Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy
Pound Sterling (£)
63,181,775 (2010 est.)
English, Welsh (about 26% of the population of Wales), Scots (mostly spoken in the Lowlands of Scotland) Scottish Gaelic (about 60,000 in Scotland), Ulster-Scots (various parts of Northern Ireland) and some speakers of Irish in Northern Ireland
Anglican and Roman Catholic 40 million (66%)- Roman Catholics are about 10% of the population and rising, Muslim 1.5 million (2.5%), Presbyterian 800,000 (1.3%), Methodist 760,000 (1.3%), Sikh 336,000 (0.6%), Hindu 559,000 (0.9%), Jewish 267,000 (0.4%), Buddhist 152,000 (0.25%), no religion 9,104,000 (15%)
230V, 50 Hz
summer: UTC +1,
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom or the UK) is a constitutional monarchy comprising much of the British Isles.
This Union is more than 300 years old and comprises four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It occupies all of the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern portion of the island of Ireland and most of the remaining British Isles.
It's important to remember that the Republic of Ireland is a completely separate state from the United Kingdom, seceding from the Union and gaining its independence in 1922. The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are "crown dependencies", possessing their own legislative bodies for domestic legislation with the assent of the Crown. They are not part of the United Kingdom, nor of the EU, but are not sovereign states in their own right either. The UK has Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands as its nearest neighbours.
The 'Great' in Great Britain (Britannia Major in Roman times; Grande-Bretagne in French) is to distinguish it from the other, smaller "Britain": Brittany (Britannia Minor; Bretagne) in northwestern France.
The UK today is a diverse patchwork of native and immigrant cultures, possessing a fascinating history and dynamic modern culture, both of which remain hugely influential in the wider world. Although Britannia no longer rules the waves, the UK is still a popular destination for many travellers. The capital and largest city of the United Kingdom is London.
"Great Britain" ("GB") for a geographer refers just to the single largest island in the British Isles that has most of the land area of Scotland, England and Wales. In normal usage it is a collective term for all those three nations together. Great Britain became part of the United Kingdom when the Irish and British parliaments merged in 1801 to form the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". This was changed to "... and Northern Ireland" when all but the six Northern Irish counties seceded from the Union in 1922 after a treaty granting Irish home rule. "Britain" is simply another name for the United Kingdom, and does include Northern Ireland, despite common misconceptions otherwise.
The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack or, more properly, Union Flag. It comprises the flags of St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland and the St. Patrick's Cross of Ireland superimposed on each other. Within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are commonly used. The St. Patrick's Cross flag is often seen on St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland split from the UK though, St. Patrick's Saltire is not used for Northern Ireland, as it represented the whole of the island of Ireland. A flag (known as the "Ulster Banner") was designed for Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which was based on the flag of Ulster (similar in appearance to the St. George's Cross flag of England) and includes a Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. Although the flag's official status ended with the dissolving of the province's devolved government in the early 1970s, it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Protestant community and on sporting occasions. As Wales was politically integrated into the English kingdom hundreds of years ago, its flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The flag features a Red Dragon on a green field.
The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not strictly part of the UK, but rather are 'Crown Dependencies: they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU. They are not entirely sovereign either, falling under the British Crown which chooses to have its UK Government manage some of the islands' affairs. The people are British Citizens, but unless they have direct ties with the UK, through a parent, or have lived there for at least 5 years, they are not able to take up work or residence elsewhere in the European Union.
Overseas Territories & The Commonwealth
Again, these are not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the British Empire which are to varying degrees, self-governing entities that still recognise the British Monarch as their head of state. The key difference is residents of Overseas Territories still possess British citizenship, whereas those of Commonwealth nations do not, and are subject to the same entry and immigration rules as non-EU citizens.
Referring to nationality
Most residents of The United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories are legally British, and referring to any as such will usually not cause offence.
Don't describe citizens of the United Kingdom as "English". The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish do not identify themselves as being from "England". If you need to refer to someone's nationality, you can use the most precise term, 'English', 'Northern Irish', 'Welsh' or 'Scottish'. To play safe, you can ask someone from which part of the UK they are from, as this covers every corner of the isles - including Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland and Scotland can be particularly problematic, and 'Scottish', 'Northern Irish', 'Irish', or 'British' can all be appropriate according to the political persuasion of the individual. Irish nationalists may avoid referring to Northern Ireland at all, referring instead to 'The Six Counties' or 'The North', or talk about 'Ireland' as a whole. 'Northern Irish' is less likely to offend, whereas referring to someone from Northern Ireland as 'British' or as 'Irish' can cause offence depending on a person's political ideology.
It is also worth noting that, while technically a county of England, the issue of identity in Cornwall is very sensitive amongst some people. It is best to refer to anyone you meet in Cornwall as Cornish, unless they have already explicitly stated their identity as English.
As a visitor from outside the UK, you are unlikely to cause serious offence. At worst, you will incur a minor rebuff and reaffirmation of their nationality, as in "I'm not English. I'm Scottish".
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the nominal head of state. It has a bicameral parliament: The lower house, known as the House of Commons, is popularly elected by the people and is responsible for proposing new laws. The upper house, known as the House of Lords, primarily scrutinises and amends bills proposed by the lower house. The House of Lords is not elected and consists of Hereditary Peers, whose membership is guaranteed by birth right, Life Peers, who are appointed to it by the Queen, and the Lords Spiritual, who are bishops of the Church of England. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. It has a first-past-the post system divided into local constituencies. In practice, the Prime Minister wields the most authority in government, with the Queen being pretty much a figurehead, though all bills that have been passed in both houses of parliament require the Queen to grant royal assent before they become law.
Additionally, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected bodies (the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly). These devolved governments have a First Minister and varying degrees of power over matters internal to that constituent country, including the passing of laws. For example, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh exercises power and passes laws over almost every matter internal to Scotland. In the areas over which it has power, the UK government plays no role. As a result, institutions and systems can be radically different between the four constituent countries in the UK. England has no similar body of its own, with all government coming from Westminster. The exception to this is London, which owing to its huge size and population has partial devolved government in the form of an elected Mayor and assembly, which exercises a range of powers previously controlled by both central and local governments.
There are also local government authorities responsible for services at a local level. Each constituency votes for a local MP (Member of Parliament) who then goes to sit in Parliament and debate and vote - whether they do or not is another matter.
Using maps and postcodes
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. The maps found in bookshops may be published directly by those organisations, or by private map publishers drawing on basic Ordnance Survey data.
One consequence of this for the traveller is the widespread use of Ordnance Survey grid references in guide books and other information sources. These are usually presented [xx999999] (e.g. [SU921206]) and form a quick way of finding any location on a map. If using a GPS be sure to set it to the British National Grid (BNG) and the OSGB datum.
Alternatively, every postal address has a postcode, either a unique one or one shared with its immediate neighbours. British postcodes take the form (XXYY ZZZ), where XX is a 2 or 1 character alphabetic code representing the town, city or geographic area, a 1 or 2 digit number YY representing the area of that town or city, followed by a 3 digit alphanumeric code ZZZ which denotes the road and a specific section or house on that road. Therefore, a postcode will identify a location to within a few tens of metres in urban locations; and adding a house number and street will identify a property uniquely (at road junctions two houses with the same number may share the same postcode). Most internet mapping services enable locations to be found by postcode. Owing to London's huge size and population it has its own distinct variation of the postcode system where the town code XX is replaced by an area code indicating the geographic part of the city - e.g N-North, WC-West Central, EC-East Central, SW-South West; and so on.
The Ordnance Survey's 1:50000 or 1:25000 scale maps are astonishingly detailed and show contour lines, public rights of way, and access land. For pursuits such as walking, they are practically indispensable, and in rural areas show individual farm buildings and (on the larger scale) field boundaries.
The UK has a benign humid-temperate climate moderated by the North Atlantic current and the country's proximity to the sea. Warm, damp summers and mild winters provide temperatures pleasant enough to engage in outdoor activities all year round. Having said that, the weather in the UK can be changeable and conditions are often windy and wet. British rain is world renowned, but in practice it rarely rains more than two or three hours at a time and often parts of the country stay dry for many weeks at a time, especially in the East. More common are overcast or partly cloudy skies. It is a good idea to be prepared for a change of weather when going out; a jumper and a raincoat usually suffice when it is not winter. In summer temperatures can reach 30ºC (86ºF) in parts and in winter temperatures may be mild, eg: 10?C (50?F) in southern Britain and -2?C (28.4?)in Scotland.
Because the UK stretches nearly a thousand km from end to end, temperatures can vary quite considerably between north and south. Differences in rainfall are also pronounced between the drier east and wetter west. Scotland and north-western England (particularly the Lake District) are often rainy and cold. Alpine conditions with heavy snowfall are common in the mountains of northern Scotland during the winter. The north-east and Midlands are also cool, though with less rainfall. The south-east and east Anglia are generally warm and dry, and the south-west warm but often wet. Wales and Northern Ireland tend to experience cool to mild temperatures and moderate rainfall, while the hills of Wales occasionally experience heavy snowfall. Even though the highest land in the UK rarely reaches more than 1,100 m, the effect of height on rainfall and temperature is great.
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (free of charge from any phone, including mobiles) and ask for Ambulance, Fire and Rescue Service, Police, Coast Guard or Mountain And Cave Rescue when connected. The United Kingdom has this one,unified number for all the different emergency services.
British cities and towns can be dangerous in some parts at night as you can find rowdy groups of drunk people on the street, usually in night life and clubbing areas. Drinking alcohol in public (except outside a bar or pub) is not permitted in some towns and areas of cities. Crime rates in areas such as homocide are broadly in line with the European average (though there can be significant variations between different parts of the UK) and crime in general have been falling in recent years.
The police have fairly wide ranging powers to fine or arrest people who are causing a disturbance, and although they can be heavier-handed in major cities they are generally tolerant. If you are stopped by the police, avoid arguing and be sure to appear respectful. Do not try to reason with them, and above all, do not swear, because although it has been ruled that swearing is not a crime, police will often arrest people who swear at them.
Jay walking is not illegal except on motorways, but always try and cross at designated pedestrian crossings. Most operate a "Push the button and wait for the green man" system, but Zebra Crossings are also widespread, particularly outside of city centres - identified by white stripes on the road and yellow flashing spherical lights - pedestrians have right of way but it is advisable to make eye contact with the driver before stepping into the road. Unlike in many other countries British drivers tend to be very respectful of the laws around zebra crossings.
If you are bringing or hiring a car, be sure to lock the doors if you leave your car, and always park in a busy, well-lit area. Don't leave valuables on display in a parked car - satellite navigation systems are a particular target.
The age of both heterosexual and homosexual consent is 16 throughout the United Kingdom. The law supports LGBT rights and are some of the most progressive in the world. You cannot be discriminated against in any area of the UK for your sexuality. Recently, a gay couple won their case for discrimination after a hotel turned them away saying they only took married couples and same sex marriage was legalised in July 2013.
British society is generally not homophobic and attitudes have changes beyond recognition in the past 20 years. There are some areas where you may want to not be overtly showing your sexuality (very remote villages, 'tough' places such as football matches) but even these in these environments attitudes have changed. Being homophobic is now the taboo in the UK where being homosexual used to be.
Racism is not common in the UK, and racially motivated violence is very rare. Most Britons are strongly opposed to racism. The main concern for Britons isn't racism; the government strongly encourages the notion of a multi-cultural society, but recent high levels of immigration have been of debate. However, the UK is generally regarded by its own immigrant population as being amongst the most liberal and tolerant of European countries in this respect, but obviously there will be some people who are exceptions. Most Britons will go out of their way to make tourists and immigrants feel welcome and it's not uncommon for police to impose harsh punishments on any form racial abuse - physical or verbal.
All in all though, the UK is generally a very safe country to visit and the vast majority of tourists will run into no problems.
On the whole, British police officers tend to be professional and polite, and are generally less aggressive than law enforcement agencies in other developed nations (however, this does not mean they are lenient). The vast majority of British police officers do not carry firearms on standard patrol, and the only time one would usually see a "Bobby" with a weapon is at ports or when there is a suspicion they will meet armed offenders. The exception to this is Northern Ireland, where all Police are armed. Most officers will only speak English and you will be made to speak to an interpreter over police radio or will do so at a police station if you cannot communicate in English. You have the legal right to remain silent during and after arrest - but police in England and Wales will warn you that "You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence".
The local emergency telephone number is 999; however, the EU-wide 112 can also be used. For advice on non-emergency medical problems, you can ring the 24-hour NHS Direct  service on 0845 4647 (NHS 24 in Scotland on 08454 242424)
Emergencies can be dealt with under the NHS (National Health Service) at any hospital with a Casualty or A & E (Accident & Emergency) department. At A&E be prepared to wait for up to 4 hours to be seen to if the medical complaint is not serious, depending on the time of day/night. The longest waiting times usually occur on Friday and Saturday nights. Emergencies will be dealt with immediately and before any question of remuneration is even contemplated. Walk-in centres also provide treatment for less urgent conditions on a first come first served basis. They are open to residents and foreign nationals.
All treatment at an NHS hospital or doctor is free to residents of the UK. All emergency treatment is free, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. As a result, an EHIC card is infact not necessary (though advised for EU travel in general), as the UK is possibly one of the only countries to provide free emergency treatment without question or identity verification. This also applies to tourists, both from the EU and outside.
For advice on minor ailments and medicines, you can ask a pharmacist (there are many high-street chemists, and to practise legally all pharmacists must be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) which involves a university degree and other exams and training). Notable pharmacy chains include Boots and Lloyds, and many supermarkets also have pharmacists. It is worth noting that the medicine trade is strictly controlled and many medicines available to purchase from a pharmacy in other countries eg: antibiotics can only be provided on production of a prescription written by an authorised medical professional.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases are spreading between young people, so make sure you practise safe sex. There are around 50,000 HIV victims living in the UK. Chlamydia is common enough to warrant public health screening of young people. Condoms are available in toilets, pharmacies, and supermarkets. They are also available free from some NHS sexual health clinics (known as GUM clinics), which also provide free STI testing and treatment, even if you are not eligible for other NHS services.
Tap water is safe to drink everywhere, unless otherwise stated.
It's acceptable to address someone by their first name in most social situations. First names are sometimes avoided among strangers to avoid seeming overly familiar. In very formal or business situations first names are not commonly used until people are better acquainted. The best strategy is to use what they introduced themselves with. Officials, however, (like policemen or doctors) will invaribly call you by your title and surname, for example "Mr Smith".
The British can be extremely indirect when requesting things from people they do not know. It is common for Britons to "ask around" questions when requesting something: for example, one would be more likely to say something along the lines of "Where can I find the changing room?" when in a clothes shop, rather than "Where's the changing room?". Although asking questions directly is quite common, it can sometimes be seen as overly abrupt or even rude.
Similarly, saying 'What?' when not understanding something can be considered rude around authority figures or people you don't know, so 'Pardon?' is more appropriate to use in situations with a stranger or a superior. British people apologise a lot, even when there is absolutely no need to do so. For example, if someone trod on someone else's toe by accident, both people would normally apologise. This is just a British thing to do, and dwelling on it (eg: "What are you sorry about?") will mark you out as a foreigner. Often a British person will request something or start a conversation with 'sorry', e.g. "Sorry, do you know where the nearest toilets are?" In this situation, "sorry" means the same as "excuse me", and again shouldn't be treated as an apology.
Allow some personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. You will usually find this in such places as cinemas. Generally, unless people know each other, you will find they will usually choose to fill up every row of seating and keep as much distance of possible until there is a requirement to sit directly next to each other. Exceptions are in very crowded situations where this is impossible, like on the Tube.
British people do not normally make conversation with strangers in the street or on public transport, especially in cities. If you do strike up a conversation with a stranger, they will be polite but somewhat distant. Make sure you have something in common to talk about with the stranger. In small communities and villages, this kind of conversation-making is more accepted.
Greetings are dependent upon the situation. In anything but a business situation, a verbal greeting (such as 'hello (name)!') will suffice. Younger people will usually say 'Hi,' 'Hiya,' or 'Hey' though the latter is also used to attract attention and should not be used to address a stranger as it would be considered impolite. Another British greeting (frequently used by younger people) is 'You all right?' or 'All right?' (sometimes abbreviated to "A'right" in northern England), which basically is a combination of 'Hello' and 'How are you?'. This term can be confusing to foreigners, but it can be easily replied to with either a greeting back (which is far more common) or stating how you feel (usually something short like 'I'm fine, you?'). Note that the person using this greeting isn't really asking if you're all right, and is expecting you to say at most "I'm all right, you?". To a foreigner the question can often be misinterpreted as a genuine display of concern; but the person asking is not expecting you to tell them why you are or are not all right, and may be somewhat annoyed if you do.
Etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug (regardless of the gender offering it) if it is offered, otherwise a handshake is appropriate. In a formal situation or an initial greeting between two strangers, a handshake is the done thing, this should be of a appropriate firmness (generally moderate firmness).
It is not uncommon for people in the service industry (eg: cab drivers and hair-dressers), to make small-talk with you while they are serving you. A couple of good conversation topics are the weather (a British favourite) and sport (particularly with men). Regarding the latter, most British people will have at least a passing knowledge of football, cricket, rugby, or tennis. If you find you share tastes, then music, films, and books are also fairly universal subjects.
For more details on unwritten rules concerning greetings, addressing others, small-talk etc, read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox.
The Scottish are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh, and the English are English. Referring to all of them as "English" will probably offend. It's a potential minefield but "British" will always be safer than "English". Anyone who doesn't wish to be referred to as British will understand that you didn't mean any offence and will politely correct you ("I prefer to be called Scottish".) However calling a Scottish, Welsh, or Irish person English will at best make you come across as ignorant and at worst actively offend. Your safest bet is to ask them what part of the UK they're from before referring to their nationality. Remember, too, most Northern Ireland Unionists would not want to be called Irish. (In contrast, most of the Nationalists in Northern Ireland will identify as Irish and register accordingly as Irish citizens and carry Irish passports, which all people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to do if they wish). You may also find that, even though all the people of the United Kingdom are legally classed as British, peoples preferences are based upon which country in the United Kingdom they were born in, rather than using the collective term British. It is also common to meet someone who might say "I am half Welsh, half-English" or "my parents are Scottish and I am English".
Never refer to the Falklands as being Argentinian: over 250 British soldiers died fighting to defend these islands from Argentinian invasion and occupation in the early 1980s. The Falklands remain a British Overseas Territory to this day. The same goes for Gibraltar; despite the Spanish claim, UN supervised plebiscites register more than 98% local support for remaining British.
Do the V sign with the palm facing outward to indicate either "peace" or "victory"; do the reverse with the palm facing inward if you wish to be extremely offensive.
Fire brigade, police and ambulance:
999 or 112
Road Emergency Service: