The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom or the UK) is a constitutional monarchy comprising most of the British Isles. It is a union of four constituent countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, each of which has something unique and exciting to offer the traveller while remaining undeniably British.
The UK is a diverse patchwork of native and immigrant cultures, possessing both a fascinating history and dynamic modern attractions. This is a country known for its eccentric and subversive popular culture, its creation of five major sports (golf, rugby, cricket, lawn tennis and, of course, football) and for having a music scene that may be the best in the world. Witness thousands of years of history – stone circles, castles, thatched cottages and palaces; in these islands the past comes alive.
The capital and largest city is London, a truly global metropolis like no other, and many of the country’s other cities have much to offer. To understand their sheer diversity, compare genteel Oxford with brooding Edinburgh, gentrifying Manchester, musical Liverpool, sports-mad Cardiff, the cultural melting pot of Birmingham or newly thriving Belfast, while remembering these are but the tip of the iceberg. Although Britannia no longer rules the waves, it continues to be hugely influential in the wider world and welcomes over 30 million visitors to its shores each year.
Whether you wish to walk in the steps of giants in Antrim, to immerse yourself in Celtic culture at Eisteddfod, to pound the streets of an English urban jungle, to climb, ski or snowboard Cairngorms-style, or simply to dream of having tea with the Queen, there is something for everyone in the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom is a union made up of the following home nations and territories:
The largest component, both in terms of size and, by far, population. This "Green and pleasant land" nonetheless has some of the most exciting and inspiring cities in the world, which exist alongside the "Merrie England" of rolling countryside, village greens and traditional pageantry.
The second largest home nation occupies the northern third of Great Britain. Bagpipes, kilts and haggis may spring to mind, but the contrast between the remote beauty of the Islands, cosmopolitan grittiness of the Lowlands and desolate panoramas of the wild Highlands reveals the Scotland beyond the stereotype.
This hilly western peninsula of Great Britain is home to an ancient Celtic language and culture, spectacular sceneries of mountain, valley and coast, a wealth of industrial heritage and some of the most impressive defensive castles in Europe.
|Northern Ireland |
In the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, consisting of six of the nine counties of the Irish province of Ulster. Despite being off the traditional tourist trail, Northern Ireland offers a colourful history, exceptional natural beauty, rapidly-developing cities and warmly welcoming inhabitants.
Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories
British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories are non-sovereign territories under UK jurisdiction. However, they are not part of the UK and are mostly self-governing.
|Channel Islands (Guernsey (including Alderney, Herm and Sark), Jersey)|
Small islands off the coast of France, with a unique Anglo-Norman culture and tax haven status. The archipelago has a comparatively warm climate, and has a lot of relics from the Axis occupation during the Second World War.
|Isle of Man |
A small island between Great Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea, with its own Celtic language and customs. Mann is known for having the annual TT motorcycle races, the oldest parliament in the world, tailless cats and three-legged flags.
The UK's overseas territories comprise Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctica, British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. As these mostly have separate immigration rules and very different climates and travel arrangements from the UK proper, they are covered in separate articles.
Many cities and towns in the United Kingdom are of interest to travellers. Following is a selection of nine - others are listed under their specific regions:
- 1 London — the capital city of the United Kingdom is one of the most influential cities on Earth. Home to most of the UK's principal tourist attractions, London's landmarks are instantly recognisable the world over as symbols for Britain
- 2 Belfast — the capital of Northern Ireland is in the midst of an urban renaissance, and is fast becoming a popular tourist destination due in part to its reputation as being somewhat undiscovered, but also as testament to the unique character of this city and its inhabitants.
- 3 Birmingham — Once known as the "Workshop of the World", the UK's second largest city is still home to a strong industrial heritage, as well as great shopping and the famous Balti cuisine, a product of modern Britain's multiculturalism
- 4 Bristol — an historical city famed for its colourful Georgian architecture, impressive Victorian engineering landmarks and nautical heritage. These days Bristol is equally known for trip-hop music and a significant "foodie" culture
- 5 Cardiff — the capital of Wales is equally proud of its coal-shipping past as of its rugby fandom. Come for Cymru's top museums, stay for Cardiff Bay's much-applauded regeneration
- 6 Edinburgh — capital of Scotland and second most-visited city in the UK. In August it hosts the largest arts festival in the world; all year round, visitors admire Edinburgh's illustrious history, stunning vistas and uniquely Scottish traditions
- 7 Glasgow — Scotland's largest city, home to great shopping and better architecture. Glasgow's former status as European Capital of Culture hints at the strength of its creative arts scene and the beauty of its parks and gardens
- 8 Liverpool — the British Empire's second city and the Guinness World Records global capital of pop, the "Pool of Life" is now where science and culture meet bohemian nightlife against a sporting and musical setting that needs no introduction
- 9 Manchester — the archetypal "northern city" which has transformed itself from textile town to modern metropolis. Highlights include a thriving bohemian music scene, the Gay Village and the world's only new work arts festival
- 1 Giant's Causeway — 40,000 basalt rocks rise spectacularly out of the sea at Northern Ireland's only UNESCO site
- 2 Gower Peninsula — a picturesque corner of south west Wales, perfect for bracing walks along the coast
- 3 Hadrian's Wall — Britain's own Great Wall once defended Rome from the Pictish hordes
- 4 Isle of Arran — "Scotland in miniature" packs in mountain, sea, beach and forest and a geologically diverse terrain
- 5 Lake District National Park — the land of Wordsworth brings together England's highest mountains and largest lakes
- 6 Loch Ness — The world's most famous loch is definitely not home to anything out of the ordinary — or is it?
- 7 Peak District National Park — Britain's first and most-visited national park, loved by millions for its beauty and accessibility
- 8 Snowdonia National Park — Wales' answer to the Alps is the place in Britain for extreme outdoor pursuits
- 9 Stonehenge — these 4,500-year old stones still baffle archaeologists, inspire believers and enchant all manner of visitors
|Currency||pound sterling (GBP)|
|Population||66 million (2017)|
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz (BS 1363)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The UK occupies all of the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern portion of the island of Ireland and most of the remaining British Isles. It is important to remember that the Republic of Ireland is a completely separate country to the United Kingdom, having seceded from the Union and gained its independence in 1922. The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are crown dependencies, governing themselves by their own legislatures with Crown assent. These dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom, nor of the EU, but neither are they completely sovereign nations. The UK has Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands as its nearest neighbours.
The Union comprises four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each nation has its own capital city: Scotland has Edinburgh, Wales Cardiff and Northern Ireland Belfast, while London serves as the capital for both England and the wider United Kingdom.
The "Great" in Great Britain is due to it being the largest of the British Isles, as well as to distinguish it from the other, smaller "Britain": Brittany in north-west France. This terminology has been in use since the time of Ptolemy.
Great Britain, the largest island of the British Isles, has been inhabited since at least the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. Ireland is said to have been settled by modern humans around the same time, or perhaps slightly later. While little is known about the inhabitants of the stone age British Isles, the world famous monument of Stonehenge, and dozens of other surviving stoneworks around the islands, survive to this day as a testament to their legacy.
The people of the British Isles were known as the Prettanoi by the Greeks, giving rise to the terms 'British' and 'Britain'. Some three thousand years ago, the people started to become influenced by the Celtic languages and culture from mainland Europe. The islands were, over time, to become almost completely Celtic-speaking.
Written history of Britain is generally understood to have begun with the Roman occupation of much of England and Wales, as well as the southern part of Scotland as the province of Britannia. Following the fall of the Roman garrison in Britain, the island was subsequently settled by waves of Germanic peoples, collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons, as suggested by Oppenheimer, Sykes et al, made little impact genetically, but a very large impact socially. The Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages of today are known to be descended from the original language of the Britons. Modern-day English is primarily descended from the historical Germanic Saxon language with influences from Celtic, French, Latin and others.
The British Isles eventually came to be ruled by separate kingdoms, with the Kingdom of England in the south, the Kingdom of Ireland in the west, and the Kingdom of Scotland in the north. The formerly independent Principality of Wales was absorbed into the Kingdom of England by two acts of the English parliament in 1535 and 1542 respectively. For many years, the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland fought many wars for control over the whole of Great Britain. This was to come to an end in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns when the Scottish King James VI inherited the southern throne and styled himself King James I of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1707 the parliaments of England and Scotland (under English pressure) passed the Acts of Union (1707) abolishing a separate Scottish Parliament, although significant support for Scottish independence remains to this day. Despite losing the 13 colonies that became the United States of America after the American War of Independence (1775-1783), Britain continued to grow wealthy from trade and possessions in the East. In 1801, after both the British and Irish parliaments (under British pressure) passed the Acts of Union (1801), the enlarged kingdom became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK). Decisive victories over Napoleonic forces at the battles of Trafalgar in 1805 and, ten years later, Waterloo (in which Napoleon met his final defeat) cemented the UK's place as one of the dominant political and military powers in the world.
During the next 50 years the UK grew, under Queen Victoria, into the major world power and the leader of the Industrial Revolution, eventually possessing the largest empire the world had ever seen. At its widest extent in the early 20th century, the British Empire encompassed what is today, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Egypt and numerous other colonies in Asia, Africa and the New World.
The United Kingdom and its allies were victorious during World War I, after which it gained many territories from the defeated Germany, Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Among those territories include what is today Samoa, Namibia and Israel. At its greatest extent, the British Empire was known as the empire on which the sun never sets, as its colonies covered every single time zone.
Irish nationalists resisted British rule, driven in part by the Catholic–Protestant conflict. Eventually the United Kingdom agreed to grant self-government as the Irish Free State in 1922, with six of the northern counties without an overwhelmingly Catholic majority remaining part of the UK as Northern Ireland. The Irish Free State eventually severed all ties and became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
World War II became the turning point in the history of the British Empire. The German Third Reich, under Adolf Hitler, ignored British ultimatums not to invade Poland and the UK and France declared war. While the UK was victorious in the famous aerial Battle of Britain and was spared the fate of occupation by the Wehrmacht that befell its not-so-lucky neighbours of Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the Channel Islands, it was at a heavy cost with thousands of civilian casualties that even saw the destruction of the House of Commons chamber of Parliament. In addition, the UK lost much of its prestige in its overseas colonies, as most of its troops were tied up defending the UK against the Germans, and was unable to defend many of its Asian colonies in the Pacific War against the Japanese. Most notably, the garrisons at Hong Kong and Singapore, which were considered to be impregnable fortresses by the British government and public, ignominiously fell to the Japanese. Even though the Axis powers of Germany and Japan were eventually defeated, with the UK and its allies emerging victorious from World War II, it sparked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The UK no longer had the resources to maintain control over such a large empire and they had lost the respect of the local people in their colonies due to their defeats by the Japanese. This allowed independence movements to gain traction and the UK granted independence to its colonies one by one. The last colony with significant population and economic importance, Hong Kong, was returned to China in 1997, an event which many called the "end of empire".
Despite having lost much of its power, the UK has remained a major player in world politics during and after the Cold War, and continues to exert its cultural influences throughout the world through institutions such as the BBC and the Commonwealth. The UK continues to hold a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council with the power of veto. London continues to be one of the most important cities in the world and, together with New York City, Hong Kong and Tokyo, is one of the world's most important financial centres. The London Metropolitan Area is a 'megalopolis' and is one of the largest conurbations in Europe, with a growing population at well over 13.5 million. In addition, the UK also continues to be one of the world's major centres of higher education, being home to some of the world's most prestigious universities such as the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge and attracts more international students than any other country in the world except the United States.
The country narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum in a process known as Brexit, and formally left on January 31st 2020. The complexity and effort required for achieving a full divorce from the EU and its single market are significant and the implications are unknown, posing great challenges for the country's economic and political future.
Geographically, "Great Britain" ("GB") refers just to the largest island; that is, Scotland, England, and Wales together. Great Britain became a political entity in 1707, after the merger of the Scottish and English crowns. Ireland had become a Papal possession in the 12th century, of which the English monarch was made Lord. The English monarch paid tribute to the Roman Catholic Church, levied on the people of Ireland. The Irish Lordship was converted into a Kingdom in 1542 and was joined in political union with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom in 1801. The full title of the country then became the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". This was changed to "... and Northern Ireland" when all but the six Northern Irish counties seceded from the Union in 1927, some five years after a treaty granted Irish home rule. "Britain" is often used as another name for the United Kingdom.
The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack, even on land. It comprises the flags of Saint George of England, Saint Andrew of Scotland and the Saint Patrick's Cross of Ireland superimposed on one another. Within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are commonly used. The Saint Patrick's Cross flag is often seen on Saint Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland split from the UK though, Saint Patrick's Saltire is not used for Northern Ireland, as it represented the whole of the island of Ireland, however, the flag still represents Northern Ireland within the Union Jack. A flag known as the "Ulster Banner" or just "the flag of Northern Ireland" was designed for Northern Ireland in the 1920s. This was based on the flag of Ulster, similar in appearance to the St. George's Cross flag of England, but including a Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. Although the flag's usage became contentious during the period of civil strife known as the Troubles (from the late 1960s), it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly amongst unionists and on sporting occasions. As Wales was politically integrated into the English kingdom hundreds of years before the UK's conception, its flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The Welsh flag features a red dragon on a green and white field.
The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not part of the UK, but rather are 'Crown Dependencies': they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts. They are not entirely sovereign either, falling under the British Crown which chooses to have its UK Government manage defence and foreign relations. The people are British Citizens but, unless they have direct ties with the UK through a parent, or have lived in the UK for at least 5 years, do not have the same rights to work or reside in the European Union.
Overseas Territories and Commonwealth countries
These places are not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the British Empire. All Commonwealth countries are independent, though some (e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand), known as the Commonwealth Realms, still have the British monarch as their head of state. Overseas territories typically have some degree of self government, though they are still partially under the control of the British Government (primarily for foreign affairs and defence purposes) and their citizens still possess British citizenship though with the exception of Gibraltar, they are not part of the European Union and unless special circumstances apply, their citizens do not have the same right to work or reside in the rest of the EU. The British monarch continues to be "Head of the Commonwealth", though this position is purely symbolic and does not carry any actual powers with it. Citizens of Commonwealth countries which are not Overseas Territories or EU countries are broadly subject to the same entry and immigration rules as other non-EU citizens.
Referring to nationality
The home nations are commonly referred to as "countries", although they are neither sovereign nor independent. Many Britons will take offence at hearing their home nation described as though it were merely a "region" or other sub-national entity.
Be careful when describing citizens of the United Kingdom as "English", as this can be incorrect and indeed perceived as insulting in some situations. The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are not from England. If you need to refer to someone's nationality, saying "British" is staying on the safe side and unlikely to offend, and you may be invited to use the more precise terms of "English", "Northern Irish", "Welsh" or "Scottish". To play even safer, you can just ask someone which part of the UK they are from.
This is particularly important in Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists may avoid referring to Northern Ireland at all, referring instead to "the Six Counties" or "the North", or talk about "Ireland" as a whole. "Northern Irish" is less likely to offend, whereas referring to someone from Northern Ireland as "British" or as "Irish" can cause offence depending on a person's political ideology.
While it is a county of England, the issue of identity in Cornwall is very sensitive and some people may identify as "Cornish".
As a visitor from outside the UK, you are unlikely to cause serious offence. At worst, you will incur a minor rebuff and reaffirmation of their nationality, as in "I'm not English. I'm Scottish".
You don't have to be British to vote in the UK!
The United Kingdom is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with the reigning monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) as head of state; the usual platitude is that "Her Majesty reigns but does not rule". It has the original bicameral parliament: the lower house, known as the House of Commons, traditionally represents the common people. It is popularly elected and is responsible for proposing new laws. The upper house, known as the House of Lords, traditionally represents the nobility and clergy, and primarily scrutinises and amends bills proposed by the lower house. The House of Lords is not elected and more than 80% of its members are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister or the Appointments Commission. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. In practice, the Queen's role is largely ceremonial, and the Prime Minister wields the most authority in government, though the Queen in theory retains the power to veto any bills that have been passed by Parliament (last exercised by Queen Anne in 1708).
Britain has a first-past-the post system divided into local constituencies. Each constituency votes for a local MP (Member of Parliament) who then goes to sit in the House of Commons to debate and vote. The Labour Party and the Conservative Party ("the Tories") have been the two dominant parties in British politics since the 1920s; the Conservatives have been the sole party of government since May 2015, after five years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The first-past-the-post system ensures that small parties only get representation in Westminster if they have a strong local base of support, like Scottish or Welsh nationalists and parties on all sides of the Northern Irish question, whereas non-major parties with nationwide support like the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or the Brexit Party have a hard time getting seats in proportion to their vote share or at all.
The Cabinet forms the executive branch of government. It is led by the Prime Minister, who appoints her ministers from members of the House of Commons, and occasionally from the Lords. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has topped the judicial branch since 2009. Prior to that, that role was fulfilled by the House of Lords in Parliament.
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected legislatures, the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Each of these devolved governments has a First Minister and varying degrees of power over matters internal to their constituent country, including the passing of laws. For example, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh exercises power and passes laws over almost every matter internal to Scotland. In the areas over which it has power, the UK government plays no role. As a result, institutions and systems can be radically different between the four constituent countries in the UK. England has no similar body of its own, with all government coming from Westminster.
There are also local government authorities responsible for services at a local level, which vary widely in size and responsibility across the UK. Some of these local authorities cover just single cities (e.g. Cardiff), or even parts of cities (e.g. London Borough of Islington), whereas some cover whole counties (e.g. Northumberland) or vast regions (e.g. the Scottish Highlands).
The UK has a benign humid-temperate climate moderated by the North Atlantic current and the country's proximity to the sea. Warm, damp summers and mild winters provide temperatures pleasant enough to engage in outdoor activities all year round. Having said that, the weather in the UK can be changeable and conditions are often windy and wet. British rain is world renowned, but in practice it rarely rains more than two or three hours at a time and often parts of the country stay dry for many weeks at a time, especially in the East. More common are overcast or partly cloudy skies. It is a good idea to be prepared for a change of weather when going out; a jumper and a raincoat usually suffice when it is not winter. In summer temperatures can reach 30ºC in parts and in winter temperatures may be mild, e.g. 10ºC in southern England and 0ºC in northern Scotland.
Because the UK stretches nearly a thousand kilometres from end to end, temperatures can vary quite considerably between north and south. Spring and autumn often show the greatest regional disparity of temperature with single figures in the north versus mid-20s in the south. Differences in rainfall are also pronounced between the drier east and wetter west. Scotland and north-western England (particularly the Lake District) are often rainy and cold. Alpine conditions with heavy snowfall are common in the mountains of northern Scotland during the winter. The north-east and Midlands are also cool, though with less rainfall. The south-east and East Anglia are generally warm and dry, and the south-west warm but often wet. Wales and Northern Ireland tend to experience cool to mild temperatures and moderate rainfall, while the hills of Wales occasionally experience heavy snowfall. Even though the highest land in the UK rarely reaches more than 1000 metres, the effect of height on rainfall and temperature is great.
Units of measure
- See also: Metric and Imperial equivalents
The United Kingdom is the country of origin of the imperial system of measures, which shares a common origin with the current United States customary units. The American War of Independence took place some 40 years before Britain standardised its weights and measures, with the result that British pints and gallons are 19% larger than their U.S. equivalents while the imperial fluid ounce is marginally smaller than its US counterpart. In official usage, the UK is in a curious state of partial metrication, with the use of the imperial system in some contexts, and the metric system in others. Temperature is nowadays measured using the metric system, with weather forecasts being given in °C. Likewise, fuel is sold per litre at fuel stations. For retail purposes, prices are often quoted using both imperial and metric units (e.g., prices of fruit and vegetables are quoted both per kilogram and per pound).
However, road signs by and large continue to use the old imperial system, although there is increasing use of dual unit signs for height and width restrictions. Speeds are given in mph and distances are given in miles. Milk, beer and cider continue to be sold by the pint. Land size is also usually measured using imperial units, with land areas often quoted in acres, and land price quoted per square foot. People also have a tendency to quote their weight in stone and pounds, and their height in feet and inches if asked.
The United Kingdom uses Western European Time (WET), which means it is on universal time (UTC≈GMT) from the last Sunday in October to the last Sunday in March. For the middle seven months of the year, it's on British Summer Time (BST = UTC+1) or "daylight saving time". There's a parallel changeover across Europe, so Britain is always one hour behind its nearest neighbours in Europe, except Ireland and Portugal, which also use WET.
Airline and ferry timetables usually change with the clocks: their summer period is often shown as "Apr-Oct" and winter as "Nov-Mar" on these pages, though these don't precisely match. Railway and bus timetables do not change – the train scheduled for 08:30 still leaves at 08:30, but you need to adjust your watch to catch it. Lots of people forget, and miss trains on the last Sunday and Monday of March.
Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the base for the "Universal Time" (UTC) and thus sets the baseline not just for the world but for the entire cosmos! This is because Greenwich in London housed the telescopes which calibrated the Earth's rotation and defined the zero meridian of longitude, and was the headquarters of the powerful navy that depended on accurate time-keeping for navigation. GMT is thus part of the national identity, and can be politically-charged. Changing the clocks is accompanied by a recurrent debate (as circular as the Earth's motion) about whether UK should continue to change, or what else it might change to.
Bank (public) holidays
Each country (and sometimes cities, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh) within the UK have a number of slightly differing public holidays, on which the majority of people do not work. Shops, pubs, restaurants and similar are usually open. Many UK residents will take advantage of the time off to travel, both within the UK and abroad. This makes transport links busier than usual and tends to increase prices. If your travel dates are flexible you may wish to avoid travelling to or from the UK on bank holiday weekends. Britain's unpredictable weather is notorious for putting paid to bank holiday plans, even in the middle of summer, though on those choice days when the sun does shine, people seize the moment with gusto, heading en masse to the nearest beach or beauty spot.
The following eight bank holidays apply in all parts of the UK:
- New Year's Day (1 January)
- Good Friday (the Friday immediately before Easter Sunday)
- Easter Monday (the Monday immediately after Easter Sunday)
- Early May Bank Holiday (the first Monday in May)
- Spring Bank Holiday (the last Monday in May)
- Summer Bank Holiday (the last Monday in August, except in Scotland where it is the first Monday in August)
- Christmas Day (25 December)
- Boxing Day (26 December)
Northern Ireland has the following two additional bank holidays:
- St Patrick's Day (17 March)
- Battle of the Boyne/Orangemen's Day (12 July)
Scotland officially has two additional bank holidays:
- the day after New Year's Day (2 January)
- St Andrew's Day (30 November)
In practice, with the exception of Easter, Christmas and New Year holidays, UK bank holidays are virtually ignored in Scotland in favour of local holidays which vary from place to place.
In Wales, St David's Day is not a bank holiday, though many people treat it as one and take a day off work anyway.
Where a bank holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it is moved to the following Monday. If both Christmas Day and Boxing Day fall on a weekend, the Boxing Day holiday is moved to the following Tuesday.
"Two countries divided by a common language"
Speakers of American English will find some terms which differ in British English:
Please see the article English language varieties for more words that differ across both versions.
English is spoken throughout the United Kingdom, although there are parts of major cities where immigration has led to a variety of languages being spoken as well. The English spoken in the UK has many accents and dialects, some of which may contain words which are unfamiliar to other English speakers. It is fairly common for residents of different regions in the UK not to understand each other at first go; do not be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves. To illustrate the variety of accents available, it is easy to distinguish the English spoken by someone from London as opposed to someone from Glasgow, or even pinpoint a person's origin to a particular town within a county, such as Leeds or Whitby (both in Yorkshire, England). In some cities, accent can also differ by social class. English in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be spoken quite fast. The different dialects can be extremely different in both pronunciation and vocabulary.
Inter-migration in the United Kingdom means you are likely to encounter people from all over the UK and beyond no matter where you visit. It is rare to find a place where all adults have the same accent or dialect.
There's an old joke that the people of the UK and the U.S. are "divided by a common language", and travellers from English-speaking countries outside the UK may have difficulty catching specific words where regional accents are strong, but still there should not be any major difficulties in communicating. The British are good at understanding English spoken in a foreign accent, and visitors who speak English as a second language need not fear making mistakes. You may just get a slightly blank look for a few seconds after the end of a sentence while they 'decode' it internally. Most British people will not criticise or correct your language, although some are very keen to promote British usages over American ones when talking to non-native-speakers.
A few examples of regional words that overseas visitors may not be familiar with:
- Aye - yes (some parts of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern England)
- Cymru (pronounced 'Cum-ree') - Wales (Wales)
- Dale/glen - valley (northern England and Scotland respectively)
- Fell - mountain (northern England, especially the Lake District)
- Loch - lake (Scotland)
- Lough - lake (Northern Ireland)
- Kirk - church (Scotland and north east England)
- Poke - ice cream served in a wafer cone (Northern Ireland); a paper bag, especially one containing chips or sweets (Scotland)
- Wee - small (Scotland, Northern Ireland, some northern English people), can also mean to urinate (England)
The world of politics also has a couple of very commonly-used words you may hear:
- Downing Street or Number 10 – used to refer to the Prime Minister and sometimes the government as a whole (similar to "the White House" referring to the President of the United States). "Buckingham Palace" is used in a similar way to refer to the Monarchy.
- MP – or Member of Parliament, not to be confused with the 'PM' - the Prime Minister
- Whitehall – also used to refer to the government as a whole, especially the bureaucracy. Whitehall is a road in central London where many government ministries are located.
- Westminster – used to refer to Parliament and the political system in general. "Stormont", "Holyrood" and "Cardiff" respectively refer to the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales
Cockney rhyming slang is not a language but a collection of terms, some local and temporary, others so long-lasting that they are used by many people who don't realise that they are rhyming slang. Example of the latter: "raspberry" for the derisive noise called "Bronx cheer" in the U.S. - derived from "raspberry tart", rhyming with "fart".
British people have historically been very tolerant of swearing, when used in context. It is considered far less shocking to say taboo words like "cunt" or "twat" compared to in America, and can even be a term of endearment depending on the situation. Tourists should get used to hearing the word "mate" (and "boss or "bruv" to a lesser extent in London) a lot which is used in informal interaction (frequently male only) between strangers and friends alike, and is something similar to calling someone "buddy" or "pal". The use of affectionate terms between the sexes such as "darling", "love" or "sweetheart" (even, in parts of Cornwall, "lover") is common between strangers and is not meant in a sexist or patronising manner. Furthermore, British people are prone to apologising for even the smallest things, much to the amusement of some and can be considered perhaps rude to not do so. An example such as bumping into you will warrant a "sorry" and is really more like "pardon" or "excuse me".
Other native languages
British Sign Language, or BSL, is the UK's primary sign language. When interpreters are present for public events, they will use BSL. In Northern Ireland, both BSL and Irish Sign Language (ISL) see use, and a Northern Ireland Sign Language (NISL) is emerging from contact between the two. Users of Auslan or New Zealand Sign Language may understand BSL, as those languages were derived from BSL and share much vocabulary, as well as the same two-handed manual alphabet. On the other hand, users of French Sign language and related languages—notably ISL and American Sign Language—will not be able to understand BSL.
Welsh (Cymraeg) is widely spoken in Wales, particularly in the north and west. The number of Welsh speakers has risen over the last few years partly due to the language's promotion in schools, but this bilingual population is still only around 30% of the total population of Wales. Government bodies whose area of responsibility covers Wales use bilingual documentation (English and Welsh) - for example, see the Welsh version of the central government's website. Road signs in Wales are bilingual. Even the non-Welsh-speaking majority in Wales know how to pronounce Welsh place names. Once you hear how to pronounce a name, have a go and try not to offend!
The ancient Cornish language (Kernowek) of Cornwall, in the far south west, was revived during the twentieth century, but it is not always passed down from parent to child as Welsh and Gaelic still are. Be aware, however, that Cornish place names remain and can be rather challenging to pronounce for non-locals!
Scots has much in common with English, and can be heard in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland (where it is known as Ulster-Scots) to varying degrees. It can be difficult to understand, so feel free to ask someone to repeat themselves or speak more slowly. Speakers are likely to use English with outsiders.
All speakers of these minority languages are fluent to near-fluent in standard English but react well if you show an interest in their native tongue and culture. Wikivoyage has phrasebooks for Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. Television and radio broadcasts are also available in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish.
British students often study a European language in school although they tend not to learn past basic levels, as you may have guessed from previous encounters with British travellers abroad! As a general rule people will speak only English, and sometimes another native UK language, though French, German and Spanish are the most widely-spoken and understood foreign languages. There's no harm in asking if a person speaks your language, as you may strike lucky, especially in a larger city, just don't expect a miracle. On the other hand, most sites popular with tourists provide leaflets and sell guidebooks in a variety of foreign languages, and some attractions provide multilingual information boards and audio tours.
The UK is a popular destination for migrants from all over the world, in particular from former British colonies, so many neighbourhoods in larger cities will have migrant communities speaking various languages from around the globe.
The UK is not a member of the European Union or the Schengen Agreement, which means that travel to and from EU countries (except Ireland) involves systematic passport/identity card checks at the border and separate visa requirements. Similarly, a Schengen visa does not allow entry to the UK, so if required for your nationality, you will need to obtain a separate UK visa. Entering the UK from a Schengen country will invalidate a single entry Schengen visa, and you will need to apply for a new visa to be re-admitted to the Schengen area.
Almost all passengers travelling to the UK from outside Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man go through systematic passport/identity card and selective customs checks carried out by the United Kingdom Border Force (UKBF) on arrival in the UK. However, those travelling by Eurostar from Paris Gare du Nord, Lille-Europe, Calais-Fréthun and Brussels Zuid-Midi stations and by ferry from Calais and Dunkirk undergo UK passport/identity card checks in France/Belgium before embarkation and selective customs checks on arrival in the UK. Those entering the UK by Eurotunnel from France go through both UK passport/identity card and UK customs checks in Coquelles before boarding the train.
Immigration and visa requirements
Common Travel Area
If you enter the United Kingdom through Ireland, you will pass through passport control at your port of entry into Ireland, but you are not required to clear UK passport control. However, you will only be limited to a stay of three months in the UK and Ireland (or whatever the passport control officer in Ireland gives you a leave to remain for) if you qualify for a visa exemption, not the usual six-month stay in the UK for visa-exempt nationals. Hence, especially if you attempt to enter the UK as a Student Visitor (i.e. a visitor studying for up to 6 months), you should not transit through Ireland unless you possess a valid UK visa or entry clearance permitting a stay of more than three months or intend to stay in the UK for fewer than three months.
If you require a visa for either Ireland or the UK, however, you must possess a visa from each country that requires you to have one if you intend to visit both of them - the only exceptions are citizens of countries that may avail of the Irish Short-Stay Visa Waiver Programme which applies until October 2021 but may be extended; citizens of Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, Kazakhstan, PR China, and Uzbekistan, who hold a British type "C" tourist visa and have already been admitted to the UK may subsequently travel to Ireland for up to 90 days or the expiry date of their British visa, whichever is shorter. Not passing through passport control does not exempt one from having a visa if needed, and you can be fined and deported for not having a visa if discovered.
In addition, no passport control checks are in place from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the UK.
- Citizens of Ireland have right of abode in the UK, and do not require a passport to enter.
- Other EU, EEA and Swiss citizens do not require a visa to visit for up to six months, but must have a valid passport for the duration of their stay. They may not work in the UK unless they have a visa valid for that purpose.
- Citizens of Anguilla, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Botswana, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, East Timor, El Salvador, Falkland Islands, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Monaco, Montserrat, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Pitcairn Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, South Korea, Solomon Islands, St. Lucia, St. Helena, Taiwan, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tristan da Cunha, Tuvalu, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uruguay, United States, Vanuatu, Vatican City and Venezuela (holders of Venezuelan biometric passports only) require passports for entry, but do not require a visa for visits of up to 6 months. Once in the UK, they are not allowed to work or access public funds (e.g. claiming state benefits). If citizens of these countries/territories wish to stay in the UK for purposes other than a tourist, businessperson or student visitor (i.e. a visitor studying for up to 6 months) or wish to stay for more than 6 months in the UK, they will need to apply for an entry clearance (i.e., a visa) before travelling to the UK. Citizens of these countries/territories who do intend to stay in the UK as a student visitor should ensure that their passport is endorsed with both a date stamp and a short term student stamp, otherwise the education provider where they intend to study may refuse to accept them for enrolment.
- A visa is required for citizens of most other countries to enter the UK and a number of countries to transit the UK airside. This can be obtained from the British Embassy, High Commission or Consulate where the applicant legally resides. Unless they are 6 years old or under or travelling directly to the Channel Islands and not passing through the UK or the Isle of Man, UK visa applicants are required to provide biometric data (10-digit fingerprints and a biometric digital photograph) as part of the application process. As part of the visa application procedure, it is necessary to attend a UK visa application centre in person to provide your biometrics.
- The United Kingdom has converted the previous visa categories (except for the visitor and transit categories) into a five-tiered points-based system (PBS), meaning that you will be required to satisfy specific and non-negotiable criteria before the visa is issued. Points-based system visa fees are very high, so it may be wise to see if the purpose of your visit can be satisfied under a different, non-points based system visa. For example, if you want to stay in the UK for 11 months to study an English Language course, it would be cheaper to apply for a student visitor visa (£140), rather than a Tier 4 student visa (£255).
- Commonwealth citizens who are 17 or over and have a British grandparent (or Irish grandparent before April 1922) can apply for an ancestry visa. This allows residency and work in the UK for five years. After five years, permanent residence (indefinite leave to remain) may be applied for; after 12 months of continuous permanent residence and five years of continuous residence in the UK, ancestry visa holders will be able to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen. All Commonwealth citizens living in the UK (regardless of what type of visa they hold and whether they have a British grandparent) are eligible to vote in all elections.
- Citizens of Australia, Canada, Hong Kong (British National [Overseas] passport holders only), Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan can apply for a Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa (the former Working Holiday visa for all young Commonwealth citizens has been discontinued). The Tier 5 YMS visa allows the holder to undertake a working holiday in the UK for 2 years from the date of issue. Only a limited number of visas are issued for each nationality — in particular, demand far exceeds supply for Japan and Taiwan.
- Citizens of Hong Kong with British National (Overseas) passports may apply to move to the UK, but may have to show evidence of sufficient funds to cover their stay for at least the first five years, and are not eligible for welfare benefits during that five-year period. They will be eligible for permanent residency after the five years are up, and for citizenship a year after being granted permanent residency.
- There are generally no immigration checks when entering the UK from Ireland. However, visitors who are not Irish or British citizens are still required to meet admission requirements, and should carry their passport (with appropriate visa stamps if required).
- Landing cards were abolished in May 2019 for all travellers.
- Travellers subject to immigration control should expect to be asked by Border Force officers upon arrival to demonstrate that they have a) a return ticket to leave the United Kingdom or sufficient funds to meet the cost of an onwards plane ticket, b) a valid address at which they will be staying in the United Kingdom, and c) sufficient funds with which to support themselves during their stay. An inability to demonstrate these three basics may lead to a refusal of leave to enter or a grant of restricted leave.
Registered Traveller Service
Citizens of Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States and Uruguay may apply to participate in the Registered Traveller Service after meeting several requirements, which allows you to use the automated ePassport gates when entering the country, meaning that you can get through immigration much faster.
Like many other countries, the United Kingdom requires foreign visitors to be of good character, under rules that went into effect in 2012, a potential visitor can be refused landing permission or a visa/entry clearance on character grounds if they:
- Have unspent criminal convictions resulting in a combined sentence of more than 12 months in prison.
- Irrespective of criminal history, have questionable associations (e.g., organized crime, terrorist or hate groups) or underlying conduct issues.
These rules were tightened further in January 2021.
If either situation may apply to you, contact your local British Embassy or High Commission for advice prior to making travel arrangements — you may need to apply for a visa, even if you are from a country that usually wouldn't require one. The UK Border Force also lists several other grounds for exclusion, although most of these (e.g., owing more than £1000 to the NHS or failing to submit to a medical exam) are for persons applying for residency or other long-term visas and are not usually applicable to tourists. EU, EEA or Swiss citizens are also subject to character requirements, and may be refused entry on the basis of serious criminal convictions or other public security concerns.
Customs and goods
The UK has relatively strict laws controlling which goods can and cannot be brought into the country. Selective customs checks are run by UKBF at arrival ports.
Particularly stringent laws apply to the movement of animals (info). The British Isles are rabies-free, and the government (and the people) want to keep it that way. Also tapeworms should be kept at bay. Signs in several languages are displayed prominently at even the smallest of boat landings all around the coast. The EU animal passport system makes taking a pet with you easier, providing proof of vaccination against rabies.
The UK also has tight regulations on what food products can be imported, Defra maintains official guidance here (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/personal-food-plant-and-animal-product-imports).
Border Force officers have powers to not only confiscate goods they suspect, but additionally impound the vehicle carrying them.
Customs limits returned on 1st January 2021 (https://www.gov.uk/duty-free-goods).
Customs restrictions now fall into 2 categories, those passengers arriving into England, Scotland or Wales and those who arrive into Northern Ireland (which remains part of the EU customs union).
Customs limits for England, Scotland and Wales
- beer - 42 litres
- wine (not sparkling) - 18 litres
You can also bring in either:
- spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol - 4 litres
- fortified wine (for example port, sherry), sparkling wine and alcoholic drinks up to 22% alcohol - 9 litres
This last allowance can be split, for example you could bring 4.5 litres of fortified wine and 2 litres of spirits (both half of your allowance).
You can bring in one from the following:
- 200 cigarettes
- 100 cigarillos
- 50 cigars
- 250g tobacco
- 200 sticks of tobacco for electronic heated tobacco devices
You can split this allowance - so you could bring in 100 cigarettes and 25 cigars (both half of your allowance).
You can bring in other goods worth up to £390 (or up to £270 if you arrive by private plane or boat).
Customs limits for Northern Ireland
Limits for Northern Ireland depend on whether or not you started your journey in the EU or not. See
Which customs channel
Ports of entry use the familiar red/green system. Those in Northern Ireland retain the EU blue channel for routes originating in the EU.
You must make a declaration if you are carrying more than £10,000 in cash or other negotiable instruments into or out of England, Wales or Scotland, €10,000 in cash into or out of Northern Ireland. Also, if you are carrying more than £1,000 in cash, you may need to show evidence you are legally entitled to that cash if questioned by a customs officer.
The most important airports are London Heathrow (LHR IATA), London Gatwick (LGW IATA) and Manchester (MAN IATA). All three have multiple terminals and are collectively served by a vast range of airlines and flights from the four corners of the map.
Heathrow is the United Kingdom's main hub, receiving direct flights from every continent and major landmass but Antarctica, including Europe's only direct flights from Oceania. It is also one of the busiest airports in the world, so leave plenty of time to get around it and expect to queue a lot! Gatwick has a somewhat smaller range of destinations than Heathrow, primarily focusing on short and medium-haul flights from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, North America and the Caribbean. Manchester is the largest non-London airport with a choice of international destinations to rival Heathrow. It is especially useful if travelling to the northern half of the UK. All three offer connections with domestic flights to regional destinations.
The UK's second-tier of international airports comprise Belfast International (BFS IATA), Birmingham (BHX IATA), Bristol (BRS IATA), Edinburgh (EDI IATA) and Glasgow International (GLA IATA) as well as a trio of secondary London airports: City (LCY IATA), Luton (LTN IATA) and Stansted (STN IATA). They are busy airports in their own right, well connected to the rest of Europe, and all offer a range of medium and long-haul flights, though the precise extent of that range may be limited to just a few destinations or to seasonal services. Stansted Airport in particular is one of the main hubs of Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, and is thus well-served by many low-cost carrier flights from destinations all over Europe.
There is an even longer list of minor international airports serving cities as diverse as Cardiff, Liverpool and Aberdeen, which you can discover in detail on Wikivoyage's UK region and city articles. These airports generally focus on jetting Brits overseas, so are therefore dominated by low cost airlines flying to tourist resorts across Europe, though many also receive flights from a selection of European cities. Specifically, travellers from France, Spain, Italy and Greece stand a fair chance of finding nearby direct flights to UK regional airports, due to the popularity of these countries among British holidaymakers.
Alternatively, Dutch carrier KLM has a large number of feeder flights from its international hub in Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS IATA) to almost every UK regional airport, which is especially useful when you can't get a direct flight to the UK. Other useful national carriers transiting through a continental hub include Air France via Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG IATA), Iberia via Madrid Barajas (MAD IATA), and Lufthansa via Frankfurt (FRA IATA).
If you're visiting Northern Ireland, then Dublin Airport (DUB IATA), being the hub for Aer Lingus, has a much wider range of international flights than Belfast International. Only do this if you can travel visa-free between the Republic of Ireland and the UK or if you have a visa for both countries.
Most UK airports are served by rail services, which if nothing else offer transport into the nearest city. The airports of Manchester and Birmingham are overall the best connected to the National Rail network, in terms of the wide number of destinations you can get to on board a train from either of their stations. Surprisingly, Heathrow's non-local rail connections are poor; if you want to get into central London, you are presented with three handy options to cater to any need. However, if you want to go anywhere else in the UK, you will still have to make your way to one of London's terminus stations to catch another train. Gatwick fares slightly better, with good regional connections including to London, Brighton and Reading. Most other airports are served by a nearby station, often connected by shuttle bus if not at the terminal. A few smaller airports have very few public transport options, so travellers flying into any British airport not mentioned here are advised to check before they travel.
Heathrow is a hub for National Express, meaning you can catch a coach to most parts of the UK direct from the airport. Many other airports are also served by coach companies, and everywhere has car hire options.
From Belgium and France
Eurostar operates regular high-speed trains to London (St Pancras International), Ebbsfleet and Ashford (both in the county of Kent) through the Channel Tunnel from Avignon (TGV), Brussels (Zuid-Midi), Calais (Fréthun), Lille (Europe), Lyon (Part-Dieu), Marseille (Saint Charles), and of course Paris (Nord). There are also less-frequent services from Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy (Disneyland Paris) and, in winter, two resorts in the French Alps (Bourg-Saint-Maurice and Moûtiers), though these are mainly of use to holidaymakers travelling from Britain. Through-tickets and connections are available through Lille, Paris and Brussels from many European cities to most large UK cities.
Journey times to central London average 2 hours 15 minutes from Paris and 1 hour 50 minutes from Brussels. A second-class return from Paris to London costs between €85 and €230. While it can be cheaper to fly to London using a low-cost airline, bear in mind that the journeys to and from the airports can be expensive and time-consuming, and high-speed is easily the most environmentally friendly way to travel.
Passengers travelling by Eurostar to the UK from Paris, Lille, Calais and Brussels undergo UK passport/identity card checks before boarding. Passengers from all other destinations go through security checks in Lille, which unfortunately involves disembarking from the train and physically passing through customs. The UK passport checks take place after the French/Belgian passport/identity card exit checks in the stations. However, UK customs checks sometimes also take place on arrival in the UK. In the reverse direction, passengers go through French immigration checks before boarding the train in the UK, and do not usually have to go through the checks again when arriving in France or Belgium.
From the Netherlands
The quickest way from the Netherlands to the UK by train is with Thalys and Eurostar, changing at Brussels, where you will pass through British border controls. The journey time to London St Pancras is 4hr 45 min from Amsterdam Centraal, and roughly 4 hr from Rotterdam Centraal. A single journey starts from €59. The added bonus for this option is your return trip can be made on a direct Eurostar from London to Rotterdam or Amsterdam, without having to change trains, shaving about an hour off the journey time.
Direct Eurostar trains across the Channel from Amsterdam and Rotterdam are postponed until 2019, but for now many travellers prefer a combined rail and ferry voyage via the Hook of Holland and Harwich. With the Dutch Flyer, passengers can travel from any railway station in the Netherlands to any station served by Greater Anglia in England (this network operates in the East of England and east and central London) on a single fare (€142 return). There's no doubt this makes for a much longer journey than going through the tunnel, but for travellers not in a rush, or for those wishing to travel to East Anglia, this service may be a useful and pleasant alternative. The interchange between the ferry terminal and the train station at both ports is very simple and user friendly. Express trains from Harwich International are timed to meet the ferry and allow a simple transfer to London Liverpool Street in under 90 minutes.
Deutsche Bahn does not yet run trains to London. That's despite their earlier plans (2012) and a trial run of an ICE through the Chunnel. However, they do offer an almost unbeatable "London Spezial" where you can take a Deutsche Bahn train from any point in Germany with any number of changes to Brussels and a Eurostar from there to London for fares starting at €59 (second class, one way) and €109 (first class). Given that early bird fares may sell out rather quickly for popular dates (the NFL international series being an especially popular time for Germans to visit London), you may wish to book 180 days in advance, as this is the earliest possible date to buy tickets online.
From the Republic of Ireland
Cross-border rail services to Northern Ireland
From Dublin (Connolly rail station) in Ireland, the Enterprise takes just over 2 hours to Belfast Central. Tickets are available from Irish Rail (in the Republic) and NI Railways in Northern Ireland. There are no border checks, but non British and Irish citizens should still bring a passport or some form of photo ID, just in case.
Services to the British mainland
Combined Rail & Sail tickets are available from any railway station in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to any railway station in Great Britain. Tickets can be bought from the railway company and ferry operators. Through tickets are available on most sea corridors. Fares are slightly higher during July and August.
The Channel Tunnel has provided a rail / road connection between the Continent and Britain since 1994. Shuttle trains operated by Eurotunnel carry vehicles from Calais (France) to Folkestone in Kent in 35 minutes, though you only spend about 20 minutes in the tunnel. Passengers remain with their vehicles for the duration, with trips to the toilet allowed. Fares start at €32 one way and can be booked online months in advance, though it is entirely possible to 'turn up and go' without a reservation, at a cost of course! The terminal on the French side is in Coquelles, 5 km outside Calais, and directly accessible from junction 42b of the A16 (E402) motorway. Follow signs for Tunnel sous la Manche. Passengers undergo UK passport/identity card and customs checks in Calais and French exit checks before departure. On arrival at Folkestone, you can drive straight on to the M20 motorway which heads towards London (70 miles, 113 km) and the rest of the UK's national road network. The UK drives on the left and still uses the imperial system for distance and speed limit measures. In the reverse direction, you will go through French/Schengen passport control in the UK before driving onto the train.
Car ferries also operate to many parts of the UK from other European countries — see the by boat section below.
Drivers entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland will usually find they have done so without noticing. There are no border controls, and some roads don't display signs stating that you are leaving one country and entering the other. However, the appropriate travel documents for your nationality are still required for cross-border travel despite the lack of border controls. Road signs in the Republic of Ireland (as in the rest of Europe) are in kilometres while those in Northern Ireland are in miles, and the two countries use very different styles of road signs so take note of the differences in signage and road markings when driving in border areas.
Coaches are the cheapest way to travel to the UK from France and the Benelux. Eurolines offer daily services from Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels to London Victoria coach station. Daily overnight coaches and limited day coaches travel between Ireland and the UK. Connections are available to most parts of the UK via the domestic National Express coach system; for most destinations it is cheaper to purchase this when purchasing your Eurolines tickets as discounts are available. Eurolines will also take you from and to most other major European cities, and the coach is certainly better for the environment than flying, if considerably slower.
Various other operators compete with Eurolines, mostly between Poland and the UK.
See the city articles for more details on routes, timings and costs. Also: Ferry routes to Great Britain.
There are many ferry routes into the UK from continental Europe. Newcastle serves a route from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Harwich has ferries from the Hook of Holland in the Netherlands. You can also sail from Rotterdam in the Netherlands or Zeebrugge in Belgium to Hull. There is a regular connection between Ostend in Belgium and Ramsgate. There are 4 sailings a day and prices vary between €50 and €84.
Dover is the UK's busiest ferry port with sailings from Zeebrugge in Belgium, and Dunkirk and Calais in France. The Dover-Calais route is particularly busy, with three companies competing and up to 50 sailings per day. The ferry between Calais and Dover costs around €23 each way if on foot or bicycle, and around €50 for a car, although big discounts are available if booked in advance or with special offers. Passengers travelling from Calais or Dunkirk by ferry to the UK go through British immigration control after French exit checks and before boarding; UK customs checks are still after arrival in the UK.
On the south coast, Portsmouth receives ferries from Le Havre, Caen, Cherbourg and St. Malo in France, as well as Bilbao and Santander in Spain and there are speedy services between Dieppe (France) and Newhaven. The other route from Santander is to Plymouth. Plymouth also receives ferries from Roscoff (France), while Poole has ferries from Cherbourg and the Channel Islands.
From the United States, you can hop aboard the Queen Mary II ocean liner or one of the other ships of the Cunard Line — they depart from New York City every month or so. The crossing to Southampton varies between six and seven days. Prices start at around US$1300.
Other ships operate from various ports around the world — Grimaldi Lines operate a service carrying cars and passengers from Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Paranagua in Brazil about once every 15 days to Felixstowe.
Bicycles may be taken on car ferries and on Eurotunnel shuttle trains. They may also be carried on aeroplanes, though you should consult your airline beforehand: bikes often count as "oversized luggage" and there is sometimes an extra charge to check them in. You may also be asked to partially dismantle your bicycle, but this policy will vary from carrier to carrier. Eurostar allows folding bikes on all its trains, and offers a more restricted service for other bikes, but has quite strict and specific rules that are worth reading up on before you travel.
The adventurous (and fit!) may want to try cycling between two great capitals - Paris and London. The Avenue Verte follows high quality bike trails all the way from Notre Dame to the foot of the London Eye, passing through beautiful countryside on both sides of the Channel. Highlights of the 406 km (252 mile) journey include the rich farmland of Normandy, the ferry crossing between Dieppe and Newhaven, and the South Downs' rolling chalk hills. The itinerary is fully signposted all the way, and its accompanying website gives a detailed breakdown of the route, its points of interest and practical information such as places to rest, eat and sleep the night. Count on at least four days in the saddle, depending how fit you are and how you pace yourself. As there is plenty to see and do en route, there's no rush!
- Traveline, ☏ (calls cost £0.12 / min. from within the UK). Traveline provides online travel planner services for all public transportation across Great Britain. They also have separate planners dedicated to specific regions. Alternatively you can download their free regional apps. Just search "traveline + the region you want, e.g. Traveline West Midlands" on the App Store or Play Store.
- , ☏ . For navigation purposes, they are Northern Ireland's version of Traveline, though they also operate most of the Province's bus and train services themselves.
- Main article: Rail travel in Great Britain
For Northern Ireland, see Rail travel in Ireland
Train travel is very popular in Britain—you'll find many services busy, and passenger numbers have been rising steadily. It is one of the fastest, most comfortable, convenient and enjoyable ways to explore Britain and by far the best way to travel inter-city. From High Speed 1, which connects London to Kent and mainland Europe, to preserved railways operating historic steam trains through idyllic countryside, to modern inter-city services and the breathtakingly scenic lines of Scotland, Wales and northern England, the train can be an enthralling and affordable way to see much that the UK has to offer.
All infrastructure is owned by the state while trains are operated by private companies, usually multinational transport companies, which bid for temporary franchises from the government. The system is tightly controlled, both by the national government and the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. Despite the presence of many franchises, the network provides seamless journeys even if travelling on multiple companies' trains.
Unlike its continental European neighbours, the UK has comparatively few high-speed rail services, with the only high-speed line being HS1 from London to the Channel Tunnel. It is used by high-speed "Javelin" trains between London and Kent, as well as international Eurostar services to France and Belgium.
Planning a train trip
Main article: Planning your trip
The essential source for rail travel information in Great Britain is the National Rail website. It includes an extremely useful journey planner, ticket prices and detailed information about every railway station in the country. You can also access this information using the National Rail Enquiries phone service on 0345 748 49 50.
However, National Rail do not sell tickets. You buy tickets from a ticket office or automated ticket machine at a station, or from the train company's website. All train companies sell tickets for all services in Great Britain regardless of which company operates them, and the central ticketing means you can buy a through-ticket from one station to any other in Great Britain irrespective of which train companies you’ll need to travel on or how many changes.
Classes of travel
Two classes operate: standard class and first class. Some commuter trains and local services offer standard class only.
- Standard class has two or three seats on either side of the aisle with a mix of tables with four seats facing one another and more private 'airline-style' seats. Some operators charge you to use their wifi in standard class.
- First class has only one or two seats on either side of the aisle, with a larger, more comfortable seat and table, more legroom, and on inter-city routes, an at-seat service of drinks, refreshments and a newspaper. Wifi is complimentary on all services.
- See more at about the classes of travel here.
Generally, the ticket prices for a particular type of ticket are the same regardless of operator you choose to travel on. However the cheaper or promo tickets will be restricted to one operator only.
Tickets normally go on sale three months in advance. On all except local and commuter routes and Southeastern's High Speed 1 route from London St. Pancras to Kent, you save money by booking in advance and by travelling at off-peak times. Off-peak is any time after 9:30 on a weekday, and all weekends and public holidays. Some train companies around London also have a peak in the evening rush hour. You must have a ticket before boarding a train, and many stations now have ticket barriers. If you do not, depending on the operator and their policy, you may be liable to pay a penalty fare. The exceptions are when there is no ticket machine or ticket office at a station, in which case you buy your ticket from the guard on-board.
A ticket does not guarantee a seat unless you also have a seat reservation. Seat reservations are free. Local and commuter services do not have reserved seats. If you have no seat reservation, you may have to stand if the train is busy.
Within London, the Oyster smartcard system (refer to the main London article for details), is valid within the Greater London boundary on National Rail services, as well as to a limited number of stations outside of London. Any attempts to use Oyster where it is not valid, however, are likely to result in not only a wallet-shocking penalty fare but also the deduction of a maximum fare from your Oyster card.
- More information is at Rail travel in Great Britain#Buying tickets.
There are a number of discounts and rail cards available for various kinds of travellers, among them young people (16–25 year olds), children (up to 15 years old), senior citizens (over 60 years old), and groups. For more information check Rail travel in Great Britain#Discounts.
There are three principal types of rail pass available to visitors to the UK which permit inclusive rail travel throughout the UK.
- InterRail passes are available for EU citizens: Interrail Great Britain for travel in England, Scotland and Wales, and Interrail Ireland for travel in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
- Britrail passes can be purchased for travel in England, Scotland and Wales by any non-UK resident online or in their home nation before departing for the UK.
- Eurail passes can be purchased by non-EU citizens for travel in Northern Ireland and most countries in Europe, but not Great Britain .
See European rail passes for more information.
Ranger and Rover tickets
Ranger and Rover tickets are tickets that permit unlimited travel with relatively few restrictions over a defined geographical area for a period of anything from one to fourteen days. A full list of tickets is available with their terms and conditions from National Rail. These tickets include Rovers for almost every region of the UK, but notable tickets include:
- All Line Rover - These allow 7 or 14 days' travel on almost all scheduled rail services throughout England, Scotland and Wales. As of January 2017, they cost £483 (7 days) or £745 (14 days) for standard class, and £731 (7 days) or £1138 (14 days) for 1st class, with discounts for children and railcard holders.
- Spirit of Scotland Travelpass - As of January 2017, 4 days cost £134, while 8 days cost £179.70. There are discounts for children and Railcard holders.
- See also: Driving in the UK
Unlike most of Europe, the UK drives on the left. Most cars in the UK are manual transmission, and car rental companies will allocate you a manual transmission car unless you specifically ask for an automatic when you make a reservation. Renting an automatic version of the same car will cost more. The Government offers advice on driving with a non-UK licence. Most hire companies will check your driver's licence before you are able to hire a car.
A car will get you pretty much anywhere in the UK. Parking is a problem in large cities, especially in London, and can be very expensive. Visiting smaller towns can often be done via the rail network, although driving may be a good option for more remote destinations. Fuel is heavily taxed and therefore expensive. As of March 2017, unleaded costs 119.5p per litre.
Road distances are indicated in miles (1 mile is about 1.6km) and speed limits are indicated in miles per hour (70 mph is about 115 km/h). However, many weight, height and width signs are now in metric as well
There are no tolls with the exception of a few large bridges and tunnels and one privately financed motorway in the Midlands. There is a congestion charge of £11.50 per day to drive in central London.
Traffic can be very heavy, especially during 'rush hour', when commuters are on their way to and from work - typically 07:00-10:00 and 16:00-19:00. Checking local traffic reports on the radio or websites such as Frixo can help if you know you need to travel during busy hours.
Many cities operate a "Park and Ride" scheme, with car parks on the edge of the city and cheap buses or sometimes trams into the city centre. In London it is best to leave your car at home altogether as parking in rail and Tube stations, even in the outer suburbs can be very expensive and if you don't arrive early enough you won't find a space. An alternative is to book parking in advance via online platforms such as YourParkingSpace.co.uk or Parkonmydrive.com.
For more information on parking, see Parking in the UK
Driving standards are relatively well-maintained in the UK, with the road system being statistically among the safest in Europe. British authorities have access to vehicle registration databases from various other countries, so you shouldn't try to ignore the rules just because you're driving a foreign vehicle. Also, British hire car companies will charge traffic fines to your credit card, long after you have left the country. Traffic police patrol the motorways in marked and unmarked cars. Any police officer, regardless of their normal duties, will pursue a vehicle seen driving dangerously.
Don't drink and drive in the UK. Although the maximum limit is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood (0.08%), Police in the UK will routinely stop any drivers they feel may be under the influence of alcohol especially if their driving is erratic or dangerous regardless. Scotland has a lower limit of 50mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood.
All drivers and passengers are expected to wear seat belts, and it is illegal for drivers to be using a phone or handheld device while at the wheel. All three infractions are criminal offences, and are treated extremely seriously by police.
For further information on driving in the UK, consult the Highway Code.
Hiring a campervan is one way to explore the UK. Some companies offer airport pickups and dropoffs. It can work out cheaper than travelling between hostels and bed and breakfasts by car or train.
Smaller campers are ideal for parking and enjoying the narrow lanes in the UK.
The Caravan Club has a huge number of caravan and campervan parks all over the country. Most municipal car parks don't allow overnight camping, though some country pubs may let you use their parking lots for overnight stays if you ask.
Motorcycling can be good for navigating areas with bad traffic, e.g., in Central London, where motorcyclists do not have to pay the congestion charge that cars have to pay. However, it is important to prioritise your safety - although bikers make up a minority of road users, they make up the vast majority of deaths and serious injuries on British roads.
The rider and pillion passenger on a motorbike are required by law to wear a securely-fastened motorbike helmet that is CE marked. The only people exempt from this law are Sikh men, whose religion requires them to wear a turban. If you wear eye protection, the visor or goggles must be kitemarked. It is illegal to carry more than one pillion passenger. If you wish to carry multiple passengers, use a sidecar. The pillion passenger is required by law to sit astride the motorbike on a proper seat.
It is important to make sure you can be seen both at night and at day, and from the sides as well as the front and rear. Wear a high-visibility jacket or fluorescent strips (during the day) and reflective strips (at night). A good idea is to wear a white or brightly coloured helmet. You can also dip your headlights, even in good daylight, to make you easier to see, but only light them fully at night.
By bus and coach
In the UK, coaches are long-distance bus services usually operating intercity or city to airport routes. Local services within and around villages, towns and cities are referred to as buses.
Long distance coach travel tends to be slower than train travel, as well as less frequent, although it is comfortable and often much cheaper. Coaches, like trains, will also generally take you right to the centre of town.
The largest coach companies in the UK are:
- National Express is the largest long distance coach operator in the UK, and services all major destinations on the mainland; they sell tickets online and at coach terminals. Prices start at just £1 one way for promotional 'funfares' between major city-pairs, although remain quite expensive on less competitive routes such as those serving airports.
- Megabus is a service between a limited number of major destinations at cut-throat prices, as low as £1 (plus a 50p booking charge) for some routes if booked well in advance. Understandably, it is very popular with students. To get the cheapest fares you should book a week or two ahead. However, fares are often still good value when booked with less time, e.g. you may pick up London-Manchester for £8 booked only two days in advance. Tickets must be bought online or using the premium rate booking line 0900 160 0900 for at least 60p per minute and cannot be bought from the driver.
- CityLink services destinations in Scotland. They sell their tickets online, by text, or from the driver, although it is always advised to book your tickets in advance. Some routes also carry Megabus passengers.
Local bus services (a categorisation which also includes many medium-haul inter-urban services) cover the entire country, but are of variable quality and cost. Services range from deep-rural village services operating once a week or less, to intensive urban routes operating every few minutes. All communities except the very smallest villages have some kind of bus service. Almost all are "one person operation", i.e. there is no conductor and you must pay the driver as you board. The vast majority of bus stops are "request stops", meaning that you must put your arm out as the bus approaches to signal that you want it to stop. Likewise once on the bus, you must ring the bell in advance of the stop you want to get off at. The majority of bus services, especially in urban areas, are fully accessible for disabled travellers, with either low floors or the use of a ramp facilitating access for wheelchair users. On-board there is space for pushchairs and wheelchairs.
Main article: Buses in London
In London, the iconic red buses cover the entire city, with most routes running at high frequencies from early morning until late night, and some operate 24/7. Service frequencies are such that timetables are generally unnecessary for daytime travel. Single ticket fares can be relatively expensive, but all-day and longer period tickets (including combined bus, rail and tube options) are available, offering excellent value. Tickets can no longer be bought on board, and you must use an Oyster Card, contactless credit/debit card or a paper ticket or pass bought before boarding. The Transport for London website is incredibly useful with a journey planner, maps, all fares, as well as live updates.
Bus services in the UK outside of London are privatised and deregulated, with any licensed operator free to run any route and timetable that they wish. Therefore, co-ordination of services with each other and with rail services can be poor, and tickets bought from one operator often not valid on other services. Return tickets are usually much cheaper than two singles, and most operators offer discounted fares for children. Most operators offer day or longer period tickets valid across their own network which can represent very good value, giving all-day travel for as little as £4, but are of little use if you need to use more than one operator. However, combined day tickets valid across more than one operator's network are also available in some areas. In large towns and cities, weekday daytime services are as frequent and comprehensive as in London. However, almost universally, service levels reduce sharply in the evenings and on Sundays. In the larger cities, for example Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, an extensive night bus network is available.
In areas with a multitude of operators, obtaining comprehensive map/timetable information for the area can be difficult. It is not uncommon for operators to attempt to pass off their services as being 'the' network for the town or area in their publicity material - making no mention of the fact that other routes (or in some cases alternative departure times on the same routes) are available, operated by competitors. Many local authorities do attempt to produce comprehensive timetables and/or maps for all services in their area regardless of who operates them - these are well worth obtaining and are commonly available from tourist information centres. However it is still worth checking with the operator(s) before travelling to ensure that the information is up to date, as timetables can change frequently.
Given the short distances involved, flying is rarely the cheapest or most convenient option for domestic travel within the UK with the possible exception of between southern England and Scotland, or where a sea crossing would otherwise be involved, such as between Britain and Northern Ireland or travel to and from many Scottish islands.
The main domestic hubs are London, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, while major airlines include British Airways, Eastern Airways. The arrival of budget airlines Ryanair and easyJet has forced fares down considerably. Some peripheral destinations have their own local airline.
Flybe went bust in March 2020, see "Get in".
To get the best fare, it is advisable to book as far in advance as possible. 'Screen-scraper' comparison websites can be a useful way to compare flight costs between airports or even city pairs (suggesting alternative airports, for instance). Beware that some airlines, such as Ryanair, object to being included in these searches, so these sites are not always comprehensive. Ryanair and Easyjet are also notorious for additional fees for anything but one person without checked bags doing online check in, so comparisons to legacy carriers might be complicated if you have luggage or other things legacy carriers typically include in their fares.
Many regional airports are not connected to the national rail network, with connections to the nearest cities served by relatively expensive buses. Photo ID is required before boarding domestic flights in the UK.
Ferries link the mainland to the many offshore islands including the Isles of Scilly from Penzance, the Isle of Wight from Southampton and Portsmouth, the Isle of Man from Liverpool and Ireland, the Hebrides from various ports in the Scottish Highlands, the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands from Aberdeen and Scrabster. There are also regular ferry services between Northern Ireland and Scotland and these depart Larne, Belfast, Troon and Cairnryan. There are also routes from Northern Ireland to Birkenhead and Fleetwood (both near Liverpool in England).
There are two types of ordinary taxis in the United Kingdom: metered (black) cabs that can be hailed in the street and are mostly found in larger towns and cities; and minicabs (private hire taxis) which must be ordered by telephone.
Also known as Hackney carriages, these are useful for travelling within cities. The name originates from horse-drawn vehicles from at least as long ago as 1622. Custom-built vehicles which seat five people are commonly used as metered taxis, though regular cars or people-carriers can be used instead. These taxis can be hailed on the street or picked up from a taxi rank, which are usually found near major shopping areas and transport hubs. The 'Taxi' sign on the roof is illuminated when a taxi is available for hire.
The rate varies and is set by local government, typically starting at around £3-5 and rising at around £1 a mile, making them fairly expensive, especially so in London. Add night charges, waiting charges, luggage charges for large suitcases, etc., on to the meter as well, and travelling by taxi can be expensive unless you are in a large group.
More common in suburbs and smaller towns, minicabs can only be ordered by telephone or online and charge fixed prices to different destinations. With the growing success of Uber, some minicab and black cab companies are releasing apps for smartphones, to make ordering easier. Local telephone directories usually advertise taxi companies, and the phone numbers are usually painted in big numbers on the side of their vehicles.
Minicabs are usually much cheaper than black cabs; fares for long journeys can often be negotiated, although you should agree the fare with the phone operator when booking, not with the driver. Most companies have a variety of vehicle sizes from small saloons up to large 12-seater minivans so you can specify the vehicle size. Some minicab firms specialise in serving airports and offer discounted rates for this.
Ride hailing services Uber and Ola are available in major cities.
Fake taxis are not a major problem and are mostly found around the main airports, some railway stations, and city centres night-spots late at night.
A few tips:
- Check that the taxi has a rear taxi-licence plate on the rear bumper and that it carries the name of the local authority or licensing authority (for example in London this is the Public Carriage Office).
- The driver's taxi licence should be displayed on the dashboard.
- If calling a minicab, the taxi company will ask your last name and your phone number - the driver should know this when he picks you up. If approached by a taxi driver claiming that you booked their taxi, ask them to confirm your name and phone number.
- Most local councils require licensed taxis to be newer than 10 or 15 years old. Many fake taxis use older vehicles.
The UK can be both a cyclist's dream and nightmare. Cycling is popular as both a sport and a means of transportation, though bikes don't always get adequate provision on roadways and the relationship between cyclists and motorists can be strained. The National Cycle Network is a web of paved and unpaved cycle tracks covering the whole country, passing through some spectacular scenery on the way. Their website has a comprehensive cycle map and most cycle stores, tourist information centres and youth hostels also sell their maps. Routes are indicated by blue finger posts with the route number in red.
Pedestrians are banned on motorways, motorway junctions, and certain primary routes. Aside from those exceptions, hitchhiking is not illegal. Service stations are fair game. It's not a common practice, and the largely urbanised southeast is probably the most difficult region to travel by thumb. The southwest and north are easier.
If you use signs, it's fairly customary to use the number of the road on them rather than the destination. In other words, from Birmingham to London you wouldn't use a sign "LONDON" but rather "M25". Two places where signs are quite useful are Land's End and John O'Groats, the two extremes of the country, especially if your sign says the other.
From Land's End in the south to John O’Groats in the north, there is so much to see in the United Kingdom. There are hundreds of free museums to enjoy across the country, thousands of municipal parks to stroll through, tens of thousands of interesting communities to visit and many millions of acres of countryside to ramble across. And the country is home to 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites. There is certainly far more to do than just talking about the rain and seeing whether the Queen is home at Buckingham Palace.
London – As Samuel Johnson once wrote, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." This is truer than ever before as London is home to an enormous range of attractions to suit all tastes. Enjoy art at the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain and Tate Modern among others. There are cultural treats in the theatres and cinemas of the West End and the South Bank, and at Shakespeare's re-created theatre, the Globe. And then of course there are all the traditional tourist sites to see such as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and the London Eye.
Edinburgh - Scotland's capital was initially centred on the Old Town, the castle and Holyrood Palace, but the New Town is a Georgian masterpiece. Both the Old Town and the New Town are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Check out the Cities section of this article for a fuller list, or have a read of the relevant pages for each country and region that interests you.
Parks and nature
The United Kingdom has an array of National Parks and designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that serve to preserve the country's natural heritage. There are 15 National Parks in total spread across England, Scotland and Wales (10 in England, 2 in Scotland and 3 in Wales) and 49 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (35 in England, 4 in Wales, 9 in Northern Ireland and 1 on the Anglo-Welsh border). There are no Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Scotland, but there are 35 of the Scottish equivalent (National Scenic Areas) spread across the country
The British countryside is unique and diverse. In southern England there are the rolling countryside and picturesque villages of the Cotswolds, the chalk hills of the Downs and the prehistoric cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. In the east, you'll find the lowland tranquillity of the Fens. The north of England has magnificent scenery and outdoor activities in the Lake District, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales. Wales offers the ruggedness of Snowdonia National Park and the beautiful beaches of the Gower. Scotland has the vast wilderness of the Highlands and the beauty of the islands. Northern Ireland is blessed with the Giant's Causeway as well as the north Antrim coast.
Prehistory– before the human race
The earliest scientific discoveries of prehistoric creatures (dinosaurs, marine reptiles and pterosaurs) were made in the 19th century in Dorset and Devon, on England's south coast. Today, visitors can go on a fossil safari along the beaches and cliffs of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and see some of the original finds at the Natural History Museum in London.
Stone Age, Roman age and the Dark Ages – before 1066
The inhabitants of the United Kingdom have long had the tendency to try to leave their mark on the landscape. For the length of recorded history they have been leaving traces of their lives for the tourists of the future to enjoy. This started with our prehistoric ancestors who erected mysterious stone circles and mounds at such places as Stonehenge and Avebury.
Then came the Romans, who as well as building the first roads, married the natives and left behind great reminders such as villas (e.g. Fishbourne), bath houses most notably at Bath, Hadrian's Wall in the north of England, and Roman city walls and buildings all over the country, including in London, Lincoln, York and Cirencester (The capitals of the four British provinces in the late Roman period).
After the Romans left, the British Isles fell along with the rest of Western Europe into the Dark Ages. Even during this period when much of the learning, civilisation and culture of the Roman period was lost, the people of the British Isles continued to make their mark on the landscape of the country, with elaborate burial mounds such as the ones at Sutton Hoo, and stashes of treasure such as the Staffordshire Hoard, the finds from which can now be seen at the British Museum and the Birmingham Museum respectively. As time progressed waves of migrants and invaders coming from territories in present day Germany, Denmark and Norway brought with them new languages and customs. It was during this period that the English, Scottish and Welsh identities started to form.
Norman and Medieval periods 1066 to 1603
1066 saw a major change in the history of the country as the Kingdom of England was conquered by the Normans of northern France. The Normans imposed the system of Feudalism on England, and the bulk of the population were made to work the land in service of their Norman lords. In order to consolidate this system during the 11th and 12th centuries, the Normans went on a building spree, raising castles to intimidate and dominate and churches to inspire and unite. The most notable castles include the Tower of London and those in Windsor, Durham and Warwick. This period also saw the construction of wonderful Gothic cathedrals, the finest of which can be found at Canterbury, Durham, Norwich, Lincoln, Salisbury and York, each of which also have ancient city centres, littered with Medieval buildings and streets. The Christian faith also expanded to the remotest parts of the country, with Holy Island (Northumberland) and St Michael's Mount (Cornwall) hosting monastic communities cut off from the mainland by the tide. As the Normans extended their power into Wales in the 13th century, there was more castle building in Cardiff, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech. In Scotland too, which remained a kingdom independent of England throughout the Middle Ages, great castles were built at Edinburgh and Stirling. And in both England and Scotland great seats of learning were set up with universities at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews.
As political stability grew and peasants' revolts, black death and an emerging middle class reduced the power of the old Feudal system, castles dwindled in importance. The monarchs of the Tudor dynasty wished to live in comfort in great palaces rather than cold castles and this was the period in which Hampton Court was built. Towns such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Chester contain many examples of middle class town houses, built in typical Tudor timber-frame "black and white" style. Henry VIII's reign also saw the Reformation in which England severed its ties with the Roman Catholic Church and a new state religion, the Church of England, was established. This period witnessed the destruction of many monasteries and abbeys around the country, although many ruins can still be visited for example at Tintern in Monmouthshire and Rievaulx near Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
1603 – 1900
The United Kingdom is littered with historical sites from the Stuart, Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras. There are fine examples of English country houses at Blenheim, Chatsworth and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton which shows royal Regency splendour by the sea. Cities with classic Georgian architecture include Edinburgh and Bath, as well as much of west central London. The neo-classical movements brought about the appearance of many new churches, most notably the rebuilt St Paul's Cathedral in London. The union with Scotland also saw a renewed interest in castle living, and many members of the aristocracy and newly-moneyed middle class built luxurious homes in imitation of medieval fortresses so they could be lairds of their very own (often forcibly depopulated) highland estates. While there are many such edifices around Scotland, and indeed in other parts of the UK, the most famous example is at Balmoral, which has been the British monarch's summer retreat since 1852.
The establishment and growth of the British Empire saw the expansion and professionalisation of the country's armed forces, both on the land and at sea, and a massive increase in trade around the world. London's National Army Museum charts the long history of the British Army, while many garrison towns such as Aldershot have their own military heritage attractions. Chatham and Portsmouth each have historic dockyards containing some of the Royal Navy's finest ships from days gone by, and Bristol is home to Brunel's gigantic and revolutionary commercial steamship SS Great Britain. The age of Empire also saw the modernisation of the Houses of Parliament into the current iconic building known today, including the construction of the famous clock tower, and the export of similar parliamentary systems of government around the world. Various financial institutions of the City of London, such as the Bank of England and the London Stock Exchange are among the oldest such institutions in the world.
The industrial revolution, which started in the English West Midlands and spread steadily throughout the United Kingdom and then around the world, brought about a huge increase in the British population, a one-way migration into the rapidly-growing cities and the development of heavy industry. Some key sites from this period include the Ironbridge, site of the world’s first all iron bridge, the mills of Saltaire, the shipyards of Belfast, the coal mines of South Wales, the cotton mills of Lancashire and London's Docklands. Other Victorian treats include fantastic transport infrastructure (the Manchester Ship Canal and London St Pancras railway station being just two shining examples), the Royal Albert Hall, Tower Bridge, Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, the Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh and the town halls and civic buildings of many industrial cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield.
Modern UK – 20th and 21st centuries
The early 20th century was the heyday of the British seaside resort, with towns like Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Llandudno, Southport, Torquay and Scarborough welcoming millions of visitors to their beaches, theatres and entertainment every year. In Liverpool the two great cathedrals of the 20th century dominate the skyline, as do a plethora of Art Deco buildings (among which some of the world's earliest attempts at skyscrapers), and there are other modern treats around the UK: the glass domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Angel of the North outside Newcastle, famous London skyscrapers such as the mid-20th century BT Tower and 21st century icons The Shard and The Gherkin, the redeveloped Cardiff Bay and the new Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
The United Kingdom can rightly be called the "home of sport" as it was the birthplace of five of the world’s major sports: association football, rugby football, tennis, cricket and golf. All of these sports attract a widespread following, both at matches themselves and on television; and it is very common to find televised coverage of them shown in pubs and bars. There are shrines to all these sports around the UK: Wembley (London), Old Trafford (Manchester), Anfield (Liverpool) and Hampden Park (Glasgow) for football, Twickenham (London), the Millennium Stadium (Cardiff) and Murrayfield (Edinburgh) for rugby, Lord's (London) for cricket, the All England club at Wimbledon for tennis as well as The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews for golf.
Football means of course association football or soccer. It is by far the most popular spectator sport and is very widely played across the UK at amateur and professional levels, with the best regarded competition being the English Premier League. In addition, there is also the FA Cup, which is the world's oldest domestic cup competition in football. While many teams have passionate fans, the days of widespread 'football hooliganism' have largely passed. Although generally regarded as lower in quality than its English counterpart, the Scottish Premiership also enjoys strong support, and the "Old Firm" derby between the Glasgow teams of Celtic and Rangers is considered by many neutral observers to be the most intense in the whole of the UK as a result of its roots in longstanding political and religious conflict.
Rugby comes in two forms or 'codes': rugby union has 15 players per team, and is popular in the English south, the Midlands, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland while rugby league has 13 players per team and is popular in the north of England. The premier domestic competition in rugby union is Premiership Rugby, while the premier domestic competition in rugby league is the Super League.
Cricket is played only in the summer, and tends to be most popular in England. The Ashes, a series of 5 test cricket matches that is played between England and Australia, with both teams taking turns to host the series, is one of the biggest events in the cricket calendar. The 5 matches are played at different locations throughout England, and sometimes in Wales as well, though the famed Lord's Cricket Ground is always featured among the locations whenever England hosts the series.
The Championships, Wimbledon at the All England Club is the oldest of the four grand slams of tennis, the only one to be played on grass courts, and widely regarded to be the most prestigious of the four. In golf, The Open Championship is one of the four majors in men's golf, and the only one of the four to be played outside the U.S. The tournament rotates between different courses throughout the UK each year, and returns to its original home at the Old Course in St Andrews every 5 years. Although the UK is no longer a badminton powerhouse, the All England Championships remains one of the world's premier badminton tournaments.
For rowing enthusiasts, a famous event on the rowing calendar (in March or April) is The Boat Race, which is a race between the men's rowing teams of the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. The event is a race between coxed eight boats, and is held on a course over 4 miles long on the River Thames between Putney Bridge and Chiswick Bridge, west London, along what was once the boundary of the counties of Middlesex and Surrey.
The UK is also a respected competitor in equestrian activities, and several major events in the racing calendar are held at various venues. The most prestigious events on the world horse racing calendar include the Royal Ascot and the Derby Stakes for flat racing, while the Grand National is the world's premier steeplechase race.
Netball is also a fairly popular sport that is played almost exclusively by women. While superficially similar to basketball, it differs significantly in that unlike in basketball, players are not allowed to dribble the ball and are instead required to stop moving when they have possession of the ball.
The United Kingdom has hosted the Olympic games three times in its history, and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from London 2012 is still a major sporting venue and landmark in the capital. The British team is the only one to have won at least one gold medal at every Summer Olympic Games since the modern Olympics started in 1896.
- Big Ben (formally known as the Elizabeth Tower in Westminster, London), without doubt one of the world's most iconic buildings, it is being renovated and will not begin striking again until 2021.
- Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, is a magnificently situated royal fortress on one of the highest points in the city. The castle has been in continuous use for 1000 years and is in excellent condition.
- Stonehenge, an ancient stone circle near the cathedral city of Salisbury in Wiltshire.
- The Georgian architecture and Roman baths of Bath.
- York Minster cathedral in the historic city of York.
- Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the head of the church of England in the city of Canterbury in Kent.
- Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, is home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
- The ancient and world-renowned universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
- The Eden Project near St Austell is a massive botanical gardens including indoor rainforest and Mediterranean biodomes.
- The Giant's Causeway sixty miles from Belfast on the north coast of Northern Ireland is a World Heritage site and a natural wonder.
- Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to three of the most important ships ever built and 800 years of naval history.
- Angel of the North, a staggering contemporary steel sculpture in Gateshead.
- Lincoln Cathedral, is the medieval cathedral of the city of Lincoln.
Although most visitors will visit London at some point, it is well worth getting out of the capital to get a real taste of the country and important to not forget the diversity one can find in barely 50 miles.
Whether it's countryside, coast, historic towns or vibrant cities you are after, there's something for everyone.
With the UK being an island nation, every direction you travel will get you to the coast in a couple of hours. The British coast is varied and dramatic, from the pretty beaches at places such as St Ives, traditional fishing ports like Whitby or seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Bournemouth.
The UK has an impressive heritage of music; see Music on the British Isles.
Also known as rambling, hiking or walking in the United Kingdom is popular with Britons and tourists, meaning there are many well-defined routes.
Steam trains and preserved railways
These are enjoyed for their own sake, rather than being used as a means of transport. Most areas have a volunteer-run railway using steam traction. Famous full-gauge railways include the Bluebell Line in Sussex and the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire. The Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway in Cumbria and Talyllyn Railway in central Wales are examples of narrow-gauge railways now primarily used for tourism. Many of these lines pass through beautiful countryside. Most were formerly working railways originally closed to traffic during the 20th century, and all were saved and revived by armies of passionate volunteers.
In addition to tourist railways, historic locomotives also run all over the country on the wider national rail network as part of regular heritage services. Keen to keep old skills alive, enthusiasts have lovingly restored hundreds of old engines, both steam and diesel, to their former glory, and some ambitious groups are now even building their own from scratch! Completed in 2008, the Tornado was the first new steam locomotive to be built in Britain since 1960. These trains have a sentimental place in the hearts of many Britons, and tickets aboard the more well-known trains such as the Flying Scotsman and the Orient Express are highly sought after and often expensive.
Exchange rates for British pounds
As of 04 January 2021:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency throughout the UK is the pound (£) (ISO code: GBP). It's more properly called the pound sterling to distinguish it from the Syrian or Egyptian pound, but this is never used in everyday speech. It is divided into 100 pence (singular penny) (p).
Coins are 1p (small copper), 2p (large copper), 5p (very small silver), 10p (large silver), 20p (small silver with angled edges), 50p (large silver with angled edges), £1 (12-sided bimetallic with silver centre & gold outside - the old gold coin has been withdrawn) and £2 (large, thick bimetallic with silver centre and gold edge). A commemorative £5 has been made but not circulated.
Coins are the same throughout the UK, but banknotes (in US English, "bills") vary by country. The principal banknote issue is by the Bank of England: these come in £5 (green/light blue), £10 (orange/brown), £20 (blue/purple) and £50 (red), and depict the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland issue their own banknotes, in the same colours but with different designs, and in practice not as widely accepted or negotiable in the rest of the UK.
Bank of England notes are changing from paper to smaller polymer notes. The £1 was withdrawn in 1988, and replaced by the £1 gold coin, which has since been replaced by the bimetallic £1 coin. The £5 is polymer depicting Winston Churchill (replacing Elizabeth Fry, no longer valid). The £10 is polymer depicting Jane Austen (replacing Charles Darwin, no longer valid). The £20 is paper depicting Adam Smith, plus the polymer issue depicting JMW Turner (both valid, but the previous Elgar note is not). The £50 is paper depicting Boulton & Watt — try not to carry these as they are often refused by shops and elsewhere. (They'll say "risk of forgery", they mean "too much change to give you".) These are expected to be replaced in 2021 / 22 by polymer notes depicting Turing.
If you have out-of-date notes, first try to exchange them at a post office or a bank. If that fails and you're in London, you can exchange them in person at the Bank of England, Threadneedle Street EC2R 8AH. They're open M-F 09:00-16:00. Otherwise post the notes to that address, at your own risk. See Bank of England terms, e.g. for ID, but there's no time limit on such exchange.
Bank of England notes are universally accepted throughout the UK. Three Scottish banks (Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank) and four Northern Irish banks (Bank of Ireland, First Trust Bank, Danske Bank and Ulster Bank) issue their own bank notes with their own designs. These notes mostly come in the same denominations as Bank of England notes, with additional £100 notes. They are viewed with suspicion in England and Wales, and some shopkeepers will refuse to accept them. However, these notes can be exchanged for Bank of England notes at any bank for free. When leaving the UK, try to only have Bank of England notes with you, as others can be difficult to change outside the UK. If you are keeping notes for a future visit, only keep polymer ones.
You may also hear the slang term quid for pounds. It's both singular and plural; "three quid" means "three pounds". People often will just say 'pee' instead of pence. "Fiver" and "Tenner" are common slang for £5 and £10, respectively.
Occasionally, you may have problems if you try to pay for a small purchase with a £20 banknote. Scottish and Northern Ireland banknotes can also be hard to spend outside those areas; and in some cases you can't pay with notes at all (buses, for instance, don't always accept them). When paying a bill (for example, in a restaurant or hotel), usually any reasonable method of payment will be accepted unless it's been made clear to you in advance. Sterling travellers cheques may be accepted, although it's best to ask first.
Larger banks and post offices have bureaux de change (one of many instances of English borrowing terms from French) which will exchange most foreign currencies for pounds, and vice versa, although they tend to accept only foreign notes, not coins. Travel agents and several department stores (such as Marks and Spencer) often have them too; and even small airports have at least one, although rates there are often poor. It's worth shopping around for the best rates in larger towns and cities, although as British ATMs accept foreign credit and debit cards, there's no real need to bring in large amounts of foreign currency anyway. When researching where to exchange cash into Sterling, look for the buyback rates. Included fees (in the exchange rate) of up to 50% are not uncommon. Do not get fooled by the No commission statement that many bureaux de change put. This is a trick and actually a blunt lie, because the exchange rates are just made so bad so that they cover for any 'lost' commissions. So, how do you identify a decent exchange rate? The spread between the buy and sell rate tells you what is the fee (divide the difference by 2)—anything above 10% is a rip-off, 5% is good, 1% is excellent but forget about it in the UK. So, you are better off using an ATM here but check with your bank for rates and fees before using.
Opening a bank account is a fairly straightforward process, although proof of a UK address is required. As most passports do not show your address, be sure to bring something which shows your address like a driving licence, national ID card or bank statement from home. The "Big Four" retail banks in the UK are Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). In order to prevent frauds, most bank branches will also ask for photo ID when opening an account or undertaking certain transactions. If you are not a UK resident but require a Pound Sterling account then it is easier to open one in the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey.
ATMs, which are often known in the UK as cashpoints, cash machines or informally as 'holes in the wall', are very widely available and usually dispense £10, £20 and sometimes £5 notes. Almost all of them will accept overseas debit or credit cards. Traveller's cheques can be exchanged at most banks. A lot of cash machines offer free withdrawals (although your bank/card issuer back home may add its own fees) but be aware that some non-bank cash machines (easily identified, sometimes kiosk-style units, as opposed to fixed units in walls, and often at petrol/gas stations, festivals, and convenience stores) charge a fixed fee for withdrawing money, and your home bank may as well. On average the cost is about £1.75 per withdrawal, but the machine will always inform you of this and allow you to cancel the transaction. Download the ATM Locator app by LINK (the UK's cash machine network) to find out which cash machines near you are free to use, dispense £5 banknotes, wheelchair accessible etc.
When using any ATM, beware of fraud, which is becoming increasingly common. The fraud works either by 'skimming' your card (reading the details on it with a device attached to the ATM) or trapping it in the machine, and using a hidden camera to record your PIN as you enter it. Never use an ATM with a card slot which appears to have been tampered with, and always cover the key pad with your hand, wallet or purse when entering your PIN. If you find an ATM which seems to have been tampered with, or if it retains your card, report this at once to the bank which owns it and to the police. ATMs inside bank branches are much less vulnerable to this kind of fraud than those outside.
Credit and debit cards
Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and American Express are accepted by most shops and restaurants, although American Express is sometimes not accepted by smaller independent establishments, and it is worth asking if unsure, especially if there are long queues. You are likely to be asked for additional verification (such as security codes from your card issuer), when purchasing certain high-value items, making reservations, or completing an on-line purchase.
Chip and PIN has become the de-facto standard for cards issued in the UK. Customers from countries without chips in their credit cards or whose PINs aren't supported by UK machines are supposed to be able to sign instead of providing a PIN; however, it is wise to carry enough cash in case the retailer doesn't comply or the machine has problems reading your card. Alternatively if your bank issues a "contactless" Visa or MasterCard or you have an ApplePay or Android Pay device associated with those cards, you may be able to use them in some merchants in lieu of inputting a PIN though each "contactless" transaction will be limited to a maximum of £45. There are an increasing number of merchants in, or services for which cash is no longer accepted, hence coming to the UK carrying a VISA or Mastercard card with contactless capabilities is recommended.
There is usually no minimum amount for merchants that have a nationwide presence. Although most small shops and local pubs will take cards, there is often a minimum amount you have to spend (usually around £5). Anything under the minimum and they may refuse to accept the card.
The high cost of basics such as transport, accommodation and food means that you will probably spend at least £50 per day as a budget traveller. The increased cost of using taxis, comfortable hotels and eating in restaurants is higher than in most other European countries, although the UK is generally less expensive than the Nordic countries and Switzerland.
Locals usually only tip in limited situations. In many restaurants with table service, a 'service charge' on your bill replaces a tip; in the absence of a service charge, a tip of about 10-15% is customary. It is less usual to tip in cafés and coffee shops. Many restaurants will allow tips to be added to a credit card bill, but it is generally considered better to leave cash at the table. The reason for this is that cash is deemed to have been given to the waiting staff directly, whilst credit card payments and cheques are legally payable to the restaurant. While a tip given by credit card or cheque will almost always be passed on to the waiting staff it is up to the management how they are shared. Staff must be paid the minimum wage before any tips.
It is not normal to tip for drinks in a pub or bar, although offering to buy the bartender a drink is considered acceptable and they may also then take money for the value of a drink (which is in effect taking a tip). Commonly, this is offered by saying "and one for yourself" at the time of payment. In cases where the pub is also a restaurant, the serving staff may be tipped.
You may in some pubs and venues encounter the 'charity box' (or bucket, bottle or other container). Typically these will have the name of the benefiting cause clearly marked. If you feel generous, and agree with the charity's aims, you can add some spare change, but there's no obligation.
In many table-service restaurants – and gastro pubs – a 'service charge' is added to the bill, usually when the party exceeds a certain size, e.g. six, in which case there is no expectation to tip further. It's worth checking the menu when ordering, for information on service charges.
It is a legal requirement to post prices including any taxes and other charges. Additional service charges at restaurants are unusual. Where these occur, it is legal to refuse to pay the service charge but people only tend to do this if they believe the service was inadequate.
Tipping is generally not expected in taxis, though it is usual for passengers to round the fare up a convenient amount, such as the next whole pound, or a convenient denomination of bank note. If you have a lot of luggage and the driver helps you out with it, a tip of £2-3 would be customary.
Offering a tip used to be seen as an insult by some, implying the receiver may be bought or bribed, and that the person doing the tipping is "better than you". This is the origin of the custom of offering to buy the barman/barmaid a drink in a pub. You would not tip a friend or work colleague, that would be an insult, but it is normal to buy them a drink.
In some establishments, tips are kept individually by the waiter or waitress, whereas in others they may be pooled and divided amongst all the staff (a 'tronc'). In other instances, tips may be set aside for some other purpose for the benefit of the staff, such as to fund a staff party or trip.
Tipping for other services such as taxis, pizza deliveries and hairdressers is not expected, but tips are sometimes given to reward particularly good service. In some large cities it is customary to tip hairdressers/barbers.
Any attempt to tip a policeman or other public-sector worker can be regarded as bribery and could be treated as a criminal offence.
Cigarettes and tobacco
Cigarettes are heavily taxed; more than £9 for 20 cigarettes. 50g pouches of rolling tobacco are about £18. Imported brands such as Marlboro, Camel or Lucky Strike are generally the most expensive as are well-known UK brands such as Benson & Hedges and Embassy. Low-tar cigarettes cannot be called 'light' so terms such as 'gold' and 'smooth' are used. Most cigarettes come in low-tar and menthol variants, and many brands also sell 'Superking' (100mm length) variants too. The cheapest prices will be found in the supermarkets at the customer service counter. Almost all newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations sell tobacco, and most will also sell some brands of pipe tobacco and cigars. For a more extensive selection of tobacco products, most towns and cities will have at least one specialist tobacconist. Laws regulating sales, require that tobacco products are not displayed and that cigarette packaging has to be a plain colour.
The minimum age to purchase tobacco is 18. However, smoking is legal at 16. Customers who appear younger than 18 (and, in some places, 21 or 25) may be asked to produce ID to prove they are aged 18 or over (passports, driving licences and cards bearing the PASS hologram are acceptable).
Smoking is illegal in all enclosed public places with the exception of some hotel rooms (enquire when booking). For the purposes of the anti-smoking law, 'enclosed' is defined as having a minimum of three walls and a roof, so this can include things such as 'open' bus shelters. It is also illegal to smoke at railway stations. Penalties can include a £50 'on-the-spot' fine. Most pubs and nightclubs have smoking areas which fully comply with the relevant legislation.
In some places there is a "black market" in considerably cheaper, imported cigarettes and you may be offered them in pubs by criminal elements. The health warning on these is likely to be in a language other than English. This is best avoided because counterfeit cigarettes are used to fund more serious crime.
Although shopping in the UK can be expensive, it is generally regarded as a world-class destination for shoppers both in terms of variety and quality of products. Fierce competition has brought prices down considerably in the food, clothing and electronic sectors. Prices do vary and it is always worth visiting the various retail stores as bargains can often be found. Avoid buying from the tourist areas and stick to the high street shops or the many out-of-town retail parks where prices will be considerably cheaper. For common items, buying in Central London is generally avoided. The retail market in the UK is a very competitive one and many bargains are to be had all year round. In the electronics sector, for example, it is becoming more and more common to ask for a price reduction at time of purchase. Discounts of up to 70% are not unheard of during the various sales seasons, such as the annual Boxing Day sale after Christmas.
VAT (Value Added Tax, a mandatory tax levied on most transactions in the UK) is 20% with reduced rates of 5% and 0% applying to specific categories (for example, electricity is taxed at 5% and uncooked food, children's clothes and books are taxed at 0%). For high street shopping, VAT is included in the sale price displayed.
Claiming back VAT when leaving the UK
This scheme is no longer in place for goods bought in England, Scotland or Wales
You may be able to claim VAT back on goods bought before 1 January 2021, this concession will end on 31 March 2021.
See the following link for further guidance .
VAT refunds are still available in Northern Ireland for those outside the EU. 
Electronic items such as computers and digital cameras can be cheaper here than many European countries (especially Scandinavian countries), but do shop around. The internet is always a good way to judge the price of a particular item; also you can use this as a bargaining tool when agreeing on a price with some of the larger electronic retail stores. If visiting from the US, there may be duties and taxes charged that make some of these purchases much less of a bargain so shop wisely.
Nevertheless, tax-free (at the airport) does not mean cheaper. Prices are determined by the shop owner at their own discretion, and due to the large crowds, high shop rents, and free marketing there is no real reason why anyone should offer prices below average. Also, often goods sold here have different sizes than in regular stores, making it harder to compare. Furthermore, tax-free shops mostly only offer expensive brands and no cheap non-brand stuff, like basic sunglasses. Either way, you are better off doing your shopping somewhere else.
- See also: Cuisine of Britain and Ireland
Despite the negative reputation it unjustly has, British food is actually very good, with many British people being proud of their native dishes and regional specialities. Restaurants and supermarkets in the middle and upper range have consistently high standards, and the choice of international dishes is among the best in Europe. Unlike their continental neighbours, many Britons still eat to live rather than living to eat, and as a result, food quality is variable at the budget end of the market. Moreover, as the UK is a culturally diverse nation, many different kinds of food are available due to the influence of immigration.
The United Kingdom can be an expensive place to eat out compared to, say, the more southern European countries, but relatively cheap in comparison with the Nordic countries and Switzerland. However, the food on sale in shops and markets is among the cheapest in Western Europe, so cooking for yourself or consuming picnic food are great options for budget travel. For example, most supermarkets and many smaller convenience stores offer lunchtime meal deals where you pay between £3-£5 for a main item (e.g. ready-made sandwich or salad, with usually a great variety), a piece of fruit, a snack such as a bag of crisps and a bottled drink.
Many restaurants in city centres tend to be a little more expensive than ones in the suburbs, and pubs do tend to be slightly more expensive in the countryside, but generally, a three-course meal without drinks will cost anywhere between £10 and £25. Chicken tikka masala with rice is sometimes claimed as the UK's most popular dish, though roast beef is a more traditional national dish.
Picnics are also fairly popular in the United Kingdom, along with coffee shops. Smoking is not allowed in bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants.
Allergy awareness in the UK is good, with both labelling on shop-bought products and printed menus typically including some kind of message about potential allergens. Most outlets will also be able to advise as to the suitability of specific dishes in relation to a given allergy. Some mid-range and upward restaurants even have specific menus for 'gluten-free' diets.
Standards in food safety in the United Kingdom are exceptionally high, a matter of pride for outlets, and the traveller is unlikely to encounter major issues. The Food Standards Agency runs a "Scores on the Doors" scheme where individual outlets can also be checked out online. Retailed food with a clear expiry date, such as meat or fish, is labelled with a 'use by' date, but food which may be less appetising but still safe, such as fruit, may be labelled with a 'best before' date.
For more information about food in the area, you can read the Cuisine of Britain and Ireland article.
A 'takeaway' is either a shop supplying prepared meals for people to eat elsewhere, or the meal itself. A very British takeaway is the fish and chip shop; the sandwich shop is a popular choice at lunchtimes; they often also sell pies and cakes. Alternatively, most towns and many main routes have a selection of fast-food chains. Various types of takeaways are present in nearly all towns, ranging from fish and chips to "Indian", which can often be operated by non-Indians like Bangladeshis, and Chinese shops. Thai and Indonesian takeaways are becoming quite common, and lots of others in bigger towns. Generally the standard of takeaways is good, but the best guide is, as always, to observe what the locals are doing. In Scotland and some parts of Northern England especially big cities and towns, there is a deep fried delicacy called a munchbox which is very popular with drunk locals and uni students. It usually consists of pizza, chicken, kebab strips, chips and a salad with a drink on the side usually Irn-Bru or your drink of choice. Munchboxes are rare or non existent in Southern England.
In towns and cities these places tend to open late (sometimes until about 01:00) to cater for the so-called after-the-pub crowd. At this time they tend to be busy and rowdy so, to avoid the queues the best time for a takeaway may be 19:00-23:00: after the teatime rush but before the supper crowds. Takeaways in larger city centres may stay open until 03:00 or 04:00 to cater for people coming out of nightclubs; typically these will be independent kebab shops and chippies, as well as some fast food chains such as Domino's and Subway. This isn't to be expected outside large cities.
Food in pubs
Most pubs serve food, so these will be your next best option for sampling British cuisine. Even if you are against drinking alcohol, you may find a more traditional and full menu than a cafe or chippy. Some more comments on pubs will be found under the Drink heading.
However, the opening hours, times food is served, prices and booking requirements (especially for groups) can vary considerably. Contacting a specific venue in advance or seeking local advice if you have particular requirements or standards, is recommended . Do not sit at a table in a pub expecting a waiter to take your order for food or drinks: pubs nearly always work on a "queue at the bar for drinks: order at the bar for food" basis. You go to the bar to request and pay for drinks and food. To avoid annoying customers behind them, groups usually order as one, and "settle up" between themselves later (see elsewhere for "buying rounds"). You normally order your "starters" and "mains" together (food-oriented places have numbers screwed to the tables for you to quote, or will give you a number to take to your table). There is an etiquette that if you see another patron at the bar, you should invite them to order first. You then wait for your drinks to be poured and carry them to the table. When your meal is ready, it is either brought to you or, less commonly now, announced when it is ready for you to collect. The person who tidies away your main course may ask you what dessert you would like, or you may have to order at the bar again.
Larger towns have a range of restaurants to suit most tastes and on top of places specialising in British food, you will find a very broad range of international cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Thai, French and Italian. Waiters generally expect a 10% tip (but all too often do not get it from the native population) and in some places this is automatically listed on your bill. However, if you are dissatisfied with the service in any way, you are under no obligation to pay the service charge. Generally British people are not great tippers. As a visitor the 10% rule is more than generous and worth sticking to. Visitors from the U.S. and Canada are seen as very generous tippers and even a bit of a soft touch by some.
The usual fast-food restaurants (McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and local chain Wimpy) are widespread in larger towns and cities but uncommon in smaller towns. They are typically in major shopping areas, in or around major train stations, in out-of-town retail parks and in motorway service stations and airports (the latter 2 are usually more expensive). Prices are average - a burger, chips and drink meal will cost about £4-5. Most are open 7AM-10PM although some in large cities are 24-hours. Fast-food restaurants in out-of-town locations offer drive-through service. Delivery service is widely offered.
Chinese cuisine in the UK is generally of the Westernised takeaway variety. That said, good, authentic Chinese food can be found in London, Manchester, and Sheffield, which have large Chinese communities.
One of the most popular types of restaurant in the UK is the Indian restaurant. They can be found in every city and most towns, large and small. There are now more and more upmarket Indian restaurants in the larger urban centres.
Motorway service areas
Motorway service areas in the United Kingdom are of variable quality, even if the majority are required to provide certain services 24 hours a day by law. All offer up to 2 hours' free parking, but beyond this point charge an expensive hourly rate. Some service areas have a notorious reputation as being expensive. Most contain fast-food outlets, chain coffee shops and indoor and outdoor seating; the latter are ostensibly provided for picnickers, but are often occupied by people smoking cigarettes. All have free toilets, some of which you will notice have "best loo of the year" industry awards proudly displayed. The range of hot and cold food in some services is limited overnight, although most keep a selection available. With some exceptions, service areas are not necessarily the place to find inexpensive dining options or food which is not reflective of chain outlets. For more choice the traveller can typically find better options within a few miles of a junction.
Vegetarianism has become more widespread in the UK over the last few decades. If you are staying as a guest in a British home it would be considered courteous to inform your host beforehand as to any dietary requirements, but this will not be considered rude or even particularly unusual. If you are staying in a B&B, let the owner know when you arrive, and you'll often find that they will cook up a special vegetarian breakfast for you.
Even if you call yourself vegetarian some people will assume you eat fish, so if you don't, then tell them so. Nowadays, it is rare to find a pub or restaurant with no vegetarian options, and most have a selection.
If you are a vegan, be prepared to explain precisely what you do and don't eat on a fairly frequent basis. Outside of specialist restaurants, most places probably won't have a vegan-friendly main meal, so be prepared to hunt around, order bits and bobs, or in a pub make do with the ubiquitous bowl of chips and tomato ketchup and even then it would be wise to check whether the chips have been cooked in animal fat, a practice quickly falling out of fashion. Recognition of veganism and vegan options at food outlets is slowly getting better, however.
In general, the best places for vegetarian and vegan food are specialist veggie restaurants and Indian, Chinese and South-East Asian restaurants. Most major cities and towns will have at least one. Expensive upscale restaurants may have more limited vegetarian options, and sometimes none at all. If you're fortunate enough to be dining in such a place, it may be worth ringing ahead.
Children are not necessarily allowed in all pubs and restaurants unless a lounge area is provided, and high chairs are not always available. Most pubs that serve food will accept children, and it is usually easy to distinguish those that do. The general rule is that children cannot sit or stand about in the area where drinks are being served; so if the pub has only one small room, they are not allowed. Children are permitted in most drinks-only pubs, especially those with gardens, but again, they are not supposed to come near the bar. To be safe, ask an employee or telephone the place in advance.
The legal age to buy alcohol or consume it in a pub is 18, and there are consequences for the bar staff if they serve under-age customers. If you are having a meal in a restaurant, you only have to be 16 to order alcohol with the meal. Although you can do this legally in a pub if you are having a table meal, it's often at the discretion of the staff. Some pubs and restaurants apply a strict "Over 18 only" policy regardless.
Nevertheless, if you're over 18 but lucky enough to look younger, expect to be asked to prove your age when purchasing alcohol (also, in certain places if you look under 21 or 25, you have to prove you're over 18, known as "Challenge 21(25)"), especially in popular city spots. Some premises will require proof of age for all drinks after a certain time of night due to restrictions on the age of people who can be on the premises. The most trustworthy form of ID is a passport or EU driving licence with your photograph and date of birth. Photo ID cards are likely to be accepted, as will proof of age cards. Any other form of ID will not be accepted. In private residences the minimum age to drink alcohol is 5 years old.
Whilst getting drunk is often the objective of a party or some social gatherings, and is often considered socially acceptable amongst close friends, the police take a dim view on those causing alcohol-related trouble, or using it is as justification for anti-social acts, irrespective of social standing. In regions where there is a legacy of active temperance traditions (notably in rural parts of Wales and Yorkshire), local attitudes to drunkenness may be less favourable than the UK as a whole but the traveller is unlikely to encounter strong views, if they drink sensibly. Nevertheless, most Britons have a great sense of humour and everything is forgotten after a hangover, at least until the next time. Drinking is an important part of the British culture.
Although being drunk is not illegal, many venues and retail premises will stop serving those starting to show the signs of obvious drunkenness. In the UK, the person serving the drinks has legal obligations as a condition of them being allowed to operate.
Drink driving is illegal, and whilst (as of 2016) the maximum limits are 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.05%) in Scotland, and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) in England and Wales, most advice is that there is no 'safe' level. It's easier to get a taxi home than an ambulance!
Recreational boaters under the influence can also face prosecution, as can drunk cyclists and horse-riders, especially if they are seen to be endangering others. The legal upper limit for persons in charge of a boat is 25 mg.
Urinating in public is illegal, anti-social and quite difficult to explain when applying for a visa. You should try to use the facilities where you are drinking.
The pub (or public house) is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK, though types of pubs can vary dramatically. They range from 'local' pubs, usually quiet places consisting of one or two rooms, to chain pubs such as J.D. Wetherspoons, which are very large rooms capable of holding hundreds of people. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, wines, beers, cider, 'alcopops' and non-alcoholic drinks, accompanied by crisps, nuts and pork scratchings. Many serve snacks or meals. The greater volume of drinks served are various kinds of beer, mainly lagers, bitters, and porter/stout (i.e. Guinness). People not looking to drink real ale are free to choose a pub just on the basis of location and character, because most national "smooth" bitters or TV-advertised lagers are available in any non-real-ale pub; however, even non-real-ale drinkers often find that they prefer the types of pubs with a range of real ales, because they tend to be more "traditional", with a more individual character and less oriented to juke boxes, games machines, fruit machines and large crowds.
Across the whole of the UK there is a blanket ban on smoking inside pubs and restaurants, though many pubs have areas outside, often known as "beer gardens", where smoking is usually permissible. However if you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be able to stay after the formal closing hours this is called a "lock-in" and smoking may be ok if the pub landlord allows it. This will often occur only in the later hours after 23:00 and these lock-ins can last any amount of time. As they are classed as a private party, they happen in only a few pubs, and often only pubs with more regular customers, although this is not always the case. Once at a lock-in, you cannot leave and come back in again.
British real ales, championed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), are among the best in the world - though people used to colder, fizzier beers may find that the taste needs to be acquired. People looking for real ale will need to select the right pubs, because although a wide range of pubs serve one or two real ales, only a "real ale pub" will have a wide selection. British ale has a limited shelf life compared to most foreign beers, and as some pubs have only a "token" cask with low turnover, it's often well past its prime and has a strange vinegary taste. If you do receive an 'off' pint, ask for a replacement at the bar, which will usually be forthcoming.
The phrase "free house" was usually the main indicator for people looking for a good choice of beer, because this indicated that the pub was not owned by a particular brewery and served whatever beer its landlord thought would appeal to their customers. However, this is no longer a significant factor, because most national pub chains are now owned by large conglomerates who deal centrally with brewers and serve the same mass-market brands in all their pubs: these conglomerates (not being breweries) can still call their pubs "free houses".
British people usually follow a kind of unwritten code of conduct when in pubs. It's a form of self-regulation and mutual respect in what can appear to be a busy and chaotic place, especially at weekends. The main points to be aware of:
- Don't sit down and wait for table service. In almost all cases there won't be any. You order, pay for and collect your drinks at the bar. Some pubs specialising in food do offer table service, including for drinks, but only if you're also eating a meal.
- Don't tap money on the bar surface or shout to attract the barman's attention. Eye contact or a discreetly raised hand is enough for the bar staff to know you're waiting.
- You must pay for your drinks when you get them; only very rarely will a pub offer to keep a 'tab' for you (and only then if you hand over a credit or debit card to be collected when you leave). Paying in cash is normal and expected. Most pubs will accept cards, although traditionally it was seen as bad form to use one to pay for only one drink, and minimum purchases may apply for card use. However, with the rise of contactless payments on cards, their use, even for one drink, is starting to become more widespread in pubs.
- Tipping is not a tradition in most pubs and you should take all of your change. Regular customers who have a relationship with the staff will offer to buy the landlord, or bar worker, a drink. They may say something like this: "A pint of Best, landlord, and one for yourself." The landlord will often keep the money rather than have too much to drink. However, you are not obliged to do this yourself. If you're given only a small amount of change and you feel generous, there's often a charity collection tin on the bar you can use.
- Especially in a 'local' pub, keep your voice down and avoid drawing attention to yourself.
- If you require extra chairs, you may want to take one from another table. If someone is already seated (even if it is only one person seated at a six-person table) you must ask if you can take the chair. (Saying "Excuse me, is this chair free?" will normally suffice).
- Waiting patiently at a bar is imperative. Pushing in will not be tolerated and could lead to confrontation. If someone cuts in before you, feel free to complain - you should get support from other locals around you. Bear in mind that pubs are among the few places in the UK which don't actually have formal queues—you just crowd around the bar, and when everyone who was there before you has been served you can order. Depending on the environment, if a barman offers to serve you but the person next to you has been waiting longer, you should advise the barman to serve the person next to you.
- Standing (or sitting on stools) at the bar to drink is fine, but be prepared for people having to stand close to you to order their own drinks. Don't stand by or drink at the hatch which the bar staff use to move from behind the bar to the main area of the pub.
- If you are in a group (especially a large group in a busy pub), order your drinks all together in rounds, either by each person taking a turn to buy all the drinks, or by everyone contributing an agreed amount to a single kitty of money. It is much easier and quicker for the bar staff to serve and charge for a round than for all of your drinks separately. Any pub will provide you with a tray for carrying multiple drinks if you ask.
- Returning empty glasses to the bar isn't necessary but is appreciated by the staff - it saves them a job.
- In the male toilets, especially in big pubs or clubs, don't try to strike up conversation or make prolonged eye contact. UK pub toilets are very much "get in and get out" places - some drunk people can take a casual remark the wrong way.
Pubs with a good choice of real ales may exhibit almost any pattern of ownership:
- By a real-ale brewery (in which case the pub will serve all of the beers made by them, and perhaps only one "guest beer").
- By a national or local pub chain who believe it is possible to serve a range of real ales at reasonable prices (their chain buying power can force down a brewer's margins) in a pub that non-real-ale-fans will be willing to patronise.
- By an independent landlord committed to real ale (usually the ones with the most idiosyncratic beers, and the hard-core "real ale type" customers).
Many pubs are very old and have traditional names, such as the "Red Lion" or "King's Arms"; before widespread literacy, pubs would be identified by most customers solely by their signs. There has been a trend, strongly resisted in some quarters, towards chain-pubs such as the Hogshead, Slug and Lettuce and those owned by the JD Wetherspoon company. Another trend is the gastro pub, a smartened-up traditional pub with a selection of high-quality food (often at restaurant prices).
Beer in pubs is served in pint and half-pint measures, or in bottles. A pint is 568 ml. Simply ordering a beer on tap ('draught beer') will be interpreted as a request for a pint, e.g. 'a lager, please'. Alternatively 'half a lager, please' will get you a half-pint. If you ask for a "half-pint of lager" in a noisy pub, you will almost certainly get a pint, because no-one asks for a "half-pint" and the bar person will have thought you said "I'll have a pint of lager, please". Prices vary widely based on the city, the pub and the beer, but generally pints will be £3-4. Bottled beers often cost almost the same, although they hold much less than a pint (330 ml being standard).
Spirits and shorts are normally 25 ml although some pubs use a standard 35 ml measure; in all cases it will be clearly indicated on the optic, in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the standard measure is a 35 ml measure. A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill measure now 25 ml.
Wine in pubs generally comes in 125 ml (small) or 175 ml (large) measures, although unless the pub specialises in wine, it's often low quality.
Food in pubs can range from nothing except crisps and nuts, through basic 'pub food' (normally with chips) to restaurant-standard and beyond (a few pubs even have Michelin stars). Pubs that specialise in food often have a separate area set aside for eating. Food service often stops well before the pub closes, however.
When applying for a licence, pubs can specify any opening times they wish; this can be challenged by neighbours, etc. Closing times are typically the 'last order' time - the pub can sell drinks before this and customers have to drink up and leave within 20 minutes of the licensing hours. The staff will normally call out 10 minutes before last orders and again when the bar closes.
Closing times used to be 23:00 and 22:30 on a Sunday by law, and this is still quite common. The most common closing times at the weekends in towns are between midnight and 01:00 and some larger pubs may apply for a licence until 02:00 and clubs 03:00 or 04:00. It is not unheard-of that some bars have licences until the early hours (06:00) although this is rare as many who are out until this time are likely to go to nightclubs and then home. Theoretically, a pub can ask for a 24-hour licence, though few have done so.
In cities, as well as traditional pubs, there are more modern wine-bars and café-bars (often known simply as bars), though the variable weather means that there is not as much of a 'street scene' as in other European cities. However, depending on the weather, there are more and more pavement cafés in the UK than in the past. Parts of London, Manchester and other up-and-coming cities are good examples of this change of scene.
Prices in bars tend to be higher than in pubs, with less focus on beer, and more on wine, spirits and cocktails. Customers are often younger than those of traditional pubs, though there is much crossover and some bars are more "pubby" than others.
Clubbing is popular in most large towns and cities, and many have world-renowned venues as well as many alternative venues. Great clubs can be found in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Brighton and other places. Prices in clubs tend to be considerably higher than those charged in pubs, and opening hours may not be the attraction they once were, as pubs can now open late too. Most clubs will not admit anyone under 18. ID may be asked for at the door, but ID checks at bars are less common. Dress codes are sometimes applied by doormen or bouncers before entry, sometimes none-too-consistently. Common dress codes are simply to dress smartly and avoid wearing sports wear, including trainers. However "fashion" trainers, especially dark coloured ones are increasingly accepted when part of smart attire. That said, some upmarket clubs will still insist on shoes and if in doubt, wear shoes to avoid being turned away.
Clubs are often cheaper during the week (M-Th) as many of these nights are designed to cater for students; however, you usually have to pay an entrance fee. For a club in a small town (capacity 250-300) this will usually be £1-2 on week night, £2-3 on weekends, and seldom more than £5 on special occasions. Conventional clubs in bigger towns and alternative clubs in cities will cost £5-10. Large clubs, especially those in cities, that cater for a "dance" crowd will almost certainly cost over £10, though seldom more than £15. For towns with a large student population, it is often much cheaper to go clubbing during week nights (Monday-Thursday), as many clubs advertise towards students on these nights, offering discounted drinks and cheaper entry.
Tea is widely drunk in the UK, most British people drink black tea with milk and/or sugar. Whilst most budget to mid-range venues will offer a generic brand, more upmarket (and higher priced) venues, will have a selection, Earl Grey being a well known blend, but by no means the only one. Herbal teas are also available from specialists, lemon may also be offered as an alternative to milk.
Coffee is also popular in the UK, and in some popularity polls it has beaten tea. Starbucks has a number of branches in the UK, although it has strong competition from other chains like Costa, and numerous independent coffee shops.
An unusual 'drink' more akin to soup is Bovril, a kind of reconstituted beef broth. Offered by a small number of independent outlets. It's a tradition in the UK for spectators at cold-weather sporting events to bring a flask of Bovril.
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is highly regarded and has near legendary status. It is a fizzy, caffeinated drink of a vivid orange colour, with a unique taste widely regarded as indescribable, some calling it metallic, fruity, bubblegum flavoured or even medicine-like. Whilst anywhere selling drinks in Scotland is highly likely to have Irn-Bru, it is much less common in the rest of the UK, though it can be found in larger shops and supermarkets.
An acquired taste, but worth it, is ginger beer, which despite its name is not typically alcoholic, and in its commercially available form is a pleasant ginger flavoured soda.
Mineral waters can vary from expensive imported brands such as Perrier, through locally bottled waters such as Highland Spring or Buxton, amongst others. In pubs, bars and restaurants, it is best to ask specifically for tap water if you do not wish to pay for mineral water. Both sparkling and still water are usually available.
The UK offers a wide variety of hotels rated on a scale of stars, from 5-star luxury (and beyond!) to 1-star basic. There is also a vast number of privately run bed and breakfast establishments (abbreviated as "B&B"), offering rooms with usually a fried 'full English breakfast'. Alternatively you can rent a private house which is let as a holiday home; many such holiday homes advertise on a wide variety of free websites or advertise on their own websites. Good deals can usually be found by using a search engine for "self-catering holiday accommodation".
The two most prominent budget (limited-service, and deliberately not star rated) hotel chains in the country are Travelodge (which is wholly separate from the US chain of the same name) and Premier Inn - there is typically one of either or both of these in most major towns and multiple in large cities such as London and Manchester. While they are often more expensive than a bed and breakfast (ranging between £20 and £110 a night depending on time before booking, flexibility of rate and location) they are usually conveniently located, are full hotels that usually offer a hot breakfast (at a cost, usually less than £10) and a restaurant for evening meals and have a relatively consistent standard of service and furnishing across their portfolio. Travelodge is typically the cheaper but more basic and spartan of the two, whereas Premier Inn is slightly more expensive (by around £10-20 a night) but aims to be a budget approximation of a full-service hotel. Either one represents a reasonably comfortable and very prevalent budget option for a hotel - other less common budget chains are Ibis Express, Ibis Budget, Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn/Garden Inn from Hilton.
Budget travellers can opt to stay in a youth/backpackers' hostel
- YHA England and Wales, tel 0870 770 6113
- Scottish YHA, Email - email@example.com, tel 0870 1553255
- Northern Ireland, tel +44 28 9032-4733
Another option is to stay at short term rental apartments. There are numerous such companies around the country.
There are also many camp sites, with widely varying levels of facilities. Not all of them welcome backpackers: Ordnance Survey maps indicate those that definitely do with a blue tent symbol rather than a caravan. "Wild camping" on private land outside recognised camp sites is a legal right in Scotland (but only well away from roads and inhabited buildings), elsewhere it may be awkward outside remote areas, though one-night camping stops may be feasible if undertaken discreetly, or landowners may give permission to wild-camp for free, or for a small fee, if asked. An unwritten rule permits high-altitude wild camping in Snowdonia in north Wales, but not by legal right. Wild campers anywhere are expected to move on after two or three nights in the same spot, not least to allow the ground to regenerate. Fires are usually discouraged (at best).
Some travellers to the United Kingdom decide on a campervan or caravan holiday, whereby your accommodation travels with you. Most parts of the country have a good range of camping and caravan parks available.
If you are smart enough you can hire a camper, and park in remote pub parking spaces [ask first] and really enjoy the country side atmosphere and unique tiny pubs.
Couchsurfing is a good way to get to know the people as well as the place. There are a large number of members around the country and it is worth trying to use the service as part of a trip for the insider knowledge it provides.
As a more quirky (though sometimes expensive) option, the Landmark Trust is a charitable organisation that buys up historic buildings, follies and other unusual examples of architecture - especially those in danger of destruction - and renovates them in order to rent them out to holidaymakers. For bookings, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org
- See also: Studying abroad#United Kingdom
The UK has been a centre of learning for a thousand years and has many distinguished schools and universities. Many former polytechnics and other colleges have been promoted to university status over the past 25 years, and there are now over 120 degree-awarding institutions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The two most famous (and oldest) universities are Oxford and Cambridge (often collectively referred to as "Oxbridge" by many Britons), but England also has several other world-class institutions, including several in London (notably Imperial College, the London School of Economics, London Business School, University College London, and King's College London). Other reputed universities are in Durham, Birmingham (Birmingham, City and Aston), Manchester (Manchester, Metropolitan and Salford), Liverpool (Liverpool, John Moores and Hope), Exeter, Leeds (Leeds, Beckett and Trinity), Sheffield (Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam), Bristol (Bristol and West of England), York (York and St John), Nottingham (Nottingham and Trent), Kent, Bath, Loughborough, Newcastle (Newcastle and Northumbria), Southampton (Southampton and Solent) and Warwick.
Scotland has its own semi-separate educational system, with universities in Aberdeen (Aberdeen and Robert Gordon), Dundee (Dundee and Abertay), Edinburgh (Edinburgh, Napier, Queen Margaret and Heriot-Watt), Glasgow (Glasgow, Strathclyde and Caledonian), Stirling and the oldest and most traditional one is at St Andrews.
There are two universities in Northern Ireland: the Queen's University of Belfast, and the University of Ulster (which has campuses in Belfast, Jordanstown, Coleraine and Londonderry). Although Queen's is the older and more famous institution, both are highly respected throughout the UK.
Traditionally the University of Wales comprised four large universities: Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea but, since many polytechnics and institutes were upgraded to university status, the number of Welsh universities has increased.
Some of the most reputed schools in the country include Eton College, widely regarded as the "Chief Nurse of England's statesmen", Rugby School, and Westminster School.
Foreign students make up a significant proportion of the student body at UK universities, with over 300,000 foreign students in 2004, making it the second most popular destination for international students after the United States. All undergraduate applications go through a central body UCAS, which acts as a clearing house passing applications to the universities for consideration and feeding their decisions back to applicants. Course fees for overseas students vary considerably, costing significantly more for the prestigious institutions. In addition, international students are generally charged higher fees than British students. For postgraduate (US: graduate) applications, applicants will have to apply directly to the institution. Students who wish to apply to MBA programmes are typically required to sit for the GMAT as well. Many PhD programmes come with partial funding from the institution, and students from some countries who wish to study at the University of Oxford may apply for the Rhodes Scholarhsip. It is one of the world's most prestigious scholarships and hence, the application process is a very competitive one.
In order to study in the UK, you will need to get either a student visitor for a 6-month course or a Tier 4 visa for anything longer. Students from the EU are now also required to obtain a visa. In the case of the latter, you must have a confirmation of acceptance of studies from the institution, take an English Proficiency Exam (preferably the IELTS but this may be waived if you are a national of or took your previous education in a majority English-speaking country) and demonstrate that you have sufficient funds available to you for the duration of your course. Most importantly, students on a Tier 4 must be enrolled full-time in an entire course of study - they cannot come just to study individual modules.
The UK remains a very popular destination for those seeking to learn the English language, and the British Council offers information on courses and advice.
All work, paid or unpaid, requires a foreign citizen (except the Irish) to hold a visa with work permit in order to take part; tourist or visitor visas do not qualify. This includes volunteer work. European Union, EEA and Swiss citizens who moved to the UK before the end of 2020 are an exception, but must apply for the EU Settlement Scheme before 30 June 2021.
The UK has very low unemployment, making it easier for those with specialist skills to gain working visas. A general shortage of skilled labour in the health sector means the British health service actively recruits abroad, making it easier for those with specialist health care skills to work in the UK.
Citizens of Australia, Canada, Hong Kong (British National (Overseas) passport holders only), Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan (as well as British overseas citizens and British overseas territories citizens) can apply for a Tier 5 visa under the Youth Mobility Scheme, which lasts 2 years and permits the holder to work.
Young people of other nationalities may be able to work on internships in the UK by applying for a Tier 5 visa under the Government-sponsored exchange category. Organisations such as IEPUK can help to sponsor and assist a young people from abroad to applying for such a visa.
Most holders of a student visa are permitted to work for up to 20 hours a week during term-time and unlimited number of hours during the school holidays.
Workers require a distinct National Insurance Number (NINo) so that their tax and other payments and benefits can be recorded. This may also allow you to claim pension payments after you reach retirement age. You can start work without such a number, but you should acquire one quickly.
If you work in breach of your visa conditions, not only will your status be in jeopardy (you may face deportation, denial of entry next time, etc.) but your employer will also face a hefty fine.
For more details on immigration rules relating to working in the UK, visit the UK Visas website.
Are you in crisis?
Samaritans is a free and confidential nationwide 24 hour telephone hotline for people in emotional distress. The concept is simple: you talk, they listen. Please don't suffer alone; call a Samaritan on ☏ 116 123 (in country only).
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (free of charge from any phone, including mobiles). All such calls are free and will be answered by an emergency services operator who will ask you which services you need (police, fire, ambulance, coastguard or mountain and cave rescue) and for your location. Be as precise as possible, and don't forget to say the town or city, as the operator may be based remotely. Unlike many other countries, the United Kingdom does not have different numbers for different emergency services.
You can call 999 or 112 from any mobile telephone, even if you do not have roaming enabled. As in all other countries, it is a serious crime to call this number without due cause, the official criteria being, an immediate serious threat to life or safety. In making an emergency call, give as much information about your location (and that of the incident needing attention) as possible. Official call boxes will typically have location plate giving this, but a street name or building name can also be given. In rural or remote areas, giving a precise map (or GPS) reference will assist immensely. In addition the operator may prompt you for additional information which will allow categorisation of the emergency to prioritise the response. With variable mobile coverage in some areas, mobiles can call the 999 or 112 emergency number even when they only have coverage from a network other than from their own provider. Unlike normal roaming, only 999 or 112 emergency calls will be passed; whilst you can call the emergency services, they cannot call you back. Even if your phone shows No Signal, in an emergency it is still worth trying as you may be in coverage of another network who will handle your 999 (or 112) emergency call. In some incidents the emergency operator may ask you to stay on the line, so they can provide additional information, or monitor for situational changes. In such situations, do not hang up until they advise that you can.
In a non-emergency situation you can call 101 to report crime and concerns to the local police that do not require an emergency response. A similar service is available at 111 for health issues that do not require urgent A&E admission.
Unlike many other countries, British people do not have ID Cards and are not required to carry identification on them at all times. A police officer will not ask to arbitrarily see your ID, although it may save you a good deal of time to have one if they believe you are a 'person of interest'. Additionally, under 25s who look like they may be minors are routinely asked for some form of official ID when purchasing alcohol or tobacco, or when entering bars or nightclubs with on-door security. A European driving licence is a popular form of ID in the United Kingdom, although a non-European driving license, ID card or passport from your home country is sufficient.
On the whole, British police officers tend to be professional and trustworthy, and are generally less aggressive than law enforcement agencies in many other developed nations. However, this does not mean they are lenient, and they will intervene if a situation is assessed as needing a Police response. Front line police officers, will also not be hesitant in responding to sincerely expressed safety concerns, such as unattended baggage, lost children, or individuals that have 'had too much' alcohol.
With local exceptions, such as airports, nuclear power plants and some government buildings, the vast majority of police officers in Great Britain do not carry firearms on standard patrol, and the only police officers allowed to carry firearms are those from specialist firearms units. The exception is the Police in Northern Ireland who routinely carry firearms due to the historical political tension.
Most officers will only speak English, though you will be able to speak to an interpreter over police radio if you can't understand questioning in English. You have the legal right to silence when arrested and to have an interpreter at the police station.
Police officers in Great Britain wear dark blue uniforms, although officers in Northern Ireland wear dark green uniforms. Front-line police (in uniform) are also generally required to have shoulder numbers. Most British police are also required to carry a 'warrant card', and should under reasonable circumstances be willing to produce it, to confirm their authority.
No instant penalties are payable in cash to a police officer and street-level corruption is for all practical purposes non-existent. Under UK law, bribing a police officer is a very serious crime for both the officer accepting and person offering the bribe.
Policing on the mainland rail network, is the responsibility of the British Transport Police, who have similar powers and responsibilities to other police in the UK.
In addition to police officers with full powers, in some areas the UK has Community Support Officers, whose powers are more limited, and are generally concerned with policing issues of a less serious nature, freeing up police officers to handle more serious offences.
Private security guards do not generally have any "police-style" powers at all. There are a small number of non-police officials who have limited enforcement powers relating to specific local areas; or certain activities such as on-street parking, use of public spaces; or concerning local bylaws. Railway staff also have specific responsibilities with respect to the Railway's Bylaws and Conditions of Carriage.
All British people have the right to make a citizens arrest, where they can arrest and temporarily detain people who have committed a indictable offence until the arrival of the police who will take custody of the offender.
On the roads
Although jaywalking is not an offence in the UK, crossing a road other than at a designated crossing should be taken with care. A number of traffic light crossings have a push button to change the 'man' from red to green. Pedestrian crossings in some cities (notably London) have countdown timers, to indicate when the lights will revert to red. Pedestrians have right of way on zebra crossings, that are identified by white stripes on the road and yellow flashing lights. It is advisable to make eye contact with the driver before stepping into the road. Certain roads prohibit pedestrians (and cylicsts), this is often marked with signs in obvious places.
Britain's transport network does not generally have any major safety issues. Major incidents are exceptionally rare (despite the media attention). Vigilance about security and safety issues (such as suspect packages) is however appreciated, and the employees of transport organisations are generally appreciative of appropriately voiced concerns.
Overt racism is not common in the UK and racially motivated violence is rare. The government strongly encourages the notion of a multi-cultural society, but high levels of immigration have caused debate and the rise of political figures against immigration levels. Nevertheless, the UK is generally regarded by most of its own immigrant population as being among the most tolerant of European countries in this respect. Most Britons will go out of their way to make tourists and immigrants feel welcome and it is common for courts to impose harsh punishments on any form of racial abuse, physical or verbal. Current legislation prohibits hate speech as well as racial discrimination in a wide range of public spheres such as education and employment.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a spike in racist incidents targeting people of East Asian descent, with some East Asians having become victims of hate crimes including assaults.
Late at night it is not uncommon to find rowdy groups of drunk people, especially young men, on the street, but unless you go out of your way to provoke trouble you are unlikely to experience any problems. The police have fairly wide ranging powers to fine or arrest people who are causing a disturbance, and although they can be more heavy-handed in major cities they are generally tolerant. Drinking alcohol in public (except outside a bar or pub) is not permitted in some towns and areas of cities.
All illegal drugs in the United Kingdom are classified under 'A', 'B' or 'C'. Class A drugs are typically regarded as the most dangerous and attract the most severe penalties (e.g. a prison sentence), especially for supplying. Class C are generally regarded as the least harmful and thus attract lesser penalties (e.g. a fine). Remember: all of these drugs are equally illegal and you can still be arrested for possession, supplying or using regardless of the class; the classes are used to determine policing priorities and penalties.
Class A drugs include ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, heroin and cocaine; penalties will mean arrest and prison even for possession. Magic mushrooms were previously legal because of technicalities in the law, but are now class A.
Cannabis is now a 'Class B' drug. A first offence for possession will usually result in a formal warning, or an on-the-spot fine. This does not apply to other Class B drugs, such as speed (where you will be imprisoned instead). Subsequent offences may result in arrest.
Examples of Class C include ketamine, some steroids, some prescription drugs such as Valium (legal if they are prescribed for you), GHB, Khat and some tranquillisers.
Don't assume, however, that something offered as a so called 'legal-high' is either legal, safe or even what it claims to be. Law enforcement in the UK have since 2016 had the power to act against all manner of these, and the potential for being sold something injurious is high.
Prescribed drugs will usually require a letter from a doctor to be imported, and having this documentation is useful if any queries arise. Where the drug is controlled (Class A, B or C) in the UK, a formal prescription, and confirmation of a qualified medical professional as to medical need or requirement, will be needed in all instances.
Sex and prostitution
The age of sexual consent is 16 throughout the United Kingdom, although teenagers under 18 are also still legally regarded as children, meaning that images of under-18s, whether they are above the age of consent or not, is classed as child pornography and most definitely illegal. Ask for proof of age, e.g. driving licence if in doubt.
Homosexuality is very widely accepted by the British public, and almost all discrimination and all hate speech relating to sexual orientation is illegal.
Attitudes to prostitution in the United Kingdom are considerably less liberal than some other European countries, and are closer to the conservative views held in the United States.
Brothels of any kind are illegal and it's against the law to loiter or solicit sex on the street. 'Kerb-crawling' (driving close to a pavement in order to ask prostitutes for sex) is also banned, and is actively monitored for by police patrols in many towns and cities across the country. Police also on a regular basis undertake crackdowns against both gangs and individuals that are using trafficked women in prostitution rackets. Police take a very dim view of such activity, and if you are caught, you will be subjected to lengthy questioning by the police, and charged.
Firearms and knives
The UK has very strict laws with regards to firearm ownership. Handguns such as pistols and revolvers, as well as semi-automatic rifles are prohibited, even for sporting purposes, while a licence is required to own, carry or use any other type of firearm. Bringing a firearm into the UK is extremely difficult, and all visitors who wish to do so are required to obtain a permit well before their arrival in the UK.
Northern Ireland has its own firearms licensing regulations, so visitors who wish to transport their firearms between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are required to obtain permits from both the British and Northern Irish authorities in order to do so.
Knife crime is a problem in the UK, most acutely in London and other large cities, although not as great as press reports suggest. While the majority of knife attacks are perpetrated by criminal gangs against locals who are themselves in some way connected to crime, seemingly random and unprovoked attacks have also been carried out, sometimes against foreign visitors.
The UK has seen a number of terror attacks in the 21st century, many of which have targeted places you're likely to frequent as a tourist. British security services are on the whole adept at preventing attacks from occurring, and in the event of a successful attack, police and ambulance services have a track record for responding extremely quickly and professionally. While in some respects it is true that you can't do much in the face of an attack, there are precautions you can take. Stay abreast of the government's official threat level and keep an eye on local media before and during your visit. In the extremely unlikely event that you are caught up in a terror attack, the official advice is to run as far away from the attackers as possible, hide in the most secure place you can find, stay put as quietly and stilly as possible, and phone the police only if it is safe to do so.
If you have a medical emergency, telephone ☏ 999 or ☏ 112. In the UK, emergency medical response is prioritised on a clinical basis, and the operator or dispatcher will ask relevant questions to ensure an appropriate response.
For less serious medical emergencies, go directly to the nearest hospital with an Accident & Emergency (A & E) department. Depending on the day or night, you may have to wait for up to 4 hours to be seen to if the medical complaint is not life-threatening.
Walk-in centres also provide treatment for less urgent conditions on a first come first served basis. See NHS Walk-in Centres for further details as to what services they can provide.
Non-UK residents will generally be refused treatment at NHS GP practices, but private doctor consultation services are available, both at private clinics and via apps. Consultations can be paid for on a one-off basis.
For advice on non-emergency medical problems, you can phone the 24-hour NHS advice line on ☏ 111. These advice lines can make appointments at out-of-hours clinics if after discussion they think that you should see a doctor. Alternatively, information is available online through NHS 111 or, in Scotland, NHS 24.
Dental care is mixed NHS and private. Many dental practices reserve a few appointments each day for urgent and emergency treatments. Appointments are allocated on a first come first served basis, and often they will all be filled soon after the clinic opens. Most practices are only open Monday to Friday. For emergency out-of-hours dental care, call the NHS 111 number and they will check if your condition warrants emergency care and if it does give you the number of an emergency dentist.
Are you eligible to use the NHS?
Healthcare is provided for British citizens and permanent residents through the taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS). Citizens of the European Union, Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland may make use of the NHS by presenting their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Citizens of some other countries may also receive reciprocal access to the NHS, especially those on a short-term work or student visa; check with the relevant website (England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland) for more details.
If you are from a country without a reciprocal agreement, you must be covered by travel insurance or risk paying for the treatment yourself in full. Although no A&E will refuse to treat you in an emergency, the NHS and other related government bodies will routinely attempt to recoup the cost of any treatment provided to non-residents ineligible for treatment. Some hospitals may insist that non-UK-residents pay an excess upfront, up to the entire cost of treatment.
If you're on a long-term work or student visa (more than 6 months), an "immigration health surcharge" is automatically added to your visa fee, which gives you full access to the NHS for the duration of your visa's validity.
In hospitals and clinics, you will be requested to provide some form of photo ID, such as a passport, to ascertain your eligibility for NHS treatment. Pharmacists may also ask for ID when dispensing, as part of control measures on certain medications.
Pharmacies and medication
As in much of Europe, pharmacies are clearly marked by a green cross symbol. Nationwide pharmacy chains include Boots and Lloyds, while some large supermarkets also have in-store pharmacies.
In the UK, pharmacists are highly-trained medical professionals and can advise on minor ailments and medicines. Generic medications may have different "brand names" to the ones you're used to; if in doubt, ask the pharmacist. For certain remedies (for example stronger painkillers) you may have to ask at the counter, as these can only be issued by pharmacists under strict protocols. Don't be alarmed if the pharmacist asks some basic diagnostic questions to determine the remedy's suitability.
The medicine trade is strictly controlled in the UK and many medicines available to purchase from a pharmacy in other countries (e.g. antibiotics or opiate based painkillers) can only be provided if you have a doctor's prescription. If you require specific medication, be sure to include a written prescription from a qualified medical professional, and then store the prescription with the medication for the duration of your stay. This is especially important if you have a medical condition that requires you to inject anything, lest you find yourself in trouble with the police.
Condoms are available in many public toilets (including in pubs and nightclubs), pharmacies and supermarkets. They are also available free from some NHS sexual health clinics, which also provide free testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections, even if you are not eligible for other NHS services. An estimated 100,000 people (0.16% of the UK population) are living with HIV. Chlamydia is common enough that people are recommended to be regularly tested.
You can purchase tampons at pharmacies and supermarkets, though some sexual health clinics provide them free of charge.
Tap water is of a high drinkable quality, with non-drinkable water supplies clearly marked in practically all cases. In most regions, fluoride is added to the water. Mains water supply is practically universal, except in isolated rural settlements. Generally, the mains water in the South East and East of England is considered "hard", whereas the water elsewhere in the UK is considered "soft". Appliances using hard water are more prone to limescale, and you may find such water unpalatable unless refrigerated.
Mountain water sources in upland areas such as Snowdonia, the Pennines, the Lake District, and the Scottish Highlands are of variable quality, and local advice should be sought, owing to mineral contaminants. Some upland water may be slightly brown due to it filtering through peat.
In winter, the UK's time zone is Greenwich Mean Time (UTC), but from late March to late October, the country follows British Summer Time (UTC+1)
The electricity supply runs at 230 V, 50 Hz AC. Visitors from countries such as the U.S. and Canada, where the voltage supply runs at 110 V 60 Hz, may need a voltage converter (which can be picked up in most specialist electronic shops). Many appliances needed whilst travelling (such as laptop chargers, shavers and the like) are designed to run off both voltages.
British plugs and sockets, made to the British Standard 1363, have three flat, rectangular pins which form a triangle. These sockets are the same used in Ireland, the UAE, Cyprus, Malta and several other former British colonies. Do not try to force a thin Europlug (with no earth pins) into a socket without an adapter; most large supermarkets, and all stores in UK airports, sell plug adapters. There is also a 2 pin style shaver socket (BS 4573). Power connectors for outdoor use (most likely encountered as a caravan hookup), are based on a European wide standard (IEC 60309), with the relevant type for UK mains voltage being 'blue' in colour.
During the Christmas and New Year holiday period much of the country shuts down. During the week leading up to Christmas people will travel to their hometowns to visit their family, meaning that the motorway traffic can be very heavy and trains are much more crowded. Also, many people rush to shopping areas to stock up on food and drink and last-minute gifts. On Christmas Day and New Year's Day most retail, including supermarkets, close except for some petrol station convenience stores. Most restaurants, bars and hotels remain open, but if you are planning to eat out during this time period, reserving a table is essential. On Boxing Day (26 Dec) the start of the sales means that many large shops reopen and get extremely busy. If you don't have a car, think twice before travelling between Christmas Eve and New Year. During this week, many transport services operate revised schedules, so check with operators. On Christmas Eve, bus and train services finish earlier than usual and do not run on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Buses also tend not to run on New Year's Day outside of major cities. As the only available transport in many areas is taxis, they tend to charge up to three times the regular price.
The major public holidays are:
- New Year's Day - 1 Jan
- St Patrick's Day - 17 Mar (Northern Ireland)
- Good Friday and Easter Monday - varies Mar-Apr
- May Day Bank Holiday - first Monday in May
- Spring Bank Holiday - last Monday in May
- Battle of the Boyne Day - 12 Jul (Northern Ireland)
- Summer Bank Holiday - first Monday in Aug (Scotland) / last Monday in Aug (England, Northern Ireland, Wales)
- St Andrew's Day - 30 Nov (Scotland)
- Christmas Day - 25 Dec
- Boxing Day - 26 Dec
When a holiday date falls on a Sunday, the following Monday will be a bank holiday. The Welsh (St David, 1 Mar) and English (St George, 23 Apr) patron saint days are not bank holidays, but are widely marked in their respective countries.
On Armistice Day (11 November) and Remembrance Sunday (the nearest Sunday before or after), memorial services take place at churches and cenotaphs nationwide. Many business and civic facilities pause at 11AM for a "two minutes' silence". Polite respect for these is strongly suggested: be silent and don't move. Around these days, many people wear paper poppies on their left lapels as a symbol of remembrance.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) is the world's oldest and largest national broadcaster, and globally known for its news coverage, documentaries and drama series. "Auntie Beeb" has a preeminent status in British media, operating across radio, television and online platforms. As a public service broadcaster funded by a compulsory national TV licence, the BBC's output is free of commercial advertisement and is required by law to be politically impartial.
Radio remains hugely popular in the UK, and operates on both analogue (mostly FM) and digital (DAB) frequencies. The three most listened-to national stations are BBC Radio 2 (adult contemporary), BBC Radio 1 (new music and chart music), and BBC Radio 4 (news, current affairs, documentaries, dramas, comedy). The majority of the BBC's main commercial rivals attempt to emulate Radio 1 or Radio 2, but there are hundreds of music and talk radio stations to suit any taste. There is also a thriving local radio scene, with every area having a BBC and at least one commercial station.
All television is digital, using the free terrestrial "Freeview" system (DVB-T), the free satellite "Freesat" system, subscription satellite (usually "Sky") or cable (usually "Virgin"). The main networks' flagships channels are BBC One and BBC Two, plus ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and the subscription-only Sky One. The commercial channels all run advertisements during and between programming. There are some regional differences: ITV operates as STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland, while in Wales the Welsh-language S4C is shown instead of Channel 4. All three run somewhat different schedules to their English counterparts, showing a mixture of in-house and UK-wide programming.
The UK's three main 24-hour news channels are BBC News, Sky News, and Euronews. BBC One, ITV, and Channel 4 also broadcast regular bulletins throughout the day. To get to know the area you're visiting, it's well worth tuning in to the main regional news programmes at 6PM on ITV/STV/UTV, or 6:30PM on BBC One. All broadcast news programming is required by law to be reported with accuracy and, above all, impartiality; this does not mean the news is delivered neutrally, but rather that it must ensure a range of voices and views are presented without fear or favour.
The newspaper industry has no such constraints, and most publications display their political biases. The national daily publications generally considered newspapers of record are The Times and The Daily Telegraph (both right-leaning, with the former more moderate and the latter more conservative), while the other major "quality" daily newspapers are The Guardian (centre-left) and the Financial Times (liberal). All four are respected for their high journalistic standards. However, by far the most widely-circulated daily nationals are tabloids such as the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, and The Sun. At their best, British tabloids exemplify dogged and incisive journalism; at their worst, they can be lurid, vicious, and dishonest. However, they wield a great deal of power in the public consciousness, and are collectively at least as influential as the BBC.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, most of the UK papers publish editorially-independent local versions, and there also well-established national newspapers such as The Herald and The Scotsman (Scotland), or the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News (Northern Ireland). Wales has only one national daily newspaper, the Western Mail; its print media is otherwise the same as in England. Every region, town, and city in the UK has at least one local paper, though declining sales have driven many of these to operate online only.
Honorifics and manners
Greetings are dependent upon the situation. In anything but a business situation, a verbal greeting such as "hello (name)!" will suffice. Younger people will usually say "Hi," "Hiya," or "Hey" though the latter is also used to attract attention and should not be used to address a stranger as it would be considered impolite. The British often use the words "Alright?" and "You all right?" as greetings, not to inquire about your mood. The usual way to respond is to just say back "Alright".
A greeting may be accompanied by a handshake (between both genders), a single kiss on the cheek (between two women, or between a man and a woman), or less commonly a hug. Etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug if it is offered, otherwise a handshake is appropriate. In a formal situation or an initial greeting between two strangers, a handshake is the done thing; this should be of moderate firmness.
It's acceptable to address someone by their first name in most social situations. First names are sometimes avoided among strangers to avoid seeming overly familiar. In very formal or business situations first names are not commonly used until people are better acquainted. The best strategy is to use what they introduced themselves with. Officials like policemen or doctors, however, will invariably call you by your title and surname, for example "Mr Smith". Knights and dames are an exception to this rule; the default mode of address is Sir/Dame + first name even in the most formal situations.
The British can be extremely indirect when requesting things from people they do not know. It is common for Britons to "ask around" questions when requesting something: for example, one would be more likely to say something along the lines of "Where can I find the changing room?" when in a clothes shop, rather than "Where's the changing room?". It can be seen as overly abrupt to ask direct questions of a stranger, so it's best to tailor your words accordingly. Similarly, saying "What?" when not understanding something can be considered rude around authority figures or people you don't know, and "Pardon?" or "Sorry?" are more appropriate in such situations.
British people apologise a lot, even when there is absolutely no need to do so. For example, if someone trod on someone else's toe by accident, both people would normally apologise. This is just a British thing to do, and dwelling on it (e.g. "What are you sorry about?") will mark you out as a foreigner. Often a British person will request something or start a conversation with "sorry". It isn't because they feel sorry, but it is rather used instead of "excuse me" or "pardon".
Inquiring about someone's salary or talking about your own is uncommon and in conversation is a great way to make someone feel uncomfortable. Similarly, discussing personal, political, or religious convictions are no-go areas until you're better acquainted with someone.
The United Kingdom is a diverse country, and an array of accents can be found all over. Asking about someone's accent is often a good way to start a conversation and break the ice with someone. This said, try not to imitate any kind of accent as it can be seen as rude manners.
Allow some personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. You will usually find this in such places as cinemas and on public transport. Generally, unless people know each other, you will find they will usually choose to fill up every row of seating and keep as much distance as possible until there is a requirement to sit directly next to each other.
While doing the V sign with the palm facing outward is taken to indicate either "peace" or "victory" by many Britons, doing the reverse where the palm faces inward is considered to be an offensive gesture, equivalent to raising the middle finger.
For more details on unwritten rules concerning greetings, addressing others, small talk, British hypocrisy, etc, read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by the anthropologist, Kate Fox (ISBN 0340752122).
The Scottish are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh, and the English are English; referring to all of them as "English" is incorrect. In Cornwall, some people identify as Cornish, rather than English. It is also common to meet someone who might say "I am half Welsh, half English" or "my parents are Scottish and I am English". Calling people "British" is usually a safe option on the UK mainland, but even that isn't to everyone's liking.
Most Northern Ireland Unionists identify as British and do not like being called "Irish". On the other hand, most Nationalists in Northern Ireland take offence to being called "British", and will instead identify as Irish, register accordingly as Irish citizens and carry Irish passports, which all people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to do if they wish. The safest option is to use the term "Northern Irish" unless prompted to do otherwise.
But don't stress about it too much! Most people in these islands know the constitutional makeup is complicated and won't be offended if you accidentally give them the wrong nationality, but they will correct you and expect you to get it right next time.
The possibilities of Scottish independence, Welsh independence, and Irish reunification are sensitive issues among many around the UK. You should avoid discussing them where possible.
Similarly, the UK's withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit) in 2020 and the ongoing process of determining the future relationship, are politically controversial, with the British public highly polarised on the issues at stake. Unless you want to start an argument, Brexit is a topic best avoided in your conversations with locals.
Avoid referring to the Falkland Islands by their Spanish name and never refer to them as Argentine. 255 British soldiers, and three civilians, died in the Falklands War of 1982, which was won by the British; the Falklands remain a British Overseas Territory to this day. To a lesser extent, the same advice applies when talking about Gibraltar, which Spain claims as its own. Residents of both territories have voted overwhelmingly to remain British in several referenda.
The British behave like they invented satire, and it is an entirely normal part of everyday life and culture to openly mock and criticise the powerful; the Prime Minister, Government, politicians in general, the Church, the BBC, even the Royal Family are all fair game. As a visitor, you should tread very carefully before expressing negative opinions on the same subjects out of the blue, but if you're with a group of Brits already joking about these topics, feel free to join in. If, while you're at it, you get in a moan about the trains and the weather, the locals will be eating out of your hand!
The only institution that you must never ever criticise is the National Health Service (NHS). Despite the problems it faces, the British are extremely proud of their health service and will react angrily to outsiders seeming to disrespect it or take it for granted. If the NHS seems like the UK's sacred cow, that's only because pretty much every Briton has friends or family members employed by it, and everyone knows someone whose life was saved by its front line staff. Furthermore, there is near unanimity that healthcare which is free at the point of service for everyone in society "from the cradle to the grave" is the definition of civilisation itself. If you disagree with this, even if you have very good reasons backed up with rock-solid arguments, keep it to yourself.
The United Kingdom has had a particularly colourful history, and there is much debate among the British over which past figures, periods, and events, if any, should be revered and which should be learnt from or regarded with shame. Many Brits are unaware or dismissive of some of the gory details of their empire, while others are acutely aware of the empire's complex and ongoing legacy in British and world cultures, and others still feel that such events have little bearing on their lives and should remain in the past.
The UK is a very tolerant and safe destination for gay and lesbian travellers. Civil partnerships have been legal since 2005 and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014 in England, Scotland and Wales, and since 2019 in Northern Ireland. All discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal throughout the UK, and the vast majority of British people have a "live and let live" attitude. If you have conservative views on sexuality, you should keep them to yourself while in the UK.
Cities and towns with prominent gay communities include London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton (sometimes called "the gay capital of Europe"), Liverpool, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. Such cities host pride festivals each year.
In Britain, same-sex displays of affection will not usually cause upset or offence, but you should be conscious of your surroundings. Don't assume that just because you're in a big city you're safe; someone looking to start a fight may decide to treat somebody's presumed sexuality as a pretext. Try to avoid eye contact with drunks in city centres at night, especially if they are in a large group. In Northern Ireland, where many still hold conservative values, same-sex displays and activities are rarely seen outside of Belfast. In Belfast, some areas are safer than others for showing affection.
While cross-dressing is not illegal in the UK, it is usually advised to be modest in the choice of outfit, unless you have prior knowledge of local standards. Although attitudes are changing fast, gender recognition and trans rights are something of a weak spot in Britain's otherwise robust legal protections for LGBT folk.
The Queen is the head of the Church of England, making the UK one of the only democracies in the world with a state religion. This belies the fact that contemporary British society is for the most part rather secular, and most British people take a live and let live approach towards religion. In general, you need not worry about being harassed for wearing religious clothing such as hijabs, kippahs or crucifixes, though attempting to proselytise will not be welcome. Religion in the United Kingdom traditionally differed from nation to nation, with England being predominantly Anglican, Scotland being predominantly Presbyterian, Wales being split between Anglican and nonconformist, and Northern Ireland being nearly evenly divided among Roman Catholicism and Anglican or Presbyterian Protestantism.
The UK's country code is +44. The first part of the phone number is the dialling code (area code), which domestically is always written with a leading 0 for the trunk code (long-distance prefix), so that a London phone number would be written as '020 xxxx xxxx'. (In international format, it would be written '+44 20 xxxx-xxxx', since the leading 0 is only used when calling from inside the UK.) Dialling codes have varying numbers of digits, and spaces or dashes are sometimes misplaced due to persistent misunderstandings. For example, London's dialling code (including the trunk code) is just 020, but some locals still write London numbers as 0207 or 0208, as if it had a 4-digit dialling code.
- When calling the UK from overseas, dial your international access code (00 from most of Europe, 011 from the U.S. and Canada or '+' from any mobile phone), followed by 44 (the UK's country code), followed by the rest of the number. If the number is shown with a leading 0 at the beginning of the dialling code, omit the 0.
- When calling a UK phone from any other UK phone, dial the entire phone number, beginning with the leading 0. If the number is in international format, omit the '+44' and dial 0 followed by the rest of the number. If calling from a landline to another landline within the same area code, the area code can usually be omitted, although this is prohibited in some areas of the UK.
- When the building you're in has its own internal phone system, the number for an outside line is 9 (not 0 as in many other countries, which in the UK usually connects you to the reception desk).
- For calls from a mobile phone, dial the entire phone number beginning with the leading 0, or dial the phone number in international format (starting with '+44').
- To phone another country from the UK, dial 00 followed by the country code and phone number.
Directory enquiries (number lookup) are provided by a number of operators, 118 500 being the British Telecom service, with other operators like 118 118 providing additional services such as 'Business Lookup' and events information. Unlike other countries these services cannot perform reverse lookups (name from number). These services are very expensive, with 118 118 costing £2.57/minute.
Payphones are widely available, especially in stations, airports, etc. They are also found on the streets in phone boxes, most notably the red ones, but there are different designs of phone box. Payphones usually take cash (minimum 60p - BT, although some private payphones may charge more); change is not given, but you can choose to continue your money on to the next call. Some newer payphones accept credit and debit cards and may even allow you to send emails and surf the web. Phonecards have been largely phased out, though various pre-paid phonecards can be purchased from newsagents for cheap international calls. Some BT payphones now accept euros. In rural areas the old red phone boxes are sometimes put to alternative use after BT have removed the payphone. Some are used to store emergency heart defibrillators, while others are book depositories or tiny unmanned shops fitted with 'honesty boxes' for payment.
The British are obsessed with mobile phones, and assume everyone has one with them at all times. Expect to be asked for a mobile phone number when trying to rent a bicycle, have mail forwarded to you, reserve a restaurant table (even when reserving by phone!), or many other rather trivial actions. You can get a UK SIM card in advance of your trip, when you arrive at major airports, or in many shops. Good plans start at £10 (as of 2019), but at airports only better plans starting at £20 are available.
The main networks are Vodafone, 3, O2, and EE all have use of 3G and 4G services as well as GPRS (excluding 3). GPRS, 3G and 4G data services are available, usually priced per megabyte (or gigabyte). GPRS (Voice, Text, Basic Internet) coverage is very well developed, covering 99% of the population, while 3G (MMS, Video, Internet, etc.) coverage is also good in the UK (dependent on network), however it is lacking in many rural areas. 4G coverage is now good in most urban areas, and rural coverage is increasing as of 2017, with an increasing number of areas that missed out on 3G now being able to access 4G services. It however is not of the same quality as coverage in mainland Europe. Much of the population will be covered by 5G the end of 2020.
In addition to the main four network operators, there are other providers who provide their own SIM cards, set their call rates, have their own contracts, terms and conditions, customer support, etc. However, behind the scenes they have contracted with one of the main four and run their network over the main operator's network. GiffGaff runs over O2's network so has identical signal coverage as O2's. Requesting a GiffGaff SIM card is free, and GiffGaff ships them internationally for free in the EU.
There is no charge for calls that you receive on your handset except for those roaming; charges are only for calls that you initiate.
Pay-as-you-go (prepaid) plans are available. Credit the phone with a top-up card or cash payment via a top-up terminal; there is no contract and no bills. Some operators also offer packages which mix texts, phone calls and/or data at affordable rates. These packages can come with your initial top-up or deducted from your balance.
If you have an unlocked GSM-compatible handset (most dual- and tri-band phones are GSM-compatible) you can purchase a SIM card from several electrical or phone outlets, in supermarkets, or online. Prices do vary considerably – from £10 from Tesco (available in Tesco supermarkets) to £20 (with £10 credit) from Vodafone (available at all mobile phone shops). Often bargain handset-and-SIM deals can be found, if you don't have an unlocked handset - you can get a very basic mobile with SIM for £10 from Tesco. It will be a locked phone and won't work with other SIM cards.
Costs for calls can vary significantly depending on when you call, where from and where to. Calls from hotel rooms can be spectacularly expensive because of the hotel surcharges; check before you use and consider using a mobile instead. Calls from payphones and wired, or landline, phones to mobile phones can be expensive too; if you have the choice call the other party's landline. Beware of premium rate calls (09xx), which can be very expensive. Text messaging from mobiles costs around 10 pence per message and picture or MMS messages cost around 45p (20p on some networks).
Local landline calls are generally not free unless the phone you're calling from has a contract that includes them. Calls between landlines are usually charged at a single national rate. Some providers charge a higher rate to Jersey, Alderney, Guernsey, Sark and the Isle of Man.
The following table relates the first few digits dialled to call types, so you can avoid some of the pitfalls above:
|Digits dialled||Call Type|
|01, 02, and 03||Landline or non-geographic number. Standard network charge.|
|0500||Free call from landlines and payphones; 10p to 25p/min from mobiles. *|
|070||Personal number. These are very expensive.|
|073 to 075||Mobile telephone. Standard network charge|
|076||Pager. These are usually expensive.|
|077 to 079||Mobile telephone.|
|0800 and 0808||Free call from landlines and mobiles.|
|0842, 0843 and 0844||Variable rate from 1p to 15p/min from landlines; 20p to 45p/min from mobiles.|
|0845||From 3p to 10p/min from landlines; 15p to 35p/min from mobiles.|
|0870||From 5p to 10p/min from landlines (usable in inclusive minutes with some providers); 15p to 35p/min from mobiles.|
|0871, 0872 and 0873||Variable rate from 10p to 20p/min from landlines; 25p to 45p/min from mobiles.|
|09||Calls at a premium rate – anything upwards from £1.00/minute, sometimes more than £15.00/minute.|
Where a call is chargeable, calling from a mobile telephone will usually cost more than calling the same number from a landline.
A simpler and often cheaper alternative for international calls is to use a direct-dial service. These can offer reduced call rates over the standard providers when called from a landline, and don't require you to purchase a card or sign up for an account. You simply dial an access number (e.g. 0844 or 0871 prefix) and the revenue-share element of the call price pays for the onward international part of the call.
Whether you are calling someone who is inside or outside the UK, it may be important to find out if the phone number being called corresponds to a landline or mobile phone as most operators have different rates for both modes within a particular country.
Internet cafés can be found in cities and towns; check the yellow pages for details. All UK public libraries provide access, often branded as "People's Network", usually at little or no charge, although time is rationed. Some hotels and hostels also offer internet access either via their cable TV system or Wi-Fi, although the prices can be quite steep.
There are some Wi-Fi hotspots, although intentionally publicly available wireless is not yet widespread outside central London. Most McDonald's restaurants in the UK now offer free Wi-Fi. Many coffee shops and some pubs offer free Wi-Fi. The most you should pay for Wi-Fi access across the UK is £1 for half an hour. There is also extensive BT Wi-Fi and they charge £4 for one hour and £39 for a month
Most of the UK is covered by UMTS/HSDPA 3G coverage, giving download speeds up to 7.2Mbit/s, and GPRS coverage is extensive. 3G data services should roam seamlessly onto the UK networks, or you can purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card for which credit can be purchased in the same way as for mobile phones.
The UK has reasonable 4G coverage, at its best in most cities and urban areas. This provides a much faster mobile data connection.
The Royal Mail has a long history. Postboxes are still the traditional red colour (although there are green and gold Victorian "Penfold" boxes retained in some areas and an historically important blue box in Windsor). Some postboxes were painted gold to celebrate a local winning a gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics. Mail can also be posted at post offices.
The Royal Mail has introduced a system where post within the UK is priced on size and weight. You can find size charts at all post offices but bear this in mind when sending a larger envelope, parcel or packet.
Postage stamps for within the UK (Channel Islands and Isle of Man included) cost 67p (domestic 1st class for envelopes up to C5 size which are less than 5mm thick and less than 100g). 2nd class stamps cost 58p, but your mail will take longer to arrive.
Postage stamps for international mail cost:
International Economy (previously known as Surface Mail): £1.10 (postcards and small letters up to 20g, available to destinations outside Europe only), £2.40 for a large letter up to 100g.
International Standard (previously known as Airmail): £1.25 (postcards and letters up to 20g to destinations in Europe), £1.45 (postcards and small letters up to 20g to destinations outside Europe). Between £2.65 and £3.45 for a large letter up to 100g.
Rates correct as of January 2019. https://www.royalmail.com/current-postage-prices
Stamps can be bought at the post office, supermarkets and newsagents. Domestic first-class mail can usually be expected to arrive the following day; second-class mail may take several days. Signage on all postboxes displays the final collection time at that location (typically about 17:30 on weekdays and noon on Saturdays), as well as details of later weeknight collections that are available in many areas from a central postbox or sorting office. Deliveries are likewise made six mornings per week, Monday to Saturday. There is generally no post on Sundays or Public Holidays.
If you wish to send something heavy, or want to send a larger letter or packet within the UK, then you will have to get it weighed and/or measured at the post office. The staff at post offices are very helpful, but avoid the lunchtime rush at around 12:00-13:30 when there is often a long queue and more than 30 min waiting times.
One interesting side-pursuit is to look at when the postboxes were built since some can be very old. The 'R' stands for Rex/Regina and the first letter the initial of the monarch reigning when it was cast. For example, a postbox built after 1952 would have the initials 'E II R' (Elizabeth Regina II or, more commonly known as Queen Elizabeth II). Finding a box with the initials 'VR' (Queen Victoria, pre-1901) is a possible occurrence.
Addresses and postcodes
British addresses generally follow the following format:
- Recipient name
- Street address/PO Box number
- Locality (if required)
- Town (in capital letters)
Every postal address has an alphanumeric postcode, either a unique one or one shared with its immediate neighbours. British postcodes take the form (AAnn nAA), where AA is 2 or 1 letters representing the town, city or geographic area immediately followed by a 1 or 2 digit number nn representing the district, a space, then one digit and 2 letters nAA. If you send a letter without the postcode, it will not be delivered (or will be delivered very late).
Most internet mapping services enable locations to be found by postcode. Owing to London's huge size and population it has its own distinct variation of the postcode system where the town code AA is replaced by an area code indicating the geographic part of the city, e.g. N=North, WC=West Central, EC=East Central, SW=South West; and so on.