The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom or the UK) is a constitutional monarchy comprising much of the British Isles.
This Union is more than 300 years old and comprises four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It occupies all of the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern portion of the island of Ireland and most of the remaining British Isles. The UK is an island nation but shares an open land border with Ireland. It neighbors several countries by sea, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
The UK today is a diverse patchwork of native and immigrant cultures, possessing a fascinating history and dynamic modern culture, both of which remain hugely influential in the wider world. Although Britannia no longer rules the waves, the UK is still an overwhelmingly popular destination for many travellers. Its capital and largest city of London is, along with New York, often reckoned to be one of only two cities of truly global importance but many come to see quaint villages and the beautiful and quickly changing countryside.
England is just one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, alongside Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Treating “England” and “The United Kingdom” as synonyms is a mistake commonly made by visitors, which can annoy the Welsh, Scottish & Irish. Similarly, “British” and “English” are not the same.
It’s important to remember that the Republic of Ireland is a completely separate state from the United Kingdom, that seceded from the Union in 1922 and gained full independence in 1937.
The ‘Great’ in Great Britain (Britannia Major in Roman times; Grande-Bretagne in French) is to distinguish it from the other, smaller “Britain”: Brittany (Britannia Minor; Bretagne) in northwestern France.
However, for a geographer “Great Britain” (“GB”) refers just to the single largest island in the British Isles that has most of the land area of Scotland, England and Wales. In normal usage it is a collective term for all those three nations together. Great Britain became part of the United Kingdom when the Irish and British parliaments merged in 1801 to form the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. This was changed to “… and Northern Ireland” when all but the six Northern Irish counties seceded from the Union in 1922 after a treaty granting Irish home rule. “Britain” is simply another name for the United Kingdom, and does include Northern Ireland, despite common misconceptions otherwise.
The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack or, more properly, Union Flag. It comprises the flags of St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland and the St. Patrick’s Cross of Ireland superimposed on each other. Within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are commonly used. The St. Patrick’s Cross flag is often seen on St. Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland split from the UK though, St. Patrick’s Saltire is not used for Northern Ireland, as it represented the whole of the island of Ireland. A flag (known as the “Ulster Banner”) was designed for Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which was based on the flag of Ulster (similar in appearance to the Saint George’s Cross flag of England) and includes a Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. Although the flag’s official status ended with the dissolving of the province’s devolved government in the early 1970s, it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Loyalist community and on sporting occasions. As Wales was politically integrated into the English kingdom hundreds of years ago, its flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The Welsh flag features the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd, superimposed on the Tudor colours of green and white.
Map showing how far away many Overseas territories are from the UK (click image to see enlargements)
You don’t have to be British to vote in the UK!
British, Irish, EU and qualifying Commonwealthcitizens aged 18 or over qualify to register to vote in UK elections in the borough where they reside with a ‘considerable degree of permanence’.
This means that those who, for example, go to the UK to study or spend their gap year can register to vote, but not those who visit the UK on a short holiday.
A ‘qualifying Commonwealth citizen’ is a national of a Commonwealth country/territory (including Fiji, Zimbabwe, the whole of Cyprus and British Nationals (Overseas) from Hong Kong) who has any type of leave to enter or remain in the UK on the date of his/her electoral registration application.
Students are specifically permitted to register to vote at both their home and term-time addresses.
British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in all UK elections, whilst other EU citizens can vote in all elections except for UK Parliamentary elections.
You can still register to vote in the UK even if you are already registered to vote in another country.
You may be unable to open a bank account or apply for a mobile phone contract if you are not on the electoral roll.
Register to vote at the Electoral Commission’s website.
The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are not strictly part of the UK, but rather are ‘Crown Dependencies’ (or, in the case of Sark, a Crown Appanage): they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU. They are not entirely sovereign either, falling under the British Crown which chooses to have its UK Government manage some of the islands’ foreign and defence affairs. The people are British Citizens, but unless they have direct ties with the UK, through a parent, or have lived there for at least 5 years, they are not able to take up work or residence elsewhere in the European Union.
Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth
Again, these are not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the former British Empire which are, to varying degrees, self-governing entities that still recognise the British Monarch as their head of state. The key difference is residents of Overseas Territories still possess British citizenship, whereas those of Commonwealth nations do not, and are subject to the same entry and immigration rules as non-EU citizens. The British embassy in your home country however may accept visa applications to selected overseas territories and Commonwealth nations.