Applying for any kind of visa can be a real headache and student visas are no exception. In the UK’s points-based immigration system there are five application ‘Tiers’ (categories). As a student, your visa category is ‘Tier 4’. Here are 12 things you should know before you apply for your UK student visa.
First off, do you need a student visa?
If you’re from the European Union, Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein or Switzerland you won’t need a visa to study in the UK.
You also won’t need a visa if you come from one of the 56 ‘non-visa’ countries / territories on the UK government’s list. But only if you’re planning to study here for no more than six months (if your course is longer than six months, you will need a visa, just like everyone else).
You can always check the requirements for your nationality here:
‘Low risk’ nationals submit less papers
In addition to the list of ‘non-visa / visa exempt’ countries, UK Immigration & Visas have a list of about 20 ‘low risk’ countries* / territories (*most but not all of these are included in the ‘non-visa’ list).
If you have a passport from one of the low-risk countries, you still have to apply for a student visa in the normal way. But you won’t have to include with your application the financial and qualifications evidence that other applicants have to provide.
By the way, if you have two nationalities and one of the nationalities is that of a ‘low risk’ country, you have to apply from within that country if you want to get the benefits of the ‘easier documentation’ rules.
List last checked on 15 June 2016.
What type of student visa should you apply for?
Tier 4 (General) student visa
Remember this: If your course is longer than six months, you apply for a Tier 4 (General) student visa and need a ‘CAS’ from your university to apply (read on).
With a Tier 4 visa, you can work part-time during term time and full-time during the holidays. If you find a job in the UK at the end of your degree, you can apply to switch from Tier 4 to a work visa, for example under Tier 2.
Short-term study visa
If your university course is 6 months or less, or if you’re at least 18 years old and you’re doing an English language course that lasts 11 months or less, you can apply for a short-term study visa.
The best thing about this type of visa is that you won’t need a CAS to apply and the application fee is lower than that for the Tier 4 (General) visa. But, before you get excited, you should know that with a short-term study visa:
Tier 4 (Child) student visa
The Tier 4 ‘Child’ student visa is for high school students who are younger than 18 years old.
If you’re younger than 18 and have plans to attend school in the UK before starting a degree, your school will be able to advise you on the type of visa you’ll need.
Doctorate Extension Scheme
For PhD research students already in the UK on a Tier 4 (General) visa, you can apply under the Doctorate Extension Scheme to stay in the UK after finishing your PhD. You have to wait until you have 60 days on your student visa before you can apply (in other words, you can’t apply more than 2 months in advance). But you must apply before your visa runs out.
If your application under the Doctorate Extension Scheme is accepted, you can stay in the UK for another 12 months to work, look for a job or start a business. Your university’s student visa support office should be to give you more details and advice.
If you already have a visa and you want to extend it
If you’re already studying here and need to extend your Tier 4 visa to finish a course or start a new one, you should be able to apply from within the UK. Your university will be able to help you with this. Most universities run a visa extension ‘batch scheme’ for their international students.
What is this ‘CAS’ everyone keeps talking about?
A ‘CAS’ is a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies. Let me translate: It’s a reference number that the university sends you, once you have an unconditional firm offer to study with them.
You can only apply for a Tier 4 student visa after you get your CAS. The CAS confirms to the UK visa office that:
…And who are these ‘Licensed Sponsors’?
For your visa application, the university giving you your CAS is known as your ‘sponsor’. This is not the same as a ‘financial sponsor’. A visa sponsor means the university confirms you have a firm offer to study with them and they agree to report on your progress to the visa authorities.
Only UK universities that have a sponsor licence can issue CAS numbers to their future students. To my knowledge, all UK universities currently have a sponsor licence.
How many points will you need?
It’s useful to know that the UK visa system is called ‘points-based’ because you need a certain number of points to be issued a visa. For a Tier 4 (General) student visa you need to get 40 points. A valid CAS from a licensed Tier 4 sponsor gives you 30 of the 40 points you need.
Remember, if you’re planning to apply for a short-term study visa, you won’t need a CAS.
A CAS gives you 30 of the 40 points that you need to get a UK student visa.
‘Maintenance Funds’ is a fancy way to say ‘money’
The other 10 points that you will need to get your visa come from your ‘maintenance funds’. This is a specific amount of money that you must have to show you can pay for your course and for your living expenses in the UK.
Your maintenance funds need to be in your bank account at least 28 days before you submit your visa application.
Here’s the really important bit: The money has to be in your bank account for at least 28 days before you submit your visa application. Your account balance can’t go below this amount during the entire 28 day period, not even for one day.
See my second visa post on how much money you need for your UK student visa application, as it depends on where you will be studying in the UK and for how long.
Not your first student visa? You must show ‘academic progression’
If you have studied in the UK on a student visa before, your university can only issue you with a CAS if your new course gives you ‘academic progression’. This means, your course has to be at a higher level or has to add ‘something extra’ that will help you with your career aims.
You won’t have to check yourself whether you meet the academic progression rule. Your university will do this before and, if they give you a CAS, they will say in it how the new course gives you academic progression.
This is my understanding of what may count as academic progression, but your university will be able to assess your case.
Let’s say you’ve studied in the UK on a student visa and have done a BSc in Biology. Now, you’re applying for a BA in English Literature. Although the two subjects are different, they’re both on the same level. You probably wouldn’t meet the academic progression requirement.
You took a BSc in Biology and are now applying to do a Masters in Biology. The Masters is a higher level course and would give you academic progression.
You’ve finished a taught Masters in Biology and are now applying for a Research Masters or for an MBA. Although you’re applying for another Masters course, the type of Masters is different from a regular taught Masters course. An MBA or a Research Masters would be seen as ‘adding’ something extra to the taught Masters you already have.
…And the ‘5-year limit’ will also be relevant to you
On a student visa, you can study in the UK for a maximum of five years (but there are exceptions, see below). The time limit is enough to complete a 3-year undergraduate degree, plus a Masters degree (you can usually do both in 4 years).
There are some exceptions to the 5-year rule though:
Whether or not you’re within the limit is something the university will look at before giving you your CAS. To do that, they might ask you to fill in a short questionnaire.
By the way, the extra time you get on your student visa before and after your degree is not included in the 5-year limit.
Does your course need ‘ATAS clearance’?
ATAS is the ‘Academic Technology Approval Scheme’ – a security scheme for specific subjects in Science, Engineering and Technology. Basically, they’re subjects that the UK government considers ‘sensitive’ for security reasons (such as risk from terrorism or enemy states).
You only apply for ATAS if you need a visa to study in the UK. And then only if the postgraduate degree (or four-year undergraduate degree leading to a Masters qualification) that you’re applying for is on the ATAS subject list.
When you get your offer letter from your university, it should say whether your course requires ATAS clearance (you can also find this information on the course webpages).
You apply for an ATAS certificate with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. It can take a month to get the certificate and you have to wait until you get it before applying for your student visa.
If you’re thinking of bringing your family
If you’re thinking of having your partner/husband/wife and/or any children (under 18 years old) join you in the UK, you can apply to bring them as ‘dependants’, if:
There are other situations where you might be able to bring your dependants. You should always get advice on this from your university or from UKCISA (see below).
Where to get visa advice
If you’re about to apply for a student visa, I’d strongly recommend that you check what the visa requirements are for your own situation. Start by looking for advice on your university’s website and by visiting these two websites:
Anyone from outside the EU or EEA planning to study in the UK for more than 6 months needs to apply for a student visa. If you’re coming for less than 6 months (or 11 months if you’re doing an English language course and are at least 18 years old) you may consider applying for a short-term study visa, although this has some disadvantages.
To apply for a student visa, you need to get a CAS from the university (a licensed sponsor) that you have an ‘unconditional firm’ offer from. You will get 30 points from having a valid CAS and 10 points from the right maintenance funds.
If you’ve studied in the UK on a student visa before, your university will need to make sure that your new course gives you academic progression. And that the total time that you would spend in the UK on a student visa is within the limit set by the government.
If your course needs ATAS certification, this will be stated on the university website and in your offer letter. You have to get ATAS clearance before you can apply for a student visa.