UK immigration for international students

What visa, if any, do you need to study in the UK?

First you need to find out if you are classed as an EEA national (your home country is a member of the EU) or not. "EEA nationals are not affected by the UK immigration rules and may come and stay in the UK without restrictions," explains a spokesperson from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  

The UK visa system

From those students wanting to come to the UK from outside the EU, UK immigration has introduced a points-based system (PBS) for visas. Points reflect the applicant's ability, experience, savings, age and other relevant factors. The visa system has five sections, known as tiers:

  • Tier 1 - for highly skilled people without a job offer (e.g. scientists or entrepreneurs, or post-study workers);
  • Tier 2 - for skilled workers with a job offer (e.g. nurses, teachers, engineers) [this replaces the previous work permit schemes];
  • Tier 3 - for low skilled workers filling specific temporary labour shortages (e.g. construction workers for a particular project) [this tier is not available at present];
  • Tier 4 - for students;
  • Tier 5 - for youth mobility schemes (e.g. working holiday makers, au pairs) and temporary workers (e.g. musicians coming to play a concert).

Confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS)

All international students will need to take a test before coming to the UK (at an approved test provider) to show that they have reached at least an 'intermediate' level of English and must possess a confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) from their prospective school.

Student visas

There are two types of student visa under the Tier 4 rules: Adult Student and Child Student (under 18). For the majority of those attending a UK university, only the Adult Student visa will be relevant. If the study is for a qualification that is lower than a university degree, the maximum visa length is three years, and if the study is for a university degree or higher qualification, the maximum visa length is four years.

You can apply for this visa if you will be studying full-time, and if you have this type of visa you can work part-time during term and full-time during your school's official holidays, and you may be able to switch into a Tier 1 (highly skilled) or Tier 2 (skilled worker) visa at the end of your studies.

Other visa options

There are also two other types of visa which may be obtained by people who wish to study in the UK, but which are not covered by the Tier 4 rules.

With the Student Visitor visa you can come to study in the UK for a maximum of six months, but your stay in the UK cannot be extended. You're not allowed to work at all whilst in the country and you may be able to apply for this visa at the airport / port where you enter the UK, but it depends on your nationality, so check first with the British embassy in your country.

With the Prospective Student visa you need to apply for this visa before coming to the UK, and this gives you a maximum of six months to choose between schools which have offered places to you. Again you won't be allowed to work whilst in the UK, however you may be able to switch to a general Student visa after you have chosen your school and have obtained your CAS.

When to apply

Once you know you have met the criteria for entry into the UK, and know what paperwork - if any - you need, you then can get yourself ready for your trip. But don't leave this to the last minute as it all takes time, and if you don't have your visas etc complete and ready by the time to travel to the UK, you could end up not being allowed into the country.

"In most cases, an application should be (handed in) not more that three months in advance," says the spokesperson.  "But processing times for visas can vary from country to country and applicants are advised to contact the visa office to which they will apply several months in advance to find out how long an application may take," they added.  

Depending on your situation and country of origin, you will have specific forms to complete, and may have certain fees to pay. Your local British Consulate will let you know what you need to complete, and will be more than happy to help you out with any queries you may have.

Although people often feel daunted by the idea of visas, it really isn't an ordeal to go through. Given enough time and research, you will find that preparing for your studies in the UK is a simple process that is not as time consuming as you may think. And once this is out of the way, you can now get ready for the exciting learning and social experiences that you've signed up for by choosing to study in the UK.