Difference between revisions of "United Kingdom"
Revision as of 22:17, 22 March 2009
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom or the UK)  is a constitutional monarchy comprising most of the British and Irish Isles, and 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 counts Ireland, France, Belgium and Netherlands as its nearest neighbours. 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 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.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a union made up of several 'home nations' and territories:
'Great Britain' (or 'GB', or 'Britain') means Scotland, England, and Wales taken together (as a purely geographical term, GB refers just to the biggest island). GB became the UK 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 six Irish counties left the Union in 1921 after a treaty. 'Britain' is often used as shorthand for the whole of the United Kingdom, even though this is strictly incorrect.
Don't describe the country as 'England'. It is incorrect, and people from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, will not identify themselves as from 'England'.
The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack or Union Flag. It is comprised of the flags of St. George (of England), St. Andrew (of Scotland, also known as the Saltire) 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.
Referring to someone's nationality
If you need to refer to someone's nationality, it is best to 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.
In general, though, Northern Ireland and Scotland can be more 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 tourist, 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".
In a standard UK passport, however, a person's nationality is described as "British Citizen".
The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not strictly part of the UK, but rather are 'Crown Dependencies'. This means that they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU; but 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.
See also: Republic of Ireland.
Many cities and towns in the United Kingdom are of interest to travellers outside the capital city of London. Following is an alphabetical selection of nine - others are listed under their specific regions:
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.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a king or queen as the head of state and a prime minister as the democratically elected head of government. The Prime Minister ("PM") is not elected directly but is the leader of the largest party or coalition of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons. After a general election, it is this leader is then invited by the monarch to form a government. MPs are elected in 646 electoral districts (constituencies) from throughout the UK. The upper house of Parliament is the House of Lords. The lords gain their seats either by inheritance of a title (hereditary peers), appointment for life (life peers) or being one of the twenty-six most senior bishops in the Church of England (spiritual peers).
In response to movements in Scotland and Wales for self-determination, both countries have recently formed their own democratic bodies, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, with varying degrees of power, mostly concerning with taxation and eduction, while still sending MPs to the UK parliament to London, which remains responsible for all other matters, including international relations. England has no national government of its own, and is directly governed by Westminster; recent years have seen growing concern about this amongst the English, especially since many unpopular laws have recently been imposed on England by Westminster against the vote of English MPs, due mostly to Scottish Labour MPs voting with the government. Northern Ireland was long self-governed in the same manner that Scotland and Wales are today but rising political tensions led to this being dissolved in 1973. Self-government was returned to the province in 2007 as part of the Northern Ireland Act of 1998.
Using Maps and Postcodes
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (in England, Scotland & Wales) 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.
Public & Bank Holidays
Public & Bank Holidays in the UK are days when people don't tend to have to go to work or school. They are a national day off. Depending on where you are in the UK will see a slight variation on the number of bank holidays received. England & Wales receive 8 bank holidays per year, Scotland receives 11 and Northern Ireland receives 10 days. Whenever New Year's Day, Christmas Day or Boxing Day fall on a Saturday or Sunday the bank holiday is carried until the following Monday or Tuesday. The 8 public & bank holiday days that England & Wales receive are: New Year’s Day (1st January), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Early May Bank Holiday (First Monday in May), Spring Bank Holiday (Last Monday in May), Summer Bank Holiday (Last Monday in August), Christmas Day (25th December), Boxing Day (26th December).
Scotland has the same bank holidays as England & Wales but with their Summer Bank Holiday being classed as the First Monday in August (they still receive the last Monday in August off too). They get the 2nd of January too and they also receive St Andrew's Day off which is the 30th November (if this falls on a weekend then this is carried forward to the Monday).
Northern Ireland also have the same bank holiday days as England & Wales but they have St Patrick's Day off which is on the 17th March and also Orangemen's Day (Battle of the Boyne) which is on or after 12th June. A full list of Bank Holidays for future years can be viewed at Bank Holidays
Immigration and visa requirements
For more information of UK Immigration and visa requirements, see the British Home Office website 
Customs and Goods
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. 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 relaxation of some duty laws on alcohol and tobacco when travelling across EU borders, it has become popular among the British to bring back large quantities of such goods bought tax-free in Continental Europe in recent years. However, the practice has become open to abuse, with many trying to illegally import large amounts for the purposes of selling on at a profit. Customs laws are therefore strict for the bringing of alcohol and tobacco and if a Customs officer thinks that the amount you are trying to bring into the country from the EU is excessive, you may be questioned further, or be asked to prove that it is for your own consumption. The fines can be severe, and you also run the risk of the goods (and the vehicle they are being transported in) being confiscated.
London Heathrow Airport is the world's busiest international airport. Situated 15 miles west of Central London, Heathrow offers a large choice of international destinations, with direct flights to most countries in the world. British Airways has its hub at Heathrow and offers a wide range of international flights to Europe, North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. There are fewer direct flights to South America, although many South American airlines connect to London via Spain. Other large airlines operating at Heathrow include bmi (formerly British Midland), Virgin Atlantic and the main national airlines of most countries. London Gatwick Airport, 30 miles south of London in Sussex, is the second-largest airport, and also offers a wide range of international flights. London Stansted Airport in Essex, and London Luton Airport in Bedfordshire, are hubs for the budget airlines Ryanair and easyJet who offer direct flights to a wide range of European destinations. London City Airport is the most central airport in London, situated 7 miles east of Central London, but mainly serves business passengers to the main financial centres in Europe.
Outside London, many of the regional airports offer a wide range of direct links to European and some long-haul destinations. Manchester International Airport in the North of England is the UK's third-largest airport serving many European and long-haul destinations. Liverpool John Lennon Airport, in North West England, is the UK's fastest-growing airport and is taking on more and more flights. Jet2.com is based at Leeds Bradford and offers many cheap flights to Europe and beyond. Cardiff International is the main international airport in Wales; it is a major hub of bmibaby. Meanwhile easyjet, FlyBe, Ryanair and bmibaby maintain hubs at other regional airports. Other large airports in the regions include Birmingham International, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Bournemouth, Bristol, Southampton, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle and Teesside/Durham Tees Valley. In Northern Ireland, Belfast International Airport is the major airport with international flights, although some transfer flights may take you to Belfast City Airport. City of Derry Airport also offers a limited number of international and domestic flights. You can get to nearly every UK airport from Amsterdam airport.
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 although no visas or travel permits are required.
Airport tax is applied to both international and internal flights (£20 on international flights, £14 on internal flights) so check if it is included in any quoted air fares.
Eurostar services run between London (St Pancras International), Ebbsfleet and Ashford and Paris (Gare du Nord), Lille and Brussels through the Channel Tunnel. Journey times average two hours fifteen minutes from Paris. A second class return from Paris to London costs between €85 and €230, although it can be cheaper to fly from London to Paris using a low-cost airline (but bear in mind that the journeys to the airports will cost an extra €40-60). There are a limited number of direct services from other destinations in France also.
The main benefit of using the Eurostar is that it runs between the central zones of its destination cities, removing the necessity of accessing the relevant airports on the outskirts of cities (potentially very time-consuming!), and of undergoing several uncomfortable modal changes.
From The Netherlands
Stena Line (Hook of Holland to Harwich) 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  only gives prices for tickets purchased in Great Britain; it does, however, give timetable information. Stena's Dutch language website  allows booking of tickets for journeys starting from the Netherlands.
From the Republic of Ireland
Cross Border Rail Services to Northern Ireland
Services to the British Mainland
Combined Rail & Sail tickets are available from the Republic and Northern Ireland to any railway station in Great Britain. Although the SailRail  website only gives prices for tickets purchased in Great Britain, tickets can be bought from the railway company and ferry operators in the Republic of Ireland, with a price of €35 to €41 one-way (January 2007); actual price depends on origin and destination, but (London-Dublin via Holyhead is €41). Through tickets are available via other sea corridors also. 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 only possible for journeys starting in Great Britain. It is also possible to cross from Southern Ireland into South-West Wales on a Stena Line ferry which is met by a train on each side. The stations are immediately next to the mooring point.
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 resume in April or May 2009, as Norfolk Line  take over the route from Superfast Ferries, whose service ended in September 2008). There is a regular connection between Ramsgate and Oostende in Belgium. There are 4 sailings a day and prices vary between 50 euro to 84 euro.
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.
An extensive national public transport journey planner for the UK is available on the Traveline website .
Transport Direct also operate a website for all modes of transport, including planes, cars, and allows comparisons to be made with public transport options 
Given the short distances involved it may be more practical and cheaper to use other forms of transport than internal flights. The main domestic hubs are London, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The arrival of budget airlines Ryanair  and easyJet  at London's Gatwick, Luton and Stansted Airports saw a boom in domestic UK air travel, and have forced the cost down considerably. In Scotland, Loganair operate a British Airways franchise serving remote destinations in the Scottish Highlands and Islands from Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports (flights are booked through the British Airways website).
To get the best fare, it is advisable to book as far in advance as possible. It is worth noting that most UK regional airports are not connected to the national rail network, with connections to the nearest cities served by expensive buses.
Photo ID is required before boarding domestic flights in the UK.
The following carriers offer domestic flights within the United Kingdom:
The UK has an extensive privatised train network, covering most of the country, from Penzance in Cornwall to Thurso in the North of Scotland. There is a huge multitude of different train tickets available, which can often make travelling by train in the UK fairly complicated, even to UK citizens, though ATOC are trying to simplify this. Generally, if you book 7 to 14 days in advance the journey is often cheaper. Avoid travel during peak times (6-9.30am, 4-7pm Monday to Friday) as trains are often crowded, and in the former (and on some routes in the latter as well) tickets prices are extremely high. You are required to buy a ticket prior to boarding a train, unless there isnt an open ticket office at the journey origin (which is quite commonplace in the provinces), in which case you 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. Where ticket offices are unavailable you will normally be expected to purchase a ticket or 'permit to travel' from machines located near the station entrance. Ticket barriers at entrances and exits are increasingly being introduced to UK stations, and revenue protection staff (or ticket inspectors) are often found on board trains or operating at exits to ensure you have a ticket (especially at peak times).
Visitors from outside of the United Kingdom may also purchase multi-day passes which allow for unlimited rail travel on nearly all rail lines. These are available for the area around London, the entirety of England, the entirety of the United Kingdom and even a pass that includes the Republic of Ireland. These can be purchased in four, eight, and fifteen day increments (and either successive day or "flexi" which allows the days of uses to be spread out). These are available through independent providers and must be purchased before arrival in the United Kingdom. (There is a rail pass available for travel within Great Britain for seven and fourteen consecutive days (known as an All Line Rover), which can be bought within Great Britain and by residents as well as visitors. This costs about twice as much as the pass available to tourists from outside the United Kingdom, and cannot be used on the London Underground or on Heathrow Express (or on Heathrow Connect west of Hayes & Harlington).)
There are also various other day and multi-day travel tickets that are valid within specific areas (known as Day Rangers and Rail Rovers respectively), though it goes without saying that these are only worthwhile if you travel more than one return rail trip. See National Rail for further information and prices.
Train services seldom match their high-speed counterparts in France or Germany (the UK does have high-speed rail links up to 125mph, however these are no match for the TGV in France and the ICE train in Germany), but nonetheless are often faster than driving a car. Train services can range from excellent (on inter-urban and suburban routes) to very poor (seen on branch lines and on rural lines at the extent on the network). Though as visitors are more likely to use the former rather than the latter, train travel is a viable option (and can sometimes be quicker and cheaper than using a car). Also Sundays (and sometimes, but less frequently, Saturdays) see a reduced service, with services outside the urban conurbations being non-existant (or reduced to less than 5 services a day).
Be aware that many popular tourist corridors have limited rail service. For example, there is no rail service to St. Andrews, and the rail routes between Carlisle and Stranraer (for ferries to Northern Ireland), between Cambridge and Milton Keynes or Oxford and between Kyle of Lochalsh and Mallaig are particularly indirect, lengthy and expensive.
The railways in England, Wales and Scotland were originally built and operated by numerous private companies, mostly in the 19th century. After nearly 150 years of independence (and successive amalgamations which consolidated them into four large companies by 1923) they were nationalised as 'British Rail' in 1947, but they were privatised again in the 1990s. The track has recently reverted to state control as 'Network Rail', but the trains are run by a number of different private operators referred to as the 'Train Operating Companies'.
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.
Probably the best place to find all train times and fares as well as buy fares for collection from a machine at the station can be found on the National Rail website (run by the train operating companies) or by calling 08457 484950 from anywhere in the UK. Tickets can also be booked online through various private agents such as National Express. Fares vary widely depending on when you travel and when you book.
A second class (or standard) return ticket from London to Manchester can cost anything from one to 219 pounds, depending on how, when and where the ticket is booked. As a general rule, tickets should be booked as early as possible. Also bear in mind that it is sometimes cheaper to buy a return ticket than a single so check the price of both. If there are 3 or 4 of you, ask if you can get groupsave tickets. Most routes, off peak, allow a group of 3 or 4 to travel for the price of 2.
International guests have the opportunity to pre-purchase rail passes that are not available in the UK. These "BritRail" passes give access to the complete network for a set number of days. The passes also allow travellers to hop on and off trains at any station. These passes can be bought online though BritRail.com. Inter Rail tickets may be used in Britain but not Eurail tickets.
The main cross country services are:
Other domestic rail services which are not part of the National Rail network include the Heathrow Express service between London Heathrow Airport and London Paddington, the London Underground system, and several smaller metro or light rail systems in other cities. For details of these see articles on the city in question.
Train services in Northern Ireland are operated by the state owned Translink, who also operate rural and urban buses within Northern Ireland. Train services in Northern Ireland are, however quite limited. The main line travels from Londonderry in the north west, hugging the north coast before it travels cross-country, through County Antrim, to Belfast. A further line goes along the coast from Belfast through Holywood to Bangor. Also from Belfast, the cross-border Enterprise service operates with stops in Portadown, Drogheda, Dundalk and Dublin. Recent major investment has led to the vast majority of rolling stock in Northern Ireland being replaced. Train services in Northern Ireland are not part of the National Rail network. Train and bus times can be found on Translink's web site, or by calling 028-9066-6630 from anywhere in the UK or +44-28-9066-6630 from outside the UK.
All of the UK drives on the left - the opposite side from mainland Europe and the USA, but the same as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa and a number of other countries. In one well-publicised incident, Hollywood actor Matthew Broderick was involved in an 1987 accident in Northern Ireland in which he ploughed head-on into another car because he was on the wrong side of the road. Visitors from the United States and Canada should bear in mind that as in the rest of Europe most cars in the UK are manual (i.e. "stick-shift") transmission, and that car rental companies will allocate you a manual transmission car by default unless you specifically ask for an automatic when you make a reservation. You will usually have to pay a few extra pounds for an auto but not having to worry about gears whilst learning to drive on the "wrong side of the road" is well worth paying extra for!
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 £0.91 per litre (around €0.96 per litre, US$4.50 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.
There are very few tolls (mainly on some large bridges/tunnels, such as the Severn Bridges) but a levy (congestion charge) of £8 (€8.68, US$10.95) 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 7-10am and 4-7pm. The M25 London orbital motorway is particularly 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, and only use it if you need to. School holidays can make a noticeable difference, however, particularly in the morning rush hour. 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 and limited parking space causes long delays. Buses usually have regular services to the suburbs and the centre. London also has the largest mass-transit system in the world the London Underground. Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool have tram (streetcar)services throughout the city. Glasgow and Newcastle also have underground rail systems but both are relatively small (compared to the Tube of course) but do criss-cross the city-centre and bus services from the outlying areas are frequent and reliable (though often slow due to traffic).
The UK has a comprehensive system of route 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 route 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.
Speed limits for cars are 70mph (112 km/h) (on motorways and dual carriageways; 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 (North Yorkshire, for example, has a policy of using only mobile speed cameras operated by police). There are some variable mandatory speed limits on the M25 to the west of London, 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), and visitors are advised to be aware of this and stick to the inside lane. Driving at slower speeds in the outside (overtaking lane) may cause frustration to other drivers.
Despite the fact that the Traffic Police have now largely been replaced by speed cameras, driving standards still remain relatively well-maintained in the UK, with the road system being (statistically) among the safest in Europe. It has long been known by visitors (and an increasing number of British) that a foreign licence plate makes you largely immune from speed cameras, congestion charge cameras and Traffic (Parking) Wardens, but do not abuse this. 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. Note that the British authorities have access to vehicle registration databases from various other countries. Also, British hire car companies will charge speeding fines to your credit card, long after you have left the country. Police in some areas have begun to occasionally stop foreign-registered cars at random to simply confirm that the owners are not in fact British drivers evading UK road tax / insurance / annual vehicle inspections etc. Although it is quite rare to see a Traffic Police car nowadays, some do still prowl the motorways in un-marked 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 30mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.03%) The police often patrol roads in cities and town centres on Friday and Saturday night, on the lookout for drink drivers. Police must have reason to suspect you have been drinking - they cannot randomly issue breath tests, however, the law is such that police may stop you for committing any moving traffic offence, for example, not having your seatbelt on or even failing to indicate at a junction. These minor traffic offences will give authority to police to conduct a breath test. The police may also stop you if they suspect the person to have been drinking alcohol or if you have been involved in a motor vehicle collision (Road Traffic Collision). Enforcement of drink driving laws are extremely strict and police will always take strict action on those failing a breath test or those refusing to do so. Do not abuse this as penalties are severe. 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. Note that a refusal to provide a breath test will result in penalties almost as severe as those for drink driving itself. Failing a breath test or refusing to give a sample of breath when requested by police will result in your immediate arrest and transport to a police custody suite where a police doctor will draw a sample of blood. A separate charge of failing to provide a specimen of breath will be added to your criminal charges. A conviction will triple your car insurance, the code will stay on your licence for 11 years, and can make it difficult to find employment.
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 handsfree 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 license. Also, it is a legal requirement that all persons in a vehicle to be wearing their seatbelt. Persons not wearing a seatbelt may receive a £30 fine, although this does not come with any points. If a child is not wearing a seatbelt, 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.
By bus and coach
Local bus services 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. It is useful to note that many cities and large towns have day cards for their bus networks that can work out as good value. Locals and staff will be willing to help you if you are confused by timetables.
Coach travel tends to be slower than train travel, as well as less frequent, although it is comfortable and often much cheaper. Coaches, like trains will also generally take you right to the centre of town.
The largest coach companies in the UK are:
National Express is the largest long distance bus service in the UK, and services all major destinations on the mainland; they sell tickets online and at coach terminals. They offer 'funfares' to over 50 destinations. Prices start at just £1 one way, and there's no booking fee!
Dot2Dot is a specialised service offered by National Express coaches, providing door-to-door airport transfer service, operating between central London and Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Prices start at £17.50 - a great alternative to taxi fares!
CityLink services destinations in Scotland. They sell their tickets online, by text, or from the driver, although it is always advised to book your tickets in advance.
easyBus is London's low cost airport transfer service from easyGroup. One-way fares start at £2, servicing Stansted, Luton, and Gatwick airports. They offer online booking for guaranteed seats.
Megabus is a relatively new service between a limited number of major destinations at cut-throat prices, as low as £1 +50p booking charge for some routes if booked well in advance. Understandably, it is very popular with students. To get the cheapest fares you should book a week or two ahead. However fares are often still good value when booked with less time (sometimes £8 London-Manchester only booked 2 days in advance). Tickets must be bought online or using the booking line (0900 160 0900, at 60 pence per minute) and cannot be bought from the driver.
There are different types of taxi in the UK.
In London, strictly regulated "Black Cabs" can be easily recognised by the unique vehicle type. The drivers must pass a strict test on the geography of London, known as "the knowledge". These types of vehicle are often found in other major cities such as Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow with similarly strict regulation. In Belfast, these taxis are not always black due to advertising - often they are ex-London cabs.
Outside the major cities, normal cars and minibuses can be licensed as taxis - it is up to the local council how they are distinguished, but they always carry additional plates, usually at the rear, giving details of their approval by the relevant local authority and number of passengers they can carry. Visual identification is almost always through an illuminated sign on the roof, and often through a distinctive colour paintwork.
Minicabs,, also as "private hire vehicles" outside of London, or simply taxis, are normal saloon cars or vans/minibuses, and are available nationwide. They are similar to taxis, but must be pre-booked from a minicab office or over the phone. Minicabs may be 'metered' as taxis and charge by mileage/time, or 'off-meter' and charge a set rate for a set route. Properly regulated Minicabs will always have a local authority approval plate as with taxis. (connect2taxi is a national portal for minicab firms, by calling connect2taxi you will be automatically connected to a minicab firm close to you, using location technology call: 0871 750 0303)
Any other car or driver offering to take you anywhere may not be licensed or insured; some large cities have a problem with such drivers touting for business so take care, especially if you are female and travelling alone.
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, the Orkneys and Shetland islands. 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. 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 and Wales can be quite scarce.
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 'Gal-ic' 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 it is not passed down from parent to child as Welsh and Gaelic still are. The Irish form of Gaelic 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.
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 British Isles 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. The British will not criticise or correct your language.
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 United Kingdom is an expensive country even for the British, although the Pound's somewhat dramatic recent falls against many currencies, especially the Euro, are helping some overseas tourists who are finding things are now cheaper than they are in their home countries. However, the high cost of basics such as transport, accommodation and food means that you'll spend around £50 per day as a budget traveller and more if you want to afford luxuries such as taxis, 3 star hotels, and meals in restaurants.
London and the South East is up to three times as expensive as other parts of the country. Further North things are more reasonably priced, although some groceries, goods and services can be more expensive than average in Northern Ireland.
Cigarettes and tobacco
Cigarettes are heavily taxed and expensive, ranging from around £2.45 for 10 budget-brand cigarettes e.g. Richmond, to £6 for 20 premium-brand cigarettes such as Marlboro or Benson and Hedges.
Rolling tobacco is also expensive, but much cheaper than pre-made cigarettes. Rolling tobacco is sold in 12.5-gram, 25-gram and 50-gram pouches, at around £2.50, £5, and £10 respectively. 50 grams can make around 100 cigarettes (hand-rolled) which would cost around £20-£30 for the pre-made variants.
The age to purchase tobacco is 18. Customers who appear younger than 18 may be asked to produce a passport or other identification.
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.
Smoking is illegal in all public buildings, with the exception of some hotel rooms (enquire when booking). For the purposes of the anti-smoking law, a 'building' is classed 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 train stations. Penalties can include a £50 'on-the-spot' fine. Most pubs and nightclubs have smoking areas which fully comply with the relevant legislation. Areas where smoking is not allowed will have prominent no-smoking signs.
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).
As of March, it trades at around US$1.40 and €1.10 per pound. The pound has wildly fluctuated in the past few months (after coming down from highs of $2 per pound), though, so it is important to keep a close eye on the exchange rates.
Coins appear in 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1 and £2 denominations, while Bank of England notes (bills) come in £5 (blue), £10 (orange), £20 (purple) and £50 (red), and depict the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. The size increases according to value. However, Scottish and Northern Irish banks issue their own notes in the above denominations, with their own designs. There are a few banks issuing notes in these areas. 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 vendors may refuse to accept Scottish and Northern Irish notes outside their respective countries, even though they are legally exchangeable equivalents in the whole UK and are Sterling. Larger retailers in major cities in England and Wales, and in some port towns, might not bat an eyelid when faced with a Scottish or Northern Irish note, but it is best to avoid confrontation with a smaller retailer and exchange any notes at a bank if required.
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. However, travellers cheques are never accepted in place of cash.
The £50 note is best avoided; very few establishments will accept a £50 note, even for purchases of £50 or more, due to their rarity and the risks of forgery for such large notes, and also because of the problem of providing change for £50 notes in smaller shops. Most high street banks will not change notes or coins unless you have an account with them; this is very annoying if you have a legitimate £50 note that no shop will accept! However, you can have your money changed, without paying commission or owning an account, at certain post offices. Also, use a credit or debit card for purchases over approximately £100. Do not carry large quantities of cash notes around - many £10 or £20 pound notes are not always accepted if paying for items over approx £100.
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 and Maestro are accepted by most shops and restaurants, although American Express is usually only accepted in large stores, 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.
Visitors to only England and Wales should not experience any difficulties as notes used here are circulated by the Bank of England. These notes are also both accepted and circulated in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland notes printed by the Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank are more common. Scottish notes are both accepted and circulated without problems in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland can be the most confusing, as there are four different types of Northern Irish bank note. These are accepted and sometimes circulated in Scotland without any problems and should be accepted in larger retailers in the major English and Welsh cities but are never circulated there.
There is no exchange rate between English, Scottish and Northern Irish pounds as they are all Sterling, but visitors, especially to Northern Ireland, should be wary if they choose to change their notes to Bank of England as the major ports and airports will charge for this service. You are advised to change such notes in hotels or banks, where notes are changed pound for pound with no charge. Occasionally major retailers with outlets in all four UK regions will also do this without charge if asked. More often than not, small retailers will do this for you if you are buying something, depending on how many Bank of England notes they have. If unfamiliar with the currency it is perhaps wise to try and stick to Bank of England notes and Scottish and Northern Irish shopkeepers will not be offended if asked to give such notes in change, though it may not always be possible.
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.
VAT (Value Added Tax - a mandatory tax on many goods and services in the UK) is 15%. 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 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, 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 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.
Many large shops, especially department stores, will have a coffee shop or restaurant.
Smoking is now banned in all restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs - there are no exceptions. However some establishments have provided 'smoking areas' and smoking is allowed in the gardens/terraces outside pubs and restaurants unless otherwise stated.
Fish and chips
Deep-fried, battered fish (usually cod or haddock, though with a wider selection in some areas) with rather thick chips, always made from real chunks of potato rather than thin tubes of extruded mashed potato. Fish and chips are often served with mushy peas (in England), and dressed with salt and malt vinegar (or 'Sauce' in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland). "Proper" fish and chips can only be bought 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 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 the 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.
Food in pubs
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). 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.
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
Motorway service areas (Motorway Services listed on Wikipedia) 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. However, 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/vegan food are specialist veggie pubs/restaurants, of which most major cities will have at fewest one, and Indian, Chinese and South-East Asian restaurants. These will normally have a range of vegetarian and vegan options. Ironically, one of the few places you may see without any meat-free food at all is an extremely expensive luxury restaurant. 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.
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 licenses. 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. The most trustworthy form of ID is a passport or driving license which shows both your photograph and date of birth, and many vendors won't accept anything else. 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 was getting drunk it 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.
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 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 is often allowed at the discretion of the pub land lord. this will often only occur in the later hours after 11pm and these lock ins can last any amount of time. They happen in few pubs and often only pubs with a more regular type of customer although this is not always the case. Once at a lock-in you may not leave and come back in again as this will be deemed against the pub's licensing laws.
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 (some of these have only a "token" barrel with low turnover and a strange taste: often, unfortunately, people's first and understandably only experience with "real ale"), only a "real ale pub" will have a wide selection. 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. 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 a sixth of a gill, now standardised to 25 ml, in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the standard measure is a quarter of a gill (over 35 ml). A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill.
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. The most common closing times at the weekends are between 12am and 1am and some larger pubs may apply for a license until 2am and clubs 3am or 4am. It is not unheard of that some bars have licenses 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 license, 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 that 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, 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 aviod 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 main point is although widely used, Cannabis and Ecstasy are fundamentally illegal
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 very severe penalties for supplying or using), and class C is less harmful (and carry much lower penalties).
There have been many misconceptions (by natives and tourists) that Cannabis is legal in the United Kingdom due to relaxed policing attitudes. Up until 2008, Cannabis (AKA: Weed, Marijuana, Green) has been a 'Class C', and has been dealt with so informally that if it is a smokers first offence, it has simply been confiscated without even arrest. This is however set to change, following on from a government consultation which recommended cannabis was too dangerous, it is due to be upgraded to a class B - and the penalties are set to rise.
Other examples of Class C's include Ketamine, some Steroids, some Prescription drugs such as Valium (legal if they are prescribed for you), GHB and some Tranquillisers.
Examples of Class B's include Codeine and various prescription drugs (legal if they are prescribed for you)
Examples of Class A's include Ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, Heroin, Speed, Magic Mushrooms and Cocaine.
Whilst all drug use is dangerous and illegal, it is wise to avoid higher classes as penalties range from between 3 months to 7 years jail time simply for possession.
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. Stay on your guard and politely refuse - ecstasy has been known to be cut with anything from poisons to washing powder.
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
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.
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:email@example.com
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 Brits), but England also has several other world-class institutions, including several in London (notably Imperial College, Cass Business School, 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 was comprised of 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, 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 for more than six months in the UK. However, the UK has low unemployment, 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.
The UK does operate a working holiday programme, for citizens of Commonwealth countries which allow residency and limited work rights for 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 late 1990s.
For more details see the British Home Office's visa and immigration website .
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (free of charge, from a land-line, including pay phones, cell phones or any phone as should be by UK law, if you can) and ask for Ambulance, Fire, Police, Coast Guard or Mountian And Cave Rescue when connected. In almost all forces throughout the country, calls are graded by the urgency with which police attendance is required. When there is a significant risk to life or property, police will attend immediately, although for less serious offences, police may be slow to attend – if at all.
In tourist areas the only crime you really need to worry about is pickpocketing; even so, it is quite rare outside city centres. As a whole the UK is fairly safe, and provided you use common sense, the chances of being a victim of crime are low. Some general points for the worried:
When out and about:
When using a private car:
When on public transport:
When in public:
Most serious crime can be linked to drug- or gang-related tension in dangerous areas around major cities. Although tourists are unlikely to be involved, younger tourists planning on travelling off the beaten track in major cities should note that a spate of knife and gun attacks across the country in 2008, has led to the deaths of many British teenagers so far this year, over 20 in London alone. Many where killed because they where mistaken as rival gang members.
The main causes of concern for most tourists will be at night when pubs and clubs close, especially at taxi queues and in areas where football rivalries are present. However the UK is not much more dangerous than most other European countries providing sensible precautions are taken.
The police in the United Kingdom are generally very tolerant, but are arguably more heavy-handed in larger cities. However, new laws have given them significant power to deal with what they may consider 'yobbish' behaviour. Swearing excessively when speaking to a police officer or to another member of the public may result in a person being placed under arrest or attract an £80 fine on the spot.
There are now 'Police Community Support Officers' that patrol many areas. They are generally on foot and wear very similar uniforms to that of full police constables, though they are not armed with a baton, CS spray or handcuffs. They are not full police officers, but do have some powers to detain a person and issue fines for certain offences. Their powers vary widely across the country.
Non-Caucasian visitors are very unlikely to encounter blatant racism or racially motivated violence. The UK is generally regarded by its own immigrant population as being amongst the more tolerant countries in Europe in this respect (especially when compared to the more obvious 'street racism' met in some Eastern European and Balkan states) but, as in every country, you may meet somebody (usually part of a loud group where alcohol may be a factor) who is the exception to the rule. If any person makes any racially motivated comment that you find offensive, call the police. Race crime is a high priority for police and police action will be virtually guaranteed. There is no serious racial strife at the moment (the only recent issue being a discussion about the wearing of the more conservative face-obscuring veils by some Muslim women - which some British people find a little unnerving). You are very unlikely to come under any threat in public or tourist areas. Most British people, regardless of their own ethnic backround, despise racism and will probably be quick to come to your aid should you experience any. In summary: if in doubt - head for the nearest obvious authority figure.
Homosexuality is generally accepted throughout the whole country, though some of the inhabitants of conservative rural areas may be less tolerant than those of metropolitan areas.
Contrary to popular misconception, Northern Ireland is not a dangerous place for Roman Catholics or anyone else. However the subject of religion is best avoided in Northern Ireland. Wearing your Catholicism or Protestantism on your sleeve in the opposing camp, so to speak, would not go down well. Generally both communities are welcoming and warm-hearted as long as the above is heeded. The period known as "The Troubles" in recent history is still very raw; remember, people were murdered and blown up in the name of religion and national identity. Similar caution should be exercised when visiting Glasgow and the surrounding areas of Scotland.
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.
While all treatment by an NHS hospital or doctor is free to British citizens, people from outside the UK will, in many cases, be required to pay for treatment. However citizens of the EU and a small number of other countries can obtain certain treatment if they hold a European Health Insurance Card. Depending on the circumstances, for non-British and non-EU citizens, fees for emergency treatment may be waived. It is advisable, nevertheless, to enquire about payment.
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. HIV is very uncommon, but because of this, people have unprotected sex, getting the virus and not thinking they have it. So, as anywhere else in the world, safe sex is a must!
Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, unless otherwise stated.
The United Kingdom's electric outlets are the same as those widely used in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Brunei, Cyprus, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Hong Kong S.A.R. of China, Iraq, Republic of Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Macao S.A.R of China, Malawi, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, North Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Tanzania, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, and Zambia. Most tourist shops sell adaptors.
The Electricity voltage in member countries of the European Union is 230VAC 50Hz.
Public displays of affection won't cause any offence unless you get carried away. On hot days it is acceptable for men to walk shirtless outside, especially in parks, near beaches, or other tourist areas, but generally not in formal places, and sometimes it is frowned upon inside stores or pubs. Short trousers are acceptable any time of the year, except for establishments with explicit dress codes. In recent years it has become more common for women to sunbathe topless on beaches, but it is common for very young children to be on a beach unclothed. Nudist beaches can be found in Britain though most are found in secluded locations away from town and city centres. In public saunas, there tends to be gender-segregation, even though it is incredibly uncommon for people to be naked. Doing so is likely to shock or offend. As a general rule of thumb, attitudes to nudity are more liberal than in the USA, but not as liberal as Western European countries such as Germany & France - this rule extends from everything in the television/media to habits at home. Public nudity is 'legal' as long as nobody complains, the law gets a little complicated as whilst fundamentally legal, you must not cause offence - but this is difficult to avoid when walking around a town for example. 'Public' sexual activity is legal providing you 'expected to have a reasonable degree of privacy', such as on a remote, empty beach, or in a deserted field. Public urination is illegal, but probably wont cause enormous amounts of offence if discreet (again, more liberal than USA, but not as liberal as Europe).
It's acceptable to address someone by their first name in most situations, though names are sometimes avoided among strangers to avoid seeming overly familiar. In very formal or business situations first names are not commonly used, at least until people are better-acquainted; "Mr X", "Miss Y", or "Mrs Z" are used. Waiters, shop assistants (sales clerks) and other people providing a service will often address you as "sir" or "madam", or possibly as "Mr X". It is customary to address elderly people as "Mr X" or "Mrs X", at least initially. British reserve is not what it used to be, and the prompt for you to switch from 'formal' to 'familiar' is when they say "Just call me (first name)", which they will often do very early in the conversation. If they give you a short version of their name (e.g. Pete, Sue, Tom, Liz, Dave etc), this is the prompt to abandon all formality, although many people in Scotland seem to prefer to use the full-length version of their first name.
Many Brits use terms of endearment at the end of sentences, even to people they do not know, such as 'love', 'darling', 'sweetheart' or even 'duck' (in parts of the English Midlands) and 'hen' (in Glasgow). This often comes as a surprise to Americans in particular, who are far less likely to do this. This is just an expression of friendliness and nothing should be read into it. Note that these terms are acceptable when said by a) a woman to a man, b) a man to a woman and c) a woman to a woman. Outside of professional situations, men (especially in the North) refer to each other as 'mate' or similar, it should not be taken offensively (and it is not uncommon for a person of authority to refer to other males as 'mate', though this is frowned upon). In this sense, 'mate' is similar to the American cognate 'bud' or 'pal'.
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 'Could you tell me where I might 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.
Dining manners are pretty much the same as anywhere else. Just basic common table manners apply, such as not talking with your mouth full, not eating with your fingers (unless it is finger food such as pizza or chips), etc. Generally it's very laid back, unless in a formal restaurant environment – if there is a knife and fork, the British eat with both and expect others to do the same. The idea of cutting your food up, then using only the fork, is considered bad etiquette.
However, different etiquette applies in Chinese or Indian restaurants, where the food is served cut-up. Using a fork in the right hand is the acceptable alternative to using chopsticks or scooping up your curry with a chunk of naan bread or chapati. And it is OK to clean your plate, using these breads, in Indian restaurants.
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,' or 'Hiya,' but not 'Hey' – this is normally used to attract attention, and could be considered as impolite. Another British greeting (frequently used by younger people) is 'You alright?' or 'Alright?', which basically is a combination of 'Hello' and 'How are you?'. This term can be confusing to foreigners for obvious reasons, 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'). A greeting may sometimes be accompanied by a kiss on the cheek (normally between opposite genders or females) or 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).
As with many European nations, some people in the UK may harbour sentiments against US policy which have been particularly triggered by the Iraq war, which most of the public oppose; US citizens should be wary of making casual remarks about it, but need not be afraid of being American, as the feelings are not personal but political. Americans will find most Britons are pro-American in general, although students and young people tend to favour America less, and some US policies are largely out of synch with British ideas. Similarly, there is a degree of animosity toward the EU and many Britons will complain about "Eurocrats", wasteful spending in Brussels, and excessively bureaucratic rules. Many feel that British culture is detached from that of the Continent. Again, this is never translated into hostility towards continental Europeans, who are welcomed all over the country, as the recent wave of Eastern European immigrants can testify. Try to avoid referring to the UK as being part of Europe, or to Britons as Europeans, as many do not consider themselves to be so. Even when you are not using "Europe" to mean the European Union, some people do not consider Britain to be "in Europe" even by a geographical definition, since "Europe" is the continental mainland and Britain is an island. Anti-monarchist remarks may be resented and should be avoided. Indeed in areas near "Royal" tourist attractions (e.g. Windsor in England or Braemar (near Balmoral) in Scotland), it would be unwise to make an anti-monarchist remark. Similarly pro-monarchist remarks may be met by equal resentment, as there are a number of republican Britons who dislike the Royal Family, and again are probably best avoided. Most opinion polls do suggest though that about 80% of British people are in favour of the monarchy.
Criticism of British customs or other cultural differences can be met with hostility, particularly when comparing it with your country, and particularly if your own country is the USA. This is not to say you are expected to say everything in the UK is better; more that a comment such as "the sport here isn't as good as it is in my country" will be taken as offensive. However, approached correctly, it is possible to have a constructive debate on such matters. It is also usual for Brits to pick up on your nationality and make the occasional jibe (particularly towards Americans and Australians). This, however, is an example of British wit and should actually be seen as endearing. Despite the fact that Britons often make jokes about the Commonwealth nations (particularly Australia), there is a genuine high regard for the relationship between the UK and these countries, as well as strong family ties in many cases.
Also be wary of talking about sensitive issues such as immigration, especially in cities such as Bradford; that city has been known for racial tensions and has had occasional riots. Most people are very tolerant and anti-racist; however some can be less so. Likewise, avoid expressing extremist political opinions (left or right) - the memories of both the World Wars and the Cold War linger strongly in the background of British society and many Britons find political extremism offensive.
Though Londoners themselves may occasionally make tasteless jokes about the 7/7 London Bombings, do not follow their example. It's one thing if a local is self-deprecating, but if you make fun of this touchy topic as a tourist you will offend people. Similar caution should be taken when talking about the IRA or the situation in Northern Ireland. The IRA is reviled in the UK and any statements to the contrary will almost certainly cause offence. The wider issue of Northern Ireland divides opinion in all regions of the UK, and therefore is a topic best avoided, although as the situation in Northern Ireland normalises so opinions have softened.
The British are proud, although not a particularly patriotic or flag-waving people, It is not uncommon to see Irish Tricolours or the Northern Irish flag in Northern Ireland, or national flags in Scotland, Wales and England. The union flag is also a common sight throughout the country, but it is becoming far more popular to fly individual national flags. Disrespect for the British way of life will cause offence, despite the fact that British people criticise their own country much more than many other nationalities. Referring to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as England or their inhabitants as English can cause irritation (even amongst the English). Though many people in the UK do realise that the term for the UK in a different language is often 'England', if you come from another English speaking country and say it then you will be regarded by some as ignorant of British or local culture, history or geography.
The more codified aspects of etiquette are only really appropriate in highly formal situations, which most Brits never experience.
And, above all, do not expect the US idea of British stereotypes to materialise. The British rarely dress formally (even for work), do not all speak in a posh or cockney accent, do not always drink tea, do not all have bad teeth and most importantly (though this is generally more a jest that anything else) don't know the Queen. Whilst you probably won't have any trouble mentioning these, the British will most likely mock you for mentioning it (as per the British humour).
While doing the V sign with the palm facing outward is take to indicate either "peace" or "victory" by many Brits, doing the reverse where the palm faces inward is considered to be an offensive gesture.
As a final point, there seems to be a large stigma around child protection in the United Kingdom (more so, than in just about every other country), due to various high-profile child abuse cases and further intensification of the situations by the tabloids. It is very inadvisable to loiter around areas with high volumes of children such as play-parks and schools without justification, or to take photographs where the situation could be misinterpreted, as you could be on the other end of an argument from a parent or authority figure. There tends to be an almost universal "guilty until proven innocent" feeling concerning anything like this.
Same sex displays of affection are unlikely to cause upset or offend, especially in cities and towns with larger gay populations such as London, Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. Outside of the larger towns and especially in rural counties such as Cornwall and Devon displays of same sex affection would be more noticed and may cause problems.
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.
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 such as BellBazar,Cheap Calls Pakistan,Cheap Calls India,Cheap Calls USA,Cheap International Calls, Cherry Call, Crazy Cheap Calls, Localphone, PocketDialUK, Abroadtel, Cleverates, PhoneBird, My Mondo, ExtraCall,GlobeCaller UK, Planet Numbers, SkintTariffs,safeandeasycalls.com,Superline, Pat's Dial or 08Direct. 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. 90% of the UK households have a mobile phone, according to the latest report from regulator Ofcom, and the penetration rate currently stands at 121.9%, meaning there are 121.9 phones per 100 of the population. 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.
UK mobile phone tariffs basically split into two types (unlike the way in which cell phone operators assess charges for calls in the USA, in the UK, and throughout Europe, there is no charge for calls that you receive on your handset; charges are only for calls that you initiate.)
If you have a GSM-compatible handset (most dual- and tri-band phones are GSM-compatible) you can purchase a SIM card from several high street electrical or phone outlets or buy online. However be aware prices do vary considerably – from £9.99 (with £10 call credit) from Fresh (available at the Carphone Warehouse) to £30 (with £2.50 credit) from Vodafone (available at all mobile phone shops). 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. The following table relates the first few digits dialled to call types, so you can avoid some of the pitfalls above:
Way around this?
Use a local Cell Phone Solution for UK to avoid expensive International Roaming. Now many companies in the USA will ship you a local UK phone before departure but this can be expensive & inconvenient too - especially when you have to pay hefty rentals or re-load credit on your prepaid phones while on move.
Fortunately companies such as RebelFone can sell you a post-paid UK Sim Card without any contract or commitment and provide you with other services like a compatible cell phone (if you don’t already have one) to get yourself setup at a low cost and ready before you leave on your trip.
Inside each phone there is a small card usually found behind the battery called a SIM card. Most cell phones manufactured today are either Tri or Quad-band, which means they can receive all 3 or 4 frequencies required to work in UK, however most of the GSM cellular providers in USA will lock these phones, so that they cannot be used with any other SIM. But many do not realize that you can get a “un-lock code” from your carrier to un-lock your phone and use it with another SIM.
Even if you don’t have an un-locked cell phone with required bands, you can still enjoy the benefits of a UK SIM card and stay connected as RebelFone offers low cost SIM & Cell Bundle for UK. You will own the cell phone that comes with this bundle and since it is un-locked you can use it next time you travel to 200 other Countries worldwide and save even more by only getting a SIM card then.
All SIM cards in UK & across Europe include unlimited free incoming calls, low rates for local & International outgoing calls and free of roaming charges as long as you use the SIM card in the country from which it originated. If you venture outside of UK and find yourself in a neighbouring country like Italy you can still use your mobile phone but your rates will increase. By switching to an Italy SIM card you'd continue to receive free incoming calls and maintain low rates.
Since these SIM cards are post-paid, you will be billed for your usage after your use and you need not worry about running out of credit while abroad. After you come back from your trip you can simply return the SIM card back if you are not going to travel again anytime sooner.
Internet access is widespread. 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).
There are some WiFi hotspots, although intentionally publicly available wireless is not yet widespread outside central London. Consume.net provides a directory of free hotspots. TotalHotspots provides a directory of pay-for WiFi access points, many in high-street coffee chains Caffè Nero and Starbucks. Most McDonald's restaurants in the UK now offer free WiFi.
Broadband is now available to 99.7% of British households using ADSL over the phone line or cable modem over the cable TV network where available. Several companies have started to offer one-month contracts for ADSL, so if you have an existing BT phone line and are staying for more than 2 months, it is fairly straightforward to set up. This will either need to be already installed or you must be staying for long enough to make it worth your while. A good starting point is the thinkbroadband website, as they list all companies providing ADSL and the packages they offer , you can also check the Broadband Watchdog website for broadband and mobile broadband packages.
It is also possible to access the internet using the GPRS mobile data service, but connection speed is limited to 56kbps (i.e. a dial up modem) and the tariffs are based on amount of data downloaded. However GPRS is the best solution for mobile computing, unless you can find a WiFi hotspot.
The most you should pay for access across the UK is £1 for half an hour. Many chain cafés will charge more for little to no extra value.
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.
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.