Your Complete Guide to Living and Studying in the UK
All you need to know about being an international student in the United Kingdom.
One of the more prominent cultural hubs in Europe, the United Kingdom (UK) has often been associated with academic excellence and a thriving, inclusive community that many international students revel in.
A degree from a UK university is internationally respected, plus the country is credited with producing 14% of the world’s most cited academic papers and 5% of the world’s scientific research.
These figures are all the more impressive considering the countries that comprise the United Kingdom are home to just 1% of the world’s population. UK’s universities have a reputation for fostering genius across a multiplicity of disciplines, with luminaries such as Ernest Rutherford (the father of nuclear physics) to Oscar Wilde (acclaimed Irish writer and playwright) graduating from notable UK tertiary institutions.
Why Study in the UK
The United Kingdom’s economy is huge. In fact, it’s the sixth largest in the world and it has enjoyed steady economic growth until the current world economic downturn. In essence though, businesses are still growing and people are finding work.
The UK fulfils the criteria for many students’ needs and has some of the best universities in the world, including Cambridge and Oxford.
Not every country in the world has a solid healthcare system. In fact, very few have a National Health Service (NHS) like the UK. Legal residents in the UK have access to free healthcare. International students can access the NHS upon payment of the International Health Surcharge (IHS). More details are available from the Health Advice and Services for International Students section of this guide.
There are few places with such a rich culture as the UK. With its mixed ethnic population and a long and interesting history, it is a fascinating place to explore.
The UK is geographically well placed
The UK is ideally placed for taking short trips to other countries. Many European destinations can be reached in just a few hours from London, which makes it a great travel hub.
Education System in the UK
When it comes to world university rankings, the UK has a proven track record. In the 2017-18 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge rank number one and two, with Imperial College London at number eight. Across all global ranking systems, criteria and fields of study, the UK ranks highly for quality of education, student satisfaction and global reputation.
Then there’s the UK’s reputation for innovation and world-class research, where you will benefit from the latest facilities alongside a long-standing academic tradition. Many students choose the UK higher education system to perfect their English and improve their employability.
How it works
Within the UK, responsibility for education is delegated to each of the four jurisdictions: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There are differences between the four countries in the educational systems in place, the qualifications offered, and how these are regulated. The differences are most pronounced in general and secondary education. As a result, there are several different qualifications and credit frameworks.
There are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications of UK degree-awarding bodies, one that applies to Scotland and one that operates in the rest of the UK.
- The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree Awarding Bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ)
- The Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS)
These frameworks are the principal national reference points for academic standards in UK higher education. There are 160 universities and colleges in the UK that are permitted to award a wide variety of degrees to suit most educational aspirations.
Fees and scholarships
Tuition fees for UK higher education and further education courses vary, depending on:
- where in the UK you choose to study (there are different rules for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales).
- your study level.
For undergraduate students, tuition fees range from £10,000 a year to about £18,000 a year, depending on the course and the institution. For all postgraduate courses, tuition fees vary by the course provider.
Scholarships, grants, bursaries, fellowships, financial awards, loans – there are many financial support options for international students who wish to study in a UK course. Demand for scholarships is always greater than supply; to maximise your chances, you should apply as early as you can.
A great starting point for students to research potential support options is Study UK. Students should also review the particular websites for the schools and universities they are interested in. The right time to look for financial support is well in advance of the start of the course. It can be very hard to find funding, particularly midway through the academic year.
Teaching and learning style
UK education has a reputation for excellence and most international students highly rate the quality of teaching they receive. You can expect to be taught in many different ways. Most students attend lectures and seminars and they sometimes have tutorials and workshops, too.
During a UK course, you are likely to be given great freedom to explore your own ideas and to be creative. You may be expected to be an active member of the teaching and learning process, where you will do your own research or work in groups with other students for some projects. UK universities encourage the development of critical and analytical thinking in every subject, which can be a little daunting for some international students at first. However, this develops a deeper understanding of the subject at hand and the communication skills needed.
UK education is very interactive, too. Tutors will encourage you to share ideas and may organise activities, such as debates, discussions and quizzes. The idea is that by having fun and getting involved, you will learn more successfully. This way of learning might feel daunting at first, but students should receive lots of support from their tutors and with a little time should soon feel at ease.
Most destinations offer a variety of pathways for both domestic and international students to make the transition into further education; these programs are typically referred to as either pathways or foundation courses.
Higher education courses can be taken by students to earn an advanced degree and continue their studies in the UK. There are three main types of higher education, which lead to bachelor, master and doctoral degrees.
Bachelor or undergraduate degrees
Academic study in undergraduate degrees is designed to help students gain a thorough understanding of a subject. Degrees are classified as either ordinary or honours. An ‘ordinary’ degree is usually a three-year full-time course, whereas an ‘honours’ degree is usually a four-year full-time course.
If you are finishing your bachelor degree, how do you know if undertaking postgraduate study in the UK is the next step for you? Deciding to go on to postgraduate study is a big step. It means sacrificing more time and staying out of the workforce a bit longer, but it can also be a very worthwhile investment in the long term.
There are also many pathway programs into higher education for international students including foundation studies and English language preparation programs. These ensure students receive the extra support and assistance they need to succeed.
In the UK, the standard academic year starts in September or October and runs until June or July. Some courses are more flexible, however, and offer a range of start dates. The typical deadline for applications for undergraduate university entry commencing in September is in the preceding January of that year. There’s also a smaller January intake that has limited undergraduate, master, PhD and foundation courses available. Private pathway providers also may offer additional start dates throughout the year.
The UK is the top destination worldwide for English language study (Study Travel Magazine, December 2012). The UK has long been at the forefront of language teaching and pioneered many of the techniques now used around the world. The emphasis is on learning through fun and participation instead of just listening to the teacher. Classes involve games, problem solving and discussions. Students might also listen to songs, watch television or read magazines to practise their comprehension skill. Many English language courses are also offered by universities and colleges to help international students prepare for a degree course in the UK. Universities use the term ‘pre-sessional English courses’ for these degree preparation programs.
The UK Government has announced important changes to language testing for visa applications, reducing the number of tests accepted for visa purposes and bringing in new requirements for the way the tests are administered. IELTS, the world’s most popular high-stakes test of English for higher education and global migration, has been approved for all UK visas that require applicants to provide proof of their level of English.
IELTS Academic, IELTS General Training and IELTS Life Skills are accepted by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) as proof of English proficiency. However, the student’s purpose for being in the UK dictates which IELTS test they need to pursue.
Many international students want to stay in the UK after they graduate and put the skills they have learnt into practice. Students may be able to extend their stay if they meet the requirements for the schemes that the UK Government operates.
The schemes that are most significant for students who have finished their studies include the following.
Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur)
Aimed at recent graduates and postdoctoral researchers who have Tier 2 immigration permission, who have “genuine and credible business ideas and entrepreneurial skills” and whose UK college or university is prepared to endorse them under this scheme to help them develop these ideas.
Tier 1 (Entrepreneur)
This requires the student to invest in a business in the UK. The student doesn't need a sponsor or an endorsing body.
The main route if the student would like to take up employment. The lowest wage for this scheme is £20,800, but this depends on the job and the wage can be higher. In most cases, employers are not required to show that they advertised the job and that no one else could do it (resident labour market test) before they can offer it to the student.
Tier 5 (Temporary Worker)
These schemes allow students to undertake specific types of work in the UK for a period of one or two years, depending on the scheme. They must have a Tier 5 sponsor under the scheme of relevance to the student. The student’s Tier 5 sponsor must issue a certificate of sponsorship to them before they can make their immigration application.
- Tier 4 Doctorate Extension Scheme
This allows a new PhD graduate to spend one year in the UK after their studies to undertake employment or self-employment. The student must apply before they finish their doctorate.
Applying For A Visa
The visa you need will depend on your age and the type of study you want to do. An overview of study visa types and application requirements is included below, but for more information, you should visit the Gov.UK website.
To be eligible for a Tier 4 student visa, you must:
- Have an unconditional offer of a place on a course with a licensed Tier 4 sponsor.
- Be able to speak, read, write and understand English.
- Have enough money to support yourself and pay for your course.
Applying for your visa online
You must apply for your student visa application online using the British Government’s official Gov.UK website (unless you are applying from North Korea, in which case you can use a hardcopy form).
You can apply up to three months before your intended date of travel to the UK. Your application date is the date when your application fee is paid.
When applying for your Tier 4 visa, you will generally need:
- A current passport or other valid travel documentation
- Evidence of funds to provide your living expenses for the duration of your course
- Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) reference number and documents used to obtain CAS
- Passport-sized colour photograph
- Tuberculosis screening (if required)
- Assessment documentation
- Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) clearance certificate (if required)
Additional documents may also be needed if you are:
- Not a citizen of the country you are applying from
- Under 18 years of age
- Have family (dependents)
If any of your supporting documents is not in English, you will need to have it translated. Each translated document must be dated, and include the translator's name and signature and confirmation that it is an accurate translation of the original document.
English language requirements
You must provide evidence of your knowledge of the English language when you apply for your visa. This usually means passing a secure English language test.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have minimum English language requirements for reading, writing, listening and speaking according to your level of study. Your education institution (sponsor) may have different English language requirements.
There is a chance you may be interviewed by a UKVI officer as part of the visa application process. If you cannot hold a simple conversation without an interpreter, you may be refused entry to the UK, regardless of your English language results.
Biometric residence permit
As part of your application, you must also obtain a biometric residence permit (BRP) from UKVI. You will need to make an appointment with UKVI to have your fingers and thumbs scanned and a digital photo taken of your face.
The UK Culture and Way of Life
It’s likely you’ve already got a pretty good picture of the UK in your head. It’s one of the world’s most recognisable countries and its influence is seen across the globe.
The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So you could travel from the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland to the Isles of Scilly in south-west England, and then across the sea to Northern Ireland – all without leaving the UK.
Approximately 65 million people call the UK home, with most based in England. The capital city of the UK and England – London – is by far the biggest city in the country. Like the rest of the UK, London is proudly multicultural and multi-faith. You will be expected to respect other people’s religious beliefs, as they are expected to respect yours.
English is the official language of the UK but isn’t the only native language. You may also hear Welsh in Wales; Gaelic and Scots in Scotland, Irish Gaelic in Northern Ireland and Cornish in Cornwall. Your English skills will be more than enough to see you through your daily travels however, as it’s spoken fluently across the country.
When you think of the UK you might think of rain, but this isn’t always the case.
The weather in the UK can be unpredictable but is rarely extreme. It can change multiple times in one day, however, so even if the weather forecast says it’s going to be dry and warm, you might still need to put a warm jacket and an umbrella in your study bag!
Generally, you’ll experience the following weather conditions in each season:
- Summer (June to August): generally the best (and warmest) weather, with long sunny days and occasional thunderstorms.
- Autumn (September to November): temperatures start to drop, and days can be mild and dry or wet and windy.
- Winter (December to February): the coldest season, with freezing temperatures and chances of snow.
- Spring (March to May): usually good weather with a mix of sunny spells and sudden showers.
You’ll need to remember to wind your clock forward by one hour on the last Sunday in March, as that’s the start of Daylight Saving Time in the UK. Daylight saving lets you make the most of the warmer weather in spring and summer, as you get more daylight in the evening.
Politics and government
People sometimes think the UK is ruled by the Queen, but the royal family has a mainly ceremonial role. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, which means the UK Government is elected by the people through a general election (usually held every five years).
The UK Government is led by the Prime Minister, who is supported by the Cabinet (made up of the senior members of government) and Ministers. Individual government departments and their agencies are then responsible for putting government policy into practice.
Parliament is separate from the Government and is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament’s job is to look at what the Government is doing, debate issues and pass new laws, and set taxes.
Decisions about local services are made by local government councils.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own ‘devolved’ administrations which are responsible for many domestic policy issues such as health, education and transport.
Health and Support Services
Moving to a new country isn’t always easy. That’s why most universities, colleges and education institutions offer dedicated support services to help international students adjust to life in the UK and make the most of your study (and holiday) time.
UK institutions have excellent support services, which include a dedicated international students office, international student societies, academic support, counselling support and personal tutors.
Staying healthy while you study
You might find yourself in need of medical support while living in the UK.
All international students enrolled on a course for more than six months qualify for free medical treatment under the UK's National Health Service (NHS), which removes concerns over any potential healthcare bills and is a significant benefit of studying in the UK.
To qualify for free or discounted NHS treatment, you must meet certain conditions and pay an additional International Health Surcharge as part of your visa application. To find out more, visit the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).
Finding a local doctor
Your local General Practitioner (doctor) will be able to provide confidential, basic healthcare if you’re sick, and also help prevent future health issues. They can also refer you to a specialist if needed.
You should register with a local doctor as soon as you can after arriving in the UK, as they will be able to help you with a wide range of health problems.
To register, you will need to visit the doctor’s clinic during consulting hours, and show them:
- a letter from your institution, as proof that you are a student
- your passport
- any loose immigration documents
It’s important to let them know you want treatment from the NHS (provided you are eligible) so you avoid paying the full (private) cost of treatment.
Visiting a dentist
You should get your teeth checked by a dentist every six months, so if you are staying in the UK for a long time, you may need to register with a UK dentist. In Britain, there are many dentists who offer NHS treatment. NHS treatment is cheaper than private treatment but is not free.
The best way to find a dentist is usually by searching online or asking someone you know.
What to do in an emergency
If you need urgent medical help, you need to go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital or call 999.
It’s free to call 999 and all emergency medical services are free in hospitals. Depending on where you live and your situation, there may be a fee for the ambulance service.
If you have a serious medical condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or allergies to medication, you might wish to wear a medical necklace or bracelet with your medical information on it.
If you are bringing medication with you to the UK, you should also carry a letter or prescription from your doctor.
Cost of Living in the UK
You want to enjoy a healthy and happy study life in the UK. Knowing how much you need to for living expenses is a great starting point, but keep in mind the cost of living may be higher or lower depending on where you live.
The UK Government suggests you will need:
- £1,265 per month if you live in London for the majority (more than 50 percent) of your study
- £1,015 per month if you live outside London for the majority of your study (more than 50 percent of study time)
These figures do not include the cost of your study or tuition fees.
There are some handy websites you can use to help budget for your time in the UK. One option is Expatistan, which calculates the cost of living in the UK using up-to-date, crowd-sourced data.
For your banking and payments options in the UK, you generally pay (and are paid) in pounds and pence. You can make purchases at stores using coins and notes, or a debit or credit card.
You might notice that the notes you get in Scotland and Northern Ireland look a bit different – even though the currency is the same, Scottish and Northern Irish banks print their own notes. These are usually accepted in the rest of the UK, but if you have any problems and need to change them to Bank of England notes, you can do so at any major bank in the UK.
Most UK banks will be happy to open an account for you while you’re living in the UK. To open an account, you will generally need:
- Your passport
- A document confirming the school, college or university you are/will be attending
- Proof of address at home and in the UK
- Reference and statements from your home bank
To make the process easier, you might want to first check with the bank you currently bank with in your home country, to see if they have a relationship with a UK-based bank and can help you set up an account.
To access money from your account, you can:
- Use your bank’s online or telephone banking service
- Visit your local bank branch
- Withdraw money from an ATM
- Ask to get ‘cash back’ when making an in-store purchase on your debit card
Getting your phone and internet organised
You’ll probably want to get your phone and Internet sorted pretty quickly after arriving in the UK.
When it comes to phones, you have three main options:
Landline: usually only relevant if you live off campus. You might be able to get a better deal by bundling your landline with Internet access, or you might choose not to have a landline at all and stick with your mobile.
Mobile – prepaid: gives you control over how much you spend and you can stop using whenever you want. Pre-paid SIM cards are widely available from UK shops and supermarkets, as well as from mobile phone providers.
Mobile – contract: Depending on how much you use your mobile and what for, a contract with a UK-based mobile phone provider could be cheaper.
Making international calls
International calls can be a lot more expensive than calls within the UK. You might want to buy an international calling card (which gives you better rates) or use online options like Skype or FaceTime instead. You can buy international calling cards from most convenience stores.
To call a UK number from overseas, you need to enter the country code (44) followed by the area code and then the telephone number.
To call another country from the UK, enter 00 followed by the relevant country code, followed by the area code (if required) and then the telephone number.
Accessing the internet
You will have lots of options for Internet access in the UK, but it pays to shop around to find the plan that offers the best price and download limits for your needs.
Most educational institutions provide free Wi-Fi which you can access with your student logon and password. If you can’t access the Internet through your own laptop or computer, you can usually find one to use in the student library, at an off-campus public library or internet café.
Some places offer free Wi-Fi, but some Internet cafes for example, will charge by the hour. Don’t forget to check the security of the network you are connecting to.
Even if you are eligible for free treatment under the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), you might still wish to take out private insurance. Your insurance can give you access to private medical care – which generally means much shorter waiting periods than NHS treatment – and also helps cover other medical costs such as:
- Lost fees if you’re unable to complete your course
- Costs of returning home if a relative is ill
- Costs of a relative visiting the UK if you fall ill
- Cost of returning to your home country for treatment
If you already have medical insurance in your home country, you should check if they can also cover your stay in the UK.
Contents insurance covers your belongings, such as your furniture, clothes and appliances, and can be helpful if you have valuable items that would be hard to replace if lost or stolen.
Some companies offer special policies for students, so you should research your options first in order to find the best deal.
If you’re planning to travel outside the UK during your studies, you might want to purchase travel insurance, just as you would if travelling abroad from your home country. Remember, you will need to buy insurance that is suitable for an international student rather than a UK citizen.
Keen to kick-start your own overseas adventure? Swing by our upcoming Study Abroad Education Fair – the biggest of its kind in town! Happening 7 & 8 March, Suntec Convention Centre, Level 3, Summit 1. Doors open from 12pm to 6pm.
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