Stay safe in United Kingdom
In general, the UK is a safe country to travel to; you won’t make many mistakes if you follow the general advice and tips for Europe.
In an emergency, call 999 or 112 (free from any phone, including mobile phones) and ask for an ambulance, fire and rescue service, police, coastguard or mountain and cave rescue if you are connected. Unlike many other countries, the UK does not have different numbers for different emergency services.
In a non-emergency situation, you can call 101 to report crimes and problems that do not require an emergency response to the local police. A similar service is available on 111 for health problems that do not require urgent admission to the emergency room.
Late at night it is not uncommon to find groups of drunk people, especially young men, on the street, but if you don’t go out of your way to cause trouble, you are unlikely to get into trouble. The police have fairly wide powers to fine or arrest people who are causing trouble, and although they can be stricter in larger cities, they are generally tolerant. In some cities and urban areas it is illegal to drink alcohol in public (except outside a bar or pub).
The age of sexual consent is 16 throughout the UK, although young people under 18 are still legally considered children (if in doubt, ask for proof of age, such as a driving licence). Homosexuality is very widely accepted in the UK and almost all discrimination and hate speech related to sexual orientation is illegal.
On the road
Although crossing roads for pedestrians is not a criminal offence in the UK, care should be taken when crossing a road at anything other than a designated level crossing. A number of traffic light crossings (mainly in urban areas) will have a push button to turn the lights green. Pedestrians have priority at zebra crossings, which are marked by white stripes on the roadway and flashing yellow lights. It is advisable to make visual contact with the driver before entering the road.
The UK transport network generally does not have any major safety problems. Major incidents are exceptionally rare (despite media attention). However, vigilance on security issues (e.g. suspicious packages) is appreciated and transport staff generally appreciate that their concerns are raised in an appropriate manner.
Overt racism is not common in the UK and racially motivated violence is rare. The government supports the idea of a multicultural society, but recent high immigration numbers have led to debates and the emergence of political figures opposed to immigration numbers. Nevertheless, the UK is considered by the majority of its own immigrant population to be one of the most tolerant European countries in this regard. Most Britons go out of their way to make tourists and immigrants feel welcome, and it is common for the courts to impose harsh penalties on any form of racist violence, whether physical or verbal. Current legislation prohibits hate speech as well as racial discrimination in many public areas such as education and employment.
|Unlike many other countries, British people do not have an identity card and are not obliged to carry it with them at all times. A police officer will not arbitrarily ask for your ID, although it can save you a lot of time to have one if they think you are a ‘person of interest’. In addition, people under 25 who appear to be underage are routinely asked for official ID when they buy alcohol or tobacco or enter bars or nightclubs that are guarded at the door. The European Driving Licence is a popular form of identification in the UK, but a non-European driving licence, identity card or passport from your home country will suffice.|
Overall, British police officers tend to be professional and trustworthy, and are generally less aggressive than police forces in many other developed countries. However, this does not mean that they are lenient. With local exceptions such as airports, nuclear power stations and some government buildings, the vast majority of police officers in the UK do not carry firearms on ordinary patrols, and the only police officers authorised to carry firearms are those in specialist firearms units. The exception is the police in Northern Ireland, who regularly carry firearms due to historical political tensions.
Most officers only speak English, but you can speak to a police radio interpreter if you do not understand English questions. You have the legal right to remain silent if you are arrested and to get an interpreter at the police station.
Police officers in Great Britain wear dark blue uniforms, while officers in Northern Ireland wear dark green uniforms. Front line police officers (in uniform) are also usually required to wear a shoulder number. Most British police officers are also required to wear a “warrant card”, which they must show to confirm their authority in justified cases.
There is no immediate penalty in the form of cash payable to a police officer and corruption at street level is virtually non-existent. Under UK law, bribing a police officer is a very serious offence, both for the officer accepting the bribe and the person offering it.
Policing on the continental rail network is the responsibility of the British Transport Police, which has similar powers and responsibilities to other police forces in the UK.
In addition to police officers with full powers, some regions in the UK have Community Support Officers with more limited powers, who generally deal with less serious policing matters, allowing police officers to deal with more serious offences.
Private security forces generally do not have any “police-like” powers. There are a small number of non-police officers who have limited enforcement powers in relation to specific local areas or specific activities, such as on-street parking, the use of public spaces or local ordinances. Railway staff also have specific responsibilities in relation to railway operating regulations.
In the UK, all illicit drugs are classified as ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’. Class ‘A’ drugs are generally considered the most dangerous and carry the most severe penalties (e.g. imprisonment), especially for supply. Class “C” drugs are generally considered the least harmful and therefore carry lesser penalties (e.g. a fine). Remember: All of these drugs are also illegal and you can always be arrested for possession, supply or consumption, regardless of class; classes are used to determine police priorities and penalties.
Class A drugs include ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, heroin and cocaine; penalties include arrest and possible jail time, including for possession. Magic mushrooms used to be legal due to technicalities in the law, but are now Class A drugs.
Cannabis is now a “Class B” drug. A first offence for possession of cannabis usually results in a caution or an on-the-spot fine. This does not apply to other Class B drugs, such as speed. Subsequent offences may result in arrest.
Class C includes, for example, ketamine, some steroids, some prescription drugs such as Valium (legal if prescribed), GHB, khat and some tranquillisers.
For prescribed medicines, a doctor’s letter is sometimes required for importation. This applies if the medicine is a controlled drug (A, B or C) in the UK.
Drug use is a growing problem for the authorities, with levels among the highest in Europe. Both cannabis and ecstasy are widely available and may even be offered to you if you are in the right place, for example in certain markets and clubs.
Attitudes towards prostitution in the UK are significantly less liberal than in other European countries and closer to the conservative views of the USA.
Brothels of any kind are illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, and it is illegal to loiter or offer sex on the street. Sidewalking” (driving near a pavement to solicit prostitutes for sex) is also illegal and is actively policed by police patrols in many cities across the country.
In big cities, the police have in recent years started to crack down on organised gangs that use trafficked women for prostitution businesses. The police are very critical of these activities and if you are caught on the premises of these gangs, the police will interrogate you at length or even charge you.
Stay healthy in United Kingdom
If you have a medical emergency, dial 999 or 112. In the UK, medical emergencies are prioritised on a clinical basis and the operator or dispatcher will ask relevant questions to ensure an appropriate response.
For less serious medical emergencies, go directly to the nearest accident and emergency department (or emergency room). Almost all medical emergencies can be treated at any hospital with an accident and emergency department, but be prepared to wait up to 4 hours for an examination, depending on the time of day or night, if the complaints are not life-threatening. The longest waits tend to occur on Friday and Saturday evenings. Walk-in centres also offer treatment for less urgent conditions on a first-come, first-served basis.
For advice on non-urgent medical problems, you can call the 24-hour service NHS Direct on 111 (NHS 24 in Scotland is also 111). These advice lines can make appointments at out-of-hours clinics if, after talking to you, they think you should see a doctor.
Although the NHS provides free healthcare to UK residents and no NHS emergency service would reasonably refuse to treat obvious emergencies, travel insurance (including extended health cover) is essential for overseas visitors. The NHS and other relevant government agencies will now seek to recover the cost of treatment for non-UK residents to offset the cost of providing a universal service and to curb so-called ‘health tourism’. Some hospitals may insist that non-UK residents pay a co-payment upfront (up to the full cost of treatment).
EU visitors are also advised to carry an EHIC card as citizens and permanent residents of certain countries (e.g. the European Economic Area) are entitled to certain discounted or fee-paying health services when travelling to the UK. Further details can be found on the NHS website. Long-term visitors on a work or student visa for more than six months have limited access to the NHS system.
For some healthcare services (especially in hospitals), you may also be asked to show photo identification (e.g. a passport). This is to ensure that staff know exactly who you are, to prevent misuse of resources and reduce the incidence of incorrect clinical decisions due to confusion. Pharmacists may also ask for identification at the time of dispensing as part of the control measures for certain medicines (including some contraband medicines).
For advice on minor ailments and medication, you can go to a pharmacist. Notable pharmacy chains are Boots and Lloyds (both have high street branches nationwide), many large supermarkets also have pharmacists in their branches.
If you need a particular medicine, be sure to include a written prescription from a qualified healthcare professional, as misunderstandings have sometimes occurred. The trade in medicines is strictly controlled in the UK and many medicines available in pharmacies in other countries, such as antibiotics or opiate painkillers, can only be dispensed on the basis of a prescription written by a qualified healthcare professional (usually a general practitioner – GP for short). In addition, a number of medicines (and in principle over-the-counter medicines) may only be sold by qualified staff. (To practice legally, all pharmacists must be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), which requires a university degree and further examinations and training).
It is also strongly recommended that you obtain written documentation from a qualified medical practitioner if you have a medical condition that requires you to inject anything, regardless of how it is classified or described. The UK police (and security at the door) will have no sympathy for their suspicions, however erroneous, of possible drug abuse.
There are about 50,000 people living with HIV in the UK. Chlamydia is common enough to recommend that young people get tested regularly. Condoms are available in toilets, pharmacies and supermarkets. They are also available free of charge at some NHS sexual health clinics (called GUMs), which also offer free STI testing and treatment, even if you are not eligible for other NHS services.
Tap water is safe to drink everywhere unless otherwise indicated. Non-potable water sources are usually clearly marked.