The basics
THE UK: Destination Guides

Using the London Underground

Confused by all the different coloured lines and directions? Read our guide to the London underground including proper "Tube etiquette".


London is a very busy city with residents, workers, tourists and (of course) international students all trying to get somewhere. While you can use a traditional red London bus or black cab to get around (as well as the overground train), using the London underground is the quickest and most efficient.

Also known as the “Tube”, the London underground is an underground train system which connects the city. Many stations also have overground (train) stations so you can split your journey up or go on to further areas outside of London which are not accessible by Tube. The Tube is very quick with trains every few minutes (so don’t worry about trying to get on a specific train – there will be another one in a minute!). The system is quite old but is constantly being renovated and improved; in fact it’s been announced that in 2015 most of it will run 24 hours (currently it runs from 5am until midnight).

Some underground stations on a particular line are just a few blocks away from each other, so don’t worry too much if you get off one station early or late; it can be quicker to walk to the next station than to jump on another tube. Some others can be a bit further apart.

There are even some secret or closed stations which are no longer in use! 

Unlike some countries like Korea, you won’t be able to access the internet underground.


Understanding the lines and zones

The London underground system may look confusing on a map but it’s actually very simple. There are 12 “lines” (or routes) which make up the underground network (plus the DLR which is a bit like a tram). These are all different colours on the map so hopefully you shouldn’t get too confused. In some cases, multiple lines will service a tube stop (usually in the case of stops which are below major train stations). Some of the lines are named after where they run on the network while others have names with origins which have more of a story behind them. The underground stretches from zones 1 and 2 which are considered central London (where all the most famous tourist hotspots are), to the outer edges of London (zones 5 and 6). You should be aware of these zones as the ticket you have may only be valid between certain zones.


Paying for the tube

The simplest way to pay for the underground is with an Oyster card, an electronic smartcard which you touch on the barriers to enter and exit a station. You top up your Oyster card’s credit or buy a new ticket at designated pay stations in tube and train stations, as well as newsagents and shops. Consider what journey you plan to make and how regularly you’ll be making this; this will dictate which ticket is best for you. You can buy a daily or weekly ticket; or just a ticket between specific zones.

As a rough guide, a weekly ticket between the very popular zones 1 and 2 is about £30 per week. It might seem expensive but remember, this lets you use the tube between these zones as much as you want.

But be careful! Make sure you have enough credit on your Oyster card or your ticket is still valid before you start your journey. If you can’t present a valid ticket for your journey or you reach your destination and your ticket doesn't work, you’ll have to pay a fine (not all station staff will be nice enough to let you off with a warning).


Tube etiquette

  • Things can get very busy on the Tube (especially on weekday mornings and evening, and weekends) so expect your personal space to be compromised somewhat. People don’t talk or communicate with each other on the underground so don’t worry if people seem unhappy or cross. It may simply be a British-ism (or because it’s early in the morning), but engaging others in conversation or making direct eye contact is considered annoying and even rude.
  • Make sure your personal music isn’t playing too loud through your headphones. If you’re reading a newspaper or a book make sure it’s not getting in the way.
  • You shouldn’t eat food on the Tube either as this can smell in the confined space. Sweets and chocolate are generally OK, and drinking water is encouraged (especially in the summer when it can get very hot underground).
  • You may be surprised to learn that men don’t usually let women have their seat (especially since British men are considered rather chivalrous or gentlemanly). However if someone gets on and they’re clearly very old, pregnant or disabled, you should let them have your seat (pregnant women can get a “Baby on board” badge so fellow travellers can identify them quickly and give up their seat).
  • When you get off a Tube train, walk quickly and don’t dawdle. If you need to read a sign, map or your phone, move to the side so others can get by. On the escalators, you should stand on the right, but if you’re in a rush you can walk on the left.


Staying safe

Always keep an eye on your belongings as pick-pocketing can occur in such small spaces as this makes it easier for thieves. Make sure your wallet and phone are in your front pockets. Take your backpack off so it’s in your sight (and not bumping into those behind you). Don’t leave belongings unattended as they be picked up as lost luggage, or cause a panic or security alert. Try not to show off your expensive items like electronic devices as this will make you a target for thieves. Be careful when using the Tube at night (some areas are considered riskier than others). Usually there will be London underground staff on the platform or somewhere in the station that can help you if you’re in need.


Read our essentials article on transport in the UK


You can plan your journey with the Transport For London Journey Planner (an app is also available).

View the London Underground map

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About Author

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.


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