What NOT to Do When Visiting the United Kingdom
We all more or less know how to behave in our own countries. Yet, what about the other places we travel to? Particularly the ones where the culture is similar to our own?
I had this issue when I moved to the UK from Australia. Despite befriending British people, dating them and being raised by one for my entire life, I still committed many social faux pas during my time living in England. This ranged from pronouncing the names of boroughs wrong, to talking loudly about my “pants” in public (I’ll never not call them trousers now). Thankfully it wasn’t anything too damaging, at least to my knowledge.
After listening, talking to others and taking many notes, I cobbled together some sort of idea of how I should behave in this country. So, here’s a list of what you should avoid doing when visiting the United Kingdom, from an observational perspective.
And if you’re heading to this windswept little island in the near future, you might want to check out this travel guide to England.
Not everyone considers themselves “British”
Here’s the biggest mistake that most newcomers to the UK make – lumping everyone together, thinking they’re one big happy family who are okay with being “British”.
The United Kingdom is made up of four different countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The relationships between these four countries can be… fragile at times, especially post Brexit, as roughly half of the UK were really hoping that this was a thing that would never happen.
Most of the countries that make up the UK were claimed as part of the territory many centuries ago, often by force. There is a lot of bad blood between all of them, going back hundreds of years.Here's what NOT to do when visiting the UK #LoveGreatBritain Click To Tweet
As a result, those who don’t hail from England tend to cling to their heritage (as they have full rights to) and will be beyond insulted if you refer to them as being “British”. Though not all – I noticed that the Scottish seemed to be particularly annoyed by it, but many Welsh people I met were far less perturbed. Although God help you if you assume someone who is Welsh or Scottish is “English”.
Even England isn’t immune… There’s competition between northerners and southerners. Those in the south tend to believe their northern brothers and sisters are backwards and inbred. Likewise, northerners think of southerners as being pretentious twats. So much animosity packed into such a small piece of land!
It can be hard to pick up on the individual accents if you haven’t got the ear for it (not helped by the fact that it seems that every postcode in the UK brings a new accent and slang with it). So if you’re in doubt… just ask!
Or simply keep the conversation generalised and refrain from making any sort of assumptions.
After having said all that, I’m now going to refer to inhabitants of the country of the UK as “British” within this article. If I keep having to type out the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, my head may actually explode.
Don’t go on about your own British heritage
You might be proud of the fact that your great-great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from a small village in England or that underneath your Australian accent you have a strong Scottish heritage. Good for you. It’s important to appreciate where you come from, what you are made up of.
Yet, keep this pride to yourself. I can tell you that no one in the UK will give two tosses about it.
You’ll probably get a stare, followed by a deadpan response of: “Really? How interesting,” in a tone that suggests it is anything but.
Don’t be offended. Remember that the British Empire did its darnedest to conquer the world. Remnants of these efforts can be found nearly everywhere and it just isn’t considered unique or impressive.
Don’t talk about your pants too loudly in public
English may be your native tongue but at times it can really seem like you’re speaking an entirely different language, thanks to the wonder of slang.
I had no idea coming into the UK of how much of my vernacular would make sense only to other Australians, or the amount we’d pulled from American English, particularly where fruits and veggies were involved. I find myself accidentally calling capsicums peppers now, but zucchini will always be zucchini and eggplants, eggplants!
I learnt quickly not to talk about my pants in public (trousers are the item of clothes that cover your legs, pants are those which cover your crotch. Quite the distinction between the two there). However, I’ll never stop calling thongs (flip flops) thongs. It is part of my heritage after all and just wouldn’t seem right.
Related: Nobody Likes a Bogan – An Introduction to Australian Slang
Don’t boast – practice humility instead
I would generally try to refrain from bragging at all. The British culture is deeply rooted in self-deprecation and they are not a fan of anyone who tries to get bigger than their britches. You won’t be applauded for doing this – instead you’ll be branded a “wanker” and face possible social isolation as a consequence.
Don’t even attempt to pronounce the names of towns and boroughs of London and beyond
I’m pretty sure that whoever named all the places in the UK did it just to mess with foreigners. It can be nigh on impossible to get anything right the first time you attempt to say it aloud. As a result, you’ll hear many tourists asking people loudly on the Tube of how they should get to “Lye-ces-ter Square” or “South-wark” (and I for the life of me could never get Marylebone right, but in my defence I never really went to that neck of the woods in London because I’m not made of money).
However, this has led to one of my favourite games, called “Go-on-Google-Maps-and-laugh-at-the-names-of-British-villages-and-hamlets”. I really love the fact that there are places called “Twatt”, “Blubberhouses” and “Wetwang” in this wonderful country.
Don’t be offended when people avoid eye contact with you on the Tube
Londoners have a reputation of being quite bad-mannered… I’d say more that they keep to themselves. Either way, the Tube is a sacred place where silence is appreciated – particularly during peak hours. Everyone will squeeze onto the trains and stand under other people’s armpits for the entirety of their journey, without uttering a word.
It would be quite comical to watch, if the experience of it wasn’t so upsetting.
Yet, don’t assume the British are frightfully rude, ’cause they ain’t
The British are nowhere near as surly as you may believe, even in London.
I once said “Bless you” to a man who sneezed on the Tube, whilst I was on my way to the airport. We got talking and he even helped me carry my suitcases to the next train.
And no one rallies together in times of crisis like the British, as recent sad events have demonstrated.
Outside of the capital, people will smile as they pass you in the street and even stop for a conversation. This can seem quite jarring at first, because really, that doesn’t happen so much in London. Yet, you’ll soon get into the swing of it, once more.
Don’t Tube it from Leicester Square to Covent Garden
If you come from a country that fails spectacularly on the public transport front (cough, AUSTRALIA, cough) you may want to catch the Tube at any given opportunity. And sometimes it’s the only solution when going between stations, as they can be spaced quite far apart.
Yet, this mostly applies to the further you get out of the centre of the city. Sometimes it is better to walk, to get a taste of what London is really about. And if you’re heading from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, don’t bother with the Tube. The walking distance is a whole seven minutes. It will take you longer to get in and out of the station and wait for the train and either way, you’ll be battling the crowds.
Don’t be surprised if the trains stop running for no reason
As great as the trains in the UK are, they are prone to shutting down for reasons that seem laughable, with no warning whatsoever.
Ongoing battles between the train companies and unions lead to strikes, that can push the whole city of London into disarray. The weather is also a a contributing factor. Trains have stopped running due to there being leaves on the tracks, or the fact that the sunshine is “shining too bright in driver’s faces” (yes, true story). If it snows, you’ve got buckleys of getting anywhere.
As for trying to catch a Southern Rail train – well, I can only wish you luck with that.
Don’t stand on the left on escalators
There is a strong sense of order in Britain and visitors to the country are expected to adhere to these rules just as much as locals are.
Don’t walk slowly on the pavement and stop randomly to text on your phone, or take photographs. Don’t jump queues, rather line-up in an orderly manner. As aforementioned, don’t talk loudly on public transport or play music from your phone, because you’re actually not in a nightclub and that’s also why headphones were invented.
And for the love of all that is good, keep to the right on the escalators, unless you’re walking up them. Lord help you if you do anything otherwise.
Related: How to London Like a Local
Insult British cuisine at your own peril
British cuisine traditionally hasn’t had the best reputation abroad, but that is beginning to change. You can eat and drink very well in both London and beyond. Don’t believe me? I gained fifteen kilos whilst living in the UK over a period of two years, because I was having the culinary time of my life.
Especially the cheese. Oh my, the cheese. Do yourself a favour and eat all the cheese in the UK. ALL OF IT! No, actually please leave some for me.
Don’t talk politics
Unless you live under a rock, you’ll have noticed that the UK is going through a period of political turmoil. There’s a lot of anger and uncertainty in the air and no one quite knows whether things will work out for the better or the worst for the country overall.
My advice? Just don’t mention it, particularly if you don’t really understand what’s going on. And trust me – Brexit is a hard one to get your head around, especially from an outsider’s perspective. It may look like the country has deliberately shot themselves in the foot, but 52% of the island’s inhabitants had a reason for voting the way they did. Understanding is the first step towards acceptance and healing, in my books at least.
Don’t use Northern Irish Pounds in England (or Scottish, if you can help it)
The countries that make up the United Kingdom all use the pound sterling as their currency… but both Scotland and Northern Ireland print their own pounds (yet, not Wales for some reason).
Although these are considered legal tender, they’re not readily accepted around England. Fraud is a big concern in the UK and people will just automatically assume that you’re trying to pay for their goods or services with monopoly money. You’ll argue with them that they legally have to accept it, they’ll still refuse and both parties will leave feeling immense dissatisfaction with the other.
Am I speaking from experience? Why yes, I am. Years ago, I pulled 200 quid from an ATM in Belfast and soon realised the error of my ways. I somehow managed to shift most of the pounds when buying a winter coat, but had an elusive £20 note that no one would accept. I ended up going to a bank and asking them to swap it for an English note, which they did, no problem at all.
In all honesty, you might be able to get away with Scottish notes, but don’t be surprised if they are refused. Just swap them over to their English equivalents as soon as you’re out of the country (or keep them for your next trip north!).
And don’t worry about swapping out your English pounds for their Scottish/Nth Irish equivalent – they can be used all over the UK, without argument.
Don’t spend all your time in London
London is a vibrant, colourful city, packed full with culture. You could never be bored in London, although you may go broke.
Yet, you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t get out of the capital and see more of the country. Visit the Peak or Lake District, the Cotswolds or my favourite county Dorset, for some beautiful scenery. Drive amongst the Scottish Highlands, marvel at the architectural beauty of Edinburgh, or the urban grittiness of Glasgow. Tour the Welsh coastline and go pub crawling in Cardiff. Journey over to Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway for yourself or learn about its unsettling recent history.
The UK has so much to offer, beyond London’s borders.
Related: Highlights of Dorset: The Prettiest County in the United Kingdom
Don’t not take advantage of the sun in the summertime, in assuming you may actually see it again
Just because the calendar date specifies that it is “summertime” in the UK, it doesn’t actually mean this is the case.
When the sun does deign to appear, everyone will head to their local park for a picnic or BBQ, or straight to the pub to drink beer in the sunshine. And if there is a body of water nearby, like a lake or a beach, guaranteed it will be packed to the rafters.
I found it really quite endearing, until I realised that they were just making the most of the one sunny day of the year.
The UK becomes an entirely different place in the sunshine and I thoroughly recommend that you make the most of it, while you can.
Don’t think you won’t be entertained
Brits are some of the funniest people you’ll ever meet in a subtle, self-deprecating way.
From hilarious fake Tube signs, to their comedy shows being actually amusing and therefore the best in the world. Their legitimate obsession with the weather and weird tendency to apologise to other people when they are not in the wrong. That Mr. Blobby is talked about with great affection, when he quite looks like the stuff of nightmares. How if you mention the Royal Family they will roll their eyes and talk about them with more vitriol than any Australian, Kiwi or similar Commonwealth member every could. That when tasked with the naming of a new ship, it was the name “Boaty McBoatface” which won the poll.
The quirk, humour and spirit of the British people can easily be found in the everyday. And I for one, love them for it.
And finally – Be aware that if you do step out of line in any way, you may never know
If you commit a social faux pas in other countries, you may be met with a tirade of abuse or sarcasm. In the UK, you’ll probably get huffing and muttered pointed comments under the breath. The British are very much a passive aggressive bunch – you better believe they get angry, but they do quite hate making a scene. Sometimes the build up can lead to an explosion of rage not unlike that of a supernova. I know. I’ve seen it (the rage, not a supernova, although how cool would that be, from a safe distance?!)
Hopefully this will better prepare you for your time in the United Kingdom.
Have you been to/are you from the UK? Is there anything you’d like to add to this list?
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whole heartily thank you for giving out valuable information
Thanks for commenting!
Ha! I think that ‘explosion of rage’ thing is might have just been you hanging around with wrong’uns 😉 Also worth, noting that whilst NI and Scottish pounds are not always accepted outside of their respective countries English pounds are readily accepted in all corners of the UK. Very specific point but one that really gets on my tits is ‘twat’ rhymes with ‘cat’ not SWAT.
That is something worth noting (maybe about the notes, not so much twat although I understand your anguish on that point)!
As a Welshman I found this a very amusing read as it rings true! It’s funny how many people think Wales is in England too!
Ace post, LC :).
Haha, I can believe that! I am from New South Wales in Australia and sometimes post things, to have people reply with “Wow! I never knew that was in Wales!” And I’m like… it isn’t. So, sort of know how you feel! Thanks for your comment, Ed.
Oh yes I can see that being easily overlooked, there’s so many place names in Australia that are also in the UK. 😀
Haha, I wish they’d gone for a bit more variety… I was talking to someone only the other day about how there are at least three Richmonds that I know of in Oz!
The sentance – Most of the countries that make up the UK were claimed by the British Empire during its glory days, many centuries ago …… sorry, as a British person I have to say this happened before the Empire. 😛 England, Wales, Cornwall, Channel Isles were claimed many many years ago, Scotland tribes was beaten after France invaded the islands and the rest which make up the UK like Gibraltar, Pitchin Islands, Falklands were claimed during the British Empire. 😛 Oh and don’t forget Rockall! Nice piece of land for us 😉
Haha, I see how that reads now. I’ll change it to reflect that! Thanks for being my British proof reader. 🙂
It’s amazing to check out your blog. Great to read these informational points.
Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for commenting!
We are both Belgians and we have been living in London for some time – even though we are heading soon for our RTW trip. We have so many time find ourselves in the situation you have described! Great writing. Thanks for sharing.
Glad you could empathise! Enjoy your new adventure. 🙂
Love this post! There are so many little subtle things that we Aussies just don’t get when we visit the homeland. One my last trip to London I barely caught the tube as it was easier to walk between the stations. Far out I had no idea that you can get non-British pounds out of an atm. What an annoying nightmare that could turn into.
It was unbeknown to me as well and yeah, not a fun experience. It’s particularly weird travelling there as an Aussie, as the cultures are so similar, but then something happens that completely spins you out. It can take some time to adjust, that’s for sure.
HAHA pants….also British food is definitely not my favourite… 🙂
I didn’t like it too much at first, but then it grew on me and attached itself to my hips to boot.
This is such a fascinating post! I love the fact that different countries around the world have different things that are frowned upon. I found that Japan has a lot of these same ones as well. Thanks for the information, it will be handy to know!
Haha yeah, it’s so easy to unintentionally do something offensive. I know I have a lot of foot in the mouth moments when travelling. Thanks for the comment.
Hahahah! Pants and Trousers! Hilarious! Will surely keep these in mind when travelling. Thanks for the heads up 😉
It’s very important!
Ah as a British person, I love this.
I think something others don’t ‘get’ about our food is that we don’t go out to ‘eat British’ very much – of course there are some classic dishes of our own that we love, but they’re no more or less important to us than foreign food which is a huge part of our food culture too. When we go to restaurants, it’s often Italian, Chinese, Indian etc. British pub food is a casual thing, and just one part of a much more varied food scene. Whereas in Portugal say, most restaurants will serve Portuguese food, that isn’t the case here. Does any of that make sense?!
Glad you enjoyed your time here – I live near Manchester but am from Liverpool originally so if you ever need tips for these two cities, just shout! 🙂
Glad you liked it and yes, it makes sense! I think what I enjoyed most about British cuisine was the variety for sure. At first I was like “eek, carbs” but as I got into the scene a bit more, I started to really enjoy myself and probably ended up eating way too much. Although I just feel like you can’t beat the British pub scene – it’s one of the things I miss the most.
But yeah, I know what you mean. It’s the same in Australia – our best food is probably of the Asian-fusion variety, unless you spend a crapload on some kind of modern Australian degustation at some fancy pants restaurant. And I will – hoping to get to one or both of those cities next year!
This is a great article, super informative. So many times we read things to do and how to act you don’t ever look at the things not to do. I wish I read this before my first trip there couple of weeks ago.
Ah, bummer. Hope there’s a next time in the UK for you. 🙂
That macaron ice cream sandwich looks YUMMY! I’m so glad I’ve found this as I’m heading to UK next month! <3
Have a great time! Sadly, the macaron sandwich was a pop-up store, but there’ll be other grand things in London, I’m sure!
Huh, this was super entertaining! 🙂 I didn’t know that about the pound notes, sounds painful?!?
It so was.
I love this so much!! I, as a British (Welsh, if we’re being specific) person, can testify that everything is so 100% true!!
Although honestly, I really don’t mind being called British. English, though, is a whole other kettle of fish! Do that and you will find yourself on the receiving end of the world’s deadliest stare.
As for the money thing, I’ve moaned about this for SO long! Had many a debate about it on various FB groups (do I remember you being involved in one not so long ago…?) and I am still bitter haha. But I did some research and, fun fact, the reason Wales doesn’t have their own bank like England & Scottyland is because technically all the money is ours anyway. At least the coins. The Royal Mint is based in Llantrisant, and that’s where all the coins are made! So, if you ever get your hands on an old pound again (old meaning like, last year, and not these shiny new things they’ve brought out), have a look at the inscription running along the edge of it – it’s probably Welsh!
I’ve tried posting this comment EVERY DAMN DAY since you published this post. It’s finally gone through. Yay!
Oh really? Was it coming up with some kind of error msg? Concerning!
It just doesn’t seem to work on my mobile – like, ever! Which is kind of annoying as I do almost all of my blog-reading on the bus to work. It just sort of goes blank.
Ah, geez. I’ll have to look into that. My blog is just not cooperating in a technical sense this week.
It’s just ignorance, isn’t it? If it’s any consolation, I used to get asked if I was a Kiwi all the time, although I’d probably be more offended if it were the other way around.
I have recollections of that discussion, at least talking about the pounds. I asked a friend in London to put one aside for a keepsake, so I’ll check it out when I get my paws on it. It’s a cool factoid, but still doesn’t seem fair that you don’t get your own! They should section off one room or something for the printing of Welsh notes (clearly have no idea how mints actually work).
I’ll be 100% honest here – I definitely can’t tell the difference between Aussie and Kiwi accents. If you have any handy tips on this, please do feel free to share! Likewise, I just can’t differentiate between Canadian and American accents. I’m a monster.
Ha! Get a Kiwi to say “six” (they say “sux” or “sex”) or fish and chips (“fush and chups”). I like their accent a lot, it’s much less grating than most of our accents. I get a bit stuck on US/Canadian accents too – but most of my Canadian friends say “oot” instead of “out” and “aboot” instead of “about” and do actually fling an “eh” on the end of the odd sentence. Sometimes stereotypes are really helpful!
I adopted so many British words and phrases while in Edinburgh, but ‘trousers’ was not one of them, for some reason. It probably would have helped me avoid a fair amount of confusion and embarrassment! And the first time I pronounced ‘Cockburn Street’ was phonetically, of course. Learned my lesson after that haha.
Haha trousers was one I was quick to adopt and I’ve refused to shake it since returning home! Of course Cockburn is Coh-burn but then Cockfosters in London is still, well Cockfosters. There’s no consistency, damn it!