Area Codes -- The country telephone code for Great Britain is 44. The area code for London is 020. The full telephone number is usually 8 digits long. Businesses and homes in central London usually have numbers beginning with a 7; those from further out begin with an 8. For more info, see “Telephones,” later in this section.
Business Hours -- Offices are generally open weekdays between 9 or 10am and 5 or 6pm. Some remain open a few hours longer on Thursdays and Fridays. Saturday hours for stores are the same, and Sunday hours for stores are generally noon to 5 or 6pm. Banks are usually open from 9:30am to 4 or 5pm, with some larger branches open later on Thursdays or for a few hours on Saturday mornings.
Customs -- Rules about what you can carry into Britain are standard but ever-shifting, so get the latest restrictions from HM Revenue & Customs (www.hmrc.gov.uk; tel. 011-44/2920-501-261). Your own government is responsible for telling you what you can bring back home.
Doctors -- Ask your hotel first. Then try the G.P. (General Practitioner) finder at www.nhs.uk. North American members of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; www.iamat.org; 716/754-4883, or 416/652-0137 in Canada) can consult that organization for lists of local approved doctors.In any medical emergency, call 999, or 112. Less urgent? Call 111.
Drinking Laws -- The legal drinking age is 18. Children 15 and younger are allowed in pubs only if accompanied by a parent or guardian. Although there are no open container laws, drinking on London’s public transport network is forbidden and on-the-spot fines are issued to transgressors.
Electricity -- The current in Britain is 240 volts AC. Plugs have three squared pins. Foreign appliances operating on lower voltage (those from the U.S., Canada, and Australia use 110–120 volts AC) will require an adapter and possibly a voltage converter, although the range of capability will usually be printed on the plug. Most modern phone chargers and laptops can handle the stronger current with only an adapter. A few hotels provide outlets for a non-heating appliance such as a shaver.
Embassies & Consulates -- In 2017, the U.S. Embassy moved from Grosvenor Square to an elaborate 4.9-acre complex in West London’s Wandsworth district (Ponton Rd., SW8; https://uk.usembassy.gov; tel 020/7499-9000; Tube: Vauxhall). Standard hours are Monday to Friday 8:30am to 5:30pm. Most non-emergency inquiries require an appointment. You may bring tablets but not laptops. For passport information, call tel. 877/487-2778 in the U.S.
The High Commission of Canada, 1 Trafalgar Sq., London W1 (www.canadainternational.gc.ca/united_kingdom-royaume_uni/index.aspx; tel. 020/7004-6000; Tube: Charing Cross), handles passport and consular services for Canadians. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 8am to 10:30am.
The Australian High Commission is at Australia House, Strand, London WC2 (www.uk.embassy.gov.au; tel. 020/7887-5816; Tube: Temple). Hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm.
The New Zealand High Commission is at New Zealand House, 80 Haymarket, London SW1 (www.nzembassy.com/uk; tel. 020/7930-8422; Tube: Charing Cross or Piccadilly Circus). Hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
The Irish Embassy is at 17 Grosvenor Place, London SW1 (www.embassyofireland.co.uk; [tel] 020/7235-2171; Tube: Hyde Park Corner). Hours are Monday to Friday 9:30am to 5pm.
Emergencies -- The one-stop number for Britain is 999—that’s for fire, police, and ambulances. It’s free from any phone, even mobiles.
Health -- Traveling to London doesn’t pose specific health risks. Common drugs are generally available over the counter and in large supermarkets, although visitors should know the generic rather than brand names of any medicines they rely on. Pack prescription medications in carry-on luggage and in their original containers, with pharmacy labels—otherwise they may not pass airport security. Also bring copies of your prescriptions, just in case. Don’t forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses. The general-purpose painkiller known in North America as acetaminophen is called paracetamol in the U.K. If you don’t feel well and you need the advice of a doctor or a nurse, the national health care system operates a free, 24-hour hotline: National Health Service Direct (www.nhs.uk; tel. 111). Citizens of many European countries are entitled to free health care while in Britain (see www.dh.gov.uk/travellers), but everyone else is not, and although clinics were once known to treat tourists and then look the other way rather than embark upon the odyssey of paperwork required to bill them, private billing companies are now policing for every pound. Non-EU citizens should carry health or travel insurance.
Hospitals -- In the U.K., the ER is usually called A&E, or Accident and Emergency. If your need is urgent, dial 999 (it’s free no matter where your phone is registered) rather than risk going to a medical center that doesn’t offer A&E. You can search www.nhs.uk for the nearest A&E, or go to the 24-hour, walk-in A&E departments at University College London Hospital, 235 Euston Rd., London NW1 (www.uclh.nhs.uk; tel. 020/3456-7890 or 0845/155-5000; Tube: Warren Street) and St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster Bridge Rd., entrance on Lambeth Palace Rd., London SE1 (www.guysandstthomas.nhs.uk; tel. 020/7188-7188; Tube: Westminster or Waterloo). Soho NHS Walk-In Centre (1 Frith St., W1; tel. 020/7534-6500; 8am–9pm; Tube: Tottenham Court Road) is a central clinic.
Insurance -- U.K. nationals receive free medical treatment countrywide, but visitors from overseas only qualify automatically for free emergency care. U.S. visitors should note that most domestic health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home. We recommend looking at such insurance marketplace sites as SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip to find the right policy for you.
So what else may you want to insure? You may want special coverage for apartment stays, especially if you’ve plunked down a deposit, and any valuables, since airlines are only required to pay up to $2,500 for lost luggage domestically, less for foreign travel.
Internet & Wi-Fi -- Wi-Fi flows freely at the majority of pubs, cafes, museums, and nearly all hotels. Usually, you will have to fill in an email address to activate it, but often it’s a data collection ploy and you can write dummy information. Virgin Media (www.virginmedia.com/wifi) provides Wi-Fi in many Tube stations but not between them. Visitors can buy passes for £2 (1 day), £5 (1 week), or £15 (1 month). Savvy smartphone users will find it cheap and practical to switch off 3G altogether and use available Wi-Fi in combination with Skype (www.skype.com) and WhatsApp (www.whatsapp.com) for texts, phone calls and voice messages.
Laundry — Launderettes are not easy to find in central London anymore, and expensive hotels will only do laundry and dry cleaning if you’re willing to shell out. Look into the app Laundrapp, which will pick up and drop off to your hotel for free. Prices start at £2 per article or £2.50 for 1kg (2.2 lb.).
Left Luggage -- Useful for taking those cheap European flights with steep luggage fees, Left Baggage (www.left-baggage.com; tel. 0800/077-4530) has locations at Heathrow, Gatwick and the big railway stations: £12.50 per item per 24 hours for up to a week, then £5 per item per day thereafter.
Legal Aid -- If you find yourself in trouble abroad, contact your consulate or embassy (see “Embassies & Consulates,” above). It can advise you of your rights and will usually provide a list of local attorneys (for which you’ll have to pay if services are used), but they cannot interfere on your behalf in the English legal process. For questions about American citizens who have been arrested abroad, including ways of getting money to them, telephone the Citizens Emergency Center of the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. (tel 877/487-2778).
For nightlife planning, the best sources for information are Boyz (www.boyz.co.uk), which publishes a day-by-day schedule on its website, and the free QX International (www.qxmagazine.com). Both are distributed for free at many gay bars.
Medical requirements -- Unless you’re arriving from an area known to be suffering from an epidemic (particularly cholera or yellow fever), inoculations or vaccinations are not required for entry into the U.K.
Mail -- An airmail letter or postcard to anywhere outside Europe costs £1.25 for up to 10g (1/3 oz.) and generally takes 5 to 7 working days to arrive. Within the E.U., letters or postcards under 20g (2/3 oz.) cost £1.25.
Mobile phones -- Anytime you call a mobile phone in Britain, the fee will be higher than calling a land line, although there is no fee to receive a call or text.
Apart from renting a phone (not recommended to the casual visitor), many tourists simply enable their international roaming feature. That works, but some providers will bleed you. The best solution, if you do have an unlocked quad- or tri-band phone that uses the GSM system, is to pop into any mobile phone shop or newsstand and buy a cheap pay-as-you-talk phone number from a mobile phone store. You pay about £5 for a SIM card, which you stick in your phone, and then you buy vouchers to load your account with as much money as you think you’ll use up (no refunds). That will give you a British number, which you can e-mail to everyone back home, that charges local rates (10p–40p per min.) and a deal on data that might allow 1GB in a month for about £5—much, much cheaper than roaming. Just call your provider before you leave home to “unlock” your phone (out-of-contract and last-generation phones are better candidates), so that the British SIM card will function in it. That service is usually free. U.K. mobile providers with pay-as-you-talk deals, all comparable, include: Vodafone (www.vodafone.com), O2 (www.o2.co.uk), Lebara (www.lebara.co.uk), EE/T-Mobile (www.ee.co.uk), and Virgin Mobile (www.virginmobile.com). Annoyingly, purchased SIMs come with automatic child content locks, and gay and lesbian travelers will find some of their special interest sites blocked. To remove the censorship, go to a mobile phone store run by your SIM provider (Vodafone, EE, and O2 are easiest to find) to prove you’re an adult. Bring your hotel’s details since you must supply a U.K. address.
Even if you are not permitted to unlock your phone, you can always use its Wi-Fi features for Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and the like.
Newspapers & Magazines -- London offers more publications than one would think a city of its size could support. The broadsheets, ordered from left to right, politically speaking, are the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and the Times. On the Tube, Metro is free in the morning and Evening Standard is free in the afternoon. The salmon-colored Financial Times covers business. The tabloids are fluffier and more salacious: They include the Sun, the Mirror, Daily Star, the Daily Mail, and Daily Express. Time Out publishes a free listing of events and entertainments.
Other popular magazines include the Big Issue (written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people), Radio Times (TV listings and celebrity interviews), and Hello! and OK! (fawning celebrity spreads planted by publicity agents).
Packing -- For your wallet’s sake, pack sparingly! You’ve heard that before, but it’s really true this time. It’s not as easy as it used to be to wink your way through the weigh-in. In some cases, the conveyor belts at check-in are programmed to halt if they sense a bag over the limit.
British Airways, for example, grants coach passengers a puny 23kg (51 lb.). If you exceed that, you will be smacked with a flat fee of £25 per flight. That only buys you another 9kg (20 lb.), because bags over 32kg (71 lb.) will be rejected outright. When it comes to carry-ons (“hand baggage”), it’s got to measure no more than 56cm long by 45cm wide by 25cm deep (22x18x10 in.). Some airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, can be ruthless about making sure even your carry-on baggage weighs no more than 10kg (22 lb.). That’s very little. If you’re taking multiple airlines, stick to the tightest set of restrictions of the lot. Many airlines (even the no-frills) discount for booking baggage at least 24 hours early, and charge more at the airport.
If you need to buy cheap luggage, Primark sells it for less than £20.
Keep prescription medications in their original, labeled containers for Customs even though they’re unlikely to be inspected. If you require syringes, always carry a signed medical prescription.
Pare toiletries to essentials. You’re not going to the Congo. You will find staples like toothpaste, contact lens solution, and deodorant everywhere. Women should bring a minimum of make-up; the British don’t tend to use very much themselves. Brits are also more likely to wear trousers than blue jeans. If you plan to go clubbing, pack some fashionable duds—Londoners love to look natty. Speaking of that, don’t wear a lot of tee-shirts with writing or logos; it marks you as a tourist.
You’ll be most comfortable if you dress in clothing that layers well. Even in winter, London’s air can be clammy, and dressing too warmly can become uncomfortable. No matter what the average temperature is, the air can grow cool after the sun sets, so plan for that, too. In the winter, a hat, scarf, and gloves are necessities. A compact umbrella is wise year-round, as is an outer coat that repels water, since you never know when you’re going to find yourself in one of those misty rains that makes the British Isles so lush and green.
Don’t bring illegal drugs (duh), and also leave the pepper spray and mace at home; they’re banned in the U.K.
Pharmacies -- Every police station keeps a list of pharmacies that are open 24 hours. Also try Zafash, a rare chemist that is open 24 hours, 233-235 Old Brompton Rd., SW5 (tel. 020/7373 2798; Tube: Earl’s Court); and Bliss, open daily 9am to midnight, 5-6 Marble Arch, W1 (tel. 020/7723-6116; Tube: Marble Arch). For non-emergency health advice, call the NHS on tel. 111.
Police -- London has two official police forces: The City of London police (www.cityoflondon.police.uk) whose remit covers the “Square Mile” and its 8,600 residents; and the Metropolitan Police (“the Met”), which covers the rest of the capital and is split into separate borough commands for operational purposes. Opening hours for all the Met’s local police stations are listed at www.met.police.uk/local. In a non-emergency, you can contact your local police station from anywhere by dialing 101. Losses, thefts, and other criminal matters should be reported at the nearest police station immediately. You will be given a crime number, which your travel insurer will request if you make a claim against any losses. Always dial 999 or 112 if the matter is serious.
Smoking -- Smoking is prohibited by law in any enclosed workplace, including museums, pubs, public transportation, and restaurants. If in doubt, ask permission.
Taxes -- All goods prices in the U.K. are quoted inclusive of taxes. Since 2011 the national value-added tax (VAT) has stood at 20%. This is included in all hotel and restaurant bills, and in the price of most items you purchase.
If you are permanently resident outside the E.U., VAT on goods can be refunded if you shop at stores that participate in the Retail Export Scheme—look for the window sticker or ask the staff. Information about the scheme is also posted online at www.hmrc.gov.uk/vat/sectors/consumers/overseas-visitors.htm.
Time -- Britain follows Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) between late October and late March. Daylight-saving British Summer Time (BST), one hour ahead of GMT, is in operation for the rest of the year. London is generally 5 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time (EST), although because of different daylight saving time practices in the two nations, there may be a brief period (about a week) in spring when Britain is only 4 hours ahead of New York or Toronto, and a brief period in the fall when it's 6 hours ahead. Sydney is 10 or 11 hours ahead of UK time; Auckland 12 or 13 hours ahead.
Tipping -- It’s less intense than in the United States, but it’s gradually Americanizing. Restaurant servers should receive 10% to 15% of the bill unless service is already included—always check the menu or bill to see if service was already added, because traditions are changing. At pubs, tipping isn’t customary unless you receive table service. Fine hotels may levy a service charge, but at the finest ones, grease the staff with a pound here and there. Staff at B&Bs and family-run hotels don’t expect tips. Bartenders and chambermaids need not be tipped.
There’s no need to tip taxicab drivers but most people round up to the next £1, although a 10% to 15% tip is becoming increasingly standard.
Toilets -- London doesn’t have enough of them. Washrooms can be found at any free museum in this guide, any department store, any pub or busy restaurant (though it’s polite to buy something), and at Piccadilly Circus and Bank Tube stations. Train stations also have toilets that may cost 30p to 50p. Also keep an eye out for spray-cleaned, coin-operated (50p) Automatic Public Conveniences, or APCs. On weekends, open-air pissoirs for men are placed throughout the West End.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.