The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refers to four countries, Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. As a unitary state, they are governed under a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system, with its seat of government in London, however there are also three devolved national administrations, each with varying powers based in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. You can refer to the place you’re living in either by the country itself, the UK or Britain (apart from in Northern Ireland). The term ‘Great’ doesn’t come from the fact that we ever thought we were great (although I’m sure we once thought that too), but from the fact that we once, a while ago now, owned part of France, which was known as Lesser Britain, as is was smaller, now known as Brittany.
White people make up 85% of the population, and people will often identify themselves as being either Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish. If they are English, they may often describe themselves as being Northern or Southern, which involves different connotations. There are also many who associate themselves with Southern Ireland ancestry, often Catholic; more than one in ten people in the UK have an Irish grandparent. Other races who have been brought up here also describe themselves as British.
The UK, although traditional, is a very liberal and tolerant country, so any discriminatory behaviour will not be accepted by the community or your peers. All of the UK is generally safe, with certain areas in the big cities less so. Check with someone at the university if you are unsure of what areas to avoid. If you have an emergency, call 999.
The pound sterling is the currency used in Britain, and other currencies are generally not seen. Most currencies will be exchangeable at the Post Office or Bureaux Exchange.
Tipping is discretionary, but people generally give 10% at restaurants for good service. Nowadays a gratuity is often added on to the bill; this means that you don't have to give a further tip and if you thought the service was bad you can refuse to pay. You do not need to tip in cafes, pubs or clubs, however if you would like to tip it is traditional to say "...and one for yourself" after you finish ordering. You can give them some money or buy them a drink if they are allowed one. Tipping cab drivers is also not necessary although it is fairly common to say "keep the change" if it is a small amount.
All water in the UK is safe to drink unless the tap specifically states "not for drinking."
Health care is free to all students staying longer than six months. You will need to register with a local doctor, it is easiest to register with your university health centre. If you are issued medication, this will cost you £7.40 in England, and is free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
You can buy either first-class stamps or second-class stamps in the post office or WHSmith. Post boxes are red and pretty distinctive. If you want to send a parcel you’ll need to go to the Post Office to get it weighed and they will send it. See http://www.postoffice.co.uk/ to find out where your nearest post office will be.
To stay in Britain you will have to register your stay with the local police. If your university has many international students, they may arrange for the police to come along to campus. If not, you’ll need to go to a police station within seven days of arrival, taking with you your passport, two passport-sized photographs, a confirmation letter from your institution, proof of address and a registration fee of £34. Students based in London should attend the Overseas Visitors Records Office. See http://www.met.police.uk/overseas_visitors_records_office/ for more details.
Most universities have a bank on campus, so my advice to you would be to set up a bank account with one of those as they’ll have more experience in dealing with foreign students and their bank accounts. To open a bank account you’ll need a letter from your institution, your passport, your visa and proof of address.
You will be able to have a basic bank account allowing you to take money out of an ATM and set up standing orders and direct debits. However, you will not be able to take out an overdraft or obtain a credit card.
Restrictions for students on a Tier 4 visa vary according to where you study. Students at university can work 20 hours per week in term time and full time during official university holidays. When you get a job, you will need to obtain a National Insurance number. This is a personal reference number used for tax, National Insurance and the social security system. If you work you’ll have to pay income tax and National Insurance contributions, the amount depending on how much you earn. You may also choose to volunteer, or internship to gain experience in a certain sector, these alternatives are very popular with British students.
Smoking and Drugs
Smoking is banned in all indoor public spaces, as well as some outdoor ones, such as football grounds, lecture theatres and railway stations, so if you smoke, this will take some getting used to. Additionally, you must be over 18 to drink alcohol and smoke, while drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and cannabis are illegal. Carrying weapons such as guns and knives are also illegal.
It is a known fact that British people like to talk about the weather. And we do. We complain that it has been winter all year round and the media constantly obsesses over our record breaking conditions. You constantly hear " this has been the wettest April since records began" or "today was the hottest day of the year so far."
However, the British weather is fairly mild.
- runs from December to February, and the season is generally cool, wet and windy. In recent years we have seen cold winters, with large amounts of snowfall. The coldest winter temperatures are found in the mountains of Wales, northern England and inland Scotland, and the temperature overall ranges from approximately 2°C to 6°C.
- runs from March to May, and is generally a cool, calm and dry season, however it can still snow at the beginning of the season. Overall the temperature ranges from 6°C to 15°C.
- runs from June to August and is the warmest season. We occasionally have thunderstorms, with temperatures generally ranging from 13°C to 21°C.
- runs from September to November and is often an unstable month, with temperatures ranging from approximately 8°C to 14°C.
With these differences in temperature it obviously means that you'll need different clothes for different seasons. In the Winter, it is advisable to buy an umbrella or waterproof coat, and perhaps some waterproof shoes, or at least some boots. You'll also want gloves, a hat and scarf.
Throughout the year, the sunset and sunrise also differs, with the summer seeing longer days than the winters. Britain, along with most other countries in Europe, observes daylight saving time, hence the clock go forward by one hour on the last Sunday of March and go back by one hour on the last Sunday of October. The BBC should remind you of this fact, so you don’t end up getting up late or early for your lectures on Monday!
Different regions of the UK also have weather differences.
- is the warmest area of the UK and also has less rain than the other regions. However, the closer you get to the coast, the cooler the summers, the warmer the winters, and the higher the rainfall. London is also unusual. Because of its urban landscape, temperatures are often higher than in surrounding areas and snow is less common.
- has generally drier, cooler and less windy weather than the rest of the UK also has the largest range of temperatures.
Western England and Wales
- has generally warm summers, mild winters and lots of rain.
- is cooler and windier than the south. The North East has relatively little rain, while the North West has quite a lot.
- is the coldest, wettest and cloudiest part of the UK. Furthermore, it has the shortest daylight hours in winter. However, it does have the longest summer days; up to 18 hours a day.
- is warmer that Scotland and has milder winters than England or Wales. It is drier that Scotland and Wales, but wetter than most of England.