The United Kingdom is made up of Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. Although geographically small, it has a long history and rich cultural heritage. In the colonial era the British Empire stretched around the globe, and immigration from its former colonies and the European Union has made the UK an ethnically diverse nation.
‘British tradition’ is an often-used phrase, but in reality the UK has a mix of genuinely old traditions and those adopted more recently. International visitors might immediately think of the British monarchy and its pageantry, but there are many more local customs and pastimes to explore.
Social life in the UK can be very varied, with friends coming together to socialise in many different environments. Popular activities include going out for a meal or drink, getting together to watch sport or see bands play, or even just going round to someone’s house for a cup of tea. Football is a particular national passion, with hundreds of thousands of people attending matches each week, but if sport isn’t your thing then there are plenty of other activities on offer all around the country.
Food and drink
Britain has long since shaken off its reputation for bad food, and now boasts over a hundred Michelin-starred restaurants serving all kinds of different cuisine. Along with classic dishes such as fish and chips, the full breakfast and the Sunday roast, the vibrant UK restaurant scene serves up dishes from every corner of the globe to suit any budget. Pubs in the UK have also evolved, but you can still find a huge selection of British ales – all served by the pint of course – and even some English wine too!
There is no official language in the UK, but the vast majority of people speak English. However, several minority languages are found around the country. Around 20% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, and the language is used in some schools. Scotland also has its own Gaelic language, and many more languages are spoken within the various migrant communities.
The ‘British accent’ is a Hollywood staple, particularly when casting villains, but in reality this isn’t quite so simple to define. The UK has huge variation in accents and dialects – even within the space of a few miles – a fact that often confuses visitors. But once you learn to tell your Cockney from your Scouse and your Geordie from your Brummie, you start to realise it’s all part of the British charm.
It’s fair to say that people in the UK are a bit obsessed with the weather. Changes in the weather regularly make the headlines and complaints about the heat, cold, rain or wind are great topics for small talk. In reality the climate in the UK is pretty moderate, if changeable, but there is a lot of regional variation too.
Safety and security
Generally speaking, the UK is a relatively safe country to live and work in. However, it’s always advisable to be aware of your surroundings and avoid personal risk. The Crimestoppers charity offers useful information about staying safe in the UK, and many police forces offer local advice through their websites.
The UK system consists of four separate areas: primary, secondary, further and higher education. Primary and secondary education, for children aged between 5 and 16, are compulsory. The majority of pupils attend publicly-funded state schools, but there are also independent private schools and home schooling options available.
The Scottish education system differs from the rest of the UK. It has its own legislative framework, curriculum and qualifications system. Education is still compulsory from ages 5 to 16, but once students have completed secondary school, they can study for the Scottish Certificate of Education which is an entry qualification for university.
The academic year in the UK generally runs from around September to July and is usually split into three terms, although some schools – particularly in Scotland – opt for a four-term system. Term dates for universities are decided by the individual institution, but school and college terms are dictated by the local authority, which often results in slight regional variations.
The UK is home to some of the oldest universities in the world, and with over 150 higher education establishments there is no shortage of choice for students or academics. All differ in terms of their location, facilities and atmosphere. Although these are not mutually exclusive, institutes are sometimes categorised as:
- Campus universities – where the majority of the university buildings are located on one large site
- City universities – where university facilities are spread out around various locations in a town or city
- Collegiate universities – where different colleges of the university operate with varying degrees of independence
Other labels you may hear applied to universities in the UK are ‘red brick’, ‘plate glass’ and ‘post-1992’. These refer to particular groups of institutions by their age or design style. There are also various professional and research associations to which UK universities may belong, such as The Russell Group, University Alliance and million+. Institutions are ranked annually by The Times according to a range of criteria including teaching, research, influence and innovation.
The way that universities are funded in the UK has changed significantly in recent years. The amount of financial support that institutions receive directly from the state has dropped considerably. Instead, universities have been allowed to charge students tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year. Although socially and politically controversial, this move has seen universities challenged to innovate and become more successful commercial entities.
Degree courses in the UK are offered in a huge range of subjects and can take different lengths of time to complete. Typical full-time course lengths are:
- Undergraduate degrees – three years
- Postgraduate degrees (taught) – one year
- Postgraduate degrees (research) – two years
- Doctoral degrees – three years
Some students choose part-time courses to accommodate family commitments or work around their studies, making the duration longer. Undergraduate courses at most Scottish universities take four years instead of the usual three, and professional courses like medicine and veterinary science take more years to complete. However, some institutions have also begun to offer fast-track courses which take less time and offer students significant savings on tuition fees.
UK institutions have a proud history in research, and as part of the university ranking criteria it is a high priority for most. Funding for academic research is available from several sources but competition can be fierce. The Euraxess website provides links to resources for researchers across Europe. To read more about research jobs in the UK, visit the job profiles section.
Further education is optional learning that takes place in schools or colleges after the completion of compulsory education at the age of 16. It precedes entry to higher education, and a range of different types of further education qualification are available.
Primary and secondary education
All state schools and many private schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum. The system is divided into four Key Stages and pupils are assessed at the end of each. Examinations taken at the age of 16 (Key Stage 4), represent a child’s first set of formal academic qualifications. These can dictate whether they continue on to further education.
In Scotland, there is no statutory curriculum and the qualifications obtained through primary and secondary education differ to those in the rest of the UK.
Preschool and childcare options
For people relocating with children below school age, there are many preschool and childcare options including:
- Local authority (state-run) nursery schools
- Nursery classes in independent schools
- Children and family centres
- Community childcare centres
- Privately-run day nurseries
- Workplace nurseries
Many of these are privately funded and can be very expensive for parents. The Free Early Education scheme can help with these costs by providing a certain amount of free childcare per week. Some employers may directly offer help and support with childcare. Others offer salary sacrifice schemes such as childcare vouchers to help parents who are paying for preschool education.
The cost of living in the UK varies hugely depending on location. London is typically the most expensive place to live, and wages there tend to be higher to reflect this. Many people who work in London choose to live outside the city in so-called ‘commuter towns’ to save on costs, and travel to work by public transport. Across the rest of the UK, living costs are generally lower in the north than the south, although there is still a degree of variation between cities and towns.
Finding accommodation can be a daunting prospect, with several options offering different cost bands. For academic jobs, many universities provide accommodation for international staff. Alternatively, you could arrange rental accommodation locally. Your employer may be able to suggest some areas to consider. Costs will vary, but as a guide average rent ranges are approximately:
- £50 to £150 per week for a bedsit or studio
- £60 to £200 per week for a shared house or flat
- £100 to £400 per week for private house or flat
Source: www.internationalstaff.ac.uk (accessed April 2014)
If you move to the UK on a long-term or permanent basis, you may want to consider buying a property. House prices are quite high compared to many countries, but there is a great choice of characterful older properties and modern new-builds. Whether you choose to rent or buy, you will also need to arrange home and contents insurance for your property.
Most landlords and letting agencies in the UK require a deposit to be paid up front. Typically this is one month’s rent, although there is no set rule. The deposit acts as insurance against minor damage to the property. Letting agencies may also charge administration fees for arranging the rent and preparing tenancy agreements. For more information and advice on renting property in the UK, consult the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Most properties in the UK are subject to council tax. This charge is levied by local councils to pay for shared services, and is calculated based on the value of the property and the number of people living there. Students are exempt from the tax, but academics and other university staff are not.
Utility bills you need to consider include water, electricity, gas, telephone and internet. Water bills are charged on either a metered or rated basis by the local provider in your area. Other utilities can be provided by a number of suppliers that compete on price. Websites such as uSwitch allow you to compare prices to find the best deal for these services. If you are renting a property, remember to check what utilities are included in the rent.
If you own a TV in the UK, you must hold a valid TV licence for your property. The full colour licence currently costs £145.50 a year.
Healthcare and medical costs
Public sector healthcare in the UK is operated by the state-owned National Health Service (NHS). It covers medical operations including hospital care, dentists and doctors (known as general practitioners or GPs). The service was founded in 1948 with the aim of making good-quality healthcare available to all UK citizens, regardless of wealth.
Foreign nationals are also entitled to some free care on the NHS, but some services must be paid for. Your entitlement depends on the nature and duration of your stay in the UK. The Citizens Advice Bureau website provides information about what you are entitled to.
There are also several private healthcare providers in the UK. Some employers may offer private healthcare options as part of their pay and remuneration package.
Shopping choice in the UK is vast, with big name chains and smaller independent retailers competing for business. For everyday items, supermarkets are usually cheapest although prices and quality differ between the premium and budget brands.
Value-Added Tax (VAT) is a tax charged on the majority of goods and services within the UK. Most day-to-day prices are quoted inclusive of VAT, however some tradespeople and service providers may quote prices excluding VAT, so it’s always worth checking before accepting a quote.
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – £690.41 per month
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – £570.05 per month
- Price of apartment in city centre – £3,097.61 per square metre
- Price of apartment outside city centre – £2,281.52 per square metre
- Loaf of bread – £1.03
- Milk (1 litre) – £0.93
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – £1.05
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – £3.00
- Packet of cigarettes – £7.56
- Petrol (1 litre) – £1.38
- Cinema ticket – £8.00
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed April 2014)
Budgeting and savings
Keeping track of your budget is really important, particularly if you are trying to save. For advice on budgeting, money saving tips and the best deals on living expenses, consult a consumer website like MoneySavingExpert.com.
There is a good network of motorways and main roads connecting all major cities and towns in the UK. To legally drive a UK-registered vehicle, you need a valid driving licence, road tax and insurance certificate for your use. Older vehicles also need an MOT certificate.
Driving licences are issued in the UK by the DVLA, and the minimum age to drive a car is 17. Foreign nationals living in the UK may be allowed to drive on non-British licences or exchange a non-British licence for a British one.
If you take your car with you to the UK for a visit, it does not need to be registered. However, if you stay for an extended period or become a UK resident, you must register your vehicle as imported.
Taxis and minicabs
Taxis are readily available in all major UK towns and cities and are usually metered. They can be pre-booked, hailed in the street or found at taxi ranks. Minicabs – also known as private hire vehicles – must be pre-booked. Journey costs vary depending on location and time of day, but they are generally more expensive in London and the south than elsewhere in the country.
Local bus services operate in all towns and cities, offering a relatively cheap and easy way of getting around. Be aware of the timetable though – many services are less frequent on evenings, weekends and bank holidays.
A number of coach operators offer road transport between major cities across the UK. This is usually slightly cheaper than travelling by train, but journey times can be longer.
The UK rail network offers fast intercity connections between all major cities, and there are also regular local trains serving smaller cities and towns. Rail tickets are usually cheaper if bought in advance and there are a number of railcards and concessions available for discounts on rail travel. Many stations also offer car parking facilities, although costs vary quite a lot.
Trams and underground rail
Several UK cities have alternative public transport systems, the most famous being the London Underground, or the ‘Tube’ as it is known. Glasgow also has a subway system, while major cities including Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham run light railway or tram services designed to relieve pressure on the roads.
There are several international airports located in or near UK cities including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. London Heathrow is among the world’s busiest airports, serving over 180 destinations in 85 countries worldwide. The large numbers of airlines operating flights within Europe mean that fares to most European destinations can be purchased relatively cheaply. Domestic flights also operate between major UK airports and are fairly inexpensive.
Planning a journey
The UK’s extensive public transport network offers various ways of getting around depending on your location. If you’re not sure what the best option will be, the Traveline website provides route planning for all modes of public transport.
The normal working hours in the UK are typically Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. However, most organisations offer some movement within these times, and many operate systems of flexible working or variable hours to allow employees to work around other commitments.
Most permanent employees who work five days a week are entitled to a minimum of 28 days of paid holiday (annual leave) each year, although this total includes bank holidays. Employers may offer more annual leave at their discretion. Holiday entitlement for temporary staff and contractors works differently, and should be discussed with the employer before you start the post. Self-employed workers are not entitled to annual leave.
The UK has eight regular bank holidays. Many organisations close on some or all of these dates, although in certain sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, businesses may remain open.
Bank holiday dates 2019
1 January – New Year’s Day
19 April – Good Friday
22 April – Easter Monday
6 May – Early May bank holiday
27 May – Spring bank holiday
26 August – Summer bank holiday
25 December – Christmas Day
26 December – Boxing Day
If a bank holiday is on a weekend, a ‘substitute’ weekday becomes a bank holiday, normally the following Monday.
Visas and eligibility to work
Depending on your nationality, the reason for your visit and the duration of your stay, you may be required to obtain a visa before entering the UK. Visas confirm your entitlement to live and/or work in the country. You can find out whether you need a visa by taking a short questionnaire on the GOV.UK website. However, this is a complex area and the rules on who can and cannot work in the UK change regularly. As a general guide, remember:
- Never assume that you will be granted a visa
- When your visa expires, you will not necessarily be granted an extension
- Even if permission to work has been given, you cannot start work until a visa has been issued
- Visas can still be refused even if permission to work has been granted
- Your visa is your responsibility – if it lapses then your right to live and/or work in the UK may become invalid
For the latest advice, visit the UK Border Agency website.
Tax and National Insurance
To work in the UK, you must apply for a National Insurance number. This unique number will enable you to pay the tax and National Insurance that all workers in the UK contribute to. Tax rates vary depending on the amount that you earn, although not all earnings are subject to tax. Tax and National Insurance contributions are usually deducted directly from your pay through the PAYE (Pay As You Earn) system. More detailed information is available through the tax section on the GOV.UK website.
As National Insurance contributions are compulsory in the UK, the payments you make help to build your entitlement to the State Pension when you retire. In the past many UK employers operated optional workplace pension schemes. However, changes in the law in 2013 made it a requirement for employers to enrol the majority of their workforce in some kind of pension scheme. This system is called auto-enrolment and will be phased in between now and 2018. Speak to your employer to find out what kind of pension scheme they offer and how it applies to you.
Some foreign nationals living in the UK are entitled to state benefits. This will depend on your work and social situation, and may be means tested. To find out what you are able to claim, consult the benefits section on the GOV.UK website.
UK law offers disabled workers significant protection from discrimination on the grounds of their disability. The Equality Act 2010 outlines the rights of disabled workers, including reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Most businesses are more than willing to make any such adjustments, so disabled workers should speak to their employer about their individual requirements before taking up their post.
Although businesses in the UK generally maintain relatively flat organisational structures, decision making usually takes place at the top. In the past there was a very rigid segregation between the ranks in British business, with management and lower level staff often sitting on separate floors. While far fewer companies operate this way today, senior managers still maintain a certain degree of authority and respect.
Loyalty and integrity are among the key values of British workers, and they also appreciate directness and honesty from their managers. However, understatement is also commonplace, particularly in group situations when diplomacy is called for. Business operations in the UK tend to stick to established rules, frameworks and procedures which can sometimes slow down developments and decision making.
The ‘stiff upper lip’ reputation may not be entirely deserved, but it’s fair to say that the British can be rather formal in business situations. Over-familiar behaviour such as backslapping or hugging is unusual, as are overt emotional displays. There is also a wariness of sales tactics, so always try to build rapport and relationships before trying to do deals.
Many Brits prefer to work with organisations or people they already know, but this should be seen as an opportunity. Networking is vital to business success in the UK, but when you develop a good relationship it’s likely to last. Once you have good rapport with your contacts, your UK business dealings will often become more informal and open, although still professional.
Business letters in the UK are written in a formal style and follow certain conventions. Email etiquette is less well established, so it’s best to start off formal. Depending on how well you know a person, use their first name or their title and surname. Begin your first email with ‘Dear’, and end it with a friendly yet professional signoff like ‘Kind regards’. As the email exchange continues, you can drop some of the formality, particularly if the other person does too.
Often the dress code for a meeting will be specified, but if in doubt it is better to be formal. Men usually wear a dark-coloured business suit with shirt and tie, although more companies now allow open collars. Women normally select a business suit and blouse or a conservative dress. Some organisations allow people to dress more casually on Fridays, but this is by no means universal so it’s best to check before dressing down.
The customary business greeting for both men and women in the UK is a firm handshake, and people usually shake hands on departure as well. First name terms are used in most face-to-face settings, although there may be some exceptions, such as in medical and academic environments. Business cards are usually exchanged during the meeting, but there is no formal process for this.
Punctuality is very important. Ensure that you book meetings well in advance and confirm the date, time and location by email. If you are running late, always call to advise someone – even if it’s only a few minutes.
Although business meetings in the UK are usually structured with a clear agenda, small talk before and afterwards is customary. Negotiations are usually quite open, but it’s important to pay attention to what’s not said as well as what is said. In most cases the British favour an outcome that serves both parties well. Ensure that you have a sound argument backed up by facts and figures as the British like to be well informed when it comes to decision making.
It is important to remember that the UK has a strong anti-discrimination culture backed by law. It is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of age, gender, race, religious views, disability, sexual orientation or marital status. Bear this in mind when conducting business meetings or even during small talk.
Internationally, Brits are regarded as poor at learning languages. Although this is something of a generalisation, it’s true that business in the UK is almost always conducted in English. Most job applicants are expected to have a high standard of written and spoken English. Remember that British and American English can differ somewhat in spelling and vocabulary, and the UK is also well-known for its huge range of regional accents!