Home About the United Kingdom The Basics An introduction to the United Kingdom
Last update on June 11, 2019
Written by Danielle Richardson

An introduction to the United Kingdom, including a brief history of the UK, how the UK government works, and what you need to know about the UK people and society.

If you’re moving to the UK as an expat, this introduction to the United Kingdom features everything you need to know about how the country works today, including details on its history, main cities, top British foods, an overview of the UK tax system, and much more.

The United Kingdom (official name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is made up of four countries, which are united under one monarch and government. These countries are England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Each country has a distinct culture and feel of its own. While England, Wales, and Scotland are joined on the same island, Northern Ireland is separate, sharing a border with the Republic of Ireland.

The United Kingdom – as it stands today – was formed as a result of many centuries of old alliances and conquests. Today, more than ever, there are questions about how long it will remain in its current form, with the likes of Scotland in particular expressing an interest in gaining independence.

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Topics covered in this guide include:

Living in the UK

According to The Migration Observatory report from Oxford University, there were 9.4 million expats living in the UK in 2017 – double the amount recorded in 2004.

The largest numbers of expats tend to settle in London, which houses 3.4 million foreign-born people. London’s popularity is due to its worldwide reputation as a thriving global city with many job opportunities, excellent nightlife, and multicultural community.

London City Guide

The UK’s free NHS healthcare system is another draw for many, however a report from InterNations cited several drawbacks to life as an expat in the UK, including the country’s often dreary weather, unfriendly locals, and high costs of living and childcare.

Main cities in the UK

London

As mentioned above, London – England’s capital – is the most popular destination for expats coming to live in the UK, with around 3.4 million foreign-born people living in the city.

The city is huge and constantly growing so it can be difficult to decide where to live. Each region of London has its own distinct feel, and there are several neighbourhoods where expats tend to settle. For instance, several areas of north London are known for their Turkish communities, while there is a strong Afro-Caribbean culture in Brixton, in south London.

Much of London is connected by the London Underground tube system, and being close to a tube station is an important factor for many when deciding where to live.

See our guide on the top 10 places to live in London for more information.

Edinburgh

As Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh was the only UK city to feature in ECA International’s top 20 cities for expats, where it came in joint 19th place with Stockholm. Among the reasons for Edinburgh making the list ahead of other UK cities were its lower levels of air pollution and better personal safety.

The Scottish capital has scenic architecture, a rich history, and is famous for its city-wide summer festival, which brings together music, comedy and theatre, and is hugely popular with tourists from around the world.

Belfast

Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, and has a fairly low expat population. According to the latest figures, 2016 saw just 13,000 non-UK people move there. The most popular reasons for moving included work, family, and education.

One reason that could account for the lack of expats in Belfast is its position in ‘the Troubles’ – a conflict between Catholic and Protestant Christians in Northern Ireland, which has regularly resulted in violence. This has gone on for many years, and one recent outbreak of fighting resulted in the death of journalist Lyra McKee who was shot during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry.

Cardiff

One of the first things expats may notice about the Welsh capital is the fact that many of the street signs are written in both Welsh and English.

Welsh language and culture is considered very important to natives here, as anyone will notice if they frequent a Welsh rugby match, where the country’s national anthem is sung fluently and proudly by everyone.

Expats make up 13.3% of Cardiff’s population, most of whom are from Poland, Ireland, India, Germany, and China.

Manchester

Despite not being a capital city, Manchester is considered to be the second largest city in the UK, behind London, with a population nearing three million people, of which around 376,000 are expats.

Known globally among sports fans for its Premier League football clubs, Manchester United and Manchester City, the city also has a reputation for its musical history, and is home to famous bands including Oasis, The Stone Roses, and The Smiths.

The city saw a lot of regeneration in the early 2000s, meaning many rundown areas are now a much brighter prospect for those looking to live there.

For more information about UK cities and how to pronounce them, see our guide on 27 quirky British city names.

UK: facts and figure

  • Population: 66 million (the ONS estimated in November 2018)
  • Climate: Temperate
  • Languages: English, plus recognized regional dialects including 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% (according to the most recent 2011 census)
  • Monarch: Queen Elizabeth II
  • Currency: British pound (GBP)
  • Emergency number: 999

UK: key historical dates

1801 – The United Kingdom is formed, following the union of Great Britain and Ireland

1914 – Outbreak of the First World War, where the UK enters hostility against Germany

1918 – War ends in November with the Armistice

1921 – The UK agrees to the foundation of the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.

1939 – Outbreak of Second World War. The UK declares war on Germany following its invasion of Poland.

1945 – End of the Second World War. The UK becomes a permanent member of the UN Security Counsel.

1948 – The National Health Service (NHS) is formed

1969 – British troops sent to control political unrest in Northern Ireland

1973 – The UK joins the European Economic Committee

1997 –Wales and Scotland create separate assemblies following a referendum – these come into force in 1999

1998 – The Good Friday agreement on a political settlement for Northern Ireland is reached

2008 – The UK financial system experiences record stock market falls in the economic crisis, also known as the ‘credit crunch’

2016 – The UK votes to leave the EU after a historic referendum

Economy and living standards in the UK

Living standards in the UK are generally quite good. In the OECD Better Life Index, it ranks above average for personal security, environmental quality, social connections, health status, jobs, and learning.

The cost of living, however, is high compared to many other European countries. London is significantly more expensive than other parts of the UK, with everything from housing and rent, to food and drink and transport costing much more.

For more information on how much it costs to live in various cities around the UK, see our guide on the cost of living in the UK.

Following the economic crisis in 2008, the UK has been under austerity measures as the government has tried to reduce its spending deficit. The economy has gradually recovered in strength over the past 10 years, although the impending impact Brexit will have on the economy is not known – and many sceptics predict that the UK’s departure will have an adverse effect.

Introduction to the UK: Economy

The British pound (GBP) is used throughout the UK, which refused to convert to Euros with the rest of Europe back in 1999.

The average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is £22,721 a year, which is lower than the OECD average of £26,589 a year. There is also a lot of disparity between the rich and poor, for instance, the top 20% of the population earns six times as much as the bottom 20%.

UK people and society

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), there are around 66 million people living in the UK, and this figure is estimated to grow to 73 million by 2041.

While the population is increasing, it’s also ageing – 18.2% of the population were over the age of 65 in 2017, compared to 15.9% 10 years earlier.

The results of the most recent Census in 2011 found that 86% of the UK population identified as being white, with 80.5% of those being ‘British white’.

Asian ethnic groups make up 7.5% of the population, with Indian and Pakistani ethnicities making up the majority of this group.

Black ethnic groups accounted for 3.3% of the population; mixed/multiple ethnic groups at 2.2%; other ethnic groups at 1%.

The UK is a multi-faith society, and the 2011 Census found that Christianity is still the most prevalent religion, with 59.49% of the population identifying as Christian. Islam is the second most common faith (4.41%), followed by Hinduism (1.32%), and other religions which account for 1.6%. Nearly a third (32.84%) of the population’s religions were recorded as unspecified or none.

The UK class system

In terms of class demographics, much of the UK is considered middle class, but there are still working class and upper class people. While the differences are not as pronounced as they once were, divisions are still clear.

Those in the upper class are usually of aristocratic or royal lineage, with familial wealth that has been passed down generations. Working class people are low earners, and may rely on support from state benefits to provide housing and other financial support.

What are people in the UK like?

Brits have a mixed reputation among foreigners – on the one hand they are supposedly very polite and proper, while on the other, they are known for their loutish drunken behaviour while abroad.

Well, both types of Brit are fairly common, but two activities that tend to unite all UK citizens are queuing and talking about the weather. Yes, what you’ve heard is true.

Brits love the order of a queue, and tend to get quite upset if the rules of a first-come, first-served queuing system are ignored, so make sure you don’t skip ahead!

As for talking about the weather, this is another regular occurrence. Due to their generally reserved nature, it may seem that striking up a conversation in the UK seems more difficult than in other countries, but mention the rain, sun, or cloud and most Brits will happily join in.

Confused? See our guide on British culture and social etiquette for more information.

You can also read more tips for understanding the Brits.

UK lifestyle and culture

Depending on where you go, lifestyle and culture around the UK can really vary. From sleepy seaside towns to London’s bustling 24-hour metropolis, there’s something for everyone.

While London has the lion’s share of attractions, many areas of the UK are popular with tourists. You can find dramatic limestone cliffs and sandy beaches in Devon and Cornwall; quirky shops, clubs and a famous pier in Brighton; and future comedy stars at the Edinburgh Festival.

Come the weekend, most Brits like to let their hair down by going to the pub – or, if they’re feeling energetic, perhaps even a nightclub.

The UK’s binge-drinking culture is pretty renowned and – while not particularly sensible – it’s likely something you’ll come into contact with if you live there.

We also have a blog on British nightlife observations from the point of view of an expat.

The arts

The UK has a rich history in the arts, and it’s something that garners a lot of popularity and support. London’s West End has a reputation akin to New York’s Broadway, and is home to several theatres showing popular plays and musicals, many of which go on to tour the rest of the country.

Many genres of music have a huge following in the UK, from the country’s superclubs putting on famous DJs, to the likes of Wembley Stadium and the O2 hosting international stars like Beyonce. Then there’s the UK’s renowned music festivals – the likes of Glastonbury attract hundreds of thousands of music fans every year.

To get to grips with this year’s music festivals, see the top UK festivals in 2019.

As for literature, you can see performances of famous Shakespeare plays at a recreation of the Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank, or visit Stratford-upon-Avon to see where the Bard lived.

Sport

The most popular sports in the UK include football, rugby, and cricket – all of which have huge followings.

Football is the most popular and hotly contested, and the majority of Brits follow a football team, with allegiances based on location or passed down through the generations.

Food and drink in the UK

When you think of food in the UK, the first things that spring to mind are likely to be English breakfasts, Sunday roasts, and maybe fish and chips. They’re all very popular, quintessentially British dishes, but the UK’s most popular dish is actually chicken tikka masala.

Find out more about the top 10 UK foods.

Let’s not forget the quaint cream tea, which derives from Devon. It’s a light meal designed to be eaten in the afternoon, combining the British love of tea, with dainty sandwiches and cakes. We have a full guide to the classic English cream tea.

If you’re looking for a low-cost meal while you’re in the UK, here are tips on how to eat in the UK for cheap. And for something sweeter, see our delicious guide to Scottish sweets.

Politics, government, and administration in the UK

The UK operates a ‘constitutional monarchy’, which means that the Queen is the head of state, and the Prime Minister is the head of the government, which is based in London’s Westminster.

There are also devolved governments; the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly. These are responsible for any devolved powers in their respective countries.

Political parties are voted for in a general election, which usually takes place every five years. If you are registered as a UK resident, and aged 18 or over, you are eligible to vote. To do so, you’ll need to register to vote ahead of the election.

To find out more, see our guide to the political system of the United Kingdom.

The main political parties

In England, the Conservative Party is currently in power, having been voted in 2017, in coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party (DUP). The former is a centre-right party founded in 1834; the latter was formed in 1971 and is more right-wing.

Opposition parties include Labour, a centre-left party formed in 1900; the centre-left Liberal Democrats that have been around since 1988; the left-wing Green Party founded in 1990.

Additional parties include the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Brexit Party, and Change UK – also known as The Independent Group.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is currently in power in Scotland. It was founded in 1934, has centre-left ideals, and supports the idea of Scotland seeking independence from the rest of the UK.

Wales has Plaid Cymru, which advocates Welsh independence. It’s a left-wing party that’s been around since 1925, but Labour is currently in power and has been since the 2016 National Assembly for Wales election.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is a popular centre-left party that came into its current form in 1970. But the country’s leadership is more tricky, as it must be shared between two parties, since the Good Friday Agreement was reached.

As a disagreement broke out between the leading parties in 2017 – the DUP and Sinn Fein – the government was dissolved and has yet to be reassembled.

The UK on the world stage

Since the UK’s world dominance in the 1800s and the expansion of the British Empire, things have changed a lot.

Now that many commonwealth countries have been granted independence, and the United States’ rule as the world’s superpower, the UK’s influence has certainly diminished.

The UK has good relations with many countries, particularly the US, but also much of Europe, Australia, and Canada.

As the UK plans to leave the EU due to Brexit, its reputation may change again, but the results are yet to be seen.

Rights and freedoms in the UK

The UK ranks highly for its level of freedom, coming in joint eighth place on the 2018 Cato Human Freedom Index, tying with Ireland. This broad measure takes in personal, civic, and economic freedom.

Women’s rights in the UK are generally good and women are considered to be equal to men, but there are consistent issues with UK companies being found to pay women less than men, fewer women being in positions of power, and many women experience prejudice and restrictions due to taking time off work to have children.

In 2018, The Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report on women’s rights and gender equality, concluding that much more needs to be done to address these issues.

Introduction to the UK: rights

Other minority groups also fair well in the UK. For example, LGBTQ issues have taken centre-stage in the past few years, the right to same-sex marriages came into force in 2014, and gay pride is a much-celebrated event across many UK cities.

However, instances of homophobic abuse are still frequent, and there is still work to do to change some stubborn attitudes about the acceptance of LGBTQ people.

For more information on same-sex unions, read our guide to getting married or having a civil partnership in the UK.

Crime and policing in the UK

The UK has seen an overall downward trend in crime over the past few years. A report from October 2018 found that only 2 in 10 adults had been victims of crime in the previous year.

However, some types of crime are on the rise. Reports of theft were up 8% across a broad range of categories – and, as many incidences go unreported, levels could be even higher.

Knife crime is a particular worry, as incidences have increased across the country. These kinds of crimes tend to take place in London and metropolitan areas.

You should also watch out for crimes involving fraud and computer misuse, which are estimated to be up by 6% in the past year. If you experience this kind of crime, contact Action Fraud UK online, or by calling 0300 123 2040.

Police in the UK

Most law enforcement in the UK is carried out by police officers, which are split into regional police forces. There are also country-wide teams, such as the National Crime Agency and more specialist police branches.

You can find out more in our guide about crime and the legal system in the UK.

If you are involved in an emergency and need to contact the police, you can call 999. For situations that aren’t emergencies, but still require police assistance, you can call 101.

Our guide on emergency phone numbers in the UK will help make sure you know what to do in case of an emergency.

Health, welfare, and social security in the UK

In the ONS report on personal wellbeing in the UK, average scores held steady, with people ranking their life satisfaction at 7.7 out of 10, and 7.5 out of 10 for how happy they felt the previous day.

According to the World Happiness Report, the UK ranked 15th out of 156 countries, just ahead of Ireland.

Life expectancy in the UK is 79.2-years-old for men, and 82.9 for women. After a long period of increases, life expectancy had stalled between 2015 and 2017.

UK health service

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free medical assistance and treatment to all UK residents, from doctors appointments to hospital stays and operations.

The National Health Service administers vaccinations in the UK

Private medical treatments are also available, which are chargeable. Some companies offer private health insurance so that employees can access these services without having to pay, including international health insurers such as:

For more information, see our guide on the National Health Service and health insurance in the UK.

Dentistry follows the same NHS and private structure, but even if you access NHS services, there will be a fee to pay.

You can find out more in our guide to UK dentistry services.

Therapy and mental health services are becoming more of a priority in the UK, and once again, there are services available on the NHS and privately. Many employers, schools, and universities have their own counselling and therapy services.

For more details, see the guide on where to access therapy in the UK.

For details specific to those expecting a baby, you can also see our UK pregnancy guide.

Education in the UK

While UK literacy levels are generally pretty high, a number of reports have recently found that more people struggle to read and write than what was originally thought.

British organisation Literacy Trust found that 7.1 million adults in England have very poor literacy skills; in addition to 931,00 in Scotland, 216,000 in Wales, and 550,000 in Northern Ireland.

The UK education system is split into primary education (for children between the ages of four to 11), secondary education (for children between the ages of 11 to 16), and tertiary or further education.

It is a legal requirement for children to be in education until they are 16 years old.

For more information on how the UK education system works, including which exams children must take, see our guide to the UK education system.

We also have a guide on choosing a school in the UK.

UK universities

Beyond compulsory education, the UK has an excellent university system, with the 2019’s World University Rankings putting Oxford and Cambridge universities in first and second place.

However, places are fiercely competitive, and not every institution holds the same standards, so you should do your research before deciding where you want to go.

There has been much controversy regarding UK university fees in the past few years, as UK students and international students alike have seen huge price hikes.

For more help, read our guide on choosing a university in the UK.

Work and business in the UK

UK employment levels

UK employment levels have hit new highs in 2019. The ONS reported that levels reached 76.1% between November 2018 and January 2019, the highest figure on record.

In this same period, unemployment in the UK reached its lowest point since 1974, estimated at 3.9%.

Of these workers, the latest figures from the ONS estimates that around 4.8 million people in the UK are self-employed, accounting for 15.1% of the workforce. These figures are from 2017, however, and it is expected that numbers will have increased even further since then.

If you’re considering being self-employed as an expat, our guide can tell you all about starting a business in the UK.

UK industries

UK business are split between the public and private sectors. Public sector companies provide goods or services from the government or local authorities for the benefit of the public, including schools, hospitals, and fire departments. Services are usually free or subsidised.

Private sector companies’ main aim is to turn a profit, and therefore the goods or services aren’t usually free. There is sometimes an overlap between the public and private sectors – most often with things like waste management, where a private company may be paid to do a task needed by the public sector.

The main industries in the UK include finance and banking, IT, construction, manufacturing, and retail. The fastest-growing sectors are around the UK’s burgeoning tech industry, including fintech, digital marketing, and virtual reality.

For help on getting a job when you move over, see our guide on finding a job in the UK.

UK business culture

Most UK businesses have a traditional hierarchy system of managers, and – while most are polite – they still expect a high level of respect, and are known for being firm and effective.

The annual budget tends to be key in planning business strategies, with future budgeting estimates projected for the following three to five years.

Typically, people work from 9am to 5pm with an hour’s lunch break. However, more senior members of staff will often put in longer hours, miss lunch breaks, and are known for checking their emails late into the night.

Some companies employ ‘flexi time’, where employees can effectively choose their own hours, and work overtime to claim back at a later date.

Increasingly, employers are implementing supposedly more laid-back office environments, with features such as ‘hot desking’ office plans, where employees do not have a set desk, but have the flexibility to sit anywhere they like, and allowing them to work from home.

For more details, see our guide on business culture in the UK.

Environment and climate in the UK

The UK is pretty famous for being rainy, but you might be surprised to know about the high temperatures you can experience living there.

Despite being a small island, there’s a lot of variation; the north and west of the country tend to get more rain, while the south-east is generally warmer and drier.

Introduction to the UK: British people

Always fairly temperate, winters don’t usually reach much below freezing, and summer temperatures rarely go above 32 degrees Celsius.

Air pollution is a problem in the UK, with almost 2,000 locations being identified as having levels of air pollution that exceeded safety limits. However, an ultra-low emission zone came into force in London in April 2019, which aims to cut pollution levels in the city by 45%.

Great places to visit in the UK

Go for a punt in Cambridge

The historical city of Cambridge is known for its beautiful architecture, world-class university, and the chance to go punting on the scenic River Cam, which runs through its centre.

Take in some art at London’s Tates

The Tate Modern and Tate Britain art galleries are located just down the river from each other – there’s even a special boat service that hops between the two – and are the perfect way to spend a cultural day out.

There are usually plenty of free exhibitions to wander around, in addition to bigger paid-for events.

This is just one of many, many things to do in the city, as you will find out in top 10 places in visit in London.

Climb a mountain in Wales

A visit to Snowdonia National Park in Wales will present you with the opportunity to climb one of the UK’s three mountains, Mount Snowdon. Once you get to the summit, you can stop at a cafe for a well-deserved drink and a snack while you admire the view.

For more UK-based inspiration, see the top 10 places to visit in the UK.

Public holidays in the UK

The UK has several public holidays throughout the year, where you’ll either find many shops shut or have reduced opening hours, and schools and offices close.

Many tend to follow Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but also New Year’s Day, and a series of ‘bank holidays’ (which always fall on a Monday). These are always the first and last Mondays in May, and the last Monday in August.

You can find out more in our guide on UK bank holidays and other important UK holidays in 2019.

There’s also more information specifically on celebrating Christmas in England, so you’ll know what to expect.

UK: myth-busting

The UK and Great Britain aren’t the same

Foreigners and UK natives alike often use the terms ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘Great Britain’ interchangeably, but they actually refer to different countries.

Great Britain is a geographic term referring to the island that houses England, Wales, and Scotland, but the United Kingdom is a more political term for the independent country that encompasses England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Stonehenge is older than the pyramids

One of the UK’s most famous attractions, Stonehenge, is a formation of huge blocks of stone in a field in southern England. It’s believed to have been created in 3,000BC – long before Egypt’s pyramids.

There’s a monster living in Scotland

Hiding at the bottom of the UK’s largest lake, Loch Ness, is – supposedly – a huge monster. Unsurprisingly, it’s called the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as ‘Nessie’. Some people have reportedly seen her, but – as she’s mythical – it’s unlikely that you will get a sighting.

Want more UK trivia? Read our guide on 30 interesting UK facts.

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