Your guide to expat life in United Kingdom

Living in the UK

With so many different regions, the UK is a great country to explore. Expats love its diversity – from London's vibrant metropolitan lifestyle to the stunningly beautiful landscapes of the Scottish Highlands.

You can enjoy a good quality of life in the UK, benefiting from a world-class infrastructure that includes an extensive public transport system and the National Health Service. One drawback is the high cost of living, especially in the capital and places such as Aberdeen, Manchester and Edinburgh.

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Accommodation

You may struggle to find spacious, affordable accommodation in central London, but in most areas of the UK there’s a wide choice of property to rent or buy.

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Types of accommodation

Depending on where you want to live, you can choose from houses, flats and maisonettes. Many terraced houses in London and other big cities have been converted into apartments that are popular with young professionals. Expat families often prefer houses with a private garden.

Renting property

Be prepared to move quickly when you see a place you like. Competition for good rental property is cut-throat – so you may have to commit at the first viewing. Standard leases are for 6 or 12 months. You’ll need 6 weeks’ rent as a deposit, as well as reference letters from your employer and previous landlords. Tenants usually have to pay gas, electricity, water, phone, internet and council tax bills.

Culture changes

Despite the changes to attitude after Brexit, UK cities remain diverse which ensures expats, especially those who speak English, experience minimal culture shock.

That said, you may have trouble adjusting to the high cost of living and congestion in bigger cities. Strong regional accents can be hard to understand at first.

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Regional identities

The UK comprises four separate but interdependent nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The people of each country have a strong sense of national identity.

English vs British

These two terms mean very different things. British can be applied to someone from any of the four nations, but English refers only to people from England. Calling someone English if they’re from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can be offensive.

Communication

The British aren’t too animated when they communicate. This doesn’t mean they don’t have strong emotions – they just don’t display them in public.

Privacy and personal space

Privacy is very important – it’s best to avoid asking personal questions or discussing someone’s financial situation or relationships. Because Brits value their personal space, keep your initial greeting to a handshake.

Punctuality

For both business meetings and social occasions, punctuality is key. Tardiness is seen as a lack of respect – so let someone know if you’re running late.

Education

The quality of education and school facilities varies considerably across the UK. Expats can send their children to free state schools. There are also private and international schools if you’re prepared to pay high fees.

The curriculum varies slightly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The academic year runs from September to July in all four countries, with the main breaks in December, March/April and July/August. School is compulsory for children aged 5 to 16.

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State Schools

Funded by the UK government, state schools are free for British citizens and expats living in the UK. The better schools tend to be in more affluent areas and admission to popular schools is restricted to students living nearby. You’ll still have to pay for uniforms, stationery and school excursions. The standard of education at state schools is variable. Read reports by the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) to find out about the quality of teaching and facilities at a particular school.

Private Schools

The UK has a tradition of private schools, also called independent or public schools. Most follow the British National Curriculum but offer a wider range of subjects. The standard of teaching is usually excellent and class sizes are small. On top of high fees, you can expect to pay for uniforms, stationery, private tuition, music lessons and trips abroad.

International schools

A range of international schools follow the American, Australian, Canadian, French or Japanese national curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. With the UK’s largest expat population, London has the widest variety of international schools. Fees are hefty – so try to negotiate an education allowance into your employment contract.

Don’t expect to make friends quickly in big cities. English people can be more reserved than other nationalities but they are well worth getting to know!

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Keeping in touch

Mobile contracts

There are a number of mobile phone providers in the UK - – the biggest are EE, Vodafone, and O2. You may be able to take out a mobile contract, although most providers require a successful credit check. This could be an issue if you don’t have a UK credit history.

If you already have a phone, you can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card. Lebara and Lycamobile have options for expats with very cheap international rates.

Internet

You’ll be able to access the internet across most of the UK. Coverage can be patchy in rural locations, but many urban areas have high-speed fibre optic broadband and public places like cafés and libraries offer free WiFi.

Postal service

The Royal Mail’s national postal service is usually very reliable and efficient. For a small fee, you can track your letter or parcel.

Healthcare

Free healthcare is provided by the National Health Service (NHS). The standard of medical facilities is good, but waiting lists can be long. All expats are entitled to free emergency treatment, but you may have to pay for certain inpatient treatments and dental work.

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National Health Service

After you’ve registered with the NHS, a GP (general practitioner) is your first port of call for most medical issues. Same-day appointments are rarely available – you’ll have to book in advance for routine check-ups and repeat prescriptions. In an emergency, the NHS treats patients quickly and efficiently.

Private healthcare

Private hospitals and specialist clinics have much shorter waiting lists than the NHS, but costs can be high. It’s a good idea to have medical insurance if you plan to use private health facilities.

Pharmacies

Commonly called chemists in the UK, pharmacies are often near a GP’s surgery or hospital – and many stay open until midnight.

Emergency services

Call 999 or 112 for emergencies or 111 for help and advice on local medical services.

Getting around

Public transport in the UK is of a high standard and the road infrastructure is good. It’s fairly easy to travel around the country, thanks to extensive train and long-distance bus networks. The growth of low-cost airlines has also made flying between UK cities more viable.

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Trains

Despite criticism about delays and overcrowding during peak hours, rail travel is the most popular way to get around the UK. You can buy tickets at any train station and online – or invest in a season ticket that’s valid for up to a year.

Buses

In the UK’s cities and towns, buses cover an extensive area and often have services running through the night. Long-distance buses are commonly referred to as coaches. While they’re generally slower than trains, fares are cheaper than equivalent journeys by rail.

Cycling

Most cities have designated cycle lanes. London is particularly bicycle friendly with over 11,000 bikes that can be hired from any of the more than 750 docking stations across the capital. Oxford and Cambridge also have a lot more cyclists than other cities.

Taxis

Taxis are available in most cities and towns. Metered black cabs can be hailed in the street while minicabs have to be pre-booked online or over the phone. Taxis are expensive, and most people only use them to travel short distances or late at night. Always check that the driver’s taxi licence number is displayed on the dashboard and that the meter shows the correct rate. Ride-hailing services, such as Uber, are also available in the UK.

Driving

The UK’s roads are well maintained and considered to be among the safest in Europe. Parking can be expensive and difficult to find, especially in London where drivers also have to pay a daily congestion charge to enter the city centre. A number of cities have Park and Ride schemes, with car parks located on the outskirts and cheap buses that take you into the city centre.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.