Age limits – buying and drinking alcohol

This is a particularly complicated area, but these are the basic rules. The reason for them is to protect your health; if you are under 18, you are less able to cope, physically and emotionally, with the effects of alcohol (see here on the health effects of alcohol). Age limits for working with alcohol in bars and restaurants are set out here.

Throughout United Kingdom

If you are under 18, you cannot buy alcohol (from anywhere – bar, pub or off-licence).

Alcohol can be confiscated from you if you are drinking it in a public place.

England and Wales

If you are 16 or 17, you can drink beer, cider or wine with a meal at a table in a bar, hotel or restaurant, as long as you are with someone aged 18 or over.

If you are under 16, you can go into a pub or bar if you are with someone aged 18 or over (unless the pub itself has a different policy), but you cannot drink or be bought alcohol.

It is not illegal for parents to give alcohol to children in the home over the age of 5, but the Chief Medical Officer recommends that children should not drink alcohol until the age of 15, if at all.

Scotland

If you are 16 or 17, you can drink beer, wine, cider or perry with a meal at a table in a bar, hotel or restaurant.

Whether you are allowed in to a bar or pub and on what conditions will depend on the bar’s licence. The rules for the particular pub or bar should by law be set out in a Childrens and Young Persons Access Notice.

It is not illegal for parents to give alcohol to children in the home over the age of 5, but the Chief Medical Officer recommends that children should not drink alcohol until the age of 15, if at all.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has the strictest rules in the UK.

If you are under 18, you are only allowed to drink alcohol in a private house; you are not allowed to go into a bar or the bar area of licensed premises unless it has a children’s certificate, you are with someone aged 18 or over and it is before 9pm.

It is illegal to give alcohol to children in the home if they are under 14, except for medicinal purposes.

The Northern Ireland Government Services page on young people and alcohol is here.

Challenge 25

This is a scheme that encourages anyone who is over 18 but looks under 25 to carry acceptable ID when they want to buy alcohol. More information about it can be found here.

Businesses face criminal charges if they make under-age alcohol sales so need to have an age-checking system. The age limit of 25 (even though the legal age limit is 18) allows businesses to challenge anyone who looks as though they might be under 18.

Find out more about forms of age ID here.

You might also be interested in our other pages on age limits:

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Understand age limits