Country Facts about the UK
What You Should Know about Living Costs and More in the UK
The United Kingdom can be an easy place to move to, with a developed economy, infrastructure, and interesting culture, but we cover important UK country facts in this article to help ensure there are no nasty surprises. In the UK, overcrowding in some areas, and the high cost of living, present challenges. If you want to know more, read our complete guide and discover everything you need to know about life in the UK.
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The cost of living in the UK may have dropped with the recent fall of the pound, but for residents, it remains high. Housing costs can be daunting, with an average household spending half its wages on accommodation (including bills). Since the financial crash of 2008, the cost of living has gone up four times faster than wages.
Otherwise, the practicalities of life in the UK are relatively easy to navigate. Communications are excellent, and there’s developed infrastructure for driving and public transportation, plus 29 international airports. The vast retail and arts scenes mean no luxury or entertainment is hard to come by. Read on to find out more.
Key facts about the UK:
- Country Name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
- Government Type: Constitutional monarchy and Commonwealth realm
- Area (km²): 243,610 km
- Climate: Temperate
- Capital: London
- Population: 66,020,000 (2017 estimate)
- Population Density: 272/km²
- Major Urban Areas: London (8,787,892), Birmingham (1,137,100), Manchester (545,500), West Yorkshire (2,307,000), Glasgow (621,020)
- Ethnic groups: White 87.1% (of which 67.1% is English, 8.3% is Scottish, 4.3% is Welsh, and 3% is Northern Irish), black 3%, Indian 2.3%, Pakistani 1.9%, mixed 2.0%, other 0.9% (2011 census)
- Languages: English; recognized regional languages include Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish
- Religions: Christian 59.49%, Muslim 4.41%, Hindu 1.32%, other 1.6%, unspecified or none 32.84% (2011 census)
- Gross Domestic Product: 2,936,290 billion USD (2018)
- GDP Per Capita: 44,100 USD (2018)
- Unemployment Rate: 4% (2018)
- Mercer Cost of Living Index 2018: London (19), Birmingham (128), Aberdeen (134) Glasgow (148), Belfast (128)
- Human Development Index: 0.922 (2018)
- Currency: British Pound (GBP)
- Time Zone: UTC+00:00
- Voltage: 230 V / 50 Hz
- Embassies: You can see a comprehensive list of all the foreign embassies in the UK on the government’s website.
- Recommended Vaccinations: Routine (vaccines for MMR, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio and annual flu shot), hepatitis A/B, rabies (optional)
- United Kingdom country code: +44
- Emergency services: 999 and 112
- NHS Direct: 0845 4647
- Gas emergency: 0800 111 999
The Main Airports in the UK
London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, Manchester, Liverpool John Lennon, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle, East Midlands, Belfast International, London City, Liverpool John Lennon, Leeds Bradford, Aberdeen, Belfast City, Southampton, Jersey, and Cardiff.
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Cost of Living
While it’s a popular destination for expats, the average cost of living in the UK can make it an expensive place to live. Particularly in recent years, expenses have been rising a lot, mostly due to increasing car insurance and energy prices. So, it makes sense to make a budget, keeping your expected basic living expenses in the UK in mind.
Average Rents in London
The average monthly rental cost in London for a three-bedroom apartment is around 1,615 GBP, depending on the property’s location – versus 777 GBP average monthly rent in the rest of the UK, as housing outside of the capital and in rural areas is usually cheaper. The cheapest cities in the UK are to be found away from the capital, in the North of England, and in Scotland and Wales.
East London is generally the most expensive area of the capital in which to live, with a one-bedroom flat costing 900–1,000 GBP a month. In comparison, the same space would cost 850–960 GBP in West London, 720–840 GBP in South London and 750–900 GBP in North London.
In contrast, the cheapest area to live in the UK is North East England, where the average rent is 525 GBP.
On top of the monthly rent, you can expect about 140 GBP for basic utilities in a larger apartment. If you want to take someone out for dinner, that will cost you another 50 GBP at a mid-range restaurant.
The Cost of Living in the UK Vs the US
According to statistics website Numbeo, consumers in the UK pay 6.26% less on average than US consumers for the same sort of products. Numbeo also report that rent in the United Kingdom is 26.39% lower than in the United States, however, bear in mind that this figure is somewhat distorted by the big rent prices in US cities, such as San Francisco, San Jose, New York, and Boston, which all have higher average monthly rents than the most expensive city in which to live in the UK: London.
Cost of Living in the UK by City
Traditionally, the cheapest cities in the UK are in the North of England, while London is the most expensive place to live, along with other Southern English locations, while Edinburgh in Scotland ranks high for living costs too, according to Love Money’s list of “The UK’s most expensive and cheapest towns and cities to live in”, with information from Silver Door Apartment’s survey of average rent prices and required incomes in the UK.
Their list suggests you’d need to earn 5,020 GBP a month to live ‘comfortably’ in Edinburgh, while London would cost 7,090 GBP, and Oxford would be 5,040 GBP. Living comfortably, in this case, means that no more than 35% of your income is spent on rent, a figure decided by UK housing charity Shelter. So, if your rent was 3,500 GBP per month, you’d have to earn 10,000 GBP per month to live a comfortable life.
In contrast, living comfortably in Hull – the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 – in North-East England, would cost about 1,383 GBP a month, in Blackburn, Lancashire, it would cost about the same, in Barnsley, it would cost the same again, however, Leeds in Yorkshire bucks the trend for the North at 3,086 GBP a month.
Don’t Forget General Costs upon Arrival
Unlike UK citizens, expats might have to calculate additional costs and set a higher budget. This particularly applies to the first few weeks or months after your arrival, when you have to go on a job or housing hunt and make do with the accommodation or mobile provider that is available to you. Also consider the costs of eating out, as you might not want to or be able to cook at home at first. And bear in mind any potential healthcare, travel and transportation costs.
The first rent payment and security deposit for your new apartment, or room in a shared flat, can amount to 1,000 GBP or more. Add up the costs for your journey to the UK, furnishings, internet and a mobile phone, plus other essentials, and you’ll be faced with a significant sum.
Of course, this does not take into account insurance and utility costs, and UK food and grocery prices. In addition, try to get a good idea of what water, gas, electricity, and internet will cost before you relocate.
The Soaring Cost of Living in the UK
Since the financial crisis in 2008, the cost of living in the UK has increased up to four times faster than average earnings in the country. And despite wages growing faster in 2018 – the average salary in the UK was 28,677 GBP – they were still below their pre-crisis level and weren’t expected to fully recover for another six years.
Since April 2018, all workers over 25 years old are entitled to at least 7.83 GBP per hour. This is called the National Minimum Wage and it has increased from 6.70 GBP in 2016. On the other hand, 18- to 20-year-olds are entitled to 5.90 GBP and 21-to 24-year-olds get at least 7.38 GBP.
A recent report also showed that the cost of running a home in the UK accounts to almost half of the household income. This means that before buying necessities such as food, insurance, or fuel, half of the monthly income is already gone by putting a roof over one’s head and paying the bills.
In recent years, the prices for transportation, insurance, electricity, gas, rent, and food have increased the most. This has forced many people to switch from cars to public transportation and from regular to budget supermarkets and retailers. The sharp rise in the costs of gas and electricity can be partly explained by the switch to green energy.
The Costly Life of a Family in the UK
Families suffer the most from the rise in the cost of living in the UK. In 2018, an average family in the UK needed at least 40,000 GBP a year to have a decent standard of living – 50% more than before the recession. At the same time, a single person would need to earn around 18,400 GBP.
These numbers include housing costs, utilities, insurance, clothing, food, and commuting to work. The latter is one of the most demanding areas, due to changing gas prices and significantly increasing car insurance costs over the past years.
What’s more, this budget with which families have to live by does not yet include any luxuries, the various taxes, or school fees – the cost of education in the UK can be very expensive, especially for university.
Surprisingly Expensive: Living in Rural Scotland
Generally, it is believed that living in the city is much more expensive than living in a rural area. This might be true in many cases, especially when comparing the cost of living in London with that of a small British town. However, there seem to be some exceptions to this rule.
Rural Scotland, for example, is much more expensive than many urban areas in Britain. Although prices in rural Britain have been falling in recent years, the cost of living in the Scottish countryside is still up to 40% higher than in many British cities.
The reason for this is that living in remote areas of Scotland is more expensive when it comes to the commute, clothing, food, or household goods. Moreover, high energy bills add to the additional costs, due to the colder climate and oil-heated, older houses being the norm. So, if your destination of choice is a cozy little cottage in the Scottish countryside, keep the cost of living in mind and adjust your budget accordingly.
Culture and Social Etiquette
One of the most famous families in the UK is surely the Royal Family, however, they are the exception and not the rule when it comes to how the typical family looks. However, class and wealth do play a major part in UK life. If you relocate to the UK, you’ll probably fall into one of the groups in the following section, even if it’s not always obvious.
The Class System
- Working class: Unskilled or semi-skilled workers, sometimes with no higher education, such as factory workers and laborers. Long-running UK soap operas, such as ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Eastenders’, show dramatized versions of what working class life can be like. A survey by the Guardian newspaper in 2016, showed that most Britons identify as working class, even if they work typically middle-class jobs. In fact, just around 25% of Brits were working in ‘routine and manual’ working class jobs at the time of the survey.
- Middle-class: this section includes shop owners, white-collar workers, reporters, teachers, nurses, and many more. In recent years, there’s been a distinction between ‘lower’ and ‘upper-middle-class’ people. This section of the public tends to be relatively financially stable but might share political views and family backgrounds with the working class. For example, some people, sometimes known as ‘social climbers’, have risen from working to middle-class, despite having working class parents, due to their career.
- Upper class: Sometimes called ‘posh’, the upper class generally contains people with the best-paid and most prestigious jobs, and usually the most social and political power. People from this section often benefit from an education at the best private schools and top universities.
- Aristocrats: The so-called highest order of society. These people usually come from very wealthy families who have been in the country for hundreds of years and include Lords, Ladies, Marquesses, Dukes, Earls, and Viscounts.
Say please and thank-you: In the UK, citizens find it polite to always show gratitude for help received, and will usually thank waiters in restaurants, postal workers, and virtually anyone who has provided them a service, no matter how small.
You’re also expected to thank someone for holding a door open for you, stopping to let you pass first, and any kind of help they provide.
Apologizing: Brits like to say sorry for causing someone inconvenience, such as being late, bumping into them by accident, or making a harmless mistake, for example.
Queueing: People may get very annoyed with you if you ‘jump’ the queue, so please wait in line. Queuing really is important to UK citizens who are also firm believers in ‘fairness’.
Queueing is also a safe way to enter or leave locations and you rarely see this unwritten law broken in the UK.
‘Stiff upper lip’: The British are thought to hide their emotions and keep anger and sadness to themselves. And although this is an old-fashioned stereotype, there is some truth in it. People don’t just keep their feelings in to appear strong, they do it to avoid offending others or making anyone feel uncomfortable. Once again, as with any stereotype, not everyone is like this.
Money: It’s generally seen as rude to ask someone how much money they earn or how wealthy they are, although it’s not uncommon for people to brag if they’ve spent a lot of money on something. It’s also common for Lottery winners in the UK to keep the win secret.
Greetings: If you’re meeting someone for the first time, especially when it’s a formal situation, it’s normal to simply shake their hand, however, it’s fine to hug a friend, or kiss them on the cheek.
The Success of Free UK Museums and Art Funding
The UK has a strong tradition of funding the arts. Though commercial art galleries in London and other cities can turn a profit, most cultural organizations depend on public funding. Each of the four UK countries has its own organization responsible for funding:
The British Council is another important funding source for the arts. The council is responsible for educational opportunities and international cultural relations and is active in 110 countries and territories. The objective of the British Council is not so much to promote UK arts, but more to use it as a way to connect supporting collaborations between international and British artists, as well as funding exhibitions and events.
One outcome of strong arts funding is that entry to most national UK museums is free. Thanks to a change by the Labour government in 2001, you can visit the permanent collections of national museums in England, Scotland, and Wales (with the exception of temporary exhibitions) free of charge. There are three national museums in Northern Ireland, and one of them, Belfast’s Ulster Museum, has free entry. In the UK, there are over 50 national museums with free entry.
The British Museum
London was once the capital of a vast empire and has many imposing and impressive museums to prove it. The British Museum, arguably the most famous of all UK museums, and one of the most visited museums in the world received 5.8 million visitors between 2017 and 2018 alone. Founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759, the British Museum claims to have been the first national public museum. Its collection illustrates the history of human culture, with gems like the Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The museum, which houses about eight million artifacts, also loans many of its treasures to other institutions in the UK, meaning you don’t have to be in London to witness everything the museum has to offer. Between 2015 and 2016, over 7.7 million people saw exhibitions and objects owned by the British Museum elsewhere in the UK, with over 3,000 objects being loaned throughout the year.
Museums and Art Galleries in London
The UK is home to countless museums and art galleries. However, it cannot be denied that London is the cultural hub of Britain. This list of UK museums in the capital gives you a taste of just how much art and culture you can find there.
- The Victoria and Albert Museum (also known as the V&A)
- The Tate Modern and Tate Britain
- White Cube Gallery
- Serpentine Gallery
- National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Saatchi Gallery
- Natural History Museum
- Whitechapel Art Gallery
- National Maritime Museum
- Science Museum
- Hayward Gallery, at the Southbank Centre
- The British Library
Museums and Art Galleries in the UK
Once again, this list is by no means exhaustive, but it highlights some of the most visited and noteworthy UK museums you should have on your radar. Some – like the Railway Museum in York – are also popular destinations for field trips organized by schools all over the UK.
- Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
- National Gallery, Edinburgh
- Tate Liverpool, Liverpool
- Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
- National Railway Museum, York
- Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol
- Riverside Museum: Scotland’s Museum of Transport and Travel, Glasgow
- St. Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff
- Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool
- Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham
- Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester
- Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead near Newcastle upon Tyne
- The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
Art and Culture Festivals
Museums aren’t the only attraction for “culture vultures”; from literature to film, street performance to music, the UK has a full schedule when it comes to festivals. Music festivals are particularly popular. Below is a list of some important cultural festivals.
- Edinburgh Fringe Festival
- London Film Festival
- Bestival, Isle of Wight
- Manchester International Festival
- Brighton Festival
- Parklife Weekender, Manchester
Coming from another country and driving in the UK will call for some readjustment: motorists drive on the left-hand side of the road. Although Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and England are all governed differently, traffic rules are mostly the same throughout the UK.
Driving in the UK is a more convenient form of transportation, especially in rural areas, where public transportation may be limited.
Foreign Driving Licenses
You can usually use a foreign driver’s license in the UK for up to a year and it’s a good idea, although not a requirement, to get an international driving permit (IDP), which helps if your license isn’t printed in English. The same advice applies to drive a rental car.
An IDP is recognized worldwide and has your passport photo, and your original license information translated into ten different languages.
You can find out more about how to get a UK driving license, driving in the UK with an EU, US or another foreign license, plus rules for driving in the UK in our dedicated article. This article also gives information on the legal ages for driving in the UK.
The Roadway Alphabet – A, B and C Roads
There are over 260,000 miles (over 420,000 km) of paved roadways fit for driving in the UK––not too shabby for an island kingdom of its size!
There are three categories of roads in the United Kingdom:
- “A” roads: the main routes between cities in Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland, and Wales). A1 to A6, for instance, rotate clockwise around London, while A7 through A9 connect Edinburgh with other Scottish cities.
- “B” roads: smaller local routes and also a link the “A” roads. These roads are often less crowded.
- Categorization in Northern Ireland follows a similar scheme, with some minor lanes additionally labeled as “C” roads.
You’ll be glad to hear there aren’t many toll roads. However, some bridges charge a toll. Moreover, a 43-km (27-mile) stretch of the M6 motorway in the Birmingham area is a toll-paying highway. They currently charge car drivers up to 6.40 GBP on weekdays and up to 5.30 GBP during weekends to use the road between 06:00 and 23:00.
Greater London – Just Take the Tube
Driving in the countryside can be very relaxing, giving you that pleasant holiday feeling. However, taking your car into larger cities – especially the Greater London area – may test your patience. It’s neither recommended nor necessary to drive in London as the city has an established public transportation system.
The city of London has been trying to reduce its smog and pollution levels. The first step in doing so was to reduce the amount of traffic in central London. The city has somewhat succeeded in doing so by levying a congestion charge.
In addition, a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was also implemented in 2008 for driving in the Greater London area. The LEZ requires everyone whose vehicle does not meet strict emission standards to pay for driving in the designated area. In addition to the frequent traffic jams and the limited number of parking spaces, this is another good reason for drivers to avoid London even if they have had good experiences driving elsewhere in the UK.
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How is public transportation in the UK? Bus and coach travel are the most popular forms of public transportation in the UK and also the cheapest, while they arguably offer the best value for money in terms of being on time, offering comfort, and overall good service.
Nevertheless, local bus services aren’t always reliable. Outside of major cities, trains are more likely to be the public transportation of choice for commuters who need to get to work on time.
Public Transportation Survey
The Transport Focus National Rail Passenger Survey in June 2018 captured the feedback of more than 25,000 passengers regarding their last train journey. The report noted that poor weather and disrupted schedules negatively affected customer feedback. Moreover, damaged trains were also a subject of passenger disappointment. Value for money rated poorly, reflecting recent ticket price rises despite minimal obvious improvements to services.
Ratings from commuters fell from 78 to 72 out of 100 from Spring 2011 to Spring 2018, while leisure and business passengers’ satisfaction remained around the same level, falling from 90 to 89, and 84 to 83 respectively in the same period. Overall satisfaction fell from 84 to 81 out of 100.
One of the areas where there was lots of room for improvement was the availability of seating, which scored 51 out of 100 overall, while Wi-Fi availability (34) and value for money (45) scored even worse. On the other hand, length of journey (82), overall satisfaction with the train (75), and handling of requests to station staff (85) scored well.
The UK’s Comprehensive Railway System
Nevertheless, despite complaints from customers about the cost of public transportation in the UK, the country benefits from a modern system that citizens of other countries would envy.
For example, the UK has a comprehensive railway system that allows you to reach almost every town by train – the system is, in fact, the oldest in the world. There are different companies which maintain the national and regional networks, with Network Rail managing the majority of the national network in Great Britain, and NI Railways managing the railroad traffic in Northern Ireland.
The price of your train ticket is typically determined by the distance and time of your journey. However, the network you are traveling on, as well as how far in advance you book your ticket, can make a significant difference. And, in fact, on some lines, short journeys will prove to be worse value, so please do your research. You can see rail disruption updates, times, connections, and prices, as well as book your tickets on National Rail Enquiries.
If you are a frequent train traveler, you should check out the National Railcards or Regional Railcards, which – if applicable – might be a great deal, and could save you a third of the price on tickets. BritRail passes, on the other hand, target tourists and are only available for purchase from abroad by foreigners who have not lived in the United Kingdom for six months or more.
In any case, taking the train can be a relaxed and scenic way to travel. On paper, fast trains allow you to commute easily between major cities, especially on the north-south axis, as well as big cities and airports.
For instance, it only takes 15 minutes to travel from London Heathrow to the city center with the Heathrow Express, while a journey from Edinburgh to the capital will take you between four and five hours, depending on the exact route and type of train. However, it is worth noting that delays and cancellations have increased significantly in recent years, as has overcrowding, particularly on commuter trains.
Traveling by Coach and Bus
Traveling by coach is not only a valid choice for getting to the UK but also for exploring the country on a budget. There are different companies which offer connections from one point to another. You can use comparison sites, like CheckMyBus, to shop around for great deals. Please remember that you often need to buy coach tickets in advance as they usually can’t be purchased directly when boarding.
The main operators in the UK are:
- National Express
- Scottish Citylink
- Ulsterbus and Goldline in Northern Ireland (cf. Translink)
You can also easily get around cities and towns by bus, including the iconic double-deckers found in London. The local bus networks are run by different companies, so you will have to contact them individually or view their websites for ticket prices and timetables. Typically, you can buy the ticket directly from your driver or from local travel centers but try to have the correct change ready if you want to buy your ticket from the bus driver.
Taxis and Uber in the UK: Tradition vs. Technology
If you have to get from A to B quickly, have a lot of luggage, or if you just don’t want to use public transportation, taking a taxi might be more convenient.
In major towns and cities, you can hail a taxi in the street. If you’re unsure where to find a taxi, local train stations or airports are a great place to start. In London, use of the Hailo App and taxi apps, in general, has become a popular method for hiring licensed cabs. In addition to the fare, as shown on the meter, you can choose to tip the driver by rounding up the fare or adding about 10%.
While London’s cabs have a long history, ranging from horse-drawn carriages first licensed in the 17th century, to today’s iconic black cabs, modern technology has made an impact. Since its official UK launch in 2012, Uber’s services have rapidly expanded in big British cities and now pose a real alternative to taxis and minicabs.
The Preordered Alternative: Minicabs
Minicabs can be a low-cost alternative to taxis in the UK but have to be hired in advance. Unlike taxis, they do not have a meter. Please remember, for your personal safety, only use licensed minicabs, especially in big cities like London. Minicabs from unlicensed providers are illegal, uninsured, and potentially unsafe for passengers.
Ferries: Perfect for Exploring Remote Islands
Ferries are a popular form of transportation when it comes to getting to and from the United Kingdom and seeing more of the world around you. Ferry connections can be used for more than just entering and leaving the country; they’re indispensable when it comes to traveling along the Scottish Highlands.
Tickets are usually best bought directly from the operator, either online or at local ferry terminals, but you can find an overview of the various ferry companies and travel routes on websites, such as Discover Ferries.
Public Transportation Resources for the Disabled
Most trains in the UK carry a wheelchair access ramp, and buses are often able to tilt down to meet the sidewalk. If you look at the London Tube map, you’ll also notice that stations with disabled access are clearly marked.
For more information, visit Gov.uk. Transport for London also provides more specific local advice on the accessibility of trains, buses, and the Tube in the capital. Finally, Disabled Travel Advice offers lots of useful tips on public transportation in the UK for expats and travelers alike. Although their British city profiles mostly target tourists, expats may find their information useful as well.
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