10 things international students should know about studying in the UK

Top tips to help foreign students in the UK understand the country’s unique university culture

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Marin Harrington's avatar

Marin Harrington

January 30 2020
10 things international students should know about studying in the UK


My move to the UK was exciting and challenging in equal measures. There is so much to figure out and understand, and sometimes it can feel quite overwhelming, so if you’re thinking of moving to the UK, this is my lowdown on what you will need to do to make it happen and what to expect once you get here. 

1. Figure out your costs and budget

Budgeting is key – make sure you consider course fees, rent, food, NHS (National Health Service) surcharge, mobile phone bill, internet, transportation costs, day trips, going home, socialising, books and other course materials.

There are a number of apps and online tools, including the International Student Calculator, to help you forecast how much your regular expenses will amount to. Also check your university’s website to work out what the local costs are for things like accommodation.

2. How to access healthcare

After you pay the NHS surcharge, you are entitled to access the country’s health service. This means you can see a doctor, receive emergency treatment and access compulsory psychiatric treatment for free. But be aware not every treatment is covered by the NHS and you will still need to pay for prescriptions, vaccinations, dental care and optical care.

You can also get help if you are having trouble with your mental health. Most universities and colleges have a free and confidential counselling service you can access, with professionally qualified counsellors. Or you can discuss things like anxiety, stress and depression with an NHS doctor.

3. Student accommodation

Sorting out where you’re going to live in the UK can be a mammoth task, but it’s important to get it right. There are a few options you can choose from, including university-owned student accommodation, private student accommodation and renting a regular flat, studio or house. I would recommend student halls as they are the best way to meet new people and make friends, even if you might have to learn to share a bit.

4. Working while studying

The general student visa (Tier 4) allows you to work while studying in the UK, but your weekly hours and the types of jobs you can hold will be restricted. Typically, you are permitted to work up to 20 hours a week, but you should double-check this. The exact number of hours you’re allowed to work depends on a number of factors, so make sure to check the Home Office website.

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5. Politeness

One of the biggest cultural differences of being in the UK is how important manners are to British people. One of the most common examples of this is saying “sorry”, even if you’re not necessarily apologising for something.

For example, if you’re trying to ask a friend a question, you might say: “Sorry, can I ask you a question?” Politeness also extends to things like queuing respectfully, as well as saying “thank you” or “excuse me”. This inoffensive way of communicating is a staple within UK culture.

6. Student travel

There are lots of ways to get around the UK, including trains, buses, ferries, trams, bikes, taxis and good old-fashioned walking. For travelling around the UK, you can buy the 16 to 25 railcard for just £30. Once you have the railcard, you can purchase tickets for around the UK with a third off the regular adult price. You can also get a Young Persons Coachcard which only costs £12.50 a year and provides you with discounted coach travel around the country. 

Fancy some cheaper student travel around Europe too? The Eurail Youth Pass gives you a discount of up to 25 per cent on standard adult prices, allowing you to travel to up to 33 countries around Europe.

7. Geography of the UK

It’s important to understand and recognise the unique differences between the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. Each of the four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – joined together in 1801 but each country has hundreds, if not thousands of years of unique history. Some of the biggest differences are accents, food, traditions, values and language, so it’s important to respect that. The countries in the UK are tied together by the head of state, the Queen.

8. The grading system

The UK university grading system works a little differently to anywhere else in the world and can be confusing at first for international students. So here’s a brief breakdown:

  • First class degree – a grade of 70 per cent or higher means this is the top grade you can get.
  • 2:1 (upper second class) – this is a grade of 60-69 per cent and is sometimes the minimum you need to get if you want to go on to do a masters or postgraduate degree.
  • 2:2 (lower second class) – a grade of 50-59 per cent.
  • Third class degree – a grade of 45-49 per cent.
  • Ordinary degree – a grade of 40-44 per cent is the absolute minimum you need to pass.
  • Fail – you did not pass the assignment or course and will need to complete it again.

9. Student visas

The most common student visa type for international students is the general student visa (Tier 4), which allows you to work part-time. But there are some other student visa options too. You can apply for the Tier 4 (Child) student visa if you’re aged 4 to 17 and you want to study at an independent school in the UK. Alternatively, you can apply for a short-term study visa for a period of six or 11 months if you’re over the age of 16 and you’re studying an English language course. 

10. British university culture

From drinking tea to having a pint in the local pub, university culture in the UK is quite unique. A backbone of student social life are societies – clubs and organisations run by the university’s student union. There are student societies for sports, hobbies, politics, religion, entertainment, activism and gender/sexuality.

Typical classes emphasise critical thinking and self-motivated learning, with some lecturers even encouraging you to call them by their first names. You may be expected to do lots of reading in your own time and, depending on your subject, you may also have labs, practical workshops and work experience as part of your curriculum. While you’re ultimately at university to study and learn, it’s worth getting involved in the social scene too.

Read more: Best universities in the UK

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