Visas to study in the UK

Student visas explained

Picture the scene: after getting accepted onto a course in the UK, paying a sizeable deposit to do your course, finding a place to live and spending months working on your English, you finally arrive in the UK. You show your passport to the immigration official, and after you’ve replied to his question about why you are visiting with the UK by saying you’re here to study, he asks to see your student visa paperwork.

You look at him, confused. What visa?

The next thing you know, you find yourself back on the plane, returning to your home country. Your dream of studying in the UK is over before it even began, and all because you didn’t take the time to get a study visa. Disaster.

But this needn’t be a situation that happens to you. Although the consequences of not getting the right visa are as severe as this, the process of getting one isn’t in fact too complicated. It’s simply a question of being informed and sending off the right paperwork.

As this guide will show you, understanding the system of student visas for the UK isn’t really that complicated. Nevertheless, at all times you should check things over with the university where you are studying, not just because you’ll need certain documents from them but also because they will be able to advise you on what you need to do in your particular circumstances.

Do I need a visa?

This is a question that is first worth asking, because although you probably will need a visa, in some cases you won’t. There are two main categories of international students who don’t need a visa to study in the UK. Firstly, European Union and European Economic Area nationals do not need visas to study in the UK. In fact, for study purposes people from these countries aren’t even considered as international students at all! Instead, they count as domestic students and only need to pay domestic-student tuition fees.

The other category of people who most likely won’t need a visa are those who already have some other permanent right to live and work in the UK. For example, if you have a British parent and take the steps to get British citizenship you won’t need a visa, even though the fact that you have never lived in the UK means that you will be classed by universities as an international student. Similarly, if you’re married to a British citizen and have a full right to stay in the country you shouldn’t need a visa.

In all cases, however, it’s best to be on the safe side. So unless you’re already a British citizen or an EU national, do check with your university about your visa requirements. All other international students will need a visa. Exactly which visa you need and how you’ll get it, however, depends on two main factors: which country you’re from and how long you’ll be studying in the UK.

Different types of visa

Leaving aside study visas for children, the UK issues three main types of student visa:

Tier 4 (General) If you’re coming to study in the UK for more than six months, or will want to work part-time while you are studying, this is the visa for you. You must apply for it from outside of the UK before you start your course. Under this visa in some limited circumstances you can also bring your family members with you.

Student Visitor This visa is for students who are only staying for a short period of time (less than six months) and will not hold any form of employment while here. Applying for this visa involves less paperwork, though as you can see it is a more restricted visa. It’s also worth noting that you can’t switch from a Student Visitor visa to the Tier 4 (General) one once you are in the UK, so if you think you’ll want to study here for more than six months you’ll need to get the Tier 4 (General) visa.

Prospective Student This is a slightly less common visa, and is intended for students who need to take a short visit to the UK to arrange their university place (for example, having an entrance interview or attending an open day) before then switching to a T4 (General) visa while in the UK before their course begins.

What do I need to do to get one of these visas?

To get a T4 (General) visa, it is essential that you apply for it while you are in your home country. Your application can’t be made until there are fewer than three months to go before you intend to arrive.

The exact requirements stipulated by the UK Border Agency for international students applying for T4 (General) visas change very frequently, so your best bet is to consult their website directly and also contact the university where you will be studying. The requirements include not just that you have been offered a place at a university, but also that you have a certain level of money that you will be able to access while in the UK. The system for deciding whether you are eligible for this visa is a points-based one, with points being award for things like what type of offer you have from a university.

Getting a Student Visitor visa is slightly different. Firstly, whether you need to apply for one before you arrive in the UK depends on what arrangements are in place between your home country and the UK for all types of visas. If people from your country need to arrange a visa to come to the UK for any other purpose, such as a business trip or a holiday, then you’ll need to apply for your Student Visitor visa in advance.

If your country doesn’t have these arrangements, then sometimes you can get the visa on your arrival in the UK. However, it may well make sense to apply for the visa before you arrive regardless. This is because the immigration officials are entitled to refuse you a visa when you arrive if they feel you don’t meet the criteria for one (for example, if they can’t see evidence that you’re going to be studying or you can’t prove you’ll leave the country at the end of your studies). So by getting a visa before you go you can be safer in the knowledge that you won’t just be put on the next plane back home by UK immigration officials!