I’ve lived most of my life abroad, however after a wonky attempt to move to Ecuador, I’m now back in the UK. As I’ve been in Britain a year now I thought to offer up a complete guide on life in the UK. British lifestyle & culture, cost of living, healthcare, housing and everything in between.
This guide is based on my personal experience, and feedback from friends living here too. There is no one-size-fits-all way of defining life in the UK, but still, I hope you find it helpful.
This is a personal guide based on my impressions. You might find some variation, especially regarding costs and especially if you’re comparing life in rural UK with central London.
I’ll aim to add to this post as I come across more information which might be of help. In the meantime, feel free to leave me a comment (see below this post) if you have any queries.
Welcome to the UK!
Life in the UK: Settling in and practicalities
Work & finding a job in the UK
To find a job in the UK, the main website for job hunters is LinkedIn. There is also the government’s ‘Find a Job’ site. Then, major recruitment sites include Reed and Indeed. Meanwhile, Glassdoor offers insights into companies based on the experiences of past and current employees. Also, newspaper and media websites offer jobs portals, and the Guardian has a good breadth of jobs in the media and charity sectors in particular. Finally, Google Careers is another portal worth investigating.
For university undergraduates and recent graduates, job fairs and events can be a great way to get to know companies and make the first step in applying.
Most large firms have their own dedicated careers sites and you’ll need to apply directly through them. Some of the biggest companies in the UK include:
- Unilever (consumer goods)
- AstraZeneca (pharmaceutical)
- Royal Dutch Shell (oil and gas)
- BHP (mining)
- Rio Tinto (mining)
- GlaxoSmithKline (pharmaceutical)
- HSBC (finance)
However, from personal experience it pays to reach out to firms of any size to enquire about work. Reaching out to employers for indirect feedback, as opposed to actually asking for a job can work well in terms of finding out about potential openings and just getting your foot in the door.
Work lifestyle & practicalities
In terms of etiquette, expect some small talk before getting down to business. It’s normal to go out for drinks after work, but it’s rare for members of the worker’s family to get involved. A client might get invited out to dinner, but it’s more likely that it would be among a group of colleagues than with the families too.
Hard sells and overly emotional pitching won’t go down well on the whole. If we feel we’re being hard sold something, our barriers will shoot up and we’ll be out of the door sharp.
The pandemic is shaking up how we do business, with a lot more companies moving towards flexible hours and working from home. ‘Hot desking’, i.e. using whichever desk is available when you arrive was fairly common in large companies, but rarer in smaller and medium sized organisations, and this has changed a lot due to COVID regulations.
It’s also becoming increasingly common to use a person’s first name. While you might call your ‘doctor’ by their title, chances are they will introduce themselves with their first name. In some unique settings, for example in the medical field or military, a high ranking worker may prefer to be addressed by their title. I understand that in the military, this use of title is especially important, but I think this worldwide, not a British phenomenon. The only people I refer to with their title are my children’s teachers – out of respect my children refer to them as Mrs. Smith etc. and adult parents follow suit out of habit, too.
Team work and the ability to get on with others is an important skill in the UK. It’s common for staff to go out for a drink together after work on a Friday night, or at least it was until COVID hit.
The British might not be into meetings as much as in the US, however meetings are still an important part of British work life. Meetings may be informal or highly structured, but either way the general idea is to share information and for attendees to leave with specific tasks.
For full-time workers, most work around 40 hours per week. The maximum working week is 48 hours, although employees can choose to work more. Some industries, for example law and banking, are notorious for their extremely long working weeks.
This is a minimum of 28 days holiday (vacation) for full-time employees, plus UK public holidays.
In terms of equality at work, alas racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination do exist. However it’s not acceptable, and while I don’t want to sugar coat the process, there are ways to deal with it. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau is a good place to start.
If you’re looking to work in the UK you will need a national insurance number. To apply for yours, visit the UK government website. It can take a few weeks to get an appointment, so I’d advise you to start the process as soon as possible if you do need a NI number.
Cost of Living
The cost of living varies wildly, mostly in terms of accommodation in London compared to more rural locations. London is much more expensive than the rest of the UK.
House prices have risen dramatically over the years, and there is a common belief that it is good to own a home in the UK (as opposed to renting). Yet, buying a property doesn’t always make sense, especially when the market is volatile and you may be moving to a new country in the future.
The pandemic has caused a lot of people to question the comforts that central London provides compared to an easier life in a more suburban or rural setting. It’s too early to say, but some are talking about prices in central London coming down slightly, while costs in secondary cities like Bristol, Manchester, as well as London suburbs, going up considerably.
As for renting, for a two-bedroom apartment in a centralish part of London, expect to pay at least £2,000 per month, I reckon (although for a swankier place in an affluent area the sky is the limit). However bear in mind that rent in smaller cities will be much, much less. For more on life in London, see my guide.
There is a good basic, social infrastructure in place, at least compared to many developing countries I’ve lived. Here in the UK my children go to a state-funded school. This level of education would cost us thousands per year in Chile. Meanwhile, my two year old goes to a nursery (all nurseries are private). When my daughter turns three she’ll be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare, but right now I spend about £30 per half day . The average cost of sending your child to nursery is about £150 per week on a half time basis (e.g. mornings only), however it varies a lot. The cost of our kids’ afterschool club is just £2 per child per hour!
For more on housing, childcare & education read on…
I think it is fairly easy to open a bricks and mortar bank account, although I’ve heard mixed reports. There is a shift from in person banks to the digital world, and it can be hard to find a physical bank in smaller towns and cities. It may be hard to get hold of a credit card, too however. I’d be cautious when opening a credit account, especially service fees and late payment penalty charges.
One popular option for petty cash accounts (i.e. not huge transactions) is Monzo, an online app based bank. I understand there are no service fees when withdrawing money from an ATM machine, or when travelling (but double check as policies change all the time).
To open a bank account in the UK, you’ll most likely need proof of a UK address (for example a rental contract or utilities invoice) and ID such as your passport. If you’re studying you may need to show proof of your studies, for example a confirmation letter from your university. Do check what you need carefully according to the individual bank; otherwise it can be an absolute bureaucratic nightmare.
As for currency and transfer services, personally I use Wise (formerly Transferwise). There is a charge per transaction, but it’s widely used as a default option among people I work with.
You can’t build up a credit score in your home country before you move to the UK. If you like in a country where American Express has a base, then you could apply for a card there and ask to get your account transferred to the UK. Here’s a link with more on getting your first credit card in the UK.
The UK’s largest network providers are EE, Three, Vodafone and O2. There are also smaller providers which piggyback off these networks. So for example, as I’m in the UK temporarily, I signed up to a pay-as-you-go plan with Tesco mobile, and this network actually comes under O2. (Alas my coverage is very patchy so I wouldn’t recommend it for my area).
My main advice would be to ask around locally before you sign up. In my area at least, it seems EE offers a faster speed and better coverage but I’d already bought sorted out a phone with Tesco (as I’m on a pay-as-you-go plan I could switch, but I don’t plan on staying on the UK much longer, so I don’t feel it’s worth it).
The UK’s Ofcom mobile and broadband coverage checker is a good place to check too.
In terms of cost, think about how long you plan to stay. Some contracts offer good deals, but you’re locked into a contract for a long time. Also be aware of plans offering a free or fantastic value phones – most long term contracts offer such a deal, but remember it’s not actually free – you’re just splitting the cost over the long term. In my case it worked out cheaper to buy an iPhone through Apple separately.
In terms of contracts, be very cautious. Read the small print. Mobile phone network providers can get pretty heavy handed with their sales tactics, and brush over important terms and conditions quickly which could land you in some heavy costs. For example, with some contracts you are unable to downgrade your plan, so if you find yourself not needing some services or data, you’ll remain locked in.
The EU helped bring a cap on roaming charges for travel within the UK. Now that the UK has left the EU, we may be stuffed with charges once again. At the time of Brexit, mobile companies had promised not to levy fees on roaming, but EE has already announced they will be introducing a charge (a flat rate of £2 per day, with an exemption for Ireland).
If you plan on bringing your mobile phone handset from another country, make sure the phone is unlocked first, before arriving in the UK. Chances are you won’t be able to switch SIM cards if you do not unlock it.
In terms of broadband, you won’t normally be able to access the internet on your phone while on London’s underground. You may be able to connect to Wi-Fi, but it will be patchy, and public access (not a secure, private connection).
In terms of staying in touch with people from afar, I personally rely on Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp. I also have friends who prefer Signal and Telegram for data privacy reasons.
Disabilities and the deaf community
A friend of mine from India marvelled at how well adapted the UK was for disabled people… until he travelled around London. Getting around by public transport, especially in London can be near impossible in most of central London. The tube (underground train service) doesn’t have lifts in all of its stations, and even those that do are often out of action. I’m embarrassed when I talk about this to friends from more developed places.
Yes, parking bays are reserved for those disabilities (and the respective blue parking badge), but life in the UK is not perfect for anyone with a disability for sure.
Another area of concern is with regards to the deaf community. Since the pandemic hit and we all started waring masks, deaf people reliant on lip reading and facial communication have expressed a feeling of exclusion. What’s more, national government COVID updates didn’t provide a sign language interpreter, which left a lot of people angry and frustrated.
There have also been reports of disabled people being excluded during the pandemic, especially those separated during lockdown and unable to visit. On the other hand, the ability to work full time from home and advances in tech has made others feel the pandemic has made life less restrictive.
I am not disabled so I can’t speak from personal experience. The law requires that all public service providers (except in the transportation sector!) make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure their services are available to people with disabilities. Disability sport is widely celebrated. Personally, for me the London Olympics was a real turning point and from then I started to notice more disability sport on TV.
I’d like to think that on the whole, the general public are respectful and want to support people with disabilities.
Public transport in the UK is fairly accessible. However in terms of availability, it depends a lot where you live – rural areas are much lesser served than central London, for example. Also for some services, costs can vary hugely depending on how far in advance you are able to book – this is especially true for train services. As mentioned above, services for disabled people aren’t always great, especially in central London.
It’s generally safe to travel on public transport at any time of the day. As a woman, I personally would not always feel safe walking home alone so I’d take an Uber. However, this applies to anywhere I’ve lived.
As for train travel, this is operated through different providers, and journey varies wildly on price according to how much notice you are booking with, as well as the provider. For prices and booking, I use the Trainline website and app. If you travel by train regularly, you might want to invest in a Railcard.
If you’re living in a rural area, or a smaller city, you may find it hard to get around without a car. Where I am based in Yorkshire I would not be able to pick my kids up from school without a car. Day-to-day life without a car would be very difficult. However in some larger cities, especially London, a car is more of a hindrance than a benefit as parking space is rare and expensive, and congestion charges add on extra cost, too.
I also own a bike and I loved cycling around London in particular. However to cycle in London, you need to map out your route to avoid major roads. It’s really important to wear high visibility clothing and use a light, and be especially cautious of lorries and buses who have limited vision of cyclists close by. I have a few friends who have narrowly avoided getting crushed by buses who haven’t seen cyclists in their path.
Bicycle theft is very common, too. So invest in a good lock. I’d caution against using an expensive bike if possible and I’d never leave a cycle of any value in the street (even locked up) for extended periods of time / overnight.
In terms of transport, London can be horribly pricey. Outside of London and in more rural settings it’s more common to drive. As for me, living in a rural area, I spend around £120 per month on petrol to ferry my kids to and from school.
There are a variety of transport options – underground train services (the tube), over ground trains, buses and taxis. See Transport for London (TFL) for more and to plan your route.
If you’re moving to London, be especially aware of transport costs, as these can rack up. Living far away from your office may not always work out cheaper in the long run. London is divided into zones, with travel across more zones, in peak hours priced higher than travel just within the central zones off peak.
Buses tend to work out cheaper, but they may be slower than a tube ride. For a single bus fare, this is a standard charge for travel through unlimited zones but within one hour. Buses also have the advantage of helping you get to grips with the layout of the city, whereas if you spend your time underground on the tube, it’s much harder to learn your way around town.
Taxis may be much more expensive than you’re accustomed to in your home country. (As a Brit I always find taxis so cheap abroad!) As for taxis, there are registered ‘black cab, hackney carriage’ taxis which you can hail from the street and tend to be pricier, or apps like Uber, Cabify and Addison Lee. There are also unregistered minicab services, which I’d generally advise against (any guy can put a sticker on his car and claim he’s a minicab driver).
Most train services, including London’s underground (tube) services stop around 11pm / midnight and only restart around 6am, so plan your route in advance. Travel during peak rush hours, especially in central parts of London, can get pretty hectic. Rush hour is when people are travelling to work, so 7am – 9am and 5pm – 7pm throughout the week.
You can pay for travel in London using an ‘Oyster card’ which you top up (and which comes with student discounts), with a contactless pay as you go card (a card with a chip) or travel cards. You need to be sure to swipe in and out when you enter and exit so you don’t get overcharged (most stations are fitted with barriers so it’s impossible to forget to swipe).
If you’re travelling in London try not to get into people’s way. There are markings on the ground in some parts asking you to ‘keep left’ so people in a hurry can get by. The same applies on escalators, although we tend to keep right – it’s good manners to keep to the side so that people in a rush can overtake. If in doubt, follow the example of those in front of you!
Health services in the UK are governed by the UK’s public National Health Service (NHS).
It is a great pride of many Brits that public health is free and accessible to all. The dedication of medical staff, especially nurses, during the pandemic, made us all aware just how much healthcare workers invest in others’ lives.
However it’s not perfect. In my personal experience, the NHS has been great for anything serious, for example when my kid got two of his fingers chopped off in an accident, as well as for cancer treatment for loved ones in my family. However, for less serious, less obvious and more complicated long term issues, it’s been tricky. My second child’s tongue tie, allergies and infections went ignored and caused me a great deal of worry, and my baby was in a lot of pain. In my personal opinion, state healthcare needs more investment and nurses in particular need a pay rise. So I have mixed feelings.
Prescriptions, i.e. medicine prescribed by a doctor is free in certain circumstances (e.g. for children, pregnant women) and charges for others are capped. For example, my son’s allergy EpiPens cost us around $150 USD in Chile, whereas in the UK there was no charge. In Chile I knew people who couldn’t afford antibiotics which I found shameful. The standard prescription cost in England is currently £9.35 per item. That means that if you take in a prescription that lists several types of medication, you will pay £9.35 for each medication.
If you want to see a doctor:
- If it’s an emergency call 999 and request an ambulance.
- If it’s not an immediate emergency, but you need to get to a hospital fast, call 111. An advisor will direct you to the appropriate service for you.
- It’s it’s not urgent, call your local surgery. A surgery is basically your doctors’ office where you can book an appointment. You may have to wait up to a couple of weeks to get an appointment. If you are not already registered, you will need to do this (can be done over the phone generally)
Private services are available, but for anything specialised or urgent, the best doctors tend to work through the public system. Often the only difference is that you can see a doctor quicker if you choose (and can afford) to go privately, and perhaps the aftercare is more pleasant. For example, giving birth in a private hospital may mean nicer bed linen, more staff on hand and more days in the hospital. However, it won’t guarantee you a better doctor. In fact, the top doctors and surgeons tend to work under the NHS I reckon.
In the UK there is a growing awareness of the importance of mental health. For anyone experiencing mental health issues, the first point of call is always your GP. Having said that if you’re struggling right now, or know someone who is, the Samaritans offers a free helpline, available 365 days, 24 hours / day (call 116 123). Also, an organisation called Mind, offers support and information for people facing mental health issues.
If you’re not satisfied with the level of care from your GP you can request to see another, and / or lodge a formal complaint. Personally I found it took some time to find a GP I clicked with, and since then I prefer to to be seen by her, even if this means waiting a few weeks.
GP: General Practitioner – a first point of call doctor. This doctor will be your local doctor and will assess whether you need medication, treatment or to see a specialist.
Surgery: The doctor’s or dental office, the local clinic (not a hospital). Here the GP carries out assessments, nurses may take blood, your child may be vaccinated etc.
Consultant: a senior physician. These are specialists and patients must be referred to them by GPs.
A&E: Accident and Emergency department (ER in the US) for life-threatening illnesses or injuries.
UTC: Urgent Treatment Centre. This is walk in centre for dealing with less serious and non critical accidents, for example an ankle sprain.
Chemists: Pharmacists are also known as dispensing chemists.
Plaster cast: another term for a cast for broken bones.
Elastoplast: a British term for a Band-Aid
Surgical spirit: Rubbing alcohol
Jab: a shot, vaccination.
999: the emergency services telephone number, the equivalent to 911 in the US.
Compared to many countries I’ve lived in, I find grocery costs to be quite low. It’s worth noting though, that prices vary a lot from supermarket to supermarket, from brand to brand, and from store to store.
Here are the main supermarkets and stores:
- Marks and Spencer Foodhall (M&S)
Convenience (often higher priced but on your street corner, open late hours):
- Mc Colls
- Sainsbury’s Local
- Tesco Express
I hate supermarket shopping, so I do all my shops online, with delivery. You can do this through the larger supermarkets including Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s Morrisons and also with an online supermarket called Ocado.
Supermarkets have often featured in the media for their lack of social responsibility. Some, like Morrisons for example, have been called out for their dubious animal welfare standards. I try to shop local through smaller providers as much as possible.
A Tesco delivery sets me back £3, whereas my lovely green grocer delivers for free and the produce is better quality in general. I also get milk delivered through a a farm. I use Acorn Dairy – they’re organic, the cows are treated better and staff get better wages. While they’re only in the north, it might be worth investigating local supplies as much as possible, for all your groceries.
Housing is notoriously expensive in the UK, and even more so in London. Post pandemic a lot of people are choosing to move away from central London to more leafy suburbs and smaller cities, so prices are experiencing some movement, however they’re still high. For many expats, life in the UK is tough due to housing prices alone.
There is an overwhelming assumption that buying is better than renting. It’s assumed that you need to ‘get on the property ladder’ and stop throwing money down the drain in rent. However, buying is not always a smart move, especially if you’re on the move a lot and may need to sell up at short notice.
If you do decide to buy, you may need a mortgage (loan). There are different options, including variable and fixed rates, so it’s important to consider which is right for your personal financial situation. When applying, lenders will consider your age, income, job security and credit score. Most UK banks and lenders do not lend to non UK residents so you will have fewer mortgage options if you’re looking to buy before becoming a legal resident in the UK.
After putting down an offer, you will need to organise a conveyancer or property solicitor. Conveyancing is the legal process that takes place after your offer is accepted. This includes carrying out searches, drawing up and checking contracts, dealing with the Land Registry and paying stamp duty tax.
Whether you’re buying or renting, yes you may need to be quick to secure your deal, but be wary of estate agency aggressive sales tactics. Never sign on the dotted line before taking a good look around. Read the contract small print and do your research.
Recently there was a scandal where dangerous cladding (insulation) was used in apartments. Highly flammable it was the cause of horrendous fire in London (the Grenfell Tower tragedy) which caused the deaths of 72 people. Other buildings with this same cladding need to be upgraded, but it’s unclear who will foot the bill. Whether you’re buying or renting, you might want to ask regarding the cladding to be aware of any potential costs / dangers.
Take a look through the neighbourhood, get a feel for the place. Is it well lit? Would you feel safe here at night? Are there local amenities which are important to you on hand (e.g. a supermarket, cafe, leisure centre, school etc?)
If you are committed to buying a home, I’d strongly advise renting first to get a feel for the area. Some districts, for example Hackney in London used to be a bit sketchy in parts, however now that’s changing. The only way you can get a feel for a place is trying it out for yourself.
If you’re renting, the landlord or agency may require an upfront deposit of up to six months (one month is more typical), and you may need a UK resident to sign as a guarantor. The guarantor promises to pay rent in case you ever fail to do so.
The main websites for house hunting are Right Move and Zoopla. In terms of agencies, I’ve personally found smaller companies and private landlords much better (and cheaper) to deal with, however it’s the luck of the draw, I guess. I might worry about getting scammed if I didn’t know the person I was renting from, at least through good references.
If you get into a dispute with your landlord, or have a query, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau is a good place to start researching.
Crime & safety
In general I feel very safe in the UK, especially in rural areas. However, crime does exist just like in any other place.
Parks are safe spaces in the day time, but I would not feel comfortable walking through any park at night time.
If you go out for drinks, be aware of where your drink is. Don’t accept a drink from a stranger. Don’t walk home alone at night or after dark.
If you’re in a touristy / busy part of town, be especially cautious to keep your valuable belongings out of sight of strangers, zipped away. Petty theft and pick pocketing is very common in touristy areas. Don’t carry cash in your back pocket!
All in all I feel safe in the UK. I don’t need to worry about locked car doors and stopping at traffic lights, like I do in other parts of the world. I’m not worried about violent crime. Compared to other places I’ve lived, security is a big plus and makes life in the UK feel very appealing right now.
Schools & education
The British education system is divided into four main parts: primary education, secondary education, further education and higher education. Children in the UK have to legally attend primary and secondary education which runs from about 5 years old until the student is 16 years old.
- Key Stage 1: 5 to 7 years old
- Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old
- Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old
- Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old
There is no charge for primary and secondary education in the UK (from age 5-18). On the whole, state education is excellent, but it does vary. While there is a general syllabus and education standards that all schools must adhere to, the standard and style of education varies.
Bizarrely, in the UK a ‘public school’ is actually the terms for a private, fee-paying school. These tend to offer boarding facilities, for example weekly boarding where pupils sleep at the school during the week and return on weekends, and full boarding where pupils stay on weekends too, returning home for holidays only. Some schools also offer day boarding, where pupils stay late, typically doing their homework and eating at school, and also flexi boarding, where pupils sleep at school in certain days of the week, or for specific dates.
In terms of applying for state (non fee-paying) schools, this happens around September time. Applications open in September and close on 15 January. If your child is three or has just turned four you need to apply for school the next year. You’ll need to apply in September ideally even if you want your child to start part-way through the year. However, if you’re arriving at short notice, part way through the year, you can apply directly to your local council. For more information, see the government website.
In my case, returning to the UK at very short notice, I called up and emailed around local schools for places. I managed to find a good school with spaces for my children about 20 minutes drive from my home. Before my children could attend, I needed to apply through the local council system. Unfortunately all local schools within walking distance were completely full (as I was applying half way into the school year), and I feel I was lucky to get a space at all.
In terms of finding a good school, a good point of reference is Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills). Their routine reports of schools won’t show you the type of school, but they will highlight any areas of concern. Now, a lot of people complain that Ofsted is a box ticking exercise creating panic and fear in teachers and children, but I have to say that all the good schools (and kindergartens) in my neighbourhood have received ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ qualifications. Basically, don’t choose a school purely based on Ofsted reports, but do check them out for reference.
Faith schools, specialist schools and academies also exist within the state system. School academies receive state funding but are run by an academy trust and have more say over the way they run things. For example, an academy may follow different term dates and they do not have to follow the national curriculum.
Parents who have expressed a preference for a school will be considered first. However, each school has a limit of how many pupils it is allowed to take. If the number of preferences passed this number, then the school is oversubscribed. In that case, the oversubscription criteria will be applied. And in this case, preference may be awarded to children whose parents teach at the school, or with siblings already at the school, or who live locally, for example.
For my kids’ school application I was invited to list between three and five schools, in order of preference. Of course in my case, I had already called around all the schools as I was applying mid year and I knew spaces would be very limited. While our school is a drive away and is not Catholic (my children have been educated in the Catholic faith and this is important to us), I feel lucky that we got a space at a great school with excellent teachers and a lovely, caring, supportive community feel.
State education is not a shining example of British equality. Parents may move to good ‘catchment areas’ in the hope of securing a place for their child at a good local school. And when there is a good school in town, house prices go up, meaning it’s not always so fair after all.
Some parents choose a private, fee paying school. This may be because they are moving around and require the stability of a boarding school, or because they feel the education style of their local state school is not fitting to their preference. Like state schools, private schools (aka public schools, remember!) vary a lot in terms of their size, style, standards and fees.
In general, state schools often start the day a little earlier and finish later, so a typical day in a state school may run from 9am to 3.30pm, whereas in a public fee-paying school a typical day might be from 8am to 5pm, or later depending on their age. Term times may be shorter, and there may be sports events or schooling on Saturday mornings. This frees up more holiday time for pupils who need to travel abroad to see their families.
Another way state and fee paying schools tend to differ is class sizes. Public fee paying schools tend to benefit from smaller class sizes, better facilities and specialist teachers. However, this is definitely not always the case. The school where my kids are currently has such small classes that they need to join with different age groups to make up the numbers.
There are also grammar schools, which are government-funded secondary schools. They are the only state schools in England that are allowed to select all their pupils based on academic ability.
In terms of further education, A-Levels are the most common route for students remaining in education aged 16. However other options include BTECs, HNDs and NVQs.
Terms to know:
State school: a state sponsored school.
Academy: a school paid for by the state, but with more control over it’s educational approach.
Grammar school: Grammar schools are government-funded secondary schools. They are the only state schools in England that are allowed to select their pupils based on academic ability.
Comp: A comprehensive school is a public school for elementary aged or secondary aged children that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude.
Sixth Form: a school for children to prepare for their A-level exams, usually from 16-18 years old, known as Key Stage 5.
Public school: a private, fee-paying, independent school.
GCSEs: the General Certificate of Secondary Education is a qualification in a particular subject taken around the age of 16.
A-Levels: exams taken after the GCSE, on a par with the international baccalaureate, generally around 18 years of age.
University and further education:
There is a growing number of students going on from school to university, and less enrolling in skills based apprenticeships.
In terms of universities, there are three well regarded national tables: the Complete University Guide, the Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide and the Guardian University Guide.
The two top universities are widely believed to be Oxford and Cambridge, and you may hear people referring to an ‘Oxbridge’ education – meaning they were educated at one or the other.
Rankings can provide a general guide, however they fluctuate somewhat and it really depends on the specific course. While Oxford and Cambridge are well regarded across the board, other universities are well regarded for specific subjects too, for example medicine at Edinburgh, social sciences at LSE etc. Again, these are only reputations – courses change, teachers move… The best way to find out if the university is a good fit is to visit the university, check the course syllabus and speak to current students.
I attended Bristol university and chose it for three reasons: 1. the course syllabus 2. the people, the vibe, the city of Bristol itself 3. the quality of the education, the teaching staff and the student : teacher ratio.
In the age of the pandemic, it’s also worth checking their tuition method – online or in person. Some universities, especially Manchester got a bad name for making students travel from their homes far away, to pay for university lodging, only to sit in their bedrooms and study online.
As an alternative to universities, apprenticeships offer a more practical route to getting into work. An apprentice is defined as: ‘A person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer, having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages’. In the UK, apprenticeships are formal qualifications with an employer. There are four levels of apprenticeship available, each offering different levels of qualification: intermediate, advanced, higher, and degree.
In terms of childcare, options include a nursery (kindergarten), child minder, afterschool clubs, au pairs and informal babysitters.
Childcare is expensive in the UK, and there has been a big debate about supporting parents to work on a flexible basis so they can navigate their children’s timetable around work and other commitments.
Firstly, nurseries: similarly to schools, a good check if a nursery is up to scratch is to check its Ofsted rating. It won’t guarantee the style will suit your child, but it will show it has met the necessary government guidelines in terms of keeping children safe and stimulated. I appreciate that it is not always possible due to COVID restrictions, but to get a good idea your best bet is to visit the nursery and see for yourself.
In terms of costs in the UK the average cost of sending a child under two to nursery full-time is £242 per week, with part-time coming in at £127 per week. To give you an idea, I pay just under £30 for a half day for my child. However in London, the rates can be much higher. I have friends who pay a whopping £90 per full day.
There are some state subsidies (for example 30 hours per week at an approved childcare establishment for children aged 3-4), however compared to subsidies in other European countries, the UK falls rather short. Consequently, compared to many other countries, childcare in the UK can be very pricey.
I have never employed a nanny in the UK, but I’m told a part time nanny will set you back around £250-400 per week. A live-in nanny will cost around £350 per week, and day nannies charge around £450 per week. Again, these rates may be much higher in London.
For parents looking to go down the nanny route, it’s worthwhile remembering that the employer is subject to arranging tax contributions, so the gross rate you will pay will vary year-on-year. Furthermore, as an employer you’re liable for both the employee and employer national insurance contributions. What’s more you must provide (and set up) a pension if your nanny decides to opt in to a pension scheme.
However the hardest part is finding a good nanny in the first place, which is why many prefer to go through a reputable agency. With this in mind, it’s worth bearing in mind registration or set up fees. Some agencies offer the option to switch nannies at no extra cost if the relationship breaks down, while others charge an additional fee.
Personally, having lived through my fair share of nanny challenges abroad I’d strongly recommend ensuring that all papers are in order, and the nanny comes with decent references. If I were pursuing the route of a nanny in the UK, I’d definitely want to go through a trusted agency. Top agency names include Greycoat Lumleys and Norland. There is also another site – childcare.co.uk with reviews of childcare providers written by parents, but I’ve heard mixed reports (you have to sift through a lot of providers and unlike an established agency the nannies haven’t been vetted).
As for afterschool clubs, these depend on the school. I pay just £2 per one hour session per child. It’s a great add on, but it’s only one hour and I need to pick my kids up at 4.30pm, so it doesn’t work for every working parent. Some schools offer bus services, but where my boys attend, there is no such option. So I’m very grateful that I can work around my children’s timetable.
I’ve never employed an au pair, but I have worked as one. Day rates have moved on since I was a kid and I understand the going rate is around £80 per week (pocket money), plus board and lodging. This would entail a working week of around 25 hours, plus occasional babysitting (but no work on weekends).
Life in the UK: British lifestyle & culture
I’ve listed humour here at the top as it is so important. Irony, sarcasm, dark humour… it’s in our British DNA. The ability to laugh at yourself is considered a top trait.
Having lived abroad most of my life, I’ve often veered into my British comfort zone and unintentionally offended or confused people through a misplaced use of irony. And I’ve seen foreign friends get rather confused in the UK too.
Of course, there is friendly banter, and there is bullying and most humans of any culture can spot the difference.
In case you’re curious, some of the most popular British TV comedies include: Fawlty Towers, The Office, Only Fools and Horses, Black Adder, Absolutely Fabulous, Monty Python, The Thick Of It, Gavin & Stacey and Fleabag. I don’t love them all, personally, but they might give you a flavour of what we’re all about.
There is no single definition of what ‘British’ really means. Sure, we have our peculiarities and there are some funny stereotypes, but in general we’re a mixed bunch.
Immigration tends to be higher in the cities than in rural areas, but on the whole I reckon we’re a pretty diverse, multicultural crowd. Cities tend to be more diverse than smaller towns and rural areas, and even then ethnic groups are not always that evenly dispersed. I would say that, in general, this diversity is celebrated, rather than causing friction.
Like in many countries, the UK is facing its fair share of criticism in terms of racism. We’re doing a lot of soul searching right now about how to stop racism. I know that friends abroad often associate the UK with its colonial past and for sure, this past is not something to be proud of.
Racism is very present today too. Police stop and search racial profiling, the treatment of black vs white pregnant women and harassment at work are some of the many issues that need addressing. As I type, I’m sickened by the racist abuse levelled at English football players. Racism in English football is definitely an issue which needs addressing urgently. Of course, as a white woman I don’t know first hand what it feels like to live as a person of colour in the UK.
As for sexuality, I’d like to think a person’s sexuality is not an issue in the UK. It sounds utterly ridiculous to state what I feel is obvious – homosexuality is legal in the UK. Compared to other countries, however, perhaps it’s worth underlying that people in the UK by law should be able to feel able to live without fear of discrimination based on their sexuality.
I have worked mostly in creative communications which tends to be more open in general, so perhaps I have a blinkered view, but I feel people can generally express their sexuality openly without fear of reprisals at work. Many of my friends are gay, and like their religious beliefs no-one cares, it’s just not an issue. Like in many other countries, there has been a lot of debate around the discrimination of transgender people, however.
Again, I’m not saying it’s all fine and happy in the UK, but compared to other countries, the UK is not such a bad place at all, I reckon.
Regional pride plays a strong, but playful role in society. I’m from a region called Yorkshire and we like to talk a lot about how wonderful Yorkshire is (it really is great though!).
I would always refer to myself as British, never English, but I know some friends would call themselves ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’ when asked. Don’t misunderstand me though, while Northern Ireland has seen its fair share of trouble, on the whole there are no violent regional disputes in the UK.
Students leave home to study, often far away in the UK or beyond. So if you’re attending a university, don’t expect the views there to represent the city or region where you’re living.
Regional accents can be difficult to decipher. Glaswegian (the predominate accent in the Scottish city of Glasgow) is notoriously tough for many outsiders to understand. (My grandmother was from Glasgow and I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying!)
Regional slang is also widespread. Chances are you’ll pick up regional vocabulary organically, so expect to learn some interesting terminology depending on where you’re based.
Also, you may find the bigger cities a bit more fast faced and impersonal, compared to more rural areas where the pace may be slower, a bit friendlier and more direct. There is a common belief in the north of the UK that people get friendlier the further north you travel. Born in the north of England I couldn’t possibly comment!
Greetings and etiquette
The most common regional differences will be terms of endearment, even used to greet complete strangers. ‘Duck’ is a common way to greet someone in parts of the north of the UK, as well as ‘love’. When I’m doing my shopping, I might be called ‘love’ by a shopping assistant, but ‘my love’ is my pet name for my husband. You might come across ‘pet’, ‘dear’, ‘darling’ ‘flower’ ‘chuck’ and ‘sweetheart’. It’s totally normal, but like any slang, perhaps be cautious before trying it out. A burly man might not appreciate being called ‘flower’, unless of course he thinks you’re being ironic, which is another British trait.
‘How do you do?’ is a rare, rather formal and antiquated question to be asked in today’s Britain. Allegedly the correct reply is ‘How do you do?’ which might feel odd as a response. A lot of my foreign friends coming to the UK get excited by the prospect of using this question and getting it right, when in fact no-one really says this phrase!
We say ‘sorry’ a lot, but we don’t really mean it. We use the phrase ‘sorry’ as a natural, knee jerk reaction, but it doesn’t mean we’re truly sorry. For example, if someone bumped into me in the street, I might yelp ‘sorry!’ even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. Say ‘sorry’ at liberty, people will never be offended!
However, it’s not always common to apologise in professional settings. People may be worried about using an apology in an official, written context as this shows liability. As someone who has lived abroad I know it’s not just the UK, but it is still frustrating to see people feeling unable to apologise for fear of being reprimanded for their honesty and humility.
Remove shoes or don’t remove shoes… it’s a source of constant debate in my household. I’m team take them off, whereas my dad keeps them on at all times apart from when he’s in the bath! It’s a personal preference so check with your guest when you enter. Ask politely and if you see a row of shoes by the entrance and notice that your host is shoeless, I’d likely insist that you’re OK to take your shoes off too.
On the whole we’re punctual (with the exception of our trains!) Like most things etiquette related, it depends on the context. So it would be totally unacceptable to arrive 15 minutes late for a business meeting, whereas it would be polite in the case of a dinner party.
Arrive on time or slightly early to a business meeting. Arrive a little bit late to a social gathering, never early. If it’s a small, intimate social gathering with food don’t be too late though (ideally no more than 20 minutes), whereas if it’s a bigger party hosted by someone you don’t know so well with drinks only, you’re free to show up much later – I’d say around one or two hours.
I feel we Brits are seen as a rather reserved people. More outgoing cultures might find the British style a bit standoffish, but I think it’s more a need for physical personal space than a reticence to interact. We can seem shy to other nations, too.
Queueing, politeness, please and thank yous are important, and so is humour. Unless it’s the Queen’s birthday or the proms (a rather nationalistic orchestral musical show), it’s unlikely you’ll see a British person waving a national flag. It’s our nature to be a bit more low key, a bit less ‘in your face’.
This personal space applies to personal boundaries, too. Chances are you’ll get away with it more as a well meaning foreigner but British people may feel uncomfortable sharing their personal faith, taking about who they’ll be voting for and personal finances etc. Like in most countries, if you don’t know someone well, it’s best to avoid religion or politics until you get an idea of their personal boundaries and conversational style. It would be extremely rude to ask someone their salary.
When getting on a train, let people off first. And if you’re in a busy place with markings telling you to ‘keep left’, do keep left. In hectic parts of London a stressed out commuter in a rush might not appreciate someone blocking their path.
We don’t love to queue, but we respect it. Jumping the queue is really frowned upon. While many countries will issue tickets with numbers to keep track, we prefer to stand in a line, and if there is any doubt we’ll tell you if you were before us. (However if you skip the line we’ll most likely grumble under our breath and complain behind your back!)
Alas elitism and classism are rife. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s period in power has been dubbed the era of ‘chumocracy’, based on his penchant of granting political favours to his chums. It’s not just BoJo though, class stratification runs deep. Sometimes it’s playful banter though, indeed many would use ‘working class’ as a badge of pride to denote modesty, authenticity and pride in their upbringing.
However, as I type the neglect of poor, white children, especially in terms of education and job opportunities, is being discussed as a national scandal.
As a foreigner, this class issue may not be cause for too much concern. You may pick up nuances of classism, you may feel it’s more blatant. Whatever the case, don’t be surprised to hear people labelling themselves or others as working, middle or upper class.
Compared to some countries, the UK might be considered a fan of political correctness. Some rally against it, but on the whole I think we just try to make sure people don’t feel excluded. Of course, there are many occasions when things don’t work out.
The legal age limit to buy and drink alcohol is 18. While the 1990s were characterised as heavy boozing, high antics in the night clubs, statistics show that we Brits are actually mellowing in terms of our drinking habits. Yes the recent racist, no doubt alcohol-fuelled violence at the UEFA football final was shocking, but on the whole I feel British people drink less.
As for me, I have friends who do not drink for religious or health reasons, and I’d like to think they didn’t feel excluded. I have friends who are not comfortable going to a pub or bar, and we’ve happily switched to a coffee shop venue. This wasn’t always the case, and peer pressure to drink definitely existed, but I think it’s much less of an issue now (or perhaps I’m just older and bit mellow?!) It is totally acceptable to order non alcoholic drink. People will respect your choice.
The sale of alcohol is quite strictly controlled so it’s a good idea to keep ID on you if you look even vaguely young for your age. Acceptable ID would be your passport or a photo driving license. The same applies if you’re going to a nightclub or bar – you may need to show ID. I think I’m past the ID stage now in my life, but even aged 30 I would get asked for proof of my age.
When going out it’s normal to buy ’rounds’, i.e. you take turns offer to buy drinks for everyone in the group. Sure, if you’re not drinking alcohol or you fancy an early night you might end up paying an unfair share, but if you squabble you might seem mean. It’s polite to ask around everyone in your group if they’d like a drink when you go to the bar to order for yourself.
If you’re invited to someone’s house in the day time, chances are you’ll be offered a cup of tea almost immediately. Normally the default option is ‘builders’ (black, English breakfast tea), which most drink with milk and some like with sugar. If you get asked how you like your tea, they mean if you want milk and / or sugar.
Smoking is banned in app public spaces, clubs, bars and restaurants. It’s also prohibited in academic buildings, including schools, universities and colleges.
I hear some friends from the US claiming there is more smoking in the US, but it’s all relative- compared to European countries I’d say we smoke a lot less in the UK. In fact, to be honest I’d go as far as saying that smoking is looked down upon by many.
When I was young there was a set of kids at school that thought smoking was cool, now, in my head at least, it’s rather naff. A relative from overseas cracked open a packet of Marlboro and a friend laughed ‘wow, vintage!’ In my head at least, smoking is really not cool. I don’t think any of my British friends smoke.
Smoking is also expensive. At present, a 20-pack of Marlboro will cost you £12.25 ($17 USD).
If you do smoke, ask permission if you want to light up, even if you’re outdoors. Chances are your guest would never say no, but it might be considered rude not to ask.
Dining in and out
It’s a fairly common assumption that if you’re invited into someone’s home it’s polite to wait for the host to invite you to sit down at the table.
In the UK, it’s less common to employ household help. In fact, employing staff is generally the preserve of the mega rich, so do offer to help, (and be prepared to!) It’d be odd to expect a guest to wash the dishes, but a token gesture of helping to clear the dishes away would be appreciated.
Unlike in some cultures, you don’t need to eat everything on your plate or leave some food to be polite.
When eating out, be polite to the waiting staff. It’s considered very rude to snap your fingers or wave aggressively at the waiter or waitress.
Tipping is nothing like in the US. Generally 10-15% is normal. We don’t tend to tip bar staff; generally it’s food only (however it’s now more common to tip hairdressers and beauty therapists).
If you’re dining out with friends it’s totally acceptable to split the bill. Generally the bill would be split by evenly; you might be considered a bit mean if you start working out the amounts precisely.
As for dining times, I personally never skip breakfast (although many Brits do) and eat around 7am. Lunch follows around 1pm, then I personally like to have dinner at 7pm, or 8pm if I’m dining out. As I’m a mother to three young kids, we tend to eat together very early though, around 5.30pm.
Got a question about life in the UK? Leave me a comment below.