The United Kingdom is a diverse and multi-ethnic society, where students of all backgrounds are welcome and their involvement in local communities is valued.
The UK is made up of three different countries and a province: England, Scotland, Wales and the province of Northern Ireland. These countries all have very different characters and identities.
The UK has a long tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees from around the world, many of whom have settled here permanently.
All major world religions are represented – mosques, Sikh temples, synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu places of worship can be seen alongside a whole range of Christian churches, from Anglican and Roman Catholic through to Nonconformist and Orthodox.
Many languages are represented as well. The most widely spoken South Asian language in the UK is Punjabi, followed by Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. The main Chinese dialects spoken in the UK are Cantonese and Mandarin.
All this diversity means that, when you come to the UK, you will find it easy to settle in. You will also develop an enhanced understanding of different cultures by meeting others from an enormous variety of religious and national backgrounds.
Living in the UK
Living in a new culture can be a positive, stimulating experience. It can also be very challenging. Some people have described moving to a new culture as feeling a bit like being a fish out of water! It is natural that most people will experience a period of transition, which is often known as culture shock, while they get used to their new surroundings. Don’t worry though, here is some more information about what to expect and some ideas on ways of helping you to settle in to life in the UK.
What kind of differences international students might notice?
- Academic e.g. different ways of teaching and learning
- Social e.g. the way people interact with each other
- Cultural e.g. different ways of dressing
- Language differences (especially coping with regional accents)
Social Behaviour in the UK
In Britain being late for a class or a meeting of any kind with another person is seen as bad manners. Time keeping is valued a lot higher here than in some other countries. If you are going to be late for an appointment with someone, let them know. Always aim to arrive 5 minutes early for any lectures or seminars to give yourself a chance to get seated before the lecture begins.
In Britain we queue for EVERYTHING; for trains and buses, in shops, for toilets and sometimes even to enter rooms for classes or meetings. As with good time keeping, queuing is seen as being polite and respectful of others, and failure to do so may result in people becoming annoyed with you. If someone was there before you, let him / her be seen first. If you are not used to having to queue and forget to do so then apologise to the people around you and explain that things are different in your culture. This will ensure that you do not offend anyone.
Men and women in the UK are entitled to equal respect and status in all areas of life; neither is valued more highly than the other. Relationships between men and women may be more or less formal than you are used to, and there may be differences in social relationships between people of the same gender. The way people interact with each other can also depend on their age and status. You may find it hard to come to terms with the differences between the way men and women interact in Britain and the way they do in your home country. You should gradually become accustomed to this by observing the way British people treat each other on a daily basis and then adapting your own behaviour accordingly.
In Britain it is considered polite to leave a small tip (amount of money) for your waiter or waitress if you eat in a restaurant, for your hairdresser or for your taxi driver. In a restaurant you should aim to leave between 5-10% of the cost of your meal as a tip; for example, if your meal cost £30 you should leave £1.50-£3 as a token of appreciation for the service you have received. For a hairdresser or a taxi driver people generally tip around £1 or less.
When you first meet somebody it can be hard to know what to talk about, especially if English is not your first language. As a general rule you should ask about people’s interests and avoid asking any personal questions. In Britain it is considered impolite to ask people about their age, religion, who they vote for and how much money they earn, so these subjects should all be avoided.
By international standards the UK is a safe country, with low levels of violence and street crime. The British Council, the Home Office and the police are working together to make all students less vulnerable to crime while they are studying at school, college or university in the UK and have prepared a guide for international students coming to the UK, containing useful advice and information on personal safety.
You can access the British Council’s Creating confidence guide electronically (PDF file – 1.6mb).
How can I help myself?
People who get the most out of being here are those who prepare themselves well before they come and get actively involved during their stay in the UK.
Things you can do before you come to the UK
- You can prepare yourself for the differences you will experience by finding out as much as possible while still in your country.
- Find out about Welsh culture and British ways of life
- Make contact with British people living in your country and friends returning from Britain
- Actively acquaint yourself with British English
After you arrive
- Remember that culture shock is normal
- Balance your academic and non-academic life
- Work at making friends not just of your own culture and developing a social network where you regularly speak English
- Talk to family and friends about how you feel
- Have familiar things around you that have personal meaning such as photographs and ornaments
- Take advantage of help and support that is offered: the Students’ Union, the Immigration and International Student Advice team, the International Student Counsellor, your tutor, the University Chaplain or Imam.
- Join the Students’ Union and student societies that interest you
- Keep healthy: exercise regularly, get enough sleep and eat healthily
- Find a supplier of familiar food if you can
Further information can also be found in our Useful Links section.
UKCISA, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, have produced a very useful set of information pages called Culture Shock.