I spent about 3.5 months in Belfast in 2010 and I am happy to share some useful things I learned. There were quite a few things I would have liked to know before I went over. One thing that made my life harder was that I was paying my own way, so I don’t know if you’ll have all the same difficulties I did or if work is getting you a place to live.
The first thing I’d suggest doing when you get to Belfast is to go to a mobile phone shop in the City Center (they call their downtown area “City Center”) and get a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. Prices are super low and even lower if you pay cash, and you’ll definitely want a local phone number. While you’re there you will probably want to pick up a wireless internet modem and pre-pay for some service. This is the only kind of internet service you’ll be able to get without credit, which I’ll address in a minute. If you have an unlocked AT&T or T-Mobile smart phone you might be able to get away with just getting a SIM card and tethering for internet access.
If you’re staying for over 6 months you probably won’t have any trouble finding a place to live, as the population has shrunk somewhat over the last few decades. It’s pretty common to find furnished flats, so don’t worry about that. However, finding a short term lease was very difficult. I only ever found one agency that would do a 3 month lease, so here’s the contact I have with them:
Flat Rentals Limited/Homechoice
Tel: +44 2890 247258
Fax: +44 2890 247900
(M): +44 7967 749060
In case you didn’t know, there is no international system of credit. If you haven’t lived in the UK before, you will be surprised at how much of your life revolves around people knowing you’re going to pay for things. To get the apartment I had to pay deposit and rent in cash, and they had to convert the gas meter to “pre-pay”. Seriously, I had to take a little card into a corner store and put money on it so that my heat and oven worked. As mentioned, I could also only get “pre-paid” internet access, which was only available over wireless. Once you have an address you should be able to get a crummy bank account, which should at least let you stop paying your rent in cash.
If you’re a city person, I’d advise trying to get a place in the Cathedral Quarter, which is very hip right now and close to the City Center. I actually lived in City Center itself, which was very convenient, but there isn’t much housing there. If you’re more of a suburbs person, there are lots of options, but do try to avoid some of the areas more prone to sectarianism. You can look those up online, or you can just look out for all the flags and murals.
Craigslist isn’t big over there, so instead use http://www.gumtree.com/ which is basically the same thing. That’s where I found the car I bought. I bought a 1989 Peugot 205 in fantastic condition for 150 pounds, although the battery was dead and I had to replace it for 40. This was lucky, and involved me knowing more about how cars worked than the guy selling it, but you can easily find cars on gumtree for 300-500 pounds. When I left, I sold it for 175 pounds and a ride to the airport. The trick with buying a car is that insurance in NI is astronomically expensive. Insuring that car for 3 months would have cost around 3000 pounds. I went without. You don’t actually have to carry proof of insurance, so if a cop asks you for it you have a week or so to turn up at a police station with your information. The fine is around 200 pounds. Of course, you’re taking a risk that you won’t be in an accident, so consider that as well.
It’s a very cash driven society, so don’t plan to use your card often unless you like getting dirty looks. Tipping is almost never done. Check out St. George’s market on Saturdays for fresh food, or Fridays for old people’s junk. Visit Queen’s University and check out the conservatory. The train to Dublin takes 2 hours and costs 10 pounds, same with Derry. Do either drive, or take a tour of the north coast. If you can, be there for the 12th of July and go look at the bonfires on the night of the 11th. Do take a black taxi tour at some point.
Speaking of taxis, only black taxis are allowed to pick you up on the street and only in certain parts of town. Get a couple of taxi company numbers and put them in your phone. They are quick and cheap. Nobody ever drives after even one drink, and everyone drinks a lot, so there are lots of taxis.