Gap years are often people’s first experience of long-term solo travel, which is exactly what makes the United Kingdom such a great choice. The culture is familiar enough not to be overwhelming, there is no language barrier, and the country’s small size and good travel infrastructure make it super easy to explore.
However, the UK is far more than just convenient. After all, there's a reason this tiny country tops bucket lists for culture buffs, history nerds, music fans, and literature lovers around the globe. With a year to explore (and the rest of Europe just across the narrow channel), imagine all you could get up to.
Gap Year Ideas
The UK’s compact size means you can pack in a lot into a gap year. You can enjoy the buzzing culture of its major cities and the charming quiet of its historic towns, hike its dramatic peaks, take in its rugged coastlines, and get to know all four countries that make up the United Kingdom.
Fun Activities to do in the United Kingdom
The UK is known worldwide for its many cultural landmarks, but a gap year allows you to go beyond the tourist highlights. You can, for example, explore the many awesome cities that get less attention than London, like Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, or Cardiff.
If you’re not a big city person, you’ll love smaller, quaint towns full of history, like York, Oxford, Cambridge, and Bath. Want to get away from it all? Places like the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, and the Irish coast are a magnet for nature lovers.
Work/Intern Opportunities in the United Kingdom During Your Gap Year
Assuming you can get the right visa, there are almost limitless opportunities for work and internships. The lack of language barrier makes this especially easy. Common gap year jobs include working in a bar or hostel, seasonal farm work, and becoming an au pair.
Volunteer Opportunities in the United Kingdom During Your Gap Year
Every major city in the UK will be full of charities covering almost every social issue imaginable. Whether you want to protect the environment, support refugees, work with the homeless, cook meals for underprivileged groups, or just help out at a local community center, volunteering opportunities abound.
Tips on Living & Traveling in the United Kingdom During Your Gap Year
Don't be tempted to just spend your whole time in London. Sure, you can easily spend a year there and still have things to see, but you should still consider splitting your time across other major cities. This will not only save you money, but it will also give you a much more complete view of life in the UK.
The most convenient way to get around is by rail, but train tickets can be expensive. A Railcard can be a good investment, giving you 1/3 off train ticket prices for one year. Both 16-25 and 26-30 Railcards cost £30.
Planning Your Trip
The UK is a small country with good transport infrastructure, so getting around tends to be straightforward. Your biggest challenge is likely to be managing your budget and finding flexible accommodation.
Cost of Living in the United Kingdom
The cost of living in London is significantly higher than in the rest of the country -- so much, so that minimum wage is different there. Rent in other major cities like Manchester, Glasgow, or Belfast can be almost half of London ones.
The difference in day-to-day expenses is less dramatic. Across the country, a casual restaurant meal will knock you back between $15 and $20, a public transport ticket will be about $3 for central trips, and a pint of beer will range between $4 and $8.
Housing in the United Kingdom
It isn't difficult to find flatshares in most of the big cities across the UK -- good websites to check include Gumtree and Spareroom. While it is possible to live alone in a studio or one-bedroom, rent for these tends to be pretty expensive, especially in London (upwards of $1000 a month for a small studio).
If you’re planning on moving around a lot, you might be better off using holiday rental websites like Airbnb and negotiating better rates for longer stays. Watch out for price surges during peak season in July and August.
US citizens don't need to apply for a visa in advance to enter the UK, but that’s only for stays of six months or less. Some people try to exit the country for a while and then re-enter for another six-month stay, but this is not recommended since immigration officials are likely to suspect your intentions.
If you want to stay for a full year without working, you will have to apply for a long-term standard visitor visa that allows you to stay for two years.
Citizens of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand can apply for the Youth Mobility Scheme. This visa lasts up to two years and allows you to work for a maximum of 12 months out of the 24. This costs £190.
For US citizens, getting a work permit is a bit more complicated since there are different options with different rules. With very few exceptions, these are primarily offered to people who have job offers within the UK.
If you're going to be spending the whole year in the UK, you will have to pack for every season. The country gets cold winters and hot summers, with a gradual transition in spring and autumn. Rain is more or less a constant, especially in the north, so a good waterproof coat is a must.
If you don’t want to pack a full year’s worth of clothes, it might be useful to pack only for the first few months and then ask someone back home to mail you the rest as the weather changes.
Health & Safety
The UK has a high standard of healthcare and is generally safe. As long as you take out health insurance, you have nothing to worry about.
The UK has free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS) for residents and for visitors from the EU with a European Healthcare card.
Visitors from anywhere else, however, usually have to pay to access both NHS and private services. Make sure you have adequate health insurance, and that it covers any activities you plan to do during your stay.
In big cities, you should practice the same safety considerations as you would in any big city around the world: watch out for pickpockets, avoid walking alone at night, and find out about any potentially sketchy areas ahead of time.