Living in Norwich, England as an American Expat in the UK

Living in Norwich, England as an American Expat in the UK

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It was early on in 2019 when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life that I ended up deciding on living in Norwich. More realistically for me though – I was trying to figure out what to do with the next year of my life. Grad school seemed like a decent idea – but abroad – because that’s what I do.

After doing enough research to know that there weren’t a lot of options of schools that offered non-fiction creative writing, or something like it, I sent in an application to the University of East Anglia (UEA), interviewed from the beach in Kenya, and Norwich, England became my newest home in September of that year. 

I’m originally from the Green Mountains of Vermont, USA but I’ve lived abroad for about seven years now. Morocco, Ireland, Vietnam, Australia, The Czech Republic, and Spain have all been home to me. I’ve moved around a lot and I’ve gotten a taste for life in many different cultures and atmospheres – so when within minutes of arriving my contentedness with living in Norwich blossomed into a full blow crush, I knew it was a good sign. It might have been the constant flow of friendly, happy cats roaming the streets, or the rainbows that broke overhead quite often, or the sunshine, or the multitude of pubs, or the fact that when I walked into one a girl at the bar started chatting to me when she heard me say I was new to the city. Or maybe it was all of that. I was into living in Norwich from the moment I arrived and that hasn’t changed.

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Funny story – my arrival in Norwich to make my home here wasn’t actually my first time here. Back when I lived in Ireland I worked in a hostel. One week a group of geology students came as part of a uni trip to study the rocks in the area (The Burren is famous for its rock formations, I guess). It was also the matchmaking festival in town, which meant lots of booze and dancing. So, one night I brought some of the boys from the uni group out with me and ended up hooking up with one of them on top of a stranger’s camper van parked on the side of the street (there were lines of them during the festival – this is all much more acceptable-seeming in context). I later went to visit him in – you guessed it – Norwich. That was years ago and I haven’t spoken to him in a long time. I remember dancing in dark clubs in Norwich that weekend, but other than a fun association – that visit did not affect this move. 

Making the move to living in Norwich was, luckily, logistically easy for me – but that was only because I was coming in on a student visa. With a letter of acceptance from the university, a deposit paid to them (refundable should my visa have been refused), and proof of money in my bank account – I got an 18-month student visa. Staying beyond that time would be exponentially more difficult, or would involve a Ph.D. So, sadly, Norwich – unless I get some awesome job offer which includes a sponsored visa, or I get myself a British husband right, quick – will be temporary.

Settling Into Life in Norwich

Before I arrived I’d had a few ‘interviews’ for rooms to rent, none of which I got. So, I booked a few nights in a crappy Airbnb, started looking for rooms and quickly realized there were not many options.

Finding a Place to Live in Norwich

UEA has a student population of over 14,000, and a second art school in the city has a student population of more than 2,000. That, in a city that has an overall population of just under 200,000 – is a lot of students. They fill up rooms in June, so unless someone has been unfriended or bailed out of uni – there’s not a lot going. And I wasn’t about to be able to afford tuition plus my own place.

All was well though, and after a moment of panic in my second (less crappy) Airbnb when the owner told me she had another guest booked in soon, I found my first room. I lived in NR2 which is on the uni side of town, a mix of working-class and bougie, depending on which side of The Unthank you’re on.

I was a short walk to two small food shops, just a bit of a longer walk into town, another short walk to a multitude of parks, takeaways, and bus routes. I had one bedroom in a four-bedroom house. I shared the space with three other girls and we had one bathroom, a living room, kitchen, dining room, and back garden between us. The neighbors had a baby that cried too much and I had to play focus music while I wrote, but I loved the neighborhood and the twinkle lights above my bed which made me feel like I was 20 again.

living in norwich england expat homes

Making Friends as an Expat in Norwich, England

The girls I lived with were lovely and we got along fine but they were not people I hung out with often outside of the house. I found those on my course. I wonder how easy it would be to settle into a friendship group in Norwich if you did not move there to study. It does have a bit of a small-town vibe about it in that a lot of the people who live there grew up there and have the same friends they’ve always had. Groups like that are often hard to break into. Saying that, I did remain friends with the girl I started chatting with at the pub (turns out she worked there and has given me a few shifts which is fun!)

The other thing that is difficult being an American moving to England is that you don’t stick out as an expat. Many people might be perplexed by my categorizing that as a difficulty – but when you fit in you don’t have a clear group to immediately befriend, which is exactly what I experienced in Vietnam. 

Studying and Working in Norwich

Of course, the main reason why I moved to Norwich was school – at least that was what it was on paper. I really just wanted to be British and find that mythical husband to give me a passport (though post-Brexit one who also has an EU passport would be much preferred!). I did, though, also need to work to support myself. I’d thought finding a job would be easier than it was. Again, I did not take into account the implications of a small city heavily saturated with college students. 

Finding a Student Job in Norwich

Straight away I interviewed for, and got a position teaching English as a second language. This is what I’ve done in most of all the other places I’ve lived. But the school that hired me is seasonal. So, I got about two weeks of work in September and then it was off-season until January.

I picked up some hours babysitting and got the shifts at the pub – but even a volunteer position at a second-hand bookshop wanted a full CV and three references, it was madness. My desire to stock shelves at Tesco was not enough to use up valuable references for it. I continued to teach online and do the freelance writing & editing I’d always done and I dipped farther into my savings than I’d planned.  

living in norwich england university

Life as a Student in Norwich

School – which was the main reason I was elbow deep in my savings – was great at first, but then strikes reared their ugly head. Over the course of the academic year – of which there was only one for my course – we had about six weeks of classes cancelled (out of 20) due to professor strikes.

As an American, I butted heads with some virtuous members of my cohort about this. I fully support the professors fighting for their retirement funds and equal pay – though the aforementioned virtuous cohort members would gladly have tagged me as a capitalist American who doesn’t support worker’s rights. But in fact what I do not support is screwing students over, who continued to pay, and let the university – the very entity the professors are trying to fight – win monetarily.

It was a mess that led to many mid-day drinks. It soured the academic experience for me and created an incurable rift in our small cohort. 

Day to Day Life While Living in Norwich

Outside though, of the occasional class that was actually held, Norwich is terrific. The option of pubs and cafes and restaurants and bars just never ends. The vast majority of these are locally owned small businesses which makes it all the more fun to blow money I didn’t have on them!

A few absolute favorites are Bread Source, Frank’s Bar, Tipsy Vegan, and Ground café. Warm, comfy places with the occasional guitarist, lots of glowing orange lighting, mad good chai lattes, and backgrounds grammable enough for any millennial to feel at home.

I regularly walked 15-20 minutes into town to get to these spots and others, but I could also hop on the bus and be there in 8-10 minutes. Preferable in the rain. 

When I’m feeling it, I do a bit of sightseeing. Honestly, Norwich is gorgeous. The River Wensum runs through it and has stretches of pathways. There is not one – but two cathedrals, each as gorgeous as the next. There’s a castle, which is pretty square and mostly full of dead animals on the inside, but fine for a rainy day if that’s what you’re into. I am thankful to have gone as part of a day babysitting and not to have paid my own way in. UEA has a lake and miles of trails, plus the broads are gorgeous and a lot of them are shared, public lands (very British).

living in norwich england market

The Best Parts of Living in Norwich

Basically, life in Norwich is good. It’s not cheap but little things make it easier and happier and worth the expense. I have a milkman who delivers a glass (it is so much easier to cut down on plastic in England) bottle of milk to my door once a week – waiting at my door ready for my tea before I wake up.

I get my groceries delivered and don’t have to lug pounds of food back from a shop every week. I also get cases of wine delivered. Naked Wines is a locally owned distributor.

I have a student discount on the train, and while the Brits complain that Norwich is removed from everything else, I can get into London in about 90 minutes on the fast train and for an American who grew up in the country – that is nothing short of amazing.

Plus, there are the Norfolk beaches. Mostly I need a friend with a car to get to them and they are about a 30-minute drive. I could also get a train to some beach spots but they’d be more crowded and since friends do have cars, I shamelessly exploit them for beach days in the sun. There is so little to complain about. Hell, it’s the sunniest region of England!

But those expenses do add up and paying out-of-country tuition doesn’t ease the burden any. It looks something like this:

  • Rent in shared house £350 ($470)
  • Rent in own flat £700 ($930)
  • Two-weeks worth of groceries (for 1) £50 ($70)
  • A pint at the pub £5 ($7)
  • One term bus pass (with student discount) £105 ($140)
  • Unlimited monthly phone £16 ($20)
  • RT train to London (off-peak) £20 ($25)

Final Thoughts on Living in Norwich

If you’re thinking of living in Norwich I wouldn’t, for a second, hesitate to suggest it. I’ve not lived elsewhere in England so can’t compare it though it clearly is much, much cheaper than life in a big city like London. I believe it may in fact be amongst the cheapest cities in England – in terms of living cost.

What I do hesitate to suggest is UEA. I think it’s a separate conversation to really delve into my experience there but it has been the least pleasant part of my entire experience in Norwich – apart from the fabulous people (those of whom did not tag me as an unfeeling American) who I met on my course. 

Caitlin Boylan

Caitlin been traveling solo and living as an expat since 2011. She has worked primarily as an ESL teacher but has also been an au pair, a riding instructor, and a student. Caitlin believes in slow travel and engaging with people and their cultures. She drinks wine, rides horses, writes stories, and talks politics. In addition to her travel blog, The Country Jumper,  Caitlin is the co-founder of the global magazine – Macro – which is invested in promoting voices from around the world on topics that affect all of us.

If you’re moving to the UK, currently living in England, or just curious about travel and life abroad, leave your questions for Caitlin in the comments below.

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