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, and is one of the world's wealthiest nations.
The Union comprises four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It 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, seceding from the Union and gaining its independence in 1922. The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are "crown dependencies", possessing their own legislative bodies with the assent of the Crown. They are not part of the United Kingdom, nor of the EU, but are not sovereign nations in their own right either. The UK has Ireland, France, Belgium and Netherlands as its nearest neighbours.
The 'Great' in Great Britain (Grande-Bretagne in French) is to distinguish it from the other, smaller "Britain": Brittany (Bretagne) in northwestern France.
The UK today is a diverse patchwork of native and immigrant cultures, possessing a fascinating history and dynamic modern culture, both of which remain hugely influential in the wider world. Although Britannia no longer rules the waves, the UK is still a popular destination for many travellers. The capital and largest city of the United Kingdom is London.
"Great Britain" ("GB") refers just to the largest island, that is, Scotland, England, and Wales together. Great Britain became part of the United Kingdom when the Irish and British parliaments merged in 1801 to form 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 1921 after a treaty granting Irish home rule. "Britain" is simply another name for the United Kingdom, and does include Northern Ireland, despite common misconception otherwise.
The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack or Union Flag. It comprises the flags of St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland and the St. Patrick's Cross of Ireland superimposed on each other. Within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are commonly used. The St. Patrick's Cross flag is often seen on St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland split from the UK though, St. Patrick's Saltire is not used for Northern Ireland, as it represented the whole of the island of Ireland. A flag (known as the "Ulster Banner") was designed for Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which was based on the flag of Ulster (similar in appearance to the St. George's Cross flag of England) and includes a Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. Although the flag's official status ended with the dissolving of the province's devolved government in the early 1970s, it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Protestant community and on sporting occasions. As Wales was politically integrated into the English kingdom hundreds of years ago, its flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The flag features a Red Dragon on a green 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 some of the islands' affairs. The people are British Citizens, but unless they have direct ties with the UK, through a parent, or have lived there for at least 5 years, they are not able to take up work or residence elsewhere in the European Union.
Again, these are not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the British Empire which are to varying degrees, self-governing entities that still recognise the British Monarch as their head of state. The key difference is residents of Overseas Territories still possess British citizenship, where as those of Commonwealth nations do not, and are subject to the same entry and immigration rules as non-EU citizens.
Don't describe the country as England. The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish do not identify themselves as being from "England". If you need to refer to someone's nationality, you can use the most precise term, 'English', 'Northern Irish', 'Welsh' or 'Scottish'. To play safe, you can ask someone from which part of the UK they are from, as this covers every corner of the isles - including Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland and Scotland can be particularly problematic, and 'Scottish', 'Northern Irish', 'Irish', 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.
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 Scottish. I'm English".
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the nominal head of state, as well a bicameral parliament. The upper house, known as the House of Lords, consists of Hereditary Peers, whose membership is guaranteed by birth right, Life Peers, who are appointed to it by the Queen, as well as the Lords Spiritual, who are appointed by the Church of England. The lower house, known as the House of Commons is popularly elected by the people. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. It has a first-past-the post system divided into local constituencies.
Additionally, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected bodies, with varying degrees of autonomy mostly concerned with taxation and education (The Northern Ireland Assembly, The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). England has no similar body of its own.
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 - whether they do or not is another matter.
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain 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 [xx999999] (eg. [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.
Alternatively, every postal address has a postcode, either a unique one or one shared with its immediate neighbours. British postcodes take the form (XXYY ZZZ), where XX is a 2 or 1 character alphabetic code representing the town, city or geographic area, a 1 or 2 digit number YY representing the area of that town or city, followed by a 3 digit alphanumeric code ZZZ which denotes the road and a specific section or house 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 and street will 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 XX 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 Ordnance Survey's 1:50000 or 1:25000 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.
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 an idea to be prepared for a change of weather when going out; a jumper and a raincoat usually suffice when it is not winter.
Because the UK stretches nearly a thousand kilometres from end to end, temperatures can vary quite considerably between north and 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 is 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 1,300 metres, the effect of height on rainfall and temperature is great.
Each country within the UK has a number of bank 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:
Northern Ireland has the following two additional bank holidays:
Scotland officially has two additional bank holidays:
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.
Due to the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, the United Kingdom will observe the Spring Bank Holiday on June 4, 2012, and there will be an additional bank holiday on June 5, 2012.
A full list of bank holidays for future years can be viewed at .
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a union made up of the following regions, home nations and territories:
Many cities and towns in the United Kingdom are of interest to travellers. Following is an alphabetical selection of nine - others are listed under their specific regions:
The United Kingdom is physically linked to two other countries. The Channel Tunnel connects the UK to France, 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.
For more information of UK Immigration and visa requirements, see the British Home Office website .
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 not be 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 for visa-exempt nationals. Hence, especially if you attempt to enter as a Student Visitor, you should not transit through Ireland unless you possess a valid visa or entry clearance permitting a stay of more than three months or intend to stay 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. 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.
The UK has relatively strict laws controlling which goods can and cannot be brought into the country. Particularly stringent laws apply to the movement of animals, except from within the EU, where an animal passport system operates, providing proof of vacination 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 (e.g. illegal drugs) than alcohol or tobacco.
When flying to the UK you are most likely to arrive at one of London's five airports, although there are direct international flights to many other cities. KLM has a large number of feeder flights from almost every UK regional airport to its international hub in Amsterdam.
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.
Outside London and Manchester, many of the regional airports offer a wide range of direct links to European and some long-haul destinations.
Other smaller regional airports include Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Exeter, Newcastle, Norwich, Southampton and Durham Tees Valley.
In Scotland the major airports with links to London and abroad are:
Cardiff International is the only international airport in Wales; it is a major hub of bmibaby
In Northern Ireland, Belfast International Airport and Belfast City Airport both serve the province's capital. City of Derry Airport serves the northwest with a limited number of international and domestic flights.
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 internal flights.
Eurostar high-speed trains run between London (St Pancras International), Ebbsfleet and Ashford through the Channel Tunnel to Paris (Gare du Nord), Lille and Brussels. During the summer an additional weekly train operates to Avignon and during the winter a weekly service runs a ski service direct to the French Alps. Through tickets and connections are available in Lille, Paris and Brussels from many European cities to most large UK cities.
Journey times average two hours fifteen minutes to and from Paris, and one hour fifty minutes to 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.
Multiple daily connections from Dutch cities are possible via Brussels and the Eurostar to London. It can be cheaper (and more flexible) to book an 'Any Dutch station' Eurostar ticket that permits connection to/from any Dutch station provided the itinerary doesn't use the more expensive Thalys services.
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 Dublin in Ireland, the Enterprise takes just over 2 hours to Belfast. Tickets available from Irish Rail (in the Republic) and NI Railways in the North.
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 carry cars from Calais, France to Folkestone, the journey taking around 40 minutes. Fares start at £49 one way and can be booked on the Eurotunnel website . On arrival at Folkestone, you can drive on to the M20 motorway which heads towards London. Car ferries also operate to many parts of the UK, see 'by boat' section. Drivers entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland will usually find they have done so without noticing. There are no border controls, and only the major roads will display signs stating that you are leaving one country and entering the other. It should be noted that road signs in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometres while those in Northern Ireland are in miles so it is advisable to take note of the differences in signs 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. Journeys take about 8-14 hours.
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 from a 24h+ bus journey.
Various other operators compete with Eurolines, mostly between Poland and the UK; these come and go.
See the city articles for more details on routes, timings and costs. 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, or from Zeebrugge to Rosyth, near Edinburgh (note that this service will cease carrying passengers in Dec 2010 ). 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 Britain'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.
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.
From the Republic of Ireland, ports of entry include Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead and Swansea. There are sailings from Dublin to Holyhead, and Liverpool.
You can also hop onto one of the ships of the Cunard Line - they depart from New York every month or so. Prices start at around £900.
Other 'ferries' operate to various destinations 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.
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. The main domestic hubs are London, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The arrival of budget airlines Ryanair and easyJet have seen 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. It is worth noting that 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:
See also Rail travel in the United Kingdom
The UK has an extensive privatised train network of some 34,000km (21,000 miles) covering most of the country, from Penzance in Cornwall to Thurso in the far north of Scotland. There is a multitude of different tickets, which can make train travel confusing, even for UK citizens.
Train services are not as fast as the high speed lines of France or Germany. However the UK has one of the busiest commuter and freight networks in the world with a relatively high standard of service on both main and secondary routes. Train services can range from excellent to very poor, and the trains themselves can range from older and more comfortable locomotive-hauled coaches to less spacious and less comfortable multiple units. Train travel is a viable option for exploring the UK and is usually quicker and cheaper than bringing a car into the country or renting one.
Privatisation has resulted in a huge range of quality and price of rail services. While some connections and companies have poor standards of speed, reliability and cleanliness, others offer excellent service and value for money. However tickets can be bought from any station for travel to and from anywhere on the network and it is perfectly normal to get a connection changing from one company to another.
The track, stations and infrastructure of Britain's railway network (with the exception of preserved railways) is owned by the government and known as Network Rail. Trains are operated by privately owned and commercially run Train operating companies (TOCs). The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) represents all the passenger train companies, and markets them collectively as National Rail.
As of April 2010, the National Rail network of passenger operating companies consists of:
One exception of note to the above is in Northern Ireland. The slightly different administrative system and legacy of the Northern Irish transport system means that Northern Ireland Railways are not part of the National Rail network. See Rail travel in Ireland for more information.
The first source for rail travel information in the UK is National Rail . The National Rail website, and the National Rail Enquiries phone service on +44 (0)8457 48 49 50 provide train time and fare information. However National Rail do not sell tickets. Tickets are sold by train operating companies, either from ticket offices and ticket machines at railway stations, over the phone or from one of several websites.
In general you can save money on train travel by booking in advance (tickets normally go on sale three months in advance) and by avoiding travel during peak times (6AM-9:30AM, 4PM-7PM M-F) as trains are busier and more expensive. You are required to buy a ticket prior to boarding a train, unless the your station has no ticket facilities (not uncommon in rural areas) in which case you must buy a ticket on the train at the first opportunity, else you are liable to pay a 'penalty fare' and may be prosecuted for fare evasion.
National Rail offers three broad kinds of ticket, which allow you to choose between flexibility and value. In increasing order of cost per mile, tickets are classed as:
Advance tickets are only sold as single (one-way) tickets. With the exception of 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 must be used on the train specified on the reservation. They are not valid on any other train.
When purchasing a less restricted but more expensive off-peak or anytime ticket, note that return fares are normally only a small amount more than a single (one-way).
Seat reservations are normally free (with the exception, from spring 2009, of trains operated by East Coast and National Express East Anglia, who charge £2.50 per reservation) and are available on most longer distance journeys and strongly recommended where available. If you are travelling on a train with reserved seating with a reservation yourself, check the paper tag or digital display above the seat before sitting down, or you may be required to vacate it.
Discounts on these tickets are available for:
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.
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:
This list is not comprehensive, mentioning only Britain's main line railways.
With the exception of certain regional, local and some suburban routes, trains feature two classes of accommodation:
Longer distance journeys feature some or all of the following:
There are also six scheduled overnight sleeper trains that operate every night of the week except Saturday:
Reservations are mandatory on sleeper trains, and supplements are payable on top of most ticket prices to reserve a berth. Special advance purchase tickets known as Bargain Berths are available on the Scottish sleepers, starting at £19. They are only available from ScotRail.co.uk . All sleeper trains offer:
These are enjoyed for their own sake at least as much as they are used as a means of transport. Most areas will boast a volunteer-run railway using steam traction especially during the summer months. Famous full-gauge railways in this category include the Bluebell Line in Sussex, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire, while the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway in Cumbria and Talyllyn Railway in central Wales are examples of narrow-gauge railways now primarily used for tourism.
All of the UK drives on the left. Most cars in the UK are manual ("stick-shift") transmission, and car rental companies will allocate you a manual transmission car unless you specifically ask for an automatic when you make a reservation.
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. Petrol (gasoline) is heavily taxed and therefore expensive, currently at around £1.17 per litre (around €1.20 per litre, US$6.50 per US gallon). The cheapest fuel is usually available at supermarkets. Branches of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons and Asda tend to have fuel stations in their car parks, which are often cheaper than the big name fuel stations like Esso/Exxon, Shell and BP.
Like in the US but unlike the rest of Europe, the UK continues to use the imperial system. This means that distances are indicated in miles, while speed limits are indicated in mph.
There are no tolls on any roads with the exception of a few large bridges/tunnels, and one motorway in the Midlands ). There is a levy (congestion charge) of £8 is payable for driving in central London.
Traffic can be very heavy, especially during 'rush hour', when commuters are on their way to and from work - typically 7AM-10AM and 4PM-7PM. School holidays can make a noticeable reduction in traffic, however, particularly in the morning rush hour.
The M25 London orbital motorway is notorious (known to most Londoners as London's car park because 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. 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 into the city centre, and you should consider using them. In major cities (particularly London, 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, twisty one way systems, and limited parking space causes long delays.
Parking on-street 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. 7AM-7PM) and the restrictions are displayed on roadside yellow signs. Many residential streets require a resident's parking permit to park on the street, although outer-suburbs have less 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 hours stay in the daytime but is often free at night. Surface lots generally operate the pay 'n' 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 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. Parking garages (known as 'multi-storeys' in British English) are usually multi-level buildings or in larger cities may be located underground. 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 4GBP 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, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Blackpool have trams (streetcars) 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. Greater Manchester also has an extensive local train network in addition to its expanding metro system. Glasgow has a small underground rail system 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, even large cities, signed more than about 50 miles 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 as in Europe; however, the sign colours and letters are different.
Motorways (prefix 'M'- blue signs, white route numbers) are fast, long distance routes that connect the major cities. The speed limit is 70 mph 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 routes (prefix 'A' - green signs, yellow route numbers) connect large towns with each other and with the motorway network. Primary routes usually offer fast journey times, but because they tend to go through towns rather than around them, expect delays at peak times.
Secondary routes (prefix 'A' - white signs, black route numbers) connect smaller towns.
B-roads (prefix 'B' - white signs, black route numbers) are the larger of the back roads.
Minor routes (white signs) like country lanes or residential streets.
A route number followed by (M) means upgraded to motorway standard - for example A3(M) means part of the route A3 that has been upgraded to motorway.
A route number in brackets means 'leading to' - for example A507 (M1) means you can reach the M1 by following route A507.
Speed limits for cars are 70mph (112 km/h) on motorways and dual carriageways (i.e. roads with a median strip); 60mph (96 km/h) on single carriageway roads unless otherwise signposted; and 30mph (48 km/h) in built-up unless signs show otherwise. The use of 20mph (32 km/h) zones has become increasingly common to improve safety in areas such as those around schools.
Enforcement cameras are widespread on all types of road, though more used in some areas than others (England's largest county of 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 80mph). 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. I 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 officers, regardless of their normal duties, will pursue a vehicle seen driving dangerously.
Don't drink and drive in the UK. The maximum limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) Going over that limit is a criminal offence and you will be arrested. 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 do so. Fines are up to £5000, minimum driving ban is 12 months for a first offence, and you may be imprisoned for up to 6 months.
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 accidents.
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.
It is also an offence to use your mobile phone whilst driving, although provision is made for the use of hands-free kits which are 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. Also, it is a legal requirement that all persons in a vehicle to be wearing their seat-belt. Persons not wearing a seat-belt may receive a £30 fine, although this does not come with any points. If a child is not wearing a seat-belt, the parent or guardian, normally the driver, is responsible and a fine will be issued for that offence also. Children under 1.4 metres are also legally required to use a child booster seat for safety reasons. 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 (circular) 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 two 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. Some roundabouts are arranged in such designs and quick sequence that can make you dizzy. Take it easy until you get used to it.
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 pick ups and drop offs. It can work out cheaper than flying/busing and staying in hostels and bed and breakfasts.
Smaller Campers are easier to park and enjoy the narrow lanes in the UK.
Some country pubs may let you use their parking lots for overnight stays if you ask.
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 so 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", ie. 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 operating 24 hours. 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 indispensible 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 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, there is an extensive night bus network 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:
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 usually are 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 2-3GBP and rising at around 1GBP 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 3-5GBP. 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 specialize 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 authorative 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. A handful of smaller cities such as Reading have introduced 'Community Bicycle' schemes in which a bike can be rented from various 'bike stations' around the city and this is expected to be introduced in London before the 2012 Olympics. 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 100GBP-plus 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, 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's a legal requirement to have 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.
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 (www.sustrans.co.uk) has a comprehensive cycle-map and most cycle-stores, tourist information centres and youth hostels also sell their maps.
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 in both England and Wales). There are no Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Scotland, but there are the equivalent National Scenic Areas, of which there are 35 spread across the country.
"Two countries divided by a common language"
Speakers of American English will find some terms which differ in British English: English - American
English is spoken throughout the country, although there are parts of major cities where immigration has led to a variety of different languages being spoken as well. English spoken in the United Kingdom has several different dialects, some of which may contain words which are unfamiliar to other English speakers. A trained ear can also 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. English in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be spoken quite fast.
Welsh is also widely spoken in Wales, particularly in North and West Wales. The number of Welsh speakers has risen over the last few years, but this bilingual population is still only around 30% of the total population of the Principality. Government bodies whose area of responsibility covers Wales use bilingual documentation (English and Welsh) - for example, see the website of the Swansea-based DVLA . 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!
Gaelic (pronounced 'Gallic' when referring to Scotland) can be heard in the Scottish Highlands and Islands but sadly boasts all too few native speakers. The ancient Cornish language 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! The Irish form of Gaelic, called Irish is still spoken in some remote border areas of Northern Ireland.
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. 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 US and the UK 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 a British over American usages when talking to non-native-speakers.
A few examples of words that overseas visitors may not be familiar with:
British people have historically been very tolerant of swearing, when used in context.
The high cost of travelling basics such as transport, accommodation and food means that you will spend at least £50 per day as a budget traveller. This figure climbs higher if you want to use taxis, 3 star hotels, and eat in restaurants.
London and the South East can be up to three times as expensive as other parts of the country.
Cigarettes are heavily taxed ranging to over £6 for 20 cigarettes. 50-gram pouches of rolling tobacco are around £10. 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. Popular and less pricey local brands include Lambert & butler and Silk Cut (a light cigarette similar to Marlboro Light), while the cheapest brands (Mayfair, Richmond, Superking) are quite frankly, terrible. Low-tar cigarettes cannot be called 'light' so terms such as 'gold' and 'smooth' are used. Most cigarettes come in low-tar and menthol varients, and many brands also sell 'Superking' (100mm length) varients 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.
The minimum age to purchase tobacco is 18. Customers who appear younger than 18 (and, in some places, 21 or 25) may be asked to produce a passport or other identification.
In some places there is a black market in considerably cheaper, imported cigarettes and you may be offered such in some pubs by certain individuals (not the publican or bar staff!). The health warning on these is likey to be in a language other than English. This is best avoided as this is indeed an illegal trade.
Smoking is illegal 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.
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 (p, pronounced 'pee').
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 (bills) 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. Banks are also unlikely to change them to smaller notes for you, though a post office or bookmaker might.
However, Scottish and Northern Irish banks issue their own notes in the above denominations, with their own designs. If in doubt, check what you are given for the words "Pounds Sterling". £100 notes and some old £1 notes are also in circulation in Scotland. Bank of England notes circulate freely in the whole of the United Kingdom, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is quite common to receive change in a mixture of English and/or Scottish or Northern Irish notes. Welsh banks do not issue their own notes.
Some smaller English or Welsh vendors might refuse to accept notes issued by Scottish or Northern Irish banks mainly due to unfamiliarity. They are under no obligation to do so, so use them at a larger retailer, or change them for Bank of England notes at a bank. There should never be a charge for this - though foreign-exchange dealers at airports or ferry terminals might well try to charge you.
Coins are uniform throughout the United Kingdom. Non-English speaking visitors should be aware that the new coin designs (introduced from 2008) no longer show the value in numbers, only words.
You may also hear the slang term quid for pounds. It is both singular and plural; "three quid" means "three pounds". It is likely that people will use the slang "p" when they mean either a penny or pence. Note the singular is penny and the plural pence. Some people still use traditional terms such as a penny, tuppence and thruppence (1p, 2p and 3p). The words "Fiver" and "Tenner" are common slang for £5 and £10, respectively.
In general, shopkeepers and other businesses in the UK are not obliged to accept any particular money or other method of payment. Any offer to purchase can simply be refused; for example if you try to pay with notes or coins they don't recognise. If in doubt, ask someone when you enter the shop. If settling a debt, for example, paying a restaurant or hotel bill, usually any reasonable method of payment will be accepted unless it's been made clear to you in advance how you must pay. Travellers cheques in Sterling may accepted in place of cash but it is best to ask first.
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 and £20 notes. 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.
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. Since February 14, 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 does not 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 will refuse to accept the card.
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 on almost all goods and services in the UK) is 20% with reduced rates of 5% and 0% applying to specific categories of goods (food from supermarkets and some books, for example, are taxed at 0%). For most High Street shopping, VAT is included in the sale price. However, for certain larger purchases, especially in the area of computers and electronics, stores may show prices without VAT, however these are clearly marked with "exc VAT" next to the figure. In many of the larger towns and cities, many shops have the 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. However, in order to do this, you must keep any receipts you receive from your purchase.
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 internationally orientated British cuisine 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 live to eat, and as a result, food quality is variable at the budget end of the market.
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 £15. 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 (eg Greggs) and supermarkets ( eg Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose 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.
Hotel breakfasts may reinforce the stereotype about British cooking-one London's establishment's idea of a morning meal was a fried egg served with asparagus!
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" 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", eg, "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 the 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 that 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 till about 1am) 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 is between 7pm and 11pm after the teatime rush but before the supper crowds.
See below for general points about pubs.
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). 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 different 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 US 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 GBP4-5. Most are open from around 7:00-22:00 although some in large cities are 24-hours. Fast-food restaurants in out-of-town locations offer drive-through service. Apart from Pizza Hut, delivery service is not 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 though it is 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 are notoriously expensive places to eat, though 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. Try 5 minutes away , a website listing 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 a 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 eateries, 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.
The legal age to buy and consume alcohol is 18 (16 for a glass of beer, cider, shandy, or perry with a substantial meal and an adult present) but many older 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 (unless pregnant), and classified as indecent exposure, technically a sexual offence and quite difficult to explain when applying for a visa. You should try and use the facilities where you are drinking.
The pub or public house is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, wines, beers, cider, and 'alcopops', 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 (ie 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 11PM 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 amongst the best in the world - though people used to colder, blander, 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: often, unfortunately, people's first and understandably only experience with "real ale". 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, though types of venue can vary dramatically, ranging from a 'local' pub, usually a quiet place consisting of one or two rooms, to a chain pub such as J.D. Wetherspoons which are very large rooms capable of holding hundreds of people.
Pubs with a good choice of real ales may exhibit almost any pattern of ownership:
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 (568ml to be precise). Simply ordering a beer on tap 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 £2 to £3.
Spirits and shorts are normally 25 ml although some pubs use a standard 35ml 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 35ml measure. A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill measure now 25ml.
Pubs often serve food during the day. Drinks are ordered and paid for at the bar.
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.
Until the recent change in licensing laws, closing times were 11PM and 10:30PM on a Sunday, and this is still quite common. The most common closing times at the weekends in towns are between midnight and 1AM, and some larger pubs may apply for a licence until 2AM and clubs 3AM or 4AM. It is not unheard of that some bars have licences until the early hours (6AM) 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.
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.
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
Another option is to stay at short term rental apartments. There are numerous such companies around the country.
There are also many campsites, with widely varying levels of facilities. "Wild camping" on private land outside recognised campsites 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.
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. Have a look at www.freewheelercampers.com for budget campervan options.
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 01628 825925, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
The UK has been a centre of learning for the past 1,000 years and possesses 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 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, all are part of London University). Outside of London in England the top universities are located in Durham, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Exeter, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, York, Nottingham, Bath, Loughborough, Newcastle, Southampton and Warwick.
Scotland has its own semi-separate educational system, with universities in Aberdeen, Dundee, 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 as centres of excellence.
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. All 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.
The UK - London, Manchester and Edinburgh in particular - remains an exceedingly popular destination for those seeking to learn the English language. A huge variety of organisations and companies exist to cater for this desire, some much more reputable than others:
Citizens of the European Union (temporarily excluding Romania and Bulgaria), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland have permanent work rights in the UK. Citizens of Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, or Slovenia may need to to register under the Worker Registration Scheme. Generally the citizens of other countries will require a visa to work in the UK. 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. This however may change due to the large investment the British government has made into getting more nurses and doctors trained from the United Kingdom. There continues to be a severe shortage in dentists, with many British people travelling to Hungary or Poland for dental treatment.
Beware that all work, paid or unpaid, requires a non-EU, EEA, or Swiss citizen to hold a visa with work permit in order to take part (tourist or visitor visas do not qualify). This includes, strangely, volunteer work.
The UK does operate a working holiday programme for citizens of Commonwealth countries, which allows residency and limited work rights for up to two years.
The credit crunch, however, has caused many businesses to lose profit and go broke. Unemployment in 2008 reached its highest since the economic downturn of the early 1990s.
For more details see the British Home Office's visa and immigration website .
In general the UK is a safe place to visit; you won't go far wrong heeding the general advice and the advice for Europe.
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.
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 many areas.
If you are bringing or hiring a car, be aware that the UK (particularly Northern Ireland) has one of the highest car theft rates in the world, so 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. Homosexuality is generally accepted throughout the whole country.
Racism is an issue in the UK but racially motivated violence is very rare. The main concern for Britons isn't racism; the government strongly encourages the notion of a multi-cultural society, but recent high levels of immigration have been of debate. However, the UK is generally regarded by its own immigrant population as being amongst the most liberal and tolerant of European countries in this respect, but obviously there will be some people who are exceptions. Most Britons will go out of their way to make tourists and immigrants feel welcome and it's not uncommon for police to impose harsh punishments on any form racial abuse - physical or verbal.
All illegal drugs in the United Kingdom are classified under 'A', 'B' or 'C'. Class A drugs are typically regarded as the most dangerous by the law (and include severe penalties for supplying or using), and class C is the least harmful (and carry much lower penalties). Remember: all of these drugs are equally illegal and you can still arrested for possession regardless of the class; the classes are used to determine policing priorities and penalties.
Class A drugs include ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, heroin, speed, 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. 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.
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.
The local emergency telephone number is 999; however, the EU-wide 112 can also be used. For advice on non-emergency medical problems, you can ring the 24-hour NHS Direct service on 0845 4647 (NHS 24 in Scotland on 08454 242424)
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. Emergencies will be dealt with immediately and before any question of remuneration is even contemplated.
All treatment at an NHS hospital or doctor is free to residents of the UK. People resident outside the UK may be required to pay for treatment. Residents of the EU with a European Health Insurance Card are entitled to free treatment for medical conditions that is necessary. Residents of Australia, New Zealand, and some other countries with reciprocal arrangements with the UK also have some access to free NHS treatment.
You will not be charged for immediate essential treatment in genuine emergency situations (such as being taken to the hospital via ambulance after serious accident). You may be charged for any subsequent admission to hospital or follow up treatment. Consider travel insurance
For advice on minor ailments and non-prescription drugs, you can ask a pharmacist (there are many high-street chemists, and to practise legally all pharmacists must be registered with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), which involves a university degree and other exams and training). Notable pharmacist chains include Boots and Lloyds, and many supermarkets also have pharmacists.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases are spreading between young people, so make sure you practise safe sex. There are around 50,000 HIV victims living in the UK. Condoms are available in toilets, pharmacies, and supermarkets.
Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, unless otherwise stated.
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 invaribly 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 "Would it be too much trouble for you to tell me where I might possibly 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?' 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 abreviated to "A' right" in northern England), which basically is 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 a appropriate firmness (generally moderate firmness).
The Scottish are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh, and the English are English. Referring to all of them as "English" can offend. Remember, too, most Northern Ireland Unionists would not want to be called Irish, however.(In 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".
Also do not ever refer to the Falklands as being Argentinian because it is quite a sensitive issue to Britons as many soldiers died fighting for them. The Falklands are still a British territory. This similarly goes for Gibraltar as Spanish; the people there are generally proud of being a British territory.
While doing the V sign with the palm facing outward is take to indicate either "peace" or "victory" by many Britons, doing the reverse where the palm faces inward is considered to be an offensive gesture.
Same-sex displays of affection are unlikely to cause upset or offend, especially in cities and towns with larger gay populations such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. The majority of the United Kingdom are very accepting of the gay and lesbian community and 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 this as a pretext. Try to avoid eye contact with drunken men in city centres at night, especially if they are in a large group. Outside of the larger towns, especially in rural counties such as Cornwall and Devon, displays of same sex affection would be more noticed and may cause problems.
Urinating in public is now against the law, 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 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 for your location, and the service(s) you need (police, fire, ambulance, coastguard or mountain rescue). You can call this number from any mobiles as well, even if you do not have roaming. It is a very serious offence to call this number without due cause.
The UK's calling code is 44. To phone another country, dial 00 followed by the calling code and subscriber number. If calling the UK from overseas, you'll need to drop any leading "0" on the area code; similarly, if calling in-country, you may need to add a leading "0" if you've dropped the country code. 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).
Payphones are widely available, especially in stations, airports, etc. Payphones usually take cash (minimum 40p - 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 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 offer vastly reduced call rates over the standard providers and don't require you to purchase a card or sign up for an account. You simply dial an access numbers which are charged at different rates (e.g. 0870 at the non-geographical national rate).
Mobile phones are heavily used. The main networks are T-Mobile , Vodafone , Orange and O2 , and are all currently GSM-based. GPRS data services are also available, usually priced per megabyte. Since 2003, new CDMA-based 3G networks have begun to be deployed, 3 being the first commercial provider. The other four networks now have 3G services deployed, although good 3G coverage is mostly limited to cities, towns and some major travel routes.
There is no charge for calls that you receive on your handset; 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 some free text messages.
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 charged at either local rate or national rate depending on the originating and destination area codes; if both are the same then the area code is optional and the call will be local rate. 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 at local or national rate (see above)|
|02||Call to a landline at local or national rate (see above)|
|03||A non-geographic number charged at the same rate as 01 or 02|
|05||Free call from most landlines and public payphones. Often very expensive to call from a mobile *|
|07||Call to a mobile phone, personal number or pager|
|0800||Free call from most landlines and public payphones. Often very expensive to call from a mobile *|
|0844||Variable rate from 1p to 5p/min|
|0845||Call at 3p per minute daytimes and 1ppm at all other times + VAT|
|0870||Call at 6.73p per minute day-times, 3.36ppm evening and night-times and 1.7ppm at weekends + VAT|
|0871||Variable rate from 6p to 10p/min|
|09||Call at a premium rate – anything up to £1.50/minute|
* 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 city pages for details. All UK public libraries provide access, often branded as "People's Network", usually at no or little charge, though time is rationed. Some hotels/hostels also offer internet access either via their cable TV system or WiFi, although the prices are quite steep (www.spectrumineractive.co.uk provide the Scottish YHA with a network of broadband and WiFi-capable Internet terminals).
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. Examples are GoNuts4Free , DialUKT .
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 WiFi. 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.
Most of the UK is covered by UMTS/HSDPA 3G coverage, giving download speeds up to 7.2Mbps, 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.
Most Libaries offer Free Internet Access.
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 cost 34p/24p (domestic 1st/2nd class for envelopes up to C5 size which are less than 5mm thick and less than 100g), 48p (Europe up to 20g), 54p (Worldwide up to 10g). 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 5:30pm 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 12-1.30pm when there is often a long queue and 30+ minute 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 reinging when it was built. E.g. A postbox built between 1952 and 2010 would have the initals 'E II R'. Finding a box with the initials 'VR' (Queen Victoria, pre-1901) is possible, but quite a feat.