If you’re a foreign national looking to come to the UK, the following guide will help you to understand the rules and requirements relating to entry clearance, from what this actually means to the rules on transiting though the UK.
What is entry clearance?
Under UK Immigration Rules, you will need to apply for entry clearance if you are a foreign national coming to the UK as either a visitor, to work or to study, or if you intend to settle here temporarily or permanently.
Entry clearance is used by Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) based overseas to verify, before an individual arrives in the United Kingdom, if that person qualifies under the Immigration Rules for entry to the UK. ECOs are officials of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the division of the Home Office responsible for the United Kingdom’s visa system.
In some cases, it is mandatory to obtain entry clearance, whereas in others it is optional. However, in all cases, the authority to admit someone to the UK ultimately rests with the Immigration Officer (IO) at the UK port of entry.
Is entry clearance the same as a visa?
An application for entry clearance is essentially an application for a visa, or other type of immigration permission, made from outside the UK to enter the United Kingdom. In broad terms, entry clearance is the official term for a visa, although entry clearance can also be issued in advance to non-visa nationals, notwithstanding that in some cases non-visa nationals can also elect to seek leave to enter at the UK border.
For visa nationals, entry clearance will take the form of an entry clearance visa. For non-visa nationals, where they are not required to hold a visa under the UK Immigration Rules, entry clearance will take the form of an entry certificate.
Who needs UK entry clearance?
In the UK, all visa nationals require entry clearance to enter the UK, regardless of the length or purpose of their stay, even if only as a tourist. In particular, you will need entry clearance if you are a person specified in Appendix 2 to Appendix V of the Immigration Rules, namely a national who needs a visa to visit the UK, or for any other purposes, where seeking entry for six months or less.
You will also need entry clearance by way of a visitor visa, if you are either classed as a ‘stateless person’ or you are travelling on any document other than a national passport, regardless of whether the document is issued by or evidences nationality of a state in which you would be classed as a non-visa national, except where that document has been issued by the UK.
In respect of non-visa nationals, entry clearance will be required where they are seeking entry to the UK for a period exceeding six months, or for a purpose for which prior entry clearance is required under the Rules.
Prior entry clearance is not mandatory for everyone, where non-visa nationals may instead apply for leave to enter on arrival in the UK, provided their intended stay is for six months or less.
That said, some people for whom entry clearance is not compulsory still choose to apply for it, not least where they have been previously refused entry to the UK, so as to ascertain in advance whether they are eligible for admission into the UK.
How do you apply for UK entry clearance?
Under the Immigration Rules, an ‘applicant for an entry clearance must be outside the United Kingdom and Islands at the time of the application’. As such, you cannot apply for entry clearance from inside the UK.
However, the overseas location from which you can apply will depend on the category of visa sought. By way of example, if you are applying for entry clearance as a visitor, you can apply at the British diplomatic post of any country abroad, whereas applications for entry clearance in various other categories must be made from the country in which you are living.
In circumstances where it is impossible to apply for entry clearance in the country where you usually live, for example, because there is no visa application centre available there, provision will be made for applying elsewhere.
Where entry clearance is required under the UK Immigration Rules, typically you will need to apply and pay for your visa online on the Home Office website.
Having submitted your application, you will be required to attend an overseas visa application centre to provide your supporting documentation and, for those applying for entry clearance to come to the UK for more than six months, to enrol your biometric information.
Your supporting documentation will need to demonstrate your eligibility for the category of visa you are applying for. The document checklist in your application will explain what to provide, although you may also want to seek expert advice here, not least given that any refusal of entry clearance will have a significant impact on your plans to live, work or study in the UK.
Can entry clearance be refused?
In the event that you do not satisfy the eligibility criteria on the face of your application and supporting documentation, typically your application for entry clearance should not be refused without an interview. This will provide the ECO with an opportunity to further assess your eligibility, as well as your credibility.
In particular, during the course of this interview, you must be able to satisfy the ECO that you are genuinely seeking entry for the period and purpose stated. The burden of proof will lie with you, as the applicant, in proving that you satisfy the relevant requirements under the UK Immigration Rules.
In circumstances where you fall short of what is required for your particular visa category, your application for entry clearance will either be deferred pending further documentation, or completely denied.
Depending on your category of visa, there are also general grounds on which your application for entry clearance may be turned down, including:
- Where false representations have been made, or false documents or information have been submitted, or material facts have not been disclosed in this or any previous application
- Where you have previously breached the UK’s immigration laws, for example, by overstaying or breaching a condition attached to your leave
- You are currently the subject of a deportation order
- You have been convicted of a recent or serious criminal offence
- Where your exclusion from the UK is deemed conducive to the public good, for example, because your conduct, character, associations, or any other reasons, make it undesirable to grant you entry clearance.
What documents prove entry clearance for the UK?
In the event that your application for entry clearance is approved, this will be granted in the form of a stick-in vignette that goes inside your passport or travel document. This can be designated as either an entry clearance visa for visa nationals or an entry certificate for non-visa nationals.
This will show what type of permission you have been granted and the period of validity, including a start and end date. It should also include the conditions you must meet during your stay in the UK, in other words, what you can or cannot do, for example, no access to public funds, no work or restricted work only.
Where you have been required under the Immigration Rules to obtain entry clearance in advance, you must produce to the IO at the port of entry a valid passport or other identity document endorsed with a UK entry clearance, issued to you for the purpose for which you seek entry and which is still in force.
Alternatively, in circumstances where you have been granted entry clearance in electronic form, you must produce a valid passport or other identity document.
In the event that you are unable to produce current entry clearance, or a valid national passport or other document satisfactorily establishing your identity and nationality, you will be refused leave to enter the UK.
Does entry clearance guarantee entry into the UK?
Having been granted entry clearance by way of a visa or entry certificate, this will entitle you to travel to a UK port of entry to seek admission. However, this does not necessarily guarantee entry into the UK. As previously explained, the authority to admit someone to the UK ultimately rests with the IO at the port of entry. This is commonly referred to as leave to enter.
Typically, however, when travelling with entry clearance, the entry clearance itself serves as leave to enter. However, to be treated as such the vignette must specify the purpose for which the holder wishes to enter the UK and be endorsed with the conditions to which your leave is subject or, alternatively, with a statement that it has effect as indefinite leave to remain.
In these circumstances, entry clearance will constitute prior permission to enter the UK that will only be overridden by the IO in limited circumstances.
What happens at the UK border if you have entry clearance?
In circumstances where you arrive in the UK with prior entry clearance, you should go through passport control relatively quickly as normally no decision will need to be made about whether or not to grant you leave to enter.
Typically, the only questions an IO will ask are ones that establish, for example, whether your purpose for travelling to the UK is different from the purpose specified in your entry clearance or whether there has been a change in your circumstances since leave was granted.
That said, even where you hold prior entry clearance, you can still be refused leave to enter on the basis that false representations were employed or material facts not disclosed for the purpose of obtaining the entry clearance, or your circumstances have changed since issue of the entry clearance which has removed the basis of your claim to admission.
Where you are permitted by the IO to enter the UK, you will be treated as having been granted leave from the date you arrive in the UK until the date your entry clearance expires, subject to the conditions endorsed on your vignette.
What happens at the UK border if you don’t have entry clearance?
If you were not required to obtain prior entry clearance, opting instead to apply for leave to remain on arrival in the UK as a non-visa national visiting the UK for less than six months, you will still need to demonstrate that you satisfy the requirements under the UK Immigration Rules with reference to clear documentation in support of the reason for your trip.
Where leave is granted at the port of entry, typically you will be given a time limit on your length of stay. You may also have a number of conditions imposed, including a condition restricting your employment or studies in the UK, or a condition requiring you to maintain and accommodate yourself, and any dependants, without recourse to public funds.
It is important to note that if you are travelling without prior entry clearance and are refused leave to enter, you are liable to be removed from the UK with immediate effect.
Do you need entry clearance to transit through the UK?
If you are transiting or travelling through the UK while on your way to another destination country, even if you are only changing flights at a UK airport, you may still need to apply for prior entry clearance.
There are two types of transiting: landside, where you pass through UK border control, but come back through it and leave the UK within 48 hours; and airside, where you do not pass through border control before you leave on your connecting journey.
If you are a visa national, you may be required to obtain some form of transit or visitors’ visa when passing through UK border control, even for a matter of a few hours.
That said, you could qualify to transit the UK landside without a visa under the TWOV (transit without visa) scheme, for example, where you will be arriving and departing by air and it is deemed reasonable for you to be travelling through the UK from the country of origin to your destination.
In relation to transiting airside, certain nationals will need what’s known as a direct airside transit visa (DATV). However, as you will not be deemed to have entered the UK when transiting airside, the rules and requirements for DATVs fall outside the scope of the UK Immigration Rules and into the realms of completely different UK legislation. As such, you should always seek expert advice from an immigration specialist before travelling.
Entry clearance FAQs
What is entry clearance?
All visa nationals require entry clearance to be allowed into the UK. It is the process of applying for and being granted a visa to enter the country.
Can I work with UK entry clearance?
Permission to work will depend on the visa that has been granted and the conditions it imposes on the visa holder.
How much are entry clearance fees?
To make an entry clearance application, you will need to pay the application fee(s) for the relevant visa. The fees also apply to dependants.
Last updated: 25 February 2023