreign Earned Income allowance on your USA personal tax returns, you must not keep anything in the USA that looks like it might be a residence for you. If you have real estate, you need to rent it out. But you need to keep a mailing address in the USA, because a zillion entities do not realize an American might live somewhere outside the USA.

Whenever I file USA tax returns, I repeatedly run into software or Smart PDF forms that will not allow me to put in my correct physical address because it does not include a USA state and zip code. Taxes and other bills in the USA have to be paid for with a USA-based bank account or credit card. You get the idea.

You need a mailing address in the USA, and you need to pay someone reliable to forward mail to you from that address on a regular basis. Air mail typically takes an average of 10 days (one week to two weeks) to reach me, so most of the time air mail twice a month is enough. During the holiday mailing season, it takes up to a month. For urgent items, express couriers cost up to $100 for a single piece of paper and usually take about 5 days, including clearing Customs.

The IRS wants you to sever your ties before claiming the Foreign Earned Income allowance, yet is one of the agencies that makes certain you can’t. I wish I could claim they do it on purpose so they can levy more fines and penalties. Unfortunately, it’s such a widespread problem that I think the reason is more basic—most people just don’t think about anybody doing things differently or living in a different way from what they do in their own lives.

Use a UK or EU Business Entity to Do Business in the UK

Unless your business is big, Britons will shy away from dealing with it if it is based in the States. You will need a UK-based or at least EU-based business (with a bank account over here) to make people comfortable about doing business with you here.

In the event that your business will build up to enough revenue to need to be VAT-registered, you might want to go ahead and register it with the Value Added Tax authority early on.

Be careful about your choice of business entity. Don’t assume you will be okay forming a UK corporation, or a UK branch or subsidiary of a USA business. Each of those three options has tax implications. Making the wrong choice can leave you outside the tax treaties, stuck with an overall tax bill of about 80% between the two countries. More about that is in another section below.

Note: You might keep your ownership of some of a business in the USA when you move here. Try to make it a business that has no equivalent in the UK, such as a subchapter S corporation, or a business in a completely different field from your UK business.

Important Note: Make sure you do not hold any meetings of a USA board of directors in the UK. Your business partners back in the States might think it would be nice to come to London to meet with you so they can see the sights afterwards. Explain to them that a single board meeting in the UK entitles HMRC to levy UK corporate taxes on the global revenues of the American company for the entire year, without any offset for the taxes levied by Uncle Sam. That’s one of the ways you can stick yourself with a hideous tax burden.

Everything Costs (Especially if it Comes from Elsewhere)

When I first moved here at the end of 2006, the cost of living took my breath away. When you buy something, it typically costs two to four times what it would cost in the States—and it often seems like everything has a price tag. That was during boom times. Then we went into a bust so bad that the government announced the most severe austerity measures since the 1920s. Everything costs even more, and government is levying charges everywhere it can.

This will especially affect your UK business if you are importing or exporting. Here is how it works at the personal level. You can imagine how much this can magnify when entire container loads of product are involved.

When someone in the States fails to checkmark a box on a Customs form for whether it was a gift or merchandise, HMRC treats the gift as merchandise. That decision halves the value of a parcel that could be brought in without Customs being due. For us, that converted a parcel from not chargeable to chargeable. In addition to billing us for Customs, that also allowed the government to charge us VAT. On top of that, we had to pay an £8 handling fee. By the time we got the gift, we had paid the government more in taxes and fees than the value of the gift.

When you buy something from abroad, it’s automatically merchandise and you have to pay all those fees.

  • We made the mistake of buying something from an eBay seller who of course marked their parcel as merchandise. It’s below the Customs limit, so we’re only having to pay £11.23 in handling charges and VAT on a parcel worth £16.34. We were lucky—sometimes VAT is charged on the combined value of the parcel and its shipping cost.
  • As a courtesy, a training company in the USA sent me a physical CD as a backup of a training program they had allowed me to download as a sampler. Someone in their shipping department proudly marked it as merchandise with the full retail price of the training program ($800, which they never actually charge anybody). I was livid. It took six months of phone calls and correspondence to get anyone at the company to understand why I was upset with them.

This will get you over and over. Many people in the States have no idea how all of this works. When they send something to you, they want you to know how valuable it is, so they put the highest value they can justify on the Customs slip. They don’t know what it does to you when they buy something at a 50% off sale and put the full retail price on the Customs form, so you’ll have to explain it to them. They don’t understand how desperate the government here has become to get money out of people any way it can to cope with the economic mess—in the past several months we’ve begun getting charged handsomely for parcels that used to not be chargeable, as though the civil servants are under orders to wring every pence out of us that they can.

Last but not least, if your contacts in the States begin to understand and try to get around it by giving you something like an online shopping voucher, they may accidentally give you vouchers for only the USA branch of a company. For example, a voucher for cannot be used at—it can only be used to buy things from Amazon in the States and have them shipped here, with all the tax and fee implications I just outlined. If people send you stuff, you’ll have to explain to them exactly how the system works so they won’t inadvertently get you charged more than necessary. And if you are planning an import/export business, find out exactly how to do it to minimize your burden in taxes, duties and fees.

Get a Bank Account for Your Business

For most types of business, you will need a bank account for the business before you can invoice anyone or pay bills. Most payments here, especially from one business to another, are done by electronic transfer. Cheques are rarely used, and some businesses apply a surcharge if you insist on paying with cash.

If you have difficulty setting up a business bank account, you may be able to get by for the first year by engaging a company that specializes in forming corporations and then doing the accounting and government filings for the corporations. They often have such things as special arrangements with private banks. This is what I had to do at first.

If you have to resort to this, I suggest doing it only until you are able to establish a business bank account that you can directly control and engage your own independent accountant. The firm I used for my first year and a half is prominent, but did the accounting and government filings incorrectly. I switched to more direct arrangements just in time for my accountant to untangle the mess before I became liable for penalties. I know several Britons who used that firm and others like it because it seemed more convenient and streamlined—and a number of them also had problems. The worst case I am personally acquainted with was penalized about £25,000 by HMRC.

The rules here are complex and constantly in flux, and authorities will generally interact more respectfully with an accountant who represents you than they will with you directly. I highly recommend engaging an accountant. But make sure you engage a good one. If your business and tax filings are not right or are late, you are responsible and will bear the penalties, not whoever you engage to do that on your behalf.

Where is a Notary Public? (There Aren’t Many!)

When you look up “notary public” in Wikipedia, you’ll discover there are two types of notary publics. The USA uses one type, and the UK uses another type.

If you have to conduct any business back in the USA while you are physically in the UK, you are in for a rude surprise. Lawyers in the USA will require you to get your signature on the USA contracts notarized. In the USA, that’s no big deal. Notaries are everywhere. For a few dollars, with no appointment, you can easily get your signature notarized.

Becoming a notary public here is slow, difficult and expensive. Although the rules vary somewhat among the countries in the UK, becoming a notary public is along the lines of being an attorney for 10 years, taking extra training, paying a tidy sum in fees, and passing a test. In a country of more than 65 million people, there are well under 1000 notaries.

For my first three years or so here, I lived in Worcestershire. There is one notary public in the entire county. Making an appointment with him can require a lead time of up to two months. He notarized a two-page document for me, for a mere £50. Later, he notarized the contracts to refinance a USA mortgage. That pile of documents cost three digits.

I could get this done at the USA embassy. That also requires making an appointment a few weeks in advance, and of course I would have to travel to London. As a result, it doesn’t save any time or any money.

Before the Credit Crunch, once in a while it was possible to persuade someone in the States to accept a signature guarantee by an officer at your bank. It took a few weeks to get an insurer to agree to that, but it was worth the hassle. After the precedent was set, every year when the insurance policy renewed, I could deal with that document free of charge within a week.

Unfortunately, since then the rules have changed again, as they tend to do frequently here. Banks are no longer willing to do signature guarantees. In 2013, to execute a contract in the USA, I had a limited power of attorney drawn up to allow a business partner in the States to sign on my behalf. Then I visited several law offices in a large city here until I found one willing to officially witness my signature on a corporate resolution authorizing the power of attorney. This cost £50 which the legal eagles would only take in cash. Get an invoice if you do this, because you need evidence that the cash payment was not a bribe. At present, this seems to be the best solution.

You, Too, Can Pay 80% Tax to HMRC and Uncle Sam

One Little Slip and That is the American Expat’s Tax Bill

Before moving here, I hunted information about how I should structure my business and financial matters. Whenever I told friends and family that not doing it right would mean paying 80% of my income in taxes, they thought I was exaggerating.

My UK accountant has another American expat client who did not do it right. By the time he pays all the taxes he owes to the UK and USA, he has paid about 80% of his income in taxes. It isn’t easy to find an accountant here who deals with both tax systems. Ours has won an award for his expertise, and a number of Americans go to this accountant for help—but the accountant has not been able to find a way out of this mess for my unfortunate compatriot.

Yes, there is a tax treaty between the two countries. Yes, there are offsets such as the partial Foreign Earned Income exclusion for USA taxes in the tax laws that are supposed to reduce double taxation. But you have to pay attention to how it is all put together and design your financial matters to fit.

My compatriot has businesses in both countries, doing the same kind of business. His American company is a subchapter C corporation, which is like what the UK calls a “limited company.” The UK claims the right to tax global income on many, but not all, businesses that are “managed and directed” (controlled) in the UK—even if the only thing the business has in the UK is board meetings. The UK declares his two companies are parts of a single multinational company. Because they are owned and controlled from the UK, the UK taxes everything. Because he is American, the USA also taxes almost everything.

That is a very simplified explanation. The accountant could explain nuances better. But in essence, having the two companies declared as parts of a multinational is the root of his 80% total tax bill.

With some advance planning, he could have set up some of this differently. The USA has business forms that do not resemble a UK limited company, yet offer liability protection. He also could have declared himself “non-domiciled” if he planned to stay only a few years. He would need to avoid transferring profits from one country to the other. He also would not want to stay in the UK too long because then a hefty additional UK tax would kick in—an amount he would have to pay even if he did not make that much income worldwide. But if he did all of this, he would escape the extreme degree of double taxation that afflicts him now.

It’s fashionable these days to bash companies and people that practice “tax avoidance.” When you hear someone saying that, they mean that they think what I am doing is wrong, and the only ethical course is what my compatriot has done and hand over nearly all of my income in tax. I am only paying somewhat more tax than either an American or a Briton who is residing in their own country. I practice some tax avoidance—I stay within the laws (which is why I pay a little more than if I had stayed in the States or if I had been born here), but I sidestep the 80% sandpit.

There is more than one way to fall into the 80% tax trap. If you are an American with plans to live and do business in the UK for a while, practice enough tax avoidance to keep your total tax bill reasonable. Not tax evasion—that’s illegal. But study the rules or find an advisor who can guide you, so that your financial matters will fit into the rules in the best possible way.

Best Tax Reference for Americans Doing Business Internationally

Don’t panic at the price—go to Amazon and you’ll find used copies for sale at reasonable prices. U.S. Tax Aspects of Doing Business Abroad is a thick book of dry, dull reading that only an accountant could truly love and its most recent edition is becoming a little dated. But if you are an American with international business interests, this will quickly become one of your most treasured reference books. It will save you its purchase prices (even at the retail level) many times over.

Unless you are an accountant, you will not want to read it from cover to cover, but you will run to it about every new wrinkle in your international business dealings. This book can save you from thousands of dollars in needless taxes and help you structure your financial life appropriately for the two tax regimes you must satisfy. It has done that for me! It is written by accountants, for accountants. Don’t expect it to be a thrilling read. Just expect it to help you protect your backside from tax traps.

Get a Full UK Driving License

If you are doing business here, getting by with public transportation probably will not suffice. You will need to be able to drive. You can drive on your American driving license for up to 12 months after you move here. You can even buy UK insurance on your car. (Make sure you read the policy, because the coverage is different from what you get in the States.)

But within 12 months, you need to get a full UK driving license, and that takes longer than you expect. Not days, not weeks—months! I started in early May and, by pushing everything as fast as I could, got my license in September.

You are not allowed to start toward it until you have been here 6 months. Begin as soon as you can after that. Supposedly a new rule came into effect a few years ago that exempts you from having to display L (learning) plates, always have another driver in the front seat with you, and stay off the motorway during the months between your application to be a Learner and your passage of the full driving test. But in practice, even many driving instructors are unaware of that exemption. You may have to adhere to the usual Learner restrictions anyway.

On average, people have to take more than 40 hours of training from an instructor before they are able to pass the driving tests. It’s expensive, but often necessary. The tests are peculiar and in some ways contrary to the way driving is actually done by fully licensed drivers. You have to go by the official rules, spout the official answers and use the officially required techniques until you get that coveted pink license. The driving authorities have their own notions about how physics works, and you have to satisfy them.

Get the most highly rated and current study book you can find, and a practice DVD for the hazard perception test. This DVD needs to be as much like the real test as possible. Look at Amazon for one with a lot of user comments about how good it is. This part of the test is designed so that experienced drivers fail if they actually use their skills at perceiving potential hazards. This portion of the test wants you to click the mouse to indicate hazard perception within a specific time window that more or less matches a novice’s expertise. Experienced drivers recognize hazards “too early,” click before the recognition window but not again, and get penalized for “not recognizing the hazard.”

It’s extremely difficult to to delay signalling your recognition of each hazard by the right pause, but there is a way to pass this test. When you recognize a hazard, click. Then count “one-two” in your head and click again. You can do that one more time as the video shows the hazard getting closer to you. Your first click will probably be too early for the recognition window. Your second or third will probably be in the window. If you click too many times for a hazard, you will be penalized because the program will believe you are clicking randomly. That’s why you can only click three times per hazard.

Practice until you have a sense of the timing involved. Think of it as learning a video game, and you’ll be able to pass.

A couple of important limitations begin when you apply for Learner status. From that moment until 12 months after you get your full UK driving license, you generally cannot rent a car. The rental agency’s insurer will not allow it.

However, there is a way around this. Rent from Enterprise car rental in the States before moving here, and rent from them again here before starting pursuit of your UK license. Approach them before starting your UK license quest and ask whether they will rent to you. The request will have to go up the management chain, but chances are that they will only refuse to rent to you during the interval when you are a learner. As soon as you get your full UK license, they will accept your years of driving experience in the USA and start renting to you again. They are USA based and self-insured, so they can do that.

During that learner interval and for 12 months after you get your full license, you also cannot test drive a car you want to buy—unless the seller is a private individual who doesn’t know any better than to let you drive it. Again, insurance limitations are the reason.

You can buy a car at any time. You just can’t test drive it during that awful interval. By the way, if you do have to put L plates on your car while you prepare for the test, be aware that many UK drivers despise learners and intentionally do crazy things on the road around the learners. If you are driving with L plates, expect other drivers to cut in front of you, ride your back bumper, and so on.

Online Resources for UK Business

These are certainly not the only online resources you will ever need, but they should be helpful for you. I present them in no particular order.

UK National Government Portal (DirectGov) can handle most of your personal online interactions with the national government such as “taxing your car” (paying road tax). Your county and local Council have a separate presence on the Web, which you can easily find through a search box on the DirectGov home page Your Council probably offers a way to pay Council Tax and Business Rates online through their website.

Working Away from Home: An Army of Britons Do It Every Week

In the States, a lot of people are willing to relocate when their next job is more than a commutable distance from home. For that matter, many people in the States relocate to less expensive quarters when they become anxious about their financial security.

Most Britons try hard to stay put. (After you’ve been here a while, that will make more sense than when you first arrive.) As a result, a veritable army of people travel across the country every Sunday night or Monday morning to work, and travel back to their homes Friday evening.

If you find yourself in that situation, you might be able to arrange to share a flat or house near your work. (Remember, in this case you’ll have to pay Council Tax at both the flat and your home.)

But if your work is more erratic, like mine, you may not be sure enough of the timeline to get into a lease or make a flat-sharing deal. I can be near Bristol one week and in Crawley the next, for example. In that case, you will need to stay at a hotel, guest house, or bed and breakfast (B&B). Most hotels are likely to be above your budget unless you are being reimbursed by a client or employer. Sometimes a Travelodge or Premier Inn will offer a bargain rate if you book far enough ahead. Of those, the Premier Inn is likely to offer a nicer stay.

But for the most part, an American business class hotel is expensive. Shop carefully to find a better deal at a B&B—and set your expectations accordingly. You might not have an en suite room (with its own loo and shower). It might be very small. The television might only offer a few channels, not satellite or cable. Only the larger hotels here have air conditioning for the few days in summer when the weather may be hot enough. More importantly, only the larger hotels turn the heating system on as soon as the weather turns autumnal and keep it on around the clock. Most places turn the heat on for a couple of hours in the morning and for a few hours in the evening. As a guest, you should be frugal and turn down the heat in the morning before you leave your room for the day. Some places only have hot water during the hours when the heat is on. At such places, if there is no electric shower heater, taking a shower at the wrong time of day will turn you blue.

I have spent many weeks with a shared bath and part-time heat this way. I have learned it’s best to take a shower after dinner while the heat is on, and while there is no mad morning rush for the bathroom. In the morning, I only need the bathroom for a few minutes so I can brush my teeth. I have also learned that because my clients start the day early, the heat is only on for a few minutes before I need to get up, dress, eat breakfast and leave. Draping knickers, socks, thermals (long underwear) and such over the radiator at bedtime makes them slightly toasted when I need to get dressed in a room that is still chilly.

Once you have the knack of it, you’ll routinely stay at B&Bs for £30 to £45 per night. You get a whopping full English breakfast as part of the bargain, which leaves you fine with a small lunch and modest dinner. Your B&B might even have self-catering facilities so you can cook your own dinner. People who run or regularly stay at your most frequent B&Bs will become friends, which doesn’t happen so easily at a big hotel.

You would probably stay at hotels if you worked away from home a lot in the States, but at B&Bs here it is a more personal and homelike experience.

The Delicacy of Living Through the Same Change Twice

When I showed up at a large client site to take the technical lead role for a project, one of the clients blurted out, ‘[name of company] hired a woman!’

Well, they hadn’t exactly. I’m a consultant, and [name of company] had engaged me not just for that project but to learn from me and improve their own level of expertise. In twenty years of doing business, evidently they had only hired or contracted with women for such jobs as receptionist or accounting clerk. Whenever I was at their headquarters working on their client’s project, I was generally one of only three or four women in the building, out of 55 people–and certainly the only one with high technical expertise.

Britain wants to have already made the leap to equality, acceptance of diversity, and so on. But it has taken on this massive societal change relatively recently. That first boatload of very black men from Jamaica came here within five years after World War II ended. The influx of immigrants in recent years has been phenomenal. Some tension is inevitable.

As for women, it’s an odd situation. On one hand, you see Iron Lady Thatcher and a long line of powerful queens, and it seems like Britain must have no problem with the notion that women can be as capable (and as formidable) as men. But it just isn’t so. Not quite, not yet.

In some regards I am right back where I was in the States twenty-five years ago. In business, I’m frequently the only woman in the room. When I’m not the only woman, I’m usually the one perceived to have the most stature (although I may not always deserve the perception). The men in the room are unsure about how to handle themselves and what to expect. They aren’t sure how I should be dressed or how I should be addressed. They stumble over words, worried because all of a sudden they can’t simply address the gathering as ‘gentlemen’ or ‘businessmen.’

All that, before we even get to the additional complication that I’m originally from Texas, a mysterious desert full of tumbleweeds and longhorn cattle where people swagger and drawl and shoot each other over the smallest slight. Then I tell them that I’m from the coast, where annual rainfall is 60 to 80 inches of rain a year, and where I’ve seen 42 inches of rain fall in 24 hours. Even what they thought they knew about my background falls apart.

If you are a woman from the States, you’re going to have similar experiences here. If you’re old enough, you’ve been through a lot of this before, although in the States it was often quite a bit rougher. If you’re an American man and you’re old enough, you’ve already been through the transition that all those men in business meetings with me are going through.

Living it again feels strange. Just remember, you’ve lived this story before. You know what’s ahead for them. You know it’s going to be okay. I suggest that you step carefully and be gentle about it when you can.

Beware the Black Magic of Pre-Pack

In the States, if you are too lenient about letting a customer get behind on payments and the customer goes under, eventually a bankruptcy court will award you a fraction of what you were owed. When you have the foresight to make sure your customer’s debt to you is secured, a bankruptcy court in the USA will even put you among the first in priority for payment.

It does not necessarily work that way in the UK. A collapsing UK company ;goes into administration. This means an administrator is appointed to use the company’s assets to pay creditors to the extent feasible. Precisely how that happens and what powers the administrator has depend upon such factors as the age of security interests against the assets.

Up to that point, insolvency in the UK sounds like what you expect in any nation with similar laws. But the UK has a variation that can blindside you and leave you with nothing. Pre-packaged administration (pre-pack) allows the best parts of a folding business to be sold, without prior notice to creditors, before an administrator takes over.

The rationale for making pre-pack available sounds good at first. A dying company continues to deteriorate while an administrator inventories its assets and tries to find a buyer. Providing a streamlined way to rescue any salvageable parts and wind down the rest should, in theory, save jobs by allowing the productive parts of a business to continue operating without too much disruption.

In practice, pre-pack often leaves hardly anything for the administrator to use to partially pay creditors. This can trigger a wave of job losses and business collapses in vendors to the pre-packed firm.

You don’t have to be doing business with the original bankrupt firm to be damaged by it. You only have to be downstream. Too often, pre-pack is used as black magic. Someone can put together a new company, arrange financing, and buy the best of the dying business as a pre-packaged deal. The buyer can even be the same people who ran the collapsing company.

Nobody gets prior notice. Nothing goes on the market. Creditors find out only after the deal is complete. You are a creditor if you are a vendor to the old company, or a customer of it who is awaiting delivery of your goods, or you made a loan to the old company. The new company does not bear any burden from the original company’s unpaid creditors. Since the administrator is left only the worse pieces of the old business for satisfying the old company’s debts, creditors might never get anything.

Statement of Insolvency Practice 16 took effect in January 2009 to set tighter guidelines for pre-packs. The new guidelines call for disclosure of 17 factors in a pre-pack sale. The disclosure should provide evidence of why pre-pack is needed. Unfortunately, disclosure is not required until after (perhaps long after) the prearranged sale. A loophole for exceptional circumstances is available, and it can be used to make sure some information is never released to creditors.

The new guidelines are intended to reduce pre-pack sales to related parties (owners and directors of the failed business). They seem to be too easy to go around.

The lesson here is simple. When doing business with a UK firm (even when simply buying from them as a customer), pay extra attention to the firm’s financial health. Don’t allow a customer to get far behind on payments to you. Avoid ordering goods with a long delivery time unless you are certain the seller is financially sound and their biggest customers are sound too. Listen to word on the street about how solid a company is–because by the time the news hits ordinary sources such as credit reports or newspapers, it’s too late.

Business Is Not As Gentlemanly As You Might Expect

At first glance, you might get the impression that business in the UK is a better-mannered pursuit than in the States. After all, didn’t British Telecom lose MCI to WorldCom because BT shareholders protested the purchase price and BT actually reduced the bid to satisfy its shareholders? They also practice such extreme politeness that you can make cold calls all day without ever getting your ego bruised. Saying no to your pitch would be impolite, so they simply defer and delay. It feels like they are really considering buying even when you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of closing a sale.

Don’t be fooled. UK law allows some ugly tricks. As an example, look more closely at pre-pack administration.

A single accounting firm had the role of being the accountant for Woolworth’s, providing the adverse advice that shut down Woolworth’s access to financing, and administering the dissolution of the retailer. Guess what was worth the highest revenue for the accounting firm? Administering bankruptcy.

You might expect such a flagrant conflict of interest to be against a law, or at least against business conventions. It is acceptable in the UK.

Speaking of conflict of interest, the line between shady conduct and illegal conduct is more lenient than in the States. I have been on contract with a firm in which this has become a large problem. A director holding minority shares has repeatedly set up deals designed to shortchange the rest of the company in order to reap the lion’s share of the proceeds for himself, directly or through other firms where he is a majority shareholder. He sees nothing wrong with this as long as he steps out of the room when the vote is taken, although in some of these instances he has simply never brought his activity before the rest of the board. Legal counsel tells me that his behavior is unethical and does demonstrate conflict of interest—but even where the funds being redirected to him are government money, technically he is within the law, whereas he would be guilty of a felony in the States.

Why did I talk with legal counsel? Because when he does step over the line into criminal behavior, anyone who is aware of it and does not take appropriate action to prevent or report it can become guilty too, legally classified as a collaborator.

For obvious reasons, I backed away from him, and I am glad to been able to do so when there was no crime (so far) I would be required to report.

The main counterbalance I could see is the mechanism for having a director “stricken off” as delinquent. This has more to do with violation of the Articles that govern a company than with a violation of national law, although there are points where the two factors overlap.

If someone is formally declared a delinquent director, that person loses the right to be a director of any organization in the UK for a set period of time. Since that dramatically hobbles a high roller’s ability to do business, it is a severe punishment. In some circles it carries more stigma than being convicted of a business crime.

If you have the misfortune to cross paths with such problems, bear in mind that the UK is more strict about slander and libel than the States. You must be very careful what you say and write to or about a person. Statements in anger that would hardly raise an eyebrow in the States can be construed as an illegal threat here and can get you charged with a crime. Statements that would not be libelous in the States can be judged so here. Try to stick to statements of verifiable fact. That’s the best way to stay on the legal side of the line.

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