Zana Ong-Billedo, 27, has always been set on working and settling down overseas. “I honestly studied nursing with the intention of going abroad to find a job and settle down there,” says the United Kingdom-based registered nurse.
In 2016—four years after graduating college and getting employed locally—she got a working visa to set her plans into motion. Fast forward to three years later, she’s now living with her husband and son in the UK. Zana shares what it took to achieve her dreams, how investing in these plans are well worth the hefty price tag and time, and what insights she can impart on fellow Pinay nurses.
Working in the Philippines vs. working in the UK as a nurse
“Nursing in the Philippines is one of the most exploited professions, I think. The pay is unbelievably low, the workload is almost impossible to carry out, and hospitals don’t offer [a lot of] trainings and seminars for professional growth.
“In the UK, the NHS (National Health Service) sends their nurses to trainings, seminars, and even universities for further education. We have annual trainings for resuscitations, infection control, safeguarding, manual handling, and other courses that are useful to our practice.
“In addition, I used to earn P8,000 a month in the Philippines. Here in the UK, my daily regular work with overtime (OT), which usually runs 11.5 hours in total, is being paid GBP240 to GBP290 (around P15,600 to P18,850). The pay varies if you work on a weekday, a weekend, a night shift, or a holiday.
“The work-life balance is also good here in the UK. I work 37.5 hours a week, and I only go to work three times a week. For the rest of the week, I can either pick up some OTs or just have a Netflix-and-chill [kind of night]. The NHS also gives eight weeks of annual leave unlike in the Philippines where you’ll start with two or three weeks then work them up by earning a day per year.”
Legally securing a working visa
“First, you should have a valid nursing license and [about two] years of experience. (However, the NHS can hire international nurses with or without experience now). After I got interviewed, I started reviewing for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
“IELTS Academic is not about plainly being able to speak, write, read, and listen to the English language. It is a structured exam that will evaluate your grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and creativity to compose logical thoughts and sentences about a certain topic. Anyone who has tried to challenge the exam knows it’s far from being basic, especially since the UK requires a score of [at least] 7.0 in all categories.
“After passing the IELTS, I was required to pass a Computer-Based Testing (CBT) exam, which I took in one of the Pearson Vue Centers in Makati. A CBT test is an assessment of the applicant’s nursing and medical knowledge. After you’ve passed the IELTS and CBT, you will then submit the results to your agency. The hospital who hired you through the agency will apply for a Certificate of Sponsorship (COS) to the Home Office UK.
“Once you have your COS, you can already apply for your visa in one of the Visa Facilitation Services or VFS Centers. It will usually take 14 days for a decision [to be made]. In my case, I applied on June 2, 2016 and flew to the UK on the 28th of the same month. Once I arrived, the hospital gave me two weeks of study leave to review for my third test, which is the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE). It is a return demo exam of basic skills you need to pass in order to obtain a full license as a nurse in the UK.”
The cost of applying for a working visa
“The IELTS cost around P14,000, while the CBT is GBP120 (around P7,800). The UK also requires a TB Test (to make sure you’re clear of tuberculosis infection), which was about P3,500.
“Back then, the visa fee for three years was $551 (around P28,652), and the Health Surcharge was just GBP200 (around P13,000) per year or a total of GBP600 (around P39,000). FYI: They’ve now increased the Health Surcharge to GBP400 or P26,000 a year. As for my ticket fare to UK, the hospital shouldered it.
“So, converting all the expenses with the present rates, it is more or less P92,952. My expenses were all covered by my mom and dad back then, but my pocket money was from my savings from the job I left before coming here.”
Sponsoring family members to immigrate
“My husband and my son came here in November 2018. I was the one who sponsored them. I sent the necessary documents to prove and support our relationship because the UK is a bit strict with regards to spouse visa. They need to see that your relationship has been on-going and genuine.
“Documents to submit included photos together, wedding photos, marriage certificate, and screenshots of all call and chat logs. I even submitted a proof that I and my husband have investments together, such as the property we purchased and our joint bank accounts.
“I also showed the embassy that I can support them financially while they’re here by providing pay slips, certificate of employment (to show I am employed full time), a ‘maintenance fee’ of GBP600 to GBP900 (around P39,000 to P58,500) per dependent and bank statements.
“I paid for their visas and for their health surcharge for a year. When we renewed our visa last May, (to give you an idea roughly how much it costs), we incurred GBP1,500 (around P97,500) each for a two-year visa, including the health surcharge. A tip: You can find the step by step process and more details at the GOV.UK site.
“In my case, I asked for the expertise of an agency who also helped me with my working visa before. They guided us with the documents needed, and they were the ones who checked and collated these. They also booked us for the appointment once they deemed that all documents were ready and present for submission to the visa center. I paid P20,000 each dependent (so a total of P40,000 for my husband and my son).
The costs and perks of working abroad
“Right now, we’re renting a two-bedroom flat with a colleague. We each pay roughly GBP700 to GBP750 a month (around P45,500 to P48,750). I share the expenses with my husband. We pay for the rent, electricity and gas, water, council tax, monthly allowances, and my son’s school fees. I am also paying off my amortization of my lot for GBP500 (around P32,500) a month.
“Being in a European country and earning more than I did back then, I was able to invest in the Philippines. I was able to buy a property in Nuvali and I am planning to save enough money to build a house there or buy another lot.
“I get to travel to different countries, too! (10 countries now!) And I've learned about their distinct cultures. Being exposed to the world, for me, makes you understand life better, [helps you] become more open-minded and free-spirited. I am looking forward to traveling with my husband and my son now that they are here.
“Also, my husband and I want to buy our own house someday, but we are still saving. For now, I think we’re going to enjoy what we have and what we can and just cross the bridge when we get there.”
Pursuing British citizenship and more
“We recently renewed our visa for the next two years. Here, you cannot stay with a working visa for more than five years. After that, we will apply for an ILR or Indefinite Leave to Remain. Normally, someone must hold an ILR for at least 12 months before being eligible to apply for British citizenship.
“Career wise, I recently got promoted to ‘Band 6.’ It’s like a charge nurse or a senior nurse, so I am still thinking what career step I should take next. Originally, I really wanted to be a Nurse Anesthetist, which England doesn’t have job posts for. I think only the U.S. has them, so I am still [thinking about] whether [or not] we should move to the US.”
Zana's message for Pinay nurses who also want to work in the UK
“Grab any opportunity that comes your way. There are lot of things waiting for a nurse in the UK. It can be your stepping stone for where you want to be or a comfort zone you can call home.
“There will be struggles and hardships, but as long as you deal with them with the right attitude and fighting spirit, you will get through it. Working abroad is not always about walking on clouds but it will open a lot of doors for you.”
Some of the expenses mentioned like visa fees may have changed over the years. GBP1 = P65 and $1 = P52 conversion rates were used for estimates.
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