Welcome to Britain: 15 essential tips for first-timers in the UK

You’ve taken the first step towards a new life in Britain. Now’s the time to get started on those practical things you need to do to establish yourself – finding somewhere to live, getting a bank account, finding a job and so on. We have advice on the practical side of getting started, along with hints on British culture and customs to help ease your way into life here.

Send money home

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Find somewhere to live

Most people turn to the internet to find somewhere to live. Popular property websites include Gumtree, Rightmove, Zoopla and Spareroom. Renting a home can be complicated for new arrivals due to the paperwork required, so you may find it easier to become a lodger in someone else’s home or join an existing household as a flatmate. Gumtree and Spareroom are great for finding rooms, and it’s also worth checking noticeboards in libraries, supermarkets and so on.

Open a bank account

The big high-street banks in the UK are Barclays, NatWest, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS. To open an account, banks generally need to see two documents: one to prove your identity and the other to prove your address. Most banks understand that new arrivals won’t have utility bills to confirm their address and are likely to accept a tenancy agreement or a letter from your employer instead. Lloyds has a ‘new to the UK’ account that can be opened without proof of address. Check bank websites for individual requirements before you visit a branch.

Find a doctor

Hospital treatment is free at the point of delivery for people ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK. And you don’t even need to be a long-term resident to see a doctor at a GP practice for free. GPs are general practitioners, frontline doctors who are your first point of contact when you’re ill. That doctor will provide treatment and can also refer you to hospital for further tests and treatment if necessary. To sign up with a GP, go along to the local practice and fill in the form. Some practices may not accept patients who live outside their practice boundary.

Find a dentist

Not all dentists treat patients on the NHS – and even when they do, there are charges to pay, although they’re a lot less than those at a private dentist. There’s no need to register with a dentist in the same way as you do with a GP as you aren’t bound to a catchment area. Simply find a practice you like and phone for an appointment. To find one that accepts NHS patients, click here.

Get help in an emergency

Dial 999. You’ll be asked which service you require: fire, police or ambulance. Obviously, you shouldn’t use these services unless it’s really necessary, and ambulances are only for people who are seriously ill or injured. If you need emergency treatment, head to the accident and emergency department at your nearest hospital under your own steam if you can. There’s also a non-emergency number for the police, 101, and an NHS number, 111, for general advice.

Get a job

Jobs are advertised online at agencies such as Reed and Adecco. Personal contacts are always helpful, of course. If you’re an engineer, scientist or IT professional, with good English, your path to a well-paid job is likely to be a lot easier than most. The Job Today app is worth a look too: you can quickly search for jobs in shops, restaurants and more, apply with a single tap and even message potential employers directly. It’s also worth checking noticeboards for part-time work such as cleaning or babysitting.

Get online

Public libraries offer free internet access and many cafés have free WiFi too. If you move into a shared flat, you’ll probably pay for shared WiFi. If you’re starting from scratch and getting connected, you’ll have the choice of a long list of providers offering a range of deals. Landline rental is almost always included in a broadband package, although a few providers offer broadband connection without a landline.

Get around

London’s public transport is expensive but generally efficient. You’ll need a prepaid Oyster card or debit card to travel – you touch it on the yellow reader as you board your bus, tube, train or tram. If you want to travel cheaply, buses are your best bet. And if your journey requires two buses, you’ll only pay one fare if you board your second bus within an hour of boarding the first.

Rest of the UK
Britain’s trains are operated by various companies, but you can find times and buy tickets at National Rail Enquiries. There’s often a huge range of fares for the same journey. There are two things to remember: journeys are always cheaper outside hours when people are travelling to work or for business. And for longer journeys it always pays to book ahead. Many train companies put tickets on sale three months in advance, in a series of price bands, and the cheapest ones get snapped up early.

Coaches (long-distance buses) are often (though not always) cheaper than trains and there’s a good network of routes. The main company is National Express, with competition from budget operator Megabus.

Keep fit

There are plenty of privately run gyms but these tend to be expensive. Local authorities, sometimes in conjunction with private companies, run cheaper sports centres. You can usually use them on a one-off basis but if you plan to go regularly you’ll usually save money by taking out a membership. Expect to find a gym, pool, exercise classes, yoga, squash courts and more. Look online on your borough’s website to find facilities near you.

Join a library

Libraries lend CDs and DVDs as well as books – and many libraries in larger urban areas have a good selection of foreign-language titles. They also have computers for free internet access (you don’t need to be a member to use them). Many have reasonably priced photocopying and printing facilities too.

Get a TV licence

It sounds odd to many non-Brits, but you need a licence to watch TV here – that’s live TV on any channel and programmes on the BBC’s iPlayer service. A TV licence currently costs £145.50 a year. Get caught without one and the fine will be a lot more. The licence is to pay for the BBC, which is a public-service broadcaster and doesn’t have any ads.

Buy a round

When a group of British friends go to a pub, the custom is to buy ‘rounds’. A round is a drink for everyone in your group and the idea is that everyone buys a round in turn. This works well for small groups. When it comes to bigger gatherings, people may split into small groups or share rounds, so nobody ends up out of pocket and nobody gets away with a free night out. The rounds system isn’t set in stone. If you can only stay for one drink it’s fine to tell your friends this, and say that you’ll just buy your own.

Leave a tip

Diners in restaurants tend to tip between 10% and 12% of the bill. Where the bill states that service is included, you don’t need to leave any extra. People don’t tip in pubs and rarely in bars, unless it’s an upscale kind of place with table service. In coffee shops and cafés, the general rule is to leave a small tip if you’ve had table service but otherwise there’s no need.

Get into the Christmas spirit

Christmas is a big deal in the UK, so don’t expect to find any public transport or shops open on 25th December (you may find the odd corner shop or garage open, but everything else is firmly shut). Most shops are also shut on Boxing Day, 26th December, though some large stores begin their January sales then. Public transport remains pretty non-existent until 27th December.

Want to find out the 12 must-have apps when you move to London? Click here to read our list.