If the name Texas conjures up images of cowboys, deserts & canyons, oil wells and ridiculously large pick up trucks, you’d be right but that mental picture only scratches the surface.
The locals will tell you everything in Texas is bigger and better than anywhere else and that’s because the native Texan is fiercely patriotic - sometimes amusingly so with their cowboy hats and boots – but you mustn’t laugh, they are deadly serious. They are a Texan first, an American second and they honestly believe that everyone else wishes they were Texan too. After 6 years of Texan living, we’ve grown to quite like this brash attitude, but on first contact it can feel a bit overwhelming.
Houston, on the other hand, is as diverse as any other large city. The outsider can fit in here with very little effort due to the sheer numbers of foreigners that move in and out all the time. One of the reasons for this influx is the oil and gas industry, with the big companies either based downtown or on the west side of Houston in an area known as the Energy Corridor. There are so many Brits and other Europeans, Aussies and Scandinavians that in all our six years here we have never been told that they “just love our English accents”; we’re simply not a novelty here, which really helps you when you’re trying to settle into a new place.
Arriving in Houston, it may surprise you just how green everything looks (I was expecting it to all look a bit desert-like). Firstly, Houston, being on the east side of Texas and by the coast, is far away from the deserts and canyons of the west and is regularly drenched with plenty of rain. The hurricane season starts in June and ends at the end of November, during which time there might be numerous “named storms” (meaning the storm has to reach Tropical Storm status –sustained winds of 39mph - before being named) heading into the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll make landfall.
July and August are also the hottest months of the year, with temperatures regularly creeping over 100° F (38°C). Secondly, almost everything is watered daily with sprinklers…even when it’s raining!
English may be the first language here, but there are enough differences to really make a difference. Tell your children to walk on the pavement here and you’ll be telling them to walk on the road (US speak: sidewalk). Tell your son to wear a jumper and he’d be wearing a pinafore dress. There are many British words that a local here simply won’t understand like nappy (“do you mean a napkin?”); you’ll get a blank look if you ask where the petrol station is and one that always makes me laugh, your mail comes from the Post Office and is delivered by the mailman aka postman, but they don’t know what you mean by ‘post’ (note, however, that the postman not only delivers your post, he will pick up any letters going out as well).
Just under half of Houstonians have Spanish as their first language and though most will also speak English, some won't unless you also speak Spanish. Basic sign language seems to work reasonably well.
Finding somewhere to live is pretty easy. You can check in advance by looking at the website www.har.com (Houston Association of Realtors) where you can narrow down the search by specifying numbers of bedrooms, price range etc. The hardest part is knowing which area you want to live in and it’s hard to decide that until you know which school you will be using.
You will most likely start out in a furnished apartment until your shipment arrives. The best thing to do on arrival is to find a realtor, also by looking at www.har.com and going to the Member Finder section in consumer tools. Unlike in the UK, your realtor works for you, not for the landlord or seller. He/she will find appropriate properties, liaise with the landlord or seller’s realtor and will set up viewings to which she will accompany you.
NB Your realtor has access to information on all properties that are for sale, through a publication called Mulptiple Listings. Realtors freely view and show their clients each other's listings. When you find a suitable property, both realtors are paid by the landlord or seller so make the most of it: it’s free to you (well, except for their percentage, which is already built into the price. If you find a property that's "for sale by owner", it can be cheaper because you do avoid the middleman).
Schools in Houston, as in most places in the US, are zoned into school districts and depending on where you live, you will be zoned to a particular school with quite specific boundaries. Private schools, on the other hand, will take students from any school district as long as they meet the entrance requirements (usually an evaluation to make sure your child does not have behavioural problems).
If your realtor seems a little elusive when you ask which schools are the best, and what neighbourhoods they're in, it's because in many states, realtors have been sued for saying a school is good (and then it doesn't turn out to be great for that family) or that it's in certain boundaries, and later a boundary change suddenly puts that family's house into another school district.
Both state and private schools alike tend to rely heavily on volunteering mums and fund raising drives, so if you’ve got the time you will be welcomed with open arms.
School buses are available to children going to state schools and for a fee, some private schools. All school buses are bright yellow and have an array of flashing lights and pop-out stop signs (there is no excuse if you’re seen passing a school bus that has stopped to drop kids off - if you're caught, you will get a ticket).
Carpooling is the norm in most, if not all schools here -- or drive-thru dropping and picking up. The latter is a very efficient way of getting to and from school without turning off your car’s air conditioner! Seriously though, it’s very convenient if you have napping kids in the car at pick up time. And though some schools have quite long lines to sit in, others stagger the dismissal times to make the pick up pretty quick. (See Education Overview: Houston for more in-depth information on schooling.)
Public transport is minimal at best. There is no subway and limited rail connections to other cities i.e. there’s just one route which goes via Houston. There are buses but they’re not that reliable by all accounts with recent cuts in service and reports of breakdowns (safety can be an issue too with reports of passengers shooting at each other. You have been warned!
And to let you know a little about Texas law, someone got shot dead on the bus outside my husband’s office a while ago and the guy who did it got away with it because the judge agreed that the victim had been provoking people all day with a flick knife!!! In Texas it is legal to carry a concealed weapon and use it in self defence). There is a new light rail service but it currently only has one line and it starts and finishes downtown so don’t expect to be able to get about in anything other than your car.
Buying a car
Car buying can be daunting even in one's own home country, so when we arrived we opted for the car superstore, CarMax, which has a website www.carmax.com and whom we found very easy to deal with. There’s no haggling on the price so you don’t have to try and work out what you ‘should’ be paying and all their used cars are inspected and come with a 5 day money back guarantee (in case you change your mind) and a 30 day warranty.
They even buy back the car when you move on at “blue book” prices (which is the published guide price for the age, usage and make of a car). Alternatively just drive up and down Interstate-10 and you will find every make of car dealer you could want. Here, you will need to haggle and you should check out the prices in Kelly Blue Book www.kbb.com or Edmunds www.edmunds.com before you start.
Taking to the road
Driving in Houston can be busy but is fairly straightforward. The main differences are the 4-way stop and turning right on a red light, both of which are improvements over driving in the UK. It is very important to be aware of the School Zone laws. The area on a street near a school, or near a crossing leading to a school, will have a reduced speed limit (usually 20mph) and signs will make drivers aware of the possible presence of young pedestrians.
School Zone speed limits are often, but not always, only applicable during posted weekday hours near the beginning and ending of school when children are likely to cross roads. You will find that speeding fines are often doubled in a School Zone.
You can drive with your British License for 30 days before you are required to apply for a Texas License. Obtaining a driver’s license is easy in principle, simply turn up at the Driver’s License Office with: proof of identity, proof of vehicle registration, proof of vehicle insurance, your social security number (essential for almost everything you do), and $25.
You will have to arrive early, wait in line for a very long time, fill out some paperwork and pass a vision test. Now you have ‘applied’ for your license, you have 90 days to take the test. The test is comprised of a written exam which isn’t difficult once you have read the Texas Drivers Handbook (Highway Code) and a fairly basic driving test in the local neighbourhood (three point turns, parallel parking etc).
Domestic help is quite common, usually a cleaner coming in once a week. There are many agencies providing cleaners, nannies and babysitters etc…and most can be found in ‘The Kid’s Directory’ which is a free family resource guide that you can pick up in most public places or look online at www.kids-houston.com. I have found though that most people rely on word of mouth recommendations and use an independent cleaner/gardener, which can work out much cheaper than larger companies or agencies.
Gardeners are very popular due to the heat in the summer months and the strict rules on keeping your garden neat and tidy set by many neighbourhood associations (believe me, they will send you a letter to ask you to edge your lawn more regularly if they feel it’s looking a bit untidy!). Prices are generally cheaper than in Europe as there are so many to choose from, so if you’re not happy with your first choice, it is very easy to find another.
If you purchase or lease a house (as opposed to a leased apartment where all maintenance is included, right down to changing the light bulbs) you will most likely have a home warranty which provides repair or replacement cover for most items in the house. As with any insurance, there are different levels of cover but even the most basic will usually prove to be worthwhile. There is always a call out fee of around $60 but after that the repair or replacement is covered.
The medical system is very different from the UK. Depending on your coverage you will be able to get most things dealt with on your insurance. Most companies also provide dental and limited optical cover. Once you have your insurance cover, you will have a co-pay amount (anything from $10 - $25 in most cases) which is the amount you pay for every doctor’s office visit and you will be asked to pay this on the day (some visits are excluded from this, like compulsory vaccine appointments for the kids).
As long as you use service providers that are covered by your particular insurance (and you must check this before you make an appointment) you will only be required to pay a small percentage of the bill (up to a total annual amount laid out in your policy, this total amount is called a deductible).
The insurance companies have agreements with doctors and other medical service providers. They agree in advance what they will pay for each service. This agreed price is always lower than the actual billed amount and you only pay a small percentage of the lower pre-agreed amount. If however, the service provider you use is not covered by your insurance company, if they pay at all, they will only pay what they would have paid if the provider was insured by them and you will have to pay the rest of the un-agreed higher amount yourself.
Shopping is often an indoor event; due to the heat and humidity, there are very few high street style shopping areas in Houston. You either drive to the mall or drive to each individual store and park right outside. You can do this pretty easily as parking is free and there are heaps of spaces. Most parking, however, is outside and not in a multi-story car park (parking lot) which means your car will have reached about 120°F (49°C) by the time you get back to it, so parking once at the mall and doing everything you need to do there is much more comfortable than the individual store option in the summer months.
The other option is the drive-thru. You can drive-thru the mail box, pharmacy, dry cleaners, ATM (cash point), Starbucks and the usual fast food places.
Fashion in Texas is, well…it’s not in the same time zone as the UK, but it’s generally very cheap in comparison. Kid’s clothes are very cheap especially if you look in the outlet stores (e.g. Katy Mills Mall). Super markets or grocery stores are similar to the UK but something about them is just not as good. Even after six years I still long for British supermarkets.
Maybe it’s the sheer size of them or that finding healthy meal options means starting from scratch or maybe it’s the quality of fresh fruit which looks past its best before you even buy it. It amazes me that the check out staff have to ask me to identify the vegetables, and I’m only buying leeks or parsnips! They will pack your bags for you, though, which is quite nice when you have a couple of kids in tow.
Most supermarkets have an international section where you will find your British favourites, but for a wider selection of chocolate, tea etc. there is the British Isles Shop which is located at Rice Village. There are healthier style (more expensive) supermarkets however - Whole Foods Market, Sandy’s and Central Market to name a few. Unfortunately, online shopping is not as mainstream as in the UK and I have only found one supermarket that will do it, www.riceepicurean.com. Payment is by cash, credit or debit cards or cheques (spelt checks here).
There are no cheque guarantee cards so if they do accept cheques they will want to see photo ID which is your Texas Driver’s license or a passport. Your British license simply won’t do.
Opening a bank account is easy enough as long as you have your social security number and some ID. Banking is a bit different from the UK, and it’s still ridiculously time consuming to manage cross border transactions, but things are improving all the time. You have to order and pay for your ‘checks’ and will have to pay a fee for using another bank’s ATM. Although it depends on the type of account and which bank you’re using, there is often absolutely no interest on checking accounts (current account) and, at the moment, very little on savings.
The most frustrating deficiency is that with some banks (like mine!) there is no system for setting up what we know as a standing order. We had to pay our rent to the landlord every month by either sending him a check or going to his bank and paying it into his account. However, it is possible to set up direct debits to pay most bills, or pay on line (say, utilities), or set up a schedule for checks to be automatically sent from the bank for recurring payments (like a mortgage), which you can also choose to authorize each month with the click of a button- online banking is very easy.
If you do need to run to the bank, there is a bright side for those with napping children in the backseat: not only can you go to the drive-thru ATM but they have drive-thru banking as well, complete with videophone to talk to the cashier, little drawer that slides out to take your cash, and sometimes a visible plastic tube from the drawer that will violently suck your paperwork up into the bowels of the bank, and then whoosh your money back to you...high entertainment for children!
In Texas there is no State Income Tax, only Federal Income Tax, but everyone is required to complete a tax return every year. The US tax year is from January 1st – December 31st. If your taxes are relatively simple, you can do it yourself using one of the computer software packages that allow you to input all you figures and submit the return online like www.turbotax.com.
If however you have some complications like rental income in the UK, British stocks and shares etc…you may want to have a tax accountant work it out for you. There are many ‘store-front’ tax solutions offices that pop up around tax return time (returns must be postmarked by April 15th at the very latest – unless you have filed for an extension) but we chose to use a CPA – Certified Public Accountant – and for about $400 he deals with the whole thing.
You must obtain a social security number (SSN); you simply can’t function without it. Opening bank accounts, setting up utilities, getting insurance etc…all rely on your social security number as a cross referencing tool. You must apply in person by appointment at the Social Security office, but once you have applied, you can call to get your number usually within a few days and your card will arrive in the mail a little later.
It depends on what VISA you have as to whether you can have an SSN or not. If your VISA allows you to work in the US, then you will be issued with an SSN. If, however, you do not have employment authorization, you will be given a letter explaining that you are not eligible for an SSN. You will need this letter when applying for your Texas Driver’s License. If you can’t get an SSN; you will have to apply for a Tax Identification Number (TIN) for use when you fill out your US Tax Return.
Houston can be a lot of fun. There are plenty of events going on from opera and The Houston Symphony at one end of the spectrum, to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo which is great for the whole family. This is an annual event which covers a livestock show, a market selling Texan style clothes, furniture and crafts, a fair ground, food tents (generally BBQ* and chile) and full scale Rodeo with bull riding, roping and bucking bronc riding finished off with a music concert. Most of the bands I have to admit I haven’t heard of but we’ve seen Bon Jovi, Maroon 5 and ZZ Top and depending on the popularity of the band and the quality of the seats, the majority of tickets range from $16 - $30. Then there are the tickets which include food and great seats and will set you back up to $300.
Sport is a big thing here and most families support one of the local teams, either football (that’s American football), soccer (that’s football as the rest of the world knows it)(see “The Footy: Football, Soccer, Neither, Both?” under Related Articles), baseball, basketball or ice-hockey. Kids' sports are also big and you’ll find many families sitting at the side lines or on the bleachers of one of the many leagues that go on year round.
Eating out is a major social event in Houston; it’s generally cheap, good quality and there are more than enough restaurants to choose from. The first thing that hit me was the sheer quantity of food put in front of me; there’s no way any normal person can eat so much but as soon as you realise that they don’t care if you eat it or not - in fact they expect you to take some of it with you (in a “doggy bag” or “to-go box”) – then it all becomes a lot less stressful.
*NB Sadly, Texans firmly believe that "barbeque" is a perfectly acceptable generic word for all outdoor grilling activities, and shockingly, that this term includes beef or even chicken. Aficionados from the Southern states patiently but firmly dispute this, as all true Q enthusiasts know it is slow cooked by the smoke from a somewhat removed fire, and that it includes pork, pork, and only pork (pulled, chopped or ribs). No chicken. No beef. Period. Full stop.
Meeting people can be fairly easy. There are so many expats who tend to stick together (probably because we know what it’s like to arrive in a new city and a new country) that before you know it you’ll be invited to playgroups, coffee meetings and other social events. There are expat organizations like the British American Society which from the website looks a bit formal and talks of business networking (not really what you're looking for with two kids in tow). The Australian & New Zealand Society of Texas, however, seems much more family oriented with coffee mornings and playgroups amongst the social events and you don’t have to be from Down Under either - I know many Brits (myself included) that have joined in from time to time. As mentioned, volunteering at your child’s school welcomed and a great way to get to know other people plus find out a bit more about the school while you’re there.
I found that there are many, many playgroups going on but most are privately organized where mums take turns to host the group and provide drinks and snacks etc. Playgroups for older children tend to take advantage of the many great parks - this also saves your house from destruction! A word about parks: there is almost never any shade, though some of the newer parks are starting to add a semi-shaded cover over some of the seating areas for the mums at least. So again, its hats, sunscreen and more sunscreen!
Most neighbourhoods have their own pools which are for residents only (keys or pool tags are provided). For obvious reasons (heat and no shade) the pools don’t usually get busy until later in the day/early evening but it’s a great opportunity to meet some of your neighbours.
If you’re having trouble getting started in the social circle, put aside your inhibitions and simply ‘butt’ in if you hear other expats chatting. Once you’ve told them you’ve just moved here and are looking for other people in a similar position, most - if not all – will be more than happy to include you and give you the benefit of their knowledge. We had a lady walk up to us in Star Bucks after having sat near us for some time by her self with a book. She bravely explained that she’d recently moved here and needed some friends, by the time we left she had exchanged phone numbers and email address, had 2 playgroups to go to, info on all kinds of local stuff and an invite to a girls night out!
Entertaining Children is easy, almost everywhere you go your children will be welcomed, too, with stroller parks, high chairs and kids' menus. Amongst the many attractions there’s the Houston Zoo, Battleship Texas, Blue Bell Ice Cream factory, Brazos Bend State Park (a must if you want to see alligators in the wild), Galveston Island, Kemah Boardwalk, Johnson Space Center* or George Ranch Historical Park to name a few. Many of the attractions are largely of the outdoor variety so plan carefully in the summer months when the temperatures can make being outside pretty miserable and take in something like the Children’s Museum or the Natural History Museum which are both excellent days out.
Story times are quite popular and you’ll find most bookshops, libraries and even the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center all have planned story times for pre-school children. Other pre-school activities include places like Gymboree; www.gymboreeclasses.com and The Little Gym; www.thelittlegym.com where babies as young as 2 months can start advancing their development along to music and lots of parental encouragement. For the average Brit, these classes can seem a bit over the top but they’re a great way of getting ideas for playing with your baby/pre-schooler (which, let’s face it, can be a daunting task for many of us) and you’ll meet others with similar aged children. Pump it Up; www.pumpitupparty.com is an indoor party centre where (at specified times) you can take your under 5 year olds to bounce on the huge bouncy castles, slides, obstacle courses etc… which can be a great way to avoid the heat in the summer months. A good place to start your planning is 147 Fun things to do in Houston’ by Karen Foulk.
*And why, you might ask, is Mission Control here (as in “Houston, we have a problem”) instead of in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they actually launch the rockets? Pure pork (or “pork belly politics”). Texas’ powerful Senator LB Johnson (later President) made sure his state got some of the bacon (ie lucrative construction contracts and employment) such a centre would bring.