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Planning a relocation to Belfast with three kids (help please!)

(13 Posts)
mxcnamama Fri 21-Apr-17 11:23:33

Hello! I'm new to this forum and was advised it was a great place to get some information. I thank you in advance for any resources, tips, suggestions you can send my way. smile

By way of background, we are an American family living in Germany. We've been here for almost five years and are not quite ready to go back to the US. We found a great job opportunity in Belfast and are trying to make this work for a move in the Fall. In order to decide whether we can pull it off, however, we need to iron out some details pretty quickly. I'm hoping this forum can help me out with that. wink


(1) we have three kids: ages 7, 10 and 13. I understand the younger two will be in Primary and the oldest would be in Grammar School or Secondary School. The oldest has not done the Assessment but is currently in a German Gymnasium (which is the equivalent of what the Grammar School was historically). Does anyone know if he is still eligible for Grammar School w/o having taken the Assessment or does he need to take the Assessment before he can apply?

(2) I know we've missed the deadline for registration for the schools and many schools are already overbooked. I'd love to know how this situation is typically handled (are we assigned to a random school that has availability anywhere in the city or do we need to go to private schools - not our first choice - or something else?).

(3) I know the schools on the whole are quite good. It's hard to narrow things down without more information. I'd love to hear from people who love their Primary and Grammar/Secondary schools and what makes those schools so special.


(1) we are not religious so our focus is on finding a neighborhood that is family friendly and safe. I'd appreciate hearing people's thoughts on the different areas.

(2) I've heard propertypal is a good site to hunt around for housing. Can anyone recommend realtors as well? Also, do the tenants typically pay a realtor fee (in Germany we do and it's quite steep!)? Are flats generally furnished or unfurnished? Do they come with kitchens, washers/dryers, light fixtures (none of this is typical in Germany)?

(3) We're trying to put together our budget and health care is currently a big ticket item for us. I understand health care is free in NI. Do people need private insurance for anything? What kinds of things are not covered under the public plan (I heard dentists are not covered)?

(4) We don't have a car and have loved it! We walk, bike or take public transport. How feasible is it to get around in Belfast without a car?

(5) What is Belfast like for kids? I read that sports are pretty big in the schools. What kinds of things are available for kids to do out of school?

Anything else we should know?

THANK YOU flowers or wine or cake

Squirted Sun 23-Apr-17 22:12:29

For schools, you'll need to know which area you're going to live in.
The 13 yo may meet local grammar requirements but you need to identify which school first. Schools close for summer at the end of June, so you'll need to approach them soon for intake in September.
You can't take the grammar schools assessment 11 + (aqe or GL) after.
Your 10 yo can take the assessment if you enrol him for it, when he starts primary school in September.
Ditto primary schools closing end June.
There aren't many private schools. Rockport, Campbell college, strathern off the top of my head.
For health care, we don't pay for that as we have the NHS. For a non European immigrant you will need to meet visa requirements and then you register with the Social Security office for a National Insurance number which entitles you to the NHS healthcare. Dentists and Opticians are not covered. Many people have private insurance as a benefit of their job, but not all. It gets you up the (considerable) NHS queues.
Propertypal website is used by all the estate agents (realtors) here. You should identify which area first and then maybe approach them directly.
For renting property, I don't think they charge a fee I've not heard of that before. All properties will have kitchens and light fittings, but maybe not a washing machine/ dryer. Properties can be rented furnished or unfurnished. You won't have to pay for water, but you may have rates to pay (depends on value of house whether you or the landlord pays it).
Belfast isn't a particularly large city, everything is compact. But like anywhere there are some nicer areas than others. Also, you might want to consider living outside the city centre. Hollywood is 8 minutes by train, yet a different world. In County Down you can be half an hour away and be on the coast.
I suppose you could get away with not having a car at a push.
Loads of cyclists.
Public transport is ok, just don't expect buses or trains at all hours of the day and night it's not a 24 hour service. Translink is the name of the public transport provider.

Hope this helps, good luck. We are a friendly bunch despite what you will hear on the news.

mxcnamama Mon 24-Apr-17 07:51:05

@squirted - thank you so much! This is incredibly helpful, I really appreciate all this info.

NigellaAwesome Mon 24-Apr-17 18:10:51

You could contact the Northern Ireland Department of Education in relation to the schools issue. Your 10 year old would be starting secondary / grammar school in September, and I know of someone in a similar situation whose child didn't sit the AQE but got into a grammar.

Do you want to live in Belfast, or be more rural and commute? You generally find that there is less (overt) sectarianism in more middle-class areas.

I really like East Belfast, and would second the Holywood suggestion.

South Belfast is also a nice area, (although traffic / parking tends to be busy, and some of it is very studenty).

There are various commuter towns that are quite nice - Bangor is beside the sea (although also has endless estates and ring roads), Groomsport further beyond Bangor is lovely, but quite a commute; Hillsborough is very upmarket, Moira is generally a commuter village / town.

You'll find loads of articles saying that Lurgan is the top place to live in Northern Ireland, but those articles usually have house prices as one of the main indexes, which is why it does well. I'm sure there are some lovely bits to Lurgan, but I wouldn't rate it.

If you decide on East Belfast or Holywood I can give you info on schools:

Campbell College - boys only school in East Belfast: Has a junior school (fee paying, known as a prep school) - fees approx £4k per year.
Campbell Senior school is also fee paying - IIRC approx £2-3k per year. All ability school, big on sports.

Strathearn - girls only grammar school in East Belfast. Non fee paying. Has a prep school attached, fees approx £3 - 4k per year.

Bloomfield Collegiate - girls only grammar school East Belfast. Non fee paying.

Sullivan - boys & girls school in Holywood. Senior School (Sullivan Upper) is a grammar - non fee paying. Also has a prep school attached.

There are loads of others - once you decide on an area, then people can advise, but generally the standard of education in Northern Ireland is considered to be quite good. is also a good website for property - it has sales & rentals.

NigellaAwesome Mon 24-Apr-17 18:13:08

Sorry - wrong info - your 10 year old would be starting Primary 7 in September (unless they turn 11 before the end of June 2017).

NigellaAwesome Mon 24-Apr-17 18:14:13

Do you have a monthly budget for rent that you are thinking of?

Wheneverwherever Mon 24-Apr-17 19:40:14

Hi, if I was moving here I would start in Hollywood, Helens Bay areas and South or East Belfast. Older children will be accepted to grammar school if a vacancy arises in that Year group. Some grammars ask the child to sit an entrance exam but many do not- they often accept school reports and exam results from the child's previous school as evidence. Cycling is still in development due to our inclement weather but I see more and more cycle paths and green ways being used by families. Sports in schools is part and parcel of school life and mainly free. I can recommend the school I teach in- Sullivan Upper for sports and a liberal mentality. Most schools are very mixed or non denominational these days, even (ironically) the Catholic ones! Your kids will be made to feel welcome anywhere, religion is not an issue at all if you are American! It's not a big deal any more in most decent areas to be honest. You will love it here- We do!

Squirted Mon 24-Apr-17 20:29:59

I was thinking of where I would move to on my commute home this evening.
If we are concentrating on location first, easily the most expensive is Cultra, you need to be a lottery winner! Lol.
Then Hollywood, hillsborough (where the Queen has a castle), Moira, areas of Bangor west, areas of Lisburn, areas of Newtownards.
Donaghadee, groomsport can be pricey enough, but that's for the village feel and sea view. For sea view read wind to blow your head off.
I wouldnt consider anything north of Belfast, too much of a hassle to commute. Or much to the west because of limited transport links.
East Belfast better suited to a family imo, and agree with pp that south Belfast is mostly studenty towards the centre, although some lovely properties a bit further out.
Also, I'm not sure you'd manage too well without a car in some of those locations. Although there's nothing further away than 2 hours from Belfast (even Dublin so their airport can be handy too). You'll want to make sure your kids see all of our lovely tourist areas and public transport to the giants causeway or carrickarede rope bridge would be a pain in the neck.

If you find a property you like the look of, post a link and we'll tell you what we know of the area.

mxcnamama Tue 25-Apr-17 09:05:00

Thank you everyone for such great information! You've given me so much to consider. Great resources. smile Thank you!!

justupthebend Tue 25-Apr-17 11:57:39

Glad you've got some good info. I've kids - a little younger - 6,9 and 11, so 2 in primary and 1 in grammar. I know a few people who have moved over with kids in the post primary age group whose children have got grammar school places - the initial enquiries were made to the schools they were interested in. There was more leeway with primary school places when the kids were in the upper primary school ages, which yours are.

To be honest I wouldn't attempt to live in Belfast or the surrounding areas without a car (sorry). I find the public transport lacking and it's not just the getting the kids to and from school (my eldest gets the bus), getting to work but it's the ferrying about - kids parties, extra curricular clubs, swimming, all the usual kerfuffle that comes with kids. People travel for schools (certainly post primary).
My kids do what I assume most do outside school - lie about and watch tv wink. They go swimming, play outside, go shopping, meet their friends, go to the pictures/bowling. One (the 6 year old) does a local drama club, the oldest one plays a sport at weekends. We head to the coast, forest park, day out every few weeks.

The kids don't pay for eye tests, the adults do. Kids don't pay for the dentist, we do (we have partial health insurance for dentist). We don't have any other kind of healthcare plan.

There's no realtors fee as far as I'm aware (I have family members that rent). Their houses have been both furnished and unfurnished but have included fridges, freezers (sometimes) and always a washing machine.
I've lived in North, West, South Belfast and now live outside Belfast. Most of my school based knowledge would be of the Catholic maintained primary and grammars.

I'd be tempted to focus on where you will be working, look at the areas incl housing, public transport, look at main train lines, schools within a 20 mile radius and start nosying. Ring schools and ask - it's not set in stone but might give you a clearer idea.
Have a look at

mxcnamama Wed 26-Apr-17 11:04:11

@justupthebend - thank you for this. I appreciate the tips and added links. smile

Belfastgal1234 Wed 17-May-17 07:40:08

I hope the move planning is going well :-)
My huaband and I returned to Belfast from a year abroad in Denmark last year. (My husband is Danish) I am a teacher in a primary school. Although I sub so I get experience is lots of different ones :-)
Where will your job opportunity be based?
Generally living in Belfast and getting around belfast with out a car is easy enough. I would recommend living south/ south East Belfast. Generally quite mixed areas. Four winds, carryduff are both quote good family areas on the bus route to the city centre.
1 - usually the oldest could be accepted to grammar if there's availability although they might ask for an assessment test or a report from current school before deciding. Lagan college in Belfast has both a grammar and secondary stream so oldest could go there and they would do some class tests to evaluate which classes he would be in Eg. He could be in the top class for maths and a lower class for English if this suits his needs - based on their test. (Not sure - but I also think this is continually evaluated with movement through the stream of required)
Youngest two would be primary. 10 would be due to sit transfer test in November and just so you are away the registration forms for it are currently out.. My one is also 10 :-)
As someone before said even the "Catholic" schools are very mixed a and everyone is welcome. The way it works for registering in p1 is you list 5 schools if you don't get in to any you are asked to give 5 more etc... WI think older kids im almost sure you can just contact schools direct and ask if they have availability for both your kids. Kids move school all the time so schools that may have been full at o1 when class started may well have space now.
3- I'm happy to give you a few names of schools that I've had good experience of but maybe better to have a rough idea of area first smile I'd try regular schools first I don't think Private is necessarily needed.

1- I like south or south East Belfast for being mixed areas particularly four winds and carryduff Saintfield Road, Upper ormeau road (before the bridge!)
2- property pal is fantastic it gives you all the houses and is really just a viewing site you then deal directly with realtors if you want to view any of them. No realtors fees (I rent) and generally a one month rent as a deposit for the house but you get it back at the end as long as the house is kept in good order. I've always got my full deposit back (unlike in Denmark where there took a lot of it as apartment there had to be "as new" sanded floors and painted walls as standard when they didn't need it)
You can get furnished or unfurnished.. And virtually all will come with a washing machine - usually a 2 in 1 but the drying function isn't fantastic. We found unfurnished was harder to find than furnished!
3- health care only thing not covered is dentist and optician - although the kids will be covered! And the dentist is heavily subsided if you get an NHS one
4- within Belfast on the bus route it's OK to get around.. Not so many bus lanes as in Europe
5- lots to do for kids especially if you like nature and walking or canoeing just in general the great outdoors :-)

Hope it helps any questions just ask.. smile

mxcnamama Wed 17-May-17 07:56:35

Thank you @belfastgal1234. I really appreciate this info! We're still not sure it's going to pan out but it helps to have a good sense of what to expect. smile

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