Six things you may find different in the UK

Blog for students
06 September 2017
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Welcome to the UK! You’ve made it. You’ve been planning for months and you’re finally here. Amongst all the excitement, you may be finding the UK to be quite different to home and are unsure about some practical things. 

We’ve listed our top six things about the UK that we think you might not know about when you first get here. Let us know if you think of any others to share with fellow international students.

Drinking water

Tap water in the UK is perfectly safe to drink so you don’t have to spend money buying bottled water (including in cafes and restaurants – just ask for ‘tap water’ – it’s free!) You might find that water tastes slightly differently in different areas of the UK. That is natural - some sources of water are more mineralised than others. If you want to see which company operates in your region, you can use Water UK’s website.

Transport - buses

We regularly hear anecdotes from students who didn’t know that buses in their area don’t automatically stop  for them to board and that a signal needs to be made. So, despite standing at a bus stop, you may have to put your arm out to ‘hail’ and signal that you want to get on a bus.  Some cities operate on a ‘pre-pay- system (eg London) so you can’t pay on the bus.  Some local bus companies accept cash but don’t give you change!  How buses function varies from city to city so find out from the tourist information in the city or town or ask a member of staff at your institution or students’ union.
Read our overview of transport in the UK.

A licence to watch TV

Yes it’s true! In the UK you need to be covered by a TV Licence to:

  • watch or record live TV programmes on any channel
  • download or watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer – live, catch up or on demand

This applies to any provider you use and any device, including a TV, desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, games console, digital box or DVD recorder.

What if I live in halls? 
You may be living in halls of residence (normally referred to as ‘halls’) while you study in the UK. If this is the case you will still need your own licence for your personal TV or laptop in your room. If there are TVs in communal areas, check with your halls' manager to see if they’re covered by a halls' licence.

What if I live in a shared house?
If you have a joint tenancy agreement with your housemates you’ll probably only need one licence between you for the whole house. You might need your own licence if your accommodation is self-contained. That means you have exclusive access to washing facilities, or your own entrance to the property. You will also need your own licence if you have a separate tenancy agreement for your own room. If you're not sure, check the NUS advice for tenants and lodgers.
Read further information about TV licences.

Students’ unions represent you!

Students’ unions (or ‘Guilds of Students’ and ‘Students' Associations’ depending on where in the UK you are studying) are organisations at universities and colleges which represent and work to protect the interests of students.  This may be quite different to the unions you’re used to in your home country.
They run societies (like sports clubs), support students through advice centres and  represent students’ politically to the institution, eg campaigning on behalf of all students about a particular issue like making the institution more accessible to those with disabilities or improving quality of accommodation.

Students' unions tend to be run by a team of student-elected sabbatical officers. You will have the opportunity to vote for who you would like to represent you. Some students’ unions have a dedicated international officer to support and engage international students like yourself.
They can provide help and advice about accommodation, adjusting to the UK, academic regulations and any pressures or worries you’re facing. You can contact them by going to their students’ union building or going to their website (your institution will link to it).

Find out more about students' unions in the UK on our website. 

The majority of students’ unions are members of the NUS.

Bank holidays

There are eight public holidays called bank holidays in the UK. On bank holidays most offices, banks, schools, universities and many shops are closed.

The bank holidays are:

  • New Year's Day: 1 January
  • Good Friday: Friday before the UK Easter (March or April - date varies)
  • Easter Monday: Monday after Easter (March or April - date varies)
  • May Day bank holiday: first Monday in May
  • Spring bank holiday: last Monday in May
  • Summer bank holiday: last Monday in August
  • Christmas Day: 25 December
  • Boxing Day: 26 December

Greetings – meeting new people

Once you arrive in the UK you’ll meet lots of new people, from students to course tutors.  A top tip from us is not to wait for others to approach you – be brave and reach out!  People may seem reserved but usually respond positively when you start to talk to them.

Britain is very multicultural so there are many ways to communicate.  However, in general, handshakes are used when you meet people or are introduced in formal situations. Kissing and hugging is usually reserved for family and friends.