|Currency||Pound Sterling (£)|
|Population||62,041,708 (2010 est.)|
|Electricity||230V, 50 Hz|
|Time zone||summer: UTC +1
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 political union of four nations: 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 offerings. 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 is arguably the best in the world. Witness thousands of years of history, wherever you are. 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 the country’s other cities are equally charming and inviting. To understand their sheer diversity, compare genteel Oxford with brooding Edinburgh, sports-mad Cardiff 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 of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a union made up of the following regions, home nations and territories:
The largest component, both in terms of size and, by far, population. "Green and pleasant land" it may be, England 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 in the Lowlands and desolate panoramas of the truly wild Highlands reveal 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, unique industrial heritage and some of the most impressive defensive castles in Europe
Located 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
|Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey)
Technically not a part of the UK, the Channel Islands consist of four small islands off the coast of France.
|Isle of Man
Technically not a part of the UK, the Isle of Man is a small island between Great Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea.
The United Kingdom also provides diplomatic representation and defence for several overseas territories, such as Gibraltar, Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the Pitcairn 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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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 Doctor Who and Cardiff Bay's much-applauded regeneration
- 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
- 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
- Liverpool - home to The Beatles and famous for its prominence in music, sport and nightlife, there's no place like Liverpool. The world's greatest port for more than two centuries, the city played a regrettable role in the transatlantic slave trade, a fact not forgotten in its excellent art galleries and museums
- 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
- Giant's Causeway - 40,000 basalt rocks rise spectacularly out of the sea at Northern Ireland's only UNESCO site
- Gower Peninsula - a picturesque corner of south west Wales, perfect for bracing walks along the coast
- Hadrian's Wall - Britain's own Great Wall once defended Rome from the Pictish hordes
- Isle of Arran - "Scotland in miniature" packs in mountain, sea, beach and forest and a geologically diverse terrain
- Lake District National Park - the land of Wordsworth brings together England's highest mountains and largest lakes
- Loch Ness - The world's most famous loch is definitely not home to anything out of the ordinary - or is it?
- Peak District National Park - Britain's first national park and its most-visited, loved by millions for its beauty and accessibility
- Snowdonia National Park - Wales' answer to the Alps is the place in Britain for extreme outdoor pursuits
- Stonehenge - these 4500-year old stones still baffle archaeologists, inspire Pagans and enchant all manner of visitors
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 in their own right either. 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, as well as 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 and Breton languages of today are known to be descended from the original language of the Britons, while modern-day English is descended from the Germanic languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, with a little Celtic and perhaps also pre-Celtic loaning.
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 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 of England and Scotland 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 of Great Britain and Ireland, 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 fifty years the UK grew, under Queen Victoria, into the major world power and eventually possessed 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 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 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 and 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 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 remains a major player in world politics 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 and Tokyo, is one of the world's most important financial centres. The London Metropolitan Area is a 'megalopolis' and is the largest conurbation in the European Union, with a growing population currently 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.
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, however this is inaccurate and can be slightly misleading as Great Britain does not include Northern Ireland.
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 strictly part of the UK, but rather are 'Crown Dependencies': they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU. 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 elsewhere in the European Union.
Overseas Territories and Commonwealth countries
Neither are constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the British Empire. All Commonwealth countries are self-governing and some still have the same monarch as the UK as their head of state. One key difference is that Overseas Territories are still partially under the control of the British Government (primarily for defence purposes) and their still possess British citizenship. Citizens of Commonwealth realms which are not Overseas Territories are broadly subject to the same entry and immigration rules as other non-EU citizens.
Referring to nationality
Be careful when describing citizens of the United Kingdom as "English". The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish do not identify themselves as being 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.
Non English nations can be particularly sensitive, and "Scottish", "Northern Irish", "Irish", "Welsh" or "British" can all be appropriate according to the political persuasion of the individual. 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 just a county of England, the issue of identity in Cornwall is very sensitive among some people and it is best to refer to anyone you meet in Cornwall 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 constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the nominal head of state - the usual platitude is that the monarch reigns but does not rule. It has the original bicameral parliament: The lower house, known as the House of Commons, is popularly elected by the people and is responsible for proposing new laws. The upper house, known as the House of Lords, primarily scrutinises and amends bills proposed by the lower house. The House of Lords is not elected and consists of Hereditary Peers, whose membership is guaranteed by birth right, Life Peers, who are appointed to it by the Queen, and the Lords Spiritual, who are bishops of the Church of England. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. Britain has a first-past-the post system divided into local constituencies. In practice, the Prime Minister wields the most authority in government, with the Queen being pretty much a figurehead, though all bills that have been passed in both houses of parliament require the Queen to grant royal assent (which in theory, she has the right to refuse) before they become law. There have generally been two dominant parties in British politics in recent times; the Labour party and the Conservative party, the latter of which has been the sole party of government since May 2015, after five years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Additionally, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected bodies, the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Each of these devolved governments have 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. Each constituency votes for a local MP (Member of Parliament) who then goes to sit in Parliament and debate and vote.
Using maps and postcodes
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (OSGB) and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. The maps found in bookshops may be published directly by those organisations, or by private map publishers drawing on basic Ordnance Survey data.
One consequence of this for the traveller is the widespread use of Ordnance Survey grid references in guide books and other information sources. These are usually presented in the format of two capital letters followed by a 6 digit number (e.g., SU921206) and form a quick way of finding any location on a map. If using a GPS be sure to set it to the British National Grid (BNG) and the OSGB datum.
The Ordnance Survey's 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 scale maps are astonishingly detailed and show contour lines, public rights of way, and access land. For pursuits such as walking, they are practically indispensable, and in rural areas show individual farm buildings and (on the larger scale) field boundaries.
Another company, Harvey Maps, produces specialist maps for outdoor activities including walking, climbing and mountain biking. These are surveyed independently of OSGB although they use the same grid reference system. They cover only a selection of popular locations. They have some advantages over the OSGB maps: they are printed on waterproof material, they are scaled according to the requirements of the activity and location (up to 1:12500 for complex mountain areas), and they contain less distracting detail not relevant to the specific activities for which they are designed.
The UK is also covered by OpenStreetMap although coverage varies considerably.
Every postal address has a 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 which denotes about 30 delivery points. In built-up areas this will be part of a road and even a specific section or floor of a building on that road. Therefore, a postcode will identify a location to within a few tens of metres in urban locations; and adding a house number will usually identify a property uniquely (at road junctions two houses with the same number may share the same postcode). 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.
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 1300 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 old imperial system, from which the current United States customary units are derived (though note that 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 kilogramme and per pound).
However, road signs by and large continue to use the old imperial system. This means that 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 stones and pounds, and their height in feet if asked.
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.
The following 8 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.
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.
The United Kingdom is physically linked to two other countries. The Channel Tunnel connects the country to France via the undersea railway tunnel from the south of England, and Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland.
While the UK is a member of the European Union, it does not fully implement the Schengen Agreement, which means that travel to and from other EU countries (except Ireland) involves systematic passport / identity card checks at the border and separate visa requirements for several countries. 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 UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) 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 2016 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 Uzebekistan, 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.
- EU, EEA and Swiss citizens do not require a visa, and can enter with either a valid national identity card or passport. They have the right to reside and work in the UK (although some work restrictions apply to citizens of Croatia). Irish, Cypriot and Maltese citizens have additional rights, including being able to vote in and stand in UK Parliamentary elections.
- 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 a stamp with either the code "VST" or "STV" at passport control, 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.
- 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).
- All visitors aged 16 or above who are not EU, EEA or Swiss citizens (or their family members in possession of a residence permit/card which gives them the freedom of movement in the EU, EEA and Switzerland) nor Commonwealth citizens who have the right of abode in the UK must complete a landing card and present it at passport control, unless they are in direct transit to a destination outside the Common Travel Area (i.e., not to the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man or Ireland).
- Travellers subject to immigration control should expect to be asked by the immigration officer 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.
Like many other countries, the United Kingdom requires foreign visitors to be of good character. Until recently, character decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, although under new 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.
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. UKVI 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.
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 UKVI at arrival ports. Particularly stringent laws apply to the movement of animals, except from within the EU, where an animal passport system operates, providing proof of vaccination against rabies. The British Isles are rabies-free, and the government (and the people) want to keep it that way. Signs in several languages are displayed prominently at even the smallest of boat landings all around the coast.
Owing to the abolition in 1993 of customs duty on goods for personal use when travelling across EU borders, it has become popular among the British to bring back large quantities of alcohol and tobacco bought at lower tax rates in Continental Europe. However, the practice is open to abuse, with organised criminals trying to illegally import large amounts for the purposes of selling on at a profit. Customs laws are therefore strict for the importing of alcohol and tobacco for non-personal use and if a Customs officer thinks that the amount you are trying to bring into the country from the EU is excessive, particularly if in a commercial vehicle as opposed to a private car, you may be questioned further, or be asked to prove that it is for your own consumption, although ultimately an EU citizen is backed by the EU's free trade laws and allowed unlimited personal quantities. The fines can be severe, and you also run the risk of the goods (and the vehicle they are being transported in) being confiscated. Importing an excessive amount of alcohol in a private car is more likely to result in action being taken for overloading the vehicle, which is a police matter rather than a customs matter.
Most ports of entry that receive traffic from non-EU origins use the European Union's red/green/blue channel system. Ports of entry from EU origins are still manned by customs officers who take more of an interest in controlled substances (eg, illegal drugs) than alcohol or tobacco.
You must make a declaration if you are carrying more than €10,000 in cash or other negotiable instruments into or out of the EU. 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.
There are direct international flights to many other cities than just airports that include "London" in the name. (Recently, many airports in southern England have added "London" to their names. Be aware that just because an airport has London in its name doesn't necessarily mean that it is near to, or easily accessible from, London!)
KLM (now merged with Air France) has a large number of feeder flights from its international hub in Amsterdam Schiphol to almost every UK regional airport.
For a long time, Heathrow (LHR) has been the world's busiest international airport. Situated 15 miles (24 km) west of central London, Heathrow offers a large choice of international destinations, with direct flights from most countries in the world. British Airways has its hub at Heathrow and offers a wide range of international flights from Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. There are fewer direct flights from South America, although many South American airlines connect to London via Spain and/or the Americas. Other large airlines operating at Heathrow include Virgin Atlantic and the main national airlines of most countries. Heathrow is badly laid out from a passenger's perspective, invariably involves a lot of walking even if you don't get lost, and is comprised of 5 terminals. There are three different Tube stops — so do find out which one your friends will be arriving at before going to the airport!
Gatwick, 30 miles (50 km) south of London in Sussex, is the second-largest London airport, and also offers a wide range of international flights. Air-Asia X is a budget long-haul airline, which has been expanding at Gatwick recently. The North and South terminal are some distance from each other, so check first which one before arrival to avoid missing a flight if rushing or late.
is the most central airport in London, situated 7 miles east of Central London. It is easy to get to or Canary Wharf on the DLR line or via Black Cab. Due to the short runway and noise restrictions, the airport is restricted to small aircraft. As a result, service is more or less limited to UK domestic and Western European destinations — primarily financial centres such as Frankfurt, Madrid, Paris, Zurich, etc. British Airways does offer two daily all business class returns between New York–JFK and London City on a specially configured Airbus A318.
Stansted in Essex is the third busiest UK airport in a very swanky modern terminal designed by Norman Foster. It is the largest hub for the budget airlines Ryanair and also easyJet who offer direct flights to a wide range of European and North African destinations as well as to Asia. It's often cheaper to fly here but bear in mind it is about 40 miles (60 km) outside central London so always factor in extra travelling time. There is an express train service from Liverpool St, which takes 45–50 minutes, but easyBus is a cheaper (if longer, 2 hour) option.
in Bedfordshire is a major hub for easyJet and, to a lesser extent, Ryanair. Luton can offer much cheaper flights then Heathrow or Gatwick, with other airlines such as Thomsons and WizzAir having over 10 destinations each too. Most flights are within the EU, though some Near Eastern routes are served, such as Tel Aviv, Egypt and Dubai. Luton is not as far out as Stansted and it is possible to take cheap suburban (First Capital Connect) trains from its Parkway Airport station to London terminals.
in Essex is 55 mins by train from London Liverpool Street station (a station on this line is next door to the terminal building) and 44 minutes from London Stratford station. It serves as a hub for easyJet, Aer Arann and Jet2.com.
Major airports outside of the London area
- Manchester Airport in the North of England is the UK's largest airport outside London, serving many European and a reasonable number of long-haul destinations. This could be a more convenient arrival airport for visitors to North Wales, the North of England and Scotland - especially as it has a fully integrated main-line rail station.
- Birmingham International is one of the UK's largest airports outside of London. The airport has good European services and some long haul services to far flung places. The airport is served by the major European flag carriers providing global hub connections, as well as LCC's such as Ryanair and Easyjet. It is an ideal gateway to Central England and Wales. Birmingham Airport also has a direct train route to London Euston (journey times approximately 75 minutes on the fastest trains) and is a hub for the low cost airline FlyBe.
- Liverpool John Lennon Airport, in North West England, is the UK's fastest-growing airport and is taking on more and more flights. Blackpool has an international airport nearby offering a lot of package-holiday flights.
- Newcastle International Airport is the only airport in the North East of England offering a daily service to and from Dubai, with connecting flights into Australia and the far east, it is also a hub for easyJet, Thomson, Thomas Cook and Jet2.com, with flights available to over 100 destinations.
Smaller regional airports include:
- Bristol, East Midlands, Exeter, Robin Hood, Carlisle, Leeds Bradford and Durham Tees Valley all have cheap flights from mainland Europe with Ryanair, Jet2, easyJet and Flybe.
- Southampton and Bournemouth Airports are medium-sized, though they have bargain-price flights with Ryanair and Flybe and can be accessed by rail from London Waterloo station.
- Norwich has a busy route from Amsterdam, as well as Flybe flights across the UK.
- Humberside has daily flights from Amsterdam, and a busy service from the North Sea oil rigs.
- Newquay Cornwall Airport has a fluctuating number of flights in recent years, mainly due to a £5 'development fee' introduced in 2006, but is ideal for beating the traffic jams down to this beautiful part of Britain.
- In the South-east there is London Ashford Airport, also known as Lydd Airport has rather seasonal, limited services as does Oxford Airport.
In Scotland, the major airports with links to London and abroad are:
- Edinburgh (Scotland's busiest airport, with a wide variety of European and North American routes)
- Glasgow has two airports: Glasgow Airport (for most major airlines) and Glasgow Prestwick (for Ryanair and some low-cost flights)
- Both the Orkney and Shetland Isles' airports have links to Scandinavia besides domestic flights in the UK.
Cardiff International, the only international airport in Wales, is a major hub of Flybe and Thomas Cook, which has a few long-haul flights, such as from Barbados. Anglesey Airport is the only other noteworthy airport of Wales, which has one flight a day from the Isle of Man and Cardiff.
In Northern Ireland, Belfast International Airport and George Best City Airport both serve the province's capital. Belfast International has several North American long-haul flights, while Belfast City is very conveniently situated 12 minutes from the city centre by local bus.
If you are flying long-haul (over 2000 miles) directly from Northern Ireland, you can save considerable money, as there isa provincial exemption from the long-haul rates of Air Passenger Duty (tax).
City of Derry Airport serves the northwest with a limited number of international and domestic flights.
Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey all have their own respective airports, with well-serviced flights from around the UK, as well as from France and further afield. Flying is probably more convenient than ferry to these islands.
Due to an increase in airport security and aviation security in general, long delays are possible when checking in for a flight. Additionally a passport or valid photo ID (such as photo driver's licence, national ID card, etc.) is required for domestic flights.
From Belgium and France
Eurostar operates regular high-speed trains to London (St Pancras International), Ebbsfleet and Ashford through the Channel Tunnel from Avignon (TGV), Brussels (Zuid-Midi), Calais (Fréthun), Lille (Europe), Lyon (Part-Dieu), Marseille (Saint Charles), and of course Paris (Gare du Nord). There are also less-frequent services from Marne-la-Vallée Chessy (Disneyland Paris) and, in winter, the French Alps, 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 from London to Paris using a low-cost airline, bear in mind that the journeys to the airports can be expensive and time-consuming.
Passengers travelling by Eurostar to the UK from Paris (Gare du Nord), Lille (Europe), Calais (Fréthun) and Brussels (Zuid-Midi) stations undergo UK passport/identity card checks in France/Belgium before boarding, rather than on arrival in the UK. Passengers from all other destinations go through security checks in Lille. 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.
From The Netherlands
Combined train and ferry tickets are available to travellers from stations in the Netherlands to train stations in East Anglia, Essex and East London. This service may be a useful alternative to Eurostar for travellers from Northern Europe, or for those wishing to travel to East Anglia. 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. The Dutch Flyer website gives prices only for tickets purchased in Great Britain; it does, however, give timetable information. Stena's Dutch language website allows booking of tickets for journeys starting from the Netherlands.
From the Republic of Ireland
Cross-border rail services to Northern Ireland
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. Virgin Trains may be offering advance-purchase tickets from London to Dublin from £32 return, although these are hard to obtain and possible only for journeys starting in Great Britain.
The Channel Tunnel has provided a rail/road connection since 1994. Shuttle trains operated by Eurotunnel carry cars from Calais, France to Folkestone, Kent, the journey taking around 40 minutes. Fares start at £49 one way and can be booked online. On arrival at Folkestone, you can drive on to the M20 motorway which heads towards London and the rest of the UK's national road network. Passengers travelling from France to the UK undergo UK passport/identity card and customs checks in Calais after the French exit checks before departure, rather than on arrival in the UK.
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 even major roads tend not to 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 it's advisable to 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 the UK and Ireland. 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 to/from other major European cities. Taking a budget flight is normally cheaper (but with a greater environmental impact), and spares you a potentially very long bus journey.
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 British Mainland.
There are a large number of ferry routes into the UK from continental Europe. Newcastle serves a route from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Harwich has ferries from Esbjerg in Denmark and Hoek van 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 Ramsgate and Oostende in Belgium. There are 4 sailings a day and prices vary between €50 to €84.
Dover is one of the UK's most popular passenger ports with sailings from Zeebrugge, Dunkerque 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 Dover and Calais costs around £12-18 each way if on foot or bicycle, and around £80 for a car, although big discounts are available if booked in advance or with special offers. Passengers travelling from Calais or Dunkerque by ferry to the UK go through UK immigration control after French exit checks and before boarding; UK customs checks are still after arrival in the UK.
On the south coast, Portsmouth serves ferries from Le Havre, Caen, Cherbourg, St. Malo and Bilbao in Spain and there are speedy services between Dieppe and Newhaven. The other route from Spain is Santander to Plymouth, Plymouth also has ferries from Roscoff, Poole has ferries to Cherbourg as well as the Channel Islands.
Other ships operate from various ports across the world — the RMS St Helena runs from Ascension Island, Saint Helena, Walvis Bay and Cape Town to Portland (near Weymouth) twice a year and Grimaldi Lines operate a service carrying cars and passengers from Buenos Aires about once every 9 days.
Bicycles may be taken on the car ferries, or on the Channel Tunnel 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.
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. The arrival of budget airlines Ryanair and easyJet has caused a boom in domestic UK air travel, and have forced fares down considerably. To get the best fare, it is advisable to book as far in advance as possible. 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. Check your airline's requirements carefully before setting out.
'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.
The following carriers offer domestic flights within the United Kingdom:
- British Airways: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Jersey, London Gatwick, Heathrow and City Airports, Manchester, Newcastle.
- FlyBE - Aberdeen, Belfast City, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster-Sheffield, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Guernsey, Inverness, Isle Of Man, Jersey, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, London Gatwick, Manchester, Manston-Kent, Newcastle, Newquay, Norwich, Southampton and Southend airports
- Loganair operating as a franchise carrier for FlyBe - Eday, Kirkwall, North Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, Westray airports.
- bmi & bmi Regional - Aberdeen, Belfast City, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Jersey, London Heathrow, Manchester, Norwich, Southampton airports.
- Eastern Airways - Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, Humberside, Inverness, Isle Of Man, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham East Midlands, Southampton, Stornoway, Wick airports.
- easyJet - Aberdeen, Belfast International, Bournemouth, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Liverpool, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, London Southend and Newcastle airports.
- Ryanair - Aberdeen, Bournemouth, Glasgow-Prestwick, Inverness, Liverpool, London Stansted, City of Derry, Newquay, Nottingham East Midlands airports.
- Aurigny Air Services - Alderney, Bristol, Guernsey, Jersey, London Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester, Southampton airports.
- Blue Islands - Alderney, Bournemouth, Brighton, Cardiff, Guernsey, Isle Of Man, Jersey, Southampton airports.
- Manx2 - Belfast City, Isle Of Man, Blackpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Oxford, Anglesey, Cardiff, Gloucester airports.
- Isles Of Scilly Skybus - Bristol, Exeter, Isles Of Scilly (St. Mary's), Newquay, Southampton airports.
- Jet2 - Belfast International, Blackpool, Leeds/Bradford, London Gatwick, Newcastle airports.
- CityJet (now part of AF/KLM) - Dundee, Edinburgh, Jersey, London City, Manchester airports.
- British International - Isles Of Scilly (St. Mary's), Isles Of Scilly (Tresco), Penzance airports.
- Atlantic Airways Faroe Islands - Stansted and Shetland Islands (Sumburgh) airports.
- Blue Islands Airline - Flights from Guernsey, Jersey, Southampton to Europe, Channel Islands and the UK.
See also: Rail travel in the United Kingdom
The UK operates two railway networks. In England, Scotland and Wales the extensive National Rail network covers some 34,000 km (21,000 miles) covering most of Great Britain, from Penzance in Cornwall to Thurso in the far north of Scotland and including over 2,600 stations. Train travel is very popular in the UK, with many services busy and passenger numbers rising steadily every year. A mixed system is operated, with infrastructure being state-owned while commercial franchises operate trains, to a destination and service pattern specified by the government.
In Northern Ireland there is a state-owned system called Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) which is separate and uses a different track gauge (the Irish gauge). For more details on rail travel in Northern Ireland, see Rail travel in Ireland; the remainder of this section will focus on rail travel in England, Scotland and Wales (i.e. the island of Great Britain).
While criticised by some as inefficient and there are issues such as overcrowding at peak times, the train is an effective and enjoyable way to explore Britain and get around places of interest. It is also by far the best option for inter-city travel, with most inter-city trains travelling at 200 km/h (125 mph) and stations in most cities and towns being in the city-centre. Regional services travel up to 160 km/h (100 mph). While this means that services are not as fast as the high-speed lines of France, Germany or Japan, there is a relatively high standard of service on both main and secondary routes.
In recent years the privatised system has been accused of many failings and there are frequent calls to re-nationalise the entire network, but today most train companies offer a good service, particularly on inter-city and mainline routes, though punctuality varies considerably. Despite the large number of companies, for the traveller the experience is remarkably well-integrated. Tickets can be bought from any one station to any other in Great Britain, no matter how far away, how many train companies or changes of train are needed to get there. However, you’ll find tickets cost less the further in advance you book – if you buy a ticket at the station on the day of travel, fares can be shockingly high (and surprisingly low if you book a few weeks in advance).
The track, stations and infrastructure (with the exception of preserved railways) belongs to the state-owned Network Rail. Trains are operated by privately-owned and commercially run Train operating companies (TOCs), although currently one company (East Coast) is state-owned but operated commercially. The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) represents all the passenger train companies, and brands them collectively as National Rail including using the iconic double-arrow which is displayed prominently at all stations.
Passenger rail companies
The National Rail network of passenger operating companies consist of:
Planning your trip
The essential source for rail travel information in Great Britain is the National Rail website. It includes all timetables, an extremely useful journey planner (which is by far the easiest way to plan a journey), 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 0845 748 49 50 (premium rate from mobile phones).
However, National Rail do not sell tickets. You buy tickets from a station ticket office, from an automated ticket machine at a station, or (as British people increasingly do) over the internet. All train companies sell tickets for all services in Great Britain regardless of which company operates them, and the central ticketing means you 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.
You can buy tickets directly from the operator (for no additional fee) or through this independent website:
- thetrainline.com is one of the largest UK train ticketing websites, and the oldest and best-known. Thetrainline.com provides the ticketing software to the websites of many of the train operating companies. Be warned that it charges a card handling fee and an additional fee to collect your tickets from a station or to have them posted to you.
With either method, you can choose to have the tickets mailed to you, or to collect them at any automated ticket machine at a station you specify when booking:
Classes of travel
Two classes operate: standard class and 1st class. Some commuter trains and local services offer standard class only.
- Standard class has two seats either side of the aisle with a mix of 'facing table' or more private 'airline-style' seats.
- First class has two seats and one seat either side of the aisle, with a larger, more comfortable seat, more legroom, and on inter-city routes, an at-seat service of drinks, refreshments and a newspaper (not all at-seat services are available at the weekend).
In both 1st and standard class, most trains also provide:
- Free seat reservations (not commuter or local services), indicated by a paper tag or electronic display above each seat
- A walk-up buffet, or a trolley service of drinks and refreshments moving through the train
- Air conditioning (not commuter or local services)
- At least one carriage with a fully disabled-accessible toilet and baby changing facilities
- On inter-city services, a wireless internet service (a charge may apply)
- Most inter-city trains provide a "Quiet Coach" where use of mobile phones, iPods, conversations, and any other noise is not permitted.
There are also six scheduled overnight sleeper trains that operate every night of the week except Saturday:
- The Lowland Sleeper, which leaves from London Euston as one train, but divides to Glasgow, Edinburgh
- The Highland Sleeper, which leaves from London Euston as one train, but divides to Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness.
- The Night Riviera, which travels from London Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance
Reservations are compulsory on sleeper trains, and a supplement may be payable on top of day-train ticket prices to reserve a berth. Advance-purchase tickets called Bargain Berths are available on London-Scotland sleepers from £19 to £49. They are only available from the ScotRail website. All sleeper trains offer:
- Reclining seated accommodation (comparable to daytime first class but no at-seat service)
- Standard Class (a cabin with two berths; solo travellers will often need to share with a stranger of the same sex)
- First Class (a identical cabin but with a single berth and more generous breakfast, toiletry pack and access to departure and arrival lounges at larger stations)
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.
On all except local and commuter routes and the new High Speed 1 from London St. Pancras to Kent, you save money by booking in advance (tickets normally go on sale three months in advance) and by travelling at off-peak times; peak train travel is much more expensive and stressful as many trains are seriously overcrowded with commuters. Off-peak is any time after 09.30 on a weekday, and all weekends and public holidays. Some train companies around London also have a peak in the afternoon rush hour. You must have a ticket before boarding a train, and many stations now have subway-style ticket barriers. An exception occurs if your station has no ticket office OR machine (i.e. it is a very minor or rural station) in which case you must buy a ticket from the conductor on the train at the first opportunity. If you do not, depending on the operator and their policy, you may be liable to pay a 'penalty fare'.
There are three types of ticket, which allow you to choose between flexibility and value. In increasing order of cost per mile, tickets are classed as:
- Advance - Buy in advance, travel only on a specific train at a specific day and time
- Off-Peak - Buy any time, travel 'off-peak' (usually after 09.30 and all day at weekends)
- Anytime - Buy any time, travel any time
Advance tickets are only sold as single (one-way) tickets; to make a return journey, simply purchase two singles. With the exception of some suburban and commuter trains, the cheapest fares are almost always Advance tickets. These are released for sale in limited numbers approximately 12 weeks in advance, and can only be used on the train specified on the reservation. If you travel on any other train or the wrong train, you will be charged an expensive full-price ticket or a penalty fare or else thrown off at the next station. When purchasing an off-peak or anytime ticket, return fares are normally only a little more expensive than a single (one-way ticket).
A ticket does not guarantee a seat unless you also have a seat reservation. Depending on ticket type and train company, this may come automatically with the ticket or you may be asked if you wish to reserve a seat - ask if you are unsure. Some trains (mostly 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. Seat reservations are normally free. 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 - this is cheaper than buying paper Anytime tickets at the station, but only if you don't intend to travel beyond Zone 6. If you stay on the train beyond Zone 6, you are liable for a wallet-shocking penalty fare.
Discounts are available for:
- Children - up to the age of 15
- Small Groups – of between 3 and 9 people
- Large Groups – 10 or more people
- Railcards – discount cards valid for one year for certain groups
- Regional Railcards – offering discounts within a specific region
See Rail travel in the United Kingdom for full details.
There are two principal types of rail pass available to visitors to the UK which permit inclusive rail travel throughout the UK. Supplements are normally payable for Eurostar and sleeper trains.
- InterRail and Eurail are passes for EU and non-EU citizens respectively. See European rail passes for more information. Eurail passes are generally not valid for any part of the UK except Northern Ireland, however.
- Britrail is primarily targeted at visitors from the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and must be purchased on-line or in your home nation before you depart for the UK.
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: 7 or 14 Days - These allow 7 or 14 days travel on almost all scheduled rail services throughout England, Scotland and Wales. As of May 2012, they cost £450 (7 days)or £680 (14 days) for standard class, and £680 (7 days) or £1040 (14 days) for 1st class, with discounts for children and railcard holders.
- Freedom of Scotland Travelpass: 4 days in 8 or 8 days in 15 cost £129 and £173 respectively, with discounts for children and Railcard holders.
Steam trains and preserved railways
These are enjoyed for their own sake at least as much as they are used as a means of transport. Many areas have a volunteer-run railway using steam traction - especially during the summer months. 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.
- See also: Driving in the UK
Unlike much of Europe, the UK drives on the left-hand side. 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. Always compare the prices before renting car, or you can book online in advance for good deals from site like Avis,Rental Cars Uk,Thrifty, Practical.
A car will get you pretty much anywhere in the UK. Parking is a problem in large cities, and especially in London, 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, currently at around £1.34 per litre. Fuel is available at dedicated 'petrol stations' such as Esso, Shell and BP along major roads. Supermarket branches of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons and Asda often have 'petrol stations' in their car parks which are often cheaper than the big name brands.
Like in the US, but unlike the rest of the world, the UK continues to use the imperial system for road signs and speed limits are indicated in miles per hour (mph). However, many height and width signs are now in metric as well and all weight signs are in tonnes; all motorways now have locator indicators in kilometres. If you are bringing your car in from the Republic of Ireland or from Continental Europe, then be sure to know the conversions from metric to imperial units (1 mile is about 1.6km).
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 £8 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. School holidays can make a noticeable reduction in traffic, particularly in the morning rush hour.
The M25 London orbital motorway is notorious for having bad traffic (known to most Londoners as London's car park because sometimes all the traffic comes to a standstill) - it is best avoided on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, use it only if you need to, and take local advice if you plan to drive to Heathrow to catch a plane. The M6 through Birmingham is another traffic blackspot as well as the M8 in Glasgow (the second most congested motorway after the M25). You can typically bet on finding a traffic jam if you drive for more than 90 minutes on the motorway system, especially as you approach cities. Checking local traffic reports on the radio or websites such as Highways Agency or 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, and you should consider using them. In major cities (particularly Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham) it is usually a much better option to park on the outskirts and take public transport to the centre. This not only saves money on parking and fuel but also saves a lot of time as heavy traffic, baffling one way systems, and limited parking space cause long delays. 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.
On-street parking is usually heavily restricted. Never park on a white, double yellow or double red line. Stopping on white or red lines is illegal. Parking on a single yellow line is restricted (typically no parking during the daytime e.g. 07:00-19:00) and the restrictions are displayed on roadside yellow signs. Many residential streets require a residents' parking permit to park on the street, although outer suburbs have fewer restrictions. On-street parking in cities may be restricted to disability badge holders or be heavily metered, and is often for no more than a 1–2 hour stay in the daytime but can be free at night. Surface car parks generally operate the pay and display payment system - you must buy a ticket from a vending machine, select how many hours you wish to pay and then place the ticket on your dashboard in clear view - these places are regularly patrolled and if you don't return to your car before the allotted time you'll get a penalty or get wheel-clamped. Often you'll need to enter the numeric digits from your car's number plate when buying the ticket to prevent people from 'selling on' tickets with leftover time. In larger towns and cities, there are also multi-storey and underground car parks. Most have barrier controls - you'll be issued with a ticket upon entry. When returning to your vehicle you must either pay at a 'pay station' (a self-service terminal inside the car park's lobby) in which you insert the ticket and pay the required amount - the ticket will be given back to you and you must insert it into the slot at the exit barrier; or alternatively you will pay a cashier at the exit barrier - it'll normally explain the payment process on the ticket. Parking charges vary from less than 50p per hour in small towns to over £4 an hour in the largest cities. Many larger cities have digital displays on the approach roads indicating how many parking spaces are available in each car park.
In any town, expect regular bus services between the centre, suburbs and nearby villages, and less frequent services to more rural areas. London also has the largest mass-transit system in the world - the London Underground and an extensive overground system and bus network too. London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham and Blackpool have trams covering parts of those cities. Outside of London, Liverpool has the most extensive metro system (Merseyrail), spanning from several stations in the city centre to those in the outer suburbs. Newcastle has a similar network (Tyne & Wear Metro). Greater Manchester also has an extensive local train network in addition to its expanding 'Metrolink' tram system. Glasgow has a small underground rail system (known as the "Subway") in the centre and a local train network. In some cities buses can be slow moving due to traffic congestion.
The UK has a comprehensive system of road numbers. These generally take precedence on signs: British roads are signed on a route-based rather than destination oriented basis. Therefore, before setting out on a long journey, plan the route you are going to take and note the road numbers you will need to follow. It is very unusual to see destinations, signed more than about 50 miles (80 km) in advance. Other than that, UK road signs are excellent and should be very easy to follow. Road numbers are indicated by a letter and a number.
Motorways (prefix 'M'- blue signs, white route numbers) are fast, long distance routes that connect the major cities. The speed limit is 70 mph (115km/h) for cars (lower for other types of vehicle) and certain vehicles, such as pedestrians, cyclists and those operated by learner drivers are prohibited. Junctions are numbered. The motorways are the best means of travelling long distances by car, but expect delays at peak times or in poor weather.
Primary roads (prefix 'A' - green signs, yellow route numbers) connect large towns with each other and with the motorway network. Primary roads usually offer fast journey times, but because they tend to go through towns rather than around them, expect delays at peak times.
Secondary roads (prefix 'A' - white signs, black route numbers) connect smaller towns, interchangeable with B roads.
B-roads (prefix 'B' - white signs, black route numbers) are the larger of the back roads.
Minor roads (white signs, usually no route number) like country lanes or residential streets.
A road number followed by (M) means upgraded to motorway standard - for example A3(M) means part of the A3 has been upgraded to motorway standard.
A road number in brackets means 'leading to' - for example A507 (M1) means you can reach the M1 by following the A507.
Speed limits for cars and motorcycles are 70 mph (115 km/h) on motorways and dual carriageways (highways divided by a grassy area or other hard barrier between opposing directions of traffic); 60 mph (100 km/h) on single carriageways (undivided roads) unless otherwise signposted; and 30 mph (50km/h) in built-up unless signs show otherwise. The use of 20 mph (30 km/h) zones has become increasingly common to improve safety in areas such as those around schools. Although national limits still apply to minor roads and back lanes, driving for the conditions is strongly recommended.
Speed cameras are widespread on all types of road, though more used in some areas than others (England's largest county, North Yorkshire, for example, has a policy of using no fixed enforcement cameras on its highways). Static cameras are often well signed, painted bright colours with clear markings on the road. While this might seem rather strange, the idea is to improve their public acceptance as a 'safety' measure (rather than the widely held opinion that they're there to collect money).
There are some variable mandatory speed limits on the M25 to the west of London (enforced by cameras, again), and the M42 near Birmingham - these are shown on overhead gantries inside a red circle; other temporary speed limits shown on matrix boards are recommended but not mandatory. Apart from these and around roadworks, the motorways are generally free of fixed speed cameras. Speeds on motorways are generally much higher than the stated speed limit (usually at least 80 mph (130 km/h). Driving at slower speeds in the outside (overtaking lane) may cause frustration to other drivers.
Driving standards are relatively well-maintained in the UK, with the road system being (statistically) among the safest in Europe. It has long been known by visitors that a foreign licence plate makes you largely immune from speed cameras, congestion charge cameras and Traffic (Parking) Wardens. If you choose to take your chances, be aware you may just hit upon the one Camera Operator/Warden who can be bothered to take the trouble to track down your address from your home licensing authority. British authorities have access to vehicle registration databases from various other countries. 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 80mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%), police in the UK have been known to 'pull' drivers who are technically below this, especially if their driving is erratic or dangerous. Going 'over the limit' is a criminal offence; you will be arrested and spend a night in the cells. The police often patrol roads in cities and town centres on Friday and Saturday night, on the lookout for drink drivers. Enforcement of drink driving laws are extremely strict and police will always take action on those failing a breath test or those refusing to take one. Fines are up to £5,000; the minimum driving ban is 12 months for a first offence. As well as a 6 months prison sentence for being over the limit, additional penalties may be imposed if the driving was dangerous.
Drivers from abroad should take note that many British drivers regard the flashing of headlights as a signal that they can proceed, rather than as a warning, or as a signal to slow down due to the presence of police. This misunderstanding has led to a number of collisions.
In a dangerous situation, where there is a risk of death or injury, sound your horn, even during the night. The inappropriate use of the horn is illegal between 23:00 and 07:30, or when stationary.
It is also an offence to use your mobile phone or any other handheld device whilst driving, although provision is made for the use of hands-free telephone equipment which is exempt from the law. Police will stop you for using your mobile phone and a £60 penalty will be issued on the spot. This fine will be accompanied with 3 points endorsed on your licence.
All vehicle occupants are required by law to wear a seat belt. Persons not wearing a seat belt may receive a £30 fine, although this does not come with any points. If a child under the age of 14 is not correctly restrained, the parent or guardian, normally the driver, is responsible and a fine will be issued for that offence also. Children under 1.4 m and under 12 years of age are also legally required to use a child booster seat for safety reasons. It is illegal to put a rear-facing baby seat on the front seat with an active airbag. If possible, babies should always have their seats installed in the rear of the car. If there is so much cargo that a baby seat has to be put on the front seat, the passenger front airbag should be turned off. Turn it on again if you carry an adult passenger in the front seat afterwards.
Use of fog lights where there is no fog is also an offence for which you may receive a £30 fine.
The road rules differ from other countries: side roads never have priority, there is no requirement to stop for school buses, overtaking on the left is illegal, and you may not turn left over a red light. There are no 4 way stop junctions in the UK; priority should be clearly marked on the road.
There are lots of roundabouts across the UK, from large multi-lane roundabouts at dual carriageway junctions to small mini-roundabouts on local streets. The rules for entering them are the same - you have priority over traffic that has not yet entered it, and you must give way to anybody already on the roundabout (who would collide with your right side if you entered it). Be careful of multi-lane roundabouts, there are complicated rules for which lane you should be in which UK drivers learn and expect other drivers to follow. You should be fine provided you're cautious and keep an eye on other traffic.
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 flying / driving and staying in hostels and bed and breakfasts.
Smaller campers are ideal for parking and enjoying the narrow lanes in the UK.
Some country pubs may let you use their parking lots for overnight stays if you ask.
By bus and coach
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. Rural bus services are in general better than in France and the USA, but not as good as in Italy or Germany. 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. All buses in the UK are required to display the route number and destination clearly on the front. 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.
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. Comprehensive route maps are available from a variety of outlets and the Transport for London website, and stop-specific maps and timetables are displayed clearly at most bus stops. Buses are modern and highly specified, and are "low floor" offering easy access for wheelchairs, buggies and the elderly. Walk-up cash fares can be relatively expensive, but all-day and longer period tickets (including combined bus, rail and tube options) are available, offering excellent value. For travelling in London, the Transport for London website is an incredibly useful website with a journey planner with maps, all fares, information on planned engineering works (there are plenty of those on the weekend) as well as live updates. It is an indispensable tool if considering even minor trips on public transport, which is an experience in itself.
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 often not inter-available. 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. Weekday daytime services are frequent and comprehensive in many areas, particularly larger towns and cities. 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.
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 bus service 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 (sometimes £8 London-Manchester 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.
There are two types of 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.
Black Cabs These are useful for travelling within cities - the name originates from the old 1960s purpose-built Austin FX3 taxis which were originally painted black, but today are usually covered in advertisements. In major cities, custom-built vehicles which seat 5 people are commonly used as metered taxis, but in smaller cities regular cars or people-carriers are used instead. These taxis can be hailed on the street or picked up from a taxi rank (usually found near major shopping areas and transport hubs). The rate varies, typically starting at around £2-3 and rising at around £1 a mile, making them fairly expensive. 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. A short 10 minute trip would normally cost between £3-5. The 'Taxi' sign on the roof is illuminated when a taxi is available.
Minicabs More common in suburbs and smaller towns, minicabs can only be used by telephone ordering and charge fixed prices to different destinations. 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, fares for long journeys can often be negotiated (although you should agree the fare with the phone operator when booking, not with the driver) and most companies have a variety of vehicle sizes from small saloons (Ford Mondeo, Skoda Octavia, Peugeot 406 etc.) up to large 12-seater minivans so if you have a large group you can specify the vehicle size. Some minicab firms specialise in serving airports and offer discounted rates.
Fake taxis Fake taxis are not a major problem and are mostly found around the major airports. 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 council. The driver's taxi licence should be displayed on the dashboard. The meter displays the correct rate; the metered fares are usually advertised on the side of the taxi. 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 (particularly in airports or nightlife districts), ask them to confirm your name and phone number - if they don't know then it is most likely that they are fake. Most local councils require licensed taxis to be newer than 10 or 15 years old. Many fake taxis use older vehicles.
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 and the Orkneys and Shetland Islands from Aberdeen and the far north of Scotland. There are also numerous car and passenger ferry routes between England and France and between Ireland and the UK. There are also regular ferry services between Northern Ireland and Scotland and these depart Larne, Belfast, Troon, Stranraer and Cairnryan. There are also routes from Northern Ireland to Birkenhead and Fleetwood (both near Liverpool in England).
Pedestrians are banned on motorways, motorway junctions, as well as on certain primary routes. However, aside from those exceptions, hitchhiking is not illegal. The British are very aware of safety, and you may expect a long wait for a ride.
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.
Note that traffic in more remote areas of Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall can be quite scarce.
The UK can be both a cyclist's dream and nightmare. Fortunately cycling is popular as both a sport and a means of transportation. Bike rental exists in some cities e.g. Cambridge or Oxford and in some scenic areas.
The Barclays Cycle Hire scheme provides a network of approximately 8,000 bicycles and 570 docking stations across central London, covering an area from White City in the west to Docklands in the east. The scheme is available to walk-up users and charges a daily fee (currently £1, paid by credit or debit card) and, for journeys exceeding 30 minutes, a per-use fee is also charged. Between journeys, users are expected to return their bicycle to a docking station, taking another bicycle for subsequent journeys; the bicycles do not have locks, and journeys of under 30 minutes do not incur a per-use fee. It can be difficult to find bicycles (or spaces at docking stations, in the evenings) at the major rail termini during peak hours, as the scheme is popular with commuters. As well as on each docking station, cycle/dock availability and maps are available online. Should your intended docking station be full, you can request up to 15 minutes additional time free of charge.
The wheels of choice for most British cyclists is the hybrid bike - they have the comfort and practicality of a city bike combined with the performance (multi-speed gearing) and ruggedness of a mountain bike. Conventional mountain bikes and single-speed roadsters are also common, and folding bikes are becoming more popular in major cities. Bicycles are expensive in the UK - expect to pay £100 or more for a basic model. They are sold by individual manufacturer's dealers (e.g. Dawes, Raleigh, Giant), automobile product stores (e.g. Halfords), sport accessory stores (e.g. Decathlon) and through private bicycle retailers. Cheaper used bikes can be purchased online via websites such as eBay or may be advertised in newspapers, on notice-boards etc.
Urban cycling varies city-to-city. Most cities have designated cycle-lanes although they are routinely ignored by drivers and are often shared with buses, motorcycles and taxis. Some major roads will have split-pavements for pedestrians and cyclists, whilst other times cyclists are expected to ride in the traffic. This can be dangerous if you're not a skilled cyclist and general traffic rules should be adhered to. It is advisable to wear a helmet, despite helmets not being required by law for cyclists of any age. It's a legal requirement to have a rear reflector, pedal reflectors and a bell, and front & rear lights must be used at night. Also many cyclists use standard arm-signals to alert motorists - if you are turning left or right you should raise your left or right arm respectively, and if you wish to stop then you should wave your left arm up and down. Cycling is banned on certain roads - all motorways and many primary (A) roads - a sign will indicate this. It is illegal to cycle on the pavement. This is punishable by a fine of up to £500.
Most cities will have designated bike-parking areas with bicycle racks and are almost always free. Carry a good lock with you as bike-theft is common. Bicycles are permitted on SOME trains, depending on the operator. Commuter trains generally allow folding bicycles only, some regional trains may have a rack that can carry 2-3 bicycles, while many intercity trains have a baggage car that can hold many bikes. Check with the operator before-hand - bikes will almost always require a reservation: on some trains for free, some for a small charge (typically half the adult fare) whilst others will require a full-fare ticket. Reservations can be made over the phone (via National Rail or via the train operator), or at the station ticket office. Long-distance coaches also allow bicycles, although again they must be reserved and there may be a surcharge. Local city buses and regional buses don't allow full-size bikes but some operators may permit folding bicycles - you should check before hand. If a bus is quiet then it's often down to the driver's discretion. Rapid transit systems also have varying bicycle policies e.g. London Underground allows folding bicycles at all times and conventional bicycles outside of peak hours as long as the train isn't crowded.
The SUSTRANS Cycle Network is a series 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.
Motorcycling is not a bad form of transport. It is 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 motorcyclists 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 motorbike helmet that is CE marked. It must be fastened securely. The only exemption to this law is for Sikh men, whose religion requires them to wear a turban - they would have to remove the turban to put on the helmet. If you wear eye protection (visor on helmet or motorbike goggles), which is recommended, the visor or goggles must be kitemarked. You should consider buying a helmet with ear defenders. It is advisable to wear motorbike boots and gloves, and also a leather jacket and leather trousers or jeans, as they can also prevent serious injuries in a crash.
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.
You must not carry a pillion passenger or take your motorbike onto a motorway until you get a full licence. To get a motorbike licence, you must take and pass a test and be at least 17 years old.
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.
"Two countries divided by a common language"
Speakers of American English will find some terms which differ in British English:
Please see the article American and British English 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 several accents and dialects, some of which may contain words which are unfamiliar to other English speakers. It is exceedingly common for a resident of the south and one of the north not to understand each other at first go; do not be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves. Your best bet would be to ask someone under the age of 30 as older people may have thicker regional accents. To illustrate the variety of accents available, it is easy to distinguish the English spoken by someone from Northern Ireland as opposed to someone from the Republic of Ireland, or even pinpoint their origin to a particular town within a county, such as Leeds or Whitby (both in Yorkshire, England). 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 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)
- Downing Street - used to refer to the Government (similar to White House referring to the President of the United States)
- 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)
- 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, or 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, as they differ markedly in syntax and vocabulary, and also use a one-handed manual alphabet.
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 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!
Irish (Gaeilge) is spoken in some areas of Northern Ireland, particularly in the border regions.
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) in various 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 standard 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.
British students often study a European language in school although they tend not to learn past basic levels. As a general rule people in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will only speak English.
Many neighbourhoods in larger cities will have migrant communities speaking various languages from around the globe, including Turkish, Polish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Punjabi, Cantonese and many others.
From Land's End in the south to John O’Groats and Duncansby Head in the North, there is so much to see in the United Kingdom, which is home to 25 UNESCO world heritage sites. 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 . There is far more to do than just talking about the rain and seeing whether the Queen is at home at Buckingham Palace.
London – As Samuel Johnson once wrote, "a man who is tired of London 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 galleries such as the National Gallery and 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 the re-created home of Shakespeare in the capital, 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 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 14 National Parks in total spread across England, Scotland and Wales (9 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.
History– 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 cousins 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 the treasures of which can now be seen at the British Museum. 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.
History – 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 among others. This period also saw the construction of wonderful Gothic cathedrals, the finest of which can be found at Canterbury, Norwich, Lincoln, Durham and York. 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, great castles were built at Stirling and Edinburgh.
As political stability grew and peasants' revolts, black death and a 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. 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.
History 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 industrial revolution brought about a huge increase in the population, a migration towards the 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 and the coal mines of South Wales. Other Victorian treats include London St Pancras railway station, The Houses of Parliament, the Royal Albert Hall, Tower Bridge, Forth Bridge near Edinburgh and the town halls of Glasgow and Manchester.
Modern UK – 20th and 21st Centuries
The early 20th century was the heyday of the British seaside resort, with towns like Blackpool seeing millions of visitors to their beaches, theatres and entertainment every year. In Liverpool the two great cathedrals of the 20th century dominate the skyline, and there are other modern treatsː the glass domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Angel of the North outside Newcastle and the new Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
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. There are shrines to all these sports around the UK: Wembley, Old Trafford, Anfield, Hampden Park for football, Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium (in Cardiff) and Murrayfield (in Edinburgh) for rugby, Lords 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 much the most popular spectator sport and is very widely played across the UK at amateur and professional levels. While many teams have passionate fans, the days of widespread 'football hooliganism' have largely passed. Rugby comes in two forms or 'codes': rugby union has 15 players per team, and is particularly popular in Wales and the English south and Midlands, while rugby league has 13 players per team and is popular in the north of England. Football and rugby are traditionally played in autumn, winter and spring, although the professional rugby league season now takes place over the summer. Cricket is played only in the summer, and tends to be most popular in England. 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.
As a side note, 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), without doubt one of the world's most iconic buildings.
- Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, is a magnificently situated royal fortress located 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 located 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. Located 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 currency throughout the UK is the pound (£) (more properly called the pound sterling, but this is not used in everyday speech), divided into 100 pence (singular penny) (p).
Coins appear in 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 (small, thick gold) and £2 (large, thick with silver centre and gold edge) denominations, while Bank of England notes come in £5 (green/light blue), £10 (orange/brown), £20 (blue (newer design) purple (older design)) and £50 (red), and depict the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. The size increases according to value. It's often best to avoid getting £50 notes. £50 notes are often refused by smaller establishments - they are unpopular because of the risk of forgery, and because of the amount of change one needs to give on receiving one.
Bank of England notes are universally accepted throughout the whole of 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 sometimes viewed with suspicion in England and Wales. 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.
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 (see above); 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.
Opening a bank account is a fairly straightforward process, although a proof of address is required. As most passports do not show your address, be sure to bring something which shows yours 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).
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. Be aware: some non-bank ATMs (easily identified, sometimes kiosk-style units, as opposed to fixed units in walls, and often at petrol/gas stations 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.
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. For obvious reasons, 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. Internet purchases from a UK-based merchant with a credit card however cometimes incur a 2-2.5% surcharge (this does not apply to a debit card). Since 14 Feb 2006, Chip and PIN has become nearly compulsory, with few companies still accepting signatures when paying by credit or debit cards. Customers from countries without chips in their credit cards 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.
Although most small shops 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, or charge a fee to process the payment.
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 much more profound than in most other European countries.
London and the South East in general are much more expensive for accommodation and other costs.
Locals usually only tip in limited situations such as restaurants and taxis. 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 legal for restaurants to pay their staff less than the minimum wage if the amount given in tips via the restaurant management augments their wages to the level of the minimum wage.
It is not normal to tip for drinks in a pub or bar, although offering to buy the bar tender 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.
In many table-service restaurants - and 'gastro pubs' - a 'service charge' is added to the bill, usually (but not always) 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.
A tip of 10% is customary in metered taxis in the larger cities, although in rural taxis a fare is usually agreed in advance and it is rare to add a tip on top of the agreed fare.
Historically, offering a tip may have been seen as an insult; it is 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 and hairdressers is not expected, but tips are sometimes given to reward particularly good service. Although in some large cities it is customary to tip both taxi drivers and hairdressers/barbers. In taxis, it is common to round up the fare to the nearest whole pound, even if that means a derisory tip of 10p. If, for example, the fare is £4.90, it is common to say "make it £5.00, just to make it easier".
Attempting to tip a policeman, fireman, nurse, doctor or other public-sector worker is prohibited and very rarely attempted; in the case of the police, it may be considered attempted bribery and, at best, will be met by bafflement on the part of the officer.
Cigarettes and tobacco
Cigarettes are heavily taxed; more than £7 for 20 cigarettes. 50g pouches of rolling tobacco are about £12. 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. New laws now require that tobacco products are not displayed.
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).
In some places there is a black market in considerably cheaper, imported cigarettes and you may be offered them in pubs by crims (rarely the publican or bar staff!) The health warning on these is likely to be in a language other than English. This is best avoided as this is an illegal trade.
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.
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, depending on where and what you buy. 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. 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.
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 EU
Many shops that sell luxury or high value goods have a blue "Tax-Free Shopping" sticker in the window, meaning that when you leave the European Union (not just the UK), you can claim back the VAT before you leave the country.
There are at least three major tax refund service providers that take exorbitant commissions in return for offering the convenience of airport refunds: Global Blue in Slovakia +42 1232 111 111; Premier Tax Free email@example.com 0845 129 8993; (premium rate from mobiles) and Tax Free Worldwide firstname.lastname@example.org +44 20 7612-1560
However, these are inferior schemes compared to the direct possibilities offered by the UK Government's own VAT 407 form procedure if you can persuade the retailer to credit your card or bank account directly upon receipt of this form 407 counter-stamped by a customs authority.
Officially any unused purchase bought within the previous 3 months can have the VAT reclaimed, if you persuaded the retailer to operate the VAT407 scheme at the time of purchase and
When at the airport you'll find both the Customs office and the "Blue VAT rebate" office in the duty free area of the airport. There may be a queue, so you should allow sufficient time to complete the formalities before your flight.
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.
Despite jokes and stereotypes, British food is actually very good and has improved greatly over the past few decades, and the British remain extremely proud of their native dishes. 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. However, British eating culture is still in the middle of a transition phase. 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 countries such as Switzerland and Norway.
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 the traveller 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.
If all else fails decent picnic foods such as sandwiches, cakes, crisps, fresh fruit, cheeses and drinks are readily available at supermarkets. Street markets are a good place to pick up fresh fruit and local cheeses at bargain prices. Bakeries (e.g. Greggs) and supermarkets ( e.g. Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons and Asda) usually sell a good selection of pre-packed sandwiches, pasties and cakes along with a range of soft drinks, juices and mineral waters. In addition, most chemists and newsagents will have a basic supply of pre-packaged sandwiches and bottled drinks.
Many large shops, especially department stores, will have a coffee shop or restaurant.
Smoking is now banned in all restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs - there are no exceptions. However some establishments have provided 'smoking areas' and smoking is allowed in the gardens/terraces outside pubs and restaurants unless otherwise stated.
Fish and chips
Deep-fried, battered fish (usually cod or haddock, though with a wider selection in some areas) with rather thick chips, always made from real chunks of potato rather than thin tubes of extruded mashed potato. Fish and chips are often served with mushy peas (in England), and dressed with salt and malt vinegar (or 'Sauce' in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland). "Proper" (authentic, for-the-masses) fish and chips can be bought only from either a backstreet "chippy" or a specialist fish and chip restaurant (the latter are mostly at the seaside, although there is a national chain, Harry Ramsden's, which does quite good fish and chips, but at "tourist prices"; Mr Ramsden's original shop, near Leeds, was a legend). However, a "proper chippy" (a backstreet "fish and chip shop", or just "chip shop") is the quintessential place to buy fish and chips. In the north you can also add mushy peas to your order. These are rarer in the south of the country. In Scotland, especially Glasgow, some fish and chip shops deep-fry almost everything they sell, including meat pies, pizzas, and even battered Mars or Snickers bars. In Northern Ireland, you can also order a Pastie (not to be confused with a Cornish Pasty). This is meat minced with onions, potato and spices, which is then battered and deep fried. It can be served in a bap (a soft bread bun), on its own, or with chips. Anything served with chips in Northern Ireland and in parts of Scotland is referred to as a "supper", e.g., "a fish supper" or "a pastie supper".
The best ones are specialists, serving perhaps a few alternatives such as a selection of pies or sausages. They are usually located near where people live, though some good ones, especially "sit down" chippies, can be found in town centres. They can be spotted by the illuminated sign which usually has a picture of a fish and a name: either punning and piscine, such as "Codroephenia" and "The Codfather" or proud and proprietorial, "Fred's Chippy", or even both as in "Jack's Golden Plaice". Typically a lot of people eating or waiting is an indication of good food.
A "sit down chippy" is a chip shop with a separate dining room. Whilst no real one will be exactly like this, although most elements will be present, a stereotypical sit down chippie will be brightly lit and decorated in a nautical theme with yellow or blue formica-topped tables. Typically a waitress will take your order for a Cod Meal, alternatively Haddock, Plaice or another dish, and within five minutes your meal will be served: a huge fish, a mountain of chips and mushy peas. Accompanying it, in more up-market places, will be a sachet of tartar sauce, a slice of lemon, a big plate of bread-and-butter, and a pot of tea. Some will have a separate pot of hot water, either to dilute the tea if it is too strong for your taste, or to "top-up" the tea in the pot when you have poured out your first cup. On the table will be a large shaker of salt and a bottle or plastic squeezy bottle of brown malt vinegar, which is what most British will put on their fish and chips. There may even be a tomato-shaped plastic container of ketchup or a container of brown sauce. Fish and chips bought from a pub, hotel or non-specialist restaurant bear little resemblance to those from a chippy.
A 'take-away' is either a shop supplying prepared meals for people to eat elsewhere, or the meal itself. A very British take-away 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 take-aways are present in nearly all towns, ranging from fish and chips to "Indian", which can often be operated by non-Indians like Bangladeshi, and Chinese shops. Thai and Indonesian takeaways are becoming quite common, and lots of others in bigger towns. Generally the standard of take-aways is good, but the best guide is, as always, to observe what the locals are doing.
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
See below for general points about pubs. Pubs are typically places where you can sample British cuisine. There is no such thing as a British restaurant per se, so these will be your next best bet; even if you are against drinking alcohol, you will find a more traditional and full menu than a cafe or chippy.
Almost all pubs (see below) serve food, although not all will do so during the whole of their opening hours. Prices of all these types vary enormously, and you should seek local advice if you have particular requirements or standards. 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 you will find a very broad range of 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 (McDonalds, 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 located 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 from around 07:00-22:00 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.
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. Indian restaurants serve cuisine commonly known to their customers by the generic term "curry". Common Indian restaurant dishes include chicken tikka masala, prawn biryani and the incredibly spicy vindaloo. A popular version of curry is known as balti, possibly named after the metal bowl the food is cooked and served in. Balti cuisine, and a number of other commonly served dishes such as the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala, originated in the UK, although are clearly based on food from the Indian subcontinent. Birmingham in the Midlands is considered the balti capital of the UK as this dish was conceived there. Curry Mile in Manchester is well worth a visit if you are in the city.
Motorway service areas
Motorway service areas are notoriously expensive places to eat, although the vast majority are open 24 hours by law. Most contain fast-food outlets and all have (free) toilets. Some services may be limited overnight such as the range of hot and cold food, although most will keep a selection available. Service areas are often best avoided as it is often possible to find cheaper and much better places to eat within a mile or two of a motorway junction. They have a poor reputation for hygiene and service; subsequently places like Little Chef have taken such a hit that many have closed. 5 minutes away website lists facilities no more than 5 minutes' drive from motorway junctions.
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.
Bear in mind that 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.
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.
In general, the best places for vegetarian and vegan food are specialist veggie pubs and 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.
- Black pudding - a sausage made of congealed pig's blood or, in the Western Isles of Scotland, sheep's blood, rusks and sage or spices, cooked in an intestine. Available all over the UK but a speciality of the northern half of the country, in particular from Bury, the Black Country, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In actual fact, it tastes much better than it sounds.
- Cheese - Although the British are not as famous for, or as proud of, their cheeses as their neighbours in France, a multitude of cheeses are produced and are generally named after a particular region. According to the British Cheese Board, there are over 700 varieties of cheeses produced in the UK. Well-known examples include Caerphilly; Cheddar, named after the village of Cheddar in Somerset; Cheshire; Lancashire, which may be "creamy" or "crumbly"; Stilton (named after Stilton but now produced elsewhere) - a blue cheese to rival Roquefort or Gorgonzola and Wensleydale, named after a valley in North Yorkshire. A fuller list of regional cheeses can be viewed in the form of an interesting map . The quality of cheeses varies tremendously, depending on where they are bought; the best place is probably a local market – so you might want to actually buy your Lancashire cheese in Lancashire. Supermarkets will offer a wide range of cheeses but are often of inferior quality.
- Cornish pasty - beef and vegetables baked in a folded pastry case. Originally a speciality of Cornwall, but now available throughout the UK. Usually very good in Devon and Cornwall, but can be of variable quality elsewhere. The variety sold in a plastic wrapper in places like filling stations and motorway service stations are well worth avoiding. Cornish pasties can only be labelled as Cornish if they are made in Cornwall.
- Deep fried Mars bar - Originally from Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, but now available in other parts of Scotland and sometimes by request in fish & chip shops elsewhere in the UK. Not usually available in south-east England, where they are sometimes believed to be an urban myth.
- Eccles cake - a popular flaky-pastry type cake with raisins, from the small town in Lancashire of the same name.
- Haggis - a mixture of sheep innards, minced meat and oatmeal boiled in a sheep's stomach. Available widely, but a speciality of Scotland. Also available in many supermarkets, where it appears that many sheep have plastic stomachs - although the contents are often quite reasonable - sometimes mildly spicy. It is usually severed with mashed yellow turnip "neeps" and mashed potatoes "tatties", but can also be bought deep fried with chips from Scottish fish and chip shops.
- Lancashire hotpot - a hearty vegetable and meat stew. A speciality of Lancashire, but available throughout the UK. In Lancashire, it is often accompanied by pickled red cabbage or pickled beetroot.
- Laverbread (Welsh: bara lafwr or bara lawr) - a purée made from seaweed, rolled in oatmeal, lightly fried and generally served with bacon rashers, although it can also be prepared as a vegetarian dish. Available in Swansea and West Wales.
- Oatcakes - this speciality of Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire and Derbyshire is a large, floppy, oat-based pancake, eaten hot, in place of bread at breakfast time, or with a savoury filling. Not to be confused with the Scottish oatcake, a sort of biscuit.
- The pastie peculiar to Northern Ireland should not be confused with the type of pasty associated with Cornwall and common throughout Britain. Recipes vary, but generally a pastie is minced pork with onions, potato and spices, shaped into a thick disc, covered with batter and deep fried. Pasties are unique to Northern Ireland and well worth trying from a fish amd chip shop.
- Pork pie - a pie made of pork, with an outer crust made of a particularly crispy sort of pastry. Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire is their spiritual home but they are available across the country. They are served cold or at room temperature as part of a cold meal.
- Potato bread - a mixture of potatoes, salt, butter and flour. A speciality of Northern Ireland which, alongside Sodabread forms one of the main ingredients of an 'Ulster Fry'. Similar to, but not quite the same as potato bread, are potato cakes as sold in England and tattie scones in Scotland.
- Sausages - Europeans will be surprised to discover that the filling contains breadcrumbs, rusk or other fillers as well as meat (Britons think of frankfurters and similar solid-meat sausages as German or French). Generic sausages are nothing special and very much a 'mystery meat' experience, that being said not all sausages are pork, with many now seeing a mix with beef, venison, turkey or even soya. Regional speciality recipes such as Lincolnshire and the Cumberland-ring are well worth trying in a pub. Some marketplaces and butchers still serve archaic family recipes, such as Oxford where the sausage is without skin and more like a beef patty. Remember you get what you pay for. 2p or 3p 'bargain' bangers like Walls will taste of very little.
- Sunday dinner/Roast dinner - this meal is common throughout the UK. Traditionally eaten on a Sunday, the meal consists of a roasted joint of meat (eg: Whole roast chicken, leg of lamb, shoulder of pork, etc.), and roast potatoes and steamed/boiled vegetables. All served with gravy (a thick or thin sauce, depending on the meat, made with the meat juices and stock. Yorkshire Pudding (a pancake style batter baked in a very hot oven) is traditionally served with roast beef, although some people have it with any roast dinner.
- Smoked fish - protected as a regional dish from the greater Grimsby area. Usually haddock is the most popular type smoked in this special style. In Scotland, it is traditional to have smoked kippers if not porridge for breakfast.
- Welsh cakes - scone-like cakes studded with raisins and dusted with sugar. Available in bakeries throughout Wales and served hot off the griddle at Swansea Market.
- Yorkshire pudding - a savoury side dish made from unsweetened batter. Traditionally a plate-sized pudding would be served with gravy before the main course, to encourage more economical consumption of expensive meat. Squat and round in shape - often served with a roast dinner (consisting of roast potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire puddings). Originally a speciality of the former industrial cities of Yorkshire, but now an integral part of a beef dinner throughout the UK.
The legal age to buy alcohol or consume it in a pub is 18, but many teenagers younger than 18 have seemingly little problem in purchasing alcohol in smaller pubs and from off licences. Nevertheless, if you're over 18 but lucky enough to look younger, expect to be asked to prove your age when buying 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 driving licence which shows both your photograph and date of birth. ID cards are likely to be accepted (providing there is a photograph) and proof of age cards are available which must be applied for by post and take several weeks to issue. Any other form of ID willl not be accepted. In private residences the minimum age to drink alcohol is 5 years old, although it is likely that if a 5 or 6 year old etc. were getting drunk, the matter would be brought before the courts as child neglect.
Getting drunk is acceptable and often it is the objective of a party, though the police often take a dim view on those causing alcohol-related trouble. This applies to all levels of the British society - it may be worth remembering that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to collect his son Euan from a police station after he had been found drunk celebrating the completion of his GCSE exams taken at the age of 16. Nevertheless, 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 and, even though it is frequently complained about, it is as popular as ever.
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 United Kingdom there is now a blanket ban on smoking inside pubs and restaurants, though many pubs have areas outside, often known as "beer gardens", where smoking is (usually, but not always) 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; while most pubs will accept cards it's bad form to use one to pay for only one drink.
- 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.
- It might be best to avoid heated debates about controversial subjects in pubs and bars; if others get involved these can escalate.
- 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.
- 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. Recently 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 recent trend is the gastro pub, a smartened-up traditional pub with a selection of high-quality food (nearly at restaurant prices).
Beer in pubs is served in pint and half-pint measures, or in bottles. A pint is slightly more than half a litre (568 ml to be precise). 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 in the range £3 to £4. Note that 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.
Until the recent change in licensing laws, closing times were 23:00 and 22:30 on a Sunday, 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, in additional to 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 and Brighton to name just a few 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 (Mon-Thu) 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 anywhere between £5 and £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.
Non alcoholic drinks
Tea is widely drunk in the UK, most British people drink black tea with milk and/or sugar. Tea drinking is common in the UK because India, which is one country where tea trees are found, was a British territory until 1947.
Coffee is also popular in the UK but not as popular as tea.
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".
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
- In recent years an independent hostel scene has opened up, with some privately owned hostels offering a more relaxed regime than the YHA. They're listed on the Independent Hostel Guide website.
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, tel +44 1628 825925, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
The UK has been a centre of learning for a thousand years and has many ancient and distinguished 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, University College London and King's College London). Outside of London in England the top universities are located in Durham, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Exeter, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, York, Nottingham, Kent, Bath, Loughborough, Newcastle, Southampton 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 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.
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 and other European Union 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.
In order to study in the UK, unless you are a citizen of the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, you will need to get either a student visitor for a 6-month course or a Tier 4 visa for anything longer. 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.
Citizens of the European Union (excluding Croatia), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland have permanent work rights in the UK. In general, the citizens of other countries will require a visa to work in the UK. Beware that all work, paid or unpaid, requires a non-EU/EEA/Swiss citizen to hold a visa with work permit in order to take part (tourist or visitor visas do not qualify). This includes volunteer work.
The UK has had low unemployment in recent years, 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 aboard 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 UKVI website.
- WWOOF arranges for volunteers to work for free on organic farms throughout the UK in exchange for room and board. This system provides an excellent means to experience life in the country-side, make friends and, at the same time, learn a little about organic farming.
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (free of charge from any phone, including mobiles) and ask for Ambulance, Fire and Rescue Service, Police, Coast Guard or Mountain And Cave Rescue when connected. Unlike many other countries, the United Kingdom does not have different numbers for different emergency services.
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.
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 heavier-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.
Jaywalking is not considered an offence, but always try to cross at designated pedestrian crossings. Most operate a "Push the button and wait for the green man" system, but some Zebra Crossings are still to be found - identified by white stripes on the road and yellow flashing spherical lights - pedestrians have right of way but it is advisable to make eye contact with the driver before stepping into the road. Some drivers will give a nod or wave to acknowledge you.
If you are bringing or hiring a car, be sure to lock the doors if you leave your car, and always park in a busy, well-lit area. Don't leave valuables on display in a parked car - satellite navigation systems are a particular target.
The age of both heterosexual and homosexual consent is 16 throughout the United Kingdom, although teenagers under 18 are also still legally regarded as children ( ask for proof of age, e.g. driving licence if in doubt ). Homosexuality is generally (although not universally) accepted by the British.
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 recent 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.
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 time to have one if they believe you are a 'person of interest'. A European driving licence is a popular form of ID in the United Kingdom, although a non-European driving license or ID card 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. With local exceptions, such as airports and nuclear power plants, the vast majority of British police officers do not carry firearms on standard patrol. Police in Northern Ireland routinely carry firearms, both off- and on-duty, due to the historical heightened political tension.
Most officers will only speak English and 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. Police officers in Northern Ireland wear dark green uniforms and - unlike most of their colleagues in Great Britain - are always armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol and sometimes larger weapons.
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 corruption is exceptionally rare; bribing a police officer is a very serious crime for both the officer and person offering the bribe.
All illegal drugs in the United Kingdom are classified under 'A', 'B' or 'C'. Class A drugs are typically regarded as the most dangerous (not always the case) and attract the most severe penalties (e.g. prison sentences), especially for supplying. Class C are generally regarded as the least harmful (again not always the case) and thus attract lesser penalties (e.g. fines). 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 possibly jail 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. 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, and some tranquillisers. As of 2013, the British Government is planning to make Khat a Class C drug.
Prescribed drugs may sometimes require a letter from a doctor to be imported. This applies where the drug is a Controlled Drug (A,B or C) in the UK.
Drug use is a growing concern for authorities, with some of the highest levels in Europe. Cannabis and ecstasy are both very widely available and you could even be offered it if you are in the right location such as certain markets and clubs.
Although technically the act of prostitution is not in itself illegal in the UK, many laws criminalise activities associated with it.
Brothels of any kind are illegal under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, 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.
It should be noted that although exchanging money for sex is not in itself prohibited, many legal grey-areas do exist in this department, and the attitude towards the trade is generally not as liberal as in many other European countries.
In larger cities, Police have in recent years begun crackdowns against organised gangs that are using trafficked women in prostitution rackets. Police take a very dim view of such activity, and if you are caught in the premises of such gangs, you will at the very least be thoroughly questioned by police.
If you have a medical emergency, telephone 999 or 112, or go directly to the nearest Accident & Emergency (or Emergency Department). Within the UK, emergency medical response is prioritized on clinical basis, and the operator/dispatcher will ask relevant questions to ensure an appropriate response. Do not be alarmed by such questions.
For advice on non-emergency medical problems, you can ring the 24-hour NHS Direct service on 111 (NHS 24 in Scotland also on 111). These advice lines can make appointments at out-of-hours clinics if after discussion they think that you should see a doctor.
Emergencies can be dealt with under the NHS (National Health Service) at any hospital with a Casualty or A & E (Accident & Emergency) department. At A&E be prepared to wait for up to 4 hours to be seen to if the medical complaint is not serious, depending on the time of day/night. The longest waiting times usually occur on Friday and Saturday nights. Walk-in centres also provide treatment for less urgent conditions on a first come first served basis. They are open to residents and foreign nationals.
Whilst emergency medical treatment is generously provided to all at no charge to the patient, Visitors from the EU are advised to have an EHIC card, and visitors from beyond the EU (such as the US, Canada and Australia) would be advised to have appropriate travel health insurance coverage, to cover the cost of additional expenses beyond basic treatment. Citizens and permanent residents of some countries are entitled to free reciprocal healthcare benefits when visiting the UK. Check the NHS web-site for more details. Long-term visitors on work visas, or student visas of over 6 months in length are allowed limited access to the NHS system.
For advice on minor ailments and medicines, you can ask a pharmacist. Notable pharmacy chains include Boots and Lloyds (both having high-street branches nationally), many supermarkets also have pharmacists in-store.
If you require specific medication, be sure to include a written prescription from a qualified medical professional, as misunderstandings have occasionally arisen. The medicine trade is strictly controlled in the UK and many medicines available to purchase from a pharmacy in other countries eg, antibiotics or opiate based painkillers can only be provided on production of a prescription written by an authorised medical professional. In addition a number of medications (and nominally over the counter remedies) can only be sold by qualified staff. (To practise legally all pharmacists must be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) which involves a university degree and other exams and training).
It is also strongly advised that written documentation is obtained from a qualified medical professional if you have a medical condition which requires you to inject anything, regardless of it status. British police (and door security) will not be sympathetic to what they, however wrongly, suspect to be potential means of drug abuse.
There are around 50,000 HIV victims living in the UK. Chlamydia is common enough that young people are recommended to be regularly tested. Condoms are available in toilets, pharmacies, and supermarkets. They are also available free from some NHS sexual health clinics (known as GUM clinics), which also provide free STI testing and treatment, even if you are not eligible for other NHS services.
Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, unless otherwise stated. Non drinking water sources are typically marked in an obvious manner.
The UK's time zone is GMT+0, but during the 'summer' (March-October) the clocks are one hour ahead (British Summer Time.)
The electricity supply runs at 230V, 50 Hz AC. Visitors from countries such as the U.S. and Canada, where the voltage supply runs at 110V 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, however check on the label before setting off.
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, Cyprus, Malta and several other former British colonies. It is possible to force a thin Europlug (with no earth pins) into the socket, however this is not recommended for obvious reasons. Most shops will sell plug adapters, but don't buy them from un-reputable sources. Using plug adapters from these sources carries the risk of fire or electrocution. There is also a 2 pin style shaver socket (BS 4573).
Power connectors for outdoor use (most likely encounter 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.
UK uses a PAL based system for legacy analogue TV and video equipment, although this is unlikely to be a concern unless you are bringing specific 'foreign' equipment with you. All TV is now digital, using the free terrestrial "Freeview" system (DVB-T), the free satellite "Freesat" system, subscription satellite (usually "Sky") or cable. You may find older TVs being used with a Freeview converter box which often results in the confusion of two remote controls. If you need a specific video format, when shopping, ask the shop or vendor concerned.
Note that 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, Boxing Day (Dec 26th) and New Year's Day most businesses will close (including supermarkets and most restaurants and bars) although major hotels remain open. If you need to purchase food, drink or cigarettes on these days then most petrol (gas) station convenience stores will still be open but almost everything else is closed, and on Christmas Day itself even many of these are closed. Many large shops are open (and extremely busy) on Boxing Day. If you don't have a car then avoid travelling on these days as the only available transport in many areas is taxis, which will charge up to three times the regular price. If you have a car then it is much better as roads are almost empty on Christmas Day and parking is often free - however many petrol stations are closed on Christmas Day (except those at Motorway Service Stations, which must be open by law) so plan your journey carefully if you will need to refuel. In many areas, bus and train services finish much earlier than usual on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, and do not run on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Buses also tend not to run on New Years Day, outside of major cities. During the week between Christmas and New Year, many transport services operate revised schedules and it is advisable to check with operators.
The major national holidays are:
|varies (March-April)||Good Friday|
|varies (March-April)||Easter Monday|
|1st Monday in May||May day Bank Holiday|
|Last Monday in May||Spring Bank Holiday|
|Last Monday in August||Summer Bank Holiday||This is a peak time date for visits to various UK resorts, traffic congestion is also high.|
|Dec 25||Christmas Day|
|Dec 26||Boxing Day|
It should also be noted that on the Sunday following Nov 11th (and Nov 11th itself), many business and civic facilities will pause at 11am for "Remembrance Day" or "Remembrance Sunday" events. Polite respect for these is strongly suggested, even if you personally disagree with the sentiment implied.
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, however, (like policemen or doctors) will invariably call you by your title and surname, for example "Mr Smith".
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?". Although asking questions directly is quite common, it can sometimes be seen as overly abrupt or even rude.
Similarly, saying 'What?' when not understanding something can be considered rude around authority figures or people you don't know, so 'Pardon?' or 'Sorry?' is more appropriate to use in situations with a stranger or a superior. 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".
Allow some personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. You will usually find this in such places as cinemas. 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 of possible until there is a requirement to sit directly next to each other. Exceptions are in very crowded situations where this is impossible, like on the Tube.
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. Another British greeting (frequently used by younger people) is 'You all right?' or 'All right?' (sometimes abbreviated to "A' right" in northern England), which is basically a combination of 'Hello' and 'How are you?'. This term can be confusing to foreigners, but it can be easily replied to with either a greeting back (which is far more common) or stating how you feel (usually something short like 'I'm fine, you?').
A greeting may sometimes be accompanied by a kiss on the cheek or less commonly a hug. Etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug (regardless of the gender offering it) 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 an appropriate firmness (generally moderate firmness).
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" can offend. Remember too that most Northern Ireland Unionists would not want to be called Irish. By contrast, most of the Nationalists in Northern Ireland will identify as Irish and register accordingly as Irish citizens and carry Irish passports, which all people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to do if they wish. You may also find that even though all the people of the United Kingdom are legally classed as British, people often prefer to be referred to based upon which country in the United Kingdom they were born in, rather than using the collective term British. 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".
One should avoid referring to the Falkland Islands as being Argentine because it is quite a sensitive issue to some: 250 British soldiers died fighting to defend the islands from Argentine control in 1982. As the war 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, as Spain claim it as their own.
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.
Same-sex displays of affection will not likely cause upset or offence apart from some rural areas or in rougher parts of many cities. Cities and towns with larger gay populations include London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. Cities such as Brighton host pride festivals each year. Civil partnerships have been legal since 2005. However, someone looking to start a fight may decide to treat somebody's sexuality as a pretext. Try to avoid eye contact with drunks in city centres at night, especially if they are in a large group. It is also important to note, if in Northern Ireland, same-sex displays and activities are rarely shown, outside Belfast, where many will still hold conservative values. Keeping in mind, while 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.
Urinating in public is now illegal, if you're caught urinating, you'll be given a telling off by the police, made to pay an £80 fine, and, at some areas, be made to clean up your own urine with a mop and disinfectant, which can be embarrassing to offenders. In addition, 'indecent exposure' (defined as exposure of the genitals with the intent to shock people who do not want to see them) is treated as a sexual offence.
In case of emergency, call 999 or 112 from any phone.
Such calls are free and will be answered by an emergency services operator who will ask you which service(s) you need (police, fire, ambulance, coastguard or mountain rescue) and for your location.
You can call 999 or 112 from any mobile telephone as well, 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 semi official criteria being, an immediate serious threat to life or safety. In making an emergency call, give as much information about both 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 addition the operator may prompt you for additional information which will allow categoristion of the emergency to prioritise the response.
Non-urgent calls to the police should be made on 101 and calls for non-urgent medical services on 111.
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).
The UK's country code is 44. 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 the UK area code and subscriber number. If the number you are calling is shown with a leading 0 at the beginning of the area code, the 0 must be omitted when calling from overseas. To phone another country from the UK, dial 00 followed by the overseas country code, area code and subscriber number.
When calling a UK landline number from any other UK number, dial the area code (beginning with the leading 0) and the subscriber number. If calling from a landline to another landline within the same area code the area code can usually be omitted, although omitting the area code is prohibited in some areas of the UK.
For calls to UK mobile telephones from anywhere within the UK all of the digits have to be dialled by all callers.
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).
Area codes in the UK do not have a set pattern, London numbers start 020 (with 0208 and 0207 replacing the former 0181 and 0171 area codes).
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.
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.
Mobile phones are heavily used. The main networks are T-Mobile, Vodafone, Orange, 3 and O2, and all have use of 3G services as well as GPRS (excluding 3). GPRS and 3G data services are available, usually priced per megabyte. GPRS (Voice, Text, Basic Internet) coverage is very well developed, covering 99% of the population, 3G (MMS, Video, Internet etc.) coverage is also very good in the UK (dependent on network), however it may lack in rural areas. T-Mobile and Orange are both run by Everything Everywhere, and therefore these two networks share each others' signal.
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. Be aware prices do vary considerably – from £5 (with £10 call credit) from Tesco online (available in Tesco supermarkets) to £30 (with £2.50 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 - at the time of writing you can get a very basic mobile with SIM for £18 from Tesco, though note that this will be a locked phone and won't work with other SIM cards.
The UK has extensive mobile phone coverage - 99% of the UK mainland is covered. Many towns and cities have 3G coverage as well.
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 the lobby payphones 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, which can be very expensive. Text messaging from mobiles costs around 10 pence per message and picture or MMS messages cost around 45 pence (20 pence on some networks).
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.
If the originating and destination area codes are the same then the area code can be omitted when calling from a landline. Note that local calls are not generally free unless someone you may be staying with has a particular contract with their landline provider. 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||Call to a landline number.|
|02||Call to a landline number.|
|03xx||A non-geographic number charged at the same rate as 01 or 02 numbers.|
|0500||Free call from landlines and public payphone; 10p to 25p/min from mobiles. *|
|070||Call to a personal number. These are very expensive.|
|073xx to 075xx||Call to a mobile telephone.|
|076||Call to a pager. These are usually expensive.|
|077xx to 079xx||Call to a mobile telephone.|
|0800 and 0808||Free call from landlines and public payphone; 10p to 25p/min from 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.|
|09xx||Calls at a premium rate – anything up to £1.50/minute.|
Where a call is chargeable, calling from a mobile telephone will usually cost more than calling the same number from a landline.
* These freephone charges can be avoided by using landline dial-around services like 0800Buster .
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 are quite steep.
A number of ISPs charge nothing for Internet access by telephone modem - they get their payment from the phone company; local call costs are time-related. An example is GoNuts4Free.
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 offer paid Wi-Fi. The most you should pay for Wi-Fi access across the UK is £1 for half an hour. Many chain cafés will charge more for no extra value. 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. For example T-Mobile stores will give you a free SIM-card on which you can load any amount you want. Access cost £2 per day, £7 per week. 4G LTE is also being slowly rolled out across larger cities in the UK. Note there is no 3G connectivity in the Orkney Isles, only GPRS.
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). Mail can also be posted at post offices.
The Royal Mail has introduced a new 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 53p/62p (domestic 1st/2nd class for envelopes up to C5 size which are less than 5mm thick and less than 100g).
Postage stamps for international mail cost:
International Economy (previously known as Surface Mail): 81p (postcards and letters up to 20g, available to destinations outside Europe only)
International Standard (previously known as Airmail): 97p (postcards and letters up to 20g to destinations in Europe), £1.28 (postcards and letters up to 20g to destinations outside Europe).
Rates correct as of March 2014.
Stamps can be bought at supermarkets, newsagents and tourist shops. 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 30min+ 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'. Finding a box with the initials 'VR' (Queen Victoria, pre-1901) is possible, but quite a feat.