Living in the UK – A Guide for PhD Students

Living in the UK – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Mark Bennett

The UK is one of the most popular destinations for international PhD study, with great opportunities to research, work and explore. To make the most of your time at a British university you'll need to understand living costs, accommodation options and travel.

UK immigration update

There have been some changes in UK's immigration policies recently. Most recently, the Government has announced an an increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS). As of 6 February 2024, students and their dependants will now have to pay £776 per year (an increase of £306). There have been changes to application fees and dependant rules as well. We've pulled together all the recent changes in a blog for you!

Travelling to the UK

All overseas students wishing to study in the UK will need to obtain a visa for their PhD before arrival. There are strict rules governing the requirements for obtaining a UK study visa and most universities will be able to offer you advice and guidance on this before you apply.

When you travel to the UK, ensure that you carry all your important documents (including letters from the University) in your hand luggage, as you may need to show these at immigration.

Before you leave

Before you leave for the UK, make sure that you have booked accommodation for at least the first two nights. This could be university accommodation (see below), but if you have not arranged this before you leave then you should book a room in a local hotel for at least the first couple of nights. Remember that it might be late at night when you arrive and it is not always easy to find accommodation in an unfamiliar city.

What you should bring

You do not need to bring everything with you! Many items, such as cooking equipment, kettles, bed linen etc., are widely available and inexpensive to buy in the UK. However, the following items may be useful:

  • All information sent to you by your University
  • All important documents, including medical documents
  • A dictionary and some basic course reference books in your own language
  • An international driving licence (if you have one)
  • Lap-top computer (if you have one)
  • UK adaptor plugs for your electronic equipment
  • Warm clothing – bring at least one warm jumper and a jacket, but if you are coming from a warm climate then remember it will be easier to buy most of your winter clothing in the UK
  • Clothing for warm weather, if you will be in the UK over the summer months
  • National or traditional dress – there may be special occasions when you will want to wear this, eg. university cultural evenings etc.
  • Photographs of family and friends to decorate your new room and help you feel less lonely
  • Favourite books/posters/music etc.
  • Souvenirs or small items from your country to give as gifts to your new friends

Travel within the UK

If you wish to drive a car in the UK then you MUST ensure that you have a driving licence valid for use in the UK. It is illegal and a criminal offence to drive in the UK without a valid licence. It is very important that you check the latest guidelines at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). You must also make sure that you have valid motor insurance and that the vehicle you are driving has a valid tax disc. All traffic in the UK drives on the left.

Most students find it easier to use public transport to get around the UK. You can travel by coach/bus or by train. Travelling by coach or bus is usually the cheapest way to travel, although journey times can be longer. Train travel can be more expensive if you do not book your ticket in advance, however if you book your journey early then you can often buy tickets at reduced prices.

Regions of the UK

The UK is a varied country and although quality of higher education is high throughout, your living experience may be very different depending on where you live and what you are looking for. The UK is made up of 4 regions, England – the largest, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with something unique to offer. If you are used to big cities, the convenience of round-the-clock services and the hustle and bustle of urban life, then you may wish to opt for some of the largest cities in the UK: London, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow. But it is possible to find cities and towns with a significant student populations (and associated atmosphere) in all parts of the UK, from Aberdeen, in the Northeast of Scotland to Kent in the Southern tip of England.


Most universities can offer dedicated student accommodation for their students – usually on or near the main university campus. Accommodation can be at a premium, especially for universities in the cities (due to space restrictions) and can be restricted to overseas students. Every university is different, but a typical student bedroom will consist of a bed, study desk, storage cupboard(s) and often a private bathroom. Internet access is usually available in the room. Most students in these types of rooms would then share a communal kitchen/living area with between 5 and 10 other students. There are deadlines for applying for accommodation so make sure you check on your university’s website.

Students coming to the UK with their family can sometimes request special family accommodation, which consists of private bedroom(s), bathroom, kitchen and living space. You should apply for this as early as you can as places are often limited.

University accommodation costs vary, but usually include utilities (electricity, water, gas etc.), internet and council tax.

Private accommodation

If you do not wish to stay in university accommodation, most cities offer a good range of private accommodation. You can either book this through a letting agency or through an independent landlord. It is important that you check the reputation of your chosen agency/landlord before signing a contract - most universities will have a list of approved agencies/landlords which you can use.

Private accommodation rates can be cheaper than university accommodation, but they often do not include utilities (electricity, water, gas etc.), internet or council tax. It is important to allow for these additional costs when you are working out your accommodation budget!

The price of accommodation varies by city and will be a big part of the overall cost of living for your PhD.


Before you arrive in the UK, you must make sure that your immunisations are up-to-date, and remember to pack your immunisation record in your hand luggage. Your doctor should be able to advise you which immunisations you need to have before you travel to the UK. You should also make sure that you have comprehensive medical insurance. You will need this if there is a medical emergency and you need to return home, or if you are seriously ill and a close relative needs to fly to the UK to see you.

In the UK

All international students registered on full-time courses lasting at least 6 months (and their dependants) are entitled to use the National Health Service (NHS), but must pay an immigration healthcare surcharge to do so. There's more information on this in our guide to UK immigration and visa requirements for PhD students. Once you have paid the surcharge, the NHS provides free registration and consultation with an NHS Doctor (GP) or Nurse, free hospital treatment (if referred by a doctor) and a standard charge for each item of prescribed medicine, except in Scotland where prescriptions are free.

Most universities have their own University Health Centre where you can register for the above services. You should check this with your university when you arrive in the UK.

Dental treatment can be provided under the NHS at a registered NHS dentist. However, it can be very difficult to find an NHS dentist, as not all have space for new patients. Most dentists will offer private treatment, but this can be expensive. It is recommended that you have a full check-up and any necessary treatment before you leave for the UK.

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Last Updated: 08 January 2024