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British life

Information about life in the UK, including tips on etiquette, climate and British customs.

Coming to study in the UK is an exciting experience, but just like any other country we have a few of our own customs that may sometimes be a little confusing, or perhaps not immediately obvious. Below you'll find some etiquette tips and practical information on a number of different subjects, to help you learn more about British life. 


Etiquette

Greet new people

Do you shake hands? Kiss on the cheek? How many? How about a hug? Saying hello and goodbye can be a bit of a bit of a grey area for everyone, even Brits themselves. Some situations are easy: in a formal situation (job interview, business meeting), you should always greet someone with a firm handshake. For a first meeting, a handshake is always the safest option. The Guardian has put together a humorous guide to the top tips for getting the right greeting. 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, this is the UK, and we famously love to queue! In no circumstance should you cut into, jump, or attempt to avoid a queue. Expect to face a lot of disgruntled people if you do!

Say sorry (all the time)

Most of us Brits will apologise almost as a reflex, for absolutely everything, even if it's not our fault. If you're walking down the road and someone bumps into you, it's completely normal for both people to say sorry. According to GB Mag, Brits can say ‘sorry’ up to 1.9 million times during their lifetime.

Keep your voice down

People generally don’t want to hear what you ate last night, what happened between your best friend and her boyfriend or where your cousin went on holiday. So try to keep the volume down! Many trains have signed ‘quiet carriages’ where you should avoid speaking too loudly on the phone and disturbing other passengers.


Tube etiquette

As the easiest and quickest way to get around much of the city, the London Underground (or Tube) will quickly 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, and it’s sometimes a frustrating experience. Follow these top five Tube tips to make your journey, and those of your fellow passengers, a lot less stressful:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Stand on the right - this one is essential! On escalators, always stand on the right and walk on the left, or you risk faster people trying to push past you.
  4. Let other passengers off first - it's much more polite and altogether much easier to let people get off before you get on.
  5. Move down - 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, just keep moving!

Time Out magazine have a handy article on their blog for the full range of Tube etiquette advice.


Eating and drinking out

Eating out

Whenever possible, make a reservation before going to a restaurant. Always book for large groups 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.

Drinking out

Pub opening times depend on the conditions of their alcohol licence, but are generally between 11 am and 11 pm. In most pubs you have to go to the bar to order your food and drinks.

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 7 or 8 pm and then to a club about 10 pm. Most London clubs will close at 2 or 3 am.

'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.

Police in London can stop people from drinking alcohol in public almost anywhere. Transport for London (TfL) has a ban on drinking alcohol on their services, but you can generally drink alcohol on mainline trains.


Smoking

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.

The legislation for 'vaping' (smoking an electronic cigarette) is less clear, but it is currently banned on Transport for London (TfL) networks.


Climate

Although UK weather is unpredictable, it is rarely extreme, with summer temperatures ranging from 9°C to 18°C. On occasion, it can reach around 30°C, but this is rare. In winter, the average is between 2°C and 7°C, 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 05.00, sunset around 21.00
  • 21 December (shortest day) – sunrise around 08.00, sunset around 16.00

On the last Sunday in March, the clocks go forward by one hour (at 1 am), and they go back again on the last Sunday in October (at 2 am). The period when the clocks are one hour ahead is called British Summer Time (BST).


Bank holidays

“Bank holiday” is the colloquial term for public holidays observed by the UK. Think of them as the days when you can catch up on your coursework, sleep in, or take a long weekend away!

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

You can get the exact dates of the upcoming bank holidays on the GOV.UK website.


TV licensing

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/VHS 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.

Your TV licence will cost £147 annually. If you leave your student housing over the summer, you may be eligible for a refund for this period. You may pay your TV Licence fee yearly, quarterly, monthly or weekly on the TV Licensing website. Not paying can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000.


Shopping

Supermarkets

Aldi and Lidl are both budget supermarkets that are widely accepted as the cheapest supermarkets in the UK.

Tesco is the UK’s biggest chain of supermarkets. Tesco is mostly considered a budget supermarket, in the same kind of price range as Asda and Morrisons.

Sainsbury’s is considered to be somewhere in the middle in terms of budget and has a slightly better reputation for quality.

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is less of a grocery store and more of a department store, as they also sell a range of clothes and household goods. M&S Simply Food is the branch specialising in food and is generally considered high-quality.

Waitrose is probably the UK’s most upmarket supermarket chain, and generally the most expensive! However, their ‘Essentials’ range has plenty of affordable basics too. You can even get a free hot drink every time you shop there with a myWaitrose loyalty card!

Most of these supermarkets sell halal meat, although it is not necessarily clearly labelled. For kosher and halal food, specialist stores are your best option.

Want to budget? The website mySupermarket helps you find the best deals on products from across all major supermarkets.

In 2015, a 5p 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 don’t forget to bring them with you on your next shopping trip!

Buying essentials

Have a look at our Shopping page or advice on where to buy affordable homeware items, clothes, toiletries and other essentials close to UCL.