Living in the UK
The British are very friendly, including to foreigners. Most people here are always wondering where you come from. The most attractive European countries for the British are France and Spain, and maybe Italy, so do not be surprised if you find that you find yourself explaining a lot about your country, if it’s different.
If you move to Great Britain, especially if you are not too familiar with the country, you will notice after a while that social class comes into play, much more than in any other country in Europe. Social class plays a role in the education system and in everyday life, although not always overtly so.
The education system is divided into state schools and "public" or private schools, where parents sometimes have to pay a lot to have their children educated. Eton is obviously the most famous example. Social/economic class also plays a role in the academic world and the traditional old universities are in this respect regarded most highly. In everyday life, the accent and the friends one has, but also where you shop, can be an indication of where in the class system people are expected to belong. All this is not very strict of course, but it is noticeable. As a foreigner you have the advantage that you are completely outside this system. That makes you socially very flexible.
Life in the UK isn't particularly cheap and the cost of going to university doesn't stop with the course and exam fees. There are a lot of other expenses to take into account. You could build up an estimate before going to university by looking on the relevant sections on this and other websites. Alternatively, you can use this tool to help you assess what it's all going to cost. If you don't have MS Office on your computer, you can download a copy of Libre Office or Open Office (free and completely legal).
In a more practical sense, life here can be more expensive than in other countries in Europe. There may be less difference if you are careful what and where you buy.
Shopping in Britain used to be very different from shopping elsewhere in Europe. Many of the products you could easily buy at home were not easily available here. Much has now changed. Like every country, the UK has its own cultural specifics and some products you may be used to at home are still either not, or difficult to obtain. Oddly enough, even though the UK is surrounded by sea, fish is an example. The only fish you can easily find in most shops/supermarkets are cod, haddock, plaice or farmed salmon.
Most Britons do their shopping in supermarkets. Other shops selling specific food are sometimes few and far between. Supermarkets are very powerful here, which means they can offer cheaper food. They are also open on Sundays in most places and many are even open 24 hours a day. Once I went shopping at 1 in the morning, which was a very strange experience.
Because of the influence of major supermarkets you can find it more difficult to find small bakeries or butcher shops. Smaller shops, such as farm shops, are making a comeback in some areas, especially where there is a strong farming community and in rural areas. They can be expensive however and they are often 'gentrified' versions of village shops.
You can compare the cost of different products in the main supermarkets on www.mysupermarket.co.uk. You need to register to use this website but it's free.
Nightlife, especially in the larger cities, is not much different from that in other urban areas elsewhere in Europe. Many people go to 'the pub'. There are also "clubs", where you can dance, in larger cities. The rich history of Britain mean you will find an equally rich "food culture". You can find everything from local cuisine, to more exotic cuisines. Some of these mostly Asian restaurants you can eat all you want for a fixed price. This is obviously really appreciated by students.
The less likely option…
Life in Britain is relatively speaking not cheap, as I mentioned. It depends very largely on where you are going to study. However, if you are an undergraduate student you will almost certainly spend the first year at university living in university accommodation. You will be confirming this the summer before the start of your studies after which you will be expected to pay a reservation deposit. This is possibly about £300. In September you will have to pay your first contribution. If this is difficult, some universities offer some flexibility, but it is best to discuss them.
London is generally very expensive, with other major cities such as Edinburgh sometimes not too far behind. I know someone who for the same money for which I rented a house in another region, was only able to rent a double bedroom in a shared house in the outskirts of London. The north east of England is generally the cheapest. In Scotland, Edinburgh is expensive, and so too is Glasgow, but to a slightly lesser extent. Stirling is slightly cheaper.
In general, the more touristy and the closer to the capital city (especially London), the more expensive. Have a look on the Numbeo website to compare, if you like.
The houses are also often smaller than many people are accustomed to. There is an article on the BBC website to illustrate this if you like. There are many old houses, especially in larger cities, which are not always maintained to a standard you may be used to. You may have to look for something that pleases you!
Water is also much more expensive than in many other European countries, and if you rent, try to get water and other utilities to be included in the rent. Broadband is especially good in cities, and they are now installing fiber optic connections in many locations. Often you can connect wirelessly, sometimes for free.
- www.accommodationforstudents.com: property portal for students.
- www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent.html: general property website to give you a good idea of the cost of renting and buying in the UK.
Healthcare in Britain is largely free … except the dentist. Make sure you have your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you, if you are entitled to one. Once you arrive in the country it’s best if you try to register with both a medical practice and a dentist. Usually this is a smooth process once you find a practice with vacant NHS places. If this is not the case, your EHIC Card, which you can obtain from your health insurance, and a letter from the university to prove you are a full time student, can help.
Medical practices in the UK can look very different to what you are used to in your own country. They can even resemble mini-clinics, and you can either make an appointment with the doctor (GP or General Practitioner) or a nurse, depending on your complaint. In my experience, health care in Britain is good, but it may require some adjustment. For example, do not expect that a doctor will offer you a home visit if you're not well. It is sometimes not easy making a short-term appointment with your doctor, and if you've made an appointment, do not expect you can just walk in. Waiting your turn is the motto. Once you're at the doctor's the visit is usually relatively fast-paced, with not much time for a chat. Doctors and nurses are always very busy, but are generally very helpful and friendly. Ideally, be well prepared and able to explain your health complaint in as short a time as possible. Your doctor, or more likely your dentist, may well come from your home country. In that case, don't be surprised if they insist on talking to you in English, especially when other medical professionals are present. This happened to me several times!
For an emergency or short term appointment you have three options, depending on where you live, a ‘walk in surgery’, or you can walk into the emergency ward of a hospital (A & E) or the NHS helpline (over the phone). For all these possibilities, chances are that you must wait your turn, dependent on how urgent your situation is. If it’s more urgent than that, you should call 999, or 112 of course …
The dentist is slightly different. You will, just like the doctor (GP), need to register with an NHS dentist. You must be sure that you will be treated under the NHS, or it can become very expensive! Only certain treatments are reimbursed by the NHS, and even for these you need to pay a certain amount. Make sure you get what you are entitled to, especially if it's a mixed private/NHS practice. Most dentists are friendly (if not find another!) but you may notice they are under time pressure. There is always the option of going private of course. For this you can buy (relatively expensive) health insurance.
The train is very expensive in Britain, the most expensive in Europe I have been told. There is however a very good long distance bus service, National Express, which cost a fraction of the train. It is also a bit of an adventure and you may get to know both the country and the people more easily. Who knows, you may even make new friends. You can always fly, and Ryanair and Easyjet and others are very active here, with numerous international and domestic destinations.
Sport and leisure
Needless to say that Britain is a very diverse country, and whatever you are interested in, you can find an opportunity for you to get involved into your favourite sport. You have the Scottish and Welsh mountains and of course the sea. In winter you can go skiing in Aviemore or elsewhere in Scotland. You can go climbing anywhere there are mountains, there is also ample opportunity to go sailing, kayaking and so on… there's enough water here! Britain is of course famous for its football, golf, cricket and water sports (rowing at Oxford and Cambridge!). You do not really need to get bored!
Picture reference: Buckingham Palace; Wkipedia; http://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckingham_Palace#mediaviewer/File:Buckingham_Palace,_London,_England,_24Jan04.jpg