First time in Britain?
Whether you're taking a holiday, visiting friends and family or travelling on business, these handy tips may help.Expand all Collapse all
English is spoken everywhere and non-speakers can have a difficult time – a recent survey found that only 10% of British workers spoke a foreign language. However, even if you only know a little English, people will usually try to work out what you mean.
Welsh is spoken in Wales (road signs are bilingual) and you may hear Gaelic spoken in parts of Scotland.
Talking about the weather is the time-honoured way to start a conversation in Britain – the climate is changeable and it's always a good idea to be prepared for rain. Summers are cooler than in mainland Europe but winters are milder. The average temperature in London is just above freezing in January and rises to around 22C (71F) in July.
Vehicles use the left side of the road in Britain, and manual gear-change is standard – if you're used to driving on the right, using an automatic shift gives you one less thing to worry about.
For details of speed limits, visit the Highway Code website.
Most filling stations are self-service - if you're hiring a car remember to check whether it uses diesel or unleaded petrol.
In business the British value politeness, courtesy and punctuality, and you shouldn't underestimate the importance of humour. Shake hands when you meet someone for the first time. Exchanging gifts is not common. Do make eye contact, but keep it to a minimum or you may appear impolite.
Shops in UK towns and cities generally open six or seven days a week. Monday to Saturday from 09:00 to 17:30 is normal, and many shops trade on Sundays, typically from 10:00 to 16:00. Many, but not all, close on public holidays.
Banking hours are usually from 09.30 to 15.30, Monday to Friday, but some branches open until 17:30 and on Saturday mornings. Most banks have cash dispensers (ATMs).
Known as bank holidays in Britain – banks and many shops will be closed, whilst public transport may be reduced or stop altogether.
- January 1: New Year's Day
- January 2: Bank holiday in Scotland
- Friday before Easter Sunday: Good Friday
- Day after Easter Sunday: Easter Monday (England and Wales)
- First Monday in May: May Day
- Last Monday in May: Spring Bank Holiday
- First Monday in August: Summer Bank Holiday (Scotland)
- Last Monday in August: Summer Bank Holiday (England and Wales)
- November 30: St Andrew's Day (Scotland)
- December 25: Christmas Day
- December 26: Boxing Day
Britain's unit of currency is the pound sterling (£), divided into 100 pence (p). Credit and debit cards are accepted in almost all shops and restaurants, though some may be reluctant to accept non-chip and pin cards.
Some stores and pubs don't accept £50 notes because of their rarity and the risk of forgery.
You may hear the slang word "quid" used to mean pounds.
Britain uses Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Daylight saving time (British Summer Time or BST) operates from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October, and is one hour ahead of GMT.
Distance is measured in miles (1.6km), made up of 1,760 yards (0.9m). From northern tip to southern, the British mainland measures just over 683 miles (1,100km). By car, the distance would be 835 miles and take about 16 hours, according to the AA.
Since the 1970s Britain has been gradually moving from imperial to metric measurements, but in practice both systems are used. Packaged food may be marked with both metric and imperial weights. Petrol and bottled water are sold by the litre whilst milk and beer come in pints.
Clothing and shoe sizes differ from those used in the USA and Continental Europe. There are plenty of charts and converters available online or as smartphone apps.
Britain is a cosmopolitan place and that's reflected in the variety of food available – in major cities you can find pretty much every world cuisine, and restaurants priced from budget to top class.
Famous British culinary traditions include fish and chips (white fish, battered, deep fried and served with fried potatoes) and the classic Sunday roast (meat served with roast potatoes, vegetables, gravy and Yorkshire pudding).
If you're looking for something a little more upmarket, the Michelin guide has online listings. Vegetarian food is widely available.
The pub is the traditional venue for drinking and socialising in Britain. You order drinks by going up to the bar and it's usual to pay separately every time. Tipping isn't required, though it may be appreciated – usual form is to offer the bartender a drink when you buy the first round.
As a rule, tip 10% to 15% in cafes and restaurants (unless a service charge is included in your bill), and for taxi drivers or hairdressers, whilst £1 or £2 is fine for hotel porters or room service staff.
UK mains electricity is 230V, 50Hz AC, and plugs have three square pins ('Type G').
The UK's international dialling code is 44. To call from abroad, dial the international dialling code for your country (eg 011 for the USA), then 44, then the phone number without the leading zero.
To call abroad from the UK, dial 00 followed by the country code (eg 1 for the USA), then the phone number without the first zero.
Payphones are still available, though less widespread than they were, and many accept payment by card as well as coins.
For emergency calls only, dial 999 (or the pan-European 112) for the police, fire service, ambulance, coastguard, or mountain rescue – these calls are free. For non-emergency calls, use 101 for the police; other services are listed in local telephone listings.
UK networks use the GSM standard (3G is widespread, 4G rolling out), so check beforehand that your handset will work in the UK. Check the roaming tariffs, too, and remember you will pay to receive calls as well as to make them. It may make sense to rent a UK mobile, or to buy a UK SIM card (if your handset is unlocked).
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