The United Kingdom is more of a collection of places than a single destination, each has its own quirks, dialects, and customs. But by following practical tips and basic British etiquette you can get around the UK without too much of a fuss.
It’s best to start by defining what the UK actually is. While Great Britain is the island containing the countries of England, Wales and Scotland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refers to the political union between these countries - importantly it has not included the Republic of Ireland since 1922.
While the finer details are a little complicated, people in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands are British Citizens, so can be classed as British without causing too much offence. But to avoid a rookie error, the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh should never be referred to as ‘English’.
The UK likes to be different to their European neighbours, like driving on the left and clinging to the outdated imperial system of measurement. And the same goes for plug sockets, make sure to pack a UK plug adapter (three rectangular pins rather than the standard two-pin EU plug).
Small change is another essential when heading out of the main cities in the UK. Cards are more widely accepted since 2020, but it’s best to always have change for public toilets, bus fares, parking metres and small cafes.
The UK isn’t really a 24-hour kind of a place, even large cities tend to shut-up-shop overnight. In smaller towns you can expect shops and businesses to be closed on a Sunday, and often restaurants and cafes will shut on Mondays.
Visit free museums and beautifully landscaped parks instead as they are usually open daily. Saturdays are perfect for exploring local towns, many are busy with street markets and events throughout the summer months.
When it comes to getting around the UK, trains in particular are best booked in advance to avoid high last-minute ticket prices. But some of Britain's best places to visit involve hiring your own transport and escaping the major cities.
Take long scenic drives to the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, the lochs and Highlands of Scotland, the rugged coastline of Cornwall and Devon, and the basalt columns of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.
The NHS is a great source of pride for many in Britain and free healthcare is extended to EU visitors and many other countries that have reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the UK. That said, it’s always best to take the necessary precautions for a safe trip and have a comprehensive travel insurance policy in place.
At the other end of the scale is pub culture - there’s nothing that can’t be solved by popping down to the local for a quick one. But it pays to know that a British pint is around 20% bigger than its US equivalent; which means patrons are 20% more likely to be intoxicated! All jokes aside, there are few better places to be on a sunny afternoon than a countryside pub's beer garden trying the local food.
Brits love to queue. When the Queen died, people lost their minds when several celebrities were seen jumping the 10 mile long queue to pay their final respects. To avoid causing a stir, just get to the back of the queue - even if you don’t know where it’s going.
This also applies to motoring, cars will form an orderly line to get off at junctions; if you realise too late and try to cut in expect some hard-stares from more vigilant drivers.
On the London Underground it is almost a criminal offence to block the escalators. Stand to the side unless you want to endure exacerbated sighs from busy commuters. In general the further north you get, the friendlier the people - though locals in the countryside and villages in the south will often offer a friendly “hiya” to passers-by.
Tipping is highly appreciated by low-paid hospitality staff, 10-15% of the bill is the norm for seated dining.
The phrases “sorry” (even if you aren’t in the wrong), “pardon me”, and “thank you very much”, will get you a long way in Britain. The culture is built around politeness and stifling any hint of unbecoming emotions.
Brits' obsession with the rain is well founded. Battles between the cold winds of the North Atlantic and the warm Gulf Stream mean that the weather in the UK is totally unpredictable. You can try and time your visit to avoid the rain, but even the professionals regularly get it wrong.
So the best advice is to always have a “brolly”, or a trusty waterproof jacket, on hand in case of a downpour. Cities are generally warmer than the countryside, while the west coast often sees some of the highest winds and rainfall.
Accents vary hugely. Though the four countries that make up the UK each have their own unique language (English, Welsh, Scots/Gaelic, and Irish), the regional dialects within each country mean it’s often hard even for native speakers to understand each other.
There are over 100 different words for rain alone, so visitors can’t be expected to decipher all of the dialects. “Brummie” (Birmingham), “Scouse” (Liverpool), “Cockney” (London), and “Geordie” (Newcastle) are some of the most recognisable regional accents, but visitors will get by with RP, also known as the Queen's English.
Good words to throw into conversation if you want to sound like a Brit include “cor blimey” or “Gordon Bennett” (oh my goodness), “dead” (very), “knackered” (tired or broken), “loo” (toilet or bathroom), “lush” (nice), and “made a pigs ear” (messed up). While “ta”, “cheers”, or “nice one mate/geezer/guv'nor” are all just colloquial ways to say thanks.
As an example; “Cor blimey, I was dead knackered earlier and made a right pig's ear of things, but I popped to the loo, had a lush bath, and now I feel right as rain again”.
For a wonderful portrayal of the UK, Bill Bryson's ‘Notes From A Small Island’ looks at the intricacies of British life after he spent time living in North Yorkshire with his family.
If you prefer a visual source of inspiration, Strumpshaw, Tincleton, and Giggleswick’s Marvellous Maps cover everything from funny place names to the best places to see wildlife. Use one of their maps to plan your journey from “Windy Bottom” to “Witts End”.
To get an understanding into the history of modern Britain, Andrew Marrs BBC series is a good place to start.
To get an understanding of the British psyche, Very British Problems is the best Instagram account to follow.
Trainline - Helps to plan rail journeys and you can get huge discounts (many locals use this).
Parkopedia - If hiring a car, this app makes it easy to find parking spots and prices.
MET Office Weather - The UK’s official weather forecaster. It’s not 100% accurate; but it’s the best source for weather updates.
All Trails - Great for finding the best walks and hikes in any area, community based and free.
Flush - Find public toilets wherever you are in the UK, always have coin-change to hand, but most accept cards now too.
Planning a trip to the UK? Read our UK travel guides
Last Updated 29 June 2023