Information about life in the UK, including tips on etiquette, climate, shopping and British customs.
Coming to study in the UK is an exciting experience, but just like any other country there are a few customs that may sometimes be a little confusing, or perhaps not immediately obvious. To help you learn more about British life, below you will find some etiquette tips and practical information on a number of different subjects:
- etiquette, including tube etiquette
- eating and drinking out
- Bank holidays
- TV licensing
The UK, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles...how many names does one place need? Well, they all mean different things as this quick rundown shows:
- The UK - this is one of the most common names you'll hear and refers to 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. So that's England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Great Britain - this refers to the 3 countries which make up the largest island; England, Wales and Scotland;
- Britain - technically speaking, this is actually quite an ambiguous term but it probably used the most. It's often used to mean Great Britain or the UK.
- The British Isles - this is a geographical term and refers to the two main islands (including the Republic of Ireland) and the surrounding smaller ones.
Does it matter which one you choose? Well, that depends on the setting. If you're just referring to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland then you can use 'the UK', 'Britain' or 'Great Britian'. These are all used interchangably. When talking about someone's nationality, it's probably best to just ask where they are from and then they can self-identify. Many people will also identify as being from one of the 4 countries as well as being British.
Here are a few tips to help you feel more at ease as you approach social situations in the UK.
Greet new people
Do you shake hands or kiss on the cheek? Saying hello and goodbye can be a bit of a bit of a grey area for everyone, even British people themselves. In a formal situation, such as a job interview or business meeting, you should always greet someone with a firm handshake. For a first meeting, a handshake is always the safest option. If in doubt, always go with a handshake.
Join the queue
It’s definitely normal in some cultures to jump the queue, or not make a queue at all. However, in the UK, people famously love to queue. In no circumstance should you cut into, jump, or attempt to avoid a queue.
Most British people will apologise almost as a reflex, for absolutely everything, even if it's not necessary. If you are walking down the road and someone bumps into you, it is completely normal for both people to say sorry.
Keep your voice down
People generally do not want to hear your personal conversations, especially on public transport. Many trains have signed ‘quiet carriages’ where you should avoid speaking too loudly on the phone and disturbing other passengers.
As the easiest and quickest way to get around much of the city, the London Underground, or 'Tube', will likely become a big part of your life. But with more than 1.3 billion journeys made every year, it can frequently be very busy, especially in rush hour periods. Follow these top five Tube tips to make your journey, and those of your fellow passengers, less stressful:
- Give your seat to someone who needs it: keep an eye out for ‘Baby on board’ and ‘Please offer me a seat’ badges, and always offer your seat to those who need it more.
- Mind your luggage: in busy periods, keep your backpack by your feet to avoid accidentally blocking or bumping into people. Travelling with a suitcase or large luggage at rush hour is definitely not recommended.
- Stand on the right: this is an essential piece of advice. On escalators, always stand on the right, and if you are walking keep on the left, or you risk faster people trying to push past you.
- Let other passengers off first: it is much more polite and altogether much easier to let people get off before you get on.
- Move down the carriage: unless you want a wall of people walking into you when they get on at the next station, always move as far down the train as you can on busy services. The same goes for busy platforms.
Eating and drinking out
Whenever possible, make a reservation before going to a restaurant. Especially if you're in a large group and discuss any special requirements with the restaurant in advance.
If you order water, you may be brought bottled water that you’ll have to pay for. Ask for ‘tap water’ to keep your bill down.
Many restaurants have a 10% - 15% tip added to the bill already (look out for “service included” on your receipt), so there is no need to tip extra unless you want to.
Pub opening times depend on the conditions of their alcohol licence, but are generally between 11am and 11pm. In most pubs, you have to go to the bar to order your food and drinks (remember your table number when you go to order).
About 10 minutes before closing time, the pub landlord will ring a bell and tell people to order their last drinks. The pub is not allowed to serve drinks after closing time and you must stop drinking 20 minutes after closing.
The timings of a night out in the UK can often seem early compared to other countries. It's normal to go for a drink around 7pm - 8pm and then to a club about 10pm. Most London clubs will close at 2am or 3am.
'BYOB' stands for 'Bring Your Own Bottle'. You may see this on signs in some restaurants, meaning that the restaurant doesn't have a licence and you should instead bring your own drinks. It's also common in invitations to house parties.
Bars, pubs, restaurants and shops can ask for ID for anyone purchasing alcohol who appears to be under the age of 25. Some central London clubs will ask for ID from everyone as they enter.
Smoking in all indoor public places in the UK is now illegal, and be aware that this includes train station platforms and bus shelters. Do not light a cigarette unless you are outside or in a designated smoking area. If you smoke in an area where smoking is prohibited, you could get yourself fined or even arrested. 'Vaping' is also banned in most indoor places and is currently banned on Transport for London (TfL) networks.
Although UK weather is unpredictable, it is rarely extreme, with summer temperatures ranging from 9°C (night) to 18°C (day). On occasions, it can reach 30°C and above, but this is rare. In winter, the average is between 2°C (night) and 7°C (day), but temperatures often drop to just below 0°C.
There is substantial variation in daylight hours throughout the year:
- 21 June (longest day) - sunrise around 5am, sunset around 9pm
- 21 December (shortest day) - sunrise around 8am, sunset around 4pm
On the last Sunday in March, the clocks go forward by one hour (at 1am), and they go back again on the last Sunday in October (at 2am). The period when the clocks are one hour ahead is called British Summer Time (BST).
'Bank holiday' is the colloquial term for public holidays observed by the UK. Traditionally, UK bank holidays fall on:
- 1 January – New Year’s Day
- the Friday before Easter Sunday – Good Friday
- the Monday after Easter Sunday – Easter Monday
- the first Monday in May – Early May Bank Holiday
- the last Monday in May – Spring Bank Holiday
- the last Monday in August – Late Summer Bank Holiday
- 25 December – Christmas Day
- 26 December – Boxing Day
Here in the UK, you need a valid TV Licence if you use ‘TV receiving equipment’ to watch or record television programmes. This includes TVs, computers, mobile phones, games consoles, digital boxes, DVD recorders or any other devices. TV licences are mandatory for everyone who views content in any format. Since 1 September 2016, you also need a TV license to watch on-demand programmes, including BBC iPlayer. Not paying can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000. Please note that you do not need a TV licence for such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV+ or any other similar ones.
Once you've arrived in London and settled into your accommodation, you will be wondering where you can get hold of essential items.
Remember that once you have your student ID card, you can take advantage of discounts in a number of shops, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. Lots of places offer a 10% discount for students so it is always worth asking when you pay if they offer a student discount. All you have to do is show your ID card to get your money off.
There are a number of big food chain stores in London where you can stock up on all your food items. Some of the main ones are:
Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer have branches on Tottenham Court Road, located in close proximity to the UCL Gower Street Campus. In 2015, a £0.05 carrier bag charge was introduced for all single-use plastic bags so, if you want to save money and stay green, buy reusable bags and bring them with you on your shopping trip.
Most of these supermarkets sell halal meat, although it may not be clearly labelled. For kosher and halal food, there are many specialist stores that can be a good option for you.
The shops below are where you can purchase bed linen, towels, furniture and other necessary homeware items:
- Argos: sells all kinds of consumer goods, the closest branch can be found on Tottenham Court Road
- IKEA: there are four IKEA stores in London, the one closest to UCL is in Wembley and there is a new IKEA planning studio on Tottenham Court Road
- Tiger: sells affordable homeware amongst other items, the closest branches can be found on Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street.
- Debenhams: a department store that sells homeware items, the closest branch is on Oxford Street
- John Lewis: a department store that sells homeware items, the closest branch is on Oxford Street
- some of the bigger supermarket stores also sell homeware items and furniture.
Instead of bringing heavy bottles of shampoo and shower gel with you in your suitcase, you can buy them in the UK. You can get hold of most of these items in supermarkets, but for a wider range of products or more specific health and beauty items, you can try the following stores:
There are branches of both Boots and Superdrug near to UCL on Tottenham Court Road.
There are many choices for clothes shops in London.