I've been living here now for a month, and will use this first few entries to try to bring you up to date. One of my goals is to help future expats understand what they're getting into when they come to Edinburgh (and by extension the UK) and hopefully make the transition easier for them.
I arrived in Edinburgh in the evening of August 22, a Tuesday. Since I had dealt with the AirLink bus service on a previous visit, I knew I wanted a taxi. I had two suitcases and one backpack, all filled with things I thought I might need in my two year stay in Edinburgh. I did not want to wrangle these around on the streets or the bus, so a taxi it was. I was booked in a hostel (single room, en suite) near the City Centre. The taxi cost £18 or about $27.
I checked in and settled in for the evening.
You might be wondering why I didn't have lodging set up for me upon arrival and there are a couple of reasons. First, although I was heading to University, I was not interested in dealing with unknown roommates. I had enough of that in undergrad, and didn't feel like I wanted to do that again. If I got to know someone and wanted to share a flat with them, that was different than the system of having the university pull names from a hat and put them together like some bizarre social experiment. Also, I was thinking of getting a pet down the line, something I could not do in university accommodation.
In the UK, the process for getting a flat usually involves a Letting Agency. The Letting Agency acts as an intermediary between the landlord and the tenant, much as a realtor does for house buyers in the US. The Letting Agent shows the flat, runs background checks and deals with the paperwork. It is possible you could never meet your landlord during your entire stay.
A responsible Letting Agency will not let to anyone who has not physically seen the property first. This makes it nigh to impossible to rent a flat before you get here. There are also plenty of internet scams out there that makes this a bad idea in general.
The flat hunting process goes something like this:
First you look for a flat that fits your needs (location, price, number of rooms, etc.). There are a number of internet sites as well as newspapers and Gumtree (the UK's version of Craigslist) that you can check. Here are a few: www.citylets.co.uk, www.lettingweb.com, www.spareroom.co.uk, www.zoopla.co.uk and www.gumtree.com.
Once you find a couple of flats, you call (or email) the Letting Agency that handles them and set up an appointment for a viewing.
The viewing is designed to be convenient for the Letting Agent, so it is probably in the morning or late afternoon. Everyone who is interested in the flat will be there at the same time, so you can size up your competition. It's a good idea to listen to the questions and answers from other viewers, since they may have more experience renting than you.
When you find the flat you want, you will apply to the Letting Agency who will then have you fill out the paperwork and do a background/credit check. If you are new to the UK and not an EU citizen, then you effectively have no credit history as far as they are concerned. This means that you have two options, either using a guarantor or supplying rent up front. The first option works only if you know someone in the UK who has good credit and trusts you enough to essentially cosign your lease. The second means that you provide 3-6 months rent up front, which the Letting Agency will distribute to the landlord over the term of the lease. This is, of course, in addition to the security deposit.
Whichever way you choose, you will eventually end up with a flat of your own.
For me, it took almost two weeks before I found my flat, mainly because of the delay between the discovery of the listing and the actual viewing. Since viewings are on the Agency's schedule, I found that I could only view a couple flats a day because of the times the Agents were willing to show them.
A Hostel is budget oriented establishment that provides a variety of accommodation types, from 10 or more beds to a room to a single bed to a room. Rates can be incredibly low compared to a full service hotel, although you may have to share your room with several strangers. There are similarly priced accommodations in some Private Hotels, which are usually converted multi-level dwellings which are similar to B&Bs.
En Suite refers to the location of the bathroom being in the room. If the room is not listed en suite, then you are probably sharing the bathroom with the rest of the floor. This can be inconvenient if there is only one toilet or one shower. By the way, there is a distinction here between toilet and shower, because in older buildings they are often in different rooms, so if you are looking for the toilet, don't be afraid to ask for the toilet.
A Flat is what we in the US would consider an apartment. An apartment in the UK appears to be what we could consider a condo (although I could be wrong).