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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in the United Kingdom

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2014

Driving

If you are from a country in the European Economic Area (for a full description of the EEA, see Visas and Passports) or Switzerland, you can drive in the UK for as long as your existing licence remains valid. Otherwise, you will be permitted to drive for 12 months before applying for a licence. Note that there are separate licences issued for Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. In all cases, in addition to having a valid driving licence, you will need to take out car insurance and pay road tax.

In the UK, driving is on the left. This may take some getting used to, and to help familiarise yourself before you arrive, you might want to take a learner’s theory test. Britain has the highest density of cars per mile of road of any country. Despite this, the UK rate of road accident deaths per capita is one of the lowest in the world. This indicates that Britons are careful drivers, and that the roads in Britain are generally very safe, though they can get crowded. You can find a thorough guide to driving in the UK (generally aimed at North Americans) here.

Despite the UK being an oil-producing country, its petrol prices are some of the highest in the world, so driving may need careful budgeting. It may be worth looking into car pooling. If you are going to be driving in the UK long-term, it is a good idea to join a breakdown organisation. The two with the widest coverage are the AA and the RAC. Typical speed limits in the UK are given in the table below.

Road type Speed (mph) Speed (kph)
Motorway 70 110
Urban areas 30 50

The legal limit for blood-alcohol content is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.08%). Penalties for drink and drug driving include fines, being banned from driving and imprisonment.

 

Trains

The UK has 16,321 km of train track, and the network is one of the world’s busiest, with 1.48 billion passengers per year. Since the railway network was privatised in 1994-97, train fares have risen exponentially, and they are now scandalously high. An annual season ticket that enables you to travel only between London and Brighton (60 miles) costs just under £4,000. In Germany, for around €4,000 (about £3,100) you can buy a Bahn Card 100, which allows you to travel the entire 25,000-mile German rail network! The country that invented the railway now has the highest train fares in the world.

This makes it all the more important to pre-book your tickets online, which you can do on sites such as The Train Line and My Train Ticket. Buying from sites such as these – or buying a railcard such as the Network Railcard – can help reduce train fares to saner levels.

Passenger numbers have increased in recent years, partly due to road traffic congestion and high petrol prices. As train carrying capacity has not increased concomitantly, trains are regularly overcrowded – especially in rush hour – meaning you may not get a seat. To add insult to injury, trains in Britain are not particularly clean or punctual. On the plus side, trains are more frequent than in many other countries.

 

Buses and Coaches

Like train services, bus and coach services have been privatised, and, as a result, prices have often increased above the level of inflation. Nevertheless, they are still relatively cheap, and it is possible get good deals on long-distance coach journeys. You can find a guide to cheap coach and train fares on the Money Saving Expert site. There are bus lanes on major routes in most cities, but still, traffic congestion can be a problem. The largest companies running bus and coach services are Stagecoach, Arriva, First, Go-Ahead and National Express.

 

Planes

Travelling by plane is quite popular for longer distances, and, despite recent air duty rises, flying between British cities is often cheaper, quicker and more convenient than taking the train. However, this may only be true if you live near an airport and your destination is near an airport too. Flying is definitely the quickest option if you want to travel to or from Northern Ireland or to one of the many islands near the UK, such as the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.

 

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