- The United Kindom in a nutshell
- Things to arrange in advance
- Public transport
- Additional information
- Our Top 5
1. The United Kingdom in a nutshell
England, together with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, form the United Kingdom, so don’t confuse ‘England’ with the larger ‘Great Britain’ or ‘United Kingdom’. England has almost 52 million inhabitants (roughly 90% of the total population of the UK). It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland lie across the Irish Sea to west of England. To the (south)east the North Sea and the English Channel separates England from continental Europe.
For visitors, the beauty of travel in the UK is the compact nature of the country. Around every corner a new village appears where you can get back in time and enjoy tea, tradition and pubs. England's terrain mostly comprises low hills and plains, especially in central and southern England. However, there are uplands in the north (for example Lake District) and in the south west (for example Dartmoor). Meadowlands and pastures are found beyond the major cities. London itself is a very international city where you may meet a variety of nationalities, depending on what part of the city you are in.
With time on your side, you'll get closer to understanding local sensibilities: relaxing with the locals in a country pub, enjoying a music festival or watching a cricket match. You will meet friendly people who will take the time to answer a stranger's question, and who may speak English in a colourful or accented way.
- England is 74 times smaller than the USA and 59 smaller than Australia. England is however 2.5 times more populous than Australia and 1.5 times more populous than California.
- The first nation-wide stamp was the Penny Black, introduced in 1840. Because Britain was the first country to issue national stamps, British stamps still have the unique distinction of not mentioning the country’s name on them.
- An English breakfast is the thing most ex-pats miss most. English cheese, marmalade and Marmite are also on the list.
- The most popular name of a pub in Britain is the Red Lion.
- English people consume more tea per capita than anybody else in the world (2.5 times more than the Japanese and 22 times more than the Americans or the French).
- The flag of England is called the Union Flag when it is seen on land and Union Jack when it is being used on a ship. "Jack" because it must be flown on the jack mast of a vessel.
- French was the official language of England for about 300 years, from 1066 till 1362.
- Big Ben is not the name of the entire building that contains the clock. The name is actually what the bell inside the tower is called. The structure is actually called St. Stephen's Tower.
- There are over 300 languages spoken by people in the country of England.
You can also view our Flickr photo album about the United Kingdom.
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport, which will allow you to remain in the UK for a maximum period of 6 months.
- Driving license and registration: For none EU-members a valid driver’s license is sufficient when driving in the UK. However, before you leave home, familiarise yourself with the rules of British roads as they drive on the other side of the road.
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’. This can be a signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled containers. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
The currency in the UK is the pound sterling. Paper money comes in £5, £10, £20 and £50 denominations, although £50s can be difficult to change because fakes circulate. The eight coins are in denominations of £2 and £1 and of 50, 20, 10, five, two and one pence.
With the number of ATM’s, the practice of carrying large amounts of cash around has become obsolete. It is, however, worth keeping a small amount in a safe place for emergencies. Finding a place to change your money (cash or traveller’s cheques) into pounds is never a problem in cities. You can go to the bank, exchange bureau (more expensive), but you can also change money at some post offices; very handy in country areas and exchange rates are fair (and usually commission free).
Visa, MasterCard and American Express credit cards are widely accepted in the UK, and are good for larger hotels, restaurants, shopping, flights, long-distance travel, car hire etc. Smaller businesses, such as pubs or B&Bs, prefer debit cards (or charge a fee for credit cards), and some take cash or cheque only.
Traveller’s cheques offer protection from theft, so they are safer than cash. Still, they are rarely used in the UK, as credit/debit cards and ATM’s have become the method of choice. If you prefer traveller’s cheques, note that they are rarely accepted for purchases (except at large hotels), so for cash you’ll still need to go to a bank or bureau.
Tipping in the United Kingdom
In restaurants you’re expected to leave a tip between 10% and 15%. It stands to reason that you’re not obliged to tip if the service or food was unsatisfactory. If you’re paying with a credit or debit card and you want to add the tip to the bill, it’s worth asking the waiting staff if they’ll actually receive it. Some prefer to receive tips in cash.
The United Kingdom has a modern system of healthcare for both national and foreign communities. There are a number of private hospitals, public hospitals and medical facilities in and around London and all throughout the UK. Some are staffed with surgeons that have various fields of specializations, but not all provide dedicated emergency services. All hospitals that do provide emergency services will accept you, also if you are a visitor and don’t have an NHS (National Health Service) number. Patients are treated in order of the urgency of their condition.
Under NHS rules anyone, wherever they are from, who needs treatment for an emergency condition that occurs during a visit to the UK will not be charged for treatment at a ‘hospital accident and emergency department’ or GP’s surgery. For non-emergency services you’ll normally have to pay, as well as a charge for any medicines you need.
Pharmacists (or chemists as they are commonly known in the UK) are found all over the country. They operate 24/7 in most large towns and cities. Even the smallest mountain villages usually have at least one. Outlets such as Superdrug and Boots are rapidly increasing in number. Trained pharmacists are available to supply you with your prescription medicines. They can also provide you with general advice on certain medical conditions that do not require prescriptions.
4. Public transport
The UK has an efficient public transport system though it can be confusing to the uninitiated. Both trains and buses serve various parts of the country. Most of the London underground trains and local buses don't accept bicycles, but overground trains and long distance coaches will normally let you on with a bicycle, as long as they're not too full. The UK is one of the most cycle-friendly countries in the world. There are many lovely cycle paths where you can avoid the traffic and soak in the cityscape or countryside. For more information about public transport, you can check out the following link www.uksuperweb.co.uk/public-transport.html.
Britain is the home of the railway. The first steam engines were developed there in the 19th century and the first track opened in 1825! Trains can be an enchanting way to travel around the UK. Routes are often scenic and journeys swift and smooth. Picturesque lines carve their ways through the heart of the country offering views and vistas you'd never experience otherwise. And if you're in a hurry, express trains can whisk you to your destination at up to 125 mph on certain major routes.
Over the following decades, a number of railway companies were setup each providing railway services in various parts of the country. In 1948, these regional railways were nationalized to form British Railways, later known as British Rail. In the mid-90s, British Rail was privatized. Railtrack took over ownership of the track and infrastructure, while private companies took up franchises on passenger and freight operations. The result is that in today's Britain, there are dozens of train companies serving different parts of the country (see also www.rail.co.uk/our-partners/rail-operators/). However, fares are regulated nationally and any operator can process your ticket for any other operator in the system.
Buses are numerous, frequent and reliable in most of the larger towns and cities and an ideal way of getting around. They form the core transport system for many UK residents. However making sense of this system is often difficult. The confusion arises because each part of the UK has its own bus transport system which covers a limited area. These are operated by town and city councils throughout the country. If you plan to travel by bus in an unfamiliar area, the best thing to do is to check out Traveline (www.traveline.info/) or visit a tourist information centre. The latter usually offer maps and timetables for all forms of transport in their area. Still, rural areas are less well served and hiring a car often might be the best option to explore the countryside and villages.
In the past trams were one of the most ubiquitous sights on roads in England, but in the mid of 20th century trams slowly disappeared from the scene from all cities. Buses, trains and metros became the most favoured means of transport and the number of cars also increased rapidly which was one of the main reasons for trams being rendered redundant. However trams survived in Blackpool and Fleetwood.
Two cities in England have metro/rapid transit/subway systems. Most well known is the London Underground (commonly known as the Tube), the oldest and longest rapid transit system in the world. Also in London are the separate Docklands Light Railway (though this is integrated with the Underground in many ways), and the London Overground. Outside of London, there is the Tyne and Wear Metro, focused on Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Sunderland.
Taxis are a useful option for finding that hotel or sight that's off the beaten track or when time is limited. There are taxi firms everywhere. To be safe, make sure you take a registered taxi or black cab. Black cabs are generally a little more expensive than minicabs, but they are usually more reliable. You can hail a black cab on the street, but you must book minicabs by phone. If you’re hiring a taxi, reckon on paying around £3 for the first mile and £1 for subsequent miles in cities, and £1.40 a mile in country districts.
England is a safe place to live and visit. Violent crime against tourists is rare, however you should always use general common sense to ensure you keep out of trouble. If you travel by public transport, keep track of your purse/suitcase/wallet. Following the local crime alerts and keeping valuables in hotel safes will make the trip more secure and pleasurable.
Take care when driving on country lanes as they can become very narrow and the lesser travelled ones are often in poor condition.
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (from a land-line if you can) and ask for Ambulance, Fire, Police or Coast Guard when connected. If you need more than one service that includes an ambulance (e.g. a road collision) then ask for Ambulance and they will contact the relevant services themselves.
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.).
- The United Kingdom is in the Greenwich Mean Time zone, but during summer time it is GMT+1.
- The international access code for the UK is +44. To call from Canada or the U.S. to the UK you have to dial 011 + 44 + City Area Code + Number.
- National holidays in the UK: 1 January (New Year’s Day), Good Friday, Easter Monday, 1st Monday in May (May Day), Whit Monday, Last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday), Last Monday in August (Late Summer Bank Holiday), 25 December (Christmas) and 26 December (Boxing Day).
- David Attenborough (1926), naturalist and broadcaster
- Richard Branson (1950), business magnate, founder/owner of Virgin Group
- Jeremy Clarkson (1960), TV-presenter Top Gear, broadcaster and writer
- J.K. Rowling (1965), children’s writer, Harry Potter books
- Jamie Oliver aka The Naked Chef (1975), English Chef and TV-personality
- Paul McCartney (1942), lead singer The Beatles
- Mick Jagger (1943), lead singer The Rolling Stones
- Rod Stewart (1945)
- David Bowie (1947)
- Elton John (1947)
- Fish and chips, battered fish served with French fries
- Bangers and mash, sausages and mashed potatoes
- Roast Dinner, roast meat with roast potatoes and vegetables
- Black Pudding, nutritious blood sausage for breakfast
- Kippers, cold-smoked herring
- Ben Kingsley (1943), actor in Gandhi, Schindler’s List etc.
- Hellen Mirren (1945), actor in Prime Suspect, The Queen etc.
- Hugh Grant (1960), actor in Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary etc.
- Kate Winslet (1975), actor in Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, etc.
- Daniel Radcliffe (1989), actor as Harry Potter in the eponymous films
- Tommy Cooper (1921-1984), prop comedian and magician
- Peter Sellers aka Inspector Clouseau (1925-1980), comedian and actor
- Rowan Atkinson aka as Mr. Bean (1955), comedian, actor and screenwriter
- John Cleese (1939), member of Monty Python, comedian, actor and writer
- Sacha Baron Cohen aka as Ali G., Borat and Bruno (1971)
- William Shakespeare (1564-1616), national poet and dramatist
- Isaac Newton (1642-1727), physicist, mathematician, astronomer etc.
- James Cook (1728-1779), explorer, navigator and cartographer
- Charles Darwin (1809-1882), founder of the Evolution Theory
- Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), naturalist, explorer and biologist