Before moving to the United Kingdom expats are advised to research UK visa and immigration procedures, including British citizenship, before starting the UK visa application process or applying for a residence permit.
If you are visiting or moving to the United Kingdom, you need to find out if you will need a visa to enter the country and which type of visa for the UK you will need to apply for. This will depend on where you are travelling from and the purpose of your visit.
This guide to UK visas and residence permits will cover the following topics:
- Immigration in the UK
- Who needs a UK visa?
- Types of UK visa
- Short-term UK visas
- Non-immigrant UK visas
- Immigrant UK visas
- Asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK
- Residence and citizenship in the UK
- Arriving in the UK
- Appeals and complaints
- Useful resources
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Immigration in the UK
The UK has always had a sizable migrant population, with many coming over the years to work, study or join family members. However, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the UK is lower than in many other European countries.
Around 9% of the UK population are from overseas. Over half of these are EU citizens. Most live in the more populated big cities, with around 35% of the UK migrant population living in London.
Following the Brexit vote in 2016 the UK has now left the European Union, although there will be a transition period in place until the end of 2020. After this, EU/EFTA citizens will be subject to the same visa requirements as third country nationals.
The UK Home Office is the government department responsible for dealing with visas and immigration in the UK.
Who needs a UK visa?
Whether you need a UK visa depends on:
- what country you are travelling from;
- how long you intend to stay;
- the purpose of your visit
Although the UK has now left the EU, new visa rules don’t come into effect until January 2021. This means that EU/EFTA nationals can currently travel visa-free to the UK. They also have the right to live in the UK if they are employed, self-employed or registered as a job-seeker.
From January 2021, EU/EFTA citizens will be able to enter and stay in the UK without a visa for 6 months. For stays longer than this, they will need to apply to the Home Office for the relevant UK visa.
The UK also allows citizens of 56 other countries, including Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and the United States, to stay visa-free in the country for up to 6 months.
Citizens of British Overseas Territories and citizens of Commonwealth countries born before 1 January 1983 who qualify for Right of abode (ROA) through a parent being born in the UK have the right to travel and live in the UK without a visa.
You can get an electronic visa waiver (EVW) for just £30 if you are from Kuwait, Oman, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. This allows a visa-free stay of up to 6 months for tourism, business, study or medical treatment.
Citizens of all other countries will require a visa to enter the UK. You can check exact UK visa requirements for your home country here.
Types of UK visa
UK visas can be broken down into three broad categories, which are:
- Short-stay UK visas – these are visas that can be valid for anything from 24 hours to up to 6 months, including tourist visas, visitor visas and transit visas;
- Non-immigrant visas – longer-term temporary visas for purposes such as studying or working on a fixed-term temporary contract, where the applicant doesn’t intend to stay in the UK beyond a fixed period;
- Immigrant visas – for those who want to stay in the UK long-term or permanently, for example those relocating for work or family reunion purposes.
Short-stay UK visas
There are a number of different short-stay UK visas that you can choose from.
Standard Visitor visa
This visa allows you to travel to the UK for leisure, business or private purposes and stay for up to 6 months. You can extend this to 11 months if you’r receiving private medical treatment or 12 months if you’re doing academic research.
This visa costs £95. In some cases, it’s possible to apply to extend this visa if you need to stay in the UK for longer. However, the cost for an extension is £993.
You can apply for this visa as long as you can prove that you can support yourself for the duration of your stay. You will also need to provide a current passport or valid ID. Additional documents may need to be provided, depending on the purpose of your visit.
The visa is also available as a long-term visitor visa, however you will only be able to stay for a maximum period of 6 months at a time. You’ll need to prove that you’re only visiting and not living in the UK on each visit. Costs for long-term visitor visas are:
- £361 for 2 years;
- £655 for 5 years;
- £822 for 10 years
Short-term Study visa
This visa is for short study courses that last for 6 months or less. The visa can be granted for up to 11 months if you are aged over 16 and studying an English language course.
The cost is £97 (or £186 for an 11-month visa). You need to be able to show evidence that you’ve been accepted onto a UK course and prove that you can support yourself financially. You will also need to provide a valid passport/ID and accommodation details.
Marriage Visitor visa
You can apply for this visa if you want to get married or register a civil partnership in the UK, as long as you’re not planning to stay in the country.
The visa is valid for up to 6 months and costs £95. You will need to provide:
- valid passport/ID;
- proof that you can financially support yourself for your stay;
- proof of marriage plans in the UK, e.g. venue booking confirmation;
- accommodation plans during your stay
Permitted Paid Engagement visa
This is a UK visa that is valid if you:
- are invited to the UK by an organization or client based in the country;
- want to do short-term paid work in the UK but haven’t been sponsored under the points-based system
The visa is valid for one month and costs £95. You will need to provide:
- valid passport/ID;
- proof that you can support yourself financially during the stay;
- invitation from UK-based organization/client OR proof that the work you will be doing relates to your skills and expertise;
- accommodation plans
Parent of a Tier 4 Child visa
You can apply for this visa if you have a child who is attending an independent fee-paying school in the UK. This visa is usually for 6 months, but can be extended to 12 months and then renewed until your child reaches 12 years of age.
The visa costs £516, with extensions costing £1,033. Your child must be aged under 12 and hold a Tier 4 Child visa.
You will need to provide a valid passport/ID along with proof of your child’s visa and evidence that you can support yourself financially during your stay.
Chinese Tour Group visa
You can come to the UK as part of a Chinese tour group of at least 5 people. The tour must be organized by an ADS-licensed Chinese tour operator and you’ll need to stay with the group for the duration of the trip.
This visa is valid for 30 days and costs £95.
UK Transit visa
This visa enables you to pass through the UK in transit if you’re changing flights or travelling through the UK on the way to another country.
There are two types of transit visa. These are:
- Direct Airside Transit visa – if you are changing flights and not passing through UK border control. This costs £35 and lasts for 24 hours.
- Visitor in Transit visa – if you’re passing through border control but on the way to another country. This costs £64 and lasts for 48 hours.
You can apply for short-stay visas at the UK visa application center in your home country. See a list of UK visa application centers worldwide here. You can also apply online through the UK Home Office Visas and Immigration Service website.
If you are travelling from a country listed here, you will need to have a tuberculosis test if you are coming to the UK for more than 6 months.
The UK Visas and Immigration website has information on managing your visa application, containing information on things such as getting documents back and reporting a change in your circumstances.
When you arrive in the UK, you may need to register your visa with the police. You should receive information about whether you need to register in your visa sticker or letter from the Home Office. Read more information here.
Non-immigrant UK visas
Anyone wanting to stay in the UK for longer than 6 months will need to apply for a visa, unless they qualify for an exemption as detailed in the above section.
The majority of longer-term UK visas are issued for periods of between 1-5 years with the chance to extend many of them if you want to stay longer. The types of fixed-term visas available are as follows:
In addition to the short-term study visa, there are two student visas available in the UK:
These visas are available to anyone who has been offered a placement at a recognized UK place of study. General student visas are granted for the length of the study course. Child student visas are available for those aged 4-17. They can be for up to 6 years (or 3 years if the child is 16 or 17).
Applicants will need to provide a valid passport/ID plus proof that they can support themselves during their stay without recourse to public funds.
General student visa applicants will need to provide evidence that they meet English language requirements. Child student visa applicants will need to show evidence of consent from their parent or guardian.
The student visa costs £348 plus healthcare surcharge costs. In some cases it’s possible to extend this visa. The cost for this is £475.
Students on a general study visa can apply to be joined by certain family members if eligibility conditions are met.
Short-term work visas
There are several short-term UK work (Tier 5) visas. These are:
- Charity Worker visa – for volunteer workers, valid for up to 12 months and costing £244;
- Creative and Sporting visa – for those working professionally in sports or the arts, valid for up to 12 months and costing £244;
- Government Authorized Exchange visa – for those doing work experience, training or research. The visa is valid for up to two years and costs £244;
- International Agreement visa – for government workers and diplomats carrying out work abroad. Valid for up to years and costing £244;
- Religious Worker visa – for those working in a religious capacity, valid for up to £24 months and costing £244;
- Seasonal Worker visa – for those employed to work on UK farms, valid for up to 6 months and costing £244;
- Youth Mobility Scheme visa – for those aged 18-30 who meet certain financial and nationality requirements, valid for up to 2 years and costing £244;
- Domestic Worker in a Private Household visa – for workers such as au pairs, cleaners, carers and cooks working privately for families. This visa is valid for up to 6 months and costs £516.
Read more detailed information in our guide to UK work visas.
Other UK work and business visas
Longer-term UK visas for work purposes include:
- General work (Tier 2) visa – the standard UK visa for skilled work, usually available for up to 5 years but renewable for a maximum of 6 years. Costs are between £464 and £1,220 depending on visa length and occupation type;
- Intra-company transfer (Tier 2) visa – for overseas employees transferring to a UK branch, valid for up to 9 years and costing between £482 and £1,220;
- Minister of Religion (Tier 2) visa – for religious ministers, valid for up to 3 years and costing £610;
- Sportsperson (Tier 2) visa – for sports professionals and coaches, valid for up to 3 years at the cost of £610;
- Innovator visa – for those with £50,000 to invest in a business in the UK, valid for up to 3 years at a cost of £1,021;
- Start up visa – for entrepreneurs who want to start a small business in the UK, valid for up to 2 years and costing £363;
- Global Talent visa – for exceptionally talented individuals endorsed by a recognized body, valid for up to 5 years at a cost of £608;
- Ancestry visa – work visa for Commonwealth citizens with a grandparent born in the UK, valid for up to 5 years and costing £516;
- Representative of an Overseas Business visa – for those representing a business with a presence or interests in the UK as well as overseas media workers assigned in the UK. Valid for up to 3 years, costing £610.
You can apply for a family visa in the UK if you want to come and live with your:
- fiancee or proposed civil partner;
- relative who is providing you with long-term care
The cost of this visa is £1,523 (or £1,033 if you apply from inside the UK). Family visas last for 2.5 years if you apply as a partner/spouse or parent, although they can be extended. If you apply as a child or a cared-for relative, the visa can be for longer. The exact length will depend on your situation.
See the Expatica guide to family visas in the UK for more information.
Immigrant UK visas
Visas in the UK are usually issued for a limited time period and can then only be extended for limited periods. The exceptions to this are investor visas, family visas and global talent visas which can be repeatedly renewed if certain conditions are met.
Therefore, the route to staying permanently in the UK (or a period longer than 5-10 years) is usually to apply for permanent settlement. This can be done after 5 years of continuous residence in the UK.
Work and business visas
If you intend to relocate to the UK permanently or for a period longer than 5 years for work or businesses purposes, you will typically need to get a work visa and then extend it or apply for a settlement permit.
Visas that can be extended for a 5-year period or beyond are:
- General work (Tier 2) – extended to a maximum of 6 years total;
- Intra-company transfer (Tier 2) – maximum 9 years;
- Minister of Religion (Tier 2) – maximum 6 years;
- Investor – can be extended indefinitely if the business is still running and you still meet the eligibility requirements;
- Global Talent – can be extended for 5 years at a time indefinitely;
- UK Ancestry – maximum 10 years;
- Representative of Overseas Business – maximum 5 years
To stay beyond the maximum extension on your visa, you will either need to switch to another visa (if your current visa permits this) or apply for permanent residence if you meet the eligibility requirements for your visa.
Read more in Expatica’s guide to UK work visas.
UK family visas are issued for 2.5 years for spouses/partners and parents, after which they can be extended. For children and cared-for relatives, they can be issued for longer periods.
As with work visas, those in the UK for family reunion purposes are eligible for permanent residence after 5 years of living in the UK. Children aged under 18 can sometimes apply for permanent residence earlier.
Retiring to the UK
The UK has scrapped its retirement visa, which was known as the retired persons of independent means permit. Under this, anyone needing a visa to stay in the UK could apply to retire to the country if they could prove they has a minimum disposable income of £25,000 a year and close connections to the UK.
Those wanting to move to the UK for retirement now need to apply using another visa for which they are eligible (e.g. work, investment, family) and then apply for permanent residence after 5 years.
If you have already entered the UK on a retirement visa and this is due to expire, you can apply to extend this visa for a maximum of 5 years if you still meet the eligibility criteria.
Asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK
Application claims are processed by the UK Home Office. You can make an asylum claim at the border control of any UK airport or at an asylum intake unit if you want to apply from within the UK. It is not possible to apply for UK asylum from outside the country.
Once you have made your application, you will have an appointment with an immigration screening officer. You will need to provide a passport or any current ID you have to make an asylum application, along with any information or evidence that may support your application.
You’ll be given an asylum registration card while you wait for your application to be processed. This typically takes around 6 months. During this time, you won’t be able to work but will be able to access health services and education for any children aged under 18.
The current benefit for asylum-seekers in the UK is £37.75 a week. This can be increased by up to £5 a week if you have a child aged 3 or younger. Asylum-seekers are housed either in temporary accommodation or in an asylum detention center. Housing and financial support is available using the ASF1 form.
Successful applicants will be given leave to remain in the UK for 5 years, after which time they can apply for an extension if the circumstances regarding returning to their home country remain similar. Alternatively, they can apply for a UK settlement permit are eligible. There is no fee for this if you are a refugee.
Rejected asylum-seekers will be required to leave the UK within a specified time, although they can appeal the verdict.
Support for asylum-seekers and refugees is available through a number of charities in the UK, such as the Refugee Council.
Residence and citizenship in the UK
Citizens from non-EU/EFTA countries who want to stay in the UK for longer than 6 months need to apply for a UK biometric residence permit (BRP). This is an identity card that contains the following information:
- name, date and place of birth;
- fingerprints and photograph;
- immigration status and any conditions of your stay;
- your social rights (access to public funds, social services, etc.)
If you are working, studying or have other special reasons for remaining in the UK, you are likely to be eligible for a BRP if you can provide the necessary evidence of your situation.
You can apply for a BRP from the following outlets if you are making your application from inside the UK:
- UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS);
- Visa and Immigration Service and Support Center;
- any UK post office
Applications from outside the UK need to be made from a visa application center.
The BRP is valid for the duration of your stay in the UK, up to a maximum of 10 years. The current cost is £19.20.
EU/EFTA citizens do not currently require a BRP if they are living in the UK, however this will change for anyone coming to the UK from an EU/EFTA country after 1 January 2021 who intends to stay for longer than 6 months.
After 5 years of continuous residence in the UK, you can apply for permanent residence if you meet other requirements related to your specific visa.
You can also apply for UK citizenship if you either:
- are married to/in a civil partnership with a British citizen and have lived in the UK for 3 years;
- have been a permanent resident for at least 12 months;
- qualify for British nationality via another path
You will also need to meet other requirements, such as demonstrating English language skills and passing the Life in the UK test.
Arriving in the UK
Some non-EU/EFTA nationals need to register with the police within 7 days of their arrival. Your visa or letter from the UK Home Office will tell you whether you need to do this or not.
EU/EFTA citizens could formerly register their stay as an EU resident in the UK. However, this is no longer necessary. EU citizens already living in the UK and wanting to stay beyond 2020 can apply to the EU settlement scheme.
Other things to sort out within the first few weeks if you are planning to stay in the UK long-term are:
- registering for healthcare;
- opening up a UK bank account;
- sorting out a National Insurance number so that you can work;
- arranging utilities and telecommunications if you are moving into your own accommodation;
- getting a UK mobile phone or SIM card
Appeals and complaints
You can ask for an administrative review if your application for a UK visa has been turned down. You should do this within 28 days of receiving the decision (or 14 days if your visa application was made from inside the UK).
If you’re not happy with the outcome of this, you might be able to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal. The tribunal also deals with appeals relating to asylum applications, British citizenship and the EU Settlement Scheme.
Things can be escalated to the Upper Tribunal if you think that a legal mistake has been made.
However, appealing a visa decision can be a costly and lengthy exercise. Because of this, it’s wise to get legal advice before proceeding. Citizens Advice can provide you with support and signpost you to the right legal services.