Life in the UK

In this section:


The United Kingdom is made up of four separate countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. More than 61 million people live here.

England, Scotland and Wales share the island of Great Britain, whilst Northern
Ireland occupies the northern end of the adjoining country of Ireland. Great Britain measures a maximum 874 miles (1,407 km) by road from top to bottom. This is from John O'Groats in north-eastern Scotland to Land's End at the western tip of Cornwall. The total land area is 93,000 square miles (244,820 sq km).

England is the largest of the four nations, and the most densely populated, especially
in the South East. Western areas of Great Britain tend to be mountainous and rugged, and the countryside becomes flatter to the east.

The weather varies according to region, although in general the UK has a mild and damp climate. Winters are wet rather than very cold, and snow is rare.. Scotland and Northern Ireland, the most northern parts of the country, have the coldest winters and most snow. The South is the warmest and driest part of the country. Western areas get the most rainfall. Students should remember that the British climate is changeable – a rainy day can be followed by one which is warm and sunny.

London is the capital of the UK and England, and our biggest city. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, Belfast the capital of Northern Ireland and Cardiff the capital of Wales. See for more information.

Click here to go to the VisitBritain website for more information.

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History and politics

Britain and the English language have been shaped by other cultures. Roman and French invaders brought roads, law, and a strong Latin and French input to the English language.

The King had absolute power until a revolt among high-ranking citizens in 1215. Parliamentary government was established in 1689 by a Bill of Rights.

Scotland and England were joined in an Act of Union in 1707. Men and women got the right to vote in 1918, although this was not on an equal basis until 1928.


The Queen is officially head of state and has an active role in Government. Britons are not citizens, but subjects of the Queen.

The London-based government and Parliament were responsible for the whole UK until 1999 when stronger local government was introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly decide many policies, including education and health. Foreign policy and taxation are still decided centrally.

The UK Parliament, which sits in the House of Commons in London, has Members of Parliament (MPs) representing every area of the UK, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

There are 646 MPs, each representing an area (constituency). Most belong to one of
the three main political parties. Each parliament can last up to five years, though elections may be held more often if a Government loses an important vote or think they would win. 
The UK's voting system means that in each constituency the person who gets the most votes becomes the MP. The biggest political party then forms a Government. The party's leader becomes the Prime Minister, who then chooses who will join the Government.

Legislation is debated, amended and passed in the House of Commons and also in the upper chamber, called the House of Lords. Members of the House of Lords are not elected. The Queen, who is the head of State, has a major role in the political process. She is consulted each week by the Prime Minister, is involved in changes of Government, and plays a formal role in the annual State Opening of Parliament.

The UK is a member of the European Union (EU) but it does not use the Euro.

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People in the UK

21st century Britain has a very diverse population. The UK has always welcomed immigrants and in the past fifty years numbers have dramatically increased, initially from former British Empire countries and more recently from EU partners. Britain has also welcomed many refugees.

The biggest changes have been in cities, where shops and restaurants sell food from many different cultures. Pupils in some London schools have more than 50 different home languages.

Smaller towns and villages may retain a more traditional British culture. It is illegal to discriminate against people in the UK because of their race, gender, sexuality or disability. The UK is a very tolerant society and most people live happily side by side.

Civil partnerships are legal ceremonies which give same-sex couples similar rights
as marriage. Since civil partnerships became law in 2004, and around 8,000 couples a year have gone through the ceremony.

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English is the official language of the UK. In Wales, around 20 per cent of the population also speak Welsh, and most official communications, including road signs, are in English and Welsh.

In Northern Ireland about 7 per cent of the population speak Irish. In Scotland, a small percentage speaks Scottish Gaelic and a third speak Scots. The most common other languages spoken by people living in the UK include Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Sylheti, Cantonese, Greek and Italian.

Students often ask about the different regional accents in the UK. These do exist but the pronunciation differences are smaller than would be found between British, Australian and American English. Teachers and host families will always speak very clearly for students, and they are unlikely to encounter any problems with local accents.

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Family life

Two-thirds of mothers of young children go out to work in the UK, often part-time. Marriage rates are at their lowest since records began, as people increasingly live together. On average, women marry at nearly 30 and men at 32.

Civil partnerships are legal ceremonies which give same-sex couples the same rights as marriage. Since civil partnerships became law in 2004, around 8,000 couples a year have gone through the ceremony.

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Media and communications

The British media is dominated by the public service broadcaster, the BBC. Anyone who owns a television set must buy an annual television licence, which funds the BBC.

The BBC broadcasts four main television channels, six national radio channels and has a widely-respected website which covers news, current affairs and entertainment. It does not show advertisements.

There are several other main television channels available on all television sets, and a large selection of digital channels only available with special equipment or through a satellite dish.

National newspapers range from the serious to the sensational. British people love word jokes – puns – and this is reflected in the headlines of all newspapers.

Public phones are not common now that most people have mobiles, but are available in pubs and hotels, as well as street phone boxes. They are coin or card operated.

Stamps for letters and cards can be bought in supermarkets and small shops as well as post offices. You can buy either first class or second class: first class is faster but more expensive. Red letter boxes for posting are on many streets.

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Getting around

Transport links are good and it is possible to get to most places by plane, coach, bus and train. There are also cycle tracks in many towns and cities, and also long distance routes across the countryside.

Flying: There are now airports serving the UK's cities and many major towns, and it can often be cheaper to fly than take the train.

Train travel: All cities and most of the major towns have a train service. Most of the lines radiate out from London, which has four major railway stations sending trains to different areas. Long-distance services, such as between London and Edinburgh, are very fast: local services can be slower. Train travel can be very expensive. It is worth advising students to buy student travel tickets or to book in advance to get the best deals (

Coach travel: National Express coach services cover most of the UK and are very
cheap (

Driving: We drive on the left in the UK. Students used to automatic cars may need to specifically request this if they want to hire a vehicle. If your driving licence was issued outside the UK there may be restrictions on what and for how long you can drive here. Click here for more information.

Roads are often very busy in the morning and evening, particularly on Fridays and before national holiday weekends. Radio traffic reports are broadcast regularly

Coach travel: National Express coach services cover most of the UK and are a very cheap way to travel.

Driving: Unlike most of the world, cars drive on the left in the UK. Students hiring cars may need to specifically request one with an automatic gear change if this is what they require. Major roads and those in the cities can become very crowded at peak times in the morning and evening, particularly on Fridays and before national holidays. Radio traffic reports are broadcast regularly.

If you are a visitor, resident or student and have a driving licence issued in the country you have come from, there are certain conditions that affect how long you can drive, and what you can drive in the UK. Click here for more information.

Local travel

Inside London: London's underground train service, often called the Tube, is the quickest way to get around most of the city although it has limited stops south of the River Thames. It runs till late at night. There is also an extensive urban overground railway network.

The bus is a good way to see London and to travel to most areas, though it can be slower than the Tube. Buy Travelcards (daily, weekly, monthly or annual), or get an Oyster card which can be topped up with cash for the cheapest way to use London's public transport. For details see

Black cabs (taxis) can be hailed from the pavement. These are much safer than any other car service in London.

Driving: This is not the best way to get around London as there is a central area toll (the congestion charge), it is busy, and parking is difficult and expensive.

Outside London: Major cities have good bus services and often a metro or tram. Cycle lanes are common on roads and pavements. Towns usually have bus services.

Taxis/private hire cars/minicabs: Taxis are the safest option for getting home late at night. Drivers are regulated and checked often. Taxis can be hired with a wave on the street. Private hire cars (also known as mini-cabs) are also regulated but must be booked.

Travelling outside the UK

The UK is a perfect base for travelling in Europe. There are ferry ports along the east and south coasts, with direct services to Scandinavia, Holland and France. It is also easy to get to France through the Channel Tunnel, either on the Eurostar train from London St Pancras or driving from Dover.

Europe is a short flight from most airports and many airlines offer low-cost tickets. A Schengen visa allows non-EEA nationals the right to enter any of the 25 Schengen countries as a visitor for a maximum stay of 90 days in a 6 month period. The United Kingdom is not currently a member of the Schengen Visa Scheme.

If the student is visiting only one country in the Schengen area, they should apply to the embassy of that country. If visiting several of the 25 countries, they should apply to the embassy of whichever country is their 'main destination' - the country in which they plan to spend the most time during their trip.

If visiting several countries in the Schengen area without having a main destination, they should submit an application to the embassy of the country where they will first enter the Schengen area.

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Leisure activities

Eating and drinking

There are an enormous range of things to do in the UK during the evenings and weekends.
British people like to socialise in pubs and bars, and this is usually a popular option with overseas students.

Eating out in the UK is often very good as Britain now has some of the world's top restaurants and an excellent range of cheaper ones. It is possible to sample food from all over the world even in small towns, which will have at least a Chinese and Indian restaurant or takeaway, a fish and chip shop and a pub serving food. In Scotland, takeaway food is called a carry out. Pub food is often (but not always) very good, especially in "gastropubs" which concentrate as much on food as drink.

Sightseeing and culture

Students staying in London, Leeds, Manchester and other major cities have the most choice of cultural and entertainment options. London has some of the world's top museums and art galleries, as well as leading orchestras, opera and theatre companies.

Outside the major cities there is beautiful countryside to walk in and very many castles, preserved grand houses and formal parks.

Language centres routinely organise student social programmes which will include visits to the UK's top attractions, as well as to local pubs and bars. Typical trips often include Stonehenge, Oxford, Cambridge, London, York and Leeds Castle. Many will also take students to Paris.

Most schools will send a sample copy of their social programme on request.

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Money matters

Even the youngest students will use British currency. One UK pound (£) is worth 100 pence. Every British coin and bank note has a picture of the Queen on one side. The most common banknotes are £5, £10 and £20. £50 notes are usually available from banks rather than cash machines.

Anything smaller than a pound can be called a pence or a pee.

£1 coins are fat and gold. £2 coins are larger.

Less valuable coins are the 50p, 20p, 10p and 5p which are silver coloured, and the 2p and 1p which are bronze.

Some students staying for longer courses (usually over 6 months) may wish to open local bank accounts. Their language centre will usually assist with any paperwork needed to show the student's status in the UK.

Banks are usually open Monday to Friday from 9-5, and sometimes on Saturdays. They are usually found in town centres.

Cash machines are found outside banks and supermarkets. There are sometimes cash machines at petrol stations and inside small shops and pubs, but these may charge extra to withdraw money. Many cash machines accept international bank cards.

Britain has not adopted the Euro.

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UK laws and safety issues

Laws and Safety Issues

British people are used to living in a multicultural society and are generally very tolerant of visitors. Britain is a very safe place to visit, although visitors should take the same care as they would at home. Most students go out at night and should consider how they will get home safely as part of their plans.

The British Council publishes an excellent leaflet for international students at

Students should make sure they take care of belongings, and buy insurance before arriving. Language centres can often help organise this.

Many British laws are similar to those in the student's home country. But it is worth remembering that:

  • Smoking is illegal in public buildings, and sometimes outdoors. Areas where smoking is banned includes language centres, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, public transport and railway stations.
  • It is illegal to discriminate against anybody else because of their race, gender, sexuality or disability. You can get into trouble if you insult anyone for their race, or because they are homosexual, for example.

The UK emergency phone number is 999. It is important to use this number only in a real emergency. Anyone dialling this number will be asked what the problem is, what their name is, and where they are. The operator will then send the fire brigade, the police, or an ambulance if this is needed.

The non-emergency police number is 101.

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