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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Edinburgh

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  • Ruben Barbosa

    Whether it's the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or the Highlands -- such great opportunities to explore Scotland with my fellow expats.

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Life in Edinburgh

Tourism and Leisure

As far as leisure and cultural activities are concerned, expats who have made Edinburgh their new home are quite spoiled for choice. The Scottish capital is the UK’s second most popular travel destination and tourist attraction for a reason!

The historical city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is very much worth exploring while you’re getting settled. In addition to historic buildings, museums, and galleries, the larger urban area offers plenty in the way of outdoor life in Edinburgh.

Older expatriates might enjoy bird-watching or simply taking in the rugged scenery of the North Sea coast. Families with children, on the other hand, can visit the local zoo or the nearby wildlife parks, with their opportunities for cycling, camping, horse riding, or running wild on an adventure playground.

Arts and Culture

In summer, the city will be literally overrun by visitors from others parts of the UK and the rest of the world. August in particular is festival season.

Locals living in Edinburgh sometimes prefer to schedule their holidays abroad in order to escape the onslaught. New arrivals, though, may want not to miss out on the chance to attend one of the biggest and liveliest arts and entertainment events around the globe.

The Edinburgh Festival is an “umbrella term” for a variety of different events that attract thousands and thousands of people every year. The Edinburgh International Festival, a high-brow cultural event, and its somewhat less serious counterpart, the Edinburgh Fringe, are probably the best-known examples.

But the city also hosts events for movie buffs, fans of jazz and blues, bookworms, and science geeks, as well as the Edinburgh Mela, which celebrates the cultural diversity of Scotland’s South Asian immigrant communities.

Events for Attendees of All Ages

Again, the local festival season addresses people of all ages. While expat kids may not really care for the serious parts of the schedule (e.g. Britten’s War Requiem or a dance choreography by the late great Pina Bausch in 2014), they definitely profit from separate children’s programs at most of the other major events.

At the Edinburgh Science Festival, for example, kids from the age of three can participate in a jungle safari, become code crackers and detectives, or explore the era of the dinosaurs. That way, learning is much more fun and exciting than at school!

Early Childhood Education

Alas, the festival season, as well as summer holidays in general, will come to an end. Then it’s back to school for all children who live in Edinburgh and adjacent areas.

Scotland has its own distinct education system, which is different from other regions in the UK. With regard to early childhood education for children under the age of five, please contact the local Childcare Information Service. They will provide you with up-to-date information on all kinds of daycare in your local council area.

However, the availability of childcare is not necessarily guaranteed for families who live in Edinburgh. 3-year-old and 4-year-old kids are entitled to 12.5 hours of free pre-school education per week – a number to be raised from August 2014 onwards. Nonetheless, as far as full-time daycare is concerned, a 2011 study talks about a veritable “childcare lottery”.

Whether you find a place at a daycare center or nursery school for your kid and how much you pay for it often depends on your exact place of residence. The cost can be considerable, especially for infants and toddlers up to 2 years. In such cases, parents spend about 25% of their gross income on full-time childcare.

Schools in Scotland

All government-funded schools, owned and operated by local authorities, are free of charge for kids and teens up to age 19.

Normally, children in Scotland are 4 or 5 years old when they first go to their local primary school. However, expat parents might be reassured to hear that it’s possible to apply for deferral if they feel their kid isn’t quite ready for school yet.

After seven years of primary education, students go on to secondary school. Most secondary schools are called “high school”, “academy” or similar; however, regardless of the name, all state schools are comprehensive and non-selective institutions.

The first four years of secondary education are mandatory: Then, at the age of 15 or 16, all students in Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond will be cramming for the National 4/5 Exams, the equivalent of the GCSE in England and Wales.

After that, two years of further optional study lead up to Higher / Advanced Higher Exams (similar to A levels or the International Baccalaureate). These finals enable students to attend university – Edinburgh, a traditional center of learning, boasts four universities altogether!

Finding a School for Your Children

If you want to choose a school near your new home in Scotland, you should have a look at these websites:

  • Scottish Schools Online is a directory of all schools in Scotland, both state and independent schools.
  • The Scottish Council of Independent Schools is the umbrella organization in charge of fee-paying private institutions. They have quite a few member schools in the Edinburgh area, but they may also cost a pretty penny.
  • Fettes College and St Leonard’s both offer an IB curriculum, as well as EFL (English as a Foreign Language) support for non-native speakers living in Edinburgh.

Healthcare in Edinburgh

The NHS: Public Healthcare in the UK

Most residents of Edinburgh, locals and foreign nationals alike, have access to medical services via the NHS, the UK’s public healthcare system.

When you sign up with a GP (general practitioner), you will enroll automatically with the National Health Service. You get a 10-digit number for your health records – don’t forget to keep track of it!

Most non-UK nationals who have free access to the NHS belong to one of these groups:

  • expats working in Scotland and their dependent family members
  • international students attending a Scottish school or university for more than six months
  • foreign nationals with indefinite leave to remain in the UK
  • residents with official refugee status

Private Health Insurance

If none of the criteria above applies to you or if you prefer private health insurance, you can always get another medical insurance plan. Patients in the UK’s private health sector benefit from shorter waiting periods, a wider range of treatments, and additional doctors and specialists to choose from.

The following companies are the four biggest players on the UK health insurance market, though there are also various other, smaller, insurance providers:

  • Aviva
  • Axa
  • Bupa
  • PruHealth

Your personal health insurance plan and its premiums obviously depends on a variety of factors, like your age, your general health, any pre-existing conditions, your current habits, etc. To find the best option you can afford, you might want to talk to an independent insurance broker before signing anything!

Finding Medical Services

Your family doctor or GP (general practitioner) will usually be your first point of referral in case of health issues – emergencies being the obvious exception. He or she can then refer you to a hospital or specialist for further treatment, if necessary.

To find a GP in your neighborhood, as well as other medical services (i.e. pharmacies and dentists), please check out the search engine on You simply need the local post code of your new address in Edinburgh.

For more information on public healthcare facilities in the Edinburgh area (e.g. all public hospitals), also have a look at NHS Lothian.

In Case of Emergency

In case of a medical emergency, please dial 999 to call an ambulance. Alternatively, you can seek out the A&E department at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, St John’s Hospital, or the Royal Hospital for Sick Children on your own. Minor injuries are also treated at Western General Hospital between 8am and 9pm.

However, if you simply need health advice out of normal office hours, there is an NHS service hotline under 111. They will also help you to find the nearest open pharmacy.

Dental Care

For emergency dental treatment in Edinburgh, you can go to the Dental Clinic in Chalmers Street. Please note, though, that it tends to be rather crowded or very busy. If you call your dentist, their voicemail usually provides more information on where else to go for emergencies.

Mental Health

If you have mental health problems or a sudden crisis, there is help available in Edinburgh as well! For instance, there are several 24/7 hotlines that you can call, such as the Mental Health Assessment Service (0131 537 6000) or the Edinburgh Crisis Centre (0808 801 0414). They can give you further advice or direct you to more specific resources according to your personal situation.

Sexual Health

And if you are in urgent need of emergency contraception, testing for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), or counseling and support after a sexual assault, also phone the NHS hotline via 111. They will refer you to the nearest available emergency clinic specializing in sexual health.

Private Patients

If you have a private healthcare policy, you can still use the public emergency resources listed above. But you’ll surely want to have a regular family doctor, dentist, etc. for check-ups and scheduled treatments. Please ask your individual insurance provider for a list of recommended GPs, specialists, and private hospitals in the Edinburgh area.

Transportation in Edinburgh

The International Airport

Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s major transportation hubs, and the city therefore features some excellent public transport connections and an extensive local network.

Most expats moving to Edinburgh will probably arrive by plane, at Edinburgh International Airport. It is located in Ingliston, about 8 miles or 13 kilometers west of Edinburgh’s city center. In 2013, the busy airport served nearly 10 million domestic and international passengers.

There are direct flights from Edinburgh to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey, as well as to several cities across the UK.

During the holiday season, both in summer and winter, there are also a number of additional flights to popular destinations in Austria, Eastern Europe, the USA, and on various Mediterranean islands.

From the Airport to the City

Once you have arrived at the airport, it is easy to get to the city center. The express bus service Air Link 100 runs about every 10 minutes. For a fare of GBP 4.00, it will take you to Edinburgh in about half an hour.

Between 0:30 am and 4:30 am, however, the night bus N22 takes over: It runs only every 30 minutes and costs one pound less – you can buy a single adult ticket for GBP 3.00.

Moreover, there are also several cheaper and slower local bus connections, as well as regional coach services to, for example, Fife and Glasgow. From June 2014 onwards, there’s also a brand-new tram route from Edinburgh International Airport to York Place in the city center.

If you prefer taking a taxi, just try the taxi stand in front of the airport, or pre-book your cab via 0844 4488 576. Please be aware, though, that a taxi is only marginally faster than the express bus. The journey to central Edinburgh usually takes 25 rather than 30-35 minutes.

Traveling by Train

Apart from the airport, Edinburgh’s train stations are the city’s most important transport link. Waverly Station in the inner city is, in fact, the second largest station building in all of the UK.

There are direct train services to several major cities in Scotland (e.g. Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth) and England (e.g. Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, York, and – of course – London).

Check the websites of Scotrail or National Rail for more information on timetables and tickets. Commuters from nearby locations may be especially interested in seasonal tickets for their route to and from Edinburgh.

Local Transport

The local transportation network in Edinburgh mainly consists of buses. These services are provided by Lothian Buses in the city proper and in Midlothian. Lothian Buses also runs the new tram from York Place to the airport.

First Edinburgh, the second major transport company, organizes bus services from central Edinburgh to East and West Lothian, as well as to Falkirk, Stirling, and the Borders region.

Fares for local buses are usually the same. A single ticket for adults costs GBP 1.50 and you can buy a ticket for the entire day for GBP 3.50. Frequent passengers should rather purchase the Ridacard: For GBP 51.00, you can use all buses and trams for a period of four weeks.

From the Edinburgh Bus Station on Elder Street / St Andrew Square, you can board regional and long-distance coaches to various destinations across the UK. Coaches are generally cheaper than similar train connections, but also slower and somewhat less comfortable.

Last but not least, Edinburgh has several taxi companies. These include, for example:

Taxi fares are regulated by the City of Edinburgh. You can have a look at the latest tariffs online.

Driving in Scotland

If you’d rather drive your own car in Scotland, there are several things to consider. First of all, you need to figure out if you have to get a local driving license.

  • Visitors intending to stay in Edinburgh for less than 12 months can go on using their valid driving permit from their home country.
  • If you want to live in Scotland for over a year, you’ll have to pay attention. In case your driving license was issued in an EU member state, it will still be valid in the UK.
  • Drivers with a permit from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, or Zimbabwe, as well as several smaller states or territories, can exchange their own license for a UK one. This should happen within five years of their arrival in the UK. The fee for this license exchange is GBP 50.00.
  • Drivers with a license from any other country need to take both a practical and a theoretical driving test after 12 months. After passing these exams, they will get a UK driving license.

It’s rather complicated to import your own car, especially if you come from a country with right-hand road traffic. It may actually be cheaper – and definitely easier – to buy a second-hand vehicle in Scotland or lease a car there.

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