Students in the library

Adjusting to life in the UK

The UK is a great place to live as well as study. It is a vibrant, fun multicultural country with beautiful scenery, historic sights and some of the best museums, art galleries and cinemas in the world

However, coming to the UK can be an equally thrilling and daunting event. There are certain climatic and cultural peculiarities to the country that may make life initially hard to adjust to.

Leaving home and travelling to study in a new country is a stressful experience for anyone. This applies whatever country you come from, and wherever you are going to study, even though some cultures are more similar than others because of geographic, historic, demographic and other connections.

What is culture shock?

‘Culture shock’ is a term used to describe the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one that is unfamiliar.

It can affect anyone, including international students. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a different country.

It also includes the shock of being separated from the important people in your life, maybe family, friends, colleagues, teachers: people you would normally talk to at times of uncertainty, people who give you support and guidance.

When familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes are no longer there you can miss them very much. If you are tired and jet-lagged when you arrive small things can be upsetting and out of all proportion to their real significance.

The following are some of the elements that contribute to culture shock:


Many students find that the British climate can affect them. You may be used to a much warmer climate, or you may just find the greyness and dampness, especially during the winter months, difficult to get used to.


You may at first find British food strange. It may taste different, or be cooked differently to what you are used to. Supermarkets throughout the UK stock a wide range of international food, as do many local shops. You will also find a wide array of restaurants in larger towns and cities, catering for all tastes.


Constantly listening and speaking in a foreign language is tiring. If English is not your first language, you may find that you miss your familiar language, which at home would have been part of your everyday environment.

Although you may have learned English very thoroughly it is possible that the regional accents you discover when you arrive in the UK make the language harder to understand than you thought. People may also speak quickly and you may feel embarrassed to ask them to repeat what they have said.


If you come from a warm climate, you may find it uncomfortable to wear heavy winter clothing. Not all students will find the style of dress different, but for others people’s dress may seem immodest, unattractive, comical or simply drab.

Social behaviours may confuse, surprise or offend you. For example you may find people appear cold and distant or always in a hurry. This may be particularly likely in the centre of large cities.

Or you may be surprised to see couples holding hands and kissing in public. You may find the relationships between men and women more formal or less formal than you are used to, as well as differences in same sex social contact and relationships.

How to help yourself

Though culture shock is normally a temporary phase, it is important to know there are things you can do to help so that some of these worrying effects can be minimised.

  • Simply understanding that this is a normal experience may in itself be helpful.
  • Keep in touch with home by phone, email, FaceTime, Skype, etc. You may also fancy keeping family and friends up to date with your progress by writing a blog, as well as through social networking sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Check your Student Services, Students’ Union or International Office for information on discounted phone calls.
  • Have familiar things around you that have personal meaning, such as photographs or ornaments.
  • Have friends who are international students, as they will understand what you’re feeling and, if possible, have friends among the local students so you can learn more about each other’s culture.
  • Take advantage of all the help that is offered by your institution. In particular, the orientation programme offered by most colleges and universities can be a valuable way of meeting people and finding out about things that can help you.
  • For some students linking with a faith community will put you in touch with a familiar setting, whether it is a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Many universities have a chaplaincy in which several faiths may be represented. There may also be religious student societies.
  • Investigate the Students’ Union and its societies. There may be an opportunity to learn a new sport or activity or continue an interest from home. Above all find someone to talk to who will listen uncritically and with understanding, rather than isolating yourself.


There are very positive aspects of culture shock.

It can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as the new culture you have entered.

In addition, the UK as a society is very diverse, with many different cultures and nationalities. The UK has a long tradition of welcoming people from different countries and many have stayed here permanently.

All the world’s major religions are found in the UK including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Christianity. And even if you are feeling a little homesick, in most large cities and towns, you can find shops selling food from all over the world.

Image credit: Roman Samborskyi