Sarah moved from Northern Ireland to Houston, Texas, three and a half years ago. The British expat shares her everyday life in the USA with Expat.com and talks about what makes Houston a good place to live in.
Hi Sarah, could you introduce yourself?
I’m originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland where I worked for in PR and communications consultancy for many years. Right now, I’m living just outside Houston, Texas. Previously I lived in Norway. I’ve just finished a degree in Psychology, and am hoping to now get back to work as a freelance writer.
Why did you choose to move to the USA?
My husband’s employer offered him a position in one of their Houston offices while he was working for them in Norway, so we followed the job! That said, Houston has a lot to offer. It is the fourth largest city in the US, and is growing, so there are all kinds of opportunities.
What where the procedures you had to follow to move there?
I’m actually from Northern Ireland, so I’m a UK national though I’m eligible for an Irish passport too. I spend quite a lot of time explaining that. I think the process is pretty much the same. We had to apply for a visa, which included attending an interview at the US Embassy. If you follow the instructions, the process isn’t too bad, but they are very strict, and there’s a lot of paperwork. It also takes time, so you need to factor that into your move.
How long have you been in the country?
We’ve been in Texas for just over three and a half years now.
What surprised you the most at your arrival?
The heat! We left Norway on a snowy day in February — they had to defrost the plane’s wings on the runway — so when we arrived in Houston, we were straight into shorts and t-shirts because we thought it was too hot. We couldn’t understand why the locals were all bundled up. Turns out that when you spend weeks of the year with temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the low 70s in February are pretty chilly.
I think the other thing that surprised us was the scale of the city — we really didn’t understand how sprawling and vast Houston is. With little public transport, we quickly realized that we were going to be spending a lot of time on the road.
Was it difficult to find accommodation there?
This is probably one thing we wished we’d done differently. We initially moved into a brand new apartment in a very new suburban neighborhood. It actually turned out to be very isolating, and we’ve since moved to a larger house with a yard in a more established suburb for about the same amount of monthly rent.
Given Houston’s size and the great suburban cities on its doorstep, there is a real variety of accommodation but it ranges in quality. Our advice is to work with an estate agent, even when renting. A good estate agent can help you find the right location and home, as well as negotiating on the rent and the contract — in our case, getting our dog accepted!
I think this is particularly important if you’re new to the city and trying to figure out where to live, which given the scale of Houston can be pretty daunting!
Is it easy for an expat to find a job there? What are the local labor market's features?
At the moment, it might depend on the sector that you are looking in. There have been major redundancies across the oil and gas sector, which is a massive employer in the greater Houston area. The downturn in this sector has also affected other industries.
What are your views about the local lifestyle?
There is definitely a big focus on work — many people have long commutes, early starts and long working days, and that has an impact on lifestyle. Having said that, given the size of Houston as a city and the suburban cities around it, there are great opportunities to try new things and pursue whatever you are interested in. People here are pretty open and friendly, which really helps too.
We do sometimes struggle with the climate — we both love to be outdoors and active but you have to be sensible when there are heat advisories. We hope to see autumn soon — it has been over 100 days since temperatures dropped below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and then there’s humidity on top of that.
The other thing about the lifestyle is that it is very car dependent. This is a tough location if you don’t drive. If you’re prepared to get out and explore, there’s plenty to see and do.
Have you been able to adapt yourself to the country and to its society?
I think we have. We both have a lot of local friends and we feel part of our local community. We’ve adapted to the heat and the driving. We do sometimes have little hiccups with the language. Although we all speak English, the US vocabulary is very different, and our accents have raised a few eyebrows and giggles.
As an expat in Texas, what does your every day life look like?
We have adopted two dogs in Texas, so my daily life does tend to revolve around them. We start the day with a walk, early — to beat the heat. My day will be taken up with updates and planning for my blog, my work as a volunteer for our local animal shelter, and at the moment, working on employment opportunities.
Given our early starts, our week nights are quiet. We tend to stay home and cook — a habit that differentiates us from the locals. Eating out is very common here, and there is certainly a variety of choices! We’re about to start participating in a Community Supported Agriculture program, so once a week I will pick up a box of veggies, straight from a local farm.
Any particular experience in the country you would like to share with us?
Houston is a huge city and there’s a lot to explore and do here. It also isn’t necessarily representative of the whole state. We’ve traveled a little bit around Texas, and it’s an enormous and very diverse place. We actually love that within an hour of leaving Houston, you can be in much more rural areas and small towns.
What is your opinion on the cost of living in Texas?
Day to day living expenses such as gas and petrol, groceries, and casual eating out are reasonable. What you do need to think about is the cost of medical expenses, which can be eye watering, even with insurance — a big shock to us, coming from countries with a national health service. Making sense of medical insurance and medical costs can be very challenging!
How do you spend your leisure time?
I love to read, and the public library service in our local community is amazing. We spend a lot of time with our dogs, walking and training them, and we’re trying to explore as much of Texas and the US as possible before my husband is transferred again.
Your favorite local dishes?
Houston is truly an international city, so whichever region’s cuisine you’re craving or whatever you like to eat, you can get it here. It is actually becoming a real “foodie” destination and we love to try new places during Houston’s Restaurant Weeks. We enjoy Tex-Mex and more traditional Mexican food. Texas is also a great place to visit a steak house, as they take their beef seriously here, and BBQ is good too. And don’t forget the margaritas!
What do you like the most about the USA?
As an accompanying spouse to an employee, I love the opportunities that living in the US provides for me. I’ve had great experiences as a volunteer, and the lifestyle allows me to get out and explore solo too. We also love the relative ease of traveling around the US, particularly visiting the National Parks and exploring the West Coast. A special bonus for us is that my best friend is American and living in Texas. That has allowed us to visit her and her family much more often.
What do you miss the most about your home country?
I never thought I’d say this but I really miss the weather! We don’t have the seasons here like we do at home — we have hot and then slightly cooler weather. I miss the temperate climate of Ireland and its changing seasons. I also miss living right on the coast. We’re about an hour from Gulf Coast and we’re used to living ten minutes away from the beach.
We also miss the Irish sense of humor and some of our local food, but most of all we miss our friends and family.
Would you like to give any advice to soon-to-be expatriates in the USA?
Do your homework. Talk to anyone and everyone about what to expect. Be realistic about the opportunities, and make sure you follow the rules for visas, work permits etc.
The USA is also not as homogenous as you might think, as each state is totally different in landscape and personality, and even cities within States will vary in terms of lifestyle and opportunity.
Also, take your time. It’s a big country, and it can be overwhelming, but you’ll get there.
What are your plans for the future?
We hope to stay in Texas for a little longer. We’ve made great friends here, and are enjoying the lifestyle. However, our next move will depend on work opportunities for my husband, and also the length of our visa will also be a factor in determining when we will move. Right now, we’re trying to experience as much of Texas and the US as we can before its time to move again.