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An Introduction to UK Visas and Immigration

It is a widely-acknowledged contradiction that UK laws are detailed, complex and archaic, and yet UK visa applicants often seek (initially at least) to navigate the Immigration Rules without legal assistance. Readers may have already encountered the detailed requirements and evidential rules associated with visa or citizenship applications but may not know the legal principles which govern these. The purpose of this article, and others in the series, is to help readers understand some of the fundamental concepts which make up immigration law in the UK and which will impact their individual applications.

What Is a Visa?

The word ‘visa’ is often used interchangeably with other terms and to describe a variety of immigration concepts including entry clearance, leave to remain, permission to enter, permission to remain and so on. This can lead to confusion about what actually constitutes a visa, and indeed when one is required. 

Put simply, a visa is a physical document conveying some form of immigration permission. When placed in a passport, a visa allows its holder to travel to and remain in a country of which they are not a resident or a citizen. Such travel will usually be for a specific purpose and for a specific period of time. 

In the UK, applications for some visas also come with additional requirements, such as obtaining a certificate to confirm that the holder is not infected with tuberculosis, or providing evidence that the person can speak English to a specified level. 

Visas also carry restrictions, which vary depending on the purpose of the visa. For example, those who hold a visitor visa in the UK are generally, with few exceptions, not permitted to carry out paid work. All visas will come with a restriction which prevents their holder from relying on public funds, i.e. state benefits. 

The majority of long-stay visas, including Partner & Family Visas, Work Visas, Business Visas, Business Mobility Visas and Talent Visas, are initially granted for periods of between two and three years. Visitor visas are generally valid for six months, although it is possible to obtain a long-term Standard Visitor visa which allows multiple entries for up to six months at a time over a period of two, five or ten years.

Physically, a visa used by someone travelling into the UK will come in the form of a vignette. This is a page in the migrant or traveller’s passport, marked ‘UK Entry Clearance’, which details their permission to enter the UK and the length that this permission will remain valid.  Short-term Visitors to the UK will only ever have a vignette, and this will constitute their ‘visa’ throughout their travel to and time spent in the UK. 

Entry Clearance vignettes granted on the basis of a longer-term visa are only valid for 90 days from the date of grant. This is different from the validity period of the whole permission to stay in the UK and simply means that applicants must travel into the UK within this 90 day period, otherwise they should have the vignette in their passport updated. Previously, applicants only had 30 days to enter the UK, but the period was extended in response to travel disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore worth bearing in mind that this period may be reduced again in the future.

Once the applicant has entered the UK, or if they made their application from inside the UK, this permission is replaced by a Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). Currently this is a physical card containing the applicant’s details and the period that they have permission to stay in the UK, but soon the Home Office might not issue any physical documents at all, preferring a digital system which would be less vulnerable to the loss of or interference with documents. This is why readers who currently possess a BRP may have noticed that the expiry date on the card is 2024, even if their leave is indefinite or extends past this date; the Home Office hopes that by late 2023 physical BRPs will have been entirely replaced by an app which will contain all of the same information.

What Types of UK Visas Are There?

The available visas for the UK can be broadly separated into Personal visas and Business visas. Personal visas include those for visitors and individuals coming to the UK to join partners or family members. Business visas include those for skilled workers, UK expansion workers and innovators

Visas do not only govern travel into the UK – they may also be a permission to remain in the UK. 

Some visa holders will be able to apply to extend their permission from within the UK. This applies for example to business visas. Other visas, especially the different varieties of Visitor visa, come with an express requirement that the holder will eventually leave the UK. Therefore, with a few exceptions, an applicant cannot apply to extend a visitor visa or apply for a different visa category from within the UK while holding leave as a visitor, as this would clearly negate the effectual agreement made with the Home Office to leave the country.

Do I Need a Visa?

The short answer is, yes, probably. Unless an applicant is a British citizen or has settled status (Indefinite Leave to Remain) they are likely to need a specific visa attached to their reason for being in the UK. Per the Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act 1987, airline carriers and passenger shipping companies can be prosecuted for facilitating the entry of a person who does not hold the proper travel documents. 

Non-citizens or non-settled status holders will also need a valid visa to remain in the UK. This usually means a visa which is in-date, although those who have pending visa applications, including for renewal, have permission to stay in the country until a decision is made. If that application is not approved the applicant would then have 30 days to leave the country. It is important to note, however, that this provision is not available for applications for citizenship, so those who do not already have ILR when they apply for British citizenship should ensure that they have valid current permission to be in the UK and that it is not due to expire at any point in the near future, as citizenship applications can take six months or more to be processed. 

One significant exception to the general rule regarding visas is that citizens of certain countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, may enter the UK without a visa and remain for up to six months as a visitor. Nevertheless, such travellers are still required to meet the Standard Visitor eligibility requirements, the most important of which are the requirements not to work and to leave the UK at the end of their trip. This is often a source of confusion for citizens of such countries, who travel to the UK to see family or partners who they intend to live with; because they never had to make a visa application, and often enter through an eGate, such travellers are left with the impression that the Home Office is aware of their connection to their family member or partner, and believe that this gives them an automatic permission to enter the UK when, in fact, they are benefitting from the visa exemption applied to certain Visitors. As a consequence, many such travellers remain unaware that their stay has conditions, including an expiry date. 

The consequences of breaching the terms of your permission to be in the UK (for example, by working as a visitor), or of being an overstayer, are serious, leading to future applications being rejected or even a ten-year ban from entering the UK. Indeed, all visas carry permissions, and it is important to be well-informed of these before entering the UK so as to avoid these kinds of consequences. This means that even citizens of the ‘exempt’ countries mentioned above should check whether they need a visa when planning a trip to the UK. There is a guide available here which provides information about whether an applicant is likely to require a visa or not. However, those with more complex questions should seek the advice of an immigration lawyer. 

What are UK Visa Decision Waiting Times?

UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) has published service standards for waiting times for decisions on visa and immigration applications. UKVI also publishes up-to-date information on current processing times for visa and immigration applications submitted both within the UK and outside the UK.

In this post we take an in-depth look at UK visa processing and decision waiting times, including the Home Office service standards for waiting times, current Home Office visa processing times, options for securing a faster decision on a visa or immigration application and how to challenge a delay in the processing of a UK visa or immigration application. We also answer some frequently asked questions relating to UKVI visa processing times and look at some of the factors to consider when timing an immigration application.

Contact our UK Visa Immigration Barristers

Our immigration barristers regularly assist applicants to prepare and submit successful UK visa applications. For expert advice and assistance with your UK visa application contact our immigration barristers and lawyers on 0203 617 9173 or via our enquiry form below.


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