Expat life: pros and cons of living in Scotland

I’ve just returned to my hometown in the United States after living in Scotland for just shy of 22 months. This was my first time living outside the US, and it took me a while to adjust to it. As I adjust back to American life, I’ve been reflecting on the best and worst things about my life abroad. Here are the pros and cons of expat life in Scotland!

The pros:

Free healthcare

Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom, and that means they have free healthcare via the National Health Service. When I arrived in Scotland, I just had to register with a general practitioner (doctor) and then I received my NHS card in the mail. My doctor’s office was about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. To see a doctor, I just called the office the morning I wanted to go and was given the first available appointment. Doctor’s visits are free. I had a few health issues while I was there, requiring a sigmoidoscopy, two x-rays and a weekend wearing a heart monitor – all free as well. In Scotland, even prescription drugs are free, though this is not true throughout the rest of the UK.

As an American, I absolutely love the NHS. It took me a while to untrain myself from waiting until I was dying to see the doctor; I could just go when I had a cold, or when I fractured a bone in my foot. In the US I probably would have tried to walk it off!

Public transportation

After 22 months, I'm reflecting on the best and worst things about my life abroad. Here are the pros and cons of expat life in Scotland!

Here’s Flat Stanley on a train as we leave Glasgow!

Glasgow and Edinburgh both have excellent public transportation in the city, and the entire country of Scotland is well-connected via trains and buses. You can even get to the Isle of Skye on a bus! In Glasgow, I used the subway, which while small, gets you around in the city center and West End where I lived. Glasgow also has a great system of buses if you want to go out to one of the big shopping centers (we have gone to Ikea and Costco via bus – exciting times getting home.) There are also trains that connect the city center with the suburbs around the city. Coming from the western US, I’m used to needing a car for everything, so it was fun to go without one for a while!

Virtually no guns

Following a massacre in an elementary school in 1996, the United Kingdom banned private ownership of handguns. As a result, gun crime is extremely rare, and any time shots are fired, even if it only results in property damage, it makes the news. Even the police rarely carry guns. While knife crime is a little more common, I felt considerably safer knowing the likelihood of being involved in a shooting was really low.

The cons:

The weather

After 22 months, I'm reflecting on the best and worst things about my life abroad. Here are the pros and cons of expat life in Scotland!

A typical Scottish day. This is Oban, on the west coast of Scotland.

When I realized that sunshine was measured in hours monthly, rather than days, I knew I was in trouble. The United Kingdom is really far north, and Glasgow is at roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska. Thankfully Glasgow doesn’t see a lot of snow, but it’s almost always cool and cloudy. Winters can be quite wet, with a mix of rain, sleet and ice pellets falling along with strong winds. Umbrellas are frequently turned inside out, and you just learn to put your hoodie up and get through it. The lack of sunlight means Vitamin D deficiency is a major health concern, and the winters can be quite dark, with only about 7 hours of daylight at the darkest time of year. However, summer days are very long, with about 17 hours of daylight, so that is kind of nice!

Less convenient

I’m used to everything being available, whenever I need it. In Scotland, you have to plan a little better. For example, retail stores typically close between 6-7 pm nightly, staying open an extra hour on Thursday nights. No more wandering the malls after work – you have to get in and get what you need before they close! Bank branches are everywhere, but if you want to open an account, you have to go to a particular bank location to do it. You’ll find small grocery stores in neighborhoods, but if you want to shop in a superstore, you have to head for the suburbs – particularly inconvenient as the big stores are the only place to find a good selection of gluten free products! It’s all minor, but when you’re used to being able to hop in your car and get your groceries late at night, it requires a bit more planning ahead.

Customer service

After 22 months, I'm reflecting on the best and worst things about my life abroad. Here are the pros and cons of expat life in Scotland!

There are some lovely places to visit outside, if the shops are all closed!

In the UK and Europe in general, customer service is not usually as good as you’re used to as an American. While it’s not bad, per se, there’s just less emphasis on it. In restaurants, they don’t check on you very often, and you’ll have to flag down your server to get your check at the end of the meal. You’re rarely approached by salespeople in shops. My biggest issue has been that it can be difficult to find someone to take responsibility for a problem and then help you with it. This was particularly true at the university I worked at – solving a simple issue with the reimbursement system could take weeks, a number of phone calls and emails, and talking to at least three different people, none of whom felt your problem concerned them. It’s just a bit frustrating when you’re used to people taking ownership, even if it really wasn’t their problem!

In summary

After 22 months, I'm reflecting on the best and worst things about my life abroad. Here are the pros and cons of expat life in Scotland!

A pro-independence rally just before the Scottish referendum in 2014.

Living in Scotland was a great experience, and a chance to see what another culture is like. I arrived in Scotland days before the Scottish referendum (where Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom.) I left just days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (though Scotland voted to remain.) It was a very interesting time to see the politics in the United Kingdom in action, and I’m glad I got to learn about a different government and see how another country does healthcare, gun laws and transportation. I think Scotland was a great first move abroad, and I’ll definitely miss parts of that experience.

Have you ever lived abroad? What was the best or worst thing about your expat life? Tell me in the comments!

Expat life: grocery shopping in Scotland
Expat life: comparing food labeling laws in the US and UK

Before Gluten Free Fab Life, I kept a little blog about my experience leading up to and during my time in Scotland. If you’re looking for more information about making the move, a few of those old posts might be helpful!

How to move to Scotland

Part 1: Get a visa (information about Tier 2 partner visa)

Part 2: Logistics

Before moving: the checklist

Before moving: I was scared

Other random information about my time in Scotland

My first two days in Scotland

What is the same, and what’s different in the UK

Being new in Scotland

Settling in: healthcare and bank accounts part two

Settling in: routine and bank accounts part one

Scottish sign confusion

Parts of this experience were really hard

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