Basics

You should note the United Kingdom, while politically unified, is essentially four separate nations, each identifying with itself more than the whole. Do not refer to the people of Scotland or Wales as "English", it could cause offence and embarrasment. They are "Scots" or "Scottish" (DEFINITELY not "Scotch") and "Welsh" respectively. Owing to the tensions in Northern Ireland, people are usually "British" or "Irish", but it is not advised to question this, just accept it if you are told. The people of England are "English" and are the only people in the UK who should be referred to as such. 

The population of the UK is predominantly Caucasian (90%) but many different communities are well-established here (Chinese, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean being the main three). As such, discriminatory behaviours, attitudes and comments are not tolerated. If the police become involved, they will not make light of the offence. Sanctions include anything from fines and community service right through to custodial sentences and deportation.

Language

English is the major language of the UK and is universally spoken; a myriad of dialects and accents exist and can confuse visitors (such as Geordie, Tyke, Scouse, Cockney).  Many other languages are also spoken, especially in the major cities.  However, the only language (other than English) to have legal status thoughout the UK is Welsh; in Wales all road signs, public documents, broadcasting, etc are bi-lingual. 

Scots Gaelic is spoken in the Western Isles and the western fringes of the Scottish Highlands and has legal status in Scotland. Many of the road signs in the highland and islands are bilingual and include the Gaelic version of the place name, which can be interesting and fun to try to wok out the pronunciation. Do not be confused if you cannot understand what people are saying to each other in Scotland because the Scots accent can be too strong for visitors. 

Nevertheless, throughout the UK, if you address people in Standard English, they will reply in Standard English 99.9% of the time. 

Laws

The countries of the UK have separate legal systems. Generally speaking the laws are similar and visitors will not usually encounter problems. One thing worth mentioning is that whilst you have the famous 'right to roam' in Scotland, in England and Wales that could be trespassing and could be illegal.

Driving

Traffic in the UK drives on the left. The steering wheel is the right (that is right-hand drive) in all UK registered cars.  Stay to the left unless you are overtaking (passing) someone. 

Speed limits are generally 30mph (50kmh) in towns and cities, 60mph (100kmh) on single carriageway rural roads, 70mph (110kmh) on motorways and other dual carriageways. In villages and parts of small towns you will often encounter 20mph limits or even less.  These limits only apply where no other speed limit is indicated or when you pass a "National Speed Limit" sign (a round white sign with a black diagonal stripe).   Lower speed limits apply if you are towing a caravan or trailer.  To convert mph to kph, divide by 5 and multiply by 8.

Speed limits are usually indicated by a number (in mph) inside a red circle on a white background sign. However, in urban areas there may be no such signs.  If there are street lamps every 50 yards, this indicates a 30 mph zone.  If such a lit street has a higher limit, this will be indicated on small circular signs as described earlier.  On motorways, overhead lit signage and signs in the central reservation indicate temporary speed restrictions and any incidents/problems ahead. These speed restrictions are the speed limit on the motorway from that point until you see a sign saying 'End'.

Speeding offences carry a £60 fine, payable within 28 days.

According to the Highway Code, traffic signals go RED ('Stop'), RED AND AMBER ('Stop'. Do not pass through or start until GREEN shows), GREEN (you may go, if the way is clear), AMBER ('Stop' at the stopline. You may go on only if the AMBER appears after you have crossed the stop line or are so close to it that to pull up might cause an accident) then RED ('Stop'). Only proceed when signals are green as a number of drivers will "shoot the amber" and occasionally "the red" (neither is recommended, both are very dangerous, the latter being illegal and often enforced by licence plate recognition cameras at accident prone junctions).

Read the Highway Code before you drive in the UK. It details all rules and recommendations for driving in the UK. Pay particular attention to Rules 110 and 111 as the "flashing headlights" signal is interpreted differently in many other nations. The Highway Code makes it clear that you should only flash your headlights to let other people know you are there. Nevertheless, people flash their headlights for various reasons, from letting you know they are giving way to you (note that the Hgihway Code offers the sensible advice that you should use your own judgement on when it is safe to proceed) as well as to remonstrate fellow road users for what they perceived to be bad driving. 

Public Transport & Under Your Own Steam

You do not need a car to get around nor in the major cities. London, Liverpool and Glasgow have subway (underground train) systems that link many parts of the city and suburbs to each other and the main railway stations. The London subway, known as the Tube (and signed by a red circle with a blue line, inscribed with Underground, through the centre) is fairly complex but maps are available everywhere and are very easy to follow. Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and Sheffield have tram systems, serving most central areas and some outer districts. Newcastle has a Metro light rail system, similar to the S-Bahn found in German cities. All cities offer good bus services. 

Pedestrian lights display a red man in a standing position when it is unsafe to cross, and a green man in a walking stance (sometimes accompanied by bleeping noises) when pedestrians should cross.  Jaywalking is not illegal in the UK but unless you have a good knowledge of the road and the way people drive on it, it is highly ill-advised.

Britain's railway system is one of the most extensive in Europe, and although the network suffers from its Victorian heritage as well as the legacy of successive governments' interference and underfunding; it is the best way to travel from one end of the country to the other and appreciate its highly diverse landscape and culture - once you have worked out the network's many infuriating quirks and idiosyncracies!   There are five long distance trunk routes that link London to all the major cities and regions, and along each of these there are "principal stations" from which regional routes radiate out to local towns and rural areas.  The key to successful rail travel in Britain is to avoid travelling in or out of London near the peak rush hour period (as the trains will be both very crowded and no cheap advance tickets will be available)  and book your tickets in advance through either The Trainline or directly at the train operator's website - a web portal for the entire network can be found at National Rail Enquiries.

Because of the island's small size, domestic air travel is at its most dense on the routes linking London with the major cities in the north of England and Scotland and if booked well in advance the fares are very competitive compared to the long-haul rail routes although the ever more stringent airport security rules and the improving rail service in recent years has eroded their attractiveness.   There is a bewlidering range of small regional air routes between secondary and tertiary population centres in the country, and between the Scottish islands, but in general the fares are very expensive compared to rail.

Smoking in Public Places

It is illegal to smoke in any enclosed public space across the entire of the UK. This includes, but is not limited to, all pubs, bars, cafés, shops, restaurants, government buildings (with the exception of the bars in the Palace of Westminster).

It is forbidden to smoke on any form of public transport, including whilst waiting on open-air platforms, and is only permitted in designated external areas of airports (usually situated by the pick-up and drop-off points). 

Pubs & Bars

Go up to the bar counter to place your order. Drinks will be pulled or poured for you there and then, unless the bar staff say they will bring it over (e.g. slow Guinness). Payment is then taken before you leave the bar. Very occasionally, payment may be taken before drinks are poured. Food is usually ordered and paid for at the counter, sometimes at a separate place, in the same way. They'll usually want to know where you are sitting, so find a table before you order. Some establishments will let you run up a 'tab' - especially if you are having a meal - if you give them your credit card to swipe beforehand.  Do not forget to settle up at the end!  

In pubs and most bars, few people tip, though if you receive good service or you've spent a good evening in the 'local', you can offer the person who serves you 'one for yourself' when you buy a round or pass a 'couple of quid' over the bar when you leave at last orders. Tipping in bars (or not) varies a lot around Britain but a tip is always appreciated by the staff.

The law regarding alcohol purchase is quite complex. Here are a few pointers to help out in this minefield. The three laws currently enforced in the UK are the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, the 2003 Licensing Act and the 2000 Young Persons (Alcohol) Act.

  1. Persons under 18 cannot buy a drink anywhere on licensed premises, to attempt is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000, more normally, an £80 on-the-spot fine.
  2. Proxy Purchase: To buy alcohol, whilst on licensed premises or in an alcohol exclusion zone, on behalf of a person under 18 is a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum £5,000 fine, more usually, an £80 on-the-spot fine.
  3. Alcohol exclusion zones are in force in some UK towns and cities in areas where street drinking is a problem.
  4. It is technically legal for persons over 5 to consume alcohol on licensed premises providing proxy purchase did not occur (this means the person over 18 must offer to buy the drink and not take any payment from the person under 18), but see point 5.
  5. In practice, licensees and their representatives will confiscate alcohol from under 18s, owing to "Duty of Care" regulations and the high likelihood that proxy purchase did actually occur.
  6. Over 5s can consume alcohol under parent/guardian supervision in non-public spaces (houses, hotel rooms etc).
  7. It is an offence to give anyone under the age of 5 an alcoholic drink anywhere, except under medical supervision in an emergency.
  8. Persons 16 or over can drink beer, cider or wine for consumption with a meal served on the premises, this must be bought by a person over the age of 18 and the person under 18 must not pay for this or rule 2 applies.
  9. Persons under 14 are not allowed to approach the bar in licensed premises and their entry to the premises is dependent on the licensee's policy.
  10. Persons between 14 and 18 can approach the bar to purchase non-alcoholic beverages.
  11. Service legally has to be refused to policemen on duty, known prostitutes (incl. rentboys) and people who are visibly too intoxicated.

Put more simply: If you ar under 18, it is more than advisable to not attempt to buy or consume alcohol on licensed premises. If you are over 18, do not buy for under 18s and do not get too drunk or sell yourself and expect service!

Pub-Restaurants

Some pubs are more like restaurants, where the food is the main draw as opposed to the beer. If the outside sign reads "restaurant" then they usually serve a full menu. If it just says "food served" then it will be a more limited menu, possibly offering sandwiches, ploughman's lunches (bread, cheese and pickles), and maybe chips with everything grills.

Children are generally welcomed, but after the end of food service, and certainly by 9pm, most places will ask for under 14s to leave the premises or ask for families to move to the "Family Area" or the "Beer Garden".

Most British pub-restaurants seem very casual and can confuse foreign visitors, especially those from the USA. As in all drinking establishments, there is an unspoken etiquette -

  • Wait your turn at the bar (don't make audacious attempts to attract the bar staff's attention ( i.e. coin-tapping or waving); they'll know you're waiting),
  • Speak in moderate tones,
  • Don't argue with bar staff, it generally leads to a distinct lack of friendly service (if there's a problem with your order, just point it out politely instead of making a large fuss about it, mistakes happen!).

Some smarter pub-restaurants will seat you, especially at busy times. If the place has a 'reputation', it may be worth booking if you plan to eat during a busy time (generally speaking, between 12noon and 2pm then 6 and 10pm). Otherwise, you walk in and find your own seating. The menu will either be displayed near the bar and there will be menus on the tables.

If you order at the counter, you will generally pay at the counter as well, then the food is served to table. Some establishments take orders at table and provide full table service, with payment taken afterwards. If you wish to tip then either leave the change on the table. For a large group split the bill per person and then round each persons share up to the nearest pound. Percentage tipping is not expected. Repeat custom is generally appreciated more than monetry tips.

If you are handed a numbered token, then find somewhere to sit and keep your ears open as your number will be shouted out when th e order is ready. In most places, the order is brought over to you, some others, you go up to a serving hatch. Breakfast in a pub, though few do it,  tends to be eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes/baked beans and fried bread, however there are regional variations on this. This tends to be mainly in pub chains such as Weatherspoons.  

Nightlife

Nightlife in the UK is generally some of the best around and each city has its own distinct vibe and feel, though each one offers a good variety of venues and entertainment.

All major cities have at least one theatre and concert hall. Theatres will showcase interpretations of West End and Broadway productions as well as the local dramas and plays. Concert halls will host a range of performances from classical Bach and Tchaikovsky to more contemporary music. Tickets tend to go quite quickly for the more well-known shows, so it's worth booking over the Internet before you come to the UK or asking your hotel's concierge upon arrival.

If you want to sample the UK's popular music scene, it is worth checking out the arenas ubiquitous to every major city in the UK. Most of the UK's more popular bands will play at these, as well as the internationally known artists. For the New Music scene (up-and-coming raw talent as well as the slightly less established performers), you will be better off looking for an "Academy" or student unions. Prices, for entry and drinks, will be a lot cheaper than at an arena and in two years' time, you might be saying that you "saw their first live gig and got their autograph on a set list." 

Clubbing in the UK is among the best in the world. London, Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle all feature in a list of the world's top 10 party cities (on another travel website) and many other UK cities follow closely behind. Entry policy and prices vary greatly, though as with everything, expect to pay slightly more in London than elsewhere. All scenes are catered for and you'll be able to find a club to suit your tastes mostly everywhere. Just ask for local knowledge!

For the LGBT community, London and Manchester are the UK's major "gay" centres and well worth visiting, though "the scene" exists in most other places too. Click here then on Travel for more in depth recommendations.