As we all know, one of the hardest things to adapt to when moving to a different country is the culture and lifestyle – especially if this is very different to what you’re used to. Coming to the UK from Portugal, I don’t think I suffered much of a ‘culture shock’, so this won’t be a post on cultural differences.  Instead, I’ll share with you 10 things I’ve learned about the UK since moving here.


“Can I have your ID, please”

what international students learn while in the UK

In the UK you can buy alcohol / cigarettes and get in clubs / bars if you’re 18 years old or over.  But you can’t if you look younger than 25, unless you can prove you’re at least 18.  Confused?

So imagine if you’re like me and you definitely don’t look like 25 (it’s both a blessing and a curse – thanks mum and dad) and you have to remember to carry your ID with you all the time.  May be common sense for some of you but in my country you only need an ID if you look under 5.

Seriously , carry your ID around with you at all times.   The other day I went to buy a lighter to burn a fancy new candle but they wouldn’t sell it to me without an ID.  Don’t think you can get away with sweet talk or a pat on the shoulder. They will not budge and you’ll have to either get your ID or walk away empty handed wishing you had more wrinkles or a more prominent beard.


“Sorry, we’re closed”

what international students learn while in the UK

It’s Friday night (yay!) and you’re going out with your friends.  Now in Portugal this would mean leaving the house at 10:30pm to meet up and have a couple drinks somewhere, then go to a club at 3am to party until at least 7am.

Easy now! In the UK it doesn’t work like that and for me this was probably the hardest thing to get used to.  Here people get together for drinks at around 8:30pm. Then at about 11pm (or earlier if you want to enjoy cheaper entry prices) they head to the clubs – because clubs close at 3am.

When it comes to after-parties, in the UK they go from 3am to 6am / 7am.  For me, they used to be from 7am till 12pm / 1pm.


“We do things differently here”

what international students learn while in the UK

One thing I’ve come to realise is that lifestyle changes a lot across the UK.  And I don’t mean just the classic North/South divide but there can also be differences between different counties and different cities. In my opinion this is related to both history and politics. Now this does not mean you’ll have to change the way you think if you end up studying in a place where the majority thinks and does opposite to what you do, it just means you have to respect and adapt, I guess.

When deciding which university to pick, make sure you do a bit of research into the history, culture and the entertainment scene of the city / town it’s located in.


“I don’t drink – I’m tee-total”

what international students learn while in the UK

I’m sure you’ll have heard that Britons drink on many occasions and in great quantities as well. Related to point #3 I believe this is true in some places more than others.  Where I live I can honestly say they don’t drink that much. And when you think about the percentage of alcohol in drinks, beer here is weaker than in Portugal for example.

I also thought that not drinking would be a much bigger deal than it actually is. I have friends that don’t enjoy alcohol and I’ve never seen anyone treating them differently because of that. On the other hand if you are a fan of getting drunk, by all means you are in the right place: people get drunk a lot here and some seem to ‘binge’ (i.e. they drink a lot in short time).

Once again the UK proves to be very reasonable, embracing both: Those who drink alcohol like there’s no tomorrow, and those who prefer a healthier alternative.


“Please join the queue”

what international students learn while in the UK

I don’t know if this happens in your country but in mine queuing is a utopia: People start with the best intentions but after about 5 minutes it’s a war zone!  However, in the UK queuing is a real thing and you better respect it – people queue for everything and surprisingly, it works! (Please don’t think Portuguese people are not civilised, we just like to spend our time on other things – charming I know!)

So, don’t break this all important rule of British politeness.  Download a cool game on your phone or anything that will keep you company and get ready to wait.  If you want to avoid doing that, beat the queues but getting there early. 


“The kitchen is closed”

what international students learn while in the UK

You’ve heard me say how early the clubs close but now the shock:  Restaurants close early too!  In most European countries you can go out for dinner after 9:30/10pm and still get served.  But not here, at least not in most places.  Everything closes really early, be that shops, restaurants or the coffee bars where you could get sandwiches or light meals.

So, if you want to avoid having a dodgy kebab or fish and chips in a place whose main target are students leaving the clubs eager for carbohydrates – leave the house nice and early so  you can order well before kitchens close.


“I don’t agree with you, but I respect your point”

what international students learn while in the UK

The UK really is a country where you can be who you want to be.  There’s room for being different and chances are people will judge you much less than you might think.  So give yourself the opportunity to explore who you really are because there’s no better place to do so.

However, as mentioned in point #3, how open and tolerant people are may depend  on where in the UK you live. Though, on the whole they’re still (more often than not) very open and respectful of different mindsets.  In my opinion this can only enrich a culture and its individuals.

Now don’t go around thinking that expressing yourself means stepping on other people’s toes because that’s your thing.  Remember, your freedom ends where other people’s begin.   People will respect and accept your views if you express them in a respectful way that’s not offensive or hurtful to others.


“You’re not here to memorise – you’re here to learn”

what international students learn while in the UK

This one will depend on your university system back home, but, for me, the whole academic experience in the UK has been quite different to what I was used to.  Let me explain.

In Portugal, we have really good universities.  But, as a student you mostly have to open your brain, pour in the content from your books, and then pour everything out again when writing your exams.  More often than not you forget about everything you’ve learned a few weeks after the exam.  Independent study is not a big part of the university experience.

Here in the UK, however, critical thinking and independent thought are key features of your studies.   You spend little time in the classroom and are expected to do your reading/research on your own.  You’re encouraged to understand what you learn rather than memorise, and not go with the flow but question everything.

On top of that I feel that there are a lot of opportunities even for first year students to take the first steps towards their future path with career advice, internships and part time work (related to your course). If you are interested in doing more and learning more then you’ll definitely find something and I feel that that is one of the biggest advantages of studying here in the UK.


“Anyone fancy a cup of tea?”

what international students learn while in the UK

Tea is a serious deal here. You may have been told that tea time is at 5pm, but what I have discovered is that in the UK anytime is teatime.

To be honest, I’m not a huge tea fan but I’ve learned to keep this to myself to avoid the “what do you mean?!” gasps or the “are you from a different species?!” looks – not exaggerating!

If you enjoy tea, you’re halfway there but it’s not enough – you have to master the art of making tea.  Remember this rituals…it goes:  Tea bag in the cup, boiling water over it and only after a couple of minutes the milk. Otherwise you’ll probably just get yourself some bewildered looks.


“Is it still pouring it down?”

what international students learn while in the UK

“It rains a lot in the UK” – that’s an understatement and so is the “it’s kind of cold”.  No, it doesn’t rain a lot in the UK – it rains much more than that.  And depending on where you come from this might be more or less of a problem – never pleasant though.

I live in Brighton which is supposed to be one of the sunniest cities in the UK.  But the first months I spent here (September to December) it was pitch black outside at 4pm and the sun would rarely make an appearance which was really depressing and didn’t help with homesickness.

To be fair, lately the days have been pretty good (still very cold, of course) but as soon as my friends’ (from back home) snapchats kick in every good day turns into a ‘meeeh’ day.  However, human beings are creatures of habit and getting used to the weather is not as hard as I thought.

Final Thoughts

what international students learn while in the UK

Having said all of this, the UK is a very unique country and I love being here. There’s a lot you can learn from your experience as an international student.  Of course, things might seem daunting at first, but if you embrace the opportunity, you’ll gain so much from it.

The things I’ve covered in this post are my top 10 differences or little things that I’ve noticed and experienced about the UK since moving here.  I’m sure that as my journey continues, a few more quirky things will make it on to the list.

What about you?  What would you have added?   Post your comments below – I’d love to hear from other students, international or local!

Meet me, Marta!

Marta-Tavares-Sussex University1

Born in beautiful Portugal, I moved to the UK to pursue an undergraduate degree in Business Management with a professional placement year at University of Sussex in Brighton.

I love meeting new people, new places and basically anything involving new experiences. I joined the MESH-ED bloggers team as I believe that taking chances in life and putting yourself out there is very important.  Hopefully, answering some of your questions, I can help make your study abroad decisions a little easier.

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